Triple M Icon Smart TVC Preamplifier is handmade in the North of England and has a lot of features for a £1499 preamplifier. Janine Elliot takes a listen. 

I love TVC (Transformer Volume Control) passive preamplifiers; a transparent sound with no worry about a resistor based volume control affecting the music at different sound levels (particularly at lower volume). A conventional preamplifier will have an electronic circuit which will add noise (hiss) and depends very much on your power supply being good. Conventional resistive loaded preamps can cause impedance mismatching between source and power amplifier, but with a TVC/AVC design the input impedance matches the output impedance. My own reference TVC preamp has been my Baby Reference by Music First Audio for a while now. The idea of passive preamplifiers has been around since the Western Electric’s 5-position inductive auto transformer used on their Type 7A-Amplifier in 1921, and reappeared notably just before the start of the 21st Century when the higher output level from CD players meant that enough volume would actually get to the power amplifier without the need for a step-up pre-amplifier.  Similarly, the idea of a volume control being a series of rotary switches has also been around for many, many years. The BBC type A and B mixing desk from the 1940’s that I used at the World Service in the 1980’s had the main monitoring volume control as a series of resistors, one on each “position” on the volume control, though the mechanics meant that switching up and down often meant for noise clicks and worrying silences.  Even today’s passive TVC’s can result in breaks in sound between positions or worse, crackles and an audible stepped change in sound level as it is turned. Conventional passive volume controls can also limit you to 20-31 different level settings, which can mean many work at greater than 2dB changes at the lower end of the scale and with perhaps only those at the top at 1dB (the point at which discrete changes in sound level aren’t so easy to detect). This would mean getting the exact level you need for comfortable listening might not be so exact. What makes the icOn from Triple M Audio different is the use of micro reed relays. By using reed switches to change volume settings there are many more incremental changes in sound levels, a total of 45 of which 39 are at 1dB, which means volume adjustment will be smoother, and importantly allows it all to be operable by a remote control. The volume control on the front is no longer a physical heavy switching unit, rather an infinite and smooth device, and can now be used for other purposes as well, including as a balance control, which might be useful.  As level switching is carried out using high quality industrial grade and hermetically sealed reed relays the possibility of those contact errors on conventional open rotary switches is eliminated, though as I point out later, there are still noises turning level up and down, as reed relays still take a very short time to “switch” on/off.  In the past being passive has meant that apart from choices if inputs and outputs there is little else you can do other than select and listen. What the icOn Pre provides is a lot more facilities at a very favourable price. Whilst the audio stage is passive, electrical circuits control the operational and selection features as well as the screen, via an external 5v generic power adaptor, working an inbuilt Arduino computer.

This new British product is manufactured in Manchester by the Hungarian born Pal Nagy who likes to describe himself as a 27 years old humble electrical engineer with 57 years’ experience in his backpack. He certainly has lots of youthful energy creating something totally unique and with many other really exciting ideas in his backpack which, no doubt, we will be experiencing soon.  He started his engineering life in Hungary in the 80s, developing high-tech professional measuring equipment such as FFT analysers and DSP based military gear. After ten years he left his engineering job for different management positions in the IT industry, then turned to a new world of natural therapies, meditation, mind techniques and established a small company selling online health and wellness related products. 4 years ago he and his wife moved to UK from where his ventures in audio began, starting up Triple M in 2016 with his mentor and friend Gary Gardner.

This black finished aluminium preamplifier permits operations and functions to be controlled either from the front knob or via the supplied Apple remote control. This includes selecting of sources (including a tape loop should you need that) and being able to adjust levels between them. There is nothing worse than changes in level between sources when you switch from one to another. These differences could be as much as 20 dB (assuming 200 mV for a tuner or phono and 2000 mV for a CD player or DAC). Pal likes to suggest this smart function will protect the owner’s ears as well as the precious loudspeaker drivers.  All level changes are done passively, so no worries about noisy electrical circuits.  Other comfort features include programmable maximum volume, the step size and the starting volume. A 4cm x 5.6cm TFT screen (which can be programmed to be visible in a choice of different colours – I chose green) means you can see exactly what you are doing from the comfort of your armchair, all operated via an Arduino based amplifier system and an Apple remote control. The Triple M icOn is available in two versions; the Quartet (4 unbalanced inputs) and Octet (two balanced and 6 unbalanced inputs and balanced/unbalanced output), at their introductory prices of £1499 and £1999 respectively. The single knob on the front panel can be used to change level or balance, and via a Morse-code type function, by pressing in rapid or long succession to get to varying functions on the machine. For example “. . .” will turn on or off the tape monitor and “. _” will turn on sleep function. Even the screen can be turned to night mode (not so bright) by communicating “. . _” . A photo sensor will adjust the brightness dependent on ambient light levels.  Pressing for 3 seconds at start-up will enter the set up mode to change levels of sources etc.

