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.
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.
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.