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Positive Feedback ISSUE11
Vinyl Reference phono stage
as reviewed by Dave Clark and Bryan Gladstone
Ah, the love of music via vinyl, played back from the licorice pizza as opposed to the silver discyou should know the truth when you hear it. Quite simply, grooves in vinyl rule over bits in pits in the areas of musicality and emotional involvement. Yes, digital is fast and clean, and allows way more music to be recorded onto a disc, but analog is the hands-down winner in terms of sheer fun. Sure, both need to be set up properly to get the best from the medium (a whole nother article unto itself), but in the end I find vinyl to be the choice when I really want to get into the groove and say, "Ooh yeah!"
I will admit that this is a recent occurrence, not one that I have been visiting all that much in the past few years. My previous vinyl setup was okay, but it never really got my juices flowing. However, with the purchase of the Transrotor Leonardo turntable about a year ago (see review), I ventured upon a journey that has reunited me with why I got into listening to music in the first place. Many things have changed since the Transrotor came into the house: the Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood MM cartridge has been replaced by a Shelter 901, the stock arm has been replaced with the newer 2.5 model that features better silver wiring and RCAs (and, after 24 hours on a Cable Cooker, is really cooking), the table now rest on a BDR board supported by three Stillpoints with adjustable bases (to keep the table level), and the stock counterweight has been replaced with Expressimo Audios Heavy Weight. All of these will get a few hundred words at a later time, but for now, let me begin describing another journey upon which I have ventured, to find out just how good todays phono stages are in relation to my venerable E.A.R. 834P (modified with Hovland capacitors in key locations). Okay, the 834P is less expensive than the ones that I have had the opportunity to audition so far, but at a teachers salary, it was the best we could do, even considering my vaunted position within the audio community!
The Art Audio Vinyl Reference phono stage was the first to arrive (Robert Levi's review), and to put this as simply as I can, it is gloriously beautiful, in terms of build, cosmetics, and musical reproduction. The Art Audio filled the room with the most refined, lusciously smooth, grain-free, organically pure music I have ever heard. The 834P came across as a backwoods country cousin in comparison, lacking in the basic social gracescoarser, cruder, and a bit rough around the edges. Images lacked air, space, and that palpable presence that allowed me to melt into the music. Since I never felt that the 834P presented music that way until the big-city Reference came onto the scene, I guess that makes me a country bumpkin, too!
Dont assume that the 834P is a piece of trash, and should be tossed to the waysidewe are not playing on the same field here. The E.A.R. is built to a considerably lower price point, using good parts, but not the best (though I know that Tim de Paravicini would argue rather vehemently that this has no bearing on the sound). The Reference is three times the size, and features top-of-the-line parts built to a whole different price point, meaning at four times the price, one had better get something more to bring home to the better half than a pretty face, and lordy, you do!
Consider the 834P to be a ride down the highway in a vintage Jeep to the Vinyl References Mercedes C Class. Both get you there, but one does so with a bit more wear and tear to ones system. (I should add that I bought my 834P quite a few years ago. Ive heard that newer ones sound better, though I have not yet been able to confirm this.) Vinyl through the Art Audio Reference has an ease and refinement that is by far the best I have heard, even compared to the other units that have followed in its footstepsthe Hagerman Trumpet and Sutherland PhD, to name two. The room is awash with gorgeous music that is so beautiful that one has to just reach for LP after LP until things start to get out of hand. What more can I say without repeating myself? Since this is a tube unit, much of what I am hearing here falls right into the lap of the four Svetlana 6N1P triodes. Yes, this is the sound of triodes and it is down right gorgeous to listen to talk about velvety smooth with depth and width to die for! A true taste of heaven for the "classic" vinyl lover. But it does have its faultsif one can use such a descriptor with respect to the Vinyl Reference.
See, that the Vinyl Reference will not rock the house. It simply will not win points on the slam-bang dynamics of rock-driven-thrash-music when compared against the competition, though I am not so sure that the typical buyer of the Reference is into the music I listen to, nor has a system similar to mine (see sidebar). I see the buyer being in possession of a much simpler and less full-range system that stresses areas of music that mine skips around a bit.
Compared to others in house, the Reference is a bit soft, and is lacking in extension at both ends of the spectrum. This does not detract from the music; it just makes things sound less defined and full in the bass, and softer and less "sparkly" at the top. Issues? Perhaps not, unless you are into bass-heavy rock and/or have high-powered amps with big, full-range speakerslike I mine. Using discs from Bill Laswell and a few others, I found that the bass simply could not offer the slam and control I am used to hearing, nor that I wanted to experience. This city cousin is very refined, but the caboose is a bit too loose. The bass lacks sufficient slam, definition, and texture. It goes deep alright, but it never really got my juices avibratin. Not that this should deter you from auditioning the Vinyl Reference as your tastes and system may be balanced in a whole 'nother direction. I can see systems and music where this issue would not be noticeable - of which it is not that much of a detraction anyhow as the overall presentation is just too good!
