Calling the Trinnov Amethyst a ‘preamp’ is a bit like calling Rafael Nadal ‘a tennis player’; it’s true, but dramatically fails to get across the bigger picture. You see, the Amethyst does all the conventional things you might want from a preamplifier, such as a multitude of line and digital inputs (including UPnP networked audio) and a very fine (not to mention extremely clever) phono stage, but that’s just the jumping off point. The smarter part of it is it’s also a room/loudspeaker optimiser, and it’s even an active crossover, although in fairness, I didn’t have the speakers to test this out. It’s kind of the Swiss Army Knife of audio hubs.
When it comes to cracking the Amethyst, the biggest problem for a reviewer is finding the right place to start. The room optimisation section is probably the reason why most people who are thinking of a preamplifier might look to Trinnov, and with good reason. This uses a supplied measuring microphone and a set-up wizard to compensate for the iniquities of the room/speaker interaction. The multi-point time/frequency acoustic measurement is quick and reasonably painless (you need to place the ‘3D’ multiple microphone pod in the listening position at ear height, directed at the speakers, and the app does the rest of the work). Give it a few minutes to process what it measures and you can then apply the room correction curve to your sound. Better still, you can tweak this correction curve, should you find the results not quite to your tastes (more on this later). This naturally requires some on-board computing power and it’s perhaps little wonder then that almost half the back panel is given over to the connections of a micro-ATX computer. But the rest of that panel is all business. Audio business.
It handles 11 audio sources in all; four analogue (two balanced, with one of the single-ended capable of switching to a phono stage), two AES/EBU digital, four S/PDIF digital and one Ethernet connection for its UPnP Media Renderer option. This last currently falls into the ‘under development’ part of the package (you currently need to use an app like PlugPlayer to feed the Renderer section), and networked specialists like Cyrus, Electrocompaniet, Krell, Linn or Naim offer a more elegant networked solution as it stands.
The MM-only phono option is truly fascinating. It’s called ‘HybriD’, and features an analogue RIAA correction curve for the bass, but the top end is dealt with digitally. I was not made aware of where the crossover point between digital and analogue takes place, but if you can spot the handover point, you have something far beyond golden ears. Possibly platinum.
The Amethyst uses an A/D processor, which processes to 24/96kHz, and will support and process rendered media files up to 24/192kHz through its DACs. It also makes great claims for jitter attenuation, and sports BNC word-clock inputs and outputs if you fancy hooking it to a dCS or Esoteric master clock.
This can all be conveniently be summed up thus: it’s a clever bit of kit.
Of course, no amount of ‘clever’ can be a substitute for good performance; a smart dog is still a dog. But the Amethyst is an outstanding performer in the sound quality stakes. If you turn off the room correction, it remains an excellent performer, but that’s like hobbling the Trinnov and then seeing how good a sprinter it is. But nevertheless, the purist in me would like to hear just how good things sound without processing in place, and the Amethyst is a fine preamp in its own right. Nine grand buys you one hell of a good line and phono preamp in audio though, and if you were to compare the performance of the Amethyst next to one of those ‘one hell of a good line and phono preamps’, the Amethyst will tend to come off a good second, falling short in terms of soundstaging and dynamic range.
However, that’s missing the point. Once you optimise for the room, a fairly significant reversal of fortunes takes place. The Trinnov ends up making that ‘one hell of a good line and phono preamp’ sound almost broken by comparison. OK, so I gave the Amethyst a hard task; I ripped out any form of room treatment, put in hard and soft furnishing at random and made a room that is more of an audio assault course, but in fact that’s what real people do when they don’t set up a room as an audiophile man cave. But the result was a unilaterally bad sounding room. And the Trinnov made a silk purse out of that sow’s ear of a room. It took out some fairly evil low-frequency peaks (more like the kind of spikes you impale music upon) and mellowed some top-end brightness from the speakers in that room. The resultant curve was almost too dead, and this has been one of the big problems with DSP correction in the past – the cure can be as bad as the disease. Fortunately, the GUI allows the user to modify and store custom curves, and putting back a little of what the room over-emphasises helped make the overall balance almost perfect.
However, I’d exercise some caution with writing your own curve. If you are used to the sound of a bad room, your brain does a fair amount of compensation to overcome the problems – it’s termed ‘listening through’ the room. Once that bad room is corrected by something like the Trinnov, your first reaction is to wonder where all the bass has gone (because it’s usually massive peaks in the bass that most need the Trinnov’s help). If you start tangling with your own modified curves soon after hearing the corrected sound of the room, you may end up putting too much bass back into the mix. My suggestion; run the program, live with the flattest possible curve for a while, and revisit in a week or so and see how much of a course correction is required.
