Phono Stage Shoot Out – January 26, 2019, by Larry Deniston

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They said, “a shoot out with 10 phono stages?  They must be crazy! Who would so such a thing?”    Well, we did and by all accounts, it went well.  (Actually, we did a similar shoot out with 11 phono stages in June 2015.  See write up at read more . . .)

The January 2019 SFAS phono stage shoot out event was a great way to introduce the attendees to our new system at The Shops at Hilltop (https://sanfranciscoaudiophilesociety.com/new-equipment-at-the-shops-at-hilltop/) and I must say, I thought the new system sounded excellent, filling the rather large room with high fidelity.  One of the advantages of the open baffle Orion 4 speakers is that they provide a good listening experience throughout most of the room, as opposed to conventional speakers where the “sweet spot” is localized to a small area.  And the stack of Pass Labs electronics certainly contributed to the quality of the sound reproduced.

                                                                                  
Speaking of equipment, we give our sincere appreciation to Allen Perkins who supplied one of his excellent Spiral Groove Revolution turntables and arm outfitted with a Lyra Titan i cartridge for the front end of the system for this event.
                                                                                                
All of the phono stages were supplied by SFAS members.   The phono stages, listed below, included a wide range of price points from $170 to over $30,000 in both tube and solid state configurations.  The CH Precision P1 has one input that uses a current amplification circuit “to produce the best signal to noise ratios” as opposed to the more traditional voltage amplification design and the Ypsilon VPS is a moving magnet design, so it included a SUT (step up transformer).  We also included a “vintage” phono stage, the John Curl designed Vendetta and the winner of the 2015 shoot out, the Merrill Audio “Jens”.
We are very lucky to have Roger Modjeski as a friend of SFAS and his willingness to help out the club in so many different ways.  Roger helped with level setting the equipment in preparation for the event and also gave a brief, but informative RIAA discussion.  Roger also gave a wonderful tribute to John Curl and his designs.  Roger talked about the Vendetta as great design that’s still relevant and excellent sounding even when compared to present day equipment.  Roger also pointed out that designs haven’t changed all that much over the years and that, in some cases, the quality of the parts used today are not the same quality as those manufactured in previous decades.
Allen Perkins followed this discussion with some interesting observations.  Allen pointed out that there may not be huge improvements in designing electronics, there have been vast improvements in turntables and speakers.  This is due to computer aided design, better materials and tighter machining tolerances allow for improvements that were not achievable in years past.
The following is the list of phono stages we listened to with approximate retail costs in the order we listened:
  • NAD pp2  –  $170
  • Parasound Zphono XRM – $595
  • Whest ll  – $1700
  • Ming Da – $2,500
  • Aesthetix Rhea – $4,000
  • Audio Horizons TP 9 LCR – $9,000 (available in June, 2019
  • CH-Precision P1  –  $31,000
  • Ypsilon VPS and SUT – $33,000
  • Vendetta SCP-2
  • Merrill Audio Jens – $16,000

     

Shown above, some of the phono stages lined up for the shoot out and “Ringmaster” David Hicks, running the three ring circus, er, I mean, shoot out event.  It took a little discussion and trial and error, but we settled on two album tracks to play with each unit: Steely Dan’s “Black Cow” on Aja and Dean Martin’s “I’m Confessin'” on Dream with Dean.
So, getting down to brass tacks, how did the different phono stages perform?  Asking the owners of the equipment, the answer was easy, “mine!”  The attendees all could hear the differences between the different gear giving a nod the resolution capabilities of our new system.  The modest NAD reproduced credible and enjoyable music and as we moved up through the ranks of the gear the sound quality, clarity and nuance improved as one would expect.  The CH Precision and the Ypsilon were quite amazing, showing what can be achieved with high end units.  We wrapped things up with the Vendetta and the Merrill, both sounding quite good and quite different at the same time.  We did have a hum issue with the Audio Horizons unit, but unfortunately we didn’t have the time to track down and resolve the issue.
I think Phil Jackson of Parasound wraps it up pretty well with the comments he sent us following the event:
“We were excited once we heard about an active phono stage ‘shoot out’, especially since one of our  models was a contestant.   These events are good for testing member’s listening acuity albeit in a non standard setting.    I think the concept of doing it for the group inspired good conversation among those in attendance and would provide the opportunity for good discourse both during and after the event.    In addition, this interaction would inspire much more camaraderie among members, and especially those new members in attendance.   I was fortunate to bring our newest team member, Nicole, to the event as a relative novice in this audiophile world, and she found the event to be enlightening  and engaging.  Nicole found Roger’s comments particularly insightful and it was good to have Nicole here so many good things said about John Curl.   It is through events like this where I think the SFAS can be most effective at providing a forum for discussion AND education among local, Bay Area Audiophiles.     Thank you again.  Cheers, Phil”
San Francisco Audiophile Society

San Francisco Audiophile Society