Product: Nibiru phono preamp
Manufacturer: ESE - Slovenia
Price: 1500 Euro + Taxes
Author: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: November, 2004
A while back you'll remember I reviewed Carlo Morsiani's unipivot tonearm - I loved it. Well he contacted me a few months ago to say he was using a new phono stage and thought it something special and that he thought it deserved a review. Now when a manufacturer who has proved himself to have very fine ears suggests I listen to something from another company I'm inclined to have a go. So from me and all at TNT - thanks Carlo :-)
Electronics from small companies generally come dressed in one of two ways. Either they are in some standard 'Maplins' type box looking like someone had built them from a kit, or they are encased in one of the many extruded aluminium cases now available from the far-east. The latter looks better but is getting to be a kind of 'badge' for the genre. The Nibiru couldn't be more different. It comes in a big (for a phono stage) black-coated aluminium box and a very substantial one at that. The front is a slice of quality plywood. The back solid and sporting good quality sockets. The three operational LED's are sanded flush with the wood front so that they blend in perfectly, when they are off you'd be pushed to spot them. It doesn't sound beautiful, but unless you're looking for something for the design museum it's an understated, but classy piece of kit. Certainly it matched the big Audionotes in both style and build quality and it doesn't get much better than that.
Unscrewing a dozen or so Allen bolts revealed a surprisingly packed box. I expected the guts from a wall-wart battery charger feeding a battery and then onto a chip based phono board. What I saw was what looked like a pretty hefty torroidal transformer and all sorts of very sexy looking electronic bits forming a power supply. The actual phono stage was hidden in a shielded copper case and I couldn't open it. As long term readers will be aware, what I know about electronics could be engraved on the top of a pin with a pneumatic drill so I'm going to have over to the stages designer - Rudi Korosec - for the technical spec because I believe it is a little unusual (it says here...).
One of the most important things of this pre is its radically different kind of topology. It's a current domain preamp (or transimpedance) which means a couple of radical differences against mainstream products - commercial or boutique. The preamp input is a current sink which means all signal energy is sunk by preamp so no energy is bounced back to provoke ringing we all know and experience in a typical MC head - pre combo. So you connect a cartridge with internal impedance from 0 to about 50 ohms and even more with output from 0.05mV (no typo!) up and you have an interface without problems. No hum, no noise, no RF garbage. And what is most strange is the fact that low impedance ultra-low output cartridges gives the best results and most gain from this preamplifier. I use an AN Soara, EMT TSD15sfl, Shelter 901 and Ortofon MC7500 in my system and have no problems. Till now it's been also tried with Grado Statement new model, various Denon, Benz, Audio Tekne, Clearaudio, Dynavector and so on, just to note you that there are no practical interface problems.
I did not mention anything about parts used in Nibiru. All resistors in the audio path are Kiwame or Riken 0.5W, all power decoupling capacitors Os-Con. There are only two capacitors in the signal path and both are parallel to signal (Riaa). The PCB board containing the audio circuit is double sided, 2.4mm thick, with 90um Cu ground plane. Even the mounting screws with which the board is bolted to 1kg Cu base are spaced by the Golden Ratio. The top cover is Cu which is another RF protection. Then the wires connecting inputs and outputs to the board are by Audio Tekne. The Nibiru is totally discrete design, no IC can do this, the main problem is that IC's are not equally good for PNP and NPN transistors. If for a certain IC PNP is more important, they use the kind of wafer used for PNP and vice-versa. So the only solution would be to make the IC with two separate wafers. As there is currently no business reason to make one we have to make our own discrete version.
Well I'm impressed. In particular the choice of a fully discrete phono board, rather than an IC is increasingly rare in transistor stages - the sheer cost of the components and time involved is not something most companies would accept. Arguments for IC's, such as very short signal paths are valid, but there's no doubt that it's the easier option for a manufacturer. The other advantage to the ESE approach is that if ten years down the line your stage goes 'pop' you will be able to have it repaired by an electronics specialist, with an IC based stage it'll be a hunt for vague equivalents if any still exist even 12 months down the line...
