Recommended Components 2021 Edition Phono Preamplifiers

Phono Preamplifiers

A+

Auditorium 23 Hommage T1 & Hommage T2: both $4995 ★
Over twice the size and weight of the less expensive Standard transformer, the Class A+ Hommage T1, designed as a companion to Auditorium 23's Solovox loudspeaker, is a statement product. It has a textured-paint finish, attractive white-oak endcaps, and input and output resistances of 3 and 2530 ohms, respectively. The Hommage T1 shared the Standard's excellent timing, flow, and overall drama, but produced a much larger soundstage; and while the Audio Note AN-S8 was slightly richer, the Hommage T1 proved more exciting, said AD. Pairing the Hommage T1 with an EMT OFD 25 mono pickup head resulted in unsurpassed musical and emotional impact, he noted. The Hommage T1 provided more timbral color, more shimmer, and a larger overall sound than did Bob Sattin's CineMag 3440A device, found AD. Outwardly identical to the T1, the Hommage T2 takes the same uber-perfectionist approach and applies it to EMT's high-output, high-impedance cartridges and pickup heads: the TSD 15, the OFD 25, and so forth. Unusually for a transformer designed around such motors, the Hommage T2 has a high turns ratio, and consequently very high gain; it shouldn't work—yet it does, brilliantly. The combination of the Hommage T2 and an EMT OFD 25 delivers the most dramatically impactful, tonally vivid phono playback ever heard by AD, who adds, "The T2 is so good, it's sick!" (Vol.30 No.10, Vol.32 No.8, Vol.33 No.6 WWW)

Boulder Amplifiers 2108: $52,000
When he reviewed Boulder's flagship 2008 phono preamplifier in 2002, MF concluded that "it's hard to believe that, for some time to come, any [phono preamp] will equal or surpass the monumental performance of Boulder's 2008." Almost two decades later, the new two-box flagship replaces the 2008's three power supplies with four: left, right, logic, and an independent standby supply. The through-hole components and boards have been replaced by surface-mount equivalents, and the circuitry features proprietary, house-made, "phono-specific," 993S and 995S discretely implemented "op-amp" modules. There are now three equalization choices, as well as switchable high-pass filters at 10Hz and 20Hz. Gain is adjustable. With the MC input, the default loading impedance is 100 ohms, though resistors can be added to provide impedances from 50 ohms to 1000 ohms in 25 ohm increments. When set to MC, the third input offers a 1k ohm impedance. The MM input's loading is also adjusted with resistors, from 1k ohm to 10k ohms, while the third input set to MM offers the usual 47k ohms. And the sound? "The 2108 produces both a sense of soaring exultation in the upper registers and gritty drama in the lowest one," enthused MF, adding "Boulder detractors who think their products are too analytical, sounding dry and bleached, ought to give the 2108 a listen." He concluded that the 2108 "is very musical, plus, like the original 2008, it is granite-like in the best possible sense. JA was equally enthusiastic about the 2108's measured performance: "the performance of the Boulder 2108 on the test bench reveals it to be an extraordinarily well-engineered (though expensive) phono preamplifier." (Vol.43 Nos.8 & 10 WWW)

CH Precision P1 Phono Stage: $31,000–$89,000
Built with a sleek aluminum-alloy case with no screws visible on any of its surfaces, the Swiss-made CH Precision P1 is no less sophisticated inside. This solid-state phono preamplifier offers multiple inputs, two of which address current-amplification circuits—an approach that, according to MF, produces "the best signal/noise ratios" and does not require cartridge loading to achieve flat response. That said, for use with its voltage-amplification inputs, the P1 offers a menu-driven "wizard" that analyzes the entire record-playing system, and calculates and applies the optimal load. Beyond that, as MF points out, the user can manually test the P1's entire loading range of 20 ohms to 100k ohms, selectable in 500 steps: "load fetishists, knock yourselves out!" Used with its optional X1 outboard power supply ($17,000), the P1 provided Mikey with tonal neutrality and an ultra-low noise floor: "Some products have me up all night, pulling out record after record; some don't. The P1 did, and gave me an exciting and fully pleasurable sonic ride every time." In the June 2017 Stereophile, MF refocused his attention on the X1 power supply, observing that, "with the X1 off, the P1's image solidity and pile-driverlike rhythmic certainty . . . were somewhat diminished"—and noted that he'd purchased the CH Precision combo for his own enjoyment. In August 2018, MF wrote about his experiences with a double P1/X1 combo—something that seems to have been done by more than one hobbyist of immodest means. Thus connected, these four high-tech boxes know what has happened and behave accordingly—but while "the four-box version was even more dynamic" and possessed of "a more relaxed and supple midrange," Mikey could not countenance a $96,000 phono preamp. (Vol.40 Nos.4 & 6, Vol.41 No.8)

