First Listen: Goldmund PH3.8 NEXTGEN Phonostage

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First Listen: Goldmund PH3.8 NEXTGEN Phonostage

Let’s face it: For audiophiles of a certain generation (m-m-m-my generation) Goldmund and analog playback will forever be linked. That’s because one of the Swiss audio company’s earliest commercial offerings—the Reference turntable with linear-tracking T3F tonearm—was such a game-changer. When introduced in the U.S. at CES Chicago in 1983, it simply stole the show—no one had ever seen or heard anything like it before. Beyond its innovative mechanical design, striking aesthetics, astonishingly neutral sonics, and extravagant pricing—themes that have been sounded in Goldmund gear ever since—what set the Reference apart was its sheer size and mass, and the way that mass was damped by then-novel constrained-layer construction and by what Goldmund called “mechanical grounding” (the use of complexly designed footers to channel resonances away from the ’table the way grounding wires channel hum to earth). A genuine marvel of Swiss engineering, the Goldmund Reference subsequently influenced the design and build of virtually every turntable that aspired to be “the best.” In fact, you can still see its legacy today in statement ’tables from Clearaudio, TechDAS, Transrotor, Walker Audio, TW Acustic, Brinkmann, Basis, and the Acoustic Signature Invictus par excellence (among many many others).

Not long after Goldmund set the audiophile world on its ear with the Reference, the company began building its celebrated Mimesis line of electronics, whose ultra-high speed, ultra-high-bandwidth circuits once again exerted an enduring influence on the design of subsequent high-end preamps and amps (particularly those from Switzerland). Among Goldmund’s core Mimesis products was the PH3 phonostage, the direct descendant of which—the PH3.8 NEXTGEN—is the subject of this review.

The original PH3 was released in 1995. For Goldmund analog fans, there followed a long dry spell wherein the company (and just about everyone else in the high-end-audio biz) concentrated on digital playback, analog amplification, and full-range loudspeakers (some of them powered), despite the clamor of diehards for a new ’table and a new phono preamp. (Various iterations of the PH3 did stay in the line for many years, but there were no major updates.) With the LP revival of the past decade, Goldmund has finally seen the light, and the PH3.8 NEXTGEN is the first proof. 

Putting profoundly revised versions of its analog toys on hold for better than two decades wasn’t all bad, as the new phonostage, the product of three-to-four years of intense R&D, also reflects the 25-years of Goldmund thinking and technological development that followed the PH3’s introduction. Unlike the single-box PH3, the PH3.8 NEXTGEN is a two-chassis component, with a separate external power supply (connected to the preamp via a supplied umbilical) that offers superior power delivery and capacitance. The unit’s slew rate of >80V/µs and rise time of <400ns, combined with its very low noise and very high bandwidth, are said to be keys to its transient speed and hard-hitting dynamics, both of which are manifestly apparent, even on a first listen. Also apparent is the phonostage’s timbral neutrality and transparency to sources, which are said to owe a debt to the extremely short signal paths in the Goldmund’s proprietary analog stage. (That analog stage is directly assembled on the unit’s rear panel with the dual-mono circuit board located between the I/O plugs.)

The debt the PH3.8 owes to its own long gestation is also obvious in its ergonomics. Despite the “newness” of its sound, operationally there is something deliberately old-fashioned (or “purist,” to put a positive spin on it) about the PH3.8 NEXTGEN, which only has two sets of RCA inputs (one for mc’s and one for mm’s) and a single pair of RCA outputs on its rear panel. (There are no balanced connections on the unit.) Moreover, all rear-panel controls (two separate dials per channel for the resistive and capacitive loading of mm’s, and one dial per channel for the resistive loading of mc’s) are “precision analog-type” potentiometers that “click” (firmly) from value to value. Unfortunately, none of the PH3.8’s dials is marked with those values, so you have to consult the manual to figure out where you’re landing with each click. Moreover, the values you’re applying to the input signal are themselves a bit capriciously distributed. For instance, though moving-coil resistance extends from 10 ohms to 47k ohms—and hooray for this, as most latter-day phonostages no longer let you try out 47k—there are broad gaps within the Goldmund’s loading range (e.g., the potentiometer takes you from 100 ohms to 475 ohms with one click, and from 475 ohms to 1.5k ohms with the next, with no user-selectable values in between). 

