I don’t like being pigeonholed as a reviewer of exclusively expensive audio componentsbecause I’m not, as anyone who regularly peruses Analog Planet knows. So, to ease the pain of reviewing the half-million-dollar Air Force Zero turntableyou’ll find that review elsehere in this issueI figured I’d cover some more reasonably priced analog gear here in Analog Corner.
Plus, I need to do some spring cleaning and tidy up a few loose reviewing ends: Only products reviewed in Stereophile qualify for the Recommended Components list, so when I review something at Analog Planet that I think should be on that list, I need to cover it here, too.
Take, for instance, QHW Audio’s The Vinyl MM/MC phono preamp. (QHW stands for “Quality Hi-Fi Works,” footnote 1.) See my full review at Analog Planet. This exceptionally fine-sounding phono preamplifier currently sells for just $786.96 including shipping to America from Spain, where it’s designed and manufactured by Francisco Vizcaya Lopez, a music professor, concert performer, and composer with engineering skill sufficient to allow him to design this exceptionally fine-sounding phono preamp and several other hi-fi products.
When I reviewed it last April, the cost was even lower, at $644.83. The price fluctuates because Mr. Vizcaya Lopez pegs the price to currency fluctuationsexchange ratesinstead of building in a price cushion. It’s a more consumer-friendly approach.
The MM input uses a QHW-developed AE2270 op-amp, not an off-the-shelf one. The MC input, which has gain that’s switchable in steps between 63 and 69dB via rear-panel DIP switches, utilizes discrete bipolar transistors. The specifications are impressive, as is the soundand as is a smart design that allows you to simultaneously connect two turntables and independently configure an MM and an MC cartridge. By using the outboard step-up transformer (SUT) of your choice on the MM input, you could connect two MC cartridges. You can hook them both up and select between them, but to do so you’ll need to flip a switch that’s on the rear panel.
Construction, including high-quality, panel-mounted RCA inputs and output jacks, is well beyond expectations for the price. The outboard power supply is a hefty 36V DC unit with IEC-jack termination so you can play with AC cables, and the front fascia is a nicely finished brushed-aluminum plate.
I reviewed “The Vinyl” using the SME M6 turntable that I reviewed in the May Analog Corner. For cartridges, I used Ortofon’s Cadenza Black MC ($2879) and the 2M Black LVB 250 MM (footnote 2).
That turntable and the Cadenza Black cartridge are priced beyond what most “The Vinyl” buyers will use with it, but the phono preamp proved up to the challenge. The LVB was a better price match ($999); it, too, was reviewed on Analog Planet, and it too is worthy of Recommended Components inclusion (although 16-year-old Nathan Zeller, Analog Planet’s newest young writer, prefers his less-costly Mobile Fidelity UltraTracker, which I have never heardnor have I ever heard a Mobile Fidelity turntable. Too bad: The Mobile Fidelity ‘table was designed partly by Allen Perkins, of Immedia and Spiral Groove, and I’ve been a fan of his work for decades.).
I auditioned The Vinyl for Analog Corner with the Monty Alexander LP Love You Madly: Live at Bubba’s, a 1982 live-to-24-track analog-tape recording (Resonance HLP 9047). In the review, I wrote, “I promise, you’d never know you were hearing it through a $619 phono preamplifier. The acoustic bass was so natural and well-controlled, the drums immediate and natural-soundingparticularly the cymbals and rim shotsand Alexander’s hard-driving piano produced dynamics and convincing timbral verisimilitude. Add a transparent, generously sized soundstage presentation that had width, height and especially depth (percussionist Robert Thomas Jr. placed well behind the piano, stage right, whether or not that’s from where he actually played) and top it off with “you are in the room” applause, and you have both a really great recording and a ridiculously good phono preamplifier that I think you could insert into your system and fool the most demanding audio fanatic into thinking it cost ten times what it actually costs. And it’s quiet….Way highly recommended.”
I recently got hold of an old AR turntablea rare TA model, which has two motors, one of them to get the platter spinning in the correct direction. It didn’t include a headshell, so I ordered a 3D-printed one on eBay for $50 and to honor the late Len Gregory (aka “The Cartridge Man”). I installed in it the original Cartridge Man Music Maker cartridge that starts life as a Grado moving iron design. This one had been sitting in its red pill box for more than 20 years. I placed a Funk Firm Achromat on top of the bare platter and plugged it into The Vinyl.
