Is that a Wallytractor in your pants
Review by Ian White
A learned and much wiser man than me once said "fear not change, as change is inevitable and besides that, I'll shoot you full of holes if you tell your grandma about the incident at K-mart".
It was with those stirring, soft-spoken words that I became a man…or was it an eight-year old in need of intense psychotherapy. Say what you will about the child rearing skills of my late-grandfather, the fact remains that not only was he a rather brave man (fought in both World Wars, and went off the deep end when he was turned down at the age of 80 when he tried to volunteer for the IDF during the Yom Kippur War), but he had fabulous taste in music and left us a priceless collection of 78's from the '20s, '30s, and '40s that we were too scared to play out of fear that his ghost would return armed with his prized .30 caliber rifle looking for the careless slob who snapped his original version of "Caravan" into three pieces.
If my Grandfather taught me anything, it was that vinyl was something that could not be improved upon, especially not by those "ridiculous" cassettes (he was convinced that the Sony Walkman was the Japanese getting back at us for dropping the big one), and that one should never sit idly by when someone challenges the good name of Doris Day. My fiancée finds it funny when I drop to the floor and cover my ears whenever I hear "Que Sera Sera," but I am genuinely tortured by that song, as my Grandfather made me listen to him sing along with the virginal Ms. Day every Saturday afternoon just before he turned on ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour to catch the final round of action.
Early one Saturday morning, I found my Grandfather despairing over the death of his beloved console stereo and most importantly, his record player.
"Put your coat back on, we're going to K-Mart to find a new stereo," he yelled as he grabbed the keys to his beautiful blue truck (circa 1955) that he used to haul around dry wall.
"K-Mart again," I moaned.
"We're going to K-Mart and you'll shut that filthy mouth of yours," he replied rather hotly.
It was a really quiet ride.
When we finally arrived, he kept with tradition and sampled from the candy bins with a boldness that would have made Fagan most proud. Being the eldest son of a prosecutor, I was always troubled by his open and fragrant disregard for the law, but common sense (even at the age of eight) told me that questioning the behavior of a man who worshipped Doris Day and enjoyed trench warfare was something best left to store security or a SWAT team. With me in tow, he weaved his way through the rows of bad polyester and rayon knits, slightly damaged Big Wheels, and BBQ sets, until he came to the electronics counter where they sold only the finest in "low-fi".
"Could you please show me what you have in console units?" he asked.
"Ahhhh…we really don't stock many of those anymore to be honest sir," replied the clerk.
"Don't tell me that sonny, I know that you carry console units that play records, because I saw them the last time I was here," he replied with a growing anger that had me shuffling my little feet as I tried to hide under a rack full of sun dresses.
"I'm sorry sir, but we only sell separates and we've begun to sell this new thing called 8-track," replied the clerk, clearly unaware that he was dealing with a ticking time bomb. Before he could even swing his arm to point in the direction of the cassette players on the wall, Grandpa reached into his jacket and yanked out…his beloved 45 copy of Doris Day.
"I came here to hear Doris Day and I'm not leaving until I do."
It's probably best that I leave the remaining details to your imagination, but I doubt K-Mart will ever forget the day that a elderly man brandishing a Doris Day 45 forced his way over the counter to try to play a record using an eight-track machine. Like I said in my opening, change isn't always that easy for people to accept.
If there is a positive change taking place right now in the audio kingdom, it is that people are starting to migrate back to vinyl. No, people are not buying tables with the same hurricane-like force of those purchasing DVD players (there were more DVD players sold in the first two months of 2001 than all of the high-end turntables sold in the past five years combined), but there seems to be a genuine movement of people (including a number of lost souls finding their way back home) who are laying down their hard earned money for a decent turntable/arm/cartridge. On the flip side, a number of my colleagues in the so-called press have abandoned vinyl altogether, complaining that they don't have the patience for it anymore and that digital audio is finally superior with the arrival of SACD. One even recently commented "nobody has the time to fuss around with vinyl anymore".
While on vacation last summer in London, I spent an entire day running around the city trying to find some exotic European gear to listen to and what struck me in each shop that I visited, was the number of new tables on display. In contrast to the CD players, the entry bar to really good analog reproduction was getting cheaper and most of what I heard was significantly better than what I was hearing on our side of the pond. Of course, a plethora of new tables, arms, and cartridges (look for our reviews on the amazing Jan Allaerts MC1 B cartridge and Morch UP-4 tonearm in the June issue of ETM) would be meaningless, if there wasn't anything good to plug them into. The Audiomat Phono 1, as we discovered, fits that role perfectly.
While not exactly a fan of French gear, I must confess that the Audiomat equipment that I've heard for prolonged periods of time (Arpège integrated, Tango 2.5 DAC, Tempo 2.5 DAC) is rather exceptional sounding, and at a most agreeable price. Not only is this stuff built more like a German car than a French one, but it makes a lot of North American high-end gear appear over-engineered and dare I say, overpriced. At $990, the Audiomat Phono 1 finds itself in a very competitive market, flanked on one side by the less expensive offerings from Creek, and on the other by the Black Cube, EAR 834P (review forthcoming), Blue Circle BC23, The Groove by Tom Evans, etc…
With so many affordable, yet very good phono preamplifiers available, a product needs to do something a lot better than the competition to make itself known and earn that all important sale. Just how good is the Audiomat Phono 1? Good enough to make an $8,000 analog set-up bow and ask "just how would you like your tea and strumpets each morning, sir?"
Give the Governor a harrumph!
At 1" x 3.875 x 8.5 (HxWxD), the Audiomat Phono 1 is not a product whose physical stature earns all that much attention. The phono stage consists of two pieces, one being the phono stage itself, and the other being a wall-wart power supply that plugs into the back of the preamp's rear panel. Nitpickers will groan when they hear that you can't use third party power cords, but I just love Audiomat's "just plug it in and enjoy it for Francois' sake" attitude. The casework for the preamp is made out of metal and the overall construction (both inside and out) is very solid. There is nothing flimsy or cheap to be found anywhere.
The rear panel consists of a pair of inputs, one pair of outputs (both are RCA), a grounding terminal, and recessed power receptacle. If that doesn't have you excited (it's been a long winter folks!), then the front panel will really push the dials on your party meter. The front panel's one and only feature is a toggle switch, which moves between "MM" and "MC" and a pair of red LEDs which indicate your choice of gain stage. If you chose to use a MM cartridge, the Phono 1's input impedance is 47k ohms, and it auto-adjusts when using a MC with settings between 10 and 100 ohms. The lowest output MC that the Phono 1 will work well with is 0.3mV, with almost 66dB of gain. On the MM side, the Phono 1 provides 44dB of gain and in my experience works well with cartridges over 3mV.
If I have one complaint about the operation of the Phono 1, it is the simply ridiculous long break-in period. Pascal of Mutine, stands firm on his claim that both inputs require more than 100 hours of break-in before you hear the unit at its best, and it appears that he was understating the amount of time required. No, the Phono 1 doesn't sound bad at all cold out of the box, but it was a solid three weeks later before I felt that I was hearing the unit at its peak. The improvements in transparency, detail, soundstage depth, and image height became apparent with each passing recording. Like a good French wine (one of the few things they still manage to get right), this phono preamp needs some room to breathe and once that happens, it's downright phenomenal for its asking price.
Like butter…okay, more like salt-free margarine
As disappointing as I found her last two recording's, Tori Amos still pushes all of the right buttons for me and her sultry voice just makes me feel amazingly uncomfortable when I sit and listen. While she may never approach the quality of a Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and especially Judy Garland, she evokes a certain raw emotion and I find her most desirable. Hey, if women could scream and yell about Elvis and John, Paul, Ringo, and George, I can pass out thinking about Tori. It could be worse, I could feel this way about a certain jazz singer from Canada whose name shouldn't even be used in the same paragraph as Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn.
The first thing that became apparent listening to the Phono 1 was that it paints a very transparent picture of every recording played through it. Please don't confuse "transparent" with "thin" as the Phono 1 never makes music sound that way, but it does make everything sound clearer and more vivid. When listening to Tori Amos' Under the Pink [Atlantic 82567-1] and Little Earthquakes [east/west 7567 82358-1], I was very impressed by the Phono 1's ability to impart very little of its own sonic signature on to the music, and as a result not rob the music of its colour and texture. I've never heard a piece of gear yet, that did not posses a sonic signature and the Phono 1 is no exception. The Phono 1 trades a certain degree of bloom in the midrange for better overall pace, image stability, and solidity in the bass, but not to the extent that otherwise warm vocals turn cold. In comparison to the Phono 1 with the same two Amos recordings, both the EAR 834P and Blue Circle BC23 sound fuller with vocals, yet neither one sound as clear or vivid. In a somewhat forward sounding system, using one of the Clearaudio moving coil cartridges, the Phono 1 would not be my first choice.
The fact that vocals lost some body in a 300B-based system such as my own, using a wood body Benz H2O, through a pair of Spendor SP2/3s, should serve as a warning to those thinking about using this phono preamp in a more forward sounding system. No, the Phono 1 is not overly analytical, but it certainly does not sound overly romantic either. Tonally, I think it does a superb job on the piano, clearly letting you hear the differences between the different manufacturers and not exaggerating the size of the instrument. Decay is well reproduced and especially easy to pick out.
For a slight change of pace, I dug out a copy of The Everly Brothers' Pure Harmony [ACE Records CH 118], and Mose Allison's Back Country Suite for Piano, Bass and Drums [Prestige 7091 OJC-075] and it became clear with these two recordings that the Phono 1 has the ability to make music swing and it is a good thing that I had the drapes closed as I felt inspired enough to bounce around the room as if I was at some sock-hop with my date, Tori Amos. Yes, she looked radiant in that pink dress with the little poodle in the bottom corner and a tight white sweater. Yes, I looked idiotic doing the twist and some version of the funky chicken, but who cares when you are having fun.
Seriously though, the Phono 1 made both the EAR 834P and Blue Circle BC23 sound lethargic in comparison on the above noted recordings and most of the alternative and classic rock that I listened to. It's not the other two sound slow as in "boring" or "uninvolved", but they don't make you want to boogie down in the same kind of way. Listening to the Who (still the greatest rock band ever!) was uplifting through the Phono 1 and just "kinda there" with the other two.
When I switched to classical and chamber music in particular, the playing field narrowed quite a bit in my opinion. One of the strengths of the EAR 834P, and the Blue Circle BC23 to a lesser extent, is how they reproduce strings and the warmth and body that they add to the sound. Some might feel that they add too much body to the sound, but I really liked what they did to Joseph Haydn's Streichquartette Op. 76,3 and Op. 74,3 [Teldec, played by the marvelous Alban Berg Quartett], filling the space of my listening room with some very romantic and vivid sound. The Phono 1 did an equally good job of making it sound quite real with superb tonality, depth, and presence, but it wasn't as good in the warmth department, taking away from my emotional reaction to the music. From a tonal perspective, the Phono 1 is certainly more accurate than the other two phono stages and it does make the music come alive more. The "warmth" issue might matter more to some using gear that is slightly lean sounding or speakers that are overly detailed and analytical, but I could easily live with the performance of the Phono 1 with classical music.
When it comes to cartridges, experience tells me that the Phono 1 works superbly well with cartridges from Benz Micro, Lyra, Rega, and Jan Allaerts, and better than average with some of the Grados and Clearaudio. If I had to pick from the many that I've heard with the Phono 1, I'd give the nod to the Benz H2O, Benz .4, Lyra Helikon, and Rega Super Elys. System synergy is clearly important with any product, but I'm confident in suggesting what I've recommended above.
With so many good phono stages available right now, it's somewhat difficult to say that one is the all-around winner with all types of music and with any type of system, but the fact does remain that some are better from an overall perspective with most music and most likely to work well with a wide variety of cartridges. Both the EAR 834P and Blue Circle BC23 do a lot of really good things with classical, folk, jazz, and some aggressive sounding pop recordings, but from a tonal, pace, clarity, and resolution perspective across the entire frequency range, the Audiomat Phono 1 is clearly better and in my opinion a solid choice for those using tube-based systems, speakers with a slightly warm tonal balance, and romantic sounding cartridges.
Audiomat Phono 1 Phono Stage