Analog Corner #313: Cyrus Audio Phono Signature, QHW Audio The Vinyl, Shaknspin, X-Quisite SUT X-20

I don't like being pigeonholed as a reviewer of exclusively expensive audio components—because I'm not, as anyone who regularly peruses Analog Planet knows. So, to ease the pain of reviewing the half-million-dollar Air Force Zero turntable—you'll find that review elsehere in this issue—I figured I'd cover some more reasonably priced analog gear here in Analog Corner.

Plus, I need to do some spring cleaning and tidy up a few loose reviewing ends: Only products reviewed in Stereophile qualify for the Recommended Components list, so when I review something at Analog Planet that I think should be on that list, I need to cover it here, too.

Take, for instance, QHW Audio's The Vinyl MM/MC phono preamp. (QHW stands for "Quality Hi-Fi Works," footnote 1.) See my full review at Analog Planet. This exceptionally fine-sounding phono preamplifier currently sells for just $786.96 including shipping to America from Spain, where it's designed and manufactured by Francisco Vizcaya Lopez, a music professor, concert performer, and composer with engineering skill sufficient to allow him to design this exceptionally fine-sounding phono preamp and several other hi-fi products.

When I reviewed it last April, the cost was even lower, at $644.83. The price fluctuates because Mr. Vizcaya Lopez pegs the price to currency fluctuations—exchange rates—instead of building in a price cushion. It's a more consumer-friendly approach.

921acorn.qhw

The MM input uses a QHW-developed AE2270 op-amp, not an off-the-shelf one. The MC input, which has gain that's switchable in steps between 63 and 69dB via rear-panel DIP switches, utilizes discrete bipolar transistors. The specifications are impressive, as is the sound—and as is a smart design that allows you to simultaneously connect two turntables and independently configure an MM and an MC cartridge. By using the outboard step-up transformer (SUT) of your choice on the MM input, you could connect two MC cartridges. You can hook them both up and select between them, but to do so you'll need to flip a switch that's on the rear panel.

Construction, including high-quality, panel-mounted RCA inputs and output jacks, is well beyond expectations for the price. The outboard power supply is a hefty 36V DC unit with IEC-jack termination so you can play with AC cables, and the front fascia is a nicely finished brushed-aluminum plate.

I reviewed "The Vinyl" using the SME M6 turntable that I reviewed in the May Analog Corner. For cartridges, I used Ortofon's Cadenza Black MC ($2879) and the 2M Black LVB 250 MM (footnote 2).

That turntable and the Cadenza Black cartridge are priced beyond what most "The Vinyl" buyers will use with it, but the phono preamp proved up to the challenge. The LVB was a better price match ($999); it, too, was reviewed on Analog Planet, and it too is worthy of Recommended Components inclusion (although 16-year-old Nathan Zeller, Analog Planet's newest young writer, prefers his less-costly Mobile Fidelity UltraTracker, which I have never heard—nor have I ever heard a Mobile Fidelity turntable. Too bad: The Mobile Fidelity 'table was designed partly by Allen Perkins, of Immedia and Spiral Groove, and I've been a fan of his work for decades.).

I auditioned The Vinyl for Analog Corner with the Monty Alexander LP Love You Madly: Live at Bubba's, a 1982 live-to-24-track analog-tape recording (Resonance HLP 9047). In the review, I wrote, "I promise, you'd never know you were hearing it through a $619 phono preamplifier. The acoustic bass was so natural and well-controlled, the drums immediate and natural-sounding—particularly the cymbals and rim shots—and Alexander's hard-driving piano produced dynamics and convincing timbral verisimilitude. Add a transparent, generously sized soundstage presentation that had width, height and especially depth (percussionist Robert Thomas Jr. placed well behind the piano, stage right, whether or not that's from where he actually played) and top it off with "you are in the room" applause, and you have both a really great recording and a ridiculously good phono preamplifier that I think you could insert into your system and fool the most demanding audio fanatic into thinking it cost ten times what it actually costs. And it's quiet....Way highly recommended."

I recently got hold of an old AR turntable—a rare TA model, which has two motors, one of them to get the platter spinning in the correct direction. It didn't include a headshell, so I ordered a 3D-printed one on eBay for $50 and to honor the late Len Gregory (aka "The Cartridge Man"). I installed in it the original Cartridge Man Music Maker cartridge that starts life as a Grado moving iron design. This one had been sitting in its red pill box for more than 20 years. I placed a Funk Firm Achromat on top of the bare platter and plugged it into The Vinyl.

