I've been in love with British sports cars ever since a visiting highway engineer brought a green MGB-GT to my tiny Nebraska town 30 years ago. Since then, there's been a steady stream of ferocious little cars in my life. Triumphs, MGs, Healeys, you name it—right up to my current crop, a Triumph TR6 and roughly two-and-a-half Jensen-Healeys.
"Everybody's gotta get into the act!" Jimmy Durante used to say. That's what's happening with phono preamplifiers—they just keep being built, and I keep getting them for review. Up for evaluation in next month's column are new models from Perreaux, Musical Fidelity, Graham Slee, and a Chinese one, Ming Da. You can bet there'll be more.
The original plan, back in mid-2004, was to audition an entire Ensemble system and then review the individual components over the next two years. Most audio companies produce lines of matching products, but Ensemble takes it a bit further, with a modular approach and extensive commonality of everything from chassis to circuit boards. They firmly believe that everything affects sonic performance, and their approach helps ensure a consistent sound throughout their line.
PS Audio's first product, back in 1973, was a standalone phono stage; more recently, their PCA-2 preamp had an optional phono board. The GCC-100 integrated amplifier that I review this month has no room inside for a phono board, so they've gone back to producing a separate phono stage: the GCPH ($995). Like the other products in PS Audio's current line, this one is based on the Gain Cell, one module on the input side connecting to the cartridge, followed by a passive RIAA curve (with a claimed accuracy of 0.1dB over the 40dB range of the curve), and another Gain Cell on the output side.
Like the $29,000 Boulder 2008 phono preamplifier, the new Whest PhonoStage.20 with its MsU.20 power supply costs as much as a car. Fortunately for you, that car happens to be my first new Saab, which cost exactly $2737 back in 1972. The solid-state Whest costs $2595, so it's a few hundred dollars cheaper. But at only a tenth the cost, it comes closer to the Boulder 2008's performance than it has any right to. That it's good enough to be mentioned in the same paragraph should tell you something about how good I think it is. Nor did it come to me hyped by the manufacturer—it took me by surprise from the minute I first heard it. I began my listening right away, before reading anything about the circuit design.
If compact discs are so damned dynamic and vinyl is so dynamically limited, why do they sound just the opposite? Why do LPs sound so "live," so explosive, so "there," and CDs so dead? Even the best CDs usually sink to second-rate when you switch to their vinyl versions. I've heard it, you've heard it. Only those in deep denial, those who refuse to listen, don't. They'd rather read the published specs and consider the actual listening some kind of mass delusion among Luddite LP fans.
No, folks, vinyl is not dead. And even though my colleague Mikey Fremer is beginning to sound like a broken record, the little guy is right: when it comes to the sound on offer, CD still doesn't come close. There are more turntables, phono cartridges, and tonearms on the market today than ever before. Moreover, with companies like Classic Records, Analogue Productions, and Mosaic offering a steady stream of ultra-high-quality reissues, there seems to be an increasing supply of quality vinyl at reasonable prices.
The $3000 moving-coil (MC) PhD, available from Chad Kassem's Acoustic Sounds operation, is a monumental achievement that, for me, sets new standards for the cleanness and transparency possible in a phono preamp—and I've had a lot of experience with phono preamps.
Audio Research's long-promised "final statement" phono preamplifier has finally arrived, and its price is $3500 less than the originally rumored $10,000. That's a pleasant deviation from the audiophile norm, but at $6495, the Reference phono still boasts a steep ticket. That's more than twice the price of the $2495 PH3 SE, AR's previous best—a class sonic act itself.
When we last heard from Englishman Tim de Paravicini, whose EAR 890 amp I reviewed in Stereophile's April 2004 issue, the veteran audio designer suggested that he could make a transistor amplifier equal in performance to any of his successful tube designs. Whatever else it may be, the new EAR 324 is my first chance to test that claim: a stereo phono preamplifier without a single tube in sight. It isn't TdP's first all-solid-state product: That would be the line-plus-phono EAR 312 preamplifier, introduced to no small fanfare a little over three years ago. For all intents and purposes, the 324 is a standalone version of the phono section of that $18,000 flagship: The designs are virtually identical—excepting, of course, their casework and power supplies.
The Jeff Rowland Design Group has long been renowned for the exquisite quality of its chassis. The company was one of the first to promote fully balanced topologies in preamplifiers and amplifiers in the high-end market, one of the first to offer a sonically acceptable remote control, and one of the few to offer a battery power option for their amplifier line.
I don't know Gram Slee from Gram Parsons, or which House he was in at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School, but let me tell you: If you'd just been listening to a bunch of budget phono preamps, as I had, then came upon the GSP Audio Era Gold Mk.V, you'd think someone had switched out not just the phono preamp but your entire system. You might think you were listening to a different pressing or a different cartridge. How can this be?
Trickle-down technology is a grand thing. It's comparatively easy to build an exceptional audio component when there are no constraints on technology, cost, user-friendliness, or lack thereof, but top designers are now packing more and more of the excellence of damn-the-torpedoes components into more affordable and accessible packages. Which brings us to the Aesthetix Rhea, a tubed phono preamplifier of exceptionally distinguished lineage.
Modern hi-fi is little more than a way of getting electricity to pretend that it's music. Of course, good source components remain all-important, and even if loudspeakers are imperfect, most of us can find one or two that suit our tastes, if not our rooms and the rest of our gear.