SPL Elector Analog Preamplifier | REVIEW


spl elector

A number of years ago, long before I reviewed this SPL Elector, I stumbled upon a really neat headphone amplifier. I don’t recall exactly how I found out about it; maybe through an on-line audio forum, or perhaps in an advertisement. Or was it referenced in an off-hand comment somewhere, and I happened to follow up? I really don’t know.

What I do know is that the amp was quite badass. When I saw a picture of it, I knew I had to get hold of one. This is when it’s good to be a reviewer: I found out who distributed the item, I reached out, and lo and behold, I had it! The piece in question? The original version of the SPL Phonitor (cool badass name too…). Though I didn’t purchase it, I can say that I dearly loved the Phonitor. The problem was that I wasn’t really a dedicated headphone guy, a fact that remains true to this day. If I could have justified the purchase though, that Phonitor would have been mine… bahahahaha!

Words and photos by John Richardson

Back in those days, SPL (short for Sound Performance Labs) wasn’t exactly a household name in the audiophile community. The company, based in Germany, catered almost exclusively to the pro audio side. However, the Phonitor felt to me like something of a crossover product that might have appeal to both audio professionals and home audio enthusiasts alike.

The Phonitor also had a really cool feature set, including phasey sorts of controls that allowed the listener to make the between-the-ears image blossom out and seem more realistic. Besides that, the amplifier was based on customized discrete amplification modules that ran on beefed-up power supply rails. This feature was supposed to improve overall dynamics and resolution by enhancing the power available to downstream modules in the device. I thought it made a difference, but maybe I was just wowed by the Phonitor’s overall Chad-like persona.

When I finally (reluctantly) packaged up the Phonitor and sent it home, I vowed to keep an eye on this little German company called SPL. Maybe, just maybe, down the road they’d come out with an audiophile friendly preamplifier that sported much of what I found cool about the Phonitor. When that happened, I told myself I’d be in. Well, here we are, and I’m definitely in!

spl elector

Enter the SPL Elector

I hadn’t checked in recently on what has been going on at SPL (my bad…), but I heard some rumblings a little while back from our own Marc Phillips about an audiophile line of components
coming out of the company. I went to their website, and lo and behold! There was a preamplifier
that looked dangerously like the Phonitor (as I recall it). Maybe a bit less busy on the front
panel, but the likeness was almost uncanny. Ooohhh yeah!

For those potentially in the market for a preamp-like device from SPL, there are actually a couple of options. I chose the Elector, which is a traditional analog-only preamp. For a few more shekels, one could also consider the more sophisticated Director Mk. 2, which includes an on-board high-resolution DAC along with a few extra signal routing options.

I like using my own DACs, and I’m a few shekels short of a bushel, so I figured the Elector would do me quite well, thank you very much. So Elector it would be. Marc was kind enough to put me in touch with the kind and helpful Wendy Knowles of the Focal Naim America Group, which handles North American distribution of SPL products. A few emails back and forth, and before I knew it, an Elector showed up on my doorstep.

spl elector

Oh, Preamps!

My editors always anticipate my griping about preamp reviewing. Why? Well, let me tell you. Preamps are, at least to me, somewhat boring and utilitarian. They served a real purpose back in the day, when phono cartridges put out tiny little voltages that needed to be “pre-amplified” before heading over to the big-boy amp. They also performed the required equalization of the delicate phono signal to make it sound right, a challenging and important job indeed.

Nowadays, with stand-alone phono sections and digital streaming, the traditional preamp’s job is more about distribution of signal and impedance matching between components. Plus, you get the big volume knob. While it still represents the neural network of the modern audio system, the preamp in some ways seems a relic of the past. If you only listen to streaming digital for example, you can easily get away with running your DAC directly to your amplifier, provided said DAC has a means of attenuating volume. I mean, simpler is better, right?

On the other hand, some listeners like to use a preamp to add a bit of audible “pizzazz” to the
listening experience. I am sometimes guilty as charged: I have an ancient Cary Audio preamp that does a fine job of adding bloom, romance, and sweetness to my tunes. Think of it as a tone control if you will. Accurate? Well, not really, but fun nonetheless.

