Sutherland PhD MC phono preamplifier Brian Damkroger Review
In his "Analog Corner" in the January 2004 Stereophile (Vol.27 No.1), Michael Fremer found a lot to like about Ron Sutherland's ultraslick PhD phono preamplifier, calling it "one of the best-sounding phono preamplifiers I've heard" and noting that, in some areas, he'd "not heard better performance from any phono preamp." In particular, MF was taken by the PhD's transparency and its lack of background noise and electronic detritus, and pointed out its purity of tone and "luscious, liquid, velvety midband response, and ultra-pure, non–'edge-enhanced' 3D images." This is heady stuff from MF, who's heard the best of the best. But as I was shopping for a preamp at the time, looking to spend my own money, what really caught my attention was one of his closing comments. Noting the PhD's $3000 price, he concluded that "The Sutherland PhD will let you play in the majors for a stiff but still minor-league price."
Sound: I won't repeat MF's description of the PhD, reiterating only that it's an elegant and extremely clever bit of engineering. I tried it with two cartridges, a Lyra Titan and a Grado Statement Reference, loaded to 1 and 47k ohms, respectively, and both with 60dB of gain. Downstream I used three different line stages: the VTL TL-7.5 and two passive units, the Placette Remote Volume Control and the Sonic Euphoria PLC passive auto-transformer unit. VTL's new S-400 power amplifier and my Thiel CS6 loudspeakers made up the rest of the system. For comparison, I alternated between the PhD, Ensemble's Fonobrio phono stage ($5800), and the phono stage of the Burmester 011 preamp ($16,000). (Both preamps will be reviewed in subsequent issues.)
MF did a good job of describing the PhD's strengths, but, if anything, he didn't go far enough in praising its purity and freedom from electronic artifacts. He described its strengths with respect to McCartney, a great-sounding studio album, but what struck me was how well it re-created the ambience of a natural acoustic space. On the Beverly Sills/Royal Philharmonic performance of La Traviata (Angel SCLX-3780), the PhD's portrayal of All Saints Church was more finely detailed than that of either the Ensemble or Burmester, and more open—it seemed as if I could better hear the ambience in the spaces between and around the performers.
A lot of top-quality equipment can re-create a dimensional, "walk-into-it" soundstage, but usually by projecting and sharply bounding images so that they stand out from the background in relief. The PhD's holographic soundstage was a little different. Instead of being the result of projecting and outlining images, it came from the background dropping away and allowing the images to emerge. There was less texture (MF's "electronic detritus"?) woven into the low-level information that defined the ambience. I've heard this subtle but striking effect before, from equipment or system changes that dramatically clean up the incoming power.
Another thing I noted was that the Sutherland's portrayal of the space remained consistent regardless of what else was going on in the performance. The other two preamps each had a tendency to collapse the space around orchestral crescendos or lose the continuity of their portrayals. For example, with all three preamps Sills' image was solid and tangible and, for the most part, wonderfully integrated within a consistent spatial portrait of the performance and space. During the soprano's loudest passages, however, only the PhD retained its consistency—the Burmester and Ensemble seemed to allow ever-so-slight discontinuities to develop around Sills' image.
MF noted the PhD's shortcomings as well: the slightly soft mid- and low bass, the somewhat languid sense of pace and drive, the lack of dynamic punch. The first of these didn't bother me at all. The PhD's soft bottom end wasn't as tight as the Ensemble's, and didn't have the Burmester's power and vivid tonal colors, but it wasn't overblown or bloomy, and never drew undue attention to itself. Nor did I find the issue of pace and drive objectionable, but it did catch my attention a few times. I even double-checked the speed of my VPI HR-X turntable, only to find that it was right on the money.
The PhD's treatment of dynamics was a little distracting in some cases. Its transients were precise and articulate, but just didn't span as wide a range as did the others'. If a hard transient, such as a rim shot, snapped from pp to f with the PhD, it went from pp to ff with the Ensemble—and further, perhaps to fff or even ffff, with the Burmester. On some material, such as La Traviata, the PhD's softened dynamics were noticeable but didn't get in the way of the performance. Other pieces, in which dynamics played a bigger role than detail, purity, and ambience, weren't quite as satisfying. MF mentioned as one example the slight dulling of Gene Harris' piano lines on Ray Brown's Soular Energy (Concord Jazz/Pure Audiophile PA-002). I was struck by how the percussive guitar chops on "Under the Boardwalk," from Rickie Lee Jones' Girl at Her Volcano EP (Warner Bros. 23805-1B), lacked the impact I'm used to hearing, instead sounding muted and a little pale.
My reaction to the PhD's dynamics was undoubtedly accentuated by the comparison with Burmester's 011, which didn't match the Sutherland's purity and detail but was exceptional in its reproduction of dynamic transients. True, the PhD was less dynamic than the Ensemble Fonobrio as well, but only slightly so. And without the direct comparisons, when I listened to the PhD on its own, it was easy to accept its perspective and simply enjoy the music. I was drawn in by its purity and openness, and the dynamic softness gradually seemed less and less out of place.
MF talked a bit about matching the PhD with different cartridges, speculating that it would be a better match for a fast, etched-sounding one—he suggested the van den Hul Colibri—than the lusher Lyra Titan. I went the other direction, beginning with the Titan and later substituting a Grado Statement Reference. Of the two, the Titan was, by far, the better match. Its vibrancy and (relative to the Grado) speed and precision mated very well with the PhD's purity and slight reticence. With the Grado, on the other hand, the PhD's foibles were more apparent. Both the Grado and PhD are great with the right partner, but it's not a pairing I'd recommend.
Similarly, the PhD's personality will make it a better fit in some systems than in others—depending on your listening preferences, of course. I found that it sounded great with the VTL TL-7.5 line stage and S-400 power amplifier, which are fast, clean, and very neutral. On the other hand, the passive line stages I tried, the Placette Remote Volume Control and the Sonic Euphoria PLC, highlighted the PhD's purity—but also its softened dynamics. At one point, I swapped in the Mark Levinson No.20.6 amplifiers, which I dearly love with my Thiels, but it wasn't a good match. The Levinsons' warm, liquid texture slightly obscured the PhD's purity and, combined with its softer dynamics, sounded too soft and slow.
Summing Up: In the end, I come down about where Mikey did. The PhD is a wonderful unit and a great bargain. It's not perfect, but with reasonable system matching, its shortcomings are personality traits, not fatal flaws. Its personality, not surprisingly, is very similar to that of Ron Sutherland's earlier, cost-no-object designs, but, as MF noted, at "a stiff but still minor-league price." The PhD does many things very well, and its purity and freedom from electronic haze is quite special—something that every analog lover should hear for him- or herself. It's on my short list. Highly recommended.—Brian Damkroger