Recommended Components Fall 2021 Edition Phono Preamplifiers

Phono Preamplifiers


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: $53,000
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 The through-hole components and boards have been replaced by surface-mount equivalents, and the circuitry features proprietary, house-made, "phono-specific," 993S and 995S discretely implemented "op-amp" modules.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 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. (Vol.40 Nos.4 & 6, Vol.41 No.8)


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 2.0: $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 adapter, 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)

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)

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 HCVC01 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+: $2999 $$$ ★
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)

Pro-Ject Phono Box RS2: $1999 $$$
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 with 47k ohms with 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 switchmode supply and with the optional Power Box RS Uni 4-Way linear power supply ($999). 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. (Vol.44 No.9 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: $875 (kit, without tubes), $1485 (assembled, excluded tube sets)
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 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 adapters. (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 WWW)

SW1X LPU I: $4195 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)

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)

X-quisite SUT X-20 step-up transformer: $13,500
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)

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 WWW)


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: $1295 $$$ ★
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)

Cyrus Audio Phono Signature: $2199
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)

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 WWW)

Kitsuné LCR-1 MK5: $1198–$1398, 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. (Vol.44 No.7 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, formerly 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
Used with Koetsu Rosewood Signature and Hana Umami Rd moving coil cartridges and powered by Musical Surroundings' optional Linear Charging Power Supply ($650), "the solid state Nova III exceeded my expectations for a moderately priced solid state phono stage," wrote Herb Reichert. He was impressed by the Nova III's transparency, though he felt that it did have a tendency toward partially grayed, less-than-fully-saturated tones, especially when compared with the similarly priced Kitsuné KTE LCR-1. (Vol.44 Nos.4 & 7 WWW)

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)

QHW Audio The Vinyl: $786.96 (incl. 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: $750
Toroidal step-up transformer with a nanocrystal core and 99.99% copper coils. Available with one 1:10 (20dB) or 1:20 (26dB) gains. See the Sculpture A.3l entry in "Phono Cartridges." (Vol.44 No.5 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)


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)

Ypsilon VPS-100, Sutherland Engineering Duo, Heed Audio Quasar, Sentec EQ11, not auditioned in a long time.

MatthewT's picture

Not much for me here, being a vintage gear fan first. Please bring back the entry-level column, there is a lot of gear at that price-point worth getting reviewed.

Anton's picture

Budgetwise, I think I would be most like a "Double A" audiophile.

Same with me and wine.

I do admit to seeing some of the top end prices for either wine or Hi Fi and thinking that there are people who have checkbooks that are 'better' than their palates/ears.

Like JA1 described in the past...there are already parts of my own hobby that are beyond my budgetary event horizon.


If we did have audiophile classes, from minor leagues to major league, I wonder what the price points for each step would be.

MatthewT's picture

Lets me play every now and then in the Majors. Nothing depreciates faster than audio gear. I have to admit being somewhat happy at seeing a dartZeel break while listening to it, while my beloved Sansui keeps making music.

Anton's picture

I like showing gear in the reviews to my wife and asking her to guess the price.

When I saw the OMA turntable in the latest issue, I guessed 15,000 dollars. When she saw it, she guessed 12,000 dollars, and we've been playing this game for 25 years!

Next, I asked her if I were able to purchase it for 90% off retail, would she let me. She said, "Only I promised to flip it immediately."

Then, she threw me a bone and said, "You could buy it and keep it for the 12,000 dollars that I guessed."

I'd need a 97.5% discount to have a chance at it. And even that would be wildly extravagant. I'm happy with life, this is just for scale.

tonykaz's picture

Above the PS Audio level is the world of Status & Ego. !

Which has me wondering if Stereophile is a Status & Ego type publication ? Is this a Robb Report mag that belongs on the coffee tables of private Jet Airports ? ( I've never seen it there )

Does an Anodized Red $200,000 Amplifier belong on the Front Cover of a magazine like ours ? None of us will ever have any chance to experience Velvet Rope Gear so why are we bothering with it? It being better is probably one person's opinion ( and that person probably doesn't have to buy it or own it ).

Reviews of these $100,000 +++++ pieces are man-speaking to us how our gear is deficient and unworthy, we are reading Hubris & gas lighting.

There is a World of $1,000 bottles of Wine, $25,000 Rolex Watches, Super pricy First Class Seats on UAL Flights and Political Leaders that are wealthy from insider trading. We shouldn't be reading about those things here.

Ours is like the world of our modest Canadian, revealing a new form of music discovery and writing one of Stereophile's most insightful pieces of literature about it. ( nice writing Mr. Robert S.)( is that the door bell? )

Tony in Venice Florida

rschryer's picture

Thanks, Tony

tonykaz's picture

Annnnndddd :

Thank You to the Editor that gave you the Word Budget and turned you loose.

Stereophile keeps raising the Bar !!!

Tony in Venice Florida

Anton's picture

Where on Maslow's Pryamid is a half million dollar record player?

I'm curious to see....misguided 'esteem?'

I prefer to use Swanson's Pyramid....

