Tubers are “a much thickened underground part of a stem or rhizome, e.g. in the potato, serving as a food reserve and bearing buds from which new plants arise.” Trafomatic’s Lara “is a fully balanced line preamp using one 6N30 per channel, then Lundahl LL1592 input transformers and output transformers made by us”. The twin-chassis Lara thus has thermionic food reserves and devotees of the breed will expect plenty of sonic buds. Naysayers will expect electrolytic capacitors and compromised S/NR. Here that’s high-voltage Mundorf MLytics and 80dB. Voltage gain is near standard at 20dB, bandwidth at -1dB hits 10Hz and 57kHz end points. The separate PSU runs off a low-induction toroidal line transformer followed by high-inductivity Trafomatic chokes for ripple suppression and smoothing. Operation is pure class A. There are five inputs (3:2 RCA:XLR) and XLR/RCA line plus RCA subwoofer outputs. The slim-line boxes measure 40x31x8.5cm WxDxH and weigh a
svelte 10kg. With Trafomatic co-owner Milorad ‘Mica’ Despotovic in charge of finishing, custom paints or even woods are always just one ask away. Over the years, this Serbian valve gear house has made a name for itself with many quite exotic custom commissions. Some of those pushed circuit designer and chief engineer Sasa Cokic deep into new terrain. This subsequently trickled down into regular production items. It’s how wealthier clients can double as patron saints for the type of hifi which the rest of us can reach for.

Trafomatic’s office system. Quad cartridge custom Collins phono stage on top of Trafomatic’s new production rack.

Thinking readers will have recognized the 6N30 glass as dual triodes to wonder whether our Serbians configured the two halves in push/pull to arrive at a fully balanced circuit. That would further necessitate a quad volume control and that the single-ended path be symmetrized upon entry and desymmetrized upon exit. If instead the volume control was a classic stereo affair and the RCA path run straight through, it would not
be a balanced but single-ended circuit with transformer-generated XLR like our Nagra. Either approach is fully optimized for just one format.
The back panel shows the comprehensive socketry including a ground post, phase toggles, a ground lift and the 8-pin power input. The externally accessible 115/230V switch of the PSU unit makes for convenient power conversion and one global model.
For tubular contrast, I had our Nagra Jazz preamp, for transistors the Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II. About truly balanced, “the input transformers’ primary windings become the balanced input (for unbalanced the low end is grounded), the two secondaries act as phase splitter. The potentiometer is a four-gang unit on one shaft, so one stereo pot per channel. The output uses each 6N30 in push/pull and the output transformers are push/pull as well. For XLR out, the secondary windings aren’t grounded but one is again for RCA. This is a very simple configuration and truly i/o balanced.”

With Trafomatic, these things are exactly as advertised. Many competitors are less punctilious when calling a circuit ‘balanced’. With perfectly matched impedance, true balanced signal processing exploits common-mode rejection aka CMMR to lower distortion. Here precision execution of the phase splitter, transformer windings and four-gang motorized Alps Blue potentiometer plus close tolerance of each
triode’s halves become vital factors. Lara’s clean/dirty- box architecture exploits another trick. It segregates the noise-sensitive signal path from the grimier power supply magnetics. The dirty laundry goes into the lower box, the neatly folded starched lot ends up in the upper box. A short umbilical connects the two.

Those in need of even more socketry have the Reference One model.

Diligent shoppers will want to know how the Lara and Trafomatic’s own Reference One models compare at the ear. Putting this question to designer Sasa Cokic forced him to judge two of his own kids. Here’s how he danced that jig. “Our Reference One is similar in using the same tube for voltage gain but it then uses a tube as phase splitter and 3dB of negative feedback to address the 2nd harmonic. The Lara uses zero NFB and as
a consequence, is more detailed and less coloured. Transients too are quicker because there are no coupling caps in the Lara as there are in the Ref One.”

Expertly danced! Direct-coupled tube preamps are quite rare. So are true balanced ones. On those two counts, lady Lara from Mladenovac already stood apart. With her simple circuitry relying on top-quality parts for counter-phase precision, how would she play it sonically between the
Aqua Hifi Formula DAC’s balanced output and the fully balanced LinnenberG Allegro mono amplifiers?

A black Lara on the assembly bench, one of the two chokes prior to potting in the insert.

By way of preview, at the Munich HighEnd 2017 show, Trafomatic had collaborated with Audiobyte, Rockna, Skogrand Cables and Tune Audio.

Sasa’s amp contributions there were obviously his office system Elysium monos. Having heard this room at previous shows with Engström and ModWright electronics, this year’s showing with the big Avaton was my favourite yet especially after the system had settled in over two days.

