It is an odd fact of Hi Fi today, perhaps an even over trumpeted fact by those carrying the torch for a a pre-digital age, that with RedBook CD over twenty years old, DVD, DVD-A, and SACD fighting it out on the bottom racks of the newsstands, hoary old vinyl and the apparatus needed to hear vinyl is in surprisingly rude health. Everywhere you look, there are new phono-stages, turntables, cartridges in the press and new vinyl being pressed for what was, supposedly, a medium long dead.
How can this be? Well, it is quite true as Patton might have said had he been an audio-phile and not a General in charge of the
7th Army liberating Sicily that old technologies never die, they just fade away. But I would add that sometimes old technologies achieve a sort of equilibrium where innovation continues to flourish, much enjoyment can still be had and the end, although much forecast by those who promote the successor technology, never quite arrives. I believe the same obtains for those who no the difference between a pentode and a triode.
And I do not think the health of vinyl playback today can just be about the 'warm' sound or nostalgia for the brother's snap, crackle and pop. CD, after all, has come a long way since those dreadful transfers of the early eighties, and even the analog reprobate must admit that SACD and DVD-A when set up right with a nice disc can sound just fine thank you very much.
And it cannot just be about value. No matter how much vinyl junkies brag about how
little they paid for their flea-market RCA Living Presence finds, they do tend to splash out serious dosh on their rigs, what with tables, tone-arms, cartridges, cables, isolation plat-forms, record cleaning machines and phono-stages. But what is probably most galling for the cheapskate like myself is the cost of good quality vinyl today. As with much in life you get what you pay for and cheap vinyl more often than not sounds like it.
I suggest along with nostalgia and sound it must come down to the sheer tweak ability that vinyl offers and digital denies. Say what you want, but for most, a little change of filtering here, a little dithering there, a 12AX7, a change of caps, upsampling,
downsampling, digital is no where near as fun for the average audiophile as compared to the
pleasures (and frustrations) of changing cartridges, arms, or phono-stages. Which brings us to the subject of this review: The DACT CT100 Phono-Stage, a phono-stage that really could be the last phono-stage you would ever need.
DACT, short for Danish Audio Connect, is a small privately owned company based in the land of Kierkegaard that has been trading since 1995. Working a little differently from DOC Bottlehead or a soups-to-nuts manufacturer such as NAD, DACT supplies pre-built modules - ranging from power supplies to stepped attenuators and speaker crossovers - that can easily be installed by the private end use or the original equipment manufacturer into their finished goods. (You are not, however, likely to hear there is a DACT in the box as OEMS keep famously quiet about where they source their guts, but I would not be surprised if DACT were not more ubiquitous in hi-end than they let on. Building a killer phono-stage like this is no trivial matter.)
The Danes are of course no stranger to innovative Hi Fi with the illustrious Bang and Olufsen being only the most famous example and I can not help but think, that in such a small country there must be a sort of no compromise Hi Fi aesthetic of which DACT is a part. Just as the US loves monster amps, Britain mini-monitors, and Finland subwoofers, Denmark must love no compromise kit in small packages.
The CT100 Phono-Stage Board
Along with the CT100 - you did not think you would get away that easily did you? - came its accompanying CT102 power supply or as arrived in my mail box, two!
CT102 Power Supply
The CT100 power supply, and to be fully realized a pair of CT102s are needed two, are not cheap. Check with DACT or their distributors for current pricing.
With DACT, you do not get a lot of frills. Not only is the box not included, neither are connectors or batteries, though DACT intriguingly suggests you should try some. You have to do a little bit of wiring, but as ever in Hi Fi, putting a value (rather than a price) on these things can be a little tricky and I am going to leave that to the last. A bargain basement NAD PP1 this ain't, but for a lot of people, particularly those of a solid-state bent (and I mean those, who dislike what tubes in terms of euphony, tube rush, and odd order distortion brings to the table, all of which are absent here) may well find this the last phono-stage they will ever need because of its wonderful sound and almost infinite configurability. You would have to travel a long way to find a table, cartridge or pre-amp that the DACT combo could not be tailored to suit.
Wouldn't that be fun, something that you never wanted to replace, ever?
