pure audio "vinyl" Phono Preamplifier From New Zealand

New Zealand-based pure audio is a partnership between former Plinius Audio co-owner and chief electronics designer Gary Morrison and industrial designer Ross Stevens.

Morrison was responsible for Plinius’s electronic designs and the resulting sonics between 1987 and 2005, while Stevens was a hired hand who crafted Plinius’s distinctive and much-copied curved fascia.

Stevens has also done design work for other high performance audio companies including Perreaux and B&W and he’s had an association with the noted French industrial designer Philippe Starck.

Given Steven’s background it comes as no surprise that the new partnership has produced a line of distinctive looking audio components that includes a preamplifier, Class “A” monoblocks, a stereo amplifier and this deep, narrow, snazzy looking $4500 moving coil phono preamplifier.

No doubt you are paying extra for what appears to be an ingeniously designed folded laser cut top plate that also produces the chassis sides as well as the front fascia, so perhaps the savings there covers the costs and you’re not paying anything for the great looks? I don’t know. What I do know is, it would be a shame to have to hide the vinyl on a lower rack shelf.

Gain is factory-set but can be ordered as needed, with the stock unit set for 62dBs of gain—which should be sufficient for all but the very lowest output cartridges. In fact, I successfully used cartridges with outputs as low as .22mV, though most listening was done with the .45mV output Lyra Atlas.

Inputs and outputs are ‘single-ended’ RCA. This is a good place to point out that while phono cartridges “float” ground, they are not “balanced” nor obviously are they dual-differential.

Pairs of rear panel mounted dip switches (six per bank) set loading, with a total of thirteen values possible from between 32 ohms to 1000 ohms. All switches set to “off” yields 47Kohms, but don’t do that, please and so confuse a resonance with “open and airy”. This has been a recorded message. So, obviously setting up and using the vinyl is easy, though the unit’s depth makes experimenting with loading somewhat cumbersome.

What’s Inside

You can see one of two identical circuit boards separated by stand-offs. Even if you don’t know exactly what you are seeing, it should be clear that under the snazzy skin is a pair of generously-sized circuit boards stuffed with high quality discrete parts including large sound-affecting capacitors that I’m assuming are part of the RIAA equalization circuit (if I am wrong I am sure the designer will correct me and I’ll let you know).

The circuit utilizes high quality components throughout including Vishay-Dale non-magnetic resistors, polystyrene capacitors for the equalization, and discrete low noise transistors and FETs for all signal circuitry. The power supply features a generously sized double winding toroidal transformer among other robust parts.

While snooping around the circuit board I found one interesting selectable option I didn’t notice in the instructions: when the unit is powered on but no signal is applied a slit in the front panel glows. It goes out as soon as the circuit senses an input signal.

At first I worried that a short in a tone arm wire was shutting down the unit before I had a chance to unmute my preamp. When music played I quickly realized that wasn’t the case but if you prefer the light on at all times when the unit is powered on, you can change the position of a tiny jumper on the circuit board corner closest to the transformer. By any standard, this is a beautifully built phono preamplifier.

Vinyl Sonics

This review has taken way too long to write. I’m sure this hasn’t pleased the manufacturer, or the American importer Colleen Cardas Imports. To their credit they have been extremely patient.

It’s not that I’ve not been listening and evaluating all of this time. The problem has been the difficulty of accurately pinning down the vinyl’s sonics (can I tell you how much I do not like product names that don't begin with a capital letter and how confusing for readers that can be?). Believe me, every piece of gear made by men and not gods, has a sonic signature. Some are more difficult to discover.

This one has a smooth overall sound that’s sweet and almost tube-like in the midrange. No doubt this well-engineered piece has a flat frequency response, but compared to some other recently auditioned pieces the vinyl seems to emphasize the midrange, which helps give it a very pleasing, expansive, almost billowy sound.

Top and bottom end extension are very good but compared to some others lacking a bit in “grip” and control on bottom and transient speed on top. However, those qualities comport well with the midrange and together that helps explains why the vinyl’s overall sonic picture proved so difficult to pin down. In many ways, that should be taken as a compliment. The easier it is to pin down a unit’s sonic signature the more difficult it is to not hear it. The goal is to produce a piece that is consistent and even-handed in every way from top to bottom and in terms of apparent “speed”.

I thought the vinyl excelled at reproducing acoustic and especially small ensemble classical music. The Electric Recording Company keeps rolling out astonishing-sounding all-tube cuts of vintage ‘50s era monophonic records including a Janos Starker Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello that I never knew about, probably because so much attention gets paid to the later Mercury recordings.

Starker’s performance is more laid back and less vigorous than on the Mercury set and the older recording is more distantly miked. The vinyl produced the ideal midband warmth and equally ideal transients—neither too sharply or softly drawn. The result was a convincing rendering a cello playing in what appears to be a modestly sized studio.

I happened to have the vinyl in the system when I first compared an original “Living Stereo” of Desmond Blue (LSP-2438) with a recent Pure Pleasure reissue. The 1961 Webster Hall recording (released in 1962) has wonderful harmonic structure, spaciousness and transparency. Desmond’s sax had better sound airy and light and not sound too reedy or sharp. The strings should glisten and also not sound at all strident and Jim Hall’s hollow-bodied electric guitar should be well-focused, have a body and not just “strings in space” and the transient should not be “hyper-sharp”.

The vinyl gets it mostly correct, though with not as much of the hall space as can be had, and not as much separation between the event and the reverberant field behind. And for my tastes I like a bit more bowing clarity and guitar string “pluck” but overall it doesn’t get much more pleasant and enjoyable than this presentation.

