Manufacturer: Tisbury Audio - UK
Product: Domino phono pre-amplifier with variable gain & input Z
Price: £139 including VAT in UK at review date, YMMV
Reviewer: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: Winter 2017-2018
The Tisbury Audio Domino arrives hot on the heals of the Gold Note PH10. Two interesting phono pre-amplifiers ploughing fundamentally different design furrows, competing for space on the shelf below the turntable; OK, technically on the shelf below the SET300B that generates so much heat it lives on the penthouse. While both these phono pre-amplifiers are solid state, and both feature outboard linear power supplies, the similarities end there. A customer could purchase ten of the Tisbury Audio Domino phonostages for the price of one Gold Note PH10, the Tisbury Domino is priced at one tenth of the price of the Gold Note PH10. The law of diminishing returns tends to work on a Logaudio basis so we might hope that the 10 times dearer model would be at least twice as good.
Domino is a good name for a phono-stage, because like a line of Dominos, if the first domino falls, the whole line collapses and this is the consequence to any audio signal that collapses at the start of the amplification chain. Whether you subscribe to the weakest link view of audio reproduction, or to the GIGO (garbage in - garbage out) version, if the phono stage gets it wrong you might as well listen to MP3.
As you'll have read recently in these pages in the review of the Gold Note, the phono-stage is a tough design assignment. The design has to succeed in amplifying tiny microvolts from the pick-up cartridge up to line level AND it has to achieve this monumental gain while applying equalisation! The lowest frequencies (those most similar to 50Hz/60Hz AC mains frequency and its primary harmonics) get the highest level of gain and the highest frequencies require the least amount of gain. The gain equalisation is around a 6dB per octave slope (there are 3 time constants so this is an approximation) from 20kHz to 20Hz so filter design is even more challenging to avoid phase-shifts. This is all to make the groove wiggles more cut-able, the disc more track-able and raise the highest audible frequencies further above vinyl noise and circuit noise. As a bonus it creates a fresh challenge for amplifier designers.
Once designed, it's an even tougher to execute because such heaps of gain are an open invitation to noise, distortion, filter inaccuracies, impedance mismatches and channel imbalances. Years ago your Old Scribe used to use simple battery powered phono pre-amps, mounted in little aluminium boxes under the arm base, as the only successful solution in disco and nightclub situations. The disadvantage was that someone has to remember to change the batteries regularly (one PP3 per channel per deck). The same arguments are levelled against battery powered audiophile phono pre-amplifiers, along with a belief that battery power has less oomph than a low impedance mains generated supply. Tisbury Audio supply a 15VAC outboard transformer to keep voltages in the unit low.
If TNT-Audio write any more of these summaries of the challenges of creating an effective RIAA equalised phono pre-amplifiers, we might just have to create a TNT-Audio.com page on the subject.
"Just get on with the review" insist the Plebs' Chorus, stage left
Inside the neat aluninium extrusion, capped with genuine solid walnut on the front and a solid rear face-plate carrying sockets and on-off switch, are circuits which just a few years ago would have graced much higher priced products. The Tisbury Audio Domino is entirely designed and assembled in Britain too. The Tisbury Audio Domino uses Passive RIAA Equalisation located between two separate gain stages. There are many arguments in favour of passive EQ, primarily in the domain of phase and the lack of feedback induced effects at high frequencies. Tisbury Audio argue optimistically that their approach offers "the best of all worlds: low noise, high accuracy, and exceptional sonic performance". In the list below, both the cheapest The TEC TC754 (the original discrete component version) and most expensive Canor 306VR+ also feature fully passive RIAA EQ. There are two ways of executing passive RIAA EQ.
The overload margin is consistent at 30dB for the lower three gain settings, but reduces slightly at the highest gain setting of 67dB. At this setting with low output MC cartridges, it was not possible to detect any overload. The internal Linear Power Supply fed by an outboard transformer may be the limiting factor if tightly regulated, which might be inferred from the consistent noise (proportionate to gain) and distortion performance.
Crosstalk increases proportionately between 40dB gain and 49dB gain, from -103dB to -97dB (A weighted, remarkable figures from a tiny box with close components). Likewise crosstalk increases minutely between 77dB gain and 49dB gain, from -77dB to -76dB suggesting perhaps that the extra gain is early in the signal path. However crosstalk increases disproportionately between 49dB gain and 58dB gain, from -97dB to -77dB (A weighted, remarkable figures from a tiny box with close components).
