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Frankie Rat and The Art Pro Audio USB Phono Plus, Project Series Audiophile Computer Interface

10-10-2014 | By Francisco Duran | Issue 75

Art Pro Audio USB Phono Plus

Hi I would like to introduce myself to you. My name is Frankie Rat and I have an audio story for you. I hope you find it interesting so here goes. It's not easy living in the rat race. I get up real early in the morning, hop in my little rat rod slide down the road to my little ratty job. After a hard day of toil, its back to my little rat digs for the three S's and a little rest and relaxation. Well actually us rats don't really shave. We don't really shower either. So what does a rat do for a little entertainment you ask? Well just like you humans we like music. No make that we LOVE music. And what better way to listen to music than through a cool record player. Yeah that's right we rats love vinyl too. After all we got it from you humans. That's right; all of that great vinyl and old record players you people threw out at the beginning of the "digital age" was scooped up by us like it was one month old cheese! So when I go home I take my little old recycled rat record player for a spin or two or thirty before hitting the old rats nest.

But lately I have been in a bit of a rodent quandary. My big fat rat phono section all of a sudden gave up the ghost. What's a rat to do? Do I go all out and spend the big bucks on a fat cat expensive phono rig? Or do I just buy something to get by till I find the perfect phono preamp for my little rat record spinner. I think I'll go cheap. Because unlike Pavlov's dog, us rats are very thoughtful and careful before we make a decision. We like to do a lot of sniffing around first before we make that final grab.

So what to buy and where does a rat shop in this town? Hey, I could hang around an alley for months waiting for some human to through something out and nothing could pop up worth my weight in rat pellets. Besides in this day and age, brick and mortar stores are getting scarce. How does one separate the wheat from the chaff to quote David Crosby? (He has such a cool rat moustache by the way). I know I will cruise the internet super highway. All I have to do is crawl through a couple of pipes down at the local library and log in on one of the old PC's. You should see me use all four of my paws to type. I even use my tail to hit enter and return buttons, I ‘m pretty fast.

Doing a little research really blew my mind. There are so many choices. There are phono units from el cheapo to muy expensive. Some are great some are real dogs. Sometimes price has nothing to do with it. OK, let's start with what I want to spend. I only have so many rat bucks for the pursuit of aural pleasure you know. Let's keep the celling to $100. But wait a minute, what kind of junk am I going to get for that kind of money? Hey, the super highway tells me there are some pretty good choices for that kind of dough. And since I have a very lovely MM cart, it should be easier to narrow down my decision. But no! I found MM only, MM/MC, MM/MC tube units, MM/MC solid state units, some with USB, some with DAC's, ADC's and finally one with every kind of convenience a music loving rat could want. Ladies and gentleman I give you the Art Pro Audio USB Phono Plus, Project Series Audiophile Computer Interface. Whaaaaat? This baby was consistently on the top of vinyl threads for high performance to cost ratio. So I bought one with my low interest rat credit card. OK but how does it sound? Wait a minute we will get to that. Besides a lot of Pro Audio gear, Art Pro Audio makes two phono preamps for ratsumers. A MM only version and this one.  And this one is loaded. The introduction on the manual states that this is a "high quality USB audio interface with a built-in phono preamp. It acts as an interface between your computer and a wide variety of analog and digital sources. "This unit can be powered directly from the USB port or from an external power supply. It does not come with its own power supply. "The USB phono Plus is fully compliant with USB 2.0 specification and uses USB adaptive mode for playback and USB asynchronous mode for record. It will work with the USB audio device drivers built into Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP/vista/Win7, Linux, and Apple OS9.1/OS-X computers with native USB support. No special drivers are needed". Art Pro Audio even includes a CDROM which has the SoundSaver Express program to start rolling your own digitized LP's. But that is just the tip of the ice burg. And boy what a tip! 

Art Pro Audio USB Phono Plus

There is the preamp phono line in RCA jacks to hook up your turntable, CD player, MP 3 player, or whatever device you can think of. There is a preamp line out jacks for source monitoring or for use with a stand-alone preamp. There is the SPDIF in to USB which overrides the Optical in and analog preamp input signal connections whenever an SPDIF format signal is present. There is an optical in to USB and Optical out from USB (2.0) for connections to your computer. A 1/8 inch headphone jack, ground terminal and 9V/150mA power supply input round out the back of this unit. A power supply, I don't have a power supply for this thing! But I have a lot of human friends who do. Let's keep going.

