Sutherland Engineering Insight phono preamplifier

Veteran phono-preamplifier designer Ron Sutherland has been partial, of late, to battery power. Getting off the grid can produce superb results, as demonstrated by his Hubble phono preamp ($3800), powered by 16 alkaline batteries.

I favorably reviewed the Hubble in the February 2010 issue, and remember loving most everything about it—particularly its drop-dead-quiet backdrops, its solid, weighty bottom end, and its fully fleshed-out instrumental textures. I was less enthused by its somewhat soft, muted high-frequency transients, though of course tastes and associated gear will differ. I need more grit, particularly for rock; you may not.

The new, dual-mono Insight ($1399) is powered by AC and has a beautiful case of cold-rolled steel with a powder coat of baked-on epoxy. Its innards are equally well made, with Wima polypropylene-film capacitors, Dale/Vishay metal-film resistors, and gold-plated RCA and internal jumper jacks.

The gain, produced by op-amps, can be set for 40, 45, 50, 55, or 60dB; the loading choices are 100, 200, 1k, 10k, or 47k ohms. To make either type of setting, you unscrew four knurled knobs to remove the cover and gain access to the cleanly laid out circuit board of double-sided fiberglass.

To some degree the Insight lacked the harmonic sophistication of the Hubble, which I described three years ago as "rich, lush, generous, and not at all 'solid-state sounding,'" but its high-frequency transients were lightning-fast, ultraclean, and stimulating. The rest of the audioband was equally clean, fast, and enticing, and the background "blackness" made me forget about batteries. The Insight was on the lean, clean, more clinical side of the fence from the Hubble, and would do best with a cartridge that exudes a bit of midband warmth—but, again, tastes and systems vary.

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The Insight worked really well with Ortofon's 2M Bronze cartridge ($419) on a VPI Traveler turntable and tonearm. I've been listening to that combination with awe—for around $3500, it's a mighty fine analog front end. The Insight's lower octaves were equally fast, clean, and well extended, though of course out-lushed and out-weighed from top to bottom by the Hubble, which costs almost three times as much. Still, if you mostly play rock, you'll probably prefer the Insight—and the $2401 it'll leave in your pocket.

The Insight is easy to recommend at $1399, but if you have a chance, you should compare it to Musical Fidelity's M1ViNL ($1199). Though the Insight offers greater dynamic thrust and slightly more transparency, and the M1ViNL exudes more midband warmth, they sound more similar than different.—Michael Fremer

Art Dudley wrote about the Insight in October 2014 (Vol.37 No.10):

A year and a half ago, designer Ron Sutherland, of Sutherland Engineering, loaned me a sample of his Insight phono preamplifier ($1399), which Michael Fremer had reviewed in the August 2013 issue (Vol.36 No.8). As I've noted in a few equipment reports since that time, the Insight has proven invaluable to me in reviewing moderately priced preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers that lack phono stages (a sad descriptive, easily on a par with children who would not enjoy a box full of puppies). With its internal switches set for low gain—40dB, as appropriate for use with an outboard step-up transformer—the Sutherland Insight provides just about the same amount of gain as the moving-magnet section of my Shindo Masseto preamp, and has thus helped me draw comparisons between various line stages and my own longtime reference (footnote 1).

Straight out of the box, the Sutherland was musically crisp and clear but a little colorless; that improved after a few days of 'round-the-clock power and frequent use. The Insight never reached the saturation levels of the Masseto phono section, but it was sufficient in that regard. Just as crucial, the warmed-up, broken-in Insight had a very good sense of touch with plucked strings and the like, and a fine sense of bloom, especially with classical fare. When I tried Janet Baker's recording, with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra, of Elgar's Sea Pictures (LP, EMI ASD 655), I was impressed by the Insight's iron grip on melodic lines, and the beautifully elastic way it followed the dynamics of the piece, sounding appropriately big on the frequent swells in "Where Corals Lie," and the even bigger crescendi in "The Swimmer." Again, clarinets were more gray than brown, and string texture was good rather than great—but the Insight touched all the emotional bases.

813suther.ins2.jpgGood pop records, too, liked the Insight, including Chris Stamey's adventurous It's a Wonderful Life (LP, DB Recs DB66). In the title song, the lead guitar—played during the verses with a mandolin-like tremolo—had a great sense of feel through the Sutherland, while the moderately compressed drum sound came across with good impact. Spatial layering, too, sounded believable and fun, and I noticed that the Insight had apparently greater channel separation than the Shindo's phono stage.

Thus did my life with the borrowed Sutherland Insight follow its happy and uneventful path—until the day, early this year, when Ron Sutherland got in touch to inform me of an update: In the earliest production units, one of the Insight's two gain stages is handled by a single Texas Instruments OPA227 op-amp (footnote 2) per channel—which, it turns out, can run out of steam when handling the highest frequencies at the highest levels of gain. The remedy, Sutherland said, was to replace the OPA227 with the outwardly identical OPA228. The new chips were dispatched, and even though I was mildly skeptical that so relatively affordable a product could be made to sound much better, I looked forward to poking around inside it. I like that sort of thing.

My mild skepticism proved mildly justified: My fine-sounding, early-production Insight confounded Ron Sutherland in that the OPA228 chips were already present and accounted for, with nary an OPA227 in sight. Not one to lightly suffer disappointment, I nonetheless blundered ahead, just to see how easy the job was or wasn't. It was. I followed all of the common-sense precautions one might take when working with chips, including working on a cardboard surface and making a point of always, before touching any chip, first touching some surface or object unconnected to the chip, in order to discharge whatever static electricity I might have harbored. After that, it was easy to pull the old chips straight away from their sockets with a small pair of pliers, and to insert the new ones with nothing more than fingers.

Indeed, the modified-but-not-really-modified Insight sounded no different from before—which is to say, it still sounded great. That said, owners of very early Insights should contact Sutherland Engineering and inquire about this crazy-easy update.—Art Dudley



Footnote 1: Click here for details of my current system.—Art Dudley

Footnote 2: The OPA227 is a plug-in replacement for the Precision Monolithics OP27, which back in my DIY days was my go-to op-amp for use in circuits that didn't involve unity gain.—John Atkinson

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Sutherland Engineering
Kansas City, MO
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