The Mimas’ rendering of soundstage dimensionality and immersion were exactly what I’ve come to expect from excellent analog. This was nothing like the collapsing constrictive soundstages that characterized inboard phonostages from the past. Images were reproduced with substance and transparency. Clusters of players—choirs, chamber groups, or jazz quartets, for example—were conveyed with superior separation and were also integrated easily within the auditorium environment. Orchestral layering and focus extended to near the back of the hall.
Beyond the pastoral calm and quiet this phonostage conveyed, the Mimas also had another, more assertive side to its personality. And, frankly, during the “Olympic Fanfare” from Winds of War and Peace [Wilson Audio], I was a little stunned by the resolution, fearsome bass reproduction, and transient fireworks springing from this classic piece of vinyl. Set against its noise- and grain-free silences was this phonostage’s most noteworthy feature—the ability to reproduce and resolve the widest dynamic contrasts, from the softest keyboard pianissimo to the most explosive orchestral tuttis. The track that comes to mind is the cratering darkness of Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War” [The Planets, LSO, Previn, EMI]. Through the Mimas phonostage, the full weight of brass and winds, screaming strings, and relentless percussion was brought to bear in the nightmarish soundscape of horror, loss, confusion, and grinding despair of armed conflict. Or, take Norah Jones’ quirky track “Sinkin’ Soon” [Not Too Late, Blue Note], with its pots-and-pans percussion, its burbling trombone accents, and gossamer backing vocals—low-level voicings that swing in and out at unpredictable moments and occupy oddball stage positions. Through the Mimas, the energy jumped from this playfully idiosyncratic track at all levels. While I haven’t heard every phonostage out there, it’s hard to believe that this unit left much, if any, resolution on the table.
Is the Mimas phonostage the end of the line in resolving power and musicality? A fair question. The answer is, first, no competitor I know of will embarrass it, and second, you’ll have to dig a lot deeper into the mid-four-figure phono preamp range to equal it. The Aesthetix modular phono card completes an already premium package in the integrated amplifier segment. I originally dubbed Mimas “the very definition of what I am seeking today in an integrated amplifier,” but now I’m happy to amend that characterization. Now, it’s also among the most versatile.
AESTHETIX AUDIO CORPORATION
5220 Gabbert Road, Suite A
Moorpark, CA 93021
Base Price: Mimas $7000 (add $1250 phono option)
Jim White on the Mimas Phonostage
What are the chief challenges and pitfalls of building a phono- stage into an integrated amplifier?
There are two major challenges of building a phonostage into an integrated amplifier: power supplies and magnetic fields. Power supplies become an issue because, typically, you are drawing current from supplies that perform other key functions, such as powering the main gain stage or, in extreme cases, the high-current output supplies. Mimas was designed from the ground up to have a special power supply, with its own transformer winding, that would be used for optional cards such as the phono, and be minimally used for other functions. It is a very stiff, high-current power supply. Further, we double-regulate that power supply on the phono card itself, to fully isolate it from any noise or fluctuations.
Magnetic fields are a problem because of the large power transformers that are required for power amplifiers. These fields can leak into the phono section and cause big problems. For a phono section only intended for moving-magnet cartridges (with about 40–60dB of gain), it is not a big problem. But for a phono section intended for low- and medium-output moving-coil cartridges (with 60–75dB of gain), it is a much bigger issue. We wanted this module to be something very special, so we went to great lengths to be able to easily handle medium- and low-output mc cartridges as well as mm’s. The input section uses a six-layer board, using the outer four layers almost exclusively for shielding. All of the circuitry is fully discrete, using Toshiba FETs, which we hand-match. This matching allows for greatest CMRR (common-mode rejection ratio, a measure of a circuit’s ability to reject outside sources of hum and noise). The fully discrete design allows us to optimize the PCB layout, among many other advantages. Further, the entire input section is encased in mu-metal to shield it from stray fields.
What are the limitations of an inboard phonostage?
Typically, you do not find a truly high-performance phono section in an integrated amplifier, especially a fully discrete one capable of handling low-output mc’s. They are mostly limited to lower gains (for the above-mentioned reasons) and do not offer the flexibility to interface with a wide variety of cartridges. They are often meant to provide basic phono amplification, but not performance that is competitive with stand-alone phonostages. From the outset, our design team planned for Mimas to incorporate a state-of-the-art phonostage, so many of the pitfalls were avoided upfront. Nevertheless, it proved to be massively challenging, requiring over two years of work and no fewer than five full prototypes.
How does modular design make for a better phono card?
The modular design allowed us the opportunity to fully focus on the phono module as a product of its own. We can then optimize every aspect of performance and functionality, without the time and financial constraints that would be imposed by a non-modular approach. Most importantly, a modular approach allows for future upgrades and new features to be implemented without the need for an overall product redesign.
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