Liberty Audio B2B-1 phono preamplifier
The all-FET, class-A, B2B-1 phono preamplifier ($1749), made in the US by Liberty Audio, is beautifully built inside and out, and comes in a heavy-duty aluminum chassis with a baked-on crackle finish and a 3/8"-thick, black-anodized faceplate. The overall build quality and physical appearance suggest something that costs more than $3000, which is probably what it would cost were it sold through retailers and not factory direct. It comes with a two-week return policy.
The RCA input and output jacks are chassis-mounted, as you'd expect to find in products costing far more. There are also single input and output XLR jacks, because the B2B-1 can also be used as a fully differential mono phono preamplifier (though time and circumstances prevented me from auditioning it in that configuration).
Jumpers under a hatch in the top plate offer five choices of resistive loading (100, 221, 332, 499, and 47k ohms) and the inclusion of a 220pF silver-mica capacitor for the MM input. Another jumper sets the first of two cascaded amplifiers to either 20 or 40dB of gain. The second amplification stage provides an additional 24dB of gain as well as the RIAA bass boost, while an RC network between the two amps implements the RIAA curve's 75µs rolloff.
Among the LPs used for this review were: a double 45rpm reissue of Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Swings Lightly (Verve/ORG MG-VS 6019); AC/DC's Back in Black, remastered by George Marino and issued in a boxed set (Epic); and a stupendous 45rpm set of Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat, with Ernest Ansermet and L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Decca/London/ORG 102). The Falla has everything: depth on a huge soundstage, three-dimensionality, and timbral richness. It opens with a stage full of castanets, shouting male voices, then a solo mezzo-soprano (Teresa Berganza) way in the distance, and strings, winds and brass.
In MM mode, the Audio B2B-1 delivered as advertised: It was extremely quiet, fast, and ultradynamic. It produced the "blackest" backdrops of any phono preamp surveyed here, from which sprang the widest dynamics.
If you listen mostly to rock, the Liberty is your ticket to paradise without spending crazy money. It's a mini Boulder 1008, I found myself thinking-a big compliment, considering the Boulder costs $12,000! AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" (which is about sex, though car nut and lead singer Brian Johnson recently insisted, on The Howard Stern Show, that it's really about an automobile) showed that the Liberty had deep, ultratight, rockin' bass, clean high-frequency transients, and fast top-to-bottom attack. It carved out instruments in 3D space with surgical precision.
However, if your tastes run more to Ella Fitzgerald and acoustic jazz in general, and depending on the rest of your system, you might find the B2B-1's sound a bit too surgical, and not quite liquid or "fleshy" enough. In that case I'd go for one of the Kinkajous-um, Lejonklous-but I don't see how you can go wrong with the Liberty, especially as it comes with a two-week home trial. If you don't like it, send it back.
Switching to MC Mode
With a Lyra Helikon SL cartridge mounted on the tonearm of VPI's Classic 3 turntable, my first job was to listen through a known, reasonably priced phono preamp. I used Einstein Audio's Turntable's Choice ($5400). This combo produced finer detail and image resolution, and a noticeably wider and deeper soundstage, than did the Shure through any of the MM phono stages surveyed. The Lyra-VPI-Einstein's transparency, too, was far superior, but most noticeably better were the combo's textural and timbral delineation. For the most part, you pay more, you get more.
That said, and without a minute's warm-up, the Liberty Audio B2B-1 ($1749) was clearly superior to and more authoritative than the PTE ($1595). Fitzgerald's voice was more focused, compact, and just plain believable, with cleaner sibilants and less electronica. Backgrounds were blacker, and images were projected out of that black in the way you'd expect from more expensive phono preamps. The horns sounded more natural, and the drum kit behind Fitzgerald had greater transparency and clarity, particularly the cymbals. The Liberty "slowed time" in ways that one usually expects from more expensive gear, and bass lines were deeper and tauter, improving the rhythmic drive.
Did the Liberty Audio B2B-1 sound a bit drier and darker than the PTE MMMC? Yes, but in my system this was all to the picture's overall benefit, particularly in terms of focus and surgical precision of images. If you need more midrange envelopment, you might prefer the PTE, but in my system it created more haze than bloom.
The Liberty Audio B2B-1 is a tremendous value, and if you're a rocker, you'll love it. The PTE's MC section is good, but for only a few hundred bucks more, the Liberty is better.