Sometimes big things come in small packages. I was on the hunt for modestly priced phono stages to sing with my new Rega P3 turntable. My current entry level separate phono stage is the Schiit Mani, which at its price point ($149 USD) is a ridiculously great performer. Hower, my tastes have been trending upmarket with the addition of the P3. I spoke with Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings and he graciously sent along a few phono stages for me to review. The first that I tried was the Clearaudio smart phono V2.
The Clearaudio smart phono V2 isn’t much bigger than a Mani, but wow does it provide some seriously big things in a tiny box.
Words and Photos by Graig Neville
Let me explain. This small, silver powerhouse is packed with features. Providing both moving magnet and moving coil settings hidden on the bottom of the unit isn’t unique, but it is smart and ergonomic.
Inside the Clearaudio smart phono V2
Settings for the Clearaudio smart phono V2 are set via dip switches and a pair of larger two-position buttons. This clears the top of the unit for a singular on/off button and a wheel. Both are lit in a pleasing blue.
The wheel is genius, as it allows for varyingly adjustable gain that tops out at 18dB. Moving magnet gain is 34dB and moving coil gain is 54dB plus the wheel gain. This gives the Clearaudio smart phono V2 a lot of flexibility, especially when working with a variety of preamplifiers–from those with very high gain to those with a more modest amount of gain while allowing for a useable volume control. I used the wheel to good effect with both my Dark Voice head amp, used as a preamp, and my reference Backert Rhumba Extreme 1.3. The Dark Voice has especially high gain, so the adjustability of the smart phono v2 was a terrific feature. A final dip switch on the bottom engages a subsonic filter to help with any nagging woofer flutter your turntable might develop.
I’ve had several phono stages in my system over the last year, and it’s shocking how different each one is when it comes to connectivity. Most components have a relatively standardized layout for plugging in cables. Phono stages seems to say, “Hey look at me, I’m UNIQUE!” The Clearaudio smart phono V2 was no exception. Make sure to read the labeling on the back of the unit, as I assumed I knew how to hook it up and I got it completely wrong. After wondering why no sound was forthcoming I reconnected everything properly and was quickly rewarded with great sound.
Even something as simple as RIAA curves aren’t completely standardized. The Clearaudio smart phono V2 uses the Nach RIAA standard, which falls within ±0.3dB from 10Hz – 100Hz.
The Clearaudio smart phono V2 is solid state and weighs in at 1⅓ lbs (620 grams) and is less than five inches by four inches in size. Pricing for the Clearaudio smart phono V2 is $775. It’s petite enough to be tucked away next to your turntable or preamplifier, but good looking enough to be placed in easy reach to use the gain wheel and power button. In my opinion, I liked the looks and ergonomics and I’m a sucker for a soft blue glow when the lights are off.
Clearaudio smart phono V2: Pint-Sized Powerhouse
Clearaudio is known for its upmarket turntables and cartridges, but the smart phono V2, despite its price and size, is a powerhouse. I used both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges with the smart phono.
I started with the Hana SH, which technically is a high output moving coil but uses the moving magnet settings so I’m calling it close enough. With the Hana SH cartridge mounted on the Rega P3, differences between phono stages were dramatic and easily differentiated between units. The sound was punchy, vibrant, and added slam, tempo, and excitement to the music. I noticed right away that the Clearaudio smart phono v2 is far less colored than my Schiit Mani. While the Mani is, once again, excellent for its price, the Clearaudio smart phono V2 is over five times the price and worth every penny.
The Clearaudio smart phono V2 has overall less bass than the Mani, but that bass is far tighter, cleaner and punchier. In comparison, the Mani bass can sound bloated and flabby. Soundstage and imaging featured solid instrument placement with evenly filled space between the speakers. The smart phono is also groovy with great tempo and pace for the music – you’re gonna tap your toes to your favorite upbeat music.
Next I queued up a Dynavector 10×5 moving coil. With the 10×5, the sound of the Clearaudio smart phono V2 went to the next level. Everything was just better with this low output moving coil. Timbre, imaging, and soundstage all improved significantly. That sense of real instruments in space was more palpable with the low output moving coil. Differences with the 10×5 between phono stages were far less dramatic, but the inherent character of the Clearaudio smart phono V2 was still present but to a much lesser degree. I have a feeling this is merely the Dynavector doing its “thing” in flagrant disregard of what was in front of it.
The final cart was a Zu Denon DL-103 Mk.II, which is also a low output moving coil. Zu is a company all about fun, and with the smart phono v2 a double helping of fun was spilling over the edges of my plate. Can too much fun be too much fun? No, I don’t think so. The Zu and Clearaudio smart phono V2 are an excellent pairing, adding dynamics and punch to that classic radio broadcast sound. On most music the presentation was fairly 2D, but with the Zu a bit more forward presentation almost leapt out of the soundstage. Music also took on a height component that I didn’t notice as much with the other carts – perhaps you could call it a larger than life presentation. Maybe it’s a bit artificial, but it’s imminently enjoyable. Of the three cartridges I tried, the Zu had the best synergy with the Clearaudio smart phono V2.
The Clearaudio smart phono V2 was good with all material, but I especially liked it with my high-energy jazz, such as Spyro Gyra, and my old rock albums. Playing those upbeat high energy records allowed the Clearaudio smart phono V2 to really shine and breathe some energy into the recordings while presenting a great, expansive soundstage.
Jethro Tull’s Aqualung and Rush’s 2112 are good-sounding rock recordings, which are a bit rare to find at times. Even more ethereal and vibey recordings from the likes of the Alan Parsons Project were also enjoyable, but perhaps a bit forward at times. I don’t have much in the way of classical recordings, but for me I’m sure an 1812 Overture would be great with the smart phono V2, but I could see a smoother phono stage serving the classical diehards a bit better. Though the punch and some of the dynamics were good on new age music like Mannheim Steamroller, I think other phono stages might cater to that music better. On Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, however, prepare to be rocked! The Clearaudio smart phono V2 drove the beats home with thumping groovitude.
Strength, Smarts, and Good Looks
The Clearaudio smart phono V2 was a helluva phono stage for the money. For a phono stage under a grand, you will likely struggle to find better than this diminutive unit. The smart phono V2 isn’t completely neutral, and you can find phono stages that have a smoother presentation, but what impressed me about this little guy is just how much FUN it was. It added a little life and bomp to every recording in a highly pleasing way.
If you feel your vinyl needs a little extra spice, this unit adds just enough in a tasteful and never overdone way that I found very appealing. If you are looking for clean, antiseptic, and neutral you should probably look elsewhere, but if you enjoy an underdog that punches above its weight class, the Clearaudio smart phono V2 is a spunky little contender that knocked my socks off.