Review: Paul Hynes Design Phono Stage Tube preamp
With this review I’ll start of with the oft used cliché that ‘nothing is perfect’, and the response ‘but some are more perfect than others’.
And as Paul Hynes put it so often to me, everything is a compromise. There was a man, I thought who was doing his absolute hardest to dumb down and undersell his product. None of the ‘hearing is believing’, ‘it takes you there’ speak we always here – which if true there would therefore be only one manufacturer in the world – eh?
Before I rabbit on about this phono-stage, let me explain a few provisos’.
Firstly Paul had loaned me his test mule, so this was not the full 5-course menu. What it was, in fact, was a thoroughly thought out piece of electronics (see below) that had a test mule agricultural aluminium casing. On top of this, this had a PCB that Paul had used a couple of times. What I can nevertheless say, construction wise was that what lay inside was first class: the soldering was neat; use of silver solder; Electroharmonix tubes, Audience capacitors, Holco resistors etc… The standard units have a textured paint finished (black) non-magnetic extruded case. Custom units require more space and use a larger anodised aluminium case with a similar finish to the Lavardin IT amp.
The second proviso is that in ordering, or buying this stage, you have a whole host of options if you so wish namely as standard products can be upgraded with Bulk Foil resistors and Teflon Boards, and the custom units can have dual mono construction and a balanced version is also available - there are more variations available, and these should be discussed on ordering.
What I had was a relatively un-tricked out version that would retail circa £1500. Its’ construction sheet is effectively as follows:
·First amplification stage by low noise J-fet/6922 valve cascode
· Subsequent amplification by another 6922
· 4 HT power regulators
· Off - board remote power supply
· Gain Moving Magnet 40dB Moving Coil 60dB (additional gain can be provided at time of ordering [or as a retrofit] for low output moving coils).
· 47k, 470ohm and 100ohm loading
· Bandwidth 1.6Hz – over 50KHz roll off with no low pass cut off filter (the RIAA low frequency filter can be implemented for those with arm/cartridge resonance problems and/or older decks displaying noticeable rumble).
That’s right, no low frequency cut off. In other words if it is down below, you’ll hear it, warts and all.
The third, and most important proviso about this phono-stage is Paul Hynes himself. I have put him into this equation unusually and unlike the other reviews I have done, because his experiences explain a lot about the voicing of this piece of electronics. He is, like James Henriot of Whest, from the pro-audio background. Anyone with any real studio know how would have heard of Omniphonics Research, and he was responsible for the design of the S50 and S100 studio amplifiers both being well respected pieces of studio amplification that is still marketed and used now. And like most professionals he has the greatest reference of the lot – ‘live music’. In addition to this he ran his own Hi-Fi retail and installation shop in the eighties; wired and maintained Roy Harper's and Tony Beck's recording studio in Lytham St Annes (where the Omniphonics amplifiers were developed) and designed power supplies and amplifiers for Russ Andrews in the eighties and nineties. Over the last 10 years he has been custom building valve amplifiers using high performance power supplies.
When I say live this is pre-amplification warts and all live, which I assume all professional sound engineers get the benefit of, and try to replicate on a grander scale. Moreover whilst being the only true reference, it is the one least heard by anyone – ie. When was the last time you heard un-amplified music? In other words, have you ever heard Bruce Springsteen sing without a microphone at a concert, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder etc etc.
This is more an evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary design. It is not one of those products that come out with obvious hi-tech babble, which to me is very confusing, and can often blur the issue of listening to music in the most honest and realistic way. In other words it does not have a ‘Lithos’ power supply, or a fancy custom discreet output circuit that goes flat to 60kHz.
The evolution of design and thought in this component nevertheless bears forth some excellent design features that even a technical simpleton like me can have a reasonable grasp of.
