Latest News

Fern and Roby Maverick Phono Preamplifier | REVIEW









I originally intended to include this review of the Fern and Roby Maverick phono preamplifier as part of my testing of their Montrose turntable and tonearm.

Things changed during the review process, however—what was once a plug-in module that slid into the back of the Montrose plinth had evolved into a two-chassis outboard unit with improved parts quality and some tweaks to the circuitry. That’s fortuitous since I was able to compare the two units, and I was one of the first people in the world to try out the newer version of the Maverick.

The new version of the Fern and Roby Maverick phono preamplifier is a partnership between Fern and Roby’s Christopher Hildebrand and Linear Tube Audio’s Mark Schneider. Fern and Roby already has a strong relationship with LTA—not only does Christopher sell his Fern and Roby loudspeakers and turntables with LTA amplification, a synergistic match that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy more than once, but Fern and Roby designs and manufacturers the casework right there in the Tektonics Design Group factory in Richmond VA.

Little Black Boxes

The Fern and Roby Maverick phono preamplifier reminds me of one of my old favorites, a phono stage I still use as back-up from time to time…the Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE. Both the Maverick and the Black Cube consist of two small black boxes connected by an umbilical cable, with one smaller box sporting the actual preamp circuitry and the other larger box housing the power supply.

On closer inspection, you start to notice the differences. The power supply for the Lehmann is smaller but heavy, like a brick. The Maverick power supply is larger, but there’s nothing to it and you can easily pick it up with one hand. The faceplate is substantial, but the top and sides are covered with perforated sheet metal so you can easily peer in and see the innards and perhaps an LED or two.

The preamp section of the Fern and Roby Maverick, is housed in a small box roughly the same size as the original Black Cube, but the opposite is true here—the Fern and Roby unit is milled from a solid billet of aluminum so it feels beefy, solid and easy to transform into a weapon during one of those heated and unpredictable audiophile gatherings. It’s designed this way to provide effective shielding, and small enough so you can slip it close to the turntable with a shorter interconnect.

This is where I had one of my obligatory d’oh moments—with the Lehmann, most of the settings are done by dip switches located on the back of the preamp unit. With the Maverick, there’s nothin’ on the outside. It’s a solid, sleek block of aluminum. I checked the power supply unit. Maybe the loading and gain options are in there, although that sounds kind of weird. A could see a horizontal seam on the little aluminum brick, so I knew that it opened that way, but there were no visible fasteners, no buttons, no hinges that might’ve offered a clue.

I even sent an email to Christopher. I wish I had waited a couple more minutes. “I can’t figure out how to open it up, Christopher. How do I load the cartridge?” By that time I had disconnected the little black brick and was holding it in my hand. I stared at it again and in a second I figured it out. The two halves are magnetized! Once you use both hands, it opens gently like a mechanical clam. Inside you can choose between six loading options for MCs (10-450 ohms) and 47K for MMs. You can also double the gain for the SUT.

Once you know how the box opens, it’s simple. Perhaps even genius. If anything, it’s beautiful. Tektonics is at the vanguard of the field of precision machining, and it’s a glorious thing to witness up close.

Set-Up and Sound

I had the Fern and Roby Maverick phono preamplifier primarily to evaluate the Montrose rig with my ZYX Bloom 3 cartridge. But halfway through the review process I asked Christopher if I could keep the Maverick around a little bit longer to see how it worked another rig—this time, my Technics SL-1200G turntable with the new $800 Sumiko Songbird cartridge. I used Cardas Audio Clear interconnects between the Technics and the Maverick, and another pair of Clears to the Pureaudio Control preamplifier.

I had my first concrete impression of the Fern and Roby Maverick phono preamplifier within a few minutes after choosing that first musical selection. This thing, I thought, sounds just like the Linear Tube Audio Z10 integrated amplifier that I reviewed and loved last year. In that review I wrote, “There’s a delicacy and authenticity to the Z10 Integrated that can’t be ignored.” That was also true with the Maverick. The Z10, despite its modest 13wpc, does an excellent job with conveying the proper size of instruments and performers.

If you also read my review of the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL preamplifier and ZOTL40 power amplifier, you’ll know that the higher-powered LTA products have a slightly meatier sonic presentation. The Maverick, however, reminded me of that fleet, open feeling of that magical Z10, so full of energy.

That aroused my curiosity, so I asked Christopher to elaborate on the design:

“The Maverick phono preamp’s moving magnet circuit is based on a well known Berning tube phono preamp circuit design adapted by David Berning for op amps. The head amp is built around premium Lundahl step up transformers with switched 1:10 & 1:20 gain settings. Variable resistive and capacitive loading are managed on the PCB in front of the SUTs. The head amp can be bypassed for MM only with the simple flip of four switches at either end of the SUTs. The design utilizes premium components including select Vishay resistors and Japanese Audio Capacitors with gold plating. The audio circuit is encased in a premium and compact machined aluminum chassis providing excellent shielding. The small size allows for the Maverick to sit discreetly close to the turntable and be easily accessible for adjustments to the loading and gain.

“The Maverick’s outboard linear power supply, like the rest of the LTA power supplies, utilizes low ESR premium capacitors, Belleson regulators and overspec’ed transformers which can be set for a wide range of input voltages for different markets.”

Listening

After a few weeks of warm-up and cartridge swaps (I had the Hana ML on hand but decided it preferred the Palmer/Audio Origami analog rig), I settled in with the Fern and Roby Maverick using the Montrose and the ZYX. I expected some synergy here between the Montrose and the Maverick—I’m sure the Maverick was designed and voiced with Christopher’s turntables—but there was a feeling that a missing puzzle piece had been found, and now everything was chugging along as intended.

That’s a rather workmanlike description, I know, but when you talk about synergy you’re often talking about elation, of pairing two things together and seeing them rise to new heights in terms of sheer performance. Here, the synergy was more subtle. It was that rightness that only comes from two things that were carefully designed to work together. Serendipity is nice, but it can’t replace solid, thoughtful engineering.

I bring this up because I had a couple of false starts with the Fern and Roby Montrose—scheduling issues and a lot of analog gear coming in and out of the system—so it took a while to get a strong feel for the turntable and what it was doing. That indifference vanished once the Fern and Roby Maverick was hooked up.

I heard plenty of ease and clarity with the Fern and Roby Maverick in the system. Those are two extremely important attributes when you’re talking about an analog rig, but I was impressed with the confident way the Maverick expressed itself. At the same time, I felt this phono preamplifier was neutral. I’ve actually heard a couple of phono preamplifiers over the last year that were extremely neutral, so much so that I couldn’t get a feel for their true personality. Yes, we all pretend we want high-end products to do that, be neutral, but I always gravitate toward warmer and tubey-sounding phono stages when I’m left unsupervised for too long.

Here’s the thing about the Fern and Roby Maverick. I kept thinking it sounded neutral, but it never sounded boring. But then over time I’d get bushwhacked by that trademark Fern and Roby/LTA sound, which is different than the average high-end audio product sound. This sound is relaxed and open. It draws you in. Your fists are no longer clenched. The veins in your forehead stop throbbing. Before you know it, you’re a human being again, listening to music and loving every second.

Conclusion

I’ve now taken a thorough tour of the Fern and Roby line-up—the Raven and Raven II loudspeakers, the Montrose turntable and tonearm combo, the magnificent equipment racks and even a couple of accessories such as the two record clamps. I’ve also spent time with a number of Linear Tube Audio amplifiers, Christopher’s preferred match with his products. I made one mistake—I didn’t get to hear everything together in my home, all at once, since the review periods were staggered all over the place. But I have heard these systems as a whole many times—at high-end audio shows, at the Fern and Roby showroom in Richmond and even at Christopher Hildebrand’s home.

Now that I’ve reviewed the Fern and Roby Maverick phono preamplifier, I can start to consider the Fern and Roby/LTA system as a whole. I’ve already decided that I could live with this system for the rest of my life. No, wait. I’m getting tired of that cliché. It’s more than just co-existing with that idea, even happily. If I was a consumer, a well-heeled audiophile with taste, I could easily imagine writing a check for the Ravens, an LTA microZOTL preamp and ZOTL40 power amplifier, a Montrose (or perhaps even the larger Tredegar, which I haven’t reviewed), and the Fern and Roby Maverick phono preamplifier.

Wait a second. I’ve forgotten to tell you the price of the Maverick. It’s $1950. That almost doesn’t seem to compute.

Many of Fern and Roby’s products are expensive, especially to the uninitiated. When you look at the simplicity of something like the Raven II monitors, you might think that $5750/pair is pricey until you really delve into the elegance of the design and the engineering and, of course, the resulting sound. But this is one of Christopher’s products, along with his $1650/pair The Cube loudspeakers, that seem almost like loss leaders. They’re designed to get you in the door so you can listen to something like a Z10 Integrated/Raven combo and have all your ideas and so-called wisdom about audio challenged. In other words, they’re extraordinary values.

The Fern and Roby Maverick phono preamplifier, in other words, feels mandatory in a Fern and Roby and LTA system, or when you buy a Montrose or Tredegar. It feels like a gimmie. On its own, it’s a basic and well-built unit with an outstanding power supply, a low noise floor and a build quality that’s simply superb—especially up close.

If you have a Montrose, it’s such a no-brainer to chip in for the Maverick. But even if you don’t have a Fern and Roby system and you just need a decent $2000 phono pre, the Maverick is still a very, very wise choice.