Once upon a time, I was young and innocent, brash and bold. I believed in the superiority of digital playback. Cables could have no impact on the sound quality of my system. You could never have too much power. “Once Upon a Time” was actually a fun-to-watch TV show. Ah, me. Such halcyon days.
Sadly, time marches on.
One of my favorite “Scot was wrong” moments (somewhere down the list from “Oh, sure, I can drink an entire fifth of rum” and “running a marathon seems like a great idea”) came at the hands of Greg Beron, Chief Inquisitor over at United Home Audio (UHA). We’d started this argument of ours some 7 years ago at the very first Capital Audiofest, where I unwisely ventured that “analog tape” was essentially an exercise in audiphool absurdity. There was absolutely no way that tape could be “good” much less “worth all that money”. Money? Yes — apparently, the root of my disdain and horror was the idea that music had value. Or rather, that vendors could (with a straight face) charge $450 for an albums that could be purchased for $10 from Amazon (on CD). Why on Earth would anyone bother?
Over the years, Greg showed the patience of Job in the face of my (and others!) mockery and let the air (and water) leak out of that “logic” by doing the absolute unthinkable. Much like Diogenes the Cynic disproving Zeno’s paradox flatly wrong by simply walking, Greg just played the music. You might have heard of these epic after-hours events at your local audio show, and if not, you’re missing out. Greg brings his crates of one-off master tapes and simply spins the reels until his attendees pass out where they sit. I cannot recommend the experience highly enough — it’ll change you — and these little undocumented and unadvertised extravaganzas remain perhaps the single best reason to get out of your basement and head to an audio show.
The upshot? After all that exposure, I was forced to begrudgingly admit that — perhaps — this whole tape-thing wasn’t complete bollux.
And then last year, Greg loaned me a Phase 10 deck.
UHA Phase 10
The Phase 10 ($14,000 for playback only; record + playback adds $2,500) sits somewhere in the middle echelons of his offers, and encompasses a suite of upgrades above and beyond the standard Tascam deck. Yes, Greg mods the EOL/EOS decks from Tascam, which he sources from any- and every-where. The list of upgrades is ludicrous, so I’ll simply say that this is a complete rebuild and let you check out the upgrade page for details. What the Phase 10 brings is a new and completely custom tape head (and “matching” tape preamplifier):
This UHA Tape Head head was chosen after a year-long exhaustive search for the best sounding tape head. Six tape heads were auditioned, different manufacturers, different outputs and different impedances were auditioned. The chosen head had a completely new output value and impedance that is made only for United Home Audio. Also custom mu metal “cans” were fitted over the heads to shield noise from thee head, providing an ultra quiet head for record or playback. The UHA-HQ heads are bolted to the headblock, and aligned by a special optical device to assure perfect alignment. Because they are bolted to the head block they will never go out of alignment. The UHA Heads are made of steel so they will give a lifetime of service with virtually no worry of head wear. The new hand-made UHA-HQ Playback head is an all out assault on the best playback head possible at this time. This head is 3 times as big as a stock head and caused its own set of challenges getting it to fit on the Tascam head block.
I used this deck with my “standard rig”, which includes a BorderPatrol P20 stereo amplifier and Control Unit pre, Living Voice OBX-RW loudspeakers, and all-TelWire cabling. My analog system consisted of a TW-Acustic Raven AC-3 turntable with a Raven tonearm and Miyajima Madake cartridge. My digital system was a Bricasti M1 DAC fronted by an Aurender W20 server.
I won’t lie to you and tell you that this $14k tape deck “blew away” my $40k analog front end. Or my $30k digital front end, because it didn’t. But it was nowhere near half/one-third-as-good, as the price/performance indicator might lead you to believe. In fact [cough], it was closer to a dead heat. [Cough, cough]. It might have even been preferable. [Cough, hacking cough, cough-cough-cough]. Ahem.
Herein lies the magic of tape — the music quality seems to be better. And by ‘quality’, I very definitely do mean “better sounding”.
I’m not going to speculate (too much) as to why that is. Perhaps the tapes are “closer to the master” than the mass-produced (even if it is “audiophile”) music. I’m sure very intelligent people can elaborate — the point is, they have already done so and culture wars have ensued. Not my monkeys; not my circus. I will simply offer this — when taken as a whole, with LP-through-to-speaker, and compared with high-resolution-file-through-to-speaker, the tape-through-to-speaker was consistently smoother, more “liquid” sounding, way more “immediate” sounding, with an ease-of-listening that was just never-ending. Not universally so, but certainly more often than average. Said another way, I’ve had very few digitally-inspired all-nighters. I’ve had more-than-a-few vinyl-inspired ones. But tape? Tape is a serious issue. Gearing up the machine meant hours and hours of time lost. I’m a little afraid of it, to be honest. Pretty sure there was at least a month’s worth of terribly short-changed sleep in that first week of borrowing.
The tapes that Greg had “sent along” with his deck — just as samples — came from all-over the place. As a tape deck manufacturer, Greg clearly has some connections that lets him have access to tapes with unheard-of audio quality. But of the stuff that had labels, The Tape Project stood out as a source that I want to have a close, personal, intimate, embarrassing relationship with. Yes, their tapes are pricey ($450 each), but let me say this: if you truly believe that axiom that “it’s all about the music”, then pour yourself a giant mug of STFU and get your wallet out. All music media is clearly not created equal — and these tape folks appear to know something that the rest of us just don’t.
And a quick aside to those folks complaining about “no new music” appears on this format, please don’t tell that to Anne Bisson and Vincent Bélanger because they might stab you. And Lyn Stanley? Ha ha, you’re kidding right? Yes — I’ve got a stack of her tapes right here — many thoughts on those delectable candies will be coming soon.