The Art Audio Vinyl Reference offers a beautifully rich sound that is immensely textured and palpable, with the presentation a bit further behind the speakers than in front, a rather soft top end, and a full and rounded bottom. With its way-cool ability to switch polarity, the Vinyl Reference is highly recommended if this kind of sound is where you are heading. I am still on the prowl for something that offers similar refinement, but a bit more excitement and slam. Dave Clark
A recent Liz Phair song, "Fine Again," tells the story of a painful relationship breakup and the accompanying heartache, followed by a reconciliation that "makes the world look like its just taken a bath." I just love that metaphor for an experience that changes your view of the world, as if suddenly the sky really is green and the grass really blue. This is what the Art Audio Vinyl Reference phono preamplifier did for my understanding of what vinyl playback can achieve, but not without some reservation on my part. For this reason, it has taken me longer to gather my thoughts for this review than any I have written in the past.
I installed the Vinyl Reference between my VPI Mk. IV table and Conrad Johnson Premier 10 line stage via two pairs of Van den Hul The First Ultimate interconnects, and the world took a bath. I immediately heard something Id never before experienced. The Art Audio simply provided the most lifelike presentation Id heard from a phono preamp. It had an uncanny ability to mimic the air and three-dimensionality of musicians playing in a room. The Vinyl Reference sound is incredibly detailed, monstrously deep, and cavernously open from about a tenth-row perspective, and not the least bit hard or etched. The Reference is also as free of grain as any piece of gear Ive had the pleasure to audition, and is thus capable of revealing microdynamics and detail without compromise.
This phono stage is not neutral in toneit has the warm, tubey, even syrupy voicing of classic tube gearyet somehow it maintains that glass bottle glow without smearing all of the detail out of the music. Each instrument not only holds a position in space, but holds that position within an emptiness that separates it from the others. Details come forth in spades from within the bubble of space maintained by each instrument. The organic quality of the timbre and detail was shocking. Though the Vinyl References presentation is on the warm side, it is as if its designers were able to keep everything that is good about tubes while adding all the benefits of newer technology except one.
The only thing I found dissatisfying about the Art Audio was its dynamics. To be clear, I am speaking about macro-dynamics here, as the Vinyl Reference handled micro-dynamics with aplomb. Not all music is meant to be sweet and beautiful, and the Art Audio always sounds pretty. It lacks some snap and growl when called upon. As far as I can tell, two things were going on here. First, the leading transients of instruments such as drums and guitars seemed a tad soft. Second, when called upon to get really big (think Wagner), the Art Audio sounded a little restricted. Swapping cables between some of the heavy hitters from Van den Hul, Cardas, Audioquest, and XLO changed the character of the phono stage exactly as you would expect, but had little effect on the problem.
To be fair, I am used to listening to a Krell KPA phono preamp powered by their even-beefier-than-normal line stage power supply. There could not be more difference in the sound of these two pieces. The Krell, true to its reputation, brings gluteus-kickin dynamics and tons o gain. It is hands down the most dynamic phono stage I have ever heard, even with low output moving coils. It gives a CD-like punch to vinyl, but it is not the most delicate-sounding thing in the world. Sweetness is not its forte. If the Art Audio is romantic and sexy, the Krell is whips-and-chains excitement. While the KPA is great for rock, blues, and most jazz, orchestral music, especially violins, tends to sound a bit ham-handed.
Barbary apes in Africa spend hours a day picking nits from the furry coats of their mates. This is a far more social, even loving act than nitpicking, that form of criticism that human mates and audio reviewers use. Let it be known, then, that my criticisms of the Art Audio Vinyl Reference phono stage are picking nits. I just didnt know what to make of this unit, which had so much going for it yet one flaw that I couldnt get past. I liked the sound of the Vinyl Reference so much that I tried to convince myself that I could either conquer or live with the dynamic restrictions. It seemed unfair to compare the Art Audio to my Krell, which sounded so different, then criticize it for lacking dynamics, but I had two other phono preamps available for comparison.
First I listened to a Jeff Rowland Consummate, which, despite its vastly different design philosophy, is close to the Art Audio in price. Though the Consummates level of quality and expense was necessary to match the detail, smoothness, and openness of the Art Audio, the Consummate presented a completely different interpretation of the recorded event. It had a much more neutral timbre, adding less of its own character, while the Art Audio added just a sprinkle of "love" to all recordings. With the Rowland, tympanis suddenly came to life and orchestral swells seemed to have no ceiling. Macro-dynamics were restored.
The other phono stage I had for comparison was an Audio Research PH3. At $1500, the PH3 is significantly less expensive than the other units, but it has a certain correctness of timbre that I believe is unchallenged in this price range. Nevertheless, in the presence of the Art Audio, the PH3 sounded grainy and unkempt. Most of the Vinyl References delicacy, liquidity, intimacy, and detail was lost through the AR. I could go on, but the PH3 was simply outclassed by the Art Audio in every respect, except onethe PH3 is more capable of presenting the large dynamic swings of orchestral and pop music.
Even if my criticisms of the Art Audio Vinyl Reference are nitpicking, there is no doubt that it delivers the sonic goods. Interested buyers of the Art Audio phono preamplifier will be divided into three camps. One third will not be able to live with its dynamic limitations, a second will own associated equipment that is sufficiently lively in character to offset the Art Audios limitations, and the final third simply won't care about the dynamics, because the Art Audio does everything else just right. Bryan Gladstone
Art Audio Vinyl Reference phono stage