Ypsilon VPS-100: $26,000 ★
Made in Greece, the moving-magnet VPS-100 is beautifully built and housed in a substantial aluminum case. It uses a 6CA4 rectifier tube and choke filter, while RIAA is accomplished passively with zero feedback using a transformer-based LCR network. All internal wiring is done by hand, point to point. While it couldn't quite match the bottom-octave punch, definition, and extension of the Pass Labs XP-25, the Ypsilon produced a more transparent, silky, airy overall sound, said MF. "It produced an absolutely intoxicating blend of stupefyingly extended high frequencies, resolution, clarity, and transient precision, along with tight, deep, nimble, nonmechanical bass, and an ideally rich midrange," said MF, who has since purchased the review sample. (Vol.32 No.8, Vol.34 No.3)

A

Audio Research Reference Phono 3SE: $17,000
This revised version of the original Phono 3 features new internal components and a wiring change but still incorporates a FET input stage, six 6H30 tubes, and a hybrid tube/solid state power supply. MF found that the original preamp, reviewed in January 2017, sounded slightly "bloomy and generous in the lower midrange/upper bass," that coloration was eliminated from the 3SE, which produced a faster, cleaner, more transparent sound with greater midbass control. "For owners of the original 3, the $3000 upgrade is well worth doing, " he concluded. (Vol.44 No.2 WWW)

Channel D Lino C 2.2: $2699
The Channel D Lino C 2.0 is a current-mode phono preamp and as such is intended for use with cartridges that combine low output and, especially, low internal impedance. This battery-powered, solid-state design comes with a wall wart for charging, which takes place automatically; once the Lino C detects a signal, the charger is electrically disconnected and the preamp itself is galvanically isolated. Inputs are balanced (XLR) only, requiring the user of a nonbalanced tonearm-output cable to buy and add an adaptor, but both balanced and single-ended (RCA) outputs are supplied, and there are DIP switches inside for adjusting gain. MF praised this phono preamp's "drop-dead, noise-free backgrounds and lack of obvious colorations," observing that the $2499  Lino C "operates way above its pay grade." JCA also noted that the Lino was extremely quiet, and, compared with the current-mode Sutherland Loco, the Lino "seemed subjectively brighter—but not bright—which led to more sparkle on high piano notes." In a follow-up, JA noted impressive measured performance including superbly accurate RIAA equalization. He noted that the Lino C 2.0 offered vanishingly low harmonic distortion before the onset of clipping, as well as extremely low levels of intermodulation distortion. (Vol.42 No.6; Vol.43 Nos.2 & 4 WWW)

Channel D Seta Model L: $5899
Designed to take full advantage of the Pure Vinyl app's digital RIAA correction, the beautifully built Seta Model L includes balanced and single-ended inputs, balanced unequalized outputs, variable gain, and a built-in, rechargeable battery power supply. Recordings made using the Seta Model L's optional RIAA-equalized outputs were "models of clarity, definition, tonal accuracy, detail resolution, and spatial coherence," wrote MF. "There is no doubt that the Seta Model L has been superbly engineered," praised JA. Compared to the Liberty B2B-1, the Seta Model L lacked some midbass energy but did a better job of preserving recorded ambience, said JA, who also admired the Channel D's superb measured performance. He subsequently purchased the review sample. An optional internal RIAA compensation module adds $1199. (Vol.33 No.8, Vol.36 No.12, Vol.43 No.11 WWW)

Consolidated Audio "Monster Can": $5700
The review sample of this 1:20 step-up transformer featured a low-inductance Nano Crystalline core wound with 99.99% silver wire. (Versions are also available with a mu-metal core and copper windings, with 1:10 and 1:15 turns ratios.) MF found that the Monster Can produced "open, transparent, supple, rich sound," concluding "While hardly inexpensive, the $5700 Consolidated SUT strikes me as a good deal, especially if you want silver wire." (Vol.43 No.8 WWW)

EMIA Phono step-up transformer, with copper wire: $2700
Dave Slagle, whose radically rebuilt Quad ESL loudspeakers have astounded more than a few listeners, winds his own step-up transformers and sells them under the brand name EMIA—a collaborative design and manufacturing effort with Jeffrey Jackson, who specializes in tube amplification and horn loudspeakers. The EMIA Phono transformer, which is housed in a steel box with solid walnut top and bottom plates, is unpotted, and has a fairly large core with 80% nickel content. In addition to one pair each of RCA input and output jacks—multiple primary coils aren't available—the EMIA Phono has a third pair of jacks, wired in parallel with the primary and intended for use with resistive plugs (supplied), for cartridges that might need such things. The EMIA is available with copper or silver windings; AD spent some quality time with a copper-wire version wound with a 15:1 ratio, for use with his EMT TSD 15 and Denon DL-103 cartridges. He described the EMIA as offering "an immense sense of drive" with his EMT, as well as "texture and tone in spades. In buckets. In tanker holds." All in all, AD found the EMIA to sound "clean, clear, rich, detailed, and, above all, musically exciting—all for approximately half the price of the deservedly well-regarded Hommage T2," the latter transformer being his longtime reference. (Vol.40 No.8 WWW)

