"Hey, by the way Joe, I also need a phono stage. I hear you have a really good one. Can you also send me a phono stage?"
Joe said, "Yeah, no problem man. I'll send you a Vinyl One, our phono stage. I think you'll like it."
"That's great Joe, I really appreciate it," I said. Joe is Joe Fratus, the main man at Art Audio. Joe is a great guy, very nice, easy to get along with and loves to have fun. I asked Joe for some of his highly respected products because several people whose ears and judgments I trust told me that Art Audio equipment is exceptional. Of course I've hard this many times before from other people whose products have been average at best and mediocre at worst. I decided to check it out myself.
Joe sent me the Vinyl One phono stage and I examined it very carefully to see its construction and build quality.
This phono stage is nicely built and well finished. The front faceplate on my unit was finished in a brushed black finish that looked very nice, although styling wise, it looks very conventional. The faceplate also comes in chrome I am told, like on the DM VPS pre-amplifier that Joe also sent me. Atta boy Joe. I love it when you send me new toys to play with. Okay, okay, I have got it bad, what can I say. By the way, the reason for writing audiophile and review equipment is for the love and the emotional involvement of the music, not for the sake of examining yet another box of small parts on an epoxy board or salivating over another half-inch thick he-man face-plate.
The front of the unit contains the aforementioned front panel, a red LED, and the names "Art Audio", "Vinyl One" and "PHONO Amp". The top cover is really nicely made from perforated metal. Very functional as well as stylish. The back panel contains an IEC power cord receptacle, two RCA outputs marked "a" and "b". I'll explain the difference between these two outputs later, for now, know that they are different.
Also on the rear panel are two sets of RCA inputs marked "PHONO MM" and MC PHONO", and a two position toggle switch. The MC inputs go directly into two transformers, which handle the extra gain for low output moving coils. The switch allows the selection of these two inputs.
Joe Fratus told me that there are a lot of options to choose from on this phono stage. Some of these are:
1. Both MM & MC (like mine)
2. MM only
3. Front panel volume control
4. Mono/stereo switch
5. New old stock (NOS) tubes
6. Various different input impedances and capacitances
7. Various configurations of MC transformers
...and a "whole lot of options on this thing" says Joe. Incidentally, the volume control when optionally ordered controls the volume level when OUTPUTS A are used to drive an amplifier directly (no pre-amplifier) and as a "variable gain control for the cartridge when using OUTPUTS B and employing a separate pre-amplifier." My unit did not include a volume control.
Technology And Layout
The Vinyl One appears to be very well made. There is a large PC board covering most of the real estate inside the unit. After the IEC receptacle the wires go to the front panel push button ON/OFF switch and then proceed to a rather large toroidal transformer. This is a very large size transformer for a phono stage, in my experience, which would explain the great dynamics, power, and weight this unit is capable of. Oops, I am getting ahead of myself. There are four tubes on the board; a 6FQ7 for the regulation in the power supply, two 12AX7's (one per channel) for amplification and finally an additional 12AX7 (using both halves, one per channel) for the cathode follower. Joe tells me he can supply various NOS tubs to suit a customer's preference.
Next to the 6FQ7 there is a solid-state device on a heat sink for... I haven't got a clue. What, do I look like an electronic engineer? And I also forgot to ask, "Joe, what is this?" I took four years of electronics in high school so I know some stuff but I am certainly no an electronics wizard. There are several large capacitors on the board, three large ones and four smaller ones, which seems like a lot of power supply capacitance to me. There are also two Hovland 2.2 microfarad signal capacitors along with one smaller 0.1 microfarad Hovland cap as well. The MM inputs go to the rear toggle switch while the MC inputs go directly into two encapsulated transformers and their output then goes to this same switch. After this switch, there are two shielded cables, which go to the board input section.
The output wiring from the board goes to the two outputs "a" and "b" at the rear. These wires as well as the input non-shielded wires look rather thing to me and I would have preferred to see a little thicker gauge here, especially at the output wires. Maybe Art Audio found that these sized wires were adequate and sounded better, I do not know.
