an image to enlarge.
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
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"
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’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
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
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’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
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.
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:
Linn Lp12 with Origin Live Ultra DC motor turntable
Cartridge Man MusicMaker Mk III cartridge
M8-500S power amplifier with the M8PRE preamplifier
Luminist Revision Poseidon XLR balanced cables
Martin Logan hybrid electrostatic speakers
Chord Legend speaker cable
Quadraspire Q4 EVO turntable wall bracket
Quadraspire Q4 Reference with Q4 EVO top shelf
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.
© Michael Valentine Studio Ltd.