Recommended Components 2024 Edition Phono Preamps/Moving-Coil Step-up Devices

Phono Preamps/Moving-Coil Step-up Devices:


Boulder Amplifiers 2108: $62,000
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 The through-hole components and boards have been replaced by surface-mount equivalents, and the circuitry features proprietary, house-made, "phono-specific," 993S and 995S discretely implemented "op-amp" modules.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: from $31,000. As reviewed, $48,000
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. 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 ultralow noisefloor: "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-driver–like 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. In his July 2023 report, MT discussed his auditioning of the two-box P1/X1 combo, especially using its current-mode input. While noting that the P1 is supremely quiet with both current- and voltage-mode inputs, he wrote that the P1's characteristic quality "was its uncanny ability to unravel densely packed music and present it with utter clarity." It offers "resolution and transparency that belies its apparent complexity," he concluded, though he warned that "it doesn't offer a rose-tinted view of your record collection." (Vol.40 Nos.4 & 6, Vol.41 No.8, Vol.46 No.7 WWW)

Channel D Lino C 3.3: $3799, basic model; $7082 as reviewed
This battery-powered, direct-coupled, wide-bandwidth, balanced, transimpedance phono preamplifier keeps the basic circuitry of the Lino 2.0 that was reviewed in Vol.42 No.6 but adds a high/low cartridge impedance damping switch that allows the use of cartridges with internal impedances up to 40 ohms even in current mode, as well as an impedance reduction by a factor of 3 of the RIAA network's passive section. The "fully loaded" review sample was fitted with ultrahigh-precision RIAA certification, front-panel LED indicators, and a remote control. It also had the optional balanced or unbalanced moving magnet input and an optional voltage-based moving coil input, both with variable gain. As with the 2.0, if your tonearm cable isn't terminated with XLRs, you'll need RCA-to-XLR adapters—and pin 1 must not be internally connected to either pin 2 or 3. MF loved the sound of the Lino C 3.3, writing that it offered "ultratransparency; jet-black backgrounds; deep, tightly gripped, powerful bass; airy, fully extended highs free of etch, grain, or hardness." He found the soundstage expansive with solid, 3D imaging and the sound was fast, responsive, effortless. "Macro- and microdynamics were impressive, producing forceful macro slam and subtle micro shifts when on the record," he noted. JA was equally impressed with the 3.3's measured performance, finding that it featured astonishingly accurate RIAA correction, extremely low noise, high overload margins, and vanishingly low distortion. "Channel D's Lino C 3.3 is the best-measuring phono preamplifier I have encountered," he concluded, adding "Wow!" (Vol.45 Nos.6 & 7 WWW)

Manley Laboratories Steelhead RC Special Edition Mk II: $10,899
The RC Special Edition Mk II is the result of a collaboration between Manley and Los Angeles–area audio retailer, tube dealer, and importer Upscale Audio. It differs from the original Steelhead, reviewed by PB and MF in 2001 and 2003, by offering different loading settings for the autoformer that also serves as the MC step-up, and two cryogenically treated 6922 tubes. The review sample substituted Tungsram PCC88s. (The other tubes are four American-made military-spec 7044 dual triodes.) It still has two inputs for MC cartridges, one input for MM cartridges, a volume control, a remote control, a tape loop, an outboard power supply, and buttons for muting, lowering the volume by 20dB, activating a line-level input, summing the channels for mono playback, and entering standby mode. Listening at length to a John Prine LP, AH wrote: "The Manley rendered the band in holographic high relief; Mike Leech's electric bass sounded more thunderous and better defined than I'd heard it. Every wisp of reverb around Bobby Emmons's organ became obvious. The tone colors of the band bloomed like wildflowers in an Appalachian meadow. But what captivated me most was how relentlessly the Manley zeroed in on the flow and emotional meaning of Prine's songs." He decided that the Manley phono stage "sounded more detailed, refined, and coherent than most of the step-up transformers I've heard, and more colorful, textured, and vivid than most of the solid state preamps." (Vol.46 No.1 WWW)


Audio Research Reference Phono 3SE: $24,500
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 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)

DSA Phono III: $19,000
This incredibly versatile, remote-controlled, "Lab Grade," solid state phono preamplifier impressed MF. EQ curves include, in addition to standard RIAA, pre-RIAA curves for Columbia and Decca/ffrr, including for 78s, all realized with passive, low-pass networks. The Phono II is supplied with four patent-pending "Critical Mass" isolation feet and titanium threaded adapters that screw into the chassis underside. The rear panel has three pairs of inputs with a choice of single-ended RCA and balanced XLR inputs and one set of outputs via single-ended and balanced connectors. There's a rumble filter, a polarity inversion switch, variable loading, and gain can be set to 40dB, 46dB, 50dB, 56dB, 60dB, and 66dB. "If you are looking for a phono preamp with a timbral 'personality,' the Phono III might not be for you. It hasn't got one, not that I could identify," wrote MF. "But if you want a phono preamp that gets out of the way and lets your cartridge or cartridges express their timbral personalities, . . . the Phono III could be for you," he summed up. (Vol.44 No.7 WWW)

EAR Phono Classic: $1695–$2395
Rating is for the MM-only version, or for the MM section of the MM/MC version; rating including the internal SUT, for use with MC cartridges, is Class B. The biggest change over the late Tim de Paravicini's EAR 834P preamplifier is the switch from 12AX7s to tubes with a slightly higher operating voltage, of which there is a more dependable supply. Available in three versions: MM-only for $1695; MM and MC with step-up transformers for $1895; and an MM/MC version with a heavy chrome front panel for $2395. HR reviewed the fully loaded version. He found the MC input "clear, easy on the ear, and cinematically detailed," but compared with expensive SUTs, "kind of thin, flat, and low in contrast." Feeding the EAR's MM input with the Bob's Devices Sky 20 SUT, HR heard that the bass was deeper and tighter, the midrange glowed, and the treble seemed extended. Overall, it took less than one side of one LP for HR to recognize the "fundamental truthiness" of the EAR's way with records. Highly recommended for the MM section. (Vol.45 No.3 WWW)

EMIA Phono step-up transformer, with copper wire: $3375
with silver wire: $6000
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. HR found that the EMIA sounded delicious and played "butter-smooth" with his Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum. Although AH was not a fan of silver conductors, he found that the silver-wired EMIA sounded nothing like the silver wire he remembered. It provided "an addictively smooth, highly resolving facsimile of my music. While it wasn't quite as punchy as the Auditorium 23, it produced a little more detail and a lot more space as well as deeper, more precise bass." (Vol.40 No.8, Vol.44 No.11, Vol.45 No.11 WWW)

EMT 128: $11,995
The front panel of this slim, well-finished preamp features four toggle switches, one each for Off/On, Mono/Stereo, DIN 78/RIAA EQ, and Mute/Sound. The rear panel features one pair each of single-ended (RCA) inputs and balanced (XLR) outputs, and the circuit uses NOS 5784WB tubes. Lundahl transformers are used for both inputs and outputs. Using EMT's high-output JSD Novel Titan MC cartridge and the low-output Miyajima Labs Madake Snakewood MC cartridge, MF wrote that the 128 "produced that magic ether that only the best tube-based phono preamps produce, and it resolved and unraveled small details in the upper frequencies of many familiar recordings. Ether, yes, but without lower-midband timbral bloat or thickness, without midrange excess but with mesmerizing transparency and delicacy." On the test bench, the EMT 128 offered superbly flat RIAA correction from 30Hz to 10kHz, primarily second-harmonic distortion, very good channel separation, and low noise. However, the overload margins were on the low side, which means it will work best set to its lower gain and with low-output MC cartridges like Ortofon's Verismo rather than the high-output Novel Titan; low overhead margins lower rating from A+ to A. (Vol.45 No.5 WWW)

