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March / April 2005
Superior Audio Equipment Review

Art Audio Vinyl Reference
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Or can tubes, FETs, and transformers mate well?
Review By Steven R. Rochlin
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Art Audio Vinyl Reference mm / MC  Preamplifier  In this world of high-resolution digital audio format wars there is one constant. The desire by music lovers to continue enhancing their music reproduction system no matter what the format. With the apparent never-ending battle between Sony's proprietary SACD format and the chosen standard DVD-Audio, we now add to the mix formats such as DualDisc with talks of Blu-ray and other disc formats. Why do music lovers still cherish vinyl when digital disc formats are easier to store, equipment setup in easy as is maintenance, and playback is a no-brainer? Because it's the music...!

 

Construction
Like all Art Audio products, solid engineering takes charge as is evident within the Vinyl Reference. Manufacturer Joe Fratus has chosen K & K Audio to design and manufacture this unit as quality was of paramount importance. 

The black power supply cabinet to the left houses a pair of large Lundahl transformers. This housing structure reduces interference from the power supply from reacting with the delicate analog stage. In fact there are no less than six Lundahl transformers with a pair employed for line output coupling (top right) and another pair for the moving coil input (bottom right). Signal capacitors from Aeon, Cardas, and Kimber were hand chosen for sound quality. A pair of Russian-made Svetlana 6N1P triode tubes  is augmented by solid-state FETs to insure low noise and high gain for the input stage. Meanwhile the output stage uses another pair of tubes, though this time joined by MOSFET/transformer coupling. There is no 'global' negative feedback within the circuitry. Before i forget to mention, the power feeding each vacuum tube filament is carefully regulated to insure optimal performance. The critical RIAA equalization is done passively. 

Art Audio SelectorThe front panel offers a simple On/Off switch to the right and a polarity/mute switch to the left. The left switch allows for polarity reversal and also muting, which i found especially useful when changing records so as not to have a loud thump go through my system during record changing. Appearing on the rear panel from left to right are power, XLR pin 1 ground switch, balanced (XLR) and single ended (RCA) outputs,  an XLR/RCA output switch, a pair of MM and MC RCA inputs plus a grounding terminal. There is also a six-position loading switch (seen above) for various MM and MC loading configurations.

Fit and finish was as one expects with Art Audio. Solid and practical. While the unit does not have super ultra-fi thick panels all around, the front panel is very sturdy and solid. Inside the cabinet you will find anti-resonant sheets, reducing unwanted vibrations from reaching the critical electronics. The mirror-like front panel looks magnificent while the wood knobs give an air of elegance. Circuit and construction techniques are that of solidity and reliability.

My listening notes are the result of two front ends within two systems. The main rig contains the Voyd turntable with Audio Note silver-wired tonearm and Clearaudio Insider Reference wood body MC cartridge. The second system contains the Acoustic Solid Small Royal turntable, Rega RB250 tonearm and Linn Adikt MM cartridge (as reviewed within the Enjoy the Music.com™ Review Magazine). This way i was able to ascertain the sound of both the MC and MM stage. Music included various vinyl from Acoustic Sounds, Mobile Fidelity, Reference Recordings, a few direct-to-disc titles, various test pressings, and many others. Basically, i enjoy music on both analog and digital formats for over eight hours a day. Then add up all the hours since Art Audio's Vinyl Reference has been here for approximately three months.

 

The Sound
Art Audio products appear to share a 'family sound' as it were. Those of you desiring tube lushness or rose-colored glasses to the music should look elsewhere. The classic Western Electric 300B sound with luscious midrange, yet slightly recessed highs and lacking deep bass is not what Art Audio strives for. If your preferences are such distortions to the music then you would be best served elsewhere. To my ears within my systems, Art Audio offers accuracy and smoothness. The lowermost frequencies have authority with all range accuracy and upper frequencies are clean without sounding overly analytical. My review many years ago of the Diavolo and also hearing their products at various shows worldwide only confirm my judgments.

Minimal mic'ed acoustic orchestra had a wonderful presence, with power and majesty if it is within the recording. If the vinyl contains blissful microdynamics and softer shades, then this is what was brought forth through my system. Harmonically, the Art Audio Vinyl Reference portrayed massed strings and wind instruments with naturalness. All the many layers to the music were there for my musical enjoyment. 

