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This review first appeared in the August 2008 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 As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end has a link below it to his e-mail should you have questions or feedback you wish to send. All images contained in this review are the property of or Fonel. - Ed.

Reviewer: Ralph Werner
Sources: Analog - Acoustic Solid MPX turntable; Phonotools Vivid-Two and SME M2 12" tone arms; Denon DL-103, Ortofon MC Rondo Bronce, Shelter 501 MK II and Zu Audio DL-103 pickups; digital - audiolab 8000CD
Amplification: integrated - Lua 4040C, Myryad MXI 2080; preamp - bel canto PRe 3, Funk LAP-2; power amp - bel canto M300 monos, SAC il piccolo monos
Loudspeakers: Elac FS 247, Volent Paragon VL-2, Zu Audio Druid Mk4, Ascendo C8 [on review]
Cable: low-level - Ecosse Baton + Symphony, Funk BS-2, van den Hul Integration Hybrid, Zaolla Reinsilber; phono - fis Audio Phono, WSS Silver Line; high-level - Ecosse SMS2.3, Ixos 6006 Gamma, Zu Audio Libtec
Racks & stands: Creactiv, Taoc, Liedtke Metalldesign Stand
Review component retail: €2.850

Light my fire
Carefully put, I somehow doubt that at the root of Teutonic common sense, we'd find unabashed indulgences in sensual refinements which separate out the exquisite from the ordinary and, hola, perhaps even enjoy a positively healthy attitude towards luxury which rejects inquiries on price as being plain plebeian. You see, notwithstanding an even therapeutic consumption of the fine works by that famed libertine Oscar Wilde, I can't quite transcend said trait myself. It's probably in the genes. No blue blood here. Or it's an acquired habit. Home wasn't necessarily full-on bourgeois either so certain frugal tendencies remain. I did learn not to cheap out on shoes. But when it comes to socks, I can't fathom certain establishments which get double-digit figures for a pair. Count me out! Even with kitchen knives which you supposedly acquire for very best quality once in your lifetime to conclude that business - well, I might have to wait until the 17 times cold-forged masterpiece of a Zen monk materializes on a local Tchibo shelf.

It's refreshing then that for proper balance, places of material glorification exist which won't turn over each euro thrice. In my attempts at rationalization, I've even arrived at the sensible "might make sense" realization while 99% of the populace vehemently shake their noggins. So let's be honest: to even consider sinking twothousandeighthunderdandfifty euros into a bare-boned MC phono stage without adjustment provisions just isn't normal. It's an audiophile luxury. And unless you're deep in the throes of hifi lust, that's a fact, no? Not that it'll prevent the sock moguls with their
25,000 Connoisseur phono stages from belittling my master thesis with a lame smile...

Enter Fonel's valve phono stage, the MC Symphony. My interest in it was squarely rooted in our March review of their Simplicité CDP which so impressed my partner Jörg that he acquired it as constant work horse. And I have to admit that his machine spells out sonic completeness to a 't'. fairaudio's Favourite Award for it was fully deserved. This set the stage for Fonel's analog effort.

Under the Fonel banner, the 5-years-young Berlin outfit New Concept Electronics GmBH by now offers three phono pres, albeit not in the expected good, better, best stepping stones. Rather, we're dealing with essentially the same machine thrice, the differences being that the €2.499 Sonata only does MM while our €2,850 Symphony does MC. The one distinction are the two step-up transformers of the Symphony which amplify the smaller signal voltages of moving coil pickups. The 3.200 Appassionata then combines MM and MC duties for a somewhat unusual model breakdown. Those who mean to merely run moving magnets will note with glee that their pre costs 350 euros less than its MC colleague. That the do-it-all Appassionata meanwhile demands 350 euros more isn't fully intuitive. Was the switch which puts the step-up trannies in or out of the signal path that expensive?

At one rack space wide and 33.5cm deep, Fonel's machine is a full-width affair. That it'd be heavy I already took for granted from Jörg's disc spinner precedent and the Symphony does indeed weigh 12.4kg without looking too imposing. Its high mass is due to a chunky power transformer which many an integrated amp would call sufficient; and a chassis put together from machined steel plates rather than the ubiquitous lighter aluminum. The maker invokes shielding against radiation and protection from microphony effects.

The front shows Fonel's signature wood trim, available in Mahogany, Rosenut and Ash. Inside its jaw sits an acrylic plate with illuminated central logo and behind the acrylic, five horizontally mounted, front-facing valves for a bit of retro glam which, to my eye, avoids kitsch very nicely. The enclosure is champagne in tone and high gloss to boot due to deeply applied clear-coat lacquer. You simply have to give it to these Berliners - Fonel kit is endowed with a distinctive and solid style.

