Being an audiophile is difficult.
Being an audiophile into vinyl is more difficult.
Being an audiophile who is so into vinyl that you have more than one turntable is bordering on a personality disorder.
Having a turntable is often looked upon as a lot of work by those into digital for good reason: One has to consider drive types (rim, direct, belt, idler, AC or DC motor supply for example), tonearm approaches (gimbal, unipivot, suspended, linear mount) then there’s the cartridge, and the myriad different vagaries of alignment; vertical tracking force, azimuth, anti-skating, vertical tracking angle). Oh, what about suspended vs. non-suspended turntables? Low-mass platters, and high-mass platters? Isolation? Levelling?
Then there’s cartridge choices… moving magnet, moving iron or moving coil?
All this for one turntable… no wonder having two turntables is often looked upon as madness. You’d have to have an obsessive-compulsive disorder just to able to cope.
But since I’m often referred to as suffering from OCD, I took it upon myself to invite a second turntable into my home so that I could test the Dynamic Sounds Associates Phono II. This phono stage that can handle three tonearms/carts or turntables simultaneously, easily switching between them with a press of a button, and with more loading options than any sane person would think to entertain.
The fit and finish of the review unit I received was impeccable, and included detailed, easy-to-decipher nomenclature that laid out the numerous, and complex abilities of the Phono II in a clear, concise manner that wasn’t confusing. This could be an imposing piece of engineering for the uninitiated, indeed, a number of guests in my home commented on the gleaming, polished array of dip switches that adorned the Phono II’s front facia – which are cleverly hidden by a discrete hinged door if you desire – and how complex it must be to operate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once you’re familiar with implementing your presets for the different carts, or arms, and ‘tables you are feeding it, the phono stage is a breeze to use.
Let’s talk about what exactly the Phono II can do starting with the front panel:
The aforementioned dip switches allow the user to not only set resistive loading for three separate moving-coil cartridge presets from 25 Ohms to 1575 Ohms in 25 Ohm increments, but capacitance loading as well for moving-magnet cartridges from 225pf to 975 pf, and either 47k Ohms or 100K Ohms.
There are very tactile (soft touch) push-buttons that allow for switching between inputs, for adjusting gain values of 40, 50, 60 and 66dB, for engaging standby mode, muting, stereo or mono selection, inversion of polarity, a high-pass or rumble filter, and when in mono mode a button for L-R, and R-L which allows one to compensate for cartridge azimuth alignment. Cleverly included on the underside of the unit (in roughly the centre) is a switch to dim or brighten the bright blue LEDs adorning the chassis for various functions. The unit can also easily be converted to operate on 240VAC.
The rear of the unit has three pairs of RCA inputs, and balanced-XLR inputs as well RCA, and balanced XLR outputs, separate ground terminals for each input, and a chassis ground. A detachable AC mains cable socket is also included so that aftermarket cords can be used.
OK, we’ve established that the Phono II is incredibly well equipped to deal with any cartridge (or cartridges) you might be able to throw at it, but how does it sound?
First off I want to say that my preferred method of loading MM cartridges is with a valve moving-magnet phono stage, and if I’m running a moving-coil cartridge then I use a passive Step-Up Transformer (SUT) into that standard 47K Ohm moving-magnet stage. There are a number of reasons I do this, which I’m not going to get into here, but the main reason I prefer this type of set-up is the quality of the sound; the musicality of the sound. So I have to admit there was bit of healthy skepticism giving up my valves, and SUT to embrace this solid-state approach. Of course this was not my first solid-state phono stage, but it was the first to tip the scales over the $10,000 USD mark (MSRP is $13,500 USD), and put it in contention with some of the very best stages I’ve spent time with. One of the many things I’ve learned in my relatively short tenure with high fidelity is that surprises come fast, and they come despite skepticism. I cannot review hardware, and not have an open mind, and often times being skeptical is a good thing to have a dose of, but one has to be willing to have one’s mind changed, and any doubts I may have harboured disappeared after running-in the DSA Phono II.
There are as many types of sound that a listener can have a preference for as there are listeners to hear the music. Myself? I like the ability of a system to handle big dynamic swings, to have a feeling of limitless headroom, to be fast, transparent, to have speed on transients, and in-the-room realism on tone, and timbre. I also like lots of space around, and between instruments, and voices. The Phono II nailed all these requirements for me.
I started out my listening session after having the Phono II in my system for a number of weeks, and in that time I left in on almost constantly. It got mildly warm to the touch, but other than that it exhibited no signs of anything other than dead silence, and a muted blue glow when the lights went down.
I used two turntables for this review, the first was a Linn LP12 Sondek in Majik guise with a Hana SL low output moving-coil cartridge (0.5mV output, 30 Ohms internal impedance, VTF was set to 2.0 grams, $749 USD), and an Avid Acutus SP with a Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum (0.3mV output, 5 Ohms internal impedance, VTF was set to 1.95 grams, $7,495 USD). These cartridges have a markedly different presentation from one another, and in my experience I have found both possess a somewhat narrow band for loading to hit their ultimate sweet spot to maintain a balance that preserves a spacious, airy top end, compelling midrange, and deep, textured bass that both carts are capable of reproducing. I’ve listed the rest of the system used at the end of the review.
- Final playback specifications for the Koetsu were: 60dB with 225 Ohms of resistive loading.
- Final playback specifications for the Hana were: 60dB with 475 Ohms of resistive loading.
I did not engage the High-Pass Filter for any listening sessions.
The first album I used was Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. This is a 2007 Rhino remaster/reissue I picked up new at Redcat Records up the street from my place in East Vancouver when I couldn’t find a decent 1980 FACTUS 1 pressing anywhere at the time. Brutally insistent guitar work, fist-tight drumming, lightning bass lines, quirky off-putting keyboarding, oh, and angst… lots of angst. The album’s iconic cover by artist Peter Saville – a visual interpretation of a dying star – is a metaphor for the sonic communiqué sheltered within. The music reminds me of my own doubt-riddled, middle teen years. I pretty much only got to hear bands like Joy Division getting airplay in my neck of the woods on late-night Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio shows like Brave New Waves that pulsed through my small bedside clock radio. The Rhino version of the LP is punchy with visceral dynamics, and real bass slam. It’s got a more than satisfyingly deep bottom-end that you need a full-range loudspeaker to fully appreciate. And if you do have a transducer that’ll go 20Hz or lower, you will appreciate it.
The album starts with Disorder, and a fiercely percussive, staccato drum line from Stephen Morris that immediately had my body jerking around involuntarily. Peter Hook’s bass line, and Bernard Sumner’s guitar drop in on your nervous system like a car-battery lead shorting out on your skin. Both the Koetsu, and Hana being fed into the Phono II delivered all the coiled tension, and energy of tracks like Insight, She’s Lost Control, and Shadowplay with a real fluidity. Cuts like Day of the Lords, and Candidate are revealed in slowly unfolding entropy, swallowing up your sonic focus with an emotional unease that left me squirming. The Phono II likes to emotionally connect you to the music, a crucial parameter for any analog translator. Throughout the LP, Morris’ drumming had a vicious, snapping edge that was exquisitely resolved as it flitted from the skins, and crash cymbals. The low-level texture of Hook’s bass was rough-hewn, raspy, and gritty with superb in-your-face riffs from Sumner’s guitar that had bleeding-edge speed on every transient. While the decay from cymbal splash, and Ian Curtis’ dissonant vocals didn’t have the last nth of spatial bloom I’ve heard from similarly-priced (or more) tube phono stages like Audio Note UK’s M6, it made up for that with a transparency to source, and conciseness in its realism. This album through the Phono II left me drained, which is exactly what I want when listening to it, because it is a long, turbulent sonic ride, and if I’m not tired after hearing it, then something is wrong.
Next up was Julie Is Her Name, by Julie London. This was a rare 2009 sealed Boxstar 180 gram, 2×45 rpm, limited edition, numbered, and mono Bernie Grundman remaster I stumbled across at Music Millennium in Portland, Oregon a few years back. This is one of the very best sounding LPs I have, and in the hands of a sympathetic cartridge, and phono stage, the sonics this double album are capable of delivering are intimidating. I hit the Mono button for this LP, and the Phono II promptly shovelled everything deep down the middle, which I absolutely crushed on. Listening on the big Avid with the Rosewood in play brought an intimacy to the subtle, husky shadings of London’s musings on Say it Isn’t So that I’d not heard in previous rigs. The space around her voice was so clearly demarcated from Barney Kessel’s guitar on I’m in the Mood for Love, that the 3D placement in the sound stage was laid bare with a stark, reverberating void around her that created an exceedingly human presence between the loudspeakers. Switching the Phono II over to the Linn, and the Hana SL, brought a surprise in that the little plastic-bodied, Shibata-stylus cart was capable of even more palpable texture in the string, and fret play from Ray Leatherwood’s bass on Cry Me a River than the Koetsu. This is a very simple recording, so you wouldn’t think an accomplished rig could screw it up, but I find that in many aspects, the fewer performers involved, the easier it is to mess up how little is there. Some phono stages want to do it all,, and reviewers talk about “massed strings” like it’s the Holy Grail of music reproduction. Sure, delineation between multiple instruments can be rewarding, but I’ve found proper timbre, clarity, tonal truth – inherent realism – to sonic playback, and most importantly (for me) musicality, are what separates the great from the best. This is a recording that lays bare the capabilities of London, Kessel, and Leatherwood in such startling definition that if the phono stage is not able to reproduce absolute fidelity to source, then the whole performance falls apart. The Phono II delivered this album in stark relief from the background of my listening room, and proved its innate culpability with both cartridges tactile transcription of the songs therein.
I listened to literally tens of dozens of albums while the Phono II was in my home, but I’m only focusing on three of them, because I feel that with these three, you the reader, will be able to establish a reasonable baseline for the DSA’s capabilities. I’ve done my best to choose LPs that cover enough sonic territory to give a genuine cross-section of music as well. I don’t only listen to “audiophile” recordings; whether it’s a bargain-bin third pressing, a Japanese Obi-wrap, or a concentious remaster, I listen to everything, and I listen to anything a lot that sounds great to me. Which leads me to my final LP.
Al Stewart’s Year of The Cat is a 1976 masterpiece of contemporary pop/rock by a singer/songwriter who was at the top of his game at the time. I had a Friday Music remaster, but got lucky at Audiopile Records here in Vancouver, and was able to score a near-mint condition 1978 Mobile Fidelity remaster that was pressed in Japan. I grew up on this album, so it’s etched into my psyche; I’m all-too familiar with every nuance in each of it’s nine tracks. I’ve listened to this album on every incarnation of rig I’ve had in my both my personal system, and those in for review, and hearing it through the Phono II I heard into this recording with a transparency to what was in the grooves that I hadn’t previously. Lord Grenville has a keyboard flourish deeply inset at the very back of the mix around the 26-second mark, and with the Koetsu feeding the Phono II it popped out of its recess, with real weight to each note. This is like a two-second instance, but this type of contrast kept happening on every track, and when added up made the record take on an entirely different textural hue for me. Guitar thrum by Stewart, Peter White, and Tim Renwick had noticeably increased body, with a further fleshed-out bottom end to the bass lines of George Ford on cuts like On the Border. Stuart Elliot’s percussive beats managed to go even deeper, and tighter on Sand in Your Shoes when the Phono II took on the Hana SL for a quick comparison (which took less than 30 seconds from cart-to-cart). This is an LP with a lot of instruments, and Alan Parson’s production can lean towards juicy with some phono stage/cart combos, but the Phono II (regardless of either cartridge/turntable) always kept playback tight, with (once again) a speed on transients from guitars/keyboard/violin/percussion that could catch you off guard. The opening to If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It came across as instantaneous, with no pre-echo from the groove whatsoever.
The DSA Phono II is an outstanding phono stage simply on the merits of its abilities to emotionally engage the listener in a compelling, transparent, tonally accurate, and ultimately musical manner. The fact that it can do this with inputs for three cartridges/turntables/tonearms only makes its appeal that much more alluring. For anyone who has a turntable with the ability to take on multiple arms/carts, (mono or stereo) or for the audiophile in possession of multiple turntables – or looking to expand their present coterie – this phono stage should be at the top of your list for a home demonstration. You really do have to experience the Phono II to understand how flexible, and accommodating it is with any matter of cartridge loading. While I didn’t have an opportunity to try a moving magnet cartridge with it, the two LOMC carts I used were not only disparate price-wise, but sonically in their presentation. The fact that the Phono II allowed me to almost infinitely dial-in, and tailor their specific loading characteristics allowed me to experiment with the myriad possibilities that alternate loading can have on how a cartridge interprets your record collection.
Additional gear used in this review:
- Audio Note Meishu Silver Signature integrated amplifier (300B)
- Audio Note AN-E SPe/HE 97.5 dB loudspeakers
- Audio Note interconnects, PS Audio AC mains cables, PS Audio Dectet Power Centre