Based in Songnam City, South Korea, Allnic Audio was founded in 1997 by Kang Su (“K.S.”) Park. Park has always been keenly interested in music and electronics—his older brothers, both electricians, taught him the basic principles of electronics at an early age, and soon he was building his own audio components. However, according to Park, at the time neither Korean culture nor his parents valued the electronics trade. When he attended university in Seoul, he studied for and received a degree in French language studies.
After graduation, K.S. Park bounced from office job to office job, but found himself missing audio. In April 1990 he switched gears to cofound and become the lead designer for Silvaweld, which earned a reputation, mostly in Asia and Europe, for its single-ended-triode (SET) tube amplifiers.
After ten years at Silvaweld, Park left to found Allnic Audio, its name derived from the term all-nickel-core, a class of magnetic alloys of nickel and iron that includes the PC and PB permalloys used in the output transformers of some Allnic components. While at first Allnic made only amplifiers, their product line now includes headphone amps, phono stages and cartridges, MC head amps, D/A converters, loudspeakers, speaker cables, and interconnects. But no matter the product, Park has gravitated toward unusual designs that were often considered too difficult or expensive to bring to market.
Recently, David Beetles, of Canada’s Hammertone Audio, Allnic’s North American distributor, asked if I wanted to review Allnic’s L-9000 OTL/OCL preamplifier, which has a somewhat unusual construction of its own: Its single-ended signal path contains no output transformers or other coupling devices. When that path is used, the L-9000’s output tubes can be directly connected to a stereo system’s power amplifier. That Allnic would make such a preamplifier is intriguing, given its expertise in designing and making output transformers. So I gave Hammertone the OK to send a review sample of the L-9000 to me here in New York City.
“Something out of a very good 1980s sci-fi space movie”
The ultra-modern-looking Allnic L-9000 OTL/OCL ($19,500, all prices USD) is a triple-gain-stage, output-transformerless (OTL) and output-capacitorless (OCL) preamplifier that slots between Allnic’s L-8500 ($13,500) and L-10000 ($30,000) OTL/OCL preamps. With its mostly open case design and large, rectangular cutouts in its front and side panels, the L-9000 is nothing short of gorgeous. As a friend said, it looks like “something out of a very good 1980s sci-fi space movie.”
In many preamps, some type of device—e.g., a capacitor or transformer—couples the component’s output stage to the audio system’s power amp; other designs use DC servo circuits to “zero” any direct current (DC) offset at the output. This prevents the damage to amp and/or speakers that can occur when DC accumulates in the signal path. Allnic’s website states that any such coupling devices can color the sound of a system, increase distortion, restrict dynamics, and decrease resolution. An OTL/OCL preamp has no such device. Instead, the preamp’s final stage is connected directly to the power amp.
Per Allnic’s website, the possibility that DC will accumulate in the L-9000’s signal path, and thus cause a stereo system to experience an incident catastrophique, has been “completely eliminated” via a “floating power supply [push-pull (SEPP), OTL/OCL, cancellation] circuit.” When I called K.S. Park in South Korea, he told me that while other cancellation circuit designs provide safety, they distort the signal.
The L-9000 has pairs of 6U8A, 12AU7, and 6080 tubes, respectively in the first, second, and third and final gain stages; the 6080s are directly coupled only via the single-ended signal path. The L-9000’s balanced signal path, which doesn’t permit such direct coupling, instead uses Park’s permalloy transformers.
The L-9000 contains what Allnic immodestly claims is the world’s most sophisticated and highest-performing volume attenuator. Developed by Park over 20 years, it’s a fixed-impedance, oil-clutched, bridged-T mechanical attenuator with a range of 61 steps of 1.5dB each. Park claims that this attenuator operates linearly at virtually all volume levels, without channel imbalances or variations in impedance, and with superb sound quality.
Park said that while he prefers mechanical volume controls to their digital counterparts, good mechanical attenuators are extremely complex to build, and require strict adherence to physical specifications. When I mentioned to Park that 61 steps aren’t many for a modern volume attenuator, he explained that adding additional steps to the L-9000’s attenuator would be so difficult as to be virtually impossible.
The L-9000 has a specified output impedance of 90 ohms—relatively low for a tubed preamplifier. This means that it will likely work well with a variety of power amplifiers, including many solid-state models. When you mate a tubed preamp to a solid-state amp, you want the preamp’s output impedance to be low and the amp’s input impedance to be high. If that doesn’t happen, you’ll get strange sound with little bass impact.
The L-9000 measures 16.95″W x 7.1″H x 15.75″D, weighs 48.4 pounds, and is available in silver or black. Centered at the top of the front panel is a large volume knob, and in the lower left and right corners are two analog meters illuminated in yellow. These meters indicate the DC Balance status of the left and right channels of the output stage, and can be used to monitor the tubes’ bias, for possible adjustment via a flathead screw next to each meter. Between the meters, from left to right, are an infrared remote-control sensor and seven buttons: Power, inputs Line 1 through 5, and Mute. Each button is surmounted by a yellow status LED.
