For years, I did not love vinyl because I bought the lies and about 1,500 CDs. Now I one again love vinyl. A special love for vinyl today after purchasing a good turntable, good phono amp and decent cartridge. Since receiving the Benz-Micro L2 for an in-house road test, I really love vinyl lots and lots.
In the last year or so and listening closely to several phono amps in the "ordinary" price range, I have listened to the NAD P1 phono amp (very good, sinfully good at the price); the Blue Circle phono amp (good, flashes of brilliance); Lehmann Black Cube (adequate). Finally, after reviewing the Audiomat Phono 1 I settled on it as my reference phono amp. I love it. Excellent! No flashes of brilliance because that implies a lesser level at some time. Simply excellent staging, detail, musical sense and even frequency response.
Anyway... Was excited when Vince gave me a Phonomena amp and battery power supply to review when I picked up the L2 cartridge. The Phonomena, manufactured by Musical Surroundings Inc., is a handsome piece of gear. When I saw it, it looked like a dream come true. Reasonable price, good stats, high build quality, and a wealth of adjustability.
With its battery power supply, it looks impressive as the power supply's three lights (Battery, AC, Charging) shine through. The brushed metal cabinet is offered in chrome or black and are both quite handsome. The gold plated RCA connectors are sturdy. The ground terminal has a nice large plastic knob so that you are not fiddling and fussing with the usual bit of finger-ripping knurled metal. A piece of clear Lucite covers the front of both pieces. All in all, sweet looking gear, nicely finished. Compared to the size of the Blue Circle, this is a small unit, 12 inches wide, 5.25" inches deep and 1.72" high. It is considerably larger than the Audiomat, Lehmann, NAD or the two new ones I have received (to appear in the October 2001 issue), the Gram Amps 1 and 2.
Musical Surroundings, American distributor of several very fine analogue products, manufactures this phono stage under their own brand name, Phonomena. They issued it first with a wall wart power supply. This was not, as it turned out, a great way to demonstrate the depth of your favorite vinyl. In fact, it was a downright embarrassment. More on this later.
So, how does it sound? I thought at first that it was fine. It covers the entire sound spectrum evenly. It reveals detail; never shows any exaggeration; it minds its manners, no matter what the record. But it just did not have the presence and life I looked for in a $1,200 unit. I tried it with everything, but just could not shake the feeling that there was a big party going on to which I had not been allowed entrance.
For example, while it covered the spectrum evenly, with no obvious hills or valleys, it robbed Elvis Presley's "Fever" [Elvis Is Back, DCC LPZ-2037] of its presence and drama. I wondered that the bass sounded like an electric bass; that is, it was a strong bass, but the lower notes especially had none of the reverberant overtones so characteristic of the acoustic bass. The rapping sounds were too gentle, too full. Persley's voice did not swagger out in front of the speakers as it usually does.
Philadelphia Jerry Ricks's [Empty Bottle Blues, Radioton SLPM 37062] voice seemed deep and full - until I realized that it dulled, undefined and a bit too gentle. The guitar had lots of musical detail, but not the edgy snap to which I am accustomed. Not that had no snap, just not as much.
The strings sounded rich and mellow in "Vienna Blood" [Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Strauss Waltzes, RCA Victor Red Seal, LSC-2500] at first. But then I realized they were lacking in detail, not muzzy or missing, just not lively. When I played St. Germain, Tourist, the same thing happened. All the inspiring mixtures of sound and electronics were there, but the Phonomena was keeping too much of them for itself.
So what happens when you drop the $600 power supply? Don't ask. Just take my word for it that you must plan to buy both items. There was a substantial difference in quality between them; power supplies count and the Phonomena with and without is a vivid demonstration of this truth. The Phonomena without the power supply is adequate - it allows you to listen to your records. You can adjust gain and impedances to your heart's content inside the Phonomena phono amp. But when you have tried all the settings, you will realize that the battery power supply is an essential part of the game.
Comparisons with the Audiomat Phono 1 brought out in stark detail what the problems are with the Phonomena. By comparison, the Audiomat has presence, power and precision. It presents the music as music, with no holds barred. You can hear the ambience of the recording. You hear the transients as transient. You hear the acoustic bass in all its glory as a big, hollow, instrument. You hear the guitar as it sounds - quick, snappy, whether played with a percussive touch or simply strummed. The Phonomena is great - unless you compare it with the best in its price range or even below it. At one point, I even tried out the Nad PP1 phono amp. It is suited only for use with high output cartridges, so I had to push the dial another 3 hours up the clock face. What happened? The Nad sounded about as good as the much more expensive Phonomena.
The Phonomena phono stage, with wall wart and with battery power supply works ok. But a comparison with the Audiomat Phono 1 creates questions of cost, price and performance. The real issue here is refinement. The Phonomena is so close, but it really needs improvement. The dollar to performance ratio is poor right now. It should work really well, but is merely adequate where it should be great. If you are buying a phono stage and are willing to go to the $1,000 range, hold off for the Audiomat. You will be glad you did.
Discrete transistor topology
Battery power supply