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Whest Audio WhestTHREE Signature phono stage

Whest Audio WhestTHREE Signature phono stage

Click an image to enlarge.


Phono Stages

After a brief encounter with Musical Fidelity’s V90-LPS phono stage during the System Upgrade, it was clear there was room for improvement regarding my vinyl playback. For continuity purposes I used the The Cartridge Man MusicMaker Mk III cartridge with isolator. Full component list (including interconnect cables used) can be found at bottom of this shared experience reference.

Purchasing a separate phono stage was never high on my priorities. After spending money, time and effort choosing amplification, speakers, turntable, cartridge and interconnects, I always considered a phono stage an ‘optional extra’ not really worthy of much attention. Trust was placed in the in-built phono stage of the pre-amplifier. I now have to admit my embarrassment at taking so long in my musical journey to wake up!

What is a phono stage?

A phono stage (also known as a phono pre-amp) provides the connection between the record player and an amplifier. When vinyl was the defacto standard for audio recording, the phono stage was built-in to receivers and amps, allowing direct connection of a turntable.

However, as new formats like CD were introduced and begun to replace vinyl, manufacturers of amplifiers removed or reduced the quality of their in-built phono stages and inputs as they were no longer being used.

A lot of hi-fi amplifiers now won’t let you plug in a turntable directly. You need to connect via a phono stage to make the very small signal from the turntable powerful enough for your main amp to work with.

(Source - Cambridge Audio)

With phono stages prices ranging from as little as £40 up to £18,000 plus! My initial budget of around £600 - £800 is definitely not a king’s ransom in hi-fi terms and many so-called high-end dealers did not even want to engage into a conversation lasting more than thirty seconds with me (let alone bless me with a demonstration), however, I have never allowed ‘hi-fi price snobbery’ to influence my ears or my wallet. Yes, the bigger the budget, the greater the choice, however, I have always believed in setting ‘my own’ comfortable starting point. As with any hi-fi component purchase - component matching is key. If you believe what you can hear is worth stretching your budget, then do it!

Thankfully, many phono stage designers were more than happy to wax lyrical about their products (and why not)? It is clear they invest a great amount of work and pride into every design. After weeks of research (and an initial list of ten) I was able to narrow the list of phono stages down to three. Graham Slee’s Reflex M, Lehhman Audio’s Decade and Whest Audio’s WestTHREE Signature.

The Graham Slee Reflex M

Graham Slee’s reputation for producing high quality phono stages is renowned.

Graham Slee, born Mexborough, England 1955, apprentice trained engineering craftsman in the 1970s, worked in AV until 1984 when he set up his own electronics and printed circuit design business, working with a number of "blue-chip" technology companies.

1989 he became senior engineer at Audionics (Sheffield) Ltd, part of the Yorkshire Radio Network (YRN) group, where he designed electronics for broadcast studios - clients included the BBC, and numerous UK commercial broadcasters.

1993 he left YRN to freelance in electronics design with various companies, and in 1998 he established Graham Slee Projects also known as gsp-audio.

Graham Slee Reflex M

Graham Slee’s Reflex M with external power supply (£695) was the first phono stage I received. With such a great reputation my expectations were high. (The Reflex M is equipped with RCA phono connectivity only).

First impressions were impressive. A wider soundstage with greater depth. More space around individual instruments. Vocals (especially female) appeared to have greater focus revealing the sheer essence of the voice, notably with Minnie Riperton’s “The Best Of” (Capital Records 1981), the sweetness, innocence and purity of Ripperton’s vocals never being more apparent, with the live vocal inserts benefiting from the organic warm ‘valve like’ feel of the Slee. This album has been part of my collection for over twenty years, however, I have never felt compelled to play the whole album until now.

Listening to my varied favourite albums through The Graham Slee Reflex M was intriguing. Rackmaninov’s “Piano Concertos Nos.1 and 2” - Vladhmir Ashkenazy – London Symphony Orchestra – Andre Previn (Decca 1972) is an overly warm recording for my ears, so I was expecting it to be an unbearable listen through the Reflex M. Surprisingly, this was not the case. Yes the warmth was still present, however, finite instrument detail and orchestra expanse was far more noticeable than the warm production this time round.

