This tiny, lightweight, battery-powered jewel is loosely based on Nagra's VPS phono stage that I reviewed in October 2008 but uses bipolar transistors instead of tubes. The bottom of the company's familiar brushed-aluminum case has a grippy rubber material die-cut to spell Nagra. It's intended to keep the preamp from sliding, but stiff cables will have the BPS hanging in the air if you're not careful. The BPS costs $2399.
In an ideal world, I'd have every phono section I've reviewed in the past 16 years on hand to compare with these three and with all that arrive in the future. But because I have a life, I don't, and I wouldn't even if I could, though some readers (and one retailer) have insisted that that's the only way that I could possibly be of any use to them. Ha! And for those who are concerned that I've neglected the Manley Steelhead, not so! It's still my reference.
I first spotted Audia Flight's exquisite-looking two-box phono preamplifier ($6100) at last year's Hi-End show in Munich, and now that Musical Sounds is importing Audia Flight gear, a review of the Phono seemed a good idea. I know nothing about Audia Flight or the designer, or what Italian audiophiles think of them, but the more time I spent with the versatile, exquisitely built Phono, the more I liked everything about it.
Just as the Trappist Monks of Digital Audio are once again grabbing at the bellpulls to ring the death knell of analog, another fine piece of gear pops up dedicated exclusively to LP playback: the American Hybrid Technology Phono Stage. To one of the Analog Committed, this is good news. That the unit sounds as wonderful as it does is even better news. Anything else? Pull up a pew, Brother.
Thomas Alva Edison may have had a fully equipped laboratory, with a team of assistants slaving every day over ideas to be adopted when ripe as those of the great inventor, but the image of American ingenuity which rings true to me is of the lone tinkerer, working alone and mixing a generous dose of good ol' Yankee know-how with the sweat of his browa lot of it. These days, with the faithful PC and a hardworking CAD program at his side to do the math, the lone tinkerer seems to be thicker on the ground than ever, to judge by the humongous numbers of small companies selling high-end hi-fi components as revealed in Stereophile's readership survey (see p.5). Whether these loners will ever rise above their origins depends, among many other things, on their ideas being truly worthwhile.
I was walking through the woods one day when I happened on a large, flat rock near the base of an old ash tree. Conditioned as I am from such rambles with my daughter, whose interest in wildlife echoes that of my own childhood, I bent down and lifted one end of the rock, hoping to catch a glimpse of some exotic creature or another: perhaps a delicate ring-necked snake, or a plasticky-looking red eft. The rock came loose without too much effort and teetered on its broadest edge, but before I could let it flip to one side, I recoiled in horror: There, amid the millipedes and ant larvae, was a cluster of teeny-tiny, nasty-looking old men, writhing in such a tangle that I couldn't even count them. They were bespectacled, to a one, and mostly baldI could tell quite easily, despite the berets worn by some of themand each pair of feet was shod in a teeny-tiny pair of off-brand Birkenstock copies, with thin, shiny black socks underneath.
Not that many years ago, it seems, every sound crew in Hollywood and around the world recorded production sound using a compact, open-reel analog tape recorder made by Nagra. The first iteration of the Swiss-made machine appeared in the early 1950s. Shortly thereafter, with the addition of an inaudible recorded tone that allowed easy syncing to picture, the Nagra recorder became the industry standard, and remained so through the 1980s. To this day, Nagra's line of audio products retains the look of those early recorders.
The German company AQVOX Audio Devices has produced an innovative moving-coil/moving-magnet solid-state phono preamplifier, the Phono 2Ci, that's as intriguing for its technology and performance as it is for its relatively low price: $1400. The zero-feedback, op-ampfree circuit uses a compact switch-mode power supply that's built into the chassis and features conventional voltage gain for moving-magnet cartridges via its RCA jacks, and current gain for moving-coil cartridges through the balanced XLR inputs. Rear-panel switches select between RCA or XLR inputs and offer a convenient ground lift. Either the single-ended or the balanced outputs can be used with either input. Unfortunately, the tight spacing of the RCA input and output jacks, which are mounted on the circuit board, will somewhat limit your choice of cables: Pairs of thick-barreled plugs will have difficulty fitting.
What's this? A review of a $3000 moving-coil step-up transformer in this digital day and age? Yep. Although the market for such a product is small, the fact that the Expressive Technologies SU-1 step-up transformer enters previously uncharted state-of-the-art territory warrants these pages of editorial space. Furthermore, LP playback appears to be alive and well at the upper end of the high-end spectrum, a market segment addressed by the SU-1 (footnote 1).
The Krell KRC-2 can be regarded as a remote-controlled successor to Krell's successful KSL preamplifier of a few years back. The outboard Krell Phono Equalizer (KPE) is a separate box powered from the KRC-2. Priced at $850, it contains a printed circuit board very similar, in fact, to the $499 unit that can be fitted within the KRC. The KPE and KRC phono stages are well-designed universal units; if someone has the need for a stand-alone phono equalizer of Krell KRC standard, a separate power supply may be purchased for the KPE. It is also an advantage to be able to locate the KPE head amplifier in a hum-free zone near the LP turntable.
Is it my imagination, or has the low-power tube movement of the last 15 years gone hand in hand with a renewed interest in moving-coil step-up transformers? Trannies remain misunderstood or ignored by most of the audio press—requests for review samples continue to be met with genial shock, rather like tourism in the Budapest of the 1990s—but enthusiasm for the practice seems only to grow. That leaves me to wonder: Did the unquestioning use of active pre-preamps for so many years grow out of the same bad attitude that gave us all those awful-sounding high-power amps and low-sensitivity loudspeakers? You know the mindset: Parts are cheap. Gain is free. Do it because you can...
Simaudio's Moon LP5.3 MM/MC phono preamplifier ($1400) is silly good! It has single-ended RCA inputs and both single-ended and true balanced-differential outputs. It also offers a wide range of adjustments for gain (54, 60, and 66dB), resistive loading (10, 100, 470, 1k, and 47k ohms), and capacitive loading (0, 100, and 470pF), all accomplished via a series of internally mounted jumper banks. You can even choose RIAA or IEC equalization. Removing the top plate to get to the adjustments reveals boards filled with high-quality parts for the well-isolated power-supply and signal-handling circuits.