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Vinyl Reference Phonostage
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
When you look at the back of the Art Audio Vinyl Reference, besides the battery of knobs, controls and inputs indicative of a full-function phono preamp, you will see printed on the left side: "Designed and Manufactured by K & K Audio." Who is K & K? The answer, as you'll see, sheds much light on the VR's voice and the ultimate goals of our audiophile pursuit.
After arranging to have the VR included in my Phono Stage Hoedown, Joe Fratus of Art Audio offered to coordinate a phone interview between Kevin Carter and myself. Who is Kevin Carter? The name may ring a bell from his lengthy and high-profile stint at VAC. Now Kevin has his own firm, K & K Audio. He is also part of the Art Audio "brain trust," a loosely affiliated group of designers and engineers called upon as needed for various Art Audio projects. The VR is his baby.
The project was initiated when Joe asked Kevin to think about designing a more ambitious phono stage, something beyond Art Audio's current Vinyl One offering. Kevin listened, and was left to translate the verbal specs into a circuit design. Thus, the VR acquired a label 'round back that says "Designed and Manufactured by K & K Audio."
Shortly into the phone interview we talked about priorities. Where most modern designers put extended frequency response, dynamic range, soundstaging and imaging, resolution, purity, low noise and lack of artifact at the top of their list, Kevin's priorities begin with timbral fulfillment and a flowing, musical line. Not to denigrate the popular list—attention must be paid to those items—but I got the distinct impression they come after timbre and flow for him.
That is why he uses coupling transformers in his designs. According to Kevin, they preserve correct dynamic and harmonic relationships as the notes pass along in the melody. This, in turn, promotes listener involvement. Most modern designs shun them, preferring the benefits bestowed by active ways of adjusting gain. The VR uses coupling transformers on both sides: a step-up transformer on input and a step-down on output. It is "old school" in both ways. The conversation was beginning to sound Zen-like.
At which point, I talked about how the Japanese are fond of using step-ups with MC cartridges. The Audio Note Japan phonostages, even their top-of-the-line ones, only provide for MM gain. It's not a question of expense. They just believe the extra gain needed for MC is done better with a step-up device. I mentioned my peak vinyl playback experience, when I had in the Audio Note Japan M77 preamp and its associated external step-up transformer. Kevin knew all about it: "Ah, that one! That particular step-up device is legendary among the cognoscenti—there ain't none better."
The Vinyl Reference
Since I just wrote about the VR in my Phono Stage Hoedown, I would like to quote from that overview. Then I'll go into more detail on a few key points.
From the Phono Stage Hoedown:
"Now we come to a tube hybrid unit, the Art Audio Vinyl Reference. I have the hot-rod version with V-Caps, a $500 upgrade to the basic unit, bringing the cost to $5000…
The VR immediately revived memories of vinyl glory days past, with palpable voices suspended in space before you, and a presence and sparkle only valves (and only old valve sound at that) seem to muster. Surprisingly low noise and few irritating artifacts… although with less separation and detail—more confusion—on the big stuff… What this machine does with timbral realism, the way it projects instruments into space, the way it handles balance among instruments, that is, the loudness of the trumpets and the perceived distance between them and the violins and the singers, makes for a decidedly satisfying musical session. You will not confuse analog playback through the VR with quality digital replay—these two are traveling on different paths.
Of course, the VR engaged in a covert cover-up of some source unpleasantness, the way tube components voiced this way usually do. It doesn't give images a razor-like sharpness—they tend to be a little blurry on the edges and blend amongst themselves—one image runs into the next without a "deep silence" imposed between them. It doesn't have staggering macro dynamics, or the tightest bottom, or the most dimensional soundstaging, or the fastest transient attack. Likewise for the just average resolving acumen. (Don't worry. All are satisfyingly well done: you won't be left having to make excuses on these accounts.) The VR is not designed to achieve stardom here.
It's the inner life and enhanced presence, palpability and emotional connection of what it does report on that may turn your head. This was the designers' top priority. One review of the Vinyl Ref called it the SET of phono preamps. Yes, that's true: the VR reports on fewer events, but they come packaged in a SET-like envelope. It has the excellent coherency and integration of those devices, plus frequency extremes are well represented, and dynamics and transient speed are good.
Its bottom is abundant and forceful without being overly warm or plumy… Yet, it doesn't pummel or attack you; rather, it tends to caress you. The sound is far from even approaching grating or irritating.
The VR would be my top choice for fare employing small-scale forces…where intimacy is desired… But the tables would be turned if I wanted to listen to a symphonic work by Mahler. The main thing about the VR is how involving and how much fun it is to listen to."
the Report Card ain't too shabby, either
Just to set your mind at ease, let me tell you what happens when you put on a TAS Super Disc like the Menotti: Piano Concerto / Copland: Piano Concerto, with Earl Wild on piano and Jorge Mester on the podium leading the Symphony of the Air (original black label Vanguard VSD-2094). It was recorded in Manhattan Center in 1961. I've never been to that location, but there's enough air in the front of my room to conjure up a vast stage in 3-D. Pinpoint imaging? Forgedda-boud-it—it's not happening, but you won't miss it. There's plenty of depth layering along with the illusion of masses of players. Instruments are arrayed all over the space from the speaker plane back to the edge of my TAOC racks. Brass instruments chime in from somewhere high above, up around the top shelf of the TAOC. The VR reveals itself capable of extreme stereo separation, to the extent that the early stereo ping-pong effect is in evidence. The dynamics won't "knock your socks off," but you'll find the recreation of the venue enjoyably convincing. Overall, I would put the VR in Class B on these parameters.
Just 'cause I have it, let's listen to the difference when swapping to the Analogue Productions reissue LP (APC 029). Everything is bigger. The space was huge; it just got enormous. Dynamic range inflated, image borders got crisper and the orchestra gained weight. Funny, there's more separation, but the ping-pong effect is less evident. All the same, we've lost the stage coherence that was so convincing in the original, and some timbral cues got misplaced in the process. The result is the dialogue among the oboe, trumpet and piano at the end of the movement is lost because it's difficult to distinguish the trumpet from the oboe. If you want to impress your audio buddies, play APC 029. If your system is balanced and your audience is comprised of musicians, you'd better put on the original.
This easy discernment of differences tells me the VR is fairly honest, in spite of its sweetening and covering up of some source unpleasantness. Listeners' first reaction was usually, "Wow. That sure sounds gorgeous." Their second, "It's a bit colored, isn't it?"
After an acquaintance of mine extolled the under-appreciated cellist Pierre Fournier, I ordered a two CD set of the Beethoven Complete Works for Cello and Piano with him and pianist Friedrich Gulda on the Deutsche Grammophon Original Masters series of reissues (DG 477 6266). It didn't disappoint. This series resuscitates some of the treasures from their vault, and most of the time it's done with splendid sound. I use this CD quite a bit for evaluating transports and DACs.
On the Original Masters CD reissue you hear every piano keystroke. Each is distinct with space between the notes. It has force and immediacy through the mbl Noble front-end. Did they add some reverb? The spaciousness of the CD suggests they did. They certainly cleaned it up. It's sooo quiet, except for the pentimento of analog tape hiss.
It turns out I also have an original tulip label LP of the Sonata in A major, Op. 69 (DG SLPM 138 082). The CD and the LP do not sound alike. The LP through the VR puts you in a smaller hall, intimate with the musicians. There is a natural air buffer between you and them—the CD creates an unnatural hollow in that space. There's no confusion as to who's playing which notes, except in the lower register, where timbres are very similar and the two instrumental lines overlap. It lacks some of the excitement of the Original Masters CD. It sounds like a decently recorded DG LP circa 1965: a little bit dry and lacking hall ambience. The atmosphere was not captured…
Timbral Fulfillment & Musical Flow
…but the timbre certainly seems to have been. Your mind is immediately aware of the VR's two strong suits: First, its timbral reproduction, which captures the gestalt of the instrument better than any stage in my acquaintance, except the Audio Note Japan M77 and the built-in phono section of the TRON Syren (both of these are single-ended using step-up devices). Wind instruments have the unmistakable signature of their kind. Even if this aspect is a little beyond what you would hear live, nevertheless, it's a joy to hear timbres fulfilled—for once they're not sold short.
Secondly, it has musical flow. The notes go binggg; they don't go dunk, dunk (silence), thud (silence), thud. This is not to say the VR tends to a legato profile and kept things lingering around—it doesn't. It has to do with giving full expression to the note's life cycle and not shortchanging its decay. On this recording, most of the time the next note makes its appearance before the first dies out. There is no such thing as a "deep silence between the notes," as on the Original Masters CD.
The VRs waveform is fluid, always mobile, changing from moment to moment as the music progresses. It is fluid in terms of texture, image shape (zaftig or lean), and dynamics, reflecting the subtle ways the musician shapes the note and the phrase. Everything has this continual ebb and flow. I am reminded of a co-worker, a lady from Santo Domingo, whose everyday, Spanish-inflected speech dances like a song, with rising and falling cadences. Contrast this with the flat monotone delivery of your typical North Easterner (like me) and you'll know what I mean. These are prime requirements for conveying musical interpretation. The VR makes sense of the succession of notes. As the man said: timbral fulfillment and a flowing musical line. The notes go binggg; they don't go dunk, dunk (silence), thud (silence), thud. Most phonostages have two states: on (sound), or off (silence). This only gives you the basics, the bare notes on the page.
