An impression of some phono stages

Today I went to an audio shop in Amsterdam, A10Audio/room4music. The shop together with the Dutch forum and audio importer Music2 organised an phono stage comparison day. I will not call it a review since the a proper review takes more time.

This meeting has 3 purposes.
1) To meet some fellow audiophiles
2) To compare some phono stages
3) To bring A10Audio/room4music under the attention.

First I want to mention the Alex, the man who runs A10Audio/room4music did a terrific job. He and Music2 spent 2 days setting everything up and using a 1000Hz tone to mark where the volume knob on the preamp needs to be so all phono stages would play at the some volume.

Two audio stes would be used The first set is:

Speakers Magico M5
Turntable Acoustic Signature Thunder
Tone arm SME 5
Cartridge van den Hul Canary
Pre amp Octave Jubilee
Mono power amps Octave MRE220
Cables Sonore/Kemp/Nordost

First phono stage we listened to was the Nagra VPS. I had high hopes for this one. It always gets could reviews in the press. So when the needle hit the record I was unimpressed to say the lest. I know the Magico M5 can sound very detailed almost analytical. But this sounded just muddy, unfocused.It had nice bass but there was no 3D sound image. No separation between the instruments. I thought maybe I was sitting in the wrong spot but when I looked around in the room I could tell no one liked what they were hearing.

Next on the list was an Octave phono module. This phono stage is of a modular design it is a phono stage that can also function as pre amp. We did not use the pre amp. We uses a MC module which used a step up transformer. This sounded a lot better. There was a nice 3D sound stage. Good instrument separation. It sounded much more alive then the Nagra. I still detected a bit of a tube sound. But very subtle. Some people like this I was not so sure. But the phono stage was very good.

Third and last on this set was set was the van den Hul Grail. This time the difference was not so big. The sound was similar as the Octave. But there were also some small differences. To my ears the van den Hul had even better instrument separation and better mid and high. The lower octaves were a bit less impressive. Also it was a bit more clinical compared to the Octave. But in my ears the van den Hul Grail sounded a bit better then then Octave phono module. But I could be happy with either.

As far as I could gauge the group no one preferred the Nagra most preferred the Octave one and some the van den Hull.

All these phono stages cost around 5500-6000€

Nest we would listen to a other set. While this might not be ideal but the shop owner did not just want to show 1 set so we moved to a different room. Where the following set up was waiting.

Speakers Marten Django XL
Turn table Acoustic Signature Storm (Thunder)
Tone arm SME V
Cartridge van den Hull ?? (more on that later)
Pre amp EMM labs Pre2
Stereo power amp Octave RE290

First on the list was a EAR 834P. However it turned our there was a technical problem. The right channel did nothing. Some things were tried. But in the end the most likely scenario seemed to be that the cartridge was broken. One of the coils seemed to be fried. Due to time restraints the EAR was not reviewed any further. From the aprox 3-4 minutes that I did hear it the sound was not that great.

The turntable was changed to the one we used earlier. But this meant we could not listen to the Blue amp model 42 since the blue amp only has balanced inputs and this turntable ahd a fixed interlink with RCA connectors.

Then we moved on to a Dutch brand Array. The phono stage is the PH2. The first series (PH1) were sold using the van den Hull name in the US. Some people love this phono stage. I can understand why. It does nothing wrong. But neither does it do anything right. It is just some much of a "high end" audio sound, to dead clinical. There is no live no enjoyment to it. Some high end audio can sound like this. It lets you hear all the details but no music. It costs about 2400€.

Next was the RCM prelude. While the lowest octaves and the transparency were noticeably less then the Array at least the music was back. I liked this phono stage. It was nice and dynamic with a good open sound. It really did not do anything wrong. This one costs about 2000€

Now at my request the Symphonic Line phono stage was hooked up. This is a second hand and the asking price is about 1900€. Compared to the RCM it sounded a lot more natural. But was lacking bass. Still it sounded very good. Very free flowing open sound sound without sounding analytical. But the new price is about 4000€ and it was certainly not twice better then the RCM and depending on taste the RCM might even be better.

Last but certainly not least was the van den Hull Grail SB (special balanced). This phono stage costs about 13000€. But is sounds so good. We used the RCA inputs since we could not change phono interlinks. According to the importer it sounds much better when using the balanced inputs. But everyone agreed that even using the RCA it sounded absolutely great. Now I have not heard many phono stages in this price range. But is beats everything I have heard. My previous reference was the Pass XP-25 as far as I could tell the van den Hul Grail SB beats it. The sound is just so good in every way I could find nothing to fault.

After the listening we talked a little. One of the most interesting things I noticed. That (almost) everyone preferred the second set. Even though it was a lost cheaper. People thought it sounded better balanced. And I agree. Personally I think the Magico M5 were to blame for that. IMHO they are a love 'm or hate 'm speaker. Most of the people in the group certainly did not fall in the love 'm group.

Just prove that more money does not always make for a better sounding set.

I have taken the Symphonlic line with me. First impressions are not that great. The mids and high are great. But it seems I have lost all low frequencies. All the oomph is gone. I have to check to see if I did not make a wiring mistake. But so far the lack of low is a deal breaker.
If you are looking for great low end, see if you can audition an Avid phono pre.
I had a SL top of line pre with phono (probably your phono module) and do not remember the sound being bass shy.
I can only suggest that you are either loosing energy somewhere or that the pre hasn't been on long enough. Since the latter is unlikely (as is a wiring mistake, I think:)),

1) check the loading - i.e. have you loaded yr cartridge correctly and /or,
2) check the input impedance of yr amp - I notice you have a SL integrated, but still...

No bass is a classic symptom of impedance mismatch.

The dealer told me the SL phono pre has a fixed loading. But he is not an official SL dealer he got the SL as a trade in. He also has no box or manual for it. The version I have at home now has a black acrylic front.

But if you know how to set the loading please let me know.

To be honest I would be surprised if it was a impedance mismatch since both are from the same manufacturer.
Were you and others standing while listening?

Nope we were all sitting. Pictures were taken I do not know yet if they have been posted anywhere. When they have been posted I'll try to link them.
Finally the Symphonic Line is comming alive. On sunday evening I hooked it up and it not so great. On moday it was stil a bit meh. For phono stage with a new price of almost 4000€ I was underwhelmed. The mids and highs were really good. But still the lower octaves were absent.

However on Thuesday evening when I was listing to some vinyl the phono pre started to wake up, to come alive. if it is what I want I do not know yet. I first want to hear some other phono pres.
Mordante -- in my pre I could set the loading using dip switches situated inside the chassis.
BUT, as the sound is coming to, why not just leave it for now.
SOunds like fun, and an interesting experiment.

I would go in expecting certain phono stages to be a better match with each setup for specific technical reasons that deliver better sound. Then see if expectations turn out to be true or false and why that might be. I would not go in assuming that any particular device will necessarily sound best because of cost or reputation, though that might in fact pan out in the end if set up optimally. Its more about how that device specifically meshes with the rest of the system. Then of course personal preferences come into play.
The Nagra I think could have performed better in a different system. We used Octave pre and power amps in one of the sets. So maybe that gave the Octave phono module an advantage. Also we used a van den Hul cartridge so the van den Hul phono stage also had an advantage. Maybe if we used Nagra amps the Nagra would have sounded better. But that is hard to say.

I do not like Magico speakers but at least they let you hear what you feed them.
So the story continues. The Symphonic Line went back to the store. Not that it sounded bad or anything, far from it. But before I decide anything I want to try out some more phono stages. This time I took home a RCM prelude. From what I understand this is the only product currently made by RCM. But I heard they are working on a more upscale phono pre as well.

The RCM Prelude is a two box phono pre. The box where it all happens and a separate power supply. On the back there are 4 sets of switch, load and input sensitivity for each channel.

Right now I have set it up to 250 Ohm and 0.6mV. Not sure yet if the load is at the best setting. Coming week(s) I will listen and see how it compares to the Symphonic Line Phono stage.

If anyone has tips on the correct load setting for a Lyra Dorian then let me know.
So the RCM Sensor Prelude went back to the shop. To be honest I was hoping that the Symphonic Line would be better. But in MY systems is the RCM is clearly superior. The SL is not bad but compared the the RCM is has a much more coloured sound to it. The SL has more of a own sound. It sounded very good but it was a bit dark, less transparent. With the SL I was listening to the sound of the phono stage and not the sound of the cart plus TT.

The RCM has much less of an own sound. It lets you hear a lot better what type of cart and TT is being used. With the SL most records sounded ok, the RCM will let a good album sound good but a badly recorded album sounds bad.

At the end of the month I'll try out a Roksan DXP SE. Then I will make my choise, but the RCM will not be easy to beat I think.
What's most discouraging about your odyssey is that you have made such a Herculean effort to evaluate phono stages (and to write up your results, thanks) and yet you have relatively little to show for it in terms of useful information. For me, this is in part because you did not audition some well known product which could be used as a reference by which the rest of us might get a better idea regarding what you heard. Reference phono stages might include one or another made by Ayre, Aesthetix, Einstein, Simm, Pass, PS Audio, etc. But I realize that these are all made in the US and may not be so readily available in your country. I am surprised the Nagra failed so miserably. Were you using a SUT or does the Nagra have sufficient gain for a LOMC cartridge? If you were using a SUT, that introduces all sorts of additional variables that could influence the outcome. The EAR 834P could certainly be said to be a reference product; too bad you could not have gotten around the problem with the cartridge. But
834P definitely needs a SUT with a LOMC. If you are in the 4000 Euro price range, I would think you have many excellent alternatives. If you prefer SS, then you might consider the Pass products, but there are many tried and true alternatives.
The Nagra has sufficient gain for LOMC.

The RCM Prelude Sensor, EAR 834P, and the Symphonic Line phono stage all cost less then €2000. Even if I could afford a 4000 Euro phono stage would seem a bit overkill.I would prefer to spend about 1500 Euro. Simm audio is also an option
but I have not found a shop taht has one on stock. I know they sell it but I want to hear before I buy.

