Parsound’s JC3 Jr. Phono Preamplifier

With 30 minutes on the power up clock, unable to resist the temptation any further, a new copy of Crowded House’s Together Alone is dropped on the current Technics SL-1200G with Hana SL cartridge, and magic begins pouring through the latest offering from Parasound.

If you’re new to the analog game, the JC3 Jr.s designer, John Curl is a legend, having a hand in some of the world’s finest preamplifiers and phono preamplifiers. We reviewed their $2,400 JC3 about five years ago, finding it an incredible performer and an incredible bargain. Since then, Parasound has gone on to build an improved JC3+ (at $2,995) and the Jr. you see here for $1,495.

Not a complete dual mono, dual shielded chassis design like the more expensive 3+, Jr. still gets the job done. It’s quiet, quiet, quiet; paints a big soundstage and is incredibly dynamic. Like the more expensive models, you have balanced and single ended output options and the choice of a fixed 47k loading or a variable 50-500 ohm MC setting, with three gain settings; 40, 50, and 60db. (6 db more if you use the balanced outputs).

Got your interest piqued? Watch for Eric Neff’s full report. I’m off to FedEx to blast it his way. Oh yeah, it comes in black too…

Channel Islands PEQ•1 Mk II

Years ago we reviewed Channel Islands original phono stage and it was a killer value at $295. Today, CI founder and designer Dusty Vawter has a new box up his sleeve, the PEQ•1 Mk II for $995, and he’s done it again.

The small box arrived on Wednesday, and after an incredibly enthusiastic call with Mr. Vawter, we fast tracked the photos and unboxing. For those of you that have never met him, Dusty is a pretty quiet understated guy, who goes about his business making great gear and not tooting his horn that much.

Sporting full dual-mono construction and spiffier casework, the PEQ•1 Mk II raises the bar for what you can expect from a $995. Initial listening is highly impressive, so watch for our review sooner rather than later!  These should be shipping now, for those of you that are wanting one immediately.

The PEQ•1 Mk II offers 40db and 60db gain settings, (with custom options offered) and loading options of 100, 1000, 10k, and 47k ohms with variable capacitance on the MM side.

As this product is NOT on the Channel Islands website yet, please call them at 805.984.8282 or email at [email protected] to get the ball rolling.

Coffman Labs G1-A Preamplifier

With the renaissance that vacuum tubes have been undergoing for the last decade or so, it’s more challenging than ever to create a tube preamp that stands out from the pack.

So when engineer, musician, physicist and Portland local Damon Coffman told me he designed a new preamp that’s “amazing,” I was a bit skeptical.  But when I saw Coffman’s creation, the G-1A, upon a recent trip to local gear shop Echo Audio, it was like catnip.  The unique casework caught my eye instantly, where fledgling manufacturers usually fall short—think steampunk meets art deco, fused with some mid-century modern.  The shop’s wry owner, Kurt Doslu, who is usually the one curbing my enthusiasm, showed me the nifty little preamp.

“Kurt, what’s this?” I asked. “Oh, it’s this new preamp that we’re going to be distributing,” he replied. “It’s pretty good, want to take it home and give it a listen?”  And so the adventure began.

The G-1A has an MSRP of $5,495 and, at present, is only available through Echo Audio in Portland.  There will be a total production run of just 500 units and the first 25 have already been pre-sold—impressive for a new product.

A two-box design, with an outboard, tube-rectified power supply, the G-1A is a full-function preamplifier.  It has a phonostage, with moving-coil (via step up transformer) and moving-magnet inputs and a headphone amplifier built in, which is a lot of capability for that price point.  The G-1A features a single-ended design throughout, with premium RCA connectors for the four high-level inputs and two phono inputs, along with two fixed high-level outputs and a tape out, which makes life easier for this tape enthusiast.

Circuit Basics

The G-1A uses six vacuum tubes in the main circuit: two 12AX7s, two 12AU7s and two 5687s, with a 5AR4 in the rectifier position.  The preamp  ships with standard-issue, current-day production tubes, leaving things wide open for tube rolling—but the G-1A was so enjoyable as delivered, I’ll leave tube rolling for a future blog post.

Coffman says that much of the impetus for the design of the G-1A came from revisiting classic tube designs from the 1920s, when “the original concepts in tube audio” were born.  As a result, his preamplifier is a masterpiece of simplicity, even down to the number of screws holding its case together.  Inside, we see a mix of new and classic parts.  Coffman sourced a number of oil and paper capacitors (“NOS KGB items”) and an input selector switch from the aerospace industry.  He also went so far as to hand-select and measure every single component for sound quality and durability.  Yet, even with this bespoke approach, Coffman’s training in the medical-instrumentation field drove him to streamline the manufacturing approach to assure consistency from unit to unit.

A concert violinist with a master’s degree in physics, Coffman made his mark in the medical electronics industry by producing digital stethoscopes.  A hi-fi guy since his early teens, he admits that building this preamplifier was, in many ways, even tougher than building his stethoscopes.  And most importantly, Coffman is a music guy through and through; his wife, daughter and parents are also musicians. So he is constantly asking himself if the sound is natural.  With the G-1A, a result of two years and countless prototypes, Coffman has finally answered that burning question in the affirmative.

Stunning Musicality

Wanda Jackson’s 2011 release The Party Ain’t Over is a dense recording and, as the first album on my long listening list, established that the G-1A has a timbral clarity that is unmistakable.  The upright bass at the beginning of “Rum and Coca Cola” has a loose, resonant, almost unturned quality such that you can actually hear the bass rattle—and the G-1A brings all this detail front and center, capturing every bit of texture available.

Zooming through some audiophile standards proves equally rewarding.  Listening to the Doors and the Grateful Dead in 24/96 was a spectacular experience with this preamp.  The soundstage that the G-1A presents is enveloping, dishing up the magic you usually have to spend five figures to achieve.  This preamplifier produces a stereo image that extends well beyond speaker boundaries on all axis—of course, the better the source material, the better the result.

The true triumph of the G-1A is its effortless reproduction of acoustic instruments.  Acoustic playback is a must considering Coffman’s background.  The tonal accuracy of piano, violin and drums must be experienced to be believed.   The gentle tap of Phil Collins’ drumstick on the snare frame in the title track of Brand X’s album Unorthodox Behaviour was scarily real. That extra dollop of texture the G-1A provides seems to come from nowhere and yet still makes itself known.

The sparse drumming and percussion in this record, with its almost Zappa-like triangle taps and bells at the far corners of the soundstage, show off the immediacy that the G-1A delivers.  No matter how complex the musical passage, there’s always enough headroom to accommodate another instrument in the mix.  This level of dynamic competence at both ends of the scale is rarely found without spending a lot more money.

Not Terribly Tubey

While you won’t mistake the G-1A for a solid-state preamplifier, much like my Audio Research REF5 SE, the Coffman preamp is highly accurate, with that extra bit of airiness suggesting vacuum tubes under the hood (or, in this case, poking out of the top of the hood)—and nothing more.  Where a few of my favorite tube preamplifiers of old injected their share of warmth and often coloration, the G-1A plays it clean all the way.  It is worth noting, however, that this one really needs a good hour to warm up.  At initial power-up, it does sound a bit thinner than some of the other tube preamplifiers we’ve experienced.  But to complement the highly resolving nature of the G-1A, it is equally well represented in the lowest octave.

