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Positive Feedback ISSUE48
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
What usually catches my attention are the idiosyncrasies, what makes a product different. So, today I'm auditioning the Audio Flight Phono stage and, truth be told, my attention wasn't engaged. Oh, the Flight was behaving agreeably enough, but other than veering towards the soft and forgiving side, I wasn't finding much to comment on—there wasn't a whole lot in the “idiosyncrasies” department.
I was well into this review, thinking its prospects pretty routine.
Then I read Mike Fremer's brief review in Stereophile magazine. While it didn't tell me much about how the Flight sounds, it did tell me he found it required extended break-in, not just powered on, but with signal passing through it. I had been told my unit (the same one Mikey reviewed) was already broken-in and only needed to be warmed up. So I had given it minimal break-in time—four days powered on and maybe twelve hours with signal.
I immediately went back and clocked another twenty-four hours on my cartridge. Lo and behold, the thing was transformed. No longer soft and forgiving by a long shot—now I understood why its resume is chock full of awards.
But first, I had to settle on wires. The Flight displayed a decided preference for a balanced run of TARA Labs The 0.8 interconnect and The One power cord. With other wires I could hear the product's potential, but it remained latent, locked up and not on display. The Flight wasn't so happy with Kondo Silver, K-S Emotion or Kharma Enigma. I also found a bit of power conditioning suits it fine.
A Musical Interlude
I had just heard Daniel Barenboim conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall doing Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. I'm one of those who left in disbelief after the final curtain call—there must have been four of them plus a standing ovation. The audience loved it as much as I disliked it. Even worse was the review two days later in The New York Times. The senior staff critic kind of backed into complementing the Vienna's outing without actually saying he liked it. I don't understand how Barenboim gets away with such gross distortion and sheer slackness of articulation. Why doesn't anyone take him to task? (For more on Barenboims' performance, see this New York Times review.)
When I got home, I couldn't wait to hear a good reading of the work. You couldn't ask for a better one than Carlos Kleiber and the same Vienna Philharmonic, circa 1976 (DG Japanese pressing). Wow, so dynamically fleet, such clarity of musical lines—we couldn't be further from the Barenboim-induced swampy morass. It could be Kleiber; it could be the heavy-weight vinyl pressing; but most certainly the Flight was a major factor in allowing this to unfold in my living room.
The fusillades from the low strings and tympani had powerful, aggressive attacks, while the upper strings played off them in syncopation. The brass sorties issued forth with slam as impressive as that from the double basses.
This is the Flights strong suit. It is capable of routinely unleashing eye-opening volleys. The quality of these macros is first rate, exhibiting no signs of breakup, and no sense of compression. Frankly, this surprises me. Where is it coming from? I wasn't expecting this caliber of dynamics from a product at this price point.
Next I put on Prokofief's Symphony No. 7, with Walter Weller and the London Symphony Orchestra (London CS 6879). Again, the range from pp to ff has my attention. I notice the clarity of musical lines, the exposed articulation. Dimensionality and soundstaging are highly transparent. This is the Flight's second strong suit: it is very open and clean.
Now that we've touched on the Flight's two major strengths, let's move on down the line. There's no question that the Flight sounds like solid-state. You'll instantly recognize that topology's hallmarks—the benefits, as well as some of the shortfalls. Solid-state designs are usually weak in timbre and body. I've heard many solid-state phono preamps that confuse a clarinet sound with an oboe, for example—the timbre isn't developed enough to make for a positive ID. I didn't have that problem of identification with the Flight. Still, I would like more of both commodities. Bloom is not strong and body is weak in the midrange, but neither is to the point of becoming an issue. Let's just say tube-o-philes will probably find these areas under-developed.
Honing in on the Flight's unusually sharp focus and much centered sound, you will notice there's not a lot of stuff surrounding that solid center.
A few other things I should mention: that outsize, energetic bottom-end doesn't have a lot of texture. While the treble has good body and totally avoids stridency, it could be more agile. Finally, there's a slight dip in the midrange.
It threw a soundstage extending from speaker to speaker, but not laterally beyond them. Images had good size and sharply demarcated borders, if still smaller than realism would dictate. (Most phono stages reduce the scale of the stage and shrink images; the Flight throws a bigger stage than most, but not at the level of the best units.)
That's it in a nutshell. The Flight communicates the main points but doesn't add special insights or refinement. Yes, violins sound true, but without the finesse of the best units. The Flight manages to give you a great, basic sound. What issues it has are relatively minor, especially compared to other units at its price point.
This medium-priced phono stage (medium in relation to ones I'm familiar with, like the ASR Basis Exclusive, the Art Audio Vinyl Ref and the Lamm LP2) is a good marker of where we have arrived in contemporary solid-state design.
Oh, and it is very revealing of the source. One thing the Flight doesn't do is play games with euphony; it is largely uncolored and neutral. With its nearly non-existent noise level, if you put on a dirty LP you'll hear all the ticks and pops quite clearly.
Compared to the ASR Basis Exclusive
Curiously, if I went and played the same LP through my reference ASR Basis Exclusive, I heard less noise and this in spite of the fact that the Basis Exclusive is much more resolving. Go figure!
By far, the most important difference between these two phono stages, apart from the ASRs $8700 lay in the area of refinements. The Basis Exclusive may not be as tonally centered, but it has the most developed harmonic envelope of any solid-state unit of my acquaintance. Secondly, it has finer dynamic gradations. And thirdly, it has better control of the bottom. Consequently, it sounds more natural and has more musical flow. The Basis Exclusive actually sings in comparison to the Flight.
This is an odd turn of events. In my long acquaintance with the Basis Exclusive, I have never known it, or any other ASR product, to be a crooner. They are all voiced straight-up neutral. A friend heard the same thing and speculated that maybe the Basis Exclusive is one of those components with a really long break-in time. I'm talking in durations of, say, a year and a half, the time that I've owned my unit. Maybe it finally just achieved break-in, and is just now exhibiting its true colors?
A possible explanation could be those very large capacitors in the battery power supply. Because the Basis Exclusive deals with such minute signals the drain on the battery is minor. And the tiny signal it has to amplify doesn't vary that much, compared to a line-level signal. Consequently, it takes forever to break in those capacitors. So, the best thing you can do for your Basis Exclusive to facilitate quick burn-in is to set it to Battery Power mode and leave it ON all the time, even if you are not spinning vinyl. Check the battery level indicator every couple of days. When it gets down to just three bars, set the unit to AC for recharging.
Design and Features
The solid-state Flight is fully active (no step-up transformer) with plenty of gain for MC cartridges. I'm using the standard setting at 64dB with my 0.5 mv Shelter Harmony cartridge and there's no noise to speak of.
If you need it, you can engage another 10dB via a front-panel button for a maximum gain of 74dB. Loading is easily adjustable via a bank of plug-in resistors behind a cover plate on the back panel.
The Flight's power supply is in a separate, matching box. The two chassis form an attractive, aesthetically continuous line that belies the price point—it looks more expensive than its $6100 price.
It also has a Mono button, which I tried with mono LPs. I can't say I noticed an improvement.
The Flight gets slightly warm after several hours and then stabilizes. It sounds best then. For this reason, I recommend leaving it powered ON all the time.
The Audio Flight Phono is a good example of contemporary solid-state design. Yes, it sounds solid-state, but it avoids most of the pitfalls associated with that topology. The top-end has good body with no treble harshness. Its noise level is non-existent, yet gain is quite sufficient for even low output MC cartridges. In truth, it manages to do everything well; the issues present are minor.
Two things are outstanding. It has a kicker low-end capable of unfurling massive crescendos—dynamic range is well beyond expectation—and it remains composed while doing so. Second, soundstage clarity is notable. Transparency and dimensionality are heightened. I found it one of the few phono stages that can satisfactorily play the BIG symphonic works.
But, like most mid-price solid-state designs, what you won't hear is a lot of bloom. While I had no trouble making positive ID of the various instruments, my toe-tapping foot would have been more active if timbre had been more developed.
All in all, for those of us who like solid-state gear, the Audio Flight Phono is a strong contender at its price point. Once setup, you can forget about it and enjoy. Marshall Nack
North American Importer