Full-function preamps with integrated phonostages are becoming hard to find, so if you want to listen to vinyl these days you’ll probably need to buy a separate unit. But many inexpensive solid-state models sound cold, flat, and edgy, while potentially better-sounding tube units tend to be pricey. At least until now.
For $199, the Bellari VP129 tube phonostage offers warm musical sound and may be just what the doctor ordered for those who want to get into analog without loading up the credit card.
Although the Bellari uses an older circuit, it avoids some of the sonic limitations of many classic tube designs. In particular, it has better detail and transient speed. While the older preamps can sound really lush, they can also homogenize music— blunting the leading edges of transients and imparting a syrupy coloration. With later, edgy-sounding classical recordings this old-school tube lushness can be a good thing, but it can also make listening less exciting. By contrast, the Bellari not only makes these records more listenable, but also preserves a lot of the excitement of the performances.
Listen to Ella Fitzgerald on Take Love Easy [Pablo], and you’re likely to fall in love with the Bellari (as long as you don’tlisten at too high an output level—her vocal peaks sometimes overloaded the VP129, until I dialed down the volume control). Perhaps even better was the sound of Joe Pass’ guitar on this album. It not only has natural body and rich tone, but you can also hear the initial transient of his fingers plucking the strings and the fingers of his left hand sliding over them. Admittedly, the Bellari does have a warm balance, but it’s not overdone. And while the bass is full and a bit ripe, it is also extended and without serious bloat.
With only 30dB of gain, the Bellari is designed for moving-magnet cartridges, such as the Music Tracker or Ortofon OMB10 mentioned above. It worked well with the Thorens/Ortofon combo, but locked in better with the Music Hall and Tracker because the combination had more dynamic headroom and was quieter. In an unfair test I tried it with my Koetsu, but that cartridge’s meager 0.6mV output meant that I had to crank the Bellari’s gain control to 2 o’clock, resulting in a sound that was too flat, noisy, and dynamically constricted. Inserting a moving-coil step-up transformer helped considerably, but still caused a sonic mismatch because the Koetsu’s boosted signal sometimes overloaded the Bellari, producing audible distortion. While the Bellari can lose its composure on dynamic peaks (its biggest failing), I found this problem was far less obvious with moving-magnet cartridges. In short, I’d stick with the manufacturer’s recommendations when it comes to cartridges.
With a single 12AX7A tube in the output stage, the Bellari enables “tube rollers” to tailor the sound according to personal tastes (within limits). It also includes a rumble filter to eliminate low-frequency “nasties” that can make your woofers (or subwoofers) go wild. In addition, it can do double-duty as a headphone amplifier, offering both adjustable gain and a mute switch that cuts off the signal to the RCA jacks but not to the headphone jack.