[SoundStage!]The Vinyl Word
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March 2003

Thor Audio TA-3000 Phono Stage

by Bill Cowen

 

Review Summary
Sound "Neutral," "exquisitely layered soundstage and an overall sense of superhero-dom in the area of dynamics"; "more to the incisive side than some other tube components, but never etched, bright, or razory"; "not syrupy, muddy, or warm" either.
Features "Very classy-looking" two-piece tube phono stage whose gain ("40dB for moving magnet or high-output moving coil cartridges, and 70dB for use with low-output MC cartridges") and loading (300 ohms unless otherwise requested) are factory set; lifetime warranty on the unit and its circuitry, not including the tubes.
Use "The lack of user-configurable loading and gain can be problematic for cartridge-swappers"; includes a stereo/mono switch, however.
Value "For those audiophiles who want to wring the most from their LPs and don’t mind spending the money to achieve just that."

It never ceases to amaze me that so many audiophiles will spend large sums of money on a turntable, tonearm and cartridge, yet allocate a disproportionately low amount of funds to the phono stage. I’ve written about the "phono stage as an afterthought" before, but as I read postings regarding vinyl replay on some of the Internet forums, it becomes plainly clear that as much as some things change, some others never do.

While it isn’t necessary to mortgage your house to procure a quality phono preamplifier, it is necessary to consider that the final sound will be totally dependent on the weakest link in the chain. When the phono stage is the weakest link, no amount of money spent upstream will correct its faults.

When the Thor TA-3000 phono stage arrived at my house, I was most interested to hear if it was going to be a strong link for me.

Description

Thor Audio's $6990 USD TA-3000 is a two-piece phono preamplifier, with one chassis containing the primary signal-path electronics and the other containing the power-supply components. The main unit is toroidal in shape, which is the traditional chassis trademark of Thor Audio. Whether this departure from the rectangular "black box" approach appeals to you (or not) will be strictly a matter of personal preference. Thor’s use of this shape was not primarily motivated by a desire to be different, but rather for its resonance-reducing and short-signal-path advantages. I personally found the appearance of the TA-3000 to be unique, attractive, and a very nice departure from the norm.

The main unit measures 14" in basic circumference, and approximately 5" tall. In the center of this large toroid is an open area that contains the tubes. In the review sample, this opening was lined with high-gloss gold-plated metal (yes, real gold), but chrome is also available. Very classy-looking, to say the least. A removable cover (gold or chrome plated, depending on the interior metal finish) is provided to go over the opening in the event RFI poses a problem. I had no such problems during my time with the TA-3000, so I didn’t use the cover. Besides, I like the look of naked tubes. The factory feet deserve special mention, as they all consist of a Black Diamond Racing Cone coupled to a BDR Round Thing. It’s not often that you see such expense and attention placed on the footings of a component, but it shows how important Thor considers them to be.

The tube complement consists of four 12AX7s and two 12AT7s, all Russian sourced. On the front of the chassis reside two long-handle toggle switches, one for play/mute and the other for stereo/mono. (I’ll say it again here: I wish every phono stage had a mono switch, as it is necessary for optimum playback of mono recordings, as well as being a nice tool for cartridge setup). Finishing out the front is an LED mounted close to the top center, which indicates positioning of the play/mute switch. Around back are four gold-plated single-ended RCA jacks (one pair for input, the other for output), and the umbilical connector for the power supply.

The power supply is 8" in diameter and slightly shorter (overall) than the main unit. It sports a single on/off toggle switch with an LED up front, and an IEC connector and umbilical around back. Thor provides a high-quality mains cord with the unit (not your standard molded Belden cord), and I used it exclusively during my auditioning.

The TA-3000 has two gain offerings: 40dB for moving-magnet or high-output moving-coil cartridges, and 78dB for use with low-output MC cartridges. Note that this is not user-switchable -- the TA-3000 must be ordered from the factory with the desired gain scheme. If a low-gain unit is ordered initially and the owner wishes to change to high gain, the unit must be sent back to the factory for reconfiguration. The cost to go from MM (low-gain) to MC (high-gain) is $550, and $175 to go the other way, which includes return shipping. Loading is factory set at 300 ohms for the MC version, and four different resistive and capacitive loading values are offered for the MM version.

Thor’s lifetime warranty is worthy of mention here. While the warranty extends for only 90 days on the tubes, the rest of the unit is warranted for the life of the original purchaser. In the event the unit is sold, a five-year warranty may be procured for the new purchaser at a cost of $400, which includes a new set of tubes, a thorough factory inspection, and return shipping. Many companies offer no warranty transfer whatsoever, and very few offer a lifetime warranty for the original purchaser. This speaks highly of Thor’s confidence in the quality of its product, to be sure.

