A comparison of 6 phono stages for your reading pleasure...

Discussion in 'Audio Hardware' started by mike catucci, Mar 12, 2018.

  1. mike catucci

    mike catucci Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    PA
    Several members have asked and more importantly I wanted to offer up something to the forum since I have obtained quite a bit of help over the years from it, specifically the people who make up the membership and if I have an opportunity to give back, I'd like too. I don’t want to call it a review, since the time spent with each stage was only a couple of weeks, however I feel it was long enough to get a pretty good idea of how they sound, especially compared against each other because that is what I did, lots of back and forth comparison listening. And it isn’t often that most of us can get a chance to compare 6 pretty good stages over the course of a month and I thought the feedback from my notes might be helpful to someone trying to make a decision among some of these. To make life easier my gears is: Rogue Cronus Magnum 2, Rega Planar 6 with Ania cartridge (I have moved to the 2M Black but the Ania is the cart that was used with these stages) Focal 726 Towers.

    The stages I had in home to compare were the following:

    Rega Fono MC
    Rega Aria
    Sutherland Insight
    Lehmann Black Carbon SEII
    Lehman Decade
    EAR 834P

    Rega Fono MC -Hated it. Made my system sound thin and lifeless. No depth or width to the soundstage, no imaging whatsoever. Everything was crushed. Mediocre highs and no real bass impact. I feel like I broke it in pretty well so lets' just say it did not get along well with my gear and leave it at that. I won't be referencing it anymore during the comparisons below.

    Rega Aria -a really nice stage and the one that revealed to me that the stage is really very important in the whole scheme of things. I had no idea what I was missing and how much better a good stage can make the music sound. Bass impact was huge, almost like you switched on a subwoofer. Mid's were very nice and imaging was quite good, almost to where one can pinpoint exactly where the instrument was in the room. It fell just a bit short in my preferred area of highs, but not by much. Soundstage was decent, not overly huge but enough to get the correct feel. I'd classify this as a warm sounding solid state stage. 3.75 out of 5

    Sutherland Insight -was on par with the Aria. Not as good in the bass department but a bit better when it came to the airiness of the highs. Soundstage was bigger here and imaging was on par with the Aria, maybe just a bit better. 4 out of 5

    Lehmann Black Carbon SEII
    -this took everything the Insight did but did it all just a little bit better. I loved this unit and the way it sounded with my gear. Bass not as deep and impactful as the Aria but still really very good and really detailed, shiny highs and imaging that was better than the Aria and Insight. Better soundstage, went back quite a bit in depth compared to the other two. For the money this is a really good stage. 4.5 out of 5 -a real bargain in my opinion. if you need solid state stage you'd be missing out to not audition this.

    Lehman Decade
    -This is the big brother of the BCSEII and it does everything the BCSEII does but does it better. It's an end game stage for sure. Here's the catch…in my humble opinion with my gear it just didn't grab me at the increase in price over the BCSEII. It sounded very sterile in my system. Not in a bad way, funny thing is detail and highs are my thing but this was too much. I blame my gear and not the Decade itself. 4.5 out of 5 due to price.

    EAR834P -Fell in love with it as soon as I plugged it in. It does everything the BCSEII does but adds a holographic 3D goodness to it. Imaging -check, wide and deep soundstage -check, good bass -check, airy highs -double check, this was also the first stage where my speakers actually disappeared. And with the EAR things pop out of the soundstage all the time….listening to Pink Floyd….where the heck did that guitar riff come from? I never heard it before or maybe I did but it was so recessed it was barely noticeable. This happens all the time. Dire Straits albums are like crack…there is stuff coming from them that despite hearing them for hundreds of times, it is like playing them all over again new. The EAR gives you great stereo while throwing in some very cool surround sound type effects. Makes me wonder what the Rogue, Herron Audio VTPH-2A, Adagio, Chinook and other great tube stages sound like! 4.75 out of 5

    I ended up keeping the EAR. I stayed away from tube stages forever because my Rogue Cronus Magnum 1 and then 2 is a tube amp and I kept reading how too much of the tube goodness can backfire and create a mushy sound. I'm sorry I listened to that advice. The EAR sounds tremendous with my chain of gear and I only wish one or two of the solid state stages that I had to compare were tube stages so I could have done a shootout with the EAR.

