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Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews Full-Length Equipment Reviews
Created: 15 July 2021 15 July 2021

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

Reviewers' ChoiceThe Accuphase brand was created in 1972 in Tokyo, Japan, but the company behind it was named Kensonic Laboratory, Inc. In 1973, the company moved to Yokohama, where it is currently located, and released its first products: the C-200 preamplifier, P-300 stereo power amplifier, and T-100 AM/FM stereo tuner. In 1982, Kensonic Laboratory, Inc. changed its name to Accuphase Laboratory, Inc., to “unify the brand and company name,” according to the Accuphase website. The original branding featured Kensonic as the company and Accuphase as the brand.

For about 40 years, I’ve known about the Accuphase name, but I’ve never been that familiar with the products. That’s because in North America I’d sometimes see them displayed at shows and occasionally covered in magazines, but they were rarely at dealers I visited. But in 2013 I went to the Tokyo International Audio Show for the first time, then returned in 2016 and 2019. It was there that I could see pretty much everything from Accuphase—at the 2019 show there were preamplifiers, power amplifiers, integrated amplifiers, disc players, and DACs, and even a digital equalizer, a tuner, and a cartridge. But seeing all the products in Japan made me come home each year and wonder, Why doesn’t Accuphase have better exposure in North America?

Accuphase

I don’t know what the problem on this side of the ocean was for all those years, but it seems fixed now, at least in Canada. In the middle of 2020, Motet Distribution, which is based in both Toronto and Montreal, picked up Accuphase for the Canadian market and has so far put a lot of effort into getting the products into hi-fi stores, in front of the audio-buying public with marketing, and into reviewers’ hands, which is how I ended up getting the C-2850 preamplifier for review.

Description

The C-2850, which replaced the C-2820, sells for $24,999 in Canada, but I must also mention the US-dollar price because that’s what we typically quote in our reviews: $34,500. In the US, Accuphase has a different distributor, and if you know about Canada–United States currency values, that’s a huge price discrepancy. According to the exchange rate around mid-June 2021, $34,500 USD converted to $41,932 CDN, while $24,999 CDN converted to just $20,568 USD! To me, that’s too big a price discrepancy for two countries situated next to each other and where people travel pretty freely back and forth (at least pre-COVID). But for the moment, I’m going to set the price issue aside—though I can’t help wondering if having too high a price has been a problem getting the brand established in North America.

The C-2850 is now Accuphase’s second-from-the-top preamp model—the top spot is occupied by the newer C-3900, which is priced at $34,999 in Canada and $43,500 in the United States. The price of the C-2850 may be $10,000 lower than the C-3900, but the look, feel, and features don’t make you feel like you’re getting a compromised product. It has the classic look that their products have had since the 1970s, but there’s a refinement to its build combined with a timeless design that make it look fully up to date, elegant, and of the highest quality. And it’s heavy—the whole thing weighs 54 pounds, which has a lot to do with the materials the C-2850 is made of.

The C-2850 measures 6.14″H x 18.78″W x 16.22″D and on its top and sides there are beautiful wood panels finished in a deep reddish-brown color topped with a thick high-gloss coating. The C-2850’s rear panel is black-colored metal, nicely finished, while the front is thick metal colored champagne-gold. On another company’s electronics, champagne-gold coloring might look tacky, but on an Accuphase product it looks oh so right.

Inside the C-2850 is an assortment of 0.3″-thick aluminum slabs that form the complex chassis—besides creating the box-type structure, the slabs are used to isolate the left-channel circuitry from the right channel’s, as well as to isolate rear-panel connectors and front-panel control circuits from the audio channels’ circuits. Another slabbed-off area also keeps the volume-control circuitry separated from everything else, and yet another keeps the optional phono stage (see below) isolated as well. While I couldn’t figure out how to get my review-sample C-2850 apart to get inside, the pictures I saw of its internals looked as impressive as I’ve seen in any product—in addition to the aluminum, the C-2850 is chock full of high-quality parts, meticulously laid out.

