by Darryl Lindberg
It wasn’t that long ago that my dedication to vinyl was considered an eccentricity. I was a Luddite outcast who couldn’t see the (laser) light, someone from whom you wanted to protect your children (“Poor man, avert your eyes!”), a dangling tassel on the lunatic fringe. But I soldiered on. The fact is I didn’t have much choice, since I was so heavily invested in the black plastic biscuits that it didn’t make much sense — certainly not sonic sense — to reformat, so to speak. Thankfully, times have really changed. Vinyl, if not absolutely “mainstream” has at least reestablished itself as an important tributary to the churning audio format waters.
Of course, the reason that the vinyl renaissance is still in full blossom is that the state of the art of phono reproduction has continually advanced. In addition to the expanding availability of LPs, designers and manufacturers are producing better and better gear at all price points. From turntables to arms to cartridges to phono amplification to useful — and dubious — tweaks and accessories, there’s pretty much something for everyone no matter how little (within reason) or how much (reason does not apply) you want to spend. And, in most cases, you’re not just limited to a couple of choices. If you’re on a budget — and who isn’t? — there’s a lot of excellent analog gear available, so you can achieve a generous dollop of analog magic without mortgaging your possessions or, more importantly, straining (or further straining) the relationship with your significant other.
That brings me to the primary topic under consideration here: the Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE phono preamp. It’s a compact, two piece (preamp and power supply) solid state unit that lists for $929. More specifically, to quote from Lehmann Audio’s website, the Black Cube features an “entirely passive RIAA equalization network is realized with high precision MKP capacitors. All resistors are of the low noise metal film variety. The switches for gain and load settings have gold plated connectors. The low noise regulated external power supply is connected with Neutrik XLR connectors to the dedicated DC power supply.” And what makes a Black Cube a Black Cube SE? I’m glad you asked, because the answer is an upgraded power supply, the PMX, which features “a special 30 VA toroidal transformer”.
Despite its diminutive dimensions, the Black Cube SE is provides a good deal of flexibility in terms of gain (up to 66 dB) and cartridge loading; there’s even a low bass “Soft Roll-off Filter” that you can switch in if you feel the urge. In addition to the external dip-switch settable choices for cartridge loading (47k Ohms, 1k Ohms, and 100 Ohms), there’s a provision for custom loads via the internal spaces for resistor mounting. The bottom line is that the Cube will accommodate any moving magnet (high output) and all but the lowest output moving coils (i.e., < 250 µV)—without putting too big a dent in your own bottom line.
I used an Ortofon Rondo Bronze to put the Cube SE through its paces because it was the cartridge that Scot sent along and it’s a good fit pricewise with the SE. The Bronze is a mid-output (.5 mV) moving coil with a Fritz Gyger stylus (type FG80) on a tapered aluminum cantilever, weighing in at 10.5 grams. Internal impedance is 6 Ohms and the recommended load impedance is 10-200 Ohms. The last time I checked, the Bronze listed for $1,159, but I must tell you that a quick perusal of the Ortofon website indicates that this cartridge has been discontinued. However, since my focus was the Black Cube SE, the piddling issue of Bronze’s availability was certainly not going to hamper my efforts. So I proceeded to set it up.
Because my main platter spinner, the Rockport II Sirius SE, was in the process of receiving a platter gasket update, I installed the Bronze in my V.P.I. HW-19 (Mk. IV and various upgrades), which is typically outfitted with a high-output moving coil that’s routed into the high level phono input of my Jadis JP200 MC preamp. The V.P.I.’s equipped with an SME V arm and resides on an Arcici Lead Balloon stand (modified). Actually, I think this turntable/arm set up corresponds to the general level of turntable/arm that would be used by a Black Cube — and Bronze — purchaser. Yes, it’s all getting on in years, but it more than adequately fulfils its mission.