Even with overhang unset (because at first I didn't know you could move the armtube to adjust it), the sound produced was laugh-out-loud sweet!

Anyone hearing this and thinking about getting into vinyl would stop thinking and start doing.

Shaknspin
Measuring a turntable's platter-speed performance can be tricky. I still use the discontinued Platterspeed app, for consistency. I run it on an older phone on which I choose not to update the operating system. I've used it for years, and though it requires a test record and some people don't trust it, I feel that as long as I use the same test record each time, the results will at least be consistent.

Incidentally, those measurements show that direct-drive turntables produce better looking graphs than belt-drive turntables, even though the belt-drive numbers are often just as good. As the late Siegfried Linkwitz told me, "The eyes are for seeing, the ears are for listening. Don't confuse the two!"—this from a person who definitely believed in the value of measurements.

Shaknspin (footnote 3) sounds like a child's toy—not a great name for a serious measurement device, but there you have it.

The name refers to the device's unique menu system, which requires you to move it around in various directions to manipulate the settings.

Like several other products discussed in this column, I reviewed it on Analog Planet, and I'm mentioning it here to get it on the Recommended Components list. It uses a sensor with nine degrees of freedom to measure platter speed 500 times a second. It can give you average speed in RPM, average speed deviation, max/min speed variation, high-pass–filtered max/min speed variations, various wow and flutter measurements, jitter, and more. All measurements can be presented as numbers, frequency-distribution spectrograms, or speed-distribution histograms—and you don't have to put your smartphone on the turntable as you do with some other apps that don't use a test record. Price is €250 including shipping.

Cyrus Audio's Phono Signature MM/MC
This $2199 phono preamp was designed and built in the UK (footnote 4). It has been around for a few years, but then so have records. When it was offered for review, I accepted the offer. I was also sent the optional $1199 PSX-R2 power supply upgrade.

921acorn.cyrus

The Phono Signature is a handsome, compact design with a diecast half-width chassis that's about 3" tall. The front panel is dominated by a green LCD screen, below which is a row of seven buttons for choosing the input, setting the rumble filter (labeled "Warp"), cartridge type (MM or MC), Gain, resistive loading ("Res"), capacitive loading ("Cap"), and saving the current settings ("Store"). A large button next to the screen, which can be pushed and rotated, sets and stores values for four individually configurable inputs.

The Phono Signature, which comes with a remote control, is among the most user-friendly phono preamps I've used, especially for use with multiple turntables and/or tonearm/cartridge combos. If you only use one cartridge, so there's nothing to adjust after the initial setup, you're probably better off with a simpler, single-input design that puts the money into the sound instead of versatility.

Each of the four inputs has its own ground lug, and there's a rear-panel ground lift, which disconnects the Phono Signature's own earth ground to help diagnose and correct ground-loop hum. The RCA jacks are tightly spaced both vertically and horizontally, which can be a challenge when connecting cables, depending on the diameter of your turntable's RCA plugs. The RCA output jacks are similarly tightly spaced, but you can avoid that problem by using the balanced XLR outputs, assuming your line-level preamp allows it. As a bonus, you'll get better sound and 6dB more output.

I won't go into the configuration and storage process other than to write that it's intuitive. Gain can be set for 40, 50, 60, or 70dB. A front-panel bargraph momentarily holds peak level, which helps to set gain and prevent overload.

Resistive loading values are 11, 16, 33, 47, 100, 150, 330, and 500 ohms, 1k ohm, and 47k ohms. Capacitive loading choices are 220pF, 1nF, 2nF, and 3nF. All settings can be set from the front panel or via the remote, so you can play with gain and loading from your listening chair before storing the settings in memory.


Footnote 1: Quality Hi-Fi Works (QHW), Puerto Serrano number 12, Madrid 28045, Spain. Web: qhwaudio.com.

Footnote 2: Ortofon USA, 500 Executive Blvd. Suite 102, Ossining, NY 10562. Web: ortofon.com.

Footnote 3: Shaknspin, R. Prof Mario Albuquerque 5-3B, 1600-812 Lisboa, Portugal. Web: shaknspin.wordpress.com.

