If we are living in the twilight of vinyl, it has to be the longest lasting twilight since mechanical watches and fountain pens. LPs and equipment to play them are undoubtedly a niche market, but there can be no question that this particular niche is lively, robust, and apparently profitable. Not to say also resourceful, imaginative, and inventive when it comes to better mousetraps, to judge by the proliferation of record playing paraphernalia to hit the market these last ten years.And it’s surely some kind of huge irony that the stand alone phono preamplifier came into its own not during the decades when vinyl was king but long after it had been deposed as a popular medium by the compact disc.
Mike Yee is one of the most innovative phono preamplifier designers working today. Marketed by Musical Surroundings, his designs are distinguished by superb sonics, very low distortion, and unusually low noise even without battery operation, the widest range of loading and gain options of any phonostages now available (perhaps ever), and genuinely high value. The Nova Phonomena has been my reference phono preamp since I reviewed it (TAS 172), replacing the original Phonomena.
Yee’s flagship, the SuperNova 2 under review here, may be a unique product—I don’t know of another like it—in that it can be connected to a line level preamplifier as a conventional stand alone phono preamp or it can itself serve as a passive linestage when connected directly to a power amplifier. There are two outputs, one fixed, the other variable and controlled by one of two front panel knobs. The other knob selects among the three inputs, two for phono and one high-level labeled AUX (for CD player or other line level component). The phono inputs, which will accept any moving magnet/iron/coil pickup, are independently adjustable for gain and loading, allowing you to run two record playing setups or two different tonearm/pickup combinations on one turntable, each optimally adjusted for gain and loading and accessible with the flip of a switch.
Well, not quite a switch. The original version of the SuperNova ($2800), now retired, had no line level input, only three phono inputs, which allowed Yee to employ a novel means of source selection. All three input stages were simultaneously hooked up to a single output stage, the “switching” done by only having a single current source assigned by the selector switch, thus eliminating switches in the audio path. This is how selection still works between the two phono inputs in the new version, but when he changed the third phono input to high level in order to allow for the connection of a CD player if the SuperNova 2 is used as the primary preamp, it was necessary to put a switch between the AUX input and the two phonostages.
Regulation of the variable output is likewise novel. With only twelve positions, it is misleading to think of it as a volume control. Yee prefers to call it a “limited attenuator.” Most attenuators operate over a 40dB range (10,000:1). This one is intended to operate over an 11dB range or so (the lowest, i.e., far left, position totally muting the output). Most systems, he believes, have far too much gain; reducing the excess allows for the elimination of gain in the linestage, which results in greater fidelity. He also claims that its lower output impedance makes the SuperNova’s attenuator much less sensitive than typical passive attenuators to the effects of cables. “If set up properly,” Yee told me, “as the output approaches 0dB, the output impedance of the limited attenuator is close to 50 ohms” (see sidebar for more about setup). I tried running nine feet of Kimber Select and heard no untoward effect upon very high frequencies, which is where it would be noticed first.
Inasmuch as the earlier SuperNova served as the basis for the Nova, the sound here is a known commodity that I need only summarize. That sound is, first of all, very neutral, so much so that some have found it “too neutral,” a concept I have difficulty with when the goal is reproduction. It is also transparent, dynamic, and high in resolution. Thanks to its comprehensive loading and gain options I feel that it allows me to hear the essential character of every phono pickup I audition, review, or otherwise evaluate. But therein consists a potential problem: You really do have to attend to loading and gain or what you’re hearing—or reporting on—is the sound of the pickup improperly loaded, not necessarily the sound of the preamp as such.
Let me provide an example. Regular readers of mine will know how highly I regard some Ortofon pickups, in particular the Kontrapunkt C and the Windfeld. In order to hear these pickups at their best, however, they must be correctly loaded. With respect to the Windfeld, the difference between loading at 40 ohms and either 30 or 60 is clearly audible with critical listening. Load it at 30 and the sound is subtly less dynamic and lively and the top end sounds fractionally less extended. Load it at 60 (or even 50) and the sound becomes slightly more dynamic and lively, with a brighter top end. Only at 40 does it sound just right. If you have not set these values precisely, it would be very easy to attribute the characteristics I’ve described to the phono preamp rather than to the pickup itself or a combination of the two. This is why the Nova, with its 256 possible loading options and 16 possible gain settings, remains for me an indispensable reviewing tool and my long-standing reference.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that it’s best the out there. If I had more discretionary income, I might buy the Aesthetics Rhea, which, all other things being equal, has slightly more resolution, dynamics, and life. But as the Rhea has far fewer loading options, any given pickup could easily tip the balance back in favor of the Nova or the SuperNova 2.
