LKV Research Phono 2-SB MM/MC Phono Preamplifier: Affordable Excellence Page 2

LKV Phono 2-SB Sound

While higher retail price is not necessarily an indicator of sonic quality, generally that’s the case. So if you wish to move up from the very good performance you get from something like the Lehmann Black Cube SE II to the LKV Research Phono 2-SB what can you expect to hear?

For starters, with a far more robust power supply you can expect and you will get wider dynamics aided on the micro-dynamic side by improved signal to noise ratio. The quieter the preamp, the wider the dynamic range.

In musical terms, assuming your system can reveal it, the LKV’s bass performance will exhibit more “grip”, with improved bass transient definition. Notes will sound “stickier” thus producing improved rhythm’n’pacing. The bass will not “bleed” into other musical territories.

Relative to something like the Black Cube, the LKV will not sound as warm, because it is more neutral and won’t impart as much of its own character upon the music. On some records you may say to yourself “this phono preamp doesn’t have as much bass”—until some deep bass comes along engraved on the record and then you’ll know that it does!

The Charly Records reissue of the mono mix of Small Faces’ classic Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake has prodigious deep bass that the LKV grabs and pushes effectively through the speakers. Is there even more weight to be had from this record? Yes, but it will cost you a lot more and unless your speakers can deliver, why bother? The LKV correctly delivers the transient and maintains the grip in ways that the lower priced phono preamps don’t.

Don’t expect from the LKV tube-like midband richness, but also don’t expect a lean, wiry and analytical midband. The LKV is satisfyingly rich and smooth and its top end is too, though there’s more air and extension to be had on top if you’re willing to spend for it, or in the case of other phono preamps at this price point, you can have it but with some analytical qualities you may not appreciate, such as overly defined image edges and “crispiness” that can become tiresome, depending upon your cartridge and other associated components.

Playing Neil Young Live At The Cellar Door, a solo performance beautifully recorded by the late great Henry Lewy demonstrates the LKV’s utterly natural overall presentation and smooth top to bottom tonal balance. It also demonstrates that greater transparency and spaciousness can be had at the topmost echelon but there’s a high price to pay. There, the illusion heightens that Young is singing and playing in front of you. You can sense more than hear the cubbyhole of a space in which he is performing. The Steinway he plays reveals its size and harmonic beauty with ease.

Overall, the LKV Research Phono 2-SB does everything well, beginning with black backgrounds even with low output cartridges. Its tonal balance is top-to-bottom smooth with no obvious lumps or bumps and dynamically it is as good as it gets at the $2500 price point and probably well above it too. Play Analogue Productions’ stunning reissue of the Reiner and the CSO’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (RCA LSC-2201) and you will hear lustrous strings, burnished brass, shimmering percussive transients and deep, wide and stable staging.

Most importantly, you will find it difficult to identify additive, electronic artifacts. It just lets the music through, while withholding in a balanced and measured way what it isn’t capable of producing. It never loses its composure so only by swapping it for a big budget item will you hear what can fully be realized.

I can’t imagine a greater test of a phono preamplifier than pairing it with a very low output (.2mV) moving coil cartridge like the Ortofon Anna. You’re also exposing it to one of the better, highly resolving MC cartridges currently available.

In single-ended mode, even with the +6dB option, the LKV’s 59dB gain may not be sufficient. I don’t recommend the LKV for ultra-low MCs like that unless you can run it balanced where the extra 6dBs (double the voltage) brings it to an ideal 65dB. Yes, there is such a thing as too much gain, but 59dB was not sufficient to make Anna sing in my system.

I held back this review waiting for a balanced preamp to use with it and finally the fully balanced Dan D’Agostino Momentum arrived.

The LKV in balanced mode was not startlingly better driven by either the Lyra Atlas or Etna but balanced made Anna sing sweetly. Hearing a $2500 phono preamp driven by an $8500 .2mVoutput state of the art cartridge and producing outstanding results was a testament to an excellent, high performance design priced where people can afford it.

Conclusion

The LKV Research Phono 2-SB is a visual “ugly duckling” that when powered on becomes a musical swan. All of designer Bill Hutchin’s efforts went into giving you as much performance as was possible at the price point. The downside is that it isn’t much to look at and it isn’t particularly user-friendly but would you trade sonic performance for convenience?

