The Aesthetix Mimas is one of the finest integrated amps on the market today. It’s an absurdly good value, to boot, and one of my recent Golden Ear Award recipients. At the time of the original review’s publication, however, the development of an optional, inboard, modular phono card was still ongoing. Knowing I am an avid analog guy, Aesthetix’s Jim White pledged that as soon as the $1250 phono card was in production he’d slip it into the assigned open bay on the back panel of my Mimas review sample, and I’d get a listen. True to his word, the installation was completed a few months ago.
Analog LP playback has been a specialty of Aesthetix from its earliest days. The company knows the territory like few others, as owners of its widely respected dual-chassis Io tube phonostage will attest. By contrast, inboard phonostages have a checkered history. Typically built to a modest price point, they rarely enjoyed or deserved the kind of deference vinyl enthusiasts lavished on stand-alone models. Further, as analog faded to a “legacy” format with the rise of digital audio, most inboard phonostages—often noisy and hum-prone—got bundled into budget AVRs or amps as promotional afterthoughts. The resurgence of analog playback changed that equation, and performance expectations have risen commensurately.
Remarkably, given the small proportions of this phono card, its feature-set still approximates many formidable stand-alone phono preamps. It sports both mm and mc capability with adjustable gain and loading. In addition, a dual set of individually adjustable inputs gives die-hard analog enthusiasts the option of preserving gain/load settings for two cartridges or, as the turntable budget allows, of supporting dual tonearms. Its fully discrete, FET-based, high-gain differential circuit utilizes Wima film capacitors for RIAA compensation.
Installation of the phono card (a dealer is recommended) instantly activates phono/cartridge configuration software that’s driven from the Mimas’ front panel or remote control. Setup is as easy as selecting the “TT” input and following the menu prompts—no dealing with those annoying back-panel DIP switches. For evaluation, my cartridge selection included three designs of varying output voltage—a Clearaudio Charisma V2 (mm, 3.6mV), a Sumiko Palo Santos Celebration (mc, 0.5mV), and an over-performer of a budget cartridge, the new Grado Opus3 (mi, 1mV). My longstanding LP rig is an SME V tonearm mounted on a Sota Cosmos Eclipse turntable.
The truth is that phono- stages—be they onboard or outboard—live or die based on delivering the lowest possible noise. The noise issue is particularly acute with lower-output cartridges, which require greater phonostage gain to boost their miniscule voltages. The challenge for phonostage designers is that the higher the gain, the greater the potential for added background hum and hash. There are no free rides.
That said, for current Mimas owners who’ve been pining for the full-on, ultra-low-noise vinyl experience, the wait is over. Sonically, the Mimas phonostage’s character dovetailed with the sonic signature of the Mimas amp, with gentle hints of midrange warmth and rosy, extended sweetness in the treble. The waft of harmonic air and treble extension that vinyl aficionados crave was realized in abundance, as was a sense of the tactile and the intimate—peculiarities of LP playback—that seem to enhance female vocalists, such as the timeless Jennifer Warnes singing Eddie Vedder’s “Just Breathe” [Another Time, Another Place, BMG]. Even at the highest gain setting with the lowest-output mc in my collections (the Palo Santos), the Mimas phonostage was astonishingly quiet—comparable to outboard standouts like the Pass Labs XP-17 and Parasound JC 3+ phonostages that I had on hand.
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