And digital doesn't even hint at it. Back to the CD, there's certainly more overt excitement, with lots of low-level detail—but that's all I hear, the bow/rosin on strings and a pronounced vibrato. I came to a point where the CD was just too much: too much detail, and not the right kind of detail. It didn't sound real, in comparison.
Another point is the way the VR handles staging. The VR has a nice way of giving a trumpet a 3-D shape, even when it is playing softly in the background, or way off to one side. Loud and soft, near and far, the VR zeroes in on the coordinates of sounds and nails its identity. I'm not talking about laser-like precision on a GPS topographical soundstage map. Most stages get the topography right: they place it correctly front to back. It's the roundness and timbral identity they tend to mess up when the instrument is not in the foreground, flattening individual depth, creating rows of 2-D cardboard cutouts layering backwards. Distant objects thus become curiously unlike closer or louder ones, and sometimes they are unrecognizable. This also happens with close-up images along the edges of the sidewalls, or those located in or near the speaker. You are left to put the pieces together. In these aspects of the listening experience, which can't be measured, the VR is unusually convincing.
The unit remained largely untweaked. I started with it powered by TARA Labs The One PC coming out of the IDAT, and The 0.8 signal wire with ISM Onboard. Later, I switched to a Kubala-Sosna Emotion power cord and interconnect. Impedance was usually set to 100 ohms, and sometimes to 300, when I wanted to make things lively. The factory MC gain setting was more than adequate for the .4 mv of my Linn Archiv II cartridge.
I found the built-in footers worked well enough, but if you want a more powerful sound experiment with a couple of TAOC PTS-F footers. Alternatively, try a Harmonix RF-57 Mk II tuning dot close to the IEC input jack. (A single Harmonix RF-57 Mk II tuning dot placed near the IEC input jack seems to work well on most components.). That's it for tweaking the VR. I liked its voice as delivered—I didn't feel the urge to tinker too much.
The VR I'm listening to is the upgraded, hot-rod version, that's been available for about nine months. It contains the new, premium V-Cap capacitors manufactured by VH Audio, Inc. For $500 bucks, current VR owners can have V-Caps installed. I've never heard the standard model, so I can't advise you to jump or not.
I was sent a demo unit. Don't know how many hours it had on it, but the V-CAPS were put in the night before shipping. They needed a good 40 hours with signal before there was any flesh and weight on 'dem bones. I used the Granite Audio Phono Burn-In CD, Model #CD-101, for the purpose.
The VR is a hybrid design utilizing four 6N1P triodes. The input stage has one pair of tubes and some FET transistors. The output stage has the other pair along with MOSFET devices. Zero global negative feedback is employed. You can leave the unit on all the time, but it uses a fair amount of wall AC and it runs hot. Tube life of the Svetlana Electron Devices 6N1P triodes is along the lines of 1½ to 2 years, given a few hours of playtime per day, and a replacement tube set from Art Audio will run you $40. You already know about the extensive use of coupling transformers. The other noteworthy goody is the high-quality purpose-made Lundahl audio transformers (K & K is the USA importer of Lundahl).
The evidence suggests that Kevin Carter has achieved his design goals. Here you have a product that performs well enough on most of the objective measurable audio criteria, such that you wouldn't feel their lack. But that's not the raison d'etre of this machine.
More than usual, I found myself listening longer and with more enjoyment. I liked what I was hearing. I forgot about those objective criteria, and got sucked into the performance. And that's where the VR does things beyond expectations, on those other unmeasurable and hard to describe, subjective parameters. Between its timbral fulfillment and musical flow, the VR is superb at conveying musical nuance and interpretation. And then it throws in SET-like involvement and intimacy. Only the über Audio Note Japan M77 with its associated step-up device and the TRON Syren with its optional MC phono exceed it on this terrain.
These devices emerge from a different mindset than the direction we've taken in the West, for the most part. Their designers believe "old school" coupling transformers are the only way to preserve correct dynamic and harmonic relationships as the notes pass along. If this is what's responsible for the kind of involvement I experienced, more power to them.
The VR is much better than I expected. It's a good fit with my reference system, as it is currently configured. Entire evenings passed without thought of repairs or corrective actions. But I have a hunch I may feel differently down the road. At the end of a session, more often than not I arrived at the mundane conclusion that ideally I would have two devices: the VR for fare employing small scale forces where intimacy is desired, and something like the ASR Basis Exclusive or the Oracle Temple for the big, dynamically demanding stuff. A year or so from now, I can imagine the need to upgrade. My hope is Art Audio will have their next phono preamp ready by that time. Marshall Nack