icOn TVC passive preamp

[icOn TVC passive preamp - front view]

A serious contender

Product: icOn TVC passive preamp
Manufacturer: Triple M Audio
Price: £ 1,499 (Currency conversion)
Reviewer: Richard Varey - TNT New Zealand
Reviewed: 2016

Introduction

I kept seeing that name icOn in Facebook group discussions. What was it? Who was it? I tracked it down to Manchester-based Triple M Audio UK, and requested a review sample when I realised it was a very interesting transformer volume control (TVC) passive preamplifier with some novel and useful features as well as a claimed clean and pure transparent operation. And all at what seemed to be a sensible price (actually a true bargain, if it delivered on the promise).

When the package was delivered, it was twice the size I had expected. The tension of anticipation as the Aluminium flight case containing the preamp finally emerged from its ĎRussian Dollí protective cocoon of three cardboard boxes was close to that of childhood Christmas Day present unwrapping. Designer Pal Nagy had sent me a Quartet model Version 1.0 with four unbalanced inputs On first sight and touch, it was an impressive creation indeed. Also available is the Octet with two more unbalanced inputs and two balanced inputs (and a five year warranty).

Under the motto Music Matters Most, the icOn TVC is the first of a series of highly innovative high performance audio products at reasonable prices. Designed for sonic purity, the icOn is both a source switching and volume control add-on for any audiophile considering putting a preamplifier into their audio system to drive their power amplifier(s). Using bespoke transformers, a microprocessor, hermetically-sealed miniature relays, and very high quality connectors, nothing is added or subtracted from the audio signal as the icOn overcomes any impedance mismatch between source and power amplifier.

What you get

Key features are the TFT display in a precision-machined faceplate with custom icons for source labels and a photo-sensor that adjusts the display brightness according to ambient light level, upgradeable firmware that is uploadable via a USB port, LED colour change to show settings, sleep/wake and mute function that preserves settings between listening sessions, a 25 mm thick clear acrylic base that isolates the unit from vibration, a tape loop, and switchable input ground with three settings to combat any system hum and ground loops. The kit includes an Apple remote control for all functions, four shorting RCA plugs for controlling crosstalk and noise on unused inputs, a 3 m USB cable, and a power supply (with interchangeable power plug for various pin configurations) that drives the control circuit and display.

The case is very sturdy and the facia looks great. The volume/on-off control knob feels nice and the rotary action is silky smooth, although I used the remote control 95% of the time. The display is easily visible from several metres away. I found that the remote needs to be pretty much head on to the sensor for reliable response.

There was no printed user manual in the box, so I headed to the webpage for set-up instructions. Then I recalled that designer Pal Nagy had sent me a PDF file of the Ownerís Manual when we arranged this review. I followed the instructions for connecting the unit to sources and power, and switched it on. My first impression was to reach for my ďgo toĒ albums, and turn up the volume! Immediately evident was clarity, detail, dynamics, and musicality. For the next several weeks, this controller stayed right there fronting my system as I enjoyed a highly satisfying quality of sound. But, if the controller is passive, it has no audio character to impose on the signal from a source, so how does it enable power amplifiers to realise their potential to produce highly musical sound from loudspeakers? It seems that matching impedances between output and input makes all the difference, and mismatch is often the root cause of amplification woes.

Pal has provided software revisions twice during my listening trial to customise the input sensitivities to get the same output level from all inputs, to customise the assignment of input icons, and to add my name to the start-up message (a nice touch). The software file was emailed and uploaded from my PC to the icOn using the USB cable and a software utility provided. To say the process is easy and quick is to understate.

Occasionally I find a product that instantly raises the joy level from my audio system - this is one. I was genuinely sad as I packed the icOn for its return journey to Manchester. I will miss it. For several weeks the icOn had substituted for my own reference system Sachem Pure preamplifier (which provides less control), and had been a highly satisfying stand-in, yet at roughly a third of the cost. I had witnessed music playback with consistently lively presentation, and the sense that nothing was standing in the way of the music. Yet I had very convenient control and support for my Sachem monoblock power amplifiers in doing their job highly effectively.

[icOn TVC passive preamp - rear view]

The icOn is sleek and modern in appearance, wonderfully effective as a sophisticatedly customisable and upgradeable volume control and source switch, and so easy to use. This product epitomises the realisation of high performance at sensible cost, and itís creator has done this through creative thinking, passionate commitment to the experience of music, and appropriate and clever design and engineering. This has created outstanding value and a surprisingly affordable price through impassioned innovation.

I asked Pal to explain why his icOn is different from other TVC preamps, even from 10 times more expensive high-end models, and what are the benefits for icOn users from the unique design. Iíve summarised what he told me.

TVC preamps use special, bespoke transformers with a large number of secondary taps (20-40) to change the attenuation of the signal. Probably 95% of TVC preamps use old-school Yaxley rotary switches for selecting taps. These mechanical switches are not only prone to wear and tear, thus contact degradation, but also cause restrictions in functionality. The number of positions of rotary switches is limited. The generally used types has 24 indexing positions which allows only 2 dB steps in volume change. Rotary switches with more positions are rare and very expensive. Secondly, remote control for a rotary switch is possible only with built-in stepper motors, which generate noise and this is a strange solution in a high-end gear. Input selection should be done manually. Also, with the simple mechanical way of working of these switches it is not possible to realise some basic functions, for example balance control (or you need to use a Yaxley switch on each of the left and right channels, which provides a very inconvenient volume control), instant muting, or other smart features, such as level matching of inputs to save loudspeakers and listenerís ears from abrupt volume changes at input switching.

To overcome these restrictions, the icOn uses miniature, sealed reed relays (more than 60 pcs), a built-in micro-controller and smart tap switching technique. The benefits are several:

Pal concluded our discussion by telling me that «Frankly speaking I donít know any other TVC preamp on the market with similar smart functionality and technical parameters». Now that makes the icOn TVC a serious contender.

[icOn TVC passive preamp]

Conclusion

My warm thanks to audiophile entrepreneur Pal Nagy for the extended loan and technical guidance, and my congratulations to him in putting together a simply superb package of technical styling and functionality, and musically engaging signal control. He asked me to acknowledge that the icOn would not have been born without the help and co-operation of Gary Gardner, who is both mentor and business partner.

What makes the success of this concept so exciting is that it will soon be followed by more complementary applications of the design and engineering flair it exhibits. Right now Pal Nagy is busy finalising a range of further units that cleverly deliver high performance at reasonable prices. I recommend keeping an eye on the Triple M Audio website in the coming months. Whatís coming is a Linkwitz LX521 design high end loudspeaker system, with a 10 channel power amplifier (800 W total power), an analog and DSP based active crossover, a digital preamplifier, and remote control electronics for the loudspeaker. Together with the icOn this will be a complete audio system for any analog (phono) or digital sources to provide audiophile sound quality. Personally, I canít wait to see them.

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© Copyright 2016 Richard Varey - richard@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com