Phono Preamplifiers

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Review: Adam Smith, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Sep 19, 2022
hfnoutstandingReplacing the longstanding VPS, Nagra's Classic Phono is not only significantly more flexible but its technical and sonic performance also marks an equally significant uplift

Acelebratory cake is in order. Swiss high-end manufacturer Nagra turned 70 last year, and its birthday present to itself is something of a first for the company. That's for another time, but I'm not giving too much away by saying that, when it arrives, it will make the perfect partner to the item under review here – the £17,000 Classic Phono MM/MC phono stage.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Aug 18, 2022
hfncommendedAurorasound's VIDA (Vinyl Disk Amplifier), launched in 2011, has marked its first decade with a number of revisions to merit MkII status. How does it stack up in 2022?

Small Japanese specialist brands always fascinate me, due in part to my delight that they can co-exist with the Sony- and Panasonic-sized manufacturers. While every nation has its bijou marques, there's an uncanny aura to the likes of 47Lab, Shindo, Air Tight and Kondo, plus countless MC cartridge makers, that differentiates them from equally exotic producers from the UK, USA, Italy, Germany and beyond. Aurorasound could also only be Japanese, its VIDA MkII, an evolution of the VIDA [HFN Jul '13], ticking every box.

Review: Adam Smith, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jul 04, 2022
hfnoutstandingLatest in Exposure's top-end compact series is this flexible MM/MC phono preamp, inspired by the XM3 Phono but with improved audio stages and an outboard PSU

Despite concerns over pressing delays and the availability of raw materials, the lure of vinyl seems to show no signs of abating, which explains why the selection of phono stages available now is greater than ever. The latest company to add to the audiophile wishlist is West Sussex-based Exposure Electronics, with the VXN Phono. This is the first 'source' item in the only-available-in-black VXN range, joining two-way and three-way active crossover units and the VXN Power Supply [HFN Feb '20].

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 19, 2022
hfnoutstandingFans of the brand know that when Audio Research adds an 'SE' suffix, the changes go beyond the cosmetic. The latest to earn this upgrade is the Reference Phono 3

Let's talk about names. Audio Research's abiding Reference range has long been subject to shorthand – even the factory calls the models 'REF' for brevity – while updated (mk2) components are now defined by 'SE'. And that now applies to the £17,500 Reference Phono 3SE. In this case the revisions are retrofittable and, at £3500 and given my delight with every SE model I've tried, especially with the REF 6 and REF 75, I suspect most existing owners will want the upgrade. My optimism was fuelled by Audio Research's CEO Dave Gordon who told us, 'The SE changes incorporated in both the REF 6 and the REF Phono 3 are almost identical, involving many of the same passive component upgrades'.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Mar 22, 2022
hfncommendedStateside tube specialist, ModWright, trickles down tech from its Reference PH 150 into a more affordable all-valve MM/MC phono preamp, featuring an outboard PSU

Nothing yet has convinced me that we have seen any period, since hi-fi separates became a 'thing', when there were more phono stages than we have right now. I say this because the ModWright PH 9.0's price of £2900 puts it smack in the middle of an inordinately crowded sector. I'm obviously being naïve here, or just pretending that you can still go into any number of hi-fi shops and ask, 'Can I compare a few phono stages?'.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jan 20, 2022
hfnoutstandingFew brands can wrestle the combination of performance and adaptability from tube circuits with the flair of Manley Labs, and those skills are at the fore in the Chinook

It may be hard to believe, but I'm certain that the 2020s will be regarded as the golden age of standalone phono stages. How so? Simply by virtue of their plenitude, especially when you consider that this is vinyl's second time around. Manley's Chinook, continually refined during its near-decade in production, creates a phono amp sweet spot at £2699, blending fine sound with broad compatibility.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Oct 04, 2021
hfnoutstandingFrom California via London comes the shapely form of Zesto's Andros phono preamp – all tubes and transformers and now, courtesy of an uprated PSU, in 'Deluxe II' guise

If you demand full control over your cartridges, an all-singing/all-dancing phono preamp like the Zesto Andros Deluxe II is the only thing that will suffice. At £7500, it occupies the lower reaches of the extreme phono stage market – there are £40k-plus units if you're inspired to go further – but one should still be hyper-critical when the market is awash with exceptional, fully-adjustable phono amps for under £1000.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jun 24, 2021
hfnoutstandingJoining the M3scd CD player/DAC and M3si amplifier, the new M3x Vinyl represents the brand's 'entry-level' MM/MC phono preamp. We lift the lid on a novel design

Scratching my head, I remain amazed at the plethora of affordable phono stages now on offer, as if to prophesy that the LP's return has no end in sight. Either that or it's sheer opportunism, but hey, that's all good news for hi-fi users. What these phono preamps do is ensure that LPs are accessible to a wider audience than high-end devices serve, while filling the gap between the costly stuff and those £99 USB-equipped decks which probably chew up more LPs than they actually play. Musical Fidelity's M3x Vinyl, however, begs a different sort of question.

