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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

 


 

 

A.N.T. AUDIO KORA 3T LTD  £775

ant_kora_3t

This comes in a rather unassuming black extruded aluminium box, measuring just 48x91x133mm and tipping the scales at a bare kilogram. At the back are the usual input and output sockets, and power socket for another ‘wall wart’ power supply. This is a more substantial affair than that of the Lehmann, and may be a little awkward to fit in to some gang sockets. The right hand side of the back panel contains the earth terminal and a small knob for fine-tuning the DC operating point of the circuit. It works by slightly changing the DC bias of the circuit allowing a little ‘tuning’ of the phono stage to the cartridge.


Factory preset has the pointer at the 12 o’clock position, with adjustment available from the 7.30 to 5.30 positions. After a bit of experimentation I settled for the factory preset and got on with the listening. There’s an old motto which says “keep it simple”, and Alex has done just that with just three transistors per channel, running single ended Class A, and a passive RIAA network.


SOUND QUALITY

Although the Kora 3T is over twice the price of the Black Cube Statement, I wasn’t fully prepared for the jump in sound quality. The smoothness and detailing of the composite sounds of the Philharmonia Orchestra was a revelation. There was a maturity and authority in the performance of the Bruch that many aspirational units, several times the price of this, would have difficulty matching. The 3T Ltd.’s tonality was exceptional from a solid-state unit, being dark and velvety and thus more akin to the best tube stages. An expansive soundstage extended to the outer edges of the speaker cabinets, but within that area a wealth of detail greeted the listener. Although not the deepest I have heard, it reached back far enough for the orchestra to have room to form themselves into their correct seating arrangement, and to be precisely located in their right places. The level of micro-information reaching my ears was a testament to the simplicity of the design. Menuhin’s bowing was displayed clearly yet subtly, without the feeling that attention was being especially drawn to it.

 

Cellos and double basses had a solid foundation below the other instruments, creating a very cohesive and unforced sound. Staying with double basses neatly leads into Pierre Michelot’s playing of jazzed-up Bach. The Kora caught the subtleties of the swing and the rhythm that the Loussier team injected into ‘Chorale’ with aplomb. I found myself moving feet and tapping the arm of my chair to the beat. Changing musical gear to the 1965 album ‘Everything’s Coming Up Dusty’ found Miss Springfield in excellent voice covering Little Anthony and the Imperial’s soul classic ‘It Was Easier To Hurt Him’. Again, the transmission of the beat caused spontaneous movement of arms and legs to occur, showing what a naturally beguiling performer this is!

 

The Kora is an extremely musical device that presents its message in a pleasantly understated way. It’s not shouty, forced or explicit – quite the reverse in fact. It has a dark, beguiling nature that you don’t expect from a device at this price, and such a natural musical gait. The only caveat is that there’s an upgraded version coming soon, with a better power supply – I can’t wait to hear this.


verdict 4

Rich, expansive performer with a wonderfully musical demeanor.



A.N.T. AUDIO KORA

3T LTD £775

A.N.T. Audio

+44 (0)1803 833366

www.ant-audio.co.uk


FOR

- balanced, neutral sound

- expansive soundstage

- snappy timing


AGAINST

- wall wart PSU



MEASURED PERFORMANCE

The equalisation of this stage was deadly accurate, with gain rolled off slowly below 40Hz to a -1dB point at 22Hz, so there is some lowering of gain (9-10dB) at warp frequencies around 5Hz, but the Kora does not have an IEC warp filter. It will sound tonally accurate, but with well weighted bass.


Input noise was very low at 0.07uV and gain a useful x1337 (63dB) for MC cartridges. An output overload ceiling of 6.7V transferred back to the input as 5mV, good enough figures for overload not to be an issue with today’s cartridges.


The Kora 3T measures well in all areas. It is neatly engineered and will likely sound good. NK


Frequency response 22Hz-100kHz

Separation 73dB

Noise (e.i.n.) 0.07uV

Distortion 0.08%

Gain x1337 (63dB)

Overload 5mV in / 6.7V out


FREQUENCY RESPONSE

ant-kora-3t-mm-phono-fr1



 

 

TRICHORD DIABLO NC   £1,213.62

trichord_diablo

Another fairly compact unit, measuring just 117x190x55mm, the Diablo sports a crisp aluminium case finished in grey, offset by a brushed alloy facia. This example was supplied with the optional Never Connected Power Supply which uses a system of switching the input current between two electrolytic capacitors via a diode bridge rectifier and a MOSFET switching circuit.