You will have to open up the Phono 2-SB and play with switches and jumpers to correctly configure it but once you’ve got it correctly set up, don’t be expecting to “fiddle” to get that “something that’s just not right” right, because the LKV Research Phono 2-SB produces sound that is “just right”.

There are other contenders at this approximate price point, including Manley Labs’ vacuum tube based Chinook ( $2,250, reviewed in the August 2012 Stereophile, soon to be posted on analogplanet.com) and the new Parasound Halo JC3+ ($2995), which just arrived and will be soon be reviewed on analogplanet.com. Having already reviewed the original JC3, I can confidently say that all three of these are outstanding choices at this price point and were you to move up to any one of them your vinyl playback will take a major step up (without a step-up!).

So, is the LKV Phono 2-SB 'an overachiever and a ridiculously great value for the money'? In a word, 'yes.'

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LKV Research
info@lkvresearch.com
603-730-7400
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COMMENTS
OrangeMath's picture

I had a good audiophile system (Linn Sondek/Ittok/Denon DL-103R - older Linn Phonostage - Ayon Orion II - NOLA Contenders). Still, I have listened to better systems at less than I've shelled out, and I have listened to many better systems. In short, everyday I was always a little unhappy during playback.

Not now!

Replacing an older Linn with the LKV allowed a calm purity to enter my home. I started listening at lower volumes and was fully drawn in. The reality level is so high that I'm really happy with my entire system now and have been for many months.

I'm using RCA connectors and the 2-SB +6db version for the 0.25 mV Denon. My volume control setting on the Orion 2 in triode mode is the same (9-10 o'clock) as when I'm using my DAC and my 30 Watt Orion isn't pushed. I think I could use a 15-20 Watt amp with my 90 db NOLAs easily. In short, I think LKV is somewhat conservative on the gain numbers.

Thankfully, I met Bill Hutchins at THE Newport 2013. Since it's practically pointless auditioning a phonostage in someone else's equipment; he also went over his design and JFET choices with me during a lull in traffic. I was impressed enough to buy. My lucky day. Furthermore, you'll enjoy knowing Bill.

Comment: Before installing the LKV, I considered the inexpensive Denon (about $300) as the most obvious place to upgrade. It wasn't. It was the phonostage, which surprised me. Spending the money on a phonostage is more paramount than upgrading a cartridge. The LKV 2-SB has an exceptional performance/price ratio.

volvic's picture

Which Linn phonostage did you have?  Kairn? Magic? LK1? Just curious.  

Nick 

my new username's picture

One of these day, Mejias or someone should try the SP-FS52-LR. 

$260/pr and clean, musical mid-bass adds to the rest of what's so good about the smaller Pioneers. The '51's from the previous line were also probably pretty good but I never got a chance to hear them.

Bill - LKV's picture

As Michael described, the Phono 2-SB has a number of user adjustable settings for gain and cartridge load.  This flexibility makes the 2-SB suitable for use with a wide variety of cartridges (from high output MM to quite low output MC) and other gear.  If a customer is willing to give us a few details about his or her system (cartridge, balanced or single ended connections, etc.), we set the appropriate gain and cartridge load in that customer’s unit before we ship.  This way the 2-SB is virtually “plug and play” right out of the box.  Those who want to experiment with other settings (that can be part of the fun, after all) will find in the user’s manual clear instructions with diagrams and pictures on how to make adjustments.  And, anyone is invited to call or email us with any questions or concerns they may have.

Michael described the cartridge load options set out in the user’s manual.  There are actually some  more possible settings the user can select.  To avoid getting absurdly complicated, we left them out of the manual.  But they are available on the stock unit.  Anyone who is interested should give me a call. 

Michael makes a good suggestion about putting a few extra shunts (we have taken to calling them “hats”) in the box with each unit.  I think we’ll start doing that. Also, Radio shack sells “surgical pliers” that work very nicely for moving the hats around.

The name seemed like a good idea at the time, but it has proven to be a nuisance.  It’s hard to type, and cumbersome to say.  Our next two products, which should come out this spring, will have simpler, easier names.

Bill Hutchins

Chief Designer

LKV Research, LLC

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