Audiophiles who are into LP playback are living in interesting times. Never before have they had so many options for turntables, cartridges, phono preamplifiers, and accessories. Granted, some analog product options are priced so that only a few will ever own (or hear) them, but many more are created with an eye toward ubiquity. And like most product categories, both the highest priced and the least expensive get the most press, while the mid-priced offerings, which often deliver the best value for a given product category, are often overlooked.
As a fellow who has benefited from the pleasures of high-value audio products for many years, I habitually look for that kind of component to review. Fortunately, there are audio firms like Vincent Audio, many of whose offerings are aimed directly at the middle of the audio market. Founded in 1995, Vincent Audio is based in Germany, but its production facilities are in China. I remember seeing Vincent’s first two audio products unveiled in a small display at a CEDIA show. I was immediately impressed by the build-quality, retro looks, and internal design.
Fast-forward to 2020. Vincent now has five separate lines of products—the PremiumLine, the SolidLine, the TubeLine, the PowerLine, and the CableLine. Vincent’s most populated line is its PowerLine, which has 13 different products covering a wide variety of component categories, including three phono preamplifiers—the PHO-200, PHO-300, and PHO-500. This review will look at the $699 PHO-500, which is the most fully featured phono preamplifier in Vincent’s PowerLine. The PHO-500 has more features compared with the PHO 8, which was reviewed by Neil Gader in Issue 211. While its specifications are similar, the PHO-500 adds a USB output option that makes it possible to digitally record any LP you play through the PHO-500.
A phono preamplifier has two functions it must perform simultaneously—equalize the raw signal from the phono cartridge with the RIAA curve to realize flat response, and boost the output of the phono cartridge to line level. Sounds simple, right? But even minor variations in a phono preamp’s RIAA curve can be audible, and when you boost a signal from a moving-coil cartridge 60dB+ you are also boosting the intrinsic noise 60dB+. That high amount of gain makes the circuit more sensitive to outside noise due to the boost. So, it’s not easy to design a high-performance phono preamplifier. And designing a phono preamplifier for a particular price point increases the level of difficulty.
Unlike a DAC, where the sources for the important parts are often included in a manufacturer’s specifications, few phono preamplifier manufacturers offer detailed circuit diagrams or parts lists. I requested some additional technical information from Vincent to delve deeper into some of the details not found on its website. The first stage of the PHO-500 employs a low-noise OPA37 op-amp, which amplifies a moving-magnet signal five times and a moving coil a maximum of 47 times. The second stage is an active RIAA circuit built around a OPA134 op-amp. All the gain devices inside the PHO-500 are low-noise op-amps.
Setup and Ergonomics
Setting up the PHO-500 was straightforward with no objectionable quirks. The first step is to determine if your cartridge is moving magnet or moving coil, and then set the gain switch on the front of the PHO-500’s primary unit accordingly. Then, you can adjust the cartridge loading via a set of dip switches on the bottom of the PHO-500. For moving-coil cartridges, you have a range of 99 ohms to 1000 ohms impedance with fifteen choices. For moving magnets, you have the options of 15pf, 115pf, 235pf, and 350pf. The final step in the setup is connecting the ground wire from the turntable to the PHO-500.
I used the Vincent 500 in two turntable setups. The first was a VPI HW-19 with original, but re-wired Souther linear-tracking tonearm and Denon 103 Van den Hul custom cartridge. The second was a VPI TNT III with Graham 1.5 tonearm mounted with a Clearaudio Victory cartridge. My current reference phono preamplifiers are the Mytek Manhattan’s internal phono board and a Michael Yee PFE-1. All preamplifiers are configured with a 100-ohm cartridge resistance. (I don’t have any moving-magnet cartridges, so I can’t comment on the PHO-500’s moving-magnet performance.)
Since the power supply for the PHO-500 is on a separate chassis, I was able to move the PS far enough away from all the other components in the signal chain that I heard no low-level hum which I could attribute to the power supply. (Bear in mind that I could generate some hum by placing the power supply in “vulnerable” areas close to high-gain components. The only “tweaky” part of the PHO-500 setup, besides cart impedance, is where you place the power supply. Farther is better.)
Now let’s look at the PHO-500’s USB. Its 96/24 output is intended to go to a computer with recording capabilities. You could, in theory, digitally record every LP you play via the PHO-500. Very few people do that. Why? Because of time…it will take you at least one hour per LP to record and then input track information. So, my advice is to be very selective as to how many LPs you intend to digitize or, like many who enter into similar projects with the best intentions, you will not succeed.
I hooked up the PHO-500 to my MacBook Pro via Vincent’s supplied USB cable and opened Audacity, which is a free, but decently featured recording app. Audacity found the “Vincent” USB input, which I selected from the pull-down menus. I then proceeded to record a track at 96/24. After recording, Audacity prompted me for some basic track info before saving. I played it back via an AudioQuest DragonFly Red into a Sonoma M-1 electrostatic headphone system. The results were excellent. Yes, I could hear a bit of background vinyl “swish” when listening via headphones, but otherwise audible noise was negligible. For those special LPs in your library that you want to add to your digital library, this USB output combined with Audacity will accomplish the task with ease.
