Plinius M14 phono preamplifier

You think Watergate was a momentous break-in? You should hear what a good electronic Rolfing does to the sound of this meticulously built, full-sized, full-featured, and full-priced ($3495) phono section imported from New Zealand by Fanfare International. Out of the box, the Plinius M14 sounds like what it looks like: all silvery, hard, and steely. Just leaving it powered up doesn't do the trick, nor does playing music through it—unless you're prepared for endless hours of truly bad sound before the sonic clouds begin to break.

No, getting good sound out of this baby requires a major-league sonic enema. Was it the test tones on the XLO/Reference Burn-in CD (RX-1000), or narrator Roger Skoff's voice that cleared the sonic logjam? Inquiring minds want to know. I can't say for sure, but by plugging the "line-out" of my RadioShack CD-3400 portable CD player into the M14's inputs and hitting the Repeat button so the XLO disc cycled endlessly for a few days, I avoided the bleeding ears and gnashing teeth a long listening break-in period would have induced.

And you don't want to turn the M14 off—if you do, you almost have to start the break-in all over again. I found that out when I started playing around with power cords. The second cord I tried (it shall remain nameless) made the M14 sound as bad as it had when I first plugged it in. That bad. So I went back to the original cord, and guess what? It sounded equally bad! Back to XLO's Burn-in CD.

The morals: 1) Beware of assembly-line reviews and assembly-line reviewers. 2) Be patient before you make any final assessment of a product's sound.

Market burn-in
We've gone from famine to feast in the analog world. A few years ago manufacturers began replacing their full-function preamps with new "line-stage" models designed for the new digital frontier and a new generation of CD-only audiophiles. For analog devotees, the news was doubly bad: new stand-alone phono sections were few and far between.

Today the market has turned upside down: there's a glut of phono sections. Some are tubed, some solid-state, and some hybrid. Some offer convenience and multi-use functionality, some are tweaky "purist" designs that require you to solder resistors to change loading. In today's packed marketplace, a manufacturer had better offer something that sets its product apart from the crowd.

FM Acoustics gives you adjustable equalization; Audio Research's PH3 gives you convenience. Well, you have to solder resistors to a post to change the PH3's input loading, so that's not too convenient. But $1500 for any Audio Research product is my idea of convenience.

Plinius enters the phono-section market with a convenience- and quality-oriented product offering two levels of gain selectable via a panel-mounted knob, polarity reversal at the flip of a switch, and six loading options (47k ohms, 1k, 470, 100, 47, 22), also selectable via a panel-mounted knob. In other words, if you have an arm like the Graham or the VPI, which allow you to switch cartridges in a few seconds, you can also electrically optimize your cartridge choice in seconds.

The rear of the Plinius' ample single-box chassis features RCA inputs and RCA and XLR balanced outputs, a tonearm lead grounding post, a switch that allows you to "float" the chassis ground, an On/Off switch, and an IEC AC jack.

Once around the circuit
While a few manufacturers (ie, Jeff Rowland) are beginning to offer balanced phono inputs, Plinius designer Peter Thomson has opted for balanced outputs only. The input uses one J-FET per channel in a "single-ended" configuration whose buffered output is equalized to the upper part of the RIAA curve. The phono output stage is a balanced-bridge amplifier that takes its design cues from Plinius' SA series of power amplifiers. The output is equalized for the lower part of the RIAA curve and provides both "hot" and "cold" and true noise-canceling balanced outputs.

The onboard power-supply circuit board and toroidal transformer are mounted in a separate "cabinet" underneath the main circuit board, isolated by a 10mm wood-and-aluminum, constrained-layer–damped, high-mass, low-resonance shelf. The M14's rigid, solid chassis is constructed of 10mm aluminum side walls and a 12mm aluminum front panel with integral aluminum handles. The thinner-gauge chassis top and bottom slide into place on rails machined into the side walls.

The output of the low-noise toroidal transformer, diode bridge, and capacitor-filtered power supply feeds three-terminal regulators that in turn feed separate left- and right-channel regulators. According to the instruction manual, the circuit provides for "a large degree of rejection of power-supply–borne noise."

One look at the M14's innards and you'll know why it costs so much: its construction more closely resembles a power amplifier's, and it's packed with expensive parts, including Caddock resistors and TRT and Hovland capacitors. All switching is accomplished using silver-contact relays, and the signal cable is Siltech, a few meters of which can cost as much as the M14—well, I exaggerate a bit. No doubt the smooth-sounding Siltech is a partial cause of the M14's long, long break-in time. Overall construction quality is high.

Setup & Use
I put the M14 atop three large Walker Audio Valid Points, which sat on three Walker resin-and-lead discs. I put three additional Walker discs atop the chassis, as recommended by Walker—advisable here, as the M14's slide-in top plate can rattle when touched. The assemblage rested on a Bright Star sandbox. Unbalanced connection to the Audible Illusions 3A was via a 1m length of airy-sounding Yamamura Millennium 6000 interconnect. I did try a wide variety of other cables, including XLO Signature, which is on the leaner, brighter side of the sonic spectrum. I didn't have access to a balanced preamp, which precluded me from auditioning the Plinius in that operating mode.

I used Siltech, Marigo, and Yamamura Quantum AC cords. Of course, each cable change represented a degree of change to the sound of the product under review, but its overall character remained constant—something I almost always find to be the case. When someone says to me, "Oh! It sounded that way because you used blah blah blah cable! That doesn't work!," I usually hang up on them.

Using the M14 is as straightforward and convenient as the manufacturer intended it to be: You switch on the rear-mounted AC rocker and leave it that way. You choose your gain and loading, flip the Mute switch down, and away you go. As most Stereophile analog devotees know, I believe MC cartridges must be loaded down in most cases to sound right, regardless of what the manufacturer claims. I start at 100 ohms and work my up or down from there, depending on the cartridge and associated equipment. While I don't always end up at 100 ohms, I never get as high as 47k. The front-mounted switching makes loading comparisons easy—within the limits of the choices.

Smooth solid-state
While the sound of some phono sections is difficult to pin down, the Plinius made an immediate impression that did not change either over time (after break-in!) or with different interconnects. That sound was smoooooooth, delicate, and refined overall, but especially on top, where the M14 skated with sharp blades on freshly Zambonied ice. Though this metaphor is meant as a compliment, this kind of elegant, luxurious sheen will not be to everyone's taste—as in the case of the Krell "sound." Some will find it intoxicating; others will think the sound lacks transient "traction."

Plinius Audio Ltd
Plinius USA
3439 NE Sandy Boulevard #128
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 662-8210

tonykaz's picture

Easy to agree !

A fall in demand for phono will trigger a Glut on/in the market suggesting that many will not be sold. ( according to Cambridge Dictionary )

Well Said, Mr.MF phono marketer.

The 10cent word would be surfeit.

Tony in Venice

Glotz's picture

It's a good one though! MF has displayed continued integrity and transparency.

misterc59's picture

Agreed Mr Glotz!