(Second from bottom left.)

tonykaz's picture

A most expensive record player would service the Ego needs of someone needing to establish themselves as the very Top of Analog Audio's Caste System.

The widely recognised Top Level Analog Format has been Tape.

I grew up in a Performing Arts household, my mother was an Operatic Performer and one of my older brothers was a Horn Player for our local Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

So, from my point of view, no Analog Audio System has ever come close to performing like a Live Audio Performance from a listening distance position.

Super pricy Audio Gear is about Status & Ego !!! ( I hear that Bob Carver still laughs at this stuff )

Tony in Venice Florida

tonykaz's picture

Yes, Brilliant Observation! ,

of which, of-course, I completely agree .

Proving the old maxim: when two people agree on something - only one is doing the thinking.

Now that I'm living in the Deep South, Swansons Pyramid is where I'm slowly migrating to. Hmm.

Y'all have a Grate Day

Tony in Venice Florida

rochambeaux's picture

Kudos my friend. My first visit here to see how my "budget" system choices stacked up and lo and behold none of them to be found. Between my 3 piece desktop stack, speakers and subwoofer I spent about $2,500.

Apparently in Sterophile's world that's what I should spend on a single speaker stand...

ravello's picture

The introduction to recommended loudspeakers states that "Candidates for inclusion in this class [i.e. Class A, limited LF extension] must still reach down to at least 40Hz, below the lowest notes of the four-string double-bass and bass guitar." The Falcon LS3/5a, for example, most certainly does not reach down to 40 Hz, unless you define "reach" to include a -10 or -15 or even lower dB point, which cannot be construed as useful bass etension. This is probably true for several other speakers listed in this category. So what is happening? What is the thinking behind this inconcistency?

smileday's picture

Perhaps about -7 dB at 40Hz in this room. Fig. 6,

It might be -3 dB at 40Hz in a broadcast van, the intended usage at the design stage.

tonykaz's picture

...performance level for all Great Transducers?

It was the very loudspeaker that brought me and my English partner into the Audio Business. ( back in the early 1980s ) -- ( my business partner and I begged Raymond Cooke for this design to import to USA - he said NO! )

Isn't it still a "Reference" for comparison ? , doesn't any new design have to match or exceed it's super high levels of performance?

This little device and a well matched sub builds an outstanding Desert Island System.

But, it's still outstanding without the Sub.

It may not be Full Range but it well earned a Lifetime Class A+ transducer system rating. ( four Decades + )

Tony in Venice Florida

Ortofan's picture

... like antique furniture, but the KEF LS50 Meta is a much more highly evolved successor.

tonykaz's picture

I'm sure that I agree with you.

I seem to have a deeeeeeeep seated feeling that the LS3/5a is the grandfather of High End music Gear.

Even during the 1980s, my little shop : Esoteric Audio in Farmington Frills, Mi. stocked most of the small mini-monitors including the LS3/5a, Linn Kann, ProAc Tablette, Spica TC50, Quad ESL63 and the whole range of other hopefuls. Performance wise, the ProAc Tablettes were the musical leaders, the Quads were the Sales leaders, the Spica was the Reviewer Favourite . We had them all on permanant comparison using a VPI player, Koetsu Rosewood, Electrocompaniet Electronics and MIT Music Hose cable interfaces. It was an exciting adventure for any and all customers to take part in the ongoing comparisons. People bought scads of 'all' of those small speakers types.

With great or outstanding supporting gear, the LS3/5a can Scale up to amazing levels of music reproduction.

Tony in Venice Florida

ravello's picture

@ smileday: With due respect, the link you posted is not to the current Falcon "Gold Badge" reviewed in 2021, which I was talking about, and which is about 12 dB down at 40 Hz (ref. 1 KHz) in JA's listening room on the evidence of Fig. 6 and Fig. 8 (red trace). This, as I was saying, cannot and should not be construed as useful bass extension at 40 Hz, so listing this speaker as "Class A, limited LF extension" is misleading (to say the least) in light of Stereophile's own stated criteria for inclusion in this category. Perhaps Editor Mr. Austin would like to take the stand on this. Furthermore, most of us don't listen to music in a broadcast van. Mind you, I am not saying that these are not truly great speakers. Indeed, I used to own the Harbeth P3ESR, which I found as nearly flawless as I suspect is possible in a loudspeaker, except for bass extension and volume (SPL) capability -- admittedly an inevitable design constraint given the size of the midbass driver, the size of the cabinet, and the benign impedance. This is why I eventually replaced them with a pair of the Harbeth C7 (40th Anniversary), which turned out to be game-over speakers in my small, 12 sqm study. Perfectly solid bass to 40 Hz and possibly below.

TowerOfPower's picture

It's surprising to not see a single Soundsmith cartridge on this list. Would like to know why.

skitheeast's picture

Hi - I am looking for a subwoofer to match the KEF LS50 Wireless sound, ideally with wireless integration to make placement easier. The 17 ms delay would not bother me as the speakers match the delay. Did anyone test the KEF KF 92 in addition to its smaller sibling and can they recommend it? Would I get better results with something like the SVS SB 3000 regardless of losing the wireless integration? Thanks in advance.