Reel-Tronix take-up reel
The take-up reel that Greg included is not exactly a standard-issue model — it’s a custom-made wheel from Reel-Tronix, and it was a beauty. Check out the photos! Compared to a crappy plastic take-up reel, the difference is embarrassingly huge. The Reel-Tronix is massive, rigid, and robust, the reel is dramatically better at tape release — totally silent — while it sits there looking absolutely hot on the deck.
Available for a limited time several years ago, those that failed to snap up the available stock have been since completely out of luck. But chatting with designer Patrick Sinegal this past summer, it seems that the hopeful may well be rewarded — and shortly. Expected pricing is about $475/reel, but check with UHA about the upcoming availability. Me? I want at least one.
** All New ** UHA Phase 1
Sending back the Phase 10 was hard. I mean, really hard. I was convinced that, for the money, you could not buy a better-sounding source. This was beyond all reasonability or expectation — yes, it really was that good, and more besides.
Naturally, I had to have one.
Believe me, I was not happy about it. Neither was my bank account. I asked. Pleaded, really. But stony silence was all I heard. Much to my chagrin, it seemed the case that there was no way I could swing $14k for a tape machine. I’ve been accumulating gear for a decade, stockpiling resources if you will, but that was a commitment I couldn’t swing. Oh well. A few tears, a box of Kleenex later, a few fingers of Angel’s Envy, and I was almost okay with taking a pass.
Which is why I probably popped an aneurism when Greg told me he was going to offer a full analog tape solution for less than half the price of the Phase 10.
What what WHAAAAT?
The Phase 1 ($6,500 for playback-only) is UHA’s “entry-level” offer. It uses the stock Tascam head, but includes:
the full-blown UHA dual mono head amp, with hyper-pure copper boards, thick boards, wide runs, expedited hyper pure gain stages and EQ circuits capped off with heavy-duty grounding runs, even has a top-tier dielectric and silver solder points. The deck is completely rewired and the wiring has been completely re-routed and shielded to lower the noise floor. There have been hundreds of changes in the deck, muting circuits removed, gain stages removed, pots and switches removed, EQ was hard-wired, so many things that improve sound quality …
The idea was to bring the UHA technology of the top line decks to a beginning tape enthusiast with a Phase1.
UHA also offers an upgrade path, all the way from a Phase1 to a Phase12-OPS deck and the luxury of never having sell a UHA deck to move up! We all know how we lose money on selling used audio gear….
Sadly, the Reel-Tronix take-up reels are “extra” (in fact, there is no default reel included — you have to buy our source one), but Greg loaned me a steel reel while Patrick spins up for his next production run. The Phase 1 also doesn’t include an IEC-type power connector — this deck has a “trapped” power cord. Again, the sheer number of tweaks and upgrades included in this “base” deck defy description — so I’ll defer that list to UHA.
The Phase 1 is “playback only”, which means that the recording-path has been removed for the sake of simplicity and cost, as have the muting circuits, which makes rewinding an exercise in exorcism. You can set the deck upright (my preference) or flat, but the optional Celtic-knot side panels show pretty well, so why not have them face-forward? Greg recommended a “tiny lift” to the front feet (I have Symposium Point Podz under them) so that the reels don’t pull straight down the face (for better/smoother motor operation, he says).
The default output is XLR, and adding additional RCA outputs is an extra $$$ option reserved for the more pricey decks; for those that run single-ended systems (like I do), a pair of Cardas Clear XLR-to-RCA adapters run about $150 on Amazon. I set the Phase 1 up on the big Box Furniture rack, and I was off to the races.
The sound of this deck is absurdly close to what I remembered from the Phase 10 that cleared my system last fall, and once again, I was completely taken aback at “how close” this 1/5 price front end came to my reference analog and digital systems. Remember, the setup here is minimal — aside from occasional head-cleaning and demagnetizing — and with that, I was getting sound that approaches the very best analog production.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the two decks to compare head-to-head, and comparing it (or any deck) to a vinyl system is hard because the music is (and must be) quite different. That’s really the reason that this exploration is only a partial review. But, that said, I’m left with the feeling that the UHA Phase 1 is that first step off the cliff, diving into the Face of the Infinite. And apparently, Infinity has freckles.
[… swoon …]
I bought a UHA Phase 1 after years of angry denial. How could analog tape be better than vinyl or high-resolution digital? There was just no way — or so I argued. But then I listened. And compared. And listened some more. And finally, in a blaze of pain and sheer outrage, I was forced to admit how wrong I’d been. Yes, high-res is great. Vinyl is awesome. But tape? Tape is just a whole different thing. We audiophiles keep on and on about the quality of the speakers, the amps, the power, even the cables — but we rarely do more than nod at the fact that the music itself is the engine that drives this entire train. But with analog tape, I cannot help but think that we are getting closer to the original than along any other path. And boy-howdy, it matters. It matters a whole lot.
As for me, this is the closest that I’ve yet gotten to perfect.
The UHA Phase 1 is the first step on a dangerous road of addiction, self-absorption, and alienation. Your friends will wonder what happened, your colleagues will call you mad, the forums will ring with calumny. But you won’t know or care, because there always seems to be more delicious, delicious tape to spin.
This level of performance calls to mind the Julia Award, as the Phase 1 completely destroys the argument that you need to spend tens-of-thousands of dollars to get a truly goose-bump-inducing analog experience in-home, but ultimately, I think we’re doing some violence to the idea of affordable that’s built into that award.
I already gave the Phase 10 a “Most Coveted” award last year; there really is nothing else to say about the Phase 1 but to add an Editor’s Choice Award and a give it a very deserved nod toward the very best that 2016 has to offer.
Call that my most enthusiastic “three thumbs up”.