The road to nirvana

My journey into Photography, Horology, and Audiophilia

How I spent my All Souls Day

November 2, 2004

One of my most enlightening and fruitful week started yesterday. I have several guests in the house - two Kiwis, one Thai, one Chinese, one German. The British just arrived this morning to join the melee.

The first Kiwi have been to the house once, and was again was available to grace my humble setup. Code named P-75, this is the cutest in the bunch. The second Kiwi code named, Jarrah sports an all discrete architecture. The german, code named Symphono, was the first to arrive and has been playing before the rest of the gang came. The Thai with no name, and the Chinese called Cyber-40 and to complete the cast is the British called Era Gold.

Geez, no American huh?

What the hell am I talking about? Alright, enough with the crap. I'm looking for a phono stage to replace my trusted Musical Fidelity X-LP due to two major things. First, my new equipment arrangement caused severe RFI pickup in MC mode for the X-LP - it becomes a single station tuner. Second, I would like to get the best performance out of my MC rig, and I believe that the X-LP is the limiting factor.

The usual disclaimers do apply and my posting here does not mean that you will get the same performance out of these phono stages as different factors will affect their synergy with the rest of your components.

Product Profiles

The Clearaudio Symphono (Old version, Black) is about $1,200.00 list price. It is a Solid-state Opamp phono stage and has 60dB of gain in MC only mode. With >65dB of signal to noise ratio, >95dB of channel separation, 0.004% harmonic distortion, and ±0.1dB of RIAA accuracy, this phono stage looks very impressive on paper. Will it do well in actual
performance? We'll see. It features extreme simplicity - no DIP switches to set, no knobs, nothing to fiddle because it features Automatic loading according to the internal impedance of the cartridge.

The Dynavector New Zealand P-75 lists for $595.00 and is another Solid-state Opamp design. It features support for both MM and MC and offers 40dB gain for MM, 60dB gain for MC, and 63dB gain in what it calls phono enhancer mode. Input sensitivity is 2mV for MM, 0.2mV for MC or 0.15mV for phono enhancer mode. Loading is 47k in MM mode, and 30, 100, 470 ohms in MC. Though support for MM and MC is available, it has to be set using DIP switches which require opening the unit.

The second unit designed and built in New Zealand, the Plinius Jarrah is listed for $845.00. It is a Solid-state discrete design (no Opamps) and has 800µV of input sensitivity with -70dB unweighted noise level. The distortion is 0.05% with RIAA accuracy of ±0.2dB. It has the most number of loading options with 32 loading steps from 7.4 ohms to 47k ohms. Though it is designed to work with both MM and MC cartridges, it does not have a selector switch. Exactly like the Dynavector unit, screws need to be removed to reveal the DIP switches to set the loading options.

The Opera Audio Cyber-40 from China is selling for PHP 46,000.00 and is the first of the tubed units.Tube complements include 1 x EZ80, and 2 x 12AX7 that yields the highest signal to noise ratio of 86dB and low distortion of 0.01%. This unit has a switch for selecting either MM or MC mode, and another for low or high sensitivity. There is no indication about the gain and loading anywhere in the manual so I have no idea what the official figure is.

Then we have the phono stage from TS Audio, a Thai company. Not so much information is available about this unit which only offer MM mode. Upon opening the unit, the three 12AX7 from Electroharmonix will be clearly visible. This is the unit that has the power supply circuit on the same enclosure, unlike the rest where a separate transformer or power supply unit is used. I was informed by the importer that this used to sell for P8,500 about two years ago when the Peso was 51:1, I think.

Finally, the British unit from Graham Slee called Era Gold is listed at $800.00. Another Solid-state phono stage and is only MM with 2mV - 9mV sensitivity. Output noise is -77dB A-weighted with less than 0.02% distortion. Another small unit, second smallest to the Dynavector P-75.

How do they sound? How silent are they? I will come up with a list of the results and I am going to tabulate this so that I can make a selection on which one will be complementing my MC rig this coming December.

The rest of the gang

- Clearaudio Champion turntable
- Eminent Technology 2.5 tonearm
- Clearaudio Sigma MC cartridge
- Clearaudio Sixstream phono cable (to phono preamp)
- Eichmann Cables eXpress 6 interconnect (phono preamp to preamp)
- Foreplay preamp
- Gordon Rankin's 807 power amplifier
- Eichmann Cables eXpress 6 speaker cable
- Infinity Kappa 200 bookshelf speakers
- Altec/Peerless 15095 step-up transformer used for MM only units that were tested

The phono cable selection

The Clearaudio Sixstream is a loaner, I have not bought it yet. I selected that phono cable among a bunch of shielded and non-shielded cables that I have been auditioning - both commercial and DIY. And yes, cables do differ as I'm very pleased to say that I am guilty of making a very quiet DIY cable and the WORST sounding too. :D

The Sixstream features excellent extension in both ends of the frequency range, with very smooth, silky top end. The bass is weighty and the overall dynamics is excellent. The mids are open and lucid. Not to mention that this cable is the most quiet phono cable I have tried.

If you own the Unify tonearm, you already own one great sounding phono cable! Either you got the tonearm or the phono cable for free.

This will be it for now. The Plinius should be ready when I get home today as it has been powered up since last night.

96.3... WROCK.

Yes, this is the radio station that is being picked up in my room.

Goal #1 - Eliminate or Reduce RFI pickup

So which of the units do not pick up RFI?

At 3 o'clock to full volume level, the Clearaudio Symphono and Opera Audio Cyber 40 noise (buzz) and muffled radio broadcast becomes audible.

On the Plinius Jarrah, radio (no buzz) was so clear, I was able to identify the station, from 1230 o'clock to full volume.

The Dynavactor noise pickup starts becoming audible from 1 o'clock to full volume.

