The AQVOX Phono 2CI phono preamplifier is a surprise in a number of ways. I recall a lot of discussion about the high cost of “audio jewelry”. This cosmetic feature added elaborate front panels and other adornments to audio components that may have added some sonic benefit but certainly added significantly to the cost. In recent years, I am seeing less of this extravagance in high end components. Most manufacturers are making gear that is very well constructed and nicely appointed, striking a good balance between offering gear that provides pride of ownership without unnecessary or overblown prettiness. I would rather pay less for quality and functionality than pay more for quality and functionality wrapped in eye candy.
But I digress. The AQVOX Phono 2CI phono preamplifier is very well built, both inside and out. There is one internal adjustment to bypass the output coupling capacitors which are not needed if your preamplifier has DC blocking input capacitors. The top cover can be easily removed by first removing one of the extruded aluminum side panels. All of the cartridge and gain settings are changeable from the rear panel. The technology of the Phono 2CI is a departure from any other phono preamplifier that I know. Where others amplify the cartridge’s voltage, the Phono 2CI amplifies the current. This reportedly results in an amplifier with lower distortion and noise. Interestingly, and as a welcome feature, no changes to loading are required to optimize the interface between the phono cartridge and the phono stage. Just connect your phono cable to the balanced inputs and you have a perfect interface. Just make sure that if you have RCA connectors on your phono cable, it is wired so that the shield is not grounded. This preserves the balanced signal from the cartridge – which being just a coil of wire is inherently balanced. AQVOX supplies specially wired RCA-to-XLR adapters if you need them. Standard RCA inputs with adjustable loading and gain are also provided. I tried these connections and found the balanced inputs to sound significantly better, moving the rating up the “LP Scale” about 2 LPs. That is a big improvement.
The Phono 2CI also offers balanced outputs on XLR connectors in addition to standard RCA outputs. With XLRs, you can have a balanced signal from the phono cartridge pins to your amplifier. I have always found a true balanced connection to sound better than the RCA alternative. Other features include settings for gain – up to 75dB, ground lift, input impedance and capacitance on the RCA inputs. The front panel offers separate gain knobs for the left and right channels. The purpose of these adjustments is to match the cartridge output to the Phono 2CI for the best sound quality to accommodate cartridges with outputs from 0.1mV to 3mV. This is adjusted for the best soundstage, tonality and dynamics. Although not intended for this purpose, I found that they are also capable of correcting channel-to-channel balance issues with a phono cartridge within a narrow range. They can also be used to match the overall phono gain to the gain of other components, again within a narrow range that does not adversely affect sound quality. The unit is available in black or silver.
The audition began with Nicolette Larson’s “Rio De Janeiro Blue” playing on a new rosewood SOTA Cosmos IV turntable, which is a beautiful record player. A TriPlanar VII u2 tonearm is installed which is wired with the shield not connected to the ground wire and is a perfect match for the Phono 2CI and the AQVOX balanced adapters. The phono cartridge is the phenomenal Miyajima Shilabe, which I fully expect – with time out for retips – to be a permanent resident of my reference system. I was listening at a moderate level and reading the Phono 2CI Owner’s Manual. And then the fun began. On the Zen Page, we note that an ideal test of a good audio system is when it becomes difficult to concentrate on reading because the music sounds so good. The Phono 2CI presents Nicolette’s voice with such sweetness and presence that the Owner’s Manual literally slid to the floor, forgotten.
The Phono 2CI sounds wonderful with high quality LPs. There is no “nice filter” for old, scratchy records to make them sound better than they really are. But put on a good disk and hold on to your hats because you are going for a ride! Yes, the AQVOX is like that, catching the listener off guard and kicking the evening into high gear.
Male vocals have a great sense of focus on a realistically formed virtual sound stage. There is seemingly perfect coherence and flow from the low bass and up through the midrange and beyond. FAR beyond. This allows male vocals to have a rich, textured presence that is just a gnat’s toenail away from perfection.