Features on this new product make my own prized TVC preamplifier quite archaic, and indeed the idea of producing something so advanced was the inspiration for Pal designing the iCon. “Out of the blue one day unexpectedly I was curious about the possibility to create good sound AND smart features matching a microprocessor with an old school TVC”. Pal had a lot of help and encouragement from mentor and friend Gary Gardner, the two of them spending hours daily chatting online about the design. The company name ‘Triple M’ refers to Gary’s pet phrase “Music Matters Most” and ‘icOn’ is Pal’s aim to create something iconic. He certainly wants to create products that are unique, and explained some unique ideas including a future model with voice operated control. He told me “this existing first version will get a firmware upgrade soon with blind A/B test feature for golden ear audiophiles who love to compare interconnects, DACs, etc”, which could be very useful for HifiPig reviewers, then. Rather than just accepting the inconveniences and limitations in hi-end audio equipment he is on a crusade to address and perfect them.  The Smart icOn has a USB link on the rear to update software, and purchasers of the unit will receive updates as and when they happen.  Whether some of the cost of the technology employed in this unit could have been used for upgraded components, depends on whether you want another “same as” product or something as unique as this. I think this is an amazingly well thought out unit and answers many of the questions from prospective passive preamplifier customers. Note the recent spate of remotely operated motor-driven passive preamplifiers. This does the same, but in a very different way, and with so much more possible.

The unit can be bought with an add-on of an anti-resonant transparent acrylic base attached to the base of the icon that lights up with a strip of LEDs capable of 16 million different colours, changing from blue for low level to violet for medium and fiery red for high setting. Pal’s love of lighting to supplement the music ties in well with his earlier career on the human mind and particularly his work on the Ganzfeld technique, selling a light mask that you put over your eyes and which shines or strobes a palette of bright blue light whilst you listen on headphones to relaxing Tibetan or binaural heartbeat music. He kindly sent me one to try during my review and in around 10 minutes I felt a little more relaxed and able to take my mind off writing this review. Oops. The process is supposed to get your mind to produce theta brainwaves which flourish between the waking and sleeping state of daily life. The mask certainly gets warm and was very relaxing. Perhaps a review on this for Pig at a later date.

The heart of any TVC preamplifier is the coil. The two coils are custom-made for them by SAC of Thailand, since Pal needed it to operate in 1dB steps, rather than their standard transformer which operates in 2dB steps. It uses OFC copper winding with silver-plated/Teflon coated connecting wires, and a Supermalloy core. Those remembering cassette tape heads will recall the different manufacturers vying for the best head whether it was Ferrite, Sendust, Permalloy or Akai’s “Glass Crystal Ferrite”. The name Permalloy is due to it being 80% nickel-iron alloy and with excellent permeability (the degree of magnetization of the material in response to a magnetic field), and the “Super” being better. The choice of material for the coil also affects the sound; the Radiometal offering better detail at low levels and better speed and extended higher frequencies.  The SAC coil also has an impressive total primary inductance up to +1,100 Henry and channel imbalance of less than 0.05 dB. The unit comes supplied with an Apple Remote, a product becoming increasingly popular by those needing a remote but don’t want to actually manufacture their own, and one that is also good looking.  Also packaged are four shorting RCA plugs for controlling crosstalk and noise on any unused channels. A lovely thought.