Unlike some audiophiles I know, I believe that the manufacturer’s recommended set up is the best place to start when evaluating a piece of equipment, especially a phono cartridge. After all, who’s better informed as to the requirements and capabilities of a cartridge: yours truly, who may have a good deal of experience with phono setup/playback but who’s neither a designer nor engineer, or the manufacturer? By the way, I’m not recommending obsessively following the manufacturer’s recommendations down to the last nit if, upon actual listening evidence, there’ a sonically better approach. But why not give the folks who made the thing the initial benefit of the doubt? So I started with the recommended 2.3 grams tracking force (range 2-2.5 grams), slightly reducing it to 2.27 grams after a while, as that down-force generated the best overall sound. I wanted to get an auditory feel for the Bronze prior to connecting up the Black Cube SE, so I listened to it for a bit through the MC input of my Jadis JP200 MC preamp. The cartridge’s .5 mV output combined with the Jadis MC input sensitivity of >75 dB ensured that the preamp was pretty much loafing. And what I can say is that the Bronze is a really nice sounding cartridge. It may not be the last word in depth of image or lateral spread, but it’s not going to edit your LPs by over or under emphasizing some segments of the frequency spectrum at the expense of others. I also found the Bronze to be an excellent tracker: once dialed in, it breezed through everything I threw at it.
It was now time to proceed to the main event and insert the Black Cube SE into the system. I connected the output to one of the auxiliary inputs of the JP200 with a run of Kimber Kable KCTG and began to listen. My first impression was that the BCSE was a bit overblown. It had plenty of gain — actually too much gain for my taste. Fortunately, there’s a fairly convenient adjustment for gain that’s built into the BCSE. I say “fairly convenient” because it’s an internal adjustment that requires the removal of the four tiny allen head machine screws that secure the cover of the preamp (obviously after the power supply’s unplugged) and then plucking out two very tiny jumpers (right/left channel). I used a pair of tweezers for the operation, as the jumpers are a bit tough to access on the small, well-packed circuit board. The photo below will give an idea of what I’m talking about:
But the patient survived the procedure and I can tell you it was worth the minimum effort. The only other adjustment I made was input impedance. After a bit of fooling around, I found that setting the external dip switches to the 100 Ohm setting was perfectly satisfactory for the Bronze.
Once “de-gained” and properly impeded, the Black Cube SE gave a surprisingly good account of itself. And I mean surprising considering its performance versus its reasonable price. It’s an overachiever if ever there was one! The best descriptors of the BCSE’s sound with the Bronze are: honest, well-proportioned, and relaxed. In a nutshell, I found there wasn’t too much of anything and enough of the qualities that make phono reproduction a joy to be quite satisfying. The BCSE exhibited many of the qualities that made the Bronze enjoyable, so the combination was sonically synergistic in virtually all respects.
To get down to some specific recordings, l started with an LP of Arnold Bax’s works for solo piano, performed by Malcom Binns (Pearl SHE 565). This disc is one of the many well-recorded but not spectacular items that lurk in my collection. It isn’t an LP that will drive the list-making folks into a frothing frenzy to add to their “records to dismember yourself for”, but it’s still a very good recording of a piano played in a rather largish and not too reverberant space (E.M.I.’s No.1 studio, to be exact). And the Black Cube SE/Bronze combo did it justice. The piano was reproduced as a piano, not a tinkling, clanging comic book distortion. To be sure, the Black Cube SE reduced the illusion of a real piano’s power and size (width and depth), but not by as much as you might think, given my references.
The Black Cube SE also gave a good account of itself on big, well-recorded orchestral works, such as the Debussy Iberia disc I raved about last month (RCA LSC-2222; 3/1S “shaded dog” pressing). This LP is an audiophile tour-de-force, both sonically and performance-wise. And the BCSE conveys the gestalt of the LP—you know you’re listening to a great recording—even if it lacks the “3-D-ocity”, subtlety, and refinement of the phono section of my Jadis preamp. Still, the wonderful clarinet featured in the Le Matin movement remains identifiably wonderful. It’s solid-state sound for sure, but it’s sure not of the irritating, lifeless variety that has given SS a bad rep in the past.
Okay, now it’s time to discuss the Black Cube SE’s reproduction of that obligatory audiophile chestnut, the female voice. But in this case, not the particular female voices that reside in the grooves of the overplayed discs that have devoured so many listening sessions—and reviews — like zombies at an all-the-humans-you-can-eat buffet. What the heck am I talking about? It seems that in virtually every room at any audio show (or dealer) you might care to mention you’ll hear the same female vocal recordings that, while not necessarily sickening by themselves in reasonable doses, are played with such frequency that you ultimately want to puke. But instead of regaling you with the already over-documented real and imagined nuances of Diana Krall, Patricia Barber, et al., I’m serving up for your consideration a well-recorded disc of Jennifer Smith singing Handel’s Silete venti (Archiv 2534 004). It’s a digital recording and like some — but not all — LPs cut from a digital source, it’s not one to take an analog sniff at because it’s an excellent record. I confess that I’m a sucker for old Handel in virtually any form and he was especially brilliant when it came to writing for voice. Jones’s technique is up to handling this challenging music and the BCSE reproduces her lovely soprano — as well as the English Concert’s accompaniment as recorded in Henry Wood Hall — realistically and without stridency.