Review and Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 06, 2021
hfnoutstandingFirst from a hand-selected portfolio of 'artisan' hi-fi separates, this pairing of low output tubes with high sensitivity speakers boasts a very special synergy... and sound

System matching remains as much an art as it does a science. There's always the easy route – opting for a collection of one-brand separates with the promise of full technical compatibility and the expectation of similar 'voicing' throughout. aSlightly trickier is the pairing of components from brands that have an overlap in their core design philosophies – a route that often leads to the most satisfying musical experience but which requires a depth of knowledge on the part of both enthusiast and friendly hi-fi dealer. The third route – random component selection and a reliance on blind luck is not one we'll be pursuing here!

Review: Adam Smith, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Apr 13, 2021
hfnoutstandingFor a brand that once suggested it was never going to produce a phono stage, the vinyl revival has proved an irresistible force. So is Hegel's V10 firing on all cylinders?

It's always welcome when individuals or companies offer up their future plans. If not, we'd never have known that Sean Connery was to abandon James Bond after 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, that Ferrari would not be launching an SUV and that Norwegian hi-fi manufacturer Hegel had no intention of ever making a phono stage. Of course, Connery did return to his role of suave super-spy in 1983's Never Say Never Again, Ferrari's Purosangue SUV is due later this year, and here I am writing about Hegel's £1350 V10 phono stage.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Mar 05, 2021
hfnoutstandingWho better than a legendary turntable maker to offer a go-to, affordable, universal phono stage? The Thorens MM-008 looks set to shake up the entry-level sector

If anyone still doubts the extent of the LP renaissance, beyond the use of turntables as a trope for cool ads aimed at hipsters, the plethora of affordable gear coming from purist brands known for high-end price points should convince them otherwise. Forget those £69, all-plastic 'record players' sold online to snare newbies: when a company such as Thorens brings out a phono stage like this £220 MM-008, it indicates that renewed LP usage is not the sole province of seasoned audiophiles. Or, indeed, wealthy ones.

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Aug 18, 2020
hfnoutstandingAlongside its range of turntables, Pro-Ject's diverse Box series of hi-fi separates – from streamers to phono preamps – has come to define the 'world vision' of its founder

One of the nicest by-products of the vinyl revival is the constant flow of affordable phono stages, essential to allow newcomers to adapt to LP playback the line-level-only integrated amps that have proliferated since 1983. Thorens, Mobile Fidelity, Musical Fidelity, NAD, Cambridge – there are too many to list, but the go-to brand for me is the one that also 'owns' the entry-level turntable market: Pro-Ject.

Review: Adam Smith, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Jun 09, 2020
hfnoutstandingPrimare's 'Prisma push' may have focused resources into network-enabling its amplifiers and CD players, but its new flagship phono pre proves its love of vinyl has not waned

Even the most ardent vinyl enthusiasts will admit that they can get bamboozled by the whole process of cartridge loading and gain matching. Some MMs and MCs can be quite particular about the load resistance and capacitance that they 'see', just as most phono stages will have a 'sweet spot' gain setting that varies from pick-up to pick-up. So there's a great deal to be said for a flexible phono stage that offers numerous adjustments. On the other hand I can appreciate the popularity of designs where the complexity extends to nothing more than an MM/MC switch!

Review: Ken Kessler, Lab: Paul Miller  |  May 12, 2020
hfnoutstandingWith input from the designer behind MoFi's cutting lathes, the UltraPhono (and StudioPhono) were conceived as high value partners for its affordable turntables

Are we in the midst of a Golden Age of Analogue? If you're returning to, or just discovering the vinyl LP, then yes, we are. Mobile Fidelity's UltraPhono is an example of what the industry can deliver when inspired, and clearly this is a response to the need for affordable phono stages to render suitable 30 years' worth of post-CD integrated amplifiers without phono stages. At £499, it's not for the impoverished analogue neophyte, but neither is it horrendously expensive by any measure.

Review: Jonathan Gorse, Lab: Paul Miller  |  Apr 23, 2020
hfnoutstandingForty-five years after the launch of its inaugural phono preamp, PS Audio launches another, this time in Stellar guise, and with the emphasis on flexibility with convenience

Large by phono preamp standards, PS Audio's Stellar Phono is built into the same full-width silver grey or black chassis as its partners in the new Stellar range [HFN Jan '20]. Nevertheless, it's also considerably heavier at a full 10kg because the casework here is steel, not alloy, perhaps in an effort to improve screening. Having asked PS Audio, it seems likely that all Stellars will move from alloy to steel enclosures in time.

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