Smooth as buttah. That’s what comes to mind while I’ve been reviewing the Musical Surroundings
Phonomena phono stages. Stages? Plural? Yes.
Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings was nice enough to send me a Phonomena II+ and a Linear Power Supply as part of my “phono stages under $1,000” research for the Vinyl Noob Diaries articles. During this long-term review period, Musical Surroundings released the Phonomena III and Garth asked me to conduct a comparison of the newer model.
Words and Photos by Graig Neville
What do you get from these smallish and unassuming metal boxes? Available in black or silver, they can easily fit into nooks and crannies on your audio rack. Using common dip switches for gain and settings, these boxes are all business with only a small green light on the Linear Power Supply and a blue one on the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III.
So what’s all the fuss about?
Musical Surroundings Phonomena–Musical Chairs
I went about listening to the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ both with and without the Linear Power Supply. My initial impressions were that it’s a very competent phono stage. It made Part-Time Audiophile’s recommended Buyers Guide list. Smooth, with good imaging and soundstage presence, the Phonomena II+ was great on jazz, chamber music, and music that was all about the vibe and the groove and putting you in that deep meditative state of contentment, contemplation and relaxation. The muse would just reach out and tell you to relax and forget the troubles of your busy day.
Instruments, especially acoustic instruments, had a nice body and roundness to their character. Musical passages seemed to be ethereally linked with decay seeming to string the notes together. That’s not to say the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ wasn’t quiet. It would fade to black admirably, but there seemed to be this fullness to the musical palette or perhaps a continuum of the music that was seductive and lent the perception of smoothness. It was quite satisfying on the right records.
One of my new favorite albums is Getz/Gilberto featuring Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto. The well-known classic “The Girl from Ipanema” is so smooth and seductive with the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+. It’s like it was specifically made for this album. The performance is so sublime I think I’ll stop writing and go find nirvana.
Ok, I’m back from nirvana. Switching over to the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III, I noticed a few things that became immediately apparent. The musical presentation became even smoother, but somewhat paradoxically it was more detailed. Instruments sounded more real. The body of the instrument was preserved, but some of the roundness became more focused and had more clarity. The soundstage exhibited a greater depth expanding both a little more forward and back from the plane of the speakers. I was honestly so surprised on how much better the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III sounded over the II+ I reached out to Musical Surroundings to find out what changes were done to make such a big difference.
Garth replied, “the Phonomena III uses a new discrete circuit layout and circuit board as well as
Super Matched input transistors and other upgraded parts from the Nova III.”
Even though this is the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III, it is actually the fourth iteration of the Phonomena, which was originally issued in 1999. Musical Surroundings boosted gain up to 66db, more than any previous Phonomena or Nova phono stage they’ve previously released. These parts upgrades boost the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III’s price to $1,200, which is a considerable bump from the $750 of the Phonomena II+. I think the sonic improvements justify the price as this seems less like production refinements and more like an evolutionary leap.
A Gain and A Gain
The Musical Surroundings Phonomena III debuts a 66db gain setting, Musical Surroundings highest gain offered in any of their products. My Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme has plenty of gain to use the 40db setting with my Hana SH cartridge and I did most of my listening at that setting, but I did try out other gain settings to see if it had any impact on the music. Grover Neville has often told me that a bit of extra gain can have a positive impact on the music that is not the same as just turning up the volume knob.
As I mentioned before, the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III is buttery-smooth using the 40db gain setting. Perceptibly, you had to turn the volume dial pretty far to get significantly louder. This gives great volume control to get just that right level, but much like cooking bacon, sometimes you want to hear a bit more sizzle.
The Phonomena III has 13 possible gain configurations from 40db to 66db. Starting at 40 db, it
jumps to 46db and then scales up in 2-3db increments to 66db–plenty of selections to match just
about any cartridge you can throw at it. Switching to 46db with the Hana SH resulted in more presence, air and space around instruments and voices on “The Girl from Ipanema.” The vocals and instruments sounded fuller and more forward, chasing that illusive sense of realism. Switching to 50db, vocals became forward but also enlarged, artificially so. I could hear inflections in the singers voice that were somewhat masked at this gain level, but the rest of the recording lost that suspension of disbelief of live music and the overall effect didn’t work as well as the 46db setting. On Yes’ Drama the 50db gain setting created a heavily elevated bass that lost the fidelity it had on the 46db setting. My preference for the Hana SH was 46db, but I’m sure you can find that juuust right setting with all
Garth doesn’t recommend this high of a gain setting for a high output moving coil like the Hana SH, but I wanted to see what would happen using 66db. There was definitely more energy to recordings–it was still buttery smooth, but just a hint less so. I think the noise floor was elevated higher and revealed artifacts in the recordings that I hadn’t noticed before. For example, on Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles, re-released by Blue Note records, I could hear the tape hiss on the recording very clearly, as opposed to the 40db setting. When the tape or microphones were saturated it was clearly evident, which was less noticeable at 40db.
Similarly on the Yes Drama album there was a pervading background hash I hadn’t noticed before. The Phonomena III sharpened some of the rounded edges on the instruments using 66db, but still preserved its general character. I also had the feeling that the higher gain setting could have been saturating the electronics resulting in additional noise, which led to a more critical look at the gear I was using. Some of this I attribute to the high output of the Hana SH being too sensitive to use this higher setting and I’m sure a lower output moving coil would make good use of this extra gain with less chance of saturation.
So what did we learn here? Start with a lower gain setting and work your way up until it either becomes too much of a good thing or fidelity is lost. Once you get it right it’s good for every record after that.
Musical Surroundings Phonomena Set-Up
As I had mentioned, most of my auditioning was through my Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 preamp with the 1.4 upgrade, a Rega P3 turntable with Neo power supply upgrade, Dynavector 10×5 and Hana SH cartridges, and Vandersteen Model 3 speakers. Amplifiers on hand included the ampsandsound Casablanca mono blocks (review forthcoming) and a Mark Levinson 5805 integrated running in amp-only mode.
Accessories included AudioQuest Niagara 1200 and Convergent Audio Technology power supply/grounding solutions, and finally cables included Cardas Clear interconnects and AudioQuest Robin Hood Zero bi-wire speaker cable. I had also written some of the review with the Bowers & Wilkins 703 S3 loudspeakers in the system as well.
The Dynavector is a great cartridge that is relatively phono stage-agnostic. It just sounds great and has a very similar character to it no matter what phono stage you drive it with. For listening pleasure it’s sublime, but as a review tool, to really hear what the supporting gear is doing, it ain’t that useful. So I used the Hana SH as the primary review tool. The SH is more influenced by the phono stage and allows insights into the character of what that component is doing, so I put that into the system for the majority of the critical review sessions.
I Have the Power – But Do I Need It?
The Linear Power Supply is optional and furnishes a 24V power supply for the Musical Surroundings Phonomena. For the $1,000 asking price, I struggled for justification with the less expensive Phonomena II+. Did it improve the sound? Well, yes but I just didn’t feel it was significant enough to make the Phonomena II+/Linear Power Supply combo worth the $1750 price.
When I first plugged in the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III/ Linear Power Supply combo, I
wasn’t sure what to expect. Imaging didn’t change. The smooth and full soundstage and musical
presentation didn’t change. The roundness and fullness of instruments didn’t change. So what the heck DID it do? Musical Surroundings wouldn’t offer a piece of gear that did nothing, so I must be missing something. I grabbed a little scotch, sat and entered my transcendental happy place to just experience the music.
Then it hit me.
It provides a quieter background. This was less dramatic on the Phonomena II+, but with the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III it became immediately apparent once I stopped critically listening FOR something to change and just became present in the moment and open minded to
What did that quieter, darker background do? It let everything that the Musical Surroundings
Phonomena III already did, do more; like a second helping of dessert. It was like looking at art in a moderately lit room and then turning up the lights. The art doesn’t change, but you perceive more details, more retinal information reaches your brain. And I felt the same way aurally with the Linear Power Supply.
Now this is just conjecture, but I’m blessed with a good room both acoustically and electrically. For those with grounding problems or noisy electricity, however, the Linear Power Supply is able to provide that quieter background could result in big sonic gains. The results of the Linear Power Supply may be highly dependent on your listening environment. This also elevates the cost of the Phonomena III/Linear Power Supply to $2,200. This getting into another level of competition in the phono stage space. In my mind, the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III is a solid performer at its price point. At $2,200 there is likely to be stiffer competition.
Musical Surroundings Phonomena III Conclusions
The Musical Surroundings Phonomena III is a very good phono stage, but it might not be for everybody. The inherent smoothness of the presentation did cater to a certain musical selection. Some of my higher dynamic albums, especially hard rock or high energy jazz like Spyro Gyra seemed to have ever-so-slightly rounded-off transients. I got the sense that there was more transient attack on the records that I perceived with other phono stages, like the Clearaudio smart phono, for example.
The Musical Surroundings Phonomena III isn’t a get up and dance and boogie kinda phono stage. It’s a sit back with a scotch in your favorite chair like the good refined gentleperson you are and let the music wash over you. It’s an immensely pleasurable experience. But if you like to spin some death metal or high-energy in-your-face jazz and dance around your listening room like a crazy fool, you may want to look for something different.
And that ultimately for me was an issue as I have a large variety in musical tastes and on occasion dance around like a fool in my listening room. Which makes the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III not my ideal choice, but the Phonomena III might be your perfect cup of musical tea. If late at night, after a busy day at work sitting in a dark room letting the buttery smooth waves of musical bliss wash over you before retiring for the evening is your transcendental-nirvana experience, then the Musical Surroundings Phonomena III could be perfect for you.