As you face the L-9000’s front panel, all left-channel outputs and inputs are sensibly on that side of the rear panel, all right-channel outs and ins on the right; for each channel, the outputs are placed farthest toward the end of the panel. Each channel is served by a single OTL/OCL single-ended (RCA) and two transformer-coupled balanced (XLR) output jacks. Also per side are two balanced (XLR, Lines 1-2) and three single-ended (RCA, Lines 3-5) input jacks.
Atypically, the master Power rocker switch and IEC power inlet with fuse bay are on the L-9000’s left side panel. When the Power rocker is set to On and the front-panel Power button to Off, the L-9000’s circuitry is just active enough to allow its remote control to operate.
The L-9000 comes with a heavy, well-constructed aluminum remote control, a right-angled power cord to accommodate the side-mounted power socket, and an owner’s manual. It’s warranted for two years, one year for its stock tubes. Although the warranty’s transferability is a good thing, five years or more for non-tube parts would seem more fair for a preamp costing $19,500.
Fire in the hole
The L-9000 is shipped double-boxed in thick cardboard, its tubes already installed in their chimneys.
My audio system includes YG Acoustics’ Kipod II Signature speakers and a pair of JL Audio subwoofers. The YGAs have active bass modules that connect at line level, and upper modules that handle the source signal’s midrange and high frequencies. The speakers and subs together require that three stereo pairs of line-level output signals be run from my Esoteric Grandioso C1 preamplifier, one pair each into: 1) the subwoofers (via my JL Audio CR1 crossover); 2) the YGAs’ bass cabinets; and 3) my Esoteric Grandioso S1 stereo amplifier, which connects at speaker level to the YGAs’ upper modules.
Since only the L-9000’s single stereo pair of single-ended outputs is directly coupled, I experimented with three setup configurations. First, I turned off the subs, as I sometimes do to obtain a smidge more sonic cohesiveness, and used the L-9000’s single-ended outputs full range with splitters. Second, I turned off the subs and used the L-9000’s balanced outputs full-range. Finally, relying on the maxim that music lives in the midrange, I used a mixed-path option to run the L-9000’s single-ended outputs via a stereo pair of RCA interconnects into the Esoteric amp; and the L-9000’s balanced outputs via two stereo pairs of XLR interconnects, one each, into my subs and the YGAs’ bass-module amps.
Connectivity thus established, I removed the tube chimneys’ protective materials and fired up the L-9000. The needles of its DC balance meters each rested slightly off-center. Although Beetles had said that I’d need to adjust the tubes’ bias only if the needles were more significantly skewed off center, I centered them exactly using the front-panel adjustment screws.
A real presence
I had no way of assessing Allnic’s claim that the L-9000 has the world’s best-performing volume attenuator, although it did seem to work linearly and without audible channel imbalances. However, the fact that the attenuator is a mechanical device mounted in an open case meant that its motor emitted a loud noise whenever I changed the volume. As I often fiddle with the volume, this noise was frequent and distracting. Of course, the attenuator is silent when the volume is not being adjusted—those who tend to set and forget it may be less bothered by the noise than I was. But after learning of the attenuator’s sophisticated nature and experiencing the L-9000’s sound, it bothered me much less.
Although the L-9000 itself is by no means a “noisy” preamplifier, it generated more hiss than other preamps of my experience. But it is a tubed preamp, so a bit of hiss is to be expected. Still, any noise I heard from the L-9000 wasn’t very noticeable until I put an ear very close to a Kipod II’s tweeter.
When I used the second setup configuration mentioned above—going full range through the Allnic’s balanced signal paths—the sound of the L-9000 was good. However, the first configuration (full-range through the single-ended outputs with splitters) and the third configuration (mixed-path via OTL, single-ended paths for the mids and highs, the balanced paths with permalloy transformers for the bass) improved such things as tonality, transient impact, clarity, low-level detail retrieval, and presence—that sense of realism that makes it seem as if the performers are in the room with me. I stuck with the third configuration for the rest of my listening, in order to use my subwoofers. What I discovered with that configuration was that, regardless of circuit design, most preamps can’t provide the experience of unveiled immediacy that the L-9000 did.
With a cover of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” by drummer Takeshi Inomata (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Tender Sound Japan/Qobuz), the sound was alive, open, and airy, with a deep soundstage and excellent clarity, detail, and transient speed. Inomata’s drumstrokes had excellent low-end impact, and his solo was positively mesmerizing; it seemed I could hear every ripple of drum skin.
I played numerous selections from Verdi’s Le Trouvère (a revision and translation of his Il Trovatore, with additional ballet), with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and, among others, soprano Leontyne Price and tenor Franco Corelli (16/44.1 FLAC, Les Indispensables de Diapason/Qobuz). Price’s dark, lustrous voice was reproduced with exceptional reality. With Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade mélancolique for Violin and Orchestra, performed by soloist Julia Fischer, with Yakov Kreizberg conducting the Russian National Orchestra (24/96 FLAC, PentaTone/Qobuz), the low and middle registers of the soloist’s violin strings were naturally warm and round, and surprisingly uncolored.
