New York Audio Labs "SuperIt" phono preamplifier

Basically, I have to admit that I am a Valvophobe. I would give you the dictionary definition of that word, but it has been sealed in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnall's porch since . . . Anyway, you get the idea. A Valvophobe is someone who doesn't like tubes in their 1986 stereo systems.

Harvey Rosenberg, the not-unflamboyant President of New York Audio Labs (NYAL), recently sent me a curious little black box he is purveying. Christened with the unlikely name of "SuperIt," this device turned out to be a hybrid tube/MOSFET phono preamp. When I say phono preamp, I mean just that! It has inputs for a phono cartridge, line-level outputs on the back, and that's it! No switching facilities, no tape monitor, no high-level inputs, only a DIP switch, accessible from the back, which allows the user to match cartridge loading. There are two potentiometers on the front: Volume and Balance.

There isn't even an on/off switch, the SuperIt being plugged into the wall by its combination power transformer/mains plug (as used by calculators) and left "on" all the time. Indeed, the instructions say that it must be left on for best performance, and that it won't really sound its best until it has been on for about a month. (It's true. The darn thing sounded better every time I listened to it for about 3–4 weeks. Then it "settled into the groove" and has not changed appreciably since.)

The internal construction is good, and the parts, while not of ARC calibre, are certainly not cheap. The power supply feeds well-regulated voltage both to the plate circuit of the tubes—three name-on-request 12AX7s, with no markings of any kind, not even tube numbers—and to the MOSFETs.

Why design a phono-only preamp, I hear you asking? Good question. Harvey says that it was designed to give owners of Japanese receivers and mid-fi preamplifiers the taste of tubes. They can just plug the SuperIt into the auxiliary jacks on their receiver, preamp, or integrated amp, and bypass the cheap transistor phono stage sported by most equipment of this ilk. The improvement should be dramatic.

Well, I don't know about owners of cheap mid-fi gear. My guess is that most of them have abandoned phonograph records altogether in favor of CD—or cassette! Where, then, do I think the SuperIt fits into the scheme of things? Why, it exists to ensure the conversion of valvophobes among the upper mid-fi and lower high-end audiophile community into valvophiles. For this task, the SuperIt is perfect.

Rather than use the SuperIt fed into the spare line-level input of my (transistor) preamp, I used it to drive my three-way crossover and power amps directly. The SuperIt readily lends itself to this arrangement. First, it has more than enough gain for the task (about 60dB), and the balance and volume controls make a main preamp redundant. Second, the MOSFET output stage means that the inputs of my passive crossover are essentially fed from the same kind of load as they would be from my transistor preamp. This would not be the case if the SuperIt were a tube-only design, even it used a cathode follower.

How does it sound? Just fine! The SuperIt has that elusive harmonic rightness said to characterize the best tube electronics. This is most noticeable at the top end, where the glaring hardness featured by many solid-state designs is most annoying. The SuperIt is smooth and sweet. Strings take on that special velvet-like sheen that says "This is real. This is what music sounds like." Brass instruments have the bite they have in the concert hall, and woodwinds have rarely sounded so mellow. The ability to do right by these instruments, the bulk of whose energy is in the midrange, will attest to any component's competence in this region.

The SuperIt's bass really surprised me—it is quite exceptional. Records had a firm, tight, well-articulate foundation that I have rarely heard before. Certainly my reference preamp (a semi-custom solid-state design) exhibits nowhere near the weight and control in the low bass that I find with the SuperIt.

On the debit side, I find that when compared with a live performance (or, for that matter, some correctly miked master tapes), the SuperIt seems to gloss over small details in the sound, almost as if to say "This bit is too difficult, I'll skip it." I must admit, however, that this characteristic has lessened over the weeks, to the point where it is now only noticeable in direct comparison with master tapes or with my reference preamp. I might also add that the transistor glare that my reference unit contributes to the sound of records is now much more annoying than the SuperIt's slight sin of omission.

In the imaging department the SuperIt is a mixed bag. My reference is better at localizing instruments in space—although this aspect of the SuperIt's performance also improved dramatically during the "burn-in" period—but the SuperIt has a better-defined soundstage. The soundstage is wider, higher, and deeper than I have experienced before, stretching far beyond the edge of the speakers, yet with clearly delineated boundaries. There seems to be a little narrowing of width in the back, but this is a very minor quibble.

I also find that the SuperIt reproduces music with much more apparent dynamic range than does my reference. When the orchestra gets louder, it does so without any of the congestion that seems to plague many designs.

Another aspect of the NYAL preamp which surprised me was its signal/noise ratio. In days of old, tube preamps (especially their phono stages) hissed. Among other reasons, this was due to the nature of tubes. Being thermionic devices, they work by the heat-propelled movement of electrons from cathode to plate. Such electron movement, by definition, involves the production of noise, so I was not expecting the quietness of the grave from the SuperIt. Wrong again~! In spite of this preamp having some 20dB more gain than most solid-state preamps (60dB at 1kHz instead of the usual 40dB), it is dead quiet. Only by cranking the volume control full-up was I just barely able to discern hiss from the speakers. Pretty impressive performance from what I believed to be basically a dead technology.

The NYAL SuperIt is not perfect—but what is? It is a helluva lot better overall than many highly touted transistor designs. This is all the more astounding when you consider that it sells at a price more befitting a mid-fi phono cartridge than a high-end phono preamp. It does many things well and some things superbly. It is true to the sound of music, and would be a grand introduction for anybody to the attractions of tubes. Be forewarned, though: tubes are addictive!

Please remove my name from the roll of Valvophobes. But don't put me on the Valvophile list quite yet. Having tested the thermionic waters and found them agreeable, I am up for getting wet. I look forward to trying other NYAL products, or maybe a Conrad-Johnson. Who knows?

Herb Reichert's picture

my SuperIt :)

Ortofan's picture

... did you use your Super IT?

Herb Reichert's picture

DH-200 and DH-101 (the one with the fakakta plastic buttons)

Ortofan's picture

... similarly afflicted.

It was soon replaced by an NAD 1020 preamp, which had better buttons, a subsonic/infrasonic filter (giving it an advantage for LP playback) and even cost less than the Hafler preamp in kit form. It was a great match with the Hafler DH-200 power amp.
But, it wouldn't have had that "euphonic and romantic" tube sound quality.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Superstring theory :-) ............

Graham Luke's picture

I love the post-industrial look of the device. I've just become the proud owner of a Gilmore Lite Mk 2 and it is very similar. Any colour as long as it's black...wasn't that Henry Ford's famous quote?