The front panel proves just as busy. One of two switches is for phono and line. The other is for setting the filter either to low cut or flat. Next to that is a gain trim to adjust the overall analog preamp gain. You can crank this till the clip signal light next to it starts to flicker then back off a bit. There is a three position monitor switch which selects what signal is sent to the Monitor Output level control and output jack. Select preamp and you are directly monitoring the analog preamp signal before it goes to the computer. Set to the CPU position and you monitor the digital audio signal that is coming back from your computer. In the BOTH position and you have a mix of the preamp and computer signals. You can monitor the sound with a pair of headphones if you so desire by plugging them in to the MONITOR OUTPUT and using the MONITOR OUTPUT LEVEL (volume knob) control for fine adjustments. Whew! Is there anything else? The manual states and I will not list all of the key features but here are a few." Up to 45 Db of Clean gain, Latency Free Monitoring, Includes recording & Production Software, Compact, Stackable all Aluminum Chassis, Three year warranty. "Plus what is mentioned above. That is a lot of information for a rat to digest. But even you humans say we rats are smart so I think it will be no problem figuring out this rig. Oh I forgot something. There is plenty of info in the manual concerning the use of the recording software. And if you look on the bottom of the unit there is even a block diagram and signal flow silkscreened there. Nice.

Before I hooked this thing up and started to listen to records I realized that I didn't have a power supply for it. This posed a slight problem but one that was easily solved. I remembered my friend the great and famous audio reviewer Francisco Duran of positive-feedback online. He could help me. Surely he would have a spare power supply for the Art USB. Besides it is way easier for him to change records than it is for me. And actually he really knows how to describe the sound of gear better than me. Sure enough after a call to Francisco he came by picked me and the gear up and soon we were setting up my gear in his house. He is so cool. There is only one problem though at Francisco's house. He has a dog. A little Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix. Those things are not known to be called "rat dogs" for nothing. No problem, we set "Jackie Brown" up with some water and shade on the side of the house and she was happy as a tic. I was safe for the moment. 

Hi Frankie, glad to have the opportunity to help a fellow audio nut when I can. Nice little unit. What we have here is a very well built and executed phono preamp with USB audio interface that is very reasonably priced. But if it don't sound even half way decent it is just the fanciest paper weight in the world. "Right Francisco, my sediments exactly". But before we got to the music making, I burned this thing in a bit to get a feel for it. This unit worked flawlessly. All the controls and switches responded cleanly and solidly. And it is quiet as a mouse. (Bless their souls) There were no unwanted hums, buzzes or crackles from this thing. Thanks again Francisco. Quiet is good for us rats. We can hear cats sneaking up on us.

OK Frankie let's get down to the review. I will take it from here for a few paragraphs. Back in the early 70's I used to catch a song now and then on some of the then new FM bands "underground" stations. It was from a band called The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. The cut was called "Waterwheel". That song floored me. It was as romantic in the far away sense of the interpretation of that word as you could get. It sent goose bumps down my back. Years later finding a used copy of the album, Men From Earth, from which this cut begins side two, I still get the same feelings when I hear this cut today. With such other gems on this album as The Red Plum and It's How You Think, it has grown to become one of my all-time favorite albums. The little USB Phono Plus really had its work cut out for it reproducing one of my favorites.

I truly feel if one loves music, Goosebumps can be induced from listening to music with all manner of gear no matter the cost. I have said in print that my little car radio has on more than one occasion sent me into aural la la land. So it was with this little unit. I was in audio dreamland listening to Waterwheel.

After a few days of just pure listening, I went back and listened more critically. There is a lot going on in the Daredevils music what with six members in the band and various guest musicians. The Art DJ USB did an admirable job of separating cleanly the various acoustic guitars from each other on the above mentioned songs. The tone of nylon or steel string could be easily differentiated. The many percussion instruments were cleanly detailed such as clackers from drum kit and drum kit from bongos. And with almost as many lead vocalists as members, again this little pre did a fine job of capturing individual vocalists with ease. Bass sounded full and had a nice pace. It sounded cleaner and leaner instead of slower and fatter. Dynamics while not earth shaking were taut and fast.

This preamp also passed the Drive By Truckers test with ease. If you were going to get uncomfortable with its sound in the midrange to treble it would be with their albums. Of course it depends on your set up. With all of the distorted twanging, grunge and strained vocals going on with the Truckers, a phono pre better be up to snuff if it is going to reproduce this music well. It did. It never went past the line in terms of brightness or distortion. It handled the vocals and cymbals very even handed for a $70 phono unit. In fact on some of the cuts it seemed the mike was directly on top of those cymbals. This unit never sounded splashy or too bright.

With more expensive phono preamps the soundstage seems to swell or shrink with the recording. The soundstage reproduction from this preamp is credible. I would say it is not its great strength. In fact comparing this to a very nice preamp I have in house in the $400 to $500 range the soundstage deficiency is noticeable, although not a deal breaker for its price. The above examples were when played through my excellent Wyred4Sound gear. Although very musical my W4S amps are very revealing. This might not be the best system to drop a $70 phono preamp in. In any case I will accept a slightly smaller stage any day in favor of a clean top end or true midrange. And an accurate midrange is what you get with the Art USB. Overall this pre gives a clear and clean presentation neither sounding overly warm or bright.

