The Vendetta SCP-2 Phono Stage

The Vendetta SCP-2 Phono Stage

Saying that one is “getting in the DeLorean” and going back in time, like the wacky-haired Doc Brown in Back to The Future, has become popular parlance for reminiscing about the past. Wishful pop-culture references aside, I recently drove a DeLorean, and it’s nothing worth remembering. But I also test drove something else from the 80s that proved much better than that fabled car.

John Curl, the master circuit designer, formed his own company during the Reagan era after being unfairly treated by a number of high-end audio manufacturers. Aptly, he named his firm Vendetta Research and helped launch it with the phono preamplifier you see here. It’s price? A staggering $1,895—a seemingly exorbitant cost when cable television amounted to a few dozen channels and a $23 monthly bill. You could even buy a nice, clean Porsche 356 for only a few grand back then!

Going back in time again, I remember the day I purchased a used Vendetta in 1989. I was driving a Fiat 850 Spyder held together with duct tape. I moseyed into Scottdale’s Esoteric Audio to pester the local audio merchant when owner Gary Hjerpe escorted me into the back room. Puzzled, I became worried he was going to administer justice, Wild West style, given that I had been a lot of kicking tires of late. Instead, in a low, reverent tone, he said, “I just took a Vendetta in on trade from one of my wealthier clients. It’s perfect. You need this.”

Yes, people that drive $300 cars need $2,000 phono preamplifiers. For those of you that don’t know, a Fiat 850 Spyder’s engine is barely the size of a loaf of bread; its radiator resembles the small boxes that contain iPads. Daring to cruise around in such a car also meant that I needed to keep spare cash in my pocket. And the Vendetta sounded so good. The instant I played the first record, I knew the preamp was not going back to the store and that my credit card would be maxed.

At the time, my system included a Dynavector Ruby Carat mounted on an Oracle Delphi II. Channeled through Quad 57s, the music sounded heavenly. At last, I knew what J. Gordon Holt meant when he proffered, “Every disc I played sounded more like the master tape.” But, as fate would have it, the Fiat soon failed me, and I had to move the Vendetta down the road. It became a luxury I could no longer afford. After making the purchase, its new owner slithered off into the night, the amp grasped tightly under his arm. Oh, the horror.

Worried that my second go-around with this intriguing piece of gear would summon the feelings of attending an ill-fated high-school reunion, I unwrapped the Vendetta with trepidation. The memories were good, yet analog has come a long way since the mid-80s. Still, like a Vincent Black Shadow, this phonostage is legendary, causing grown men to speak in hushed tones when mentioning it. Having just reviewed the Parasound JC-2 phonostage, also designed by John Curl (and quite amazing in its own right for $2,500), I was extremely curious to hear how this box would perform.

My AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V/Koetsu Urushi Blue proved a perfect match for the Vendetta, which only allows the input loading to be varied from 20 to 200 ohms. It took 24 hours for the last touch of haze on the top end to disappear, but once it did, yow!

Quiet? Forever and always the Vendetta’s hallmark. This was one of the first phono preamplifiers that prompted reviewers to issue descriptive comments such as “inky black backgrounds.” When discussing the Vendetta in regard to his latest Parasound creation, Curl mentions that FET transistors he utilized in the construction of the former no longer exist. “Even if I could get my hands on semiconductors that good, a Vendetta would have a $8-$10k price tag,” he says. And he’s not crazy. Having a couple of phono preamps at my disposal that tip the scale between $12-$20k, I can attest that the Vendetta still stands up to pricier newcomers.

Imaging is fantastic, extending way beyond the speaker boundaries. Dynamics are powerful yet controlled, and there is plenty of bass weight. To ensure the noise floor is kept to the absolute minimum, Curl didn’t even include an LED on the front panel to indicate power status. Indeed, even with an ARC REF 5 preamplifier turned all the way up, the only noise present is a slight bit of tube rush (from the REF)—and this at a level more than necessary to drive my power amplifier to its peak power output.

Sadly, this Vendetta had to leave my studio and go back to its original owner, who requested anonymity so that people won’t beg him to sell it. Want one? A cursory check of eBay for this white whale revealed that a fairly clean SCP-2A unit recently sold for $1,600. That buyer is in for a treat.