Setup and use

In my system, the TA-3000 required two shelves on my SolidSteel rack -- one for the main unit and a second for the power supply. The main unit was placed on a Neuance shelf, and supported by the factory feet. The power supply was situated below the main unit, sitting on the stock 1/2" particle-board shelf that came with the rack, and again left on its factory feet. Due to the sound quality obtained, I didn’t feel any pressing need to try different isolation or tuning approaches, which is saying a lot for this rabid tweaker.

Interconnection was via Shunyata Research’s Aries interconnects, and although I tried the Omega Micro A-7 interconnects for a short time, the Shunyata cables worked more synergistically. Cartridges in play were the Benz-Micro MC-SCHEU (.33mV output) and the Zyx Fuji (.25mV output). While I normally load both these cartridges at 100 ohms in my Art Audio Vinyl One phono stage, they worked perfectly with the 300-ohm loading of the Thor.

Finally, the TA-3000 performed flawlessly during the four months it spent in my system. This is something that should be expected of components at its price point, but something that doesn’t always occur.

Tunes, please

The first obvious qualities that emerged from the TA-3000 were a large and exquisitely layered soundstage and an overall sense of superhero-dom in the area of dynamics. Many quality tube-based components do very well at the harmonic-structure thing and bring about a sense of body and palpability, something with which solid-state components have a harder time. Unfortunately, many of these same tube components can falter in the area of macrodynamics, sounding more polite and laid-back than realism would dictate. Not so with the Thor. It came through with those things tubes do so well, but was also a dynamic overachiever, with lightning-fast soft-to-loud transitions and incredible range between the silence and the peaks.

Associated Equipment

Loudspeakers – Coincident Speaker Technology Total Eclipse.

Amplifiers – Audio Electronic Supply Super Amp stereo amp and Cary Audio Design 280SE "V-12i" monoblocks.

Preamplifier – Cary Audio Design SLP-2002.

Phono stages – Art Audio Vinyl One.

Digital – Cary Audio Design 306/200 CD player.

Analog – Eurolab Premiere turntable with 80mm platter, Graham 2.0 tonearm with 2.2 bearing upgrade, Zyx Fuji and Benz-Micro MC-SCHEU cartridges.

Interconnects and speaker cables – Shunyata Research Aries interconnects and Lyra speaker cables, Omega Micro A-7 interconnects, Graham phono cable.

Power conditioners and power cords – Shunyata Research Hydra power-distribution center, Shunyata Research PowerSnakes Anaconda Vx, King Cobra and Diamondback power cords.

Accessories – Black Diamond Racing cones and Round Things, Solidsteel and Target racks, ASC Half Rounds and Tower traps, Michael Green Designs Pressure Zone Controllers, Marigo Audio Labs VTS tuning dots, Walker Audio Ultimate and Standard Valid Points, both racks fitted with Greater Ranges Neuance shelving for all components.

Although Mighty Sam McClain’s Give It Up to Love [AudioQuest AQ 1015] is a superb recording, some might consider it to be a less-than-perfect LP for determining macrodynamics. Wrong -- or at least wrong until you hear it played through the Thor TA-3000. With "Got to Have Your Love," the range in McClain’s voice is darn-near scary. I had to turn the volume down from my normal setting, as the ultimate loudness produced via the TA-3000 was enough to clip my amps!

"Adagio Non Troppo" from Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11 (Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra [Philips 9500 322]) was a nice proving ground for the TA-3000’s exceptional soundstaging capabilities. This is a nicely recorded disc, suffering only from a bit of flatness dynamically. It wasn’t so flat with the Thor, and what appeared in front of me was a much wider and deeper soundstage than I’m accustomed to. Don’t infer that things were blown out of proportion or artificially super-sized. They weren’t. There was a much more realistic presentation overall, with hall sounds and back-wall reverberations coming through as they would in real life. Further, the imaging and localization of each instrument were much easier to pick out -- each piece occupied its own space, and that’s no mean feat where massed orchestral strings are involved. Such "3-D-ness" is what helps a recording sound real (as long as it’s not overblown), and very few components do it well.

Tonally, the TA-3000 toes the neutrality line quite closely. It is more to the incisive side than some other tube components, but never etched, bright, or razory. It’s also not syrupy, muddy, or warm. If you’re looking for a classic "tubey" sound, then the TA-3000 will probably not be to your liking. Cueing up "And She Was" from Talking Heads Little Creatures [Sire 25305-1] was a real treat in this regard. With a slow-sounding or overly warm presentation, this piece loses its rhythmic vitality, and the bass lines plod rather than plunder. The TA-3000 made the most of things here, with extremely clean vocals, quick and snappy percussion, and it had me tapping my toes all the way through the song. No foot-tap equals no value in my book, and I’m happy to say that the Thor earned a prestigious foot-tap award from me.

Next up was "Of Missing Persons," from Jackson Browne’s Hold Out [Asylum 5E-511]. This is an LP that I’ve had since college days, and while it was a good recording when new, it’s been played so much that even furious scrubbing on a VPI 16.5 record-cleaning machine won’t rid it of all its accumulated noise. The TA-3000 did quite well here, putting most of the noise into the background rather than laying it in my lap. I’ve heard a couple of phono stages that did a lot of things right, but they were wholly unmerciful with surface noise and defects. Such components would be all fine and good for listening strictly to new LPs, or perhaps records that had been well cared for. They’re not so good, however, if much of your collection (like mine) was purchased from a used-record store. The Thor passed my noise test, and while it was not the absolute top performer in this regard when considering all the phono stages I’ve heard, it was much better than most.

The Dixie Dregs' What If [Capricorn CPN-0203] is another album I’ve had forever, and while I absolutely love the music, the recording quality is only so-so (at best). Interestingly, the better the system it’s played on, the better it sounds (and we all know that some recordings sound like dreck no matter what the caliber of the system they’re played on). My current turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination is the best I’ve ever owned, and the Thor is one of the best phono preamps I’ve ever heard. "Gina Lola Breakdown" was reproduced better than I’ve ever heard it. That statement may not make much sense unless you know that I’ve listened to a lot of phono preamps, cartridges, and turntables in the last five years. And it’s a fitting summation to the overall prowess of the TA-3000.

Any negatives? Of course, the Thor’s presentation will not be to everyone’s liking. There will be those who want (or need) something a bit more laid-back, a little more forgiving, and a little softer. The TA-3000 will be for those who want a neutral, superbly dynamic performance and already have all the rest of their analog ducks in a row. If you have an overly bright or analytical cartridge, or if the rest of your rig is missing a few beats, the Thor will not cover it up in the name of pleasantness. Additionally, the lack of user-configurable loading and gain can be problematic for cartridge-swappers. For those who buy a cartridge and use it until it wears out, this won’t be much of an issue, but it is something to consider.

Comparison

On hand for direct comparison was my reference Art Audio Vinyl One. The Vinyl One retails at approximately one-third the price of the TA-3000, so it came as no real surprise that the Thor offered improved performance in many areas. Perhaps the biggest difference noted was in macrodynamics, where the Thor simply went from soft to loud more quickly, with more attack and a broader range. Soundstaging also had increased depth and width, and offered a more layered rendering from front to back. Tonally, the Vinyl One is a bit warmer and somewhat more polite than the Thor -- the TA-3000 puts things in front of you in a decidedly more incisive manner. Although I still enjoy my Vinyl One tremendously, the Thor TA-3000 does in fact bring more to the plate in terms of sonic proficiency.

While it’s been quite some time since I heard the Audio Research Reference phono stage, the Thor TA-3000 brings back strong memories of its dynamic capability, which was one of its most endearing qualities. Both are roughly the same price, and both are the statement phono preamplifier products from their respective companies. The TA-3000 sounds more neutral in the midrange than the Reference, and while the Thor is not without its own sound, it doesn’t pronounce it as readily. The Audio Research had more gain available, and as a result it ran a little quieter than the TA-3000 when mated with a .25mV-output cartridge. The Audio Research Reference was also more flexible with loading, which is a nice thing if you swap cartridges a lot.

In the end, which unit appeals to you most will be entirely dependent on personal preference and system synergy. Further, anyone considering such a significant expenditure on a phono stage should listen to both the ARC Reference and the Thor TA-3000, as they are more than fair competition for each other.

Conclusion

While expensive, the Thor TA-3000 is a beautifully manufactured phono preamplifier with exemplary sonics. Its chassis is certainly unconventional, but it reeks of aesthetic quality. In terms of presentation, the TA-3000 falls into the lively and spirited camp versus that of the laid-back and polite. There is no trace of syrupiness or bloated bass, yet there is the body and dimension that it would seem tubes provide best. It can deal effectively with cartridges down to .25mV output, and while not as flexible with loading and/or gain setup as some other phono stages, this will likely not be an issue for most.

In all, the TA-3000 is for those audiophiles who want to wring the most from their LPs and don’t mind spending the money to achieve just that.

...Bill Cowen
bill@soundstage.com

Thor Audio TA-3000 Phono Stage
Price:
$6990 USD.
Warranty:
Lifetime on unit, 90 days on tubes.

Thor Audio
315 Palamar Dr.
Fairfield, CT 06825
Phone: (203) 373-9264

E-mail: sales@thoraudio.com
Website: www.thoraudio.com

 

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