The unit is of good build quality and looks, all the made more exciting by the TFT screen on the front of the black aluminium unit. An on/off switch was on the left of the review model, rather than on the rear as illustrated on the website. To the right of the screen is the single knob that operates all commands if you don’t use the remote. This is a non-motorised knob so it doesn’t move as you alter level on the remote. The rear of the Quartet is full of good quality components and with a well laid out internal circuitry. It has 4 RCA line inputs (the display shows ‘input one’ as a turntable input, though of course you will need to add a phono-stage if you do intend it to be for vinyl input.) As well as RCA unbalanced output there is a 12v trigger socket, the USB socket and a switchable input ground so that you can combat hum or ground loops, plus chassis ground connection.  This preamp is also unique in that it offers the choice of AVC or TVC operation, so in AVC (Autotransformer Volume Control) mode the input ground will need to be “ON” since only the secondary coil is used in this mode, with the primary coil not forming part of the audio path. In this mode, though, the silver shorting RCA plugs need to be connected to the monitor input, which Pal informed me will reduce the inherent “ringing effect” of transformer designs. The addition of tape in/out however gave me a chance to get historical and connect up my aged Akai GXC75 cassette recorder. Ever so often I like to connect up an aged source of music and as I hadn’t played cassettes for many years, today was a good opportunity to test the tape in/out function. Whilst I might not have a Dragon in my house with its automatic azimuth adjustment, my cassette recorders were always optimally set up, and playing an old favourite Focus album “In and out of Focus” the sound was remarkably stable and not itself showing signs of needing to adjust the head to focus the sound and get better top end. The music was surprisingly engaging from such a temperamental medium. Hard to think that in 1980 cassette sales were higher than vinyl, and that today cassette sales are starting to rise.  For the all-important listening sessions I turned to DAP and to vinyl via my Manley phono-stage. Power was provided by a Krell KAV250a.

The Music

A nice thought was the personalised message to me on the start-up menu on the TFT screen as I switched on the unit for my review. What a lovely idea if he were to do this for every purchaser, and makes a lovely alternative to a personalised top or face plate, which a few manufacturers do offer (at additional cost!)  It made me smile when I first turned on the unit.  After a quick listing of the “dot dash” Morse codes to assign functions (it doesn’t show for very long, but all is explained at your own pace in the instruction manual downloaded from the website) and I can start to do the all-important listening. The Apple remote is a lovely minimalist device, making operation easier, and once you get used to which button operates which function you are good to go. All buttons operate as illustrated on the Apple remote, with the play/pause button programmed to mute the preamp (which is actually the same as playing and pausing the sound, so no confusion there). Left/right buttons changes channel or alters balance and up/down turns the volume up and down. The central button on the remote can either change source or switch between TVC and AVC mode. After an initial software issue on selecting Source One on the review sample, I was good to listen, and wow did it impress. As mentioned, t

he unit comes supplied with shorting plugs which help to ensure noises and crosstalk don’t intrude on what is a very quiet unit, as one would expect and hope; having a high impedance input the floating primary coil could perhaps be sensitive to unwelcome intrusion.

My first serious listening was from 192/24bit sources. The first movement of Sibelius symphony Number One (Simon Rattle, Berliner Philharmoniker) after a quiet opening to get us ready for some lovely Nordic tunes has very busy lines of argument between strings and brass with percussion acting as referee. The preamp allows a good sense of what is going on without the busy lines getting confused. The initial transients from the brass instruments were quick and powerful. The strings were natural and warm with a solid and defined bass end. The space between instruments was just as I would expect, so I couldn’t really fault the sound. No sudden bursts in transients from the instruments caused any concern. The detail is all there for the listening, but the music is allowed to breathe and relax during the very beautiful Sibelius melodic lines. I forgot I was listening to FLAC, and just took in the music. Of course it all should sound really good; there are no electronic gubbins getting in the way between the source and amplification, one reason why TVC/AVC passives are for many the obvious choice for high level sources. The soul of the device is that ‘coil’, and whilst it might not be as expensive as some out there, it is certainly well made. The reed relays undoubtedly enable adjustment of level to be quick, and whilst 1dB is a good modicum for steps on a volume control, because it is being operated by Hamlin relays which need time (albeit very short) to switch on and off, it still means you will hear slight glitches as you move the levels up and down at speed, sounding a bit like little scratches on records. I didn’t feel it was an issue, and perhaps some clever software could minimise this, but whilst one expects it when physically moving notched volume controls, from a remote and sitting 6 feet away one doesn’t really want to hear it.  However, because changing level can be done at a greater speed than conventional heavy old school Yaxley rotary switches, I did not find it a problem.