Haniwa HCVC01: $6000
Featuring a pair of XLR inputs, a pair of RCA outputs, and a ground connection, this passive current-to-voltage converter is analogous to a step-up transformer. It is intended to feed a moving-magnet phono preamplifier that can handle its maximum output of 10mV. Used with Haniwa's HCTR-CO phono cartridge, the HCVX01 produced an excellent level of transparency "and (especially) timbral neutrality," noted MF, adding that "the presentation did veer toward cool." (Vol.43 No.7 WWW)

Luxman EQ-500: $6495
Before he'd played a single note through the EQ-500—even before he'd plugged it into a wall outlet—this phono preamp had impressed AD by offering virtually every feature he'd ever wanted from such a product, and at least one he'd never imagined: adjustable gain, adjustable resistive loading, adjustable capacitive loading, switchable scratch filters and rumble filters, a mono switch, a phase switch, a very unexpected built-in cartridge demagnetizer . . . everything except a video camera for backing it out of the driveway. Best of all, the EQ-500, which uses a mix of ECC82 and ECC83 small-signal tubes plus an EZ81 rectifier tube, sounded wonderful to AD, who observed that "the textures of the close-miked violin, cellos, and double bass in [the Electric Light Orchestra's] "Queen of the Hours" were almost overwhelming—a very pleasant overdose." Art's conclusion: "If your budget can stretch this far, the Luxman EQ-500 is a must-hear." (Vol.39 No.5 WWW)

My Sonic Lab Stage 1030 transformer: $5250
Designed and built by Yoshio Matsudaira of My Sonic Lab, the Stage 1030 is that company's top-of-the-line phono transformer, and is designed for the My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent Ex moving-coil cartridge (or any other MC with an internal resistance of 15 ohms). The Stage 1030 has only a single switch—to allow the user to float the primary's signal ground with respect to chassis ground (the secondary is always floated)—and one pair each of rhodium-plated input and output jacks. Gain is 26dB. HR tried the Stage 1030 with his review sample of the Ultra Eminent Ex, and wrote that one LP in particular sounded "so immediate and forceful that it startled me." Herb concluded: "Real life is never grainy. Neither is the sound of my records through My Sonic Lab's Ultra Eminent Ex . . . and Stage 1030 step-up transformer." (Vol.41 No.12 WWW)

Parasound Halo JC 3+: $2995 $$$ ★
The Halo JC 3 is a true dual-mono design with a large R-core transformer power supply. Construction quality is first rate, top-shelf parts are used throughout, and the stout, heavy case is beautifully finished. Designer John Curl favored purity over adjustability, offering minimal loading options: 100 ohms or 47k ohms for moving-coil cartridges and 47k ohms for moving-magnet cartridges. Its fully direct-coupled RIAA equalization circuit is based on the circuit used in Curl's famed Vendetta Research SCP-2, while the JC 3's output stage is a true dual-differential, balanced design. In addition, the JC 3 has a built-in AC line conditioner, and its power supplies are modeled after those found in the extremely quiet Halo JC 2 line stage. Though it lacked the dynamics and transparency of either Pass Labs' XP-25 or Ypsilon's VPS-100, the JC 3 combined superb musical grip and control with a timbrally and texturally ideal midrange. "The JC 3 represents the best current value in a phono preamp that I know of," said MF. Though it also lacked the Sutherland 20/20's tonal richness and punchy sense of pace and drive, the Halo JC 3 produced a detail-rich sound with tight, extended lows, a clean midrange, and carefully drawn images on a huge, open soundstage. "If your tastes run to purity, clarity, neutrality, and detail, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better phono stage for anywhere near $2350," concluded BD, who recommended a Class A rating. The JC 3 sounded remarkably similar to BJR's reference, the Vendetta SCP-2, but lacked some high-frequency purity and ambience recovery. JA noted superb measured performance. Of the Halo JC 3+, which adds variable cartridge loading for the MC input, HR wrote: "The John Curl–designed Halo JC 3+ is the best commercially available phono preamplifier I've used—period." (Vol.34 Nos. 3 & 10, Vol.35 No.2, Vol.39 No.6 WWW)

PS Audio Stellar Phono: $2499 $$$
PS Audio's Stellar Phono offers separate pairs of (RCA) input jacks for MM and MC cartridges and a choice of single-ended and balanced outputs. Also on tap are three gain settings each for MM and MC and a choice of five loading settings for MC cartridges: four with preset values and a fifth that enables a pair of potentiometers to dial in custom settings between 1 ohm and 1k ohms; all other user controls except for the unit's power switch are addressed via the Stellar's remote handset. While noting that the PS Audio was "extremely sensitive" to grounding and outside interference, MF observed that "the midrange on this preamp is as open, uncongested, transparent, and revealing as that of any phono preamp I've heard at any price." Reporting from his test bench, JA wrote that the Stellar Phono is "among the quietest phono preamps" he has encountered, though he felt best results will be had via the lowest practical gain setting. (Vol.43 No.1 WWW)