Because the G-1A offers such a great balance, I did not spend any time tolling tubes in search of a different “tuning.”  I’m sure it would be fun to swap the phonostage tubes, because the 12AX7 allows so many different variations on the theme, but we’ll leave that for another day.  Plus, the tall, spun-aluminum towers that ensconce each of the tubes do not make for easy tube swaps, and perhaps it’s for the best.

At this point, we could call the G-1A a “best buy” without the phonostage and headphone amplifier.  As both of these segments practically warrant full reviews on their own, I will go into greater depth on our Analogaholic and Macro sites.

Full Function Phono and Phones

The G-1A includes inputs for MM and MC cartridges.  While everything in the preamp is so carefully thought out, this vinyl junkie would love to see that as a function addressable from the front panel.  Coffman does thoughtfully include a loading switch for the MM input, giving 47K, 70K and 90K ohms, allowing most of my favorite cartridges to shine.  The Shure and some of the Ortofon MM range have a much more open sound when loaded to 70k than at 47k, so this is a nice touch.

The phonostage is excellent, easily on par with anything I’ve heard in the $2,500 range, including the outstanding Manley Chinook, and the G-1A is head and shoulders above the EAR 834P, which is fairly colored in comparison.  Most impressive is the sheer dynamic drive that the G-1A provides, with the same tonality as the linestage.

Soundstage width and depth are enormous, making the freshly rebuilt Quad 57s in my second listening sound like a pair of stacked Quads.  Spinning the recent MoFi remaster of Dead Can Dance’s Into The Labyrinth, the level of detail revealed was no less than stunning.  With a diverse combination of acoustic and electronic elements, featuring male and female vocals, this record gives a quick and accurate read on a component’s spatial abilities.

Sampling a wide range of cartridges, including the Denon DL-103R (and the Zu Audio variation), Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, Ortofon SPU and Clearaudio da Vinci all proved excellent matches with the G-1A.  Unfortunately, the Lyra family of cartridges was not as exciting.  The Atlas, Titan i and Kleos all offered the same result: slightly slow and rolled off, which is likely the result of an obvious impedance mismatch.  There are still a few more on the audition list, so stay tuned for a follow-up on the Analogaholic site.

As this was the first sample from the production line, the headphone stage was not complete at this time, so for now we are concentrating on linestage and phono performance.  A full review of the G-1A’s headphone stage will occur on our website very soon as a follow-up review.

The lack of a remote control proved not to be an issue, especially when moving the G-1A into room two, where the listening chair is directly in front of the main rack, so volume adjustment is easily handled.  Coffman assured me that the output stage of this preamplifier would drive “anything” and, after mixing it up with about eight different power amplifiers and driving 20-foot interconnects, I concur.  Driving a few of my test power amplifiers with one-meter and seven-meter lengths of ALO Audio’s newest premium interconnects reveals no change in sound quality or high-frequency rolloff.

So What Makes This Thing Awesome?

The Coffman G-1A has a unique and striking look and it’s built by a man with a plan.  Some might be surprised by the $5,495 price, but consider this: In the best old-school tradition, the G-1A includes an onboard phonostage (MM and MC) and an onboard headphone amplifier—remember when you could buy a full-function preamplifier with all of this under the hood?

With vinyl still growing in popularity and headphones a full-fledged sub-genre of audio, a preamplifier incorporating these two elements is exciting.  Considering that you won’t have to purchase an outboard phonostage, headphone amplifier or a pair of power cords, the G-1A is fantastic if you value sound quality above everything else. The design is so pure it even lacks a remote control.

Judged strictly as a linestage for $5,495, the Coffman G-1A is at the top of its class.  The fact that it includes an excellent phonostage and headphone amplifier makes it the bargain of the year.  All of the tubes are easily found and those predisposed to tube rolling can tune and tweak until Election Day.   Coffman has plans to expand the lineup, possibly making the phonostage and linestage separate boxes. When I asked him if there might be a companion power amplifier in the works, he smiled that evasive smile that usually means “yes, but I don’t want to talk about it now.”

So with that in mind, we award the Coffman Labs G-1A one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012 and look forward to the company’s future offerings.  Coffman is certainly off to a brilliant start.  I have purchased the review sample, so that it can become an anchor component in room two, and so that we can do a long-term report when a year has passed.

The Coffman Labs G-1A Preamplifier

MSRP: $5,495


Analog Source               AVID Volvere SP turntable/SME V, various cartridges

Digital Source                dCS Paganini stack, Sooloos Control 15, Aurender C10

Power Amplifier             Conrad Johnson MV-50C1

Speakers                       Quad 57

Cable                            ALO Audio, Cardas

Power                           Audience AR-6TS

REVIEW: Creek Audio Wyndsor Phonostage

Is it just me, or has it been raining phonostages lately?

It seems as though the vinyl downpour keeps coming, and there are no signs of it subsiding.  Vinyl sales were up 37% last year, which is a great thing for vinyl lovers.  And equipment manufacturers seem to be keeping pace with this trend, considering how many new phonostages are popping up from out of nowhere these days.  Where you land in this sea of analog goodies will certainly depend on the size of your record collection, the quality of your system and your ultimate dedication to vinyl.  You’ll know vinyl fever has hit you really hard when you decide to make the step up to more than one turntable (or a table with two tonearms), or even if you’re just adding a mono cartridge or a second cartridge of different tonality or quality.

The new Wyndsor phonostage offers two inputs, one RCA and one balanced, which makes it perfect for the budding analogaholic.  While Creek Audio has offered fine and very cost-effective phonostages in the past, the Wyndsor is in a different league, both in performance and price.  The English company has come a long way from its humble beginnings.

Opening the Box

Like many others on the market, the Wyndsor is a two-piece affair.  The signal from a phono cartridge is so faint and fragile that any attempt to preserve its integrity is welcome.  This is why the Wyndsor’s power supply comes equipped with individual mains transformers and separate regulation for each channel, connecting to the main unit via an umbilical cord.  The main chassis is a deceptively simple looking unit, with an illuminated readout section that can be dimmed or turned off completely, a back button, a mute switch and a main controller knob marked “Select.”

It’s this “Select” capability that is the key to what’s available from the Wyndsor.  From this feature the user can select various parameters for various cartridges and store them in the unit’s memory.  You can select cartridge type, load resistance, capacitance, EQ and arm wiring.  Arm wiring?  Yes, you can select single-ended RCA or balanced DIN for the phono cable input.  How cool is that?!

A lot of other phonostages allow for various levels of configurability, but none (at least none in this price range) offer the variety of settings and options available from the Wyndsor.  The folks at Creek certainly thought the feature set through on this product.  What’s even better is that these features can be easily dialed up and stored via the “Select” function.  This is a far cry from having to dial up DIP switches that are either behind a panel or, worse, inside the phonostage.

