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Speaking of the mute switch on the front panel, it is a very good idea but quite counter-intuitively implemented at least to my way of thinking. When the switch points to ‘on’, the output is muted, when the switch points to ‘mute’, music passes. Once you realize that the switch turns the mute function ‘on’  it becomes logical but at first I was puzzled. Such details show the difference between a fully thought-through piece of equipment and a boutique creation that may sound sublime but would have benefited from a more thorough inspection by a marketing brain -which I am sure would also have recommended a slightly more accessible location for those loading switches.

Again, none of these points raise a major issue but when you choose to compete against Nagra, Esoteric, Audia Flight and AMR in the sub-$10,000 phono stage arena, those brands do not leave anything to criticize when it comes to functionality and finish.

Enough complaints now as none of these quibbles really matter if you use one table and one cartridge. What matters is what you will hear. If you start like me, you will hear tremendous tonal refinement and flow but no dynamics, bass or treble to speak of. Those darn dip switches again! Although I thought I’d set the loading of the DL103 to 250 ohms, I mistakenly did my first few weeks of auditions with the cartridge loaded at 100 ohms.

I was off by one switch which you can't see unless you are squarely in front of the opening – not that easy when the beast is on the floor unless you lay down. I came away not exactly unimpressed but somewhat disappointed. The Signature Phono was just not living up to the expectations raised by the stable-mate Symmetrical preamp. It had unquestionable qualities but lacked life and blood. It was only when I went to set the switches for MM that I realized my mistake. Instead of going Grado at that point, I decided to give the DL103 another chance, not really thinking that the changed loading would have much of an impact. I was completely wrong.

From 100 ohms I went to 500 ohms, cued up a record, sat down and was utterly shocked. The sound was bright and in my face; bass was deep and powerful; treble was extended and glassy (not good) and dynamics had gained in punch and power. In many ways it was worse than with the 100-ohm loading as most the finesse and refinement had gone but it was a revelation in that it proved how the character I thought to be inherent to the Signature Phono was in fact no more than a load mismatch. I spent the next few hours going back and forth between the listening seat and preamp, fiddling with a tiny screwdriver and even tinier switches to arrive at what I consider the right loading for the DL103 cartridge - 250 ohms and as such consistent with my experience of other phono stages and this pickup..

There is little doubt in my mind that the Jensen step-up transformer is in no small part responsible for this highly sensitive behavior. All other phono stages I tested for this series had active first gain stages for MC cartridges (either tube or solid state) and the NAT is the first and only one to use a passive transformer. All the other phono preamps had some level of sensitivity to proper loading but none reacted with as radical a change of personality as the Signature Phono. When you audition this preamp and don’t like what you hear, ask the person running the demo to change the loading and listen again. If you hear too much treble and the sound is too forward for your taste, lower the load. If the sound is finely articulated and refined yet lacking in bass weight and dynamics, increase the load. Even small adjustments will yield big changes and you'll know without a doubt when you have it right. Just trust your ears.

The second parameter to worry about with the NAT—and more than with any other phono stage I have tried—is VTA. VTA is a myth as half the omniscient Internet population insists for as long as the arm is roughly horizontal. That may be true for a Rega P1 with a $100 phono stage but when you get to the level of transparency a NAT Signature or Flight Phono is capable of, VTA does matter. It does not matter more than proper cartridge alignment, proper downward force, properly cleaned records and stylus but it does contribute to the overall performance. The extra ten minutes spent setting this properly will be rewarding. If nothing else, they will serve to put you in the right frame and focus of mind to fully enjoy the music. The key question now is, what did I hear when I finally figured out my initial mistake?

The most striking characteristic of the NAT is its completely silent operation despite being a tube unit. Compared to even the quietest solid-state phono preamp I reviewed, the NAT went further in providing the famous “blacker than black” background which by itself does not mean much except that it enables soundstaging and imaging to go much farther than any of the other units tested. Instruments seemed to float in the room sized and contoured exactly as they should be. Instruments and voices were not chiseled like they sometimes are with solid-state electronics which operate on the sharper end of neutrality. Instead they had this very gentle halo one hears in natural acoustics where each instrument is easily identified and located yet gently overlaps with and transition into its neighbors. On that front, the NAT completely eclipsed the Esoteric E03 and Flight Phono which sounded two-dimensional by comparison (and neither are poor in absolute terms but the NAT was simply exceptional).

What silence of operation also brings to the table is quite impressive transparency. Although the Esoteric E03 seemingly retrieves more information from the grooves, it is not as tonally developed as the NAT, offering a slightly drier presentation of those details and one with more insight into the transients than harmonics. The Serbian allows the harmonics to develop further. The NAT does not apply the same rigor to how it portrays the first micro second of the notes and impacts. Hence it sounds slightly more laid back. In turn it offers a much more complex harmonic picture than the E03, revealing that a piano is not just strings but all sorts of wooden resonances too which arise from the instrument's body (the E03 reveals it too but not at the same level of complexity).