The Allnic Audio H-5500 phono preamplifier forced me to ask myself a serious question—am I still a tube guy?
Just a few weeks ago I stood in front of my ever-evolving reference/review system and wondered why it’s been so long since I’ve used tubed amplification. What happened? I always thought I was a tube guy, and that I’d stay that way. I even went through an SET phase once upon a time, which may or may not be over, and I also imported and distributed tube amplifiers for almost a decade. I still have quite the decent tube stash, which is always a good sign of fealty. What happened? How did all this solid-state amplification suddenly get here?
The only component left in my system that uses tubes, in fact, is my trusty Unison Research CDE CD player, which I’ve had since 2011. It has four 12AX7s in the output stage. That’s it, the only tubes I currently run and they’re in my CD player. (A side note—after a decade, I’m still on the original set of Tung-Sols, so that tube stash has been collecting dust.)
When Grover Neville reviewed the Allnic Audio L-8000 DHT preamplifier a few months ago, I was a little jealous. “I should be reviewing gear like that,” I thought. (The L-8000’s $22,900 price supplied some much-needed perspective—Allnic seemed a little too dear to be tossed capriciously into the review pile, and Grover was intrepid in his effort to snag such a lovely piece of gear.) His detailed descriptions of the sound of the Allnic triggered something deep inside, something that smacked me across the chops and yelled “These were the things that used to be important to you! What changed?”
Nothing’s changed, I suppose, other than having access to a steady stream of compelling solid-state amplification over the last few years. Most notably, I’ve gravitated toward the solid-state pure class A amplification from Pureaudio as my reference. More than once I’ve shouted out into the wind that I’d love to review some tube amplification again, but nothing happened. I’m a tube guy! I should be reviewing more tube gear! Have I not made this clear enough?
Then the Allnic Audio H-5500 phono preamplifier showed up, along with the Allnic Audio Amber MC moving cartridge, and I immediately knew that something has been missing from my life over the last few years. Tubes? Maybe. But after spending a few glorious months with the H-5500, the Amber and, a little later, the Allnic Audio T-2000 integrated amplifier, I’m convinced this Korea-based company is more than just another tube amplifier manufacturer that wants to keep this “technology” alive. Allnic clearly wants to take tube amplification to the next level, and this nefarious plan seems to be working.
All About Allnic
Whenever Allnic Audio gets discussed in audio circles, it’s not long before someone has to mention the company is from South Korea. I don’t know a lot of other brands in high-end audio that are Korean, and lately I’ve been trying not to get too cutesy about countries of origin although I still hear some common and nationalistic sonic signatures when it comes to gear from the UK, Japan, Germany and, of course, the good old USA.
But for those of you who are thinking of Korea’s proximity to China, and the still argued significance of that, I’ll tell you that the Allnic Audio has a closer kinship with Japanese hi-fi, especially when it comes to that beautiful aesthetic and a sound that’s both distinct and stripped down to its essence. I’ll even go out on a limb here and say that the Allnic “personality” is perhaps the most alluring since I reviewed that Mactone MH-120 power amplifier and XX-7000 preamplifier combo a couple of years ago. I still think about the sound of that pair all of the time, and the Allnic Audio H-5500, Amber MC cartridge and T-2000 integrated offer that same initial mystique.
Allnic Audio is Kang Su Park, the founder and designer, and his line of amps, preamps, integrateds, phono stages, cables and cartridges shows that he has a firm understanding of several valve topologies and approaches such as directly heated triodes, OTL/OCL preamplification and, most notably, the use of nickel alloy transformer cores. Mr. Park is so loyal to these PC and PB permalloys that he named his company after them.
After Mr. Park there is the illustrious US distributor, David Beetles of Hammertone Audio, and the Oregon-based Allnic dealer, John Ketcham of Kevalin Audio. These are the three gentleman who were instrumental in getting these amplifiers to both Grover and I, and they seem equally dedicated to these designs. They were a pleasure to work with, and I have a feeling that their customers totally agree. David and John went the extra mile to ensure everything was perfect when I received the H-5500 and Amber, and later the T-2000.
Allnic Audio H-5500 Phono Preamplifier
The Allnic Audio H-5500 ($5200) is a beautifully made phono stage with plenty of features. David Beetles told me that “the H5500 is continuance of the Allnic 1200 lineage phono series–started with H1200 (2007-2010), H1201 (2011 -2016), and the H-1202 (2016-2020).” The H-5500 features a new all-aluminum chassis that controls resonances and vibrations more effectively, a power supply that has twice the capacity as before, Mu-metal shielding, and a snazzy current meter for keeping an eye on tube life.
