These are tough times for vinylites. If you buy a preamp or an integrated amplifier these days, chances are likely that it comes without a dedicated phono input. And if it has one, its sound quality often leaves us wanting. So off you go, splashing out more money for an outboard pickup preamp, which then of course costs unproportionally more, as it needs its own housing and power supply.
But this isn't even the worst case scenario. No. You could also
sell off the record collection and turntable, trying to live with CDs...
Aargh, and this while it is perfectly feasible to build a half-decent phono stage into any amplifier, with a total component cost of less than EUR20...
But we have to live with the situation as it is, and anyway, with an outboard phono stage you'll have at least a fair chance that its designer knew what he was doing. And more, if you're a bit adventurous, you can always cut the tonearm cables short and put the outboard phonostage as close as possible to the turntable.
Product: Trigon Vanguard 1 MM/MC phono preamp
Approximate price: EUR310/US$370
Test sample: loaned from local distributor
The Trigon company is a descendant of the perhaps better-known but now-defunct German high-end electronics brand Restek. Until some years ago Restek was a sizeable manufacturer of a very serious range of amplifiers, tuners, and CD-players, some of them deep into esoteric price figures. And all of them, as befits audio from Germany, heavily chrome-plated... After the crash the same people restarted, perhaps a bit more modest, with this Vanguard phono preamp, and a small range of other amplifiers.
At the bottom of the Trigon four banks of dip-switches are readily accessible, setting gain in 16 steps ranging from 40dB to 60dB, input resistance, also sixteen steps from 33 Ohms to 47kOhms, and input capacitance, again 16 steps from naught up to some silly figure. One thing is for certain: with the exception of ultra-low output moving coils, the Vanguard is ready to oblige to any exotic demand from your cartridge!
Internally the 27V are regulated and then split into a +12V and a -12V side, with the ground reference dynamically maintained with an NE5534 opamp and associated transistors. The input signals are filtered with EMI-rejecting coils: definitely input from our Eurocrazy (pardon: Eurocracy). The gain stages themselves comprise of firstly flat gain in a low-noise LT1028 opamp (we don't see these very often!), then a passive low-pass for the treble part of the RIAA de-equalization, and finally an NE5534 with the remaining RIAA part in its feedback loop. The capacitors are mostly MKS, i.e. polyester, some of them Wima-branded, and the output is direct-coupled. A bit of a surprise. A bit of a risk too: one channel of this preamp featured a high 200mV offset!!!
For those who are into such trivia: the Vanguard's circuit seems to be directly derived from the phono stage of the older Restek Sector preamp, a preamp which back in 1992 was around the equivalent of EUR1500, and which had a reputation for a mediocre sound on its line inputs, and a magnificent sound on phono.
The overall impression of quality this unit makes is very good, but I have to emphasize that both the high DC offset and the non-standard power supply plug are not acceptable and should be addressed by the manufacturer!!!
[ >> Fast Forward ] Intrigued by the listening sessions I afterwards simulated the Trigon circuit using Pspice. The resulting frequency plot showed a mildly elevated response between 100Hz and 1kHz, after which the midrange was slightly depressed, only to regain full strength again at 10kHz or so, followed by a steep rolloff beyond 20kHz. Of course with exception of the latter these deviations were small, being no more than +/-0.3dB. [ << Rewind ]
Starting with Jennifer Warnes' delicious Famous Blue Raincoat collection of Leonard Cohen songs, the Vanguard surprised with a commendably full and powerful sound. The individual background voices in the acapella A Singer Must Die were very easy to follow, each in its own position (wide as well as deep!), each with its own dynamics and inflections, and with Jennifer Warnes in front, intimate, as if she was there to tell us a secret. This phonostage also has fine rhythmic abilities, as this song swung like never before, and instrumentized tracks really had a lot of impact in the bass and drum department. At the same time, however, it was clear that the Vanguard's tonal balance was darkened, with progressively less detail and openness throughout the midrange and low treble, until at the very top end things started to sparkle again.
All the other albums I tried consistently gave the same result: a rolling and deep bass, emphasising rhythms and also fattening the fundamental tones of voices and instruments alike so that each seemed to sound more delineated and more dynamic than expected. This all set in a wide and deep sonic vista (verrry appealing with large-scale classical music, especially on massed strings!), a vista that somehow veiled from the midrange on.
Stability was fine, handling of s'es and sibilance too, the Trigon never going aggressive or losing control. Despite those dull mids, resolution and transparency were quite good. Or rather, there was an abundance of transparency at the 'musical' level, meaning that all strands in the music were there and easy to follow, with their timing and inflections. But the transparency at the 'technical' or 'audiophile' level was lacking a bit. Which is strange, not? The overall tone was colourful, certainly lacking any form of false sheen or undue greyness. The unit wasn't entirely free of grain, wasn't as smooth as the best (but still better than average, having the texture of an arty black&white or sepia-toned film), but neither was this type of 'distortion' intrusive.
Product: Mistral Phonostage MM/MC phono preamp
Manufacturer: LFD Audio, 110 Oxford Crescent, Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, C015 3PZ, tel.+44.(0)255.22.01.40
Approximate price: EUR500/US$600 (stand-alone unit)
EUR250/US$300 (plug-in board for Mistral and LFD integrateds and preamps)
Test sample: loaned from local distributor
No need to spend words on LFD now, you can always read my recent test of the Mistral Linestage and Powerstage. The Phonostage comes in the same style of housing, just as wide, but only half as deep. Meaning that this particular component will always need a prominent place in your equipment stack, and as such is not quite as handy and 'invisible' as the Trigon.
Where the MM0 could internally be configured for MM gain (x90 or 39dB) or MC gain (x680 or 57dB) by means of a switch, the same can only be achieved by soldering two jumpers in the Phonostage: clearly a job for the dealer. In both cases, MM or MC, the input resistance is fixed at 47kOhms: this is predominantly a preamp for moving magnets or high-output moving coils.
The Phonostage is also available as a cheaper power supply-less board to be built into LFD and Mistral integrated amplifiers and preamps.
After that, and again cross-referencing to the Vanguard, the Essex-sourced preamp treated me with an elegant and smooth sound, more neutral than its German colleague. Indeed, just neutral, period. The Mistral is smooth in the sense that it sounds coherent from top to bottom (with the exception perhaps of a very slight greyness of the treble, probably that NE5534 running out of steam), with a refined and silky character and a tinge of polish around individual instruments. Talking about instruments: separation between various sound sources is wonderful, especially laterally. Depth seems to be less than the Trigon's exaggerated sense of ambience, but still without reverting to a flat picture, though.
Overall the Mistral played with more air, more openness, but also with less explicit dynamics (not that it was bad in this area, not at all!), perhaps a bit bland, and with a certain agility to portray what is going on in the music, when, and where. It showed much better the differences between records and recording styles, where the Trigon worked more as an equalizer, imposing its own character onto the source.
© Copyright 1999 Werner Ogiers for TNT Audio Magazine (http://www.tnt-audio.com)