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Balance Reference Phono

This review first appeared in March 2023 on By request of the manufacturer and permission of the author, it is hereby syndicated from the German original to reach a broader English audience. Ed.

Reviewer: Frank Hakopians
Analog sources: TW-Acustic Raven AC with Graham Phantom B-44, Analog Tools or Pyon Sound Iris arms, Steinmusic Aventurin 6, modified Denon DL 103R or Lyra Titan i pickups; turntable mats from Dereneville and Steinmusic, Dereneville DAE external turntable drive 01SP
Digital sources: Rockna Wavelight, Innuos Zenith SE, Electrocompaniet EMP-2
Preamps: Silvercore Linestage Two; Chord Symphonic and Einstein The Phonostage phono
Power amps: darTZeel NHB-108 stereo, Tenor Audio 75 Wi mono, Kharma MP150
Loudspeakers: Acapella La Campanella, Ichos N°Four MkII SE, Clockwork Event Horizon
Cables: Analog Tools Reference Series, Akeno Audio Ultimate, Acoustic Revive Absolute, Steinmusic Highline
Power delivery: Nordost QRT QB4 & QB8, Steinmusic isolation transformers
Miscellaneous: AHP fuses, Steinmusic Harmonizer, AHP II copper, Hifi-Tuning Supreme 3 and Audio Magic SHD Beeswax Ultimate & Premiere Ultimate, Harmonix RFA-7800, Highendnovum passive multivocal resonator
Component supports: Copulare and Audio Lignum racks, Symposium Acoustics and Acapella bases, Symposium Precision and Ultra
Room size: 23.4m², 2.7m ceiling
Review component retail: €6'990

It's been seven years since a phono pre crossed my path whose superb sound I remember vividly to this day. As a current-gain concept it had barely any adjustments but the records I spun unfolded a splendorific analogue magic of 'lone island' quality to net an award. Only the five-digit price tag of Clearaudio's Absolut Phono Inside kept me from buying it at the time. Now the torment of missing out on sonic gold might ease because Clearaudio issued a new phono equalizer. And this time the analog experts of Erlangen are happy to let it go at just (cough) €7'900. Christened the Balance Reference Phono, like my champ of old it arrives in compact seemingly clam-shell aluminium casework available silver or black.

It's still serious coin but the Absolut Phono Inside demanded 70% more. So let's see what the latest box packs. First off its boxes. The power supply offboards. For noise-critical phono stages that's particularly effective and this Frankian team has practiced such apartheid for already ages especially with their more ambitious efforts. The back reveals two RCA inputs each duplicated on XLR and single matching outputs. Hence this deck will process two cartridges simultaneously via two fully independent internal signal paths. Each can be adjusted separately as the dip-switch belly bays show. With support for MM and MC, resistive loading provisions cover 50Ω to 50kΩ and 50-400pf capacitance. Here we also set symmetrical or unbalanced as well as subsonic filtering and mono/stereo mode. Now I'll level criticism not only at this but all other design teams who practice the same ingenious notion that dip-switch adjustments belong on the bottom of a case. Once such a phono stage is wired up and installed, attempting changes to our first settings isn't much joy even if shorter signal paths are used to justify this bad habit. The Balance Reference Phono runs the IEC-A equalization curve which essentially duplicates the default RIAA but applies more attenuation below 20Hz.

To be fair, Clearaudio's latest prank bolts on remote pleasures for on/off, volume control including mute and A/B section. Yes, you read correctly. The R&D team of this project gave it a level control on an SMD resistor array triggered via wand or rotary knob to make a separate preamp superfluous. That could be terrific temptation for more than just fans of purist minimalism. More unexpected featurization comes by way of two front-accessible headfi ports to accompany the A/B input paths. The umbilical to the PSU hardwires thus avoids redundant contact resistance from extra connectors. That cable is sufficiently long to park the power supply far enough away. What surprised was Clearaudio's decision to place their multi-pin umbilical port so close to the power supply's IEC that only power cords with slim barrels fit. Not having a single one in inventory, I was forced to use the included generic and trust Clearaudio's claim that their supply sends perfectly quiet current to the main unit no matter what power cord we use. Incidentally, their PSU is internally pure dual mono.

Clearaudio already championed SMD parts and IC for their Absolut Phono Inside to pack their circuity more tightly for significantly shorter routing. Today's Balance Reference Phono largely follows the same contemporary strategy. However, RIAA equalization which is so often decisive for sonics implements purely passively and with remarkable precision to promise just 0.1dB of worst-case deviation. Class A output buffers will drive even long interconnects without issue to raise wonderfully reductionist setup visions of Balance Reference Phono direct to active loudspeakers. By the way, if you frowned at the mention of volume control due to a potentially sound-degrading signal detour, relax. Set fully clockwise takes it entirely out of the signal path to prevent nothing from inserting a pedigreed external preamp instead. Which is how I kicked off into my Silvercore Linestage 2 via a XLR Bastanis Imperial cable. The wiring to my tone arm was both XLR and RCA to explore prospective tonal differences. Clearaudio recommend XLR for MC cartridges because moving coils are true symmetrical sources so consistent symmetrical cabling maintains the concept's inherent distortion cancellation.