Best of all, you can use the 16-character alphanumeric display to list gain, loading and cartridge type.  This is an awesome feature, and helps to keep your vinyl world organized; especially if you have an arm with multiple headshell/cartridge combinations, it’s great to see the one you’re using displayed.  Vampires in the audience will be glad to know that you can shut the display off completely if desired.

It’s Not Just About Features

The Wyndsor offers up a lot of sonic goodness, but you will have to wait for it a bit.  Straight out of the box, it’s rather small and thin sounding, like so many other solid-state phono preamps we’ve tried.  But don’t panic.  Leaving it powered up 24/7 will alleviate about half of this, but it needs some serious break in.  I suggest one of those handy little Hagerman devices that knock high-level output down to an RIAA signal at phono-cartridge level.  Avoid the grumpiness, leave your iPod on repeat for a week and be prepared for the caterpillar to make a big change for the better.

Once broken in, the first cartridge on my list was the Goldring 2400 MM.  I dial up the parameters by the data sheet and let her fly.  Most memorable is the recent ORG offering 45 rpm of Weather Report’s seminal album, Heavy Weather.  Of the hundreds of times I’ve listened to this recording in its various iterations, I’ve never enjoyed it as thoroughly as I do through the Wyndsor.  The solid, weighty bass line on this exquisite disc makes for much foot tapping and big grins during this listening session.

I couldn’t resist another period classic, Edgar Winter’s They Only Come Out At Night.  You guessed it, I crank “Frankenstein,” taking advantage of the big soundstage provided by the Wyndsor, this time courtesy of the Denon DL-301 MK II MC cartridge.

Very Versatile

Changing the cartridge again to the (2.5-mV-output MC) Sumiko Blackbird is easy with the Wyndsor.  Often this high output MC, which likes to be loaded at 47K ohms, is often a little shy for many phonostages’ high-output settings, but a bit high for the low output.  Thanks to gain settings at 40, 45, 50, 61 and 70 dB, optimization for maximum dynamic range proves straightforward, with the 50-dB setting perfect in my system.  Even the low output MC Dynavector 17D3 (.23 mV) works well with the 70 dB maximum gain setting, yet it maintains a very quiet noise floor.

The Blackbird’s high trackability is a perfect match for Ginger Baker’s monstrous drumming on “Toad,” from the Fresh Cream album.  Cymbals are nicely fleshed out, with plenty of extension, but no harshness or sibilance.  Unable to escape the gravitational field of classic rock, I turn to the drum solo from “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” to wind up the evening’s listening session.

One last cartridge change proves the Wyndsor is an equal match for an upscale dance partner, this time the $1,995 Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, a .4-mV MC.  Switching the program to jazz, I play something from the Meters.  The rich tonality of Leo Nocentelli’s guitar on the Look-Ka Py Py album is full bodied and three dimensional, with great attack and decay.  A superset of various Dave Holland records gives the Wyndsor a sufficient set of bass calisthenics to prove its mettle.

The longer the Wyndsor is plugged in, the more it smooths out.  You won’t mistake this one for a valve unit, but it is not plagued with the graininess that pervades most of the lesser transistor offerings.  If your taste falls more to solo vocals or acoustic music, the Wyndsor delivers, offering a delicate midrange, along with a healthy dose of pace and timing.  The recent Rickie Lee Jones Pop Pop remaster is a perfect example:  Jones’ voice never becomes trampled by the big, acoustic bass lines present on this disc.  The Wyndsor proves equally nimble with dense recordings.  The title track of Pat Metheny’s Song X collaboration with Ornette Coleman is a torture test on a budget analog rig, with Metheny and Coleman riffing at maximum velocity out in front of a robust rhythm section.  The Windsor keeps it all well sorted, without becoming a gigantic blob of noise—a job well done.

Beyond the Facts

Thanks to the power supply and circuit refinements, the Wyndsor offers quite a bit more sound quality and flexibility compared to the plethora of phonostages in the highly contested $1,000 range.  There are a few single input units in this price range offering even more performance, but if you’re like me, then part of your joy in the hobby comes from having multiple tables, tonearms and cartridges. Such being the case, the Wyndsor should be at the very top of your list.  – Jerold O’Brien

The Creek Audio Wyndsor Phonostage

MSRP:  $2,495

REVIEW: Bryston BP 1.5 Phonostage

Listening to Serge Gainsbourg’s low drawl, mixed with groovy, early 70’s melodies and sparse instrumentation reminiscent of a beat movie, it dawns on me that even though I don’t speak a word of French, I don’t care because the Bryston BP 1.5 phono stage is really drawing me into this vintage recording.

Its low, low, noise floor adds to the splendor of this record, barely getting above a whisper.  Surface noise would be a bad thing right about now, but the BP 1.5 is CD dead quiet, combined with the AVID Volvere SP turntable, SME V tonearm and Ortofon Cadenza Bronze MC cartridge.

The BP1.5 isn’t an inexpensive phonostage.  MSRP is $3,195 without power supply.  Bryston loyalists already in possession of a BP series linestage, need just plug in – the MPS-2 has more than enough juice to cover both components.  If you fall into this category, the BP1.5 is an outright bargain.  Everyone else will need to add the MPS-2 for another $1,695. Thanks to Bryston’s 20-year warranty, this is a product that you can buy with confidence.  While this does sound impressive, they wouldn’t offer it if their stuff spent a lot of time in the shop with the hood up.  I don’t think I’ve ever met an unhappy Bryston owner.

Getting down to business

A matched pair of AVID turntables simplifies the task of comparing analog components, and it takes aural memory out of the equation.  Switching back to the Monk – Audio phonostage that I’ve been using in room two was a revelation. Even with a pair of modestly priced Dynavector 20X2L cartridges, the increase in weight and dynamics the Bryston offers is staggering – so much so, that I had to turn the REL G2 subwoofer down three clicks.  But then I’m a sucker for any phonostage that has a huge power supply.

A quick comparison between the BP1.5 and a few other phonostages, both more and less expensive establishes that the Bryston is properly priced. Returning to the AVID/SME/Ortofon combination for the remainder of the evaluation is an excellent combination.  The BP1.5 has a single RCA input and output.  The front panel has an on off switch with an LED that turns from red to green when the unit is fully powered. I suggest leaving it on all the time for the most musical results. (As I would with any solid state phonostage) While the BP1.5 only requires a few days to stabilize and does not change tonal character after about 50 hours, there is a definite fog in the presentation when first turned on, as with all solid-state gear.  It sounds much more lifelike after being powered up for a day or two.

A quick taste of Led Zeppelin II, reveals plenty of sock in John Bonham’s bass drums, and the level of texture present in his bongo playing during the drum solo in “Ramble On” is phenomenal.  The precise attack and decay goes a long way towards painting a highly realistic musical picture.  As the album slows down for “Bring it on Home,” the harmonica just fades gently, slowly into nothingness with a smoothness that’s tough to come by in the digital world without spending a lot more of your hard earned paycheck.

Aimee Mann’s Lost In Space has become somewhat of a workhorse around here because it has such a big soundfield, along with a myriad of small, electronic sounds and texture that make it easy to get a quick read on the spaciousness present in any analog component.  The BP1.5 does not disappoint, portraying things flying all over the room, yet Mann’s voice stays anchored just slightly left of center.

