I was shocked, yes shocked to see albums, yes genuine vinyl, being sold at Fry's Electronics, Urban Outfitters and shock of all shocks, Barnes & Noble on a recent shopping excursion. In fact what initially pulled me into Urban Outfitters was that from the street, I saw albums and cheap record players prominently displayed in front of the store. These were no small displays either. They were big displays! Yes vinyl is dead. But what next, will 7 Eleven start to stock the latest 180 gram re-issues of Zep? Oh thank heaven!
Second rant, I just flat out don't believe it when some reviewer states in a review that his hi-rez little dac sounds better, or is indistinguishable from his analog rig. Maybe he bought that analog rig from Urban Outfitters. I still hear digital reproduction as flat, somewhat uninvolving with cardboard images, no matter how expensive the player. But don't get me wrong. I am fully aware of the advantages and disadvantages of both mediums. And please, I am no staunch militant of either medium. I use both. In fact my Microsoft Zune player gets more than its share of air play in my car. I just believe vinyl sounds more musical.
This leads us to the topic of this review, a phono preamplifier. The last review I did was of a very inexpensive phono preamplifier, the Art Audio USB Phono Plus. This $70 unit is so chock full of features, in that sense it is a giant killer. If you want an inexpensive phono preamplifier that goes way beyond the call of duty, this is it. Or if you want much better audio performance and are willing to spend a bit more, have I got something for you.
My friends, I give you the Margules Audio Magenta FZ47DB Phono Stage preamplifier. This small handsome black unit looks poised to do some serious handiwork with a phono signal. This three inches high by five inches deep by just shy of eleven inches wide unit is not just another pretty little black box. The FZ47 DB has a maximum output voltage of 13V, 45db of gain and an S/N ratio of 89 dB at maximum output. The power supply is a dual regulation type. Precision metal-film resistors and polypropylene capacitors, silver core interconnect cable, and gold connectors are used in its build. But the real surprise is the built-in internal DIP switch board. This enables the user to manipulate the load with 16 different input impedances that vary from 27K to 390 K ohms. This board is internal and you do have to remove the cover to reach the switches. But really, how many times does the average user need to do this? Besides, this will give the owner the opportunity, once in a while, to have a peek of its innards just for fun. No? Although the screws holding the unit together are not of the sunken/flush design, the unit is solidly built and finished in a very nice, albeit a fingerprint magnet, high gloss black. On the single sheet of a manual there is a RIAA chart and a set of harmonic distortion figures along with a diagram of different input options.
I have had in my system for many years the Margules U280SDC stereo tube amplifier. With its fantastic sound quality and myriad of features, in my review I called this amp a “sleeper” due to these attributes and its very friendly price. It competes very strongly with amplifiers many times its price. But will the little FZ47DB continue this tradition? To find out I called upon a number of phono preamplifier options I had at my disposal. First up was the little Art Pro Audio USB. I felt this unit has an overall clean sound, with the top end that hardens up as the volume goes up, a neutral midrange, and lacking in soundstage abilities. This unit is nice in a pinch, especially if you want to play with all of its built-in features and record your vinyl to your computer. With the next two phono preamps, which are built in to two different integrated amplifiers, I ran the cables directly from my Kuzma turntable into the integrated amps for a listen to their built-in phono preamps. Then I ran the Kuzma's cables to the FZ47DB, then a set of Morrow Audio 1.1 interconnects from the Magenta to one of the inputs on the integrateds one at a time for a comparison. Yes it was cable swap time, but it worked. The internal phono MM stage in my affordable Marantz PM-5004 is surprisingly good. Well balanced and more open than the Art USB. Compared to the FZ47DB, this phono preamp fared well. I have heard phono preamps that cost $500 that did not perform as well as this built in Marantz unit. In fact if the amp this thing is saddled to sounded better, one could have a very nice system going with this Marantz unit. Stepping up to my big guns, we have the Marantz's Reference Series PM15S1 Integrated amplifier. This amp has the full Signature Modification from The Upgrade Company. I asked TUC to especially pay attention to the phono section when he was doing the mod. The PM15S1's phono section displayed very good stage depth and image placement. But in comparison to the Margules FZ47DB it was slightly closed in, lost a bit of transparency, and the top end sounded a bit more strident and slightly thinner. Actually I was quite surprised at the comparison with my PM15S1; the Margules easily surpassed the Reference Marantz in overall performance. The Margules sounded noticeably sweeter, slightly warmer and had deeper more taut bass. It also sounded more effortless and open. Go figure!