Gold Note PH-1000: $11,999 as reviewed
The programmable PH-1000 is "by a considerable margin the most sophisticated, most configurable phono preamplifier that any audio manufacturer has ever produced," MF wrote. Or at least that he's aware of. It offers two single-ended (RCA) inputs and one balanced (XLR) input. It can also be fitted with two line inputs. Each phono input can be set to MC or MM, with gain adjustable from –9dB to +9dB in 3dB steps relative to the default 0dB setting. There are multiple choices for input impedance and adjustable input capacitance for both MC and MM modes. In addition to RIAA deemphasis, there are 18 alternate EQ settings. In addition to fixed output in Stage mode, a Preamplifier mode allows volume to be controlled. JA commented that "RIAA correction was superbly accurate," adding that both distortion and noise were very low in level. He also noted that while the overload margin at the top of the audioband was relatively low, "this can be increased by increasing the phono stage's gain without incurring any significant noise penalty." MF described the Gold Note's sound as "smooth, silky, sophisticated." Though he found low frequencies somewhat polite, he concluded that the PH-1000 "was quiet and both micro- and macrodynamically accomplished. Its transparency, clarity, and freedom from congestion in the midrange were notable." (Vol.45 No.3 WWW)

Koetsu SUT: $4995
This transformer uses a shielded and vibration-isolated transformer with a permalloy core, offers 26dB gain, a 20Hz–50kHz (±3dB) bandwidth, and is intended to be used, naturally enough, with Koetsu phono cartridges. HR tried it with Koetsu's Rosewood Signature Platinum and played the MoFi reissue of Miles Davis's In a Silent Way—"The reverb was dramatically more intense. I repeat, dramatically more intense, with more force behind it than I normally experience," he wrote. (Vol.44 No.11 WWW)

Lejonklou Entity: $2795
This utilitarian-looking, solid state MC-only design from Sweden uses transistors, wire, solder—even the washers used in the component's casework—that have all been obsessively selected by designer Fredrik Lejonklou after hundreds of comparative listening tests. Out of the box, the Entity sounded bleached, felt AH, but after about 50 hours of use, the preamp "began to sing with its authentic voice," sounding neutral, extended, transparent, fast, and resolving. AH found that the Entity was at its best with unbalanced Linn Silver interconnects ($452/1.2m pair), when it sounded more refined, dimensional, controlled, and tonally richer. In the test lab, the Lejonklou's RIAA correction featured a very slight plateau in the midrange, coupled with excellent channel separation, low noise, and very low distortion. Overload margins were very good in the bass and midrange but less so at the top of the audioband, meaning that the Entity will be best used with low-output moving coil cartridges. (Vol.45 No.7 WWW)

Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk.II: $8000
The Arion Mk.II is identical to the original version of this phono preamp (reviewed by MF for except that it eliminates the MM input and features higher-voltage–rated dual-toroidal transformers and an upgraded MC input stage. MF echoed the manufacturer's claims, writing that the Arion exhibited "a sense of purity and low-level detail resolution that [was] highly dynamic and musically involving." With the Audio Relax EX1000 cartridge mounted on the Schröder arm on the OMA K3 turntable, feeding the Arion Mk.II loaded at 100 ohms, the combination produced a dazzling presentation; MF said it was "among the most enticing vinyl-playback combos I've yet heard." He's heard a lot. (Vol.44 No.12 WWW)

Luxman EQ-500: $6695 ★
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)

