A New Definition for Value: The DB Systems DB-8HG Moving Coil Phono Preamplifier
by Greg Weaver
With the dawn of the new year, you will be seeing an apparent dichotomy of reviews coming form me. Two pairs of loudspeakers I have on deck for review right now perfectly define what Im talking about. The first pair, the soon to be released, new version of the Von Schweikert Research VR-4, carries a list price just under $4000. The second pair, the Clements 107di, has a sticker price of just $390. See what I mean about an apparent paradox? Why, you may ask, would I be looking at such diversity? Two reasons, really.
One, all budgets are not created equally. One of my long time goals as a reviewer has been to locate and publicize overachievers at ANY price point. Lets assume we have a $500 budget for a pair of new loudspeakers. As an example, there may be 70 different pairs of loudspeakers at that price point. In my estimation, about 65 pairs of them would not be worth discussing. Of the five remarkable pair remaining, each will exhibit different strengths and weaknesses. If you are properly informed as to what those attributes are, then you are more likely to find a speaker in that price range that most closely matches your listening biases.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is the issue of VALUE. Just how do we define value, anyway? Since diminishing returns figure heavily in the high-end audio game, I offer my third axiom of audio. Beyond a certain dollar amount, it requires a doubling of price to achieve even a 5 percent increase of performance. I have long based my personal perception of value on a performance to price ratio. At the behest of some friends, I have decided to develop a numerical expression to describe that relationship. As an example, a $100 device that subjectively achieves 75% of the overall performance of a $1000 unit (which is the theoretical 100% for this specific comparison) scores very high on my scale. The performance ratio of .75 (75%/100%) multiplied by the price ratio of 10 ($1000/$100) yields a 7.5 on the audio analyst value scale. I use the larger price first in the second half of the equation so I can arrive at a whole number larger than one hopefully anyway. Well, today Im here to tell you about a device which receives a 9.15 on my newly developed value scale, the diminutive DB Systems DB-8HG Moving Coil Phono Preamp.
With the current domination of the line stage preamplifier, a "bolt on" phono stage is no longer a mere novelty. Look around today and see how many preamps you find with an internal RIAA equalization stage for use with a turntable. Not very many, eh? And those that do are anywhere from $600 to $2000 more than their unequipped counterpart! My fascination with vinyl (see this month's "Synergizing"), combined with my penchant for over-achieving budget gear, led me to place a phone call to David Hadaway, of DB Systems. I heard one of his very affordable pre amps and was curious to see what he might have available in the way of a phono stage, in particular for moving coil cartridges. After making the move from MM to MC a decade or so ago, I doubt I will ever be turned back. The differences are just too compelling. Well, it turns out he had a new offering in that category. The DB-8HG, which lists for just $175, arrived within two weeks.
The itty-bitty DB-8HG (measuring only 6.3" wide, 4.5" deep and 2.2" tall!) comes with a captured "wall wart" DC power supply. The supply is nearly as large as the pre-amp itself! The front is adorned only with the stylized DB logo. The back panel has two sets of gold plated RCA jacks, one for the input from the turntable, along with a ground terminal, and one for the output to the preamplifier. The unit comes with a five-year warranty.
You must let the device warm up for at least five minutes after plugging it in before you power up the rest of your system. I made the mistake of not paying strict attention to this during one switch between the DB-8HG and my reference phono stage, learning the hard way that you must adhere to this warm up schedule. Since I have a limited number of AC outlets behind my equipment rack, I was forced to unplug it while using the other phono stage, then plug it back in after the switch. I was concerned when, after I had reinserted the unit into my system, I discovered that I had no sound. While examining the installation to see if something was amiss, it turned on. I was startled by two consecutive loud thumps, one immediately after the other, from each speaker as first one half of the preamp, and then the other, powered up. Fortunately, the volume was very low or I may have been in real trouble. Once it has been inserted into your system and powered up properly, you will not have to worry about this problem. BUT, be sure you follow the directions when you first hook it up to avoid any damage.