    Again this is not meant as a review, just my notes to help someone get an idea if they might want to try one of the stages I had. If you have a specific question please ask away and I will try to answer it for you.
     
    Big Swifty, Manimal, Ric-Tic and 33 others like this.
  2. Doctor Fine

    Doctor Fine Forum Resident

    Location:
    Lewes, DE
    Very nice.
    Thank you for well written useful info.
     
    mike catucci likes this.
  3. tubesandvinyl

    tubesandvinyl Forum Resident

    A good tube stage will fully outclass a ss stage.
     
  4. Echoes Myron

    Echoes Myron Forum Resident

    Location:
    USA
    Excellent info thank you.
     
    mike catucci likes this.
  5. rpd

    rpd Forum Resident

    Location:
    Nashville
    If one actually likes tubes....if not.....
     
  6. Of course we can google but it was be helpful to have the retail prices listed next to each one . Seems to be a range from about $400 to $2500??
     
  7. plimpington2

    plimpington2 Well-Known Member

    Location:
    Cleveland
    Great write-up. I will add what little I can to this in a few weeks when the Leben RS-30EQ arrives. I run the Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE2 right now (and would second EVERYTHING the OP said about this stage. The Leben is a tubed stage (about $2700), and so will be a departure for me. I’ll be running it into a tubed integrated (also a Leben).

    Judd
     
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  8. mike catucci

    mike catucci Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    PA
    A great point and something I completely forgot. I't looks like I cannot edit the post anymore. ll get them and post prices tomorrow.
     
    SandAndGlass likes this.
  9. Minty_fresh

    Minty_fresh Forum Resident

    Location:
    B.
    Good thread. I’d be interested in a battle of more price comparable stages. Sub $500 stages, $1000 stages, “money is no object” stages, etc...
     
    4011021, mike catucci and sdonline like this.
  10. Strat-Mangler

    Strat-Mangler Forum Resident

    Location:
    Toronto
    I'm actually surprised at the lack of participation in this thread. Fantastic info, Mike!

    Threads like this are very very informative and appreciated.

    Prices for the units are listed below ;

    Rega Fono MC - $450
    Rega Aria - $1495
    Sutherland Insight - $1400
    Lehmann Black Cube SE II - $1149
    Lehman Decade - $2100
    EAR 834P - $1695

    Also noticed the Lehmann Black Cube SE II was erroneously listed as "Carbon". Damn autocorrect. :D
     
    johnny q, Manimal, 4011021 and 3 others like this.
  11. jphabc54

    jphabc54 Well-Known Member

    Location:
    NoVa
    If you're going to continue the demos, I'd love to hear how some of the Graham Slees compare, mainly for selfish reasons since I also have a CMII and have considered all of these stages (the 834P in particular). Plus, the Slees are very easy to demo through their loaner program. I was shocked how much an upgrade the Reflex M (~$675) was over the internal CMII stage.

    I also wonder if you'd get similar tube-to-tube magic from a Jolida JD-9, or if the EAR really is on another level.
     
    mike catucci likes this.
  12. Strat-Mangler

    Strat-Mangler Forum Resident

    Location:
    Toronto
    He won't. He's found what works for him and doesn't plan on buying additional phono stages. I asked already. :D

    As for the upgrade, I'm not surprised as the CMII has a reportedly merely adequate phono stage. A dedicated one will almost always beat whatever is freely supplied with an amp.