The RCA input and output jacks are of pretty standard quality that I have seen in other similarly priced equipment. They are gold plated and not as substantial as the top Cardas female RCA's that I have seen and used on many modification projects. On the other hand the Vinyl One's RCA jacks have a small amount of metal for superior sound. By the way, the top Cardas male and female RCA's and the unplated Cardas copper speaker binding posts are THE best connectors, bar none, that I have heard in my modifications. Jennifer Crock of Jena Labs, which makes great cables using Cardas RCA's, agrees with me. Also, Cardas makes the best solder that I have tried. Again, Jennifer agrees with me. She is sending some of her great cables to yours truly for a review. For your information, the Cardas unplated binding post sounds considerably superior to the plated version. Now if George Cardas would offer his top male and female RCA connectors in unplated versions, I'd be one happy customer. Are you listening out there George?
Where was I? Oh yes... the MC inputs go directly to the transformers. According to the manual these are "Mu metal (75% nickel cores)" with enclosure "cans mounted in heavy gauge Mu metal." These have "low phase shift even at 10 Hz which ensures excellent transient response", states the manual. The gain of the MC transformers is an additional 20 dB on top of the 50 dB gain of the MM phone stage, giving 70 dB gain in total.
This is generally sufficient for even the lower output moving coils as low as 0.15 to 0.28 mV. This was confirmed when usnign my Linn Troika whose output is somewhere around 0.15 mV with great results until my cleaning lady bent the cantilever. "I told you not to dust the turntables!" Oh well, this gave me an excuse to try another cartridge. Vince Scalzetti of Tri Cell Enterprises to the rescue. Vince is the Canadian distributor for Benz Micro, Cardas, Clearaudio, Merlin, Meadowlark, EAD, Black Diamond Racing, Graham, KR Enterprises, Kuzma, Wilson Benesch and a few others he has picked up recently. This is one busy guy. Incidentally, Vince has a very good ear and is one of the people whose listening ability I trust and admire.
Vince lent me an excellent cartridge to further test the MC section; a Benz modified Denon 103D whose output is, according to the test sheet, .028 mV. Even with the low output there was sufficient gain, plenty of volume, and great dynamics. This Benz modified Denon 103D is a great cartridge, including superb bass. The transformers are mounted on a small PC board, which is then fastened to the rear plate. In my unit, the top transformer was a little loose and would produce a hum when moved slightly. If left alone it was fine.
One design feature that I feel could have been better designed is the toggle switch which allows you to choose between the MC transformer input and the MM section. From the MM jacks, there are tiny unshielded wires that lead to this switch. On the MC input, the input jacks are directly fastened via the little PC board to the transformers. Some of the small unshielded wires from the output of the transformers go directly to the switch while some are directed over to the MM jacks and then eventually to the switch. From the switch, there are two shielded cables, one for each channel, which lead to the large PC board. Having the extra small wiring and the toggle switch at this location with the low-level phono signals is not ideal. I realize that you do have to have some switching medium here, but I'm wondering if there is any way to remove this switch from this part. I've done enough modifications to equipment to tell you that with good equipment you can hear the differences when a connector is installed in the circuit, when a short piece of wire is inserted somewhere and even the differences between different solders, with Cardas solder being the very best I've tried.
The Vinyl One has all wires, whether signal wires or power supply wires, directly soldered to the PC board or jacks or connectors. There are no push-on connectors anywhere. This is great. Again, my experience is that you not only can have the sound of the extra metal used in such a connector but also you can hear the sound of the mechanical connection versus a soldered one. I remember on time looking inside one of the KR Enterprises power amplifiers and discovering a series of these push-on connectors. This is not a good idea if you are after the best sound quality possible from a particular circuit.
