Listening #162: Tavish Adagio phono preamplifier Herb Reichert March 2018

Herb Reichert reviewed the Adagio in March 2018 (Vol.41 No.3):

When I read Art Dudley's "Listening" column in the June 2016 issue, I was astonished by how much he praised Tavish Design's Adagio phono preamplifier ($1790) relative to his Auditorium 23 Hommage T2 moving-coil step-up transformer ($5000), the Shindo Laboratory Aurièges outboard phono preamp ($7895), and the phono section in his Shindo Masseto preamp (discontinued, since replaced by the Shindo Monbrison: $12,500). Art made it sound as if the Tavish Adagio could deliver a significant portion of the thrust, scale, momentum, texture, and color of his expensive Shindo exotics. I thought, Maybe this is the phono stage I should use for my reviews of moderately priced analog gear. I wrote to Tavish Design's engineer and proprietor, Scott Reynolds, and asked if it was okay with him for Art to forward to me his review sample for a Follow-Up. It was.

That was 18 months ago.

Art had completed his listening to the Adagio in "a few weeks," and had used only the EMT TSD 15 and Ortofon SPU MC cartridges. Since the Adagio's arrival here, I've worked it like a sharecropper's draft mule, feeding it only a range of reasonably priced phono cartridges and a pastureful of banjo and accordion music.

During the Adagio's long stay in my bunker, I've studied its sound with a range of moving-magnet cartridges, including the MoFi Electronics MasterTracker ($699), the Ortofon 2M Black ($755), and the Roksan Chorus Silver ($999)—as well as moving-iron models, the Soundsmith Carmen ($999) and Grado Labs Reference Series Platinum 2 ($350). The list of low-output MCs is even longer: Hana EL ($375), Zu Denon DL-103 ($459), Dynavector DV-20X2L ($995), EMT TSD 75 ($1950), AMG Teatro ($2749), Koetsu Rosewood Standard ($3495)—and, as I type this, the cactus-cantilevered Miyajima Saboten ($2475). The Adagio produced vivid, uncolored, exciting music with all of them.

I worked the Adagio so hard because I found it an audio reviewer's dream. It was quiet; its sound was quick, clean, slightly burnished like silver, and nicely textured; its transparency was exemplary; it portrayed momentums well; it had a fundamentally neutral character. Best of all, it's a pleasure to use for a cartridge-swappin' reviewer, because all controls are arranged in military style on its front panel: Standby/On, MM capacitive loading, MM/MC selection, Mute, MC loading in ohms.

Meanwhile, Parasound's Halo JC 3+ ($2999) remains my everyday reference phono stage—I'd need to spend a lot more to improve on its morgue-quiet deep space, natural tone, and grainless, finely rendered detail. But "every day" is only those days I'm not comparing cartridges or turntables. Although the Parasound's front panel has a Mono button (the Tavish doesn't), its cartridge-loading controls are all in the rear. It's hard for me to see and adjust them without removing the entire unit from my rack.

The two-box Adagio uses six little nine-pin tubes: three 5751/12AX7 twin triodes, two EF86 pentodes, and one 12AU7 twin triode. It uses an unusual hybrid, passive/active equalization strategy—which, I believe, along with its complement of triode and pentode tubes, accounts for its unique sound character: burnished tube glow and transparent neutrality.

The Adagio's MC stage includes Jensen JT-44K-DX MC step-up transformers with a 1:10 ratio. The modest Jensens allowed my Zu Denon DL-103 and Hana EL cartridges a quiet, spirited authority, but I prefer to match my fancier MCs with an Auditorium 23, Bob's Devices CineMag 1131, Dynavector SUP-200, or EMIA transformer—each of which delivers superior textures, rhythmic vigor, and tonal color. Used with one of those higher-quality step-ups instead of its own internal transformers, the Adagio's MM input sounded so clean and fresh that it never felt like a compromise or a weak link in the chain.

Best of all, I can connect two turntables to the Adagio—so long as one sports an MM cartridge and the other an MC, or both are MCs and one of them is connected to the Adagio's MM input via a step-up or MC gain stage.

This is huge. The February 2018 issue included my report on MoFi Electronics' new UltraDeck turntable ($1799), in which I compared it and MoFi's best MM cartridge, the MasterTracker ($699), with AMG's Giro G9 turntable ($9900) and a variety of low-output MCs. With both turntables connected to the Adagio, all I had to do to change sources was flip the MC/MM toggle on the front panel. Cartridge loading was adjustable on the fly.

