02 June, 2011

Group Review: 8 Phonoamps (ARC, AQVOX, PS Audio, Musical Surroundings, YS Audio, Linn, Elekit)

Group Review: 8 Phonoamps
ARC PH-1 and SP-9, AQVOX 2CI mkII, PS Audio GCPH, Musical Surroundings Phonomena II, YS Audio Solo 2, Linn Kairn, Elekit TU-875
Vinyl Talk: Phono pre-preamplifiers
Vinyl Talk: How good are outboard phonoamps?

In this age of the line preamplifier, many people actually prefer outboard phono units. For people like me though, who have held on to vinyl through the birth, middle age and old age of CD, full-function preamplifiers with built-in phono stages are still de rigeur.

It can be said many of my reference (tube) preamplifiers (Nagra PL-P, EAR 912, Verdier Control B, Shindo Monbrison, not to mention older units like ARC SP-10/11, Melos 222, Counterpoint SA-3000 nor truly classics like Marantz 7C) have built-in phono sections of exemplary quality that cannot easily be outclassed by even expensive outboard units. That said, occasionally I do play with some, and recently I tried or (re-) tested quite a few while setting up my various setups in NYC.

For the record, I prefer at least some tubes in the phono section (even with my efficient 100 db horns). I used mainly 3 turntables with my SET setup (see also sidebar) and this rambling review is in no particular order:

--Thorens TD-124/SME 3009 S2 imp/Denon DL-304
--Clearaudio Concept/Koetsu Black
--Audio Technica AT-PL120/Denon DL-102 (mono)

This one intrigued me the most. Ever since I read Fremer's review in Stereophile I have wanted one, not because of Fremer, but because of the design. Not because of its fully balanced nature, but because of its innovation. My experience with this phonoamp tuned out to be exactly in line with the very thorough report in Stereophile, as well as reviews in tnt-audio and 6moonspositive feedback and particularly from 10 AudioSalute!

The seller of my unit had balanced tonearm cables whereas I do not, and was not about to re-terminate. So I started with the RCA inputs. It performed well but not quite distinctively. So I moved onto the XLR input. Not about to buy their own adapters, I decided to use my cheap Chinese XLR to RCA adapters. I knew this would not work as is, and certainly no sound was obtained by plugging them in directly.

I opened up the adaptors and saw that pin 3 is tied to pin 1, and that is the connection you have to break (pin 1 should not be used). Some quick de-soldering action later, voila! And what great sound! One play of Kondrashin's Philips LP of Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 and I decided it is going to be a long-term relationship. If you know this symphony, you will know that the equipment's main job is to (1) portray accurately the battery of percussion; (2) to convey a certain quality of life ticking away, an enigmatic quality. You may think (1) is not so difficult, and certainly the AQVOX performed miraculously in this aspect. Certainly, I tried the same LP on various phono setups, including tubed ones, and AQVOX's performance remained unrivalled. Even more importantly, it conveyed (2), proving it is not just merely an analytical machine, but a master communicator! A winner!

Audio Research PH-1(PH1)
It is interesting to study how ARC makes phono equipment. Indeed ARC played the most important role in keeping tube preamps and tube phono equipment alive during the transistor years. All the older tubed SP series (which they in recent years revived a little) preamps have built-in phono sections (seriously speaking, they are only MM stage) of superb quality. I have owned and am quite familiar with the SP-3, 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11. In HK, until a few years ago I used the SP-11 MkII as my reference (still with me). With my sensitive horns, the lowish phono gain of the SP-11 (higher than the others) was enough even with my MC, the Denon 103. During these years, ARC made the mostly solid-state MCP series of phono pre-preamplifiers to satisfy the requirements of increasingly low output MC cartridges.

In 1989, ARC abandoned the SP series and introduced the LS series linestages. Of course, they needed to make outboard phonoamps to go with these, and the PH series was born with the introduction of the solid-state PH-1. Since I have always had ARC SP preamps around and they have superb phonostages I did not really need to try these out.

When ARC introduced the tubed (actually hybrid) PH-3 I did try it out. The sound was not quite like the phonostages of the SP series: less full bodied even after tube-rolling, a lighter sound. But its Achilles heel was a lack of dynamics. The nominal 54 db gain was a bit over-rated IMHO. I sold it after a while.

Fast forward to now. Recently I got a PH-1 (full info here) in excellent condition, and I was surprised by its performance. At 48 db, the gain was low and I could not use it with my MC's even with my horns. But partnered with step-up transformers the sound was crisp and full, dynamic and lively, in the best of the ARC tradition.

There is an interesting review of PH-1 by Stereophile-Robert Harley. There is also an interesting comparison of PH-1 vs PH-3 in Audiogon. For me, the PH-1 is a keeper, a better phonoamp than the later, popular and rave-reviewed PH-3. For one as dedicated to tubed phonostages as I, that says a lot. YMMV.

