Analog Corner #89

Max Townshend's Rock Reference Master turntable (photo: Dan Meinwald).

The day was more unsettling than I'd imagined. Flying the evening of 9/11 to attend Hi-Fi News's 2002 Hi-Fi Show and AV Expo produced more relief than anxiety, though I did have a Rod Serling moment when my room at the Heathrow Le Meridien turned out to be 5911.

The Hi-Fi Show seemed smaller than when last held at The Renaissance and Le Meridien hotels a few years ago. The mood seemed muted—more like what I imagined it was like last year. My view may have been obscured by post-9/11 melancholy, because while I didn't see much that moved me during the three-day show, on returning home and reviewing my notes and photos, I was surprised by just how much important news there was—at least for analog lovers.

Henley Designs Ltd., the UK importer of the Czech Pro-ject turntables, claims to have sold 17,000 of them last year. That's a lot of turntables—especially for a country the size of the UK. That statistic was one of many indications that the UK analog revival continues to gather steam. Negativos countered that most Pro-ject models sold were budget Debuts, which sells for £120 (ca $185) complete with Ortofon 5E cartridge. Are they kidding? Think of the upgrade possibilities—not to mention the potential vinyl sold to those 17,000 analog fans.

Loricraft, makers and refurbishers of Garrard turntables, showed the Archivist, a new moving-magnet/moving-coil phono section capable of matching any equalization curve ever used. It has up to 60dB of gain. Also new: the Garrard Arc du Son 601 ;'table. Tim de Paravicini must have had the Manley Steelhead on his mind when he came up with his new E.A.R. 324 solid-state MM/MC phono stage ($3000–$3500): among other handy features, it has multiple transformer taps for MC cartridges, front-panel loading and capacitance adjustment, and a Stereo/Mono switch. Probably sounds good too.

Speaking of handy features, how about Max Townshend's new, handsome, long-promised, three-speed Rock Reference Master turntable? It's got remote-controlled VTA adjustability with LCD digital readout calibration on the plinth front. It also features silicone arm damping at the headshell, where it belongs. An admission: I missed Max and his turntable. He was hiding in the Art Loudspeaker room and wasn't listed in the show guide. Thanks to Ken Kessler for the post-show heads-up, and to Cable Cooker designer Alan Kafton for forwarding importer Dan Meinwald's photo (whew!).

Nottingham Analogue introduced the new and very handsome Horizon turntable. Complete with Rega RB250 tonearm, the Horizon is expected to retail for around $1000. The folks at Origin Live ( have been very busy: first known for modifying Rega arms, the UK-based company now offers four turntable models, including the extremely intriguing-looking Resolution and Resolution Classic (£1979), and the new, top-of-the-line Illustrious tonearm (£1570). This full-featured arm drops into a standard Rega fitting. Also spotted at the show: the graceful-looking Clearlight Recovery turntable, made in Germany, and, from Italy, the Blue Notes and the elegant MEL Audio Go EL, improved with Zeroha II unipivot tonearm.

Franc Kuzma's long-awaited linear-tracking tonearm, the Air Line, was launched at the English show. The ca $4500 captured-air–bearing design uses a machine-tool bearing-rail combo made in the US. It features fine adjustment of VTA on the fly, a unique azimuth-adjustment system, and all the accoutrements to suggest that the Air Line is a world-class tonearm. You supply the compressor and air-dryer—this saves you money, Kuzma says, because he doesn't have to buy them, import them to Slovenia, and then resell them to you. Makes sense to me. This I gotta try!

Also new: Chord's striking-looking Symphonic MC phono preamp (ca $3000) with up to 80dB of gain and no transformers in the signal path, and Dynavector's XV1S cartridge ($4000), which US distributor Mike Pranka showed me. I also inspected Art Audio's chrome-plated Vinyl One tubed phono preamp (ca $2000) and the new Clearaudio Matrix vacuum-operated record-cleaning machine, which looks superbly built and easy to operate. Finally, Ringmat introduced a special Anniversary model of its acclaimed record mat. Owners of older Ringmats can trade them in toward the purchase of an Anniversary, which includes a number of upgrades and refinements.

Toward the end of the show, Loricraft's European distributor, Martina Schoener, gave me the latest news on Thorens. There will be two Thorens companies. One, not named Thorens, will be staffed by veteran machinists and service people, and will handle parts and repairs for older Thorens turntables (there's a warehouse full of parts for models going back to nearly the beginning of the company). The other company, Thorens, will produce three completely new turntable models. Schoener assured me that this will be "good for everyone." If she says so, I believe her!

