Listening #162: Tavish Adagio phono preamplifier
Tavish Design (Amawalk, NY) is one of the newer names on that lofty list (footnote 1). Founded by engineer Scott Reynolds, Tavish offers three phono preamplifier models and a 140Wpc integrated amplifier. Tavish is also notable for offering their two entry-level phono preamps as kits, available with or without caseand, for the adventuresome, with or without parts. (On Tavish's e-commerce site, one can spend as little as $65: the price of a partless printed-circuit board.)
Tavish's two least-expensive phono stages combine vacuum tubes and JFETs; their integrated amplifier, the Minotaur, is also a hybrid (geddit?). But only tubes are used in the audio circuitry of their top-of-the-line phono preamplifier, the Adagio ($1490), which is equipped with separate input jacks for moving-magnet (MM) and moving-coil (MC) cartridges.
For the Adagio's MM inputs, a pair of ECC83/12AX7 dual-triodes (footnote 2) comprise the first gain stage, with a third ECC83/12AX7 acting as a buffer, followed by a passive shelving filter for the first stage of de-emphasis. From there, two EF806 miniature pentode tubes comprise the second gain stage, around which a single ECC82/12AU7 dual-triode produces the second stage of equalization. According to Scott Reynolds, an active stage of equalization helps ensure high overload margins, thus taking full advantage of the tubes' potential: "If you use passive equalization everywhere, you're throwing away some of that potential."
While the Adagio uses only RCA jacks as MM inputs, each of its channels has two MC inputs: one RCA and one XLR, wired together in parallel. The positive signal goes to XLR pin 2, the negative signal to pin 3, and pin 1 is connected to ground. (The negative contact of the MC RCA jack is not grounded.) From the XLR jack, the input signal goes to the balanced primary coil of a Jensen JT-44K-DX step-up transformer, which adds 20dB to the MM gain stage: the Adagio provides 44dB of MM gain and 64dB of MC gain.
In addition to On/Standby and Mute toggle switches, the Adagio's front panel has three other controls. A six-position rotary switch on the left, which affects only the MM inputs, allows the user to choose among six capacitive loads, ranging from 20pF (labeled Min) to 350pF; a similar switch on the right affects only the MC inputs and offers six resistive loads, from 100 to 500 ohms (labeled Max); a third toggle switch selects between MC and MM settings. (The actual switching is done with a low-signal relay.) Except for its chassis-mounted step-up transformers, all of the Adagio's audio circuitry is mounted on a single circuit board, and the parts quality is excellent.
Good-quality parts also abound in the Adagio's outboard power supply, which includes a chunky mains transformer from Maryland-based Toroid Corporation, and all-solid-state devices for rectification and regulation. The main enclosure measures 8.6" wide by 10.2" deep (not taking into account protruding jacks, etc.), while the power supply is the same depth but only 8" wide; the power supply is a little over 2" high, while the main enclosure is almost twice that (3.9"), partly because the tops of the tubes protrude through the six holes made for them in the nicely finished cover, and partly owing to the addition of two protective roll bars. The Tavish Adagio: part phono preamp, part dune buggy.
Tavish Audio's specs for the Adagio are impressive: Scott Reynolds claims signal/noise ratios of 84dB for the MM inputs, 82dB for MC (both A-weighted). Output overload, which Reynolds defines as 1% total harmonic distortion, is greater than 44V RMS into 10k ohms at 1kHz. And RIAA accuracy is claimed to be within 0.2dB, 20Hz20kHz (footnote 3). Nice.
Larva, pupa, phono
I spent a few weeks with the Tavish Adagio in my own system, directing its output to one of the line inputs of my Shindo Laboratory Masseto preamplifier; in that setting, I was able to compare the Adagio with both the Masseto's own phono stage and my borrowed sample of Shindo's outboard phono preamp, the Aurieges Equalizer Amplifier.
