Easy to Warm Up to ELAC Alchemy’s $1250 PPA-2 Phono Preamp

ELAC Alchemy designer Peter Madnick is well-known to veteran audiophiles as the man behind, among other companies, Audio Alchemy, the “high end” brand that during the 1990s made high performance affordable. With Madnick designing and the business side run by Mark Shifter—a guy who could sell ham to a Hasid—Audio Alchemy had a formidable, decade long run before it folded.

While Audio Alchemy’s mission was more or less to figure out and fix what was wrong with the sound of “perfect” digital audio (and the company’s many innovations made major improvements, particularly in terms of jitter reduction), it also produced headphone amps and phono preamps among other well-regarded, reasonably priced products.

Audio Alchemy re-launched in 2015 with another line of innovative, affordable gear including the made in America $1795 PPA-1 phono preamplifier reviewed here in 2016.

But the business side foundered and just around the time we published that PPA-1 review Audio Alchemy was acquired by ELAC an almost 100 year old company founded in Germany that again, some of you know from the Benjamin Miracord ELAC turntables marketed during the 1960s and ‘70s.

The ELAC purchase has allowed Madnick to design here and built in China, bringing with it, products designed to his exacting specs but priced lower.

While the current PPA-2 does not have the PPA-1s elegant casework, it’s also $500 less expensive yet has much of the PPA-1’s performance and feature set including fully discrete FET based gain and EQ stages as well as a DC servo-controlled output stage (meaning no sound damaging coupling capacitors in the signal path).

The PPA-2 also features a few innovations not found on the PPA-1 like continuously variable loading, monitored via a front panel screen. The PPA-2 has two independently adjustable inputs, one of which—unusual at this price point—features a choice of single-ended RCA or balanced XLR in. Either of the two inputs via a rear panel mounted DIP switch can be configured for MM loaded @47kOhms or for variably loaded MC.

There are no fixed MC load settings but with the front panel screen monitoring your rear panel knob turning, this set-up, in addition to giving you a nearly infinite range of load settings (from 5 Ohms to 1kOhms) is at least, if not more convenient than fixed loads set via a DIP switch—especially if it’s mounted inside the chassis. But even compared to rear mounted DIP switches, this makes load setting easy.

There are both single-ended and balanced outputs. An 18V rear panel connector can be used to power certain model recently introduced ELAC turntables.

In addition to the aforementioned fluorescent screen and a power “on/off” button, the front panel includes a row of six LEDs and 5 push buttons. The LEDs indicate “mute”, “inputs 1 or 2”, “High Pass filter” “MM/MC” (labeled +18dB) and “L+R” (mono). The buttons select mute, input 1 or 2, high pass filter, MM/MC and mono. This is an unusually well thought out and easy to use operating system!

Single ended gain is spec’d at 42dB (low) and 60dB (high) and 48dB and 66dB in balanced mode (+6dB). Spec’d THD+N is < 0.005%—a number usually seen on far more costly gear.

Rinse and Repeat

I began by playing the same records used for the just completed Parasound ZPhono XRM review. The ELAC/Alchemy piece is a bit more than twice as expensive. Was it twice as good? I can’t accurately quantify how much better, but I’d say “yes, twice as good”. That was made immediately obvious to me because the sound of the Chico Hamilton album A Different Journey (Reprise R9 6078) using the Audio Technica AT150ANV into the ELAC more closely resembled the velvety richness and detail produced by the Anna D into the CH Precision P1/X1.

It was like listening to a different cartridge: attack was far more supple and timbrally complex, particularly on Gabor Szabo’s mellow sounding guitar, (which sounded like a hollow bodied electrified something or other). The entire picture became richer, fuller and more detailed. Sustain was more generous and the decay around instruments and the sound of the space, whether actual or artificially induced, was far more pronounced. Lloyd’s flute was reproduced with far more air and roundnesss.

It was hard to believe it was the same cartridge loaded at the same 47kOhms, but of course it was. The less costly phono preamp definitely lost a great deal but the design there was so well executed it turned the “missing” into attractive speed and excitement. Here there was far more detail produced by the lingering attack, the more generous sustain and the longer decay into an observationally far blacker backdrop that made all of the instruments sound more convincingly real and three-dimensional.

Hamilton’s snare hung in space and “popped” with convincingly, while a very subtle stick on cymbal accent hidden in the ZPhono’s underbrush became clarified.

Back to Way Out West (ERC 053M). The problem with this record is “I’m an Old Cowhand” has a really long “brain shelf life”. Once you hear it, it’s impossible to get out of your mind! It lingers for days.