Pal spoke to me about the ‘ringing’ effect that can be heard from TVC passives, one reason why he added the AVC mode, which reduces that top shine that some may not like in TVC preamplifiers. As he told me “In AVC mode the ringing is smaller with loading the primary with a 10k resistor.”  Having listened to TVC and AVC preamps in the past I have noticed the difference in sound, the former often being ‘brighter’. By going into the mode setting I was able to select AVC and then use the tape monitor to A/B test between AVC and TVC.  Indeed listening to my own album “Boxed In” and the track “Vertigo” that I know so well I was able to hear some of that top end disappear, and it also took away some of the stereo detail and excitement. The fact that I could now change the sound depending on how the music was recorded was quite a good feature, though whether I would use it was debateable. Luckily it wasn’t so radical as switching off and on the Dolby B on my cassette recorder I played at the start of the review, and Pal spoke to me about using it to tailor the sound of your hifi just as you might select different cables to get that perfect match. ‘Blues on Bach’ and the track “Regret” from the Modern Jazz Quartet released in 1973 with its harpsichord and vibraphone gave me a chance to test out the AVC mode as well as that ringing effect. Yes, the sound is brighter than my resident preamp, but I did not find any problem in the enjoyment of music. The piano in “Blues in B Flat” settled things down, but the brilliant vibraphone playing from Milt Jackson had much force and showed the slight imperfections from the microphones, which in AVC mode was more realistic, though the extreme stereo from the two microphones across the instrument was more noticeable in TVC mode.

Turning to London Grammar “Hey Now” that bass was more pronounced than I had heard before, showing that there wasn’t any lack there and the AVC mode did settle some of the edginess down; especially the slight over-modulating in her voice when she got excited. Track three “Shyer” starts with a short 8 second rehearsal before they begin for real. I have spoken before about groups trying this “as live” technique at starts of tracks, but I don’t think it actually ever adds to the music, just as some artists seem to like to add fake record scratches on tracks created on computer audio mixing software.  Whilst mid frequencies were clean and well defined, only the lowest bass sounds weren’t as solid as I have heard, though the slight reduction at top frequencies in AVC mode settled the performance down.

Dadawa ‘Sister Drum’ is one of my favourite albums with extreme dynamic range, excessive bass and extreme ambience; an album of Tibet influenced music sung by a Chinese lady called Dadawa with music by He Xuntian.  This was the first Asian album to make 1 million sales. “Home without Shadow” starts very quietly and builds up to very loud finale if you start the track with your levels too high. This album is full of unusual instrumentation and backing vocals and highly enjoyable when neighbours allow you to raise the levels, especially the last final “The Turning Scripture”.  Bass was powerful and well controlled. The mids are detailed and human. Only the top slightly didn’t hit the highs as musically as I have heard, though this was still an exceptionally good performance and more than met its price tag.


For £1499 for the unbalanced or £1999 for the balanced version, this is an exceptionally well thought out and clever unit for those wanting the clarity and purity of passive but with additional features turning the technology truly into the 21st century. This is an exceptional first product and only the extremes of bottom and top end were not quite as good as some passive preamplifiers that cost significantly more, but being able to select AVC or TVC allows you to get the best sound for your system. In terms of features and originality it is in many ways an outstanding product and well worthy of your attention.


Build Quality Well put together with black aluminium frame. A basic design made more exciting by the TFT screen and socketry at the rear.

Sound Quality Clean sound as one would expect from a transformer design. Provision for altering levels and balance, that doesn’t interfere with sound, and the choice of AVC or TVC, which will do, just so you get it all right.

Value For Money At £1499 for the unbalanced passive pre with this amount of facilities including TFT screen and remote, this is an exceptional product.


1dB steps
TVC/AVC at excellent price point
TFT screen
Facilities to change levels


Not at this price

Price: £1499

Janine Elliot

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