Phonostages

Audion Premier Phonostage

Audion Premier Phonostage

It’s easy to get jaded and confused about today’s analog options. Still, if you have big bucks, the choice is practically made for you given that nearly all of the extremely costly phono cartridges are either low- or medium-output moving coil designs. This also means having to purchase a high-quality phonostage (read: expensive) to extract top performance.

Those with $1,000 budgets face a tougher quandary. Excellent models exist in both the moving coil and moving magnet camps, but the MC requires more to work its magic. Many $1,000-$2,000 preamplifiers feature both MM and MC operation, yet all make sacrifices to accommodate the high gain and variable loading of MC cartridges. Ultimately, something suffers.

The $1,999 Audion Premier phonostage is strictly for MM cartridges. It’s built on a small chassis (think early PrimaLuna ProLogue amps, but smaller) with one set of inputs and outputs optimized for one task—one at which it excels. Lower gain and no switching or jumpers means a simpler circuit, which translates into better sound. If you are a music lover that yearns to reach beyond a basic $500-$1,000 analog front end, but not sell the farm, the Premier warrants consideration.

A peek underneath the chassis reveals a tidy printed circuit board, premium parts, and a well-shielded power transformer. Nothing is overdone on this old-school design. An extremely handy back-panel switch lets you float the ground. Hum is the enemy of low-level phono signals, and it’s not uncommon to still have 60hz enter the picture no matter how careful you are with everything else. This little switch brings you back to absolute silence. I wish more manufacturers would include one.

Let’s Roll—Or Not

The Premier utilizes a pair of ECC88 (6922/6DJ8) tubes. Russian NOS 6H23 tubes are supplied and exhibit excellent all-around performance. On-hand NOS variations on the 6DJ8 prove different but not better in any sense, so I suggest using the Premier with the stock tubes unless you feel inclined to step up to a pair of EAT ECC88s. At $225 apiece, the latter diminishes the Premier’s budget ethos but yields greater transparency and finer detail without sounding harsh or etched.

Optimized for a standard 47k ohm load, with no capacitance spec listed, the Premier works well with all of my MM cartridges, including the Clearadio Maestro Wood, Ortofon 2M Black, and Shure V15mvxr. Because of its easy headshell removal, I extensively utilized the AVID Diva II SP/SME 3009; further listening continued with the AVID Volvere SP/Funk Firm FX•RII combination and my faithful Linn LP-12/Ittok. All provided splendid albeit varied results. I used the Furutech AG-12 tonearm cable on all but the SME 3009.

A Little Warmth Goes a Long Way

Like all tube gear, the Premier sounds best after being powered up for nearly an hour. Yet, even after the first few minutes, it’s three-dimensional quality peeks through. When the clock gets close to the hour mark, a light haze lifts, allowing you to hear further into your records.

This phonostage renders sound in a way that mixes so-called “vintage tube” and “modern tube” sound, all the while adding a bit of tonal warmth you won’t mistake for solid-state. Still, ample low- and high-frequency extension prevents the unit from sounding completely vintage. Overall, it’s an excellent balance. And the modest warmth goes a long way, especially with less-than-heavenly LP pressings.

Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” from Sonny and Cher’s Greatest Hits tremendously benefits from the extra body on tap. The Linn/Shure/Audion combination proves brilliant with countless 60s and 70s favorites. Then, spinning Classic Records’ remaster of Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats shows off the phonostage’s capabilities with excellent recordings, and may just convert uninitiated listeners to the tube side of the fence.

Having had the opportunity to audition a plethora of $1,000-$2,000 phono preamplifiers, I can unabashedly state that the Premier is one of the most highly competitive models in its class. A few hundred dollars often separates winners from losers, and while all units in the lesser-expensive price bracket lack the resolution, weight, and dynamics delivered by five-figure premium phonostages, the best convey enough enchantment to reward one’s vinyl fanaticism. Along with the $2,300 Parasound JC-3, the Audion belongs at the top of its category. The solid-state Parasound is quieter, with a bit more dynamic range. But the Premier has a more beguiling tonality and midrange bloom that rewards marathon listening sessions.

Regardless of the cartridge with which it’s paired, the Premier adds extra body and sparkle. If you are hell-bent on accuracy, the Premier may not be your idea of perfection. Nonetheless, for the little bit of brilliance sacrificed on my best recordings, the Premier adds palpability to less-than-sonically-spectacular LPs with a remarkable consistency. It’s a trade-off I welcome any day. If I can’t have it all, I prefer things a touch on the warm/romantic/vivid side.

Plenty of Punch

Often, tubes, especially at the lower end of the price scale, conjure thoughts associated with a lack of pace—and warm, gooey sound that has a romantic feel absent any rhythmic drive or snap. The Premier never suffers this problem. A quick spin of Sheep on Drugs’ “Acid Test” from their Greatest Hits possesses the requisite dimensions of altered-reality club music played at discotheque volume levels. Beats hit hard while staying clean and segregated from the piercing synthesizer tracks. Records like this—i.e., those are not audiophile treasures—easily illustrate just how much resolution is available in the grooves. Lesser preamplifiers just let the presentation coagulate, and make the music sound like a big ball of midrange.

A similar small sonic miracle happens with the Shure V15vmxr. While the classic Shure pickup has achieved cult-like status, it’s always left me somewhat cold. I feel that it exhibits too much “just the facts, ma’am” character. Tonally accurate, sure, but rarely involving. Via the Premier, it paints a more three-dimensional picture that has never transpired on anything but state-of-the-art phonostages, all of which are unlikely to be paired with a $300 cartridge.

On the Premier, jazz and vocal tracks are fantastic. In particular, acoustic instruments hang in the air longer than I expect from an MM setup, and the synergy with the LP-12 is nothing less than mind-bogglingly great. More expensive MM cartridges (the Clearaudio and Ortofon) deliver a more transparent, almost modern sound, yet the most enchanting results arrive via the Shure V15 and vintage NOS Ortofon VMS20 Mk.II cartridge. This $100 eBay-procured cartridge, mounted on the AVID Diva II SP/SME 3009 combination, fooled more than one audiophile into thinking they were listening to a much more expensive setup.

While many vinyl enthusiasts equate moving magnet cartridges with entry-level steps, the Audion Premier is a product with which you can happily live and exists as proof that you don’t have to spend five figures to attain lovely analog sound. Mate it with the right cartridge, and you may never get the urge to buy a MC cartridge—it’s that good. But should you be taken with such a desire, Audion makes an MC step-up that needs only to be plugged into the Premier, making the latter fully capable of MC use.

-Jeff Dorgay

Audion Premier MM Phonostage

MSRP: $1,999

Manufacturer Info: www.audion.co.uk
US Distribution: www.trueaudiophile.com

Peripherals

Analog source AVID Diva II SP/SME 309/Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood, Linn LP-12/Ittok LV II/Shure V-15mvxr

Preamplifier Burmester 011

Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk. 2

Speakers MartinLogan Montis

Cable Cardas Clear speaker and interconnect

Accessories Furutech DeMag, PS Audio P10 power conditioner

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