First of all let me say that I absolutely love the aesthetics of G-1A from Coffman Labs with its purposeful and almost steam-punk looks. It’s beautifully put together and feels bomb-proof. I also love the way the knobs on the front of the preamp feel – the selector switches clunk into place and they have a firm and solid feel to them – they’re also of a size that just feels right. On top of the rack it looks absolutely fabulous and is something of a work of art to my eyes.
OK, so it looks great but what do you get for the not inconsiderable sum of $5500? Quite a lot actually! There’s a separate and visually matching outboard tube rectified (5AR4) power supply which connects to the main unit by a thick and sturdy umbilical. You get a phonostage with a step up transformer moving coil input and moving magnet input, a headphone amplifier, three line level inputs, two variable outputs and a tape output. Feature-wise the asking price is starting to stack up to seem pretty reasonable and then we look inside where we have NOS paper in oil capacitors sourced from cold war Russian, the switches are military aircraft grade and designed for millions of operations and all wiring is point to point and by default labour intensive. Then there’s the fact that there will only ever be 500 of the G-1A made and so you actually get to own something that has a degree of rarity value too.
So who are Coffman Labs?
Based in Oregon, USA Coffman Labs is the brainchild of Damon Coffman a classically trained violinist and physicist (that classic combination) whose stated aim is to “create products that reproduce the natural sound experienced during live performance”. Damon comes from a background in developing and patenting specialised medical passive monitoring devices and was involved in creating a visual stethoscope which allowed cardiac care decisions to be made by medical assistants in rural 3rd World countries.
Expectations are High!!!
So knowing what we had learned about the history of Coffman Labs and the background of the main character behind the brand expectations were naturally very high when the unit arrived for review. A quick read of the instructions – there’s a specific sequence to follow when turning the unit on and off – and it was plumbed into the system and left to warm up for a while. We settled back to listen to music through this new wunderkind on the block only to look at each other and say “this doesn’t sound right”. Perhaps it needs more warming up so we persevered. Nope, this thing sounds screechy and positively headache inducing and we were of a mind that Damon, given his violin background, had tuned it specifically for this instrument …surely not. I contacted Damon and explained that I didn’t think I could review the preamp as it didn’t reach our benchmark and he suggested there may be a problem with the power supply and so sent out a new rectifier tube…nope, still the same problem. We popped it in front of different amps, we tried different sources and still the same.
Without any further comment from me a new unit was shipped to us at great expense to Coffman and after the usual French custom hassles we had a hopefully working preamp to play with.
Expectations are Low!!
I have to say we were both a little nervous when we plugged the newly arrived unit into the main rig and to be absolutely honest I was of the mind that the G-1A was a bit of a lemon and Coffman Labs had produced something that was tuned specifically to Damon’s hearing after our first experience!
However, I can truthfully say that having lived with this preamplifier for a good while now it is a wonderful piece of equipment that sounds really beautiful in our system with whatever kind of music we throw at it. I can only assume that, despite the excellent packaging the original review unit arrived in, somewhere along the line it was damaged in transit. The unit’s been sent back and I’m sure Damon will do a thorough investigation as to what was wrong with the first pre – certainly there seemed to be no physical damage!
In front of the Iridium amp you get a wonderfully balanced sound with no frequency band dominating and that is absolutely crammed full of detail.
On the Moving Magnet input using the variable loading at 47K (95K, 70K are available too) using the Cartridge Man Music Maker the word that immediately springs to mind is coherence. Soundstage is very wide and deep, bass bouncy and tight on Dillinger’s “Cocaine” with the vocal track being clearly forward in the mix. Each instrument is easy to identify in the mix and there’s an overall very pleasing tone to the sound. The lead guitar that comes in at the end of this track is particularly realistic sounding which had me reaching for the Latin rhythms and virtuoso guitar of “L’Ame de Baden Powell” by Baden Powell. The close micing of the guitar is very evident in the recording and the illusion of there actually being a stage in front of you is very real indeed with the G-1A in the chain. There’s a bit of microphony from the valves in MM mode (evident if you tap the top of the preamplifier) but I’m fortunate to have the electronics in a separate and relatively isolated part of the living space so this really wasn’t an issue for me. Had I the time and inclination I’d have loved to have explored a bit of tube rolling to see if this could be cured for the sake of Audiophillia Nervosa. On poor recordings the Coffman pre is pretty unforgiving and would suggest that whatever it adds to the sound it not trying to mask the original recording in any way.
