Ensemble Fonobrio phono preamplifier Page 2

The Fonobrio was most directly comparable to the Halcro dm10. The VAC CPA1 Mk.III was lovely, but added far more of its own voice than the others. The Sutherland PhD's incredible quiet and freedom from any sort of electronic texture set it apart, but so did its softened dynamic transients. The Whest PhonoStage.20 offered a balanced perspective, as Michael Fremer noted in his "Analog Corner" review in the March 2005 issue, but it couldn't quite match the pricier models' resolution and sophistication.

The first thing I noted was that Ensemble has achieved their goal of a consistent sonic personality in the two components I've auditioned. Like the Dirondo, the Fonobrio produced solid, tightly focused images on a huge, open soundstage. Detail resolution and ambience retrieval were superb. Its tonal balance was slightly lighter than the absolute truth, but with a sweetness that defied easy description, and with no trace of hardness or of upper-range shrillness. Dynamic transients were fast and articulate without ever sounding discontinuous or overstated, and the subtlest nuances of pitch and volume were clear but, again, perfectly coherent. No matter how I parsed its sound, the Ensemble was superb. But I'll tackle each of these parameters in a bit more detail.

The Fonobrio's soundstage was huge—very similar to the Halcro's and slightly but consistently larger than I heard from SACDs of the same performances. On Fritz Reiner and the CSO's LP of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (RCA/Classic LSC-2201), I noticed that, within the soundstage, the Fonobrio's resolutions of spatial information and ambience retrieval were actually a bit better than the Halcro's. The Halcro was unquestionably magic—its soundstage was wonderfully warm and enveloping, and I truly felt as if I was in the hall. On the other hand, the Fonobrio's focus, or the clarity with which it reproduced low-level detail, was sharper. With the Halcro, for example, individual violins were distinguished more by differences in texture and tonal balance than by spatial details, and their outlines were diffuse. The Fonobrio defined and located each violin more precisely, and the boundaries at which each instrument met the surrounding ambience were more distinct.

The Ensemble also excelled at weaving together low-level ambience cues to portray the character of the original recording venue. I heard this not so much in how it reproduced the hall's surfaces but in how the instruments interacted with their surroundings. Notes' trailing edges decayed into the background for what seemed like forever, maintaining their harmonic structure and textures at even the lowest levels. A typical rave from my listening notes: "amazing nuance and delicacy...long, long decays and even the faintest of echoes are audible in the notes' final structures."

The soft, spotlit horn and woodwind passages in the fourth movement of Pictures were great examples. The nuances of their decay and interactions with the surrounding acoustic were perfect through the Fonobrio. The edges of each instrument were distinct—I could hear how they energized the surrounding air, then decayed to soft echoes off the adjacent walls. In comparison, the Halcro seemed to project the instruments slightly outward from their surroundings, and their decays seemed a bit truncated. However, the Halcro's noticeably bolder, more forward perspective tended to make spotlit solo passages stand out more.

Another of the Fonobrio's strengths was its excellent treatment of dynamic transients. Its light, airy overall feel made it a bit deceptive in this regard, so comparisons required careful level matching. Once this was done, it was apparent that the Ensemble's overall perspective was slightly more recessed than the Halcro's or the SACDs', but the actual transients were as large, or even slightly larger, than those of the other two.

The Fonobrio was very articulate in its handling of transients, with superclean leading edges and precisely defined end points, absolutely no hint of rounding or softening, and none of the hashy, overly contrasted emphasis I associate with overshoot and ringing. The Halcro and SACDs were also excellent in this regard, so any differences that set the Fonobrio apart were subtle, and very near the edge of perception. My notes reflect my struggle in the frequent appearance of such not terribly definitive phrases as "perhaps slightly more distinct beginnings of bass notes" or "something about how the voices start a note makes them seem a bit more real."

The clearest difference I noted between the three was on Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucia's fiery Friday Night in San Francisco (Columbia/Nautilus HC 47152). I'd just listened to the first track of this album on an SACD and to the LP through the Halcro, and was really, really impressed by each. With the Ensemble, however, the LP's performance was ever so slightly crisper, and a bit more realistic and alive.

One thing I discussed at length in my review of the Ensemble Dirondo was its slightly too light tonal balance—another characteristic it shares with the Fonobrio. While it's true that many factors contribute to a system's overall tonal balance, in more than a year of listening to the Fonobrio—in two different rooms, through three different speakers, and with multiple combinations of electronics and cables—this lighter-than-real tonal balance was consistent. It wasn't apparent as overt dips or accentuations of any particular frequency ranges, nor would I characterize the Fonobrio's presentation as cool or dry. Instead, it had a sweet, airy feel that was apparent on individual instruments as well as in the overall presentation. This was never intrusive or distracting, but it was always there.

The Halcro dm10 has been widely acclaimed for its neutrality, so I cued up AcousTech's wonderful 45rpm remastering of Cannonball Adderley's Know What I Mean? (Riverside/AcousTech 9433) and compared it with the Fonobrio. Through either, the first few notes established the overall balance and feel. Amid the superlatives in my listening notes for the Fonobrio is the phrase "light, sweet, open...too delicate?" I also raved about the Halcro's performance, noting that it was "warmer, more forward, bolder...but does the alto sax sound a little too much like a tenor?"

I repeated the comparison on several other occasions and concluded only that I would drive myself crazy worrying about the differences. Did the cymbal have a more realistic ring with the Fonobrio? Was the Halcro's cascading shimmer more accurate? The bottom line was that both phono stages were superb and the differences between them weren't really that relevant. Not only was I splitting hairs, I was doing so within one particular context: my room, my system, one album, my experience and biases. Your results, as they say, may vary.

Summing up
The Ensemble Fonobrio is a great-sounding phono stage. In my experience—which doesn't include the reference-quality units some of my colleagues have heard—it joins the Halcro dm10's integral phono stage at the top of the heap. It's equally quiet and similarly excellent, and offers a slightly different overall perspective that will suit some listeners and systems better, and some perhaps not quite as well. However, I think the Fonobrio's balance means that it will be a wonderful match for a great many listeners and systems.

The Fonobrio is certainly expensive at $4799, but it's in the same sonic neighborhood as the Halcro, which costs $12,000 as a line stage and $15,000 with phono stage. VTL's TL-7.5 line stage ($12,500) was a wonderful match for the Fonobrio. And there are several highly regarded competitors at or near the Fonobrio's price, from Aesthetix, Manley Labs, Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson, Herron, and Tom Evans, to name just a few. If you're shopping, I highly recommend that you give the Ensemble Fonobrio a listen.

Ensemble, Inc. Ltd.
US distributor: Ensemble America
275 Madison Avenue, 4th floor
New York, NY 10016
(877) 872-8721