Underneath the Diablo itself are four banks of dip switches, one pair controlling loading, ranging from 100pF to 1k Ohm. The others are for gain (74, 70 and 63dB for MCs and 52 or 48 dB for the MM setting). Internal circuity includes Analogue Devices and Linear Technology audio-grade bipolar and J-FET operational amplifiers. RIAA equalisation is part passive and part active, using audio grade capacitors and resistors.


SOUND QUALITY

Starting with ‘Electric Roundabout’, the Diablo dived into the mix with gusto, bringing to the surface a range of textures to the sound that the other phono stages sampled so far made less obvious. This rather bright light brought to bear on the proceedings worked very nicely in the context of my own review system, vividly highlighting the use of synthesiser effects, and this was driven along by a tight kick drum. Still, the crispness of the Trichord’s tonality did not do many favours to the surface noise present on a forty four year old mono pressing, but the definition given to Dusty and the instrumentalists gathered around her was aided by the widest mono image I've ever encountered - impressive stuff.

 

Wishing to provoke a reaction from the Diablo, I cued up ‘Vicino a te’, the final duet from Giordano’s opera ‘Andreas Chenier’. The action takes place during the French Revolution, and ends here with Chenier and his lover Maddalena in the Bastille, awaiting execution and singing of their undying love in a tune which culminates in an explosion of massed trumpets, rumbling timpani and crashing cymbals. My suspicions were proved right, as the sharp presentation of the music only just stayed within the realms of acceptability. Returning to calmer waters with the Loussier Trio and the detailing became more of a pleasure again, as attention focused in turn on the piano on the left, the drums occupying the centre, with the double bass playing tunefully, if slightly dispassionately on the right.

 

The Diablo struck me as a listener’s phono stage, rather than a dancer’s one. Timing was very accurate, but a bit ‘strict tempo’ to my ears, lacking the more organic rhythms of the ANT Audio Kora 3T Ltd. This unit is all about clinical precision and vivid contrasts between dynamic light and shade.


Many will love the top Trichord, as it certainly would ‘wake up’ an overly laid back or loose sounding system. So adept at producing accurately staged and detailed sonic images, it nevertheless lacks a certain lyricism found elsewhere.

 

verdict four globes

Vivid, captivating and explicit sounding phono stage that’s best used in smooth sounding systems.

 

TRICHORD DIABLO NC £1,213.62

Trichord Research Ltd.

+44 (0)1684 292792

www.trichordresearch.co.uk

 

FOR

- super detailing

- good imaging

- precise timing

 

AGAINST

- needs careful matching

- cerebral nature

 

MEASURED PERFORMANCE

The analysis of equalisation accuracy and frequency response shows the Diablo has slightly accentuated higher frequencies, in the 75uS curve above 1kHz with both MM and MC cartridges. This will add a little to insight and detailing. Gain was maintained down to 10Hz; there is no warp filtering. As a result cone flap may occur with warped records but bass will be deep.

 

Gain with moving magnet (MM) cartridges was high at x230 (47dB) and x 400 (52dB). With moving coils it measured x1460 (63dB) and x3230 (70dB), with an option of x5850 (75dB). There’s enough gain to cope with all cartridges and insensitive amplifiers requiring at least 400mV in. Overload occurs at 9.3V out, a high value, allowing healthy input overload ceilings.

 

Noise (equivalent input noise, A wtd.) was low at 0.06uV with MC and 0.08uV or so with MM, so the Diablo is very quiet. Distortion was minimal and channel separation high.

 

The Diablo is a well thought out phono stage with plenty of adjustment to cope with all cartridges. NK


Frequency response MC 10Hz-32kHz

Separation (MM, MC) 78, 68dB

Noise (e.i.n.MM, MC) 0.08uV, 0.06uV

Distortion 0.002%

Gain (MM, MC)

x230, x400, x1460, x3230

Overload (MM,MC)

41mV, 6mV in / 9.3V out

 

FREQUENCY RESPONSE

trichord-diablo-fr1mm

 

 



ICON AUDIO PS3  £1,399

 

icon_audio_ps3

The Icon Audio PS3 is a no compromise design based around four ECC 88s and a 6SN7 output valve. The PSU contains an oversize power transformer and an EZ80 valve as rectifier. Regulation is via a 5687 valve, controlled by an ECC83. A chrome finished toggle switch on the front of the PSU activates blue LEDs positioned in the corners of the top of the chassis, as well as supplying power. A corresponding switch on the phono stage changes the signal from mono to stereo. To the left of this is a volume control, allowing the unit to drive a power amp directly if you wish to be a purist, on the right is another knob to select MM or MC input. This is fed from separate pairs of sockets for each type, mounted at the back, along with another toggle switch that allows the earth connection to be lifted, which sometimes improves the sound in some systems. It is a case of experiment for yourself


SOUND QUALITY

After the analytical Diablo, the more laid back and organic sounds emanating from the PS3 were a marked contrast. The PS3 did detail, oodles of it, but in a pleasantly understated way that reminded me of the exemplary manners of the Kora 3T Ltd. and its balanced and flowing account of the music fed into it. But this time there was seemingly endless depth, the sort that only thermionic circuits ever produce.

 

With Dusty Springfield, it wasn't the deep and elegantly presented bass or the gentle but distinct rustle of shakers that struck me, but to the way I suddenly cared about the meaning of the lyrics of the song - the recounting of the regret at the pain caused to a loved one by a thoughtless moment. I felt involved with the emotion played out by the singer, as well as physically carried by the sway of the rhythm. Back to the Chenier piece and the effect was stupendous, the sudden speed of a crescendo having a physical impact on the listener. The musical roller coaster ride builds to a new level each time before the finale. The Icon presented it with a scale that reminded why opera is sometimes prefixed with the word ‘Grand’.

 

The only quibble I could possibly have with this machine was the slurring of the ends of some of the very deep bass notes that populate ‘Electric Roundabout’. It was only slight, and had seemingly no effect upon the foot driving beats of the tunes, yet it was not quite as tight as it should have been. This is the one area where the PS3 is not a stellar performer, and where the Kora 3T at half the price beats it roundly. Overall though, the Icon Audio PS3 is an exceptionally good phono stage, and a compulsory audition for anyone looking for one of the best. I felt that it lived up to the reputation it has earned in the pages of this magazine.

 

 

verdict five globes

Sweet and sumptuous sounding phono stage with great scale and depth. Hard to beat anywhere near the price.


ICON AUDIO PS3 £1,399

Icon Audio

+44 (0)116 2440593

www.iconaudio.co.uk


FOR

- sumptuous triode sound

- depth and dimensionality

- facilities


AGAINST

- slight lack of low bass grip



MEASURED PERFORMANCE

Equalisation accuracy was fairly accurate from 5Hz to 46kHz for MM, our analysis showing some emphasis of the 75uS characteristic above 1kHz, which will add a little sheen. Equalisation accuracy for MC had output rising steadily above 1kHz to measure +1dB at 17kHz, at maximum (and minimum) volume settings. The volume control rolled off upper treble a little, by -1dB or so at 20kHz, when at centre with both MM and MC. Low frequencies roll off below 7Hz so warp signals will be attenuated little.

 

Noise was low via the MM input, measuring 0.7uV equivalent input noise, IEC A weighted. This is low so hiss will be inaudible with MM cartridges. On MC noise measured 0.09uV a little more than is possible with input transformers, but still relatively quiet. There was no hum either. Both MM and MC have very high maximum gain factors of x314 and x3000 respectively, so very low output MCs will be compatible. From just 0.1mV through the MC input the PS3 will deliver 300mV output to an amplifier, just enough to drive most to full output. Distortion and overload levels were fine.

 

The PS3 measures well in all areas, with a small amount of treble emphasis. NK


Frequency response MM 5Hz-46kHz

MC 7Hz-17kHz

Separation (MM, MC) 51dB

Noise (e.i.n., A wtd.) 0.08uV

Distortion 0.06 / 0.11%

Gain (MM, MC) x314 / x3000

Overload (MM, MC)

150mV, 15mV in / 30V out


FREQUENCY RESPONSE

icon-audio-ps3-fr1-mm

 


 

HOLFI BATT2RIAA  £1,580

 

holfi_battriaa_phonostage

 

The Holfi Batt2riaa, as the name suggests, is the mark 2 version of a battery powered, RIAA equalised phono stage. The original Battriaa was introduced in its native Denmark as long ago as 1994 and has recently been upgraded to the current model. The circuit is of single-ended topology, operating without global feedback. Transistors are used to amplify the current generated by the cartridge. The metal 450x80x320mm casework also contains the batteries. These are charged automatically unless the button at the front is pressed to override this. A mains switch is situated at the back beside the IEC socket. Two pairs of well spaced WBT Next Gen sockets, convey the signal in and out, and the unit can be configured for a variety of gains, but this does require a soldering iron, since the makers state that they find dip-switches too noisy.


SOUND QUALITY

With a noise floor way below that of nearly all mains powered equipment, the Batt2riaa promised true silence in-between sounds, and so it proved. The gap between tracks stretched like a featureless void until suddenly, the next track started. I have used battery powered phono stages before and have enjoyed their potential for purity of sound but found them to be hampered by a tendency to ’run out of steam’ during crescendos and heavier passages. The Batt2riaa bucked that trend, coming a close second to the Icon Audio in terms of slam and the ability to move from quiet to loud in a split second. The Chenier piece was spellbinding, the DC power giving a smoothness and flow to the sound that could certainly match that of the PS3, although the solidity at subterranean levels was not quite as good. However, the slight lightness of touch here gave slightly better shape to the bottom of the deep notes in ‘Electric Roundabout’ than the Icon managed. The rhythmic abilities of the Holfi certainly matched those of the Icon, which is no mean feat!

 

Replaying Menuhin, and I was fascinated by the deep pile textures of sound that flowed from the speakers. It was, I think, the closest I have come to thermionic bliss in a solid-state world. Stereo placement was stable, and the performers were detailed without being focused on too closely. The ability to portray large scale music so effortlessly was complimented by the focus and flow of sounds from a more intimate performance. The Loussier recording showed off everything that it had to offer: a precisely populated soundstage, where the gap between the performers felt realistic, add the unforced detailing of the creak of shoe leather against the floor or the slither of fingers on a string, and I found myself pleasantly mesmerised.

 

The Holfi turned my preconceptions about battery power units on its head. This is one that holds a tune, and colours it in a vibrant and thoroughly enjoyable way. A truly special piece of equipment, it joins the PS3 as a 'must-hear'.



verdict five globes

Quirky but highly capable battery powered solid-state phono stage with great smoothness and insight.


HOLFI BATT2RIAA £1,580

+45 70278838

www.holfi.com


FOR

- incredibly quiet and smooth

- highly detailed

- fine imaging

- low surface noise


AGAINST

- no mono switch

- lacks visceral impact



MEASURED PERFORMANCE

Equalisation of the Holfi preamp differed from most, a small shelf plateau down at high frequencies and a similar small lift up at lower frequencies giving a total 1dB variance across the audio band that will make the Holfi sound warmer or easier than usual, perhaps with more fulsome bass, our analysis clearly shows this. Nevertheless, the Holfi was accurately equalised from 7Hz to 32kHz within 1dB limits (2dB variance). There is no warp filter, gain extending down to the warp region, so cone flap will not be attenuated.

 

There was some measured distortion, rare in phono stages which usually use high feedback op amps. but at 0.24% second harmonic only at 1V out this is relatively small, with little subjective impact.


The Holfi is unusually free from hiss, a voltage gain of x2164 producing just 20uV of output noise, making equivalent input noise just 0.01uV (approx) IEC A weighted. This is 18dB quieter than the best rivals, most of which generate 0.08uV noise even utilising current-to-voltage step up provided by a transformer.

 

The Batt2riaa measures very well and is an interesting design. It will sound smoother and fuller bodied than most in basic tonal balance and totally silent with even the lowest output MC cartridges.  NK



Frequency response MC 7Hz-32kHz

Separation (MM, MC) 90dB

Noise (e.i.n., A wtd.) 0.01uV

Distortion 0.24%

Gain (MC) x2124 (66dB)

Overload (MC) 2mV in / 5V out


FREQUENCY RESPONSE

holfi-fr1



ANATEK MCR £2,000

 

anatek_mcr_phonostage

 

This is a solid-state unit, using an inductor on the enhanced RIAA circuit (Neumann Constant). There is no feedback in the gain stage and output is through a single-ended J-FET stage, chosen as being the “most musical”. Input impedance is selected by the very effective method of inserting load plugs into a pair of RCA sockets. The 440x300x70mm casework sports a set of impressive cooling fins along each side. The fascia has a logo in the centre, below which are coloured LEDs - the red one indicating standby and the green denoting operation.


SOUND QUALITY

After the smooth, full bodied flow from the last two contenders, the Anatek was a major change. It has a very clean and precise sound, with a soundstage that is seemingly lit by arc-lamps. Everything is laid out for inspection, from the polish on the instruments themselves, to the pin-point precision of the placement of each and every performer. Even when presented with a full size orchestra I felt that each individual musician had their own floodlight marking their position. The low stringed instruments were accurately reproduced with no overhang on their notes, whilst violins were detailed to a point where I could count them. ‘Play Bach No.2’ in some ways benefited from this forensic analysis of the sounds. It was very involving, but also quite demanding on the listener since there was always something grabbing your attention. By contrast, the Holfi laid sounds out for inspection, but left the choice of the closeness of that inspection to the listener...

 

This analysis also included the condition of the groove wall. I was all too aware that a less than new record was playing, although the snap, crackle and pop was sufficiently muted so as not to be intrusive. With mono recordings the Anatek gave a very precise but confined sound, the image occupying an area of about one third of the space between the speakers, being quite sharply cut off.

 

The MCR’s sense of timing I would describe as majestic. There was the metronomic regularity reminiscent of the Diablo, but with a greater sensation of authority behind it. Although the sound was firm and distinctly shaped, it still carried a fair bit of weight and solidity. The sound may be very bright and detailed, but do not mistake that for thinness. There was nothing insubstantial about the notes coming out of the speakers but they did not have the same 'hewn from solid' sensation that characterised the previous two.


An extremely accomplished product, prospective purchasers should nevertheless note that it's from the 'seat-of-the-pants' school of music making, rather than being a subtle charmer like the A.N.T. or Icon. Many will love it, but it's not for everyone, all things considered.

 

verdict four globes

Striking sounding phono stage with a vivid, seat-of-the-pants presentation.


ANATEK MCR £2,000

Anatek Research

+44(0)1273 261229

www.anatek-research.co.uk


FOR

- very strong imaging

- forensic detailing

- explicit dynamics


AGAINST

- too explicit for some!



MEASURED PERFORMANCE

The MCR has a high gain of x1875 (65dB) so the 0.2mV or so from a typical MC cartridge will be delivered to an amplifier as 375mV or thereabouts - just enough for a modern solid-state amplifier with a low 400mV input sensitivity. Having a high output swing of 13.5V, the Anatek accepts quite a high maximum input of 7mV before overload, more than it is likely to ever see providing a very high output MC meant for MM stages is not used.

 

Equalisation was correct across the audio band, although a slight slowing of attenuation from the 75uS characteristic results in, effectively, a small treble lift at high frequencies, and considerably more above 20kHz, but since LP goes little higher than 30kHz the MCR’s +1dB lift at this frequency is not especially consequential I feel.

 

At the low frequency end there is no warp filter to reduce subsonic gain and full gain is maintained right down to 0.5Hz so warps will be amplified. Bass quality should be fulsome though.

 

Equivalent input noise (IEC A weighted) measured a low 0.08uV so the Anatek is quiet enough to accept the lowest output MCs, like Linns.

 

The MCR measures well all round. It is very accurate and possesses little noise so will suit all moving coil cartridges. NK


Frequency response 0.5Hz-33kHz

Separation 68dB

Noise (e.i.n.) -76dBV (0.08uV)

Distortion 0.003%

Gain x1875 (65dB)

Overload 7mV in / 13V out


FREQUENCY RESPONSE

anatek-mcr-fr1



 



CONCLUSION

This group was a very mixed bag and contained a few surprises. The thing that became really obvious to me was the division of the contenders into two camps, based on presentational style. The A.N.T., Icon and Holfi are all what I could describe as “dancer’s phono stages”. They all transmitted rhythms in a totally seductive manner. The Lehmann, Trichord and Anatek were more cerebral in their sound, or "listener's phono stages". They didn’t invite the listener to move so much, but instead offered a chance to look at what was on offer, and almost peruse it in slow motion. I think you, dear reader, can guess which I found more appealing to my aural taste buds - but this isn't to say that you might take a different view, of course.

 

The worst part of writing a group test is the inevitable ranking of items in order of perceived performance. The question of fair criteria when dealing with such a wide bandwidth of pricing can be vexed, but judging on performance alone, and then making adjustments for the price results in the following line up.

 

In sixth place comes the Lehmann Black Cube Statement. At its price point it offers a very flexible package that gives good value for money, but it is a base model and the limitations of its capabilities soon come to the fore when pushed by complex musical passages. It is fine in its own right, but makes the point that it is worth spending more, as there’s a lot more performance available if you can possibly afford it.

 

In fifth place I put the Anatek. This will surprise some, given Adam Smith’s tremendous enthusiasm for it in last month’s issue of Hi-Fi World, but in my system and for my tastes I found it simply too revealing. It’s a stunning performer, but still spends too much time obsessing over the minute detail in the sound rather than relaying it as a cohesive whole. I know it is the most expensive unit here, and over five times the price of the Lehmann, so there is a vast chasm between the two regarding everything from bandwidth to imaging. But they proved almost extremes of one another. The relentless insight and analytical detail of the Anatek, in my system at any rate, was too much. This is a fascinating ‘hi-fi case in point’, as it shows you exactly why you should listen to equipment before you buy. Don't in any way take this as criticism of the Anatek, which is superb in its way, rather the ranking shows how different listeners can come to alternative conclusions about the suitability of kit to them and their systems.

 

In fourth place comes the Trichord Diablo. Although it shared many of the traits of the Anatek, it was a little more restrained, and would I feel be easier to match into many systems. It’s a very impressive device, and I feel a little overlooked recently. Those wanting a grippy, insightful phono stage to ‘wake up’ an otherwise oversmooth system would love this, and should avoid the following two...

 

The first podium position goes to the A.N.T. Audio Kora 3T Ltd. I loved the sheer musicality of this unassuming little box; it entices the listener into the music in a totally unforced way that’s as effortless as it is beguiling. Especially given the price of £775, I feel the Kora 3T offers something a bit special to the listener, but do remember its deep, dark tonality won’t go down well in less incisive systems. Editor DP’s system is one of the most explicit I’ve heard, and the Kora worked brilliantly in this, but with smoother set-ups it may sound bland.

 

The question of second place caused me some serious consideration. The similarities in performance between the Icon and the Holfi didn’t make life easy, but the latter finally ended up in second place on the grounds of its lack of a mono switch, and the slightly greater weight and punch exhibited by the Icon Audio when the musical going got really tough. It’s a brilliant bit of kit, the Holfi, so try it if you possibly can.

 

The Icon Audio PS3 just scraped first place by a whisker. A close race and from an unexpected source. Based on previous experience of DC powered phono stages, I wouldn’t have expected one to match the Icon in any way apart from smoothness. However, a truly awesome performance from the Danish visitor gave the Leicester contender a few breathless moments before being just pipped at the post.


So does spending more bring more? Well, broadly speaking yes, but it’s too difficult to generalise. The A.N.T. Kora punches the most above its price and could soon be even more potent with the forthcoming new power supply that’s just been announced. The Lehmann represents a good starting point but seems a little off the pace these days. The most expensive here, the Anatek was startling, but simply didn’t ‘float my boat’, and the same could be said for the Trichord to a lesser extent. Ultimately I felt that the second and third most expensive units here offered the best combination of price, performance and facilities – so full marks to the Holfi and Icon Audio. The trouble with conclusions like this of course is that music tastes, systems, room acoustics and sonic proclivities are all very individual things – so the advice is as ever, go out and listen for yourself!

 

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