The Beatles were playing tambourine in my living room. I could have got out of my chair, walked over between the left speaker and center image and grabbed it – it was right frigging
there! Live in my living room. The audiophile holy grail is that “live in my home” phenomenon that all systems aspire to, but with the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 (website) preamplifier it was the closest I have ever come to achieving that feat in my system.
Words and Photos by Graig Neville
Now that I’ve let the audio cat out of the bag, so to speak, I have to write the review of the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme backwards. Pretend with me, for a moment, that we still don’t
know who Luke Skywalker’s father is. I’ve been on the hunt for a line stage to use as my reference as I continue to upgrade my system. Backert Labs was suggested as a possibility, so I contacted Andy Tebbe, the president, about reviewing a piece.
Backert Labs is a bit unique in that they produce only four products. There are the standard versions both Rhumba and Rhythm line stages, a Rhumba Xphono phono stage, and the final product, and subject of this review, the Rhumba Extreme 1.3. The Rhumba Extreme 1.3 is slotted between the Rhumba and the Rhythm in price and parts selection. It shares a chassis with the entry level Rhumba, but has most of the internal parts and design of the flagship Rhythm.
Inside the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3
The outward differences on the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme versus the Rhumba are the LED light on the volume knob, the word “Extreme” printed on the back panel, and the brass feet. Otherwise, the chasses are identical. Internally, the Rhumba Extreme is a tube line stage supplying +9db of gain through two 12AU7 tubes. The stock valve offerings in the Extreme are new Mullards while the Rhythm uses Gold Lion. The Rhythm also uses higher quality capacitors compared to the Extreme, and it has another XLR input.
Like the company’s flagship, the Rhumba Extreme 1.3 has an auto-bias circuit, which according to Backert Labs “makes tubes last longer and allows even those tubes with unusual bias requirements to sound their best.” There is a clever top plastic hatch to access the tubes, so rolling tubes is simple–more on that later. The Extreme has dual power supplies of a proprietary nature and is fully dual-mono with a power supply dedicated to each channel. The patented GreenForce™ power supply has significantly lower capacitance than traditional linear power supplies, which Backert claims adds to the fast transient response.
The Rhumba Extreme has both balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs. The output impedance is very low, so the Rhumba Extreme should work with many amplifiers of both solid state and tube varieties. Tactile options include knobs and switches that have a satisfying feel. Besides the main volume knob, the unit has a knob for input selection and balance control. Switches include power on, mute, and mono for those who listen to mono recordings.
I received the brushed aluminum with the black powder coated chassis, but Backert Labs will powder coat the chassis in blue or red for an additional $300. The supplied remote control is simple, just providing volume up, volume down, and mute, but it has a nice heft and quality of manufacturing feel.
Speaking of manufacturing, Backert Labs is proud to make all of its products in the USA.
The People Behind the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3
Andy is a self-professed poor salesman, but there’s a candor to Andy’s demeanor that is infectious, as is his passion for the Backert Labs product. Backert’s passion is to make the best sound they possibly can and let the gear sell itself.
Backert Labs’ design team includes Bob and Gary Backert, with Bob holding the GreenForce™ patents. All Backert Labs products are fabricated and assembled in Pennsylvania. Backert offered the following on their design philosophy:
“Backert’s sonic goal is to make a product that allows music to sound like it’s being performed “right now.”
Long before he started the company, Bob Backert noticed that whenever you walk into a club or a restaurant you can can tell right away whether the music is live or recorded. As a designer he has worked to make it harder to tell the difference. To achieve this, he has particularly focused on improving the accuracy of dynamics in music.
Mr. Backert feels that his power supply is a step in the right direction. As many of us know, the role of a power supply is to convert your home’s AC power into the DC power that your stereo components require in order to operate. Typical linear power supplies store power in what are called, not surprisingly, storage capacitors. (To greatly oversimplify, if you charge up a capacitor with AC power, it will release that power as DC and presto, you have a linear power supply for your stereo component.)
But Backert didn’t want to rely on energy that had been stored in a capacitor, and instead wanted to rely more on “real-time” energy, similar to what you would get if you could directly hook up his preamps to the AC line.
But what’s wrong with energy from a storage capacitor? Well, those storage caps are constantly delivering energy to the preamp, so they need to be constantly “topped up” with more power by the transformer. These top-ups give the storage cap a surge of voltage, which Mr. Backert believes can reduce linearity – i.e., reduce the capacitor’s ability to deliver the exact amounts of power being requested by the music signal at exactly the correct times. In layman’s terms, he believes that constantly re-filling the storage capacitors in a typical linear power supply can mess up the capacitors’ ability to provide accurate power, which can reduce the accuracy of dynamics in your music.
Bob Backert’s response was to develop a power supply that greatly reduces the role of storage capacitors, while also reducing the size of those capacitors. By a lot. Instead of hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of microfarads, the capacitors in the power supply of a Backert Labs Rhumba are less than 1 microfarad.
Andy is also a drummer and a pianist and knows what live music sounds like – he wants all Backert Labs products to get you to ignore the sound and hear the music. Andy is unabashed in saying, “If you don’t have a strong reaction when you put the Backert in your system, we have failed.” At first I thought this an odd thing to say until I put the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 in my system.
