Phonostage comparisons

I decided to look for a dedicated phonostage for my London Reference whch was sent out to John Wirght for an overhaul just before the end of Octoboer last year. If you will recall, he announced his retirment and at the time there was no heir apparent to take over the helm. I decided, even though my London had about 600 plays left in it,  to get her gussied up. As of now, a company has stepped up to continue the legend that is London Decca!

My AMR PH 77 has three inputs but alas, I can hear a fall-off in quality when any inputs are used other than the direct input. It has occurred to me that his could be because none of those inputs have been used for any significant amount of time, meaning they are certainly not run-in. I will put that on my agenda, run-in other inputs on the PH 77. 

I focused on the following phonostages for the London, the SW1X LPU III Balanced, PS Audio Stellar, iFi iPhono 3 BL, Teac PE 505 and the SPL Phonos.

The cost outlier in the group is the SW1x at approximately $10K. It was $12K but due to the strong dollar against the pound it has come down in cost. 

The London, in my system and to my ears sounds best loaded at or above 47k ohms and depending on the stage (how bright the stage naturally sounds) may or may not need to be capacitance loaded between 100 and 200pf. 

The SW1X, based on the tubes in the unit I had in my possession, yielded a gain of 46dB. I would suggest that 46dB is the low threshold gain for the London. This combination produced a big powerful sound with a bit of that tube magic. I could hear the tubes doing their thing. The overall sound was exciting, piano hammer strikes were hard and exacting on fast and furious jazz pieces, very impessive. This was a sound that one could easily live with for a very long time. Of the bunch, this came closest to the sound signature of my Grado Epoch 3 and the AMR PH 77. This is where I found an issue. It was a similar sound and so why would I spend $10K to come close to a sound I already possess? If I did not own the Epoch 3 I probably would have kept the SW1X. While I am no fan of SUT's, I can imagine the SW1X, the right SUT and MC could produce some absolutely beautiful music. 

Next up was the PS Audio Stellar. I really like the Stellar and I think you get a lot for your money with this stage. It is transparent, built like a tank, dynamic and the timing is good. This is the second time I have had the Stellar in my system. Listening to the Stellar with the London, I was a little perplexed. I could not put my finger on it exactly but it was simply not involving. It was the opposite of involving. I don't recall feeling this way back when I reviewed this unit at the request of PS Audio. I will mention, when I reveiwed this unit some years ago it was primarily with MC cartridges. The Stellar was a no go in my system with the London. 

I then queued up the Teac PE 505. This is an interesting and very configurable phonostage, not to mention very good looking. I really wanted to like this unit. I will admit it, I loved how it looked LOL. The timing was excellent and it was more engaging than the Stellar, but I could hear a dynamic constraint as if the sound wanted to blossom but was then pulled back. I attribute this dimunition of the sound field to the active negative feedback RIAA empoyed in this stage. My system is extremely resolving and for good or bad, I can hear EVERYTHING that is in the chain inclduing fuses!

TheiFi Phono 3 BL was up next. I have a great deal of experience with this unit and I will cut to the chase and just say it was excellent. It did everything well, in fact very well. Timing, dynamics, depth of field and bass. Of course it did not play as big as the SW1X, none of them did, nor should one expect them to do so. I was impressed by what that little box was able to pull off. It clearly outperformed the Stellar and the Teac. 

The contest came down to the SPL Phonos and the iPhono 3 BL. The two sound awfully similar to each other and I had to go back and forth quite a bit, I am talking hours at a time over a week long perod! I recalled that the iP3 had hundreds of hours on the clock while the Phonos was newly aquired. I then burned the SPL in for an additional 100 hours and went back to listening comparison testing. The iP3 is $1K and the SPL is $2.5K (it can be had for about $1.6k). Now I could hear the SPL pulling away. Again, the sound is very close and you would need to have a highly resoving system with a higher end cartridge. I could hear deeper into the music with the SPL and the music was slightly more refined.

My overall takeaway ranks the stages with the London Reference in my system as follows. 

1. SW1X LPU III Balanced

2. SPL Phonos

3. iFi iPhono 3 Black Label

4. Teac PE 505

5. PS Audio Stellar

None of these devices are losers. This is simply one mans findings in his system using a non scientific method and his very subjective ears and priorities. I hope you enjoyed the read!

This is not a job for me, this is fun. This is about the enjoyment of music! 



I tried the Elite iPower with the iPhono 3 BL quite a while back. My findings surprised me a bit. I found that the iP3 performed better with the supplied iPower X. I also found this to be the case with the Neo Stream whereas the Zen Stream clearly sounded better with the Elite to my ears. The lesson here is that you have to experiment. Conjecture, as some on this site love to do, typically means nothing. 

I owned the SPL Director/Performer/Phonos and love the performance and small form factor. The only reason I sold was to get into tubes. SPL is seriously good price-performance