Gramophone Dreams #65: Music Hall Analogue A3 phono preamplifier

If I hear it, is it real?

If your ears see,
And your eyes hear,
Not a doubt you'll cherish—How naturally the rain drips
From the eyes!
Bujutsu Sosho

The more audio gear I review, the more fascinated I become by the fact that as I listen to recorded music, I can close my eyes and see musicians on the stage at Carnegie Hall, or djembe drummers in a desert by a tent, or a bass note penetrating the Milky Way. What a gift of consciousness. And what a great hobby it is that focuses my attentions in this manner.

Similarly, I'm amazed that in a silent room, I can close my eyes and see the Ramones on stage at CBGB—and hear them play, at what feels like full volume!

Wilder still: My composer friends tell me they can hear a musical score in their head while they're reading it on paper. The best I can do along those lines is hear my own voice as I read my own writing. Plus, I have a playlist of songs stored in my head that I can play on demand. I maintain this jukebox in my mind so I can choose my own earworms. I never gave these diverse phenomena much thought until recently, when I learned that our interior experience of these sounds does not appear to be metaphorical—nor, as I had assumed, immaterial. Brain scans have revealed that brainwave-wise, the music we hear in our heads is not really different than what comes in from the outside. According to cognitive neuroscientist Robert J. Zatorre, when we hear a song in our head, our brain's auditory cortex responds as it would if we were hearing it through our ears (footnote 1).

Presumably, my ability to form these internal auditory images results from some type of primal cognitive process animated by complex webs of memories and associations, rooted somehow in the nature of harmonicity, wavelengths of sound related in integer ratios (footnote 2). Likewise, I imagine my brain is using the same deep-imagining powers—the same perceptual matrixes—that my forebears used to make flutes and drums and songs.

Recognizing my brain's ability to fabricate sounds and visions helps me create and fills me with hope that you, reader, have an equally active and associative mind; that your cognitive processes are similar to mine; and most importantly, that you've already had a range of similar listening experiences. I hope this because when I write columns and reviews, it is always my intention to trigger sounds and pictures in your head when you read my words. I want to do that well enough that you can put yourself in my place, just a little, and imagine how the equipment being described might sound in your system.

That level of reviewer-to-reader communication relies on me using the right words, words that trigger not just specific thoughts but sounds and pictures, too. That's easier said than done.

As I write this, I'm wondering how your brain might "imagine" the sound of a record playing on a turntable relative to the sound of a CD or a file streaming through your system. Can you summon aural images that distinguish analog from digital? When you read the word analog, do you hear, inside your head, a certain type of sound? When you see a photo of a tube amplifier, does it trigger memories—actual memories—of listening with tubes? Or does it trigger only thought-concepts?

As for me: When someone mentions a Kondo Ongaku, or a Marantz 8B, or a Mark Levinson ML-2, I can, for at least a moment, hear these amplifiers playing music through speakers. For the sake of this story, I hope you have memories like that.

Music Hall Analogue A3 Phono Preamplifier
My old friend Roy Hall of Music Hall (footnote 3) is a distinguished and popular audio-world personality whose audiophile ears, manufacturing knowhow, and marketing skills have been tuned over decades. He was born in Glasgow and has known fellow Scotsman and Linn Audio founder Ivor Tiefenbrun since he was a child. ("I knew Ivor when he was still good looking," Roy once told me.) In Scotland, drinking malt whisky and playing black discs are national pastimes, so have no doubt that Roy Hall can conjure some fine analog and has touched a few tonearms while under the influence.

At Music Hall, all products are envisioned by Roy Hall then realized by others. But don't let that bias you. Better than most folks working in our racket, Roy has ears, and he knows what type of sound he wants to present. He's especially attuned to the kind of record players that make listeners feel good about the records they are playing.

I like Roy because he's an inveterate storyteller with lots of overtly snarky shtick. "Sharing whisky at shows and telling people to go f*#k themselves is the secret of my success," he says. I've snickered a this kind of Roy-prattle for decades (footnote 4).

But sometimes, he annoys me. Roy knows that once upon a time I was the US importer for Audio Note, Avantgarde, Tango, and Black Gate—all expensive brands—and whenever I see him, he pontificates about the foolishness of spending immodest sums on hi-fi. He believes that too many audiophiles are paying too much for bragging rights and trophy products when all they really need is a simple turntable, a moving magnet cartridge, and an integrated amp—all of which Music Hall happens to sell.

As for me, I remain confirmed in my belief that we generally get what we pay for, and that if we want to fly high and dream all over the galaxy, we need a good rocket.