The treble is very linear and clean. Upper frequency harmonics flow as they should, with no highlighting or recessed frequency bands. Cymbals, a favorite test here on 10 Audio, have a very realistic metallic sound with a delicate shimmer if the recording is able. And it is important to note that I found the high frequency resolution of the Phono 2CI to be unwaveringly competent at presenting as much musical content as the record could provide, but often the record did not offer the resolution or extension that was up to the AQVOX’s capabilities. The tubed Manley Steelhead ($7500) has just a touch of softness in the upper treble that can mask this deficiency found on typical mass produced LPs. With the Phono 2CI, there is no doubt that you get your money’s worth from audiophile pressings.
The Phono 2CI, to its great credit, and showing its true (lack of) nature, did not make mediocre recordings degenerate into harshness or glare. Performers were still clearly rendered but it was obvious that the recording technology and not the playback system were at fault in providing less than excellent sound quality. Put on a good recording and the magic of great vinyl returns instantly. The sound can be sharp and crisp as the recording requires, but never in your face harsh or bright. There is no sense of glare as you hear from some well-respected phono preamps. This is a very fine line, pushing the very edge of the performance envelope, which offers every bit of low level resolution at all frequencies without adding any sense that the preamplifier is adding anything, especially anything negative, to the sound.
Even so, I would not call the Phono 2CI “tube like”, but neither would terms such as “thin”, “flat”, “sterile”, or “brittle” apply either. The Phono 2CI has the bass performance that we associate with solid state electronics – tight, deep, and powerful. The midrange in unremarkable in the best sense. I have nothing in my listening notes that would highlight any flaw in the mids. In the treble, the sound is clean, extended, and open with plenty of air but without the slight rounding of the upper treble, often called “sweetness” that makes tube electronics so well liked.
Listen to Red Mitchell’s acoustic bass on Art Pepper’s Straight Life (Galaxy LP). There is a compelling feeling of the actual instrument playing just a few feet away. This “virtual reality” sensation is from unrestricted power and speed in the bass, plus a completely natural handling of the harmonics in the lower midrange. This also permits male vocals to sound exceptionally natural. The Steelhead was just a bit more forceful in the bass, although nothing seems amiss listening to the Phono 2CI on its own.
Dynamic changes in loudness were whatever was required, with no feeling that the real power of any instrument was restricted. There was never a sign of stress or strain. The Phono 2CI’s internal amplifiers never seemed to be exceeding their performance envelope. Even under heavy drive with complex music, the sound was completely and clearly organized and listenable.
It is instructive to listen to the Phono 2CI for several hours and then return to the Manley Steelhead. Cymbals through the latter are pushed back in the mix and lose some brassy brashness (that vacuum tube “nice filter” at work), sounding a bit more like an excellent recording of a cymbal and less like a real disk of ringing metal. This is not your typical solid-state. It is real resolution without silicon desiccation.
Relatively less sweet than the Steelhead, some sibilants are more pronounced. This makes it easier to hear the difference between French horns and trombones, or between trumpets and cornets. This clarity also makes overdubs of a female singer more obvious, and lets us hear individual singers in a chorus with greater relief. But which is truer to the recording? Do you prefer vanilla or chocolate? Neither flavor nor preamp is better on an absolute measure. Both phono preamplifiers are excellent, and more alike than different. Personal preference will be the deciding factor. Or you could save about $5500 and tweak the sound of the Phono 2CI with a different power cable or interconnects.
The AQVOX easily bests the Steelhead in the bass where it has higher resolution and greater dynamic power. The Steelhead’s sound stage is a bit deeper while the Phono 2CI’s stage offers a greater sense of being able pinpoint a performer left-to-right on that stage. For a strictly sound stage criterion, the Steelhead might be a better choice for listeners of non-amplified acoustic recordings such as symphonies, while the 2CI may be a preferred if you listen mostly to recordings made in the studio.
The Phono 2CI offers exceptional timing and presents an organized and enjoyable sonic image. Its average performance through the unbalanced RCA inputs is on par in this price range, but use the recommended XLR connections and the performance leaps ahead of any competition I have heard anywhere near this price range. The AQVOX is an excellent phono preamplifier whose rather pedestrian façade belies true reference level performance. It is one of the best phono preamplifiers I have heard. We are fortunate that some current audio components are smashing our performance-to-price expectations. The AQVOX Phono 2CI Mk. II, at $2000, demands your attention.
Overall Rating: 9.5 LPs (borderline 10 LPs)