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March 2013
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
World Premiere!
ifi Audio Micro iPhono MM/MC Phonostage
A rare audiophile no-brainer bargain.
Review By Ron Nagle

 

ifi Audio Micro iPhono MM/MC Phonostage  Mr. Vincent Luke the ifi Audio marketing representative has just unpacked a shipment of something. As I peer over his shoulder, he sees the Enjoy the Music.com Press Badge and asks me if I would like to try it, my first thought is, try what!  Inside of a white box, I see a seven-inch long aluminum rectangle. My expression must have asked a question, and he replied, "This is an ifi Micro phonograph amplifier".

By way of clarification let's back up a bit, this is day two of the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audiofest in Denver Colorado. We need to first flesh out a few facts. Inhabiting room 423 at the RMAF is Avatar Acoustics they are the American Importer/Distributor for the British firm, Abbington Music Research. Most audiophiles just call them AMR Audio. This British company makes some truly great Hi-End audio components, most of it way beyond my wallets capacity.

Not that long ago AMR Audio launched a far more affordable spin off called, ifi micro. AMR tells us they employed their Trickle Down Technology in the design of the iPhono stage. On the bottom of the iPhono, the company logo is silkscreen printed on the components in these same ifi lower case letters. Prior to the 2012 RMAF, the company designed and produced three small components all sharing the same aluminum housed rectangular form factor.

In approximate order they are:
iFi Micro iCAN Headphone Amp ($249)
iFi Micro iDAC Headphone Amp/DAC with 24-bit/192kHz resolution ($299)
iFi Micro iUSB Power Module ($199
And lastly, we have the subject of this aural investigation the iFi Micro iPhono Phonostage ($399)

This compact component measures 6.5" x 2.5" (LxW) and is housed in a one-inch thick aluminum case. In fact, it is small enough so that you could slip it into your shirt pocket. What makes the iPhono such an innovative stand out besides the $399 price is its amazing array of features/adjustments. Maybe the best way to describe it would be to call it a universal moving magnet/moving coil phonograph cartridge amplifier. Obviously, there are many phono amplifiers that allow capacitive and resistive cartridge loading adjustments. But far fewer that combines the iPhono added ability to set six different EQ curves.

 

A Primer
It occurs to me as I write this that in this digital age there are some who may be just now buying their first turntable. I would like to comment, at this point that you should start out with a fairly good working familiarly with vinyl recording and cartridge basics. Understand that some of your specific setup values can only be found and finalized by listening and then fine-tuning your adjustments to optimize your system. The caveat here is that you should always begin with the cartridge manufactures specifications. That said lets start beginners Class 101. The grooves cut into the vinyl surface of a record are a physical analog of the sound patterns of the original performance. A heated cutting head mounted on a cutting lathe is powered by an electrical sum and difference signal that cuts the grooves into a blank master disk. These grooves mimic the sound pressure waves of the original performance. The cutting lath inscribes/cuts a blank vinyl disk to form the original or master disk referred to as the "Mother". A company called Westrex was a pioneer of this process and manufactured many of the cutting heads that were used in disk mastering. In order to reverse this analog encoding an accurate copy of the original electrical signal must be generated by the cartridge and stylus.

EQ refers to the Phonograph Equalization curve.
Why does the iPhono amplifier have different EQ settings you may ask?

Specifically, the equalization is actually an electrical network used to compensate for limitations inherent in the disk mastering process.

ifi Audio Micro iPhono

To make a long story shorter, it is an electronic frequency pre-emphasis network used in the disk cutting process. The EQ compensation network in the phono amplifier then functions as an inverse or de-emphasis circuit that results in flat/correct frequency response on playback. Over the long history of vinyl, recording, various companies used different electronic circuits/networks to compensate for mastering limitations.

If you look at the history of different equalization methods employed pre-1954 and the RIAA standardization introduced in 1950. You will see that the EQ correction efforts cover a span of decades going back to the very first mention of them in 1926. The Marketing Rep. Vincent Luke informed me that in the U.K. and Europe you will find many more versions of the EQ networks than in the United States. Therefore, with foresight they designed the iPhono so that it might have broad compatibility. Before 1954 there were over 100 combinations of turnover and rolloff frequencies in use: (Wikipedia)

 

Features And Fiddly Bits
Let us start our description with the least complicated feature. On the top of the aluminum, case there is three small green LED's near three functional symbols. They are a Triangle and next a symbol for an amplifier function and last a symbol for a jack connection. The right and left ends of the case hold the input and output connections. The input side has four female RCA jacks, two are for coaxial moving magnet and the other two are separate coaxial inputs for a moving coil cartridge. Exactly in the center of these is a small grounding post. At the opposite end is an input jack for the DC power plug. In addition, a three-position toggle switch marked COLUMBIA, RIAA, and DECCA. This three-position switch will allow you to match the EQ curves of the three most prolific recording manufacturers. (after you set  the DIP switches) And last are the two RCA output jacks for connection to the downstream audio system.

 

Getting To The Bottom Of Things
The diagram shown below is not the same layout printed on the bottom of the ifi Micro iPhono amplifier. This diagram is expanded a bit for clarity; it shows some the settings for the 24 miniature DIP switches.

 

As you can see there are three banks containing eight DIP (Dual Inline Pin) switches. They are divided into left and right Channel sections. The two banks of switches shown in the top frame are: Left side MM (Moving Magnet) capacitive loading and on the right side these switches are for MC (Moving Coil) resistive loading. You should begin with the optimum loading values; they will be specified by the cartridge manufacturer. The lower frame shows the DIP switches for matching the EQ compensation networks used by various record manufacturers. Last, the right side of the lower frame shows possible cartridge gain settings up to a maximum of 66 dB.

Notice the EQ Compensation adjustments, this is where it gets more complicated, across the pond in England they might say it get's a bit fiddly. To be ultra accurate you should know what company produced the recording and if possible when the recording was made. To address this the small print on the iPhono case lists the three most common EQ compensation settings for the United States 9i.e: Columbia, RIAA, and Decca0. The iPhono printed chart tells us the standard RIAA curve is for most recordings issued after 1980 and some issued after the 1950's. Additionally it tells us the Columbia EQ compensation will apply to most Columbia/CBS, Epic, and EMI recordings issued under Columbia.

What you should know is the applicable iPhono EQ DIP settings. These are listed like this:  Standard RIAA is the Default, than IEC, this is actually the Standard RIAA curve + a Subsonic Filter, Next eRIAA is called enhanced RIAA, Next: eRIAA + IEC is called Enhanced RIAA + Subsonic Filter, and last is the standard for the Decca/Columbia EQ Curves. Remember that three-position EQ toggle switch on the input end of the case?  The center RIAA position engages whatever you have selected using the DIP switches, however both of the Decca and Columbia settings are fixed.

If I had, a criticism to make it would be that, the silkscreen printed settings on the case are too small and crowded to be easily read. Additionally the individual switch banks serve multiple functions for gain, load, and EQ settings that are used for both MM and MC cartridges and they are not intuitive. However, I was informed that in the future there would be a clearer printed version of the layout included with the amplifier.

 

Reminder
The factors/variables that could effect the sound quality are almost too numerous to list. They would depend on the type of cartridge and therefore the gain and load settings. In addition, the cartridge compliance and arm mass should be compatible. Additionally are all the cartridge alignment adjustments correct? The EQ settings for the recording are they correct. Consider the recordings surface condition. And last but not insignificantly is the turntable set up correctly and rotational speed spot on? I mention all these factors even before the signal goes downstream through all the circuits and wiring into your speakers and ultimately arrives at your pinnae.

 

Methodology
Since there are innumerable cartridges in existence, we will need to establish a benchmark. In an effort to minimize variables, I am going to set up and use two cartridges, a Moving Magnet and a Moving Coil. In addition, I will employ a pristine high quality recording: Diana Krall Glad Rag Doll [Verve 6-02537-12694-1]. Not as a reference but as a check to see how close the vinyl EQ is to the digital EQ we will compare the CD version of Glad Rag Doll [B0017326-19]. The MM we will use is the Sure V15 Type V-MR, because this is the most ubiquitous and performance measured MM cartridge. The second cartridge is an unusual $5000 Dollar high compliance 0.35mV Haniwa HCTR01 Super Low Impedance MC design. This was chosen simply because it will be a challenging interface for the iPhono amplifier. I have been using both cartridges for several months with various review samples.

 

Listening
First at the gate is the low inductance Haniwa HCTR01 cartridge. It is difficult to get it right because it requires an unusually low input impedance and precise set up. For this test the iPhono DIP resistance was adjusted at 22 Ohms and the Gain set at 66 dB and the EQ was fixed at eRIAA/IEC.

The test vinyl Glad Rag Doll has a unique sound, portions of the instrumental arrangement sound like a carnival merry-go-round calliope. The fourth track is, You Know-I Know Everything Is Made For Love. The bass end sounds as if they placed a microphone inside of the acoustic bass. The sound is replete, even including the buzzing sound of the bass strings. However, Diana's breathy voice serves up a warming and intimate counterpoint. This Vinyl recording played through the iPhono is an exact match to the digital EQ of the CD version. At the risk of being obvious, any respectable Audiophile knows the Vinyl recording should be better than the CD. You may exclaim, how so!  Well dear reader it's all in the details. The tactile tonal shadings, the image placement/specificity painted on a larger stage, add in the human warmth of Ms. Krall voice, much of it realized by the natural sustain/decay of sounds recovered from the grooves of vinyl.

 

The Sure V15 Type V-MR
iPhono gain now set to 40dB; standard loading is 47 kOhms and Standard RIAA. This is a study in contrasts. Compared to the moving coil Haniwa it exhibits a stage of another color. Polite by virtue of a dead flat frequency response it paints a broad but less detailed sound stage. This is because it does not have the transient speed of a MC. This is most noticeable at low frequencies were the bass just seems slightly bloated.

Pay attention! Understand the primary goal of this missive is not to just describe the recordings or even the cartridges used. It is instead to ascertain the role of the phonograph amplifier. Ideally, a phonograph amplifier should be totally transparent and add or subtract nothing on its own. The amplifier should be like a straight wire with gain. Note: All the listening started with the DIP switches set just as the cartridges manufactures specified. Also, understand that even using a single recording the switches controlling gain, compensation and loading were employed as the record played to determine the effectiveness of the controls. FYI, there was test sampling of other record labels. A 1967 recording in French issued on the Fontana label also a 1968 Decca London recording, and more.

 

Conclusion
iFi Audio iPhonoIt is very hard to isolate and describe what should not be there. Nevertheless, or none the less I have discovered a baseline personality. Firstly it is above all dead quiet. The manufacturer says the amplifier is designed to operate in pure Class A operation, and it does but! Do not think of Class A in the same way you think of tube-based amplifiers. This is Class A solid-state and it has absolutely no tube warming tonal colorations. What it does is present musical performance in a distortion-less pristine and pure form. This is as it should be; it will never impose anything on the performance. The caveat is, only if you have not done something stupid.

The $399 price and the unusual range of adaptation make this device truly unique. Buy it if you play vinyl, for you most certainly could not lose. More and more by bucking the pricing escalation this is a rare audiophile no-brainer bargain. On a personal note: "I have learned a few things about my vinyl system and in the process enjoyed every fiddly minute" From the magazine Enjoy the Music.com and from me, Semper Hi-Fi!

 

Reference System
Set-Up Tools
Cart-Align mirror protractor
Roksan Electronic stylus balance
DT 2243 Digital tachometer
Fozgometer Azimuth ranging meter

SOTA turntable with Grado Signature tonearm
Haniwa HCTR01 MC Cartridge
Shure V15 Type V-MR Cartridge
Marantz 8400 Universal CD Player
Music Hall dac25.3 Tube up sampling D/A processor.

Amplification
Sanders ESL Power Amplifier
Prima Luna Prologue 2 amplifier
Audio Research SP-9 MK 3 Preamplifier
IPhono amplifier.

Speakers
Aurum Cantus Leisure 2 SE two-way ribbon monitors
Mark and Daniel Omni Harmonizers.

Speaker Cables
Kimber 12 TC
Von Gaylord Legend 7000s speaker cables

Interconnect Cables
Monster Reference, 1 meter and 1.5 meters
Nordost Red Dawn, 1 meter
Audio Research Litzlink 2 pairs,1.5 meter
Chord Silver Siren, 1 meter
Audiobhan 0.5-meter digital

AC Power
Power cords are (Wonderful) Kaplan Cables.
Islatrol Industrial 20 Ampere AC line conditioner
Richard Gray 20 Ampere Sub Station
Alpha Core Balanced Transformer Power Supply
Audio Power PE-1 power enhancer
Richard Gray 20 Ampere Sub Station
Alpha Core Balanced Transformer Power Supply
Audio Power PE-1 power enhancer

 

Specifications
Type: MM and MC solid-state phonostage
Frequency Response: 10 Hz to 100 kHz (0.5dB)
Dynamic Range(MM): >96dB
Dynamic Range (MC): >90dB
Signal to Noise Ratio (MM): >76dB
Signal to Noise Ratio (MC): >82dB
Crosstalk: <-70dB (1 kHz)
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.01%
Output Impedance (Zout):  <110 Ohms
Input Voltage: AC 100 - 240V, 50/60Hz
Power Consumption: < 4W
Dimensions: 158 x68 x 28 (LxWxH in mm)
Weight: 0.44 lbs
Price: $399

 

Contact Information
ifi Audio
E-mail: contact@ifi-audio.com
Website: www.ifi-audio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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