An ironic twist of audio-history was that with vinyl's demise, the phono-stage, strangely, developed. 25 years ago, I am not sure many would have know what you were talking about if you mentioned an outboard phono-stage, although they did exist. Once where phono-stages found there place behind the black fascia of your integrated or pre-amp and could (if you were lucky) at best be adjusted between moving coil and moving magnet, phono-stages have come out of the closet and now allow the user to tweak with their set-tings, for just as there are horses for courses, so too are there phono-stages. The Grand National? You will want a horse that can hop like a bunny. The Kentucky Derby? Y'all want something raised on bluegrass.
And like all the best of the latest breed, by EAR Yoshino, Manley, and the other high end maniac manufacturers, the DACT offers a wealth of tweak ability allowing the user tailor impedance, capacitance, and gain to suit cartridge, pre-amp, and taste. And tweak ability, these days, is what I think vinyl has become a good bit about.
(There is also the arcane art of record collecting. But for that I refer you to Nick Hornby's great Hi Fidelity (Putnam: New York, 1995) which I see from Amazon is also a great film, which I knew, but is also available on audio-cassette, which I did not. Shouldn't it be on vinyl too?)
First, a confession.
The DACT CT100 with its accompanying power supply (or supplies) comes as a 'kit.' A three-letter word with four letter credentials where I am concerned. I am all thumbs with a soldering iron, so before I agreed to do the review, I asked that I receive one that had already been assembled. Doh!
The phono-stage circuit board is already assembled, as is the power supply. All that is required is a housing (if you wish, mine looked great on a piece of supplied Lexan),
connectors, and connection to the two part power supplies, one part wall wart, one part very, very regulated power supply. If your phono-stage looked as good as just one of these power supplies, you would be proud to show it to your friends.*
DACT also sent me another power supply and wall wart that I am going to try with
various devices around the house and report back in a future review. Results have so far been promising.
Anyway, the confession is, even though I did not actually build this phono-stage myself, I could have. I swear it.
The philosophy behind the modules is for the home experimenter and the original
equipment manufacturer. DACT intriguingly suggests that for even better results, so as to minimize cable, the CT102 could even be built within the turntable itself. As I am now having my dream two arm, Rega and SME, Garrard 301 Turntable built by someone who used to wind cartridges for one of famous names in English Hi Fi, it is certainly an idea…
Second, an admission (after the confession), if you had not already guessed. This is the finest phono-stage I have ever had in my system, bar-none. Less cuddly than my Ear834p, and more transparent and detailed than the Musical Fidelity XLPS2 that I also put it up against, it is basically, in a league of its own.
Allen at DACT explained. We tried to make this the final phono stage anyone would ever need. I would agree. Almost infinitely configurable. Neutral to a fault. A noise floor much lower than anything else in my system, the DACT was much higher Hi Fi than I am used to. I would not go so far as to say there was more there, there, but I would say all that there should be present was, and all that there shouldn't was not, and this is one phono-stage that will make you want to upgrade your turntable. That is not to say that I will part with my EAR. Whether it is the tube euphony, it still makes lovely noises with the right material and I do like lovely noises.
Let us get the technicalities out of the way.
The DACT CT100 is a true dual channel phono stage right, that can be had either one or two separate power supplies for utter and complete channel separation up until the wall outlets. In any event, no phono-cartridge offers perfect channel separation. While
equalization is fixed to the RIAA specification - weirdo's like myself occasionally dig out pre-RIAA records to spin, hence the desire for a two arm table with a 78 setting and variable pitch - the CT100 can however accept just about every moving coil, magnet or crystal cartridge you could throw at it by adjusting the load and gain and should be equally at easy with any pre-amp, balanced or otherwise.
Some people may like the sound of hundreds of meters of wire in a transformer for
cartridges that boast miniscule outputs - like me - but the DACT does without, and it does seem eminently sensible to leave wire out of the system, if possible. As the CT100 is really two mono phono-stages on a single board, gain can even be adjusted between channels For example, a channel imbalance on my Ortofon, which I had just assumed was the cost of doing vinyl, was easily corrected with a the application of a chopstick to the relevant DIP.