Techno/electronica music was fast and clean, with deep bass notes that came and went with incredible speed. Perhaps not the very last word in bass definition as offered by the super exotica $30,000 Loth-X's Silbatone C-102 preamplifer, yet the Art Audio came very close at less than 1/7th the price! Then again the Silbatone is also a line stage so do the final math accordingly. No matter as this also proves the high value of the Vinyl Reference. If you enjoy rockin', the Art Audio may be just the ticket to your very own jam session.

Imaging and soundscaping was top notch. Width expanded beyond the loudspeaker positioning while depth was outstanding. Expansion into the listening room was truly impressive, equaling the best i have heard to date! This is no easy feat and goes to show that within the right system, room, and acoustic environment so amazing feats can be achieved (given the right setup of course).

Resolution was exceptional! Need i say more?

 

Comparisons
Over the years i have also reviewed the $7,300 Manley Labs Steelhead MM/MC and the $3,700 (UM2 battery box adds $450) Final Labs Music 4 MC phonostages. Within the Manley Labs' Steelhead review i wrote "...the recently reviewed Final Labs Music 4 phono stage comes very close to that of the Steelhead, yet at a saving of over $3,000. Of course the Steelhead provides MM and MC while the Final Labs is generally for MC only. Furthermore, the Steelhead has more speed than the Music 4 and also infinitely more adjustments as well. Is this worth almost double the costs of the Music 4? In the end it is up to you to decide." So now comes the job of adding in comments regarding the Art Audio Vinyl Reference.

The Vinyl Reference has more adjustments than the Final Labs, yet less than the Manley labs Steelhead. As for pricing, it is $4,000 versus $4,150 versus $7,300 (Vinyl Reference, Music 4, and Steelhead respectively). i will not keep you guessing or hide behind vagueness, the Manley Labs Steelhead is still the king, as it should be given the nearly 2x the price. The sheer usability and array of loading and gain choices is staggering. Still, once you find the correct setting for your favorite cartridge, all the other choices become moot.

The Art Audio offers a very good range of loading choices and the gain is appropriate. During usage i never felt the need for some 'tween setting with the Clearaudio Insider Reference (wood body) MC or Linn Adikt MM cartridges. My aural memory firmly places the Manley and Art Audio above the Final Labs for speed and accuracy. Both also offer impressive imaging and top-to-bottom frequency response. Only the $30,000 Silbatone gives you more, though this is the price one may pay when you reach the 'law of diminishing returns.' My best advice would be to audition the Art Audio Vinyl Reference and Manley Labs Steelhead and decide for yourself. Adding another complexity is that tube rollers can enjoy both units with various NOS and new production tubes. This may only further complicate the final outcome. No one ever said that being a tweak audiophile would be easy, now did they?

 

Conclusion
Art Audio has once again manufactured a product worthy of the company's reputation. Solid build quality, reliability, and producing excellent sound quality at a (relatively) affordable price. Their no nonsense approach is refreshing, with only minimal yet necessary loading choices. Add to this a 'bonus' of balanced (XLR) or single ended (RCA) output and we have winner. At under $4,000 i have not heard another MM/MC phono stage that comes close to offering what Art Audio has achieved. And this, my friends, is an excellent achievement. Of course in the end what really matters is that you...

Enjoy the Music,

Steven R. Rochlin

 

Specifications
Type: Stereo moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC) hybrid phono stage

Inputs: One each MM and MC

Gain: MM input 43dB / MC input 63dB. Other gain structures available  by special order

Impedance Loading:
MM 47Kohms or 47kOhms in parallel with 220pF
MC 100ohms, 300ohms, 1Kohms or 47kOhms

Output Impedance: 200ohms

Frequency Response: 20Hz  to 20kHz (less than  0.5dB deviation from RIAA curve)

Tube complement: four Svetlana Electron Devices 6N1P triodes

Dimensions: 18.125 x 13.5 x 4 (WxDxH in inches)

Weight: 21 lbs.

Price: 3,995

 

Company Information
Art Audio
34 Briarwood Road
Cranston, Rhode Island 02920

Voice: (401) 826-8286
E-mail: vze572mh@verizon.net 
Website: www.artaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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