Hafler PH60 Phonostage

Small Wonder

Hafler PH60
Hafler PH60 Phonostage

A listen to Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled soundtrack album [World Circuit] filled with layers of rhythms and instruments galore delivered remarkable detail on strings, shakers, and various hand-drums on “Chan Chan.” The moody mournfulness of slide guitar and the acoustic laúd (Cuban guitar) were captured with finesse and longish decays. On “De Camino a la Vereda” timbre seemed a shade brighter than what I’m used to—Ibrahim Ferrer’s tenor seemed slightly higher-pitched, as did the trumpet—and pacing seemed a touch laid-back, yet still fitting for a scorching afternoon in the Havana sun. However, I felt the essential and compelling qualities of the musicians’ performances shined through despite these inaccuracies. It’s not the last word in resolution, but the sense of presence was pretty pleasing overall.

I keep returning to the fabulous-sounding El Vy LP Return to the Moon [4AD]. The catchy title track was one of the best on playback, with lively energy matched by fairly realistic solidity. Interestingly, I noticed remarkable clarity on Matt Berninger’s vocals, as if he were delivering better diction on the lyrics that day. On the offbeat, off-color spoof “I’m the Man to Be,” a heavier rocking track chock-full of bass (and some naughty lyrics), there was an upper-midrange emphasis, while the mids seemed to step back slightly. Overall, the cut’s solidity and muscle were delivered with appropriate funkiness and impressive detail even on the quirky samples that popped out! Next, I tried the low-cut filter option on this same song, which resulted in more forwardness of cymbals and lead guitar, while the bass stepped back (though it became a bit better defined). Timbre tipped to a more top-down presentation, growing slightly lighter and brighter. On the plus side, more detail was uncovered (more squeaks on strings, for instance). But for me, the tradeoffs weren’t worth it. It took away too much anchoring bass power, and I also missed the deeper edges of Berninger’s baritone.

Switching genres completely, I spun a reissue of Joni Mitchell’s Blue [Reprise]. Her vocals sounded gorgeous and quite natural, particularly on “All I Want” (aside from a bit of sibilance on the “so blue” lyric, no biggie) and the title cut, which also boasted quite lovely and lifelike resonance on piano. “Carey” conveyed impressive transient attack and detail on dulcimer strings and hand drums. Once in a blue moon (pun intended) I noted a slight thinness to the presentation, but on such a spare recording, it hardly mattered.

As for downsides, it’s hard to complain given the commendable quality/cost ratio here, but I’d say soundstaging could have used more depth, and generally there wasn’t a strong sense of the location of instruments—although left and right placement coordinates seemed on target. But most importantly, all the elements in the mix were there and audible. The few issues I had were more about the way timbres and details were sorted out (or not, in some cases). Some instruments jumped to the front while others took a back seat. If was as if someone had laid out a bunch of marbles, and your attention was drawn to those that were bigger or brighter or in a better shooting position; you saw them all, but your focus shifted to those most prominent. In its own way, this made for compelling listening.

The PH60 faithfully carries on the Hafler tradition of sonic value. Judged within its entry-level category, it delivered the musical goods, and seemed to keep improving the more I listened. Based on my experiences, the PH60 represents a solid choice for vinyl lovers in the market for a smartly engineered, well-made, and affordable phonostage.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Transformerless Class A phonostage
Gain: 70db @ 1kHz
Cartridge loading: 25, 50, 100 ohms, and a custom option (manufacturer will calculate and supply for a small fee)
Dimensions: 4½" x 1¾" x 6"
Weight: Not provided
Price: $599

1588 Kebet Way, Port Coquitlam
BC, Canada V3C 5M5
(614) 942-1001

Associated Equipment (for this review only)
Amplifier: Air Tight ATM-1S stereo amplifier
Source: Acoustic Signature Challenger III with TA-1000 tonearm, Air Tight PC-7 cartridge
Loudspeakers: Air Tight Bonsai, Raidho D-1
Preamplifier: Soulution 525
Power conditioner and power cords: Ansuz
Cables and interconnects: Shunyata Research Venom series, AudioQuest Fire, Crystal Cable Absolute Dream
Equipment racks and amplifier stands: Critical Mass Systems Maxxum

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