SunValley Audio SV-EQ1616D: $825 (kit, without tubes), $1950 (assembled, inc. tubes)
Sunvalley's SV-EQ1616D's phono equalizer is available as a kit or fully assembled. It uses 12AX7 and 12Au7 tubes for MM gain with a FET-based input stage for MC cartridges. There is a choice of two filters for 78rpm enthusiasts, tailored to match either European or American standard preemphasis, as well as selectable EQ for pre-1956 microgroove pressings from Columbia (NAB) or Phillips, Capital, etc. (AES). It also offers a high-frequency boost-or-cut adjustment and the two pairs of outputs can be switched from stereo to mono. HR found that with his Hana, Koetsu, and My Sonic Lab moving coil cartridges, used with auxiliary step-up devices, the SV-EQ1616D "generated the most vivid and nuanced analog sound" he'd heard in his bunker. Trying the Koetsu into the SunValley's MC input, HR was impressed by the preamplifier's "ability to boogie [and] recover substantial 3D spaces" without shaming this venerable, much more expensive cartridge. (Vol.43 No.11 WWW)

Sutherland Engineering Duo: $4000
Unlike most two-box phono preamplifiers, which have audio circuitry in one enclosure and power-supply components in the other, the Sutherland Duo is a dual-mono design, each enclosure housing a single channel's audio circuitry and complete power supply. (The Duo's two halves are even shipped in separate cartons.) Construction details include steel casework and thick circuit boards, the latter to prevent unwanted capacitance, and loading and gain are adjustable by means of internal jumpers. Input and output connectors are limited to RCA jacks, reflecting the Duo's single-ended design, and AC cords are not supplied, reflecting designer Ron Sutherland's conviction that most consumers interested in an expensive phono pre have already made their own choice of power cord. In describing the Duo's sound, BD pointed to its ability to reveal the "primal purity of instruments' timbres and the natural, effortless feel of the performers." He mentioned also that "the Duos' low end was as extended as my listening room would support," and praised their dynamics as "representative of what I hear at a live performance, if less spectacular than those from [other] preamps." JA's measurements revealed the Duo to be "a superbly quiet, superbly linear, superbly accurate phono preamplifier." (Vol.40 No.9 WWW)

Sutherland Engineering Little Loco: $3800
Although phono preamps that work on the current-amplification (as opposed to voltage-amplification) principle still account for a small minority of the market, that technology took a step forward in 2019 with the Sutherland Engineering Little Loco, itself a less expensive version of the company's recent Phono Loco. The Little Loco, a solid-state phono pre with 46dB of gain, is designed for moving-coil cartridges only, and even then not every make or model of cartridge will lock in with it. But at its best in Brian Damkroger's system, the "trivially easy to use" Little Loco provided "a completely new amount and level of detail," and on the test bench it coaxed JA into declaring, "This is a very linear circuit." Keep in mind that, as with all other current-amplification phono preamps, only cartridges with very low internal impedance are suitable, and one's phono cable must be ungrounded and fitted with XLR plugs or adaptors. (Vol.42 No.10 WWW)

Sutherland Engineering Phono Loco: $8200
The imperative use as directed no longer applies solely to big pharma: In recent years it has become key to the enjoyment of that newest hi-fi category, the current-amplification phono preamp, which shines with moving-coil cartridges of very low internal impedance yet fails with all others. So it is with the Phono Loco, the dearer of two current-amplification models from Sutherland Engineering. Like the more affordable Sutherland Little Loco ($3800), the Phono Loco offers user-adjustable gain; the more expensive model differs in its use of higher-quality parts and a more robust power supply. The Phono Loco rewarded MF with "finely focused . . . solidly three-dimensional images" and a good sense of immediacy. Timbral performance was "overall on the warm side," although MF described note sustains as "stingy" resulting in "a dry quality." JCA also spent time with the Phono Loco, echoing MF's thoughts on its "extremely quiet" performance and enjoyably "corporeal" images. (Vol.42 No.12, Vol.43 No.2)

Van den Hul The Grail SE+: $23,995
Designed by German engineer Jürgen Ultee, The Grail SE+ is a "super deluxe" upgraded version of the $7950 The Grail phono preamp that MF reviewed in August 2018. It offers two current-mode MC inputs, one of which has both balanced and single-ended jacks, and a single MM input. Internal switches allow MC gain to be adjusted to 56, 64, 70, or 73dB; MM gains are all 23dB lower. MF felt that its larger, more robust power supply gave The Grail SE+ greater dynamic "slam" and drive and a tighter, more robust bottom end than the standard Grail. The SE+ was also considerably "faster": stiffer and better controlled in the midrange. "The Grail SE+ is a quiet, timbrally neutral, transparent, get-out-of-the-way-and-let-the-music-through phono preamp. It produces effortless, wide dynamic swings and seemingly full, flat frequency response," Mikey concluded. (Vol.43 No.5 WWW)

