Gramophone Dreams #65: Music Hall Analogue A3 phono preamplifier Page 2

I knew Roy Hall was a clever fellow but not this clever. I never thought he could step out of his belt-drive/solid state comfort zone and make this kind of big, radiant, air-moving sound happen. Likewise, I never thought analog at this price could play anywhere near this true of tone and breathy, airy clear. By the time I got to Ives: Variations on "America" played on the Fisk organ of Harvard University, I was shaking my head in amazement, laughing, and thinking how I needed to buy more E. Power Biggs discs because I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the sound of large organs moving giant masses of church air.


Not quite believing the quality of sound I experienced with E. Power Biggs' Greatest Hits, I put on my number-one analog test disc: René Clemencic et ses flýtes (Harmonia Mundi LP HM 384). The Analogue A3 did it again. With this record, the octaves above 1kHz came through more silky-smooth and undistorted than I would have expected at this price.

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.


A3 + 2M Black: I've tried Ortofon's $695 2M Black cartridge on more tonearms than I can remember, and it always sounded tonally balanced, exquisitely detailed, and super-spacious (for a moving magnet). But, to my ears, the 2M Black always felt restrained, in a way that declared "Dancing is a sin!" But when I played it on the Music Hall Stealth turntable, through the Analogue A3 phono preamplifier, it removed its black coat, tossed off its clerical collar, and started dancing like a drunk deacon. It played the blues like it was friends with Satan.

When I heard this, I was shocked. I blamed this unprecedented defrocking on witches.

A3 + Denon DL-103: Music Hall's Analogue A3 did such an exciting job amplifying Ortofon's 2M Black moving magnet that I wondered how it would perform with the naturally exuberant great-at-giddy-up Denon DL-103 moving coil. I mounted the low-output (0.3mV), high-impedance (40 ohms), $349 DL-103 moving coil on an LP Gear Headshell and attached it to Music Hall's Stealth. I was curious about this pairing because the A3's moving coil input has a fixed (100 ohm) impedance. And this could be a problem.

The high-impedance DL-103 famously sags and gets dull when it's loaded down at 100 ohms, and that is what I heard. When I played my beloved Decca Gold Label Andres Segovia, Guitar (DL 10054), I felt sad about the sound, but not surprised. I knew in advance that the DL-103 only starts to open up with at least 200 ohms and swings fully only at 300 to 400 ohms.

But it really sounds the most vivid and complete when driving EMIA's Cu 1:10H step-up transformer. I know some will think a $3375 SUT out of place in a review of a $1199 phono stage, auditioned with a $349 cartridge, but that presumes that both modestly priced products are unworthy, which is wrong. I've enjoyed Denon DL-103s in cost-no-object systems.

With the EMIA SUT driving the A3's moving magnet input, that Gold Label Segovia came beautifully and gracefully alive, glowing and sharply focused, with that luminous aura I cherish. I've been using this EMIA copper 1:10 for at least 10 years. (I have an ancient "drug through the Hudson" version.) The magic of this combo is the chief reason I remain loyal to my DL-103s.

A3 + Koetsu?The A3 was sounding so silky and tube effortless that I wondered how its moving coil input would handle my $8495 Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum, which thrives at 100 ohms. Playing the Koetsu on the Dr. Feickert Blackbird with a Thomas Schick arm was an interesting experiment that quickly answered the question, "Would the modestly priced Analogue A3 degrade the sound of expensive cartridges?"


Through the Analogue A3's moving coil input, the Koetsu sounded nice, with a good amount of quiet vividosity. It played okay: enjoyably, but not amazingly. It was not delivering $8495 worth of excitement.

Except! When I inserted the Koetsu's matching, $5000 SUT between it and the Analogue A3's MM input, the Milky Way appeared. Horses reared. Big drums and chesty sopranos stormed the air in my room.

The Koetsu entering the A3 via the Koetsu transformer then going directly into the A 21+ amplifier, which powered my "Gold Badge" Falcons, was a system I enjoyed without second thoughts.

