Phonostages can be quite problematic in my experience. I find cartridge and record deck changes quite easy to pick out but some phonostages sound so similar it's hard to choose between them. Of course faithfulness to the RIAA equalization curve is vital but most are well behaved in this respect. The phonostages I find hard at times to tell apart are generally those based on OpAmps. Thus I chose to review the Benedict Audio HotHead JFET MM and MC phonostage units. The greatest differentiator with OpAmp-based phonostages is often price rather than sound; power supplies of course have their place too in helping determine the final sound.
When I think about it, it's my head which rather
likes OpAmp-based phonostages whereas my heart takes me to tube phonostages.
Generalizing, I find tubes offer up a musical flow and feathery treble whereas
the OpAmps excel at bass impact and overall precision. Enter the Benedict Audio
HotHead MM and MC version of their phonostage units. A friend asked my opinion about these phonostages but as
they were new to me I couldn't say much though I did comment that I was
interested that the circuits use discrete components with JFET transistors being
at the heart of the designs. The designs also features single-ended topology,
zero negative feedback and passive RIAA; all things that peak my interest. At £400
(~$620) these phonostages are not expensive but Benedict Audio promise high
levels of performance. What Benedict Audio have done is to eschew complexity
which keeps signal paths pure and reduces costs. There's no switchable MC / MM
setting, instead there are optimized versions for MC and MM, known as the
HotHead Phono C and HotHead Phono M respectively.
The two HotHeads have identical casework and power supplies. The case is nicely executed for the price point, the lid and base are ferrous with the sides and front/rear seemingly being aluminum. The front panel has a small yellow LED power indictor. The rear panel houses the power socket, grounding post and two pairs of RCA sockets for input and output. I would expect the spacing of the RCAs permits the use of all but the most crazily large phono plugs, my WBT, Bullet plugs were a comfortable fit and Audio Note AN-P 10s also fit. The power supply is a plug-top switched mode type; it has a quality feel and is supplied with four mains plug options covering most of the world. The power supply unusually outputs 48V, this I'm advised is what's needed to allow for the JFETs to be biased for optimum sound quality.
The Hothead C has a gain of 62dB (1260x), input
loading is set to 100 Ohm / 220pF with output impedance being 30 Ohms so it
should work with any preamp. Gain and input loading are spot on for the
requirements of most MC users, the suggested cartridge output range being 0.2mV
to 1mV, much will depend on the gain structure of individual systems. The lack
of switchable gain and loading is in many ways a benefit due to a more direct
signal path and reduced cost; indeed you're not paying sonic and cost penalties
for switches you most likely would never use. The HotHead M gain is 42dB (126x),
input loading is 47kOhm / 220pF and again output impedance is 30 Ohms. Suitable
cartridges are said to be in the range of 1.6mV to 10mV. Gain and loading is set
very appropriately for MM cartridges. Should you wish to lower the loading to
perhaps 33 kOhm for Deccas this is possible via an inline phono adapter Benedict
Audio are experimenting with and will probably bring to market shortly.
The shipping box is very well constructed
offering excellent protection for your purchase; it is so good I'd be happy to
take delivery from an airborne drone, should such things ever materialize. The
instructions are glossy and well-presented plus you even receive a postcard from
the home of Benedict Audio, the spectacular and beautiful English county of
I found some burn-in beneficial with the HotHeads but more than that was the time the units were left powered up. Benedict Audio recommend leaving the HotHead permanently powered up as it can take 30 to 60 minutes before thermal equilibrium is attained, I found this to be the case – do not judge these phonostage from stone cold! If a Hothead had been powered down it needed at least an LP side to be played before my system came on song.
Hot Or Not? HotHead C
Playing the very bouncy sounding Caro Emerald /
Deleted Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor, I found the bass to be up to snuff
as an initial impression. This was significant as a major reason I used the more
expensive battery powered OpAmp-based F-117 Nighthawk was down to the sheer
power of its bass. Moving to vocals I immediately noticed better decay with the
HotHead C, where Caro at one point sings "Me", with the F117 this decays as "Me-e",
with the HotHead I heard "Meee-eee". As often happens when switching back to the
alternative equipment I found the decay was indeed there but it was less
pronounced, it took the HotHead to point out the longer decay in the first
place. Reverting to the bass, I was now fully appreciating what the HotHead
could do, not only was it matching the power of the best OpAmp bass I had
available, it was doing even more. Yes I could hear powerful and tight bass but
I was also hearing a subtle natural vibration or resonance to the bass. It's a
hard thing to explain but once you hear it you know you're hearing deep into
what bass instruments are doing.
Next I was spinning up one of the audiophile
classics, Jennifer Warnes Famous Blue Raincoat. With Bird on a Wire I at first felt the
treble was more extended than I was used to but then I realized it was down to
the treble not being smeared and being very clean. With OpAmps I almost
invariably experience some upper-mid harshness, the HotHead was a revelation in
this respect too, as it matched the delicacy of my tube phonostages and then
added extra vibrancy. I ran though more of my collection, both modern and
vintage recordings including a fair proportion of jazz from the like of Coleman
Hawkins, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz. I began to conclude that where the HotHead
scores strongly over many phonostages was how it handles the frequency extremes
– clean, very detailed and without harshness at the upper end; a lot has to be
right for these aspects to be present in concert.
