The 32-year-old Canadian firm Simaudio is one of those few companies with a decades-long track record of marketing nothing but great-sounding and beautifully made products at competitive prices. Although Simaudio isn’t an entry-level brand by any stretch, I would call them a “high-value” brand, because many competitors routinely charge more for less.
The 810LP phonostage reviewed here is a case in point. The company’s flagship is its all-out assault on the state of the art in phonostages. It is designed and built with meticulous attention to detail and features lavish chassis work, yet is priced at $12,000. Yes, this is a lot of money for a phonostage, but not for a statement-level product with the sound quality I’m about to describe.
The 810LP is housed in a solid chassis that is built entirely in Simaudio’s factory. Simaudio is one of the few electronics companies with in-house CNC machining. It took this step to improve quality and reliability, provide customization options, and shorten lead times. Simaudio’s Web site offers a photographic factory tour showing metal parts being fabricated. The 810LP’s silver front panel (black is also available) is quite plain, with just a power button and a blue LED power indicator. Rounded aluminum “cheeks”—key elements in Simaudio’s visual design— flank the front panel’s left and right sides. The rear panel houses one stereo pair each of balanced inputs (XLR) and unbalanced inputs (RCA), along with balanced and unbalanced outputs.
The 810LP offers extensive adjustments for gain and loading via bottom-panel DIP switches. This location isn’t convenient for making changes on the fly, but was chosen to keep the signal path as short as possible (the switches are located in-line with the circuit). Gain is adjustable in 16 increments from 40dB to 70dB. A second bank of switches allows you to set the capacitive loading from no capacitance to 1120 picofarads (pf) in 16 steps. A third bank sets the resistance from 12.1 ohms to 47k ohms in 64 increments. Because the 810LP is a true dual-mono design, each bank of DIP switches (gain, resistance, capacitance) is duplicated for the left and right channels. Finally, another pair of switches selects between RIAA and IEC equalization. The bottom panel with its vast array of switches looks intimidating, but the outstanding owner’s manual makes everything clear.
Simaudio has pulled out all the stops for the 810LP, incorporating the best design techniques developed over its 32- year history. The power supply, a particularly crucial part of a phonostage, is a good example. The 810LP’s supply is housed in a sealed, 14-gauge-steel subchassis that consumes about 40% of the interior real estate. The DC voltages from this supply are then re-regulated on the audio board with multiple cascaded regulation stages of Simaudio’s proprietary design. Each regulation stage, located near the audio circuit it supplies, is built from a combination of ICs and discrete components, along with a large inductor. The result is ultra-pure DC that is isolated from the AC supply as well as from noise or contamination from the audio circuits. Simaudio calls this circuit i2DCf (Independent Inductive DC Filtering). The 801LP uses a whopping 24 of these sophisticated regulation stages. Simaudio claims that the 810LP’s DC supplies are as quiet and well regulated as the DC from a battery. Indeed, the noise floor of the DC supply is -150dB below 1V from DC to 100kHz. This is an astounding specification— and unprecedented in my experience in any product.
The audio circuit is a dual-mono fully balanced differential design. The transistors in the differential pairs are hand-matched, and the layout features very short signal paths. The four-layer audio board is mounted on a five-point, floating gel-suspension to isolate the audio circuits from vibration. Simaudio calls this suspension M-Octave Damping. To avoid compromising the isolation by connecting the floating board to the rear-panel, a dual- layer rear-panel is employed in which the outer layer is mounted to the chassis and the inner layer is connected to the audio circuit board. The two layers don’t come in physical contact with each other. To further isolate the circuits from structural vibration, the chassis sits on Simaudio’s custom isolation cones at each corner of the chassis. This attention to vibration isolation is even more crucial in a phonostage because of the very low-level signals the circuit is amplifying. Even tiny vibrations can contaminate the audio signal through microphonic effect, primarily of capacitors and inductors. That is, vibration is turned by these devices into tiny electrical signals that pollute the miniscule audio signal from the phono cartridge. Keep in mind that, as a phonostage amplifies a signal by as much as 70dB, any introduced noise is also amplified by 70dB.