But Roy is mostly right: Most audiophiles could live quite satisfactorily with hi-fi equipment far humbler than their ego tells them they need. Maybe something as humble as Music Hall's new direct-drive Stealth turntable (which I review elsewhere in this issue) coupled to Music Hall's $1199 Analogue A3 tube phono stage, which I am about to describe.


I've never before reviewed a Music Hall product, but when I saw that Roy was peddling not only a direct-drive turntable but also a sharp-looking tube phono stage with a volume control, I had to call him.

I had to review these products because inside my head I can still hear Roy and his pal Ivor, years ago, demonizing direct-drive turntables and tube amplifiers. And now he makes both? What's next, Roy? Drinking Wild Turkey? Ivor trading his tuned Jaguars for a Jeep Wrangler?

That A3 look: The Analogue A3 preamp does not look plain, black, or utilitarian, like previous Music Hall electronics. It looks eye-poppingly bright, shiny-anodized, and anthropomorphic, with two caged tubes sticking out from the top like ears and two outlined-in-red knobs that remind me of cartoon cat eyes (footnote 5). The right-side knob is an on-off switch, and the left-hand knob turns an Alps "Blue Velvet" potentiometer, for volume control. There is no remote. The 12AU7 dual-triode tubes are flanked by something unusual: a silkscreened image of the "A3 System Functional Block Diagram." One of the blocks near the input is labeled "Input Matrix," a phrase I'd never seen in this context (footnote 6).

I freaked and called Roy Hall and made him swear on his sister's honor that, whatever it means, it doesn't mean the inputs are converted to digital. (It doesn't. They aren't.)

On the A3's back panel are two pairs of RCA phono cartridge inputs: one with 40dB gain and a 47k ohm impedance for moving magnet cartridges, the second with 60dB gain and 100 ohms for moving coils. A third pair of RCAs is labeled Output. The A3 chassis measures 10" wide, 7" deep, and 3.6" high and weighs 6lb. It comes packed in a sturdy metal flight case.

My initial impressions of the Analogue A3 preamp came with it feeding directly (as in, no preamp) the Parasound Halo A 21+ power amplifier followed by my Falcon Gold Badge LS3/5as. Music Hall's Stealth turntable and Ortofon 2M Blue moving magnet cartridge sparked the input.


Because it was in front of me at arm's reach—no other reason—I played side 2 of E. Power Biggs' Greatest Hits (Columbia LP MS 7269). Thirty seconds in, I started laughing. Not only was this preamp with the cartoon eyes driving the A 21+ easily, without gain assistance from a line-level preamp, but it was also sounding silky smooth and harmonically correct. I was laughing as I listened because, unlike most reasonably priced phono stages, the Analogue A3 was preserving the scale and, most amazingly, the growling, wheezing, air-moving textures of Biggs's "historically appropriate organs." I am not joking: The A3 and Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge were pumping out pipe-organ energy that seemed too big and naturally rough to be coming out of my breadbox-sized Falcons.

Footnote 1: "These diverse studies converge on one principal finding: that neural activity in auditory cortex can occur in the absence of sound ... and that this activity likely mediates the phenomenological experience of imagining music." (Zatorre, R.J. & Halpern, A.R. "Mental concerts: Musical imagery and auditory cortex." Neuron 47, pp.9-12, 2005.) The relevance of this to Herb's column is obvious enough, but the example it presents of scientists struggling to encompass subjective phenomena into quantitative work—a problem familiar to thoughtful audiophiles—is interesting, too.—Jim Austin

Footnote 2: See

Footnote 3: Music Hall, LLC, 108 Station Rd., Great Neck, NY 11023. Tel: (516) 487-3663. Email: Web:

Footnote 4: His Stereophile Manufacturers' Comments are the stuff of legends.

Footnote 5: Although this anthropomorphic effect is offset by the fact that the A3's "eyes" and "ears" are, well, offset.—Jim Austin

Footnote 6: In audio electronics, "matrix" is most often used to describe the mapping of input signals to output signals, typically when there's more than one of the latter, as in pro-audio mixers. From the diagram on top of the A3, it seems to be referring to precisely that here, even though in this case there's only one set of outputs (L and R channel).


Jonti's picture

When someone mentions a Kondo Ongaku, or a Marantz 8B, or a Mark Levinson ML-2, I can, for at least a moment, hear these amplifiers playing music through speakers. For the sake of this story, I hope you have memories like that.

