Sutherland Engineering Phono Block monoblock phono preamplifier Page 2
First and foremost, the Phono Blocks replicated the uncanny ease and purity of Sutherland's battery-powered models: the PH3D, the Hubble, and the discontinued PhD. Michael Fremer's famous description of the PhD"freedom from electronic detritus"came immediately to mind with the Phono Blocks, and the absence of any sort of grunge or noise let instruments and voices bloom with a natural purity that could be startling. The simplest and perhaps best example from my listening notes was how well the Blocks reproduced Suzanne Vega's voice in the a cappella "Tom's Diner," from her Solitude Standing (LP, A&M SP-5136). The Sutherlands' purity gave her plaintive lines an absolutely "in the room" realism.
In one sense, Vega's voice was tangibly distinct from the background. Her image was three-dimensional and clearly bounded, sure, but I noticed the difference most vividly in the leading edges of her words: in how the very beginning of a syllable or note would pressurize and expand out into the surrounding space. In another way, however, Vega's voice was entirely and realistically coherent with the original recording space. I never had any sense that my system was projecting a recorded image into the listening room. Instead, there was a feeling that the system had vanished and taken the room with it, leaving only the original performance suspended before me.
Although the battery-powered Sutherlands are known for this spectacular purity and timbral accuracy, at times they can sound a bit soft in terms of dynamics: the PH3D most obviously, the Hubble the least. "Tom's Diner" can be achingly beautiful but not have quite the timing or pace that Vega's voice does through some other phono stages, or that it does live. In this regard, the Phono Blocks resembled and improved on the performance of the AC-driven 20/20 and Direct Line Stage. The Phono Blocks had more snap than even these units, and a more realistic and energetic sense of timing and pace. Dynamic transients were slightly larger through the Phono Blocks, too, and notes began and ended more sharply. With "Tom's Diner," the Blocks made the difference between just listening, and listening while tapping my foot and bopping in my chair.
I spent a couple of wonderful evenings with the Charles Munch and Boston Symphony Orchestra recording of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2608), and the same dynamic panache I noted with "Tom's Diner" really brought this work to life. At the microdynamic end of the scale, I noted how articulate and delicate the English horn's and oboe's phrasings were during their duet in the third movement. The notes bloomed and tailed off, scaling a dynamic range that seemed to pack into each an infinite gradation of levels. Also as with Vega's voice, there was something about the very beginning of the notes that gave these passages a riveting, realistic feel. And at the other, macro end of the dynamic scale, the first thundering bass-drum stroke later in that movement made me jump in my chair.
The Phono Blocks' purity and dynamics made Dire Straits' Live at the BBC (LP, BBC Worldwide WINLP072) snap with urgency and electricity, but I also noticed how extended the Sutherlands were at the frequency extremes, and how balanced across the audioband. At the very lowest frequencies, the Blocks had very nearly the impact of the Parasound Halo JC 3 phono preamp that I reviewed last October, and even some of that model's sense of increasing power as the frequency descended. That huge, thundering bass drum in Symphonie Fantastique was ample evidence of the Phono Blocks' bottom-end punch, as were John Illsley's deepest bass lines in Dire Straits' "Down to the Waterline." A bit higher in the bass, however, the Sutherlands could occasionally sound a bit lean and cool. For example, the timpani in the Berlioz sounded a little lighter and smaller than they should have, though they were still superbly articulate, with wonderful pitch definition. The double basses in the same recording, on the other hand, were warm and powerful. And in Live at the BBC, Illsley's highest bass notes had every bit as much impact as his lowest. Bottom line: The Phono Blocks always had more than enough bass to satisfyingly anchor any type of music.
Higher, across the middle and upper frequencies, the Phono Blocks were superb. Mark Knopfler's voice in the Dire Straits cuts had just the right balance of pure tone and ragged edge. His guitar cried, wailed, whispered, and sang in the ways that are unmistakably his alone. Pick Withers' drums were snappy and explosive, and his cymbals filled the air with shimmering, bronze decays. I've listened to this album dozens of times, but if I've ever heard it sound more alive, more realistic, or better in any way, I can't recall it.