Musical Surroundings Phonomena II can be quickly dismissed. Although it has enough gain for my MC cartridges, and loaded with features, I found the sound curiously lacking in finesse. It has good bass and reasonable dynamics but, most annoyingly, strings lacked sheen. I played several Heifetz mono LPs through the Denon DL-102 mono cartridge and the violin sound was so lackluster it was not better than the AT's built-in phono!!) A switch to the ARC PH-1 immediately restored normalcy. So much for all the rave reviews; it turns out the small prints are much more important than the rest of the reviews.

PS Audio GCPH (Stereophile, What HiFi?) fared much better (see also my previous experience). You can frequently find this phonoamp discounted and so it costs just a little more than the Phonomena, but its performance is in another league. There is just more music, and it performed evenhandedly with all set-ups. MM and MC alike. Heifetz? Yes, I recognize the sound, though I still give the edge to the PH-1. For a cheap full-function phonoamp, the GCPH is well worth considering.

YS Audio Solo 2 Phono pre-preamplifier
And now for something different, but what exactly is a pre-pre? Well, if a phono preamp is like foreplay (which is after all something before amplification), a pre-pre must be what happens before, I guess perhaps seduction, or whatever it takes to get to foreplay.

The active phono pre-pre is now a rare bird and no longer fashionable. In this high-noise age, it is no wonder stressed out audiophiles demand low-noise, and for additional gain when using low to ultra-low MC's usually opt for the even older but quieter technology of Step-Up transformers. An additional powered unit and an extra set of cables certainly can be cumbersome. But I have always thought the active pre-preamplifier has a valid reason for existence, as transformers can be colored and bandwidth-limited, and I still own the wonderful Klyne SK-1 as well as the Mark Levinson JC-1DC (one day I hope to acquire a Counterpoint SA-2). For myself, and perhaps I belong to a minority, if gain, noise or tonality are not issues, I prefer the potentially greater dynamics of fully active amplification rather than having a transformer in the signal path, but as always experimentation is the key here.

YS Audio Solo 2 is that rare bird. As a matter of fact, I cannot think of another CURRENTLY produced phono pre-preamplifier!! And it is one with a twist too. It is basically a solid-state device, but with a tube regulator (solid state rectification >> solid state regulator >> 6N3 regulator >> to gain stage)! I got it in HK but took it to NYC, where I proceeded to try it out in august company. Using the Chinese stock tube it proved immediately a winner. I set all my MC/MM full function preamps to MM and connected the Solo 2 with Kimber KCAG. As expected, it immediately proved its superiority over the JFET section of the Elekit TU-875. More importantly, it was not shamed by the step-up transformers inside the Verdier Control B as well as the EAR 912. Noise is acceptable for use with my Tannoy Canterbury HE, Gain is very good and sounds like more than its spec of 20 db. In NYC, it proved quiet enough to use with my 100 db YL horns. I also tube rolled a bit. The WE 396a proved superior, though a little noisier than the stock 6N3. Unfortunately, my Bendix 2C51 on hand proved too noisy in this circuit. But it is amazing the tube regulator has such effect on sound.

Why not get a free line preamp with your phonoamp?
Outboard phonoamps come in all sizes and prices, but I can tell you one thing: it will take quite an expensive phonoamp to outperform the phono section of (usually older) full-function preamp. And so it makes sense to buy an older full function preamp and just use its phono section via the tape loop. In such case, you would not want a bulky or hot tubed unit, but there are ample choices.

An example is Linn Kairn with Brilliant power supply. Used in MC mode, it has high gain, is quiet enough, and tolerant of loading (works equally well with my Denon DL-304, Koetsu Black and Ortofon MC-5000). Some say it is as good as the Linn Linto. I don't think so, but the performance is certainly very good. For the same price as an outboard phonoamp, you get a full preamp and remote facilities (the preamp ain't bad, but I am a tube man)!

Of course, it would be even better to go tube. Here, you'd want a unit that is not too bulky or hot. I highly recommend the hybrid ARC SP-9's phono section, which offers 46 db of gain. The vinyl replay is pristine, quiet and nuanced, and if I am forced I'd think perhaps even better than the PH-1 . The whole preamp uses only 2 tubes and is only warm to touch. I bet its line section will outperform almost all solid-state preamps in overall strength. Considering its price is only a little more than the PH-1, I think the SP-9 is as good a place to start with tube phono as any. As a matter of fact, the SP-9 is really hard to beat in overall performance, even with much more expensive equipment. It serves as a benchmark for me (see here).

If you're willing to build it yourself, the Elekit TU-875 full-function preamp is a no-brainer. Its MM stage is fully tube, liquid and airy, the MC is more than useable and quiet (though as noted not as good as the YS Audio Solo 2). It is small and simply wonderful as a phono unit, and you get an excellent line section. More on this preamp later.

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