Audible Illusions Modulus 3A preamplifier Follow-Up part 2
On Palace Music's Viva Last Blues (Palace/Drag City Records PR4/DC65), a minimally miked recording of a unique folk/rock band by the great Steve Albini, the PH-3 rendered individual instruments—acoustic and electric—lead singer Will Oldham's whiny voice, and the room in which the band was playing, with Viewlex-like three-dimensionality and authority. You want to hear cymbals crash as they do live? A snare crack as it would in real life? You want to hear an Appalachian springboard to some very strange, but intoxicating and emotionally pure mountain music? Check this record out.
I pulled out an original pressing of The Mothers Of Invention's Burnt Weenie Sandwich (Reprise/Bizarre RS 6370), which I hadn't played in many years. Through either phono section, I was astounded by how much better the recording sounded than I'd remembered it. It was three-dimensional through either one, but with the PH-3, each voice, each finger pop in "White Port and Lemon Juice," was layered front-to-back in space with greater authority and three dimensionality, to the point where the picture jumped out holographically, Q-Sound fashion.
I want to emphasize that the job at hand is for me to put a microscope up to these products and almost exaggerate distinctions in order to make them clear. The differences between the PH-3 and the Modulus 3A, while consistent without regard to associated cabling and such, are of the same order of magnitude as changes in cabling or changes in tubes. For instance, I could get creamier, lusher midrange from the Audible with a changeover to vintage tubes, albeit with the addition of some noise and a loss of bass extension and dynamics. I chose to conduct this review using the stock Sovtek 6922s supplied with both units.
The audible aside
Differences aside, the two phono sections share many attractive attributes: sufficient gain for very low-output MC cartridges (the Audible has somewhat higher gain); a big, expansive, airy soundstage; superb image focus (with the Audible, above the low bass); the ability to present instruments with convincing harmonic envelopes; a complete lack of grain and etch; very deep bass; outstanding high-frequency extension and transient response; fine dynamic contrasts at both high and low levels; and an overall ease and sense of musical purity that allows you to forget about the electronics and just hear the music. Both offer a rich yet subtle sonic palette—the kind most analog lovers crave. And both are subjectively dead quiet at very high levels of gain. No tube rush or noise.
So I'm not going to tell you how strings sound, or bassoons or horns or reeds—both of these units get them fundamentally correct, and neither sounds etched or bright or hard or grainy or soft or mushy or dull or thin or pinched. That's why the Audible is a Class A component, and that's why the PH-3 should and probably will be.
That said, the Audio Research PH-3 offers a more disciplined and coherent overall presentation. Where the Audible is content to "let go" of low-level bass details, the PH-3 holds on till the bitter end. The resulting low-level focus adds to the sense of overall musical realism and to the portrayal of three-dimensional, credible images way out to the farthest reaches of the back of the soundstage. More important, it gives the PH-3 a sense of schving that'll get you movin' and groovin' big-time. If you're a rhythm and pace kind of listener, the PH-3 is one phono section you ought to hear.
I realize that with each accolade I throw at the PH-3 I will infuriate some of you—given how I raved in February about the Audible 3A's phono section. Well, you know, that's the way it goes. I own my 3A and it's a fabulous preamp—cost aside. If I leave the PH-3 out of the system for a while—something I did many times—the 3A's outstanding performance leaves me very satisfied. It is everything I said it was in my review. And if you need that last bit of resolution and detail on top, you might prefer the 3A's phono section, despite its weaker bass control.—Michael Fremer