Aesthetix Rhea phono preamplifier Page 3

The Rhea's bass performance was firmly cohesive by any standard. The spatial and tonal bloom of tubes was neatly combined with resolute pitch definition. Each bassist's individual sound and personality were preserved with distinctiveness and particularity, be it Paul Chambers or Jaco Pastorius. Things were just a fraction more loose down low than with the Io Sig or the Steelhead, but there was no shortage of power or pitch certainty.

The Rhea was a shade softer and darker than life in the top half-octave or so of the treble range, perhaps, but there was still more than enough resolution to describe the shape and size of recording venues. Far better to have a smidgen of mellowness here than an overly aggressive and artificially transparent etched sound. This bit of forgivingness did nothing to impair the tonal brilliance of Jascha Heifetz's violin in Beethoven's Violin Concerto (Munch/Boston, RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSC-1992). The master's fiddle was crisply defined, with outstanding delineation of bowing and a scintillating clarity during the cadenza, and no blurring or obscuring of his dazzling technique.

Soundstaging was invariably very good, with an estimable sense of depth, width, and height. On the Beethoven concerto, the spacious acoustic of Boston's Symphony Hall filled the back of my room, though the Manley Steelhead and the Io Signature illuminate the rearmost corners of the stage a pinch more evenly and completely. With rock and pop LPs, the material, not the Rhea, set the size of the stage—as it should—and small-group jazz LPs had a pleasing sense of immediacy and involvement, that gratifying sense of eavesdropping on a performance rather than listening to a recording.

"Musical flow" is a quality that is drawing increasing attention in the hi-fi press. To my mind, "flow" requires three primary things: first, well-controlled bass that is capable of going down deep without losing definition, in order to firmly establish the music's rhythmic pulse; second, a continuousness and general neutrality of timbre throughout the audible range, so as to maximize the individual character of each instrument and voice; and, third, a high degree of spatial resolution.

"Animal Waves," from Can's Saw Delight (UK Virgin V 2079), is 15 minutes of scrumptious and intense musical sensuality that demands "flow" to communicate its heady, almost erotic, essence. Pulsing Afro-Caribbean rhythms ground spaced-out washes of keyboards, and electric violin and guitar converse with both the cosmic and the carnal. The earthy throb of bass guitar, drums, and the complex syncopations of Reebop Kwaaku Baah's percussion was taut and composed, while the swoops and whooshes of Irmin Schmidt's electronic keyboards waxed and waned like a celestial tide. This was flow with a vengeance.

A Quart in a Pint Pot
Judged by the high standards Jim White set for himself in designing it or considered strictly on its own merits, the Aesthetix Rhea is a runaway success. Nope, it doesn't have quite the Krakatoan dynamic range of the Io Signature, quite the sheer speed and resolution of the Manley Steelhead, or quite the massive technological overkill of the Boulder 2008—and none of that matters a bit or a smidgen. To get the last little bit of those things, you'll spend from nearly double to eight times the Rhea's $4000 cost. The Rhea's most remarkable accomplishment is to put together an extraordinary combination of sonic performance and useful features at a price that is within reach for many serious vinyl addicts.

The Rhea tells a striking amount of musical and sonic truth and is, in terms of sound alone, intensely lovable. Did I notice the difference when the Steelhead or Io Signature went back in the system? Sure. But the Rhea has enough of all the qualities that make the megabucks competition so special to make it a source of constant musical joy. Not once did I feel that the Rhea shortchanged any LP I heard through it. That, together with the too-cool-for-school remote functions, multiple inputs, built-in cartridge demagnetizer (for those of that persuasion), and first-class presentation, make it worthy of a wildly enthusiastic recommendation. This one, cats and kittens, is killer good.

US distributor: Musical Surroundings
2625 Alcatraz Avenue, Suite 501
Berkeley, CA 94705
(510) 420-0379