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Reviewer: Les Turoczi
Digital sources: Modwright Sony 999ES Signature Truth CDP; Sound Devices 744T HD Digital Recorder
Analog Source: Linn Sondek LP12 with Lingo, Cirkus, Trampolin upgrades; Naim ARO arm; Spectral moving-coil MCB II cartridge; Nude Denon 103 cartridge; HRS Record Clamp; ARC PH3SE phono stage; Magnum Dynalab Etude FM tuner; Basis Audio 2800 turntable system with Vector 4 tonearm and various MC cartridges [for review]
Preamp: Bent Audio TAP transformer volume control with silver wiring
Power Amps: McCormack DNA 500; two Electron Kinetics Eagle 400 monoblocks [on subwoofers only]
Speakers: Zu Definition Pro loudspeaker system [with Rane PEQ55 Parametric Equalizer for low bass only]
Cables/Wires: Various sets of interconnects, speaker wires and power cords from Zu Audio
Power: Dedicated power lines; BPT BP-3.5 Signature Plus power conditioner
Accessories: Sound Organization racks; "The Base" platforms; Symposium Svelte Shelves, Point Pods and Fat Padz; Yamamoto PB-9 ebony cones and PB-10 ebony cups; Gingko Mini-Clouds; Walker Audio Extreme SST Silver Treatment and Reference HDL Mk. II links; various other footers
Room size: 14' by 23' with 8' ceiling, speakers set up on short wall; carpeted concrete flooring
Review component retail: $5000

These days a fair amount of audio news is concerned with vinyl playback. For some, it may seem odd to be spending much time on this older technology, but I am pleased to be into this topic. While we've seen digital playback evolve nicely, lots of people still listen to records even when they own alternate technologies of highly refined sorts. Egads, what self-respecting pro-audio studio would even dare to think of doing business without Protools at the forefront of their digital recording endeavors? But still, there are plenty of music lovers, and thankfully even some audiophiles, who continue to cling to LPs, turntables, cartridges and phono stages. Is there something wrong with this picture? Let's hope not. The story which follows may help to clarify things.

Let me take a step back and talk about my own adventures in this arena. I must admit that LP playback was about all there was for someone of my meager financial means during high school, college days, and even a bit thereafter. I fell in love with how captivating music via records could sound even on mid-fi gear. Yes, there were the hassles of scratches, pops and ticks, of cleaning discs and styli, and the need to jump up every 15 or 20 minutes to flip the disc. All of that ritual was part of the obsession, but I didn't mind it because the magical results allowed me to get lost in the music. A trusty Dual changer and Shure cartridge saw lots of playtime until an AR turntable with a better Shure came along. There was a Thorens/SME/Ortofon combo and then a Technics SP-10/Rabco combo, among other spinner systems that held sway in my home. Through it all, musical happiness came pretty easily. Golly gee, I even remember when albums cost less than $5 each.

I was one of the last of my friends to buy a CD player. That actually meant that many of my audio buddies spent more time at my place listening to music than they did at their own homes, which were usually devoid of LPs by then. In retrospect, I still regret that I didn't get more assertive in buying up record collections from those many pals who were dumping this 'antiquated' approach in favor of more convenience and nifty stuff, as they perceived CDs to be then. It has taken a long time for me to accept the sound of the digital world but I have made peace with it. Still, my trusty record playback system persisted lo these many years. It is currently undergoing further exploration and expansion thus this review and the associated ramblings.

I welcomed the opportunity to evaluate the Art Audio Vinyl Reference phono stage in my evolving quest. Earlier versions of this product garnered high praise from audio reviewers at 6moons and elsewhere. Sensing that there was more to be had from LP playback than was apparent in my home lately, I entered into this process feeling inquisitive, motivated and rejuvenated about vinyl playback. Joe Fratus has always been a gentleman and represents his company, Art Audio, in a positive, cooperative, innovative and enthusiastic fashion. A few years ago I reviewed their Diavolo amplifier for another publication, finding it to be a high performer, beautifully made, and good looking to boot. Through those early interactions, as well as having met Joe at recent audio shows, I made this new inquiry and he readily arranged for the latest iteration of the Vinyl Reference to arrive here.

Prior to installing the Vinyl Reference my long term record playing reference was a Linn Sondek LP-12/Naim ARO arm turntable system running a denuded Denon 103DL cartridge feeding into an Audio Research PH3SE phono stage. This gear made enjoyable listening an easy thing to pursue, but I puzzled over how little I was using it. The creature comforts associated with CD playback carry some degree of laziness, especially during digitally-oriented listening sessions, and the sound was more than acceptable. Still, a small, quiet voice called out to me about resuming more LP auditioning. I knew it had added sonic benefits to offer, even if it meant recommitting to the ritual of record cleaning, TT maintenance and all that stuff. Incidentally, the opportunity to investigate new racking equipment, as per my Yamamoto audio equipment stand review here in July stimulated my interest in getting more out of analog playback. That review process was an instructive and fruitful exercise. So now with a reconfigured layout of my gear, on my original Sound Organization racks, I fired up the VPI 16.5 RCM, scrubbed many old time fave LPs and got into the comfy chair.

