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Line preamplifier


Manufacturer: MUSICIAN Audio Technology
Price (when reviewed): 1169,99 USD (plus VAT)

Baiyun District, Guangzhai city
Guangdong, CHINA


Provided for test by: MUSICIAN Audio Technology


Images: Wojciech Pacuła
Translation: Marek Dyba

No 204

May 1, 2021


The Chinese company MUSICIAN Audio Technology was founded in 2020 by Mr. ZHAI. The R&D team is made up of a group of enthusiasts with over 20 years of audio experience. We are testing the second product in company’s history: the MONOCEROS line preamplifier.

S I WROTE IN THE PEGASUS DIGITAL-TO_ANALOGUE CONVERTER’S TEST, in 2020 we witnessed the birth of an ultra-audiophile company. The MUSICIAN Audio Technology was founded this year by Mr. Zhai in the Chinese city of Guangzhai, in Baiyun District, with the intention of changing the international audio market's approach to products from China. The goal was, let's repeat, to "show the world that it is on the one hand a center for technological innovation, and on the other hand a country of people who love music".

The company says that development of new products is in progress, but for the second device in its lineup, which is so fresh that at the time of writing of this test I could not find it on the manufacturer's website, is the MONOCEROS line preamplifier (Greek: Μονόκερως, 'unicorn'). Just like the DAC before, it was also developed in the company's own research and development department, consisting of - as it reads in the press materials - "a group of software, hardware and structural engineers".


Mr. ZHAI, ASKED BY ME about the most important element of the new preamplifier, without hesitation pointed to the volume control made with the use of the discrete R-2R circuit, i.e. one in which there is only one resistor in the signal’s path at any moment. These types of attenuators are expensive to manufacture and require programming experience. The costs are high due to the fact that instead of a chip or a potentiometer, bought from external suppliers, you have to solder several dozen resistors to the PCB, connect them with switching elements - here it is executed using relays - and then program the DSP, which will control the whole thing.

Despite the challenges, some companies choose this type of solution because the R2R circuit guarantees precise tracking, as in an integrated circuit, and also a short signal path, as in the best potentiometer. Discrete, analog attenuators are also characterized by lower noise. Mr. Zhai also adds a constant output impedance. A similar “yes” argument to discrete circuits is raised by the Accuphase company, although - let us add - they has a different idea for its implementation.

The Monoceros is a line preamplifier with a balanced signal path - from the input to the output, with a discrete attenuator. This is a small, solid-state device. It is a minimalist product, offering only three pairs of inputs - two balanced and one unbalanced - and two pairs of outputs (XLR and RCA). We will not find any in-build components, such as DAC, a phono preamplifier, a headphone amplifier, a Bluetooth support or a streamer. The Monoceros has only one purpose: to be an intermediary between an analog line source and a power amplifier.

In its design, apart from the aforementioned attenuator, the attention is drawn to a large, clear display consisting of red LED modules, as well as a discrete design of the output circuit (discrete, i.e. composed of separate transistors, not integrated circuits). The display shows the selected input and the volume level. Two knobs on both sides are used to switch/adjust them - one of them is also used to switch from the "standby" mode to „operation”.

In the press release, I also found information that the 60-watt transformer was wound with pure monocrystalline copper wire. The preamplifier features an aluminum chassis, it is slim and stylish. It stands on three aluminum cones: two at the front and one at the rear. In the box the amplifier comes in, I didn't find a remote control, so it looks like the Monoceros requires the user to get up from the couch or armchair more often than in the case of remotely controlled devices...

Finally, I asked Mr. Zhai where the name of the device came from, to which he replied:

All MUSICIAN products are named after a constellation, the name Monoceros is a symbol of prosperity, and the sound of this device resembles the voice of a unicorn ...



The MUSICIAN MONOCEROS line preamplifier was placed on the top shelf of the Finite Elemente Master Reference Pagode Edition rack on its own feet. The signal source was the Ayon Audio CD-35 HF Edition SACD player, via the XLR ACOUSTIC REVIVE XLR-1.5 TRIPLE-C FM interconnect. The preamplifier was powered by the Harmonix X-DC350M2R IMPROVED-VERSION cable.

