Dan Rubin’s Phono-Stage Event Report
A MOST AMBITIOUS UNDERTAKING
SFAS members listened to 11 different phono stages at Leslie’s house on Saturday, April 18. It wasn’t the 11 products that made this the most ambitious event ever undertaken by SFAS. It was our efforts to do this as level-matched, A-B comparisons. The day was hugely rewarding even if our plans and the heroic efforts of the organizers didn’t play out entirely as hoped for.
With one or two exceptions, the phono stages we auditioned were graciously provided by SFAS members from their own systems. They were:
NAD PP-3i $199
Bellari XP-580 $400
“Randall” DIY (MM only) DIY, approx. $350 parts cost
Nagra BPS $2,400
Pass Labs XP-15″ $3,800″
Audio Horizons TP 8.0 $4,000
Zesto Audio Andros $4,500
Avid Pulsare $5,000
Audio Research REF 2 $12,000
Merrill Audio Jens (MC only) $15,500
Music Reference RM 4 and 4+ $2,800
And the playback system:
Acoustic Signature Challenger Mk3 turntable ($4,500)
Funk Firm FX-R II tonearm ($2,395)
Lyra Delos MC cartridge ($1,650)
Pass Labs XP-30 preamp ($16,500)
Merrill Audio Veritas monoblocks ($12,000)
Vandersteen 3A Signature ($4,775)
Two Vandersteen 2WQ subs ($1,250 each) w/ Vandersteen crossovers”
With the help of SFAS friend and industry veteran Roger Modjeski, we set about to do this session as level-matched, A-B comparisons. Roger believed doing this for phono stages would be groundbreaking; he was confident it could be done and the results would be eye opening for attendees. So Roger, Alon, Leslie, David Hicks, Albert Dall and I spent 8 hours at Leslie’s the Sunday before the event working out the methodology and process.
Phono stages present some special challenges for what we hoped to do. For one, phono stages tend to introduce hum problems in a system more than any other component. With so many phono stages slated to show up just in time on the morning of the 18th, we had no way to know which would prove quiet and which would hum in Leslie’s system.
Second, the signal from a low-output moving coil cartridge is too small to run through a switch box or to split between two phono stages. If amplified, such as through a head amp, it then effectively becomes the output of a moving magnet cartridge. If we used a head amp and split the signal, we could compare A and B but only through the MM inputs of our phono stages. Level matched, this would provide a good test of RIAA differences, but we’d ignore the sections of the phono stages –such as a transformer – that deal with low-output moving coils. Let’s just say that we were not of one mind about what the best approach would be, but we settled on a two-stage process: we’d do the A-B moving magnet test and then listen to each phono stage on its own, into its moving coil input, as audiophiles are likely to do at home when evaluating these components. We hoped this would be the best of both worlds.
This two-stage approach also factored into another sticking point in the whole exercise: rapid A-B listening comparisons. Some people believe this is the best or even the only way to truly evaluate differences between components, and they have good arguments. Others take a different position. I remain open minded and was therefore a champion for doing it both ways. But I will say that I have held for a long time that rapid A-B comparisons tend to obscure meaningful differences between components. One reason I arrived at that position is the experience of making tapes from LPs or CDs back in the day. Did you ever make tapes on a 3-head deck and switch between Source and Tape? Gee whiz, you could hardly tell a difference when switching; the tape must be capturing the sound nearly perfectly — this is going to be great! But guess what? Did your tapes ever sound as good as the original (the “source”). NFW. That’s my story.
One thing we did learn in all of this is that Lyra Delos is surprisingly indifferent about resistance loading, at least in Leslie’s system. So long as we were above about 50 ohms, we could hear very little, if any, difference. This was good news because it meant that the different resistance loading schemes of the various phono stages could be ignored as variables.
