Schiit Audio Mani
The Mani is one of the most cost-effective phono preamps on the market. It has four gain settings and two loading options via DIP switches on the bottom and works equally well with both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges. The Mani delivers wonderful soundstage depth while keeping the noise floor to a minimum. It handles even complex music with grace and toe-tapping fun.
MoFi Electronics StudioPhono
Renowned recording and remastering experts Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs have taken the plunge into manufacturing analog hardware: two turntables and two companion phonostages, including the $349 StudioPhono. Tim de Paravicini lent a hand with designing the internal circuitry. Features include adjustable gain and loading for mm and mc cartridges, a mono setting, and a subsonic filter. Clean and compact, it complements ‘tables sonically and visually.
Audio by Van Alstine Vision Q
This little marvel’s compact size and low cost are made possible using operational amplifiers. Frank van Alstine’s vision was to select the best-sounding modern ICs and he eventually settled on the highly regarded Burr-Brown OPA627 op-amps. The circuit features a flexible mc-cartridge loading scheme. Expect plenty of low-level detail, a strong bass range, and superior dynamic contrasts. Transient speed and control can only be described as excellent. Tonal colors are somewhat muted through the upper midrange, suggesting that the Vision Q should ideally be matched with a romantic-sounding tube preamp.
Tritschler Precision Audio Devices was formed in 2003 to commercialize Dr. Joe Tritschler’s tube phonostage, using Erno Borbely’s circuit. It is currently being sold direct, which partly accounts for its astoundingly affordable asking price; another factor is its circuit simplicity. In many respects, the TPAD 1000 isn’t far behind much more expensive phonostages—a solid Class B performer, with a well-integrated presentation top to bottom, excellent power range, good bass, and sparkling highs. “I don’t know what more you could ask at this price point,” said reviewer Dick Olsher.
For anyone trying to assemble a high-performance phono system on a reasonable budget (under $5k), the PHO-500 could be the ideal choice, since it delivers a high-quality, low-noise signal that can easily be mated with a wide variety of high-performance front ends. You also get the added benefit of a device that allows you to record your most treasured LPs at 96/24 resolution. With its external outboard power supply, the Vincent PHO-500 ranks as the quietest phono preamplifier SS has reviewed, regardless of price.
Channel Islands Audio PEQ-1 MKII
The PEQ-1 MKII may be small, but its robust, dual-mono, symmetric circuits are populated with first-rate components, and it offers versatile mm and mc loading options. From the deepest bass up through the midbass it delivers authentic weight, power, and impact. Its midrange is brimming with detail and texture, though ever so slightly recessed. And its treble is extended, transparent, and resolved, with a huge dollop of air and shimmer. The optional AC-15 MKII upgrade power supply ($299) brings shocking improvements making this “option” a no-brainer at purchase, or as the logical add-on after.
iFi iPhono 3 Black Label
The iFi iPhono 3 is a long, relatively thin, compact rectangle, with small dipswitches on the bottom. The input connections are at one end, and the outputs are at the other. It’s as unassuming as a phonostage can be, but that simplicity hides a surprising flexibility. The iPhono features loading options from 22 ohms on up to 47k ohms, with six stops between, and either 36, 48, 60, or 72dB of gain. Its low end is hefty, mids are smooth, and upper registers really sparkle. The dynamics are extra tight and shimmery, likely due to the iPhono’s very low background noise. Highly recommended.
Aural Thrills Serenade
The Serenade is an all-tube phonostage with sufficient gain and signal-to-noise ratio to accommodate a moving-coil cartridge. This shouldn’t be possible at this price point, but leave it to Aural Thrills’ Tom Kenny to pull off the impossible. The Serenade’s signature sound could be summed up in two words: transparency and clarity. Every recess of the soundstage is well lit up within an expansive spatial presentation.
Parasound Halo JC 3 Jr.
What happens when Parasound once again taps John Curl and his partner, circuit board designer Carl Thompson, to make lightning strike twice at a cost that’s half as much as the great JC 3+? The JC 3 Jr. is what happens. But there has been no scrimping on features and configurability. Junior conveys a warm ambient flavor, an openness rather than a constriction within the hall. Wind and string transients are smooth and naturalistic. A phono preamp that will stand the test of time.
Norwegian-based Hegel’s first phonostage is a winner. The sound is remarkably detailed, open, and full-bodied. Plenty of mm and mc cartridge loading and gain settings are offered. The V10 is highly musical and “audiophile competent,” to a degree that makes it an obvious audition choice for anyone seeking a phonostage close to the $1500–$2000 range—and possibility higher.
Musical Surroundings Nova III
This latest generation of the Nova retains the virtues of the earlier iterations while improving the sonics. Those virtues include an unusually wide variety of loading options for moving-coil pickups and capacitance for moving magnets, great neutrality, and low noise. The latest model has greater dynamic punch, kick, and drive, as well as slightly more “extroverted” personality. After using battery power in the previous version, designer Michael Yee has returned to a conventional AC power supply, this a wall-wart. An optional Linear Power Supply ($650) improves performance.
The Chord Huei is a compact black rectangle, with four glowing lights bumped up along the front that control loading options. The Huei includes gain steps from 49dB up to 70dB with six total stops in between for the mc section, and 21dB to 42dB with six stops for the mm section. Loading allows for 100 ohms up to 3700 ohms for mc, and 47k ohms for mm. Sonically, the low end is solid and the mids very smooth; the overall presentation is on the warm end of the spectrum.
Gold Note PH-10
$1999 (PSU-10, $1199)
The solid-state PH-10 (and matching optional PSU-10 power supply) is a half-width component, which makes for easy and flexible placement in or on top of a cabinet or rack. Fit and finish are excellent. All functions (EQ curves, impedance loading, gain) can be adjusted and confirmed via a front-panel TFT display on-the-fly, while playing music. Its overall presentation is transparent and neutral (with a slightly warm tone and a weighty midrange). Some phonostages pursue “absolute technical objectivity” as their goal. The PH-10 is all about the music. If you’re a “truth-seeker,” there are other products to choose from, but if you’re a “pleasure-seeker,” then the PH-10 is for you.
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