The granularity of the potentiometers isn’t the only thing that seems a bit dated. As previously noted, you can’t connect more than two tonearms/cartridges to the unit (one mm and one mc), and there are no balanced outputs to your linestage preamp. There is also no rumble filter or low-bass cutoff, and no alternative EQ curves (e.g., “Decca,” “Columbia,” “EMI”)—not that I find these things necessities. However, if you’re used to (as I am) a multiplicity of I/Os (balanced and single-ended), built-in low-bass filtration, and a digital readout of capacitive/resistive loading values, you’re going to feel as if the PH3.8, no matter how NEWGEN its innards and its sonics, is a step back in time.

Of course, the argument for not using new-fangled multiple I/Os and digital displays and controls may outweigh their undoubted convenience. Every additional input or output also adds noise and complexity to a circuit, and digital controls and readout screens have to be completely isolated from the analog gain stage, which affects circuit board geometry, shielding, and layout. Ergnomically, Goldmund has chosen to go with the tried-and-true and, quibbles aside, the sonic results certainly bear out its decision.

As you know, I’m a huge fan of Soulution’s 755, which is both a phonostage and a full-function preamp that can drive your amplifiers with complete control over volume, balance, polarity, grounding, etc. Though I’ve listened to a lot of other great-sounding phonostages in the nonce, the 755 remains my reference—and will keep its place at the top, though it may be joined there, or just a quarter-step below there, by the PH3.8 NEXTGEN. I say “may” because I’m not yet completely sure about the Goldmund, which only arrived a week or two ago. Further listening will tell decisively. For the time being, however, I can safely report that this is one very very good phono preamp.

What it’s got, to start with, that I didn’t think I would hear to the same extent with any phonostage other than a Soulution is simply phenomenal reproduction of instruments and vocalists that play in the bass, midbass, and lower mids—the power-range octaves, which are here delivered with a speed, definition, and impact that I simply haven’t heard from other analog sources (save for the 755 or the United Home Audio tape deck). This is the kind of bass you’re used to from digital sources, but without the inevitable thinning down of body, bloom, texture, and timbre of digital sources. To hear the snap of a sharply struck snare drum (an instrument that is usually head-tuned to 220Hz to 340Hz) via the PH3.8 NEXTGEN is to hear something that so closely approaches the startling snap of a snare drum in real life that it, too, will make you jump. 

But with that snare the PH3.8 NEXTGEN is not just delivering the lifelike speed and impact of hard transients; it is also, and simultaneously, giving you the soft conical wood of the drumstick’s tip and the sandy texture of the batter head, shell, and snare head—so you’re not just hearing a brief electrifying moment of contact, like a match being struck, but also the color, texture, and action of the instruments making that contact as the event unfolds in time. The same is true of, say, the plucked notes of Christian McBride’s stand-up bass on “Like Someone In Love” from Diana Krall’s Turn Up The Quiet [Analogue Productions 45rpm]. From starting transient to stopping transient each note is not just clear and powerful but complete, delivered with the energy with which it is sounded and the rich textures of the thick fingers, round strings, and resonant wooden body that are doing the sounding.

Speed, power, and duration delivered with this kind of completeness and neutrality breeds liveliness. But speed, power, and duration aren’t the whole enchilada. If creating the illusion of real instruments playing in a real space is what you’re after, pitch and timbre also have to be presented with this same impartial, accent-free delivery. And here—with one question mark—it is also safe to say that the PH3.8 succeeds wonderfully well. Indeed, in one area it is better than the Soulution. That area is timbral neutrality. For all its speed, beauty, resolution, weight, and energy, the 755 is a bit dark-sounding or bottom-up in tonal balance. The Goldmund is not. 

