Phono Preamplifier Voting Results and Files Identified!

On January 2nd posted five 96/24 bit files, each containing the same minute’s worth of John Williams’ “Liberty Fanfare” performed by the National Symphonic Winds conducted by Lowell Graham excerpted from the album Winds of War and Peace originally issued in 1988 on Wilson Audio Specialties Records (W-8823) and used with permission.

Recorded by Wilson Audio Specialties’ Dave Wilson along with Bruce Leek and Joseph Magee using a pair of Sennheiser microphones and a John Curl Ultramaster™ 30IPS ½ inch tape recorder, the sound is spectacular, particularly the giant bass drum struck by what Mr. Graham said recently was the “M.O.D.” or Mallet of Death.”

The excerpts were digitized using the $3950 Ayre QA-9 USB A/D converter. Four of the five files were produced using a $2995 Pro-Ject XTension10 turntable fitted with a $4249 Transfiguration Phoenix MC phono cartridge, each using one of four moderately priced phono preamplifiers: the Rega Aria ($1500), the Lehmann Black Cube SE II ($1099), the Musical Fidelity M1ViNL ($1199) and the P.S. Audio NuWave™ Phono Converter ($1895), which also includes a double DSD resolution A/D converter (the M1 ViNL was reviewed in Stereophile, not analogplanet, hence no hyperlink).

The fifth file contained the same musical excerpt recorded using the $150,000 Continuum Caliburn turntable, $6500 Kuzma 4 Point turntable, $6995 Lyra Etna cartridge and Ypsilon VPS-100 MM phono preamp ($26,000) and Ypsilon MC-16L step up transformer ($6000). Why include it? Why not?

The files were identified only as “Test File #1, 2, 3, 4 and 5”. Readers were asked to download, listen and vote for a favorite. While many thousands of people read the story and we can’t calculate how many downloaded the files, as of now 239 votes were cast. While that is not a large number, the results are interesting!

In 5th or last place was File #1 with 10% or 24 votes. 4th place went to File #5 with 14% or 34 votes. The 3rd place winner, with 17% or 40 votes was File #3. 2nd place went to File #2 with 27% or 65 votes. The winner was File #4 with 32% or 77 votes.

It’s just a coincidence that 2nd place went to File #2 and 3rd place went to File #3 but it’s no coincidence that File #4 was the winner and garnered nearly 1/3rd of the votes for that is the “high priced spread”. However, the second place winner was the $1099 Lehmann Black Cube SE II, which was the least expensive. Third place went to the $1500 Rega Aria, while the Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL took fourth place and the P.S. Audio NuWave finished last (after reading the NuWave Converter review, P.S. Audio’s Paul McGowan sent a second sample, the sound of which will be evaluated in the context of the built-in A/D converter review).

So what conclusions do I draw from these results (you, of course, are free to draw your own!)? First of all, readers ranked them precisely as I would have, which gives me a very warm feeling inside! I did it “sighted” and they did it “blind”. How much do I love that? Very much, thank you!

However, you’d be wrong to conclude that because the vote was close, the Pro-Ject Xtension10/ Transfiguration Phoenix/Lehmann Black Cube SE II combo is almost as good as the “high priced spread”. Were you able to compare them “live” on a “high priced “spread” system, you’d agree, I’m sure, that the big rig is not just in a different league, it’s in a different sonic world—but that is not meant to take anything away from the other system and especially from the Black Cube SE II, which is everything I said it was in the review. That said, the Pro-Ject/Transfiguration/Black Cube combo produced superb sonics through a very expensive system.

Omit the Continuum set-up and the Lehmann Black Cube SE II is the big winner and deservedly so in my opinion.

Thanks to everyone who downloaded and voted. Next up will be a blind step up transformer comparison.

missouricatman's picture

So do I have this right?

file 1  ranked #5   P.S.  Audio Nuwave

file 2  ranked #2   Lehmann Black Cube SE II

file 3  ranked #3   Rega Aria

file 4  ranked #1   Ypsilon

file 5  ranked #4   M1 VinNL

Michael Fremer's picture


Jim Tavegia's picture

It was nice for me in that I did like #4 the best and knowing that even with my hearing pretty much shot past 6K I can still pick out the best sounding preamp. I guess even old farts like me with diminished hearing still know great sound when we hear it.

Thanks to Michael for all the hard work he put into this test.  Looking forward to the next one. Maybe you can do another one when the next 5 phono preamps come your way?

I would also have to say that even though there were distinct differences between the preamps I could live with any of those that came in at 3,4 and 5. They  are still pretty good at what they do. I thought they were all musical and would most likey easily top the phono stage in my old Yamaha CX-2 preamp that is my headphone station. 

missouricatman's picture

I certainly agree they all sounded fine to me (through the Apogee Duet 2) and also that they'd all beat the phono stage in my Sansui AU-719, Clearly you've trained your ears much better than I have because I'm still unsure as to what differences I'm actually hearing - and according to a test record at least, my old ears pick things up to around 12k (after that, well nothing). 

I second the thanks to Michael for taking the time. I realize I'm approaching this backwards, trying to use measurements as a sort of "hearing aid." For me the intent is help me make a buying decision.  Nobody besides Michael's given me the chance to do a comparision in my own home, on my own system, and really that's the only place where a comparision is going to do me any good. 

If anyone is at all interested, I've posted pics of the frequency analysis charts I pulled in Audacity.  They're in my Twitter account @jamewneal

thomoz's picture

not a lot of "musical" information in an analog recording above 6khz anyway, it's mostly just mechanical noise!

missouricatman's picture

apparently I can't spell my own name today.  The frequency analysis charts are available on Twitter @jameswneal

Smafdy Assmilk's picture

File #4 sounded much different than the others, which is why I concluded (correctly) that it was the only one that didn't use the Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge.

Toneality has less to do with tables, cables and preamps than it does with cartridges. Transducers have more impact on the tone than anything else in your system. There were slight differences with the other four files, but not nearly as much after chaging to the Lyra cart.

It was an interesting experiement. Thanks for sharing.

deniall's picture

Thanks for doing this Michael.

Just a suggestion for next time, if possible could you volume match all the files?

I would love to see a turntable comparison. That would truly be an amazing test. Say a few cheapish turntables (VPI Traveler, Kuzma Stabi S, Well Tempered Simplex, Rega RP6 etc) vs your Continuum all running the same cart and phono stage. Obviously this would be a lot more difficult to set up as there are a lot of variables but it's something I would love to hear as it's almost impossible to A/B turntables most of the time.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I normalized all the files in my Sony Sound Forge recording software so the level diff issues were gone for me.   

missouricatman's picture

I normalized to -.3 dB for auditioning, but thought being able to compare output was also helpful.  

Jim Tavegia's picture

One thing for me that my FFT program showed for Freq Response for all the carts was a gradual level decrease from low to high that was often down by 40 db as you approached 20K.  This was true for all the preamps and showed a consistency to the level playback of the same track.

Not a true comparison, but in taking a number of digital tracks I had I noticed that for most of them the acoustic energy from 5K and up stayed much higher in level, more than 20 db higher and extended out to 20K flatter. My guess is that in the lp mastering a decision was made about HF content levels which may or may not have something to do with lp limitations, but I doubt that. To me the only limitations to HF lp playback is cartridge trackability.  But, all the CDs I played back had more HF content, especially the HD track I own at 2496. 

missouricatman's picture

The charts I pulled on these phono stages showed much the same.  With respect to the high end dB decrease, they didn't look much different from what I've experienced when pulling charts on my own systems.  The major difference was 0dB-20dB. In some instances the rolloff was much greater, which I took as evidence some designs employed more aggressive roll-off filters & after Michael posted the results, made me wonder just which one of the various curves the Black Cube se II offers was applied to the test file.

Probably not surprising that the uber expensive system's resonant peak was about -15dB below all the rest!

missouricatman's picture

I had a feeling . . . you're one of those guys who used to slap my hands whenever I did any more fiddling than moving patch cords (and were right to do it I'm sure! 

bfwiat's picture

Well I had to stop lurking, and join up to leave a comment on this great idea of uploading recorded portions of music so we can blindly listen to the differences you so eloquently write about.

I downloaded all the files and was a little surprised to see they had not been normalised to the same peak volume level - IMPORTANT to have the same standardised peak level for any fair comparison...which I then proceeded to do in Sound Forge.

After doing so, it did change how I perceived the rankings slightly.... so here goes!  (or should that be Hear goes!)

Quite clearly (to my ear on my equipment) File#4 and file#2 were the best/most natural sounding/most dynamic etc. File#4 was big, warm, detailed and all frequencies had body, colour and texture...clearly a step up from the rest.   File#2 had a more natural upper mid/treble than the others ranked below here, it also made the strings have warmth, body and air...none of the others (other than file#4) achieved this to me.