Switching to the Pure Pleasure reissue made a few things clear: first of all for some reason the company scanned a mono jacket and a mono label though the record is stereo. They couldn’t get the right jacket? But worse, the transfer done by whomever from whatever was terrible! There’s no way anyone compared this to an original and if they did, they were not concerned about releasing something that terribly blurred the original event, choked off the recording’s air and space and softened transients into mush.

Pure Pleasure’s reissues have always been mostly very good and from analog sources but this one doesn’t make that claim and I doubt that it is. Too bad.

But the comparison made clear that while the vinyl doesn’t produce the sharpest transients or the airiest stage, both were sufficiently well-rendered to make clear the reissue’s serious sonic shortcomings.

Later I went back to my reference (costs more than 10X the vinyl) and there the differences between the two records were in almost grotesquely sharp relief. The point is, the vinyl is not a “softy” that obscures these differences.

Mobile Fidelity’s spectacular double 45 mono reissue of Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow (MFSL 2-456) demonstrated that while the vinyl was a bit softer overall than suits my taste, it was well-capable of reproducing the supple yet well defined acoustic guitar textures on “Embryonic Journey” and the snare hits on “White Rabbit”. It also produced much but not all of the recording’s air and depth.

I’ve heard blacker backgrounds from admittedly more expensive phono preamps but ones that were not that much more expensive. One question perhaps the designer can add in a comment after this is published is why is the hum and noise specification (>80dB “A” weighted) is referenced to a 5mV input? 5mV is about the output of a typical moving magnet cartridge and ten times the output of a typical MC cartridge.

Plug’n’Play

The designer says he’s gone for a design with minimal user interface and maximum musical pleasure. I’d say he’s succeeded. If you are looking for a well-designed phono preamplifier that gets everything musically right to the point that you can set it up and forget it’s there, the $4500 Vinyl does that. It has tube-like midband richness, a smooth overall tonal balance and transients that while somewhat smoother and more relaxed than is my preference, they just might be perfect for your tastes. I prefer greater "rhythm'n'pacing excitement

That said, I’d pair the vinyl with a fast, somewhat lean cartridge unless you really want a 50’s era Buick-like sonic ride! I mostly used the Lyra Atlas, which is ultra-fast and clean, with what some would say is a lean midband (but not I—at least when properly set up) and even with that cartridge the vinyl sat on the rich generous side of the tonal fence, and it also somewhat softened the Atlas’s pleasingly sharp transient performance but not to the point where it softened musical enjoyment or made itself obvious—after all, remember I couldn’t pin down the sound for quite some time.

Conclusion

Overall then, if you are looking for a very well engineered, solidly constructed dual-mono moving coil phono preamp built using premium parts that’s also an eye catcher, the $4500 pure audio vinyl is surely worth considering, though if you’re looking to “stiffen the ride” of your system, the vinyl probably wouldn’t be the way to go.

Otherwise, what it lacks in terms of sonic excitement is more than compensated for by its ability to get out of the way and make you forget it’s there. That’s about as high a complement as can be paid to any audio component.

Specifications:

Input: RCA
Outputs: RCA
Gain at 1kHz: 62dB
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz +/- 0.2dB ref RIAA spec
Input Impedance: 47, 100, 220, 475, 1k, 47k Ohms user selectable
Output Impedance: 100 Ohms
Distortion: <0.01% in normal operation
Hum & Noise: >80dB A weighted with ref to 5mV input
Power Consumption: 15 Watts
Dimensions: 410mm deep, 210mm wide, 115mm high
Weight: 7kg

COMPANY INFO
pure audio

COMMENTS
Hergest's picture

There are in fact a lot more loading options available than the 6 mentioned, it would be handy if Pure Audio made mention of this when they send out the phono stage. Other options are listed on their website and if you wanted to use a very specific loading then I'm sure of you contacted Pure Audio they would let you know how to set the dip switches.

http://www.pureaudio.co.nz/?page_id=320

I've been using their phono stage for a couple of years now and have never been able to put my finger on any sonic trait and would find it really hard to describe it to anyone which is one of the reasons why i enjoy it so much it as it might as well not be there.

Michael Fremer's picture
In the body of the review: "Pairs of rear panel mounted dip switches (six per bank) set loading, with a total of thirteen values possible from between 32 ohms to 1000 ohms."
Hergest's picture

My mistake, I missed that.

Bill - LKV's picture

Michael, Interesting point about the way the S/N ratio is spec'd (ref to 5mV input typical of MM cartridge). But the 80dB A-weighted figure quoted would be equivalent to 60dB A weighted when referenced to the 0.5mv typical input for MC cartridge. It would likely be only a few dB lower if un-weighted. That is still a respectable number, as confirmed I would think by your being able to use the "vinyl" with a 0.2mV cartridge.

Michael Fremer's picture
Your unit comes next.
GaryM's picture

Hi Michael, Thank you for your review, you have captured the analogue nature of the sound of our solid state vinyl preamplifier well.

To add a little to your comment on the interior of the unit, the large film capacitors in the upper portion of the photo are used on the power supply lines as part of the decoupling. The power supply design is a significant part of the product and contributes to the overall result. The RIAA equalisation (sound affecting) capacitors are smaller square black parts, perhaps a little hard to see. These are 1% polystyrene, about the most sonically neutral you can buy.

You noted what you thought was an emphasis in the midrange, and I would like to assure readers that the preamp is objectively flat, easily meeting its spec of less than +/-0.2dB variation from 20Hz to 20kHz. However midrange quality is something we value in all of our products and the fact that it stood out is pleasing.

The noise spec ref 5mV is a result of our use of the old IHF (Insitute of High Fidelity) standard specification reference levels in all of our measurements.

vinyl listener's picture

that reply is from gary morrison the designer ?

Michael Fremer's picture
And we most appreciate his comment! Everyone tells me he is "among the nicest people you will ever meet in this business."
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