Musical Surroundings Nova II Phono Preamplifier

Superduper

Equipment report
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Phonostages
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Musical Surroundings Nova II
Musical Surroundings Nova II Phono Preamplifier

The new Nova II shares with its past brethren all-discrete, dual-mono circuitry and peerless flexibility when it comes to loading and gain options. Like them, the Nova II’s are accessible via DIP switches on the rear panel. A pair of internal NiMH battery packs, one for each phase, supplies the power in full-battery mode. Yee employs a novel “smart-sensing” circuit that automatically causes the unit to go into recharge mode when the batteries lose their charge (without interrupting playback). A charge is good for about three hours of listening, and when full-battery operation is selected, a relay completely disconnects the unit from the AC line (though the wallwart power supply must always be plugged in).

But it is the new aspects of the design that contribute the most, I believe, to its improved performance with respect to dynamic range and lifelikeness. First, the original design’s matched pair of transistors went out of production, so Yee had to find a replacement and what he found yields lower noise and, on the basis of what I’m hearing, increased control. (Yee tells me that the new “matched pairs alone are more expensive than the integrated op-amps that most companies use for phonostages.”) He has also changed the RF filtering, which reduces the noise floor by some 6dB, which in turn by definition results in increased dynamic range. One of my notes reads that in battery mode especially “this thing is really, really, really quiet!” Finally, the chassis and mechanical design are new and to entirely beneficial effect. Good as the Nova Phonomena was and is, it always looked to me as if it had been manufactured in a garage, with a large Cyclops-like indicator light—the designer himself called it a “flashing eyeball”—that struck me as positively ugly. Based on Yee’s MYDAC II DAC and available in black or silver, the Nova II’s chassis is now svelte, sleek, and elegant. The front panel has a single button that allows you to choose among battery, charging, or AC modes. Another benefit of the new case work is improved mechanical isolation, which extends even to the mounting of the circuit board inside the chassis. Yee also tells me it’s easier to build, which may help account for why the price increase is so small: at $1200 the new unit costs just $201 more than its predecessor—fair to the point of giveaway—and it’s still built entirely in California.

Indulge me a few moments about the loading and gain options here, which remain unprecedented for number and scope in any phono preamp known to me regardless of cost. I know I tend to go on about the importance of loading mc’s, but it is necessary for optimum performance, and I am far from alone in believing this. Years ago I once asked Dave Wilson, as perfectionist a man as you can get about all things audio, how he felt about proper loading of mc’s. He answered with a question, “Would you drive a car without shocks?” Bullseye. All moving coils have resonances in the extreme highs that left undamped (i.e., unloaded) will ring and usually result in some frequency response anomalies, especially in the highs. Many audiophiles, including more than a few reviewers, actually seem to like this effect because they hear it as increased openness, airiness, transient sharpness, and so on. I have no intention of arguing taste here, and if you like these effects, my response is to live, be well, and enjoy. But they are impositions upon the source and they cannot result in accurate reproduction.

If you happen to purchase the Nova or have a phono preamp that has provision for loading, I’d suggest giving it a try. I believe you’ll discover that over the long haul, you’ll prefer the focus, precision, and accuracy of correct loading, especially with its gains in musical naturalness. Mind you, proper loading will not make a pickup that lacks flat response into one that has it. All correct loading will do, apart from suppressing the high-frequency resonance, is allow the frequency response of the pickup to be as flat as the design itself permits. If that isn’t flat, then you won’t hear flat; if it is, you will. The Nova II provides loading for 17 values from 30 to 100k ohms and 13 gain settings from 40 to 60dB. There is also a switch to select a capacitive loading of 200 or 300pF to accommodate moving-magnet pickups that are sensitive in this regard. (Typically capacitive loading has little effect as such on moving coils.) The combination of all this flexibility plus truly high performance adds up to why I continue to use Yee’s designs as my reference: In addition to their musical pleasure, they are invaluable tools for reviewing pickups of all kinds.

To sum up, the Nova II retains all its forebears’ virtues of neutrality and low coloration, with considerably improved dynamic range, robustness, and perceived life and vitality: in other words, this new Nova now has a satisfying infusion of Dionysus in its otherwise Apollonian personality. Although Yee’s designs are always very quiet and extremely transparent, this latest one is exceptionally so, ranking up there with some of the most expensive phonostages I’ve ever heard. Where does it stand in the marketplace? Limiting myself to recent high-performance designs I’ve reviewed, it doesn’t have quite the sheer grip or bottom-end crunch of Plinius’ Koru, which costs three times as much, doesn’t offer nearly the flexibility, and is trumped by the Nova’s neutrality. Nor does the Nova have quite the warmth, body, and ultimate “organic” quality of Zesto Audio’s Andros, but the Andros costs well over three times as much, isn’t as quiet or neutral, and again has less flexibility for loading and gain (though the Andros is certainly adequate in these respects for the pickups I tend to prefer, such as Ortofon, Dynavector, and a couple of Benz and Clearaudio models). But when I switch from the Andros to this new Nova, I listen with as much involvement and equal, if different enjoyment. So just in case I’ve not made myself clear: The already superb performance of the Nova II’s predecessor has been made even better in the new model, which means that a super value is now a superduper one. I cannot recommend it enthusiastically enough.

SPECS & PRICING

Gain: 40–60dB in 13 steps
Input loading: 200pF/300pF, 30 ohms to 100k ohms in 17 steps
Dimensions: 9 7/8" x 9 7/8" x 2.5"
Weight: 5 lbs.
Warranty: 3 years
Price: $1200

Musical Suroundings, Inc.
5662 Shattuck Ave.
Oakland, CA 94609
(510)420-0379
musicalsurroundings.com