20/20 Phono Preamplifier - Give Thanks
as reviewed by Tom Lyle
I think that it is about time that we give thanks to everyone who abandoned their "obsolete" record collections during the period of the late 1980s though the beginning part of the 21st Century. Some brought them directly to us, seeking a "good home" for their records. Yet we should also be thankful for those who decided to either sell or donate their record collections to the used record stores that still remained, making it possible for us to buy selections of these collections sometimes for only pennies on the dollar. Let's not forget those who posted their records on eBay and other sites, opening the vinyl-floodgates and thus making almost every difficult to find record we've ever dreamed of being a part of our collections a reality.
Finally, let us thank the newcomers and those who came to their senses and returned to vinyl when they finally realized that this is the most enjoyable format out there, and record companies large and small and in between for pressing records in relatively large numbers again, and making them available at more outlets than we could have ever hoped for. Now that the dust has settled and the audiophile community has been basking in the new vinyl renaissance for some time now, let's thank those with the expertise that have been turning their attention to building high quality, affordable, not so affordable, and somewhere in between phono playback equipment. And let's be thankful that one of them is Ron Sutherland, the designer of the Sutherland 20/20 phono stage.
Some might recognize Ron Sutherland's name as none other than the former Martin-Logan founder. Although these days, more often than not he is known for his battery-powered phono stages including the popular PH3D and the more advanced (and pricier) Hubble. Mr. Sutherland says that the AC powered 20/20 was developed for "the person who wants those advantages, but does not want to mess with batteries". He also wanted at the same time to include the benefits that come with dual-mono construction. So, the 20/20 is actually two identical monophonic preamplifiers each with its own circuit board, shielded compartment, power indicator, AC power supply, and power cord.
The only part shared by the two channels are the front, side, and back panels of the unit. Sutherland prefers the term "two-mono" rather the more common dual-mono because his design fulfills his quest for "the ultimate in stereo separation". It also seems that he also doesn't much care for the term "wall-wart", so in the manual he calls the two separate power supplies that connect to the 20/20 "regulated tabletop power supplies", saying that these are of a more sophisticated relative of the latter. And it seems as if he might have a point—because he states that the power supplies of the 20/20 provide additional levels of filtering that removes noise, and then provide local voltage regulation adjacent to the audio circuitry.
Sutherland claims that these final steps that provide the unit its voltage has a heck of a lot to do with the quality of DC that is delivered to the sensitive audio circuitry. The 20/20's circuit architecture also provides extreme isolation from the impact of AC power line aberrations. Rather than locate the power connections on the back panel, which Sutherland says are too close to the preamp circuitry with all the input/output jacks, the user must open the top plate of the unit to access the circuit board. There one will find, near the front of the unit, connections to plug in each power supply. Sutherland also claims that the not only is the 20/20 nice to look at from the outside, with its baked epoxy powdered coat finish, ½" anodized front panel—but "beautiful on the inside" with the inclusion of Dale/Vishay metal film resistors with a tolerance of only 1%, and Wima polypropylene capacitors. Its RCA inputs and outputs are are gold-plated and Teflon insulated.
The gain and impedance loading options are set separately for each channel on the two separate circuit boards. Both the gain and impedance settings are likely to be more than sufficient for just about any Moving Magnet or Moving Coil phono cartridge that the potential user of the 20/20 will encounter. Five gain settings, 40, 46, 52, 58, and 64 dB, and five impedance settings of either 100, 200, 475, 1k, or 47.5 k Ohms. After only a short time of experimentation, I settled on a gain of 58 dB, and a load setting of 100 Ohms for the Lyra cartridge.
The Audiophile Scene
OK, I'm going to assume you're not new to the audiophile scene, nor is this the first audio equipment review you've ever read. So there is a pretty good chance that you're going to regard the above design descriptions (if you've even bothered to read them) with a grain of salt, because no matter how they've reached the final results, you are well aware that the two most important things other than maybe its price (at least they should be the two most important things) are how it sounds, and also, and perhaps just as significantly, how well will it matches the rest of your system. Sure, it is nice that so much engineering know-how went into this phono preamp, and I'm not saying that these things aren't meaningful or that one should be skeptical, but no matter how these objectives are obtained, technical descriptions are just that—technical descriptions—and need to be put into perspective. But I admit that the 20/20, as far as it's design goes, it's hardly a one trick pony, and it is reasonable to assume that the combination of its dual-mono design, advanced power supply configuration, high-quality internal parts, and power routing scheme all add up to something good.