A pilgrimage
One of the highlights of my UK trip was a visit to EMI's newly reconstituted vinyl pressing plant, thanks to an invitation from the plant's new publicist, Steven Carr (formerly of LP distributor Vivante). The relocated plant—on former EMI property in Hayes, Middlesex, near the now-demolished original factory—is now owned by a real estate developer who became a vinyl fetishist only after learning about the mothballed pressing equipment, which he was able to purchase for a very reasonable price. He moved the presses to the current location in September 2001 and hired Roy Matthews to run it. Matthews is a veteran of the original plant, having joined EMI in 1952. After apprenticing as an engineer, he joined the record division in 1957 and later retired. When he was asked to return to work, he couldn't believe vinyl was actually coming back.

With nine presses operating 16 hours a day and a 10th press being refurbished (11 more are still mothballed), Matthews has become a believer. Most of the plant's business comes from 12" dance singles and some rock, but with 180gm pressings possible, the company is looking to establish an audiophile label. The presses, EMI 1400s, are a hybrid design using the best aspects of American Capitol, EMI UK, and German technology, built in the UK by EMI.

When I visited, the presses were busy with Naim's first LP release, a reissue of Antonio Forcioni and Sabina Sciubba's Meet Me in London, originally issued on CD. Too bad there's no room to publish the entire fascinating interview with Matthews, or one I conducted later with Bob Jones, one of the last vinyl mastering engineers trained by Decca/London, which later scrapped its own pressing facility. One of Jones' tidbits was that George Bettyes, whose cuts ended with an "L" after the matrix numbers, so hated pressing Decca/London Phase 4 LPs that he eventually quit the company to become a milkman.

Three Phono Stages
In an ideal world, I'd have every phono section I've reviewed in the past 16 years on hand to compare with these three and with all that arrive in the future. But because I have a life, I don't, and I wouldn't even if I could, though some readers (and one retailer) have insisted that that's the only way that I could possibly be of any use to them. Ha! And for those who are concerned that I've neglected the Manley Steelhead, not so! It's still my reference.

That aside, here are three intriguing new phono sections. One, from the UK, has been extensively covered and hyped elsewhere and I'm late to the dance, one is from a well-respected American maker of tube electronics, and one comes from the far left field of Hawaii.

Tom Evans Audio Designs The Groove: The Groove is a single-box design that seems to break all the rules on its way to becoming one of the most highly touted phono stages now available. Evans has a long, well-respected history in the UK, having designed well-regarded phono stages for J.A. Michell, as well as other notables not often seen in the US. The Groove is housed in an acrylic box of modest size that also includes the power supply. It uses op-amps, is not easily adjusted by the user, and, at $3200, is not inexpensive—until you consider what's inside and how it's built.

When you order your Groove (see for dealer information), you tell the dealer what cartridge you'll be using and they do the rest—or you can specify the loading, which will affect the amount of gain they include (up to 70dB) and the version they send you. The fact that there are two basic Grooves—one for 20–1000 ohm loading, one for 1–47k ohms—is necessitated by the current-pulling capacity of the IC used in the former and its interaction with the special low-noise Lithos voltage regulation. Because I use many different cartridges, I asked for 1000 ohm loading, which worked well for every cartridge I tried from 0.2mV to 0.5mV, though at 0.5mV there was much more gain than I needed. Be sure to specify your needs.

The Groove's internal construction is impressive—like a less complex version of the Connoisseur I reviewed in October—with copper shielding on both sides of the sandwiched main boards, and a dual-mono power supply featuring a separate transformer for each channel. The shielding makes the Groove essentially RF-proof, so if that's your problem, here's a solution. Gold-plated loading sockets are accessible, but only for the nimble-fingered. The rear panel features discrete input/output jacks, a ground, and a fused IEC mains jack.

Give the Groove about a week to settle in before doing any serious listening. When I did, I heard a phono section that competed, without apology, with most anything out there at any price, the Boulder 2800 and Connoisseur 4.0 excepted. I'm not saying the Groove wins the contest, but it belongs on the playing field.

The Groove's keen sense of rhythm and pacing was, as its name implies, the first thing I noticed—as will you, probably, especially if you've never heard this level of performance. Everything arrived close to on time, with perhaps a bit of a punchy emphasis in the lower midbass, though that served to reinforce the Groove's rhythmic drive. I say "close" to on time because of what the Boulder and Connoisseur can do in that regard.