Mobile Fidelity Electronics MasterPhono: $5999
The solid state MasterPhono's front panel is dominated by a pair of VU meters, flanked by two knobs. One knob selects Gain: 40dB, 50dB, 60dB, or 70dB. The second knob chooses one of 10 MC cartridge loads: 15, 30, 50, 75, 100, 500, 1k, 10k, 47k ohm, or "OPT," which allows the use of custom load values made via resistor-equipped RCA plug-ins. There is also a high-pass/subsonic filter button, a mono button, a knob for dimming the meter display, and a remote control. Hold the Meter button down for a few seconds, and MasterPhono offers two test modes that allow the meters to be calibrated and the cartridge's azimuth setting to be optimized for maximum channel separation. There are three pairs of inputs: regular single-ended RCA; balanced XLR; and a current-drive input that gives users a choice of either single-ended or balanced connection. Like the tubed PrimaLuna EVO 100, HR found that it took three full days for the MasterPhono to lose the gray flatness it showed out of the box. It then never sounded "transistory" (hard, shallow, gray), instead walking a narrow line between hard and soft, dry and wet, warm and cool—leaning maybe 10% towards wet and warm on the most atmospheric recordings. "It did not attenuate reverberation or diminish atmosphere," wrote HR, who never consciously wished for tube treats he wasn't getting. Using a Dynavector XX2 moving coil, HR found the current-drive input eliminated a faint haze that he had noticed in the top octaves in voltage mode. "What was preserved, and perhaps even enhanced," he decided, "was the XX2's dynamics." (Vol.47 No.1 WWW)

Mola Mola Lupe: $9850
This versatile solid state preamp has three pairs of inputs using single-ended RCA jacks and one with balanced XLRs, each with its own grounding post. There are single-ended and balanced outputs, which may be selected individually or together, and two entirely separate phono sections for MC and MM cartridges. Four front-panel buttons allow users to set each input, adjusting gain, input impedance, polarity, subsonic filter, stereo/mono, and equalization. For the last, the Lupe offers 72 permutations of its three basic EQ variables: bass turnover, rolloff, and low shelf. A downloadable app, Mola Mola Control, available for both iOS and Android, talks directly to the Lupe over Bluetooth, and provides access to all the preamp's many adjustments. MT was concerned that all these bells and whistles might distract people from the Lupe's main plus point: its extraordinary performance and its ability to breathe fresh life into pretty much every record he played through it. "This is not a warm, fuzzy-sounding phono stage," he wrote, "but it is exceptional in its ability to take all the information a cartridge throws at it and sort it into a sound that's coherent and detailed, and it never sounds bright or hard." (Vol.47 No.3 WWW)

Nobala step-up transformer: $8495
This violet anodized-aluminum SUT from Japanese company Murasakino is intended for use with MC cartridges with impedances of 5 ohms or lower. AH found that to be the case and noted that the Nobala reproduced more of his music than any other SUT, and possibly any phono device, he'd heard. "It simply let through more of everything: detail, texture, dynamics, even groove noise," he wrote, though he commented that it didn't sound quite as colorful as the Auditorium 23 or the EMIA. (Vol.45 No.11 WWW)

Parasound JC 3+ Halo: $2499 $$$ ★
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. Its fully direct-coupled RIAA equalization circuit is based on the circuit used in Curl's famed Vendetta Research SCP-2, while the 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. 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)

PrimaLuna EVO 100: $3695
The EVO 100 features dual-mono 5AR4 tube rectification; dual-mono choke-input EL34-regulated power supplies; two 12AX7 twin triodes per channel for the RIAA stage; and one 6922 twin triode per channel for its moving coil input stage, which sits in its own shielded, cushioned box. The gain choices are 40dB for MM, 52, 56, and 60dB for MC, and there are five MC loading choices—50, 100, 200, 500, and 1000 ohms. PrimaLuna distributor Kevin Deal warns that the EVO needs three days powered on to sound its best, following which HR commented that the PrimaLuna "completely eliminated the EMT JSD 6's tendency to sound tight and analytical, giving me instead a cartridge–phono stage combination that was both lush and heart-pounding fun." HR subsequently compared the EVO 100 with the MoFi MasterPhono, noting that with the PrimaLuna, he preferred the Denon DL-103 with a very heavy, 50 ohm load rather than the much higher impedances he liked with the MasterPhono. When AH auditioned the EVO 100, he found that it was the quietest one he'd heard, "ever." Following 100 hours of warm-up, AH wrote that the music "pulsed and shimmered on a huge soundstage and had a liquid, luminous character I associate with great tube circuits." He then replaced one pair of the 12AX7s with early-1960s RCAs and the stock 6922s with Amperex Bugle Boys. "While this substitution made the EVO 100 slightly noisier," he wrote, "it also got rid of the glassiness and, tonally speaking, thickened the sauce." (Vol.46 No.12, Vol.47 No.1 WWW)

