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So, what do we have here?
The phono preamp is a one-enclosure design with special op-amps and differential input. It comes in 2 versions: one with adjustable gain for MC cartridges and fixed 102Ω and 200pF input (different values are available); and another MM/MC with fully adjustable gain and various settings for resistance and capacitance via interchangeable components on the PCB. I got the latter and yes, one does have to open it to adjust the parameters. But that’s easy enough thanks to clear instructions found in the owner’s manual. Retail price for the fixed version is €1’500 and €2’000 for the adjustable.

This unit really had me rethink solid state. Following the days of yore—when I had the Plinius Jarrah, Monolithic Sound PS-1/HC-1 and the ubiquitous Black Cube from Lehman—I sampled various tube designs including the Herron VTPH, Audio Horizons TP 8.0, Art Audio Vinyl Reference and Jolida JD-9A. I eventually embraced the Allnic H-1200 which uses a Permalloy step-up transformer instead of the typical solid-state circuit. It sounded great and was attractively priced at $1’600. Since it also offered workmanship and materials in keeping with very high standards, I wasn’t totally surprised when it went out of production in mid 2009.

So the pendulum has completed its swing and here I am reviewing a solid-state phono in a basic black box that based on looks alone lacks any distinctive or interesting features or characteristics. Like so many in the Britain’s Got Talent audience, my skepticism was palpable. Like the audience and judges, I fell for the all-too-human tendency to make judgments based on the outer shell. I was totally unprepared for the power and expression of the voice within. Feel free to visualize me hanging my head in shame.

Sometimes you’re not ready to give the world quite what I wants. And that’s okay because the Earth is generously patient. – Jaree Francis
. To make certain that the stark contrast between my admittedly shallow expectations and the excellent performance I witnessed was not some sort of cruel psychic trick to overcompensate for the dissonance I had experienced (aka bad reviewer behaviour), I had to take the Black Pearls Aquarius on tour. This allowed me to gather data in two other systems:

Stephæn & Pete at Jeff's (photo compliments of Jeff Day)

Pete Riggle’s system:
  • Beveridge Model 2A self-powered lens-loaded electrostats
  • Kara Chaffee Engineering Model 222 tape preamplifier with EI 12AX7 tubes through added RIAA playback circuit
  • The String Theory™ 12-inch Woody™ tone arm from Pete Riggle Engineering and Audio, Denon 103 cartridge
Jeff's system (photo compliments of Jeff Day)

Jeff Day’s system:
  • Tannoy Westminster Royal Special Edition loudspeakers (completely rewired internally with Panatela component speaker cables per Part 1 of the Duelund-WRSE Project), Duelund CAST external crossovers
  • vintage Macintosh MX110Z preamplifier/tuner, vintage Macintosh MC30 mono amplifiers
  • VPI Classic turntable, EMT TSD 15 phono cartridge

I mention these systems because there was an unusually high level of agreement about the winning personality of the Greek phono stage across all those systems. I will start by repeating Jeff’s on-the-mark observations when comparing the Black Pearls unit with my reference Allnic H-1200 in his system:

Aquarius at Jeff's (photo compliments of Jeff Day)

"One thing that we did learn about both these phono stages is that their ultimate level of performance could be made or broken by the choice of a power cord. You’ll definitely want to use a high-quality power cord with either of them. And you’ll want it to be the right high-quality power cord to get the best out of them. For example, the Black Pearls Aquarius absolutely came alive and sounded majestic with the Sablon Audio Gran Corona power cord but did a face plant with the Sablon Audio Quantum Gran Corona power cord. The Allnic sounded just okay with the same Gran Corona that made the Aquarius sound so good but was transformed magnificently with the addition of a Sablon Audio The Robusto power cord. The difference definitely was not subtle and getting the right power cord in place matters with both of these phono stages." You can see more about our visit on Jeff's excellent blog.

Regrettably, getting the right power cord often proves more difficult than we would like. They, like so many other variables, are highly system- and component-dependent. Not to mention, as you read the comments above, even those cords from the same maker and/or product line can flip your world for better or worse. That said, I fully agree with Jeff about the greatly improved performance, in his system, of the BP Aquarius with the Grand Corona and of the Allnic with the Robusto power cord. Phrase of the day? Ignore system synergy at your own peril.

Summarizing the experience, Jeff thought the "Aquarius had excellent sonics, did superbly well on musicality and had gobs of emotional impact. It is dark, rich, colourful and exciting to listen to. The Aquarius is the most enjoyable solid-state phono stage I’ve heard and in many ways the Aquarius reminds me a lot of the superb vacuum-tube New Valve Order SPA one phono equalizer ($4,250). I would be very happy with either one of them in my big system as a primary reference."

Happy with either one, eh? Quite the endorsement!