Momma Said Not to Swear
The Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 sounds damn good. This is one of those components that you put in your system and immediately notice an improvement.
I paired the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 with a variety of gear including the Audio by Van Alstine M-225 and First Watt J2 amplifiers, a Shinola Runwell turntable, a Rega P3 turntable with Hana SH cartridge, a Schiit Mani, Rogue Ares, Clearaudio Smart Phono V2, and Musical Surroundings Phenomena II+ phono preamps, and a LampizatOr Golden Atlantic TRD DAC. Power was grounded through AudioQuest Niagara 1200 for most of the sources and Core Power Technologies was used for the amplifiers and a few of the remaining sources. Cables included AudioQuest USB, speaker, and XLR cables while most of the RCA interconnects were Cardas. Speakers used during the review included Von Schweikert E-3 Mk II and Vandersteen Model 3. The Backert elevated all of that gear to a higher level.
Besides my initial review impressions listening to the Beatles, the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 preamp sounds exactly like what I expect a quality tube line stage to sound like. It’s clean without being sterile, images deep and wide, presents a holographic soundstage where musical instruments are easy to locate and follow when they move (as on the Jimi Hendrix albums), there are no syrupy mids, rolled off highs, or tube hiss as you may find in other tube components. Bass has weight and authority when called for.
The Backert Labs does all the things that a tube line stage should with–and I hate say this because it feels like I’m not being thorough–no negative downsides that I could detect. Nearly every product has design choices that must be made that limit the performance of a piece of gear, but I honestly couldn’t detect anything that wasn’t pleasing to me about he Rhumba Extreme 1.3.
Before I continue waxing lyrical about how great this line stage is, I decided to get a second and a third opinion.
Hubcon Goes Extreme
For those who read the Hubcon 2022 articles, this review took a bit of a detour and the Extreme traveled with me to Winston-Salem. Hubcon 2022 was important in that the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 had an opportunity to test its audio chops against some summit-fi gear from the VAC Reference series and the VSA Ultra 7 speakers from AXPONA 2022. The Backert also got to play with the ampsandsound Bryce monoblocks.
The Hubcon collective rolled some tubes and did some listening. I don’t know if it was the long down time in the car or if the Backert just needs a little time to warm up but it took about 15-20 minutes for the Backert to come alive and add that special something that it does.
I’ll start by saying that a preamp retailing for $7,500 USD was not quite as good as a $60,000 preamp, but the consensus of the group was that this is one of the rare line stages under $10,000 worth having. It wasn’t the most neutral line stage on the market, but I don’t think that Backert Labs is looking for a “wire with gain” design philosophy that other products aspire to achieve.
The other independent opinion was with more budget conscious gear. I was curious how the Rhumba Extreme 1.3 would perform in a more budget oriented system with GR Research speakers, a Schiit Vidar, a Freya, and a Bifrost DAC. My friend was impressed and a bit jealous that he didn’t get to keep the Extreme for longer. The Extreme 1.3 is certainly additive in that it brings that touch of spice, something exotic like saffron, to the audio mix that really transforms a system into something special despite the gear with which it’s paired.
Now this isn’t a “stand up and look at me” type of addition, but something that really resonates in the feels department and connects you to the music deeper in the recording. Needless to say, the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 elevated that system considerably.
Backert Labs Rhumba Digs Deep
Speaking of digging deeper, at first I thought the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 was so good that I wasn’t expecting much if anything on the tube-rolling end. The 12AU7 is not as common a tube as say a 12AX7, but it’s not uncommon either. Backert Labs does not recommend using any tubes other than 12AU7 and their specified variants. The auto-biasing circuit is specifically designed for these tubes and runs them relatively cool for long tube life. 12AX7 and 12AT7 are not recommended for use and could cause problems.
Andy had sent along a few match sets of tubes for me to try out and honestly it wasn’t until Hubcon that we swapped them. Both were NOS tubes, but I think the clear take away is that the Rhumba Extreme 1.3 begs to be tube rolled. The stock Mullard tubes, as good as they are, can be significantly improved upon. I had Hewlett-Packard labeled NOS tubes and Brimar tubes on hand, but Psvane, Gold Lion, and other 12AU7 NOS tubes and their direct variants are fair game for this unit.
You will hear differences in soundstage width and depth but not likely much will change with frequency response. In this particular case I’m a believer in tube-rolling to tailor the sound to the way you like it.
In summary, the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 is flipping phenomenal. It does everything I want a tube line stage to do. It pairs well with tube and solid-state amps, it’s great on vinyl and digital, it images like a beast going deep and wide without it feeling artificial or gimmicky. Backert Labs claims it just extracts what is really in the recording, but I think it goes beyond that and adds a pinch of tube tone that really makes this a stellar product.
I think Backert has created a product that knocks on that proverbial “live in your living room” door and honestly it’s something I just can’t live without. I’ll be buying Backert Rhumba Extreme 1.3 as my permanent reference. It’s just that good. No, it’s that great.