Accuphase

On the C-2850’s backside are five sets of single-ended (RCA) inputs, two sets of balanced (XLR) inputs, and one set each of single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) preamplifier inputs that bypass the volume control (this is what you want for connection of, say, a surround-sound processor). Each input can take a maximum of 6V.

On the rear panel there are also two sets each of single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) outputs, as well as a recording loop, which comprises a pair of single-ended (RCA) outputs and another pair of single-ended (RCA) inputs. A nice touch is that the C-2850 is shipped from the factory with plastic caps covering the input and output connectors. While this is a small thing, I like it because it shows care and attention to detail a little above the norm—as does the inclusion of a properly bound owner’s manual. Plus, the caps are good to leave on unused connectors so that dust and dirt don’t get inside them.

At the far right of the rear panel is an IEC-compatible power-cord inlet, while on the far left there is a plate that can be removed so that the optional AD-2850 phono stage ($4499 CDN, $7500 USD) can be inserted. The AD-2850 supports moving-magnet (MM) and moving-coil (MC) cartridges (there are pairs of RCA inputs for each). Once the stage is installed, you get two more sets of inputs, dubbed AD 1 and AD 2.

Accuphase

On the bottom left of the front panel there is a pushbutton labeled Power to turn the C-2850 on, and above that is a large knob labeled Input, which is of course used to select the appropriate input. But one note about that. While the line-level inputs on the rear are labeled Tuner, CD, Line 1, Line 2, etc., which correspond to the labels around the Input knob, they all operate the same. Therefore, if you hook your CD player up to, say, Tuner or Line 2, and your tuner to Line 1, it will not matter. I mention that because there isn’t one labeled DAC, so I connected my EMM Labs DA2 V2 digital-to-analog converter to the CD-Bal inputs. Where it does matter what gets connected to what is if you have the phono stage installed—then, AD 1 and AD 2 can be used only for turntable connections.

On the far right is the Volume knob, for controlling Accuphase’s proprietary Accuphase Analog Vari-gain Amplifier (AAVA) volume-control circuitry, something Accuphase places a high degree of focus on in its literature, stating:

Turning the volume knob on the front panel causes the actual volume level position to be detected. The corresponding combination of weighted amplifiers then in turn adjusts the volume. The volume sensor mechanism is made of a massive aluminum block extruded and finished with utmost precision. The knob provides an exquisite tactile feel when rotated and ensures extremely accurate position detection. The entire mechanism is supported by a floating suspension using insulators, which also allows extremely quiet motor-driven operation when the remote commander is used.

The volume control’s range runs from -95.0dB to 0.0dB, but in varying increments—by 5dB increments from -95.0dB to -80.0dB, by 3dB increments to -74.0dB, by 2dB increments to -60.0dB, by 1dB increments to -50.0dB, by 0.5dB increments to -30dB, by 0.2dB increments to -8.0dB, and finally by 0.1dB increments to 0.0dB. After using it, I can’t imagine anyone complaining about these gradations—you can seriously fine-tune.

Below the Volume knob are a ¼″ headphone jack for the built-in headphone amplifier, and a pushbutton labeled Attenuator, used for reducing output by 20dB: it doesn’t really mute the output completely, but instead lowers the volume level substantially if, for example, your phone rings and you want to take the call.

Accuphase

Between the Input and Volume knobs is an appropriately retro-looking display. Centermost in the display is a green-lit Accuphase logo with a small red-lit line below it, and to the left and right of that, respectively, the display of the input selected and the volume level, both lit up in orangey-red. There are also several lights on the display that will light up when various options are selected.

As nice as that display is, what’s just as eye-catching is the control panel below it, which drops forward to open when you push the small Open pushbutton to its right. Once opened, six dials are revealed. Leftmost is the Output dial, with selectable options to have all or just some of the outputs working. Beside it is a dial labeled Gain, which allows you to set the entire gain of the preamp, with selections of 12, 18, or 24dB, something I’ll touch on more below. Beside Gain is Balance, for left/right channel-balance control. Then there’s the Compensator dial, which essentially acts as a loudness-type control, primarily for low-level listening, boosting the bass frequencies in 2, 4, or 6.5dB increments (respectively, by the 1, 2, and 3 settings), but leaving the mids and highs alone. Next to it is the Phones Level dial, which allows for settings of Low, Mid, or High (Low is -10dB from Mid and High is +10dB from Mid) to accommodate varying sensitivities of headphones you might have plugged in. Finally, there’s the Recorder dial, for use with the rear-panel recording-loop left/right inputs and outputs.