As I was doing my initial listening to this little upstart, I poured over the spec sheet. WOW, does this thing talk the talk! The RIAA frequency response is given as flat to within .04 dB from 20 Hz to 20 kHz! My reference phono stage only boasts a de-emphasis accuracy of .25 dB over the audible range. It listed a crosstalk level of 100 dB at 20K, where my reference was only capable of 88 dB at the same frequency. The distortion was given as .002%, 20 Hz to 20 kHz at 2.5 volts output. My reference only claimed .05 % across the same bandwidth and voltage! The gain each provided was fairly close, with my reference offering 58.5 dB at 1kHz and the DB-8HG offering 52 dB. Noise levels were 66 dB for my current phono stage verses 77 for the DB-8HG, both referenced to a 1 mV A-weighted input. This was gonna be fun!
After about a week and a half of casual listening, in an attempt to give the device under test time to run in, it was time to see if it "walked the walk." Some of my favorite "pies" were on deck and ready to foil this unpretentious little phono stage. First, my original pressing of Steely Dans Aja. Staging was excellent, as was the imaging. Deep, wide and tall with instruments concretely placed throughout the presentation! Vocals were very clearly articulated and full of their natural richness. The sax had that sensational "bite" of the live instrument. There was exquisite detail and enunciation from the midrange on up, even if just a tad on the soft side. From the lower mid-bass on down, it seemed a little bit slow and "fat" by comparison; perfectly acceptable given the buck seventy-five price tag. And, in all fairness, it may be this particular pressing, a 1977 ABC T1. Time to forge ahead.
Moving to my Mobil Fidelity release of Aja revealed that this deficiency was actually a bit of both. With the MoFi, the bottom end was tighter and a bit faster, yet still not offering quite as much control as with my reference. It did exhibit excellent articulation of the stage, and that rich, lush midrange was ever so apparent. The subtle detail it presented and the urgency of the music it conveyed was not to be believed. This thing was astounding!
Next up, my Classic re-issue 180-gram release of Respighis Pines of Rome. Portrayal of the piano about midway through the piece is wonderfully voiced and recreated solidly deep into the sound stage. Violins and cellos, though nearly flawlessly done, are slightly to the cooler side of reality. The calling of the instrumental nightingales in this piece is simply heavenly; as good as I have ever heard it portrayed. Yet, there was just the slightest overall softening to the attacks of plucked strings and the piano. Also, under the taxation of complex passages, a tendency for things to loose their solid location and get slightly confused in the stage reared its head. Also during complex instrumental passages, it gave in to an occasional congealing of individualized voices, which never faltered when not so heavily taxed.
I brought out my Linn Recut Records pressing of Bela Bartoks Piano Concerto No. 3, with Julius Katchen on piano. Very nicely handled. I did notice just the slightest hint of coldness or sterility in the recreation of the piano compared to the best Ive heard. But what a wonderful interpretation of the hall and its presentation.
It was time to go into the vaults for this next favorata obscura, Rare Earths 1973 masterpiece, Ma. Unbelievable! Excellent delineation of the stage side to side, top to bottom and good depth and layering. Tight, solid mid-bass. Light, airy yet highly detailed cymbals and high frequencies in general. Incredible recreation of detail, yet without the slightest hint of that etched, aggressive quality I hear on lesser units. This was breath taking, even if just a bit on the soft side of the best Ive heard! This thing has no business sounding this good for this price! Accuracy of timbre, low level detail resolution, superb imaging and sound stage recreation, lively and airy highs, natural presentation, lush vocals. Even with its slight looseness at the very low end of the spectrum, a hint of softness starting in the upper midrange and an occasional loss of individual detail, this phono stage is a hands down no brainer.
Is this the best phono stage out there? Silly question. Does it represent one of the best values available in outboard phono stages? You betcha! This device easily performs within 80% of the most exotic and expensive units Ive played with. I am smitten with this phono preamp, even with its few flaws.
As the Pin Ball Wizard queries in the Who rock opera Tommy, "How do you think he does it? I dont know. What makes it so good?" Im no engineer, but I suspect it is much trial and error, great attention to detail and careful parts selection. It leaves this record lover wondering what a better power supply and the substitution of some higher quality parts, with out the economical price point in mind, might yield.
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