|The Vinyl Word
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Art Audio Vinyl One Phono Stage
by Kurt Morgan
As a kid in the sixth grade, I had a bi-weekly art class for which the teacher, Ms. Szabota, would come to our room with her "art cart." She was an early disco queen with big, feathered hair and polyester flares. My friends and I once saw her dancing on a Dance Fever-like television show out of Cleveland. She was sooooo cool.
During our art classes, the lovely Ms. Szabota would let us play records while we drew, painted or did macramé. The record player was one of those industrial-looking portable jobbies that required you to put a penny on the tonearm to keep it from skipping. Not many of us brought in albums, but I always did. It was the '70s, and I was discovering bands like The Electric Light Orchestra, Kiss, Led Zeppelin and Black Oak Arkansas. Because we were allowed to play just one album, I would spend a lot of time choosing the record to bring. For whatever reason, it was very important to me.
Then I heard Queen. I had just discovered A Day at the Races, and I was floored! It was different -- huge, engaging, wonderful. Well, I couldnt wait for Ms. Szabotas class. "Does anyone have music they would like to play?" My hand hit the air like a rocket. "Yeah, I do!" I jumped up to cue up side one. I was anxious to turn people on to this cool music. As I scanned their faces to "Tie Your Mother Down," I didn't get the reaction I had expected. What was their problem? By 60 seconds into the beautiful "You Take my Breath Away," several kids where actually complaining. They wanted something else, so Ms. Szabota took a vote that unanimously decided to change the record. We listened to the only other record in the class that day, a scratched-up 45 of some disco tune. We listened to it over and over for the remainder of the class. I was nauseous.
It was then that I realized I had a passion for and openness to music that not everyone else shared. I might have been frustrated and even a little embarrassed that day, but it was the first time that I felt like my feelings about music were special, unique. After that, I stopped looking so hard for the approval of others. I took up music lessons wholeheartedly and began searching out and collecting music with a fervor. Twenty years later, Im more into spontaneously composed jazz than Queen, but not a lot has changed really. Im more or less stupefied by the masses who think of music as an unimportant distraction or the latest fashion trend.
What really concerns me, however, is the extent to which western culture has moved away from music and sound in general. We become completely and totally visual. Things have trended toward the eye for hundreds of years, but nothing like at the end of the 20th century. I would argue that people don't listen anymore. They hear plenty (too much) and watch everything, but they dont listen. North Americans average over 40 hours of television per week, movies are more popular then ever, and little girls idolize fashion models. Sad.
There is much linguistic and archeological evidence to suggest that at one time, the ear ruled. The ear is by far the higher sense. In fact, hearing is the most evolved, accurate and powerful of all the senses. Tell those who think the eye is more accurate to try a simple experiment. Simply stretch a length of string over a board (nails a few feet apart will suffice as anchors). Now, using only your eyes, try to point to the exact middle of the string and measure your results with a ruler. Try it ten times. You might point to the exact middle once if youre lucky. Now, close your eyes. Depress the string and pluck each end until the frequency, or the note, is the same. And there you go -- the exact middle every time. Hearing, not seeing, is believing.
These are tough times for music lovers, musicians, or anyone who holds sound dear. Music is more important than so many realize. Music is nothing less than the vibrating energy of mans soul. I mean, its the fundamental stuff that we are! Think of it, if all matter is just different forms of energy and energy vibrates, as is its nature to do, then the universe, including man, is built upon vibrations. I believe the artistic manipulation of vibrations and overtones is the ultimate expression of mans soul. And as a humanist, I see God within the individual. Music is, therefore, a means by which to communicate directly with God, if not an actual manifestation of God.
Up for review is a phono stage from Art Audio, an English company whose products are distributed in America by Joe Fratus at Art Audio USA. Joe and his team also design some of the Art Audio products, but not the Vinyl One. Tom Willis, owner of Art Audio UK, designed the Vinyl One. Rumor has it that Willis may move the operation to the US to combine efforts with Joe. Sales in the US, particularly of the Diavolo amplifier, are strong. Whether this happens or not, youre likely to see an increasing number of Art Audio products specifically for the States.