Stays locked in place

The BP 1.5 delivers rock solid musical pace. The more dense the recording, the more you will be impressed with it.  Tears For Fears recent MoFi remaster of Songs of Love again illustrates how well the BP 1.5 not only maintains clarity throughout the album, keeping the multiple layers of lead and backing vocals distinct, it stays  tonally neutral and does not embellish.  The BP1.5 will not help the records in your collection that sound awful, but it will take the well recorded ones into new territory.  It strikes a perfect balance in the tonality department, being neither thin nor overly forward.  Yet you will never mistake this one for having valves under the hood.

You might suspect that a phonostage with a larger power supply than the main chassis would have excellent dynamic range, lower bass slam and control.  The BP1.5 meets all these requirements, and if there is one strength standing out from a very balanced performance, it is the BP1.5’s LF weight and No matter what the program source, I was always impressed with how much energy was now coming through down deep.  The Dynaudio Confidence C1s used in my reference system gained more authority than I’m used to with the Bryston BP1.5 in the reproduction chain, and these speakers are no slouch to begin with.

Because the BP1.5 has such a low noise floor, it is a master of low-level detail. This is its other strength.  Those stepping up from a phonostage in the $1,000 – $2,000 range will experience a revelation with their vinyl collection that should make for many late night listening sessions.  The healthiest competitor for the BP1.5 I had on hand was the equally excellent, but different, Zesto Andros PS1 that we reviewed in issue 48.  Vacuum tube all the way, the Zesto has an extra bit of air and front to back depth that the Bryston does not, but it doesn’t have the rock solid LF performance either.  Your personal objectives and system synergy will determine if the BP1.5 is the perfect match for you.

One of the last listening sessions confirms the straight-ahead tonality of the BP1.5 is the latest release from the Portland Cello Project, Homage. This record is of only fair quality and comes across somewhat flat in comparison to something like the Jung Trio’s The Jung Trio Dvorak Piano Trio, Op.65, which is flawlessly recorded.

A variety of test-drives

The BP1.5 has modest adjustments, but you’ll have to pull the cover to get at them.  Fortunately the 35dB gain setting for MM (41db available) or 57.5dB setting for MC (51.5 or 63.5dB available) will handle most cartridges.  Because transformers are used for step up, the impedance of your cartridge will affect synergy.  Dynavector, Lyra and Ortofon cartridges proved a great mix, while my Sumiko Palo Santos was only ok, lacking a bit of dynamics with this setup.  The Grado Statement 1, a moving iron cartridge with a 47k impedance, yet only .5mv of output is not a perfect match with the BP 1.5, however the wood body Grados with 5mv output are an excellent combination for someone desiring a bit of tonal saturation, with a substantial shot of solid state punch.

Is it your cup of tea?

The Bryston BP 1.5 phono stage is a top performer and makes no missteps, but understand its honest presentation will not favor cartridges and/or systems that are already biased towards the forward and analytical.  Both the Sumiko Blackbird and Lyra Titan-i proved way too revealing for my taste.  I suspect a more neutral or even slightly warm cartridge is going to be your slice of analog heaven.

Build quality is superb and Bryston’s reputation is well deserved.  Perhaps the only question, with the BP1.5 tipping the scale at just over $5,000 is whether a single input is enough and having to open the case every time loading needs to be changed is a deal breaker. Those more firmly planted in the “set it, forget it, and spin records camp” will love the steadfast consistency of the BP1.5.  The more fiddly ones in the audience may end up preferring something easier to adjust.
All other considerations aside, judging the Bryston BP1.5 solely on it’s sonic performance, it delivers the goods and compared to other phonostages we’ve auditioned in the $4,000 – $6,000 range, is well worth the price asked.

The Bryston BP1.5 phonostage and MPS-2 power supply

MSRP:  $3,195 (BP1.5) $1,695 (MPS-2)


Analog Source                        AVID Volvere SP, SME V tonearm, variety of phono cartridges, mentioned in review

Preamplifier                          Burmester 011

Power Amplifier                    Burmester 911 mk. 3

Speakers                                Dynaudio Confidence C1 II, REL G-2 Subwoofer

Power                                     Audience aR6-TSS, PowerChord AU24

Cable                                      Cardas Clear

Accessories                             GIK room treatment, Furutech DeMag and DeStat, Audio Desk Systeme RCM

Red Wine Audio’s Ginevra LFP-V

When “Perfect Sound Forever” debuted in 1983 in the form of the CD, I doubt that anyone seriously imagined the LP would still be with us in 2011.

The compact disc immediately ignited an analog/digital debate among hardcore audiophiles, and while true believers on each side are still holding tight, it’s the CD, not the LP, whose future remains uncertain. No wonder many analog loving audiophiles continue to upgrade their turntables, tonearms, cartridges, and phono preamplifiers.

If you happen to be in that group, Red Wine Audio’s luscious new Ginevra LFP-V Edition Phono Preamplifier should be on your short list. It’s a fully discrete Class-A FET gain stage/buffered tube output, passive RIAA equalization network, and battery-powered design. And that makes the Ginevra the first tube design I’ve seen that doesn’t work off AC power. That said, it’s not all that tubey, and there’s no overt electronic signature. Indeed, the Ginevra’s sound is totally organic. It has substance and weight, so it sounds like live music.

Intriguing Design and Construction

Red Wine founder Vinnie Rossi favors the 6922 (E88CC) dual-triode vacuum tube, and uses it in most of his designs. If you like to experiment with “tube rolling,” feel free to try some 6DJ8/ECC88, 7308/E188CC, 7DJ8/PCC88, 6N23, 6H23, 6N11 or 6GM8 tubes. Since the Ginevra uses just one tube, it won’t break the bank to keep a few tubes on hand, allowing you to change the sonic flavor when the mood strikes.

Moving-magnet cartridge gain is spec’d at 40dB and loaded with 47k ohms. Moving coil gain, at 60dB, is moderate, so owners of really low-output coils may not have enough juice; Rossi recommends using a step-up transformer if you need more gain. Moving-coil loading options are 75, 82, 90, 100, 350, 500, 1k, and 10k ohms, settable via internal DIP switches, and load sockets for individual resistors are provided for owners that prefer custom loads. While separate connectors for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges are provided, the owner’s manual cautions against connecting both types of cartridges at the same time.

It should be noted that Red Wine doesn’t just pack the Ginevra with a bunch of “D” cells and call it a day. No, the preamp boasts state-of-the-art 25.6-volt “Lithium Iron Phosphate” (LFP) battery technology. These low-impedance battery packs are exclusively manufactured for Red Wine Audio and designed for long life. The battery pack includes a built-in, custom-designed cell management board that balances individual battery cells, both optimizing reliability and battery pack performance. The pack is also user-replaceable, and doesn’t require any soldering to install.

Best of all, the Ginevra completely operates “off-the-grid,” meaning the preamp is electrically decoupled when it runs off the battery supply. A full charge lasts approximately eight hours, but for all-night parties or background music, you can run the Ginevra off the AC power supply. The battery charges whenever you play the preamp with AC power and when you switch off the Ginevra.

