After arranging to review the PS Audio Stellar phono preamplifier, I realized that the first time and only time I’ve reviewed a PS Audio product was way back in 2008, when the GCPH phono stage arrived on my doorstep. I evaluated about a dozen phono stages in the $800 to $1200 range over the course of that year and while I ultimately chose the Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE as the one I liked the best (I bought it and still have it around somewhere), I was equally impressed with the GCPH for some very cogent reasons.
The Lehmann didn’t offer a lot in the way of user-friendly features, but it sounded good, perhaps just a tad better than the PS Audio unit. The GCPH, however, had an insane set of features for just $1000. It was the first phono preamp I ever used that allowed you to load your cartridge via the remote control, a feature that still impresses the heck out of me to this day. It really could’ve gone either way—it was really a toss-up between the two. Did I choose correctly? I’m still not sure.
The 2010 reprint of the GCPH review on my Vinyl Anachronist blog is, to this day, one of my five most read blog entries over the last decade. I found this curious at first, but I’ve been told that PS Audio has a HUGE following among audiophiles and they read absolutely everything about Paul McGowan’s unique products.
As I wrote in that review back in 2010, “What if the best phono preamplifier in the world cost just $1000? Would the audio world be turned on its ear? Would the manufacturers of all those $5000 to $10,000 phono stages sprint back to their respective drawing boards?” Now I have to ask almost the same questions about the latest PS Audio phono preamplifier, the Stellar.
I say almost because the PS Audio Stellar is $2499, not $1000. It’s a far more mature product with plenty of new technologies employed in the design. Still, there’s plenty about this phono stage that reminds me of the GCPH. It has an amazing list of features, it’s easy to use, and the sound is immediately engaging, albeit in a slightly different way than the older model.
Under the Hood
The PS Audio Stellar phono preamplifier is engineer Darren Myers’ baby. Much of the accompanying literature focuses on Myers’ attempt to build the finest PS Audio phono stage ever, which is significant because the company’s first product, built way back in 1975, was also a phono pre. Myers took advantage of the latest generation of FET semiconductors and class A analog circuitry to create a phono stage that has a warmer, almost tube-like feel. He accomplished this by eschewing integrated circuits for a fully discrete FET design. The main objectives were creating the lowest possible noise floor with lots of headroom to handle the “wildest dynamics” from the “punchiest cartridges.”
In other words, cartridge designs have changed (for the better) and the phono stage has to adapt to the improved performance.
As I’ve already mentioned several times, the PS Audio Stellar has a magnificent range of features—many which are identical to the GCPH. Yes, you can load the cartridge via remote control and you can pick between 60, 100, 200 and 47k ohms as well as custom settings. You can also use the remote to choose between the MM and MC inputs, and three levels of gain for MM (44, 50 and 56 dB) and three for MC (60, 66 and 72 dB). The biggest button on the remote is a mute button, which is easy to locate in case your phone rings or someone knocks on the door. (I usually ignore both scenarios during a listening session—or any other time, really.)
On the rear panel you get 12V trigger input and outputs, presumably for use with other PS Audio Stellar components. You’re also treated to balanced and unbalanced outputs, and manual counterparts for many of the remote functions.
Set-up was easy—I made my connections, turned everything on and used the remote for the cartridge settings. At no point during the review period did I experience any glitches, idiosyncrasies or surprises. The PS Audio Stellar performed flawlessly.
The PS Audio Stellar is, according to the website, a “triumph of performance,” so I had no qualms about matching this $2500 phono pre with first-rate analog rigs including the Palmer 2.5 turntable with the Audio Origami PU7 tonearm, and the Fern & Roby Montrose turntable with matching arm. I used three relatively affordable yet over-achieving MC cartridges: the ZYX Bloom 3, the Hana ML and the Sumiko Starling. Since the 2.5 was at the end of its review period and the Montrose was just breaking in, I spent most of the time using the Palmer/Audio Origami/Hana rig with the Stellar.
The rest of the system was quite lofty as well considering the modest price of PS Audio Stellar—Von Schweikert Audio ESE loudspeakers, MasterBuilt cabling, and both the Vinnie Rossi L2i integrated amplifier (which has an extraordinary inboard phono preamp for comparison) and the Mactone XX7000 preamplifier and MH120 power amplifier. The Stellar also spent a short period with the Linear Tube Audio Zotl 40 amp, Microzotl preamp and the Fern & Roby Raven II loudspeakers.
While the PS Audio Stellar boasts of performance that is “rich, warm and enticing,” my initial impressions were similar to that of the Pass Labs XP17 phono pre that I reviewed for The Occasional. I found the Stellar to be so neutral that it didn’t draw attention to itself at first. It simply slipped into the main system with little fanfare. It punched the clock, it got to work, and it didn’t complain about the long hours.
The Stellar needed little time to break in, and its core sonic performance didn’t change significantly over time. Once I was confident that the Stellar was operating at its peak, I immediately noticed an overall sound that was very quiet and smooth. The Mactone amps, for example, have an exceptionally live character that might be a tad overstated with the wrong ancillaries, but whenever the PS Audio Stellar was in the system, those razor-sharp transients were placed in a much larger context within the soundstage. That doesn’t mean that the Stellar smoothed out the vivacious sound of the Mactones, but rather it supplied a comfy place for these Japanese tube amplifiers to sit and converse with the listener in a meaningful way.
Like the XP17, the PS Audio Stellar was so quiet that it was difficult to pick out its character in the context of the system. It’s been a long time since I’ve used a phono preamplifier with noise issues so that’s not that remarkable on its own, but I do notice when a product is quieter than usual, quitter than I would consider the norm. Over the last few months the reference system has gone through a transformation, thanks to so many wonderful products that have come in for review, that I’m now focused on the concept of supreme quiet. For years I never really identified with reviewers who talk constantly about velvety black silences from which the music emerges, probably because I didn’t have a lot of that in my own system. Now I can listen to products and appreciate how they preserve that preternaturally low noise floor. The Stellar certainly preserved that sense of tranquility, especially with the Palmer 2.5/Audio Origami combo—a combo that I can best describe as both majestic and musical.
One of the most illuminating listening sessions with the PS Audio Stellar occurred as I was listening to Rasmus Kjaer’s incredible electronica album, Turist. I don’t get a lot of electronica to review—something that I hope will change—but I was fascinated by both the level of detail and the overall pristine landscape presented by this Danish composer. I kept thinking of one of my old audiophile buddies who once told me he can’t listen to electronica on LP. He was enamored with the glassy, flawless surfaces of much of this music and he objected to the slightest amount of surface noise, speed instability, wow and flutter or whatever artifact he feared. I wish he could come by and listen to Turist on this rig. It certainly sounded flawless to me.
The PS Audio Stellar phono preamplifier, once again, offers an incredible amount of features for the money–just like the PS Audio phono preamplifiers of yore. It’s also incredibly neutral, which makes it the perfect phono stage for evaluating cartridges. I found myself continually swapping out the ZYX Bloom 3, the Hana ML and the Sumiko Starling I reviewed for The Occasional No. 6 because the Stellar was so adept at revealing the differences between them. (One was slightly more musical, one was more balanced from top to bottom and one was more detailed–you’ll have to read the reviews to find out which one is which.)
Returning to the “punching the time clock” analogy, the PS Audio Stellar phono preamplifier is the perfect candidate for Employee of the Month, or maybe even year. It performs its tasks perfectly and consistently, and it’s a joy to be in its presence.
More information can be found at PS Audio’s website, here: https://www.psaudio.com.