Ron Sutherland has a thing for phonostages—or more specifically, as he recently told me, for records and all things associated with vinyl playback. His considerable talent lies in paring products down to their essence, creating units that are at once quite neutral as well as musically compelling, as his impressive track record shows.
Back in the day when he was building very pricey limited production components that mostly found their way to the Asian market, Sutherland designed the PH 2000, a unit, as Sutherland himself put it, “that sounded quite good and got good reviews, even if it wasn’t the quietest thing out there.”
When the Asian bubble burst in the mid-90s, Sutherland hooked up with Acoustic Sounds’ Chad Kassem to produce the AcousTech PH-1, a fine-sounding model that was not only priced for the common man ($1200), but filled what was then something of a void for stand-alone phono preamplifiers. But beyond being a good design that, unlike the PH 2000, was pretty darn quiet, the PH-1 was very musical (making its owners happy), sold very well (making its producers happy), and presented Ron Sutherland with one of his favorite design challenges.
“I found it an especially fun project precisely because of the budgetary restriction,” Sutherland told me. “I love having to make those kinds of thoughtful choices, rather than just throwing money at a project.”
Sutherland’s quest for extremely low noise circuits would then lead him to design a series of phonostages powered by banks of 16 D-cell batteries. First came the $3000 Ph.D, a now discontinued unit that I enthusiastically reviewed in these pages many moons ago (Issue 144, phew!). Following his pattern of designing at opposing price points to see what he could achieve with a shorter monetary rope, Sutherland’s next model came in at a mere one-third that tag. The $1000 Ph3D (reviewed by Chris Martens in our April/May 2007 issue) showcased another one of Sutherland’s design trends by taking what he’d learned from two previous design efforts—the Ph-1P and Ph.D—and mashing them together, if you will, in a new piece.
It must be said that, as pure, detailed, and quiet as these designs are, battery-power components can also lack large-scale dynamic peaks and the sheer wallop one can get from more conventional power supplies. They simply don’t have the juice to, say, deliver a full-throttle orchestral climax or kick-to-the-solar-plexus-like weight of John Bonham’s atomic drum blasts. Like all things in audio (and life), one must decide which set of tradeoffs to live with (or without).
Last year Jonathan Valin reviewed Sutherland’s most ambitious and costly battery-powered design to date, the $3800 Hubble. Aside from the few shortcomings mentioned above, Jon found the Hubble to one of the most musically natural phonostages he’d yet encountered—and reader, please note, the man has heard virtually every high-end component there is and has reviewed pretty much every one of consequence—with an extremely lifelike midrange, and phenomenal soundstaging (due to Sutherland’s innovative use of dual-mono circuitry).
Now, and give Ron Sutherland credit for his candor, he’s designed a new model largely to fill the considerable price void between the Ph3D and the Hubble. Dubbed the 20/20— ymbolic of the dual-mono construction—this $2200 model again builds on past Sutherland designs (indeed, the Hubble and Ph3D were its models), but with a non-battery-powered twist. As his Web site states, “This time the challenge was to offer an ACline- powered phono preamp that would fit in comfortably with the Sutherland series of battery-powered phono preamps. An extremely low noise floor and precise resolution were musts. Not only was this an opportunity to creatively address AC power-line isolation but to also take dual mono to a new level. And the other design challenge was to do this with extremely high performance, extremely high quality, and extremely high value.”
This less-is-more, Zen-like thinking defines Sutherland as an audio engineer. “My favorite thing is industrial design—laying out circuit boards. By making something simple I’m likely to spend more time on the small details than maybe I should, but that refinement benefits everybody, and it also makes my products effortless to build.”
To illustrate his point, Sutherland told me he usually builds the first few dozen of any new model himself. Speaking of the 20/20 he told me, “By being hands-on, I can make sure they [the production team] don’t fight problems that I should have solved in the first place.”
Further underlining Sutherland’s quest for elegant simplicity is that he tends to design in mono—not “standard” dual-mono, mind you, wherein left/right circuits typically mirror-image each other, but in identical mono circuit patterns that he calls “two mono.” Sutherland’s rather deadpan sense of humor leads him to admit that this may seem like a lazy approach, but in actuality by simply replicating the same layout for each channel he is able to focus on the kind of details he relishes. “I simply design it once,” he points out, “and then build it twice.”
Beware, however, that some early users (as well as those who don’t read users’ manuals—ahem!) have found themselves thinking that perhaps their 20/20 was defective. Because if you hook it up the way you would a conventional design, where inputs and outputs are mirrored on the rear of the chassis, one of the 20/20’s channels won’t produce sound. Picture this: Rather than, say, two inputs resting in the middle and two outputs at the outer extremes you have, from left to right, when facing the unit: In/Out/Grounding Post/In/Out, with the inputs and outputs leapfrogging each other.
The whole shebang becomes even clearer when you lift the chassis cover (via a quartet of easily removed knurl-knobbed nuts) to reveal a pair of identical and entirely separate inner chassis with about a four-inch gap separating them. Their only connection is by way of the shared back panel and faceplate. Here is where the user can adjust gain (40dB, 46dB, 52dB, 58dB, 64dB) and loading (100 ohms, 200 ohms, 475 ohms, 1k ohms, 47.5k ohms) via sets of high-quality jumpers.