Footnote 4: Cyrus Audio Ltd., Ermine Business Park Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire PE29 6XY, England. Tel: +44 (0)1480 410 900. Web: cyrusaudio.com. US distributor: Fidelity Imports. Web: fidelityimports.com.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

Egads, "to ease the pain" as justification.

This is the very guy that un-reasonably priced gear manufacturers turn to to get Glossy-Mag prominent coverage.

Analog Planet seems like a Marketing Tool of the Crazy Priced, I don't like it and I object. ( I'm a paid subscriber )

Tony in Venice Florida

ps. seems like the world's best turntable manufacturer should've had the World's best Audio writers like Mr.HR, Mr.KM, Mr.K Rubinson which kinda showcases their motives.

ps. It might be a great value Mr. Harry Weisfeld's point of view on this transducer.

Herb Reichert's picture

in one of my more legitimate previous lives I sold million dollar hifi with 50-watt amps that cost $250k. One thing was very clear about my customers: they didn't read audio magazines.

What they wanted was "the best."

hr

tonykaz's picture

People in all the peer groups I've worked with appreciate "the best" 'value for money' relationships.

Some folks will buy Status and then pursue Ego: the Gold Rolex people.

Stereophile has always been legitimate because it attempts to establish 'Value for Money' as the dominant criteria for gear ownership. The presentation of half million dollar gear needs to be about establishing its appropriateness in a manner accessible to readership scrutiny.

I recall when Mr.JA @ HFN&RR discovered Krell Amplification. I then had access to Krell and was also delighted with the Amp. ( I couldn't get the Product Line as it was well protected ), I also duplicated Mr.JA's discovery of Koetsu and did get that product line ( to this day I still collect Koetsu ) . Stereophile has been a consistently reliable source of discoveries. I'll contrast that with what I felt was a seemingly endless stream of product Promotions from TAS & Audio. ( my Esoteric Audio was buying ALL the well reviewed products that were mostly disappointedly deficient )

I have not yet found a single owner or inheritor of any of those Asian electronics you refer to representing, when I do I'll jump to buy. Mr. Dudley's favourite Brand is another that I never find.

As far as Record players are concerned, I never come across any of my peer group that still play vinyl yet one of my grandchildren does own a suitcase record player ( KLH ) and a small collection of Rickey Lee Jones & Kate Bush ( from her audiophile father and grandfather )

Tony in Venice Florida

lydmand's picture

I own the downright plebeian (compared to yours) EMT JDS VM cartridge, and I can report the *exact* same experience. Sometimes the spectrum of presence to treble is so strident and harsh as to be unlistenable. It is impossible to listen to noise rock full of distortion; any kind of crescendo in the last track, or certain female vocalists. Thankfully I have a teddybear SPU ready on a second arm for such occasions.

And then again, other times I don’t have that experience, and it sounds glorious. Go figure, because I haven’t figured it out.

mmole's picture

I'm a fan of how you stir things up around here but in this case I think you are not approaching the issues raised by a review of a half-million dollar turntable correctly. First, while I share your concerns about spillover from the advertising to the review departments in Stereophile, both JAs have strongly stated that there is an unbroachable wall between them and, as a long time subscriber, I have little reason to doubt them. However, do you truly believe that Michael Fremer's review of the Air Force Zero is a "marketing ploy"? Is Techdas really relying on some well-heeled reader of Stereophile to notice his review and purchase a 'table or two? Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think this is how the ultra high end is sold.

I looked at the review differently. I'm not a customer for a half million dollar turntable. No one I know is either. In fact I would suspect there are fewer than 100 people in the world with the assets and the interest to buy one. But now that I know it exists, I do want to read a review of a "test drive" by a reviewer with vast experience in the field. For me that person is Michael Fremer. Clearly for you it would be another reviewer on the Stereophile staff. Regardless, aren't you interested in how the damn thing sounds?

volvic's picture

I have owned mine for almost a full year now and think it is one of the finest phono preamps on the planet. Yes, I've heard others costing way more that sound better, but for my money the features and ease of use overrides all the others. The ability to adjust settings from your couch with a remote is so great I am surprised other manufacturers have not offered it, no need for dip switches and special tools to make a change. Also, those of us with multiple turntables praise the four input stages an absolute godsend. I love it.

X