Here, compared to the far less costly ZPhono, the PPA-2 produced an enhanced sense of front to back layering of the mono image with Ray Brown’s bass appearing well behind the sax. Transparency greatly increased and the background blackness intensified. The timbral balance smoothed out, removing a layer of brightness “excitement” the ZPhono clearly added. The envelope around Rollins’s sax clarified and Ray Brown’s bass line finger plucks produced a sense of “string pull” not managed by the ZPhono (don’t try measuring “string pull”!). Compared to the ZPhono’s somewhat “cardboardy” rendering of Rollins’ sax, the PPA-2 produced

Based on the MM performance alone my conclusion is that the Elac PP-2 performs sonically well above its price point—especially in the blackness out of which the picture emerges and it’s convenient operating system is a welcomed bonus.

MC Mode

I repeated with the Anna D in MC mode. Firstly, the instructions don’t lie when they warn you that adjusting the loading (each channel loads independently) can be “finnicky”. It’s easy to over and undershoot the desired load and of course you want both channels to be at least close to identical. But with a bit of practice it’s a learnable skill set and it’s nice to not have to access a DIP switch behind, or worse inside the chassis to choose among a limited number of loading choices. I settled on this minor loading disparity.

As in MM mode the PPA-2 in MC plays beyond its $1249.98 price point, though you’d be wasting your money pairing the Anna D with the PPA-2. That’s not the point. The point is, a cartridge like the $1200 Hana ML (review coming up) paired with the PPA-2 produces sonic performance that you’ll have to hear to believe and you will when the ML review is published here.

One of my favorite demo records lately is Decca Classical Stereo Sampler Album (SXL 6177) produced for the 1965 International Audio Festival and Fair and released in limited quantities for that event. It proved so popular that Decca soon issued it in its regular catalog, which is the pressing I’ve got. I found it in Portugal in a used record store’s basement after about a half hour’s looking through every record in there and finding nothing worthwhile until the very last record, which was this one.

It’s got excerpts from many Decca greats that feature spectacular soundstaging and imaging like “Toreador’s Song” from Carmen taken from SXL 6147 featuring Nicolai Ghiaurov with the LSO conducted by Edward Downes. Huge stage, solid imaging, etc. and an excerpt from Mahler Symphony #1 with the LSO conducted by Solti (SXL 6133 I’ve got the LP of that one).

The PPA-2 gets these excerpts remarkably correct timbrally, dynamically and spatially, though compared to my reference phono preamps as if you are hearing it all from an adjacent room—that’s a compliment! because everything is there proportionally correct, just diminished (played through a mega-buck system).

Conclusion

The $1249.98 ELAC/Alchemy PPA-2 combines low noise and “see into the stage” transparency with supple attack, generous sustain and decay to produce a well-detailed musical picture that plays well beyond its price point. Its overall sonic personality is on the warm, velvety and supple side, yet it also delivers impressive detail, and clean, well delineated high frequency transients. Plus it has all of the desirable phono preamp features you’d want (mono switch, high-pass filter, infinitely variable MC loading). I once sat with Peter Madnick evaluating cartridges on a very high end system and we came to very similar conclusions about what we heard. Based on what I’m hearing from the PPA-2, he did a great deal of listening before signing off on the design. The $1000-$1,500 price point is crowded with MM/MC phono preamps and I’ve not heard them all nor have I heard many in quite some time, but I’m confident that if you’re looking in this price region, you won’t be disappointed here.

Specifications

Inputs:
2 RCA unbalanced, 1 balanced

Input impedance:
5-1KOhms variable or 47KOhms

Frequency response:
10hz-20khz +/- 0.2dB

RIAA accuracy:
+/- 0.2dB

Nominal THD+N:
<0.005%

Signal-to-noise ratio (1 kHz):
>86dB

Output Voltage:
>6.0V RMS

Crosstalk (L-to-R or R-to-L):
>80dB

Single ended Gain:
42dB (low) or 60dB (high)

Balanced Gain:
48dB (low) or 66dB (high)

Output impedance:

50 Ohms

Analog Outputs:
(1) XLR balanced, (1) RCA unbalanced

Available finishes:
Black

Dimensions (HxWxD):

2″ x 17.5″ x 15″ including jacks

Weight: 12 lbs

Warranty:
1 year

COMMENTS
Ortofan's picture

... (fixed) load capacitance built into this unit for the MM input?
How does it compare to that for the Parasound ZPhono XRM?

What is the cutoff frequency and slope for the subsonic/high-pass filter?

As with the ZPhono XRM, why no variable loading for the MM input on this unit?

