BUYER'S GUIDE: Three Affordable Phono Stages

Equipment report
Categories:
Phonostages
BUYER'S GUIDE: Three Affordable Phono Stages

The three phonostages represented in this survey cover a range of reasonable price points. They are basic though distinct in operation and are externally adjustable for use with the majority of cartridges. All are solid-state units equipped with the standard RIAA equalization curve and, with the exception of the unique Graham Slee unit, are switchable between moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges. My “control” phonostage for this survey was the well-regarded JR Transrotor Phono II, which at $1500 is not outrageously expensive either. My impressions of each phono preamp (listed in order of price) are a summary of listening sessions with three cartridges—two moving magnets, the Ortofon 2M Black (5mV) and the Clearaudio Maestro Wood (3.6mV), and a medium-output moving coil, the Benz Micro Glider SM (0.8mV).

Clearaudio Nano Phono

($350)

About the size of a deck of cards, the appropriately named Nano Phono uses a body of CNC-machined aluminum. Its sophisticated surface-mount technology boasts BurrBrown integrated circuits, very short signal paths, and dual-mono design. In spite of its petite profile it answers a variety of cartridge needs by including input loading resistors, mm/mc jumpers, and a subsonic filter. It also offers variable gain via a top-mount control wheel.

The Nano Phono outputs a lot of sound from its Lilliputian body. In the midrange it leans toward the delicately sweet and less aggressive end of the sonic spectrum. It doesn’t place a wrong foot tonally and its subtractions always favor musicality.

On a direct-to-disc track like Fanfare for the Common Man from Sonic Fireworks [Crystal Clear Records], the Nano sweetens up the Atlanta Brass ensemble to such an extent that it almost sounds velvety and rounded. While the Nano may lack muscular dynamic swings and crunchy crescendos, it is unwaveringly musical with boatloads of inner detail. It’s at the extremes that the Nano can run a little short of breath. Its top end is somewhat dark and transients lack some speed and sparkle. The bass of the 45-rpm pressing of “If It Be Your Will” [Famous Blue Raincoat] was neither as deep nor as complex in timbre as I’ve heard it sound. The Nano’s largest performance-related “issues” are its slightly narrowed soundstage, slight compression of micro-dynamic gradations, and softer definition on percussion timbres and transients. It’s not perfect, but at its price the Nano Phono is a well-crafted, entry-level miracle.

Phonomena II

($600)

The sequel to the original Michael Yee design, the Phonomena II is based on the latest discrete circuitry of the top-flight Nova Phonomena, minus the battery pack. It’s supremely flexible and easily adjustable via rear-panel gain and loading DIP-switches.

Like the original Phonomena it exhibited wonderful bass extension, with a kind of gravity that fleshed out the bottom octaves—a characteristic unique among the products reviewed in this survey. It was a bit cooler and brasher on brass fortissimos, but its sound was alive with dynamic energy. The bloom from bass drums was stunning in extension and decay. Warnes’ vocal during “If It Be Your Will” was slightly chilly at peaks, but the detailing and focus of the hard-panned acoustic guitars were exhilarating. Though I found the Phonomena II’s perspective slightly forward, during Holly Cole’s rendition of “Take Me Home” it produced a thrillingly wide vocal image—a standout in this group—revealing every nuance in Cole’s expressive voice. It wasn’t as butterscotch-smooth as the JR Transrotor seems to be, but some may prefer the Phonomena for its greater transient speed. It also might be the quietest phonostage of the group. Personally I would have liked to hear a little less brightening of the massed string sections during the fourth movement of Solti and the Chicago Symphony’s rendition of the BeethovenNinth [Decca], but this is a quibble.

There’s no limit to how far a lot of money can take you in the high end; superior dynamism and low-level resolution do exist. But for balance and value the Phonomena II is a stunner.

Graham Slee Era Gold V and Era Gold Reflex

($1095 and $1390)

Graham Slee’s line of phonostages is dedicated to moving-magnet cartridges. The Era Gold V and the souped-up Reflex are fixed-gain-only—purely for use with cartridges outputting between 2–10mV at a loading of 47k Ohm. However, Slee offers a moving-coil step-up transformer, the Elevator EXP. It adds 22.5dB more gain and seven resistive load settings via twin front-panel toggles.

The sonics of the Gold V were in the same league as those of the Phonomena II. The V had a leaner, more articulate character, but it didn’t do soundstaging and vocal-image scale as spectacularly well as the Phonomena II. On balance the Phonomena was a bit more romantic, the Slee a bit more cerebral. However, I immediately felt that the Reflex (at $1390, a couple hundred dollars more) was really speaking my language. Images seemed to settle in and warm slightly on a wider and deeper soundstage. During Holly Cole’s “Briar and the Rose” there was a rush of top-end air and speed and tone color. The acoustic bass solo was posh perfection in its stability and resonance. The Reflex was in many ways a slightly brighter version of the Transrotor with a deeper stage than the Phonomena. On a track like “Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night,” the Gold V was a shade cooler, a bit jumpier, and slightly more forward in perspective, while the Reflex was the more dimensional performer, especially in front-to-back depth. It was also fleshier in portraying accurate instrumental textures—such as the weird delicacy of the dobro solo on the “Saturday Night” track—and conveying the spatial characteristics of recordings. During the Beatles’ “Come Together” [Mobile Fidelity], the Reflex nosed out the Gold V with a wider dynamic envelope and more bottom-end crunch. If a recording could be compared to a fabric, the Reflex reproduced a weave that grew ever tighter, the thread finer, until it virtually disappeared into a continuous whole. My one caveat is that it was susceptible to RF—an issue in some neighborhoods—so plan to audition it in your system before buying.

For moving-coil devotees the Elevator EXP/Reflex combo runs into a lot of competition as it crosses the $2.5k threshold. But for moving-magnet aficionados the Era Gold V and, particularly, the Reflex put the “A” in analog.

Wrapping Up

The sonic distance between these fine phonostages is real, but are these subtleties worth sweating over? I’d say that you won’t need golden ears to hear what I heard, so which one’s for you? Budget always counts, but much will also depend on your ongoing commitment to LP playback. Keeping it basic? The superb Nano Phono is a great fit. Considering a near-term major turntable, arm, or cartridge upgrade? The Phonomena or Graham Slee slip back in the picture. Whichever way you go, applying that finishing touch will be rewarding.