I couldn't listen to it in my own system because I don't have a turntable but did the comparisons in what you could call reference system 2, a friend's system that I am intimitely familiar with. You can check out the details of this system here. This system has had some update since the photos were taken and one marks the main reason for me wanting to hear the Cadence in this system: the Benz Lukaschek phonostage.
About the Cadence
World's best? I don't know, as I haven't heard that many phono preamps yet. But if reviewers the world 'round are anything to go by, this is one of the best. Since I love Jeff Rowland gear and judging from the buildquality and techniques behind it, I am not doubting the statement.
In conventional phono preamplifiers, damping is provided by load resistors. As a result, a significant amount of signal energy is wasted within the loading resistors. Conversely, the Cadence input transformer effectively damps resonant energy while transferring the maximum amount of useful lower frequency energy to the active input stage. Because traditional step-up transformers fall short in many areas, The Cadence makes use of an input transformer, codesigned in conjunction with an innovative low noise input stage which overcomes all of the problems associated with step-up-only designs. Following the transformer, a split active/passive RIAA equalizer is used. The Cadence has adjustments to make it compatible with virtually any low to medium output MC cartridge.
Very interesting indeed, but how does it sound?
In short: excactly like the Rowland Synergy preamp. Same sound signature, same character. But not many people have heard a Rowland preamp so I'll explain. What the synergy and Cadence both do best is to sound utterly natural. It's not like they are without character because of that they have plenty but it's somehow easier to describe what they don't do. There is absolutely no artificiality, no hardness, no shouting, no coloration, no noise. Yet they're absolutely not bland sounding. There's an anormous soundstage with super-layering, so many small details have their own place in the soundfield and no matter how complex the passage, it is always clear. But never analytical of clinical. Microdynamics remain a Rowland strong suit. There's just this complete absence of any electronic signature. Maybe you could compare it best to a very good tube preamp except that the Synergy and Cadence are much more quiet.
Describing the Cadence by comparing it to the Benz Lukaschek
This is one very rare phonostage. Only a few hundred have been made and this is the first time that I've come across one. This Cadence isn't mine but a friend recently bought it. In fact, he was so intrigued that he bought it even before he has a turntable. This is why I had all the time to listen to it on my own terms.
Left: on top is the Cadence, combining splendidly with the Synergy preamp.
Top: inside the Cadence. Minimalistic as usual, but it's the design that counts.
To make more clear how the Cadence really sounds, we compared it to the Benz Lukaschek phono preamp. The latter is a very small but beautifully crafted piece of highly polished metal from Zwitzerland. Although it is marketed as the perfect match for certain Benz Cartridges, it is in fact pretty universally usable. The Lukashek only costs about 1300 euro but I can tell you right off that from the moment we heard it in this system some years ago, we immediately knew: this is close to Rowland sound. The Lukashek shares many traits with the traditional Rowland sound. For example, it is rich sounding, it is spacious, well detailed but not aggressive and very fluid.
Now that we had the Cadence available we could test whether our preconceptions were correct and it turned out that we weren't far off. When I first heard the Cadence I still found the basic sound character of this setup largely intact. But not quite. The highs seemed even more refined and airy and did the mids always have this incredible supernatural quality? When switching to the Lukaschek it is not as if the world collapses. Not at all. We were amazed at how close this unassuming device comes. But then you start to notice the differences. The more records you play, the more it becomes painfully obvious that the Lukaschek has to go. This was especially sad because this particular Cadence belongs to another friend and rarely do you see one on the second hand market. And it is no longer made.
