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Lehmann Audio Decade Phonostage

Lehmann Audio Decade Phonostage

Lehmannaudio of Germany scored big time when it introduced the Black Cube phonostage back in 1995. It was priced to move, and loyal, vinyl-spinning audiophiles were thrilled by its performance. It wasn’t exactly eye candy, but many were charmed by its stealthy, plain Jane appearance. Years later, ten to be precise, Lehmann debuted the Decade phonostage in celebration of the original Black Cube. Still in production, nearly a decade later it gathers the sonic virtues that made the Black Cube a hit and tosses in a bucket full of premium tweaks and parts that are only surpassed in the Lehmann lineup by the Silver Cube, its $4500 flagship and relative sexpot.

The Decade is a dual-mono design with a zero-global-feedback, high-current, Class A output stage. It’s also a dual-chassis unit. The narrow-width aluminum enclosures are of identical dimensions and serve to isolate the delicate audio circuitry and RIAA sections of one from the separate PWX II power supply of the other. The dual configuration also allows an owner to place the audio circuitry as close to the turntable as possible, using shorter interconnects, a good way to stave off potential signal loss. The interior layout is immaculate; the signal paths short; the right and left channels are virtual mirrors of each other. The Decade uses a passive RIAA equalization network between two linear gain stages that is realized using low-loss, precision, MKP capacitors.

The front panel of the phono section has three toggles that control internal high-quality relays. One is for selecting moving-coil or moving-magnet cartridges, the second for adjusting between normal and high gain. The third toggle represents a bass filter with a gentle 6dB-per-octave roll-off at 50Hz. Missing, however, is a mono toggle, which is meaningful for vintage LP collectors or, more recently, owners of the sonically dazzling The Beatles in Mono box set (like me). The robust PWX II power supply is equipped with a 28VA toroidal transformer, custom-made for Lehmannaudio. It uses inductive elements at critical junctures to provide the Decade with very-low-noise DC voltages. A four-pin Neutrik XLR connector acts as an umbilical between the phonostage and the PWX II. Since the power supply is also equipped with dual outputs, the PWX II can handle a second phonostage and is downward-compatible in the Lehmann line, thus permitting Black Cube owners a substantial sonic upgrade.

The Decade is highly configurable and should make the vast majority of cartridges feel welcome. At up to 66dB of gain (36 and 46dB in moving-magnet mode, 56dB and 66dB in moving-coil mode), even very-low-output moving coils should be happy. Capacitance is selectable between 47pF and 1347pF, and input impedance among 47k ohms, 1k ohm, and 100 ohms. Plus, there is also an open resistor-slot for custom-tuning the impedance for more exotic cartridges.

For the record (yes, pun intended), my current LP playback system is composed of the Sota Cosmos Series IV vacuum turntable, an SME Series V tonearm with Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation moving-coil cartridge (0.5mV), Audience Au24SE tonearm interconnect, and Parasound JC 3+ phonostage. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that much of this evaluation was spent listening through one of the most transparent small-room speaker systems I’ve experienced—the Kharma Elegance S7 Signature loudspeakers, augmented at times with dual REL S5 subwoofers (reviews to come).

Although my encounter with the original Black Cube extends back a few years, the positive impression it left is still fresh in my mind. That experience created some high expectations as I approached the Decade. However, even as the stylus hit the first groove it was obvious Lehmann had done its homework in terms of producing a very low noise floor. The central sonic theme that defines the Decade is its sense of balance and musicality. Crucially, it didn’t disturb or upend the signature of my reference playback system a wit. It moved in like a cherished member of the family, effortlessly navigating the full range of the musical spectrum. The Decade exhibits a basically neutral tonal balance with some intimations of a cooler personality. Due to its clean, quick transient behavior and treble ease it doesn’t turn brittle; nor does it harden or chafe as the frequencies go up. The Decade is highly articulate and has the ability to place images just so. A good illustration would be Ricki Lee Jones’ “I’ll Be Seeing You,” as naturalistic and airy a pop recording as I’ve experienced. Relatively dry in processing and reverb, this track is just Ricki’s expressive vocal, a nylon-string acoustic guitar, a clarinet, and a doublebass. The Decade captured the whole shooting match. It offered a virtual geography lesson for image placement while rendering textural delicacies like the sense of the flesh of the player’s fingertips dancing off the guitar strings, the rush of air emerging from the clarinet, the woody resonances generated by the face of the bass-viol, which is bowed at one point and performed pizzicato further along. When Ricki Lee is about to hit and hold the final note, sung very softly, I held my breath in anticipation. It represented to me the art of analog in a single, breathy, extended, glorious moment.

 

From the opening bar of the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony soundstage dimensions were expansive with well-defined orchestral layering, rivaling the best I’ve experienced from this superb recording of the Solti-led Chicago at its height. Especially stirring were the tone and transparency of Ludwig Van’s familiar tympani strikes, and the illusion of echo that occurs as the instruments are struck progressively more softly. When I reached the opening moments of the “Ode to Joy” section I appreciated the delicate volume gradations reproduced during the noble thematic interplay of doublebass and cello. The soloists in the chorus were cleanly defined on a broad soundstage, but in a slightly drier-than-usual setting (this slight added dryness also characterized the string sections). Later on, the answering bass drum and cymbals emerged from the back of the hall as transparently as I’ve heard them. The drum strokes were tight, but I ultimately thought that their decays were less than fully revealed as they trailed off into ambient space.

