I started this review of the Atoll Gamme PR400 Signature preamplifier and I suddenly felt all stodgy, struggling to explain the qualities and attributes of this piece of gear. But then I realized, oh my god, what a bunch of audiophile drivel I’ve written! No one will read this and give two ducks about a boring-ass review of something that is this great. So, what to do?
Toss the whole review in the waste bin and start over, of course, and take a step back and approach the review from a different angle.
Let’s start, if you will, with this question: “What should our gear do?” So many manufacturers in our industry are pursuing that elusive muse of “a wire with gain.” So I pondered, and I pondered, and I pondered some more as the Atoll Gamme PR400 Signature did its thing in the background. And the thing that is does, which is does exceedingly well is…nothing! Yes, I said it. Sure, it’s not a wire with gain, but it’s the closest thing to it that I’ve experienced in my listening room.
Taking a page from a Seinfeld episode, how do you go about reviewing “nothing”? What are the particular qualities about nothing that you find appealing? Has anyone ever experienced the rapture in nothing? Perhaps some guru meditating into nothingness and experiencing nirvana? Why are we as audiophiles so enamored with the pursuit of nothing?
Because nothingness, in audio, speaks the truth.
Words like clean or neutral, cliches like “it just gets out of the way”, and other explanations that we as reviewers use to describe this nothingness belie the fact that technologically we are capable of creating and designing audio gear that provides little if any sonic colorations. I’m sure Dave McNair will vehemently disagree with me on this, but I can only trust the fleshy blobs on either side of my noggin and the gray-matter contained in between. Maybe I’ve lost my ears, maybe I’m daft (likely), or maybe I’ve been hitting the scotch a bit too hard (unlikely), but the Atoll Gamme PR400 Signature has had a mighty impression on my sensibilities of what a good – no, a great – linestage should do.
Inside the Atoll Gamme PR400 Signature
And now back to the regularly scheduled objective review of the Atoll Gamme PR400 Signature.
Atoll is likely a company many of you have never heard of, but it is a company that you should know about. Harkening from the French countryside, Atoll strives to straddle that rarified audiophile space of bang-for-the-buck, affordable high end, value proposition–you get the picture. What Atoll is not is a lifestyle manufacturer, though they have products that certainly can be convenient by adding Bluetooth™, digital, streaming services and other modern features.
The Atoll Gamme PR400 Signature preamplifier is a solid state unit offered in black or silver. I received the black version. The preamplifier has a non-rectangular chassis that tapers slightly towards the front top of the unit that I think is unconventional, but elegant. The PR400 is a fully balanced design offering both XLR inputs and outputs as well as single ended RCA inputs and outputs. An optional digital board that includes USB, optical, coaxial, and Bluetooth™ is available, but was not part of the unit under review.
From the distributor:
“The products are still fully hand-made in Brecey, France using symmetrical topology with discreet components throughout. Some additional design features are dual mono configurations, very low global feedback, minimal wiring length, star-shaped structure for components areas, internal protection, etc.”
My first Atoll experience was at Quintessence, a local dealer in Morton Grove, IL. My son and I listened to a variety of speakers, including Proacs, and I remember being impressed with the sonics. I made a mental note to follow up on the brand.
Fast-forward five years and I’m communicating with Atoll’s US distributor, Emilios of Audio Excellent, who sent me the new Atoll Gamme PR400 Signature for review. The new PR400 is a step up from the SE line of previous preamplifiers and part of their highest line, the Gamme Signature series. Once unboxed, the PR400 was easy to setup and get running. The remote control is standard fare you would see on most audio-video products. (Atoll does have home theater products, so this makes sense.)
The Atoll Gamme PR400 Signature preamplifier is another quality-built solid state preamplifier. But that doesn’t really tell the story of what happened once I put the unit in my system. I’ve had the luxury to listen to several different pieces of gear lately and have been a bit spoiled for choice.
Equipment I had on hand during review were as follows:
Speaker duty was either Atohm GT-3 or my trusty Vandersteen Model 3. DACs on hand were the Schiit Yggdrasil or a LampizatOr Golden Atlantic TRD. I also used two AudioQuest Jitterbugs between the DAC and my computer music streamer/server. A Shinola turntable with built-in phono stage and an Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge handled vinyl. Cabling included a mix of Cardas Clear, AudioQuest Yukon, and Rocket 88 speaker cable.
Amplification duties included a pair of First Watt SIT-1s, an LSA Warp 1, and an Atoll AM400 that Emilios sent along with the PR400. The other preamplifiers on hand included the linestage output from a Schiit Ragnarok 2 and NOS tube-rolled DarkVoice headphone amplifier.
I used the PR400 Signature with both XLR and single-ended RCA inputs and outputs. The XLR seemed to have a bit less background hum, but otherwise seemed to sound sonically about the same. The Atoll Gamme PR400 had plenty of inputs and outputs for my needs. Functionally, the PR400 was simple to setup and use. I never had any issues figuring out how everything worked.
Atoll Gamme PR4000 Sound
The PR400 Signature preamplifier worked great with every amplifier pairing that I had available. With the full Class A, VFET based First Watt SIT-1 monoblocks I was probably getting some of the best sound I’ve ever had in my listening room. The power of nothing was very evident in this pairing with the SIT-1 being pretty neutral and the PR400 being basically invisible I felt the music had a direct path to the speakers that I just had never experienced in my room.