Pass labs is overpriced in the Netherlands.
Sorry, for some reason I got the impression you were willing to spend 4000 Euro, which surely is a lot of money. So is 2000 Euro. In the for sale section of Audiogon, there are many great choices within that considerable budget; you could get a Pass Xono for about half that much. But I sympathize with your desire to audition your choice before purchase. Have you considered EAR 324? Has a lot of gain and convenient front panel adjustments for cartridge loading. You may be able to audition one in your country.
I am surprised that you found the Nagra VPS so disappointing . There are many here on Agon, including me, who have been consistently pleased with its performance. What was the cart loading used and did you use the tube or the SS gain stage ? I don't agree that the VPS doesn't work with LOMCs. Have used it with a 0.3mv Orpheus L and now with a Lyra Atlas and the results have been pretty amazing to put it mildly. I guess to each his own.
Best of luck in your endeavours.
The Nagra VPS is - at best - average. I had it in my System. Did you ever
opened it? There is nothing inside. The additional Phono Card is a joke.
Soundstage is limited, Sound is pale, far away from the real thing, in a
way: Boring.
Sorry. It is identical to the Phono inside their Preamp. I tried it with
o.25mV Miyabi, o.5mV Lyras, Coldfinger and some others. Sonically there
are M-U-C-H better Phonostages out there. The comparisons from
Mordante are ok, no matter what solution he will find, he listens, he
learns, his way is ok.
I preferred the Avid Pulsus to the SimAudio 5.3 with optional external power supply that I had.
Last weekend I spoke with someone at an audio show in Leiden. He told me he still had an Bel Canto Phono 3 on stock. This is an older model he told me and he was willing to sell it to me at a discount because of this.

Can anyone tell me something about this phono pre. Has anyone compared it so say a RCM or a Roksan?
I had a Roksan DXP SE phono stage. I must say it is really good. So far I had a Symphonic Line, a RCM and no a Roksan phono stage to try out.

The Symphonic Line phono stage was not that good IMHO compared to the RCM. See previous posts. This week I tried the Roksan.
The Roksan vs the RCM is more difficult. Now bear in mind that I suck at reviews but still here it comes.

Compared to the RCM the Roksan is less accurate with the RCM you could really hear all the different instruments. The RCM was really clear and detailed. Maybe from a technical point of view it is better then the Roksan. However the Roksan does do something very good. The lower octaves are really impressive and the rest of the spectrum sounds really musical. But it does have more of an own sound signauture compared to the RCM.

So what is better? The phono stage that really lets you hear everything but might be a bit analytical. Or the phono stage that has more of own musicality to it but does add colouration.
Mordante, You mention that the Pass XP-25 was your previous reference. How would you describe its weaknesses? And did you use it with balanced or single ended outputs? Thanks.
So what is better? The phono stage that really lets you hear everything but might be a bit analytical. Or the phono stage that has more of own musicality to it but does add colouration.
What you describe many of us ask ourselves. In this case the characteristics in the comparison that you ask us to help you determine which is better comes down to personal preference. What pleases you more when listening? Some of use prefer neutrality and components that deliver that sound are "better" in our opinion. Others prefer the distortions that produce coloration and still others like a combination of the two mixing and matching components accordingly.

Based on your question only you can truly answer it. The rest of us just have an opinion. My opinion, go for neutrality. Just to throw a wrench in it, just because something is neutral doesn't mean it is analytical.
Don't know which is better, but I tend to prefer the more tonally neutral and transparent phono stage. I want to hear the details. Flavor can be added elsewhere. I tend to agree with Clio. I try to find components which I hear as neutral in my system. But that's just me and what I find tonally neutral or colored someone else may find to be the opposite. It's very subjective, and dependent upon so many variables. And yes, detailed does not have to mean analytical.
Mordante, I also use a RCM Sensor Prelude in my system. As you have rightly evaluated it is a very neutral equipment which has very little of its own personality. I have heard it with some very high end cartridges (ZYX, Lyra) and some entry cartridges like Denon 103, Ortofon Rondo, Kontrapunkt. I may not have heard all the best phonostages in the market but I researched a lot before buying my phonostage and the RCM sounded amazingly good regardless of the money. It can give you those moments of excitement and magic when you use a high quality cartridge and LP that makes you forget even the highest resolution digital playback. It is very dynamic when the music demands it to be, it throws a very 3 dimensional and precise soundstage when you play the concertos or big band Jazz. Tonally it is very good, though I would have loved just a slight more warmth. But I dont miss it for 90% of my listening. In the end this phonostage always tries to dissappear in a system which is a great feeling in the long run. I always like products whose range remains unmeasurable within the context of my listening. The RCM falls in that category.

The only other phonostages that I would like to try in near future is a Whest and 47 Labs phonocube.
The German made Violectric V600 is a giant-slayer IMHO. Should sell for about 600 Euro.

The Violectric PPA V600 is listed for €1200 new.
I just ordered a RCM Sensor Prelude.