Most interesting is the Allnic Audio H-5500s inputs—there are four, a pair of MMs and a pair of MCs. I’m not sure if I would ever need two MMs in one phono stage, but after playing with the Koetsu Urushi Black and the Koetsu Stepup Transformer I now understand why someone would. In fact, I used the MM input to use the Koetsu SUT and compare it to the Urushi Black with the MC section of the H-5500 for their review.
The settings of the Allnic Audio H-5500 are straightforward and accessible from the front panel, but the loading and gain options are mounted on top of two small turret-like towers near the back of the top of the unit, behind the tubes. When I first looked at the numbers on the small dials, they didn’t quite make sense—gain, for example, isn’t denoted by the total dB, but rather the additional gain that is added to the native 40dB already supplied. That means the markings on the knob range from 22-32 dB instead of the usual 62-72 dB. Even the impedance settings seem oddly specific—278, 117, 69 and 29 ohms.
Finally, the Allnic Audio H-5500 has tubes, lot of tubes. A pure Class A, no negative feedback design, the H-5500’s tube complement includes four Mullard NOS E180CC twin triodes, a 7233 for voltage regulation and a 5654 for voltage correction.
Allnic Audio Amber MC Cartridge
The Allnic Audio Amber cartridge costs $4900, but it’s packaged like one of those five-figure cartridges that are becoming more and more common these days. You get a nifty round metal box that’s gold, just like the Amber. The curved golden body of the Amber looks amazing—especially when mounted on the black-and-gold Technics SL-1210GAE turntable, but the underside of the cartridge is completely open, revealing all the innards. You’ll have to treat it like one of those “naked” open-architecture carts while mounting and aligning.
The Amber replaces the Puritas Ultra cartridge and uses a “cutter head” type of design and employs a new rubber damper developed by Allnic, along with copper clad aluminum (CCA) coils. The stylus is the Fritz Gyger S, and the cantilever is boron. The Amber’s design is marked by several innovations—aside from the cutter-head, which emulates the head on the lathe, the Allnic Audio Amber features hollow polycarbonate bobbins instead of one of those familiar iron cross bobbins. Polycarbonate is far lighter, which allows the stylus to become more agile and responsive in the groove. Finally, Allnic moves the coils closer to the stylus, away from the pivot, which results in greater detail.
David Beetles gave me a few tips for set-up of the Allnic Audio Amber. He suggested a tracking force of 2.35g, more than the 2g specified in the specs, and to elevate the back end of the cartridge slightly when choosing the right VTA. He also suggested setting the gain on the Allnic Audio H-5500 at 26-28 dB due to the 9 ohm internal impedance.
One small note: the Allnic Amber has a little brother/sister named the Rose, which retails for $2900. So if the Amber seems pricy to you, there is a less expensive way to enjoy the Allnic magic.
The Allnic Audio H-5500 and the Amber MC cartridge, both priced nearly the same, entered the review mix during a very busy analog period for me. This was the result of the Technics SL-1200G and 1210-GAE comparison I did a few weeks ago, a period when I had been inundated with a variety of phono stages and head shells and cartridges, the vast majority which were far more expensive than the Allnic gear—particularly the H-5500. I was concerned that the Allnics would get lost in the shadows of others, so I installed them both at the beginning of AnalogFest 2021 so they were assured of enough time in the spotlight.
Eventually I pulled both from the system and let the other guests have their say. Then I put them back into the system near the end just to ensure that my first impressions were still relevant. After that, I started finding all sorts of excuses to use the Allnic Audio H-5500 phono preamplifier and the Amber cartridge. New pair of speakers? Let’s hear them with the Allnic gear. New solid state integrated amplifier? The Allnic combo would prevent the weather from getting a little too cool in the listening room, if you know what I mean. Does everything sound kind of mediocre right now? The Allnic will sort that out right out.
The Allnic Audio Amber MC cartridge wound up spending most of its time on the Technics SL-1210-GAE Anniversary just because it matched the whole gold and black motif. I’m on the record as preferring the silver of the 1200G, but I have to admit the 1210GAE was beautiful in both sight and sound when the Amber was in use.
It was clear, right off the bat, that the Allnic Audio H-5500 phono preamplifier and the Allnic Audio Amber MC cartridge were a synergistic match. They were able to spend time apart, and their excellence was undiminished, but there was just something more complete, more synchronized, when they were together. I know this because I spent some time trying to decide which one was the stronger component, the H-5500 or the Amber, and I never came up with a definitive answer. If there was an Allnic in the system, I was never less than deeply satisfied with the overall sound.
