Product: Pro-Ject PhonoBox - phono preamp
Manufacturer: Pro-Ject Audio Designs - Austria
Approx. price: 90 $/Euro
Reviewer: Lucio Cadeddu - TNT Italy
Reviewed: June, 2003
Despite the assault of brave new hi-res digital formats it seems vinyl playback is here to stay. The amount of new HiFi components devoted to LP playback is rapidly increasing: new turntables, cartridges, arms and...phono preamps.
For those on a tight budget the choice has never been wider: the NAD PP-1, the GramAmp 1 & 2, the KAB PH-1 and a few others.
One of these is the ProJect PhonoBox, a basic sub-100$/Euro phono preamp, built by Pro-Ject Audio Designs, famous for making affordable and good sounding turntables.
Technically, the PhonoBox is a dual-mono MM/MC non-adjustable phono preamp with an outboard power supply. It makes use of a pair of JRC 4580D op-amps (one for each channel) and mid-quality passive components. A bettered version, the PhonoBox SE, is available, as is a tube-equipped one, the Tube Box, at a (way) higher cost.
The quality of the construction is good, considering the price tag, while the dual-mono structure is something quite rare at this cost.
I've listened to the PhonoBox for a couple of months in my B system, then I've compared it to the NAD PP-1 I had already reviewed for TNT-Audio and then to the Lehmann Black Cube SE + PWX.
These are the most relevant (claimed) tech specs:
Of course you can't expect the performance of top-class phono preamps here...but the PhonoBox has been quite a surprise. Its tonal balance tends to be slightly on the warm side, with soft treble and slightly overblown mid-bass and bass. This equilibrium certainly helps to counterbalance the natural attitude of those cheap turntables and carts, to which the PhonoBox will be eventually connected to.
Indeed, the PhonoBox can add some weight to the bass response of weak turntables and cartridges and at the same time it can "tame" some harshness in the highs. The final result is quite enjoyable and never fatiguing. Compared to the NAD PP-1, its natural rival, the PhonoBox appears more refined in the highs, cleaner and weightier in the bass. If you have read my review of the NAD PP-1 you should already know I don't like this preamp much. I feel the PhonoBox is globally better, though - perhaps - less aggressive than the PP-1.
Considering the dynamic performance, the two preamps are almost equal, a bit slow and compressed, when compared with the Black Cube. They both lack that "spark" that makes vinyl sound so lively even when compared to the best digital gear.
Somehow, it seems that Music slows down, attacks and decays appear less sharp than they should be. This attitude becomes clear with drums and electric bass, for example in the opening of "Too Soon" by Daryle Ryce (Rosa's Grandchild, 1992, Appaloosa AP063-I): the natural violence of the drum kit, mated to a slappy bass, appears to be reduced, and not by a small extent. The NAD PP-1 doesn't perform any better, in this area.
I'm afraid one has to pay a bit more to fully enjoy the dynamic potential of good vinyl...
Please bear in mind I've not used my hi-end playback system to evaluate these preamps, just a mid-class TT: ERA deck, tweaked with TNT Janus mat, C37 lacquer, antivibration feet, plus an Esoter arm and an Acutex 420 STR cartridge. OK, I admit, not exactly run-of-the-mill stuff :-). This means the REAL limitation, especially in terms of dynamic capabilities, lies in the phono preamps.
When upgrading your vinyl playback system, plan to spend some cash on a better phono stage, instead of getting a better cartridge, for example.
I've also tried to evaluate the PhonoBox (and the PP-1) with respect to the reproduction of a realistic soundstage, one of the areas where vinyl is known to be an excellent performer. Well, while the PP-1 is quite poor at soundstaging, the Pro-Ject PhonoBox does slightly better, being able to create even some sense of depth. It still fails to have a good "focus" and stability but the overall 3D performance can't be criticized much, considering the price. Perhaps the dual mono structure plays a role, here. At 90$/Euro I wasn't certainly expecting to get a reasonable soundstage, that's for sure!
Summarizing, the soundstage isn't exactly wide nor deep but still some sense of "proportion" is preserved and, as said, there's even DEPTH!!!
At the end of it all I think the PhonoBox is a better preamp than the NAD PP-1. In few words, it is more refined, has a better tonal balance and soundstage. It could be considered a serious first step in the world of vinyl playback, especially if partnered with entry-level turntables and cartridges.
As the PhonoBox uses an outboard power transformer, equipped with a long umbilical cord, try to keep this as far as possible from the turntable and the preamp itself. Actually, it should be better to place the preamp as close as possible to the turntable (but FAR from the motor).
The PhonoBox has two pairs of gold-plated input/output RCA's. This means you are free to use any interconnect you prefer, a good plus, if you consider the NAD PP-1 had a fixed (inboard installed) non-replaceable interconnects. Of course, do not forget this preamp is really inexpensive so using extremely good cables is a pure non-sense. DIY makes sense, here.
The unit has been designed to stay permanently on. Switching from MM to MC is quite easy, if you read the manual. Actually one has to move a couple of jumpers on the main board. Following the schematic drawed on the bottom of the unit isn't the easiest task one can imagine. Refer to the manual if you want to avoid silly mistakes ;-) [a complete PDF manual is available at the Pro-Ject website].
The PhonoBox has a pretty resonant top cover. Try adding a damping sheet (outside or inside, it doesn't matter) and placing the unit on very soft feet, possibly even a mouse pad would do the trick.
For this price one can't honestly ask for more. Only, I'd have preferred to get some kind of "adjustability", especially for the MC impedance input load (100 ohm) and for the capacitance of the MM input (100 pF). Two or three different values would have been more than enough.
Also, considering the target (low-cost vinyl playback systems) the MC option is really useless. How many audiophiles with a MC cartdridge will be using a 90$ phono preamp? Not many, I'm afraid. So, perhaps, a better quality MM-only phono preamp would make more sense.
The sound of the PhonoBox has been a pleasant surprise, considering my attitude versus cheap analogue gear. The most severe limitation can be detected in the reduced rythmic capability, partnered with mediocre overall dynamics.
If you're in the market for an inexpensive vinyl playback system and your preamp/integrated amp doesn't have a phono input, please take this PhonoBox into serious account.
© Copyright 2003 Lucio Cadeddu - www.tnt-audio.com