How does the SuperNova 2 sound when used as a system preamplifier? In a word, magnificent—pretty much what you would expect when an entire amplification circuit is eliminated: greater transparency, resolution, clarity, and purity. I also heard a rare stability in the soundstaging and unusually precise tracking of movement (e.g., the beginning of The Christmas Revels, side six of the Bernstein Carmen). Most of all, though, was a difficult to define but very real impression of a more natural-sounding presentation, especially from voices and acoustic instruments, handily demonstrated in a truly sublime new recording of Schubert’s Winterreise—psychologically probing, dramatically shattering—with Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis, produced by Robina Young for Harmonia Mundi USA.
These impressions are by no means a knee-jerk reaction to the elimination of an active linestage—rather the contrary, in fact. I was if anything prejudiced against the SuperNova 2, having previously found all passive linestages to be mixed bags. In exchange for their greater purity of reproduction, they lacked dynamics and that elusive sense of life, vitality, and ultimate involvement. None of this is the case with SuperNova 2. So far as I can tell, for the first time in my experience the elimination of an active linestage is all—you should pardon the egregious pun—gain and no pain (or almost—see sidebar).
Sidebar: Gain, Levels, Loudness
The one big drawback to going passive is that it limits the range of playback level. As noted, the twelve position attenuator on the SuperNova 2’s front panel has only an 11dB spread, which does not mean that it limits the dynamic range of your system or recordings to 11dB, merely that you have only an 11dB window in which you can vary the overall playback level from soft to loud. That range is more than adequate for serious listening sessions because they usually involve moderate or higher levels, but it may be not enough to let you enjoy anything like the flexibility available from an active variable gain preamp when it comes to handling every kind of loudness requirement (e.g., a dance party in the rumpus room to late night listening when you don’t want to disturb anyone else). In my own setup, for example, when I set the overall gain so that orchestral climaxes are satisfyingly loud, I cannot set an extremely soft overall level unless I readjust the phono and AUX gain settings. (This is true to some degree of all passive attenuators, not just the SuperNova’s.) Moreover, even within its usable range a volume control with just twelve steps may not give you the resolution of level from step to step you might want, though I did not run into this potential problem. As I’ve said, Yee’s is the best passive attenuator I’ve ever used, but good as it is, it doesn’t work miracles or cover all contingencies.
One criticism I have of Yee’s otherwise thorough manual is that there isn’t enough instruction about setting gain of the phono and AUX inputs when you want to use the limited attenuator in place of a linestage preamplifier. It’s difficult to generalize about settings because they will depend on everything from the output of your phono pickup and CD player to the input sensitivities of your power amp and the efficiency of your loudspeakers. The best way to do it is to set the gain on the phono inputs until the loudest passages of some favorite recordings are slightly louder than you are ever likely to listen to them when the attenuator is set to its 0dB (far right) position. Then do the same with your CD player, using the gain settings for the AUX inputs. (All gain and loading settings are made via easily accessible DIP switches on the back panel.) If you can’t achieve such levels using the methods I’ve just described, then the SuperNova 2 is probably not compatible with your system. The likelihood that this will happen in any modern system is quite remote but not impossible.
For what my experience is worth, it took me only about an hour using familiar CDs and LPs to get everything locked in. Meanwhile, Yee has assured me that by the time this appears in print, the manual will have been rewritten to provide a thorough explanation of how to set all gain levels to use the limited attenuator to best advantage. --PS
Does this mean I’m going to buy the review sample? Alas no. Most modern electronics of audiophile quality display a very high degree of transparency to the source. Removing them buys you something, yes, and Yee’s limited attenuator is quite special in realizing the theoretical advantages of passive attenuation while minimizing its limitations. But while not insignificant, the degree of improvement over the linestages I use regularly is quite small, nowhere near enough to make me give up the convenience of a active full-function preamplifier. In addition to vinyl and CD, I also regularly listen to SACD, DVDs, video, and FM, and I need at least another input or three for players and DACs, to say nothing of remote operation, balance, tone correction, mode selection, monitoring, and EP loops, all of which I consider essential.
But if your system is simpler or your priorities different, the SuperNova 2 is one product I seriously urge you to check out. The actual improvement its limited attenuator makes may be small, but I have no hesitation pronouncing it standard-setting in my experience. Meanwhile, as a phono preamp only, the SuperNova 2 is absolutely first-class and the last word in optimally matching phono pickups, along with its younger sibling the Nova. Speaking of which, understand that if you have no intention of bypassing your present linestage yet want the convenience of running more than one phono setup, you can buy two Novas for a lot less than the price of a single SuperNova 2. Which brings me back to where I started: This is a niche product of a niche product, but a uniquely imaginative, inventive, and accomplished one.
Musical Surroundings SuperNova 2 Phono Preamplifier
Inputs: Two phono, one line-level
Output: Fixed and variable, both adjustable
Operation: AC and battery