For now, let me cut to the chase. It is my sworn duty to disclose the following information about the Vinyl One. It is a class-A, phase-correct design that uses a single 12AX7 per channel, one 12AX7 as cathode follower, and a 6FQ7 in its power supply. Its moving-magnet section provides 50dB of gain, with the moving-coil providing an additional 20dB. The input impedance is 100 ohms, and sensitivity is 2.25mV. Its rated frequency response is 20Hz - 20kHz +/- 1dB (moving magnet), 10Hz - 20kHz (moving coil). The Vinyl One is 18"W x 4"H x 10"D.
The cost ranges from $1995 for the basic moving-magnet version with black anodized faceplate to $2695 for the version with MM and MC, shiny chrome faceplate, gold control knob, and two pairs of outputs (one connected for gain/volume control). With any version, you pay $200 for that purdy faceplate. Add $200 also for a 70dB gain/volume pot. If you're using a line-stage preamplifier, that pot will give you a variable control to match the gain precisely to your cartridge. If you choose to bypass the preamp altogether, as I now do, you will have a volume control with enough gain for any cartridge.
That little gold knob caused me to rethink my entire system set up. The sound of the unit was wonderful through my modified Melos SHA Gold, but when I bypassed the line stage, it was like moving the music one more step away from the confines of the system. Going direct allowed the music to sing more freely, to live with a "wholeness" I have never experienced from a vinyl record. As a result of the experience, I reconfigured the two stands in my listening room to allow easy access to the rear of the components. Switching interconnects is a minor inconvenience for the benefit I heard.
System and set up
I listened to the Vinyl One in between a Nottingham Analogue Mentor turntable with a Graham 2.0 and Benz-Micro Ruby 2 cartridge. My phono interconnect and AC cords where made by my friend Stephen Harper of Audio Consultants (UK). Amps were either Marantz MA700U monoblocks or the Art Audio Diavolo, which, by the way, was a lovely match with Vinyl One. Given my phono-guy reviewing duties and the wonderful record finds Ive made lately, I cant remember which seedee player I have. The rest of the system consists of Michael Green Design products, including Clampracks, cabling and speakers. My studio is outfitted with 27 Pressure Zone Controllers. Yes, Im a "tuner." I believe in tuning my instruments, my recording and my playback equipment. Dedicated 20-amp lines feed each component through Hubble outlets. No walls in the room are parallel and the ceilings average 16' high. Every musician who has visited considers the room an acoustic orgasm.
The unit I was given was well broken-in, so it was ready to go through the paces. I tried numerous tuning methods in a probably vain attempt to please all you tweakheads. Seriously, I think I owe it to you guys to try to get the best sound out of the component at hand, if only in my system, to my ears. I tried everything I had: Seismic Sinks with varying levels of lead weights atop, heavy lead-filled stands, light tunable stands, cones, pucks, marbles and footies of all sorts were employed. The method that worked best in my system was a light clamping in a Michael Green Designs Clamprack with four brass cones. I suspect it has to do with the fact that the chassis of the Vinyl One is not any heavier than it needs to be. In my experience, lighter chassis are easier to tune. I even played with the tubes. I tried Tungsram ECC83s as well as Mazda gray-plate 12AX7s in place of the standard NOS early large plate GEs (JAN mil-spec). In my system, the Mazdas had the best bass. Your dealer, Joe Fratus, or any of the tube specialists might have other suggestions depending on what you are hearing in your system.
Whether you try different tubes or not, take a look inside the Vinyl One. It is a clean, well-laid-out design that is not -- I repeat, is not -- overbuilt. Its as simple as it can be and only as complex as it needs to be. It's not surprising that its from a company heavily involved in single-ended triodes.
First and foremost, the Vinyl One sounds like music. I never thought of the words "accuracy" or "faithfulness" when listening through the Vinyl One. I just wanted to listen to the music, to hear what the musicians or composers where saying. Pace, rhythm and that ability to make the music move the way the artists intended is part of the Vinyl Ones character -- in abundance. Youll want to get up and dance, play air guitar or do your best Furtwängler impression listening through this piece. The ability to keep the music moving along requires tonal and pitch accuracy, so instruments sound like theyre supposed to sound. If you like hearing the difference between a rosewood- and mahogany-bodied guitar, this phono stage will do it. As a musician, I like when I hear another musician thoroughly using his instrument and the multitude of sounds it can make. For instance, listen to the wonderful drumming of Tony Williams with the Miles Davis Quintet and the way he uses every part of a single cymbal. On the tune "Dolores" from Miles Smiles, LP #2 in Mosaics box set [MQ10-177], Williams is not just getting different sounds from his cymbal, hes leading the direction the tune is going through those subtle nuances. On that song, hes leading the band. Through the Vinyl One, its obvious.
