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Phono preamps come in all shapes and sizes – consumers have never had as much choice as they do in 2021 regardless of budget and the availability of so many great options will only help keep new users in the fold.
Listening to records has never really been a simple endeavor; especially for those of us who suffer from a form of OCD when it comes to cleaning, storage, table set-up, and constant tweaking to extract that last piece of music from the grooves. But unlike listening to CDs or streaming, there is a more obvious and tangible reward from all of that attention to detail when listening to vinyl; the uptick in sound quality is far easier to discern when a cartridge is set-up properly and the matching phono preamp is amplifying that tiny signal to its fullest.
Over the past twelve months of the pandemic, I’ve been fortunate to have a wonderful local record dealer (who just closed his physical location after 11 years due to COVID-19) who kept me supplied with new music, and a constant flow of audiophile phono preamps to review.
Mid-tier products like the LP110 V2 from Moon by SimAudio delivered exceptional results with warmer sounding cartridges and made a strong case for itself in systems in the $10,000-$20,000 range. This $400 Canadian workhorse will never leave any listener up “Schitt’s Creek” without a paddle.
But what about audiophile phono preamps priced closer to $1,000?
If your existing integrated amplifier or pre-amplifier doesn’t include a phono stage and you want to really raise the bar on the quality of your analog playback, then it does make sense to consider either the Croft Acoustics RIAA phono pre-amplifier ($995), iFi Audio iPhono3 Black Label ($995), or Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 ($699).
All three of these phono preamps sound exceptional for the money – yet sound nothing alike.
For the purposes of this comparison, I used 4 turntables to give each unit an opportunity to shine and expose any warts or glaring shortcomings.
- Thorens TD-145/Dynavector 10×5 (HO MC, 2.5mV)
- Thorens TD-160 Super/Ortofon 2M Black/Hana EL (MM, 5mV) (MC, 0.5mV)
- NAD C 588/Ortofon 2M Red (MM, 5.5mV)
- U-Turn Audio Orbit+/Grado Labs Black3 (MM, 5mV)
- Magnepan LRS, Q Acoustics 3050i, PSB Alpha P5, Wharfedale Diamond 10.1
- Cambridge Audio AXA 35, Cambridge Audio Edge A, Croft Phono Integrated, NAD C 316BEE, Naim Uniti Atom
Croft Acoustics RIAA Phono
Croft Acoustics doesn’t have a lot of representation in N. America at the moment but is available directly from the manufacturer in the United Kingdom, and from dealers in other parts of the world. Trying it without a serious audition might seem a tad risky but this isn’t a new company without a proven track record. Glenn Croft doesn’t really advertise, and I’ve never seen their components at a single audio show in over 20 years of attendance.
There is a simplicity to the industrial design that won’t appeal to everyone; it’s basically a very plain metal chassis without any fancy buttons or things to screw up. The Phono RIAA is a MM tube phono preamp with 46dB of gain and one set of inputs. It does work very well with a SUT and low-output moving coil cartridge but you can’t set the impedance or change the level of gain.
The RIAA Phono (16”W x 10.6”D x 3”H) is a solid 10 pounds and will likely sit unadorned on your equipment rack for many years and aside from the orange glow emanating out of its vented top cover, you might be hard pressed to know that it’s on. Croft supplies two 12AX7 tubes with each unit and while one is free to tube roll – the stock units are just fine.
Don’t be that guy.
- Breathes a lot of life into recordings and that’s only part of its charm
- Instruments have just the right amount of color
- Spartan industrial design helps keep the price down
- Pace and timing are superb
- Makes great recordings really stand out
- Vocals can have spooky level of realism
- MM or HO MC only (LO MC requires SUT with no loading options)
- One input
- Small degree of hum
- Difficult to audition
- Can be too illuminating in a neutral sounding system
- Made me spend a lot of money on new records
Having owned a Croft Phono Integrated for a number of years, I knew what to expect from the RIAA Phono unit, but also expected more from the more expensive standalone unit and was ultimately not disappointed.
Is the performance gap that huge between the two units? No – but the dedicated phono stage has a little more presence overall, a deeper soundstage, and was less noisy than the stage inside the integrated amplifier.
The Blue Note reissue of Freddie Hubbard’s Hub-Tones (Blue Note 80 Vinyl, ST-84115) is a beautiful sounding record and exactly the type of recording that would sell a lot of Croft units. Really exceptional phono stages should make an instrument like the trumpet come alive without forcing you to reach for the remote because the top end has too much sizzle.
If Freddie’s trumpet playing doesn’t have a palpable feel to it, you’re only getting part of the experience. The Croft excels at that in the right system.
What the hell does that mean?
Insert the Croft into a system with a warmer tonal balance as a smart first step. The Q Acoustics 3050i have been tagged in some reviews as being “boring” or “too polite” in the midrange; a description that doesn’t jive with my overall experience having tried them with almost a dozen amplifiers but I can see where a little bit of juice couldn’t hurt. The Croft with the right cartridge like the Ortofon 2M Black or Dynavector 10×5 did wonders for this speaker.
