Although I am a member of one audio enthusiast club, rarely ever do I have a chance to compare similar equipment side by side in listening tests using my own software.
This past weekend a friend graciously hosted a phono stage party. I've never had the budget to possess a multitude of equipment for comparison--let alone multiple phono stages. Like myself--most enthusiasts often do not have the economic freedom to purchase various new equipment for the sake of comparison. It often takes one with considerable resources to be able to compare numerous different pieces of equipment or one would have to be an editor from a publication with access to lots of equipment for comparison. I'm often tasked for months to gather up the funds to purchase the items I desire. However, I'm often compelled to sell the previous item to acquire the funds to purchase the new one which makes objective comparisons with the old equipment impossible.
So it was my privilege to be invited along on this particular experience.
The premise was to use selected LPs, a single preamp, Turntable/cartridge and cables. The only changes in the system would be the phono stages.
Since this was a comparison of MM phono stages, we used a Mcintosh Preamp connected to the latest Gamit dual-mono amplifier driving a nicely placed pair of Dali floorstanding speakers. The source was a modified Rotel turntable with a simple Grado Black MM cartridge. Power cables and interconnects were the same throughout but were of high quality (Well beyond my budget!) All LPs were thoroughly cleaned prior to audition using a VPI rcm
My contribution to the event was a couple of low-end phono stages including a Bottlehead Seduction phono stage I had built using General Electric EC88 Tubes and the SS phono stage of an Apt/Holman preamp. There were other phono stages of various price points present that were thrown into the mix as well.
We would listen to a selected track, then switch the phono stages and then listen to the same track once again. Every attempt to keep volume consistent between the changes was maintained so that perception was balanced and on equal ground.
The sonic differences were astonishing and surprising. Although none of the examples were unpleasant, it was obvious that certain recordings and tracks sounded better with certain pieces of equipment.
What was also surprising was the "sweet spot" listening position moved slightly forward or backwards with different phono stages. I would have thought that impossible but the experience was repeatable and consistent.
I've never had the opportunity to compare high end equipment without having to drive across town from one store to another. It's not a fair comparison and the listening environment and time inbetween sessions can often cloud one's perception.
Comparing items side by side in a closed environment was enlightening.
This was a very pleasant experience and would love to do it again.
Anyone interesting in conducting another audiophile party in Southern California?
The Bottlehead Seduction was probably the least capable of the three main contenders. It sounded the best on Joan Baez Live but could not compete when the music became more dynamic. It was very shallow at the top and could not reach down deep.
The Apt/Holman phono section was noticeably quicker and could respond to deep bass drums and the sound stage was noticeably more spacious --especially in the high end area.
There was a third phono stage (Vendetta Audio?) which was professionally modified and it outperformed both in regards to imaging but its superiority was evident in its reproduction at both ends of the spectrum. It too was solid state.
I also tried to get a Bellari into the comparison since they are so popular but was unable to get ahold of it in time.
My highlight of the day came late in the session. One track that I've heard many times before had a very delicate stringed instrument in the background. However, I realized for the first time using the Vendetta(?), it was a musician strumming his fingers across the upper strings of a piano.
It was truly an enlightening experience and gave me a greater appreciation of what is available.
There were other MM/MC phono stages present that we opted NOT to throw into the mix. A Michael Yee PFe-1, Manley Steelhead, and a few others were sitting idly on the sidelines. I was later told that an EAR 894(?) was also on the list for that day but was sold to a customer just prior to our party.
I've compared my NAD and Phonomena with several phono stages from friends in the past and the differences are quite audible. However, I must say that with similar priced units, for axample in the $600 range, the differences can't be quatified as better or worse. It becomes a matter of preference. For example, the sounstage may be closer, but is that preferable in one's own environment?
Another factor to keep in mind is the synergy between different components. Just because a phono preamp sounds "better" compared to others during an audition, that same quality may not exhibit itself as well once you bring it home. For example a less bright phono stage may be better if one's listening room at home is a bit over-bright. When the differences in the audition are marginal, this becomes even more important. It's what makes this hobby so time-consuming, I think.
That said, auditioning with friends one of the best parts of the hobby. I've been doing this for a while now and while I'm the cheapest of the bunch (most of my stuff is bought used), it's always rewarding to find that something I brought to the party at 1/4 the cost can still hold its own. That said, when the differences are small, it is usually a matter of preference rather than that the item is really that much better. Take my NAD PP-2 phono stage, for example. I bought it for $80 used and it is still a very capable little preamp when we blind-test it next to $300-600 units. It's not as good as the Phonomena, but it's no slouch either.
And if you make the party a pot-luck, it adds a whole new dimention (and number of guests) to the event.