Once again, how do you describe the sound of nothing? The PR400 wasn’t dry, it wasn’t wet, it wasn’t bright, it wasn’t clinical, it wasn’t boring. Just like little bear’s porridge from Goldilocks it was just right. I was worried that the sum of two highly neutral components might be dry or boring, but it wasn’t that at all. It was smooth. I listened to a variety of music, from electronic, pop, rock, jazz, and classical.
On Dead Can Dance’s Dionysus the music had a suitably eerie quality. The steel drums on Hiraeth by Lisa Gerrard and David Kuckermann were vivid and ethereal, but Boris Blank’s Electrified and Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid and Electric Lady rocked serious bass and electronic beats. This combination just didn’t care what you threw at it, it just played the music as presented. Soundstage had width and depth, bass had power and slam despite only being 10 watts/channel into 8Ω.
The LSA Warp 1, which is a Class D amp, was very similar with more power. It didn’t match the SIT-1 on soundstage width and presence, but I haven’t heard Class D in many years and the progression of the design impressed me.
The Atoll Gamme AM400 amplifier was completely different than the other two. The AM400 did two things the others didn’t. The first and immediately obvious was BASS. I mean crazy, thump your chest, bouncing like a hydraulic low-rider Impala, winning the SPL Wars BASS. Me being the bass-head that I am even thought it was a bit silly, but the smile on my face was still there. The AM400 made me want to get up and dance. I mean stop tapping your foot and bobbing your head, get out of your chair and dance! The AM400 had this groove about it that was infectious, even though it wasn’t as clear as the other two amplifiers above and didn’t image quiet as well. It was fun and a pleasure to listen to.
Over the last year or so I’ve been playing around with tube gear and really digging it. The DarkVoice tube headphone amp is a bit of a sleeper and unknown in the preamp world, but it is leagues better than the Ragnarok 2 output stage in clarity and imaging. The Atoll Gamme PR400 Signature didn’t have that hint of tubes goodness, but was quieter, imaged just as well right to left, but gave up just a pinch of front to back depth to the DarkVoice.
The pairing of all three amplifiers was a better match with the PR400 as the volume control from the DarkVoice’s gain is a bit high and works better with less sensitive amplifiers. The Atoll Gamme PR400 has plenty of voltage to drive most any amplifier, for example with the LSA Warp 1 a digital volume level of 13 was plenty loud. Similar levels in the SIT-1 and AM400 were closer to 23-25 for the same volume levels.
I wish I still had the McIntosh C49 for a direct comparison with the Atoll Gamme PR400 as I think there’s some similarities in the character of these preamps. Both are no nonsense sonically and have a quality that seems to let the other equipment take the sonic forefront. Much like an excellent conductor who never plays a single note, they make the entire orchestra play beautifully together, I feel the PR400 rounds up the gear and provides the best version of what is presented. Digital still sounded digital, poorly recorded music was still poor, and vinyl was definitely still vinyl, but there’s an honesty there. Music wasn’t artificially bright, but it wasn’t dark either. It wasn’t forward or in your face, but it wasn’t laid back either. I started having concerns that the Atoll Gamme PR400 might be so high in quality that the sonic signatures from the associated electronics was drowning out what the preamp was contributing to the system.
Line stages can bring a lot of character to a system. They provide a gain stage between a source and an amplifier and if not implemented well they can impart their own character, noise, or coloration to the signal. With the Atoll Gamme PR400, I never got that feeling it altered the signal in any significant way I could detect. My only way to describe it is “clean.” Music leapt out from between the speakers from a silent backdrop. Front to back imagining wasn’t the best I’ve heard, but the left to right soundstage was superb and more dependent on speakers and amplifiers. Micro-details were presented honestly and cleanly with good attack and decay on percussion.
There are a few ergonomic features I do need to explain. I can’t really call this a fault, but the Atoll Gamme PR400 seemed to have a high gain that limited the amount of volume control on some amplifiers. Of course some of this was highly dependent on speaker efficiency and amplifier slew rate (rated voltage to get to full power). On smaller powered amps like the SIT-1 the volume would raise in closely spaced increments where I could get up to 25 or so for normal listening volumes. A change of 1 or 2 made minimal differences, but on amplifiers like the Warp 1 I could only get to about 11 on the volume knob and incremental changes made larger differences. Again this isn’t a fault, but something to think about during system matching. The DarkVoice had even less volume control on the Warp 1, so again just an observation and not a fault. The Atohm’s 92db efficiency was also a factor in volume control available. Having a hi- and low- gain function might be a nice feature, but not if it affects the wonderful PR400 performance.
The big question remains – Would I buy it? Some would say $6600 for nothing is an insanely good bargain, and the the Atoll Gamme PR400 preamplifier is really impressive. I could see myself being indecisive for a really looooong time while I continue my post-review review, while maybe convincing the other person on my tax forms that I really need this. At that price point the Atoll Gamme PR400 is well above entry level gear, but it is not getting into the five figure range for a really hi-end line stage either. I absolutely believe the PR400 is worth every penny of this price and definitely worth a listen. Highly, highly recommended.