Product: AURORASOUND VIDA Phono-Preamplifier
Manufacturer: Aurorasound - Japan
Cost, approx: 4-5000 Euro depending on options (YMMV)
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: April 2018
Regular readers of my scribblings will remember my rave review of the Hana SL cartridge. This was supplied for review by Karl Becker of Musikae www.musikae.fr - a high-end distributor in France. Of course having proved himself to be a fine judge of what to stock in his emporium I was only too happy to accept his recommendation of the Vida phono-stage for review. Contrary to appearances sometimes, I don't really like reviewing poor equipment - I have to live with the kit for a month of so, spoiling my enjoyment, and after all I think the reader better off reading about things that are good rather than those that are to be avoided;-)
Anyway Karl spoke very highly of the Vida and as before was very efficient at getting me a sample to test.
I'm a sucker for a pretty face and have a love of classic hi-fi and the Vida ticks all my boxes;-) It is exquisitely finished with sexy little toggle switches (love 'em) and the power supply (in a more prosaic but nevertheless beautifully made) alloy box that can be tucked away. With so much hi-fi now in various lumps of alloy - even cheap stuff from China - the combination of a real wood sleeve and champagne alloy look straight out of a dream system of the '60's. And as with the equipment it pays homage to, the controls are instantly accessible and clearly set out. No hidden micro-switches, touch screens (yuk!) or controls hidden round the back... Except on this version there is actually a lovely retro 'Bakelite' style knob round-the-back that allows painless changes in cartridge loading, but as you'll use it once in a blue moon I can forgive that.
As with any decent hi-fi there is an odd quirk, the large, glowing neon (?) power switch glows when the unit is 'off' not 'on'. There's probably some very logical sonic reason for this but it seems such a waste of the light show. Of course the main power switch is on the power supply so the 'power' switch on the main unit acts more as a 'mute' button anyway.
As for that row of toggle switches, this is one very flexible phono-stage... No - in fact it's rather more than that, in actual fact it is two phono stages in one...
The sort of customer likely to shell 4000Euro+ on a phono stage is also quite likely to run a two arm turntable or two separate turntables. The logic to this is that for 90% of the time you can run an 'affordable' cartridge, leaving the 'A' team for those special moments and saving a fortune in the process. My current set up has exactly that, with an Audiomods arm+ Hana SL as the everyday combination, the Dynavector DRT-1t and SAT arm saved for Sunday best... Likewise some will want to run a certain type of cartridge for some records, or maybe even a mono and a stereo set-up - the Vida makes this a doddle.
The brilliant thing about the Aurosound is that it has two input pairs for the phono connection from your two arms and one output - unlike the Lehmann 'Black Box' Twin which is in fact two phono stages in one box as so needs two inputs into your pre-amp. The two inputs are not the same - one is a dedicated high-level input for Moving Magnet (MM) and high-output Moving Coils (MC) (and oddballs like the Grados). The other is specifically for low output MC's with a two-position impedence switch and on the sample provided this can be supplied with more flexible variable loading. So if like me you use two low-output MC's you'll need a step-up on one channel. For me this was no hardship and I just used the dedicated step-up supplied by Dynavector to match their DRT.
One feature of the stage is that there is a protection circuit that will kick in to mute the stage in case of overload (dropped the needle for example;-) - it's a nice idea but it did seem to be triggered by the switch between the MC and MM inputs - so rather than simply flicking from one input to the other you needed to mute the stage before the change. Hardly a problem but it did make me think I'd broken something before I worked out what was going on!
The other switches are also interesting - the 'degaussing' switch unusual, and in theory will clear residual magnetism from the cartridge coils. This is controversial - some people do it after every LP, some every month, some say it's snake-oil. But nevertheless the Vida allows you to decide for yourself...
Next in line is a stereo/mono switch - which seems pointless until you put an early Beatles album on with it's artificial ping-pong stereo and listen to it in mono as was originally intended. The same applies to any number of late 50's early 60's jazz and rock records that have either truly terrible fake stereo or which were released in both mono and stereo versions - invariable the mono version is superior, that is unless you believe a drum kit should be on the far left and the vocallist on the far right...
Next is the subsonic filter - or 'warp filter' as known long ago. The standard RIAA curve features such a filter, but on records with true low-frequency fidelity the sound can lose the lowest notes and more importantly the ambience of a hall (fake or otherwise). Most high quality phono stages dispense with this filter, but on warped records a fair amount of amplifier power can be used up pumping the speaker cones pointlessly back and forth. It's not essential most of the time, but nice to have when you need it...
The final two switches are a more conventional MC/MM selector and a high/low impedance switch for the MC input - something that with the adjustable impedance on the sample stage made rather redundant.
The one thing it lacks (as do 99% of phono stages) is a level control. Normally I wouldn't mention this, but with such a comprehensive and flexible set of controls it could be used direct into a power amp for a two source vinyl system.
As always I'm ignorant of the guts of the thing - apparently it uses 1970's transistors, is all DC coupled and very sexy...
Ok first thing is that it is very quiet. Obviously that's important and what a well designed stage should do but it's not always the case. Secondly, it's evidently a high quality piece of kit - the difference between it and the average built-in stage or some little Chinese box from Ebay is a gulf. But then I suspect that people looking at 4000Euro phono stages are well past that, and that any upgrade path is going to be from a lesser, specialist phono stage costing considerably less.
Here things are more tricky because the 500-1000Euro area is very competitive and the budget enough for the use of some good-quality components and construction, therefore to survive the more expensive stage needs to justify its existence. To add to this you need be realistic and think about the balance of the system - if you spending 4000Euro on a phono stage you need to have quality elsewhere to make the extra worthwhile...
But that said you don't need to spend a fortune - the Hana SL and Audiomods arm come in at a little over 1000Euro and are quite capable of showing the quality of high-end stages. Of course 20x that gets you to the other test front-end of the DRT-1t and SAT both mounted on the Feickert Blackbird. The review was a well broken in sample (and seemed to have survived unscathed) - and through the review period worked faultlessly.
From the outset the stage showed itself to be very high quality. I've said before that the phono stage is a critical link in the vinyl chain and that a 4000Euro stage + a 500Euro cart (the Hana in this example) is likely to outperform a 500Euro stage with a 4000Euro cart. This the Vida managed to confirm, and I found myself really enjoying it. It has an ease that only fine stages manage, opening up the soundstage on good recordings to an extent that most CD's struggle with and leaving lesser stages sounding small and shut-in.
For example, listening to Bowie's Heroes last night (a very thick and murky mix) I was taken by how the Vida made the sleigh bells (?) more integral with the music, how the subtle way they drive the track was easily missed - likewise how much of it used multi-tracked vocals, and the gentle harmonies low in the mix. This isn't the aural equivelent of pixel-peeping, rather the bringing forward of parts essential for the whole.
Over many discs this character persisted - the ability to extract musical information and present it in a natural way. To give you an example - many years ago I reviewed the Trichord Dino phono stage and it was generally very good. But after a while I came to the conclusion that the apparent open, detailed sound was at the cost of pushing certain high frequencies forward and even distorting them. Once I'd heard that it was like an itch - I couldn't leave it alone and in the end I found it hard to like. Now on initial hearing it was a stage I would have bought for my own use and then, over time become unhappy with. This is one reason why I insist on at least a month for any review!
In the course of the review I also ran my Music Maker Classic (circa 1000Euro), the Cartridge Man's quirky moving-Iron cartridge. In this was I could test the MM input 'naked' and it worked brilliantly - showcasing the cartridge's characteristic detail and speed together with its slight lack of 'air' and soundstaging. Having found the same with several very high quality phono stages this exposing of character again showed the Vida to be a fine, transparent device.
Likewise the character of the DRT and Hana confirmed impressions obtained from other high quality stages. If the Vida had made them all sound warm and wonderful but similar then inevitably the conclusion would be that it was adding considerably to the music and that, is a bad thing... The ability to sound different with different upstream components is the measure of quality far more than a few paragraphs on the sound of resin on the bowstring in Karajan's 1973 recording of Beethoven's 9th... A phono stage, like a pre-amp, is not the first choice as a tuning device - that's best done by speakers at the room/audio interface.
Drawing definitive conclusions on hi-fi generally is hard, but with phono stages it's especially difficult as so much depends on the synergy between the cartridge, cabling and pre-amp. That the Vida worked so well with the very different test cartridges gave me more confidence in my view and I'd expect it to be a match for most systems.
Now to the nitty gritty. The Vida had the misfortune to arrive directly after the SW1X phono stage. This is an absolutely purist, valve powered, MM only monster costing 5000Euro. This is the finest phono stage I've ever heard and it maintained a clear lead over the Vida. The most noticeable difference being the sheer scale that the SW1X managed to produce. As with the Vida the differences between cartridges was clear, but with the SW1X everything sounded bigger and consistently more dynamic. It also managed to have at least as good high-frequency extension and resolution but showed the Vida to have just the slightest edginess in comparison.
The Vida also inevitably came up against my own Nibiru stage, and this is another purist heavyweight - this time transistors but current amplifying and MC level only. As I mentioned in the SW1X review the Nibiru is very close in quality and this stage too kept its lead over the Vida. Again the Nibiru sounded just bigger and more open, it's slightly lighter and more open presentation being closer to the Vida but better in all respects.
This doesn't sound good, but let's be realistic. The Nibiru is MC only, has no adjustments whatsoever, is a hum magnet of the first order and costs considerably more than the Vida. The SW1X is also more expensive, and if you plan to run a low-output MC (as most people will) then you need to budget a considerable sum - perhaps thousands of Euro - into a step-up of suitable quality. In the Vida you get two great-sounding stages, full flexibility and more convenience for less outlay. The advantage the more expensive stages had wasn't huge and the Vida was certainly of a quality that I would happily live with if my Nibiru went AWOL.
Coming from the other direction are the aforementioned 500-1000Euro stages. I've had several of these here (like the Dino) and the Vida showed a clear superiority to all - Black Cube SE, various Roksan, Linn, Audion and Naim devices for example.
The fly in the ointment are the Graham Slee stages. These are in pretty cheap looking alloy boxes with a plastic box containing a power supply. Costing just under 1000Euro they are MM only. But they sound sensational, and not a million miles from the SW1X. Against the Vida my own Revelation sounded very close - if anything a little more fluid at the expense of some detail retrieval - I could live with either. So if you were to look at sound quality above all else the Slee would get my vote, but then look again and do the sums. The Slee is only one stage, needs a step-up (the Slee Elevator is a good match at around 1000Euro) and is resolutely inflexible. By the time you'd got it up to the twin input Vida the cost difference becomes much less and you'd have four rather prosaic boxes and considerably less flexibility than the Vida offers.
The Vida is a lovely phono-stage. It looks lovely, sounds lovely and is wonderfully flexible. Build quality is beyond reasonable criticism. It's not the best sounding stage in the world, but it's bloody good. I have to say it was sadly missed when it left chez moi...
© Copyright 2018 Geoff Husband - Geoff@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com