File#5 was my least favourite, it just sounded so soft (dynamically/leading transient) that the strings that come in around 16 secs sounded dead on the leading edge, akin to a synth not real instruments, to my ear it was polite, but also boring and slightly empty and the least dynamic sounding.

File#1 and #3 were very close, in many ways....File#3 had a more natural (but still tizzy) treble and upper mid.    #1 sounded splashy/tinny and had no colour or vibrancy in these frequencies  (I am lucky enough to still hear up to 16khz)... the cymbals basically sounded like glass not metal. Detail retrieval was quite good however across the rest of the spectrum and the big drum thwack sounded more dynamic...but erggh...that treble.

Thanks again Mikey, but if I could suggest just one little thing, please Normalise all files to the same peak setting (I use -0.5db) so the peaks are the same in the digital domain....

Interestingly enough, I also looked at the rms levels after normalising   (ie- a rough idea of dynamic range) -  and the files came in this order (most dynamic ---> least) :

File#4 , #5 , #3 , #2 , #1  - the difference was less than 1db between top and bottom contenders, so all preamps did a great job there.

Looking forward to some more blind tests in 2014!

:) bfwiat (:


Michael Fremer's picture

Honestly, I listen, I don't measure. When Stereophile measures, John Atkinson does it. Your subjective opinions precisely match mine. I believe the ear (particularly an experienced one) is more useful than any measurement. Were I to believe measurements I'd be a CD loving guy but clearly measurements don't tell the entire story---just the very thin end of the wedge. Thanks for your post! I'll do my best to level-match next time. This was closer than last time at least...

Halcro's picture

Any chance of the Kondo KSL-SFz being one of them?

Michael Fremer's picture

So it won't be unless you can get one for me!

missouricatman's picture

Michael, I buried this in a comment, but really would like to know if you remember which one of the various LF rolloff curves that the Black Cube se II offers was applied to the test file. Sure would help me to know.  thanks!

Michael Fremer's picture

No roll-off frequencies applied. I didn't feel they were needed given the turntable/cart combo and the LF abilities of the XLFs. I didn't see any woofer pumping at all...

dinster's picture

It heartens me that my system has the resolution to detect the differences, even through the "low priced" OPPO 105 DAC, (my budget is severely skewed towards vinyl reproduction). Lyra just seem to do something magical. Perhaps in these days where Audio dealers are few and far between and the opportunity to audition different products at home is severely limited, this is a great way to audition the front end in the context of our own systems. I would love to see a similar comparison between the high end cartridges Olympos, Atlas, PC1, Coralstone, Ultra eminent EX, and the like that few will get to hear. 

l5chambre's picture

Ypsilon looks real pricey, too! That's cool to see Lehmann go toe to toe with the "CEOs cartridge". Just proves there is a glass ceiling in electronics, pertaining to sound. Finer materials, better craftsmen from more costly manufacturing countries is all added bonuses. More money don't always get you more in electronics.

Though my cart was in your last cartridge test, I still hoped for a hat trick and my Clearaudio Nano would appear in this one or any other Clearaudio.

Michael Fremer's picture

I think were you to compare the Black Cube and Ypsilon "live" on a system commensurate with the Ypsilon's cost and performance capabilities you would be: 1) impressed by how pleasing the Black Cube sounds 2) but under no illusions about its sonic comparability! 

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

I picked #2 for it's detail retrieval - particularily in the trumpet echo slap in the first few bars.  But now that I know about #4, well I have to admit there's greater differentiation within, more natural decay and creamyness about its sound; IOW, more like a live performance.  (I should have known better.)  So, I confused detail with goodness and thus fell into the old "hi-fi sound" trap.  

Future listening tests, of which I hope you provide many, will be executed with more patience and objectivity on my part.  Rather than listening to technical differences between clips, I'll try to listen to the performance itself and thus select gear that gets in the way the least.  (This kind of begs a question:  if the sound of live performance is so hard and expensive to replicate with gear, why not just attend more live performances? At the very least we'd be exposed to a wider range of music than we default to when buying recordings.  And that would be a good thing for our minds and for working artists.)

Thanks again for the education.  I don't always agree with you, but I do value reviews based on experience and expertise seldom found elsewhere. 

Michael Fremer's picture

Hopefully we'll get the rights to more music and provide longer samples. 

Lazer's picture

I understand what you mean about the difficulty in replicating the sound of a live show, and I agree we(people in general) should attend more live shows, but I think we also overestimate the quality of sound at the typical live show.  Just last night I was at a live show, and I finally became so frustrated with the sound that I walked up to the guy in  charge and asked him to turn up the lead singers mike.  It was much better after he did as I asked.  Live sound, in most environments, is extremely compromised.  Carefully crafted recordings, especially analog ones, are usually better then what you will hear live. The part of a live performance that can never be replicated acurrately, in my opinion, is the emotion of the crowd and energy in the building.  That is priceless!!

atomlow's picture

I'm not sure how bands have the patience to "make it" even once they do "make it" they have to go play at clubs that just make people lose their hearing. I believe most sound guys at these clubs have no hearing left and it's why the sound is so bad. How many shows have you been to that the bass drum is up so loud it feedbacks through half of the set?

I've been to some small jazz concerts that finally made me undestand the idea of an audio system trying to replicate the live show. There's a difference between great sounding loud music and loud music that sounds terrible. If it's too loud you are too old... well I've always been too old for bad sound. There's a different kind of loudness war that I find worse than the cd loudness war and it's called the club loudness war. When I was in a band I always wanted to be the first to play because the sound was BETTER. As the bands get more important (popular) they feel they have to up the overall sound of the concert to the point where it destroys the sound. Louder is better so each act has to be louder than the previous.

My system surely can sound just like a live club turn it all the way up and light a fire underneath it.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...there's LIVE.  

I've often found amplified live performances unsatisfying, for the reasons you detailed. Whereas, live unamplified performances, that rely on the musician's skill and room accoustics, can be stunning.  

Rock and jazz often sound better on a recording, whereas live classical music almost always beats a recording.  OTOH, individual tickets for the NY Met Opera sweet spot this season do run $200-400.  So I buy mint used vinyl of similar performances for $1 and CD's and SACD's for $2.  

Of course, you can compromise and watch classical and opera in HD at till your eyes and ears bleed at $12 - $20 per month, or go to your local multiplex and watch live Met performances for about $20.  

All in all, with all the choices available, it's not a bad time to be a music lover.  And honestly, how often does a film or TV show or the Internet or texting etc. satisfy a mature person as deeply and consistently as great music?  

atomlow's picture

When I first listend to the 5 different downloads I listened to them on my Grado SR60 headphones plugged into my MacBook Pro. I couldn't tell much of a difference at all between the files.

I later realized maybe I should stream the files to my audio system: Macbook Pro streaming through the ---> latest Airport Express ---> to my Rega Brio-R ---> to my Pioneer SP-FS51-LR Speakers (Andrew Jones designed). Personally I find these speakers to be the best bargain in hifi. You can judge me but these speakers sound incredible and for only $200. With a baby on the way these speakers will not be replaced for at least 5-10 years because of the metal grills that protect the speakers from little fingers (priceless). Through this simple setup I could very easily tell the difference from the best sounding to the less desirable sounding files.

So thank you again for uploading the files it was a lot of fun testing my audio gear with them. I learned that my Grado SR60's aren't nearly as revealing as listening through my system speakers.

Keeping it simple with no upgrade-itis.

Shure M97XE w/ Jico needle upgrade
Rega p3-24 - Groovetracer sub-platter upgrade
Rega Brio-R
Pioneer SP-FS51-LR Speakers (Andrew Jones)



Michael Fremer's picture

I've heard the Jico upgrade to the M97 is silly-good for the money. I will have to try that. The Pioneer speakers are definitely silly-good.

atomlow's picture

That means a lot coming from you Michael. Thanks. Definitely give the JICO needle a listen if you get the chance. I called Acoustic Sounds and talked to Chad Stelly years ago and told him I wanted to upgrade my turntable from a Pioneer 112-D that had a Shure M97 cartridge installed. He told me to upgrade the needle to a JICO, get a Spin-clean, and buy more records, forget about a new turntable. I did all that but I eventually upgraded my system to what I have listed above. He didn't try to sell me anything which left quite an impression on me.

I bought those Pioneers at Best Buy and that was the experience that made me realize the staff had no clue about sound. I read the Pioneer review in Stereophile and went to Best Buy to listen to them. I waited for the sales guy while he showed two older gentlemen the speakers they had available clicking in-between all of them except the Pioneers. I finally said why don't you show them the Pioneers? The kid laughed at me and clicked the button saying how badly they sounded. They didn't sound great but I could hear right away they sounded much more natural than the other speakers. The problem was there was a big drop in loudness and he pointed that out. I found out where the box was in the store and was taking them up to buy them when he saw me with the box and laughed at me again saying you are going to buy those? I said yeah these will blow all those other speakers away and laughed back. I've never been dissappointed with them.