THE MAIN EVENT
On the 18th, we started with a strict A-B using the Music Reference as an anchor and comparing to the Randall DIY and then to the Bellari. After that, things broke down somewhat and we proceeded with a mix of A-B comparisons and one-at-a-time listening. What we were careful about was level matching, which we achieved using a test tone and a measurement device Roger brought. When we compared two devices, we attenuated the one with higher gain using my Lightspeed Attenuator, a very transparent, continuously variable passive device. Both phono stages were fed into separate inputs on the Pass preamp. A better solution might have been to use a linestage preamp with independent level trims for each input. There are a few products that offer this and–assuming transparency–it would have yielded the desired result without having to include an additional device and set of interconnects. Leslie’s Pass XP-30, which otherwise seems beyond reproach, does not offer that feature, alas.
When we did the DAC shootout earlier this year, we listened to the DACs in ascending order by price. Concerned that this creates an expectation for each device to better the last, we decided to try a different approach this time: we started at the top and bottom of the list and moved toward the center. I can’t say if this was any better. In a sighted (as opposed to blind) test, price is inescapable. One attendee offered this comment:
I preferred the methodology used at the recent DAC shoot-out. Start with the least expensive unit, and then move up sequentially in price. At each stage, ask “What did you hear, is it better, and, if so, is it worth the extra money?” The way I tend to listen, I’m looking for the least expensive unit I can find where I can honestly say: “I could live with this and really enjoy it.” – David B
And here are some comments about the A-B methodology. No consensus opinion, obviously.
I liked the A-B comparison a lot. I think that is the way to do it, especially when the differences are subtle. – Larry L.
…on-the-fly decisions regarding comparison methodology and musical selections. In my opinion, these issues should be determined ahead of time by the Society’s technical committee and event organizers, and there should be no deviation from them unless significant technical problems arise. – David B.
“I preferred the one-at-a-time method. The quick A-B comparison seemed to minimize differences between the A & B preamps — differences which were more audible with longer listening periods. It almost seems that the A-B methodology favors the less expensive equipment, by not allowing differences between the A&B to be very audible. – Michael T.
“I believe an A-B comparison is the best way to evaluate the differences in various components, but the process can be difficult. In this case, it might have been a more accurate test to stick with a comparison of each phono stage to Roger’s just to keep the A-B system in place.” – Gordon B.
There is a place for both methods but not in a shootout. A-B is better for that but very hard to pull off. We were quite lucky to have Roger available to level-match the various pieces. I think the setup was quite complex, and am not 100% sure how the signal was routed in each case between the head amp, the phono preamp, and the reference preamp. – Jay S.
If it is possible, do more AB comparisons. But even with conventional listening, it was a great event. I enjoyed the event immensely. – Allan S.
We’d planned to do most of the phono stage listening between 10am and 12:30pm, then break for lunch and return for a bit more listening after lunch. Yeah, right. We finally broke up at 4:30, although we did break for lunch. The crowd had thinned some by 4:30, mostly due to other commitments and not to lack of interest. It was a long day, but the listening was good.
What follows are some very basic comments about the different phono stages. These are my impressions folded together with what I heard back from attendees who answered the post-event survey. These are the subjective and personal impressions of what people heard in the context of Leslie’s system on this date. Phono stages are described in the order we heard them, for the most part.
Randall DIY. This is a tube-based, MM-only phono stage, which member David Hicks built as part of a class. As the first unit on the chopping block and in A-B comparison to Roger’s unit, the Randall sounded quite “tube-y” to me (overly warm, rolled off, etc.) but nevertheless an acceptably good phono stage.
Bellari XP-580. This MM-only, tube phono stage has been a bargain-hunter’s best buy for years and it was easy to see why. The Bellari definitely gets you on the dance floor with sound that is more than acceptable, even if the bass sounded bloated and muddy to me.
Surprisingly good. – Allan S.
Merrill Audio Jens (MC only). We also had this unit on hand the weekend before when we did the dry run. It has an extremely low noise floor, which results in exceptionally clean and detailed sound. It was stunningly good. The owner of the Audio Research REF 2 was knocked out by the Jens. I expect it will get a lot of attention (it’s a very new product). My regret is that we didn’t get a chance to go back and hear it a second time.
