Sutherland Hubble Phonostage (TAS 203)

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Sutherland Engineering Hubble
Sutherland Hubble Phonostage (TAS 203)

Judging by its name, you would expect Ron Sutherland’s latest battery-powered phonostage—the newest in a long line of highly praised battery-powered units from Sutherland Engineering—to give you a clearer view of the vinyl universe, freed (by means of its battery of batteries) from the “atmospheric” haze and refraction of AC power lines and RFI. The good news is that you wouldn’t be far wrong. The Hubble is, indeed, a very detailed, low-noise, natural-sounding device. The bad news, if you want to call it that, I will come to in a while.

Even though Sutherland has made a specialty of battery-powered phono preamps, the Hubble was a ground-up effort. Sutherland says that he started with a blank piece of paper on which he listed the following “must have” elements: 1) a power source that would create an “environment removed from [the] background noise and interference” that obscure detail; 2) stereo separation that would maximize the differences in left and right channel signals to better preserve space and dimensionality; 3) configuration options that would allow ideal gain and loading for any cartridge; 4) a “physical circuit platform” that would not add noise to the signal due to the interaction of stray electrical fields; and 5) the highest-quality parts.

To address the first must-have element—the power source—Sutherland designed a self-contained battery-pack power supply that uses 16 D-cell batteries (not included). Unlike certain preamps (such as the Nagra) with fixed rechargeable batteries, the Hubble is never plugged into a wall outlet, which (says Sutherland) “completely remove[s] the Hubble from the AC power line and avoid[s] any possibility of power-line ‘ground loops.’” Of course, it also means that you will have to replace those D-cells over time, though Sutherland estimates you’ll get a good 1000 hours of use before that becomes necessary.

Removing power-line contaminates is only one half of Sutherland’s power-source equation. A power supply must also be “robust” enough to provide sufficient current to the amplification stage, no matter how that current changes with changes in the musical signal. Sutherland notes, with refreshing honesty, that batteries cannot be depended on to do this. Indeed, the chief knock against battery-powered units in the past has not been their lack of low-level detail but their lack of large-scale dynamic impact; as the music gets louder (and the current draw increases), battery power supplies have tended to peter out, compressing hard transients and big dynamic tuttis.

To help solve this problem, Sutherland uses his battery power supply to charge two separate banks of sixteen 1200-microfarad capacitors—one bank for each channel in this entirely dual-mono unit. Thus, each stereo channel sees 19,200 microfarads of capacitance—enough energy storage to keep up with the current draw of any musical dynamic.

To achieve his second “must have” element—maximum stereo separation—Sutherland designed the Hubble as a true dual-mono unit. Each channel of this preamp is completely self-contained on a separate, identical circuit board—two mono preamps housed in the same chassis, each with its own bank of energy-storing capacitors. While “dual-mono” construction is scarcely a new idea, Sutherland correctly observes that some components are “more dual-mono” than others. In the Hubble, the only things the two mono preamps share, outside of the enclosure, are the power control boards and the batteries. As a result, the stereo separation of the Hubble truly is outstanding. I’ve heard many phonostages with excellent soundstaging, but none better than the Hubble, which puts oodles of air between and around instruments and voices and separates them left-to-right with a spaciousness that has to be heard.

To satisfy his proviso for optimal loading and gain, Sutherland has constructed separate, plug-in “configuration boards” with gold-plated pins. Instead of jamming all possible options onto each of the mono preamp boards, the Hubble lets you apply the “one optimum value” for your cartridge and preamp. (The unit comes with four plug-in gain boards for mm and mc cartridges—45, 50, 55, and 60dB—and seven loading boards—100, 200, 475, 1k, 4.75k, 10k, and 47.5k Ohm. A blank plug-in board to which any value resistor or capacitor can be soldered for custom loading is also supplied.)

Be aware that while 60dB of gain is more than sufficient to amplify higher-output coils like the Clearaudio Goldfinger v2 or the Air Tight PC-1 Supreme, it may be borderline for very-low-output cartridges such as the Da Vinci Grand Reference. The Hubble’s suitability for your cartridge and system will also depend on the gain of the linestage preamp you are using.

To fulfill his fourth and fifth “must haves”—a non-reactive physical platform and the highest-quality parts—Sutherland built his circuit boards with all circuit-connections on the top sides, eliminating the possibility of electrical fields being generated between the copper conductors on the bottom of one circuit board and the copper connections on the top of another that sits below it. He also used 1% metal-film resistors, hand-wound 1% polystyrene EQ capacitors, and FR-4 fiberglass boards.

So. How does the Hubble sound?