Pro-Ject Phono Box RS2: $1999 in Black or Silver $$$
The full-featured, fully balanced, dual-mono RS2 has unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) inputs and outputs. Gain ranges from 40dB to 70dB in eight steps, four each for MM and MC. Resistive loading for MC cartridges is continuously variable from 10 to 1000 ohms, plus 47k ohms and variable capacitive loading for MM cartridges. There's also a switchable rumble filter, RIAA and Decca/ffrr equalization, and a balance control. JMu auditioned the RS2 both with its standard switch-mode supply and with the optional Power Box RS Uni 4-Way linear power supply ($799). Her first impressions with the standard supply and a Clearaudio Talisman V2 MC were that the RS2 seemed neutral to slightly cool, detailed, and lively: "It sounded clean, almost pristine, on the lighter side in terms of body and heft." With her MoFi UltraTracker MM, the sound was more midrange-focused, with good detail and musicality. Experimenting with resistive loading in MC mode, JMu found that with the optimal loading "the degree of detail seemed to increase, as did realism and clarity. The musicians' placement seemed to grow more spacious and specific." JMu felt that with the RS Uni supply, backgrounds became more silent and sustains and decays seemed to linger longer. Writing from his test lab, JA was impressed by the superbly accurate RIAA deemphasis, the extremely low distortion and noise, and the high overload margins. Peculiarly, he found that the RS2's superb measured performance with the linear Power Box became even better when he substituted the standard switch-mode supply. Tom Fine echoed JMu's recommendation and commented on how useful he found the RS2's output-balance control and the options for adjusting capacitive and resistive loading. He concluded that while this preamp is the opposite of set-it-and-forget-it, "if you have a few cartridges in rotation and you want to spend some time dialing in a favorite sound profile, it's a great option." (Vol.44 No.9, Vol.45 No.3 WWW)

Sunvalley Audio SV-EQ1616D: $995 (kit), $1645 (assembled in Japan) without 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 Philips, 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 Little Loco Mk2: $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 adapters. The Mk.2 Little Loco, which HR reviewed in January 2022, has single-ended inputs—he found that with the <1 ohm Ultra Eminent Ex the Mk.2 made "the Ex's quiet spaces quieter, its deep spaces deeper and easier to see into," adding that the Ex–Loco combo emphasized the physical character of instruments, the materiality of wood and metal. "Rich inner details, like the tautness of drum-head skins or the decay of cymbals, are not submerged in the larger mass of orchestra and hall sounds." (Vol.42 No.10, Vol.45 No.1 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)

Sutherland Engineering SUTZ: $3800
The SUTZ looks exactly the same, inside and out, as Sutherland's Little Loco. Inside, it sports the same three jumper-activated gain settings (to be upgraded in production to five) but it lacks RIAA correction, instead using a transimpedance circuit with solid state devices to convert an MC's output current to a sufficiently high voltage to feed a conventional phono preamp's MM input. HR decided that the Sutherland's current-drive input was passing on more information from Dynavector's XX-2 MKII MC, with less noise and IM distortion, than other phono preamps. Using the SUTZ to feed a Tavish Adagio phono equalizer, he concluded that Ron Sutherland's headamp "let me add my own choice of tube glories to the quiet steadiness of virtual short loading." (Vol.46 No.3 WWW)