Another great idea is that the Vinyl One uses a star grounding scheme to reduce the noise and hum level to an absolute minimum. This probably contributes to the unit's low noise level, especially for a tube unit. By the way, the unit operates phase correct according to the manual. Although all this is important, what really matters is how the unit sounds. Ah, I'm glad you asked.
A Sonic Blockbuster
I tried the Vinyl One on both the MM and MC inputs as well as both the "a" and "b" outputs. The cartridges were the Linn Troika (0.15 mV) and Benz Micro H2 (2.5 mV) with the Linn Ittok LVII on a Linn LP12 Valhalla and a Benz rebuilt Denon 103D (0.28 mV) with an old Fidelity Research FR-64 tone arm (highly modified) on an original Sota Sapphire turntable (highly modified). This is one incredible phono stage. If you are looking for a light, articulate, airy, analytical perspective, which many times means wimpy dynamics, weak lower midrange, and subdued upper as well as lower bass, this is probably not a good choice for you. The Vinyl One has great drive, impact, and dynamics. It has phenomenal mass and punch. This is not a wimpy, constrained phono section. I can't remember enjoying some of my 70's and 80's vinyl such as Pink Floyd, Supertramp, and Chicago more than with this phono stage. I would look to find records that had great drive and energy. This unit got me to feel "rocking", humming tunes, playing air guitar, tapping feet and generally having a blast, emotionally feeling the music. Musical involvement to me is the highest priority. Hey, I was born in Greece and lived there till age 9. I'm a Mediterranean kind of guy, very passionate and emotional so I appreciate this aspect highly. After all, lets face it, do we not listen to music to change our mood, to feel the passion, to move us, to impact our being and soul? I believe if music does not communicate with our soul it is of limited or no value.
This phono stage really delivers the emotional content of the music better than I've heard it in my system before. Don't get my wrong. This unit also delivers great pace and rhythm and has great resolution as well; it just doesn't highlight these qualities at the expense of the musical fundamentals or their harmonic structure. Harmonic tonality is first rate. Violins sound sweet, airy, with a cavity resonance due to their instrument bodies. So many components reproduce violins and string instruments in general like this thin, etchy, nylon string tied to a 2"x2" handle. String instruments heard live have a fundamental body and weight in addition to the lighter, airier, quicker harmonics. One of the musical wake up calls I received in the sound of strings occurred about eight years ago, while hearing a string quartet practicing in Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music. The sound was so sweet, with great body and weight. I was also blown away at how much energy and power this string quartet had even with the largest string instrument being a cello. It was really eye opening. Real music has great energy, drive, and dynamics.
The Vinyl One also has excellent bass, especially for a tube unit. Both the sub-bass as well as the mid-bass is strong, powerful, and dynamic. Because of this, the music has a great fundamental base to work from. The music sounds more complete and harmonically correct. Its bass is not the sometimes over-tight, over-dampened variety often experienced with solid stage equipment. Its bass is more real sounding. The break-in time for this unit was about average; however with the MC transformers it took considerably longer. The transformers break-in seemed to take forever. I'll describe the differences between the MC and MM inputs later on.
In many ways this unit is very chameleon-like. Its sound changes when changing to different phono cables, interconnect cables, power cords, and even the outputs "a" and "b" sound different. I have not experienced a component that so dramatically changes with different interconnects, power cords, and the quality of A/C power. On this last item, I could clearly hear the quality of A/C almost on a half-hour basis. I haven't experienced this level of distinction before. The Vinyl One is so revealing that you can get a good idea of the sound of an interconnect within about 10-30 seconds. You can even hear when the interconnect wire starts to "settle down" or "warm-up" after being inserted in the Vinyl One after about 10-20 minutes. By the way all the cables have a certain amount of this "warm-up" period depending on the materials and construction used. This was further verified to me when I read one of George Cardas' promo pieces on his cables. He says the same thing.
