If you have ever seen AVM products up close and personal it’s self evident how exquisitely well made they are with their aluminium machined cases and displays. Exhibiting the quality we have come to expect of lots of German made goods, AVM products definitely appear to have the ‘BMW’ factor about them. The PA 5.2 is of such quality it wouldn’t look out of place as a device existing in a defence facility, where our national security depends on it.
With the unit coming protected in its own AVM logo fabric cover, and white gloves included in the box, you definitely feel like you are about to handle something of state importance! If something looks good it should sound good too, right? A cliche maybe, but with enthusiastic anticipation and in looking like a snooker referee with the supplied gloves on, I got to work in setting it up…
Wired for sound
I hooked up the PA 5.2 to my Cyrus Mono X200 Signature power amps using Chord signature XLR tuned array cables. I used my Chord Qutest DAC with MCRU linear power supply. Connection from the DAC was by RCA into input 1 using Atlas Element Intergra cables. I used a Chord C-Power to connect to the mains. Speakers are PMC twenty5 23 and my Innuos ZENith Mark 2 and Cyrus cd-t were used as sources.
The PA 5.2 is a modular design like it’s bigger brother, the PA 8.2, which means you can specify additional modules that come on their individual circuit boards, be it a DAC, tuner and MM/MC phono stage. If specifying the DAC, you get optical, USB, and SPDIF inputs in a 192khz/24 bit upsampling design.
AVM say that the tube output stages of the PA 5.2 are derived from the Ovation Line PA8 which are being used for the first time in the Evolution Line. You get two tube triodes in a balanced configuration which are visible through the top window of the unit. Being illuminated by red LEDs they look sinisterly pleasing. In much the same way a viewing window in a construction site hoarding makes us inquisitively want to look through, the AVM’s window does so too, adding to mystique and an impression of quality about the internal components.
On the back panel you get one pair of XLR balanced outputs and a single ended RCA output pair for connection to power amplifier(s). For analogue sources there are 5 pairs of single ended RCA inputs and one pair of XLR inputs, essential for connecting up balanced DACs. You also get a 3.5mm IR extender socket if you use the unit in a cabinet and want to still enjoy remote control use. There are two 3.5mm trigger outputs so compatible power amplifier(s) can be turned on as the PA 5.2 is switched on. My Cyrus Mono X200 power amps use RS232 sockets for the triggering circuit which is fairly common. Appropriate pins of the connectors need to be wired up from the 3.5mm trigger sockets pins.
There is also one fixed level RCA output pair for connecting up recording devices and a processor in and out socket for connection of equalisers.
The unit is supplied with an AVM RC3 remote which is a beautiful solid aluminium affair. On the downside I did find you can sometimes depress the buttons with no effect with the flashing IR light not operating, but this is only because the buttons must be pushed quite firmly.
On taking the unit out of standby it takes about 20 seconds for the output stages to turn on during which time a message ‘Waiting for tube warmup” is displayed. You might have to stand around tapping your foot for a bit but this was no biggie for me.
To match the volume of different sources there is an input sensitivity function which you select by the front menu buttons. In difference to possibly being sworn at for asking for salt and pepper at a high profile chefs restaurant, usefully you don’t have to accept the tonal house ‘flavour’ with the PA 5.2. To change tone you have to take the unit out of ‘linear bypass’ mode and select ‘active’ mode. Bass and treble tone controls are perhaps essential with the variance in balance of digital recordings. You can change bass and treble either ‘globally’ or according to inputs (in the personal settings setup menu)
There is a loudness function which attenuates bass and treble as volume is decreased, the thinking being that the human ear is not sensitive to bass and treble at low volume. I tried this function as I often listen at night, and found it worked on the PA 5.2 to very good effect. You also get an input attenuation function to stop noise on inputs at low volume, if the input source produces too high a level where volume is zero.
I would like it if the volume numerical in the display could be larger or set to be larger, perhaps an option in the personal set up settings. If you sit more than 10 feet away it’s difficult to read the numbers. This amplifier, unlike lots of others, doesn’t use an attenuated numerical volume indication.
PMC started distributing AVM products in the UK a few years back with Bryston being the other connected brand. Both brands are reputed to have synergy with PMC speakers and having tried the Bryston BP173 preamplifier with my PMC twenty5 23’s, I was keen to see how the PA 5.2 faired. Admittedly they are different beasts of design, but a comparison is interesting nonetheless and a review in absolute terms too.
