The arrival of the Art Audio Vinyl 1 phono preamplifier was eagerly anticipated. We all know that someone with unlimited funds can assemble an outstanding music reproduction system. Sure, it takes time and care to find the right combination of components that work synergistically together. But with unlimited options and enough time, there is no risk of failure. The challenge that the vast majority of us – me included – face, is to get great sound on a limited budget. Money doesn’t grow on speakers, you know!
Art Audio has been making some serious, and seriously good according to the reviews, vacuum tube amplifiers and preamplifiers for quite some time. As I approached this review, US partner Joe Fratus was very helpful and available, enthusiastically offering suggestions and information. The pedigree and design of the Vinyl 1 suggested that it might be a top performing phono stage at a bargain price. While the list price for the Vinyl 1 of $3000 is a lot of money, if the performance was competitive with those $5000, $8000 or higher phono preamps that populate our dreams, then it would be something to celebrate. The unit under review included a Goldpoint attenuator, which is a $400 upgrade.
So let’s start with the volume control. Goldpoint attenuators are made from high quality switches with multiple high quality metal film resistors. They have a good reputation with DIYers, and are also offered in Goldpoint’s own passive preamplifier products. There are two pairs of RCA output jacks on the rear panel of the Vinyl 1 and both pairs get their signal from the volume control. I would have preferred to have one pair of jacks connected to the volume control, but the other pair wired directly to the circuit board, before the Goldpoint, for the purest signal path possible. Using temporary jumpers, I bypassed the Goldpoint and was rewarded for my efforts with an increase in bass power, a smaller increase in midrange purity, and a larger improvement in upper midrange and lower treble clarity. The performance of the Goldpoint attenuator was very similar to my DIY passive preamplifier that uses an Electronic Visionary Systems stepped attenuator.
Comparing the effects of the Goldpoint in an out of circuit, and evaluating the Vinyl 1 connected directly into the power amplifiers (Cary 500MB monos or Quicksilver V4 monos), I greatly preferred to bypass the Goldpoints and use a Placette Passive Line Stage to adjust the volume. As noted in other reviews here on 10 Audio, the Placette Passive continues to prove itself to be essentially invisible and a totally transparent device. In systems with a preamplifier and multiple sources, I would opt for the basic Vinyl 1 that does not include any volume control. However, I can not recommend a better $400 “preamplifier” than adding the Goldpoint attenuator to the option list for those single-source listeners who would use the Vinyl 1 directly into their power amplifier without a separate preamplifier.
The Vinyl 1 sounds good. There was excellent frequency balance and no small or large frequency range was highlighted or diminished. The very highest frequencies were very slightly muted, which was an effect I attributed to the small moving coil step up transformers which are used for added gain. The “trannys” may not be the culprit, but often this is the case as very wide bandwidth is an expensive goal in transformer design. This slightly shelved-down sounding upper treble may also be a result of not having adjustable input impedances, but this effect was noted with a 21 ohm DCR coil van den Hul Condor XCM and also a 5 ohm DCR Ortofon Jubilee.
The bass has good power and definition. The midrange was warm but also clean and clear. It was just what you would expect from tubes, but also had some of the speed and openness that is generally associated with solid state. The upper midrange had an appealing accessibility that gave vocals a sense of lifelike reality. Soundstage depth was good, although not as deep as the reference Conrad Johnson Premier 15 Series 2 phono stage, which carries a list price of $5000. Low level resolution and the presentation of harmonic content were very good. The Vinyl 1 had good dynamic abilities, too.
If you are reading this and getting the impression that I was not too impressed with the performance of the Vinyl 1, then you are correct. Frankly, I was disappointed in the lack of involvement I felt while listening to this phono stage. In every area, the Vinyl 1 was good or very good, but in no area did it challenge the overwhelming superiority of the reference C-J. Nor was it as enjoyable as most other phono preamplifiers that have been through the audition process recently. This list includes the $2500 Cary PH-302 (which I would choose over the Vinyl 1 in a heartbeat), the $1900 Tom Evans MicroGroove+ (ditto), and the $2000 Audio Research PH-5 (which was not as good as the Vinyl 1 in most areas). The thought that I had repeatedly while listening to the Vinyl 1 was “power supply”. Was it the power supply that, lacking sufficient refinement, was holding back the performance of the simple yet well executed audio circuit? I don’t know the answer to this question, but “the little voice in my head” told me that the power supply would be a good place to start looking to improve the performance of this unit.
The Vinyl 1 is a good sounding phono preamplifier offering well balanced performance across the audio frequency range. There are other products that cost less than the Vinyl 1 and offer generally superior performance and, much more importantly, greater listening enjoyment. However, the unique qualities and neutral character that the Vinyl 1 offers may provide the ideal synergy in your system that would make the Vinyl 1 a good value. I think the bottom line is to “try before you buy”.
Overall Rating: 7.5 LPs
Link to manufacturer’s Web site: Art Audio