Switching to the MC input and the Technics 1210/Origin Live Silver/AT33EV combo the microphony is still evident when you tap the unit. From previous listening there is no doubt that on acoustic instruments this pre is really a top class performer but now it’s time to throw a bit of techno at it in the form of 3 Phase and “Current 1” and the Coffman copes very well indeed. The soundstage opens up even further than with the MM input and you get a very 3 dimensional and enveloping sound which is layered with loads of detail. In comparison to my own Electrocompaniet phonostage I’d say the Coffman Labs clearly outshines it by a country mile. In comparison to the recently reviewed Van de Leur the flavour is slightly different but overall I’d say I preferred the Coffman, particularly when using the MC input – it’s slightly more 3 dimensional in its presentation.
Switch to the line input the microphony disappears completely. There is still the feeling that this pre is something very special indeed with that all enveloping sound. It’s still got a degree of “neutrality” but I wouldn’t say it is completely transparent and it definitely brings something to the party that may not be everyone’s idea of “high-fidelity” in its strictest sense but by God does it allow you to really enjoy the music. On Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” Young’s distorted guitars are clearly layered and have that “in the room” feel again. Hats are crisp and that overhang thing that I really hate on bass and drums just disappears. The stereo image is clearly defined and your left with a sound that is delicate and yet visceral and very, very lifelike.
On the subject of bass this is an interesting aspect of the Coffman Labs preamp. My initial impression was that bass was perhaps a little light but you soon realise that it’s not – it’s just not overblown and, as I said, the overall sound is very balanced.
I had the opportunity to test the headphone amp with a few pairs of headphone amps we have in the house at present and it’s very good indeed. As I’ve said previously I’m not a huge headphone listener and most of the listening I do is on little and relatively inexpensive desktop systems so my experience of top-top flight headphone amps is pretty limited. However, the Coffman Labs performed as well as anything we’ve had in the house over the last couple of years and was easily a match for my prototype headphone amp I have used for the last couple of years as my reference.
$5500 (£3350 at today’s exchange rate) is a good deal of money to spend on a pre-amplifier and the Coffman Labs amp is clearly aimed at a pretty high end market. However, given the quality of the unit overall, how well it is specced and the fact that it is handbuilt in limited numbers I’d say it represented very good value to anyone living in the US. Add delivery and taxes to the EU and you’re getting closer to a preamplifier that costs upwards of £4250 so the relative value thing becomes a little more blurred, but I’d still say that the Coffman Labs offers excellent value against anything I’ve heard in this price bracket available in the EU!
The sound is open and balanced and decidedly incisive. It’s not the last word in neutrality but then again it’s not hugely coloured either – it’s certainly not a “warm” sounding preamplifier by any stretch of the imagination and it is transparent to a large degree. Feed it with good quality recordings and you will be rewarded admirably, feed it with sub standard recordings and it is unforgiving. Listening to the amp in my system I found myself lost in the music and I think that for the Iridium amplifier from Tellurium Q it is a perfect match.
It excels with acoustic music but pop in rock or techno and it’s equally superb.
On the downside the issue of microphony on the phonostage may be an issue for some but by isolating it well I had no issues other than when tapping the unit with my finger.
Without a doubt well deserving of the Recommended award and I defy anyone who hears this pre in a decent system to say otherwise. Had this review been written in 2013 the pre would have been my joint “electronics” product of the year along with the Iridium power amp I’m now using. Do I hope to do a deal for the demo unit? – yes I do !
Author – Stuart Smith