On the MM only units, the Graham Slee Era Gold and TS Audio, they still pick up noise and radio from 4 o'clock to full volume even if their sensitivity is not as low compared to the rest. My X-LP's noise and radio will become audible only at full volume in MM mode. And as a reminder, my dilemma is on MC and not MM.

Goal #2 - getting the best performance from my MC rig

It is not easy comparing all these units sonically. To start with they all sound good, but is there any improvement?

In one way or another, I believe that each of these units offer improvements over the X-LP. Some too subtle to justify the acquisition cost, some are justifiable.

As I test each unit, they seem to bunch up as far as the sonic characteristics are concerned. And sadly, no single unit has it all. It will now depend on my priorities and preferences on which one will complement my MC rig.

The Graham Slee Era Gold and the Dynavector P-75 both excel in PRAT. My previous impression of the P-75 posted in the forum reaffirms this quality of this cute phono stage. Both these units played REM and Midnight Oil best. It's really a toss-coin between these two. However, the Graham Slee is more fleshy in presentation while the Dynavector is more punchy.

The P-75 was configured for the "phono enhancer mode" so that automatic loading will be in effect. No other combination was tested. The gain is very good, and listening volume is mostly at 9 o'clock position. The Era Gold, though rated for MM was able to sound comparatively as loud as the P-75 at 12 o'clock position. Since this unit is MM, loading is standard at 47k and there's nothing I can do.

The TS Audio is decent sounding with more extention on both ends of the spectrum compared to the X-LP. What's not going for it is that the highs are a bit edgy and the lows flabby. I could only point a finger to those square WIMA capacitors used in the signal chain and average regulation for the DC supply. The Altec/Peerless 15095 step up transformer was used to increase the signal for the TS Audio's MM input.

The remaining units bunched up too in another sonic character. The Clearaudio Symphono, Opera Audio Cyber 40, and Plinius Jarrah all excel in conveying the music's emotions. I enjoyed these three better than the previous three when listening to Peter Nero Summer of '42, Opus 3 Classic #1, William Ackerman Passage, and David Lanz and Michael Jones Solstice. All three pulls me into the music and were done with different subtle differences. The Sympono has better detail and clarity in the presentation, while the Cyber 40 offers a bit more body and the Jarrah more warmth. All three offers superb smoothness and refinement in reproduction.

The Symphono has only one setting and that is automatic loading and supports MC only. The Cyber 40's loading parameters I don't know, but using the toggle switches behind the unit, was set to MC and Low. Maybe Hansen can tear it apart later to find out. The Jarrah was opened up (with permission, of course) to set loading to 47 ohm which is closest to the 50 ohm of the Sigma. There is no MM/MC setting for the Jarrah, and I understand that the loading automatically selects the gain.

The Symphono with 60dB gain allowed me to set the volume to around 9:30 o'clock and this is the same setting used for the Cyber 40. I can then assume that the Cyber 40 in MC-Low mode, does provide about 60dB of gain. The Jarrah on the other hand required the volume setting to be around 2 o'clock to achieve the same loudness (radio not yet audible from listening position). Although the Jarrah's input sensitivity is 800µV, as compared to the Era Gold's 2mV, the volume needs to be set higher due to what I will assumed to be less output voltage from the Jarrah.

Of all the units tested, only the Cyber 40 offered the convenience of switching between MM and MC and Low and High sensitivity without opening up the unit. I have no idea what capacitor or tube brands were used in the Cyber 40, but what ever those are yielded an ideal music reproduction already. The external power supply is also hefty and uses standard IEC power cable which allows one to use more exotic aftermarket power cords. The umbilical cord to the main unit is of the locking type and quite stiff. A blue LED indicates power is supplied to the unit.

The Symphono is the true plug-and-play unit - nothing to fiddle with, no need to open. The external power supply is a bit smaller compared to the main unit and sports one red and one yellow LEDs and I have no idea what those meant. The main unit's blue LED lights up when power is applied via a very soft, locking umbilical cord. The main power supply cord is not IEC type and is fixed into the case.

Not to be outdone in the power supply section, the Jarrah also comes with an external power supply with detachable IEC power cord which allows you to use aftermarket power cords. Although not locking type, the less than stiff (compared to the Cyber 40) umbilical cord has a three contact, guided connector to provide power to the main unit, which also has a nice blue LED to indicate power state.

Era Gold also comes with an external power supply and looks cheaper compared to the previous three. The detachable power cord with two contact pins resemble the power cords you get from portable casette recorders. The end is a figure 8 type and has this huge british plug at the other end which prevents another power cord to be inserted beside it on my power strip. I was a bit disappointed to find out that the connector to the main unit is not molded, not locking and worse, not crimped internally! The main unit does not have any indication of power as there's no LED.

The Dynavector is unique - no supplied power supply unit from Dynavector itself. It came with aftermarket wall wart which Dynavector claims to be a non issue as they have unique regulation inside the main unit. The main unit glows red when power is applied.

The TS Audio is the only one without an external power supply. But it does use standard IEC power cord that connects to the back of the unit. The connectors are actually in front and there is no LED indicator. You will know when the unit is on as you can see the tubes glowing when viewed from the ventilation holes.

Software Used
- Dave Brubeck Quartet "Time In"
- Opus 3 Classic #1
- Santana Abraxas
- Peter Nero Summer of '42
- REM Eponymous
- String Band featuring Isao Suzuki
- Rey Valera
- Charlene I've Never Been To Me
- David Lanz and Michael Jones Solstice
- William Ackerman Passage
- Midnight Oil Diesel and Dust
- Van Halen 5150
- The Cult Wildflower (45)

I would like to thank the vendors and owners who graciously allowed me to borrow their units to test. You all know who you are. Thanks!