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The precision of reality

The M3 Pre-Amplifier Family


Since we introduced the original M3 pre-amplifier in 1996, based on circuitry developed 1994/95. The M3 and its derivatives have proved quite a success, year on year they have consistently won “Pre-Amplifier of the Year” by Hi-Fi Review in HK starting in 2001 and pretty much every year since then.

The M3 pre-amplifier family were technically the most advanced (and strangely enough, at the same time quite backward looking) line of high quality pre-amplifier available, with its dual mono double choke valve rectified power supplies, optimised output transformers and powerful high gain line stage, it will remain the standard in pre-amplifier topology for years to come and as a result is already widely copied, but our quest for improvement does not stand still, and when our research and development reached its current pinnacle with the patented M10 Galahad power supply, Andy and I decided that it was time to seek to improve the M3 – M8 pre-amplifier’s power supply in line with what we had learned from developing the M10, so in very late 2003 (actually product only really shipped in January 2004) the “Mini”-Galahad supply was born and implemented into the M3, M5, M6 and M8 pre-amplifiers and development work on the M9 started.

The new M3 – M8 supply incorporates what is essentially a simplified M10 configuration where we rather than using the old input choke arrangement, which has now proven to be somewhat dynamically restricting we have a feed-forward supply with a rectifier (the usual trusty 6X5), regulator (ECL82/6BM8) and a voltage stabilizer (OB2) an arrangement that needs much less filtering capacitance and results in a supply that traces the signal stages requirements far more closely than anything else, the result is quite spectacular!

As a result of the greatly increased cost of the above power supply and the fact that Black Gate™ finally decided to call it a day and stop production, we had to “re-jig” the specification of each product to ensure it stayed within the appropriate voicing and off course cost frame. This involved redesigning the output transformers to allow us using newly developed HiB materials, a revised line stage where we changed the first stage valve from the standard 5687WB to an ECC82 type (many versions available here, for example 12AU7, 7316, 5814a, 6189w, 5963, E82CC, CV491 an many others) to reduce the sound of repeating the same valve and circuit coupling in subsequent stages and modified the second stage line valve to either a 5687, 7044 or 6463 depending on the balance we felt appropriate.

A further revision proved necessary in late 2007 when we finally ran out of our stock of Noble volume and balance controls which Noble had stopped making in 1997 (yes we held enough stock to bridge production for 10 years, we do the same with most key Black Gate™ values and 2 watt Audio Note™ tants! It is a key part of our long term commitment to maintain products unchanged for as long as possible), so we had time to prepare for this, and a further revision of the M3 – M8 was instigated which involved removing the tape loop and balance control and replacing it with two handmade Audio Note™ attenuators using ½ watt Audio Note™ tants, another very significant sonic improvement, the new M3 – M8 now had 3 control knobs rather than 4.

See summary table below.

A short general comment on how we “build a better sonic level”!

All Audio Note™ products are placed into levels in a level system which is designed to help customers and dealers build an appropriately sounding Audio Note system, we go to great lengths to ensure that whatever level a product is placed in it has a complementary and synergistic influence on the system sound and represents good value for money in this regard, this is how we design and build our products and our business model is based on offering a very wide product range, end to end and bottom to top, all of which have the same aim, and are designed to ever greater levels of ability to contrast dynamics, timbre and recording quality, see “Are You on the Road to Audio Hell” for further information on our evaluation priorities and system, the three As, Accuracy, Authenticity and Authority to the original recording govern everything we do, rather the misunderstood notion of what ought to be “there”, wishful thinking at best and at worst preventing you from hearing the best of what the artists and their art can provide.

To achieve the improvements available in each level we first design a circuit that is as un-contaminating as possible, inter stage behaviour is calculated with great care, this is an absolute precondition for the component quality to be able to make enough of a difference to be heard clearly, we then apply the standard Audio Note™ procedure of upgrading the parts quality level by level in order to improve and refine the sound. The first step in this direction is presented in the M5, followed by the M6 and finally the M8 pre-amplifier, making up what we call the M3-pre-amplifier family all of whom share the same circuit topology across the range.