    With the Graham Slee, typically they only support one cart type or another but rarely both MM & MC. That leads to costly upgrades if you ever opt to go for another cart type. For that reason alone, I'm not a fan and would suggest instead to look for more versatile phono stages which could be used regardless of where you decide to go with your future purchases. My 2 cents.
     
    mike catucci likes this.
  13. octaneTom

    octaneTom Man of Leisure

    Location:
    Detroit-ish
    As a long time owner of a Jolida JD9 I was amazed at the upgrade in sound I got from a SUT + Parks Budgie phono preamp. I know this not the EAR amp that you're specifically asking about, but the EAR also employs SUT followed by a tube stage.

    I now have an all tube setup (running the Budgie into a Primaluna Prologue One EL34-based integrated amp) and am really, really happy. There's no mushiness, no "too much tubeness", etc.

    Also, this is not to say the Jolida was bad — it's a very good phono preamp, but the SUT+Budgie takes things to another level with regard to bass, noise floor reduction, accuracy and immediacy of the music.
     
    mike catucci likes this.
  14. jphabc54

    jphabc54 Well-Known Member

    Location:
    NoVa
    I almost put the Parks on that list as well! So many good options out there..
     
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  15. Encore

    Encore Forum Resident

    Location:
    Denmark
    Interesting review. Thanks. I haven't tested as many phono stages, but I also like my 834P a lot. I had some problems with the original tubes--I got occasional and quite violent bass burbs that made me fear for my woofers. I had several technicians look at it, and had tubes and caps changed but I think it came down the tubes somehow not being good enough. I tried some other cheapish tubes, and they also burbed. With good tubes in there--both a selection of NOS tubes and Sovtek 12ax7WA--the problem seemed to be solved. And now I'm holding on to it. Unless I get an integrated with a better phono stage. Which will be difficult ...
     
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  16. Strat-Mangler

    Strat-Mangler Forum Resident

    Location:
    Toronto
    Sounds more like a subsonic filter was necessary. Perhaps the new tubes don't emphasize those frequencies as much.

    You might want to look at getting a KAB RF1 unit to permanently address this problem.
     
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  17. mike catucci

    mike catucci Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    PA
    Thank you for getting the prices Strat, much appreciated!
     
    Manimal, Mazzy and Strat-Mangler like this.
  18. mike catucci

    mike catucci Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    PA

    The only other stage I might compare against the 834P is the Tavish Adagio. I'm on the waiting list and although tempted to drop off since finding the EAR I may bring it home and sell the loser of the shootout. I have another month to decide.
     
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2018
  19. Encore

    Encore Forum Resident

    Location:
    Denmark
    No, they were intermittent and erratic. And came also when not playing records.
     
  20. Strat-Mangler

    Strat-Mangler Forum Resident

    Location:
    Toronto
    In that case, probably microphonic tubes. If that ever happens again, gently tap on the tube(s) with a pencil and see whether you can hear the taps through the speakers. If so, that's a microphonic tube.
     
  21. Encore

    Encore Forum Resident

    Location:
    Denmark
    OK. Thanks--will do :)
     
    Strat-Mangler likes this.
  22. Echoes Myron

    Echoes Myron Forum Resident

    Location:
    USA
    Pretty sure a Rega Aria is in my near future. Will be in my second system which is RP6>Exact>Elicit-R>LS50s

    Will eventually go with tubes for my main system.
     
    mike catucci likes this.
  23. Salectric

    Salectric Forum Resident

    Location:
    Maryland
    Nice write up. Thanks for posting your comments on each.
     
    mike catucci likes this.
  24. timztunz

    timztunz Audioista

    Location:
    Texas and Brasil
    Nicely done and congrats on finding something that gives you such obvious pleasure. Your enthusiasm is intoxicating. :cheers:
     
    mike catucci likes this.
  25. Ulises

    Ulises Forum Resident

    Location:
    Denver, CO
    Great post and I admire your methodology. Really underscores the relationship between phono stage and speakers and how key that is in building the sound you want. I love what the Lehmann’s bring to Harbeths, but if I can ever bring myself to switch speakers I would certainly conduct a similar experiment.
     

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