You will also need to remove the cover in order to make your 20/20 operational, because before getting started one must plug the leads from a pair of “regulated desktop power supplies” into sockets located at the front of each circuit board, which are then channeled away from the circuitry and out the rear of the unit. “Wall-wart” power supply is another name for these devices, but Sutherland eschews the phrase as one that refers to lower-quality units than the type he employs.
Sutherland admitted that external power supplies of this type may seem inappropriate for a high-end design, but says that by using passive RC (resistor-capacitor) filters he is able to get very clean DC to his chips.
Chips? Uh-huh. And here is another area wherein Sutherland takes a road less travelled by most high-end designers. And it has nothing to with cost, as the sophisticated op-amps he uses price out at $25 a pop. Instead, Sutherland says he hates the idea of listening to handfuls of resistors and capacitors to select the ones to utilize. “Though I know it’s a polarizing notion, I like the simplicity of op-amps. And you still have the selection process. I listened to a dozen of these before choosing what I felt were the best-sounding units.”
And listening, of course, is the ultimate proof of any component’s worth. When people ask me whether I prefer tube or solid- tate designs, I typically reply that I don’t care if a component is powered by jellybeans as long as it sounds good. And the 20/20 most certainly does.
Interestingly, after many weeks of listening to the 20/20 I found myself thinking of Mr. V’s review of the Hubble. Upon revisiting it I knew why. So many of the traits Jonathan described regarding the Hubble are also found in the 20/20.
Most importantly and immediately is midrange naturalness. From the brass, strings, winds, and full-range orchestral forces heard in the Ansermet recording of Stravinsky’s Petrushka [Athena], to Sinatra at his finest on Only The Lonely [Mobile Fidelity], and on and on the 20/20 is notably free of electronic imprint.
Indeed, if one were to describe any character beyond the word “natural” to the 20/20’s overall nature I would call it beautiful. The 20/20 is consistently so.
In addition to its low noise and lack of electronic glare I would go so far as to say that the 20/20 lends a slight softness to instrumental edges. And while this makes, say, Sinatra’s voice and remarkable phrasing that much more seductive, and the solo trumpet in the Third Tableau of Petrushka sound very lifelike, at the same time it removes that bit of bite the instrument has in life. But then again as cymbals crash together in the same piece they shimmer in space without spitting or otherwise being harsh on the ears.
Exceptional channel separation and soundstaging are other qualities the 20/20 shares with JV’s description of the Hubble. Put on Santana’s Abraxas [MoFi], opening track, “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts.” First, the swirling bells, cymbals, electric piano, and other instruments emerge from a very quiet and deep space. Paired with the Maggie 1.7 speaker, this is an almost intoxicating thing. It’s the kind of hi-fi drug that becomes quickly addictive. The electric bass is supple, almost creamy, as it rolls the music forward. Would I prefer a bit more sting to Santana’s soaring electric guitar? Yes, I would. I don’t want the sting to hurt my ears, but the 20/20 does remove it. If you’re musical taste runs to lots of harder rock, the 20/20 may not necessarily be for you.
But with something like Wilco’s “Jesus Don’t Cry,” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Nonesuch], the sheer beauty of the 20/20, its amazing instrumental separation, and wide-open staging are wonderful things. Then go back to Stravinsky. I’ve played this LP over dozens of different systems, and rarely do I have the thrillingly eerie feeling of stepping into a recorded space the way 20/20 delivers it. It this regard it ranks among the finest at any price point.
Yet even with AC power this unit doesn’t quite have the ultimate weight and power punch to raise the flesh at the most climactic moments, either during Petrushka or other Stravinsky ballet scores such as The Rite of Spring or The Firebird. Again, it’s a tradeoff. Especially since the 20/20 is so good the other ninetypercent of the time.
So, yes, the 20/20 is a story of tradeoffs. And knowing Ron Sutherland, I believe it represents the tradeoffs he prefers. After all,musical naturalness and beauty at this level are pretty hard to argue with.
And most of the time I too prefer finesse over power. But your preferences may differ. Or put another way, on one hand it would be like criticizing Grace Kelly for being too beautiful, but then there’s Marilyn Monroe.
SPECS & PRICING
Gain: 40dB, 46dB, 52dB, 58dB, 64dB
Loading options: 100 ohms, 200 ohms, 475 ohms, 1k ohms, 47.5k ohms
Inputs and outputs: RCA
Dimensions: 17" x 2.25" x 12"
Weight: 11 lbs.
TW-Acustic Raven One turntable; Tri-Planar Ultimate VII arm; Benz Gullwing and Transfiguration Phoenix moving-coil cartridges; Artemis Labs PL-1 phonostage; Cary Audio Classic CD 303T SACD Player, SLP 05 linestage preamplifier, and 211 FE monoblock amplifiers; Edge NL10.2 power amplifier; Magnepan 1.7 loudspeakers, Tara Labs Zero interconnects, Omega speaker cables, The One power cords, and BP-10 Power Screen; Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks