Aesthetix Rhea phono preamplifier Page 2

A new level of couch-potato ecstasy comes courtesy of the Rhea's microprocessor control and remote wand: All of the preamplifier's functions are accessible from the remote. Yes, this means you can change loading and gain on the fly, from the comfort of your chair, while enjoying the beverage of your choice. Not only can you customize the settings without getting up, but the Rhea remembers the individual loading and gain choices for each of the three inputs. Given that you can select seven different levels of gain, from 38dB to 75dB, and nine standard loading settings, there would seem to be few, if any, cartridges that could be accommodated. But should you have one, appropriate resistors, available from Aesthetix, can be custom-installed.

My reference Dynavector XV-1S cartridge was very happy with 56dB of gain and loading of 125 ohms. While there was a bit of tube rush between records through the very-high-gain VTL 7.5 line stage, noise was never audible when music was playing, and there was no more than a normally low amount of tube-related noise through the Balanced Audio Technology VK-51SE or Aesthetix Calypso line stages.

"But microprocessors...?" I hear you thinking. "That means digital noise flying around and contaminating my precious analog signal." Not here, pal. The Rhea's processor chip and all clocks are turned off unless commanded to be in action. Press a button and the chip comes to life, performs the desired function, then reverts to sleep mode virtually immediately.

Not that this exhausts the Rhea's features. Jim White has included a cartridge demagnetizer that can be assigned to any of the inputs and triggered from the remote (footnote 2). The digital control section is thoroughly shielded from the remainder of the innards, and all AC lines run through a shielded back-to-front channel. Sturdy, nonresonant aluminum casing surrounds everything; the entire unit has a pleasing solidity.

While the looks of the Io are, to put it kindly, utilitarian, the Rhea comes dressed in chic and elegant finery. Its clean, knobless front panel features those snappy little pyramidal switches, which echo the shape of Aesthetix's "A" logo, and its big, bold readout displays input, gain, and loading information in an appealing sapphire blue. The display can be shut off, but pops on for five seconds when a front-panel switch or remote button is pressed. Should you care to change the gain or the cartridge loading at the preamp, press the appropriate button, then the left or right side of the display, to decrease or increase the setting.

The Rheal Deal?
The single most wonderful thing about a fine tubed phono stage is that delectable, seductive, bloomy midrange, which, even today, seemingly remains the exclusive province of glowing glass. The Rhea welcomed me to Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony (Boult/New Philharmonia, Angel S-36532) with rich atmospherics and an invitingly fundamental wholeness. Its spatial expansiveness and timbral richness were unmistakably close kin to the Io Signature's. Much of my favorite English orchestral music depends less on sheer force than on dynamic subtlety and the resolution of finely shaded tonal nuance. The "little" Aesthetix starred with Vaughan Williams, Delius, and, especially, Arthur Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad (Marriner/ASMF, UK Argo ZRG 680), where it caught—with a particularly light and lovely touch—the quiet but intensely emotional nature of the music and the performance. The Rhea's performance of the Butterworth was further proof, if any were needed, of the microdynamic magic of fine tubes.

Not that the macrodynamics were anything to sneeze at. John Bonham's mighty tom-tom blasts on "Custard Pie" and "In My Time of Dying," from Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti (Swan Song/Classic SS2-200), were thunderous and immediate. On really massive orchestral material, the Io Signature and Manley Steelhead have a slightly superior sense of ease when coping with huge transients, but the Rhea was not in the least embarrassed by the comparison.

The Rhea's tonal balance wasn't the slow, lushly romantic sound of old-school tubes. Rather, its presentation was fast, with a wideband, consistently full-bodied harmonic presentation that is the hallmark of today's best tubes. On Caravan's "Nine Feet Underground," from Canterbury Tales (UK Decca DKL R-8-1/2), Richard Sinclair's Fender Jazz bass guitar had a round, throaty purr and was excellently articulated. David Sinclair's Hammond organ had that slightly growly, primal quality that Hammonds are supposed to have—an almost touchable, corporeal sound with a little bit of grit coming from the Leslie speakers.

The Aesthetix beautifully captured Richard Sinclair's melancholy, quintessentially English voice, particularly on the lovely "Disassociation." Likewise with "Wicked Game," from Chris Isaak's Heart Shaped World (Reprise 25837-1), which was wickedly delicious through the Rhea. Isaak's neo-Elvis vocals and the reverb-drenched guitars were dreamy and lavish—a sonic silk sheet if ever one there was.

Imaging was exactly what you'd expect from a topnotch tube preamplifier: expansive, solid, and precise, without that unnatural "pinpoint" placement that is more hi-fi than it is musical. There was perhaps a bit more image-to-image bleed-through than with the Io Signature or the Steelhead, but, again, the Rhea did not suffer overmuch from the comparison. Brass instruments had precisely the right combination of focused projection, together with an ambient "glow" that is the cornerstone of rightness. Freddie Hubbard's trumpet on Oliver Nelson's ever-gorgeous "Stolen Moments," from The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse! IMP-154, reissue), was decisively centered in a corona of charged air, and the sense of cohesion between the musicians was truly fine stuff.

Footnote 2: I have used passive demagnetization (via the Cardas Burn-in/Sweep LP) ever since A.J. van den Hul told me that active, outboard demagnetizers, while they do indeed work, must be used more and more often as time goes by. While vdH's view is far from universally accepted, I have always thought it better to be safe than sorry when dealing with pricey cartridges.
US distributor: Musical Surroundings
2625 Alcatraz Avenue, Suite 501
Berkeley, CA 94705
(510) 420-0379