Yes Herb, I'm right there with you. (And I'm sure many others are too.) Memory is a magical thing: I can transport myself back to times and places and picture them, and the images retain their soundtracks, right down to the texture of bass and treble and the acoustics of the room. Some of my happiest sonic souvenirs:

The palpable magnetic tape texture of Kraftwerk playing via a McIntosh MA-6100 into monolithic Sony SS-G9 speakers in the basement at home in Hokkaido; the glorious warmth of a Charlie Parker record on a Victor direct-drive going via a Luxman SQ-707 into a pair of KLH Model Sixes whose tweeters had been replaced with silky Coral paper cones, in my attic with its wacky acoustics (imagine a room the dimensions of a Toblerone); the all-enveloping 30Hz bass waves of King Tubby filling my living room through a pair of Technics SB-7000s...

I could go on! Actually, I think Abba (!) put it best:

Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing.
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing.
Who can live without it?, I ask in all honesty.
What would life be?
Without a song or a dance, what are we?
So I say thank you for the music,
for giving it to me

Lars Bo's picture

Hear, hear, Herb.

And our individual reservoirs of experiences, expectations, and aptitudes sure have a lot to answer for, not least in the reception of representational sound and play of music conveyed by hi-fi. Wouldn't be very meaningful without, really.

Some patterns do seem to be commonly shared. Jonathan Berger's examples of the missing fundamental, combination tones etc. (synergy phenomena we hear, though materially absent in stimuli) are most likely shared, as is e.g. a universal pentatonic scale:

Thank you, once again.

Jack L's picture


YES, "simpler - and better" sound = less electronics in the signal path better the sound. This is physics.

This is my ever-simple analgue/digital music way since day one deacades back.
I love it.

Listening is believing

Jack L

thethanimal's picture

Not a comment on this GD article, but Nils Frahm’s new albums “Music for Animals” dropped today. Listening now, and it’s got to be a Herb R2D4, especially on some of those fancy open-back planar headphones and the Felix or Ampsandsound, if you still have them. BT headphones for me for now, but I’ll take a trip with my Zen Triode and full-rangers this evening.

Herb Reichert's picture

Nils Frahm's Music for Animals now—all three hours of it.

If anybody ever wondered why someone would need a fancy expensive hi-fi — just listen to this album.

The answer will be obvious.

Thanks for putting me hip to it.


thethanimal's picture

After kids were in bed and the dishes done, and the wife and I finished a movie (who can watch a movie in one sitting when they have little kids?), she went up to bed and I said I’d be right up. I put this album on and didn’t make it to bed for another hour. Mesmerizing.

The Comet is Coming also dropped Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam, which has been getting a lot of play time in the car while I await a chance for a full system listen without disturbing the family.

avanti1960's picture

compromise the sound in any way?
If so, that and the lack of loading adjustments on MC would compromise the market. Too bad, we could have used another quality reasonably priced tube phono preamp.

Herb Reichert's picture

Of course it can be used with an active preamp. I used it without "compromising the sound" with the HoloAudio Serene.

But what makes this phono stage special is the fact that it has enough gain and a high-quality volume control so you don't have to.

How many "quality reasonably priced tube phono stages" have a volume control?

I can only think of of one: Tim de Paravicini's Phono Box.


Ortofan's picture

... "It was then that I remembered my old theory that there is a unique, beguiling form of audio magic that results from applying the higher (nominally 5mV) output voltages of moving magnet cartridges directly to the grids of tubes, eliminating the need for more active stages to supply the extra 20dB amplifier gain required for moving coils.

To me, a great tube RIAA stage driven by a tuneful moving magnet or moving iron cartridge is one of Audio's oldest and most rewarding blessings."

However, is that the way in which the A3 is actually configured?

Music Hall's webpage for the A3 specifies:
"phono gain: MC 60dB, MM 40dB, @ 1KHz
vacuum tube preamplifier gain: 6dB"

Likewise, the schematic on the top of the unit seems to depict the RIAA stage as preceding and separate from the following tube stage (and level control/attenuator)).

So, aren't the phono gain stages solid-state and then followed by a tube (preamp) stage?

The total gain of 40dB + 6dB from the MM input to the output is sufficient to lift the 5mV output of the 2M Blue cartridge to 1V.
Given that the Parasound A21+ has an input sensitivity of 1V for an output of 100W into an 8Ω load, it isn't particularly surprising that the A3 could drive the A21+ (and, in turn, the Falcon "Gold Badge" LS3/5a speakers) to a satisfying level.