Diana Krall Girl
in the Other Room has a couple of tracks I use to check out bass and
spittyness. With the track "Temptation" I was floored by the double bass
especially the natural resonance I alluded to earlier, it was present in
quantity and quality; I just couldn't get enough of that double bass. Of course
the recording, deck and cartridge are part of the equation but the phonostage
has to play its part... and what a part it played! Cueing up "Love Me Like A Man"
from the same album resulted in my being similarly impressed with the HotHead
rendition of piano, one the hardest instruments to reproduce. I found too that
drumstick-on-cymbal was reproduced with such detail that I was hearing layers of
ring and decay of very pure cymbal tones. I almost forgot to mention the
spittyness aspect I was listening for, that's because Diana's vocals were
reproduced totally naturally, any sibilance was natural and not at all
distracting. I found instruments fill the soundstage very well, probably as a
result of excellent detail retrieval. The soundstage is not at all simply left
– center – right, it is very well fleshed out across the stage.
Some talk about pace, rhythm and timing or PRAT,
I'd say with the HotHead C the term that comes to mind is not just PRAT but
"pace and poise". Notes start as they should and stop or decay really
well. It's a bit like hearing Frank Sinatra pacing his way through his vocals,
music works so well when the timing is right, the beginning and ends of notes
are spot on. Frankly it's the best I've heard my Transfiguration Spirit sound.
I find the London Reference usually sounds best
with 33 kOhm loading, Benedict Audio provided inline RCA prototype loading plugs
so I was able to modify loading from 47 kOhm to 33 kOhm. As is usual I found the
London was better on 33 kOhm. My preconception was that it would only make a
subtle difference but it was more than this, probably due to the HotHead working
so well in my system in the first place that I was able to better hear what
would normally be quite a minor fine tune. What was the difference? I'd describe
it a tilting of the frequency response. A bit more bass and bass power with a
slight reduction in treble, the resulting balance I find suits my taste. This
was not a night and day change but it was certainly beneficial and worthwhile.
With the London Reference in particular I find that if partnering electronics
are not ideal there can be some sonic glassiness, the HotHead M could not have
been better behaved so I award top marks there. Moving onto soundstage, again
this was magnificent, much is to do the London Reference but a great phonostage
is needed to allow it to be heard unencumbered.
Returning the Diana Krall tracks and adding in
Sonny Rollins "Moritat" from Saxophone
Colossus, again I found double bass to be supreme and even better
than with the Transfiguration Spirit; I put this difference down to the
cartridges though it's not possible to be sure of this. It's hard to say when I've
heard recorded cymbals and hi-hats reproduced better, triangles too. The sound
is so well defined and realistic. Hitherto I had felt I needed a tube phonostage to get even close to this caliber of treble. I was surprised by what the
Benedict Audio JFETS were reproducing with the London Reference. St Germain /
Tourist "Montego Bay Spleen" is another example of how great the treble can be.
Likewise piano at the start of Side B on "So Flute".
A favorite track of mine currently is "Friday
Fish Fry" from Kelis/Food. You can find it on YouTube if you search for
‘KelisJools Holland'. Kelis sang this live on the BBC show "Late... with Jools
Holland" in May 2014. I had been finding the version for the BBC was coming
across better as Kelis' vocals on vinyl were a little swamped by over-powerful
bass. I found the HotHead M fixed this for me by cleaning up the bass so there's
no overhang and the vocals are free to be heard as intended. Another victory for
the Hothead. With the London Reference I was getting delicacy with power and
body; what a perfect combination.
Moving onto my Ortofon 2M Mono SE, I normally use
this with a tube phonostage, partly because it sounds so right with it but also
because tubes suit the Garrard 301 and mono era aesthetically too. I found my
OpAmp phonostages a bit too clinical and matter of fact for my vintage mono
recordings. Swapping in the HotHead M gave me the sound I enjoy from tubes; I
really would be hard pushed to believe this was a solid-state phonostage had I
not put it in place myself. The HotHead is so transparent that the quality and
character of the vintage recordings dominates the sound and wow, they sound so
very great. I confess I'm very much a fan of simpler, less manufactured vintage
recordings where musicians actually play together at the same time and in the
same place. The HotHead excels with both modern and vintage recordings so it
must be doing a heck of a lot right!
The duo of HotHeads are incredibly well judged
designs in terms of specification and sound quality, add to this their extremely
compelling pricing then it's clear Benedict Audio have a winner. Feed these
phonostages music from a half decent deck and cartridge, you are bound to be
rewarded. Top-notch audio does not have to be eye-wateringly expensive; the
Benedict Audio HotHeads bear this out.
Associated Equipment Used