By cheerfully weird happenstance, I received two world-class phono preamplifiers, pretty much right on top of each other.
The first to arrive was the Arion phonostage ($6,395) from Tim Stinson of Luminous Audio. Tim Stinson was beside himself over this phono pre — he and his partner Mike Bettinger of Bettinger Audio Design have been working on this thing for well over a year now — and the final product was “beyond all expectations”. Heady stuff.
The second, the PH150 ($7,900) was from Dan Wright of ModWright Instruments. I’ve seen (and heard) this phono stage at a handful of audio shows, usually paired with a VPI turntable and a pair of speakers from Lou Hinkley’s Daedalus Audio — and quite frankly, those rooms have always been show-favorites.
To say that I was tickled to play with both of these would be an understatement. My vinyl rig was getting a little dusty with all the digital gear I’d been using of late, so this was perfectly timed. Analog powers, unite!
So, after a few months of playing with them, I can share the following: they’re both truly world-class phono stages. The fact that both are Made in the USA? Pure gravy.
Either of these phono stages would serve amazingly well. They’re both game-enders, and if I had a ranking scale, I’d offer that both of them would hit my very top marks. But in a neat twist, they both get there by rather different paths, which is why I thought it’d be most interesting to contrast them here. One is solid state. One uses a tube-based approach. They sound quite different. Which will work best for you depends on you, but if things were different (that is, “I had tons of available cash”), I’d have both of them. Yep. Seriously. Did I mention that they’re both excellent?
Luminous Audio Arion
The Arion was designed by Mike Bettinger of Bettinger Audio Design. Since the collapse in the early 1980’s of James Bongiorno’s Great American Sound company (you remember the name “Ampzilla”, right?), Mike’s been keeping that flame alive, refurbing and tweaking that legendary gear, and as far as I know, he’s still at it. But these days, you’re likely to find the humble and bespectacled white-haired Bettinger grinning about his collaboration with Fern&Roby on a sweet little integrated amplifier, or (as it’s a bit more on-point for the review here), the phono preamp he’s cooked up with Tim Stinson.
The Arion is a solid-state phono pre. Nothing wrong with that! But I mention it, well, because folks will want to know, but also because there are a few stereotypes that go along with that statement, stereotypes that we’ll address as we go along.
What it is
The details of the circuit topology are available, if you’re curious. I’m long-winded as it is, so cutting-and-pasting that kind of detail seems a little frivolous. Besides, Bettinger will explain it better than I ever could, so let me refer you to the source for that sort of thing. But I will offer that the Arion is something of a purist approach — think “simple paths” and “quality parts” and you’re on the right track. But that also means that the loading and gain are both factory fixed/pre-set: 40dB of gain and 47kΩ loading for the moving magnet input, and 62dB/100Ω for moving coil — choices which are selected by a single chromed button on the front of the chassis. The other button on the front is engages a Mute (so you can switch between settings, or make other changes). Changing the factory settings is possible (loading is somewhat easier than gain, however), but it will be a bit of a hassle and may require soldering.For the record, I’m allergic to solder. Just putting that out there. The point? You need something odd — like 1kΩ load for your Miyajima or SoundSmith cartridge, for example — you really ought to ask up front.
There is one input (though, that can be either XLR or RCA), one output (RCA only), a grounding post and an IEC plug … and that’s about it for the ass-end of this block of aluminum.
Oh, about that — did I mention the Arion comes with armor plating? Understated, perhaps, but the entire chassis is hefty planks of milled aluminum. Aluminum construction may be relatively common, but holding one of these 20lb bricks, you’re tempted to use words like ‘dense’ and not ‘heavy’. It’s robust, in that hearty and satisfying kind of way.
What it does
Sonically, the Arion was … unexpected. I was pulling adjectives out of the bag that I wasn’t used to using when discussing vinyl — “silent”, “dynamic”, and “punchy” were all on the list. But the register that stood out most? Bass response. The bass I pulled from “Derezzed” from the TRON soundtrack was eye-popping. Holy s***balls! This was, easily, best-ever territory. The rest of the signature was as dense as the casework; the Arion routinely unravelled complex tapestries in ways that sounded embarrassingly easy, but still threw deep soundstages, with precise placement.
Now, I don’t really have anything against solid-state gear. I don’t! But the tonal layering here was not what I was expecting. My first thought was to a pair of Luxman amps I had in for testing oh-so-many years ago, the L-590a II and the L-505u. Both integrated amps, the first was a 30wpc $10k Class-A unit and the second was a $5k 100wpc Class A/B. With my then-reference speakers, Merlin Music VSM-MXR, the L-590a made by speakers sound muscular and rich and powerful. Contrasting, as I was at that time, with some Joule-Electra OTL amps, this was a waaaaay different sonic signature — I had no idea that my speakers could be made to sound like that! For those speakers, I thought the additions were too much (the speakers had been designed and voiced around the OTLs), which is why I ended buying the L-505u, which had a much less plummy — but still delightfully rich — presentation. Years later, I wish I’d bought the L-590a. Not because it was better. But because it was magic. Not for that system, say, but maybe another ….
