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February 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
World Premiere Review!
Benedict Audio HotHead JFET MM And MC Phonostages
More than a chip off the old phonostage block.
Review By Clive Meakins


Benedict Audio HotHead JFET MM And MC Phonostages

 Phonostages can be quite problematic in my experience. I find cartridge and record deck changes quite easy to pick out but some phonostages sound so similar it's hard to choose between them. Of course faithfulness to the RIAA equalization curve is vital but most are well behaved in this respect. The phonostages I find hard at times to tell apart are generally those based on OpAmps. Thus I chose to review the Benedict Audio HotHead JFET MM and MC phonostage units. The greatest differentiator with OpAmp-based phonostages is often price rather than sound; power supplies of course have their place too in helping determine the final sound.

When I think about it, it's my head which rather likes OpAmp-based phonostages whereas my heart takes me to tube phonostages. Generalizing, I find tubes offer up a musical flow and feathery treble whereas the OpAmps excel at bass impact and overall precision. Enter the Benedict Audio HotHead MM and MC version of their phonostage units. A friend asked my opinion about these phonostages but as they were new to me I couldn't say much though I did comment that I was interested that the circuits use discrete components with JFET transistors being at the heart of the designs. The designs also features single-ended topology, zero negative feedback and passive RIAA; all things that peak my interest. At £400 (~$620) these phonostages are not expensive but Benedict Audio promise high levels of performance. What Benedict Audio have done is to eschew complexity which keeps signal paths pure and reduces costs. There's no switchable MC / MM setting, instead there are optimized versions for MC and MM, known as the HotHead Phono C and HotHead Phono M respectively.

The two HotHeads have identical casework and power supplies. The case is nicely executed for the price point, the lid and base are ferrous with the sides and front/rear seemingly being aluminum. The front panel has a small yellow LED power indictor. The rear panel houses the power socket, grounding post and two pairs of RCA sockets for input and output. I would expect the spacing of the RCAs permits the use of all but the most crazily large phono plugs, my WBT, Bullet plugs were a comfortable fit and Audio Note AN-P 10s also fit. The power supply is a plug-top switched mode type; it has a quality feel and is supplied with four mains plug options covering most of the world. The power supply unusually outputs 48V, this I'm advised is what's needed to allow for the JFETs to be biased for optimum sound quality.

Benedict Audio HotHead JFET MM And MC Phonostages

The Hothead C has a gain of 62dB (1260x), input loading is set to 100 Ohm / 220pF with output impedance being 30 Ohms so it should work with any preamp. Gain and input loading are spot on for the requirements of most MC users, the suggested cartridge output range being 0.2mV to 1mV, much will depend on the gain structure of individual systems. The lack of switchable gain and loading is in many ways a benefit due to a more direct signal path and reduced cost; indeed you're not paying sonic and cost penalties for switches you most likely would never use. The HotHead M gain is 42dB (126x), input loading is 47kOhm / 220pF and again output impedance is 30 Ohms. Suitable cartridges are said to be in the range of 1.6mV to 10mV. Gain and loading is set very appropriately for MM cartridges. Should you wish to lower the loading to perhaps 33 kOhm for Deccas this is possible via an inline phono adapter Benedict Audio are experimenting with and will probably bring to market shortly.

The shipping box is very well constructed offering excellent protection for your purchase; it is so good I'd be happy to take delivery from an airborne drone, should such things ever materialize. The instructions are glossy and well-presented plus you even receive a postcard from the home of Benedict Audio, the spectacular and beautiful English county of Dorset.

I found some burn-in beneficial with the HotHeads but more than that was the time the units were left powered up. Benedict Audio recommend leaving the HotHead permanently powered up as it can take 30 to 60 minutes before thermal equilibrium is attained, I found this to be the case – do not judge these phonostage from stone cold! If a Hothead had been powered down it needed at least an LP side to be played before my system came on song.


Hot Or Not? HotHead C
Here we have two phonostages designed to a specification which keeps costs down in non-essential areas whilst satisfying something like 95% of users – in my estimation. The big question is do the HotHeads deliver great sound quality or are they in the "me too" category? First to arrive was the HotHead C so I setup a Transfiguration Spirit on my rim-drive Trans-Fi Salvation deck, which includes the Terminator T3 Pro parallel tracking airbearing arm. The deck has a magnetic bearing and feet, it's an amazing and revealing performer. On hooking up the HotHead C the first aspect of note was silence – which was good news! There was no troublesome hiss or hum; these are essentials when using high efficiency speakers, as is my preference. I left the HotHead C powered up all day and played some music through it without listening closely so that any initial burn-in characteristics wouldn't skew my first impressions.