As far as the Sutherland 20/20 phono preamp fitting in with the rest of one's system, at this price point, which may be at the limits of what might be considered "affordable", the unit's limitations most likely will not come into play. So the fact that it lacks balanced XLR connections and only has an input for a single tonearm/cartridge should not deter many. That said, the need to remove the top cover of the unit to access the loading options isn't going to be a problem either, because one will probably only need to configure them during the initial set-up or perhaps only a time or two later to get things right before settling into listening for the long haul. In my system the loading options were more than sufficient. Even so, I would have preferred the 20/20 to have balanced outputs to connect to the fully balanced BAT tube preamp I was using. But this wasn't that big of a deal—I merely connected the 20/20 using unbalanced RCA interconnects to one of the RCA inputs on the preamp. Done.
And how does the Sutherland 20/20 sound? I think it's worth mentioning that the 58dB gain setting was a hair less than I was used to than the 60dB with my reference Pass XP-15 phono preamp. At first this bothered me because creature of habit that I am, I kept setting the volume of the line stage to the level that I'd been accustomed to when using a phono preamp with a gain of 60dB. Whoa is me, I had to reach for the remote and turn the volume up a bit. But truth be told, the 58dB was more than sufficient and did not raise the level of background noise. In fact, even when using this lower gain setting the background noise of the 20/20 was essentially nonexistent. When I set the line-stage's volume level to one that would be dangerous not only to the speakers but to my ears if I dared lower the stylus to the record, only by placing my ears to the speaker's grill did I hear any hiss. And this slight hiss was most likely generated by the tubes in the near silent idling BAT. The only reason I didn't use the higher 64dB setting of the 20/20 was that it was much louder than the input volume of the rest of the front end, and I feared accidentally switching inputs without lowering the preamp's volume first, risking damage to the speakers.
Of course the low noise floor made all the sounds jump out of this black space, even though one might think that the black background of the 20/20 would make it easier for any surface noise to more easily intrude upon the music. But like the old joke about a Thermos™ keeping hot liquid hot and cold liquid cold ("how does it know?"), the 20/20 seemed to instinctively realize what was music, and what was not. The music rose out of the darkened background and positioned itself in properly scaled, wide and deep soundstage. The images of each instrument or group of instruments was also naturally rendered, and I would not dare call the image outlines either razor sharp, or worse, ethereal.
It might be too much of a stretch to say that this phono preamplifier belied its solid-state lineage, but it is obvious that the 20/20 possesses many more benefits than deficits in that department. In fact, the reproduction of the frequencies in the all important midrange of 20/20 is its strongest suit, not only for the fact that it is not only extremely transparent to the source, but each instrument is separated from another in its expansive soundfield. But most impressive of all was its natural, lifelike portrayal of instruments.
On "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" on Classic Records' classic (sorry) pressing of Led Zeppelin's first album, I could practically "see" Jimmy Page's acoustic guitar take up residence between the two speakers. OK, it wasn't absolutely lifelike because of the closely placed microphones made it sound much larger than an actual guitar—which might also have been due to the fact that the speakers in the system were the six-foot tall Sound Lab DynaStat electrostatic hybrids. Say what you want about these speakers, but I don't think anyone can deny their midrange prowess. But despite it's larger than life scale, it was nevertheless spot on in that it possessed lifelike timbre and presence. Not only that, but the 20/20's low level resolution was first rate. For years I've noticed Robert Plant's scratch vocals laid down during the basic track's recording sessions bleeding through the other instruments microphones, but during this listening session this lo-fi vestigial track was not only clearly audible, but placed between other instruments in the soundstage, so it ended up sounding sort of otherworldly. It was especially mixed in with some of the drum sounds, and the acoustic of the room was also slightly evident.