RonaldDumsfeld's picture

There was a difference of almost 1.5dB between the loudest and softest sample. That's audible.

The voting almost perfectly reflected this with the loudest sample (by 0.5dB) winning.

The only outlier in this interpretation was #5 which is in the middle for loudness but bottom in the poll. One explanation for this may be that because it comes immiediately after the loudest the contrast is greater.

So the inference is clear. Turn your system up a bit and save yourself a great deal of money.

Great test btw. Thanks for going to the trouble.

Michael Fremer's picture

That is a murky inference! I trust readers to compensate for loudness when they compare files. I do. I also trust the didn't just compare the files in the order in which they were posted. In fact, the results and the characterization given by readers mirrors mine and mine were made with an SPL meter....

todd95008's picture

Compare the Lehmann to some other highly regarded phono stages in this price range.

My picks would be:

1. Musical surroundings Nova 2 ($1200).

2. Pro-Ject Phono box RS ($1000).

3. Sutherland PH3D battery powered unit ($1000).

PeterB's picture

Since my reference DAC does not accept high sample rates, I used a low cost USB interface that I use for acoustic measurements: a MOTU Microbook II. Although I did not expect to hear any differences with this interface suffering from digitalitis - reduced transparency, limited stage depth, no fluency - I decided to give it a try out of personal interest, since part of my job is organizing perception tests.

When playing the files in the original sequence (1 to 5) without a reference, one initially performs paired comparison. This means that one primarily compares the sound of the file with the sound of the previous file. After a second listen in the same sequence I noticed that files 3 and 4 had a different sound perspective from the rest and that file 2 sounded better than 1 and 5.

I switched the order of playback to 2, 4, 1, 5, 3 to confirm this and then listened to the files in sequence of preference - ranked order comparison. I ended up with following final ranking: 4, 3, 2, 5, 1.

To my surprise I was able to make a clear ranking although I used a suboptimal DAC. The ranking even correlates largely with the voting results of other listeners.

I converted the files to 44.1 kHz / 24 bit with Audacity and used my reference DAC. The ranking stayed the same except for second and third: these traded places.

I am curious which file would be ranked second by the listeners who ranked 4 as their preference.

SForama's picture

files to download, This is very exciting! I discover this little late.

I think M1 can be #2, and the Rega, trying to have a low statement and
be acoustic, The Lehmann trying to do things that cannot do.
I don’t know what the Ypsilon doing there, the only think can do
Is to make the number #2 champion, If the -file4- is the #1 and then mast go -file2- #7 and can follow 8 9 10, probably many nice sounding -phono steps- can fit in-between.

I was thinking the low voting can be this; Star Wars opening-kicking one minute program, this can make nerves an experience audiophile, if in this project you are testing -your followers- (like can this guys listen anything at all) audiophiles, not the best tools given.

Michael, if I am not mistaking, years ago somewhere you wrote;
-who will criticize the critic- I never thought that one day I will, I cant remember the article unfortunately I don’t have space anymore to keep the Stereofile like old time, but before recycle them I usually will detach your pages, It will not be easy but I will take a look if I can find what was.

This seems like a revolutionary idea on reviewing.
It is great that you decide to do this, I am sure will be better in time if will continue, I will stay with the site for more.


Michael Fremer's picture
Elsewhere on the site. Look for it!
Raul Arias Vazquez's picture

Yep, its been more than 2 years since the last comment on this topic, but Im very hopefull Mr. Fremer or one of you guys can help me, I just bought the ortofon quintet blacks cartridge and I dont think my Parasound P5 phono stage will be good enough for this cartridge. After reading this phono preamp comparisons, Iam really considering purchasing the lehmann black cube to meet the best out of the quintet. So here is the question, Would it be an improvement in my listening experience to purchase the black cube over the parasound P5, to meet the standards of the quintet cartridge?

Raul Arias Vazquez's picture

By the way, some guy in youtube says that the cube works very well with MM cartridges but doesnt recomend it for MC cartridges, english is not my native lenguage so I dont know if Im missing something here.

Here is the link

Calvin_and_Hobbes's picture

I'm can see that I'll most likely need to get a phono preamp at some point in time to allow for more flexibility in choosing an integrated amplifier. Among the music files, the Lehmann stood out right away to me as having better resolution of detail and complex musical passages and more fullness of tone than all other preamps tested except the Ypsilon MC-16L.