Below the dials are more pushbuttons. The one furthest left, Phase, allows for individual phase inversion of each output. Beside it is Mono, to sum the left and right channels instead of playing in stereo, the default. Third from the left is Display, to turn the lights on the front panel on or off (I can’t imagine someone wanting to turn them off given how good they look). To the right of Display are buttons for the optional AD-2850 phono stage: Filter, to implement a rolloff below 10Hz; AD Gain, to boost the gain for a low-output MC cartridge; MC/MM, to select the cartridge type in use; and four more for MC cartridge loading, marked as 10, 30, 100, or 300 ohms.

Use

With preamplifier reviews, I don’t often talk usage because the most I do is change inputs and volume level. But the C-2850 is different. First off, it’s the most feature-rich preamplifier I’ve ever used, even without the optional phono stage installed. It’s also the best-looking, best-built, and slickest functioning one I’ve ever used—it reminded me of a high-end watch, so my use of it deserves some words.

For example, all the controls on my review unit had just the right feel—the Volume knob turned smoothly, with the right amount of resistance; the Input knob had just the right tension as I turned it left or right and felt it click over to the next input, accompanied by a satisfying tick sound when it got there; all the pushbuttons required just the right amount of pressure when I pushed them; and the dials had a solid feel when I turned them that let me know I was working with a quality piece. Yet the most impressive thing for me was pressing the Open button—it caused the door under to fall open slowly and silently, giving the impression of weight.

Accuphase

Further proof of the C-2850’s visual and ergonomic appeal was that I rarely used the RC-220 remote control it came with, which allows volume adjustment, input selection, and playback control for an Accuphase disc player if you have one. Instead, I liked using the front-panel controls more, even if it meant getting up from my listening seat and walking to the C-2850.

Setups

As I did when I reviewed the Karan Acoustics Master Collection LINEb preamplifier ($28,000 USD) in April, I used the C-2850 with a variety of amplifiers because I wanted to test its versatility. The amps were the Constellation Audio Revelation Taurus Mono monoblocks, plus the Purifi Audio Eigentakt and NAD C 298 stereo amps. For these amps, I always used the C-2850’s balanced outputs and Crystal Cable Standard Diamond balanced interconnects to connect the preamp to the amplifier. I also used the same interconnects to connect the EMM Labs DA2 V2 DAC to the C-2850. In front of the DAC was an Asus ZenBook UX303U laptop computer running Windows 10, Roon, Tidal, and Qobuz, connected with a Shunyata Research Alpha USB cable.

I used Shunyata Research Alpha NR power cords to plug both the DA2 V2 and the C-2850 into a Shunyata Research Alpha A12 distributor, with the distributor plugged into one of my dedicated circuits by using another Alpha NR power cord. The amps also had Shunyata Research power cords attached to them (E-Tron Alpha HC cords to the Tauruses, but Venom HC cords for the Eigentakt and C 298). The amps were plugged into a Shunyata Research Venom PS8 distributor, and that was plugged into another dedicated circuit using a Venom HC power cord. Speaker cables were always QED Supremus, but as you’ll read below, the speakers varied as much as the amps did.

Sound

I first connected the C-2850 to the Constellation Audio Taurus Mono amps, which at the time were driving my Revel Ultima2 Salon2 towers. This setup allowed me to judge the sound of the C-2850 as well as compare it to the Karan Acoustics LINEb, which I still had around. If you read my LINEb review, you’ll know that it is utterly transparent to whatever signal passes through it—a reference-caliber preamp for sound quality—and it too features great build quality. But its features are spare compared to the C-2850’s—it only allows for input switching and volume control, its volume control operates in 1dB steps throughout its range, and its no-compromise balanced-circuitry design means there are only balanced outputs on its backside. And by default it offers 6dB of gain, though it’s adjustable internally to offer 9dB.