van den Hul The Grail: $8995
Like other perfectionist-quality phono preamps that have impressed MF, van den Hul's The Grail is a current-amplification rather than voltage-amplification device, and thus is distinctly well suited to phono cartridges of very low impedance and inductance. (Note that vdH refers to this product not as a current amplifier but as an "automatic adapting input stage"; as we say in upstate New York, same difference . . . ) The Grail is a two-box design—one's the preamp, the other the power supply—with separate RCA input jacks for MM and MC cartridges and one pair of single-ended RCA output jacks. A gain of 56, 64, or 73dB can be selected via DIP switches; loading jacks (also RCAs) are provided for those who wish to alter The Grail's load characteristics by adding resistors or capacitors in parallel with the default load of 47k ohms, 50pF. According to MF, "The Grail produced spectacular results"—and not just with vdH's own Colibri XGW Stradivarius Signature cartridge. That said, it was with that cartridge that The Grail impressed Mikey with "the 'blackest' backgrounds, out of which sprang startlingly delicate yet believably solid three-dimensional images." (Vol.41 No.8)

Ypsilon MC10 & MC16: $3300 ★
The MC10 transformer produces 20dB of gain and is intended for use with cartridges having an output range of 0.4–0.6mV. Its custom double-coil transformers are shielded with mu-metal and potted in 10mm-thick enclosures coated with soft iron-nickel. Though it lacked the "shimmering clarity" of the TruLife Audio Reikon, the Ypsilon MC10 produced an "exceptionally expansive and deep" soundstage with solid, dimensional, life-size images, said MF. The MC16 step-up transformer sounds identical to Ypsilon's MC10 but adds 4dB of gain. Compared to the Music First step-up trannie, the MC16 sounded more open, transparent, extended, and three-dimensional, said MF. (Vol.32 No.8, Vol.35 No.6)

Zesto Audio Andros Allasso step-up transformer: $3295
With its multiple switch-selectable primary taps and its 10 switch-selectable input impedances, Zesto's Andros Allasso (the last word is Greek for transform) is surely one of the most flexible step-up transformers we've seen. And its inclusion of a front-panel mono switch—this doesn't blend the two channels together but rather selects only a single channel for amplification—means the Andros Allasso can be used with virtually any MC cartridge you can throw at it, pardon the figure of speech. MF heard from the Zesto a slight softening of note attacks and blurring of textures, but only in comparison with far more expensive/less flexible step-up devices. His verdict: "a smartly designed, reasonably priced piece of analog kit!" (Vol.42 No.4)

B

Audio-Creative Mediator 40 Step-Up Transformer: €739 $$$
Here's another high-end step-up transformer built into a $10 off-the-shelf aluminum box—but this time it's okay: The price of the Mediator 40 is just over $400, which is little more than what you'd have to pay for the unit's Haufe transformers, let alone its gold-plated input and output jacks (RCAs), its ground-lift switch, and its high-quality build. With a turns ratio of 1:40, the Mediator 40 has just the right amount of gain for an Ortofon SPU or similar low-output moving-coil cartridge; used with his Shindo-modified SPU, the Audio-Creative SUT impressed AD with its excellent scale, force, and vivid portrayal of instrumental colors: "a top-shelf trannie at a crazy-low price," he said. The Mediator 40 would be Class B+ if there were such a thing: A few very expensive transformers outdistance it, but none embarrass it. (Vol.42 No.6)

Auditorium 23 103: $995 $$$ ★
Designed and voiced for use with Denon's DL-103, this Auditorium 23 SUT uses two sealed transformers in a nondescript aluminum case, and offers input and output resistances of 7.8 and 505 ohms, respectively. With Denon, Zu, EMT, and Benz cartridges, the sound was "dramatic without being brash, and consistently full-bodied and colorful," said AD. The Auditorium 23 was "slightly coarser" than the Audio Note AN-S8, lacking some sweetness and color, but "a bargain" nevertheless, AD sums up. There is also a version for Ortofon cartridges, currently in use by JCA. (Vol.30 No.10 WWW)

Boulder Amplifiers 508: $5000
Machined from a solid aluminum billet and "finished to look and feel as luxurious" as its much more expensive stablemate, the Boulder 2108 ($52,000), the single-box 508 is low on user controls: On the front panel are an on/off switch and a mute button, and around back is a switch for selecting between MM and MC cartridges—and that's it. Inputs and outputs are balanced (XLR) only, and input impedance is fixed at 47k ohms for MM and 100 ohms for MC. Used with Ortofon's low-output Anna D moving-coil cartridge, the Boulder rewarded MF with performance that was "essentially colorless in the best sense of the word." The 508 offered good size/scale and dynamic slam, although those qualities were less in evidence than with MF's far more expensive reference phono preamps. Mikey's conclusion: "The more I listened to the 508, the more I appreciated its subtle balance of . . . strengths with only minor acts of omission." (Vol.42 No.11 WWW)