Here the Nibiru is unusual. As it's a current amplifying device you don't have to mess about with load switches and the like, you just plug in the lead from the turntable and amp and switch on... It'll match most low-output moving coil cartridges i.e. 95% of high-end needles. Once you've done this two LED's light up. One shows that the thing is switched on and the other that the battery is being charged. At this point you might think the stage is broken because it is totally silent, and the reason is that it is totally silent! The instant the stage receives a signal from the cartridge, i.e. when the record is cued, one of the LED's goes out to show that the batteries have been disconnected from the mains and that the stage is being run purely from the battery supply. If the stage doesn't get a signal for 3 minutes the charger comes back on. It's such a neat and simple system. The third LED is a battery fault indicator.
From the pics you can see that round the back is a second pair of outputs, these are 'current' outputs for use with the Nibiru's matching amp and some Krell pre-amps, but otherwise are not used.
Let's go back a couple of months. The Nibiru had been plugged in for a few days and I'd played it a bit to make sure it worked, but as it was the middle of our cycling season it was a very busy time! An old friend had come over to stay the night. He's a music fan but not into hi-fi at all, so after a good meal we sat down to chat and listen to some background music. We got talking about what I did for TNT and he wondered about whether there really was a difference between components and how I could possibly describe them - he wasn't sceptical, just genuinely interested. "OK I said, have a listen with me and I'll show you how it's done".
I get up and re-cued the record and put the volume up to proper listening levels - here that means you have to raise your voice but not shout... The record on the turntable was Steely Dan - 'Can't Buy a Thrill'. I chose it because it was on the turntable - no other reason :-) I had to admit it sounded really good and my companion was equally impressed. "That's a phono stage I've got here on test - now listen to this".
I got up unplugged the Nibiru and replaced it with the Dynavector PH-100 step-up which fed into the AudioNote M3's all-valve phono stage. The former costs more than the Nibiru on it's own, designed specifically to partner the DRT-1s and is current amplifying like the Nibiru - the latter costs more than the Nibiru as an option added onto the price of the M3. As a combination they're the best I've heard*.
The needle duly dropped into that first track - 'Do it Again' and the music started. "hear how much bigger and fuller that sounds :-)" I was just starting to waffle about the superior "realism and soul" and feeling very much the hi-fi guru when I actually shut up and began to listen. "I think I prefer the other one" says he, rather embarrassed at his obvious ignorance, only to find that the 'guru' had changed his mind...
So we 'Did it Again', and again with that track and the difference was major. What did it for me was the vocals - with the Dynavector/M3 that big vocal filled centre stage - the Nibiru clearly picked it as a multitrack and you could count the overdubs - going back to the M3 showed it to be big but blowsy and unfocussed, the Nibiru even making the M3 sound as if the phase information was being corrupted. Now from this I hope you're not going to think the Nibiru a stripped-bare maximum-information stage because it certainly didn't fall into that trap. Though it did pull more from that disc than anything I've ever heard it still all held together in a musical way and was a real pleasure to sit in front of. My friend had no idea why the Nibiru was better, he just liked the sound more. Me? I was surprised, very impressed and totally won over.
I'm not going to let this review degenerate into a list of the various records we played that night, they were many and varied, but that first track we played really says it all. Like all Steely Dan it's well recorded (and of course brilliant). The tapped cowbell that gently drives the track was sharper and 'brassier' on the Nibiru, smaller in space but more precisely located than the M3 (it's a small sound...). The crash cymbal was wider over to the left and bigger than the M3 (it's a big instrument :-). The 'yowling' guitar had more edge and steel, but locked-in with the drumkit without effort.
This disc isn't one for showing stage depth, for which I had to go to the Sheffield Labs 'King James' but when I did both stages threw the big soundstage in depth, width and height, but the Nibiru picked up more of the air of the chapel it was recorded in, as well as the reflections from the walls. This ability actually comes from very good information retrieval at the extreme bass end of the spectrum, switch off the REL Stentor and run the Loth-x Horns solo, and apparent bass remains much the same but the soundstage collapses - so both stages were pulling that information cleanly from the disc.
Speed and power in the bass was no problem either, the opening crashes of 'Nevermind' being crisp, high and gut wrenching. The leading edge gave a "Whack Whack Whack!", every bit as fast as the real thing.
The trouble with going through a list of hi-fi attributes is that it tends to dissect the music and a lot of components that do well in such comparisons do exactly that - they pull the music apart. The Nibiru does all the hi-fi stuff without breaking sweat but at no time do you feel you are listening to a mechanical device - you just get lost in the music. Like all truly great components it doesn't favour one style over another, and to be honest nor does it exaggerate the faults of poor recordings which is a blessing in itself. I sometime wonder if the reason that some components do pick poor recordings is that when their colourations are added to the colourations of the disc itself, the result goes beyond the window of acceptability? Certainly the Nibiru happily treads the middle path. Why is it so good? Is it the topology, the components, the battery replacing my cruddy mains? Is it fluky good luck? Is the incredibly low noise floor the answer? Who knows, but the lead it had over my own stage was significant even on 'Sunday night' electricity.
Having won me over it did show one quirk, it's very fussy about where it is and what it's on. One time I tried it sitting on my AN Zero CD player separated by some thick rubber blocks (IKEA CD Racks actually :-) and the bass just disappeared - I thought I had broken something! Placed on its own next to the Orbe it was very happy - the designer, Rudi Korosec, tells me he likes it best on a pile of 15 LP records and who am I to argue. Perhaps those LP's should be chosen to match the album being played - 15 FFRR Decca's for Mahler, 15 old 'Top of The Pops' albums for Slade, 15 heavy metal for Zeppelin and so on :-). Rudi says that each time he adds some clever isolating technique the damn thing gets fussier still as you hear the faults due to the support ever more clearly!
I've written over 100 articles for TNT over the years, and in that time I've never written a review that didn't criticise the article under test, even if it was a rave review. It's something many manufacturers find hard to cope with and the list of those who've rung up to complain after what I've considered an excellent review is a long one. Here I struggled... How can I criticise a stage that pulled more off a disc than I've ever heard and yet made it all hang together so beautifully? A stage that loved leading edges as much as the decay of a note, that never sounded harsh or woolly? That had that black, black background? Build quality? - gimme a break... Compatability? Well I guess the few high-end high-output cartridges like the Music-Maker will miss out, but everything else works fine without having to fart about with DIP switches and the like. Output tends to vary with cartridge, but not disastrously. I suppose if you like your music gently warmed it wouldn't be a first choice? So to all intents and purposes it is beyond reasonable criticism - ouch!
The only down side is that it is the product of a small manufacturer sold direct. There's no distributor or repair network if something goes wrong - it'll be return to base. That's why the thing costs 1500e + tax - if it was sold through a conventional network ESE tell me it'd retail around 4000e which would place its cost well above the other stages I've tested, with the exception of my Dynavector/M3 combo, the Silver Cube and the Korato Anniversary. You have to ask yourself whether you are happy in sending a lot of money to some guy in Slovenia on my say-so, that is something I'm very uncomfortable with and I think ESE have to offer a free return policy for unhappy customers.
Hi-fi companies love reviews to end with "I loved it so much I bought the thing". It's the ultimate accolade and one reason they are so happy to sell things at cost to reviewers. Until the Nibiru came along I couldn't imagine anything would tempt me from the M3/Dynavector, but there were moments when the Nibiru actually made it sound broken. As I write the Nibiru has gone back - I'm playing "Do it Again" and I can feel the loss keenly. If I could rip the phono boards out of the M3 and sell them to finance the purchase I'd do it tomorrow, but right now I don't have the cash and you've no idea how p****d off I am! A real conclusion? OK here goes - The 'high-end' is populated with honest workers, artists, wannabes, charlatans, deluded souls and a few innovators producing products that move hi-fi forward - Rudi Korosec is one of the few...
A new mkII version is now available, go read the follow-up review
(*) "Best I've heard" is meaningless unless you know what I've heard so here goes... Lehmann Black Cube SE and Silver Cube, All the Graham Slee GramAmps (the Gold/Elevator and Silver Cube were the best stand-alone stages until now), Roksan's 'Reference' stage (the top model), Korato Anniversary, AN M3, Audion Silver Knight phono, Linn Linto, Trichord Dino, Naim 62 boards, + lots of cheaper on board stages. It's a long list but far from exhaustive - but I have 'lived' with all of them and used them in comparative tests so we're not talking about casual listening and the Nibiru's lead is not small...
© Copyright 2004 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com