The sound with this modified Denon 103DL was indeed different from my previous long-standing Spectral MC cartridge and it conveyed an energetic, vibrant listening feel. This particular nude 103 cartridge came from Italy and while it reminded me of the Denon 103 I owned decades earlier, it seemed a bit quicker, refined and more agile. All of that was a good thing. After a few weeks in this happy mode I elected to retube the ARC PH3SE phono stage and that also lifted things to a finer level. Quieter, more spacious and livelier, this improved sound was very much of the toe-tapping style that made for a lot of good listening. Having been so much of a classical music listener in my early days, I surprised myself in noting that many of the albums now being spun were old rock and roll dinosaurs plus many jazz classics. David Crosby, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Steely Dan, Simon and Garfunkel, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, etc., all rekindled feelings of simpler days, where the music mattered more than anything else.

The Next Step
The arrival of the new Vinyl Reference stage [henceforth referred to as the VR] made for an easy swap out and the ARC unit temporarily moved to the sidelines. Regarding looks and feel, the VR is attractive and authoritative, showing its mirror-like chromed front face brightly. It is heavy and gives a strong impression of excellent attention to detail in the construction and layout of parts. It conveys seriousness, competence and intelligence. Kevin Carter, the designer of the VR, was kind enough to answer some questions via email and that information appears later in the review. Additionally, Kevin generously provided photo images of the unit's interior and they readily manifest his prowess in audio equipment conceptualization and implementation.

The typical controls and connections on the VR made for a clean installation. Initially, I continued to use my Zu interconnects which were terminated in RCA jacks and already in place from the ARC piece. However, after a few weeks I took advantage of the balanced outputs on the VR and ran XLR terminated Zu cables between the phono stage and the Bent Audio TVC line stage. That was a beneficial move, especially in terms of dynamics and jump factor. The VR is quiet, easy to operate and the big bonus, at least for me, was the ease of changing moving coil cartridge loading impedance values. On the ARC phono stage the only way to achieve this change was to solder in different resistors. That worked but was far from quick. The convenience of straight forward twists of a knob did much to facilitate the selection of loading values that yielded optimal results for system synergy. The only possible improvement over that would be to have this feature selectable via remote control, but that sounds pretty lazy, even for a couch potato like me. While describing physical features of the VR it is important to remember that it employs hybrid circuitry, including tube input and output stages. Eventually I was able to position the unit so as to provide plenty of space above the chassis for heat dissipation. That should not be ignored.

The feet on the unit look good and feel substantial. However, as a result of the fussing I undertook during my Yamamoto equipment rack review, it seemed logical to try various other footers under the VR. That actually became a longish adventure and more will follow on that story shortly.

There is a lot to say about the VR, but for those unfamiliar with the fundamental features and specs of the unit, here are the salient points.
  • Vacuum tube/FET hybrid input stage
  • Vacuum tube/MOSFET transformer-coupled output stage
  • Moving coil input is transformer-coupled
  • Passive RIAA equalization using Cardas capacitors
  • Shielded internal choke regulated power supply
  • Each stage individually vacuum tube shunt regulated
  • Vacuum tube filaments individually current regulated
  • Switchable MM/MC loading impedance
  • Front panel signal polarity switching
  • Balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) outputs
  • Gain: Moving Magnet input 40 or 46dB; Moving Coil input 54, 60 or 66dB; other gain structures available
  • Cartridge Loading Impedance: MM 47Kohms; MC 25, 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, or 47Kohms; other loading options available
  • Output impedance: 200 ohms
  • Frequency response: deviation from RIAA curve less than 0.5dB from 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Tube complement: 4 Russian 6N1P dual triodes
  • Power requirements: 120VAC 0.5A or 240VAC 0.25A
  • Dimensions: 18 1/8" wide by 13½" deep by 4" high
  • Weight: 24 lbs. (11kg)

Throughout my experimentation over the past three months, the Vinyl Reference phono stage did everything marvelously well. It impressed me, and my listening friends, with abundantly more of the good stuff which I had already enjoyed with the original and previous in-house set up. The intensity of improvements came as a surprise, however.

From the get-go, the VR offered more gain than the ARC and that was a plus. By itself such a change could raise the spectre of noise concerns, but most happily, I can report that the VR is quiet, quiet, quiet. Further strengths included dynamic prowess, followed closely by evenness of tonal balance, coupled to a very natural ease of presentation. I was quite surprised now to find more and better bass coming from the nude Denon cartridge, while the upper frequencies yielded higher extension and greater smoothness. A bit of the grain I had always assumed was part of that cartridge's signature was now diminished. Adjusting the loading impedance with comfort and ease helped to get the Denon dialed in very readily. That feature alone made listening comparisons more meaningful.

A significant shift in my playback circumstances yielded even more profound insights into the VR. A short while ago I received a Basis Audio 2800 turntable system, complete with the new Vector 4 tonearm for an upcoming review. This exceptional TT gear made all of the positive attributes already noted for the VR significantly more obvious. I am not going to provide many details about the Basis Audio gear in this review since a full treatment will be available in the near future. Suffice it to say that the 2800/Vector package is a serious, mature and magnificent achievement.

Three top-tier moving cartridges, newly employed by way of the 2800 system, revealed a host of remarkable characteristics in the Vinyl Reference. Those cartridges included the Transfiguration Orpheus, the Dynavector XV-1s and the EMT JSD6, each of which brought unique and meaningful information to the table. One readily obvious observation regarding the Vinyl Reference needs to be stated now. The VR reveals and elucidates subtle differences between cartridges with an uncanny ability. In my explorations I have concluded that the VR appears to not be a limiting factor for understanding musicality and sonic performance as presented from LP playback. It seems free of its own colorations or sonic anomalies.