The $550 iFi Micro iPhono2 includes variable load capacitance from 100pF to 500pF in five steps for the MM input.
https://ifi-audio.com/products/micro-iphono2/

Michael Fremer's picture
I am assuming a fixed load capacitance of 100pF but am asking the designer. Getting info on HP filter. Also checking to see if MM load is fixed at 47k or if the adjustability remains in play. However, while we know that 47kOhms is an accepted "default" and not necessarily the correct load for every MM cartridge, few phono preamps deviate from that....
Ortofan's picture

... a feature that seems to be missing from many contemporary phono stages.

While 47KΩ is the default load resistance value, some Shure cartridges seem to perform better with a 100KΩ load and some Grados seem to perform better with a load closer to 33KΩ.

One of the preamps I have is an old Apt Holman. The load resistance is switchable between either 47KΩ or 100KΩ and the load capacitance can be varied from 50pF to 400pF in five steps.
https://www.kenrockwell.com/audio/apt/images/holman-preamplifier/D3S_528...

The EAR Yoshino 324 phono preamp you reported on about a decade ago has load resistance settings of 15KΩ, 22KΩ, 33KΩ, 47KΩ and 100KΩ as well as load capacitance settings of 20pF, 100pF, 220pF, 330pF and 470pF.
https://img.ukaudiomart.com/uploads/large/1745395-ear-yoshino-324-mmmc-p...
https://www.stereophile.com/content/michael-fremer-september-2011

Michael Fremer's picture
But first: yes back "in the day" when MM was more commonly used and MC was exotic, there was greater adjustability and even more recently in the 324. In any case here's what Peter Madnick told me: 1) Yes the default capacitive load is 100pF as I figured. 2) the High Pass filter is first order (6dB/octave, -3dB@10Hz (better choice than the Parasound though considering the cost most users won't have speakers that go much below 40Hz so I understand that too). 3) While the default MM loading is 47kOhms, Madnick says: " If folks want to play with capacitive (or resistive) loading on MM, I suggest they use input #2, which has both the RCA and XLR jacks. Since the jacks are essentially in parallel, additional C or R can be plugged in to the alternate jack to load the active input. They would be in parallel with the default load, thus increasing the capacitance and lowering the resistance. I can supply suggested values to anyone that does not want to do the math if they tell me the target number they wish to achieve."
Grorr76's picture

Really liking the look of this unit. I have the IFI Iphono 2 and am considering an upgrade. How bigger upgrade would the PPA-2 be over the iphono 2 and what characteristics would I see with this one over the Iphono 2

Michael Fremer's picture
Stay tuned..
arcman67's picture

It's a fantastic pre. I originally purchased a Mofi Studiophono and had some build issues. I returned and upgraded to the PPA-2. NIGHT and DAY difference (of course it should be with price difference). I have yet to try a MC cartridge. It's just my current MM AT-VM540ML sounds so good (Technics 1200GR), I cannot justify upgrading until the stylus wears out.

Ortofan's picture
Michael Fremer's picture
Overboard IMO more than one needs to know....the fluid damper seems like a good idea. For some reason KAB ignores me....
Grorr76's picture

I have the vm750SH 2 up from yours and mine sounds great to.Probably the best MM cart I have ever owned . Im considering getting this pre to really take my setup to the next level.

arcman67's picture

When I do need a new cartridge, the VM740 or the 750 may be my next choice (not much more expensive than the 540). Since I enjoy the 540 so much, I'm afraid to listen to something much more expensive (>$1000) figuring I would want to upgrade. Then again, once yu get to a higher level, the cost, long term, could be offset by having the stylus re tipped when needed. I'd be curious how the AT 540, 740, etc compares to the lower priced Soundsmith products.

OldschoolE's picture

At last! I have been wanting to hear this phono preamp. I still do! I'm glad you reviewed it Michael. Your review kind of confirms what I have been thinking about how it would perform or sound. I have seen the build, it is quite good and conceptually, it seems similar to John Curl's design features, but done a bit different. The result according to your review, it seems there are similarities between the Jc3 Jr and the PPA-2 and all the good ones.

I have zero regrets with the JC3 Jr indeed, but I do like the screen and "easier to adjust" features of the PPA-2. The only thing missing is a remote, but then I'm not sure how convenient a remote for a phono pre would really be (not to mention how the added circuitry for it would be implemented).
I do wish the box was more elegant, but then again the Halo gear from Parasound is also seemingly utilitarian with a subtle hint of elegance, but of course performance is where its at and that is where the money should be spent (the Andrew Jones theory and it makes sense and seeing that Andrew is at Elac as well the influence is not surprising). I know andrew well and I have met Peter (he showed me the build of the PPA-2 at a show 2017), really nice guy.

I really want to play with a PPA-2 one day. I live close to Elac North America currently, but can never get the time off work to coordinate another visit (which usually ends up running at least 2.5 hours because I know Andrew and Chris and between just visiting and them insisting on showing me everything down to the last wire on a voice coil, it gets long, but its great because they are so cool and befriended me back in 2015.

