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Positive Feedback ISSUE 7
june/july 2003


art audio

Vinyl Reference phono preamplifier

as reviewed by Robert H. Levi






Avalon Eidolon and Rel Stadium III subwoofer.

Marantz 17 tuner, Pass XONO phono preamplifier, Pass X1 preamplifier, Pass X600 monoblocks, and an Adcom 750 preamplifier for secondary sources.

VPI Scout/JMW 9 tonearm, VPI SDS Controller, and Benz Ruby2 H cartridge. Sony SCD-1 SACD player, Theta Gen. 5a DAC, Theta Jade transport, Alesis Masterlink, Theta Data II DAC, Pioneer DV-09 CD player.

Kimber Select balanced, Kimber TAK phono AG, Kimber Hero balanced and single ended, Kimber KCAG/KCTG.

Tice Power Block, Kimber Palladian power cables, Tara RSC and Decade power cables, Tiff power cables, Tice power cables, Tice Clock, and Audio Prism Quiet Line IIs.


As General Manager of the TBS SuperStation In the mid ‘80s, I was the guy who selected movies from the MGM library to be colorized. Both the colorizing process and computers were in their infancy, but we charged ahead. I was incredibly angry when Casablanca premiered in color with Ingrid Bergman flashing a green smile, Sam wearing a metallic gold dinner jacket, and the French flag flying in orange, white, and black. Yipes! Didn’t the folks at the now-bankrupt colorization company get the word? Things should look natural. No matter how much time and money we threw at the process, however, black and white movies never did look like they started life in color. Audio has gone down a similar road, but we can ask, even demand, maximum realism and an enjoyable listening experience.

I worked with Ted Turner for thirty-two years, and audio, my number-one hobby since the age of fifteen, gave me hours of relaxation and joy after ten hours a day with The Ted. In those hours of down time, I attempted to recreate the concert experience in my home. The Art Reference phono preamp got me close to that lofty goal with many of my treasured LPs. This component comes from a company that knows great sound, and their efforts have produced a phono stage worthy of audiophiles who want the best and can afford it.

Sporting a hybrid MOSFET/triode circuit in a single-box design with a chrome faceplate and beautiful wooden knobs, it displays no hint of dryness yet avoids becoming bloated or warmly liquid, as many tube phono stages tend to sound. It contains four 6N1P tubes sourced from Svetlana, which are powerful triodes once used in video circuits. The hybrid circuit pumps out 43dB in MM mode and 63dB in MC. My Benz Ruby 2H was easily powered. The front panel sports a very handy mute control (a feature I wish was on my Pass XONO, as I once blew out my tweeters from a static charge when I forgot to lower the volume after a particularly relaxing record). The front panel also has a phase control and a power switch. The rear panel sports switchable load impedance, MC and MM inputs via RCAs, outputs via RCAs and XLRs, a ground post, and a toggle switch to change the ground pin on the XLR if necessary. There is also a detachable power cord. No screws to remove to change impedance or make adjustments. Well done!

After fifty hours of break-in and a swap of the power cord to my favorite Tara Decade, I called on Duke Ellington for Blues in Orbit (Columbia CS 8241) from Classic Records. This may be the best sax and clarinet sound yet. I have the SACD of this recording, and the vinyl toasts it. The Pass sounded big and dynamic, the ART warmer and slightly more forward. Cymbals were more silvery on the Pass, a tad brassier on the ART. The ART rendered the performance as if the instruments were in the room, while the Pass put me in the recording studio, with a snappier and faster sound. The ART seemed to catch that illusive spark of reality and make the record sound less like a recording.

Then came the bass test of the century, "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" from Virgil Fox, Vol. 1 on Crystal Clear Records (CCS7001). The sonority and richness of the ART was terrific. It delivered very good, deep bass with beautiful overtones and warm hall acoustics. The organ sounded realistic and tuneful. The Pass diverged from the ART on this recording more than on any other. The Pass’ bass seemed to go to the center of the earth. The sound was bigger, with increased depth. The sound of the ART was nonetheless compelling, and the choice of phono stage on this LP would be a matter of taste.

The ART rendered female voices faithfully. Linda Ronstadt‘s What’s New (Asylum 60260), with Nelson Riddle conducting, was a treat. Her voice was perfectly textured. The bit of dryness on the violins vanished with the ART, making this commercial recording come to life. The Pass had a touch more focus, but it did not seem to matter. With the ART, I left the record on for the entire side, though I had only intended to listen to one cut. Holly Cole’s Invitation to the Blues, on a 45RPM Classic Record test pressing (thank you, Michael Hobson) was a treat. The Art combined speed and texture on this heavily modulated pressing to great effect. The piano and voice were present in the room, and distortion was nonexistent. I love these 45s from Classic Records!! The ART glorified Amanda McBroom’s The Rose (Sheffield Lab 13). This slightly dry-sounding direct-to-disc LP had a natural sound and perspective I’ve not heard before.

At this point, I dashed to get my newly purchased, sealed copy of Howard Hanson, Song of Democracy (Mercury SR 90150). The choral rendering was superb. The mids were nearly alive, and exquisitely airy. The orchestra was clearly in front of the chorus and the balance was right on target. The performance was more lifelike with the ART. The Pass was more neutral, but without the DNA I hunger for when I listen to a great Mercury recording. Mercuries and RCAs from the 50s just sounded right through the ART. Modern phono stages sometimes sound like X-ray machines on classic discs, but with the ART, the notes make musical sense. On Sketches of Spain (Columbia CS 8271), another Classic Records reissue, Miles Davis was smooth and powerful, and the overall sound was romantic and glorious. The Pass was perhaps a bit more dynamic here, while the ART was mellifluous. Both were terrific.

Both preamps were dead quiet. I expect black backgrounds from gear of this price, and both delivered. That the ART can accomplish this with tubes is a real achievement in my book. The Pass is the best in this area, but the ART was close. The ART also seemed to slightly reduce surface noise, which is always a plus.

For those of you who scroll down to the final paragraph of audio reviews, this is for you—the ART is ear candy! Your record collection, particularly your treasured golden oldies, will be exalted on this gorgeous piece of audio legerdemain. Its flexibility will surely benefit any system, balanced or single-ended, solid state or tube. Its lack of idiosyncrasies was a joy, as was its sound. The ART is a piece of art. Robert H. Levi




Vinyl Reference phono preamplifier
Retail: $3995

Art Audio
TEL: 401.826. 8286
web address: