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This review first appeared in the December 2007 issue of and can be read in its original German version here. It is herewith translated and presented to an English-only audience through a mutual syndication arrangement with whereby they will translate and publish select reviews of ours while we reciprocate with one or two of theirs each month. As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end auto-links to his e-mail should you have questions or feedback you wish to send. All images contained in this review are the property of - Ed.

Reviewer: Ralph Werner
Sources: analog - Acoustic Solid MPX, Phonotools Vivid-Two, Denon DL-103, Ortofon MC Rondo Bronce; digital - audiolab 8000CD, Esoteric SA-10, C.E.C. TL51XR, East Sound SE PV
Amplification: integrated - LUA 4040C; pre/power – bel canto Pre3/M300s, Funk LAP-2
Loudspeakers: Spendor S3/5, Volent Paragon VL-2, Zu Audio Druid mk4
Cables: low-level - Ecosse Baton + Symphony, fis Audio Studioline, fis Audio Livetime, Funk BS-2, van den Hul Integration Hybrid, Zaolla Reinsilber NF; high-level - Ecosse SMS2.3, fis Audio Livetime, Fast Audio Copact M6, HMS Sinfonia, Ixos 6006 Gamma, Mogami Blue Rocket, Zu Audio Libtec
Power strip: fis Audio Livetime
Rack: Creactiv & Taoc AS-3, Gerätebasis der Akustik Manufaktur
Review component retail: Holfi Viltalus €335; SAC gamma €649; Aqvox Phono 2 Ci MKII €949

Even though that's putting it casually, it does remain rather accurate to call it reconstitution of a 40dB attenuated signal while additionally amplifying it by a factor of 100 or even 1000. That calls for respect from the common dwarves we call phono pres. No doubt hi-power class A amplifiers stoke pride of ownership higher: heavy, hot and expensive. All of that pulls. But once you factor 'start to finish' conversion given the ridiculously minuscule voltages an MC cartridge sends down the pike, the phono pre church mouse proves itself to be quite the beast of burden. Hats off, gentlemen.

Today's investigation presents three of these mini signal workers: Holfi's Vitalus, SAC's gamma and Aqvox's Phono 2 Ci MkII. The Holfi changes hands for 335 euros; the SAC takes up the middle ground with 649 euros; and the Aqvox demands 949 to make for quite the cross-country sound check. Before we saunter into the listening room, a few comments on trim and special features.

Holfi Vitalus:
Holfi's Danish Vitalus has served me respectably for quite a while. It's a classic black box: one input, one output, mice piano in-between. With all eight DIPs to off, the MM input is active (47kOhm/200pF). DIP 1+2 selects MC and various combinations of the remaining switches dial in one of eight different input impedances from 13 to 5,000 ohms.

There's no subsonic filter and an external power supply avoids radiation inside the main enclosure. Germany presently has no Holfi importer but the Vitalus can be procured through SWS-Audio for example.

SAC gamma:
SAC's gamma received a face lift which is apparent belly up. Those little switches are new, enabling subsonic filtering and an MM/MC gain lift of up to 76dB. As does the Holfi, there's an external power supply whose 14VA rails (instead of 10VA) are scaled up.

"What about impedance and capacitance DIPs?" Nyet. For adjustments, refer to the parallel RCAs on the back. Each gamma is supplied with an order form for plugs that fix
desired impedance and capacitance. The customer simply provides either the values or the model names of the components to be used. SAC then supplies the custom fittings free of charge. Extra plugs cost 10 euros but Herr Axel Schäfer, chief of this Essen firm, contends that no adjustments sound best. Stock input impedance is 1k/47K for MC/MM respectively, with a frontal knob selecting between moving magnet and moving coil.

No further features. Or rather, one: Owners of older gammas are eligible for a 449 euro complete makeover which replaces all electronics. Incidentally, this upgrade program stretches across SAC's entire lineup. Rightfully proud, Herr Schäfer mentioned a 21-year old unit he recently received for overhaul modernization. That's a loyal fan club.
Aqvox Phono 2Ci MKII:
By comparison to the above, the Aqvox nearly conjures up a pilot's controls bay. Sorta. For sure, connectivity has advanced: two i/o ports each, balanced/XLR and single-ended/RCA. Gain, input Z and capacitance switches regulate the non-symmetrical input exclusively. Selectable impedance values are 100ohm, 1 and 47K. Internally switchable picofarad capacitance for MM is 47, 100, 220 or 470pf.

Around back, MM gain can be raised by 6dB, up to 20dB for MC. Incidentally, MM can only be had from the RCAs, MCs can take either input, with the maker clearly favoring balanced to benefit from "technological advances". How so?

Though merely three years on the market, Aqvox phono stages have nearly garnered classic status already, likely at least in part because of designer Carlos Candeias, perhaps supported by the pro aura which surrounds both machine and company Aqvox whose three-deep offering covers consumers and professionals alike. Occasionally, amateurs get hip to the fact that mastering engineers do use the good stuff, never mind don't always pay through the nose. Aqvox entered the market with the 2Ci for a mere 600 euros, which since has sadly been adjusted for inflation. The successor in MkII guise does weigh in with
a serious power supply which, unlike with the other loaners, remains inside the main chassis where the Aqvox has more room to spare - on a separate board to be sure.

The current 950 euros charged (the upgrade from MkI to II is 300 euros) remain quite competitive for a fully balanced machine. Which naturally begs the question - is balanced really required? Aqvox responds with four bullets:

1. Symmetry
Because cartridges are inherently balanced, this advantage should be - um, taken advantage of. For one, it means reduced signal transfer distortion, sensible with the miniature voltages involved. Then there's the +6dB gain advantage since balanced amplification doesn't reference to 0 but anti phase.

2. Current gain
According to Aqvox, MC carts pass on "decent current" but "negligible voltage". There's little current change between high- and low-output MCs unlike voltage. Hence current gain becomes choice, which for MC picks up two advantages: the pickup is electrically damped (analogous to damping factor) which helps MC's bothersome HF resonance without undermining dynamics. Secondly, impedance matching for MCs become redundant as long as those (and only those) are run purely symmetrical. Plug 'n' play is the term, putting an end to audiophile night sweats and panic over "damn, perhaps another 20 ohm". Rather, our audiophile will grumblingly pull the comforter over his ears because you stole one of his toys...

3. RIAA plus Neumann
While the RIAA EQ curve is the official standard, plus Neumann is the unwritten law. Mister Neumann at the time limited
HF boost to protect the cutter heads of his cutting lathe. Having become the facto standard, this should be likewise employed on the re-EQ end, less attenuation above 10kHz than pure RIAA would have it. A rational argument.

4. LEF
This pertains to the Candeias gain modules also seen with C.E.C. To combat transistor nonlinearities and concomitant nonlinear gain, Load Effect Free circuitry (a form of floating cascade circuit) avoids running the voltage and current load lines through the output transistors. This is claimed
to linearize gain without global feedback while cleaning up the sound. Further details on this can be found here. All Aqvox components (i.e. also the D/A converter and microphone preamp) rely on LEF. The Phono 2Ci sports four Candeias ICs, one per channel and gain block. Any reason for the disco lighting above though?

What else? Three buttons and two rotary knobs. MM/MC selection is on the back panel as is ground lift to avoid hum. The subsonic filter is upfront as are the dual mono gain trim pots. "When dimensionality and soundstaging lock in, you've got the perfect gain value" assures Aqvox's Herr Lübke, differentiating the importance of this setting from your preamp's or integrated's master volume which controls ultimate playback levels.

Needless to say, symmetrical circuitry requires symmetrical cabling. That's standard with most tone arms (Rega excepted - refer to the Aqvox home page for conversion). Should your interconnects terminate in RCA -- standard -- 25 euros add an RCA-to-XLR adapter. That's what I used to equalize things for comparative purposes. It also avoided readjusting VTA endlessly. My phono cable exits directly beneath the tonearm to require dismounting to change cables. True balanced operation with its attendant noise reduction is audible in practice, however. Backgrounds get blacker, hum drops and I'm not really missing the Russian radio news announcer during album swaps.

Sonic impressum
Off the bat, let's reiterate that I'm comparing apples and pears, certainly where pricing is concerned. This nips any search for "best of class" right in the butt. We'll replace that with questioning what sonic differences one might obtain. Please, do not forget the respective price discrepancies at work! Vinyl ancillaries were the Ortofon Rondo Bronze and Denon DL-103 carts, the Vivid II tonearm from Phonotools, my Acoustic Solid Wood MPX deck and an stst-hifimanufaktur phono cable.

Holfi Vitalus / SAC gamma
Day 'n' night would be stretching it but the core traits of these two phono preamps did rather diverge. Where the Holfi conveys an impression of nicely balanced music, the SAC could elicit a frisk comment of "Yo, square. Look what I've got!" in more ways than one.

The Vitalus approaches the tonal spectrum from the middle where, let's face it, most music occurs. Best to concentrate here than explore the outer limits especially when quality won't be maintained at the edges. Highs are present but more transparency is clearly possible. The same applies to the bass - relatively extended but rather soft and just decent. Alas, both these observations don't weigh heavily at first because the midband is nicely differentiated and believable for a well-balanced, long-term sustainable tonal balance.

Conversely, the gamma by SAC starts in the basement, way down. There's clearly more bass presence than over the Holfi. If it was purely 'more', I'd have a problem. Alas, bass runs had so much growl, bounce and precision; drum kits such dry weight; that the SAC's wink-and-grin way quickly insinuated itself: "Chill, relax, prepare for fun." With Rock and Pop albums, this was categorically affirmative. This presentation proved so well timed, involving, sweat-inducing and more honest that this German writer nearly forgot his language and bellowed, "Oh yeah!"

To avoid heaviness with this tonal balance, the SAC also passes more in the upper octaves than the Holfi. It is more extended in both directions. Do I hear detractors mumble "loudness"? Not. Truly. As far as the tonal balance and quality of this sonic cocktail are concerned, it's highly satisfying. The SAC gamma, to my ears, sounds tonally "wide open".

Impulse response / dynamics
Brevity rules. The SAC is a snappy saluter. Seriously, across the board, it's faster than the Holfi, be it piano runs, hi-hat attacks or -- in particular -- intense double bass workouts. On the dot, quicker. Better. Ditto for macro dynamics. When the pedal hits the metal, things lurch forward without hesitation or compromise.

Spatial recreation / image localization
The SAC moves the music a step closer to the listener, something you gotta fancy. Where the Holfi puts it center line -- the imaginary stretched
string between the speakers -- the gamma moves it forward. This will disturb a few folks but not me. Conversely, the Dane erects a nicely broad stage where the SAC focuses more strongly in the center to sadly compact things a bit. Perhaps this is a perceptional shift since the music projects more forward for a light zoom effect. Wide-angle panoromas surely look different.

Depth of field is very good, meaning consecutive layers are nicely resolved, contingent on record. The edges flatten a bit though where the SAC gamma maintains more light down the middle. The Holfi Vitalus mirrors the gamma's outside demeanor for the entire stage (which is readily livable with).

Image specificity with the SAC gamma is first-rate. Blurry outlines are banished, everything is focused, contours are clearly delineated and filled out with believable body on voices and instruments. This supports the transparent erection of the virtual stage and explains why one can see into it so deeply. Simultaneously, width narrows a bit to move the musicians a tad closer together. That being the case, you really don't want foggy outlines. The SAC delivers, painting space somewhat smaller but deeper and with the finer brush.

How about the Aqvox Phono 2Ci MkII? Different again - tonally, spatially, altogether. Down the line: to use given lingo, the Aqvox phono stage handles the frequency spectrum in the most linear fashion, arguably gently attenuated in gradual fashion below the upper bass. It lacks the outright slammage of the SAC which, aside from rock-out fare -- say on Jazz, Blues, Classic or generally acoustic stuff -- can nearly get too much, not in the bass but because it blocks midrange insight a bit where the Aqvox is fully open, linear and transparent all the way up into the treble, without harshness or roll-off losses. This machine, like an arch conservative subscribed to fidelity in the word hifi, believes in neutrality's ideal. Very nice. It sounds the most broadband of today's candidates and also musically is the most broadband flexible. The "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" forward charge of the SAC is lacking, however.