The differences between Lukaschek and Cadence
For starters, while we thought the Lukaschek was utterly fluid, at least, compared to all other phono preamps I had heard, including the Rowland Consonance phono stage, you hear quite quickly that the Cadence is simply more natural. It is more airy and more open and fluid in the highs. In comparison the Lukashek is lower-resolution and more grainy. Furthermore, the mids with the Lukaschek have always been a touch too lively, too forward. It is an enthusiastic little preamp but much like the Bryston sound, we quickly tired of this never ending party-behaviour. Maybe this is because of its fixed high input impedance of 22kohms versus the Cadence's 400 ohms. The Cadence is much more easy going but can absolutely throw a party as well but only when the music requires it. Not all the time with all music. The dynamic swing is simply larger: it is easy going and can be very quiet when it needs to be but it can also leap at you in huge dynamic bursts.
Not only is the Cadence simply brilliant in low level detailing, it also has this ability to make records sound less distorted. Even records that have some inherent distortion in the grooves become cleaner, mor4e listenable. But the Cadence is no pretty-maker. Bad records still sound bad. It's just that there is so little added distortion that you can live with them more easily.
Lastly, the bass. This is the one area in which I feel that the Lukaschek is a little better. Like the Synergy, the Cadence is a little restrained in the bass. It has deep bass and it sounds very natural but it is just that tiny bit short on weight. This is not likely to be a problem in most systems though. It is just very noticeable in this system because the Apogee speakers have such tiny woofers.
For starters, it has no power supply. It normally runs on a secondary outlet on the powersupply of a Rowland Coherence or Synergy. There was an optional powersupply but it too is very rare.
Second, it has only balanced inputs and outputs. Cartridges are balanced by nature but you need the right cables to actually use them this way. Because of this, some cartridges are easy to connect balanced, some need to be modified and others can only be be used in single ended mode. This is also how we used the Cadence. We used Cardas cinch to XLR adapters (supplied with the Cadence) but you could also just solder new XLR connectors to your turntable leads. Even with these extra contact transitions, and not even running balanced, the Cadence amazed us. Imagine how it may sound when driven balanced!
If I had the Cadence during my short flirtation with analog, I think that I might have kept my turntable. It is that good. My Mitchell Gyro with Tecnoarm (modified Rega) wasn't particularly good in the treble and most of the second hand lp's I had bought were worn out. In the end my DCS digital components turned out to be more open and airy. But this was with the Lukashek as a phono preamp! I feel that Rowland preamps and amps possess some kind of magic. A quality that makes them more majestic than most other amps. With the Cadence, this is no different.
One thing to keep in mind: the Cadence is absolutely not sterile, clinical or gray but it is so very free from artifice that in systems that are already polite, it may sound too tidy. Some systems actually need some added grunt or zing to sound lively. The Cadence will simply never sound aggressive. And if partnered with a lightweight sounding turntable, like the Thorens we used, the bass can lack some weight. But I know that the Apogee speakers used are thin in the bass and my Mitchell Gyro did sound much more meaty so this shouldn't be a problem.
UPDATE 22 Jan 2010
Now that the Cadence has been in the test system for more than 2 weeks, a series of fine-adjustments have been made to the turntable, well, to the tonearm and cartridge to be more exact. We've played with all possible settings and it turned out that settings that were too much for the Lukaschek actually work better with the Cadence. For example, we had compensated for Lukanscheks tendency to sound overly loud and forward by loosening the bearing pressure. This resulted in a more relaxed presentation at the cost of some tightness in the bass. But since the Lukaschek was already tight enough, this was no problem. Now that the Cadence was installed, sometimes we felt that we missed some attack. Well I can announce that those reservations are completely gone! There is no lack of dynamics, power or liveliness at all. Moreover, the Cadence now sounds more dynamic than the Lukaschek. That is, the difference between soft and loud is greater. This can be heard but also be seen on a RMS/Peak level meter.
To resume, the Cadence does indeed share the Synergy's character but has none of the weight problems that I described earlier. The bass is deep and nimble and never dry. It strikes a perfect balance between nimbleness and body. Granted, there are phono preamps with fuller bass, but invariably (thus far) at a cost. For me, the Cadence simply is the absolute best phono preamp yet.