Let's look at the musical performance of the Margules FZ47DB. Let's start with the greatest strength of this unit, that being its very well balanced nature. From top to bottom there is a noticeable cohesion that makes listening very enjoyable. Although this unit is truthful to the source being played, I never got the feeling that the bass was unruly or the mids were recessed or the treble was too hot at times. Reaching back to the late 80s, I played my original pressing of The Alan Parsons Project's Vulture Culture LP. On the track “Separate Lives” my notes read, wow! The layering of the synthesizers, the background sounds of the instrumental clicks and pops, (synth sounds) are all so distinct yet naturally placed on the stage. Yes naturally placed electronic instruments. Kudos has to go to Mr. Parsons for his masterful work on the recording of this, and all of his albums. The Margules brings out all of these sounds in a very natural and cohesive way, and I began to forget all of these sounds are not from natural instruments. It was quite enjoyable just sinking into the music.
Switching my musical gears to Montverdi Vespers on Nonesuch was like going to church on Christmas night. Suddenly I was mid hall at the church of St. John-at- Hakney. I heard great ambiance with the organ anchored behind the singers. The soundstage was never exaggerated. It sounded slightly distant. Reflecting the way I have heard it on other systems with this LP. Since it is Christmas, let's continue with Bach's Christmas Oratorios on DG. Suddenly the wider and more open soundstage of this recording was very apparent. Again what comes to mind when listening to this recording is a very well balanced unit. I heard no unwanted or undue sonic anomalies with this recording in any part of the spectrum. The Magenta FZ47DB also displayed great timing with the trumpets, tympani, and vocals all coherently rendered. But the best part while listening to these albums was that I could not keep focused on my notes and kept slipping into the music. Great!
By this time you might be thinking this unit is nice, polite, and inoffensive. So let's put on some music that is anything but. I know I have used these boys for musical examples in my last few articles, but I love this group. On the Drive by Truckers LPThe Dirty South, the Margules does an excellent job of extracting vocal nuances from Patterson Hood. It also does does a great job of filling my 10x20 foot space from wall to wall with ease. Again the piercing, sharp, gangly guitars, crashing drums and cymbals, and full bass lines gel into a complete whole to transport you to a Southern dive bar Honky Tonk on a Saturday night. My favorites are “Puttin' People on the Moon” and “Carl Perkins' Cadillac.” But also check out “George Jones Talkin' Cell Phone Blues” and “Play It All Night Long” from their The Fine Print, a collection of oddities and rarities (2003-2008).
As I transitioned from Deep Purple's Perfect Strangers (yes a stinker of a recording) to Gary Clark Jr's excellent Black and Blu (a better than okay recording, but great music) I came upon an old chestnut. It was Don Randy and Quest, California 84 (a great recording). I was flabbergasted at the gargantuan bass on this LP. The Magenta played it for all it and my system had. Actually I was surprised that my little Fritz speakers could produce such bass, yes! It also seemed that I could dance around the instruments on that hugely reproduced soundstage that it and my speakers were reproducing.
In fact, as I installed this phono preamp in three different systems, I noticed it to be very transparent. Reflecting the sound of the system it was in, and passing the music fed to it with little interference or coloration. And this is where we come to a dilemma I had reviewing this component. Aside from slight personal setbacks during the reviewing which set me back months from any reasonable due date, I had a hard time finding real criticism of this phono preamplifier. I am now not going to state the obvious by saying for its price it is a real performer, but it is hard to bypass a statement like that with this unit. I think you can deduce that by the above assessment of it. I guess the best way to describe it is to just say it is a very well balanced, transparent, and quite dynamic reproducer of the vinyl signals you feed it. It is reasonably priced, with flexible features, and very well constructed. These attributes also reflect Margules Audio as a whole. The descriptions of their products on their website are neither hyperbole nor exaggeration, but honesty. I can vouch for this in the fact that I own and have been listening to for many years their U280SC tube amplifier which is a very solid performer.
The price of this unit would also naturally invite comparisons with like priced components. The likes of Cambridge, Rega, and Musical Fidelity come to mind. I haven't heard all of the competition, but trust me, the Margules is the strongest performer I have heard in this price category. I have owned a few of these units and they have come and gone, quickly. In fact the Margules fared extremely well against a far costlier ($1500) famous maker unit that I had in for a brief audition, and shall remain nameless. I would say that realistically the FZ47DB competes very comfortably in the $1000 to $1500 range.
Another obvious cliché would be to say that are there are better products out there. Well, yes. But you know the drill here. How much are you willing to spend and how much performance gains are you actually getting for the exponential cash outlay? This brings me to a somewhat strange question a friend recently asked me. He said, and I am paraphrasing, if you didn't have your good stereo system could you live on some real cheap stuff? I said, very quickly, yes. I told him that first and foremost I could live with a low watt Tripath amp. In fact, I really like those Tripath amps. Another obvious choice would have to be a component like the Margules Magenta FZ47DB phono preamplifier. This is not a bargain basement product by any means, but in the grand scheme of pricing in the ever increasing scale of high end audio, this unit is very affordable. And its performance has proven to be above and beyond its price class. I have a feeling this unit will be in my system for a long period. And that means more trips to Urban Outfitters and such for more vinyl. Francisco Duran
Magenta FZ47DB phono preamplifier
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