Internally there are three divisions: the lower right houses the big toroid and the DC heater supply for the tubes; at left on the other side of the heat sink live the Sowter step-ups. The central alley is home to the amplification circuits and anode power supply while the final sector belongs to the valves. Adjustment provisions on Fonel's MC Symphony are exactly zero. Courageous but fine by me. Except that a subsonic filter could be handy. Oh well. Your signal goes in and out via RCAs which make for a very uncluttered business end indeed.
Sonic impressions
The usual test procedure:
  • Step 1: Unpack, leash up, puff a ciggie and duly note that the thing has to run in for a while.
  • Step 2: 2-3 weeks of forgetfulness that an unknown new component plays in the chain. Invoke auto hypnosis, it works. The getting-to-know-you phase.
  • Step 3: Back to the beginning, i.e. to the standard setup, well-known but estranged for a bit. The overall perspective.
  • Step 4: A/B comparison, then C and D, meaning circling the wagon to explore all the possible combinations. Take plenty of notes. The vivisection phase.
  • Step 5: Hit the keyboard.

The joke of it all is that quite often, phase 3 will have you shrug the shoulders with an "okay, a bit different then" while other components prompt an "okaaaay, quite different!" reaction. In the first instance, one smoothly segues into step 4. In the second case, I mostly think: "Man, now what?" And Fonel's Symphony is plainly the second type. It sounds more colorful, tactile and most of all, livelier! Why should I wield my scalpel and analyze it all to death? Because I picked this job. Perhaps. Fittingly, I immediately found something to criticize as soon as the little grey cells mobilized: Well at the outskirts of the frequency extremes, things could sound a bit clearer. There's a tad of rounding over happening. But to nip misconceptions in the bud, the Symphony isn't midrange-centric. We're talking the farthest of outskirts. In fact, I particularly enjoyed struck brass and hi-hat, cymbals and triangles. They sounded more realistic than I'm used to, more defined and embodied à la "that's not the sound of a cymbal but a cymbal". But this won't equate to exceptionally airy. Ditto for the bass. I love it because of its speed, energy and grip. But final differentiation way down low eludes the Symphony. That's easy to live with but worthwhile mentioning.

That's true also for detail. It's richly presented but not pursued to excess. This phono pre seems to believe in musical swing over microscopy. When in doubt, it always opts for the former, not the latter, something I applaud. For overall perspective, you'll have correctly guessed already that the Symphony fancies the emotional approach. What that means is plain the moment you lay ears on it but on paper and in black and white, it sounds quite bloomy. It's tough to capture in words but I'll attempt a cause/effect link. The key words I've provided already.

For one, the special talent here is about a high-contrast tonal color palette which avoids an overly expressive swoon. It's realistic, differentiated and plain powerful, be it e-guitar blister or violin nectar. Competing kit sounds nearly pastel by comparison - paler, with less color depth. This covers one of the Fonel's bases. But it's not just colors which are deeply contrasted. It's true also for the spatial presentation and plasticity of sounds. Voices and instruments move forward over what I'm used to with the Aqvox Pre, perhaps nearly a bit pushy at times. Or put it inverted and call it not so laid-back and reserved. But the Fonel doesn't just start sooner, it ends later, too - meaning, depth layering is a real forte. That has the advantage of more space between the performers which play with better separation. They are also physically more endowed, not size-wise but texturally. It's a strong 3D effect which renders instruments on an expanded stage with grip and physical verisimilitude.

Really good in fact. But the best in my book is the Fonel Symphony's - well, general liveliness. That's a consequence of first-class rhythmic/timing fidelity and dynamic reflexes. It's as though the record player had downed a double espresso. It's distinctly no background bubbles, thank gawd. "Music is energy and here it comes" is the motto: "Sit ye down, shut up and perk up." A perfect command. And so I'm taken in, pulled into the music and seduced to prime the pump further and further, to unearth more albums and kick the note book into the corner. That's how I like it. The core compliment is how it transcends any and all lame-ass'd motives.

Without confusing weight with optical excess, the valved Symphony MC phono stage by Fonel is built to very high standards of fit & finish. Just don't mistake that for adjustability or you'll be disappointed. One input, one output, ç'est ca. No subsonic filter, no XLRs, no ground lift, no trim values. What's more, you have to decide prior to acquisition whether you'll want to do MM, MC or both (which determines whether the model Sonata, Symphony or Appasionata is appropriate). But such mundane decision-making anxiety is soon forgotten by those interested in sound. Which'll be quite a few I'm sure.

Fonel's MC Symphony is characterized by:

  • Reticence in the outermost extremes. In the high treble and lowest bass, theory knows more is possible. Nothing is actively missing though and only a very conscious focus will notice.
  • A preference for musical flow over detail-obsessed analysis.
  • A richly colored tonal palette for strongly differentiated timbres. The polar opposite of pale pastel washes.
  • Generous soundstaging, with depth layering a particular strength. Stage front begins in front of the speakers but 'forwardness' would be too strong a word.
  • High plasticity of sounds, instruments and voices. Sounds expand very realistically in all three dimensions.
  • Timing precision and powerful dynamics. Music is imbued with energy and verve, nearly passion if you want to go that far with electronics - a terrifically winning trait.


  • Model: Fonel MC Symphony (valved phono preamp)
  • Dimensions: 43 x 33.5 x 8.9cm
  • Weight: 12.4kg
  • Fonel website
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