With a cartridge that is adequately loaded down and with the preamp’s (trademarked) mechanical-grounding feet properly adjusted, the PH3.8 NEXTGEN is an exceedingly neutral device—neither top-down nor bottom-up in balance but squarely in-between. The only rub (if it is a rub and not a reflection of something else in my reference system) is a slight occasional tendency to shoutiness in the upper midrange. It’s as if, for a brief instant, the PH3.8 figuratively cups its hands around its mouth—particularly on very hard transients at very high volumes, such as the fortissimo blasts of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet on “St. James Infirmary.” (This is the question mark I mentioned earlier.) This occasional, fleeting shoutiness is source-dependent, which may indicate that it is a reflection of the mics and the mic setups on a given LP. It is not associated, if you’re wondering, with excess sibilance (of which the PH3.8 has none) or with the kind of treble-range glare that can make fortissimo flutes or piccolos or hard cymbal strikes downright unlistenable. The PH3.8 is simply superb on all of these instruments, particularly on cymbals, which it resolves with a fineness of detail that can tell you, immediately, whether the instrument is being tapped on its bell or its bow and how quickly it is being damped (or not) afterwards. 

The question of resolution is an interesting one because it leads me to another one of the great virtues of this Goldmund unit—one that it shares with the Soulution 755 (and to a large extent with analog sources in general)—and that is, in HP’s all-purpose-useful phrase, its continuousness. Though it never lacks for detail, the PH3.8 NEXTGEN is not an analytical-sounding component. It doesn’t “break things down” into discretely audible bits and pieces (like digital playback so often does), but weaves them together into near-palpable wholes within a seamless soundscape. Even on multi-mic’d recordings (provided they are well executed), it produces a continuous soundfield rather than a collection of spotlit parts (or of parts within parts). Everything is solid and interconnected (including the integument of ambient space, actual or electronically injected), rather than vaporous and discrete. It is a large reason why the Goldmund makes recorded music sound so much like the real thing.

Take the Diana Krall LP Turn Up The Silence that I mentioned earlier, which, oddly enough, was recorded digitally at 192k through a Neve 88RS 72-input console at Capitol Studios.

I’ve done a little research on this recording, enough to know, for instance, that Krall’s vocals were picked up via a vintage Neumann U47 (the selfsame U47 that Sinatra used on his great Capitol discs), set up just five or six inches from her mouth (she has a soft voice, as I can attest to from hearing her live), with just one or two dBs of compression applied via a tube-powered Fairchild 660 to keep the mic preamp from popping on fortes. A tasteful bit of reverb was also added to her vocals by running her voice through Capitol’s Echo Chamber #4 and then blending the result with a smidge of artificial reverb from recording engineer Al Schmitt’s Bricasti Design Model 7 Stereo.

Since Krall prefers to be recorded singing and playing piano live alongside the accompanying musicians (rather than having her vocal and piano parts recorded separately), Schmitt covered her custom Steinway in a sleeve (to provide better separation between her voice and the instrument). Neumann’s tube M149s (latter-day versions of the company’s famous M49) were placed about a foot above the piano over holes in the sleeve, one above the hammers and one above the lower half of the instrument.

Normally, knowing these things—close-mic’d vocals picked up by a vintage U-47, a tiny bit of warm tube compression on voice, added natural and electronic reverb, a sleeve around the piano to keep its voice separate from (rather than bleeding into or overwhelming) Krall’s contralto, and the twin tube M149s on the piano (one over the hammers and one nearer the bass bridge)—would tell you a lot about what to expect sonically. (IMO, this is one reason why TAS should do more of this kind of record-engineering analysis, as it used to do back in the day.) And the information did help me decipher what I was hearing through the PH3.8 NEXTGEN. But it would have been a larger help if the Goldmund phonostage hadn’t already told me so many of these things on its own, aurally.