I’ve been listening to the 810LP for several months with associated components of reference quality. The 810LP is completely at home in the context of the Basis Inspiration turntable and Air Tight PC-1 Supreme at the front end, and Constellation Centaur monoblocks, Lamm ML2.2 SETs, and Rowland 725s driving Magico Q7 loudspeakers through top- of-the-line MIT interconnects and cables. That, alone, says much about this phonostage’s fundamental quality. Moreover, my listening impressions of the Magico Q7, described in the previous issue, were formed with the 810LP in the system.
The 810LP is astonishingly quiet, even at the upper end of its gain range (I used 68dB of gain). The lack of background noise was instrumental in the 810LP’s ability to make instruments seem to hang in space completely independently of the loudspeakers and surrounded by the recorded acoustic. This quality is related to the 810’s outstanding resolution of low-level detail, such as spatial cues, that would be otherwise masked by a phonostage that didn’t have as quiet a background. I could hear deep into an instrument’s decay, giving the presentation a highly nuanced, filigreed quality. Joe Morello’s ride cymbal, for example, on Analogue Productions’ new 45rpm reissue of Dave Brubeck’s classic Time Out was startling in its immediacy and delicacy, and in its resolution down to the lowest levels of shimmer. Very fine details of timbre, space, and micro-transient information were vividly portrayed, but with a complete ease and naturalness. It’s difficult to overstate the value of these qualities to the listening experience. When playing LPs with super-quiet surfaces (everything that has been coming out of Quality Record Pressings) at high levels, the 810LP’s low noise floor produced near-digital quiet between tracks.
In addition, the completely silent background seemed to present a colorless canvas on which the music was portrayed. The lack of an omnipresent whitish “rush” set the stage for a stunning sense of transparency to the source. The 810LP simply disappeared from the signal path more than any other phonostage I’ve heard in my system—it imposes so little of itself tonally, spatially, and dynamically. If the recording is rich in tone color, warm, and full, the 810LP sounds rich, warm, and full. If the LP contains lots of fast transient detail, the 810LP conveys that quality with aplomb. The Simaudio has no discernable sonic signature that it imposes over all recordings.
When listening to a variety of power amplifiers and preamplifiers with the 810LP as the source, I heard significant differences between each amplifier’s tonal balance, dynamic speed, and spatial presentation. The 801LP allowed each amplifier’s unique signature to emerge without imposing a marked signature of its own.
The 810LP has an extremely extended, open, and detailed top end that contributes to a sense of spaciousness and air. The top end (and midrange, for that matter) is pristine, with a crystalline- like clarity. The lack of grain and glare produces absolutely gorgeous string sound—liquid, full-bodied, and rich, yet at the same time highly resolved.
As noted previously, I was particularly taken by the 810LP’s reproduction of cymbals. The resolution of fine detail against a silent backdrop, the openness and extension, the air surrounding images, and the lack of synthetic artifacts all combined to render cymbals with a stunning naturalness.
The midband was equally impressive. The impression of the phonostage getting out of the way was remarkable, allowing me to hear through the system back to the recording chain. The 810LP maintained super-delineation of separate instruments and voices, never congealing the soundstage even during the most complex passages. I heard nuances of orchestration in Holst’s The Planets (Mehta, Speakers Corner reissue) that completely captivated me. There’s a track on Jennifer Warne’s The Hunter (“Somewhere, Somebody”) in which she’s accompanied by a male voice almost in a dual-lead, with both voices positioned exactly in the center of the soundstage. The 810LP does an amazing job of creating the impression of two separate sound sources.
Put on a record like the 45rpm reissue of Muddy Waters Folk Singer to hear the 810’s phenomenal sense of space and depth. The snare drum lights up the acoustic and defines the space. Or listen to just how far back in the soundstage the tambourine is in “Jupiter” from The Planets. This LP has tremendous dimensionality that the 810LP reveals in all its glory.
The 810LP’s bass tends to be tight and defined rather than big and bloomy, a character that conveys the tonal and dynamic shadings of great acoustic bass playing. The bass has a dynamic agility and “speed” that reveals more of the attack and decay of plucked doublebass and, with that quality, greater swing and rhythmic expression.