Given the Sutherland 20/20's high level of transparency, it is difficult to describe the "sound" of the unit, since it really doesn't have any "sound" of its own. Euphony is not in its DNA. But I'm not saying the 20/20 is sonically perfect—and I should preface this by saying that these subtractive errors were really noticeable when directly comparing the Sutherland to the pricier Pass Labs model—some might find that the level of extension at the frequency is a bit lacking, more specifically, the lowest of the lows and to some extent (and admittedly not nearly as noticeable) the highest of the highs. Yet this might not be an issue for many, especially those who have systems that don't reach into the lowest of the lows in the first place. And those who's listening habits lean more toward programming small combos, particularly those of the jazz and classical variety, might even find in the 20/20 a perfect match for their systems. When I spent a good part of the day playing nothing but Blue Note LPs (a number of them acquired from the collections of those good souls mentioned in the first paragraph of this review), it was easy to get lost in the music, mostly because of the 20/20s lack of solid-state artifacts, and especially its honest portrayal of the music pressed in the grooves of these platters.
It should come as no surprise that when I played these records again through the pricier Pass Labs phono preamp, the level of detail retrieval and frequency extension was greater. But let's be honest—at nearly $4k the Pass is significantly higher in price than Sutherland—yet at the asking price of $2200 for the Sutherland, even though many audiophiles might consider it "affordable", this is still a mighty chunk of change for many to spend on an audio component. Lucky for the audiophiles spending nearly twice as much as that for the Pass the law of diminishing returns doesn't kick in, yet I'd hardly consider purchasing a Sutherland 20/20 "settling" for less.
What the 20/20 lacked in overall detail (again, only when directly compared to the Pass), its level of transparency easily made up for this, plus its ineffable ability to communicated the emotional content of these quintessential recordings was beyond reproach. Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil, a December 1964 session includes not only two important bandmates from Miles Davis' quintet, Herbie Handcock on piano and Ron Carter on bass, but Coltrane sideman Elvin Jones that accompanied Shorter on his previous outing for Blue Note. Plus, it includes the outstanding talent of longtime friend Freddie Hubbard is on trumpet.
Some complain that stylistically this album relies too heavily on standard bop, but to me I feel as if it is one of the best albums from this era of Shorter's catalog, if only for the reason that the musicianship is so top notch and they seem to find a comfortable groove throughout the session. And the sound quality ain't so bad either, a classic Rudy Van Gelder session if I've ever heard one—the details of which there is not enough room to go into here, but when played through the 20/20 it provided an intimate sonic picture-window into the recording date. I might be exaggerating a bit here, but I could swear at one point I smelled cigarette smoke, but even if this is a bit of hyperbole (it is) you get the idea. Mr. Hubbard and Mr. Shorter appear separately in each channel, yet the studio baffles cannot prevent the bleed that adds to the reality that they were in the same large-ish room playing together as a band. And the telepathy between band members that occurs as with many Blue Note sessions from this period of course occurs on this album, which anyone who doesn't possess tin ears will notice. This happens numerous times during the album's six tunes, especially during the last song on side on, "Dance Cadaverous". I'm usually not a huge fan of tunes written in three quarter time (perhaps in 6/8 here?) except in certain cases, and this cut definitely merits an exception. This Shorter composition evokes more of a ghoulish dance than a pleasant waltz, and the solos by Shorter and Hubbard feed off of each other, while both interweave the melodies that develop from both. The 20/20 is able to put lots of air around all the instruments, not only the horns, but each of Jones' drums that are placed in distinct areas of the soundstage. What a treat.
A Happy Home
There is no question that the top-notch Sutherland 20/20 will find a happy home in many systems. For audiophiles currently thinking of upgrading from a decent sub-$1500 model, buyer's regret is hardly an imaginable outcome—and this is most likely because, simply stated, when playing records music will sound more like music than ever before. There are of course system matching considerations that will have to be addressed, but this is of course true with every other high quality audio component that has a potential for residence in a carefully thought out system. The Sutherland 20/20 is definitely worth considering. Tom Lyle
Sutherland 20/20 Phono Preamplifier Specifications: