Life is strange. Having searched high and low for the holy grail of digital spinners, and having recently inducted the Meridian G08 CD player into my personal hall of fame, the silver discs sit idle as I review a series of analog components. First up was the Pro-Ject 1 Xpression Turntable. In this month's exciting episode, I put a number of inexpensive phono stages to the test.
The Rega Fono MC is suitable for low output moving coils (if your cartridge is a high output device, Rega also has the Fono MM). The Fono MC is a low wide black metal box (a silver finish is also available) mounted on four rubber feet with a 24-volt wall-wart power supply. On the back are four sturdy phono jacks for input and output, a ground terminal and a jack for the power supply. The front panel has a power button and the familiar 3D Rega icon. If you want to adjust the Fono to suit your cartridge, better pull out a Pozidrive screwdriver to gain access to the four DIP switches on the PCB. Two control left and right loading, and two control left and right gain. I wonder if anyone ever sets the two channels to different settings. Using the Koetsu Black Goldline, I set the gain to 300uV, the loading resistance to 100O and the capacitance to 4200pF. The circuit board is well laid out and very clearly marked, which speaks well for reliability and serviceability. The preamplifier is made in Britain, while the power supply hails from China.
The next unit is the Clearaudio Micro Basic. It has just one button, to switch gain between MC and MM and the brushed aluminum case is very small, so that it can be located close to the turntable if desired. You can even mount it underneath a wooden shelf by passing a long screw through a pass through hole in the case. There are two well-spaced phono jacks on each end of the box, while the earth connection and power indicator are positioned between the input jacks. The captive power cord leads to the outboard power supply. Clearaudio claim the Micro Basic will automatically adjust to any kind of connected cartridge, once you have selected MM or MC. A gentle subsonic filter rolls off the response below 20Hz.
To round out the group we have two units from Pro-Ject, the Phono Box SE and its upscale brother, the Tube Box. The Phono Box SE comes in a compact black metal box with a black mirror finish faceplate featuring a single blue LED. You can easily set the cartridge matching on well marked DIP switches on the underside of the unit. Pro-Ject claim optimal channel separation through dual-mono circuitry. Features include a subsonic filter, the use of special low-noise ICs and gold plated RCA sockets. The Tube Box is taller and much deeper, to accommodate the double triode tubes, which glow warmly through windows in the front plate. Alone among the test unit, the Tube Box is not intended to be left on permanently, to protect the life of the tubes, and features a big push button power switch in the centre of the face plate. Again there are DIP switches on the underside to set the cartridge matching, and there are now three choices for moving coil as well as a moving magnet setting. The Phone Box SE skips one of the moving coil settings. Again a wall-wart power supply is used, but this one has a higher capacity.
I put these phono stages through their paces with both a low output moving coil cartridge, the Koetsu Black Goldline, and then with a high output cartridge, the Dynavector DV20 XH. The cartridges were mounted in my trusty Ittok on a Linn LP12 turntable, while the amplifier and speakers were the Perreaux Radiance R200i and Wilson Benesch Act 1s respectively, linked up using SoundString and Cardas cabling from end to end, making for a high resolution test bed.
The Koetsu puts out 600uV and is optimally loaded at around 100O. Loading each of the units as close as possible, and first giving each unit a week to run in, I started to listen.
The Pro-Ject Tube Box is a clear winner with the Koetsu Black. The sound is full bodied, natural and warm, with a surprising degree of detail. It is not the most open on top, rolling off gracefully, but this serves to minimize the surface noise compared to the other units. It is well extended in the bass but not as well defined there as the Clearaudio. The sound is spacious and there is good width and depth to the image. On the other hand it does not locate individual instruments precisely within the soundstage. The Tube Box is forgiving on less than stellar material, but when the recording is first rate, as on Thelma Houstons's I've Got The Music In Me [Sheffield Lab 2] it delivers a rollicking performance that makes you want to sing along with gusto. In fact vocals are the strongest suit for the Tube Box, and the texture of each voice is more realistic and detailed than the other units. Climaxes are taken without compression, but the dynamic range is not as high as in some more expensive phono preamps, although on a par with its cheaper competitors.
The Tube Box's baby brother, the Phono Box SE is quite a refined unit, but it is not in the same class as the Tube Box. The width and depth of the image are reduced, and the sound is a little thinner, although it is also more extended at both frequency extremes. This is particularly noticeable at the top, where it is considerably more open, giving a better performance with the percussion instruments and brass. Again it is unconstricted in climaxes, and provides a very good weight to the piano. Violins sound smaller, and voices less individual. It is well controlled in the bass but overall the Phone Box SE gives a lighter weight and smaller scale performance than its brother, with less ambiance and detail, while improving in the location of the instruments.
The Rega Phono MC prefers classical music to pop or jazz. In the Beaux Arts magnificent set of Haydn's Piano Trios [Philips 6767 415] the violin tone is small but sweet and bright and the definition on the piano is superior, with faster transients than the other units. It locates the instruments more precisely and had superior heft in the bass. Electric bass comes out clear and strong, but Thelma Houston sounds too strident, and the percussion is too aggressive for comfort, while surface noise is emphasized on quiet recordings. The all-important midrange is a little recessed with this cartridge. Overall the soundstage is shallower and narrower than its peers. The dynamic range is quite impressive at this price, but it does not convey the warmth and sense of ease of the Tube Box.
