I’m tempted to leave it there, but I’m not sure that it really would mean all that much. But, on the off-chance you’re one of those bumper-sticker review enthusiasts, there you go.
The Backert Labs Rhythm 1.1 is a line stage, not a preamplifier (in that it doesn’t include a DAC or a phono pre), but what it is, is the hub of your aspirational audio system. And I say “aspirational” intentionally — this $7,500 component isn’t going to find a home just anywhere, sadly. But for those that can, I can heartily say that they should — well, they should at least check it out. Why? Because it’s freakin’ awesome.
Andy Tebbe is the man with the plan. An ex-lawyer turned audio evangelist, Andy and designer Bob Backert got together somewhat by accident. Tebbe was a customer of Bob’s, as Bob was the go-to guy for modding Conrad-Johnson gear. Back in 2004, Andy “let go and let Bob” take his beloved PV12. $400 later, Tebbe was handed back a revelation. He’s been preaching the gospel of Backert ever since.
Tebbe convinced Backert, who apparently still does a bit of biz as a C-J hotrodder, to file a patent for his niftiest innovation — their proprietary power supply, which they call Greenforce — back in 2012, which was in turn granted in about a year. This is unheard of, kids — the turnaround on patents sometimes takes decades.
Tebbe describes the Backert approach as providing “limitless current” and also as something fundamentally different in both design and execution from everything else on the market. Most obvious is the use of Teflon capacitors — again, this is in the power supply, not in the audio path — and the complete lack of electrolytic caps anywhere in the design. This isn’t all that’s going on in there, either, as the unique topology allows for a way to address instantaneous power delivery requirements, too. The result is effortless sound. Which, considering this is a linestage I’m talking about, is something of a marvel.
A silent offender
Linestages get a bad rap in high-end audio, and I’m not certain that (generally speaking) the rap isn’t deserved. According to the Prevailing Wisdom, the job of the amplifier is to make the speaker sound as good as it possibly can. The job of a linestage? To not f*** everything up. Unpacking that: audiophiles tend to view line stages and preamplifiers as a performance bottleneck, more specifically, as a place where pure sound goes to die. There is something to this, in my experience, and this is precisely why the whole DAC-direct movement in digital audio was so exciting to so many computer audiophiles.
Those systems, which were not necessarily heavily invested in the most transparent of components (though I will offer that this is not the most diplomatic way to phrase this observation), saw dramatic gains when their rather slow, vague, veiled and clumsy-sounding pre’s were removed in favor of a “transparent” all-digital volume control. Simplicity = better sound, and bit heads raved.
Unfortunately — at least in my experience — digital volume attenuation has some rather dramatic shortcomings (at best, it sounds like a good passive volume control), mostly to do with what happens when the volume gets turned way down to “normal levels”. Again, in my experience, even the most sophisticated digital designs still manage to sound thin and boring — at best.
It’s not until you add a truly great analog active attenuator back to the mix that things can go from “very good” to “amazingly great”.
Playing with Rhythm
According to those in the know, I have no sense of rhythm. My wife, a professional musician, finds this hilarious, and likes to say things like “friends don’t let friends clap on 1 and 3” — especially in earshot. It’s really not my fault, and I blame my parents. And squirrels. Seriously. But it’s not ADD; I just hate clapping and no one has ever let me play with drums. I’m deprived, see? Anyway, when Backert named their linestage the “Rhythm”, I was already put out. And that word, ‘rhythm’ has way too many h’s for my liking. It’s almost Welsh. Like Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (yes, that’s a real thing). I was somewhat more hopeful when Backert announced the contest to name their follow-on and more affordable preamplifier. Sadly, they choose to name it Rhumba instead of “Blues”, “Tone”, or “Great Scot”, so I have chosen to simply look past their marketing decisions.
Anyway, one look and I found the Rhythm immediately likable. The finish is a “soft” (or brushed-looking) metal, there are plenty of fat knobs, and best of all, there are toggle switches. I love toggle switches! There’s a mute function, a mono-izer, and even a balance control. Up top, there’s an easy-access “trap door” panel (held on with magnets) that will get you access to the tubes, in case you want to roll your own pair of 12AU7 variants.
Note that these tubes are and will be auto-biased — weird to think that this would be a thing for a linestage, but as their brief makes clear, there is good reason to wonder about this. Interesting to see it addressed here.
Best of all? There’s a remote! I say that like it’s a miracle, but my reference linestage does not have one and I miss it. Especially in the middle of winter, when walking across the carpeted floor builds up enough static to zap my fingers. Anyway, the remote for the Rhythm is generic and only good for volume up/down, but still, it’s very welcome.
The Rhythm is single-ended only. I know many folks really get their underwear in a bunch over XLR/balanced connections, but this has never been particularly compelling to me — just wanted to mention it. Five inputs, dual outputs, and a REC/OUT are around the back — and in a startlingly user-friendly move, the labels for these outputs are actually readable from the top of the chassis. Nice bit of ergonomics there! Ditto the spacing on the jacks — plenty of room for all your monstrously oversized cable requirements.
Another cool bit — there’s a green LED built into the chunky volume knob. It’s a little dash of light, but tasteful and understated — and, in the dark, extremely helpful.
Clearly, someone spent a lot of time thinking about how this device was going to be seen and used.
The long and the short of it is that the Rhythm 1.1 is completely quiet, highly resolving, explosively dynamic, and sounds freakin’ amazing. I suppose you could say that I’m a fan.