When corrected though, suddenly, the speakers weren’t fighting the room, and it was as if the loudspeaker, room and system had all been upgraded. The soundstage opened out, the bass was tidy and ordered, sounds had more snap, more air, more everything. There was also none of that vaguely odd ‘inter-note processing’ almost watery bass sound that can appear with some DSP systems. This just sounded like someone had measured the room, applied a lot of (invisible) passive treatment and then laid on the thinnest application of signal processing to gift-wrap the whole sound. The Trinnov made the sound you always thought your system should be capable of. It’s that impressive!
How this works on a musical level is simple. Sounds are more like their original counterparts, irrespective of the system used. One of the more stunning parts of the replay process was Paul Galbraith’s interpretations of Bach’s Partitas for solo violin, transcribed for eight-string guitar. Without DSP, it’s a fairly rich sounding guitar sound, but diffuse and almost distant in this car-wreck of a room. With the Trinnov doing its work, the sound snaps into focus, and if you close your eyes, there’s a guitar in the room. No simple substitution of audio components could create so substantial a change as this.
That applies universally. OK, it doesn’t place a nylon-strung guitar front and centre in the living room if you are playing a piano sonata, a jazz trio or a death metal band, but in each case it serves to make the music sound more ‘there’ and in the room. It’s not especially fussy about the quality of the file being played – the better the sound quality of the music, the better the sound quality of the end result, but the DSP treatment works well whether it’s a well-worked 256kbps AAC file or a massaged 24/192 slice of audiophile heaven. Some will dismiss anything ‘digital’ that doesn’t process DSD now and the Amethyst will be off their short list on specification alone. They are missing a trick!
The best way of working with a room is probably a combination of passive treatment (bass traps in the corners, first reflection absorption, possibly some diffusion toward the rear of the room, etc), followed up with DSP correction of the treated room. That way, you get the best of both worlds, and the processing isn’t as heavy-handed. But, this is the real-world. Room treatment is looking ever more domestically-chummy, but it’s still not the easiest of ‘sells’ to your significant other. The Amethyst might be expensive, but it’s one hell of a sight cheaper than a divorce settlement! If you can have both passive and DSP work done on the room – bonus! If you can’t, the Trinnov performs minor miracles with even the most inauspicious of audio environments.
The Trinnov Amethyst is a complex, expensive piece of equipment, that more than justifies its complexity and expense the moment you engage its room correction system. Without it, it would be a fairly good preamp at a price where you expect wonderful preamps. But once that DSP is experienced, living without it is almost impossible. My only regret is I don’t have that kind of money burning a hole in my pocket right now, but the Amethyst is on my must-own list. Very highly recommended.
Analogue Inputs: 1x single-ended stereo (RCA), 1x single-ended/MM phono stereo (RCA), 2x balanced XLR stereo
Analogue Outputs: 2x single-ended stereo (RCA), 2x balanced XLR stereo
Digital inputs: 2x AES/EBU (XLR), 2x S/PDIF coaxial, 2x S/PDIF optical (Toslink), Ethernet RJ45
Digital outputs: 2x AES/EBU (XLR), 2x S/PDIF coaxial
Clock: 1x BNC input, 1x BNC output
ADC Resolution/Sampling rate: up to 24 bit, 98kHz
DAC Resolution/Sampling rate: up to 24 bit, 192kHz
ADC Signal/Noise ratio: 119dB (A-weighted)
DAC Signal/Noise ratio: 118dB (A-weighted)
Clock/Jitter: Below 25ps, jitter attenuation in excess of 50dB above 100Hz
Processor: Intel Dual Core 1.8GHz, 64bit, floating point precision
RAM: 1GB DDR3
Storage: 1GB SSD
Built in room optimization software: Time/Frequency Acoustic Analysis based on Impulse Response Measurement
3D measurement microphone included
Intelligent active crossover
Two way loudspeakers only
Available Filters: Linkwitz–Riley, Bessel, Butterworth de 2nd, 3rd and 4th order
Dimensions (WxHxD): 43×10.5×40.5cm
Manufactured by: Trinnov
Distributed by: eMerging UK
Tel: +44(0)20 8941 6547
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