Above the M3-M8 family you will find a couple of super quality pre-amplifiers the M9Phono and M10Line (phono version is still in development, in these pre-amplifiers we will take the power supply design, valve choice, materials, circuits and component quality to new heights with a price to match, as anyone who has heard them can testify to!

Pre 2003 Specification

The above is a demonstration of how our philosophy of developing the best possible circuit and power supply provides a great platform for creating substantial and in many cases almost shocking improvements in sound quality by raising the component and material quality to ever higher levels.

Consider how many other audio manufacturers master the understanding of component and material quality to this degree. This comparison is easily done and is also an instant measure of the seriousness of any audio manufacturer. Just check if their specification includes anything like the above array of truly specialised audio parts and materials displayed above and then ask your self. Why are there no low noise precision thick film tantalum resistors, Black Gate™, Silmic or Cerafine capacitors, in house designed and hand-made copper or silver foil signal capacitors, 99.99% cold drawn silver wire or specially heat treated thin laminate HiB and nickel C-core transformers in the vast majority of our competitors products?

I credit most of you with the intelligence to answer that question, so answers on a postcard please! The best answers will be credited with a meter of silver interconnect provided I can use it for my own devious ends!

Please consider the degree to which our very large and in depth stock of exotic parts and valves, represents an investment that requires not just money, but also a combination of faith in the pursuit of absolute sonic quality combined with a very considerable and highly developed technological know how and a very sophisticated aesthetic. But more than anything it requires courage and true commitment to excellence, disregarding, despite their importance, commercial considerations as the only guide to success, they really do come second in Audio Note’s world, which is where they belong if we are to succeed in the pursuit to get better sound and greater beauty in reproduction of our favourite music so it does not just remain a pipe dream.

A Brief General Comment on the State of the High End Audio & the Slow Slide Towards Sonic Oblivion

Cost pressures prevail everywhere and elsewhere in the specialist audio industry, as in most other branches of consumer products, the relentless pursuit of ever-cheaper products to provide higher profits through lower and lower production costs continues unabated. This has lead to a technological development where measurement technologies have been “redesigned”, distorted and figures misrepresented in order to create the necessary “proof” that the reduction in cost did not result in a corresponding loss in “quality”. “We can make the same cheaper” is the unspoken slogan, which has resulted in products that superficially maintain the same standards of their predecessors but which in reality are substantially and demonstrably inferior, this is what callously passes as progress in most companies’ minds, but progress to where?

Add to this the fact that a pound spent on marketing and promotion seems to have proven to be much more effective at selling a product than a pound invested in better quality parts or better design. Seems is really the wrong word here, it is far more effective in persuading you to buy someone’s products.

Remember in this context that the money can only be spent once.

So if the money are invested in promotion and gimmicks and not put into the product in the form of quality parts, research & development or skilled labour the money have already gone by the time the box has been opened. Bear that in mind next time you pick up a glossy brochure, respond to a designer advert or admire a stunning finish or visual design. At the end of the day, if the product’s function and performance is not enhanced by the investment in finish or fancy literature and publicy then it will be worth less with time, because time is not only a strict but a heartless judge of quality and performance. Time favours performance quality rather than fashion, which is devalued quickly after the first admiring glance, which is why the best old audio products still command premium prices.

Audio Note™ aims to make tomorrow’s great classics today, a fact which is slowly establishing itself!

Gloss fades, performance shines, all given time, and sooner than you may think, just try to sell last years “hot” digital product for half or more than you paid for it, a bad decision that only becomes obvious when you come to sell it off course. But one which should be learnt from perhaps?

Over the past 30 years this process has been repeated so many times that it takes real ingenuity, effort, resolve and considerable historical knowledge and overview to reverse, which is something that most members of our convenience oriented culture are not prepared to invest any time in, so it is left to someone as fanatical about the beauty of really well performed and reproduced music as my team and myself to pursue this with uncompromising commitment and vigour!


Peter Qvortrup

May, 2009

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