Translation of a Chinese language review by C K Tham, publisher and editor of Sight and Sound Journal (May/June 98)
Translated by W K Fong
Do you readers still recall the occasion last month when our major columnist Mr T S Lim came to my house to "gatecrash" my audio system for the first time?
Well, in order to welcome this distinguished visitor, the first thing I did was to switched on my audio system to warm it up to boiling point, and carefully select a number of the best audiophile CDs available to defend the final frontiers. All those CDs which can glaringly expose the weaknesses of any system were carefully stashed away and locked up in my cabinet.
After a series of meticulous touch-ups to my audio parade, every audio unit was set at "red-alert" condition, and ready at any time to perform its best. Time's up and sure enough, Mr Lim was knocking at my door punctually.
The CDs I prepared last night encompassed music from orchestra, chamber, jazz and the best of east and west traditions - quite a complete range to squeeze out the best from any audio system.
My personal pair of Watt Puppy 5.1 speakers has always given me great satisfaction with their precise execution and transparency. After going through my normal rounds of confidently playing all those CDs in my system, it was the guest's turn to play his selections.
Was I surprised to only see Mr Lim reached out into his own personal CD luggage-box to carefully pick up a CD that made me gasp! It was an old 1906 recording, even older than Zhou Xuan (a renowned 1930's Chinese singer and actress) recordings by 20 to 30 years. I almost fainted.
Regular readers would have now known Mr Lim as a self-taught prodigy, not only having a thorough knowledge of electronics, but also having a high standard of music background and insights. Recently he and some friends participatd in an Asia-Pacific Harmonica Festival in Malaysia and they returned honourably with the top prize in orchestral performance.
As audio equipment are used to produce music, their quality and success are highly dependent on the musical background and capabilities of their creator. Not only has the manufacturer need to use the usual test equipment for measurements, he also has to have a great pair of ears and musical judgement to complete the equation for formulating great sounding equipment.
Richard Seah is Mr Lim's ardent supporter. Ever since he established his shop, The Soul of Music, he dutifully became the sole distributor of Mr Lim's line of products, which has been christened Diva.
According to Richard, the Diva seems to have appealed to many foreigners while our local countrymen have avoided it with suspicion. Is this because of local prejudices or is it because of lack of review information on the Diva? Let me try to review the Diva Classic 200 pre-amplifier to discover the audio truth.
The Diva 200 pre-amplifier is made up of a main box and a separate vacuum tube power supply. While the aesthetic aspects of Diva does not seem shoddy, however, it does look very ordinary and unstriking. This perhaps is its greatest blemish.
On opening the Diva unit, one can see two identical vacuum tubes and PCB electronics inside; as the tubes are not directly attached to the PCB, Mr Lim refers to his design as half-mounted. According to him, the advantage to this design is that it enables each Diva unit to sound exactly the same, while a full-mounted design can cause sound variations in each unit, which is not acceptable in any case.
For the Classic 200 Mr Lim initially made samples of 6 different PCB boards. He tested each of them and chose the best PCB ufor the Classic 200.
Classic 200 uses the best Noble volume attenuator, which is in turn is further modified and enhanced by Mr Lim. Many other high end pre-amplifiers like to use Step-Switch volume controls, so why did Mr Lim not follow the fashion?
Mr Lim explains that he had, in the 80's, tried Step-Switch volume attenuators and he knows them like the back of his palm. While he regards these attenuators to be good at clarity and transparency, he finds them to be weak in harmonic musicality, and thus he abandoned their use.
Classic 200 uses two identical vacuum tubes and its greatest feature is that it is extremely flexible in the range of tubes it can use: 12AT7, 12AU7, 12AX7, 12AY7 & 12BH7. Thus tube lovers will have no problem finding the tube to use with Diva to suit their personal taste.
Mr Lim himself prefers the 12AT7, mostly because it possesses an exquisite musical character when used to reproduce the classical music that he listens mostly to. The Diva also performs well on jazz with popular Telefunken or 12AX7 tubes. With regards to 12AU7 and 12AY7, Mr Lim personally thinks they lose out in comparison.
The Classic 200 also uses Germany's ERO capacitors, which are usually found in Krell and YBA. Other components found are Nichocon's Muse capacitors, and 1% metal film resistors.
Mr Lim says that the Diva 200 has less than 1000 ohm impedance, so that it can be match with many fine-soundng tube and transistor amplifiers.
The reviewed unit I had came with GE's 12BH7 tubes. According to Mr Lim, while this tube is not the best that money can buy, it surpasses in sonic grandeur.
Clear and soothing
I finally connected the Classic 200 to my Rowland 8 power amplifier to drive a pair of Watt Puppy 5.1 speakers. The CD transport used was Jadis JD-2, and the DAC, Apogee DA-1000E-20. The GE tubes indeed sounded very majestic on playback but I felt its highs were a bit hard. So I switched the tubes to two pieces of my own treasured Mullard M8137 (12AX7) of many years. The hardness in the highs was gone and it sounded clear and soothing.
Verdi's Choruses CD (Decca 430 226-2) is one of my beloved CDs, but each time I play track 14 ("Glorious Egypt"), I always felt that the chorus voices were breaking out on the loud passages, producing series of high distortions on that piece. I thought this was perhaps a recording anomaly, however, to my surprise, after playing it with the Classic 200, the high distortions totally disappeared, and I finally realised that the distortions were actually coming from my pre-amplifier being driven out of its sonic range.
The greatest impression I had from Classic 200 was its high airy open sound, surge and expansion capability. Irregardless of whether I was listening to Verdi's track 14 or my other favorite track 9 (Fisherman's Song), the Diva recreated the awesome soaring peaks of these tracks, with immense ambience. While many pre-amplifiers could also reproduces the huge soundstage of these tracks, however, the ability to produce the soaring highs of these tracks is lacking in many; the Diva Classic 200 is one the rare ones that can.
Interestingly, while the Classic 200 could perform explosive passages on classical tracks with great aplomp, however on playing lively and power-packed jazz music like "The Music of My People" - it sounded quite ordinary, lacking excitement.
Another minor complaint was the focus of the musical intruments was not sharp enough. Mr Lim explains that this can be corrected in the future, but if he has to compromise the harmonic musicality of his pre-amp, it would not be acceptable.
The Diva 200 is extremely transparent, balanced and has high resolution. It is very fluid sounding and compared to many other similar grade pre-amplifiers, the Diva sounded much cleaner and clearer while the others appeared cloudy and muddled.
Every Diva 200 is personally handcrafted by Mr Lim. and with a price tag of S$1500, it's indeed great value for money. I unreservedly recommend my readers to lift off their suspicions and prejudices to give the Diva its much-deserved respect.
For those readers who have no intention of changing equipment, even though your current pre-amplifiers may be 3 to 4 times more expensive than the Classic 200, please do not disregard nor belittle the Classic 200, you might live to regret it later.
Note: The Classic 200 preamp reviewed here has been replaced by the new Classic One, which surpasses its performance at a much lower price. Also, this review was published before DIVA launched the higher models Classic 300 and M-7 preamps.