The Ginevra’s nicely machined, anodized black front panel is the preamp’s most interesting design feature—it’s a very plain-looking black box. The unit measures a scant 12″ wide, 9″ deep, and 3.5″ high. Sans the separate battery charger, it weighs 8 pounds. Giving a determined nudge to the power button triggers an internal relay that disconnects the charger’s negative and positive AC feeds to the preamp. And the “piezo” switch, with a rated cycle life in the millions, is made in Israel with aircraft-grade aluminum.

Let the Listening Commence

I listened to the Ginevra with a few tubes: the standard JJ Electronic Russian 6922, which possess a sweet demeanor; a similar-sounding Holland-made Amperex 6DJ8; and a significantly more aggressive Sovtek 6922. A $225 EAT ECC88 tube that comes with an attached red anodized heat sink upped the resolution a notch or two over the others, but Rossi’s stock tube is very listenable.

With my VPI Classic turntable and van den Hul Frog low-output moving-coil cartridge at the ready, the Ginevra’s gain definitely proved lower than that of my Whest TWO phono preamp. Still, I never felt like I needed more gain. The Whest is no slouch, but it’s distinctly cooler-sounding and leaves a lot of music on the floor. The Ginevra is grainless, sweet, and beguiling—this preamp is not the sort that dazzles with displays of audiophile “speed,” “detail,” or “resolution.” It’s much more musically honest. Treble is purer, better, and more natural than I’ve heard from most SACD and DVD-A discs. Moreover, the Ginevra is very quiet in battery mode; switching over to AC raises the noise level. Hence, I ran with battery juice most of the time.

The importance of power supply design in phono preamps also can’t be overstated. Rossi’s battery pack delivers pure DC current just perfectly, which is crucially important when amplifying miniscule voltages generated by phono cartridges. Since the preamp automatically decouples from the AC line when operating on battery power, Ginevra owners will never be tempted to buy pricey power cables or power-line conditioners.

With the Ginevra, record surface noise, clicks, and pops are not necessarily lower in level, but they recede into the background more than they did with my Whest. And the Ginevra’s deft portrayals of the quieter parts in music are remarkable in their own right; dynamic shadings and expressive nuance really shine through. In short, music sounds more natural and less like hi-fi. Always a good thing.

I also love the way the Ginevra allowed the sound of Egberto Gismonti’s guitar on his Duas Vozes to radiate in three dimensions. Each pluck and every strum fill the studio space to holographic effect. In addition, Nana Vasconcelos’ evocative vocalizations and palpable percussion accents populated a broad and deep soundstage.

In listening to the Persuasions’ We Came to Play, the Ginevra absolutely nailed the ensemble’s a capella sound. I hung around these guys at a few Chesky recording sessions, so I have a good fix on their individual voices and group vibe. I closed my eyes and the Persuasions simply appeared—voices, foot shuffles, thigh slaps, finger snaps, the entire package. This session record led me to The Intimate Ellington, which starts off with Duke talk/singing “Moon Maiden” and gently playing a celeste keyboard. I’ve spun this LP countless times, and this much I know for sure: Hi-fis rarely get this close to sounding so expressive and downright human.

Making a Tangible Musical Connection

Moving on to more contemporary recordings, like Tom Jones’ all-analog, live-in-the-studio Praise & Blame, put a big smile on my face. Jones is no youngster, but his pipes are in great shape, the bluesy, gospel-infused record is loaded with great tunes. By comparison, the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Revisited sounded cooler, brighter and, well, more modern. Its more upfront nature, sparkly treble, and tighter, more direct-sounding bass stood in sharp contrast to the older, all-analog LPs in my collection. Don’t get me wrong. The Junkies’ record is nice, but the Ginevra’s sweet temperament didn’t smooth over the differences.

Paul Simon’s brand-new So Beautiful or So What is likely a digital recording (the LP comes with a free 96/24 download), but it’s a delight nonetheless. The material is wonderful, and the sound clear and clean, with the musical connection on LP is a wee bit stronger than what I gleaned from the high-resolution file. The Ginevra also lit up the English Beat’s stellar I Just Can’t Stop It LP. The ska revivalists’ beats are as nimble as they come, and the band’s tunes are tops. Bass definition was excellent, tuneful, and rich.

I couldn’t stop putting LPs on the platter. Giorgio Moroder’s dense synthesizer tapestries drifting through the Cat People soundtrack kept me up late at night. The record’s high-frequency shrieks and sputtery flourishes floated high above the rest of the soundstage, and I couldn’t get enough of the throbbing beats and eerie whooshes. All so 1982! Those were the days, before the CD came onto the scene.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

If you’re in the market for a phono preamp that’ll get you closer to the by-the-number sound of the better solid-state alternatives, the Ginevra probably ain’t it. But if you’re like me, you might be in love at first listen. And while the LFP-V is sold factory-direct with a 30-day satisfaction guarantee, I can’t imagine many customers ever sending their units back.  -Steve Guttenberg

Red Wine Audio Ginevra LFP-V Edition Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $3,000


Analog Source: VPI Classic turntable with a van den Hul Frog cartridge

Digital Sources: PS Audio PerfectWave DAC & Transport, MSB Technology Platinum DAC & Data CD Transport, Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition

Electronics: Parasound JC 2 and Pass Labs XP-20 preamps, Whest TWO phono preamp; Pass Labs XA100.5 and First Watt J2 power amps

Speakers: Dynaudio C-1, Mangepan 3.6, Mangepan 3.7

Cable: XLO Signature 3 interconnects and speaker wire; Zu Mission interconnects, speaker cable; Audioquest Sky interconnects

Naim SuperLine

(Ed. note:  This review originally ran in issue #21 of TONEAudio. While some of my reference components have changed since this review, the SuperLine/SuperCap combination is still part of our reference fleet. Our enthusiasm for this phonostage is as high as it was almost three years ago.)

I agree with Naim that a hefty power supply goes a long way to achieve big, natural dynamic sound.

My other reference phono preamplifier, the Aesthetix IO,  also has two external power supplies, and in my book, is the pinnacle of analog reproduction, but it’s full of tubes.

These days, I just can’t get behind 32 vacuum tubes to play a record. The 12AX7’s of only moderate quality can fetch $50 each and the exceptional ones can cost three times that.  As SpongeBob likes to say, “That’s crazy talk.”  Enter the Superline solid-state phono preamplifier:  all of the analog goodness, none of the tube hassle.

Don’t put me in the valve-hater category. I still enjoy them in small doses, but I spend a lot of time with my system fired up, and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting a tube preamplifier sorted to perfection only to lose the magic when it’s time to retube.  This happened to me recently, so I am on a quest to eliminate, or at least minimize, the glowing bottles in my system.

When asking Naim why they  produce a premier phonostage when they don’t even make a turntable, the answer was simple.  As a company that goes way back with analog, they still wanted to produce what they feel is the best phonostage they are capable of making. It’s their way of giving something back to the analog community.

