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Channel D Lino C 2.0 Phonostage

Channel D Lino C 2.0 Phonostage

The Channel D Lino C 2.0 is a current-mode (transimpedance) phonostage for low-output, low-impedance moving-coil cartridges. The cartridge input is designed for a balanced (differential, non-ground-referenced) connection. The electronic circuitry is direct-coupled (no coupling capacitors), and said to have wide bandwidth, low distortion, and ultra-low noise. Powered by an internal high-current AGM lead/acid battery, the Lino C 2.0 sports an output stage with 20-ohms output impedance, capable of driving cables with much more ease than those output stages with higher output impedances. To put things outlined in this succinct introduction in perspective, this is a lot of phonostage for its asking price of $2699.

The Lino C 2.0’s current-mode input differs from standard voltage-mode phonostages in how the signal is delivered to and used by the phonostage. A typical voltage-mode phonostage amplifies the voltage output of the cartridge with less concern paid to the amount of current the cartridge delivers. With most (but not all) voltage-mode phonostages, there are usually provisions to add/adjust loading in the form of resistors that damp the ultrasonic peak of the combined cartridge/phono cable interface. Many music lovers use this loading feature as a way of adjusting the tonal balance. A properly designed current-mode phonostage can provide a near-zero-ohm input load, which the cartridge sees as a near-short-circuit. As such, the voltage output of the cartridge becomes less important than the cartridge’s internal impedance and the amount of current it is supplying to the phonostage. Because of this “transimpedance” mode of operation, there are no provisions for loading the cartridge, since it is already near a zero-ohm impedance. This feature of a current-mode phonostage eliminates the calculation of proper loading values relative to cartridge/phono cable impedance (or subjective estimates of same) that are necessary with voltage-mode phonostages. That can be a benefit. The other side of this coin is there is no subjective tuning of cartridge performance via resistive loading. The resulting sonics are purely a reflection of the cartridge’s design and, to a lesser degree, whatever character the transimpedance phonostage brings with it—which is, hopefully, very little.

The Channel D Lino C 2.0 is said to have low distortion and ultra-low noise. Although I don’t have the test equipment Channel D used to measure the Lino C 2.0’s performance, I can tell readers that the unit is exceptionally quiet when viewed in limited spectral plots or listened to subjectively. I believe part of the reason for such performance is related to the internal, high-current, Absorbent Glass Mat (AGM), sealed-lead/acid battery-charging and power-supply circuit, the careful layout of many surface-mount components, and the trace-impedance matching employed in the design of the electronics within the Lino C 2.0. With the use of surface-mount technology and proper layout of printed circuit boards, I can say (having a multi-decade engineering background in digital and analog circuits) that the design of the Lino C seems carefully considered and executed to limit the deleterious effects of noise and distortion. 

The Lino C 2.0 is made to receive a balanced cartridge input via balanced input wiring—note I didn’t say the user must have a balanced XLR connector. While balanced wiring (twisted pairs of identical conductors within a shielded cable) from the cartridge to the Lino C 2.0’s input is required, an XLR connector isn’t. A set of special ground-isolated RCA-to-XLR adaptors for RCA cable connection are optional ($49) and useable with the Lino C 2.0 (as long as the twisted pair of conductors are connected to the center pin, and the outer connector of an RCA cable, the shield/ground, is not connected to the outer lead of the RCA plug).

Briefly, any phono cable/tonearm combination where twisted-pair-conductor cables are employed and the two conductors are not connected to the turntable (or shield) ground can be used. An example of a tonearm/cable that can’t be used would be a standard Rega ’arm where the shield is connected to one of the outer shells of the RCA, which is also a signal connection. Working examples of correctly wired tonearms I used in-house are the Basis Vector IV, Basis SuperArm 9, Graham Phantom III with Graham-supplied tonearm cable, and the Klaudio 12″ Tangential tonearm with custom RCA cables utilizing twisted pair cables and RCA connections with isolated shield-ground phono cable. Of course, the balanced, XLR-connected, twisted-pair cables on one of the Basis Vector IV tonearms worked directly into the Lino C 2.0’s XLR balanced inputs without the need for the RCA-to-XLR connector.

Additional adjustments available on the Lino C 2.0 comprise a set of dip switches underneath the unit that allows for the final gain-stage setting to be varied from 0dB to +6dB or +12dB of total gain to put its output in line with the downstream preamplifier and, if applicable, other source components. The Lino C 2.0 has two independently amplified sets of low-impedance outputs (XLR and RCA) on the rear of the unit. There are RIAA bypass selector switches underneath the jacks for the balanced outputs (the independently amplified single-ended outputs are always RIAA corrected) that allow the XLR outputs to be flat—creating a high-gain current-mode linear amplifier for the cartridge connection. This feature allows the use of an A/D converter connection to the Lino C 2.0 for direct sampling of the linear (non-RIAA corrected) XLR balanced output for recording and for later applying RIAA correction in software for playback, using programs like Channel D’s own Pure Vinyl (this feature was not tested during the evaluation). The bottom of the Lino C 2.0 also has a printed screened-on spectral plot showing the exact unit’s serial number and measured RIAA accuracy over a 20Hz to 20kHz frequency band.