Dimensionality with the Aqvox is terrific, period. Stage width is a tad wider even than the Holfi, as deep as the SAC gamma but lit up even into the corners. Layering and internal organization are exemplary, left, right and down the middle. Our Hamburger also plays from the ground line rather than close to the net as the SAC. Perhaps image specificity isn't as millimeter resolved as over the SAC gamma but this isn't necessarily a drawback as full corporeality of the MkII's subjects is pursued with great vigor.

And I'll be damned and at a loss for a good explanation but I did occasionally think that it also imaged higher. My notes show numerous entries of "higher" followed by a question, then exclamation mark. Perhaps this is ultimately illusory and a function of the more elucidated treble conveying greater spaciousness all around? Perhaps.

In general, there's more detail, greater color gradations, better microdynamic resolution. Take hi-hat: The 'ping' on the attack spikes higher over the SAC but if the follow-up
trembles a bit in amplitude, it's the Aqvox which tracks every change and serves it up. The precision of an upright bassist's fingering or the relaxed yet extremely accurate vocal playback, neither in yer face nor too removed but precise and easeful... that's high class. This makes the Aqvox the audiophile subtletist of our lineup - perhaps just a tad polite but listened to closely, clearly the one which resolved the most detail, nuance and inner life of the music.

The rather affordable Holfi Vitalus offers a lot of bang for the euro. Its key virtue is evenness, tonally -- nothing excessive anywhere -- and dimensionally where it stages broadly and with good depth. Image resolution could be better but clearly avoids the blurs. That more is possible across the board is self-evident given the price to make the only valid criticism a desire for greater dynamic contrasts.

Seemingly the SAC gamma's calling card, when one switches horses midstream of a rocking uptempo number from the Holfi to it, "Wow!" is the only apt response. To be more specific, this entails:
  • Formidable bass with growl, rebound and dryness. Somebody really nailed these qualities on the head. Bravo.
  • Dynamic high-contrast rendition with timing in its pocket.
  • Extremely precise localization of instruments, voices and sounds to organize the stage for great transparency.
  • The latter makes for good depth layering, albeit predominantly focused in the middle.
  • A criticism is curtailed stage width. This does not equate to unduly dense or crowded – to the contrary, the SAC gamma separates very sharply - but a bit more space would be nice.

The Aqvox Phono 2Ci MkII meanwhile offers:

  • Great stage width and depth with accurate localizations but no undue chiseling.
  • The treble is in its own class: clear, beyond criticism, soft without indecision, perfectly balanced.
  • Ditto for the mids: Vocal balance is spot on, neither too close nor too far, very very accurate without spittle hitting the microphone - unless it really did. Highly nuanced.
  • Only the bass wants for the occasional dose of pepper not for quality -- grip, articulation and timing are spot on -- but simply raw quantity.
  • Already the most detailed, nuanced and graduated, it's also microdynamically the most accurate of the three. The Aqvox is highly informative, weaving a dense net of apparently secondary sonic trivia yet exactly this -- plus brilliant staging -- adds up to the credible 'live effect' I appreciate. Macrodynamics are good but the SAC is better still.
  • For the money, fit and trim are first rate, the latter probably due to the pro roots - unpretentious and solid, with balanced and single-ended i/o ports, ground lift, variable gain in front, around back and dual mono. Add four selectable capacitance values, only three for input impedance (because MC should use XLRs).
  • On the latter point, if you own more MCs than inputs, the Aqvox 'auto-matching' feature is key (the RCA input, to my ears, is indeed a few degrees more subdued).

In a perfect world, the Aqvox would be fitted with a bass boost button. I wouldn't use it a lot but occasionally. If it were called gamma rather than bass boost, I'd simply grin mischievously.

Aqvox website
Holfi website
SAC website
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