In one iteration or another, the Musical Surroundings phono preamplifiers designed by Mike Yee have been my references since I reviewed the original Phonomena in 2002 (TAS 134). The design has undergone two upgrades since then. The first, called the Nova Phonomena (TAS 172), incorporated the original’s optional outboard battery supply in the main chassis, and now here is the second, called simply the Nova II. Despite the changes, which I’ll detail anon, all three models exhibit the same basic sonic personality, which, quoting my original review, I characterized as “Apollonian, all classical grace, poise, and restraint, with a neutrality and freedom from coloration that I have no hesitation in calling state of the art.” I’ve read some reviewers who fault the earlier versions for being too neutral—a criticism I’ve always found odd when made of something the purpose of which is to reproduce something else—and others who crave more in the way of kick, slam, liveliness, what have you. Fair enough, perhaps, but what places Yee’s designs ahead of most of the pack is that very neutrality, which translates into a more accurate replica of what is actually being fed it, including the sonic personality of the phono pickup. As Yee has brought out successive versions, however, there have been subtle improvements in both dynamics and that elusive sense of lifelikeness, without compromising the original’s neutrality.
Once the Nova II was plugged in and cooked (a few hours does the trick) and the batteries fully charged, I got down to serious listening with the recent Gould/Bernstein Beethoven Fourth as reissued by Impex. It opens with the soloist playing the limpid first theme, his piano set slightly back in the center, the impression of a holographic image so persuasive that Peter Walker’s metaphor of a window on the concert hall became eerily real, an impression only deepened with the entrance of the orchestra surrounding the piano. Better still was the lightness, ease, and delicacy of Gould’s touch and the severe beauty of his tone—best of all the involvement and vitality of the listening experience. Panorama and detail are ideally resolved, with Gould’s famous singing and humming along just evident enough without being emphasized (the way some overly detailed components can).
Being in an orchestral mood, I followed this with Original Recording Group’s new reissue of The Planets in the Mehta/ Los Angeles Philharmonic recording. I’ve always found this a checkered recording, with the sound varying from cut to cut and all sorts of shenanigans with levels, balances, and miking, and not very much depth. “Mars” sounds hard, for example, but “Jupiter” quite wonderful, with strings smoother and more beautiful. Overall, however, this recording’s dynamic range is impressive, which is one reason I played it: I wanted to see if there were any further improvements in the Nova II—and there were. Nor did I have to listen very long to Stokowski’s sensational Rhapsodies [RCA] to discover even more. This recording never ceases to thrill me both as performance and as sonics. The combination of weight, warmth, definition, and sheer power in the bass the Nova II rendered as about as spectacularly as any phonostage I’ve used and better than most because free from any editorializing, while the range from soft to really loud was equally impressive. One reason for this is the Nova II’s quietness. Even in AC mode it’s quieter than most phonostages I’ve heard, but in battery mode it’s close to dead quiet even at pretty healthy levels.
I concentrated on music with a lot of dynamic range and weight because I wanted especially to hear the new version’s performance in these areas. The dynamic opening of Graceland [Sony] made me snap to attention, while the clarification of textures really brought a smile to my face. And if it’s toe-tapping rhythmic panache you’re after, this unit will give it to you (and without that “clipped” impression you get with some components that tend to etch each beat, i.e., those...that... sound...like...this). Reference Recordings’ new album by the blues singer and guitarist Doug MacLeod, made at the famous studio at Skywalker Ranch (the site of so many fine Harmonia Mundi USA recordings), is wonderfully transparent on MacLeod’s powerfully expressive voice, at once warm yet raspy and palpably present, with a strong low end in the doublebass and the kick drum.
Sometimes Keith Johnson’s recordings can be too spacious, but not here, where focus is never blurred at the expense of atmosphere. A very different kind of singing is to be heard on Sing We Noel [Arkiv Music], a longstanding favorite of mine by Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata. The program is early British and American Christmas music performed by small chorus, soloists, period-instruments, and the like. The recording, made in a reverberant church, captures the voices with rare beauty: rounded, dimensional, and very vivid. It also makes full expressive and dramatic use of the venue—the final number has the whole ensemble singing the “Gloucestershire Wassail” as they recede. A really good setup will allow you to hear a greater portion of reverberant to direct sound as the group moves farther back (and also more bounce off the rear wall), which is certainly true of the Nova II and Ortofon Windfeld/Basis 2200/Vector combination.
The last thing I played before wrapping up this review was the classic first Bernstein recording of The Rite of Spring [Columbia], recently newly remastered and reissued on vinyl—just the sort of material previous Novas and Phonomenas were supposed to come a cropper on. Not this time. The recording is close-up, explosive, and cataclysmic, and was reproduced accordingly. Wow!