Playing the very bouncy sounding Caro Emerald / Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor, I found the bass to be up to snuff as an initial impression. This was significant as a major reason I used the more expensive battery powered OpAmp-based F-117 Nighthawk was down to the sheer power of its bass. Moving to vocals I immediately noticed better decay with the HotHead C, where Caro at one point sings "Me", with the F117 this decays as "Me-e", with the HotHead I heard "Meee-eee". As often happens when switching back to the alternative equipment I found the decay was indeed there but it was less pronounced, it took the HotHead to point out the longer decay in the first place. Reverting to the bass, I was now fully appreciating what the HotHead could do, not only was it matching the power of the best OpAmp bass I had available, it was doing even more. Yes I could hear powerful and tight bass but I was also hearing a subtle natural vibration or resonance to the bass. It's a hard thing to explain but once you hear it you know you're hearing deep into what bass instruments are doing.

Next I was spinning up one of the audiophile classics, Jennifer Warnes Famous Blue Raincoat. With Bird on a Wire I at first felt the treble was more extended than I was used to but then I realized it was down to the treble not being smeared and being very clean. With OpAmps I almost invariably experience some upper-mid harshness, the HotHead was a revelation in this respect too, as it matched the delicacy of my tube phonostages and then added extra vibrancy. I ran though more of my collection, both modern and vintage recordings including a fair proportion of jazz from the like of Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz. I began to conclude that where the HotHead scores strongly over many phonostages was how it handles the frequency extremes – clean, very detailed and without harshness at the upper end; a lot has to be right for these aspects to be present in concert.

Diana Krall Girl in the Other Room has a couple of tracks I use to check out bass and spittyness. With the track "Temptation" I was floored by the double bass especially the natural resonance I alluded to earlier, it was present in quantity and quality; I just couldn't get enough of that double bass. Of course the recording, deck and cartridge are part of the equation but the phonostage has to play its part... and what a part it played! Cueing up "Love Me Like A Man" from the same album resulted in my being similarly impressed with the HotHead rendition of piano, one the hardest instruments to reproduce. I found too that drumstick-on-cymbal was reproduced with such detail that I was hearing layers of ring and decay of very pure cymbal tones. I almost forgot to mention the spittyness aspect I was listening for, that's because Diana's vocals were reproduced totally naturally, any sibilance was natural and not at all distracting. I found instruments fill the soundstage very well, probably as a result of excellent detail retrieval. The soundstage is not at all simply left – center – right, it is very well fleshed out across the stage.

Some talk about pace, rhythm and timing or PRAT, I'd say with the HotHead C the term that comes to mind is not just PRAT but "pace and poise". Notes start as they should and stop or decay really well. It's a bit like hearing Frank Sinatra pacing his way through his vocals, music works so well when the timing is right, the beginning and ends of notes are spot on. Frankly it's the best I've heard my Transfiguration Spirit sound.


HotHead M
For the HotHead M I used my London Reference, which of course is a rather special cartridge, I also used an AT150MLX, both were mounted (at different times!) on the Trans-Fi Salvation. I also used an Ortofon 2M Mono SE on my Garrard 301. The M version of the HotHead has a similar circuit topology to the C; it's not as if the M version has an MC head amplification stage deleted, the two designs are optimized for their purpose, both versions are two stage designs. It will come as no surprise that the C and M share sonic characteristics, at least as far as I can tell as of course the cartridges used with each were different. Caro Emerald again was bouncy and tight with excellent bass and vocal decay. With Jennifer Warnes / Bird on a Wire I heard tremendous detail deep into the mix; separation was such that I found it easy to follow major and minor musical strands at the same time.

Benedict Audio HotHead JFET MM And MC Phonostages

I find the London Reference usually sounds best with 33 kOhm loading, Benedict Audio provided inline RCA prototype loading plugs so I was able to modify loading from 47 kOhm to 33 kOhm. As is usual I found the London was better on 33 kOhm. My preconception was that it would only make a subtle difference but it was more than this, probably due to the HotHead working so well in my system in the first place that I was able to better hear what would normally be quite a minor fine tune. What was the difference? I'd describe it a tilting of the frequency response. A bit more bass and bass power with a slight reduction in treble, the resulting balance I find suits my taste. This was not a night and day change but it was certainly beneficial and worthwhile. With the London Reference in particular I find that if partnering electronics are not ideal there can be some sonic glassiness, the HotHead M could not have been better behaved so I award top marks there. Moving onto soundstage, again this was magnificent, much is to do the London Reference but a great phonostage is needed to allow it to be heard unencumbered.