Further vinyl exploration with Ron Carter’s “All Blues” (CTI 1974) did reveal a bass lean and somewhat bass detached characteristic of the Reflex MA As with most new hi-fi components (and cables) - new additions do take time to warm up (run-in) before revealing their full potential. (The Graham Slee manual reminds you of this). However, after nearly two weeks of further listening this characteristic did not change significantly. If my vinyl collection consisted solely of classical music I would have considered adding the Graham Slee to my system, however, as my vinyl collection varies from Rackmaninov to Rick James, I am looking for a phono stage that will be able to ‘fully’ deliver across this broad spectrum.

The Lehmann Audio Decade

An ambitious phono stage that forges a link between the Black Cube series and the top-of-the-line model Silver Cube: this is our Decade. However, it is rather a high flyer than a stopgap. Owing to its cutting-edge technology, it has the gift to spoil even the most demanding music enthusiasts. And this with a flawless sound which points far beyond its price category…

Lehmann Audio Decade

Lehmann’s Audio Decade (£1400) is a sleek looking dual mono design. Both power supply and main phono unit are finished with anodized aluminium silver front panels with brushed mat black aluminium chassis, identical in shape and size. The silver front panel of the main phono unit house three simple toggle switches, first left switch is a soft bass roll off filter (6db-per-octave at 50Hz.). The second is used for adjustment between normal and high gain and furthest right switch is for simple switching between moving coil – moving magnet cartridges. Further cartridge fine tuning / loading adjustment can be achieved via a double bank of dip switches under a removable plate beneath the body of the main phono unit. An open resistor slot is also available for cartridges offering even greater custom tuning options. (The Decade is equipped with both RCA phono as well as balanced connectivity).

From the outset, the Lehmann Audio Decade signature whisper quite noise floor was evident with my mediocre copy of Ahmad Jamal Trio’s “The Awakening” (Impulse Records 1997 reissue). Jamal’s melodic mood evoking piano solos delivered with exceptional clarity with fellow musician Jamil Nasser’s bass sounding exceptionally clean (not overly lean). However, Jamal’s piano appeared to sound…‘different’. Yes, greater clarity, tighter instrumentation all-round… this exciting listening experience impelled me to delve further into other recordings. Next on the platter is David Sanborn’s 1976 release “David Sanborn” (Warner Brothers), again, all the above positive traits are clearly evident… now I experience an even greater sense of space surrounding the amazingly gifted individual musicians on this recording. Sanborn (alto saxophone), Hiram Bullock (guitar & vocals) & Victor Lewis (drums & vocals) to name a few - all grooving together beautifully. I actually physically drew breath as “7th Ave.” (last track of side two) faded out! I almost felt that I was part of this amazing band and ‘I’ had contributed to the energy released! Again, I felt impelled to continue exploration. This time with Bob James / David Sanborn “Double Vision” (Warner Brothers 1986). As I had recently photographed many of the musicians on this album at live shows and sound-checks (amplified and unamplified) I felt I could gain a greater understanding of what Lehmann’s Decade had to offer. “Maputu” is the opening track with the magical “Moon Tune” being the last track on side one. Both compositions should allow the listener to explore the mid-tempo magic created by these four masters at work. (Sanborn on saxophone, Bob James on keys / synth, Marcus Miller (bass) & Steve Gadd on drums). I can always recognise Sanborn’s distinctive raspy contemporary edge on any recording, however, Sanborn’s tone and tempo was definitely not what it should be here. Had he changed reeds, mouthpiece or sucked on a helium balloon just for this session? In fact this foursome sound as though they are in a hurry to finish the set and get home to put their feet up. At this point my suspicions turned to my Linn LP12 / Origin Live Ultra set-up, but after a thorough check using my strobe disc I realised I needed to look elsewhere. After contacting Lehamnn regarding my findings it was suggested that I should “check the cartridge VTA” (vertical tracking angle). However, after checking - rechecking the VTA as well as experimenting with other critical settings (including various dip-switch loading settings) I found the overall results not desirable. At this point I will refer to my earlier statement and move swiftly on – ‘Component matching is key’!

The Whest Audio WhestTHREE Signature

I was made aware of Whest phono stages after contact from one of my regular viewers. I continued research online and made contact with James Henriot (Whest Audio CEO & designer) via his website.

Our phono stages have all been reviewed and given critical acclaim worldwide. They are used in both the domestic audio and professional audio fields.

If all you want is the very best from your vinyl collection that no other product can give you, then you have arrived. This is us- specialists in phono stages and small signal product design....nothing more, nothing less.

Whest Audio WhestTHREE Signature phono stage

The WhestTHREE Signature (£2500) was definitely the wild card out of the three phono stages here. At more than three times above my initial budget, my wallet was beginning to show signs of fear. Admittedly part of me was hoping the WhestTHREE would not work so I could begin my search again with another lower priced selection! The WhestTHREE is a dual mono unit with separate power supply (equipped with both RCA phono as well as balanced connectivity).

As with previous phono stages, I allowed the WhestTHREE several hours to warm up (run in). During this process I have to admit to being astounded at the WhestTHREE’s musical transformation within a relatively short time (within the first hour). Again - starting with Ahmad Jamal’s “The Awakening,” with the WhestTHREE in line, Jahmal’s emotional intensity more evident than ever. Though there was no immediate significant improvement in noise floor rumble or crackle at this point, this did not matter as I could not help but become drawn into the music. It took many hours of constant playing for the noise floor to drop to a level that was significant (after 4 – 6 hours as recommended). I was so pleased with progress at this point I decided to email James Henriot (Whest Audio CEO & designer) to advise that I was “now getting into the swing of the demo.” He responded… “OK... so I take it that the whestTHREE is warming up nicely? It'll take a few days before it really settles.”

One week later… and boy oh boy the WhestTHREE had definitely settled! I continued to cue album after album to see how deeply this musical journey would take me. I expected the WhestTHREE to stumble at some point considering the challenges I set. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted the WhestTHREE to show signs of weakness so I could justify not having to go above my budget. For continuity purposes I cued Bob James / David Sanborn “Double Vision” and sat slightly on the edge of my listening chair to take in “Maputu” and “Moon Tune.” This time round there was no doubt – Sanborn’s tone and tempo was spot on. Fond memories of my last musical encounter with these musicians came flooding back. Now, I could easily continue along the standard review vein describing the exceptional clarity tuneful bass etc, or spin many more lines regarding the deep driving synth bass from Michael Jackson’s “Speed Demon” from his “Bad” album (Epic 1987) delivered with ease. However, I am loving the music too much. The WhestTHREE was in full control with a natural richness, combined with controlled deep bass and a wonderfully wide three dimensional soundstage my Martin Logan Scenario electrostatic speakers took full advantage of.

It was an absolute pleasure to explore gems within my collection, especially as many had not visited my turntable platter for some time. It was a revelation to finally be able to appreciate the difference in recording quality with the few 180gram pressings I own. It was also a shock to discover some of my favourite recordings were not actually ‘good recordings.’ The WhestTHREE definitely gets right to the heart of the mix revealing the astounding, the good, the bad and the occasional ugly!

Normally the ‘night and day’ analogy is used to describe great differences in sound improvements. I prefer to use the Russian winter – St. Lucia summer analogy on this occasion. With the WhestTHREE in line I haven’t just fallen in love with vinyl again, I am addicted!

Complete system details:

Source

Linn Lp12 with Origin Live Ultra DC motor turntable kit
Cartridge Man MusicMaker Mk III cartridge

Amplification

M8-500S power amplifier with the M8PRE preamplifier
Luminist Revision Poseidon XLR balanced cables

Speakers

Martin Logan hybrid electrostatic speakers
Chord Legend speaker cable

Table

Quadraspire Q4 EVO turntable wall bracket
Quadraspire Q4 Reference with Q4 EVO top shelf

Additional notes:

Cartridge Man Gotham RCA phono interconnect cables or Audioquest Red River XLR balanced cables were used between pre-amp and phono stage throughout this shared experience reference. Manufacturer supplied cables were used between external power supply and main phono stage units.

Phono stage power supplies and main units were photographed together for aesthetic purposes only.

Robin Francis
© Michael Valentine Studio Ltd.
March 2016

Whest Audio WhestTHREE Signature phono stage (rear)

Graham Slee Reflex M phono stage

Graham Slee Reflex M phono stage (rear)

Lehmann Audio Decade phono stage

Lehmann Audio Decade (rear) phono stage

 

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