WOW! The REF Phono 2 sounds GOOD!!! Elvis just dropped by for a private personal concert; the sound of this thing is HUGE, Powerful; with what I like to call GRUNT!
More later; need to get back to listening.
The Ref Phono Two goes back to the dealer in the morning and I will miss it big time! It's a very impressive piece of gear in my view. I've owned the Hovland HP-100 for almost six years and it is a fine piece of gear too, but I don't think that it is quite up in the same class overall as the Ref Two. The Ref Two seems so much more powerful and three dimensional; it injected several more layers of depth in the sound field and painted a larger and more defined picture of the players, the instruments, and the entire sound stage. The outlines of instruments like guitars and pianos just seemed more real, better defined in all dimensions and just more in the room. Bass on the Ref Two is stronger, more powerful; it can grunt!
Perhaps only on the top did the Hovland compete; I think that the Hovland is a tab bit more 'beautiful' on top, a little less detailed and less analytical, a bit softer and sweeter to my ear.
I would still like to audition the VTL 6.5 and the Joule Electra PS-4 Marianne Electra Memorial All Tube Phono Stage; perhaps one of them can unseat the Ref Two, but for now I have my doubts.
If you have other top performers that I should put on my audition short list, please tell me what they are!
I am a little bit confused about the comparison. Are you comparing the stand-alone Ref. 2 phonostage (feeding what linestage?) to the built-in phonostage of the Hovland? Are you looking for recommendations for just a phonostage or for a combination of phonostage and a linestage? Do you like the Hovland as a linestage (i.e., when used with a CD player or other line level source).
I am less familiar with the HP-100 than with the HP-200. A friend's HP-200 sounded dramatically better when the tubes in the phono section were replaced with NOS 12AX7s (Amperex Bugle Boys). The sound became much more dynamic and the soundstage expanded. Before you consider replacing the HP-100, you should experiment with alternative tubes.
I'd try and audition the TRON Seven phono stage from Jeff at Highwater Sound, NYC. Top class phono stage by boutique top class British designer, Graham Tricker. Here's a review on 6moons.
Graham builds them himself to order (no outsourcing to China). As a result, you can have a bespoke one built with upgrades and matching to your cart.
I am running the Ref Phono Two into the Hovland line stage (my Hovland has had the gain cut down to 6db on the line stage. I used the 'tape monitor' input on the Hovland because it is direct and by passes the selector switch on the Hovland. The results were outstanding! I was very impressed with the Audio Research Ref Two Phono; most of all it added a large dose of authority to the sound; more like an amplifier upgrade than a change in phono stage. All the other improvements were there too: more depth, more detail, bigger sound, more grunt and power in the mid-bass and down, better attack, and better longer decay.
I've tried some NOS Mullards for Hovland in the Linestage and Phono stage (purchased from Upscale Audio)... I was disappointed because they quickly became too noisy. Last time I re-tubed I purchased all the tubes directly from Hovland.
Oh, yes; comparing the Ref Phono to the built-in phono in the Hovland.
I just paid Jeff a visit in New York in early December; I was looking at the Raven AC and Raven One TT; I did not pay much attention to the Tron phono (wish that I had though); any idea how much the Tron cost?
In the UK, the TRON Seven phono is about GBP 2000. I don't know what Jeff charges though. If you do go back to Jeff in NYC, have a good listen to the TRON amps (pre and power). The Syren tube pre-amp with on board phono is magic. Here's the 6moons review
It is not surprising that a stand-alone phonostage, particularly one as expensive as the Ref. 2, improved upon the built-in phonostage of the Hovland. Not that many built-in stages have impressed me that much (the Audionote M-8 is an exception, albeit a VERY expensive exception).
Sorry to hear that you had bad results with the Mullards. I've heard Mullard 12AX7s in my phonostage (Viva Fono), a Tron Seven and the HP-200. I did not particularly like the Mullards myself. In the Tron Seven, in particular, the Mullards sounded very strange and phasey.
Given the price of some of the rarer 12AX7s and 5751s, I can understand a reluctance to experiment, but, I think that with something as good as the Hovland, it is worth the effort. For a warm, rich sound, Amperex Bugle Boys are worth looking into; for a more dynamic, but leaner sound, I like Telefunkens. I run the Telefunken ECC803S in my phonostage (lean, with extended highs and extremely dynamic), but these have become exceedingly expensive.