The midrange is very rich and dynamic. At first, I felt that the finer detail was not being communicated, through further listening I realized that very little detail is missing. It just doesn't draw attention to itself because it is better balanced with the rest of the music, the harmonics, and the bass. You can hear this on James Taylor's Greatest Hits. On the track "Carolina in My Mind" and "Fire and Rain" the vocals are exquisite, full, flowing with James' voice fluctuations clearly audible. If you are a detail freak, or like your music very Hi-Fi-ish, you may not like the tonality of this unit. For my tastes, it is close to ideal. Perhaps, this is just the last bit of detail missing from the midrange and indeed the whole frequency range. It sounds that the very smallest micro-dynamics are not as discernable as other more open and detailed units I have heard. Noticed this tendency in other Art Audio products on hand... namely the Diavolo power amplifier and the DM VPS pre-amplifier. Do not want to overstate this, because if you change to a more clear and detailed power cord, for example, the Custom Power Cord products, you have greatly increased this units micro-dynamics without, I repeat, ruining the excellent warmth and drive of this unit. Changing interconnects will also further increase the level of detail and micro-dynamics. For example, when I change from my custom made Cardas (wire & connectors) phono cable from the base of the tone-arm to the unit's input RCA's and substitute, for example, Linn's cable, the sound changes and there is more articulation, more openness, more airiness and a substantial increase in detail and micro-dynamics. The bass tightened up as well and also became more articulate and more real sounding.
The high frequencies are very sweet but not syrupy. The have great articulation and are very open. They were never harsh except when the A/C power was at its worst. The inner resolution of the Vinyl One is deceptive. Because it is easy to listen to, warm, musical, I felt that its resolving power was weak. This was after playing several jazz albums as well as James Taylor's "Something In The Way She Moves" cut from his Greatest Hits album. I clearly heard where his voice was overdubbed and when it was not. I learned that the resolution is there, it does not call attention to itself, because this unit is so well balanced. If anything, it may lack the last miniscule levels of detail and inner resolution, but not by much.
The attack of instruments was slightly, and I mean slightly, subdued. The Vinyl One tends to slightly slow down the attack of fast transients like percussion. Again, this greatly depends on the type of wiring you choose. For instance, changing speaker cables from Cardas Golden Cross to Wireworld Orbit made a great difference and improvement to the attack of the music as well as to the delicacy and airiness of the high frequencies. Another substantial improvement was realized in the improvement of the high frequencies, the attack of the music, inner resolution when I changed from the Analysis Plus copper interconnect to the Alpha Core Micropearl copper interconnect. This substitution brought these areas substantially up in quality. I now revise my statement to say that, the Vinyl One is "minusculey" short on all of the above. For me, to get this close in these areas and still get the openness, expansiveness and warmth of tubes is a great gift. I'd gladly give up the last smidgeon of detailed attack, etc. to get the magic of tubes. If your tastes differ, you may come to a different decision.
I think this following statement is very important. So, pay attention OK, as I am trying to describe the last two points above. It is increasingly difficult to write this review because the sound is so beautiful, so warm, involving, engaging... musical. And is this not the point of it all, to get lost in the music, to be moved by the music, to have music touch your soul?
In the soundscaping department this unit is incredible. It throws a great, large, soundstage with lots of weight and body. Many audio components give you one or the other; the Vinyl One gives you both in excellent balance. I used Green Mountain Continuum 2 speakers as well as the classic Spica Angelus speakers. Both of these are time and phase aligned and the results are extraordinary. You haven't heard soundstaging until you hear a well set-up phase correct speaker. The fact that Spica has disappeared from the market place is truly a shame and a tragedy. The Angelus is, in my experience, one of the top handfuls of speakers ever made. It is exceptional, especially when you consider that is sold for about $1,000 U.S. per pair. Astounding. The rest of the Spica speakers were also of this quality. They are Holographic.
