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Phono stages Group Test

Article Index
Phono stages Group Test
ANT Audio Kora 3T Ltd
Trichord Diablo NC
Icon Audio PS3
Holfi Batt2RIAA
Anatek MCR
Conclusion
All Pages

From Hi-Fi World - July 2009 issue

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Upstaged

Phono stages have now been with us for over twenty years, and since then the breed has gone from strength to strength. But prospective purchasers face vast differences, not just in price but in sonic presentation - making them something of a minefield for bemused buyers. In this month's group test, Tony Bolton samples six very different designs, in an attempt to make sense of it all...

 

 

REFERENCE SYSTEM

Clearaudio Master Solution turntable

Clearaudio Satisfy Carbon tonearm

Ortofon Kontrapunkt a cartridge

Leema Acoustics Tucana amplifier

Chario Ursa Major loudspeakers


THE CONTENDERS

LEHMANN AUDIO BLACK CUBE STATEMENT p16

A.N.T. AUDIO KORA 3T LTD p17

TRICHORD DIABLO NC p18

ICON AUDIO PS3 p19

HOLFI BATT2RIAA p20

ANATEK MCR p21

 

 

Twenty years ago, what we used to call ‘off-board phono stages’ were an expensive and comparatively rare product. Anoraks would probably argue that it was the Linn Linnk that begat the breed in the mid-eighties, but it wasn’t until the Michell ISO at the end of that decade that the genre really took off. Now though, they’re everywhere – in all shapes and sizes, and prices range from less than a tankful of petrol to more than many will ever pay for a car. But what to make of this all?


Well, here we have gathered together a wonderfully disparate group that encompass solid-state discrete transistor, solid-state op-amp based, valve based and even battery powered. The price range runs from £325 to £2,000. So does spending more, get you more? Well, to attempt to give a level playing field across such a wide selection, each one was run in extensively, then connected up for several days continuously, then compared back-to-back using a range of records from Menuhin playing the Mendelssohn and Bruch Violin Concertos, via Jacques Loussier Trio and Dusty Springfield to the Progressive Trance sound of Human Blue. Enjoy!

 

 

 

LEHMANN AUDIO BLACK CUBE STATEMENT  £325

 

lehmann_black_cube

 

The original Black Cube was introduced in 1995, and quickly won itself a reputation for offering both good performance and value for money. Since then this little 103x108x45mm metal box has undergone several modifications to keep it competitive. The current model boasts an entirely passive RIAA network using ‘high precision foil capacitors’, and an MKP one for bass coupling. All resistors are of the low noise metal film variety.


Underneath are two banks of four dip switches to set the gain for either MM or MC type cartridges, and the MC loading to either 1k Ohm or 100 Ohms. A third position allows for the fitting of an internal card for custom loading the impedance. All switches have gold plated contacts. On opposite sides are two sets of gold plated phono plugs for input and output. The former sports an earth binding post, whilst the other side contains the mains socket for the supplied ‘wall-wart’.

SOUND QUALITY

Starting off with the pounding trance of Human Blue’s ‘Electric Roundabout’, I found the performance of this little box to be quite sprightly, although the bass was not particularly tight. Moving to bass-driven acoustic music, and I found the Jacques Loussier Trio’s ‘Play Bach No.2’ served up a reasonably sized soundstage that stayed just within the speaker boundaries, but was of moderate depth. The little Cube was happier when not being asked to explore seriously low notes, whereupon the results were pleasantly engaging. There was a bit of upper mid congestion which occasionally gave the piano a slightly glossy tone, and robbed the sound of its shape a little. That said, the simplicity of the Trio's sound was there for all to enjoy.

 

The more complex harmonics and wider harmonic range of the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Walter Susskind confirmed my thoughts about the upper mid. The combination of Menuhin’s lead violin and a full orchestra could get a little busy at times. The sound didn’t get confused, rather it began to blend into a homogenous mass of bowed orchestral instruments, and imaging became vague, failing to identify the exact location of the first and second banks of violins. Tonal balance was good, although the colours were painted with a fairly broad brush. I felt the Lehmann was at its best playing guitar bands, where its punch and energy could be focused over a smaller group of instruments.

 

The Black Cube Statement is a flexible and reasonably priced product, but I feel it's a little dated, however. It is at its best when keeping things fairly simple - feed it folk and indie bands and you will be pleased with what you hear – but if your taste runs to more complex fare then it's well worth spending more.

verdict three globes


Compact, competent budget design with flexible loading options.


LEHMANN AUDIO BLACK CUBE STATEMENT £325

Lehmann Audio

+44 (0)1235 511166

www.henleydesigns.co.uk


FOR

- flexible loading options

- punchy direct sound.

- focused sound stage


AGAINST

- lack of refinement

- stiff competition

 

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

Our analysis of equalisation accuracy, or frequency response, shows the Lehmann has the not uncommon balance of slightly accentuated high frequencies, which will add to its sense of insight and detailing. This balance also aligns the sound of LP better with CD, for better or worse according to taste. The Black Cube gave identical results here in MM and MC mode.

 

Gain with moving magnet (MM) cartridges was a standard x110 (41dB) and with moving coils a useful, but not high, x1164 (61dB). Both values are on the lowish side meaning volume will have to be wound up on insensitive amplifiers possessing a 400mV input sensitivity. The Black Cube overloads at 6.2V out, setting input overload at a satisfactory 56mV with MM cartridges and 5mV with MC cartridges.


Noise (equivalent input noise, A wtd.) was low at 0.5uV with MM but surprisingly high with MC, measuring  0.17uV against an expected 0.08uV or so, making the Black Cube around 6dB hissier than rivals, so it is not ideal for low output MCs.

 

The Black Cube Statement is a little off the modern pace, but it measures acceptably well, ignoring hiss with MC.  NK


Frequency response MC 12Hz-56kHz

Separation (MM, MC) 90dB

Noise (e.i.n.MM, MC) 0.5uV, 0.17uV

Distortion 0.002%

Gain (MC) x110, 1164 (41dB, 61dB)

Overload (MC) 2mV, 56mV in / 5V out


FREQUENCY RESPONSE

lehmannblackcubestmmfr1

 



 

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