AkaEthan's picture

Great Review! Can you please tell me how does the Elac compare to PS Audio Stellar Phono preamp?
Thank you!

DrJB's picture

I've read many reviews in the last few years that seem to have a common theme: "This product punches way above its weight class..." Maybe that's just not true. Perhaps the ELAC pre reviewed here along with the Hana ML, VPI Scout Jr., B&W 600 and 700 series speakers, REL and SVS subs, etc. are actually priced exactly where they should be. I'm not suggesting that high end products are overpriced. There's a place in the world for $10,000+ cartridges and $50,000+ turntables. These products are important because they inform the design and manufacturing of more affordable gear. But perhaps it's time for all of us to adjust our expectations regarding what we should expect when we spend $1000 on a cartridge or phono stage. This ELAC pre is a case in point. I'm reasonably certain that the Hana ML review will reveal another giant killer. But there comes a point where the outliers become the norm, and I'm really happy that those of us who are serious about audio but have families to support can now gain admittance the club that was once reserved for a select group of gear reviewers, trust fund kids, and doctors. It's 2020, and we should expect excellent performance--within reason--regardless of our stations in life. In my world, the ELAC Alchemy PPA-2 Phono Preamp is exactly what I would expect for my $1250. But I would like to see it taken a step further. If VPI, Sutherland, Grado and other companies can build high performing, affordable products using labor from the US, shouldn't we expect other companies to do the same?

DrJB's picture

I wanted to make it clear that I am not advocating that every audio product be made in the US. There are many hifi audio companies that utilize manufacturing and labor close to home in the EU, Japan, Germany, England, and so on. Some companies would not have the labor force necessary to meet demand if they stayed local. That is not the point of the last sentence of my previous post. I'm simply saying that Schiit, Sutherland, VPI, Excel (Hana), Project, and many other companies that make reasonably priced gear have been able to find a way to keep manufacturing close by, and I applaud that effort.

arcman67's picture

The Mcintosh MP100 is not far off from the Elac for a USA built phono pre. In fact, visiting a local dealer may get you a discount much closer to the ELA than one may think.

infohou's picture

Would be a welcome comparison.

Robnik33's picture

Looking forward to MF's comments, here is my take. I started with iPhono, upgraded to iPhono2, recently purchased Elac PPA-2. The step up to PPA-2 seems greater (from memory) than the move from iPhono to iPhono2.

In A/B comparisons (MM, Paradox Pulse modded Shure SC35C with N35x stylus on PLX-1000 with KAB damping trough and Herbie's Way 2mm + 3mm cork mats), PPA-2 has a significantly expanded soundstage with cleaner delineation between voices & instruments and a much extended top end.

Going back to iPhono2, I note good tonal balance with a pleasing slight warmth. Everything just seems crowded together, missing details like vocal overtones and space around performers.

Overall, very pleased with the PPA-2, and highly recommend upgrading from an iPhono2. My SoundSmith Carmen is out for retipping, I look forward to trying it out with the PPA-2, my guess is the difference will be even greater.

And Michael, you should reach out again to KAB, the damping trough is a sweet upgrade to Technics and compatible clone turntables like the PLX-1000.

Grorr76's picture

Thanks for that. I just put a deposit down on one and am moving from the phono 2 to the elac. Based upon what you say it should be great. Im also going to be running it balanced so that's an extra bonus . Im in Australia so im hearing a price rise is imminent so I was able to get in before the price rise. I did my research to have all its features and performance for what it costs here on another unit would of cost probably another 500 dollars on another brand.

Robnik33's picture

Groor76,

Good choice, looking forward to your review. My initial comparisons were balanced out into a PS Audio BHK preamp. Having balanced out was one of my reasons to switch, plus a mono switch. I notice more precise leading-edge timing and air in balanced config, though a more subtle difference vs iPhono2 comparison.

Also I'm a big Peter Madnik fan. I owned a VITB preamp in the 1990s, along with a DDS Pro/DTI 2.0/DDE 3.0 digital rig. Always appreciated his high quality, high value philosophy. I hope Elac treats him well and wish the Alchemy line great success, he deserves it!

Grorr76's picture

I bought this pre based on the recommendation here. I just wanted to share a few observations.
The balanced output is just incredible. Far more dynamic wider sound stage. It just improves on the unbalanced input output in everyday . I got mine with my new mobile fidelity UltraDeck few weeks back. Its a great pairing with the master tracker cart. The amount of fines and 3 dimensiality is wonderful . Its especially great if you have a balanced amp like I do. Highly recommended.

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