Whest PhonoStage.20 phono preamplifier Brian Damkroger
As regular Stereophile readers know, I rely heavily on vinyl for listening and reviewing. So, like untold millions of similar-minded music lovers, I anxiously await each new issue of Stereophile. When it arrives, I suspend normal life while I pore over the latest installment of Michael Fremer's "Analog Corner" column, voraciously absorbing all the hot news and descriptions of the latest and greatest. As anyone who actually knows me will attest, I'm not fabulously wealthy, so I pay particular attention when MF raves about a product I could actually consider buying.
In the March 2005 issue, MF fell head over heels for the Whest Phonostage.20 + MsU.20 phono preamplifier ($2595). I don't think I can repeat his description and superlatives without Trish getting jealous, so I'll just note that he compared the little Whest to the Boulder 2008 and Mares 2.0, and declared it "in my list of top 10 phono preamps." He toned down his praise a bit in his June column and warned me, "don't expect miracles for $2595," but he was nonetheless very impressed by the Whest's balance of attributes and overall performance for the price.
I've spent about six months with the Whest, using it with my VPI HR-X turntable and Lyra Titan cartridge, amplification from VTL and Halcro, and both Thiel CS6 and Wilson Audio Sophia loudspeakers. For comparisons, I matched the Whest against the Sutherland PhD ($3000), the Ensemble Fonobrio ($4799; review forthcoming), and the built-in phono stage of the Halcro dm10 preamplifier. I experimented with a variety of impedance loading levels, but found that the Lyra Titan sounded best at 220 ohms or 500 ohms with the Whest, and at similar values—typically 250, 500, or 1k ohms—with the other preamps.
Like MF, I liked the Whest a lot and agree that, at $2595, it's a must-hear. I, too, found its performance more dynamic and vivid than the Sutherland PhD's, though not as pure. However, I'm more in agreement with MF's later, more measured comments than his initial rave, and perhaps most of all with his warning not to expect miracles for $2595. Compared to the Halcro, the Ensemble, and even the Sutherland, the Whest fell short in the subtleties: focus, transparency, detail resolution, even microdynamics. It did the big stuff very well, but skimmed over the last, say, 5%? 1%? of low-level information that distinguishes the sublime from the very good.
Still, my initial response to the Whest was to sit up, take notice, and think, Wow! And whenever I returned to it from either another source or from a listening hiatus, I was surprised and impressed all over again. Its presentation was bold and vivid, spatially, tonally, and in terms of its dynamic transients. The huge soundstage and solid, widely spaced images were instantly apparent, as were its slightly greater projection and dimensionality. Its soundstage was slightly farther forward than the other preamps', and images stood out in greater relief from their backgrounds. The result was a feeling of sitting pretty close to the stage—substantially closer than with any of my other phono stages. The Whest's large dynamic transients, particularly at the louder end of the scale, were another contributor to this up-front perspective.
The Whest's tonal balance was vivid as well. It sounded somewhat elevated in the midrange and upper midrange. It reminded me of an expression I heard years ago: "a go-for-the-gusto, va-va-va-voom midrange." I wasn't sure what that meant back then, but it strikes me now as a pretty accurate description of the Whest. It was unfailingly engaging, but occasionally, loud midrange/upper-midrange passages could sound a bit strained or take on a hard edge. A couple of examples I noted were the massed higher-pitched vocals on "Witchy Woman" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling," from the Eagles' first album, Eagles (Asylum SD 5054), and louder flute and clarinet passages in Keith Clark and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra's performance of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite (Reference Recordings RR-22).
The Copland recording provided several examples of how the Whest could skim over low-level details. The details of how the flute energizes the surrounding air weren't as apparent as with the Halcro, Ensemble, or Sutherland. And though the Whest's macrodynamics were arresting, it nearly lost track of subtle microdynamic nuances within a passage, and the leading edges of notes were distinct but slightly cruder and less precise than with the other units. On "Midnight Special," from a 45rpm reissue of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Willie and the Poor Boys (AcousTech APP 8397-45), the background vocals were slightly run together and the recording spaces around them less distinct than with the other preamps. And while the effect on the opening guitar was most dramatic through the Whest, the drum kit's lower toms didn't have nearly the roundness and tonal complexity they did with the other models. I suspect that the details weren't really lost, just not clearly differentiated from a slight electronic haze. Though not obviously colored, the Whest did sound a bit electronic—it simply wasn't as "free of electronic detritus" as MF had described the Sutherland PhD in his January 2004 column (Vol.27 No.1).
Whest or Sutherland? Sutherland or Whest?
Perhaps the essence of this "Follow-Up" to Michael Fremer's review of the Whest PS.20 + MSU.20 can be gleaned from our comparisons of it and the Sutherland PhD. I agree with MF that some listeners will prefer the Whest's more dynamic presentation, others the PhD's purity and "mesmerizing flow." I infer from his comments that he's in the former camp, and feels that the Whest betters the Sutherland in most ways—save the latter's purity and flow. I'm firmly in the Sutherland camp. I think it's the better preamp in all regards but macrodynamics.
Our perspectives on how the phono stages compare to the competition follow suit. MF opined that the Whest provides a balanced set of tradeoffs and is a spectacularly inexpensive entry point to the world of super-high-end phono preamps. He was troubled, however, by the Sutherland's dynamics. I think of the Sutherland as a true thoroughbred with a noticeable but insignificant softening of macrodynamics. The Whest's bold, engaging presentation lacks the subtlety and nuance that define the upper echelon—it's a great-sounding mid-priced phono stage, but no giant-killer.
Though MF and I disagree on a few points and in our overall priorities and perspectives, this shouldn't be taken to imply that I don't think that Whest Audio's PS.20 + MSU.20 is a great-sounding phono stage, and a good value at $2595. It is—in every respect, the Whest is worlds beyond any sub-$2500 phono stage I've heard. Depending on your listening preferences and priorities, you might find it to be awfully close to sonic nirvana for a fraction of the competition's price. The bottom line is that for someone considering upgrading from one of the good budget units—the Lehman Black Cube, for example, or the AcousTech PH-1—the Whest is an absolute must-hear.—Brian Damkroger