"The Domino is a versatile, high performance phono preamplifier. Selectable gain settings and input loading allow any MM or MC cartridge to be used. Ultra high-spec components along with our laser engraved walnut and aluminium enclosure achieve high-end sound and build quality but without the price tag"
"Versatility was the main design goal," says Wes Young of Tisbury. "Putting together a good turntable system can be a challenge, so we wanted the Domino to allow any cartridge to be paired with any amp, without compromising the sound or price. This is especially useful when pairing it with our Mini passive preamp, as you'll always be able to set your ideal gain level."
"Domino has four switchable gain settings: 40, 49, 58 and 67 dB. This allows virtually all cartridge, from high output MM to low output MC, to work with any amp. Particularly handy if you’re also using our Mini Passive Preamp, as you won't have to worry about system matching"
Domino's power supply uses an off board 15V AC transformer (not to be mistaken for a switch mode DC adaptor, it won't work with DC) keeping electrical noise away from the sensitive gain stages. This gives hi-fi grade, linear regulated power rails in a small package, without having to worry about hum or ground loops.
The Domino is handmade in England. Our products are designed, made, and tested in our London workshop for true British quality hi-fi.
The owners' manual can be found here.
Keeping the transformer outboard the the rectification/filtration inboard has the advantage that noise will not be picked up by a cable carrying low voltage DC near the 230V AC mains cables to other components. The downside is that any noise borne on that 15V AC cable is borne all the way inside. The upside of the Tisbury Domino power supply is that by using the little off board 15 V AC transformer keeps the magnitude of mains electrical noise away from the sensitive gain stages, reducing it in proportion such that the internal rectification and filtration has less of a big ask task. By not rectifying to DC outboard (most little outboard PSU's are switch mode DC adaptors) the VHF noise generated by such supplies is avoided, and the filters are close to the active gain circuits. Tisbury Audio believe that their approach offers "hi-fi grade, linear regulated power rails in a small package, without having to worry about hum or ground loops".
The Domino is therefore another European made product (Britain will still be geographically Europe until the earth's plates move) at a tenth of the price of another excellent European phono pre-amplifier, the £1315 (that your Old Scribe reckoned was in the league of others at 2 grand) Gold Note PH10. Shortly after receiving it and trying it with the old Garrard 401/SME 3012 series I, Tisbury sent a second sample because they might have identified a production problem with one batch. The first sample may have been slightly noisier and swapping was easy. The Tisbury Domino was easy to set up and small enough to share a shelf with another component.
"Once again he's rambling," Whinge the Plebs' Chorus, stage left, "Tell us what you heard when you used it?"
"F*ck m*, that's good!" thought the Old Scribe on hearing the replacement Tisbury Audio Domino which had spent a few days cycling on and off to burn in. This time it was in a system fronted by a modified Linn (review to follow).
From the moment of first stylus to groove contact good rhythm was obvious. The phono-stage must preserve the drive generated by the spinning platter or the whole musical enterprise is doomed. There are those who will say that a phono-stage cannot affect pace or rhythm, but low frequency phase anomalies can destroy rhythm at any point from the cartridge to the loudspeakers. The RIAA filter network can easily upset this phase coherence if the time constants are not the perfect match. Pace did not lag either, which can be caused by power supply sag when big bass is present.
Conversely the Domino does not create an illusion of pace by a lean sound balance, which results in all music assuming a similar frenetic pace and little bass extension. Infectious Flat-Earth toe tapping PRaT, that invites dancing, is a hallmark of the Tisbury Audio Domino. The first Domino in the audio chain would not make a PRaTfall.
"Howl!" Wince the Plebs' Chorus, stage left, "That pun plumbs new depths"
The depths of Stanley Clarke's bass is present, with similar heft to the Gold Note PH10, but less heft than some big box units. Stanley Clarke's Find Out (bought at Holmsford record fair) has all the hallmarks of 1980s production from the cover photography to the shiny liberal application of electronic reverb. The density of production casts a layer over the musicianship. The layer of over-production is not impenetrable providing the turntable, cartridge and phono pre-amp are up to the job. This modent £139 phono pre-amplifier allows Clarke's immaculate bass playing and ensemble interplay to shine through. The front end is a modified Linn Sondek LP12/SME309/Benz Micro is doing its job well and the Tisbury Audio Domino allows enough information through to the Audio Research Reference 3 pre-amp. Big balanced line pre-amps like the ARC Ref3 do the big stuff really well but have limits to their subtle downward dynamic range, whereas the Assemblage SET300B excels in this area. The little Tisbury Domino does show its limits at both ends of the dynamics spectrum, but is both more detailed and lively than any other I can think of below £700€.