Low-level resolution was for the most part very, very good. Vaughan Williams’ Variations on Greensleeves features a flute theme that was reproduced with openness and a hint of added sparkle and air—arguably too cool in timbre for some tastes but very clear and present. It was also easy to follow the individual note lines in the flute’s delicate interplay with a concert harp—a duet where the images could easily have smeared together.

In macro and micro dynamics, only the mostly widely dynamic LPs like Reference Recordings’ A Sussex Overture suggested that the Decade might have any limits. Now a vinyl rarity, this collection of Malcolm Arnold’s colorful pieces and kitchen-sink histrionics remains a tour-de-force production even by the lofty standards of engineering legend Keith O. Johnson. The audience perspective is close-up, and the soundstage is a hyper-wide creation with “visibility” to the back wall of the auditorium. The Decade depicted all the color and clarity that my system could summon up during the kitschy “Christmas Commonwealth” track. The opening fanfare is awash with triumphal brass-section blasts, xylophone accents, and the occasional tam-tam splash (to make sure no one’s caught napping). But the real surprise comes later during a sequence of Caribbean-laced themes (a guitar lead, marimba, maracas, you get the idea) that sound as if Sir Malcom took a wrong turn and ended up in Margaritaville channeling his inner Jimmy Buffett. Wacky yes, but so transparent and detailed that you’ll be glued to your seat.

How does the Decade stack up against my current reference, the Parasound JC 3+? Very well, indeed, but not because they’re identical. The distinctions are subtle but for a moment think of the Lehmann and the Parasound as you would if you were comparing a pair of pianos. Let’s assume these are equally fine instruments. They play the same exact notes over the same octave ranges. However the Lehmann “piano” is a slightly shorter length; its tonality has a slightly lighter, up-tempo signature. Very responsive on top with an edge on intensity compared to the slightly bigger “soundboard” of the JC 3+, which manifests a darker lower range. Both are valid presentations, just tilting very slightly in opposite directions—the Lehmann shaping and sharpening its focus on top, the Parasound tightening its grip on the bottom. The former opting for more perceived detail, the latter, greater spatiality.

The Lehmannaudio Decade brings its “A” game to the analog LP listening experience. It does so without fanfare or the “watch this” level of fireworks that works wonders on a first date but the next morning makes you ask, “What was I thinking?”

The last word in phonostages? Not quite. However I am confident that few will find the Decade to be less than excellent when compared with anything else at anywhere near its price. Just like the Black Cube of so many years ago the Decade reminded me all over again of just how musically rewarding it is to be a devotee of vinyl playback. Without reservation, a fine component.

SPECS & PRICING

Gain: 36dB, 46dB, 56dB, 66dB
Channel separation: > 80dB at 10kHz
Dimensions: 4.3″ x 11″ x 2″ (same for PWXII power supply)
Weight: 2 lbs. (3.5 lbs. for PWXII)
Price: $2099


ORTOFON INC. (U.S. Distributor)
500 Executive Blvd Ste., 102
Ossining, NY 15062
(914) 762-8646
ortofon.us
lehmannaudio.com

By Neil Gader

My love of music largely predates my enthusiasm for audio. I grew up Los Angeles in a house where music was constantly playing on the stereo (Altecs, if you’re interested). It ranged from my mom listening to hit Broadway musicals to my sister’s early Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Beatles, and Stones LPs, and dad’s constant companions, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. With the British Invasion, I immediately picked up a guitar and took piano lessons and have been playing ever since. Following graduation from UCLA I became a writing member of the Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theater Workshops in New York–working in advertising to pay the bills. I’ve co-written bunches of songs, some published, some recorded. In 1995 I co-produced an award-winning short fiction movie that did well on the international film-festival circuit. I was introduced to Harry Pearson in the early 70s by a mutual friend. At that time Harry was still working full-time for Long Island’s Newsday even as he was writing Issue 1 of TAS during his off hours. We struck up a decades-long friendship that ultimately turned into a writing gig that has proved both stimulating and rewarding. In terms of music reproduction, I find myself listening more than ever for the “little” things. Low-level resolving power, dynamic gradients, shadings, timbral color and contrasts. Listening to a lot of vocals and solo piano has always helped me recalibrate and nail down what I’m hearing. Tonal neutrality and presence are important to me but small deviations are not disqualifying. But I am quite sensitive to treble over-reach, and find dry, hyper-detailed systems intriguing but inauthentic compared with the concert-going experience. For me, true musicality conveys the cozy warmth of a room with a fireplace not the icy cold of an igloo. Currently I split my time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Studio City, California with my wife Judi Dickerson, an acting, voice, and dialect coach, along with border collies Ivy and Alfie.

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