Recommended Components Fall 2022 Edition Phono Preamplifiers

Phono Preamplifiers

A+

Boulder Amplifiers 2108: $56,000
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 The through-hole components and boards have been replaced by surface-mount equivalents, and the circuitry features proprietary, house-made, "phono-specific," 993S and 995S discretely implemented "op-amp" modules.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)

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)

CH Precision P1 Phono Stage: $31,000–$90,850 ★
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 WWW)

A

Audio Research Reference Phono 3SE: $18,000
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 $2699  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)

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. (Vol.40 No.8, Vol.44 No.11 WWW)

EMT 128: $12,830
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)

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)

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: $2695
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 AnalogPlanet.com) 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)

Parasound Halo JC 3+: $3199 $$$ ★
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, 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)

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: $995 (kit, without tubes), $1585 (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 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)

SW1X LPU I Special Phono Stage: $4350 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 Balanced Edition: $12,125
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)

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)

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: $3600 ★
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: $3600 ★
With its multiple switch-selectable primary taps and its 10 switch-selectable input impedances, Zesto's Andros Allasso (the last word is Greek for transform) is surely one of the most flexible step-up transformers we've seen. And its inclusion of a front-panel mono switch—this doesn't blend the two channels together but rather selects only a single channel for amplification—means the Andros Allasso can be used with virtually any MC cartridge you can throw at it, pardon the figure of speech. MF heard from the Zesto a slight softening of note attacks and blurring of textures, but only in comparison with far more expensive/less flexible step-up devices. His verdict: "a smartly designed, reasonably priced piece of analog kit!" (Vol.42 No.4)

B

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: $5250
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)

Erhard Audio Premium SUT kits: $1845–$1960
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. (Vol.44 No.7 WWW)

Lounge Audio LCR Mk.III: $380 $$$ ★
Lounge Audio Copla: $355 $$$ ★
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 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)

Music Hall Analogue A3: $1199
See Herb Reichert's take in this month's Gramophone Dreams. (Vol.45 No.10)

Paradox Phono 70 Signature: $3895
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: $720 (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: $2190 ★
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 WWW)

Deletions
Audio-Creative Mediator 40, Bob's Devices Sky 20, discontinued. Auditorium 23 Hommage, My Sonic Labs 1030 Transformer, Grandinote Celio, Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+, not auditioned in a long time.

COMMENTS
Auditor's picture

The text under the J. Sikora Initial is the same as under the J. Sikora Reference, which is obviously a mistake.

John Atkinson's picture
Auditor wrote:
The text under the J. Sikora Initial is the same as under the J. Sikora Reference, which is obviously a mistake.

Fixed. Thank you.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

lesmarshall's picture

I was very surprised to read that the Benchmark DAC 3 is no longer a Recommended Component . In the earlier 2022 edition of Recommend Components , it was an A+ component . Your stated reason for the deletion was because it was not auditioned in a long while . Well why not audition it then ? Also, why is an audition necessary ? It measured as one of the best DACs ever . Why would its measurements change simply because you have not auditioned it recently ? I understand its your policy , but it seems rather unfair to Benchmark that you no longer recommend it for that reason . I believe a much fairer policy would be that a highly rated component should only fall off the recommended list if it is auditioned periodically and you determine that its current level of recommendation is no longer justified based on the factors that you use to include a component of the recommended list .

JRT's picture

Les, toward some light hearted amusement, consider a reductio ad absurdum.

The quoted material below was excerpted from the first version (published 01 May 1963) of Stereophile's recommended components, just the A,B,C rated amplifiers and preamplifiers:

Quote:

Preamplifier-Control Units
A: Marantz 7, McIntosh C-20
B, C: Dynaco PAS-2

Power Amplifiers
A: Marantz 8B, McIntosh MC-60 (footnote 5), Marantz 9A (footnote 5)
B, C: Dynaco Stereo 70

Footnote 5: mono amplifier.

Reductio ad Absurdum... Should the old gear listed above continue as currently recommended gear, or is it best left in its original context in the circa 1963 article? ...and why or why not? ...and is it a much too different set of cases for comparison? ...why? Would that old gear be good fodder for a listing of recommended vintage gear, and is that good subject matter for the current Stereophile readership? These are mostly rhetorical questions, but not all.