Even with overhang unset (because at first I didn’t know you could move the armtube to adjust it), the sound produced was laugh-out-loud sweet!
Anyone hearing this and thinking about getting into vinyl would stop thinking and start doing.
Measuring a turntable’s platter-speed performance can be tricky. I still use the discontinued Platterspeed app, for consistency. I run it on an older phone on which I choose not to update the operating system. I’ve used it for years, and though it requires a test record and some people don’t trust it, I feel that as long as I use the same test record each time, the results will at least be consistent.
Incidentally, those measurements show that direct-drive turntables produce better looking graphs than belt-drive turntables, even though the belt-drive numbers are often just as good. As the late Siegfried Linkwitz told me, “The eyes are for seeing, the ears are for listening. Don’t confuse the two!”this from a person who definitely believed in the value of measurements.
Shaknspin (footnote 3) sounds like a child’s toynot a great name for a serious measurement device, but there you have it.
The name refers to the device’s unique menu system, which requires you to move it around in various directions to manipulate the settings.
Like several other products discussed in this column, I reviewed it on Analog Planet, and I’m mentioning it here to get it on the Recommended Components list. It uses a sensor with nine degrees of freedom to measure platter speed 500 times a second. It can give you average speed in RPM, average speed deviation, max/min speed variation, high-passfiltered max/min speed variations, various wow and flutter measurements, jitter, and more. All measurements can be presented as numbers, frequency-distribution spectrograms, or speed-distribution histogramsand you don’t have to put your smartphone on the turntable as you do with some other apps that don’t use a test record. Price is 250 including shipping.
Cyrus Audio’s Phono Signature MM/MC
This $2199 phono preamp was designed and built in the UK (footnote 4). It has been around for a few years, but then so have records. When it was offered for review, I accepted the offer. I was also sent the optional $1199 PSX-R2 power supply upgrade.
The Phono Signature is a handsome, compact design with a diecast half-width chassis that’s about 3″ tall. The front panel is dominated by a green LCD screen, below which is a row of seven buttons for choosing the input, setting the rumble filter (labeled “Warp”), cartridge type (MM or MC), Gain, resistive loading (“Res”), capacitive loading (“Cap”), and saving the current settings (“Store”). A large button next to the screen, which can be pushed and rotated, sets and stores values for four individually configurable inputs.
The Phono Signature, which comes with a remote control, is among the most user-friendly phono preamps I’ve used, especially for use with multiple turntables and/or tonearm/cartridge combos. If you only use one cartridge, so there’s nothing to adjust after the initial setup, you’re probably better off with a simpler, single-input design that puts the money into the sound instead of versatility.
Each of the four inputs has its own ground lug, and there’s a rear-panel ground lift, which disconnects the Phono Signature’s own earth ground to help diagnose and correct ground-loop hum. The RCA jacks are tightly spaced both vertically and horizontally, which can be a challenge when connecting cables, depending on the diameter of your turntable’s RCA plugs. The RCA output jacks are similarly tightly spaced, but you can avoid that problem by using the balanced XLR outputs, assuming your line-level preamp allows it. As a bonus, you’ll get better sound and 6dB more output.
I won’t go into the configuration and storage process other than to write that it’s intuitive. Gain can be set for 40, 50, 60, or 70dB. A front-panel bargraph momentarily holds peak level, which helps to set gain and prevent overload.
Resistive loading values are 11, 16, 33, 47, 100, 150, 330, and 500 ohms, 1k ohm, and 47k ohms. Capacitive loading choices are 220pF, 1nF, 2nF, and 3nF. All settings can be set from the front panel or via the remote, so you can play with gain and loading from your listening chair before storing the settings in memory.
Footnote 1: Quality Hi-Fi Works (QHW), Puerto Serrano number 12, Madrid 28045, Spain. Web: qhwaudio.com.
Footnote 2: Ortofon USA, 500 Executive Blvd. Suite 102, Ossining, NY 10562. Web: ortofon.com.
Footnote 3: Shaknspin, R. Prof Mario Albuquerque 5-3B, 1600-812 Lisboa, Portugal. Web: shaknspin.wordpress.com.
Footnote 4: Cyrus Audio Ltd., Ermine Business Park Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire PE29 6XY, England. Tel: +44 (0)1480 410 900. Web: cyrusaudio.com. US distributor: Fidelity Imports. Web: fidelityimports.com.
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