The very well-written manual - a manual that would put many a car manual to shame, with some peculiar Danishisms --emphatically states that you are not to adjust the DIPs unless you have the volume control set to zero as DC could be passed along to the
amplifier and on to the speakers leaving you with a puff of smoke. While I do not advise you follow my lead, I did adjust the DIP settings for gain with the volume control set at a comfortable listening level with no grievous results.
And I do think it would ultimately be more fun to have large knobs on the front of the unit a la the Manley Steelhead so that you could comfortably adjust the settings on the fly rather than going back and forth between the manual and the DIP and your seat, but that's just me, and I do not know of any other phono-stage that allows you to make your set-tings independently for both channels.
(You could of course use a balance control for unbalanced cartridges, but many integrated
units and pre-amplifiers come without these useful knobs, and you'd still want to swing it back for your less handed sources.)
Back to the technicalities, along with staying on track, is not quite my strong suit, but... Sporting balanced outputs (which I was not able to test, not having a pre-amp with such facilities), the CT100 is built with low noise SMD metal transistors. Input loading is
selectable from 10 ohms to 47kohms in 21 steps, input gain between 0.01mv to 10mVolts in 35 steps, RIAA equalization is accurate to within 0.05dB, along user selectable time constants of 3.18 microseconds to 7950 microseconds. The stage also has high cur-rent output for long cable runs, and total harmonic distortion of 0.0003%. All of these specs I have cribbed from the very comprehensive DACT website. I have not measured the phono-stage, but I suspect just from how meticulous the manual is written that these figures will not be far off.
How did it sound? Bloody awful, initially. That is after I realized I had been reading the DIP banks in the wrong order and instead of adjusting gain had been adjusting load. And even then, the CT100 just presented the facts.
Led Zeppelin III on Quiex vinyl did not sound nice and it's not supposed to. All the graunch and grit and plaintive Plant wailing and no-shirt denim gyrating came through intact, with no softening or rounding of edges. In fact, it rocked as did the house. An Is-land reissue of Bob Marley's
Exodus introduced me to hitherto unknown bass. But the CT102 could sing sweetly too, as was the case with Mississippi John Hurt. A Living Ste-reo of Moussorgsky's and Ravel's Pictures at an
Exhibition set forth a wide and convinc-ing Living Stereo 3 mike soundstage, although the playing was dull. One musician friend commented that while my copy of the Sheffield Lab's
Rhapsody in Russia sounded like Gershwin as reinterpreted by John Williams, he did admit that he had never heard vinyl sound so quiet or clear. A Verve Ella and Louis in terrible shape showed itself for what it is, great music terribly recorded, but it still for emotional impact bested my SACD ver-sion. And my cheap Beatle's
Yellow Submarine reprint still sounded flatter than a pan-cake.
I tried the phono-stage with a two tables and a variety of cartridges. Table number one was the Garrard 301, SME 3009 Arm, Goldring 1042 and Audio-Technica Cartridges. Table two was the venerable Revox B790, a table that wishes it was a CD player. Not always able to find the manufacturer's recommended gain and loading settings, I
experimented with the chopsticks, shifting the tonal balance one way or another and played with the gain.
While it was fun for me, my enthusiasm was not always shared and ultimately I found the configurability of the CT100 frustrating. The CT100 is plug and play, but I basically beat a path through my carpet between my couch and the
phonostage switching back and forth between settings. Half the time I did not know if I was hearing an improvement of just a slight tonal shift. This irritated my household to no-end, particularly my two and a half year old who, as they say, just wanted to 'Enjoy the Music.' In his case, he wanted to dance to the Beatles 'Yellow Submarine' and my fiddling with the chopsticks, dislike of my edition, did not make him happy. I suppose I wasn't enjoying the music. I was just enjoying the
Value? That's really very much in the eye of the beholder. But the price of the CT102 with either one or two power supplies is not in the realm of the stupid and offers such quality of reproduction that if transparency, neutrality and the ability to work with just about any cartridge or pre-amp you could imagine, then the CT100 could easily be the last
phonostage you might ever but. For me, however, transparency and neutrality are not the last word (only words) along the road to Hi Fi enjoyment and though it will be some reluctance that I return this phono-stage to the manufacturer, I know in my heart that the CT100 is probably the best
phonostage I have ever had the chance to have in my system. Then again, maybe I should keep it.