The Lara preamp held down the preamp fort, showing herself in quite elite company. Delivered in a stout chip-board crate with metal handles and inner cardboard box followed by thick foam liners and protective cloth covers, the review loaner emerged in immaculate matte black paint. The red detailing on the remote control was the only concession to orange being the new black. A very recent minor cosmetic redesign of the control knobs meant that mine didn’t yet sport the hair-line scale of the white unit at left. Since that’s the final look, we’ll go with the stock image.

Once opened, ground wire connection between metal liner and bottom removed, the head unit’s small input transformers and four-gang attenuator proved to be hidden beneath the inverted circuit board at the front. The potted massive chokes hid expectedly inside their canisters, with their in- and outgoing brown cables tightly twisted. Mounted horizontal in military fashion, the tubes were attached to a solid metal brace whose back, via standoffs, hosted their matching circuit board. With the main signal cabling thickly insulated, lady Lara’s undercoat was just as finely made as her outer garments. It’s reasonably rare to find hifi components clad in a wooden chassis which here get fully lined in metal to conform with international radiation standards.

The four footers turned out to be solid metal cylinders finished off with thick black felt pads to protect the paint of the PSU beneath it since the short included umbilical mandates such a stacked placement. The power supply duplicated the same hybrid wood/metal construction… with more chokes and sundry voltage regulators.

As the name Trafomatic suggested in the first place, their balanced preamp would sport plenty of iron to get the job done. That’s a very different approach from typical modern solid-state preamps.Here we see how the second RCA line-outs are labeled ‘sub’ but they could just as well be used for bi-amping with two stereo amplifiers; or to feed a separate headphone amp.

To get going merely required connecting the umbilical and flipping the power rocker on the PSU’s left cheek. The recessed positioning nubs in the male 8-pin plugs were very hard to see but they were there to insure that the female ends of the cable would only enter in the one intended way. Without any status indicators on the front panels, the lone visual
reminder of ‘on’ was a small red LED below the side-mounted power switch for tastefully subdued operation.

After the preceding review of the two-stage tube-powered HQ9038 DAC from Vietnam which splendidly interfaced with our nCore 500-based class D monos, that’s the first amplification Lara played to. With stout volumes attained below 7:00 on the dial and increasing rapidly from there to never make it to anywhere near 8:00, I had to ask Sasa about his circuit’s gain. Either that was unexpectedly high; or the attenuator’s taper very steep. After all, very few amps sport as low an input sensitivity as his 3.5Vrms Elysium monos.

“Gain is just 20dB. Probably your source voltage is too high.” That certainly was a possible answer. Another would be that a balanced preamp should be tailored to modern balanced sources, most of which output twice on XLR what they do on RCA to mean 4V if not more. Combine that with amps of 0.5-1V input sensitivities and a well-judged volume taper ought to allow one to gradually hit 10:00 before things blow up. All of this would be so much easier if core hifi specs were standardized. But they aren’t. Now impedance and gain mismatches are very common. In our case, the balanced sources rate at 16V (COS Engineering), 6V (hq audio), 4.6V (Fore Audio), 4V (Auralic) and 3.8V (Aqua Hifi) whilst our balanced amps deliver full power at 0.7V (Pass), 1.5V (LinnenbergG) and 2.5V (Nord), all with roughly 26dB of voltage gain. In such scenarios, nobody needs a preamp for gain, just for source switching and volume. That a preamp can still sound better than a source-direct connection is one of hifi’s mysteries.
Round #1 (Formula, Lara, nCore 500, Codex). In our hardware/ear context, when I fit the socketed Sonic Imagery 994 not Sparkos Labs SS3602 discrete opamps to Nord’s input buffer with discrete voltage regs, our class D monos emphasize subjective detail density but also set tonality to cool and cadence to somewhat clipped. Yet even with our essentially passive albeit actively buffered Wyred preamp, these qualities can work a treat into very meaty fiercely dynamic but hard-to-drive boxes like Mark & Daniel’s faux-marble Maximus II monitors. Those rely on ultimate control to launch fully. They thrive on ultra-low output Ω and
take class D’s massive negative feedback in stride without drying out. Yet on our Audio Physic 4-ways, the same combo gets too lean and pedantic.

However; when I’d replaced our usual Aqua discrete R2R DAC with hq audio’s HQ9038—2x12AU7 I/V stage, 2×6922 balanced outputs—the powerful valve signature of the Vietnamese/Danish DAC had prompted a course correction from too cool to straight down the middle. This expertly avoided any thick or fuzzy tube-dominant outcome. Given that happy precedent, I expected that back to our Aqua converter, injecting tubular action into the preamp stage instead should net a similarly happy nCore/ Codex marriage of amp to 89dB speaker. And so it was. Despite hitting desired levels at 7:00 where clients with similar conditions would surely specify attenuators with a far shallower taper, I had neither channel imbalance nor sonic signs of a mismatch. This included noise; or rather, the blessed absence thereof. Without signal but ear on tweeter, the first onset of subliminal power-supply hum occurred at ~2:00 which even at full tilt remained very minor. Considering the wildly excessive gain of my first chain, this suggested excellent circuit design.