Recordings used for the test | a selection

⸜ THE BASSFACE SWING TRIO, The Bassface Swing Trio plays Gershwin, Stockfisch SFR 357.8045.2, SACD/CD (2007),
⸜ GARY BURTON & MAKOTO OZONE, Face to Face, GRP/Universal Music LLC UCCU-6195, „Jazz The Best | № 192”, SHM-CD (1995/2012)
⸜ FISZ EMADE TWORZYWO, Drony, Art2 Music 26824180, CD + SP CD (2016);
⸜ PATRICIA BARBER, Companion, Premonition Records/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 2023, SACD/CD (1999/2003);
⸜ JOHNY CASH My Mother’s Hymn Book, American Recordings ‎B0002362-02 | Compact Disc (2004);
⸜ SANTANA, Abraxas, Columbia/Sony Records Int'l ‎SICP-10135, 7-inch mini LP, SACD/CD (1970/2020)


CONNECTING THE MUSICIAN PREAMPLIFIER TO A SYSTEM in which each element, including cables, costs many times more than the MUSICIAN PREAMPLIFIER itself does not change the dynamics of the latter, so to speak. I am not talking about dynamics in the classic sense, but rather about the balance between individual elements, which gives the whole something like dynamics, that is, movement. And the inclusion of the Chinese preamplifier in place of the sophisticated Ayon Audio tube preamp did not change this dynamics.

It is not the same sound to be clear. It is much closer to other tube preamplifiers, and most closely to the sound of AUDIO RESEARCH devices. Listening to the new version of the Santana’s Abraxas, a version based on DSD transfer from master tapes, I heard a perfectly legible, but also quite warm sound. It is something that stands out above all - it is about a combination of softness and velvetness with openness. The attack is rounded, which delicately calms down the presentation, but it is also incredibly clean and transparent, which in turn opens it up.

When in the second track on the album Black Magic Woman the bass guitar plays a simple figure, but one that constitutes the whole "backbone" of the first part of the piece, something like tam-tam-tam-tam-tam-taaam, with Ayon it was denser and a bit more contoured than with the tested preamplifier, and yet it was not a worse presentation, but just a bit different. Santana's vocals with the Monoceros were slightly recessed behind the line connecting the speakers.

It was similar with Fisz's voice from the Telefon track. At the time it was mixed by Emade, I was in Jacek Gawłowski's studio and I have to say that what I heard with the Musician preamplifier in my system was really close to what I remembered from that session.

As I said, the Chinese preamplifier slightly moved the vocal back, similar to the Santana’s, but the point is rather that it builds slightly smaller bodies than the reference preamplifier. The difference is not big, and in the context of the price of the device surprisingly small, but it is there. Because it's a device that is in its basic structure, if I may say so, delicate. This is why I mentioned a tube preamplifier in the classic sense earlier.

| Our albums

Face to Face

GRP/Universal Music LLC UCCU-6195
SHM-CD (1995/2012)

FACE TO FACE IS AN ALBUM RECORDED BY A DUET composed of the American jazz vibraphonist GARY BURTON (1943) and the Japanese jazz pianist MAKOTO OZONE (1961), released in 1995 by the GRP label (Grusin-Rosen Productions), founded by Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen (1978). In 1990, the founders of GRP sold Verve Records, part of MCA Corporation, and left the label in early 1995. The Face to Face album is one of the last ones recorded under their watchful eye.

Burton is a giant of the jazz world, known, among others from playing with four sticks. He recorded with "all the big fishes" of the jazz world such as: Carla Bley, Chick Corea, Stan Getz, Hank Garland, Stephane Grappelli, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, BB King, Pat Metheny, Tiger Okoshi, Astor Piazzolla . He is also a lecturer at the Berklee School of Music, where one of his students was Makoto Ozone, a child prodigy promoted by his father Minoru Ozone, a popular Tokyo TV personality and head of a popular jazz club.

The GRP is one of those companies that have a distinct "personality": it became interested in digital recording in the late 1970s and with the advent of the Sony PCM-1600 mastering systems, and then PCM-1630 it started to make recordings in a minimalist way, on two paths; it is one of the few labels that commercially offered DAT tapes with material copied from "master" tapes.

Also the Face to Face album is a fully digital one, because both editing and mastering were done in the digital domain. The recording was also digital (unfortunately it is not known what system was used for it, maybe it was a DAT tape) straight into two tracks - it was a "live" recording in a studio. The 1994 digital edition was not widespread yet, as the first digital mastering systems had only just appeared, which is why it is noteworthy for this album.