Grandinote Celio: $8750
This one-box phono preamp, roughly shoebox-shaped and -sized, is a two-stage solid-state design that uses bipolar transistors for gain—switchable between 45 and 66dB—and buffering. Made in Italy, the Celio is housed within a clamshell steel case, the rear panel of which contains the gain switch, as well as dual-mono DIP switches for selecting load impedance. Also on the rear panel are an XLR input and an XLR output: Unusually, the Celio can be configured as a mono phono preamp, in which case it has balanced throughput. In AD's system, the Celio exhibited good musical timing and decent force and impact. AD also praised it for allowing instruments and voices a realistic sense of wholeness, and for reproducing music with color—but not gross colorations. A fine phono preamp, albeit one that does not offer terribly high value for the money. (Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

Haniwa HEQ A03-CI: $12,000
As with the company's HCTR-CO phono cartridge, the Haniwa HEQ-A03-C1 phono preamp is regarded by designer Tetsuo Kubo as a part of a complete record-playing system, the purchase of which saves the buyer a few thousand dollars compared to the prices of the individually purchased components therein. The HEQ-A03-C1 is a current-amplification device, intended to yield best results with cartridges with very low internal impedance—which also implies very low output voltage. As with other examples of the breed, the Haniwa offers no user controls other than its power switch—resistive loading. selectable or not, plays no role in current amplification—and balanced-only inputs. The Haniwa's uniqueness is perhaps its Waveform Recovery Circuit, although the company declines to describe its precise function. Used with the Haniwa cartridge, tonearm, and turntable, the HEQ-A03-C1 produced a "darker, richer, and far drier" sound than MF's reference front end, with a powerful and full-sounding (if less well controlled) bottom end. (Vol.42 No.10)

Heed Audio Quasar: $1300
This solid-state, dual-mono phono preamp, supplied in two chassis—one for the audio circuitry, one for the power supply—has separate RCA input jacks for MC and MM cartridges, and separate output jacks, also RCAs, for low and high output levels. (Low Out is recommended for older amps, High Out for more modern designs.) User-accessible internal jumpers allow fine-tuning of gain and input impedance, and the Quasar's very good user's manual contains suggested settings for a number of different cartridges. Used in his tube-friendly system, with his Denon DL-103 cartridge, the Quasar struck KM as sounding "neither hard nor, worse, tube-cliché syrupy or soft." He noted that the Quasar's resolution of subtle detail was good enough that he could "easily hear the differences" between recording venues used for various classic Blue Note LPs. But for hobbyists who prefer having a step-up transformer between their MC cartridges and their phono preamp, the Heed is not an ideal choice: After measuring the Quasar, JA praised its considerable flexibility but noted the lower-than-specified input impedance in many of its various settings, and concluded that this phono stage will perform its best only with MC cartridges connected directly to its MC inputs. (Vol.40 No.12 WWW)

Lounge Audio LCR Mk.III: $340 $$$ ★
Lounge Audio Copla: $310 $$$ ★

The solid-state LCR Mk.III is named for the type of circuit chosen for its RIAA equalization stage: a zero-feedback inductor-capacitor-resistor (L-C-R) circuit. That stage is constructed with discrete components—remarkable for a US-made product selling for only $340—and combined with class- A–biased op-amps for a total gain of 40dB. Power is supplied by an 18V wall wart. HR has logged literally hundreds of hours with his LCR Mk.III review sample, both on its own for use with MM cartridges, and, for MC cartridges, in tandem with Lounge Audio's Copla, a JFET-powered step-up device that does the same job as a phono transformer, only electronically. In both setups, the Lounge rewarded HR with "full-bodied, accurately toned" sound, and enough emotional impact that a favorite Doc Watson song had him weeping. Referring to the $26,000, Class A-rated Ypsilon VPS-100, HR wrote: "Could the Ypsilon make me cry 86.7 times easier? I doubt it." (Vol.41 No.2 WWW)

Musical Fidelity NuVista Vinyl: $3490
The latest in a longish line of Musical Fidelity products that use, as amplification devices, Nuvistors—miniature vacuum tubes so rugged they seldom if ever need replacing, and so reliable they're more often soldered into circuits than plugged into sockets—the new Nu-Vista Vinyl phono preamp offers five inputs, all of which can be configured, by means of front-panel pushbuttons, with a great many options of load impedance, load capacitance, and gain. The Nu-Vista Vinyl has both unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) outputs, and each input has its own separate power supply. In MF's system, the Nu-Vista Vinyl "exuded a combination of velvety delicacy, top-to-bottom coherence, and 'black' backgrounds that produced immediate and long-term listening satisfaction." But he added that driving the Vinyl with a smooth-sounding cartridge "might produce oversmooth results." High CLass B, he summed up. (Vol.42 No.3)

Musical Surroundings Nova III: $1500
See HR's review in Gramophone Dreams elsewhere in this issue.

Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+: $750
Made in California, this most recent version of Musical Surroundings' Phonomena is a solid-state stage that uses discrete transistors in place of lowly op-amps; among other things, this gave designer Michael Yee the ability to base his RIAA stage on active, as opposed to passive, filtering. Creature comforts include settings for 14 different gains and 17 load impedances, all selectable with DIP switches. With its standard wall-wart power supply, the Phonomena II+ Provided HR with sound that was "sweet, natural, rhythmic, and dead quiet." Herb noted "unusually deep" soundstages, "good [but] not exceptional" force and momentum, and bass that was "strong and detailed." Use of Musical Surroundings' optional Linear Charging Power Supply ($650) brought more consistently good sound to the treble range and allowed "voices, violins, and electric guitars [to sound] more vibrant and lifelike," and more corporeal overall. Herb's conclusion: "my new reference phono stage." (Vol.41 No.10 WWW)

Sentec EQ11: $2500 ★
The Sentec EQ11 is a four-tube phono stage that provides an input impedance of 45k ohms, approximately 30dB of gain, and RIAA phono equalization. What set the EQ11 apart from other such MM-appropriate preamps are five additional, switch-selectable EQ curves for the most common types of vintage record, including those for early Columbia LPs and Decca (and other) 78s. The Sentec's raison d'être, per HR: "If you start buying a lot of collectible old records pressed before 1965, you'll certainly notice that the music on some labels sounds a lot better than the music on others. The purpose of the Sentec EQ11 is to make many of those differences go away." HR said the Sentec EQ11, used with the Miyajima Spirit Mono cartridge, "can show you a lot of what you still haven't heard from your old records. This combo . . . not only makes the records of the past sound good, it makes them sound the way your brain knows they're supposed to sound." Note that the EQ11's gain and input impedance won't suit the majority of MC cartridges, for which an outboard step-up transformer is suggested. While photographing the EQ11, JA hoisted it onto his test bench and found that, despite some minor differences in gain, the shapes of the various EQ curves were consistent from channel to channel—and correlated with HR's observations. The THD+noise percentage was extremely low, and harmonic distortion was "fairly low and almost entirely second harmonic in nature," although intermodulation distortion was higher than expected. His verdict: "Despite its modest appearance and wall-wart power supply, Sentec's EQ11 offers respectable measured performance to accompany its flexibility of equalization." (Vol.37 Nos.10 & 12 WWW)

Tavish Design Adagio: $1990 ★
Among the handmade electronics offered by Westchester County, New York–based Tavish Design is the Adagio phono preamp, a two-box design with audio circuitry in one enclosure and a power supply in the other. The Adagio's gain and EQ circuitry—the latter a mix of active and passive—is implemented with a total of six small-signal tubes, while power-supply rectification and regulation are solid-state. Switch-selectable inputs for moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges add to the product's flexibility, as do separate six-position rotary switches for adjusting load resistance and capacitance. MM inputs offer 44dB of gain, MC inputs 64dB, the extra 20dB provided by a stereo pair of Jensen step-up transformers. AD found the Adagio's MM circuit to be "beautifully, prettily clear, in a pleasantly liquid sort of way," with "exceptional" detail and openness. The MC circuitry was also impressive, especially with a Shindo-rebuilt Ortofon SPU cartridge, although the Jensen transformers appeared not to provide the same sense of drama, force, and bass weight as (far more expensive) outboard transformers. Still, as AD observed, "the comparatively inexpensive Tavish Adagio punched above its weight." In his Follow-Up in the March 2018 Stereophile, HR wrote that 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." (Vol.39 No.6, Vol.41 No.3 WWW)

C

Schiit Audio Mani: $129 $$$ ★
Made in the US, the very affordable Schiit Mani was designed by Theta Audio founder Mike Moffat. Powered by a 16V wall wart, the Mani is built around a pair of op-amps, and provides user-adjustable DIP switches for gain and loading, with settings to suit moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges. In HR's system, the Mani "threw a wide, deep, detailed soundstage that tended to get shadowy as it reached its outer limits." HR felt that the Mani's slight tendency toward darkness didn't suit such cartridges as the Soundsmith Carmen; far better matches were the Grado ME+ Mono, the Shure SC35C, and, especially, HR's Zu Denon DL-103. (Vol.38 No.10, Vol.41 No.2 WWW)

Deletions
VPI Voyager, discontinued. Zesto Audio Andros Tessera, replaced by newer model not yet reviewed. Lamm LP2.1 Deluxe, Soundsmith MMP3 Mk.II, Ypsilon Electronics MC26-L, not auditioned in a long time.

COMMENTS
grymiephone's picture

The Linton Heritage is not an audiophile speaker, and I will stop there, it's hard to find music it plays well

Glotz's picture

And it sounded fantastic with 'entry'-level Hegel components.

Everyone is different, and especially when one levels generalist comments.

grymiephone's picture

I had a response with more details but it was deleted.

Glotz's picture

Sorry man. I think the site had some issues a week back as well. Anything that was edited sometimes got deleted.

grymiephone's picture

Oh, well. for what's it's worth:
I tested the Linton with 5 other speakers. When I ordered it, the sales person said: be warned, it's NOT an audiophile speaker. And it didn't compare well. I wanted to love them but my 23 year old Celestions had more image and punch than the Lintons. I am sure they can sound good in a different system

MatthewT's picture

I agree with the "not an audiophile speaker" remark. I wish we could know what Art Dudley thought of them. I love them, FWIW.