The first trick feature is that the power supply is solid state and uses 4 HT regulators (each amplification stage is individually regulated and the regulators are cascaded to double the power supply noise rejection to the all important input stages). in line. For the les technically minded this is simply a case of four layers of high quality electrical power filters that cut out electrical rubbish at the earliest stage possible in the chain. These are cable of handling far greater power swings than will ever be used in a phono-stage. The reasoning for this type of ‘over-engineering’ can be simply explained with the analogy of a car on a race circuit, yes, there is a racing line, but the extra track-width gives the driver space to manoeuvre.
The nest feature that draws attention is the fact that the no step up transformers are used for a moving coil signal. This is a departure from the Lamm LP2, and the Audio Note approach of separate step up into an MM stage. The reason for this approach is twofold:
Firstly step up transformers rely on magnetic coupling to transfer the signal, which is detrimental to the sound by way of magnetic distortions.
Secondly, step up transformers, according to Paul, can rob a signal of low-level information. It is this low level information that often defines a product as High–End, because this is what carries the air, and those bits of micro-dynamics, and Micro-detail, that create a live experience.
Paul instead employs a very low noise FET/VALVE cascode input stage as the initial stage of a two-stage amplification process to the signal in a single ended circuit. In taking this two-stage approach the multiplier effect of amplified distortion that can take place with more stages of amplification are avoided. This also goes to explain why it is that this has only one pair of tubes, as opposed to the plethora you get the Klimo VIV, or something like an Aesthetix IO for instance.
With regard to the other options that exist, they each come at about an extra £200 each, and they bring about an increase/ decrease in all the typical areas one hears i.e. more silent backgrounds; greater image stability; more separation, more air. In respect of the fully balanced design one also gets more gain from the circuit of about 6db without any deleterious effects.
Of all the options that intrigued me is the availability of Teflon circuit boards. Paul informs me that this is one of the best options available as he uses an annealed copper Teflon board. Anyone who is into cables will be aware that Teflon is a good dielectric, far superior to PVC, of fibreglass as is used in nearly all amplifiers these days. It is superior to fibreglass insofar as it is less prone to absorb signals, and then return the signal back to the circuit later. This is very similar to the ‘memory distortion’ that Lavardin amplifiers famously minimise. One can thus see why it is that Nordost cables, and Lyra Connoisseur amplifiers that employ ‘air dielectric’ circuit construction have a reputation for sounding so clean, fast, and with such high resolution, because nothing gets lost in the sound. After rabbiting on about this it is regretful that the unit I had only had Teflon boards in the HT regulators, and not the main circuit.
As we all should know records are, and have been cut following the RIAA curve for upwards of 30 years when it became the ‘standard’ for vinyl reproduction. What is unfortunate is that it tails off cuts of at about 20KHz, and starts rolling off at about 20Hz.
The Hynes experience is that in having the early roll of in the bass, phase errors in bass reproduction occurs and the lower registers are not honestly being reproduced from a recording. The lower registers are reduced in level and shifted in time as a consequence of the equalisation. This means that the low fundamental notes are out of time with their harmonics and show an amplitude error with respect to these harmonics. As a consequence lower registers are missing as a consequence of the equalisation, and it then follows further low-level information. Simply put the RIAA curve robs us of part of the full sound – i.e. we are not seeing the full picture – in other words who’d like to look at Van Gogh’s’ Sunflowers without the flower pot?
The reasoning of the RIAA approach is that rumble does not get transmitted into the signal, however, we must remember that the decks of those early years were idler driven a la Garrard 301 and 401 and their perennial problem was rumble. This is not an affliction of modern Mid/High end decks for which this phono-stage is aimed, and as a result this is not a problem with this design – so the theory goes.
I must point out, however, that save for the low pass cut off point issue, the RIAA curve is followed elsewhere.
Enough of the techno babble come introduction what about the sound
To start of with, Paul gave me a unit that he had soak tested over a period of 4 days continuously so as to run it in. when I plugged it in I was not expecting any fireworks for a while, and so it was thus. I stuck it in place of my trusty Conrad Johnson EF1 and was singularly unimpressed with the sound. Bloated in the bass, veiled in the mid-band, and shut in up top. I was thinking that this simply ain’t gonna happen, and the wait was in vain.