Like a Butterfinger, the surprise is inside

In understated British fashion, the Superline looks like a little black box, slightly narrower than a standard Naim component and lacking even a power switch on the front panel, just a backlit green Naim logo.  When you pick it up and realize it weighs more than a Nait 5i integrated amplifier, it sinks in that this is a serious phono stage.

The circuit board is suspended, floating inside the case, much like Naim’s approach to the CD555 CD player.  The actual preamplifier is a single-ended, Class-A design, with no op amps in sight.  The wiring is executed with surgical precision and features 25 internal regulators while borrowing thermal isolation concepts from Naim’s flagship NAP power amplifier.

Powerful Options

Some criticize Naim for taking the separate-power-supply approach, but I applaud it.  I hate getting rid of gear to which I get attached, so I prefer components with an upgrade path.  The Superline itself retails for $2,950 without a power supply, but it offers a number of power options.  This allows you to purchase a top-shelf phono stage that you can upgrade as your system improves by merely changing the power supply.

If you own one of the SuperNait integrated amplifiers, or a Naim preamplifier, you can power the Superline with that.  I started my journey plugging the Superline into the SuperNait and was quite impressed.  If you will use the Superline in a non-Naim system (or just want more power) you can mate it with their entry-level FlatCap 2x ($1,100), a HiCap 2 ($1,900) or the SuperCap2. ($5,950)  If you are on a tight budget, you can usually find an original FlatCap used for about $500 from a Naim owner moving along the upgrade path.  Still with me?

You also have the option of purchasing the Superline in a standard (58db) or high-gain (64db) model.  I had the high-gain version here, which worked fine with my Dynavector 17D3 with its .23mv output and it had no problem handling the 2.5mv output of the Sumiko Blackbird without overload. So it should work well with whatever cartridge you have.  Keep in mind, though, that this phono preamplifier is not intended for MM cartridges.

Lightning fast setup

When first setting up, be sure to remove the two transit screws that keep the floating circuit board secure (the manual warns you not to use the Superline with the screws still in place) and I suggest putting them in a Ziploc bag and taping them to the inside of the shipping carton, just in case you ever need them.  Keep the Superline level and over a table while you are removing the screws and then carry it gently to where it will be used, as it is now floating free.

Once the Superline is connected to your power supply, the next step is to set loading and input capacitance.  Naim supplies four resistive plugs and three capacitive ones, giving you loading options of 100 ohms, 500 ohms, 1,000 ohms and 10,000 ohms.  Chris Koster from Naim USA suggests a 440-ohm plug with the Lyra Olympos cartridge, and he sent along a custom loading plug.  Should you have a cartridge that requires different loading, your Naim dealer can have custom sets made for you at $60 each.  The plugs are tightly matched for value and channel balance, so I’d advise against doing this yourself.  I used the minimal capacitance loading with all of the cartridges tested.

I still had my ASR Basis Exclusive when the Superline first arrived, and the first thing that struck me about the Naim was that it is every bit as quiet as the battery-powered phono stage that was off the grid entirely!  So chalk up an immediate victory for the engineers at Naim.  The ASR depends on very high-quality op amps, however, and is not nearly as grain-free as the Superline, even while plugged into the SuperNait.

Four cartridges were used for the primary evaluation of the Naim combo – the Dynavector XV-1s, the Lyra Skala, the MoFi 3.5C and the Lyra Olympos.  Thanks to the ease of changing the loading on this preamplifier, it was easy to optimize for each cartridge.  Koster was kind enough to send an extra 470-ohm loading plug, which he felt would be optimum for the Olympos.  The Skala found happiness at 220 ohms while the other two preferred 100 ohms.

Snaic or Burndy?

I did not get a chance to audition the Superline with the FlatCap power supply; the rest of the review period was spent with the HiCap2 and the Supercap.  If you are not a current Naim user, you will need to familiarize yourself with their various cable and connection options.

Plugging into a SuperNait, requires a Snaic, as does the FlatCap or HighCap2.  This is a five-pin cable that brings current to the Superline and high level audio output back to the power supply.  You plug your tonearm cable right into the Superline and you take another cable (Din if you have an all Naim system or a Din-to-RCA cable in a non-Naim system) out to your linestage; this works the same with all three power supplies.  The SuperCap2 will require the higher-capacity Burndy cable, which goes where that big plug is on the back of the Superline.

Analog bliss, a stage at a time

Those who have heard the Superline with one of the smaller supplies may wonder what all the fuss is about.  As an addition to your Naim preamplifier or SuperNait, the Superline makes a good showing and is well worth the asking price.  When the HighCap2 is added to the equation, you start thinking something pretty special is lurking inside that little black box.  And by adding the SuperCap2, you are taken somewhere very special indeed.

It is always a challenge to describe a component this good because all the great audiophile clichés have already been taken.  Cutting to the chase, I’ve never heard a phono preamplifier reveal more information from the black grooves than the Superline/SuperCap2. What puts the Superline/SuperCap2 solidly on the top of the mountain is the presentation; those seeking tonal neutrality and boundless dynamic range will be in heaven.  This combination knocks down the walls of your listening room, expanding the presentation in all three dimensions.

I like that big, big sound, and the Superline/SuperCap2 gets it right.  It doesn’t make everything sound big, but it has a very precise ability to capture dynamic contrasts and spatial cues, doing a good job at convincing your brain that what you are hearing is happening right in front of you.

The Superline had plenty of hours on its clock from using it for the SuperNait review, and I thought I was very familiar with the sound.  But after the addition of the SuperCap2, I was on another planet.  I haven’t been this impressed with a phono preamplifier since the famous Vendetta Research of the ’80’s, which was the last time I had a major paradigm shift in analog listening. In my system, the Superline/SuperCap2 opened the window to the music wider than it has ever been.

The Superline/SuperCap 2 hits you first with its weight and power, but it keeps you riveted to your chair with subtlety and nuance.  Naim enthusiasts always like to talk about the immediacy of their gear, and the Superline/SuperCap 2 has that quality in spades.  Everything else I’ve heard in comparison sounds moderately hazy.  As expected, the perfect tonality of this preamplifier is intact, even with the basic configuration, but as you increase the power supply you get more dynamics, less noise and a more-sorted view of the music.

The Naim Superline with SuperCap2 power supply is the closest I’ve heard to analog perfection.  It neither adds nor subtracts from what’s in the groove and faithfully offers what I’m looking for in any component.  It offers a staggering level of resolution without being harsh or forward. while offering tremendous musicality without being overly romantic or rounding off the edges of musical transients in an effort to sound polite.

Not an audiophile component

Phenomenal recordings will send you into bliss, yet even average recordings will yield sonic rewards that with surprise you.  While the Superline/SuperCap2 does not romanticize, should you want that sound, you can always mate it with a romantic-sounding cartridge.  I could have easily lived with either the lush presentation of the Lyra Olympos or the slightly more neutral, yet dynamic, presentation of the Dynavector XV-1s.  Every one of the cartridges in my stable sounded fantastic!

One of the biggest complaints I hear from people with mega systems is that they only sound good while playing a handful of “audiophile-approved” records.  This couldn’t be further from the truth with the Superline/SuperCap2 combination.  Sure, the best pressings gave their all, but I have a substantial collection of just-average records.  So I went on a power pop binge and listened to a lot of my favorite but fairly lousy-sounding  records one night, and I was astonished at how much was actually lurking in those grooves.