SW1X LPU I SPX: $4375 as reviewed
MF was impressed by this sweet-sounding, handmade-in-England, vacuum tube–based moving magnet phono preamplifier. RIAA EQ is passive, an EF86 pentode tube is used for each channel's input stage, a 6N6P dual-triode for the output stage, and there's no overall loop negative feedback. Basic price is $3150—the review sample featured 5Y3 rectification, Audio Note copper-foil-in-oil caps, M6 EI grain-oriented–core power transformers, and a choke-filtered power supply. MF summed up the LPU I by writing that it is "a high-value, smartly designed, classic, 'purist,' vacuum tube–based MM phono preamp that achieves all of the positive things such circuits can offer—especially timbral and textural generosity and transient delicacy—at a very reasonable price, while avoiding pitfalls such as noise, limited bandwidth, soggy bass, and constricted dynamic range; . . . great for jazz, classical, and acoustic music." (Vol.44 No.6 WWW)

SW1X LPU III Special: $11,775
A MM preamp with an input pair of EF86 pentodes that drives an active RIAA equalization network. The output stage consists of a pair of triode-connected, choke-loaded 6S45P triodes. The balanced output is achieved with a transformer. (There are also single-ended outputs.) MF commented on the LPU III's "airy and convincing spatial staging" that was matched by its delivery of well-saturated, natural instrumental timbres with rhythm'n'pacing and "punch" to spare. He concluded that while the SW1X LPU III is easy to recommend for classical and acoustic jazz, "rockers in need of full electric bass extension and transient grip should look elsewhere." (Vol.45 No.8 WWW)

Tron Electric Convergence Signature: $4000
AH auditioned the moving coil version of this bare-bones preamp, which has single-ended inputs and outputs, a ground-lift switch, and 68dB of gain. Inside, a pair of potted step-up transformers precede three Russian tubes—a pair of 12AX7s and a 12AU7. "This British phono stage sounds clear, fast, and articulate," he wrote, "never losing track of the music's heartbeat." "Fortunately," he added "this burnished, rich sound doesn't include bloated bass, slow transients, or the other sonically gooey artifacts associated with some vintage-style tube circuits." Compared with the Manley Steelhead RC, the Tron produced richer, more colorful images and simply sounded more beautiful. But it omitted some of the ambient information and long decays that the considerably more expensive Manley extracted from AH's records. (Vol.47 No.1 WWW)

X-quisite SUT X-20 step-up transformer: $13,000
A 4Ns silver-wire toroidal transformer with a low-loss alloy core developed for the X-quisite phono cartridge that's said to match it "magnetically, electrically and mechanically" and to be optimized "regarding eddy current and hysteresis loss in order to provide the best properties to the unique ceramic transducer in combination with a tube preamplifier." Gain is +26dB (1:20). MF found that the X-20 magnified everything about the X-quisite ST that he loved and eliminated the qualities that gave him pause. Used with the SUT, the X-quisite did a much better job with high-frequency sibilants, and it completely eliminated the upper-frequency ledge. In its place were impressive linearity and timbral neutrality. (Vol.44 No.9 WWW)


Auditorium 23 step-up transformer: $1299–1499 $$$ ★
The surprisingly heavy Auditorium 23 is about the size of a pack of cigarettes. AH's sample was optimized for the Ortofon SPU—other versions iare matched to the Denon DL-103 and the EMT TSD. Nevertheless, using Ortofon MC Cadenza Bronze and Dynavector Te Kaitora Rua low-output cartridges, AH noted that this German SET sounded tactile and vivid: "It made recordings tuneful and colorful, if a little warmer than real, and did the usual hi-fi things with aplomb." With the Denon version and Denon, Zu, EMT, and Benz cartridges, AD found the sound "dramatic without being brash, and consistently full-bodied and colorful."He found the Auditorium 23 "slightly coarser" than the Audio Note AN-S8, lacking some sweetness and color, but "a bargain" nevertheless. (Vol.30 No.10 Vol.45 No.11 WWW)