I agree with Topoxforddoc that the Tron is also worth looking into. I know that the designer insists that the supplied tubes provide the best sound, but, to me, that is a matter of system matching and taste. I thought the Amperex Bugle Boys sounded the best in the Tron Seven in the system I heard (MUCH better than the manufacturer supplied tubes). I think it is a big advantage of tube phonostages that the sound can be optimized by changing tubes.
I will give the Amperex Bugle Boys a try in the Hovland. I like warm and rich.
Larryi, these Amperex Bugle Boy tubes?
Amperex Bugle Boy 6DJ8/ECC88 ; these are 12AX7 or 12AT7 equivalent? Which Amperex replaces the 12AX7 and which replaces the 12AT7?
I believe the 12ax7 are going to be ECC83, the 12at7 are going to the ecc81 or 4024. Probably some other varients too.
ecc88 are the 6922 family.
I am not sure of the precise designation of the Amperex tubes. I got them free from a friend who has a vast store of tubes so I am relying on his judgment as to which are drop in replacements for the NOS RCA tubes suppli by the manufacturer of my phonostage. He gave me the pair I have, plus the pair of Telefunken ECC83s, Mullards, and GE 5751s. The only pair I had to buy myself was the Telefunken ECC803S (which easily costs more than all the others combined).
A bit off topic but somewhat relevant regarding 5751 tubes.
They are similar but often not drop-in replacements for 12AX7.
Check with your retailer or manufacturer before substituting.
12AX7 = ECC83. ECC88 are 6DJ8 or 6922 equivalents. The ECC88 et al are VERY different from a 12AX7 in both electrical parameters and in pin configuration. You could damage your gear or the tubes by inserting an ECC88/6DJ8/6922 into a socket set up for a 12AX7. Variants of the ECC83 include the ECC803, 803S, and probably some others using the English naming system adopted by Mullard. (Mullard CV4024 are 12AT7s, for example, but I don't know the 12AX7 equivalent name.) The 5751 is often sub'd for a 12AX7, but it is not electrically identical. The 5751 has a lower "mu", for one thing. This means that you will have a little less gain with it, so if your phono gain is at all marginal, you might find that it is insufficient with a 5751. However, 5751 will "work", and lots of folks seem to like it in circuits designed for 12AX7. Larryi, I disagree that all-in-one preamps are inevitably inferior to separate line and phono stages. In fact there are many inherent advantages to the one-box solution, but you have to pay the big bucks for the best ones, just as with separates.
The biggest issue with the Hovland is noise; it's not the most quiet phono/pre you've ever heard. Use it with Khorns and that makes things worse... However, it sounds pretty darn good; just not quite as good overall as an Audio Research Ref Phono Two...
Thanks for the detailed information on the various tube types. Yes, the 5751 is a lower gain tube, but in almost all applications it does work in place of a 12AX7 or 12AT7. But, I think it is also worth mentioning that tube swapping MAY be problematic with phonostages if RIAA equalization is not done passively.
By the way, I did not say that one-box preamps are inevitably inferior. I said that most of the ones I heard were not that impressive and noted that the Audionote M-8 is one exception. I think that the M-8 costs over $30k. I have, though I don't current use it, a Mark Levinson No. 32 with a built-in phonostage. Contrary to the opinion of reviewers, I think that that phonostage (built on two cards that slot into the back of the unit) is not very good (the No. 32 is a pretty expensive preamp). I've heard Shindo preamps that sounded very good, though I don't specifically recall whether the built-in phono was outstanding too.
You are correct that there is a big advantage to building in the phonostage -- a long run of interconnect cable and inevitably crappy RCA jack interface is eliminated. But, many of the better phonostages cannot be built into another component because they take up WAY too much space. For instance, my current phonostage has a separate power supply that is bigger than most power amplifiers (it uses two 300B tubes as rectifiers).
Larryi, I see your point. As I was saying too, to get a great phono stage built in to a fine linestage, you need to spend more than a little money or you need to build it yourself. IMO, superb all-in-one preamps can be had at the $10,000-ish price point. To get similar quality phono reproduction from separates, you would have to spend much more than that, again IMO.