Audio Research REF 2. This was probably my favorite of the bunch. The REF 2 delivered exceptional image separation and definition and a lot of real-life body without sounding fat or soft. Above all, it had an organic, breath-of-life quality that is my top priority. I think I said to the room that it sounded “more real,” which is pretty cringe-worthy in retrospect, but that’s the way I felt about it. I also recall a very large and tall soundstage with an almost architectural proportion.
NAD PP-3i. Our lowest-priced phono stage, the NAD was outclassed by all other entries but nevertheless made music. Leslie’s system is probably too good for it. I heard a lack of coherence such that strings, for example, did not hang well with other instruments.
Nagra BPS was excellent for what it was. Now I REALLY want to hear their other unit that’s described as more romantic… – John D.
Zesto Audio Andros. My notes say “superb.” This unit does magic and I loved it, as did many others I am pretty certain. For my tastes, however, I wanted a bit more sparkle and snap, but clearly the Andros deserves the high regard it gets. (many glowing reviews over the past few years). It’s also a gorgeous piece of kit.
Pass Labs XP-15. The Pass sounded extremely neutral and balanced to me with plenty of clarity and detail. But without any glare. Dynamics might be lacking a bit and, by comparison to some of the others, I could imagine some listeners feeling that it was boring. I liked it a lot and would love to hear the models above it in the Pass lineup.
Audio Horizons TP-8.0. The Audio Horizons ended up getting the most attention of any unit all day, stimulating some controversy and polarization. I think many people, myself included, were blown away by what we were hearing from a $4,000 phono stage. To my ears, it was clear, vivid, sweet, spacious and exciting. We first listened to California from Joni Mitchell’s Blue album and, oh boy, it sure seemed bright. So we sent the album off to be cleaned on the ultrasonic cleaner. A subsequent playing was less bright, with less glare and more body. We also discovered that we’d made an error in setting the loading on this unit, and made that adjustment. We then set it up for A-B with Roger’s unit and, as we switched back and forth, I could clearly hear a brighter presentation from the Audio Horizons. Is that why it sounded so vivid and present? I can’t say. I wish we could have spent a lot more time with it in direct comparison with some of the other units.
My favorite phono stage of the event would have to be the Audio Horizons TP 8.0. – David B
…the Audio Horizons…far too bright. – Jay S
Avid Pulsare. Following the Audio Horizons, the Avid definitely was not bright and even sounded a bit overly dull to me. It may have been the contrast to the earlier unit. My notes indicated that piano sounded especially right and good through the Avid in Leslie’s system. As the Avid wasn’t played until near the end of the day, it may have also suffered in comparison due to listener fatigue.
Music Reference RM 4 and 4+. Roger’s head amp and phono stage, used as head amp only or in combination, were not even on the list for this session and were never presented as a unit for evaluation. But because they got so much use in the A-B comparisons, they became de facto entrants.
The Audio Research was quite good, but what really surprised me was that Roger’s preamp sounded so similar when levels were matched. I’m going to keep my eyes out for a used RM4 – they are rare but inexpensive! – Jay S
MANY PEOPLE TO THANK
Shout-outs to our members who brought phono stages: Rand Anderson, John Dark, Joseph Hakim, Laurent Heller, David Hicks, Rodney Kilcoyne, Roger Modjeski, William Robinson, Alon Sagee and Jeff Wilson.
David Hicks and Albert Dall, along with Roger Modjeski, did the heavy lifting during the event. Roger’s technical assistance was invaluable. I mostly sat on the comfy sofa and took notes. Alon worried and acted Presidential, and Leslie was a multitasking marvel, as usual.
We’re not likely to do anything quite this ambitious anytime soon. But at the end of the day, all the effort seemed worthwhile. This was fun.