I spent some time yesterday with the Plinius M-16p and got a chance to do some serious comparisons between this legendary top-of-the-line preamp with the brand’s current reference, the Tautoro.
For those that haven’t had the pleasure, the M-16p is a very fine piece of kit. According to the Absolute Sound, the M16 has “superb bass performance, allowing the superiority of the best digitally recorded bass to make itself felt and heard … Atop this exemplary bass, the M16 line stage presents a well-balanced and continuous midrange … The luscious, slinky sax of The Pink Panther’s title track, and voices are natural and uncolored. In the top octaves, the PLINIUS shows essentially none of the traditional transistorized failings.” The review concludes that the M16 offers “outstanding value and excellent sound.”
By contrast, the Plinius Tautoro doesn’t seem to have any in-depth reviews, just vague, if enthusiastic, snippets from AVRev and WhatHiFi and Dagogo. Of the three, only Dagogo actually bothers to talk about the Tautoro in context:
In many ways, the Plinius Tautoro is a cross between the Ayre and the Pass. It is very lively, with excellent PRAT and slam and is quite good with microdynamics and detail. Compared to my own MBL 5011, the Tautoro was a bit more forward, separated the performers a bit more and was not as rich. As I mentioned above, it has the macrodynamic qualities and slam of the Ayre K1-xe and the microdynamic qualities of the Pass XO. Sonic memory is a tenuous thing, but I thought its bass performance was better than the K1-xe, and I definitely liked its bass performance better than the Pass XO, which errs on the side of amazingly detailed and agile bass, but sacrifices some of the chest-thumping richness of the type of bass I hear in live concerts.
I haven’t actually heard either the Pass or the now-retired Ayre K1-xe, but both are very highly regarded, so I guess that is something.
In my own experience, I found the two Plinius pieces to be very close and showing a definite family sound. In fact, they were pretty hard to distinguish. Both let the bass come through cleanly, robustly, and naturally. I think I’ve said this before, but with the Plinius gear in place of my reference Joule-Electra amp/pre, the Merlin VSM-MXR speakers have been able to reproduce bass in ways I never even thought possible. Seriously. It’s a whole different speaker. When compared to the Luxman L-590aII that I had in here a week or two ago, the Plinius combo went far deeper, without the midbass emphasis that Luxman seems to favor. So, let’s stop a moment and talk about this.
Whenever you hear someone talk about Plinius, they’re talking about the amps and what you’ll get this: “Wow, what great bass!”. Interestingly, it’s never — “What a balanced sound!” or “What an amazing treble!” or even “How natural a midrange!”. It’s all about the bass with the Plinius — or so it seems. Which is a shame, because the Plinius delivers on bass, sure — but does so with the most natural midrange I’ve heard in a solid-state amp. Switching from Class A/B to pure Class A emphasizes this even more. No, it’s not a 300b tube’s midrange. And yes, the best tube gear (think: Joule Electra) will sound more liquid and have a more pleasing top end. But the Plinius, unlike any solid-state amp I know of, will give those tubes a run for their money — and deliver a far more well-sorted sound top-to-bottom than any tube, whether an OTL or a 300b.
Back to the linestages. Yes, both preamps “do bass” with an authority and even-handedness that is unheard of with most solid state gear and all tube gear. But that’s not all! The rest of the frequency spectrum is thoroughly preserved and presented with a delicacy (when called for) and brashness (when necessary) that will not only surprise you, but will probably be enough to stop your audiophile tomfoolery. At least temporarily, like a big aluminum stun gun or something.
Anyway, on to the comparisons.
I’ve used the M-16p on and off for the better part of the last three years. It’s got a tape loop, so it’s very Merlin-friendly, and a very nice mid-range phono stage that was more than sufficient to completely seduce me back into vinyl. The construction is terrifically industrial, so if that sort of thing appeals, expect to love the M-16.
The Tautoro, by contrast, is a bit more streamlined. Think “Airstream” rather than “tank”. It’s a big piece, too — sitting squarely on my shelf, the Tautoro’s ass hangs off by a good inch, but it’s wonderfully futuristic looking. Smo-o-oth. Like a T-1000 Terminator. Be afraid!
Put head-to-head, I feel that the Tautoro is a superior preamp. It more precisely delineates and separates. Transients have a cleaner, more precise attack and a more natural decay. Soundstage is wider and deeper. Specificity of placement is clearer. In short, the Tautoro is a superior line stage in every way. Which is not surprising as it’s two generations newer than the M-16.
What was surprising is how hard I had to work to hear these differences. And how little the differences were, even when identified. If the Merlins were less resolving, I don’t have any confidence that the differences would have been apparent at all. Which makes the M-16p quite an achievement. At no point was I ever tempted to say that the Tautoro “blew away” the M-16p. It didn’t embarrass it’s predecessor, or make it “sound broken”, or anything even remotely like it. Rather, I came away terrifically impressed at how well the unit has held up, and how much time, effort and cost Plinius has invested to better it, even knowing now that that betterment is only incremental.
Put it this way. If I used a scale of 1-10 to rate each individual aspect of a piece of gear’s sonic contribution, I would say that no more than 1 point would separate the Tautoro from the M-16p. If the Tautoro were a 9, that would make the M-16p an 8.
In short: in my system, the Tautoro is the best preamp I’ve heard. Love it!
And I’m keeping it.