This feeling of unity increased after a few weeks when the Allnic Audio T-2000 integrated amplifier arrived. (It will be reviewed separately, of course.) These three performed as one, and supplied some of the best sound I’ve had in this listening room.
Grover Neville got it right in his review of then Allnic Audio A-2000 Anniversary power amplifier when he said:
“Bass reproduction, dynamic slam and general headroom and openness was off the charts, far better than I’ve experienced from a tube amp of this price and wattage class in recent memory. Low end was nearly solid-state in its depth and tightness, descending down into the deepest bottom end notes, yet retaining all the texture and definition one might expect of a tube amp.”
That’s the essence of this Allnic Audio gear, that it has a very “linear” sound, which is secret code for “it’s a tube amplifier that sounds a lot like a solid-state amplifier.” The better way to think about it is that all of the Allnic gear I’ve had, and that includes the T-2000 integrated, combines the strengths of solid-state gear, Grover’s bass reproduction, dynamic slam and general headroom and openness, with the strengths of the best tube gear, which is that warm, human and musical tone some of us desire with every ounce of our being.
The Allnic Audio Amber, in particular, made a more noticeable contribution to the overall sound than the H-5500, which seemed strangely neutral at first. After spending time with cartridges from Koetsu, ZYX and Sumiko, I immediately noticed that the Amber featured an incredible amount of detail. During break-in, this was more pronounced, probably because the Amber’s bass was a little reticent. After about 100 hours of use, that deep bass snuck into the room, pulled up a chair and provided one of the most dynamic and rewarding presentations I’ve heard. All that stunning detail made more sense in this greater context.
The Allnic Audio H-5500, however, provided just a hint of that tube sound I crave with vinyl. While close to neutral in so many aspects, the H-5500 also reminded me periodically that this was a tube phono stage. No, it wasn’t soft or rolled off at the frequency extremes, but rather it gave me all the information and detail I require while still featuring that subtle and effortless hint that this was, indeed a tube amplification. It wasn’t a patina, but an individual flavor in a complex dish.
While the Allnic Audio H-5500 and Amber combination spent plenty of time in the system, this was a period of frequent swapping. Whenever I felt lost in the system, that I was missing something that I needed in the music—warmth, humanity, a convincing yet seductive manner—I quickly put the Allnic Audio H-5500 and the Amber to re-calibrate my ears. As long as at least one of these components was in the system, I had no issues to resolve, no tweaks to try.
When did I realize that I had fallen in love with the Allnic Audio H-5500 and the Amber MC cartridge? PureAudio Project’s Music Odyssey: China, which features remastered tracks from Rhymoi Music, has gradually become my ultimate reference LP over the last year or so. These tracks range from intimate solo performances to full orchestral extravaganzas, and the wildly different moods and dynamics will put any analog rig to the test. With the Allnics, there was such an ease to those transitions, one that suggests not only expertise but wisdom.
Yes, I know I’m a reviewer and I’m supposed to remain objective. But subjectively, the emotional bond I had with both the Allnic Audio H-5500 phono preamplifier and the Allnic Audio Amber MC cartridge was unique. Love is the right word here.
Allnic Audio H-5500 and Amber MC Conclusions
I started off this review of the Allnic Audio H-5500 phono preamplifier and Amber MC phono cartridge thinking about whether or not I was a “tube guy” or not. Then, several weeks passed with other amplifiers and other cartridges and other phono stages. Now I return to this first round of Allnic evaluations—the review of the T-2000 integrated will follow in a couple of weeks—and I realize that it doesn’t matter if this gear is tubed or not, or low-output MC or not, or silver or black, or anything else.
There are three ways to look at the excellence of this combo. First, it’s extremely affordable for the level of performance that you get. It’s just over $9000 for the pair, and with the $4000 Technics SL-1200G I was experiencing a complete analog rig that offered some truly great sound, period. I do have a lot of expensive analog gear in here at the moment, and I consider the Allnic Audio H-5500 and Amber to belong to the same tier of excellence as any of the lot.
Second, the Allnic Audio H-5500 and the Amber worked so well together, they became my first choice for the Technics. If you have an SL-1200G or an SL-1210GAE, this is my personal recommendation to you. What a rig. But there’s more to that, the idea that oh, if you have the H-5500 you need to use it with the Amber, or vice versa, as I’ve already mentioned. The H-5500 loved all the other cartridges I had around, and the Amber adored every phono stage.
But there’s a final piece to this puzzle, the Allnic Audio T-2000 integrated amplifier, and it brought another level of—oh, wait. You can read that review when it comes out. But I think you already where I’m going with this.
Highly recommended, both of them. A pair of Reviewers Choice Awards, stat!