I began with my usual combination of EMT TSD 15 pickup and Hommage T2 transformer, the latter connected to the Tavish Adagio's MM input. When I played the well-known recording of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet by members of the Vienna Octet (LP, Decca SXL 2297), the Adagio, thus configured, sounded beautifully, prettily clear, in a pleasantly liquid sort of way. It provided natural instrumental colors in good enough amounts, even if it was very slightly pallid in comparison to the Masseto's own phono sectionor, depending on your perspective, the Shindo was slightly oversaturated and excessively contrasty. Detail and overall sonic openness were exceptional with the Tavish: brisk wisps of melody consistently made musical and not merely sonic sense, sometimes even more so than with the Masseto, though the latter persisted in excelling at communicating the force and touch of plucked and struck notes.
But it was with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic's recording of Tchaikovsky's Symphony 4 (original "six-eyes" LP, Columbia Masterworks MS 6035) that the Tavish impressed the hell out of me. This fairly typical late-1950s US Columbia recording is vivid, clear, and occasionally (but not consistently) impactful, yet it also betrays some really clumsy gain-riding, and it's a bit bright, perhaps from being too closely miked (the opening trumpet fanfare is brash, as is much that follows). The Tavish didn't put paint and putty over that brightness, but it seemed to keep the glare from getting out of control, and presented the recording with the huge sense of scale that seems appropriate to it, doing so to a greater extent than the phono section of my Shindo Masseto (itself noted for being big about things when called for). And in the second movement's upbeat second theme, the color and texture of the woodwinds and strings were to die for (a sentiment with which P. Tchaikovsky was okay, I'm sure).
My next step, obviously, was to try the Adagio's MC section. As much as I would have enjoyed the pleasant surprise of the Tavish's extra gain stage matching the qualities imparted by the Hommage T2or, dare I say, other very good transformersthat wasn't to be. In the symphony's third movement, tonal colors and textures were fine; the flutes were clear yet substantive, and the subdued, staccato horns later in this Scherzo were convincing. But the pizzicato strings that define and drive the movement had less impact and touch than through the T2.
Still, apart from that comparative lack of touch, the Tavish was nigh unto faultless. Continuing to indulge a temporary Tchaikovsky mania, I tried the recording by Georg Solti and the Israel Philharmonic of the composer's Serenade for Strings (LP, London CS 6066, the rare London "blueback" LP to command higher prices than its Decca SXL counterpart), and was impressed once again by the Tavish's good color, texture, and scalenot to mention its thoroughly excellent sense of musical momentum. The sense of touch on note attacks and suchlike wasn't completely lacking from the Tavish's sound: It's just that that characteristic was less generous than with a top-shelf transformer in the system.
With the Tavish Adagio still set for MC cartridges, I swapped out my EMT TSD 15 pickup head for a Shindo SPUa lower-output, lower-impedance pickup than the EMT, and one that requires slightly more downforce (2.8 vs 2.5gm) and slightly greater arm height. (Some users report preferring significantly greater arm height with the Shindo SPU; so far, I haven't come around to that point of view.) As I listened to overtly compressed rock recordings from the early 1970seg, King Crimson's Red (LP, Discipline Global KCLP7)the combination of Shindo SPU and Tavish Adagio proved equal to the combination of Shindo SPU and Shindo Masseto phono stage in preserving and perhaps even maximizing what little real impact is preserved in the groove. The distinctions that remained were mostly tonal and textural, the Adagio presenting less richness, and a slightly brighter sound overallthe latter accounting for a hair more sparkle in the sound of Ian McDonald's alto saxophone.
Footnote 1: Tavish Design, LLC, PO Box 129, Amawalk, NY 10501. Tel: (914) 262-6988. Web: www.tavishdesign.com.
Footnote 2: Depending on what tubes he has in stock, Reynolds sometimes substitutes 5751 dual-triodes for the ECC82/12AX7 tubes.
Footnote 3: Scott Reynolds also makes a point of noting that his RIAA de-emphasis curve does not incorporate the so-called Neumann pole. See Keith Howard's discussion of this here.