The recordings were made over two days, on October 31 and November 1, 1994 at Mad Hatter Studios under the watchful eye of BERNIE KIRSH. The digital edition was undertaken by MICHAEL LANDY at The Review Room, and the mastering by TED JENSEN at Sterling Sound. The producer of the album was Gary Burton.

It is an excellent album in terms of music and sound. It is saturated, vibrant and clear - all at once! The vibraphone has a dense impact and a great, very high decay, just like the piano in which you can also hear the left hand beautifully. The whole thing has a lot of reverberation, but the attack and clarity are not blurred. Of course, comparisons to the albums Gary Burton recorded with Chick Corea for the ECM label are unavoidable: Crystal Silence from 1972 and Duet from 1978. Older, analog recordings are more saturated, denser, but also more "coarse" - the GRP recording is more vibrant and you can hear that they did a great job!

This title was reissued in 2012 by the Japanese branch of Universal Music and released on the SHM-CD that I was listening to. It's an album that MARK SUZUKI, ACCUPHASE's chief engineer sent me; it is one of his favorite albums he uses to refines his projects. And finally a curiosity - Makoto Ozone recorded the album Haiku with ANNA MARIA JOPEK; it is available on the SHM-CD (2010).

SO WE HAVE A SLIGHTLY LOWER SET TONE, we focus more on the lower midrange, the treble is silky, and the bass is saturated, though not perfectly tight - I heard the latter with both the Santana album and the Waglewski brothers' duo disc, i.e. with bass guitar and electronics. Interestingly, it was less obvious with the material played acoustically, like from the The Bassface Swing Trio plays Gershwin.

This is a "direct-to-disc" recording, in this case to a hard drive, actually, in DSD files, without any post-recording processing. With these recordings the bass was slightly smoothed, it was not as deep as with the reference preamplifier, but it lost nothing of its "charm", and the same can be said about the sound of the cymbals and the piano. It was lively, dense sound with a low set tonal balance and with a slightly withdrawn foreground.

This is interesting, because the preamplifier we are dealing with is very resolving. It's just that we're talking about velvety, internal resolution, without any aspiration to discover layers of details. The sound of the device is therefore homogeneous rather than detailed. But it is not devoid of details - as I said, we get a really clear sound with it. But listen to John Cash's vocals from My Mother's Hymn Book and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Cash's disc was recorded directly on an ADAT 16/48 tape recorder using two AKG C414 microphones, without overdubs and without reverberations - actually at 100% (more about this technique HERE and HERE). There is an incredible honesty and credibility in its sound. The Musician preamplifier slightly modified its presentation towards greater smoothness and listening pleasure. It is quite a raw sound, dynamically smoothed, because dynamics was not the ADAT's strong point, and the Monoceros emphasized this feature. At the same time, it slightly withdrew his voice and guitar, and sweetened the sound of the metal strings.

But it did it sensitively, without forcing it. Because it is a device that has its own idea for the sound. It works great primarily with acoustic music, although it will also play very well any other type. After all, it conveyed the energy of Santana's album, and the feeling of creating music in front of our eyes with The Bassface Swing Trio, and the electronic, well-produced sound of the duo’s Fish, Emade, Tworzywo album. With each of them, it also showed something of its own, i.e. - as I say - smoothness, calmness, fullness.

The Musician Monoceros delivers a very wide frequency range, because on each of the aforementioned albums the bass was really low and the Use Me track from Patricia Barber's Companion sounded just right, it is low and strong. Also the treble was fantastic. I heard a lot of harmonics with the Hammond B-3 organ from the Barber’s album, and with Gary Burton's vibraphone from the Makato Ozone record. It is this type of sound that allows you to turn the volume knob up as much as you want without worrying about brightness and "sandiness" of the sound. So you can experience the real dynamics of any recordings with it, on a much larger scale than with many other preamplifiers, even though - a paradox - it calms and smooths it down by itself.


A great spirit in a small body - this is how you could describe the new Musician device in a few words. Monoceros is a perfectly constructed product that allows you to feel the passion of its creators, both in terms of technical aspects and its musical side. I would even say that the latter prevails, because one could probably correct the sound towards a more compact one using higher feedback or standard circuit solutions. But then the magic of this sound would be lost - I can’t find a better way to describe it.

And yes - we get a preamplifier that guarantees long, pleasant listening sessions, but without calming down or extinguishing the sound energy. The best devices do it even better, but you have to pay 10 times more for them for the improvement to be clear and unambiguous.