Well, pretty much the way its thoughtful engineering would lead you to expect it to sound. It is very quiet; it is very detailed; although it never get raw or raucous, it does not crap out on big dynamic swings; it has, as I’ve already said, sensationally good soundstaging and imaging, and a midrange to die for.

From bass through lower treble, but especially in the midband, the Hubble is uncannily lifelike. On voices it is ravishing. Take Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” from her Live from Austin, TX album. I’ve listened to Jones’ voice on this number through virtually every phonostage preamp I’ve had in house and none outdoes the Hubble in sheer disarming realism. There is a complete lack of transient edge with the Hubble, which manages to preserve little details of tone color, dynamic, and performance (like the drummer, presumably, counting off the beat before the band launches into “What Did You Say?” on the same LP) without ever exaggerating them. It’s as if the damn thing is handling every note of the music with loving care.

This gentleness may have something to do with the Hubble’s sweet subdued treble, which is soft and forgiving although, once again, not lacking in detail or speed. For example, the upper octaves of the piano on the Norah Jones number can sound a bit splashy, the bass a bit fulsome through most phonostages. Through the Hubble, that piano never turns nasty sounding, and the bass notes seem rounded off and right. The Hubble may, in fact, be sacrificing some extension, energy, and fidelity on hard treble and bass transients, but it is a trade-off that makes for a midband realism and overall listenability that are hard not to love.

This same refined character is present on large-scale music, too. In the third movement of Janácek’s Sinfonietta, those marvelous solid blocks of brass have uncannily realistic timbres and textures. At the same time the high-flying piccolo that weaves and flutters above them never turns shrill, the syncopated violin choirs that accompany the brass fanfares never grow raspy, as they do with other phonostages. This may bespeak a dynamic politeness and lack of transparency to sources, but, once again, if such a trade-off ends up making those trumpets, those trombones, that bass clarinet, that tuba, that piccolo, those violins sound more more like themselves rather than more faithful to the mastertapes, then who cares? The staging on the Janácek, BTW, is phenomenal.

Do I have any major complaints? Well, it’s hard to complain about something that sounds so much like the absolute sound, even if it may be exacting a small price in dynamics. However, since this is a review and not a love fest, let me note that the Hubble, for all its depth of quiet, does have a bit of texture to it. Battery-powered preamps always seem to. The ones I’ve reviewed in the past—from Nagra and Edge—added a “whitish” grain and upper-midrange brilliance to the soundfield. Though the Hubble is anything but white or bright sounding, it does add a very very fine lightish grain to background silences, making voices and instruments sound less as if they were freestanding in space and more as if they were emerging from a vaguely electronic medium, like Captain Kirk just before he steps out of the transporter.

The Hubble does have another issue that is more important—to me, at least. And it had this issue with every record player and cartridge and linestage I used. You would think that a device that wasn’t plugged into the wall would be immune to hum and RFI. However, this was not the case with the Hubble (and it wasn’t the case with the Nagra or the Edge, either). To be fair, mine is a worst-case scenario for phonostages. I live, as those of you who follow my reviews already know, in RFI Valley, surrounded by broadcast towers in an urban environment where big power-consumers like universities and hospitals proliferate. I’ve never had a phonostage in my system that didn’t suffer, however subliminally, from some amount of hum or RF. With the Hubble, hum and RF were, indeed, very low in level, but nonetheless audible. I’m not saying that this will happen to you. Mine is an unusually difficult case. But it did happen, so…duly noted. (Also duly noted is the fact that other reviewers in this magazine of previous Sutherland battery-powered phonostages have not had problems with RF or hum.)

The hum/RF thing aside, I really had no complaints about the Hubble. For $3799, I kind of doubt you will find any phonostage that sounds more realistic. Yeah, you’re going to trade off a little bitty bit of energy, bloom, and transparency-to-sources in the treble, a little bitty bit of fullness and power in the bass, but if supremely lifelike midrange timbres, extremely high resolution of inner detail, very good midband dynamic range, and truly exceptional soundstaging are your priorities, the Hubble comes most highly and warmly and enthusiastically recommended.

SPECS & PRICING

Sutherland Hubble Phonostage
Type: Battery-powered, dual-mono phonostage
Power requirements: 16 alkaline “D” cells
Battery life: 1000 hours (actual power-on time)
Gain settings: 45 dB, 50 dB, 55 dB, 60 dB
Cartridge loading: 100 ohms, 200 ohms, 475 ohms, 1k ohms, 4.75k ohms, 47.5k ohms
Weight (without batteries): 22 lbs.
Dimensions: 17” x 3.25” x 16.75”
Price: $3799

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