Audible Illusions Modulus 3A preamplifier Follow-Up, September 1996
MF compares the Audio Research PH3 and Audible Illusions Modulus 3A
When you audition a component for the first time, usually what you hear are the gross differences between it and your reference. You may hear new things in favorite recordings, but such changes are meaningless. It's like cranking up the treble, hearing previously buried information, and calling it an improvement. Over time, however, I was able to develop a predictable "difference profile" between the two phono sections, which I would apply to familiar recordings before play. Once my predictions starting coming true on a regular basis, I figured I had the sound of the Audio Research PH-3 versus the Audible wrapped up.
It took about three minutes to connect the PH-3 to my system: I began with XLO Signature phono interconnects into the Audio Research inputs and a pair of XLO Signature interconnects back to a high-level input on the Audible Illusion Modulus 3A. It was easy enough to route the arm interconnects from the PH-3 to the Audible to compare phono sections. I did that with every record I used during my more intensive listening sessions. I plugged the PH-3 into a Power Wedge 116 line conditioner. Once all connections were made, I put three DJ Kasser Black Diamond Racing cones underneath. A flip of the "on/off" switch and warm-up commenced. I waited about an hour before my first audition, and about a week before I did any serious evaluations, but I fell for the sound of the PH-3 big-time the minute I heard it, right out of the box.
About halfway through the reviewing process, however, I realized I'd made one mistake in methodology: I was using the smooth-sounding Black Diamond Racing cones under the review piece—actually, I hate reading about the "sound" of cones, so let's say "cones that produce a smoother system sound"—I had Combak Harmonix feet under the Audible. Can that really make a difference? Believe you me, it can. Don't believe me until you try it yourself. (And believe this: No matter how much you've invested in your system, cables can spell the difference between satisfaction and boredom. I don't care what causes it, I'll leave that question to others. Having wired up my system with a wide variety of excellent cable, all of which yielded different results, I know.)
With Black Diamond Racing cones (#3 model) under both pieces, I started over, and while the basic differences remained, the gap was narrowed somewhat—not that it was profound to begin with. I'll put it to you this way: some of the sonic contrasts between the Audible's built-in phono section and the Audio Research PH-3 were of the kind you can induce or offset by changing interconnects and/or physical damping, though a few differences—particularly at the bottom end—were significant.
Two immediately identifiable positive characteristics of the PH-3 were its luxurious, liquid midrange bloom and its ironfisted bass control. The Audible, by comparison, sounded slightly recessed in the midrange and not nearly as taut and controlled at the very bottom.
The PH-3's swoon-inducing bloom put voices and solo instruments farther out front on the soundstage. On Joan Baez In Concert (Vanguard VSD-2122, black-label "Stereolab"), the sense of Baez's physical presence center stage was more immediate, more focused, and more forward spatially. The space between Baez's voice and the reverberant field behind it was much more clearly delineated with the PH-3. The bloom also brought the front boundary of the "air" on the soundstage of good recordings—particularly live ones—way out in the room, which gave the overall sound an exciting vibrancy and energy.
The bloom and increased midrange energy consistently put more "flesh on the bone" of instruments and voices. In "All Roads To The River," on Analog Productions' superb Breaking Silence LP (APP 027), there was more creamy throat and body to Janis Ian's voice and a better overall balance to the components which make up the human voice. And the percussion instruments yielded more skin sound.
On a test pressing of Analog Productions' superb new The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album (AAPR 3004), which some of you may have on the Mobile Fidelity reissue (MFSL 1-117), Bennett's voice appeared eerily focused out front and center through the PH-3, while it sounded somewhat farther back and ever so slightly more diffuse through the Audible's phono section. Also the timbral, palpable whole of Bennett's voice and head, which the PH-3 rendered with an almost alarming completeness, seemed to separate into individual components through the Audible, with a slight edge to sibilants and bit of a recess in the throat area, which detracted somewhat from the illusion of an actual person standing there.
On recordings which featured string bass doubled by kick drum, the PH-3 better delineated the two, presenting the sound of the drum skin being hit and of the bass string being plucked as two distinct events, both physically and timbrally. Through the Audible, the two frequently blended together.
The PH-3's better bass control offered improvements in soundstage focus as well—especially towards the back of the stage where the Audible tended to darken and blur events while the PH-3 lit them up and laid them bare. The physical outlines of tympani and double bass on symphonic recordings, their textures and transients, were more clearly revealed through the PH-3—and without any added edge or etch, a major achievement.