Returning the Diana Krall tracks and adding in Sonny Rollins "Moritat" from Saxophone Colossus, again I found double bass to be supreme and even better than with the Transfiguration Spirit; I put this difference down to the cartridges though it's not possible to be sure of this. It's hard to say when I've heard recorded cymbals and hi-hats reproduced better, triangles too. The sound is so well defined and realistic. Hitherto I had felt I needed a tube phonostage to get even close to this caliber of treble. I was surprised by what the Benedict Audio JFETS were reproducing with the London Reference. St Germain / Tourist "Montego Bay Spleen" is another example of how great the treble can be. Likewise piano at the start of Side B on "So Flute".

A favorite track of mine currently is "Friday Fish Fry" from Kelis/Food. You can find it on YouTube if you search for ‘KelisJools Holland'. Kelis sang this live on the BBC show "Late... with Jools Holland" in May 2014. I had been finding the version for the BBC was coming across better as Kelis' vocals on vinyl were a little swamped by over-powerful bass. I found the HotHead M fixed this for me by cleaning up the bass so there's no overhang and the vocals are free to be heard as intended. Another victory for the Hothead. With the London Reference I was getting delicacy with power and body; what a perfect combination.

Moving onto my Ortofon 2M Mono SE, I normally use this with a tube phonostage, partly because it sounds so right with it but also because tubes suit the Garrard 301 and mono era aesthetically too. I found my OpAmp phonostages a bit too clinical and matter of fact for my vintage mono recordings. Swapping in the HotHead M gave me the sound I enjoy from tubes; I really would be hard pushed to believe this was a solid-state phonostage had I not put it in place myself. The HotHead is so transparent that the quality and character of the vintage recordings dominates the sound and wow, they sound so very great. I confess I'm very much a fan of simpler, less manufactured vintage recordings where musicians actually play together at the same time and in the same place. The HotHead excels with both modern and vintage recordings so it must be doing a heck of a lot right!

Benedict Audio HotHead JFET MM And MC Phonostages

To Conclude
You can be in no doubt that in my view the HotHead C and HotHead M are remarkable phonostages. They certainly punch far above their price point. There are no fripperies such as switchable gain or loading but this is part of what makes them such incredible value for money. These are not "me too" designs, they are highly individual, developed with care and a great ear. Could they be improved? Yes but at a price, a linear power supply might bring some benefits but a good linear power supply would add a lot of cost. Switchable gain and loading could be added but this would be of limited use to most people and potentially the extra switches could detract slightly from sound quality. A totally non-ferrous case might increase sound quality and looks but again at quite some cost. If all of this were done I expect the price would be raised three-fold or more.

The duo of HotHeads are incredibly well judged designs in terms of specification and sound quality, add to this their extremely compelling pricing then it's clear Benedict Audio have a winner. Feed these phonostages music from a half decent deck and cartridge, you are bound to be rewarded. Top-notch audio does not have to be eye-wateringly expensive; the Benedict Audio HotHeads bear this out.


Associated Equipment Used During Review
Garrard 301 / Origin Live Encounter MKIII with an Ortofon 2M Mono SE cartridge
Trans-Fi Salvation with a London Reference / AT150MLX / Transfiguration Spirit
Preamplifier: Bent Audio AVC-1
Power Amplifiers1: Ladyday 91 300B SE, Temple Audio Monoblocks, and Valvet E1r
Bass Amplifier & DSP: BehringeriNuke NU3000
Speakers: Bastanis Mandala Open Baffles with 3rd generation 18 inch W-frame bass drivers and Open Baffles with Alpair 12P main drivers and 18 inch dipole bass drivers



Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)



Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room


Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money


Type: Solid-state stereo phonostage
HotHead C 
Frequency Response: 12 Hz to 63 kHz
Channel Balance: 0.02 dB
Channel Separation: 70.9 dB
Output: 630mV for 0.5mV input
Input Impedance: 100 Ohms
Input Capacitance: 220pF
Output Impedance 30 Ohms
Gain: 62dB
Weight: 28 ounces
Dimensions: 124mm x 170mm x 40mm (WxDxH)
Price: £399.99 (~$620)

HotHead M 
Frequency Response 14 Hz to 75 kHz
Channel Balance: 0.01 dB
Channel Separation: 77.2dB
Output: 630mV for 5mV input
Input Impedance: 47 kOhms
Input Capacitance 220pF
Output Impedance: 30 Ohms
Gain 42dB
Weight: 28 ounces
Dimensions: 124mm x 170mm x 40mm (WxDxH)
£399.99 (~$620) 


Company Information
Benedict Audio Limited
Basepoint Business Centre
Dorset DT1 4BS
United Kingdom

E-mail: sales@benedictaudio.com
Website: www.BenedictAudio.com







































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