new name to me, Novo is sold in the UK by Emporium, a small collective of high
end retailers that seem to be handling a wide selection of imported brands
these days, including the valve-equipped Lektor CD player we reviewed and
recommended in HIFICRITIC Vol5 No1.
Also valve based, Novo’s £4,850 SPA-II
is a new valve phono amplifier capable of handling both low
(moving-coil, MC) and high output (moving magnet, MM) cartridges, and is built
on an epic scale, with no fewer than twenty two (!) valves and an outboard
Designed by Andreas Hadjiminas and made in Cyprus, the
casework is black painted steel with aluminium back and front panels (the
latter thicker, brushed and anodised), and sits on large, slim, soft rubber
feet. However, the finish and structure could use some detail improvement to
match the best competition: when I pushed the ‘Mono’ button, for example,
it sprang forward a couple of inches, not quite falling out. Having said that,
it went back without problem and continued to work, but such simple fought to
Two high current 6C45P single
triodes per channel are used at the front end, so this device has an excellent
low noise characteristic. The RIAA curve, using both passive and active
equalisation, has two 12AX7 stages
with 12AU7 cathode follower
output. There are two valve regulators per channel and it has a star grounding
system. All passive parts have been carefully selected for accuracy and
quality, but no exotic audiophile passive parts are evident save for some
The separate power supply unit is built into a steel and
aluminium chassis with a plain brushed anodized aluminium front panel. Mains
input is via a fused IEC socket,
switched by on/off relay signals from the amplifier. A sizeable 300VA
multi-tap toroidal transformer feeds each channel separately, via
various bridge rectifiers, associated capacitors and regulators.
Regulated DC supplies the valve heaters.
Amplifier front panel controls are minimal: three buttons
provide MM/MC gain selection, mono and on/off. The back panel has both
single-ended and balanced outputs; the latter requires termination if
single-ended mode is used (suitable XLR plugs with resistors are provided).
Inputs and single-ended outputs have gold-plated phono sockets. The top plate
is generously slotted for good ventilation, which is certainly necessary as
the valves produce considerable heat. The lid also gets hot – rather too hot
to touch after a while – which might well offend some CE regulation these
days. Computer style cables with multi-pin D plugs link the power supply and
The distortion at 0.5V output is a respectable -
73dB across the audio frequency spectrum but the intermodulation distortion
component of twin
19/20kHz tones was a high -19dB (11%) on MC. However,
the audio spectrum is generally clean elsewhere. Channel balance is an
acceptable 0.2dB at 1kHz but a variation above 10kHz is seen, the left channel
peaking +0.8dB at 35kHz before falling quickly, whereas the right channel
falls away rapidly above 20kHz with no peak evident – some minor component
mismatch between channels perhaps? The signal-to-noise ratio on both MC and MM
settings is good, the latter some 5dB quieter at -72dB CCIR and A-Weighted.
Sensitivities are sensibly set at 6mV for MM and 0.39mV for MC. Input overload
margins are high at all frequencies and output impedance measures a reasonable
60 Ohms; the MC input impedance is 120 Ohms.
On first listening this phono stage seems to exude
power. It can sound exciting and energetic making my regular head amp sound a
little limp and bland. However, after a short while, once the inner sense of
sonic equilibrium has been established there are obviously some other factors
at play. The SPA-II has a spotlit, fragmenting effect (which I’ll
explain later). Timing is not top-class, and a lack of nuance was noted when a
lot is going on. The bass lacks the desired neutrality and tends to deliver
more of a knocking sound than it ought: it lacks subtlety and does not deal
with pitch change well.
At times the sound seems to share more of a PA than a
conventional hi-fi character, but the live and lively atmosphere created may
well acquire supporters. The midrange can sound a tad hard and forced, but
it’s inconsistent, at times really interesting, bringing out parts of the
mix that aren’t normally audible. And yet it’s not particularly
transparent or lucid, and tends to emphasise bits of the midrange at the
expense of neutrality and so it can sound rather coloured. On the right music
it can be very seductive, because of the way it can alter the music itself: a
siren’s song that draws the listener in only to wreck hopes upon the jagged
rocks of reality.
Electric guitar in particular can appear highlighted, the
individual parts detailed and exciting, but the hard extra edginess of it all
eventually brings on listening fatigue and you begin to tire of the added
excitement. There is also an extra-metallic ring in the treble when certain
notes are struck.
From all who heard it, the most critical comments always
concerned the fragmented timing. On occasion it seems to pull the threads of
the music together very competently. On another piece it slices through them
and leaves the sound with so little coherence that the band might as well have
split up into separate rooms.
The soundstage lacks the depth available from the very best,
is even two-dimensional at times, and focus can also become somewhat
problematic. It can get a little old fashioned, sometimes creating a ‘wall
of sound’, seemingly attempting to assault the listener with violent audio
projectiles. It can be immensely intriguing with seductive, punchy dynamics
and for this some will love it, but the overall performance may never truly
satisfy some erudite listeners.
On choral material, and particularly with a solo soprano
voice, it can sound forward and forced which I found tiring and simply
unsatisfactory. Rock music can be excessively enthusiastic and a bit too
bright, with overbearing percussion and edgy vocals. While this may certainly
be exciting, such excitement can be exhausting.
Piano sounds coloured in the upper register but very
beguiling lower down, in the few octaves around middle C. Metronomic bass with
randomly timed midrange brings an unexpected new slant to some jazz pieces –
interesting but wrong. The energy balance can make orchestral strings
strident, the result of which is often a changed perspective which alters the
shape and structure of the soundstage, resulting in a reduction in depth and
allure. Probably the best word to describe it is boisterous: it’s
chaotically over animated and not always totally in control.
If you could extract some of its vitality and inner essence
and sprinkle it on a more transparent and better timed implementation, the
combination would take some beating, as this is a really good attempt at a
phono stage. With a little more development it could stand comparison with the
best, but in its present state more refinement is needed to take it into the
top category. Switching back to a rather better balanced reference resulted in
distinct disappointment as the reference lacked the ‘live effect’.
Although I was grateful for its balance, timing, staging and natural
consistent tonal quality that returned to my system, I still miss the sense of
energy the NVO delivers.
Build quality aside, this phono amplifier needs more
work in order to satisfy critical listeners. It may give the punchy sound that
some need to obtain an exciting ‘quick fix’ from high energy music, for it
delivers upfront high-level detail aplenty. When at one with the music it’s
playing, it shines brightly and becomes very seductive; on the very next
track, however, I might find myself turning it down to escape its
eccentricities. The NVO’s ability to put so much life into some performances
might mean that it’s just what you’re looking for. But I’d advise
auditioning at length before buying, as it’s just too exuberant and coloured
for some tastes (including my own). I want its ‘get up and go’, but want
this to be tempered with more control and consistency. It tempts and
tantalises, and this might be enough for some tastes, but it can sometimes
confuse and confound while hinting at greatness.
Cartridges: Koetsu Red
Signature, Koetsu Vermilion,
Dynavector 17D3 Karat,
Ortofon Rondo Blue. Phono
Amplifiers: Naim Superline,
Vacuum State JLTi PhonoPre.
Voice: 01986 895929, or
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