Like the Daedalus Ulysses, for example. Which was why, perhaps, that from that first needle drop through the Arion, I was suddenly transported to the worlds of Yesterday smashed into a universe of What-Might-Have-Been. Because dammit all if that Arion wasn’t channeling that monster Luxman integrated. It was déjà vu. But this time? The speakers fit. I was in heaven.
By contrast, my long-term phono stage reference, the TW-Acustic Raven built by Thöress, sounded a little light in its loafers. Played opposite each other, and with my reference Ortofon Windfeld cartridge, I found that the Raven favored delicacy and air, while the Arion favored majesty and drive. That is, it was almost as if the Raven was balanced more mid-treble while the Arion favored something of a mid-bass presentation. Interesting! Part of this may have been the impression that the Raven had a bit more transient bite, but the Arion was able to present sonic detail in a completely non-fatiguing and non-distracting manner — and there was oodles of it.
Don’t get me wrong — I love my Raven. But it was the Arion that had me fumbling for all those old rock albums and dancing like an addled lunatic. My dog must have thought I’d lost my flipping mind. Really, there ought to be a limit to how many times you play Journey’s Escape back to back.
If you follow Part-Time Audiophile audio show coverage at all (and how could you not?), you’ve probably seen us talk about Dan Wright and his ModWright Instruments gear. He got his start modifying 3rd-party gear (hence, the ‘mod’ in “ModWright”), but has made a name for himself with his inexpensive preamplifiers and massive solid-state amps, all festooned with his in-house designed custom capacitors.
Dan’s been playing with tubes for years, and his preamps are all tube-based (and his latest amp designs seem to be heading that way, too). While it’s undeniable that Dan’s been a force for US-made amp/pre manufacturing, it’s his DAC and phono that have been particularly eye-catching. Well, maybe just to me, but whatever.
What it is
At almost $8k, the PH150 is not cheap. It’s not even in the same zip code as cheap. But I remember, not too long ago, lusting hard after a certain Stereophile-beloved phono pre from a certain CA-based company that also hit that price point. Man, oh man, did I want that phono.
Actually, a comparison to the Manley Steelhead is probably not a bad idea as the two share some, at least superficial, design elements. Both have massive outboard power supplies; the Arion however does not. Both have massive knobs/dials all over the front fascia; the Arion has only two buttons. Both are tube designs; the Arion, as we’ve already mentioned, is pure solid-state. I’m sure there are other similarities, but you’d probably be best talking to a real journalist about that.
Where the comparisons break down? Well, kinda all over the place — the Steelhead is a single-ended design, and the PH150 is fully balanced — on the output, that is, the inputs are single-ended. Speaking of which, the PH150 “only” has two inputs (one MC and one MM) while the Steelhead (and my reference Raven) have three. The Arion has only one. The Steelhead also has a variable output, controlled by a massive volume knob on the front of the box — not that I’d recommend using it this way, for sound-quality reasons, but I suppose you could use the Steelhead as a full-fledged preamplifier. Can’t do that with the PH150, the Arion or the Raven.
Aesthetically, the PH150 has it all over the Steelhead. Yes, I love those chunky knobs on the Steelhead. They’re iconic (to me at least). And, more importantly (to me, at least), they let me tweak the crap out of the configuration. Not that the Average Analog Joe would want or need that, but I get gear in here all the time — a fixed-config box would be rather limiting. But the big, fat, matching knobs on the PH150 go a long way to capturing that look and updating it at the same time. And the blue-lit front logo (and laser-cut top-plate) are just hot.
On the front, you get four knobs. The first is for Source (far left), with a Mute in the 12 o’clock position. Gain (mid-left) is next, which is factory set at 53dB for MM and 68dB for MC, but the knob gives you a 0dB, -6dB and -12dB knock-off. The knobs for Capacitance and Resistance are on the right. There’s a button for “Mono” summing below the knobs on the right side; the mirrored button on the left is for Power. A small (but heavy), external PSU with a machined aluminum face-plate is attached by an umbilical.
Inside the box there are Lundahl transformers for both step-up and output, with a quartet of tubes along the way, including two 6C45 and two 6922 (or 6DJ8/7308). I don’t think there’s anything else in the box except Schrödinger’s Cat, but I wasn’t able to check. Anyway, what those tubes mean — to me — is that there is some room for rolling, but I’ll be honest, rolling in the phono stage isn’t really where I focus. I mean, sure, you might be able to find something more lush or soft or whatever, but the stock tubes have an almost invisible presence as it is, that it almost seems a crime to swap them out. Which is usually an invitation to do just that, but in this one instance (Guinness, take a note), I resisted the urge.
What it does
I should note that I ran my Windfeld MC cartridge at 100Ω, not just to keep everything on a similar field (I ran it at this load for all of the phono preamps mentioned), but because it also happened to sound better that way, at least in my system.
Sonically, the PH150 is very close to the Raven, but more full. Top-end air was very close, but the bottom-end reach was deeper and more solid. Using the analogy above, the PH150 seemed more traditionally mid-range centered than the Raven, though both here are fully archetypical, with a natural timbral rightness that any tube-lover will immediately recognize and wax poetic over. Pulling up my mental notes on the Manley (which had departed by this point), I feel the PH150 is more transparent to the source material, and more fluid.
Compared to the Arion, the PH150 couldn’t match it for overall low-end authority, though it gave an extremely credible try. To be fair, the Arion is the best I’ve ever heard here, so while the PH150 fell short, this is like saying that a Tesla isn’t quite as fast as a Ferrari. Said another way, this is most definitely not a ding on the PH150. Flipping the sonic spectrum around, the Arion seemed to trade the ultimate grunt in the lowest registers for ultimate reach in the uppermost. Here, the PH150 came very close to matching the light and speed of my Raven phono, and also managed to feel more planted at the same time. As for the mid-range, this was a clear matter of taste — both the Arion and the PH150 preamps presented full, round and separated images, but it was clear that of the two, the Arion was warmer.
I recently grabbed a Reference Recordings re-issue of Copland’s Fanfare of the Common Man. It’s a staggeringly well-recorded album that I’ve had on CD for years, but the vinyl version was new to me. The massive scale of this LP was not a complete surprise to me, as the CD is excellent, but holy mackerel! With a 20wpc BorderPatrol P20 amplifier (push-pull 300b-based design with enormous outboard power supplies) into the 98dB sensitive Daedalus Ulysses that were in for review, I might have had the volume a little bit over to the right. Maybe. Chalk it up to enthusiasm. Anyway, after the after-images faded and the ability to see returned after a self-induced sonic concussion, I marveled at the organic sound — a full, top-to-bottom coherence, an utter seamlessness to the presentation. Bass was tight, but not artificial. Treble was lit, but in no way actinic. And the mid-range was walk-around-in-it immersive. So, I might have played that record 5 times in a row, what of it?
The music I found myself reaching for, with this combo, was lively. I picked up four Count Basie discs from the local used record stores (there are three within 5 miles of me), and after a thorough cleaning on my Utransonic Records machine, I lined them up: Basie’s Way, Farmer’s Market Barbecue, Jumpin’ At The Woodside, Basie Jam. My wife, coming home from band practice (she sings and plays guitar), found the kids and I, dancing in our PJ’s. Whoops. Might have lost a few hours that night. Heh heh …?
(I’m not supposed to keep the kids up that late. I’m not supposed to keep the kids up that late. I’m not supposed to keep the kids up that late. I’m not supposed to keep the kids up that late. I’m not supposed to keep the kids up that late.)
Anyway, also highly recommended.
Aside from the obvious — if you have children, play records for them — I can’t think of a better way to while my way through my music. There’s an interactivity to vinyl that’s just impossible to recreate with any other format, and for that, I am indebted.
Said another way — no one needs to spend this much on a phono preamplifier to be happy. That’s just crazy-talk. But if you are into vinyl, have made some serious investments along that journey, I can imagine that either the Arion from Luminous Audio or the PH150 from ModWright could serve as a Final Destination. And that’s why both are getting Editor’s Choice Awards.
Which one is “right” for you is impossible for me to suss out. I think the sonic signature of the Arion is absurdly easy to recommend. My records sounded fantastic with this phono pre! Much like the Abyss headphones I’ve been so enamored with over the last year, the Arion does it’s thing like no other phono pre I’ve ever heard in my system. It’s not perfect, but it is breathtaking. It’s also really simple and looks sexy and purposeful and mean. I love it.
The PH150 has no flaws, presenting a seamless top-to-bottom eloquence that is magnetic and alluring. Aesthetically, it’s the most interesting of the bunch (and yes, that includes the Raven and Steelhead), and the on-the-fascia configuration offerings are ludicrous. Big knobs! Again, while it may give up a bit to the Arion in the bass, it chases it down cheerfully and clearly edges it in the treble. This phono is a masterclass of balance and grace. Yes, I love it, too.
This is like having fraternal twins! Equally amazing but completely different. Forced to chose one or the other, however, I could cheerfully flip a coin. And either way, I’d be done and done and done and game over.
I call that a win.
- Daedalus Audio Ulysses V2 Loudspeakers
- BorderPatrol P20 EXS stereo amplifier and Control Unit line stage
- TW-Acustic Raven AC-3 turntable with Raven 10.5 tonearm
- Ortofon Windfeld pickup cartridge
- WyWires Diamond speaker cables and interconnects
- TelWire power cords
- Shunyata Research Hydra Triton power conditioning/distribution system