It is not hard to remember a time when many people believed that the time of analogue audio would pass into the history books and digital sound replace it. Luckily this was not to be the case. The world of analogue sound continues as one of innovation, competition and occasionally even revolution. The need to improve the performance and fidelity of not only speakers and amplifiers, but turntables and phonostages continues to increase. It is here that this review finds its humble roots. Recent increases in vinyl material provided me with an excuse to purchase a VPI Aries turntable complete with a JMW tonearm and Micro Benz Ruby 2 cartridge. The combination has served me well. It allowed me to do a number of reviews on various components and enhancements, including unbalanced RCA stereo cables since the VPI setup provides a pair of unbalanced outputs.
Unfortunately, there has never been a simple or commercially available way of to connect the tonearm directly to a phonostage. This might seem somewhat trivial to most people, but to someone who continuously strives to evaluate and explore new products it is oftentimes a very real concern. However, MR Labs has come up with a unique phonostage which connects directly to the tonearm alleviating this concern.
VERA phono preamplifier's design begins which the aforementioned connection to
the LEMO connector. It then continues by providing a signal path of silver wire
shielded by Teflon. Unlike conventional phonostages, the VERA input stage
doesn't simply amplify the output voltage of the cartridge. It amplifies the
output current and then converts it to an output voltage in a transimpedance
topology of the input circuit. The only note here is that there are special
units designed for extremely high or extremely low voltage outputs. If you have
one of these you need to contact the company prior to ordering to make sure you
have the correct model.
Furthermore in an effort to decrease the possible interaction between channels, the phonostage utilizes a dual mono topology. Each circuit board is built by hand and utilizes all Vishay CMF resistors with extremely low noise metal film types which have 50 ppm temperature coefficient. The capacitors are Panasonic FC and are rated long life. All components are selected to minimize sonic signature and increase signal purity.
to Mr. Labs, "Every moving coil cartridge is a balanced source intrinsically generating an output current as soon as its output pins are connected to each other in some way. The tiny output current (some tens of micro- amperes) flows into the fully balanced floating input of the TRIC input stage which is insensitive to hum pickup and electro-magnetic interference and is transformed to a reasonably high voltage. The TRIC stage is the perfect load for a MC cartridge and allows each and every correctly designed MC cartridge to develop its full potential. The topology of the TRIC input stage warrants an extremely low noise operation."
unit is powered by an external supply. This power supply delivers clean DC
through the use of three key components. These components include an oversized
toroidal transformer for primary voltage, a secondary voltage source. These two
voltage sources continually store power in a specially designed bank of
capacitors which supply the phonostage with the clean DC power which enables the
unit to function with even a somewhat compromised power situation.
Setup and Break-In
Once the phonostage is connected, there is a
power supply which the company recommends you leave on at all times. According
to the literature this will enable the phonostage to remain at maximum operating
performance and decrease the possibility of electrical problems. The phonostage
itself has a small button that allows the user to switch the unit between
standby and on. Although it is in the front of the unit, the use of this button
can be somewhat difficult depending on how your system is laid out because of
the phonostage's necessary placement.
Once everything was setup and turned on, the
break-in time was fairly standard. It should be noted that like many units which
have signal pathways and delicate components it seemed extremely important to
break it in for a fairly lengthy period. It took approximately two full weeks of
the steady power and consistent playback until the unit settled in and became
consistent in performance.
There were several selections which shaped my
overall opinion of preamplifier. The first of which was Jazz
At The Pawnshop [Virgin NAXO-PRO-7778] by Arne Domnerus. The album
contains a fairly vast array of jazz compositions performed in a live venue. It
oftentimes brings even the best-heeled system to its knees with the complexities
it contains. The VERA phonostage did an admirable job of reproducing the live
atmosphere at the same time as the musical selection. Its only real deficit came
with a slight metal texture when reproducing the audience. This subtracted from
the overall acoustics and brought the listener back to reality prematurely.
Another notable selection was Phillip Glass's Einstein on the Beach [Tomato – TOM-4-2901]. This minimalist opera is meant to be the embodiment of both Einstein as an icon and the usage of recursion to enable the discovery of some of his most famous formulas. The opera, like many minimalist operas, relies heavily on the accurate production of sounds and their relation to the venue to depict extremely subtle difference. Many times even the smallest detail can change a listener's viewpoint and therefore influence their perception and overall enjoyment. The VERA phonostage did an outstanding job of capturing both the soundstage and the music within. The highly detailed playback allowed even a casual listener the ability to "see" the concepts being depicted and appreciate the enormity of the information being conveyed in the music, both instrumental and vocal.
A final selection influenced my opinion of the phonostage was Clapton [Atlantic WARB-ATL-3578] by Eric Clapton. This album is a compilation of songs performed with different artists. It allows one to sample various vocal and instrumental styles contained under the classical rock genre. It is also a fine example of both a mixing for the mass market and the need to maintain the highest fidelity possible given the propensity for low quality. While I would not consider the album to be extremely poor in quality, I certainly would not consider it audiophile quality either. The phonostage did not error on the side of overly critical sounding nor was it overly muddled. It seemed to fall somewhere in the middle which gives the impression that it is somewhat a jack of all trades where this album is concerned.
On the flipside, the unit is not without its
deficits. The somewhat limited placement of the phonostage is a item which
should give a potential customer slight pause. While it is suitable for the
majority of installations, anything which might fall short of the standard could
pose a threat to a simple installation. Additionally, the 10R and 10F models are
specifically designed for the VPI models. The 10R is made to function with
Scout, Scout 2 and Scoutmaster Models. The 10F is made to function with the
higher end Super Scoutmaster, Aries and HR-X Models. In addition there are
sub-models which are designed as noted earlier to handle cartridges with
extremely high or extremely low outputs. If you are not set on your particular
choice in turntables and tonearms, you might find yourself not only having to
replace your turntable and tonearm, but phonostage as well. This would
ultimately the possibility of a greater cost to change your existing equipment.
In conclusion the VERA 10 phono preamplifier is definitely worth putting on your list of phonostages to audition if you are looking for a partner to your VPI turntable and tonearm. The company does make a model with balanced inputs for those who do not have VPI equipment. It is not without certain limitations and it will not fit the bill for everyone's system, however, it represents the best, and perhaps only, real alternative if you wish a direct connection from tonearm to phonostage.
Note 1: No cartridge load resistor required