Lehmannaudio of Germany scored big time when it introduced the Black Cube phonostage back in 1995. It was priced to move, and loyal, vinyl-spinning audiophiles were thrilled by its performance. It wasn’t exactly eye candy, but many were charmed by its stealthy, plain Jane appearance. Years later, ten to be precise, Lehmann debuted the Decade phonostage in celebration of the original Black Cube. Still in production, nearly a decade later it gathers the sonic virtues that made the Black Cube a hit and tosses in a bucket full of premium tweaks and parts that are only surpassed in the Lehmann lineup by the Silver Cube, its $4500 flagship and relative sexpot.
The Decade is a dual-mono design with a zero-global-feedback, high-current, Class A output stage. It’s also a dual-chassis unit. The narrow-width aluminum enclosures are of identical dimensions and serve to isolate the delicate audio circuitry and RIAA sections of one from the separate PWX II power supply of the other. The dual configuration also allows an owner to place the audio circuitry as close to the turntable as possible, using shorter interconnects, a good way to stave off potential signal loss. The interior layout is immaculate; the signal paths short; the right and left channels are virtual mirrors of each other. The Decade uses a passive RIAA equalization network between two linear gain stages that is realized using low-loss, precision, MKP capacitors.
The front panel of the phono section has three toggles that control internal high-quality relays. One is for selecting moving-coil or moving-magnet cartridges, the second for adjusting between normal and high gain. The third toggle represents a bass filter with a gentle 6dB-per-octave roll-off at 50Hz. Missing, however, is a mono toggle, which is meaningful for vintage LP collectors or, more recently, owners of the sonically dazzling The Beatles in Mono box set (like me). The robust PWX II power supply is equipped with a 28VA toroidal transformer, custom-made for Lehmannaudio. It uses inductive elements at critical junctures to provide the Decade with very-low-noise DC voltages. A four-pin Neutrik XLR connector acts as an umbilical between the phonostage and the PWX II. Since the power supply is also equipped with dual outputs, the PWX II can handle a second phonostage and is downward-compatible in the Lehmann line, thus permitting Black Cube owners a substantial sonic upgrade.
The Decade is highly configurable and should make the vast majority of cartridges feel welcome. At up to 66dB of gain (36 and 46dB in moving-magnet mode, 56dB and 66dB in moving-coil mode), even very-low-output moving coils should be happy. Capacitance is selectable between 47pF and 1347pF, and input impedance among 47k ohms, 1k ohm, and 100 ohms. Plus, there is also an open resistor-slot for custom-tuning the impedance for more exotic cartridges.
For the record (yes, pun intended), my current LP playback system is composed of the Sota Cosmos Series IV vacuum turntable, an SME Series V tonearm with Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation moving-coil cartridge (0.5mV), Audience Au24SE tonearm interconnect, and Parasound JC 3+ phonostage. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that much of this evaluation was spent listening through one of the most transparent small-room speaker systems I’ve experienced—the Kharma Elegance S7 Signature loudspeakers, augmented at times with dual REL S5 subwoofers (reviews to come).
Although my encounter with the original Black Cube extends back a few years, the positive impression it left is still fresh in my mind. That experience created some high expectations as I approached the Decade. However, even as the stylus hit the first groove it was obvious Lehmann had done its homework in terms of producing a very low noise floor. The central sonic theme that defines the Decade is its sense of balance and musicality. Crucially, it didn’t disturb or upend the signature of my reference playback system a wit. It moved in like a cherished member of the family, effortlessly navigating the full range of the musical spectrum. The Decade exhibits a basically neutral tonal balance with some intimations of a cooler personality. Due to its clean, quick transient behavior and treble ease it doesn’t turn brittle; nor does it harden or chafe as the frequencies go up. The Decade is highly articulate and has the ability to place images just so. A good illustration would be Ricki Lee Jones’ “I’ll Be Seeing You,” as naturalistic and airy a pop recording as I’ve experienced. Relatively dry in processing and reverb, this track is just Ricki’s expressive vocal, a nylon-string acoustic guitar, a clarinet, and a doublebass. The Decade captured the whole shooting match. It offered a virtual geography lesson for image placement while rendering textural delicacies like the sense of the flesh of the player’s fingertips dancing off the guitar strings, the rush of air emerging from the clarinet, the woody resonances generated by the face of the bass-viol, which is bowed at one point and performed pizzicato further along. When Ricki Lee is about to hit and hold the final note, sung very softly, I held my breath in anticipation. It represented to me the art of analog in a single, breathy, extended, glorious moment.