Plinius M14 phono preamplifier Page 2

I've heard systems whose iciness drove me up the wall, but which pleased their owners no end. Some would find my system too bright and etched, but I'd probably find theirs syrupy and suffocating. That's the way this game is played, and that's part of the fun and fascination of having high-end audio as a hobby—or as a job, for that matter.

But back to the M14's creamy, rich palette: cymbals, bells, celeste, harpsichords, snare drums, and other instruments with sharp percussive edges came through with their initial transients intact, but with a rounded, sculpted aftertaste that extended throughout the timbre of the particular instrument. Below the transient event, this translated into a slight warming trend that extended the smoothness throughout the instrument's harmonic envelope.

Unless the recording was absurdly edgy or bright, when I heard a kettledrum thwack through the M14 I knew I was hearing a mallet on skin. I could hear the body of the instrument, and, more important, I experienced it as part of the same event. When I heard Heifetz ascending the scale, I always knew I was hearing horsehair rubbed with rosin scraping animal entrails fashioned into strings—not some plastic or metal event. That's good!

In other words, while the M14 had a smooth, round, warmish overall sound, it was not restricted to a particular area of the sonic spectrum. The middle midbass and low bass fit the same sonic paradigm: stand-up basses sounded warm and woody, but not mushy or sloppy. Likewise cellos. Roy and Elvis sounded there, full-bodied and three-dimensional.


But relative to the FM Acoustics 122, whose overall openness and neutrality left me unable to easily describe its "sound," the M14 was distinctive in its smoothness. Some will find this refined quality absolutely addictive—especially if their systems tend toward the overly etched end of the sonic spectrum. Some will desire a bit more "etch" and/or transparency. As you might expect from this description, the M14 is absolutely free of grain and edginess—something anyone spending $3500 on a phono section has a right to expect.

Hitting rock bottom
At the other end of the scale, the M14 offered exemplary bass response, with a satisfying combination of extension, control, and timbral finesse—the kind of bottom end you'd expect from first-class solid-state gear. Compared to the FM Acoustics 122, or the phono section built into the Audible Illusions Modulus 3A, I found the M14 slightly leaner in the midbass, which gave the unit's overall sound a somewhat dryer character, but also made the M14 sound slightly "faster" and more dynamic in its presentation of low-level bass information.

These differences are really of an academic nature: I don't think anyone reading this would be disappointed with any of those three units' low-frequency performances, especially in terms of control and focus. Still, some tube-lovers might be willing to sacrifice a bit of the solid-state units' authority for a richer, warmer glow. Not me: Even though I'm a big fan of the Modulus 3A (I own it), I found the M14's bottom-end control and rhythmic sensibility superior—as well it should be in a dedicated phono section costing about $1000 more than a full-function preamp.

The all-critical midrange
For most music-lovers, the really important action is in the midrange—it's where the heart and soul of music reside, and it helps explain the renewed interest in single-ended tube designs. Many listeners are willing to sacrifice some control and extension at the extremes to get the rich, organic-sounding mid frequencies SE tube designs can offer. If that's your preference, the M14 won't be for you, but then neither will most solid-state gear.

The M14 doesn't offer a rich, bloomy midband, or the warm, post-transient afterglow and opulent harmonic envelope of tubes—a sound some find intoxicating, others phony. The M14 is slightly dryer and more polite in the midrange than the FM Acoustics 122, and sounds much more reticent than the Audible 3A. But this is how it has to be in order for its overall sound to hang together as expertly as it does: What you get in the mids complements the rest of the spectrum, helping to create a musically credible and satisfying whole.

As I was finishing up this review I received a test pressing of a new Alto reissue of Nanci Griffith's superb-sounding 1989 Storms album (originally on MCA MCA-6319). While some "purist" Griffith fans complained about Glyn Johns' slick pop production and mix (Jack Joseph Puig, engineer), Storms is the kind of opulent sonic masterpiece that used to be the bread and butter of the music business. Today it's considered either too expensive to create, or too good-sounding.

In any case, like Johns' production and sound on Joan Armatrading, this disc is a sonic melt-a-thon. I went back and forth between the M14 and the Audible and found the difference instructive. While the Audible offered a warmer, wetter, more laid-back midrange with a bit of edge above, the M14 pushed the bubble of sound farther forward while holding back slightly on the transients, which yielded a big, billowy, ultra-rich picture. The M14's rendering of Griffith's voice was creamy perfection.

Quiet on the Set
Even with the lowest-output MCs—like the Transfiguration Temper and the Lyra Parnassus D.C.—the M14 was dead silent while providing sufficient gain for the Audible's line-stage, though I had to crank the volume further up than when using the Audible's built-in phono stage. At the same time, the M14's ample 140mV (claimed) input overload spec and front-mounted gain selector switch allowed me to use it with Grado's new Reference moving-iron cartridge, which outputs 7mV. Reproducing simply recorded solo acoustic music like John Renbourn's exquisite-sounding Sir John Alot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & ye Grene Knyghte (Transatlantic TRA 167), the M14 provided velvety silent backgrounds with even the lowest-output MCs I had on hand. I don't see how running in balanced mode could yield quieter results.

The Rest of the Picture
The M14's performance in other important areas—dynamic presentation, rhythmic swing, soundstaging, and imaging—was first-rate. This meant that when I switched between it and my reference Audible 3A, I heard few if any differences in these areas, save for the M14's somewhat more robust bass dynamics and low-frequency focus. I have no doubt the M14 measures quieter, but it doesn't translate into quieter audible performance. Perhaps a comparison using a solid-state line-stage would yield different results. The bottom line is, once the M14 was in the system and broken in, it was easy to forget it was there, and even easier to just kick back and enjoy listening to music—any kind of music—without hearing sonic uglies or worrying that information was being lost or obscured.

At $3500, the Plinius M14 occupies an interesting space in the dedicated phono-section marketplace. The one-piece unit is built like a power amplifier, and looks like one too. It offers the convenience of front-panel–selectable loading, but doesn't provide for custom resistive values. Nor does it allow for capacitance adjustment for moving-magnet cartridges—something that can have a profound effect on MM high-frequency response. In fact, the instructions don't even tell you the input capacitance to which the unit is permanently set. Though the design offers the flexibility of accepting both low- and high-output cartridges, clearly the designer believes most listeners will be using it with expensive MC cartridges.

You also get the balanced option for theoretically lower noise, and a phase-reversal switch, which comes "free" with balanced circuitry. More important, the M14's high level of refined sonic performance will appeal to many analog devotees—especially those who want to "set it and forget it." Those interested in playing with loading resistors, capacitance tweaking, and tubes should look elsewhere.

Certainly I was impressed with the M14's sonic performance; I'm sure the bench test will yield equally superb results. I thoroughly enjoyed the months I had it in my system, but with products like Audio Research's outstanding-sounding PH3 costing $1500 and the market crowded with other fine performers priced in between—not to mention the full-function Modulus 3A at almost $1000 less—I'd do some serious listening before buying the M14, good as it is. And it is good! Whether its performance is worth $3500 is a question only you can answer.

Plinius Audio Ltd
Plinius USA
3439 NE Sandy Boulevard #128
Portland, OR 97232
(503) 662-8210

tonykaz's picture

Easy to agree !

A fall in demand for phono will trigger a Glut on/in the market suggesting that many will not be sold. ( according to Cambridge Dictionary )

Well Said, Mr.MF phono marketer.

The 10cent word would be surfeit.

Tony in Venice

Glotz's picture

It's a good one though! MF has displayed continued integrity and transparency.

misterc59's picture

Agreed Mr Glotz!