In truth, the Adagio's fundamentally neutral sound character leaned slightly toward the cool; its midrange colors were less bright and saturated than I prefer. Which is fine—typically, I connected it to a line-level input on either a Rogue Audio RH-5 or a PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium preamplifier. Both of those line stages are tubed, and both are slightly fat with second harmonics and are thus a bit warm in character. The Adagio's slight lack of saturated color yin-yangs the PrimaLuna and Rogue preamps into an appealing neutral balance.

The Adagio is a cool, quiet, neutral-sounding phono preamplifier, and it's a joy to use. I know of no better for under $3000.

I was inspired to write this Follow-Up because these days there seem to be a thousand phono stages to choose from, and surely they can't all be good. I believe it's important that reviewers plough the analog fields with as many different phono-stage mules as we can, looking for strong white teeth, clear eyes, a nice gait, and exceptional breeding. (By the way, a flesh-and-blood draft mule costs almost $5000.) When we find a handsome, work-ready phono mule like the Tavish Design Adagio, we must shout it out.

This story is mere prologue. In the April "Gramophone Dreams" I will describe several more analog farm accessories.—Herb Reichert

mink70's picture

Dear Art—

I always look forward to your cogent, smart, funny and elegant articles, but in this month's column I find myself confused by a single sentence.

You write: "And in the second movement's upbeat second theme, the color and texture of the woodwinds and strings were to die for (a sentiment with which P. Tchaikovsky was okay, I'm sure)."

I've read this sentence many times, and remain puzzled by what "sentiment" refers to. Attempting the close reading thing, I wondered whether P. Tchaikovsky might have been "okay" with vivid woodwind and string colors and textures, but of course "color" and "texture" here refer to qualities of electro-mechanical sound reproduction, which didn't exist in his lifetime.

I also considered whether "sentiment" might instead refer to "were to die for," an expression that sounds stereotypically gay, at least if you go by some American movies of the 1980s. Of course P. Tchaikovsky was known to be gay, so for a moment I wondered whether you were being humorous. Then I remembered that P. Tchaikovsky was tormented by and persecuted for his homosexuality, and that this persecution probably caused him to commit suicide, and that coming from a straight man a joke on this subject might be construed to be, at the very least, gauche. And so I realized that a writer of prose as cogent, smart, funny and elegant as yours would never joke about a thing such as this.

I remain puzzled, but will keep trying to figure it out. Reading comprehension was never my strong suit.

Art Dudley's picture
Thanks for reading that column, Mink70, and for your kind words. By "sentiment" I was indeed referring to the fact that Tchaikovsky might've been okay with the idea that something of great beauty could be "to die for." I used that phrase with no thought in mind of sexual orientation - every February we publish our annual Records to Die For issue of Stereophile, and I confess that have never thought of it as our "gay issue" - and with no thought of suicide or other human tragedy. I meant only that Tchaikovsky was, by all reports, not the most light-hearted guy in the world, and thus would have no trouble signing-off on a superlative steeped in morbidity.
AaronGarrett's picture

Thanks for reminding me to listen again to Oh Yeah. Kirk is particularly brilliant. And I love Doug Watkins bass playing so much -- his intonation and solidity in the groove is addictive. So sad that he, his friend Paul Chambers, Scottie LaFaro, Jimmy Blanton and so many others died so young. Only trumpeters seem to have been as cursed. But glorious that at least we can still hear him on so many records.

Ruxtonvet's picture

It is not just ORG that issues releases of old recordings where tape deterioration has occurred. Most companies do the same. Chad Kassem at one of last year's Axpona lectures said that increased dynamics and better bass response are reason enough to reissue an old recording even if ambience and high frequencies have been lost due to the tape deterioration. Speakers Corner is also guilty of the same plus they add transistors to the brew. Reference Recordings has refused to reissue some of their old recordings due to problems with the tapes but they are the exception to the rule. In my experience almost all reissues if they are older than 50 years have tape deterioration issues and sound inferior to an original clean pressing although their dynamics and bass response may be improved.

John Atkinson's picture
I have added Ying Tan's August issue letter to this Web reprint of Art's June column.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile