“Did you ever hear one back in the day?” Tim Stinson of Luminous Audio Technology (website) asked me. He was referring to his Arion phono preamplifier, the original version which created a lot of buzz when it was released. Unfortunately, I had not. I’ve heard of the Luminous Audio Technology Arion in the past, but here’s a hint about how much I know—at first I assumed it was a preamplifier and not a phono preamplifier.
Why? I suppose it has to do with my experience with Tim and his company, which is limited to his passive pre, the Axiom III, and a single set of speaker cables that I reviewed last year. That top of the line passive pre, with the “Walker mod,” is only $499. It is by far the least expensive preamp listed in our Buyers Guide, and I feel its inclusion is important because affordable preamplifiers and line stages seem to be a shrinking market segment in high-end audio. The second most affordable preamp on our list is several times the cost of the Axiom. So I just had “preamp” on my mind the whole time.
When Tim asked me if I wanted to spend some time with one of the first production units of the Mk. II version of the Luminous Audio Technology Arion, I quickly agreed—it’s fun to get stuff before anyone else. When the Arion landed on my front porch, I immediately unpacked it and discovered it was, indeed, a phono pre. A big, heavy and serious one.
It sounds like I’m saying it’s a bad thing that the Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II is a phono stage, but only because I’m swimming in phono preamps right now. Let’s see, I have the massive and quiet two-chassis Pass Labs XP-27, the precise and ultra-revealing Brinkmann Edison Mk. 2, the sweet and beautiful Allnic Audio H-5500 and even the HP phono card in the Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2 preamplifier that just came in last week. The HP is one of my favorite inboard phono stages, by the way.
That’s a killer line-up of phono stages, to be sure, and I’ve been spending all spring listening primarily to vinyl. (Having the ZYX Ultimate Airy X and Allnic Audio Amber MC cartridges on hand have certainly contributed to that enthusiasm.) Where does the Luminous Audio Technology Arion II fit? Will it stand out in a busy season with lots of worthy competitors?
Inside the Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II
If you’re familiar with the Luminous Audio Technology Arion phono preamplifier, you’ll know it’s a big and beefy phono stage, well-built and somewhat heavy. Yes, it’s another black brushed aluminum box, but an unusual font and that shiny silver Mk. II emblem on the front really set it apart. This seems light years from a $499 passive pre, which is not a surprise since the Arion costs $7999.
This isn’t an enormous phono pre—the Pass Labs XP-27 is winning that contest this year so far—but it dwarfed the Jeff Rowland amp and preamp that flanked it on my equipment rack. You’d assume, after a quick glance, that the Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II was the power amp, and the Rowland Model 125 was the phono pre.
If you remember the original Luminous Audio Technology Arion from its original release back in 2014, you’ll know this is a phono preamplifier design that came from the mind of Michael Bettinger, and Tim Stinson helped to bring it to market. This was one of those projects where you, as a designer and/or engineer, decide to look back at your audio experiences (in Bettinger’s case, 35 years’ worth) and come up with the best you can possible imagine. The original 2014 white paper from Luminous states:
“The circuitry is an assemblage of the best sounding building blocks available for audio circuit design, meticulously identified through years of observation, research, prototyping, and listening. The creation of this preamp has more in common with the creation and voicing of a fine musical instrument than a theory-derived amplification circuit. The purity and low-level detail retrieval it provides is groundbreaking and reflects its unique lineage.”
The original Luminous Audio Technologies Arion, which retailed for $6500, was a two-stage design with both passive and active EQ. “The cartridge input gain stage utilizes cascoded/paralleled J-FET topology,” Bettinger explained. “The second stage uses a differential design optimized for higher signal levels.” The power supplies for the Luminous Audio Technology Arion are “a unity gain based design more at home in laboratory-based power supplies. Transformers are hum-bucking C-core designs with separate transformers for +/- supplies.”
The Luminous Audio Technology Mark. II is described by Bettinger as “a highly refined version of the original.” The Mark. II has only a single MC input, with loading and gain adjusted from within the unit. The new Arion also features the following:
- New toroidal power transformers used in place of the medical grade C-core units of the Arion.
- The power supplies have been reworked for lower impedance.
- Input and output signal grounds are updated as copper planes designed to route both input noise more effectively and RFI pickup around sensitive signal path references.
- Significant changes to chassis grounding.
- PCB routing is improved, more fully implementing the distributed capacitance function and improving dynamics.
- Selected Linear System J-FETs and Fairchild bipolar transistors.
- Better choices of film capacitor types based on experience.
- Extensive experimenting with J-FET parameters for lower noise and wider dynamic range, focusing on the lower end of the range spectrum.
- Improved J-FET biasing and selection to the various applications.
Michael Bettinger says, flat out, that the sonic differences between the Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II phono preamplifier and the original are not subtle in any way. As I mentioned, I have not heard the original. All I can do is listen to this, and enjoy.
While I had the Luminous Audio Technology Mk. II in the house, my system was assuredly optimized for vinyl. As I mentioned, I have a lot of phono preamplifiers in the house for now, in various stages of the review process. It’s been easier to keep the system constant so I can just swap out phono stages in a couple of minutes.
The Arion was hooked up to both the Technics SL-1200G I’ve been using for the last few years, and the new Technics SL-1210GAE that’s in for some A/B comparison fun. Cartridges included the ZYX Ultimate Airy X and the Allnic Audio Amber, as I mentioned. The rest of the system included that Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2 preamplifier and Model 125 power amplifier, and either the Qln Prestige One speakers or my reference Brigadier Audio BA-2 monitors. Cabling was mostly Atlas Cables Mavron with Atlas’ Grun earthing system.
Plugging it all in was simple thanks to that single MC input, which was pre-set to match my cartridges. I realize I’ve been recently spoiled by phono preamplifiers that allow you to adjust and load everything by knobs on the front panel, or even by remote control. At the very least, I’m dealing with dip switches on the back. But there’s something about this choice that makes perfect sense. It’s purist. It’s stripped down for sound. It’s the Club Sport version of phono stages, a lean mean amplification machine.
Sheepishly, I admit that I rather enjoyed the experience of plugging it in in a couple of minutes and enjoying music almost immediately.
Again, it’s difficult to bring up why the Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II sounds so different from other phono preamplifiers without suggested that old audio guy canard that if an amp sounds different, it’s probably defective. It wasn’t that the Arion sounded different or unusual, but that it seemed to throw a little more focus on a lot of things I find important.
For instance, that bass performance was exceptional, and I used the Arion primarily with small two-way bookshelf monitors. It was clear, and you could feel it putting its hands on your shoulders. Also, the transient edges were so tight and sharp that I could hear an added dimension of collisions with percussion instruments, a more detailed slap of a hand on a drum head, or a delicate swipe of a brush on a cymbal.
The overall sound, therefore, wasn’t different. It was MORE. Not too much more, but enough more to be more than satisfying, less of a second helping of mashed taters and more of an extra tab of butter hidden inside. Lots of black pepper, too, in the form of outstanding dynamics and plenty of gain.
Listening to the Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II
I gathered a lot of my favorite LPs to evaluate the Luminous Audio Arion Mk. II—it made such a strong case for itself during casual listening sessions that I really wanted to feed it the best I had. (That’s how I know I’m enjoying a component, when I fetch the big guns.) One familiar recording, maybe the most familiar piece of music I’ve used to evaluate equipment over the last 30 years, is “Yulunga” from Dead Can Dance’s Into the Labyrinth. (The MoFi LP, of course.)
“Yulunga” contains my favorite low frequency test a couple of minutes in, that big soft bass drum that chimes in every few bars. I’ve heard this simple drum beat on probably hundreds of loudspeakers, and it always seems each speaker interprets it differently. No two whumps are the same. With the Qln Prestige One loudspeakers in the system, I heard the lowest and perhaps most perfect rendering of that low drum whack I’ve heard on any two-way monitors that retail for less than $10K/pair. That’s a very specific comment that says more about the Qln Prestige Ones, but the fulfilling and round and visceral and smooth sound was definitely augmented by the Arion’s strength and focus. The Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II supplied that extra bit of oomph, as well as accuracy.
There’s more to this story, which you can read in my upcoming review of the Qln Prestige One.
I’ve also been spending plenty of time listening to Billie Holiday’s Songs for Distingue Lovers, the brilliant 2-LP 45rpm pressing from Analogue Productions. This can be a tricky recording—lesser systems can still capture the amazing sound quality, but it shares equal billing with the historical aspects, the artifacts of 1958. That is, it’s a clear window into an event that happened long ago rather than a perfectly realistic contemporary recording. You know, the good stuff.
On better systems, that line between a great recording and a great recording for its time matters less because it’s all sliding into a much larger space, i.e. a more three-dimensional soundstage with those greater dynamics. The Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II injected so much excitement into these classic songs that those two worlds seem less equal, with a more modern sound than I hear with other phono pres. I consistently heard more physical clues that Billie Holiday was in the room, standing there, moving from side to side, licking her lips, everything you’d hear if she was alive, standing in front of you, looking you right in the eye the whole time.
I even pulled out some old Glenn Gould recordings because I suspected that the Arion could shine a light on those incredible idiosyncrasies of his, even down to the point where you could easily imagine Gould slunk low in his favorite piano chair and totally losing himself in the flow of his muses. I was right.
Album after album, I heard the sonic signature of the Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II. Sometimes that’s a bad thing, as in “we’re really veering away from neutrality, Cap’n” and just bringing something new to the sound. It’s your favorite companion, perhaps in a more loquacious mood than usual. The sound is dynamic, even startling, because of the life and the motion that’s easily captured by this truly intriguing phono preamplifier.
Alas, my time with the Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II phono preamplifier was far too short. But this is a coveted unit, the first in the new production, and everyone wants to hear it. I have to thank Tim Stinson for getting it to me so I can be one of the first.
If I didn’t know about the Arion before, but I do now. I wouldn’t mind a second round with it sometime down the road, perhaps different analog rigs, different cartridges. The Arion loved being mated with the Technics SL-1200G and the Allnic Audio Amber—not only did I gain just a bit more respect for the 1200G because it’s the most affordable link in the chain (the Amber is $5000 and the Arion Mk. 2 is $7999), but there was a greater whole, a sound that was energizing, enlightening and just a little bit of a bad-ass, at least for a phono preamplifier.
That’s why I’m giving the Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II phono preamplifier a Reviewer’s Choice, and a standing invitation to come back for a long, unhurried visit whenever it’s so inclined.