The Lino C 2.0 is powered by its internal AGM battery during playback. The circuitry senses when a signal is present at the current-mode input of the phonostage. When this signal is detected, the electronics internally disconnect the charging circuit from the system, which provides isolation from the external charger (due to the design of the external charger, galvanic isolation is also achieved). If you want to go further, you can unplug the AC side of the external charging circuit to go completely “off the grid.” (Just be sure to reconnect the AC plug when you’re finished listening.) One additional feature is a 2.5mm barrel jack underneath the unit that provides a 5V signal indicating when the Lino C 2.0 has detected output from the cartridge and is in operating mode. This allows for an automatic “off the grid” mode of operation with the use of an accessory device (not a Channel D product) that can be triggered to disconnect the connection of the power supply from the AC mains line during music playback. With this automatic “off the grid” mode accessory, the Lino C 2.0 is automatically connected back to the AC mains approximately 10 minutes after music hasn’t been played, to allow the charging circuits to recharge the internal battery. (Note: The user can contact Channel D for this accessory information or find it in the Installation and Use Manual.) 

 

The Installation and Use manual is recommended reading in any event. At the very least, one should read the Quick Start Guide in order to avoid any unforeseen issues. Quickly walking through the setup involved: Connect a properly wired (as mentioned above) phono cable to the input (if required, use the supplied RCA-to-XLR adapter); connect the Lino C 2.0 output cables (I tried and used both RCA and XLR); then connect the power adapter. At this point, the Lino C 2.0 is ready to operate when indicating power is on via the light of two green LEDs on the bottom of the unit. 

I listened to the Lino C with five different tonearms and eight different cartridges—listed in the Associated Equipment sidebar. Using the available final gain setting, I was able to get satisfactory output levels from all of them. While the two cartridges with higher internal impedances (the Hana SL and special low-output Van den Hul Colibri) are not the typical type of cartridge used with the Lino C 2.0, both worked well with the +12dB final gain setting. The other six cartridges (Atlas, Atlas SL, Etna, Etna SL, Titan-i, and Hana ML) worked with the default final gain setting of +6dB or 0dB). For reference, I asked Dr. Rob Robinson from Channel D to provide a couple of examples for relative gain of this current-mode phonostage. The examples below should give some additional idea of the unit’s gain levels relative to cartridge internal impedance: 

1. For a cartridge with a 1-ohm internal impedance, the gain with the Lino C set to its maximum setting is 85dB. So, by using the gain adjustment switches, 85, 79, and 73dB settings are available. If the cartridge has an internal impedance lower than 1 ohm, the gain will be greater. This dovetails with lower-impedance cartridges having lower output voltages, and needing higher gain.

2. For a cartridge with 5-ohms internal impedance, the gain with the Lino C set to maximum is 74dB. So, by using the gain adjustment switches, 74, 68, and 62dB settings are available. If the cartridge has a higher internal impedance than 5 ohms, the gain will be lower. This dovetails with higher impedance cartridges having higher output voltage, and needing lower gain.

Listening
The Lino C 2.0 is very linear and coherent sounding. It doesn’t overtly editorialize the musical spectrum at the expense of realistic-sounding vinyl playback. This current-mode phonostage is sure-footed and solidly grounded (non-fidgety) in reproduction. There is a slightly damped quality (possibly due to the near-zero-ohm load impedance of this type of current-mode design, which delivers sound without the loss of power output due to the excessive shunt-resistance-loading of voltage-mode phonostages) that allows the music to flow with little to no aggressiveness from any of the cartridges used on any of the music played through the device. In this price range, that’s a welcomed trait. The sound created from Lino C 2.0 has an ever-so-slight tonal shift towards the warm side of neutral. Nonetheless, the result is completely non-fatiguing, summoning up a sense of serenity around musical playback. The resulting soundstage is reproduced with excellent width and depth, instrument location, performance interplay, and musical timbre, when those features are well recorded on albums. 

An example of this non-editorialized sound can be heard with the playback of the Janaki String Trio’s performance of the Penderecki String Trio on its Debut album from Yarlung Records. This performance should be immediate sounding, within a clearly defined space, and demonstrate dynamic transitions from delicate-to-macro performed effortlessly by these skilled musicians. With the Lino C 2.0, the space of the recording venue is evident, as is much of the dynamic contrast of the musical score. I observed clean, well-proportioned transients with quick string plucks that were attention-grabbing.The timbre of the instruments also sounded excellent. The performer’s control of string vibrato and command of his instrument was a delight when the trio was played back through the Lino C 2.0.