Though the L-9000 nicely reproduced the widths and depths of soundstages, its emphasis—perhaps related to its immediacy of sound—was more on the air and bloom surrounding vocal and instrumental outlines. The result, with Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert (24/96 FLAC, ECM/Qobuz), were piano notes that were beautifully fleshed-out and three-dimensional. Also, the L-9000 helped me better appreciate the many melodies in Part 1 of this album, adeptly revealing them as intensely beautiful and expressive.
At the end of my time with the Allnic L-9000 OTL/OCL, I removed it from my system and reinstalled my Esoteric Grandioso C1 preamplifier, at slightly more than twice the price ($40,000). (The discontinued C1 has been replaced by the C1X, at $45,000.)
I found I preferred the Grandioso C1 for the upper and lower extremes of the audioband. For example, with the live “Touch,” from Stanley Clarke’s 1, 2, to the Bass (16/44.1 FLAC, Epic/Qobuz), his electric-bass notes were more extended and detailed through the C1 than through the L-9000, and low-end transients were faster and more penetrating. While the L-9000’s reproduction of these elements of the sound was impressive—especially for a tubed preamplifier—it couldn’t match the low-end shock and awe that the C1 seems to accomplish so matter-of-factly. With “Take the ‘A’ Train,” performed by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble for WhyHunger’s SongAid campaign (24/44.1 FLAC, SongAid/Qobuz), the C1 set delicately plucked strings and soft percussive taps against a “black” background that the L-9000 couldn’t match.
These findings are unsurprising. Noise rejection and full reproduction at the extreme ends of the audioband are often associated with solid-state gear, especially costly components like the Grandioso C1.
“Autumn Leaves,” from the Beegie Adair Trio’s Jazz Romance: 15 Sentimental Love Songs (16/44.1 FLAC, Burton Avenue Music/Qobuz), relies more on tunefulness than rapid pacing and dynamism—the L-9000 shone as it reproduced Adair’s piano notes with better warmth, harmonic texturing, and tonal color saturation than did the C1.
It was the same with the famous Allegro of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.4 in D Major, K.218, in a recording by soloist Arabella Steinbacher with Daniel Dodds conducting the Lucerne Festival Strings (24/96 FLAC, PentaTone/Qobuz). The L-9000 rendered Steinbacher’s middle-register double stops with more richness than did the C1. Finally, with the cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” on Miles Davis’s Live Around the World (CD, Warner Bros. 46032-2), the L-9000 at least matched the brilliance the C1 revealed in the sound of Davis’s trumpet.
Direct from South Korea
K.S. Park is clearly an unusually talented audio designer. He could have sat back, relied on his expertise in designing and building output transformers, and turned out a perfectly good transformer-based preamplifier. Instead, he set out on the apparently more difficult road of transformerlessness and has created something special in the directly coupled L-9000 OTL/OCL preamplifier, which sounds exceptionally immediate, detailed, and captivating. Just be sure to choose a setup configuration that takes the fullest possible advantage of the L-9000’s single-ended signal paths.
. . . Howard Kneller
- Amplifier: Esoteric Grandioso S1
- Preamplifier: Esoteric Grandioso C1
- Sources: Bluesound Node 2i music server/streamer, Esoteric Grandioso K1X SACD/CD player with PS1 power supply and Grandioso G1 Master Clock Generator
- Subwoofer crossover: JL Audio CR-1
- Speakers: YG Acoustics Kipod II Signature
- Subwoofers: JL Audio Fathom f113 v2 (2)
- Interconnects: Synergistic Research Galileo SX
- Digital links: Mad Scientist Audio Black Magic (USB), Synergistic Research Galileo SX (USB, BNC)
- Speaker cables: Synergistic Research Galileo SX
- Power cords: Synergistic Research SR25 (power conditioner) and Galileo SX
- Power conditioners and distribution: Synergistic Research PowerCell SX and QLS power strips
- Isolation devices: Symposium Acoustics: Osiris Ultimate and Standard racks, Segue platform, RollerBlock Series 2+ equipment support system. Synergistic Research: Tranquility Bases, MIG 2.0s. Silent Running Audio VR fp Isobase.
- Room treatments and correction: Synergistic Research: Acoustic Art System, Atmosphere XL4, Black Boxes (2), HFT and FEQ devices, GIK 2A Alpha diffusor/absorber acoustic panels, WA-Quantum Quantum-Sound-Animator
- Misc.: Synergistic Research: Active Grounding Block, Blue fuses, and Electronic Circuit Transducers (ECTs). Mad Scientist Black Discus Audio System Enhancers and Graphene Contact Enhancer, High Fidelity MC-0.5 Magnetic Wave Guides, Telos Quantum connector caps, f.oq damping tape.
Allnic Audio L-9000 OTL/OCL Preamplifier
Price: $19,500 USD
Warranty: Two years parts and labor; one year, tubes.
North American distributor:
101 Skyland Drive
Kelowna, British Columbia V1V 3A3