The Green Mountain speakers, and especially the Continuum 2's are one of the best speakers currently made, period. Imaging, again with these speakers is superb. Great layering and excellent dimensionality. The difference between the outputs "a" (designed to be used directly with no pre-amp) and outputs "b" (designed to be used with a pre-amplifier) are the following:
The "a" outputs are more direct sounding with greater resolution and a more up-front presentation. The bass is a little deeper and tighter. The instruments and vocals have greater attack and a longer decay. These outputs are also more open and direct sounding. On most material there tended to be greater intertransient silence.
In comparison, the "b" outputs present more of a laid back, softer, mellower presentation. The sound is fuller and feels to me to be a tad more relaxed, less stress and strain. The double bass, for instance, has more body. They have greater 3D dimensionality and are more holographic. Which is better? I don't know. It depends on your musical tastes and presentation as well as your associated equipment including wiring and A/C quality. For me, I switched from "a" to "b" depending on the music, the quality of the recording, and the different components that I would use in the system, not to mention the A/C quality. It is really nice to have this option to tailor the sound to your tastes.
The MM inputs also sounded slightly different from the MC input transformers. First, I have to say that the transformers took seemingly forever to break-in and three and a half months later I can still detect slight improvements, so I'm not totally sure that the transformers are totally broken in yet. The MM inputs are slightly better in some areas than others. The MM inputs are, in general, more relaxed, more natural, more open, greater body, blacker silences. The sound was fuller with more weight. In contrast, the MC sounded as though the music was slightly elevated in frequency compared to the MM. The MM also had slightly greater punch and balls to the music. And I could notice tempo changes easier. I could loose myself in the music a little more. Notice I said "slight" and " a little more". These are not monumental differences. Also, some, or most of the differences I heard may be as a result of the different loading of the MM section and the MC transformers. I used the same cartridge/arm/table combination for these differences.
The Vinyl One phono stage does so many things right. It has a very engaging, warm personality, with great drive and power. This is not a wimpy phono stage. It also is a lot of fun to listen to my vinyl again through this unit. It also has very good inner resolution and detail but just a smidgeon less than some other "more analytical" sounding phono stages. For me, it had enough, although at times I wished for more resolution and detail, as I can love it all. Yes, I want it all, dammit! Again, you can improve this area by using different power cords and cables, as well as switching from the "a" to "b" outputs. I wonder if a better internal hook-up wire and better connectors were used whether it would constitute in a more resolving phono stage. For example, using Jena Labs "ultra" pure copper hook-up wire and perhaps Cardas connectors along with the elimination or improvement of the MM-MC toggle switch. If these changes were sonically worthwhile, and my experience states emphatically that is would, perhaps a "Signature" model would be available or maybe you can order this unit with some of these options as Joe Fratus is quite wiling to offer "lots of options" as he says. This would be very enlightening.
The last thing I want to say is that the Vinyl One's greatest strength, among a lot of strengths mind you, is that it does such a great job at blending musicality, resolution, dynamics, and emotional involvement. This unit is so well balanced. No question about it, this is a world-class phono stage.
MM Section: 50 dB gain, set to match cartridges with a 47k impedance load (other values optionally available from factory
Sensitivity (1 volt output): >2mV
Input Overload: 75mV
Frequency Response: 20 Hz-20KHz +/-1 dB
Noise: 75 dB
Output Gain Control (OPTIONAL): via 50k potentiometer
MC Section; adds an additional 20 dB (70 dB total)
Transformer Type: Mu metal (75% nickel) cores, can mounted in heavy gauge Mu metal. Balanced two chamber winding with four separate electrostatic screens. Multiple interleaved windings for exceptional bandwidth. Low phase shift.
Input Impedance: 100 ohms
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 20KHz
Tubes: two 12AX7 for amplification, one 12AX7 for the cathode follower.
Two pairs of inputs (RCA's); MM and MC, with toggle switch.
Two pairs of outputs (RCA's):
Mono/Stereo switch is available by special order only.
Weight: 18 lbs.
Price: $1,995 - MM only, Black faceplate, no Volume/Gain control.