So for the past few months I have had the pleasure of using Ron Sutherland's DUO phono stage as the means of taking this from my Transrotor Leonardo 25/25/60 Doppio turntable, audiomods' Series 5 arm, and the Shelter 901 cartridge, and turning it into that for analog playback. Our current 'reference' phono stages are either the Heed Quasar (HERE) or the Channel D Lino (HERE)—both stellar in their own way. Now, the DUO runs several times the price of either of these phono stages (the DUO is $4000) and features two identical chassis for each channel. And I mean identical mono chassis with their own requisite grounding terminals and IEC outlets… identical. And if you must know, neither sports any identification of being left or right… as it doesn't matter—you just have to choose, and then keep in mind, which chassis is which with respect to left and right.
Each chassis holds the power supply on one side, and the phono circuit on the other. The power supply is quite beefy, and yet quite simply elegant, and is as well implemented by Ron, as Ron can do; shielded and solid in respect to noise and anything else that could get in the way of your music. The phono circuit side is an integrated circuit design featuring the best parts Ron could source to do what he wanted the DUO to do… short signal paths with a focus on limiting interactions to the signal. This is all done on two rather hefty 1/8" circuit boards that give a fair amount of separation between the two sides.
Gain and loading is done internally with jumpers that require the removal of the tops via four thumb screws. Would be nice if this was on the rear or via a front panel switch since it does require a fair amount of time and effort to swap out the two units, change either the lodging or the gain, and then swap the two units back in (Gain Options are 40 dB, 46 dB, 52 dB, 58 dB, and 64 dB, and Loading Options are 47.5 k Ohm, 1 k Ohms, 475 Ohms, and 200 Ohms). I get that Ron wanted everything to be as short and simple, and yet as elegantly right as possible, so unless you are swapping out cartridges left and right, once done, leave it alone and listen to your music. Ron is a real sweet guy, and one who obviously is driven by simplicity and elegance in how he approaches and executes his designs. All are clean and organized, with a focus on the details that matter. True works of art.
But so what? What does this mean to me as a music lover? One who wants to get the most, if not all, from my LPs?
Well, like I said Ron is a real sweet guy. One who comes across as being polite, open, and honest... and while not one to mince words, Ron will express his side of things in a way that shows respect for the otherside. At least this is how I have come to know Ron as a person from the many times we have met at various shows where he was demoing his products. A real nice guy, who has a penchant for order and detail, yet loves to talk music and life—which are not always orderly and neat. Much of our music is, well... rather messy.
And the DUO pretty much presented our music that way. When called for... clean and articulate, orderly and sweet as all get out. But as I said above, much of our music is, well... rather messy. And the DUO did that quite well keeping it... quite messy indeed. The DUO is also extended when the music called for it and not so extended when the music did not call for it—meaning that any coloration or 'addition to' was not going to happen. The DUO gives you what is on the LP and nothing more. If your music is lean, then you get lean, but if it is rich and full, you get rich and full… bad recordings or masterings are, well, still bad. But good or great recordings or masterings are good or great! You get what you got. Including messy and rough. Which is cool as the DUO was so good with our better recorded LPs… those from Mogwai, Low, Lambchop, the Notwist, Massive Attack and many more, while being good with the many that are not so good. Much like Ron who shows respect for the other side in a way that is respectful and polite.
And it did this either loud or quiet. Turn it up and things get big and dynamic, turn it down and things get smaller but still retain the dynamic and all the subtle nuances one can experience when you got your system cranked to just the right level. Nothing is lost… except for volume and all that that can bring to the table. In many ways the DUO's ability to play either loud or soft is same as heard with either the TELOS or Entreq units in the chain—less noise gives you more music… regardless the volume level. Kudos Ron on addressing what harm noise and crap can wreak on the music. Way cool.
Fast and dynamic with wonderful pace and timing… when the music called for it, the DUO moved the music along at such an engaging level. Take the LP This is… from Big Audio Dynamite. Time to dance…sweet. Time machine and was that the coolest when it came out? Way cool. (The release we have is the remastered Intervention Records version). Now we would like a wee bit more bottom and slam, and like I said the DUO won't give it to you unless it is there… but swap in AC cords from Triode Wire Lab and oh, my; punch and kick to die for… the BAD LP is a wee bit thin at the bottom and can use a little more weight if you know what I mean, and so the AC cords from Triode Wire Labs gave us that oomph and a touch more at the bottom end... that we wanted to hear. But then one is now tuning the sound, or seasoning the sound by altering the DUO in some way. I am fine with that, but you might not. Ron might not as well, though in the end audio is all about finding that magic… your magic. Or in this case, our magic.
As to perspective, the DUO tends to move the music a bit further back than the other two phono stages. This is readily apparent in vocals which now appear back within the stage as opposed to further out into the room. Not a bad thing, nor a good thing… just a different thing. Even so, the DUO presented a big and palpable soundstage, but only when the music possessed it itself. No sonic trickery here. Truth and honesty… and made in America.
I really appreciated what the DUO did with our LPs and can highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for honesty and balance. It is not going to warm things up, nor cool things down. It is clean and articulate. Airy and extended. Open and oh so smooth. No grain or grit. No hardness or glare. Just music. The DUO is rock solid and way cool. Recommended.
All Images courtesy of Sutherland Engineering