Is the absence of any coloration its own signature coloration? During my time with the TIDAL Audio Prisma preamplifier, I found myself asking that very question.
People like me who listen to music for a living (including lots of audiophiles I know) have developed a familiarity with the various sonic signatures that any piece of audio electronics contributes to the music passing through it. Whether I’m using certain pieces of gear to master music in my studio or swapping out stuff in my home system for a review, I’m highly aware of whatever sonic stamp, however slight, is being placed on the music.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
In the case of the TIDAL Audio Prisma, that sonic stamp is very audible. But it’s in a class that is reserved for the best of the best, audio electronics that are so low in any added texture or distortions that the sound seems magically transformed by what’s NOT there.
Where’s The Flava?
Since digital recording became essentially omnipotent as the pro recording medium of choice, it’s become standard practice by many engineers to use whatever tools available to impart a sonically pleasing amount of harmonics to the recording process in search of more apparent texture and dimension or cojones. This is because many times a straight-up “purist” recording done to digital is certainly clean and free of distortion, but for some it can be less than involving. It turns out our ears LIKE distortion, at least certain kinds of distortion.
I tend to think that carefully chosen added coloration is fine at the recording and mixing phase, not so much in the mastering phase of production.
What about playback? It’s easy to see why a lot of highly regarded hi-fi playback equipment unintentionally (or intentionally) has certain colorations that many find to be a pleasing or even an essential part of the listening experience. But what about gear designed to be as transparent as possible? Can clean be emotionally engaging?
After hearing the TIDAL Audio Prisma, I’d have to say that an almost total lack of coloration is MORE engaging.
The First Taste
So, there I was at the 2019 Capitol Audiofest show. It was late on the evening of the first night, so most of the rooms were not as crowded as they would become on the weekend days. Eric Franklin Shook grabs me and says “Stick with me, I’m gonna show you the good rooms.”
As we walked into the room set up by Doug White, owner of The Voice That Is, I spied a pair of TIDAL Audio Contriva 20th Anniversary Speakers, Ferios mono amps, Preos preamp, Innous server, and a Vertere Acoustics turntable. After hearing a few things including a bit of music from a recent mastering job of mine (What Heat by Bokante and the Metropole Orkest) I was thinking this might be the best sounding playback system I’ve ever heard.I’d heard the talk of Doug always having impeccable sound at any show where he exhibits. I had no clue how much of the sound was the speakers, the electronics, or some unique synergy. While It’s not exactly commonplace to go into a random hi-fi shop and hear a TIDAL Audio system, it’s even less common to happen on to TIDAL Audio electronics “in the wild” and separated from their herd, so I would probably never know what part the TIDAL Audio electronics played in that system’s excellent sound. Fast forward to mid-2020, and my excitement for having the opportunity to live with TIDAL Audio’s brand new Prisma preamplifier in my home system. From the minute I plugged it into my system, I heard a nice sized slice of that same goodness I’d heard at CAF. I’m almost at a loss for adjectives to describe the towering achievement in sound reproduction I hear when playing music through the Prisma. But I’ll try.
Sleep To Dream
After living with the TIDAL Audio Prisma in my system for a while and growing accustomed to hanging a drool bucket under my chin, I figured I better do some research. Up until recently, I didn’t know squat about TIDAL Audio other than it sounds amazing and is expensive.
Doug was kind enough to send me lots of links and school me on the phone about all things TIDAL including chief designer, figurehead, and CEO, Jorn Janczak. Jorn is apparently a man on a mission. That mission is to create hi-fi products that are on the cutting edge of what can be achieved in music reproduction when performance rather than cost is the only consideration. Sure, the TIDAL Audio stuff is a little blingy (although I’d argue in a tasteful way), and certainly in the stratosphere level of price, but forget about all that for a minute and let’s take a dive into the tech philosophy, execution, and sonic results.
According to Jorn, the TIDAL Audio Prisma is not intended to be a minimalist preamp with added phono stage, but rather a phono stage that also has 3 line inputs and a volume knob. The phono preamp is so integral to the Prisma that it wouldn’t be possible without a great deal of re-design to put it in a box and offer it as a standalone phono pre.
In the full line of TIDAL Audio electronics, every minute detail of internal layout, connections, and parts are given as much scrutiny as circuit design. All aspects are arrived at with the absolute minimum of gain stages and connections. From what I heard when listening, this attention to detail, while costly and obsessive, HAS to be a significant part of why this thing sounds so damned good.
So what we have here is a heavy, gorgeously finished, black and highly polished stainless steel box with a knob each for volume and input select plus some XLR connections in the back. The included remote, in addition to volume, has a mute button that produces a lovely slow-ish ramp down to off. When unmuted it ramps up in the same manner to the previously set volume. Snazzy.
Seems simple enough, right? But wait. That big, shiny, buttery feeling, volume knob packs a LOT of tech behind it.
Slow Like Honey
The volume knob (also polished stainless steel like the chassis sides and accent piece behind the knob) is motor-driven when using the remote. Inside the TIDAL Audio Prisma is a custom-built circuit board housing a sensing mechanism feeding an analog to digital converter used to translate the knob position into the bitstream that is then converted back to analog via custom-written code that fires a whole bank of gas sealed relays to engage one precision resistor per volume step. There are 32 graduations from off to full gain. So the volume knob is a very sophisticated controller for a complex process under the hood.
In the pro audio world, most very high-end analog gear typically found in mastering studios has knobs that are similar to the Prisma in that they aren’t really potentiometers in the normal sense. They are switches that open and close the contacts to put resistors in the circuit. But those knobs feel like switches and don’t have the smooth feel of (inferior sounding) carbon wipe potentiometers. Those switch style controls also tend to be physically more complex and while sometimes robust, not as simple and robust as a very high-quality gas-filled relay and a single resistor. Plus it would be hella hard to use a motor drive on a clunky rotary switch.
So that’s why TIDAL goes to all the trouble of making a smooth feeling, remote controllable knob to control discrete resistors.
Ultra minimalist mission-critical signal path, software alchemy to make discrete steps sound continuous, remote control, AND a spoon-in-a-warm-jar-of-honey feel. Perfect on the ear, the eye, and the touch. And you thought it was just a volume knob.
I have to confess my love of simplicity – so while it seems at first glance that a high price tag item like the TIDAL Audio Prisma SHOULD have lots of knobs and switches and even a fancy display, as long as a particular product performs and does what I need it to do, I’m thrilled when it does that with a minimum of extra and sometimes unneeded options.
The front panel input selector knob doubles as the power on/off control and selects one of three balanced line inputs or phono. The phono has two positions, 67db and 75db of gain. TIDAL Audio advises using the lower gain setting for the cleanest sound even if the volume knob ends up being opened up towards the upper range of travel. The higher gain setting is ostensibly for extremely low output cartridges. I used the low gain position for my ZYX Ultimate 100 with its .24 mV output and that worked just fine. When I tried the high gain setting maybe I heard more vibe – uh, I mean noise and distortion. Or maybe it was just louder. Whatever. I liked the lower gain more.
Two sets of balanced outputs, a rear-mounted (but easy to access) knob for cartridge loading options, a rear panel switch labeled DVD for loop-through of AV processors, and a Cat 5 input per side for remotely powering on and off, round out the features. Being a two-channel guy, I didn’t have any need to access some internal dip switches pertaining to an HT setup. I read the manual to decipher how the 12 position knob (simply marked 1 -12 on the back panel) corresponded to which settings – from 50 ohms to 2000 ohms. I settled on the ZYX suggested loading of 100 ohms.
The TIDAL Audio Prisma remote is attractive with a solid feel to it. As expected, no off the shelf remote solution for TIDAL owners!
If I was picking nits, there was one thing about the remote that bugged me. There is a very small time lag between holding down the volume up (or down) button and noticing a change in level. This is coupled to a somewhat finicky window of where the remote is pointed for the infrared sensor to ‘read’ what’s going on so it was sometimes challenging to easily dial in whatever volume I wanted during a listening session. During the review period, I was informed that a new remote is in the works.
On an even less important and much nerdier scale, in some instances, I missed having a numerical readout or some markings around the volume knob itself. This would be of zero concern to typical listeners. However, during critical review oriented listening, I need to compare different pieces of equipment at different and repeatable volume settings. Simpler sounds better. OK, I get it. Move along now, nothing to see here…
I could put on a too-cool-for-school reviewer’s hat and calmly describe the various sonic attributes I heard during my time with the TIDAL Audio Prisma but what actually happened is I freaked TF out. The moment I put it in my system and listened to music I lost my mind. I wouldn’t rob a bank or steal cars but do the kids REALLY need to go to college? How much stuff do I have laying around could I sell? I could be happy in a smaller house. Things like that.
My system during the review was a Rega P10 turntable, ZYX Ultimate 100 cartridge, Pass Labs XA-60.8 amps, or an Audio Hungary Qualiton APX-200, driving either a pair of QLN Prestige Threes or Dynaudio Confidence 50s. California Audio Labs (RIP) CD transport to either a Border Patrol or Berkeley Audio Design Alpha II DAC.
The Prisma handily beat out my PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell preamp AND my reference RCM Sensor II phono stage. I had convinced myself that it would probably take something with tubes to strongly outclass my PS Audio preamp which is extremely neutral and free of any obvious coloration and texture yet without sounding too dry or antiseptic. Boy was I wrong.
With the TIDAL Audio Prisma in my system, and digital sources feeding the Berkeley DAC, the sound was absolutely free of even the smallest amount of glare or glassiness. Any and all annoying extraneous texture – no matter how minute was magically buffed off of the music.
All this smoove and expensive-sounding liquidity is coupled to a sense of detail and resolution of the tiniest fragments of sonic info (both tonal and dynamic). That kind of super-smooth yet mega detailed sound is a very powerful drug to those of us that fall prey to its grip.
The low end seemed more solid and deeper than I’m used to. The midrange was fleshed out and with a clear, open top end, but that seems like such a pedestrian way to try and describe this thing. When I listened to music through the TIDAL Audio Prisma I was too distracted gettin’ my groove on to notice stuff like frequencies. In other areas like imaging and sense of dynamic performance, it was the same story. Terms that I would typically use to describe the sound of a piece of gear didn’t seem to apply. Stereo cues contained in a recording seemed to be portrayed by the Prisma in a truthful way without feeling like some kind of hyped, 3D trickery.
Music simply issues forth out of this magic, big knob creature with the least impediment to aural bliss. It’s like how I would imagine it being with some futuristic neural implant for receiving tunes directly into my brain. And checking your Facebook. Oh, God, no.
Since the TIDAL Audio Prisma has only balanced XLR inputs for the phono section and I didn’t feel like rewiring my tonearm cable, Doug once again came to the rescue and sent me a pair of short, TIDAL made, female RCA to male XLR adaptor cables. For those who are willing and able with a soldering iron, the Prisma manual shows the appropriate wiring diagram to change RCAs to XLRs. I was told by Doug (and in the manual) that performance would suffer a bit when using the adaptors, but after playing a multitude of records, I had a hard time imagining how much better it would sound than what I experienced.
Would I go to the trouble of making or purchasing balanced tonearm cables if it was my own Prisma? You bet your polyvinyl chloride I would.
All my previous (non-)comments about the sound of the line inputs pertain to the phono stage as well. Maybe more so in regards to what I heard (or didn’t hear) while playing records. I played LOTS of vinyl so I could soak up the opportunity to revel in the (non) sound of this TIDAL Audio Prisma phono stage magic. Records sounded more open, organic, and effortless than my other phono pres. The tiniest edge on vocals, brass instruments, cymbal crashes, etc., that I had grown accustomed to hearing was no longer there. But not at the expense of any immediacy or realism – just more flavor with less salt.
Would I rather hear my two-channel playback with some additional flavor? It depends. All components add something to the recording. Some add something pleasing. Some add something not so pleasing. I’ve heard some gear that had no discernible amount of distortion but seemed to be subtracting something enjoyable from the sound. Dry? Clinical? Overdamped?
Then there are those rare components that seem to be essentially colorless but phenomenally pleasing in the way a recording is presented. Clean but not antiseptic. As an avowed vacuum tube and vinyl lover, the TIDAL Audio Prisma never came across in the slightest as dry or clinical sounding. If an almost unmeasurable departure from perfect linearity is the design goal for achieving the most emotionally engaging listening enjoyment from a hi-fi component, the TIDAL Audio Prisma achieves that goal with the swag of Nate Robinson in an NBA slam dunk competition. Plus it looks gorgeous. And it’s built to last a lifetime.
WARNING: listening may be dangerous to your bank account and if you turn that volume knob it’s GAME OVER. Perfection comes at a cost. In this case, $40,000.
Do I have any friends out there willing to drive the getaway car for me?
For more information, please visit TIDAL: https://www.tidal-audio.com/.
For a little peek at our last go-around with TIDAL, check out our mini-review of the TIDAL Preos Preamplifier, Impulse amplifier, and Contriva Diacera SE loudspeakers.
The team talked about what to do with a product like the TIDAL Audio Prisma. In fact, it was so good, it exposed a rather large hole in our award system.
The EDITORS CHOICE award, which we’ve been honoring in our annual Buyer’s Guide, is essentially our enthusiastic recommendation. There’s no judgment of relative performance for products that fall within this category, no “Class A” vs “Class B”, no point-system that stack-ranks products according to criteria that are known only to the reviewer. If a reviewer thinks a product kicks tuchas particularly robustly, it might earn an EDITORS CHOICE and our gleeful suggestion to go check it out.
For years, we’ve also been giving out “BEST VALUE” awards (named after my wife Julia). This award was, and still is, offered only very rarely, and then only to EDITORS CHOICE winners that demonstrated extraordinary value for their category — specifically, for products that out-compete products far above their cost. The caveat was that the winner still had to be relatively modest in price, regardless of that performance/cost ratio.
PRODUCT OF THE YEAR awards are self-explanatory, we think. These are the EDITORS CHOICE winners that receive the most votes in our annual shouting match — and the loudest voice wins.
But occasionally, we get a product in for review that not only amazes, it redefines for the review team what greatness means. What terms like “statement” and “reference” mean. Experiences like this reset the expectations for what is possible. These are, we believe, aspirational-level products. They’re likely not inexpensive — “End Game” products rarely are — and while that’s lamentable, that’s just life. Not everyone can afford a Bugatti — that’s why Corvettes exist–and one reason why we have a BEST VALUE award.
But for those products that aspire to greatness, for those products that open a door to vistas rarely seen, for those experiences that so far outstrip expectations that we were left speechless … well, we really had nothing. What we needed, clearly, was something different. A new award.
We’re calling it the SUMMIT Award.
We’re making no claims that the products that earn a SUMMIT Award are the best ever made. We are saying that they’re up there, though.
Sir Karl Popper used to talk about “truth” this way. After incredible luck, skill, and investment, a climber might reach a summit, wrapped in clouds. Occasionally, that view would clear and the climber would be exposed to views below that were incredible, perhaps even unimaginable. And occasionally, the clouds above would clear, also. And it was then that the climber might see a yet-higher peak, one that had been invisible before, invisible and unknown.
For us, that’s what the SUMMIT Award is all about. These products take you higher and reset the bar for what’s possible.
Congratulations to TIDAL Audio. Thanks for the view.