Bryston BP-17B3 Cubed Series: Honesty is the best sonic policy

If the mark of a good pre-amplifier is to precisely control the path and the gain of an audio signal while also preserving signal integrity, then the new Bryston BP-17B3 Cubed Series pre-amp deserves high marks indeed …

 

The thing about pre-amplifiers is that, by definition, they should sound like nothing at all. In other words, their role is not to improve or colour the incoming signal, but to retain its integrity while directing it from input to output.

Yes, of course, a pre-amplifier’s role also includes the ability to adjust system volume by altering signal gain, but again, it should do so without modifying the nature of the signal itself. In other words, a good pre-amp should be sonically transparent.

The reality, or course, is quite different. We know that the differences in technologies, components, circuit designs and many other factors all influence the performance of a pre-amp. Most end up with a certain sonic signature – some more pronounced than others.

It should come as no surprise that Bryston’s all-new BP-17B3 (or 17B Cubed) pre-amp seeks to adopt a neutral, truthful approach. The Canadian company has a long-standing reputation for creating components that mix robust construction with musical authenticity – perhaps best epitomised by the classic 4B-SST power amp.

It’s also true that the marque’s latest line of electronics, collectively known as the Cubed Series, has upped the sonic ante considerably. The Bryston 4B3 stereo power amplifier tested recently (full review here)  displays a new level of flair and musicality, while still remaining true to the intrinsic Bryston ethos.

AT FACE VALUE

The BP-17B3 is meant to mirror these traits. In some respects, it continues the Bryston commitment to solid build quality, no-nonsense execution and honest performance. But it also adds innovation to that list with a new input stage design that promises improved musicality.

The new, more contemporary exterior design is still typically Bryston – robust, but elegant and nicely finished, as one would expect of a high-end audio component.

The thick alloy faceplate has bevelled edges and is dominated by a large rotary volume control with a silky action. The array of small, soft-touch buttons looks after source selection, balance, mute and power standby/on. There’s also a headphone socket.

The rear highlights the 17B3’s versatility. It offers two balanced XLR stereo and four single-ended RCA stereo input sets, as well as a line-level RCA tape loop. The pre-amp also provides two  stereo RCA output sets, and two stereo XLR output sets.

One of the XLR output sets can be configured to operate in fixed-level mode, allowing it to be used in conjunction with a separate headphone amp such as Bryston’s own BHA-1.

Add 12V trigger jacks and an RS232 port for custom installation commands, and versatility is one aspect well catered for.

But wait, as they say in the classics – there is more. The 17B3 can be fitted with a choice of optional modules. For vinyl fans, Bryston offers a moving magnet-only phono stage, which takes the place of one of the line-level input sets.

Given the 17B3’s target market, a MM/MC compatible module would have been more useful, but then, those users serious about vinyl will probably prefer a more specialised off-board phono stage anyway.

The second option is a D/A converter module that cleverly shares a stereo analogue input set. Thus, the input set can still be used as a standard stereo analogue input, or as two coaxial digital inputs. The pre-installed Toslink inputs are also activated when the DAC module is installed.

The DAC is compatible with PCM data streams with sampling rates of up to 96 kHz at a maximum 24-bit resolution. While offering a convenient way to hook up digital sources, I’m pretty sure most BP-17B3 users will want a more sophisticated DAC solution.

UNDER THE COVERS

The 17B3 is a proudly solid-state, full Class A design that has its roots in the original BP17, but benefits from a raft of improvements and upgrades in line with the entire Cubed Series amplifier range.

The most significant development is the introduction of an all-new input buffer, co-developed by Bryston CEO Chris Russell and the late Dr Alexandru Solamie. The so-called ‘Salomie’ input stage is notable for its linearity, and ultra-low noise and distortion levels, effectively promising optimum purity of the incoming signal.

Augmenting the new input stage is much improved RF and noise filtering, while the volume control features a new high-precision, symmetrical design.

 

SETTING UP

The Bryston pre-amp arrived brand new, and from past experience, I know that the brand’s amplifiers only really come into their own after an extended run-in period. Thus, partnered by the 4B3 power amplifier that arrived at the same time, the 17B3 was put to work for an initial 100 hours before I took a first listen.

Initial auditions were conducted in the AVSA listening room, hooked up in turn to either  to our stalwart Parasound Halo A21 power amp, with the music signal provided via a Lumin D1 network player coupled to a Bryston BDA-3 D/A converter. The 4B3 power amp was alternated with the Halo A21 during the review period.

In addition, I also hooked up the 17B3 to a second system, partnering a PS Audio Stellar S300 power amp, with sources including a PS Audio DirectStream DAC, and a Linn LP12/Ittok/Ortofon Quintet Black record deck via a Valve Audio Whisper phono stage. Speakers were Vivid Oval V1.5s.