There was enough solidity to the rendering of Orbital's Snivilisation even though this disc was learned on a big PSU Naim active system. The pace was such the Orbital tracks required standing up and dancing.
Listening notes include the notion that the Tisbury Audio Domino is, in many respects,better than most phono pre-amps up to at least £700 (YMMV). There are some oft repeated recommendations of 'bargain' sub £1k€ phono pre-amps, including those that get repeated on forums ever since a couple of favourable reviews published shortly after the dinosaurs became extinct. Whether it is that designs have improved, technology moved on, or component quality become more consistent, music lovers seem to be enjoying a glut of excellent phono pre-amps this millenium and those from the last century have largely been surpassed.
Vinyl may have once again become the dominant selling physical medium, but the new generation of vinyl buyers are unlike the audiophiles of old. The vinyl neophytes are used to having to buy a standalone phonostage or expect one packaged in their turntable plinth. The new vinyl generation do not expect an extra gain stage, of dubious quality, marked 'phono' or 'disc' or 'MM' thrown in to every budget integrated amplifier. The phenomenology of their qualitative experience is not referenced to many previous vinyl encounters but to streaming services. With the Tisbury Audio Domino this group must be prepared to be amazed.
Even this hard-bitten old audiophile, hearing the Tisbury Audio Domino immediately after the excellent Gold Note PH10, which costs 10 times as much, was not feeling short-changed. With the second sample, your Old Scribe began using the highest gain setting that is more challenging to any pre-amp because it makes the most demand on the power supply. Amplifiers are little more than modulated power supplies. Any weaknesses will be exaggerated at this gain setting.
So surprisingly, swapping from the Gold Note to the Tisbury Audio was no disappointment. Presentation was similarly neutral with no particular emphasis. Bass is slightly limited in extension but has the heft typical of a linear power supply and much better than most SMPS wall warts. Even when your Old Scribe's ears weren't in reviewing mode, the Tisbury Audio Domino Tracks like Homeless on Paul Simon's Graceland are a perfect match for this phono preamplifier. It's strengths are in PRaT and in human voices. The Canor TP306 VR+ sets the benchmark for these musical dimensions, at any price. The Tisbury Audio Domino is never going to be as uncanny as the Canor whose price would be you 20, yes twenty, Tisbury Audio Dominos.
The sometimes dense and sometimes curious mixes on the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street did not defeat the Tisbury Audio Domino either. The liveliness and joie de vivre (irononic considereing how little joie was happening in the Stone's vivres during the recordings) of this album were successfully conveyed to the rest of the system downsteam. The Gold Note PH10 also manages this trick very effectively, in a manner different from the Canor, but the more comparably priced AAAVT SM-12B (née Yaqin MS-12B) would not even get close to the Tisbury Domino performance.
At regular intervals your Old Scribe had the sense that there was far more potential inside the Tisbury Audio Domino's sleek little American Walnut fronted box. Your Old Scribe contacted Wes Young of Tisbury Audio and asked whether a bigger power supply might become available in future (as your Old Scribe asked Gold Note when reviewing the PH10). Wes replied that there may be a larger power supply in matching enclosure in the future. Their next product, though, will be a headphone amp, in which case (pun groan from Pleb's Chorus) the power supply could be used to power both units.
The Tisbury Audio Domino is a bargain. It is priced at entry level but performs on the rung above. It would be the ideal partner for a bargain classic turntable like a Rega, Thorens, Ariston, Heybrook, Linn Basik, Michell Micro (to name a few British companions), Dual, Tehcnics, Kenwood/Trio, Rotel, Pioneer etc just as easily as a modern offereing from Project.
The Tisbury Audio Domino is a rare thing, sounding like it was built up to a quality target, not down to a target price. It will outlast turntable, arm and cartricge upgradeds. It may well be upgradable itself with a bigger power supply and its intrinsic quality would benefit from a 100VA transformer.
This review compared the Tisbury to the approaches and price points of the TEC TC-754 budget thing, all the way up to the magnificent Canor TP306 VR+. The comparisons included consulting contemporary notes made while reviewing other phono pre-amplifiers, and any qualitative Likert scales still available from comparisons between:
Copyright © 2018 Mark Wheeler - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com