Starting off with Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ I found the AVM not quite as raw as Cyrus’ top DAC XP Signature pre amp which I’m used too, without the same level of speed and agility in the sense of the on/off intonated nature of the synths and bass lines. However where the AVM is clearly much better is in its ability to present synths in a richer and more natural way. There is more insight into the timbre of the synthesisers used by this legendary group. This naturalness makes the music more realistic and therefore musical, likely to appeal to a wider audience particularly if you are not an electronic music anorak like me. During the simpler parts of ‘Autobahn’ I prefer the Cyrus’ speed, but as the music gets more complicated you appreciate the AVM for its ability to present the layers in the music better. You too notice with this type of music that the AVM has good levels of bass on offer, which has authority and depth and its well extended. Whilst relatively rich sounding, I though this pre amplifier is still quite neutral with bass and treble, which is very well balanced in linear bypass mode. Detail is conveyed in spades too.
Trying Nils Frahm’s excellent ‘All Melody’ album released earlier this year and hearing the fast arpeggiated synths on the track ‘Kaleidoscope’ it’s the same story again with speed and depth into the music, as well as balance.
Listening to acoustic music such as Tracy Chapman, it’s again obvious how multiple layers in the music are evident and midrange is very focused. With lesser amplifiers these layers are harder to discern. The vocal is accurate but treble edginess is non existent and there is no lispy sibilance at all, which I found listening to other types of music too. Turning the volume up these good qualities are maintained so this is a very easy pre amp to listen to at both lower and higher volumes. Whilst acoustic music sounds very rounded with the AVM, it’s less the case with the Bryston BP173. However I did find the Bryston projects slightly more natural timbre to instruments, and it is faster and more dynamic than the AVM too and a bit more raw, and less smoothed. Both these Pre amplifiers sit in a similar price bracket.
Agnes Obel’s ‘Citizen of Glass’ album has a few tracks that have very wide soundstage and through the AVM my relatively diminutive PMC’s are transported to being twice their size. You’d really think this would be mission impossible! Maxing out your speakers soundstage would be a reason for buying this pre-amplifier alone and it’s often what tube amplifiers do so well. Perhaps if soundstage is your thing, or you want to improve your speakers capabilities in this regard. Against an Audio Research LS26 tube preamplifier I tried, the AVM is fuller in its soundstage, if not in such an airy way to the LS26, and its relatively richer qualities to the LS26 sounds spot on even without adjusting tone controls.
Trying some John Williams and Julian Bream the guitars are very open and spacious and tone is bang on the money again. The twanginess of duelling guitars on a Fernando Sor piece makes the music extremely realistic. The clarinet on Acker Bilks ‘Stranger on the shore’ is lovely in its rounded smooth tonal capabilities too. Mozart’s concerto for piano number 20 in D minor sounds insightful and spacious and particularly the piano notes in this piece. This is the AVM’s soundstage and sense of space excelling again!
I tried the front headphone socket to good effect through my Grado SR225 headphones. You get detailed and involving sound which is decently amplified.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a richly rounded, relaxed, balanced, midrange focused sound with spaciousness and soundstage, where speed and agility are not high up the list, this AVM really ticks the boxes and then some. In this regard this pre-amplifier clearly suits most music genres. Coupled with bomb proof build quality, great looks, useful settings and a modular design for upgrades, this is a very accomplished pre amplifier indeed. The adage that HiFi sounds as good as it looks is very definitely true here.
- Balanced tube output stage
- Analogue Inputs – 1 x Processor In RCA, 1 x XLR, 5 x RCA
- Analogue outputs – 1 x Line/Fix Out RCA, 1 x Pre/var Out RCA, 1 x Processor Out RCA, 1 x XLR
- Digital Inputs (with digital module specified) – coaxial, optical and USB
- Headphone Out
- Included remote Control – RC3
- Phono / Radio (with modules specified) – MM/MC, FM RDS tuner
- Tone controls – balance, bass, treble, contour (loudness)
- Trigger outputs (for switching on power amps) – 2 x 3.5mm
- Tube line stage – Evolution 83t
- Dimmable display
- Menu : Adjustable input sensitivity, input naming and display settings
- Dimensions – 370 x 430 x 130 mm (L W H)
- Weight – 8kg
- Finishes – aluminium silver, aluminium black, aluminium silver with chrome front, aluminium black with chrome front
AVM Audio Video Manufaktur GmbH
Distributor – PMC (UK)