Aesthetix Rhea phono preamplifier Michael Fremer, June 2005
The Aesthetix Rhea tubed phono stage ($4000, reviewed by Paul Bolin in the September 2003 Stereophile), which I have in-house in association with a forthcoming review of the companion Aesthetix Calypso preamp, offers three independent inputs, remote-controlled loading and gain on the fly, and automatic MC demagnetization. The Musical Fidelity kW phono preamp ($3500) can't begin to compete with the Rhea's versatility and ease of use, nor does its midrange offer the Rhea's lushness and soft finish. The Rhea can't begin to match the kW's bass extension and grip, or (especially) its taut control and seemingly infinite dynamic contrasts. While the Rhea is exceptionally quiet for a tube preamp, especially one that offers so much gain without a step-up transformer or transistor in the signal path, the kW's black hole of background darkness yielded unsurpassed degrees of detail of low-level dynamics and resolution.
But the Rhea's sound is far more cozy, rich, and silky. While, like CD sound, the kW may be more technically accurate, it will leave many listeners—especially some classical music lovers—a bit chilled. Its transient delivery could sometimes edge toward harshness, and its harmonic development seemed to stop at the water's edge compared to a tubed design.
I've just been sent two new, superbly recorded direct-to-disc LPs from Analogue Productions Originals. I've played one, bluesman Leroy Jodie Pierson's D2D (no catalog number), through the Musical Fidelity kW, the Aesthetix Rhea (run at 47k ohms to make the comparison fair), and the revised Ayre P-5x ($2395) phono sections. While both the tubed Rhea and the FET-based Ayre put the closely miked bluesman in a barely discernible space (Blue Heaven Studios), the kW seemed less concerned with the space and more interested in the main event. Although one's tubed and one's solid-state, both the Rhea and the P-5x had creamier midbands than the kW. But neither could match the kW's bottom-octave and dynamic presentation—it wasn't even close.
The superbly designed and built Aesthetix Rhea—with its three independent inputs, remote-controlled loading and gain, auto demagnetization, and quiet, silky smooth, ultrarich sound—represents one of the best values in phono preamps now available. It, too, is a pick for Class A, though its personality is very different from the kW's.—Michael Fremer