The miniature Clearaudio Micro Basic looks out of its league in the company, and it is indeed the only one to lose detail at certain climaxes. Frequency response is a little down at the top end, giving a somewhat less exciting presentation than the Rega or the Tube Box. Voices do not fare well and there is not much air to the presentation. The soundstage is shallow but wide with good location of the instruments. While cooler and less open than the others, the Micro Basic excels in the bass. I'm guessing that the Clearaudio is not a good match for the Koetsu, which prefers a lower input impedance. Alas there are no adjustments that I could make to flatten the response curve.
So much for a low output moving coil. How would these units perform with a high output moving coil?
With the Dynavector DV20 XH installed on the Ittok, a different picture emerges. Now the Clearaudio is much better balanced across the frequency band, and sounds both more open and more comfortable with vocals. Color is much improved and depth is restored to the image. Location of instruments and bass response remain strong points. On the debit side, the dynamic range is not strong and it still loses detail in climaxes. Detail is not strong, but distortion is low and it is easy to follow the musical lines.
The two Pro-Ject models exhibit much the same qualities as they do with the Koetsu. The Tube Box is worth the extra dollars in my book for the extra detail ambiance and color it brings to all types of music. It sounds better with the Dynavector than with the Koetsu, since the Koetsu is also a little rolled off at the frequency extremes while the Dynavector is stronger at the extremes than in the midrange.
Now to bring a joker into the pack, how does the Tube Box, our clear winner, compare to my reference phono stage, the Graham Slee Era Gold V? Is it worth paying close to twice the price for this high output only unit?
In the Haydn Trios, the Era Gold is open, spacious, relaxed and forward, with lots of detail and texture. The Tube Box is warmer and displays a fine singing tone on piano, but lacks definition in the lower octaves and sounds somewhat flattened. On Beethoven's Third Symphony Eroica in Otto Klemperer's magnificent performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra [AEW 34469], the Era Gold is thrilling and full of detail. Climaxes are handled with ease. The extreme bass, though distant, emerges with great precision and clearly defined pitch. The Tube Box is warmer but less open and conveys less of the sweep of the performance.
Thelma Houston is in good hands with the Tube Box. Cymbals are clean with good weight, the brass emerges clearly while the vocals are excellent. The Era Gold is simply out of this world. Now the performance is visceral. There is a delicious rasp to the brass, the deep bass is strong, and the music starts and stops on a dime. Thelma really swings. On Miles Davis's "So What" from Kind Of Blue [CBS 62066], the Era Gold extracts more body and detail from the recording. The Tube Box is most musical and a fine match for the cartridge, but it cannot match the clear detailed sound of the Era Gold, nor the shimmer of the percussion, and it cannot match the amazing sweet horn sound, or the fullness of the piano tone. On record after record, the Era Gold maintains its edge over the Tube Box, which in turn sounds more lively and involving than the Clearaudio, and more detailed, atmospheric and colorful than the Phono Box SE.
In this company, it seems to me you get what you pay for. The most expensive unit, the Pro-Ject Tube Box, performed best with both low and high output cartridges. It was no match for the more expensive and high output only reference Graham Slee Era Gold V, but I was well pleased with it, and it should prove inexpensive to re-tube using the ubiquitous 12AX7.
If space is at a premium, I recommend you audition the Clearaudio Micro Basic. Careful matching will be important for low output moving coils. The Micro Basic also offers the advantage of size at the outlet, since it is the only one of our four units to avoid those annoying wall-warts. The Pro-Ject Phono Box SE was the least expensive unit here, but still performed well and offers excellent value for money.
If you have already decided you are a low output moving coil type of listener, then you can also consider the Rega Fono MC, which offers the advantage or more control over the loading and sensitivity than the other units, and again sounds very well for the money.
So no losers here, just an abundance of good options. I am delighted to see the profusion of offerings at these price points, and the healthy state of the phono market as a whole.
Cardas Golden Cross (power, interconnects, bi-wire speaker cable)
Feedback from Kurt Martens of Essential Audio Corporation, the Canadian Distributor of
Let me start by thanking you for a very nice and thorough review. I believe your findings are absolutely correct based on my experience with the phono stages I am familiar with in this test. There is really nothing more I could add.
A small comment: I do agree that while wall-warts are annoying things, there are very good reasons to keep power supplies external, particularly in the case of phono stages (that have to deal with very low level signals). Not only can the transformer used in a power supply introduce obvious interference in the form of hum, its inherently generated electro-magnetic field is also a cause for phase distortion. This is much less noticeable than hum, but it creates timing and imaging inaccuracies and has a negative influence on frequency response linearity.
With Kind Regards,
Rega Fono MC
150uV (factory), 300uV, 460uV or 600uV
400Ω, 100Ω (factory), 150Ω or 70Ω
1000pF, 2000pF, 3200pF or 4200pF (factory)
13Hz (-3dB) to 100KHz (-0.1dB)
+/-0.1dB from 100Hz to 100KHz.
24V 140mA AC
24V 300mA AC Wall-wart
Clearaudio Micro Basic
MC: 800Ω / 270pF MM:
47kΩ / 270pF
MC 60dB MM 40dB.
20Hz 6dB / octave
50mm x 74mm x 30mm
Pro-Ject Phone Box SE
MC: -79dB MM:
20Hz – 20KHz +/-0.25dB
MC: 100Ω, 220Ω MM:
MC: 56.5dB MM: 36.5dB
16V 80mA AC
16V 500mA AC Wall-wart
130mm x 105mm x 80mm
700g without power supply
Two ECC83 (12AX7)
MC: -79dB MM:
20Hz – 20KHz +/-0.25dB
MC: 100Ω, 220Ω, 1000Ω
MC: 60dB MM: 40dB
16V 850mA AC
16V 1000mA AC Wall-wart
130mm x 160mm x 80mm
1100g without power supply