In all seriousness, I firmly believe that a modern preamplifier should do no harm. Just route the
signal with a bit of gain, keep it pure, and get out of the way. ‘Nuff said.

back panel

Back to the SPL Elector: Specifics

All of my aforementioned rantings might lead the reader to think that I dislike preamps. In fact, the opposite is quite true. When done right, a good preamp can deliver improved dynamics, welcome tonal shading, and overall enhanced aural enjoyment. Yes, it lets one control the output level, but it also makes the connected components play well together. Remember that impedance matching thing?

And the SPL Elector never let me down in any of these areas. But first, a few specifics regarding design, implementation, and features.

One aspect of the SPL Elector is its minimal side-to-side profile: it’s only 11 inches wide. It sits nicely on the top shelf of my audio rack right beside whatever amplifier I’m running alongside it. It’s also an attractive component with a well-laid-out front panel. And it’s got backlit VU meters (always a plus in my book for cool factor points). The user gets to choose among silver, black, or red faceplates, another neat touch.

A big plus is flexibility of inputs, as the SPL Elector offers three sets each of single-ended RCA and
balanced XLR inputs, along with an RCA tape loop (remember those?). Regarding outputs, my sample arrived with a single set of variable XLR outputs that tie to the volume control, as well as a set of RCA fixed outputs. This was the one aspect of the design that vexed me a bit, as I want the option to use RCA outs via the volume control. I asked about this and was informed that newer models of the Elector do indeed have variable RCA and XLR outputs, with the RCAs switchable between fixed and variable via a dip switch.

On the inside, the user is greeted with some really nice technology. The gain device technology with enhanced power supply rails I referred to earlier with the Phonitor is now called VOLTAiR technology. According to SPL, this means that the output gain devices are run at 120 V DC, which is at least four times the voltage that normal devices operate under. These output devices appear to be discrete versions of integrated circuits (SPL refers to them as custom op amps, but they look discrete to me) that are meant to thrive under the increased voltage, thus providing improved overall sound. As stated by SPL, “VOLTAiR is a composition of the words Volt and Air. Volt is the unit for electrical voltage and Air stands for the unlimited space the music can breath in.” SPL goes on to imply that the technology leads to much improved dynamics and open sound due to the increased voltage headroom.

I found the SPL Elector straightforward in terms of its hook-up and use; it’s really just a very nice, basic analog preamplifier. One cool feature, however, is the “trainable” volume knob, which itself is milled out of a solid chunk of aluminum. By “trainable,” I mean that it can be controlled by almost any remote the listener happens to have on hand. I had no trouble getting it to link to my Apple TV remote. This was a nifty trick, but I ended up just getting off my duff and changing the volume manually, the old fashioned way. Personal preference, I suppose.

It’s probably worth mentioning here that SPL chose to utilize the Alps RK27 “Big Blue” motorized potentiometer behind that big volume knob. They refer to its feel as “spoon in the honey,” which somehow seems quite descriptive and apt. Either way, that’s probably one of the subliminal reasons why I preferred to expend my energy to turn the sucker manually.

john richardson system

So… How does the SPL Elector sound?

Without further blathering, let’s get down to it.

I’ve tried using the SPL Elector in pretty much any and every permutation I can think of in my systems, ranging from all single-ended connections to all balanced, as well as various combinations of the two. I’ve tried it with any number of amplifiers I keep on hand, ranging from my single-ended 1.5 watt per channel Oliver Sayes 45 triode amp up to my behemoth balanced input 250 watt per channel Pass Labs X250.8 amp. I won’t even try to get into the various DAC combinations I’ve run into the thing. No matter what, the SPL Elector has performed flawlessly.

In short, the SPL Elector has given me the versatility that I’ve always craved in a well-designed and
implemented modern preamplifier. It’s quite simple on the outside, but it sure does seem to do a lot!