One by one and then there were none…
As the stage got broken in a bit and also warmed up things changed radically for the better. It is a funny thing that solid state components on getting up to operating temperature start to sound warmer, and a bit clearer, whilst valves sound clearer and more dynamic, but only slightly warmer relatively speaking.
As I said all those burn in stage warm ups killed off the nasties such as bass end bloat, the thin grey mist of the mid-band, and the slightly shut in quality. Leaving me with nothing except for a little bit of warmth….
I say leaving me with ‘nothing’ in the most flattering sense in that the stage added very little character of its own and thereby let the sound, nuances, shifts, inflexions, decay, tonal colour and shading through.
In this review I have to pick apart certain aspects of this amps presentation, but with the live reference I will be referring to, you would understand my reluctance to do this, and I
When describing the bass, I may as well say at this point my mental reference was refreshed anew after hearing The Robert Cray Band at The Royal Festival Hall – excellent Blues Band. The overriding delivery carried an amazing amount of warmth. This was very much laid out on a bed of rich bass that had a near omnipresence. More importantly, and from my row, which was slap bang in the middle of H, three rows in front of the sound controller, I was able to get a proper portrayal of music in all the dissected aspects from bass, image, colour, air, timing etc.
The relevance of this is that I understood better Hynes voicing of his phono-stage, and why he got effectively got rid of that low pass filter. What was occurring was that ‘bed of bass’ upon which all other instruments ride was being reproduced in my system like I have never heard before. What seemed to happen was that a type of sub-bass I had not realised on recordings was now being uncovered and delivered – this is much the same as the Whest does at the top of the frequency range following their research into cutter heads. One must articulate this ability further, and must make reference to the fact that when a note is played it can be broken down effectively into three parts: the strike – where say a drum is hit; the reverberation – the main body of the note; and the decay – when the sound fades away. That is a lot going on at any one time, and is a lot to demand of a piece of electronics, and is very much why hi-fi finds it so difficult to reproduce a live experience. NOT HERE.
When dissecting aspects of the sound reproduction the Hynes had that uncanny ability to capture the strike, the resonance, and then the decay each as separate entities in a whole, like three slices of the same pie. Where this was first and most obviously apparent was in bass reproduction where bass was allowed to bloom and fill out the room after the drum would be hit and the decay would also occur. It did this whilst layering other bass notes at the same time whilst delineating them in pitch, colour and tone. I refer back to the lack of low pass filter and add that this lead to spellbinding results low down, especially with live recordings as the hall acoustics must have come into play.
What initially I thought to be a slow relaxed presentation actually came about by this stage’s ability to allow notes to bloom and fill out properly. It did not have that somewhat artificially curtailing of a note so that the next one begins, instead this allowed the layers to be played and decayed as the others join in. As a result it was not slow whatsoever, just not obviously quick, then again, and those with cinematic persuasions would appreciate, spaceships float like in Odyssey 2001, not WHOOSH like in 2010. What I am saying is speed can be presented falsely, or realistically, and I personally think that realistic presentation is in fact faster.
The next aspect of the performance was the imaging. This was not quite as distinctly magical as the Whest, but was still magical nevertheless. The Whest had the ability to draw you a few more rows forward from a row H seat, whereas the Hynes kept you at H. This was a different presentation with an equally valid viewpoint. What I realised was that when listening to the Hynes you would hear everything, and notice the realism. After a while you then start peering into the recording and the soundstage. It’s then that you realise the vastness of the stage, the ambiance and the depth of field. The Whest placed images in front, parallel to and behind the speakers, the Hynes liked placing them all behind the speaker. What this stage really majored upon in the imaging department was image stability. Images were placed easily, and they kept a monolithic
As a result of the musical presentation, this stage, along with the Klimo VIV, another valve phono stage, had the ability to just keep you trawling through your collection till far too late in the night. A good long-term love affair.