Cyrus Audio Phono Signature: $2600
User-friendly, remote-controllable phono preamp with a front panel dominated by a green LCD screen. Seven buttons are for choosing the input, setting the rumble filter (labeled "Warp"), cartridge type (MM or MC), gain (40, 50, 60, or 70dB), resistive loading, capacitive loading, and saving the current settings. RCA inputs and output are tightly spaced, which might be an issue with some cables, but there is also a balanced output on XLRs. MF found that the Phono Signature started off warm-sounding and somewhat syrupy in the bottom octaves, but over time it brightened up and achieved a much better balance. Optional PSX-R2 power supply ($1199) produces a subtle but worthwhile sonic jolt that doesn't significantly alter the Phono Signature's reserved but well-organized Brit personality. (Vol.44 No.9 WWW)

Erhard Audio/Lundahl Premium SUT kits: $535–$1930
The K&K is based on Lundahl LL1931 Ag transformers with amorphous cores and silver wiring. HR auditioned the K&K with Zu Audio's Zu/DL-103 MkII moving coil and enthused over the combination's clarity and the "goose-bumpiness" of its transient bite. "Bass reproduction could be thrilling," he wrote, "just-right tight with genuine power." The Lundahl transformer's best, most obvious trait was "how specifically it rendered recorded information," he concluded. (Vol.44 No.11 WWW)

Kitsuné LCR-1 MK5: $1498–$2298, depending on options
The made-in-Korea, two-chassis, solid state KTE LCR-1 MK5 is unusual in that it uses inductors in its equalization networks. Four DIP switches allow users to set gain at any of 13 levels between 40dB and 72dB and resistive loading at any of 12 values from 14 ohms to 47k ohms. In his system, HR found that with various MC cartridges the KTE LCR-1 sounded its most polished and exciting when driven by high-quality step-up transformers. "On its own, with its 63.5dB gain, it did not sound as smooth, refined, or 'correct'" as the twice-as-expensive Parasound Halo JC 3+ phono stage, he wrote, though he decided that "the LCR-1's tone, solidity, and vigor" was preferable to the Musical Surroundings Nova III's "more laid-back, slightly gray refinement." "The Kitsuné KTE LCR-1 has become my daily-driver solid state phono equalizer," concluded HR. He subsequently compared the Kitsuné with Music Hall's Analogue A3 phono preamp, writing that the performers sounded farther from their microphones with the A3 and that its presentation "was less dramatically dynamic and less physical sounding" than that of the LCR-1. (Vol.44 No.7, Vol.45 No.10 WWW)

Lounge Audio LCR Mk.III: $380 ★ $$$
Lounge Audio Copla: $385 ★ $$$
Lounge Audio Silver Wire Copla: $525
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." HR returned to the Copla in March 2023, using Dynavector's XX-2 MC and feeding the Copla to either SunValley or Tavish Adagio phono equalizers. "The Copla made recordings sound charged and vivid in the extreme but also lucid and relaxed," he wrote, concluding that it "behaved like someone forgot a zero on its price tag." Writing about the more expensive Silver Wire Copla, which looks exactly like the regular Copla, except on the bottom of the chassis, where Lounge Audio founder Robert Morin has tagged and signed it, HR said that the Silver Wire Copla intensifies energy delivery and texturizes harmonics to a degree that makes the extra $130 seem trivial. "Coupled to a Denon DL-103, this is the highest-value phonography I know of," he enthused. (Vol.41 No.2, Vol.46 Nos.3 & 9 WWW)

Music Hall Analogue A3: $1199
With its two caged 12AU7 dual-triode tubes sticking out from the top like ears and two outlined-in-red knobs, one for volume control, the A3 reminded HR of "cartoon cat eyes." It offers both MM and MC inputs. While HR found that the A3's MC input made a good match with Ortofon's inexpensive 2M Blue cartridge, he felt it worked best with the expensive Koetsu MC cartridge when used with Koetsu's SET feeding the MM input. Compared to the Kitsuné LCR-1 MK5, which he described as "sometimes cool, hard-punching—dare I say masculine-sounding?" HR felt that the A3 presented itself "in a more feminine manner. The A3's presentation was less dramatically dynamic and less physical sounding. But I think the A3 was playing closer to the truth." He concluded that "fine tube sonics and a quality Alps volume control make Musical Hall's Analogue A3 easy to recommend." (Vol.45 No.10 WWW)