First, that bit about quiet — the first thing I noticed was what appeared as “focus” and “resolved”, with music flowing out of a inky-inky, blackety-Blackersteinian background. Yeah, yeah, welcome to audio cliche city, but whatevs. That’s what it really sounded like. I was worried, at first, that this meant “smoothing” and “loss of fine detail”, but I didn’t hear any transient-trimming that I find common to many FPGA DACs, like the DirectStream from PS Audio or anything from Playback Designs. The Rhythm really is just quieter.
Which also means that music, when it swings from one dynamic extreme to the other, can really catch you off guard. I offer this only in heartbreaking memory of the last couple fingers of a 15 year old pour from my last bottle of The Macallan. [*sniff*].
Take the Reference Recordings release of Copland’s Fanfare. A bloody marvelous recording, that I happen to have multiple copies of. But it was the digital copy (CD rip at 44.1) that I had queued up, forgot that I’d queued it up, was waiting for something to play, and holycrapwhatthehell. Yeah, it’s good to have a good handle on the volume control before doing that sort of thing to yourself, and no, turning it way up “just to see if it’s playing” is not a good idea.
I hesitate to single out any other tracks as I’m not sure what doing so would help me convey — the performance of this preamplifier was, in almost all respects, on par with my reference. That is, freakin’ awesome.
So, let me turn to that bit now.
The very best linestage/preamp I’ve ever heard was the Preos from Tidal Audio. It’s well over $25,000. It’s got all manner of wacky tech inside, including a devilishly clever attenuator, with “only 1 high-precision resistor in each signal path for level adjustment … controlled by an electronically and mechanically isolated motor-driven ALPS potentiometer”. I cannot afford that component, but if I could, it would be here. Nom nom nom. It’s delicious.
My personal reference linestage is from BorderPatrol. The prosaically-named “Control Unit” is tube-based, and while that might not lead you to any particular expectation, I will offer that this device “does things” to the overall size and dimensions of my sound stage that are as inexplicable as they are non-replicable. In short, the Control Unit was a revelation, and I submit that it well be the best thing that BorderPatrol makes. Given that they’re known almost exclusively for their stunning 300b amplifiers, I fully realize that this is saying something rather perverse, but there it is.
Now, I’m offering these two nonpareils here solely as counterpoints — the Backert Labs Rhythm 1.1 is fully competitive with these devices. That was not expected. The Tidal Preos is, obviously, priced way outside the range for a serious comparison (and long since gone, to boot), but the BorderPatrol is a more reasonable (and local) match.
The Rhythm, with its remote control and sleek design, has it all over the Control Unit when it comes to fit, finish and ease-of-use. I love the way the Rhythm looks and feels to the hand — it really does look the part. And did I mention that I love toggles?
Sonically, I’ll offer that the distance between these two linestages isn’t what I’d call “huge” — but again, it’s worth emphasizing that both are head and shoulders past just about everything I’ve used to date — there’s a reason I keep throwing the term “reference” around here. Both devices are quiet, both are dynamic, and both invest a life to the music that I’ve just never heard out of a system fronted with a DAC-based attenuator.
If I were pushed, I’d note that the Backert Labs unit evinces a blacker background than the BorderPatrol, but tonally, it totally matches it. The Rhythm’s sound stage is precise, and the sounds all stand in a proper relation. “Focus” is the word that comes to mind. By contrast, the Control Unit is a little looser but also a little more “open” sounding. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
In my book, where the Control Unit creeps out ahead is when I’m “looking at” the size of the sound stage. Again, nothing does what that BorderPatrol linestage does so well. Sound stages blow wide, past the apparent boundaries of the speakers and way past what other preamplifiers do in the same spot in the playback chain. Compared head-to-head with the Rhythm, and played back both with the magnificent Quad ESL-63 rebuilds I scored from Electrostat Solutions by way of a Pass Labs INT-60’s preamp inputs, and also through a pair of DeVore Fidelity’s Orangutan O/96 loudspeakers by way of the BorderPatrol S10 mega amp, what I noticed in difference wasn’t so much soundstage width as much as height — the Control Unit just presented a taller and therefore more enveloping sonic landscape.
It’s worth mentioning that the Control Unit starts at $6,500 and quickly races up to $15,750 for the EXT2 “full monty”. My version, the EXT1 (with “only” one mega PSU and retails for $12,250) is a clear step up from that. The EXT2, with the monster dual outboard power supplies, also comes rather close to about 100lbs worth of audio bliss. It’s a lot of pre.
Given that the Rhythm 1.1 is $7,500, includes a remote (which the Control Unit does not), happens to be quite stylish and also be a rather compact all-in-one unit (one shelf, one power cord), leads me think this may be the better deal.
The Rhythm 1.1 from Backert Labs is one of my favorite discoveries of late, and a fantastic example of why high-end audio is so flippin’ cool. How awesome is this thing? And this is all Backert does — they’re the self-styled “Preamp Experts”. That’s just sweet.
In the months since I’ve been playing with the Rhythm, their “entry-level” Rhumba has hit the scene. At $3,000, it’s pretty clear that Backert has plans to do a whole lot more than offer a one-off specialty product. Personally, I’d love to see what these guys can do when they take the gloves off and go for a “price no object” design. I fully suspect that this will be genre changing.
In the short run, I’m told we’ll be seeing more from them on the analog side. Backert showed a prototype phono last year, so seeing that take final form should be their Next Big Thing.
In the meantime, there’s the Rhythm 1.1. It easily earns a place on our Most Wanted list.