Once all the electronics were turned on and with the C-2850’s gain setting at 12dB, I cranked the volume control to its maximum and put an ear to a tweeter and heard as faint a hiss as when the LINEb was in there. This kind of surprised me because I thought with double the gain over the LINEb, I might get a little more noise from the C-2850, but I didn’t.

Accuphase

Next I played “Birmingham Shadows,” from Bruce Cockburn’s The Charity of Night (16-bit/44.1kHz WAV, True North), which I’d played many times through the LINEb. The C-2850 presented a perfectly neutral presentation across the audible frequency range and revealed all the detail I’d previously heard. Insofar as soundstaging and imaging go, the width and depth of the stage were all there with the C-2850, as well as the exactness of the musicians’ placements that I’ve come to expect from a great preamp. If there were any differences between it and the LINEb, they were slight at best and nothing I could be sure of—for example, I thought that maybe the LINEb presented a slight bit more air around the musicians, but going back and forth, the differences were so small it made me uncertain. They were that close.

Similarly, I pulled out the Cowboy Junkies’ The Caution Horses (16/44.1 WAV, RCA) and played “’Cause Cheap Is How I Feel” over and over again, focusing mostly on drummer Peter Timmins’s rim shots, just as I had done when I reviewed the LINEb. Once again, the C-2850 presented the song coloration free and with a high level of detail. The soundstage was also spacious with that exactness to the musicians’ image placements that I just described—in this case, Peter Timmins was 5′ behind and 4′ to the left of Margo Timmins’s lead vocal. But just as it had been with the LINEb review when I compared the sound of the rim shots to what the EMM Labs Pre preamplifier ($25,000 USD) I typically use presented, it was a close call as to whether or not the LINEb sounded a little more incisive than the C-2850, and whether the LINEb presented a “woodier” sound when the drum stick struck the edge of the drum. Overall, I’d give the nod to the LINEb for those things, but just as when I compared the Karan to the EMM Labs preamp, it was a really close call between the C-2850 and the LINEb.

But when I put those nitpicky details aside and just listened to the C-2850, I forgot all about those almost insignificant things we audiophiles tend to fixate on. It sounded so clean and smooth that the word that kept popping to mind when I listened with the C-2850 in my system was silky. This was particularly true when I played Lana Del Rey’s “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have—but I Have It,” from her Norman Fucking Rockwell! (16/44.1 FLAC, Polydor/Interscope). Del Rey’s voice sounded as clear as the piano that accompanies her for this song, and it was so easy to hear all the little post-production details that were done to enhance her voice. After the song ended, I couldn’t come up with any criticisms of the C-2850.

Accuphase

I next switched up the system to try the C-2850 with a different amp to see how it would sound, and to fiddle with gain settings and see what impact that would have. This is where the NAD C 298 amplifier came in, which has a switch and dial to adjust gain. I connected the C 298 to a pair of Vivid Audio Kaya S12 loudspeakers, which are small standmounted speakers with limited bass output (down to about 60Hz), but with astonishingly good midrange and treble clarity. At first I left the C 298 at its fixed-gain setting of 28.6dB and the C-2850 at 12dB, then cranked the volume and tested for noise—and heard a little less hiss this time than I’d heard with the Constellations driving the Revels. I attributed it mostly to the amplifier—the C 298 is an inexpensive amplifier ($1999 USD), but it’s based on Purifi Audio’s Eigentakt amplifier topology, which boasts some of the lowest noise and distortion figures currently possible. I then played a wide variety of songs and heard the same kind of coloration-free, silky sound described above.

Subsequently, I changed the C 298’s gain to its lowest setting, 8.5dB (this is done by flicking a switch on the rear panel from Fix to Var and turning a small dial that’s right beside all the way counterclockwise), and set the C-2850 to 24dB of gain, its highest setting. The amount of self-noise at a tweeter with the volume swung open stayed just as low as before. I also played various music tracks through the system set up this way and heard no sound-quality difference compared to when I had the C 298 with a fixed-gain setting and the C-2850 at 12dB.