As with a long-term love affair, and as in any such relationship (so I am told) you discover more things as you go along, and so it was with the Hynes. Those little bits of background details that you don’t ordinarily hear cropped up that required second hearings just to confirm the discovery.
I am not going to go by the cliché of hearing one’s collection for the first time, but it was put in a different light to any time before.
One thing though, where I found there was possibly more ‘impressive’ sound was in the air created by both the Whest, Renaissance, Graham Slee and Sugden stages. I say impressive, because all of those stages go flat to 30KHz and higher, whereas this one rolls off after 20KHz. In other words this is not for airheads. On the other hand, my live experience had me questioning the realism of air, and what it truly means. I say this because this can be injected with an audible treble lift, or extension of bandwidth, on the other air and space can be had by creating a vaster soundstage, delineating the sources of sound and preventing image smear by way of stability. The Hynes delivered it by the latter method, I felt that the Whest delivered both.
As I said this phono-stage falls a bit on the warm side of neutral. If I was to do a scale of warm being 10 and 1 being cold, the Hynes is about a 6, and the Whest a 4.5. I personally felt that I would not like this presentation, but after hearing this and the Klimo VIV, it had me understanding the popularity of warm sounding equipment in High End circles – i.e. Koetsu cartridges, Platine Verdier Turntables etc.
This stage had me wondering just how good the upgraded specs on this phono stage would be, and has me making calculations to get one of his even better reference units.
One thing that I was unable to eradicate was a trace of hum in the amp, this was not hum being transmitted into the stage circuit, but created by it. This went down during the day, so I believe my mains is very much at fault, and not the phono-stage, especially given that it is star-earthed. I cannot lie about it and was irritated between records, however this never entered the music. I am sure this can be eradicated by careful cable routing, and equipment placement, but a gripe it is, and a fault I don’t expect from the great and good – which this stage is.
So to conclude
I have written an inordinately long review here, and for those who feel that it is too long, will not appreciate this excellent phono-stage, because they lack patience and contemplation and thus the finer things in life.
For those who have read to the end, all I have to say is the long review is as a result of the essential personality of this intelligent charismatic piece of kit (I am not laying the same claim to my writing). This realistically draws you into the music, and the performance. This is delivered over time, time you wish to spend with this phono-stage in your company. Time, which I say, delivers the most important aspect of music, connection to the performance, and that sums it up.
After the audition I spoke to Paul Hynes about my own sound preference and he carried out a few modifications like a Saville Row Taylor would a suit namely:
· making a resistor addition in the EQ to extend the supersonic response.
· The bandwidth of the input cascode is now flat to 50Khz. The restriction is due to the high gain provided by the cascode configuration and its circuit conditions.
· The output valve has considerably wider bandwidth (in excess of 1Mhz which is past Pauls’ oscillator's capabilities).
The net effect is that the phono stage overall frequency response is from 1.6 Hz to 50Khz governed by the EQ network which aside for the extension at the low frequency end, due to the removal of the RIAA roll off, follows the RIAA response. Above 50Khz (where the cutting lathe filters come into effect) the resistor 'fix' stops the high frequency response rolling off resulting in a net extension of bandwidth as far as the music is concerned.
Paul commented that ‘The presentation moves forward and the top end is more pronounced. As a result of the brighter top end has moved this has moved the tonal character slightly away from its previous level of warmth – you cannot be all things to all men’..
Amazon Model One turntable with Morch DP6 arm, Transfiguration temper cartridge and/or Shelter 501 cartridge.
Lavardin IT amplifier
Yamaha NS1000m Speakers
Speakers of my own making
Townshend seismic stand
Tom Evans 'the Groove'
Conrad Johnson EF1
Musical Fidelity XLP
Whest Audio 0.20
Renaissance Amplifiers phono amp
Sugden Masterclass phono stage
Audio Synthesis Passion
Graham Slee Era Gold