Art Audio Vinyl Reference Phono Preamplifier

Equipment report
Art Audio Vinyl Reference
Art Audio Vinyl Reference  Phono Preamplifier

Designing a high-performance, extremely musical, lownoise  phonostage that is able to drive a wide range of  cartridges is a formidable engineering challenge, and no  single approach has been deemed as the “way to go.” Solid-state  solutions, which can be dead quiet, detailed, transparent, and  extended, are oftentimes criticized for losing the music’s natural  timbre and inherent richness. For this reason, some prefer alltube  designs, which can be highly musical, but may have noise,  extension, and control problems. Hybrid designs can provide  some of the warmth and musicality of tubes and the low noise  and frequency extension of solid-state, but they have their critics,  too (typically tube purists). Still others prefer all-tube designs  more compatible with moving-magnet cartridges (or high-output  moving coils) that require less gain from the tubes, but require  additional step-up devices to drive low-output moving coils. While  pre-preamps have largely disappeared from the audio scene, the  use of step-up transformers seems to be experiencing a resurgence.  In its flagship phonostage, the Vinyl Reference, Art Audio uses  tube triodes supported by FETs on the input and MOSFETs  on the outputs, as well as step-up and step-down transformers.  I wondered whether this might be a brilliant combination or an  incoherent hodgepodge. 

The good news is that the Art Audio Vinyl Reference (VR)  is among the top handful of reference-quality phonostages,  adroitly blending these different technologies into a coherent  whole. But why should anyone spend ten times more on a VR  than on a good tube phonostage, like the Pro-Ject Tube Box SE?  Both have some of that tube magic going for them, work with  moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges, and offer multiple  loading options. For starters, if your turntable and cartridge are up  to snuff, you’ll hear much more of what’s in those vinyl grooves  and experience more of the illusion of performers playing before  you. Compared with the Tube Box SE, overtones through the VR  were more fully fleshed out so that instruments had more natural timbre. On Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 [Everest/Classic  Records], the string sections were more clearly differentiated,  dynamic swings were wider and more forceful, and subtle details  related to the performance and recording venue were clearer. The  Vinyl Reference was far quieter, which not only kept noise from  obscuring fine details, but also increased transparency—one of the  VR’s greatest strengths. 

The Vinyl Reference shares many of the same sonic strengths  as my reference, the massive, all-octal-tube-based MFA Venusian  preamplifier (customized with some of Scott Frankland’s latest  thinking). Both have a wonderful musicality, and instruments and  voices sound lifelike and palpable through either. Listen to the  brilliant new Rhino Vinyl reissue of Blue, and you’re likely to think  that Joni is right there in front of you! There’s not a hint of excess  sibilance in her voice using either phonostage, and both let delicate  details emerge, like the leading edge of transients as she strums  her guitar. 

Although very good on the VR, macro-dynamics were even more  explosive through the Venusian. The custom MFA also had a more  expansive and deeper soundstage—the best I’ve ever heard—with  more layering of both instruments and massed voices. Still, the  Vinyl Reference countered with blacker backgrounds—it’s almost  eerily silent—and was slightly cleaner and more transparent. While  there was even more harmonic richness from the octal tubes of  the Venusian, the Vinyl Reference arguably had a more accurate  tonal balance. In either case, both serve the music extremely well.  (You can find and purchase the Vinyl Reference more readily.) 

Perhaps the primary key to the Vinyl Reference’s outstanding performance is designer Kevin Carter’s use of transformer-coupled tube circuits, reported to mimic those used to produce most of the recordings from the “Golden Age.” The VR uses separate high-quality Lundahl transformers from Sweden to interface with both source and load components, as well as 6N1P dual triodes, a low-noise Russian military tube. My unit had the optional VCAP upgrade in the RIAA network. The VR is expertly built for Art Audio by Kevin Carter’s own shop, K&K, the importer of Lundahl transformers. It includes both single-ended and balanced outputs and a phase control. Those of you who are handy with a soldering iron and looking for a screaming deal on a phonostage might check out the kit that K&K offers for $1500, which uses the same basic topology found in the VR but with a simpler passive power supply and less expensive electronic components. However, it will be tough to match the VR’s terrific build-quality.