THE MONOCEROS BY THE CHINESE COMPANY MUSICIAN is a linear, solid-state, balanced preamplifier. It features three inputs, two of which are balanced ones; with Neutrik connectors. The IEC power socket with gold-plated contacts, purchased from the Japanese Furutech, looks even better.

The chassis is made of thick aluminum plates. The display on the front panel is made of "dot" modules made of light emitting diodes. They are large and therefore legible even from a greater distance. The whole rests on three aluminum cones with silicone pads - two feet at the front, one at the back.

The entire electronic circuit, except for the display and encoders at the front panel, is mounted on one PCB - it is a high-class PCB, let's add. Looking at it, it is easy to notice that most of it is taken up by the power supply section. It seems that it is a hybrid power supply with a switch mode power supply at the input - a Mean Well module - after which the voltage is converted back into an alternating current in a stable circuit and only then there is a classic, linear power supply. In Poland, a similar solution is used by Ferrum.

The second power supply is built around a large toroidal transformer with separate windings for the left and right channels. The voltage is rectified in discrete, fast, low-noise diodes and then stabilized in discrete stabilizers. They are followed by a bank of power grid ripple suppressing capacitors - for this purpose they used excellent capacitors from the Japanese company Elma from the Silmic II series, i.e. with silk linings; at their output there are also large Wima polypropylene capacitors, which are to improve the characteristics at high frequencies. In fact, you rarely see such nice power supplies.

The gain circuit and the attenuator are fully balanced, so there are four identical signal paths. At the input and output, you can see circuits based on SMD transistors. The attenuator is a discrete circuit with surface-soldered resistors and classic Omron relays. The same relays are located in the input and output switching section.

A classy design!


Reference system 2021

1) Loudspeakers: HARBETH M40.1 |REVIEW|
2) Line preamplifier: AYON AUDIO Spheris III Linestage |REVIEW|
3) Super Audio CD Player: AYON AUDIO CD-35 HF Edition No. 01/50 |REVIEW|
4) Stands (loudspeakers): ACOUSTIC REVIVE (custom) |ABOUT|
5) Power amplifier: SOULUTION 710
6) Loudspeaker filter: SPEC REAL-SOUND PROCESSOR RSP-AZ9EX (prototype) |REVIEW|
7) Hi-Fi rack: FINITE ELEMENTE Pagode Edition |ABOUT|


Analog interconnect SACD Player - Line preamplifier: SILTECH Triple Crown (1 m) |ABOUT|
Analog interconnect Line preamplifier - Power amplifier: ACOUSTIC REVIVE RCA-1.0 Absolute-FM (1 m) |REVIEW|
Speaker cable: SILTECH Triple Crown (2.5 m) |ABOUT|

AC Power

Power cable | Mains Power Distribution Block - SACD Player: SILTECH Triple Crown
Power (2 m) |ARTICLE|
Power cable | Mains Power Distribution Block - Line preamplifier - ACOUSTIC REVIVE
Power Reference Triple-C (2 m) |REVIEW|
Power cable | Mains Power Distribution Block - Power amplifier - ACROLINK Mexcel 7N-PC9500 |ARTICLE|
Power cable | Power Receptacle - Mains Power Distribution Block: ACROLINK Mexcel 7N-PC9500 (2 m) |ARTICLE|
Power Receptacle: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu ULTIMATE |REVIEW|
Anti-vibration platform under Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu ULTIMATE: Asura QUALITY RECOVERY SYSTEM Level 1 |REVIEW|
Power Supply Conditioner: Acoustic Revive RPC-1 |REVIEW|
Power Supply Conditioner: Acoustic Revive RAS-14 Triple-C |REVIEW|
Passive filter EMI/RFI: VERICTUM Block |REVIEW|


Speaker stands: ACOUSTIC REVIVE (custom)
Hi-Fi rack: FINITE ELEMENTE Pagode Edition |ABOUT|
Anti-vibration platforms: ACOUSTIC REVIVE RAF-48H |ARTICLE|

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Phono preamplifier: Phono cartridges: Tonearm (12"): Reed 3P |REVIEW|

Clamp: PATHE WINGS Titanium PW-Ti 770 | Limited Edition

Record mats:


Headphone amplifier: AYON AUDIO HA-3 |REVIEW|

Headphones: Headphone Cables: Forza AudioWorks NOIR HYBRID HPC