SOUNDS LIKE …

As already mentioned, the whole idea of a good pre-amp is that it acts as a system switching and control station without imparting any sonic signature of its own on the sound – in theory, it should allow the inherent tonal and timbral qualities of the music to shine through unencumbered.

That’s certainly the case here: the 17B3 gets out of the way of the music completely, operating with a level of sonic unobtrusiveness that allows the music full, free passage from source to listener.

There was never any sense of the pre-amp imparting its own character or signature on the music. It faithfully reflected the inherent traits and nuances of the incoming signal, and delivered that signal with a sense of purity and lucidity that, if anything, seemed to provide a clearer, more emphatic view of the music picture.

The Steve Gadd Band’s Way Back Home: Live From Rochester NY  shows the veteran drummer in fine, typically syncopated form, accompanied by an equally stellar cast of musicians that includes trumpeter Walt Fowler, Michael Landau on guitar, Larry Goldings on keyboards and Jimmy Johnson on bass.

The slow-fuse rhythms and gradual build-up of ‘Cavaliero’ sounds deceptively simple at first: guitar and bass introduce a lazy melody, with Gadd’s snare keeping easy time. But as the song progresses, the band increasingly turns up the wick, until the stage is filled to the brim with pounding percussion and searing solos.

The Bryston never allowed the busy, layered mix to intimidate it, allowing a consistently clear yet full-hued view of the performance, while also accurately reflecting the electric ambience of the concert, and the energetic enthusiasm of the performers.

Neo-country balladeer Chris Stapleton’s raw-edged vocals and sparse arrangements on From A Room: Volume 1 sounded evocative and spell-binding under the auspices of the 17B3: it laid bare every vocal nuance, every fuzz-laden guitar note, every resonant drum beat with care and precision, yet without losing sight of the music’s emotive impact.

On ‘I Was Wrong’, the electric guitar was almost visceral in its intensity, matched only by Stapleton’s passionate performance, while bass and drums provided a reassuringly steady foundation.

The Bryston managed to capture the broad essence of the recording to a tee, while never shirking its responsibility to discover and present fine tonal and timbral details. Staging was wide open and airy, with plenty of dimensional clues ensuring an enthralling, enveloping listening experience.

The sheer scale and dynamic swings of the so-called ‘Organ’ Symphony No.3 by Camille Saint-Saëns is a challenging work for any orchestra, and by implication, an equally onerous test for an audio system.

To the Bryston’s credit, it made the most of the performance by the Kansas City Symphony under Michael Stern, beautifully captured in high resolution by Reference Recordings. The orchestra sounded majestic and muscular, while also allowing close and meaningful examination of subtle details.

Again, the result was an immersive and musically believable listening experience underpinned by a powerful sense of authenticity that allowed the music to come alive.

THE BOTTOM LINE

With the 17B3, Bryston has finally produced a pre-amp that is an able and sonically talented match for the marque’s power amplifiers. It has the ability to unlock the essence of the music, and to present it with a compelling sense of realism.

It may end up sounding too honest for those accustomed to a more polite, perhaps tonally mellower approach. But it certainly isn’t clinical or unforgiving, and if we accept that the primary mandate of a top-notch pre-amp is honesty, then the BP-17B3 deserves to be considered an undisputed member of audio’s premier league.

DEON SCHOEMAN

PROS
Lucid, approachable and ultimately honest approach that allows unfettered, believable access to the music.
CONS
Sonic honesty may be considered too unwavering for some.

VITAL STATS
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz (±0,05 dB)
Signal-to-noise ratio: -102 dB (RCA, THD: Inputs: 4x single-ended stereo RCA, 2x balanced stereo XLR
Outputs: 2x single-ended stereo RCA, 2x balanced stereo XLR
Dimensions: (WxHxD): 430 x 116 x 330 mm
Weight: 5 kg
PRICE
R50 253
SUPPLIED BY
Aeolian

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
PS Audio S300 power amp
Lumin D1 network player
Bryston BDA-3 DAC
PS Audio DirectStream/Bridge II DAC/streamer
Linn LP12/Ittok/Ortofon Quintet Black record deck
Valve Audio Whisper phono stage
KEF R500 loudspeakers
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers

SOFTWARE
Steve Gadd Band – Way Back Home: Live From Rochester NY (BFM Jazz 44/16 FLAC)
Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1 (Decca/Mercury 96/24 FLAC)
Saint-Saëns – ‘Organ’ Symphony No. 3 in C Minor – Stern/Kansas City Symphony (Reference Recordings176/24 WAV)