Paradoxpulse Phono 70 Signature: $3995
This hand-built, solid state phono preamplifier is designed exclusively for very low-output moving coil cartridges and offers 70dB of gain. Inputs and outputs are both single-ended, and an additional pair of RCA jacks is used for custom resistive loading. (The unloaded input impedance is a high 100k ohms.) RIAA equalization is passive. The Pi-filtered outboard 18VDC power supply uses wet silver-tantalum capacitors and expensive Audio Note silver-tantalum resistors, the same resistors used in the preamplifier circuitry. MF did most of his auditioning with Ortofon's Verismo cartridge. Playing Sarah Vaughan's Live at the Berlin Philharmonie 1969, he found that the Phono 70 Signature produced a "glistening, remarkably transparent, living rendering of Vaughan's voice and hung it effortlessly and convincingly in 3D space between the speakers." "If you crave warmth in a phono preamp, the Phono 70 Signature isn't for you," he concluded. "But if you want a neutral player that's quiet, super-well-organized, and can plumb the depths and scale the peaks without adding colorations, the Phono 70 Signature is well worth considering." On the test bench, the Paradox offered a low level of predominantly second-harmonic distortion, low noise, and high channel separation. However, overload margins were too low to work well with MC cartridges with a nominal output any higher than that of the Verismo's 200µV. The relatively high output impedance will require careful matching with line preamplifiers if the lows are not to sound lightweight. (Vol.45 Nos.3 & 5 WWW)

QHW Audio The Vinyl: $760 (plus shipping) $$$
Budget-priced solid state design from Spain offers independent MM and MC inputs. A recording of a double bass sounded natural and well-controlled, felt MF, while drums were immediate and natural-sounding—particularly the cymbals and rim shots. "Add a transparent, generously sized soundstage presentation that had width, height and especially depth, . . . and you have . . . a ridiculously good phono preamplifier that I think you could insert into your system and fool the most demanding audio fanatic into thinking it cost 10 times what it actually costs. And it's quiet." (Vol.44 No.9 WWW)

Sculpture A Mini Nano transformer: $990
Toroidal step-up transformer with a nanocrystal core and 99.99% copper coils. Available with 1:10 (20dB), 1:20 (26dB), and other gains. HR auditioned the Mini Nano with Sculpture A's A.3l cartridge, with its bronze and wood body—see "Phono Cartridges"—and felt the combination "excavated myriad details and dense textures but ran a bit dark and wet." However, with the aluminum-bodied Zu/DL-103 Mk.II, "the sun came out and scintillating transients returned." With the Mini Nano and Zu/DL-103, image size, brightness, and raw presence increased, as did the intensity of reverb on Miles Davis recordings, he concluded. (Vol.44 Nos.5 & 11 WWW)

Tavish Design Adagio: $2290 ★
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." Compared with the EAR Phono Classic with a favorite John Lee Hooker LP, HR described the Tavish as reproducing the room Hooker was playing in as "much bigger and emptier," adding that the window he was gazing through "seemed squeakier-clean than it did with the Phono Classic." (Vol.39 No.6, Vol.41 No.3, Vol.45 No.3, Vol.46 No.3 WWW)

Musical Surroundings Nova III, discontinued. Channel D Lino C 2.0, Consolidated Audio "Monster Can", Haniwa HCVC01, van den Hul The Grail SE+, not reviewed in a long time.

Auditor's picture

The links to the various types of products seem to be missing.

Auditor's picture

They're there now!

Dorsia777's picture

Rotel & Michi nabbed some Class A recommendations. Nice!