The Phono Blocks' balance, as well as their uncanny purity and lack of any background texture, allowed them to do a stellar job of reproducing instruments' characteristic pitch and timbre. Knopfler's voice and guitar were great examples; another was the duet of oboe and English horn in Symphonie Fantastique. Through some phono stageseven with, to some extent, the PhD and 20/20the two double-reeds can sound very much alike, or perhaps even like a clarinet or soprano saxophone. With the Phono Blocks, the characteristic buzzy woodiness of the oboe came through beautifully, as did the warmer, rounder sound of the English horn.
Stepping back from the frequency extremes, the wailing guitars, and the buzzy oboes, the overall tonal balance of the Phono Blocks was awfully close to absolutely neutral, enough so for it to act as a sort of chameleon that reflected other changes in my system. When the system was connected with Nordost Valhalla cables, I was always tempted to brand the Phono Blocks as sounding slightly on the lean, cool side of neutral. With Nirvana SL or Stereovox cables throughout, I instead found the Sutherlands completely neutral, or sounding ever, ever so slightly warm. If I had to assign an absolute tonal balance to the Phono Blocks, it would be somewhere between absolutely neutral and ever so slightly coolbut, as I said, any deviations from neutral were small and ephemeral.
Listening to The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Quartet, a performance recorded at Miami's Airliner Lounge in September 1977 (LP, Artist House AH 9403), I was struck by how large and open the Phono Blocks' soundstage was. The apparent audience around me was larger, more spread out, and much more obvious in the positioning of individual attendees. The back and side walls of the club were more audible, and farther out than I'm used to hearing. Lewis's drum set was exactly the right size, and very clearly bounded and located in three dimensions. Harold Danko's piano was of realistic size rather than a foreshortened version of itself, and was slightly farther upstage. When Lewis stepped forward to solo, I could imagine his entire body behind and below the image of his cornetand his horn, too, was realistically sized and solidly placed on the soundstage, positioned clearly with respect to not only the other players and the audience, but to the club boundaries themselves.
Another recording that demonstrated how large, open, and airy the Phono Blocks' soundstage seemed to be was Geoffrey Simon and the London Symphony Orchestra's readings of the overture to and dances from Smetana's The Bartered Bride (LP, Chandos ABRD 1149). I particularly noticed the placement, size of individual instruments, and exquisite layering in the string sections, especially in quiet passages where the violin and viola lines were hardly above the background. Even these quietest lines clearly delineated the hall's boundaries, and portrayed each string section as the large group of individual players it was. I noticed how realistically the Phono Blocks reproduced the choral nature of these sections, and the specificity and solidity with which the individual players were portrayed was a big part of that realism.
Checking All the Boxes
Music comprises five elements: pitch, timing, loudness, timbre, and location. As soon as more than one instrument or voice is present, all five, together and separately, take on a choral quality. On album after album, regardless of musical genre, scale of work, or vintage of recording, the Sutherland Phono Blocks unfailingly reproduced all five elements and their combined nature no less than brilliantly. In short, they played musicor, more to the point, they got out of the way to let the music play. Each time I thought I'd taken the Phono Blocks' sonic thumbprint, I'd change something else in my system or play a different recording, and whatever wisp of identity I thought I'd captured would vanish. No electronic device is perfect, but the Phono Blocks were close enough to perfection that I could find no trace of them in my system's sound.
Out-Sutherlanding the Sutherlands
The Phono Blocks had a tough act, or acts, to follow. Ron Sutherland's PH3D, 20/20, and Hubble are all excellent products, as are his PhD and Direct Line Stage, both of which I own. The battery-powered units all offer a purity and a natural ease that are rare, if not unique, in high-end audio; the AC-powered models deliver a big chunk of that purity and add a bit more realism in terms of dynamic transients, timing, and pace. Each, as I've said, is excellent, and offers exceptional value at what are, for the high end, very reasonable prices.
But like shopping at the Porsche dealership, moving up the Sutherland line buys more of the good stuff. The 20/20 improves on all of the strengths of the PH3D, and the Hubble handily outperforms the 20/20 and the (discontinued) PhD. But if you really want to hearor, rather, not hearthe best that Sutherland Engineering has to offer, the only choice is the Phono Blocks. Still, $10,000 is a lot of moneyas Ron Sutherland says, "It's not super expensive, but it's where super expensive starts." But just as a $243,000 Porsche GT2 RS isn't only the best Porsche 911, but one of the very best cars ever made, the Phono Blocks aren't just the best Sutherland phono stage, they're one of the very best audio components in the world. Absolutely, positively, and very highly recommended.