Even though I found no real benefit to noise reduction by altering those gain settings, I know some listeners would be able to, depending on the amp they were using—having higher gain with the preamp, providing it’s really quiet, and lower gain with an amp can reduce noise because the preamp’s noise isn’t getting amplified by the amp as much. Plus, amps with lower gain usually have lower noise. Not surprisingly, Accuphase makes power amplifiers with adjustable gain—and in the company’s spec sheets for these amps, the best noise performance is at the lowest-gain setting, which is probably why this and other Accuphase preamps have adjustable gain. I’d imagine that if I had an Accuphase amp, the thing to do would be to set its gain as low as possible and then find the gain setting on the preamp that works best with that amp setting. (That may be a project for the future since I’ve always wanted to hear an Accuphase power amp.)

Accuphase

Finally, I used the C-2850 with the Purifi Audio Eigentakt evaluation amplifier (it was an engineering sample sent to me from Purifi to show their technology) and a pair of Paradigm Founder Series 100F speakers, which are about 3dB more sensitive than the Revels and Vivids. For this setup, I set the C-2850 back to 12dB since the Eigentakt offers 27dB of gain, which is close to the typical 28-29dB of most amps. Once again, the level of self-noise was almost non-existent at one of the tweeters. For fun I bumped it to 18dB of gain just to see if I got more noise and a decrease in sound quality. I didn’t, although at 18dB I also was using the volume control in a lower part of the range, where the steps were coarser, so it made sense to put it back to 12dB.

It was with this speaker setup that I did as much music listening as with the Constellation amps driving the Revel speakers—and I loved every moment. Over the past few months, I’ve found the 100F loudspeakers to be extraordinarily clean sounding and capable of generating big, deep bass, characteristics that the C-2850 easily showed off. For example, I’ve recently become smitten with Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails over the Country Club (16/44.1 WAV, Interscope Records/Polydor Records), with the first track, “White Dress,” currently being my favorite. However, as much as I like “White Dress,” its bass is light and its highs sound too tipped up. There’s also a wispiness with Del Rey’s voice that can be off-putting.

The C-2850 hid none of that trebly, wispy sound, but it didn’t exaggerate it either. Nor did it add any bass that wasn’t there (though I could’ve added some with the Compensator dial). As far as I could tell, I heard the recording reproduced exactly as it was intended. In contrast, track 6, “Dark but Just a Game,” is, appropriately, much darker sounding and has subterranean bass that the Asus > EMM Labs > Accuphase > Purifi Audio > Paradigm playback chain reminded me of every time the low frequencies thundered into my room. We’re talking deep, powerful bass through this setup. But while the bass was heavy, Del Rey’s vocal remained clean and the intricate details within the recording were always obvious.

Yet the recording I played most often through this system was Bruce Cockburn’s Crowing Ignites (16/44.1 FLAC, True North). Released in 2019, Crowing Ignites is an all-acoustic, vocal-less album focused mostly on Cockburn’s guitar. I wanted to mention playing this album because when some audiophiles hear that a component sounds neutral and utterly clean, they’ll assume it sounds sterile and cold—even lifeless. But that wasn’t the case with the C-2850 in this setup. The rich, robust, and detailed sound of the recording simply passed through the C-2850 preamp and Eigentakt amp uncolored and was reproduced by the speakers in a rich, robust, and detailed way. This is what high fidelity is supposed to be about—faithfulness to the source material. The only way you’ll hear a sterile, cold, lifeless sound through the C-2850 is if the recording sounds that way or some other component in the playback chain is coloring the signal.

Accuphase

This was also an album I used to test the headphone output. For this, I used my Sennheiser HD 560 headphones with the Phones dial on Mid. The only thing I was a little surprised with was that inserting a connector into the headphone jack didn’t mute the other outputs, as I thought it would—as I listened to Crowing Ignites’s first track, “Bardo Rush,” through the headphones, sound was coming out my speakers as well, because the amp was on. But I didn’t have to turn my power amplifier off to stop sound coming from the speakers; instead, I set the Output dial to Off, which turns off the preamp outputs but leaves the headphone output working.