On Cheap Trick’s self titled album, when Tom Petersson’s bass line kicks in on “Mandocello,” I felt like that Maxell guy in my chair.  Substituting a popular $1,000 phono preamplifier and playing that cut again (with the $10,000 Lyra Olympos), it became flat and uninvolving, completely lacking any depth.  I moved on to a few of my favorite Elvis Costello records, Squeeze, XTC and The Sinceros before calling it a night with “Christmas with the Chipmunks.”  Damn, even that sounded good.

Should you install a Superline/SuperCap2 into your system, I guarantee the phono stage will no longer be the weak link in your system. It will not bring back the parts of your marginal recordings that suffer from compression, but it will extract every bit of music your turntable, tonearm and cartridge are capable of delivering.

With the average records sounding fantastic, the fantastic records sound dreamy.  When listening to Ella Fitzgerald on the “Ella Sings the Cole Porter Catalog” box set, she was in the room, six feet in front of my listening chair. In a completely different vein, the LP version of The Beastie Boys’ The Mix Up was a true psychedelic event.  Though a little crunchy on the extreme high end, this record is a giant, surreal soundscape, with bongos, synthesizers and crunchy guitars floating all over the place, with big, thumping bass lines running in and out of the music.  Again, on a lesser analog setup, it just sounded flat and CD-like, but through the Superline/SuperCap2, I was amazed at how much information lurked on this disc.

Super squared

I’ve owned a Naim CD555 for nearly two years with no diminishment in enjoyment whatsoever.  It’s looking as if another pair of Naim boxes are in my immediate future, and I’m anticipating the same result with the Superline and SuperCap2.

My biggest expectation for a five-figure component is that it should take me somewhere that I’ve never been.  The world of the Superline/SuperCap2 is one of those places, and I always have a hard time leaving it and coming back to reality.  When I was proofing this article, Microsoft Word wanted to keep changing Superline to Superfine.  Maybe the ghost in the machine had a point.


Turntables                   Continuum Criterion w/Copperhead Tonearm, TK Acustic Raven Two w/SME 309 and SME iV.Vi tonearms, Spiral Groove SG-2 w/TriPlanar vii

Cartridges                    Dynavector 17D3 and XV-1s, Lyra Skala and Olympos, MoFi 3.5C, Sumiko Blackbird

Tonearm Cables          Furutech

Preamplifiers               Conrad-Johnson ACT2/series 2, Nagra PL-L, BAT VK-32SE

Power Amplifiers       BAT VK-55SE, Conrad-Johnson Premier 350, Nagra PSA, Naim SuperNait (integrated)

Speakers                      Harbeth Monitor 40.1, MartinLogan CLX w/Descent i subwoofers, Verity Audio Sarastro II

Power                          Running Springs Dmitri and Jaco Power Line Conditioners, RSA Mongoose Power cords, Shunyata Anaconda Vx power cords

Interconnects              Shunyata Antares, Cardas Golden Reference

Speaker Cables            Shunyata Orion

Accessories                 Furutech DeMag, Shunyata Dark Field Elevators

Pass Labs XP-25

The secret, in other words, is out. Vinyl ain’t going nowhere. It’s here to stay. As a result, not just LP manufacturers, but audio companies are going into overdrive to produce goods to satisfy a small albeit growing market. One such company is Pass Labs.

Its eponymous name derives from fabled designer Nelson Pass, and it’s now producing a phonostage called the XP-25. Does the latter sound good? No. It sounds stellar. For $10,000, it should sound excellent. But the XP-25 represents a sonic breakthrough at that price level. Its combination of refinement and vanishingly low noise floor make it a winner.

When International Record Store Day came and went in April, it attracted a good deal of attention in the mainstream media. 

The New York Times, for example, devoted a piece to the resurgence of turntables. It was even written in a respectful fashion rather than suggesting a bunch of weirdoes is clinging to an obsolete contraption from the past (though, even if people were, it wouldn’t necessarily be cause for shame).

Massive Dynamic

To test the XP-25, I ran it extensively with my Continuum Caliburn turntable, which I’ve owned for almost five years, and my new reference cartridge, the Lyra Atlas, which claims an amazing ability to separate instrumental lines and possesses superb dynamics. It served as a great platform to assess the XP-25’s performance. Pass has recently issued a number of new products, including a megawatt $85,000 amplifier called Xs-300 that looks as though it has arc-welding capabilities. The XP-25, by contrast, is not in that price category. Nor does it appear particularly prepossessing. It comes in two fairly utilitarian-looking boxes. The first houses a sophisticated power supply; the second, the phonostage itself. The units are connected via a single computer cable, thin and extremely flexible.

The XP-25 is a fully balanced design with both balanced and unbalanced outputs. If you own two turntables, then you’re all set with the XP-25, which boasts two single-ended inputs. The XP-25 features three levels of gain: 53, 66, and 76dB. I opted for 66, which should prove more than ample for most systems, unless you’re trying to blow your preamplifier to kingdom come. It also has a mute switch, a rumble filter, and separate knobs adjustments for capacitive loading of cartridges. All in all, a no-nonsense unit with just enough functionality to please most audiophiles.

If silence is golden, the XP-25 has definite bullion-like qualities. For one thing, it doesn’t produce hiss or buzz. The black backgrounds are sensational. The lack of grit or noise allows the ear to relax on what amounts to a sonic pillow. There’s no hunching of the shoulders waiting for an aggressive treble transient to hit here, the kind that makes you wonder whether if it wouldn’t be saner just to listen to the car radio rather than trying to dial in a high-end system.

Indeed, the XP-25 creates a blissful experience. Yup, it has plenty of pop and slam. But that’s not really what the unit is about. Rather, it’s about tranquility and nuance. Instruments just seem more present, to pop out in space more vividly when the backdrop is jet-black, as it is with the XP-25. The Pass is clearly a champion in the no-noise department. Via a Persuasions LP, I am particularly struck by the sense of space between the singers—it’s possible to hear feet shuffling and other tiny auditory cues that enhance the sense of sonic realism.

Sure, it’s a little hi-fi when you play gospel records in such a manner, but it sure can impress the heck out of your friends and neighbors, and it’s good to have some fun with the system. This hobby is most emphatically not supposed to be about a bunch of audiophiles pretending to be white-coated lab technicians sitting in front of their stereos. Let it be, as the Beatles said.

Strength in Details

Does the lack of noise also add a degree of finesse? To an extent. I listened very closely at a fairly low-volume setting to an Arkiv LP of Vivaldi’s Lute Concertos and Trios. The XP-25’s silence allows a particularly fine rendering in the slow movements, and where the tinkling of the harpsichord behind the lute and violin is barely audible, each note is clearly and finely rendered. So the Pass is very good at low-level detail retrieval.