It’s not my intention to fuel the tired analog-vs.-digital debate, but when it comes to pure naturalness of timbre, or the recreation of the acoustic in which the music was performed, or the ease with which detail is presented, LP playback unquestionably trumps CD. I was late in discovering the fabulous 1983 recording 88 Basie Street by Count Basie, recorded by the great engineer Alan Sides. I knew the album from the XRCD version, and I judged it easily one of the best-sounding CDs in my library without having heard the LP in my system. A friend knew someone with duplicate LP copies, and arranged for him to send me a used original 1983 Pablo pressing. Played on the Basis Inspiration ’table, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge, Stillpoints rack, and Simaudio 810LP phonostage, 88 Basie Street came to life in a way that this premium CD never did. The timbres of the brass and woodwinds was more natural and organic, the sense of space around each instrument became tangible, Basie’s piano had more warmth, the soundstage became three-dimensional by contrast, and the impression of contemporaneous music-making suddenly became vivid. All from a 29-year-old, used, standard-pressing LP.
The Simaudio 810LP is technically impressive, particularly its heroic power-supply design and vibration-isolation measures. It’s also solidly built, and offers such a wide array of gain and loading options that make optimizing its performance for any cartridge a snap. Purely on paper, this is a lot of phonostage.
The 810LP’s sound quality is world-class by any measure. It combines a dead-quiet background, a pristine clarity of timbre, outstanding dynamics, and an expansive and well-defined soundstage. Even under the microscope of the Magico Q7 loudspeaker, the Simaudio 810LP impressed not just with its audiophile attributes, but more importantly with how musically compelling it made LP listening. Since receiving the review sample an increasing amount of my listening time has been to analog, and I’ve been buying more LPs than ever before. Moreover, I have no itch to say “yes” to review offers of mega- priced phonostages. The 810LP is that good.
I know I’ll get letters objecting to my calling a $12,000 phonostage a bargain, but how else can you describe a flexible, beautifully built, statement-grade product with this level of sound quality—and from a venerable company with a 32-year track record?
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Solid-state phonostage preamplifier
Gain: 40dB–70dB in 16 settings
Inputs: One pair single-ended (RCA), one pair balanced (XLR)
Outputs: One pair single-ended (RCA), one pair balanced (XLR)
Cartridge loading: 16 settings from 0pf to 1120pf (capacitance); 64 settings from 12.1 ohms to 47k ohm (impedance)
Signal-to-noise ratio: 115dBr (full-scale at 40dB gain); 95dBr (full-scale at 70dB gain)
RIAA accuracy: +/- 0.1dB, 20Hz–20kHz
Power consumption: 10W
Weight: 40 lbs.
Dimensions: 18.75″ x 16.81″ x 4″
Digital Sources: dCS Vivaldi system (transport, upsampler, clock, DAC); Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2; iMac server with Berkeley Alpha USB interface
Analog Source: Basis Inspiration turntable with Basis Vector 4 tonearm, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge
Preamplifiers: Rowland Corus, Constellation Perseus
Power Amplifiers: Jeff Rowland Design Group 725, Lamm ML2.2, Constellation Centaur monoblocks
AC Conditioning and Cords: Shunyata Triton and Talos, Audience aR6TS conditioners; Shunyata Zitron Anaconda and Audience Au24 AC cords
Cables: Shunyata Anaconda interconnects and loudspeaker cables; MIT MAX2 and MA-C interconnects, MIT MA-X SHD loudspeaker cables; AudioQuest WEL Signature interconnects, Transparent XL Reference interconnects; AudioQuest Diamond USB digital cable
Equipment Racks: Stillpoints
Isolation: Stillpoints Ultra SS and Ultra5
Acoustics: ASC 16″ Full-Round Tube Traps, 10″ Tower Traps
Accessories: VPI 16.5 record-cleaning machine; Mobile Fidelity record brush, cleaning fluid, stylus cleaner
By Robert Harley
My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.More articles from this editor