Glotz's picture

I appreciate both of your insights here.

It helps me come closer to the truth. Or that's not right- The perceptions of each person lend us insights into how each person feels in their system.

I know a lot of times it's hard to speak to one's system for fear of others being critical.

Nonetheless, it does tell me what possible variances there are. I thought the double Linton's were impressive, if expensive. The dealer had them in a pseudo-d'appolito configuration, with the top speakers upside down and on top of the bottom pair.

liguorid42's picture

I agree everyone's opinion of what he or she likes is valid, and an opinion that you shouldn't like something because it's not an audiophile product is invalid. That being said, if you're a wine connoisseur you wouldn't necessarily make a buying decision on a pricey Cabernet based on the opinion of someone whose beverage of choice is Mountain Dew. And "not an audiophile speaker" can just mean your favorite reviewer has not made the sign of the cross before it, and is pretty useless without some description of what you perceive its sonic flaws to be.

Glotz's picture

I think all stereo products can have a home, but you are right it's all about context.

I was impressed with the Denton's midrange, but perhaps that's not fair given I was listening to the collective output of 2 pairs of speakers working in tandem.

mememe2's picture

PLease put this in the "useless phrases" section of your mag. Can we have good pace but lack timing -no. can we have good rhythm but lack pace - no. Can we have good timing but lack rhythm - no. This description seems to be aimed at audio prats (in the original meaning of the word).

Charles E Flynn's picture

"captures the emotion"

liguorid42's picture

Back when founding father Gordon Holt started Stereophile he tried to develop a lexicon to describe how things actually sounded--things like "liquid", "transparent", "grainy", "warm"--as opposed to how things emotionally affected him personally. Theoretically you could go to a hi fi emporium, listen to KLH Nines driven by Audio Research electronics and hear for yourself what he meant. Though he did open the door with his "goosebump test". These days terms such as you describe have made subjective audio reviewing so subjective as not to be very useful to anyone else.

Charles E Flynn's picture

Thanks for your reply.

I have always wondered how one could determine that a playback chain captured the emotion of the performers when the only evidence we have about their emotions is what is provided by the playback chain.

The reproduced sound may convey or provoke emotion, but whether what it conveys is what the performer felt is something we can never determine on the basis of only the reproduced sound.

liguorid42's picture

..in the Firesign Theater album said, "That's metapheesically absurd, mun, how can I know what you hear?"

Heck, you can't know if what you're feeling is the same as what the performer is feeling even at a live performance. Not even close would be my guess. What I'm feeling when I play the piano in private is very different from when I get conned into playing for someone. What the composer felt when setting the notes to the page, different still. I doubt a loudspeaker, let alone a piece of loudspeaker cable, has anything to do with any of this.

George Tn's picture

the Schiit Sol made it on to the list in such a high spot for its price. I've been rooting for that product and it's finally being seen for how great it is.

PTG's picture
georgehifi's picture

Same for the Aegir, a A20w Class-A stereo in Class-A Stereophile. I can only think of one similar that could/would do that, and that's the mighty 20w Mark Levison ML2 monoblocks.
https://i.pinimg.com/736x/d6/6a/cc/d66acc2c1d4fa7ea17f5a9bb9345e912.jpg

Cheers George

Glotz's picture

Yes, these components are great to see classified, but it's one person's ranking for a component. The classes also cut a large swath in performance of any one category- and within each class.

That being said, I do think the Sol is pretty-well-reviewed for the money and if my rig broke suddenly... I'd get this one to tie me over.

PTG's picture

Did I miss it or was Bluesound family of products (Node2i, Vault2i ??) totally dropped off the RC2021 list ? If yes, I wonder why...

Jim Austin's picture

On previous lists, when several Bluesound products were listed together, we put them under "Complete Audio Systems." We dropped most of them simply because they haven't been auditioned in years--indeed, no Stereophile reviewer ever tried a gen-2 version of any of the products except the Node2i, which I bought a few months back and use daily. Dropping products that haven't been auditioned in a long time is longstanding RecComp policy.

With only the Node2i on the list, it no longer makes sense to list it under Complete Audio Systems; it should be moved to Digital Processors. But I overlooked that fact when preparing the 2021 edition.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

C_Hoefer's picture

I just navigated to this page intending to point out the error in location of the Bluesound Node 2i - glad to see you already caught it! It belongs in digital players.
--CH

prerich45's picture

I'd like to see some of the other offerings tested by Stereophile. The Gustard dacs have measured well by another site. I've actually purchased one to see how it fairs to my ears - as I've already seen its numbers. SMSL,Gustard, and Topping are making some possible world beaters, it would be interesting to see this publication put them on the bench.

Fstein's picture

Lirpasound announces $79 amplifier, states previous price of $159,000 a joke no reasonable person would believe

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