What I did find out after dropping the Art pre into my much less expensive Marantz PM5004 integrated amplifier was a lot more synergy. The soundstage anomalies mentioned above all but disappeared from my attention. In fact with the Marantz, the soundstage seemed to grow slightly. Images were slightly more delineated. In fact it was sounding so nice, out came the albums.

Let's take a trip around the world. First up was an original Master Recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with Ricardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. This Angel/EMI LP is a treasure of mine which was half speed mastered by MFSL. But the music, the music is so wild! I love it. With this little rig there was very nice placement of images and nice depth to the soundstage. I thought to myself, this kind of performance in such a modest set up somewhat embarrasses my way more expensive SACD player in many ways. This pre held together well dynamically when the bass and cellos hit it hard on the first cut. I sank into my chair and just enjoyed the music. On the rest of the album flutes floated well and chimes rang true. What a difference a good recording makes. Again it held together well on Part II the Sacrifice. The kettle and bass drums sounded solid and did not distort. Rave Shankar's Raga Hammer on Deutsche Grammophon was next with our ticket to ride. Image placement was clean and precise. It was Ravi on the right with his sitar and Alla Rakha and tablas on the left. I was really impressed with the solid image placement the Art generated on this recording. Then it was off to the Andes with the group, Sukay and their album Pacha Siku. Flutes, nylon stringed guitars and percussion instruments for the most part were reproduced cleanly and naturally. We were really having fun but work comes early with a wakeup call from my HDMX alarm clock at 4:30 AM. So it was an abrupt and unwanted halt to the music for some shut eye. Before I knocked out I glanced over and saw little Frankie rat fast asleep. I think he fell asleep during the Andean music. I can't blame him; he was so excited all day.

But before we called it a night, Frankie woke up and reminded me that if I didn't play something from his favorite group of guys, he will have his cousins, thousands of them, infest my attic. OK let's spin something from the rat pack before beddy bye. Let's take Frank Sinatra His Greatest Hits, New York, New York for a spin. Frankie says, "How can you beat the chairman of the board?" You can't! This Reprise records release sounded clean with nice mids and pretty decent dynamics. The string and horn sections did harden up a bit when we cranked it though. But overall it was an enjoyable listens from the master crooner.

As it is with anything else once you spend some time with anybody or anything you start to get a handle on its strengths and shortcomings. And so it was with the Art USB. Plugging this unit back into the W4S gear and its weaknesses were easier to hear. I mentioned earlier that the top end never sounded splashy or bright. Well it doesn't. But I will say that the top end does sound a tad pinched and slightly congested when played loudly. It does not sound as silky sweet as a nice tube preamp but passible and not too irritating. Listen closer and you will hear individual instruments and vocals a little pinched and definitely slightly thinner. The top end also hardens up a bit. They are not as richly reproduced and have a very slight wispiness to them. This was especially apparent on massed strings as on the Stravinsky album. Massed strings and horns played in the higher registers didn't fare as well as the drum section or midrange.

In comparison to the Margules FZ47DB phono preamplifier I have in for review, the Margules sounded more open, with a wider and taller soundstage. There was more depth to the soundstage and more gain. This unit is of course much more expensive than the Art USB but still in the realm of affordable phono preamps. Hey, you spend more; you get more up to a certain point! Although the Margules is a very flexible unit with MM/MC capability, it does not have USB function. But slipping the Margules into the Marantz PM 5004 amp the differences were not so great. It was much more pronounced when comparing these two units in the W4S system. This example pounds the point home just as in real estate, its location, location, location. With high end audio its system matching, system matching, system matching!

So the question all of you are asking is the Art USB a giant killer. Well it is and it isn't. It is for its functionality. As far as its sound is concerned it is more than a competently sounding unit as outlined above. It is ruggedly built and one can have long hours and loads of fun with the Art USB recording albums or tapes to your hearts content to your PC or just enjoying vinyl. Which reminds me, Frankie and I did not have a chance as of this date to rip some of our treasured vinyl to the old PC? (Hey Frankie is a rat, do you think he would own a Mac?) That will have to be revealed at a later date.

Well thank you very much Francisco. You did me a great favor. Now I can take this stuff home, set it back up and we rats will be rocking till the break of dawn, or till it's time to go back to work. My pleasure Frankie, I will pick you up when you are ready to do some ripping with the USB section of this thing so we can report back to our readers. In the meantime, it's back to the rat race for the both of us.

PS. Our compliments and respect is due to the design team at Applied Research and Technology for designing a thoroughly functional, nice sounding and affordable product.

While this product has been discontinued by Art Audio, it is readily available from many stores online and elsewhere in the real world.

Art Pro Audio
C/O Yorkville Sound
4625 Witmer Industrial Estate
Niagara Falls, New York, New York 14305
[email protected]