JRT's picture

Would you also include the essentially similar PAS-3, and then also the PAS-3X with updated tone controls, and then maybe also Frank van Alstine's improved Super PAS Three, etc.? The original short-list can grow large.

https://www.stereophile.com/content/recommended-components-1-0

https://www.stereophile.com/tubepreamps/1088vana/index.html

xtcfan80's picture

lesmarshall...a few years ago I believe it was the late Art Dudley who explained why gear drops off the RC list. Do a search and read it, explained in classic Art Dudley fashion. Cliffs Notes Version: GET OVER IT! A piece dropping off the list does not invalidate any past purchasing decision, only the ego of the complainer...

georgehifi's picture

It would be nice if the "title" of the piece recommended was clickable, so one could easily then read the full review of all these thousands of "recommended components" instead of searching like a ???

Just a thought??

Cheers George

liquidsun's picture

I must say I'm surprised to see Perlistens into Restricted Extreme LF category as I thought they were full range speakers.

Kal Rubinson's picture

For most, they will be full range but, as you can see from JA's Fig. 4, the FR is rolling off smoothly below 100HZ such that it will easily mate with a complementary subwoofer. I believe that was Perlisten's intent. That said, unless you are assessing the sound of low, low organ pedal tones, explosions or thunder, the bass from the s7t is clean, powerful and musically satisfying.

Robin Landseadel's picture

There's a lot of Dance Pop/Techno music that gives the lowest octave a workout. Managed to blow out the small bass driver from a Paradigm bookshelf speaker with a Sarah McLaughlan track---"I Love You" from the album "Surfacing"---a quiet ballad with a synth bottom without overtones, so there's pure, deep bass. Another good example would be the work of Bill Laswell, a producer/bass player.

Kal Rubinson's picture

OK but how is this relevant? On the one hand, I am not surprised that one can blow out the small bass driver in a bookshelf speaker. On the other, I doubt if it would do that to the Perlisten.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Blowing out the driver of a Paradigm Atom might not be meaningful save that I blew it out with a track that is low in level and undynamic. More to the point, it sounds like the speakers in question could use a sub. Of course, you pointed out that the speakers in question are designed to integrate well with subs. My Infinity 250 speakers, small floor-standing speakers, also requires a sub for deep bass.

What is meaningful is that there is more to the bottom octave than organ pedals and explosions. Lots of modern productions take advantage of digital recording/playback's ability to record/reproduce the lowest octaves of sound.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yes, there is a lot more to the bottom end than I cared to mention but the distinction between the small Paradigm Atom and the s7t is that the former needs a sub (or a LP filter) merely to survive wide-band signals while the latter does not.

Did you read my comments about the Garage Door test? I doubt that either your Paradigm or your Infinity could compete with the Perlisten, with or without a sub.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Doubtless. My point was more about program material and really deep bass. In any case, my Infinity Primus 250s are aided by my Sonance Son of Sub. As the system is in a small room, it's probably as much bass as the room can take.

Anton's picture

I like to hit this issue and pretend all my Hi Fi gear is gone and I have to start over with my budget and this list.

Glotz's picture

Droooooool.. and I'm done FOREVER.

Soulution, MBL... heaven.

KEFLS50W's picture

It will be interesting to see if Stereophile catches up to the focus on active, integrated designs. The relevance of separates seems to be waning in comparison to these sexy and modern designs (many of which are good value to boot) from KEF, B&W, Q Acoustic, ATC, Dali, and others. LS50WII for example gives me access to high quality, high current class a/b amplification I would not have been able to afford with separates. On another note, why are REL subs not listed - they would floor the competition listed in terms of sonics and build quality. Sorry but SVS is a home theater product and KEF KC62 is for kids.

Apollo's picture

Focusing on the Class A Solid-state Two-channel Amplifiers for sake of my question, I am struggling with the broad price range, from about $1K at the low end of the range, to about $100K at the high end of the range.

At its simplest, my question is: why spend $100K for an amp, when one can get a similarly rated amp, and therefore a similarly good amp, for $1K?

I am asking without sarcasm, criticism, or prejudice. I want the best SQ. And I would rather spend the $ difference on something else.

What I find fascinating, is that more and more reviews across publications/websites conclude with the statement to the effect: "unless you want to spend more money, this piece of gear is perfect and all one needs".

So how can the $100K audio OEMs survive when similarly rated gears can be had for 100x less? What am I missing? Why spend $100K for an amp, when one can get a similarly rated amp for $1K?

xtcfan80's picture

"I am struggling" ...and maybe hifi isn't for you if you don't understand why some Class A gear costs 1K and some 100K...Be Happy and Listen!!!

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