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Phono 2Ci Mk II phonostage - From Germany with Love
as reviewed by John Zurek
The quality of amplifiers, speakers, cables, and other components has significantly improved over the past 15 years, with the Redbook CD player arguably showing the most progress of the lot. Even with all that sonic evolution, audiophiles, being the fussy bunch we are, have been craving a higher-resolution source format. The compact disc that took over our lives back in the late eighties just can't seem to fully please.
We were promised SACD and DVD-A. Those formats, while an improvement over Redbook CD, never took off with the success their manufacturers predicted, and because of their pitifully small libraries, they seem to be dying a slow competitive death. Don't get me wrong—I wish there were thousands and thousands of SACD/DVDAs out there. Sadly, there is not.
This is the reason audiophiles have re-discovered that LPs are indeed the best high-resolution format we currently have. No doubt about it, the last few years have brought the audiophile world a vinyl renaissance. There are now more turntables and cartridges to choose from than ever before, and as a result more phono stages. I've listened to quite a few phono preamps in the last year, some made in the US, others built in non-descript factories in China. The Aqvox Phono 2Ci is the first component I've listened to from Germany. Aqvox is pronounced accu-vox, which I'm assuming means accurate voice.
The 2Ci has the look and feel of modern German design and engineering. Precise lines, understated, svelte, it speaks of quality. It is a pleasure to view. Being born from pro audio products, the rear panel clues you in to its lineage. Not many so-called pro products cross over from this side if audio into the high end, and even less make the journey successfully. You're about to find out about an overachiever.
The front panel is simple, left and right gain controls, input indicator, and subsonic filter indicator. The rear panel contains much more. An IEC connector, circuit ground connector, ground lift switch, RCA or XLR input switch, gain adjustments, XLR (balanced) inputs, right and left capacitance and impedance adjustments, RCA input and out puts, and XLR (balanced outputs). Yow! Many great features for a phono amp in this price range—almost unlimited flexibility.
The Aqvox approach to getting the most from your cartridge is different. Why?
To start with there are no integrated OP amps in the signal path, no over-all/global feedback, and only passive RIAA Filters are used. The 2Ci is a genuine fully-balanced (symmetrical) circuit design in the entire signal path. According to Aqvox, only two clean-symmetrical (mass-free) signal sources exist:
1. Microphones, which explains also the historical origination of the symmetrical signal transmission within the professional audio range, and
2. Moving Coil cartridges. It is strange that symmetrical/balanced circuits are so rarely used in phonostages.
Microphones, with very small voltages/currents use the symmetrical signal processing to their full advantage: During the symmetrical processing two contrary-phased signals are transferred. The amplifier forms the difference between both signals. Thus, with symmetrical processing the difference of an electrical signal is not used to the mass, but the difference of two electrical signals. Disturbances, which usually arise on both signal-lines, are very effectively erased. In addition, one receives still another higher output voltage. Using a non balanced/asymmetrical connection a half-wave of the MC signal is connected with the often-contaminated common ground.
I used the Phono 2Ci with two ubiquitous moving coils that I love: The Benz Glider, and the Shelter 501Mkii. I got out the manual to start the grueling process of how to adjust the amplifier to load the cartridge properly, which I was not looking forward to. I'm sure you've all experienced this frustration. Some preamps require a very different loading than your stated cartridge specs; some manufacturers supply no direction at all on how to accomplish this very important task. You flail around for days weeks, months wondering if you should move that last jumper or dip switch. 100 ohms, 47k ohms? Not fun.
This leads to one of the features of the Aqvox that will absolutely get you high: When you use the 2Ci with an MC and the XLR inputs, the 2Ci automatically adjusts all the capacitive and impedance parameters!
Although the 2Ci includes a bevy of adjustments, using the balanced inputs bypasses the need to do this manually. In addition, you do not have to change your input cables or rewire your tonearm cable to go fully balanced. Aqvox provides a set of RCA to XLR adapters just for this purpose. I do suggest that if you decide to keep the 2Ci long term you look into re-wiring your tonearm for fully balanced. It can only get better.
It is very important to adjust the front gain pots properly. Norman Lubke from Aqvox put it this way, "If the gain is set too high, you'll hear clipping and compression. If gain is set to low, dynamics will be reduced. Finding the right position is easy, just go to the loudest parts of your record, turn up the Gain-pot until sound goes disturbed, then turn back the gain-knob by two or three points—that's it."
Let's get to the listening. This is where the 2Ci struts its stuff. With the Benz Glider the Aqvox absolutely defined instruments and voices. Every parameter, timbre, pitch, attack, length, and beginning and ending of each note was rendered musically. Not just individual notes—one of the strengths of this unit was in the glorious way it rendered the sum color of different instruments and voices. My venerable Glider—I'm talking the original version, at least 10 years old—never, and I mean never, sounded like this. Stunning. A true ensemble player.