Compared to the Kitsuné LCR-1 MK5: Overall, Music Hall's Analogue A3 phono stage did not equal the Tavish Design Adagio for silence, physicality, or full-spectrum harmonics. However, these deficiencies were subtle and usually swamped by the overall attractiveness of the A3's sound. The A3's weaknesses were most noticeable as a thinness in the lower octaves, especially while listening to solo piano—where, as usual, the artist's left hand told the story. And also on male vocals, where the tones of a singer's voice would be good but not completely fleshed out.

The A3 displayed low energy in the upper bass, but my solid state reference phono stage, the Kitsuné LCR-1 MK5 ($1498 to $2298), seems to over-energize that region.

Music Hall's Stealth turntable and A3 phono stage sounded most alive and smiling with Ortofon's 2M Black moving magnet mounted on that LP Gear headshell. So I thought I'd run the Stealth–2M Black pairing into the Kitsuné LCR-1 to see how it compared to the Analogue A3. Like the Adagio, the Kitsuné LCR-1 is a two-chassis design, its power supply housed in a separate box. The LCR-1 has no volume attenuator, so I was forced to use HoloAudio's Serene line-level preamp as a controller. In other words, I just replaced Music Hall's modestly sized Analogue A3 with three rack-sized boxes!


I played Jean Sibelius: Mélodies, Songs, Lieder with baritone Jorma Hynninen and Ralf Gothóni on piano (French Harmonia Mundi LP HMC 5142). The unbridled, close-miked dynamics on this 1984 recording make me sit upright and pay attention. These chest-opening song-poems, especially "Come Away, Death!" and "Song of the Cross-spider," are my favorite type of musical art, and on this recording, the piano and vocal sound is as clear and vivid and raw analog as I've heard on any recording. As I listened through the LCR-1, I thought the Ortofon 2M Black sounded damn near perfectly clear and superdetailed with enormous lower-octave energy. Seppo Siirala's guitar, on "When that I was and a little tiny boy," was as tangible and present-sounding as I could ever ask for.

With Music Hall's Analogue A3 going straight into the Parasound A 21+, this recording sounded less concrete but just as refined, natural, and stimulating as I could hope for—exceptionally fine-grained and fine-textured with good carry-the-tune momentum. This Sibelius recording was the A3's finest moment. The art and music parts were all there, and the quality of sound I experienced was probably what Harmonia Mundi's producers were aiming for.

Compared to the sometimes cool, hard-punching—dare I say masculine-sounding?—Kitsuné, the A3 presented itself in a more feminine manner. The performers sounded farther from their microphones. The A3's presentation was less dramatically dynamic and less physical sounding. But I think the A3 was playing closer to the truth.


There are a million phono cartridges and countless phono preamps to choose from. You could spend $50 or $50,000. But there is no sure way to know what any of them will sound like in your system. As I said in my preface, the best I can do is plant a few sounds inside your head, sounds that might help you imagine how Music Hall's Analogue A3 might sound in your system with your cartridge.

The more I auditioned Music Hall's tube phono stage, the more it reminded me of EAR's tubed Phono Classic. These two phono stages both sound world-class tube-beautiful, and they both have volume controls, which is rare on higher quality phono stages, but wonderful because it allows you to connect directly to a power amplifier. Directly connected to my amplifier, the A3 sounded clearer, more detailed, and more dynamic than it did with a line-level preamp in the system.

If your power amplifier has sufficient gain—more than about 25dB—plus switchable balanced and single-ended inputs (like my Parasound A 21+), you can set it up to use with both digital and analog sources. I connect the A3 to the A 21+'s RCA inputs and the dCS Bart¢k DAC to the Parasound's XLRs.

If I still had Genelec's active G Threes I reviewed in August, I could have connected the A3 directly to the speakers and made my system even simpler—and better.

Fine tube sonics and a quality Alps volume control make Musical Hall's Analogue A3 easy to recommend.


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.