Next I noticed the non-tubey, non–solid-state harmonic development—neither leading-edge crystalline nor lushly overripe, but plenty rich. There was an abundance of clean air on top, but no ice particles, no grain, no glare or mechanical etch. But the Groove did have the Connoisseur's immediacy. I didn't sense that the signal was traveling down a long, lonely electronic pathway on its journey to my preamp. Dynamics at both ends of the scale were rendered without hesitation, and the overall resolution was first-rate, thanks to the ultra-low noise floor. This was a very quiet phono section.

As with every great phono section I've heard, when I switched from a lesser design to the Groove, instruments on familiar recordings that had been stuck in the mixing muck suddenly emerged with startling, obvious clarity—not because of spotlighting or other spectral tricks, but because the Groove deftly untangled musical elements in time and space while leaving them harmonically undisturbed. The Groove presented a picture that was solid, nonmechanical, harmonically complex, and ultradynamic. While such performance would be impressive at any price, it was more so considering the $3200 asking price!

Negatives: The Groove sounded slightly congested compared to the very best, and tended toward the dark side (go for 47k ohms if you like it more open), but without softening transients. Some might prefer a bit more air; and, as with the Connoisseur, I didn't get the last word in decay. Bass extension was impressive, but clarity and subtlety on acoustic bass were merely adequate, with a bit of thickening. Still, tonally and harmonically, the Groove was remarkably neutral. "With the Groove, the price of admission to the top tier of phono preamplification drops precipitously."

Lamm LP2 Deluxe: The dual-mono vacuum-tube Lamm LP2 (, a single black box featuring switchable moving-magnet (MM) and moving-coil (MC) inputs, is also meant to be heard more than to be seen. The Deluxe edition ($6800), with added damping and high-capacity capacitor bank, weighs more than 40 lb (22 lb for the $6300 standard version). Vladimir Lamm's high-current, pure–class-A, zero-feedback design uses two pairs of small, high-transconductance, low-noise, post-WWII Western Electric 417A/5842 tubes originally intended for RF preamplification. The RIAA EQ is passive. The Deluxe power supply uses a 6X4 full-wave rectifier tube, a choke-regulated filter, and 150 Joules of energy storage (125 Joules in the standard edition). Selectable MC step-up is via a 10x Jensen transformer with a 40 ohm input impedance. The MM input is 47k ohms in parallel with 200pF. High-quality components are used throughout, with the Deluxe edition bypassing some caps with polystyrene, and the build quality is superb.

Though the On/Off switch is located inconveniently in the rear, the LP2 is not meant to be left on. Designed to run relatively hot, it needs adequate ventilation, and sounded its best only after about 30 minutes' warmup. Each unit is burned-in at the factory for 72 hours. The documentation is the most complete and detailed I've seen for a high-end audio product, with unusually complete instructions and full sets of useful specs and graphs. Every expensive high-end product should include such thorough advice.

The LP2 Deluxe was super-quiet in both MM (38dB gain) and MC (58dB) modes. Backgrounds were pitch-black, out of which emerged the subtlest of low-level details and graceful musical textures. In fact, the LP2 competed texturally with the Boulder 2800, and bested the Manley Steelhead in that regard. The Manley—still my reference, and I'm still in love with it—can sometimes sound a bit mechanical on top.

The Rega Exact positively sang through the LP2, as did a high-output Adcom Crosscoil (rebuilt by the Garrott Bros.) into the MM input. But the MM input is more of a utility; few buyers at this price point will be running MM. The 40 ohm input impedance proved a good compromise for most MC cartridges, even for the 3 ohm Lyras (the multi-tap Manley transformer stops at 25 ohms). There was nary a trace of transformer signature to be heard through the MC input; the overall sound was warm, relaxed, and expansive, though free of such clich;ae'd tube signatures as bloom, overly ripe bass, or softened transients.

A/B comparisons with the Groove—not exactly bright on top itself—indicated that the Lamm's top end was ever so slightly diminished, but not at the expense of transient speed and definition. It reminded me of some of the recent Dynavector cartridges, which many readers rave about to me, but which I find slightly reticent. The Lamm's output impedance was a somewhat high 3.5k ohms, so I went back to John Atkinson's measurements of the Hovland HP-100's input impedance (see Stereophile, November 2000). This was 100k ohms across most of the band and down to a still-high 86k ohms at 20kHz, so I don't think the slight lack of top-end presence was an impedance mismatch. (Though I asked for 1000 ohm loading, a communications error led to me being sent 100 ohms, which I didn't find out about until after the review was handed in. My comments about the top-end extension was based upon my belief that loading was set at 1000 ohms. Clearly, a 100 ohm load would darken the sonic picture somewhat and better conform to my observations.)