Does the lack of tubes mean that its sound, as audiophiles are wont to say, is too “solid-state”? No. Intriguingly, the XP-25 sounds more tubey than some tubed units. Consider the recent remaster of Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’. On the cut “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” her voice is smoother and more seductive than through some tubed units I have heard. How Pass pulls off this feat is an interesting question. Capacitors or wire or circuit design? I presume Pass would answer “all of the above.” Whatever the technical response, the XP-25 definitely does not fall into the lean or astringent camp. Quite the contrary.

The smoothness of the XP-25 comes across most clearly on a wonderful remastering of trumpet great Lee Morgan’s The Procrastinator [Music Matters]. On “Rio,” which has a bossa-nova feel, I’m simply bowled over by the degree of finesse, filigree of detail, sheen of the cymbals. It made me realize once more what a terrible loss Morgan’s early death, at the hands of his aggrieved common law wife, who shot him in February 1972 at the East Village nightclub Slugs, remains.

Top of the Heap
Despite its prowess, the XP-25 faces stiff competition. No, not at $10k. At that price level, it becomes a matter of taste and preference. As stated above, I’m hard-pressed to think of a phonostage that will surpass the XP-25’s performance in its price region. Sure, move up into nosebleed territory and you can get more. For more money. My own Ypsilon phonostage takes up the performance one more notch in terms of dimensionality and sinuous musical lines. But it also costs more than twice as much. For anyone owning a megabuck phonostage, the XP-25 is likely to give pause. Is it really necessary to spend more? Will there be a quantum leap in performance above the Pass? Nope.

Given the state of the hobby, the XP-25 represents a good value. It comes near the bleeding edge in performance, but its price—expensive by any reasonable measure—is not stratospheric, at least by current standards. Another plus is that, unlike some more exotic equipment, the Pass exudes reliability. Its build quality seems rock-solid. It’s difficult to imagine anything going wrong with it. The model exudes the appearance of a piece of equipment that does nothing but sit there and play and play.

Anyone in the market for a high-end phonostage should consider auditioning the XP-25. You may find yourself most impressed by what it does not do. I am.

-Jacob Heilbrunn

Additional Comments

Pass is certainly popular here at TONEAudio. Contributor Lawrence Devoe also uses the XP-25 in his reference system, and I will be keeping the XP-25 after it returns from Mr. Heilbrunn. I concur with Heilbrunn that there are still a few more molecules of analog performance to be mined, but nothing else wraps ease of use, versatility, and overall high performance into one package like the XP-25.

While the XP-25’s performance is commensurate with the sticker price, analog enthusiasts that own turntables with multiple tonearms and/or removable headshells, and who are often prone to switching cartridges, will be in heaven. All the adjustments are right upfront and easy to read, making fine-tuning a snap.

Auditioning the XP-25 with about a dozen different cartridges from the meager Shure M97 all the way up to the Lyra Atlas is a treat. Nothing threw this phonostage a curveball it couldn’t hit. Turn it on and forget about it. It reaches full bloom after about three days of being continuously powered up. Those worried about their carbon footprint, rest assured: At .15/kwh, the XP-25 costs about $2.50 per month to leave on. In these days of $100 monthly cable bills, it’s a small price to pay for sonic bliss.

– Jeff Dorgay

The Pass Labs XP-25 Phonostage

MSRP: $10,600


Now that it costs about $75 to gas up your car, a $199 phono preamplifier is a real bargain, especially one that digitizes your vinyl collection via the onboard USB connection..

If that isn’t enough, the NAD PP 3i even has a line input so that you can digitize your cassette collection (and 8-tracks). The PP 3i comes with Mac/PC compatible AlpineSoft’s VinylStudio Lite software or it can be downloaded with a quick visit to the NAD website , allowing you to save WAV files of your favorite albums; that’s another review for another day.

The PP 3i is powered by an included 24-volt wall wart and is always on. It only draws a couple of watts from the power line, so those worried about being green can sleep easily, knowing that leaving the PP 3i on 24/7 won’t cause glacial meltdown. Setup is straightforward, with no switches or added ephemera. You just power it up, plug in your turntable, and roll.

Begin Your Vinyl Journey

If you are just dipping your toe into the waters of analog, the PP 3i is a great place to begin building your budget analog front end. The PP 3i has inputs for MM and MC cartridges, surprising given this price. While there are only a handful of budget MC cartridges on the market, the NAD’s match with Denon’s DL-110 ($139) proved amazingly good.

Three budget turntable/cartridge combinations put the PP 3i through its paces: The AudioTechnica AT-LP120 (now discontinued for a new model with a phono preamp/USB link built-in) with Denon DL-110 MC cartridge; the new Rega RP1 turntable with stock Ortofon OM5e MM cartridge; and a freshly refurbished Dual 1219 from Fix My Dual, fitted with a brand-new Grado Red cartridge. A pair of Audio Art IC-3 interconnects ($110) transferred the signal to the Croft pre and power amplifier combination, both played through the latest Klipsch Heresy III loudspeakers.

What Does $199 Get You?

Amazingly, a lot more than I expected.  While we won’t be having a detailed discussion about finesse, air and extension, this little box did a very respectable job at getting the analog essence to the speakers. The onboard phonostage in the Croft preamp was still miles better than the little NAD, so I did what any self-respecting slacker would, and lowered my standards.

Swapping the Croft amp and preamp for a few vintage 70s receivers revealed that the NAD outperformed a couple (the Pioneer SX -424 and 535), was on par with another (Harmon Kardon 330), and fell a bit short of what was on board with the Marantz 2230. Honestly, in the day where four- and even five-figure cartridges are more commonplace than one might think, just the fact that this thing even plays music for $199 is pretty impressive.

Excels With Digital Transfers

While you might get a little bit more soundstage depth with something like the Bellari VP130, it costs more, is a lot noisier, and it won’t digitize your vinyl. Even if you don’t use the PP 3i to play music in the context of a budget hi-fi system, which it does well, its real strength is its ability to capture some of your favorite LPs for enjoyment in your car or on your iPod. So shell out another 30 bucks (or half a tank of gas) for the full version of VinylStudio and get to work.

And this is the real strength of the PP 3i, folks. If you are a true vinyl enthusiast, you will obviously end up going for much more, but ripping a stack of your favorite LPs to your iTunes library couldn’t be easier. VinylStudio makes it painless to chop your tracks up into album format and add metadata. Surprisingly, less-than-audiophile-quality records transferred to iTunes in the Apple Lossless format sounded as good if not a little better than ripping their CD counterparts, at least on a budget system.

The fun didn’t stop there. Digitizing some of my favorite hip-hop treasures from cassette yielded results that were as equally as good as the vinyl rips. Not only is Cash Money’s Where’s the Party At? now available in my iTunes library, I’m revisiting K-Tel’s Super Hits of 75 from my 8-track collection, too. Plug your 8-track deck into the high-level input and connect the PP 3i to your laptop via USB, and you are in business.

You Need It

No matter the degree of your vinyl obsession, I suggest buying the NAD PP 3i. It’s a perfect entry-level phonostage with benefits for the neophyte, and it works well to digitize some of your analog rarities. Plus, it comes in handy should your megabucks phonostage have to make a return to the factory for repairs. Some music is always better than none.

-Jeff Dorgay

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:
US Distribution:


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