Perhaps the biggest complement that I can bestow upon the SPL Elector is its sonic neutrality and transparency. This is no cold sounding component, nor is it overly warm. It’s really “just right” to my ears. If you put vacuum tubes either before it or after it, you get the flavor of the tubes. Likewise, if you use the Elector to drive a high quality solid state amp, you get the nuances of that device as well, including the micro and macro dynamics offered up by that amplifier. I thoroughly loved the Elector with any of the Nelson Pass amps I tried, which ranged from the aforementioned Pass Labs X250.8 to the more diminutive (but perhaps more expressive) First Watt examples such as the F8 and the SIT-3. Marc Phillips seems quite impressed by SPL’s amplifier designs; I’d love to sometime try out the Elector driving something from SPL’s own stable.

spl elector

Digging deeper…

Over the past few days, I’ve been especially enjoying the SPL Elector watching over a system
consisting of my Bricasti M1 Special Edition DAC offering signal in, with the preamp in turn driving my ToolShed single-ended 300B amplifier running a pair of Volti Audio Razz LE (Limited Edition) horn speakers. Not only is this system accurate and sonically engaging, it’s a lot of fun!

The Elector just lets the music come through in all its glory. There’s really hardly any fingerprint that it leaves behind that I can detect, and that’s realistically all I can ask of such a component. Human voices take on whatever character is offered by the DAC/amplifier combination I happen to be using. For example, listening to Natalie Cressman singing “Auburn Whisper” from the album of the same name (24/96 kHz flac file, streamed via Qobuz), I get all of the silkiness and tonal inflection I’d expect from my ToolShed 300B amp. We’re talking real transparency here, folks.

The SPL Elector is no slouch with dynamics either. I hear real and lifelike dynamic shifts when
listening to stirring orchestral music such as Peter Boyer’s “Fanfare, Hynm, and Finale” from the Naxos album Balance of Power and Other Orchestral Works (24/96 flac file, streamed via Qobuz). I’ll admit that Boyer’s music is something of a guilty pleasure of mine, as he writes less serious, but rousing orchestral works that put one in mind of cinematic music along the lines of James Horner or John Williams. Think horn fanfares, sweeping strings and woodwinds, and lots of percussion. And it’s dynamic music to say the least. In “Fanfare,” tympani rolls and bass drum thwacks come through with prodigious power and clarity, decaying lusciously into the background. This music comes across as equally thrilling and emotionally engaging whether the Elector is running the solid-state Pass Labs/ATC SCM100 combination or the tube-based ToolShed/Volti Audio duo. The SPL preamp is just plain a master of all trades.

back panel

So what’s not to like?

From my own experience, I can identify only two small factors that could represent a downside to this otherwise highly versatile preamp. The first is the minor quibble I mentioned before: the RCA single-ended outputs are fixed output only and not routed through the volume potentiometer. I therefore had to use XLR to RCA adaptors, which I often have to do when interfacing pro audio components into my system. Not a huge deal, but I’d rather fall on the side of sonic purity and not have extra metal in the signal path. I’ve confirmed with Wendy Knowles that upcoming units have remedied this shortcoming, though none were available in North America at the time of this writing.

My second quibble may be of more concern for some users. I did find that the gain of the SPL
Elector was considerably less than other preamplifiers I have on hand. I didn’t find this to be any issue for during my own use, as I just turned the volume potentiometer a little further to the right.
Never did I have to go beyond about the one or two o’clock position to get the volume I wanted
on any system in which I employed the Elector. Of course, if you have inefficient speakers and
prefer to listen at ear splitting volumes, your mileage may vary.

spl elector

SPL Elector: Summing up?

Well, I’ll just come out and say that the SPL Elector just plain floats my boat and trips my trigger in all the right ways. It’s got the connectivity (RCA vs. XLR) that I’ve always wanted in a preamp, and it’s pleasantly neutral in tone. In short, it easily satisfies my requirement of “doing no harm.” Add to that the generous dynamics it offers up, along with the narrow profile and killer looks, and you’ve got yourself a winner!

I sort of figured from my first time plugging the Elector in and listening to it (and taking in its
elegant European appearance) that it wouldn’t be going back to the distributor. After spending
several months listening to it as the exclusive preamplifier in my various system configurations, I am only that much more convinced that it is a keeper. So… it’s staying right here, thank you very much!

SPL Elector analog preamplifier: $2969

pta reviewers choice

part-time audiophile





1 Comment

  1. Hello,

    Love the flow in the review. The Benchmark LA4 would also suit you very nicely i think.

    Best regards
    Geoff

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