Unlike the late Terry Cain who happily tolerated how his favourite best- sounding tube amps all hummed into his hi-eff widebanders, I find noise unacceptable. Whether mechanically buzzing transformers or electrical power-supply surf, noise is the enemy of fine detail. As such it should have no place in costly high-end hifi. At the volume settings I actually used and well beyond them, Lara was dead quiet. With her one need make no excuses for listening to last-century tube tech.

This segues straight into the roguish accomplishment of my first round. Rogue Audio’s Mark O’Brien has long since and very successfully packaged 12AX7 tubes with Hypex class D and linear power supplies. Consider his well-regarded Sphinx and Pharaoh

[left] integrateds; or Medusa and Hydra stereo amps. For even more power and monaural class D, the same can be accomplished across three chassis. The requirement is simply a properly quiet valve preamp; and preferably one
with true balanced circuitry since the majority of audiophile class D amps run balanced input buffers.

The functional advantage of such a combo is far higher power delivery than most all class A or AB amps can muster for the same coin. The sonic advantage is something closer to class A fullness than pure class D tends to. Finally, today’s best class D offers 120dB or higher signal-to-noise ratios which might maximize whatever resolution advantages so-called hi- res files promise. The hybrid path of tubes+classD is thus an attractive solution to marrying retro with current tech. From my two recent experiments along those lines, I would highlight in particular excellent low-level listening clarity. Pretty much all competent hifi sounds impressive played loud enough as long as room and ears don’t protest. At low levels meanwhile—the sort courtesy demands at 6:00 AM or 23:00 hours whilst neighbours or loved ones still or already sleep—most hifi systems are stuck in ‘park’.

The simple proof is our irresistible urge to grip the remote and prime the pump. True resolution with sonic fullness eliminates that twitch at the root. When everything is panoramically laid out in perfect visibility and full colour, at levels one could talk over, wanting or needing to listen louder just doesn’t present itself. We’re already satisfied. Traditionally this early- riser quality belonged to exotic 100dB widebanders and large horns. Whilst true, they just don’t own it exclusively. Even normal 89dB boxes can do it if the preceding hardware allows for it. The Lara+nCore combo most certainly did. In my book that’s a core requirement for enjoying music under typical domestic constraints, i.e. outside a few allowable hours not in the hermetically sealed basemencave or separate barn but regular leaky living room.

With nCore’s superlative control of the hidden long-throw 10″ Codex woofers, even ambient fare with its near infrasonic but musically essential beats needed no level boost to sound complete at such low volumes. Those who belabour how low bass intelligibility obscures whenever SPL cross a downward threshold also appreciate the sheer practicality and value when that doesn’t happen. Should the type of music dictate when we may listen to it and enjoy it in full? If you expect less diva antics from your hardware, today’s premium tubes into nCore class D into quality
regular speakers are a very valid approach. The tubes handle the warmer sunnier climate with its riper t o n e f r u i t , t h e switching transistors are the masters of control and resolution. It’s certainly not the only option to arrive but relative to the amplifier side, likely to be the most cost- effective.

Round #2 (Formula, Lara, Allegro, Codex). This merely substituted the nCore monos for our LinnenberG class AB ultra-bandwidth monos. Those the maker seems to have replaced since with 200-watt versions called Liszt which demand €1’000 more for quadrupling raw power. Financially my second round meant going up from £1’720/pr [ex VAT/shipping] for the nCores to €4’990/pr [incl. VAT] for the Allegros. On power, it meant going down from mega 400/700/550 watts into 8/4/2Ω to far more subdued 55/85/110 figures. On Lara’s volume control, it meant moving up by another 4mm to reach 7:30. Sonically the previous gestalt of ultimate grip and control mellowed a bit. Bass impact softened its transient edge. Treble sophistication and decay lengths increased. Midrange textures in particular acquired a minor case of rosy-cheek syndrome. Otherwise things stayed put. Whilst certainly no major makeover, I prefer the Allegros. This explains why the nCores rarely come out of the closet now. Allocating such a surcharge for predominantly a gestalt shift obviously requires caring enough about it. Those whose primary diet is harder techno would likely favour the nCores not just on price. But to please my ears, I would call this second scenario my baseline to pit Lara against Nagra’s Jazz then Wyred’s STP-SE II and get specific by contrast and context. Proper props were simply due first to the Lara plus class D scenario. And for just a bit more gradated control over her volume, I set
PureMusic’s 64-bit software filter to 10dB down. ideally of course Trafomatic would revisit that aspect.

€9’100 tube preamp vs. €12’100 tube preamp vs. €3’549 solid-state preamp

Round #3: Serbia vs. Switzerland. With more creature features (0dB/ 12dB gain, balance, more inputs) and greater expense, the Nagra Jazz fitted with its optional i/o balancing trafos still is no balanced circuit. Hence Nagra demos traditionally run single-ended. But because Trafomatic’s Lara was balanced, it seemed only fair to call that the default and also run the Nagra in balanced mode. This further juxtaposed 6H30 against 12AX/12AU7 glass; and in Nagra’s favour, a far lazier volume taper to even in 12dB mode make for broader more useful range. But this was purely about sonics. And those differences played mostly to tonal perspective. The Lara built its palette from the bass up to act very chunky, saturated and vigorously dynamic. The Jazz had more top-end air and dug deeper into secondary details like fingering noises on frets, a woodwind’s key clacks, the modulated behaviour on a reed’s lip pressure. Judged on ambient retrieval and treble finesse like cymbal glitter and flageolet flashes, the Swiss had higher magnification. Judged on colour intensity and dynamic contrast, Lara had or did more. Especially her midbass crunch which had already served the class D nCores monos so well celebrated a welcome encore on the LinnenberG cubes. It’s the
bandwidth which most expresses virility and punch to perhaps be called the centre of grooviness when rhythmically taut tunes really lock in to swagger. Here Sasa’s circuit execution expressed a very vital deeply tanned personality even on simpler tunes. Far from dark, this presentation simply looked at things from the bottom up. It felt very grounded and gravitationally weighty not floating. Separation was typical 3rd-order dominant THD, i.e. not feathered or blurry but with firm edging. The predominant effect of this grouping of qualities was intensity. Lady Lara played it intense.
Round #4. Serbia vs. America. The US challenger added even more socketry and features like input naming whilst knocking down price by nearly 2/3rds. Sonically in its favour were further upticks of magnifying power and treble visibility over the Nagra; even more capacious staging and subliminal atmospherics; and a concomitant sense of quicksilvery adroitness. By the very same math, Lara’s virtues now stood apart farther. Whilst the Wyred expressed obvious speed, the Serbian didn’t sound slow or gemütlich by contrast. Its dynamic fortitude and very controlled ‘bassiness’ refused allowances for that. On colour temperature and weightiness, Lara simply loaded up the scales whilst her dynamic reflexes and strong outline control added vigor to the equation. This energetic feel
probably reflected a balanced circuit’s cancellation of 2nd-order THD, hence not even subtly cloying SETishness.
Adding it up. Sometimes not much needs saying or parsing. When something sounds this attractively right and plain works, repeating examples for why and how just gets annoyingly repetitive. Lara was clearly a tuber by how she tonally made the tunes pregnant and weighty. Yet coiled dynamics, controlled bass power and clean image outlines countered any sepia vintage notions. This played it feistily modern, hence perfectly adapted to bass-heavy rhythmically agitated music from the 21st century. Big tone, generous voltage swings, muscular power-region presence yet simultaneously clean, sorted and sober… whatever you call that constellation of attributes, it was the Lara preamp from Mladenovac. Running tubes fully balanced perhaps does exorcize them of certain behaviours which dedicated transistor lovers might otherwise find fault with? This double-decker proposition certainly suggested exactly that. A very fine showing that should appeal also to career solid-statesmen and women; and works like a charm for switching transistors.


Review in PDF:

Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: 27″ iMac with 5K Retina display, 4GHz quad-core engine with 4.4GHz turbo boost, 3TB Fusion Drive, 16GB SDRAM, OSX Yosemite, PureMusic 3.01, Tidal & Qobuz lossless streaming, COS Engineering D1 & H1, AURALiC Vega, Aqua Hifi Formula, Fore Audio DAISy 1, Apple iPod Classic 160GB (AIFF), Astell& Kern AK100 modified by Red Wine Audio, Cambridge Audio iD100, Pro-Ject Dock Box S Digital, Pure i20, Questyle QP1R] Preamplifier: Nagra Jazz, Esoteric C-03, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVC module), COS Engineering D1, Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1, F5, F6, F7; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Goldmund Job 225; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; Nord Acoustics One SE Up NC500MB; LinnenberG Allego monos
Loudspeakers: Audio Physic Codex; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Druid V & Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence Cables: Complete loom of Zu Event; KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink;Black Cat Cable redlevel Lupo
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all components, Titan Audio Eros cords on conditioners and amps
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan] Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: Rectangular 5.5 x 15m open floor plan with two-storey gabled ceiling, wood- sleeved steel trusses and stone-over-concrete flooring
Review component retail: €9’100