For instance, the very close mic’ing with the U-47 was obvious from the sound of Krall’s voice, where the slight nasality of the U-47 occasionally made her husky lisp more apparent than it sometimes is on other recordings (e.g., Live In Paris). The reverb with its mix of echo chamber and electronica was also unmistakable, adding a darkish penumbra of ambience around Krall’s “head” (or a least around the near-visible spot from which her voice seemed to be coming) that now and then thinned or thickened (never to a disruptive or annoying extent) with little engineering tweaks (perhaps tiny additions or subtractions of electronic reverb). The tube compression was inaudible—to me—save perhaps for an added touch of warm chewy vocal texture on certain notes. I wouldn’t have guessed there was a sleeve around the piano, but the instrument did sound separated in space from Krall’s vocals and had warm, dark color and three-dimensional body from the bass through the lower treble, with a slight reduction of air and softening of pitches at the very top—just the way a piano in a blanket should’ve sounded mic’d by those fabulous M149s.

What I’m saying here is that the Goldmund PH3.8 NEXTGEN is astonishingly transparent to sources, telling you in one and the same instant how the music was recorded and how it was performed without unduly stressing either vantage. There is no sense of overlay—of engineering detail riding atop or dominating performance detail. Through the Goldmund both are reproduced together, equally and inseparably. Which is, after all, how it should be.

I will have more to say about the PH3.8 NEXTGEN when I formally review it in TAS. In the meantime, be aware that there is another truly reference-grade phonostage on the market—one that at $44,975 competes with my $72,000 Soulution 755 for about thirty-thousand fewer dollars. 

Of course, the PH3.8 NEXTGEN is not a full-function preamp like the 755, and ergo does not have the manifold practical advantages of the Soulution unit (no need to buy a costly linestage, no need to buy costly interconnects to hook up to that linestage). Being a “purist” design, the Goldmund also doesn’t have some of the ergonomic plusses of the great Soulution unit (such as a readout screen for setting resistive or capacitive loading, a rumble filter, XLR outputs, etc.); the Goldmund doesn’t have a remote control for changing preamp parameters, either, as the Soulution does. Of course, beyond the potentiometers on its rear panel and the two switches on its front panel (the one to change gain from “low” to “high” and the other to change from the moving-magnet to the moving-coil input), there really isn’t much to control on the PH3.8 NEXTGEN. It’s as simple and trouble-free to operate (zero noises, for instance, when switching among load, gain, and input settings) as gear used to be back in the day. What distinguishes it from Golden Age component is how it sounds, which, in a word, is realistic. And in four words, realistic, revealing, and deeply enjoyable.

If you’re really into vinyl (and have the geld), make sure to visit Gideon Schwartz (Goldmund’s U.S. distributor and the author of Phaidon Press’ Hi-Fi: History of High End Audio Design) at his lovely Audioarts listening rooms in NYC for an audition. I certainly plan to keep the PH3.8 NEXTGEN in my system for as long as I can. It’s just that good.

Specs & Pricing

Gain mm input: 43dB (low) and 50dB (high)

Gain mc input: 63dB (low) and 70dB (high)

RIAA curve: -0.03dB /+ 0.06dB max derivation from RIAA curve

Gain stage response: -3dB, 0.12Hz–760kHz at 70dB gain (without RIAA correction)

Slew rate: >80V/us

Rise time: <400ns.

Distortion: < 0.007% (20Hz–20kHz at 4V rms output)

Output impedance: 50 ohms

Max output level: 32Vpp 

Dimensions (preamplifier & power supply): 44 x 13.2 x 38.6cm

Weight: Preamplifier, 10kg; power supply, 12kg

Price: $44,975

AUDIOARTS (U.S. Distributor)

210 Fifth Avenue, NY 10010 
(212) 260-2939
info@audioartsnyc.com
audioartsnyc.com