Not a Nixie Tube, The PrimaLuna EVO100. The Tube DAC with a valve clock
Welcome back to my fairly sporadic Monday update; as a fair few of you will doubtless be aware, we’re slap bang in the middle of a refit. The noise, mess and general disruption are not exactly conducive to critical listening but I have found solace amidst the drilling and hammering in PrimaLuna’s enthralling £2,888 EVO100 Tube DAC.
Like so many products that have managed to attract my undivided attention over the years, the EVO100 DAC bears similarities to something bewitching that has come before it. Many moons ago when I first started working at Oxford Audio, we carried the PrimaLuna ProLogue 8 CD player. The ProLogue 8 was a regular feature of our demo room, tip-toeing a fine line between offering the texture and tonal depth of more traditional valve electronics with the dynamic snap and low noise of CD media. In its own totally unapologetic manner, the ProLogue 8 was a digital source with a totally analogue character and one that resonated with many pairs of ears upstairs. It is my belief that the two key design choices that had made the ProLogue 8 exceptional were the hugely innovative combination of an upsampling DAC chipset used in tandem with an extremely accurate valve-based clock circuit and the use of a dual-mono valve output stage with valve rectifiers – giving the ProLogue 8 a level of fluidity and a character and essence that so many other CD players sorely lacked.
Pinging back to the present, it’s amazing just how much of that winning formula Prima Luna has kept! The Tube DAC retains the battle tank build of the Prologue 8, with an incredibly dense chassis that tips the scales at around 13kg. Thanks to the subtle chamfer around the bezel and elegant curves of the valve cage, the EVO100 is a handsome beast indeed! The front panel of the DAC is refreshingly clean, adorned only with a pair of bright and clear displays to show you both the source and sampling frequency and a button for each of the DAC’s inputs. Gone is the old fashioned CD mechanism in favour of offering an array of digital inputs (a no-brainer in this day and age) with electrical and optical SP-DIF, AES and USB inputs to be found on the back panel of the Tube DAC. Amazingly, the same combination upsampler/DAC and clock circuit has been used and is as mesmeric today as it was then.
I’m equally happy to discover that PrimaLuna has not scrimped on the remote control for the Tube DAC and have supplied a hefty aluminium wand that is simplicity itself. The remote control is a beautifully designed object that is as free of noise and excess buttons as the DAC’s fascia and could almost certainly be used to defend one’s self if the need came about. Whilst it may seem superfluous to some, showing such care and attention to detail to the remote control gives me great confidence that even greater care and attention has been paid to the DAC itself!
Seizing the opportunity to hide from the chaos of the building work on the shop floor under the pretence of “writing my blog”, I barricaded myself in one of our demonstration rooms and started to narrow down what system I wanted to use to get to know what the Tube DAC was capable of. I had fond memories of the ProLogue series running with the Sonus Faber Cremona Auditor loudspeakers and decided upon a modern twist on the same system with the Franco Serblin Accordo stand mount speakers, the PrimaLuna EVO 400 Integrated and the Auralic Aries G1 as my front end. The crystalline precision of the Auralic seems like the perfect accoutrement to the softer, more recessed presentation of the Franco Serblin.
If by some cruel twist of fate I were allowed only one word to describe the presentation of the DAC, it would be mellifluous. The EVO100 caresses and coddles the output from the Auralic, lending flesh and body and soul to what can sometimes be a fairly stark and matter-of-fact component. Playing Martin Simpson’s Diamond Joe from the album Vagrant Stanzas, the EVO100 paints an image of Martin and his banjo sat palpably in the room with me – the euphonious talents of the DAC giving a real sense of sweetness to the strings and allowing a sense of air and space despite the close-miked nature of the recording. This talent was echoed with the Housemartin’s acapella cover of He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother; the DAC producing a sound both intimate yet potent, dealing with the surprisingly dynamic performance expertly and giving ample space to each vocal track. If you haven’t heard this recording before, I implore you to give it a listen – it’s a phenomenal test track of how a system deals with the male vocal band and it’s guaranteed to leave a smile on your face!
I decided to see how the EVO100 would fare with some less than stellar productions and settled upon Kate Nash’s Foundations, a brilliantly catchy composition that suffers from being mastered for an audience that must use potatoes to listen to music, despite this handicap the EVO100 devours the track with alacrity producing an almost holographic soundstage and infectious timing that instantly gets that foot tapping away. The nasties of the production are still present, such as a slight hardness to the piano track doubtless thanks to the sheer level of compression, but the EVO100 still manages to deliver the cheeky, energetic nature of the track with a level of musicality that makes it almost impossible to ignore. Much like its predecessor, the ProLogue 8, the EVO100 possesses a voice and character of its own that adds a touch of exuberance and passion to whatever you send its way.
There will be some reading this that will have decided at that last sentence that this is not the product for them – and they would be right! The EVO100 is not the panacea for those seeking the noise-floor and dynamic range of the Chord Hugo TT – conversely, those who will love the EVO100 would be left cold and unengaged by such unrelenting resolving power at the expense of soul. I have tried desperately not to use the word “warmth” throughout as I feel it’s a term greatly overused in audio and can be seen as much of a criticism as it can praise, but it’s certainly a term applicable to the PrimaLuna – the warmth of the EVO100 complements recordings, giving lustre and life to the best material and filling in the cracks in the worst. If you’ve done the rounds and listened to the usual suspects and been left cold, this could almost certainly be the cure.
Next week I fully intend to hide from the builders again and may take a closer look at the EVO300 Hybrid if it arrives in time, cough cough, hint hint, Absolute Sounds!