Designing a high-performance, extremely musical, lownoise phonostage that is able to drive a wide range of cartridges is a formidable engineering challenge, and no single approach has been deemed as the “way to go.” Solid-state solutions, which can be dead quiet, detailed, transparent, and extended, are oftentimes criticized for losing the music’s natural timbre and inherent richness. For this reason, some prefer alltube designs, which can be highly musical, but may have noise, extension, and control problems. Hybrid designs can provide some of the warmth and musicality of tubes and the low noise and frequency extension of solid-state, but they have their critics, too (typically tube purists). Still others prefer all-tube designs more compatible with moving-magnet cartridges (or high-output moving coils) that require less gain from the tubes, but require additional step-up devices to drive low-output moving coils. While pre-preamps have largely disappeared from the audio scene, the use of step-up transformers seems to be experiencing a resurgence. In its flagship phonostage, the Vinyl Reference, Art Audio uses tube triodes supported by FETs on the input and MOSFETs on the outputs, as well as step-up and step-down transformers. I wondered whether this might be a brilliant combination or an incoherent hodgepodge.
The good news is that the Art Audio Vinyl Reference (VR) is among the top handful of reference-quality phonostages, adroitly blending these different technologies into a coherent whole. But why should anyone spend ten times more on a VR than on a good tube phonostage, like the Pro-Ject Tube Box SE? Both have some of that tube magic going for them, work with moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges, and offer multiple loading options. For starters, if your turntable and cartridge are up to snuff, you’ll hear much more of what’s in those vinyl grooves and experience more of the illusion of performers playing before you. Compared with the Tube Box SE, overtones through the VR were more fully fleshed out so that instruments had more natural timbre. On Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 [Everest/Classic Records], the string sections were more clearly differentiated, dynamic swings were wider and more forceful, and subtle details related to the performance and recording venue were clearer. The Vinyl Reference was far quieter, which not only kept noise from obscuring fine details, but also increased transparency—one of the VR’s greatest strengths.
The Vinyl Reference shares many of the same sonic strengths as my reference, the massive, all-octal-tube-based MFA Venusian preamplifier (customized with some of Scott Frankland’s latest thinking). Both have a wonderful musicality, and instruments and voices sound lifelike and palpable through either. Listen to the brilliant new Rhino Vinyl reissue of Blue, and you’re likely to think that Joni is right there in front of you! There’s not a hint of excess sibilance in her voice using either phonostage, and both let delicate details emerge, like the leading edge of transients as she strums her guitar.
Although very good on the VR, macro-dynamics were even more explosive through the Venusian. The custom MFA also had a more expansive and deeper soundstage—the best I’ve ever heard—with more layering of both instruments and massed voices. Still, the Vinyl Reference countered with blacker backgrounds—it’s almost eerily silent—and was slightly cleaner and more transparent. While there was even more harmonic richness from the octal tubes of the Venusian, the Vinyl Reference arguably had a more accurate tonal balance. In either case, both serve the music extremely well. (You can find and purchase the Vinyl Reference more readily.)
Perhaps the primary key to the Vinyl Reference’s outstanding performance is designer Kevin Carter’s use of transformer-coupled tube circuits, reported to mimic those used to produce most of the recordings from the “Golden Age.” The VR uses separate high-quality Lundahl transformers from Sweden to interface with both source and load components, as well as 6N1P dual triodes, a low-noise Russian military tube. My unit had the optional VCAP upgrade in the RIAA network. The VR is expertly built for Art Audio by Kevin Carter’s own shop, K&K, the importer of Lundahl transformers. It includes both single-ended and balanced outputs and a phase control. Those of you who are handy with a soldering iron and looking for a screaming deal on a phonostage might check out the kit that K&K offers for $1500, which uses the same basic topology found in the VR but with a simpler passive power supply and less expensive electronic components. However, it will be tough to match the VR’s terrific build-quality.