If you prefer a warmer sounding cartridge like the Grado Timbre Sonata3, the Croft will show off its trademark midrange glory and also open the sound at both ends of the spectrum.
The Croft puts an emphasis on dynamics, pace, and letting the flow of the music come through.
For more information: http://www.croftacoustics.co.uk/RIAA.html
Buy: $995 – Check Amazon.co.uk for availability.
Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2
From the manufacturer that sells the most audiophile-grade turntables in the world comes one of the most versatile phono preamps available below $2,000. The Tube Box DS2 has flown under the radar for at least a year, which is rather remarkable considering how well designed the product is. A more expensive version of the product is available with glossy wood side panels, but I think the standard version (Black or Silver) is the one to focus on at $699.00.
The Tube Box DS2 is one of the most versatile MM/MC tube phono preamps with two sets of inputs/outputs; something that is rare at this price level. Users can adjust the gain for either type of cartridge with settings for 40 – 65 dB. Moving coil cartridges are well served with the ability to set the impedance and input capacitance as well. A pair of 12AX7A triode tubes are featured in the dual-mono design.
The chassis is very inert and Pro-Ject has made a point of isolating the circuit from vibration and RFI; the unit is dead silent, and I could not hear any hum through any pair of loudspeakers with the volume turned up.
- Excellent build quality
- Tubes give both MM and MC carts fleshed out presentation
- Multiple loading options for both types of cartridges
- Sounds excellent with wide range of cartridges
- Warmer tonal balance
- Excellent soundstage depth
- Music moves with solid pace
- Rear panel layout isn’t ideal
- Top end is slightly rolled off
The Tube Box DS2 might not match the Croft in the presence department, but music flows out of the Tube Box DS2 with excellent pace; one could easily discern the differences between the Ortofon 2M Red and Grado Black3 which are both entry-level cartridges that emphasize different aspects of the spectrum.
The 2M Red has never been a favorite with its bright treble, but the Tube Box DS2 proved to be a surprising fix and I found myself enjoying this $99 cartridge with the NAD C 316BEE/Q Acoustics 3050i combination more than any other system at my disposal. The aforementioned Hubbard album was utterly brilliant sounding with both the 2M Red/Black cartridges – the additional $700 that the 2M Black commands is certainly worth the money but only in the context of a much more expensive system on a better table.
The Croft and Pro-Ject both inject a lot of tone and texture into the music, but there is no question that the RIAA Phono from the U.K. is more transparent sounding with better thrust from top to bottom. The Tube Box DS2 delivers a warmer sounding presentation and is a great match with more detailed sounding MC carts – something the Croft can’t offer.
For more information: https://www.project-audio.com/en/product/tube-box-ds2/
Buy: $699 at Amazon.com
iFi Audio iPhono3 Black Label
iFi has been on roll for the past few years and their affordable line-up has some real gems if you know where to look. Build quality is top notch on their products, and the Black Label products are some of the easiest recommendations if you are assembling a desktop audio system, headphone rig, or two-channel system for a larger room. The iPhono3 is the third generation of phono preamps from the brand and what really sets the iPhono3 Black Label apart is the level of adjustability, and subterranean noise floor.
The unit can handle both MM/MC cartridges; with separate inputs for each type of cartridge but only one set of outputs. With a range of 36dB-72dB of gain, the iPhono3 can handle almost any cartridge on the market. iFi has always utilized a DIP switch configuration on the bottom panel of the iPhono products and supplies a tool to make setting the capacitance and impedance easier.
- Built like a tank
- Wide range of adjustments and load settings
- Quietest phono pre-amplifier we’ve tried
- Neutral tonal balance
- Excellent sense of pace and timing
- Load settings are hard to read on the bottom panel
- Don’t lose the DIP switch tool
- Top end could be sweeter
Having only listened to the previous generation at trade shows, I can’t honestly say how the two products differ. I do know that I found the set-up on the iPhono3 easier than the LP110 V2 due to the typeface selected but it’s still a bit of an exercise to get correct – and almost impossible without the supplied DIP switch key.
A low noise floor might not seem very exciting, but the iPhono3 Black Label creates an incredibly quiet background for the music to emerge from and does so better than either the Croft or Pro-Ject units. Bass notes are taut and meaty depending on the cartridge. The neutrality of the unit isn’t a negative in a scenario where a user may want to experiment with different types of cartridges and experience their sonic flavor with their favorite recordings.
The iPhono3 works well with all genres of music and while it will not smooth over a lousy recording, its tonal balance won’t make it unlistenable either. Partner the iPhono3 Black Label with a warm sounding cartridge and you’ll get every ounce of its performance. When combined with a more neutral sounding cartridge, the iFi unit doesn’t add or subtract anything from the presentation giving users a lot of freedom to experiment with their loudspeaker/amplifier combination. One the most versatile audiophile phono preamps on the market for under $1,000. A true bargain.
For more information: https://ifi-audio.com/products/micro-iphono3-bl/
Buy: $999 at Amazon.com