Sticking with Handel for the moment, I gave a listen to his justly famous Water Musik, as superbly performed by Nicholas McGeghan and the Philharmonia Baroque—and superbly recorded by Peter McGrath (Harmonia Mundi HMU 7010). If this composition doesn’t put a spring (ha!) in your step, you’re suffering from musical anemia. The record is an absolute gem in terms of capturing the sound of an authentic instrument ensemble performing in an honest-to-goodness space. I’ve played this LP many times and, again, the Black Cube SE captures the qualities that make it special, if not quite in toto — but you get more than enough of the rolling thumps of the tympani, the rounded blat of the natural horns, the clacking of the baroque oboe keys, etc. to really enjoy yourself.
You’re probably asking: how does it handle more raucous stuff? Well, my UK Decca copy of the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath (SKL 4786) certainly rocked when it had to (e.g., “Under My Thumb,” “Stupid Girl”). And, when it didn’t (e.g., “Lady Jane”), the BCSE captured the wide variety of instruments the Stones employed on many of these tracks: sitar, dulcimer, marimba, etc. It’s not a great recording, but it’s miles ahead of my pathetic U.S. pressed copy.
The Riverside classic, “Mulligan Meets Monk” (RLP-1106), also swung as it should. If you’re familiar with this disc, you know it’s primarily about musical content rather than audio thrills. But it’s an honest recording and the BCSE captures Mulligan’s throaty baritone sax and Monk’s piano in early (1957) stereo.
A Caveat and the Big Finish
Let’s recognize the prodigious pachyderm in the room right now: I’m comparing the Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE’s performance with the Bronze run through the JP200’s line stage to that of the Bronze run through the JP200’s MC input. We’re talking about not just solid state versus tubes. The Jadis JP200 MC preamp is essentially an all-out phono stage with line inputs. And at almost forty times the price of the Black Cube SE, you’d expect that its phono reproduction would be exemplary and clearly better than that of the SE—which it was. As a matter of fact, as the guy who shelled out the spondulicks, I’d be the first to tell you that if the Jadis’ phono reproduction wasn’t demonstrably better than the Black Cube SE I would be on the phone right now giving a generous piece of my mind to Patrick Calmette of Jadis instead of pecking away at this article!
But here’s the thing: the Black Cube SE is a wonderful means of getting into phono reproduction for not a lot of scratch. It’s a phono preamp that can be recommended to vinyl newbies, enthusiasts on budget, and even vinyl oldbies of my persuasion, who have a big rig and are looking for a reasonable way to add more “phono power”. The fact is that money may not buy you love, but it can buy you better phono performance. However, like everything in life, there are tradeoffs. Sure, you can spend more money, but there’s always a point of not just diminishing returns, but significantly diminishing returns. That point is different for everyone, and depends on your financial “ouch” threshold.
Let me just finish by saying that the Black Cube SE provides a surprising helping of musical satisfaction. For less than a kilobuck you get a flexible phono preamp that can accommodate almost any cartridge, with the exception of the puniest output MCs. All you need is an appropriate cartridge — like the Ortofon Rondo Bronze — and a stack of your favorite LPs.
About the Author
Darryl Lindberg is a retired executive living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Although he gets a good deal of exposure to live music via season subscriptions to Santa Fe’s various opera, orchestral, and chamber music groups, Darryl believes a great sound system is the only practical means invented by modern technology to experience the work of long gone (i.e., sleeping with the fishes) or simply inaccessible artists and their performances—at least in his current temporal existence. And he has plenty of software to stimulate his auditory contemplations, given that he’s amassed and continually adding to a vinyl collection of well over 10,000 records. Audio being a hobby (this is the Part-Time Audiophile, right?), Darryl spends much of his non-listening time volunteering for various worthy—depending on your point of view—organizations. In addition, he hosts a weekly program, “Tuesday Night at the Opera,” on Santa Fe’s public radio station, KSFR (7:00-10:00p.m. Mountain Time; streaming live on www.ksfr.org, if you’re interested). Further background may be obtained from his parole officer.