With that figured out, the only thing I could criticize was where the connector is on the front panel—it’s positioned such that if someone misses the hole with the headphone connector, they’re going to leave a scratch on that beautiful front panel. And you just know that’s bound to happen at some point. And when it does, whoever did it will likely say, “Oh, shit!” So be careful. That aside, “Bardo Rush” sounded wickedly detailed and Cockburn’s guitar was reproduced with the robustness it should have. But I also took this opportunity to use the Compensator dial, which I never found a use for with speakers since I never do any super-quiet, late-night listening. But with headphones, I found that it can be used to tune the bass quite effectively. With the Compensator in the 1 position, still playing “Bardo Rush,” there was so little bass boost that it was at first hard to notice—I had to switch back and forth between Off and 1 quickly before it became really evident. Position 2 added just a little more bass, which I really liked—Cockburn’s guitar got a little more robust, yet the midband and highs were just as clear. The 3 position added too much bass, at least on this track, which made the midrange less clear and the highs too recessed.

I also played the high-resolution remaster of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (24/192 FLAC, Columbia), which sounds infinitely better than I think anyone thought this album could possibly sound, given the album’s history—it was recorded in his home onto a four-track Tascam PortaStudio cassette recorder. The recording’s inherent warts are still there, but the remastering gave its sound some robustness that all previous releases I’ve heard have lacked. Plus, you can now hear details you never knew were there to begin with. For example, when I listened to “Johnny 99” through the Paradigm 100Fs and also through the HD 560s at a pretty high volume level, I got a sense of the acoustic space of the room that Springsteen was singing it in that I couldn’t hear before. But the remastered Nebraska still doesn’t have that much deep bass, so when listening through headphones, the Compensator 3 setting didn’t obscure the midrange too much this time. It was position 2 that still sounded the best to me, while 1 didn’t sound like it was doing anything at all. But even with Compensator turned to Off, the sound out of the jack was difficult to criticize—it was clean and detailed, just like the preamp produced when I listened through speakers.

Conclusion

The Accuphase C-2850 was more fun than I ever thought a preamp could be to review. That’s because when you combine its excellent sound with its rich feature set and stunning appearance, you wind up with a product that’s beautiful to listen to, a pleasure to use, and a joy to look at. The C-2850 embodies the best of what a high-end hi-fi component is about—quality in every respect.

But price does come into play with any hi-fi component no matter how it looks, feels, and sounds, so it’s here that there’s a conundrum with the C-2850—the price discrepancy between the retail prices in Canada and the United States is too large for us at the SoundStage! Network to ignore since we primarily operate out of both countries.

Accuphase

While I can’t say that the C-2850 is overpriced at $34,500 USD because it is a great preamplifier, it’s $6500 more expensive than the Karan Acoustics Master Collection LINEb and $9500 more than the EMM Labs Pre, which are two of the best preamps I’ve used to get great sound quality. And while the C-2850 has far more features than those two and, in my opinion, nicer styling, it more or less meets them but does not beat them on sound, so I could see it being a difficult choice for those audiophiles who shop mostly for sound quality. But, for the price in Canada (which, as mentioned, converts to around $20,500 USD), the C-2850 is cheaper than both those two preamps, has more features, is nicer to look at, and provides sound quality that compares favorably. In fact, for what it sells for in Canada, the C-2850 is something of a steal among high-end preamps.

. . . Doug Schneider
das@soundstagenetwork.com

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

Associated Equipment

Accuphase C-2850 Preamplifier
Price: $24,999 CDN/$34,500 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Accuphase Laboratory, Inc.
2-14-10 Shin-ishikawa, Aoba-ku
Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture, 225-8508
Japan

Website: www.accuphase.com

Canadian distributor:
Motet Distribution
2391 Guenette Street
Saint-Laurent, QC H4R 2E9
Phone: (514) 335-3131

Website: www.motetdistribution.com

US distributor:
Axiss Audio
17800 South Main Street, Suite 109
Gardena, CA 90248
Phone: (310) 329-0187

Website: www.axissaudio.com