Continuing with unamplified music and going back further in time, listen to the skill of the Julliard String Quartet playing Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden.” The LP is on the RCA Living Stereo label (LSC-2378)—a gift from TAS music writer Mark Lehman. This performance has a sonically different balance, feel, and perspective than the Janaki String Trio mentioned above, as it should since literally nothing (performance, composer, recording venue, instruments, equipment, etc.) is the same. The Shubert performance is less immediate but no less involving; the perspective is a touch farther away, revealing a little more of the recording space. The delicate musical interplay from instrument to instrument comes together nearly ideal through the Lino C 2.0. Precision and control are captured beautifully along with a sense of the tension and emotion the performance evokes. In fact, each time I spun the album, I ended up playing through all three movements to sustain the enjoyment this music delivers—that is the mark of a good phonostage.

 

The Musical Heritage Society edition of Boccherini’s Cello Concerto N. 2 in D Major [MHS 4740T]—originally recorded on the Erato label, performed by the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Armin Jordan and featuring Frédéric Lodéon on cello—seemed a fitting choice to round out my selection of unamplified music. The music comes a bit earlier in the classical period, written around 1776. In this performance, the composition is for string instruments. The Lino C 2.0 does a wonderful job of displaying fundamentals while preserving the individual harmonic structure of each instrument. Boccherini has the cello playing mostly mid-to-high in its register, and the ability to follow the instrument when the violins are doubling it is, in part, due to the excellent performance of the Lino C 2.0 (along with the remainder of the analog playback components). It’s a delight to hear such a three-dimensionally cohesive presentation where one can also follow an individual string instrument in a virtual sea of string instruments. 

TAS readers may be wondering why the three pieces of music mentioned were chosen for this review. Quite simply, they are similar (unamplified classical music) but different (venue, recording, composition, artist, composer, etc.). A good phonostage (with accompanying ’table/’arm/cartridge) will parse and display the unique identity of each piece of music while helping to reveal what is special about the individual performance. Using these three pieces of music gets directly to that point mentioned above by showing that all performances of this type of music do not sound the same. Instead, the message of each performance comes across clearly and distinctly in a way that invites the listener to engage and appreciate each piece for what it is. This point could have been made with select pieces of jazz, rock, soul, R&B, folk, etc. The bottom line is that the Lino C allows such exploration within a genre of music.

For female vocals, I played Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New. The separation of Ronstadt’s vocals, the band, and the orchestra from front to back in the soundstage was unmistakable. Overall, the bass was subjectively a little fuller and cymbal strikes a bit farther back. Ronstadt’s dynamics and vibrato were clear while sibilants remained completely controlled. Ella Fitzgerald on the Pablo label’s Speak Love album provided a vocal/guitar duo that sounded clear and dynamically wonderful. Ella’s voice was powerful, as it should have been, when she goes from pianissimo-to-forte on the track “Speak Love.” How this track sounds is owed as much to the phonostage as it is to the cartridge used. Variations in cartridge and tonearm have a subtle effect on dynamics as well as the perception of timbre. These cartridge/’arm characteristics were still evident with the Lino C 2.0.

Listening to “I Tried to Leave You” from Leonard Cohen’s Live in London revealed an opening crowd chatting and laughing with excellent depth of stage. From a cartridge perspective, the Etna (SL) played this track with a bit more warmth than the Atlas (SL), which is one of the characteristic differences between these two cartridges. Through the Lino C 2.0, individual instrumental solos were portrayed very well. Vocals came across distinctly and occupied their own spaces on stage. The duo “solo” performed by the Webb sisters can sound a bit hard and rough on cartridge setups that are not given proper care and attention during installation/alignment. Concurrently, a phonostage that isn’t able to parse the two singers singing in tandem in a harmonically complete way will present the performance with a heavy dose of haze. The cartridges used with the Lino C 2.0 maintained harmonic completeness, and presented the Webb sister duo as expected, with no hint of haze, undue sibilance, or roughness. Thumbs up.

Conclusion
Overall, the Lino C 2.0 is a winner of a phonostage at its $2699 price, with features that are not usually available in this range of products (internal high-current AGM battery, current-mode input, meticulous circuit layout, surface-mount components to produce low-noise, direct-coupling, and balanced operation available from input to output). Additionally, if one has a really low-output moving-coil cartridge that is difficult to amplify via a conventional voltage-mode phonostage, the Lino C 2.0 will most likely handle that duty with ease. 

The Lino C 2.0 is worth an audition by anyone looking in its price range and above. It will most likely be a contender based on price/performance ratio alone. 

By Andre Jennings

My professional career has spanned 30+ years in electronics engineering. Some of the interesting products I’ve been involved with include Cellular Digital Packet Data modems, automotive ignition-interlock systems, military force protection/communications systems, and thrust-vector controls for space launch vehicles.

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