When you turn up the volume on your phono input, what do you hear? If no record is playing, ideally you should hear silence. That’s where all those deep velvety black backgrounds come from—silence. But a phono input is rarely silent. If you turn up the volume sufficiently, you will hear noise. It could be hum, or it could be something else, such as buzz or even a whine. The reason for this is simple: Every signal has noise, and the only signal that has absolutely no noise is a dead short. With the best digital gear, you typically get over 100dB SNR (some of the latest gen DACs can deliver 120dB). The Vincent PHO-500’s specifications indicate that it has approximately 70dB SNR via its mc settings. As with most phono preamplifiers, the most pernicious potential noise from the PHO-500 was at 60 and 120 cycles from AC. Fortunately, the PHO-500 proved to be quiet enough that I had to turn the analog volume control on the Manhattan II to 20 or less (the Manhattan volume control numbers are the reverse of most preamplifiers in that smaller numbers are a higher volume level—100 is mute and 0 is full output). At 25 or higher I could hear nothing, even when my ear was touching the ribbon tweeter of my Spatial X-2 or buried in my JL Fathom f112’s woofer.
Measurements I’ve seen for the discontinued PHO-8 display a slight bass hump centered around 150Hz and a subtle upper-frequency rise that begins around 2kHz, peaking at 20kHz. I found the PHO-500 had a similar harmonic character. While I did not hear anything that I could attribute to the rising top end, I did notice a bit of extra weight and warmth that was certainly not objectionable and that could actually make many recordings sound a wee bit warmer and friendlier. As I’m writing this, I’ve got Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” playing on the VPI HW-19. Kenny Baker’s fiddle has a lovely euphonic sweetness on “Poor White Folks,” aided, no doubt, by the PHO-500’s frequency response. As with most of the LPs I played through the PHO-500, when I was listening to “Uncle Pen” the Manhattan’s volume settings were usually between 25 and 30, which means that black background we crave was very much in existence.
I will readily admit that the majority of my regular listening time is to digital sources, either online streaming or from my NAS. Perhaps because of this, when I do listen to LPs, I often find it to be a more relaxing experience. Recently a friend gave me a picture disc version of the Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go. Played on the VPI HW-19/Denon 103 VDH, the LP was “softer” than the digital experience—the harmonic balance was also slightly warmer with detail and image specificity reduced compared to the Tidal MQA version of the track. I noticed that this particular phono/turntable/preamp combo did not generate the same low-frequency sympathetic resonances in the next room that the digital file does during “Xanny” (a superb track for seeing what in your room will resonate due to its generous supply of low-frequency energy). While the LP rendition was easy to listen to, it wasn’t nearly as well resolved in terms of low-level information, dynamic power, or image specificity as the hi-res digital version.
For comparison I switched to the Mytek Manhattan’s internal phono card. I immediately noticed that the Manhattan’s phono card wasn’t quite as quiet as the PHO-500. I could only turn the volume up to 27 before hum was noticeable. So, the PHO-500 ranks as a quieter phono preamplifier than the Manhattan’s internal phono card! Listening to the Eilish record through Manhattan’s card I noticed slightly better image specificity, but a less dynamic low-frequency response. On “Xanny,” none of the usual spots in my adjacent room resonated in sympathy. Switching to the PHO-500 instead of the Manhattan internal phono pre with the VPI HW-19/ Denon VDH combo, I noticed that image specificity remained unchanged, but there was a bit of additional low end, and I could play slightly louder with a still silent background.
Next I connected the Michal Yee PHE-1 phono preamplifier to the VPI HW-19 rig. This proved to be the quietest phono preamplifier I used thus far. I could turn the volume up to 15 before I heard noise from the Spatial X-2s. Obviously that also allowed me to turn up the volume on program material compared to the previous combinations. I noticed the image specificity was more precise than through the PHO-500, and the PHE-1 was the first phono preamplifier that generated bass resonances similar to the digital version.
For my last comparison I connected the PHO-500 to the TNT-III/Clearaudio Victory turntable rig. The noise was even lower than with the HW-19/Denon! I also got a better level of quiet compared to the Michael Yee PFE-1. I also got to 13 before I could hear a slight hiss. This was also easily the best sonic combination, with the most precise image specificity, superior bass extension, and additional dynamic contrast. What this implies is that the PHO-500 can and does benefit from a “better” front end. In short, the PHO-500 can “scale up,” as we digital guys say.
For many years I used a John Curl-designed Vendetta SCP-2B phono preamplifier as my reference phono source. It was replaced a couple of years ago when I determined that the Manhattan’s internal card was its equal. Given that the PHO-500 clearly bests the Manhattan’s internal phono card, you could, as I have, come to the conclusion that the Vincent PHO-500 can produce what I would have considered “state-of-the-art” performance less than a decade ago.
A phono section is the sum of its parts. And to make a complete system you need a turntable with an ’arm, cartridge, phonostage, and cables to and from the phono preamp to your line-level preamplifier. Since most audiophiles have a budget for the whole system, yet buy these components a la carte, whatever money you save on one part you can then devote to another. For anyone trying to assemble a high-performance phono system on a reasonable budget, the PHO-500 could be an ideal choice, since it delivers a high-quality, low-noise signal that easily mates with a wide variety of high-performance front ends. And you get the added benefit of a device that allows you to record your most treasured LPs at 96/24 resolution. Well done, Vincent. Well done.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Two-piece solid- state phono preamplifier
Input sensitivity: Moving magnet: 58 mV; moving coil, 6.8mV
Signal-to-noise: Moving magnet: >83dB; moving coil: >70dB
Input impedance: Moving magnet: 47k ohms; moving coil: 100 ohms–1000 ohms (adjustable)
Output impedance: 250 ohms
Dimensions: 130 x 95 x 205mm (for power supply and PHO-500 each)
Weight: 1.4 kg (power supply), 1 kg (PHO-500)
Pangea Audio Distributing
5500 Executive Parkway SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49512
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