Bass extension, control, and definition were startlingly good. Not since the Boulder 2008 have I heard the standup bass on the LP of Alison Krauss's New Favorite sound so well-defined. (The Alesis Masterlink was so helpful in making these instantaneous comparisons!) Subtle dynamic scaling was on a par with the Boulder and notably superior to the Connoisseur, which, while maintaining a superb musical grip, seemed to jump more than it flowed, dynamically and rhythmically. The Lamm had great control of the proceedings, but also knew when to let go.

Subtle string textures, reeds, and female voices were positively thrilling, and the size and weight of the entire picture—especially stage depth extending well behind and in front of the speakers—was particularly impressive. Add that to snap-you-back-in-your-seat dynamics and authoritative decay, and the Lamm became one of a handful of the finest phono sections I've ever heard. Classic Records' 45rpm reissue of the Reiner/CSO edition of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (RCA Living Stereo LSC-2201) never sounded better.

Hagerman Technology Trumpet: Built in Hawaii, the Hagerman Technology Trumpet is a well-built if quirky, all-tube phono preamp available in single-ended and balanced-output editions. Check out the website,; Jim Hagerman's resume and accomplishments will assure you that you are not buying some garage tinkerer's design. You'll also find some impressive design and build details, especially given the Trumpet's reasonable price of $1895.

I opted for single-ended (the design itself is balanced), which has 44dB of gain (vs 50dB balanced). This meant I was unable to use low-output MCs with the Trumpet, though it had almost enough gain for the Lyra Titan's 0.45mV output into the Hovland HP-100's relatively low-gain line stage.

The Trumpet uses hand-matched quartets of 12AX7 and 12AU7 tubes, but Hagerman encourages NOS or other exact substitutions, as long as you use carefully matched sets (because of the balanced configuration). To operate, you first turn on the heaters, wait a minute, then turn on the high-voltage section. Then you go from Mute to positive or inverted polarity. (Yes—an $1895 all-tube phono stage with a polarity switch.) You can solder in loading resistors of your choice.

I used the Rega Exact and Adcom Crosscoil cartridges. The HT Trumpet proved competitive in direct comparisons with the Lamm Deluxe, with an open, airy, detailed, and thoroughly intoxicating sound. Still, specs-wise, the Trumpet's 66dB signal/noise ratio couldn't match the Lamm's 86dB in MM mode, and its 750 ohm output impedance means you'd better keep your interconnects very short and low in capacitance.

The Trumpet's bass was very well-controlled, texturally coherent, and exceptionally nimble, given the Exact's less-than-controlled bass, and the pacing and rhythmic flow were stellar. In short, the HT Trumpet sounded stunning, and was a total pleasure to listen to—which is what I did for many hours. Dynamic slam was somewhat diminished compared to the Lamm LP2's, but not to any great degree. The results with the rebuilt Crosscoil were ear-opening, the HT's rich sound complementing the somewhat dry but well-controlled Adcom.

The Lamm LP2 is an tubed MM design with a transformer in front for MC, so you could add a $5000 Audio Note transformer to the Hagerman Trumpet and still spend less than $7000. Or you could buy some far less expensive transformers and do it yourself, and the results could be incredible for under $3000. I'm out of space now, but I'll have more to say about the Trumpet with transformer as soon as possible.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head, UK Parlophone 180gm LP
2) Lovin' Spoonful, Daydream, Sundazed 180gm LP
3) Lee Morgan, Candy, Blue Note/Classic Records 200gm Quiex SV-P mono LP
4) Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade, Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony, RCA/Classic Records 200gm Quiex SV-P LP
5) Various Artists, Verve//Remixed, Verve EC 150gm LPs (3)
6) The Vines, Highly Evolved, Heavenly/Capitol UK 180gm LP
7) Steve Tibbetts, A Man About a Horse, ECM CD
8) Rob Mazurek, Silver Spines, Delmark CD
9) Shemekia Copeland, Shemekia Copeland, Alligator CD
10) Sonny Rollins, Tenor Madness, Analogue Productions 180gm LP

Ortofan's picture

... new company not named Thorens that was supposed to have a warehouse full of parts for older models?