Another thing that kept me jazzed about this unit is the way it handles complex instrumentation. Whether handling massed strings in a large orchestra or multiple subtle overtones from acoustic instruments in an intimate setting, separating all those sounds can be difficult to do properly. The Vinyl One draws a wonderful balance between a hi-fi-like distinction of sounds that can often sound contrived and a mushiness that masks detail. I felt as though I were hearing everything in that recorded space as it occurred. Listen to the Testament pressing of Elgars Cello Concerto in E minor [EMI ASD 655] and youll hear the range of the Vinyl One -- and the recording. There was superb handling of the entire orchestra going full tilt to the kind of detail that makes you swear you can hear the rosin falling off Jacqueline DuPres bow. It was almost eerie.
Now, a soundstage is to me the least important part of what a good stereo system can do. It's mostly artificial anyway, being created by a recording engineer panning different microphone feeds left or right. Besides, Im too busy dancing, playing along with the music, or lost in another dimension to listen to where the sounds are coming from. But if a soundstage is important to you, the Vinyl One does it extremely well. This is particularly true for depth. Im not sure exactly why, but it tends to throw everything way back and away from the speakers. A great record that shows off good depth is the Classic Records pressing of the self-titled Buena Vista Social Club [World Circuit RTH 79478]. The semicircle in which the musicians sit sounds like it goes well behind the back wall through the Vinyl One. This effect was much less pronounced with the other phono stages I had on hand.
So does the Vinyl One offer tube sound? I guess, but not in an overly romantic way. Youll hear that glow around the music, that three-dimensionality with a killer bod, but not additive syrup like some valve designs portray. I suspect that this unit will please both the purists who seek to preserve the signal (accuracy and all that) as well as those who just want to touch the music, make love with it, as it where. The unit worked beautifully with solid-state and tube power amps and never misbehaved.
For comparison, I got to know a few other phono stages. The Lehmann Black Cube, the E.A.R. phono stage, AcousTechs phono stage and the Bel Canto Phono 1 were in the studio. The Lehmann is probably the best known to SoundStage! readers. I love the little, musical Lehmann, perhaps the best value in all things vinyl. I liked the Vinyl One better. The Lehmanns reproduction of high frequencies was not quite as realistic. I love the metals -- cymbals, gongs, bells, etc. With the Vinyl One, Mark Walkers Zildjians on Patricia Barbers Modern Cool [Premonition 741-1] sound more like the real thing than through the Black Cube. The sound of an acoustic bass was similar on both units, but the Vinyl One had more impact. You feel it. Both can swing hard; the music just moved like it wasnt never gonna stop!
The AcousTech phono stage sounded strained compared to the Vinyl One. The E.A.R. was much too laid-back in my system. Not true of the Vinyl One. In fact, it reminded me of a Lowther in its immediacy. The Vinyl One did everything thats important to me better than any of the other units, and it did nothing in worse fashion.
This music is AWESOME!
Sorry, but a little side note here: Im listening to "Pharaohs Dance" from the first LP in the Mosaic box set, Miles Davis The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (August 1969 February 1970) [Mosaic MQ6-183]. If you have that funky seedee and book from Columbia, get thee to the local used disc store and sell it! Then put the money toward the Mosaic baby! The Vinyl One will do this to you.
Could the Vinyl One be improved? Perhaps. I bet if you substituted the plastic legs supporting the circuit board with stansions made of different materials you could improve the sound. And there are those who would say that a volume pot, which the Vinyl One has, can always be bettered by a decent stepped attenuator. This, however, is not something you think about when listening to good music through this piece.
The Art Audio Vinyl One phono amplifier is an outstanding musical component straight out of the box. If music is a passion that runs deep, if you seek to serve the music in an honest, respectful way, you may find the perfect tool in the Vinyl One. There are more great phono stages available today than ever before (perfect sound forever indeed!). The Vinyl One is among the greatest, and it's the best Ive heard.
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