What is an ensemble player? If you have been in an orchestra, symphonic band, or a jazz big band you know that any conductor worth his salt rehearses not only the entire group, but the smaller ensembles that comprise the group: winds, brasses, percussion, strings, etc. Strings may even be broken down into violins, cellos, violas, double basses. You get the picture. If the individual ensembles aren't clicking, the larger group certainly will not.
My point is this: the 2Ci had that magical ability to let you hear the ensembles working their magic not only individually, but as a whole. Every instrument is portrayed clearly allowing you the ability to follow instruments through passages that normally would bury them. The presentation reminded me of the inside of the 2Ci: precise colors, reds and blues, blacks, golds, and whites—all very well defined.
Even though I loved what it did with the Glider, it was now on its way to a new owner, and its replacement, the Shelter 501mk ii, had arrived. I gave the Shelter a good 40 hours to break in. I had purchased the Shelter because of its hauntingly beautiful midrange, but when paired with the Phono 2Ci the lows and highs were rendered beautifully. What a bonus!
Chomping at the bit to see what the 2Ci/501 combo could do with some vocals, I got out an oldie, Poco's Legend. When I listened to "Crazy Love" I heard exceptional vocal performance that revealed the expression and the meaning of the tune. Lyrics were crystal clear with the emotion and purity of heart flowing through. The 2Ci allows you to enjoy and understand complex vocal harmonies, while conveying exactly what each voice sings, and how it blends with others to form such lovely harmonies.
Could the 2Ci perform the same magic with string quartets? I got out two versions of Beethoven's Quartet in B-flat, 1st movement: The Guarneri Quartet, a 1970 RCA pressing, and the Melos Quartet, OR series.
Although I preferred the Guarneri Quartet's performance, the limitations of the RCA Dynagroove recording became noticeably palpable. The instruments sounded close-mic'ed. I could not get a feel for the room that it was recorded in. The Melos disc was just the opposite; imaging and soundstaging were excellent. You could hear chords being formed by the contribution of the individual instruments. I got a very good sense of the attack of the bow on the string and the all-important woody resonance following.
The Aqvox performed splendidly in my system. What about another? I decided to take it over to a friend's whose system features a SOTA Star Sapphire ‘table, Monster Sigma Genesis cartridge, a custom Steve McCormack-modded amp, and the most excellent Green Mountain Audio Continuum 3 speakers. My audio buddy Scott, owner of this system, listened to several cuts and was very, very impressed. So much so he decided to pull out some vinyl he had recorded in the 70s during his tenure as bassist for a fairly well known rock group. After listening to both sides with a very strange expression, he actually broke down and cried. "All the hard work, all the detail, all the emotion—I never heard it before. It's so hard to believe that more than thirty years later I finally get to appreciate everything we had put into this record." If that's not a testimonial…
I couldn't wait to finish so I could just listen for pleasure, so at the end of the evaluation period I pulled out Pink Floyd's rock warhorse Dark Side of the Moon. Yes, this record is overplayed, and some either love it some hate it, blah, blah, blah. Not my fave musical piece, but it does remind me of some damn good times in my life, and I've never used it to evaluate anything before. There it was though, staring at me, so why not? What did I hear? The Aqvox absolutely killed it. All of 2Ci's qualities came together, and the result was the finest detailed musical communication of this piece I've ever heard in my room.
What does it lack to propel it into the highest level of phono stage performance? IMHO its weaknesses are sins of omission—the last little bits of air around voices and instruments, and the most complete rendering of their absolute texture. Don't take this the wrong way. I'm talking about very small absolutes here—those last miniscule parameters that you get with the law of diminishing returns. Normally I would never I even discuss these omissions with a component in this price range. Does that give you a clue? At the price, this sort of performance is unheard of, and I do mean unheard.
The Aqvox Phono 2Ci is hands-down the finest component I've had in my system in 2006. I preferred it to all the phono stages I've heard lately, even the twice-as-expensive Cary 302 I reviewed back in June of 2005.
Aqvox does not yet have a US distributor, but they do sell direct and have a Canadian dealer. You can order online with a money back guarantee. If you're thinking about spending $500 on a phono stage I urge to wait a few months, save up the extra scratch, and try the Aqvox. Heck, if you're thinking of spending $2000 on a phono stage I urge to try the Aqvox. You may save a bunch of coin and spend it on vinyl.
In the past couple of years my audio focus has changed. I used to crave all the detail I could beg out of a recording. I still want the detail, but not by sacrificing pure musical communication. If I'm not enjoying the music, all the detail and accuracy in the world won't cut it. With the Phono 2Ci I don't have to choose, this little wonder gives me both.
In their mission statement AQVOX says, "We feel very confident saying that we deliver music reproduction devices offering exceptional values—not only in its price-class but absolutely." Mission accomplished. (This would be a great place for a Dubya joke, but I'm going to leave it alone.) Right on. I heard the difference.
The Phono 2Ci is a stunning overachiever. For real. I can't wait to hear more products from Susan Candeias and Norman Lubke at Aqvox. Accurate (and pleasing) voice indeed. John Zurek
Aqvox Phono 2Ci