ifi Audio Micro iPhono MM/MC Phonostage
A rare audiophile no-brainer bargain.
Review By Ron Nagle
Vincent Luke the ifi Audio
marketing representative has just unpacked a shipment of something. As I peer
over his shoulder, he sees the Enjoy the Music.com Press Badge and asks me if I
would like to try it, my first thought is, try what! Inside of a white
box, I see a seven-inch long aluminum rectangle. My expression must have asked a
question, and he replied, "This is an ifi
Micro phonograph amplifier".
By way of clarification let's back up a bit,
this is day two of the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audiofest in Denver Colorado. We need
to first flesh out a few facts. Inhabiting room 423 at the RMAF is Avatar
Acoustics they are the American Importer/Distributor for the British firm,
Abbington Music Research. Most audiophiles just call them AMR Audio. This
British company makes some truly great Hi-End audio components, most of it way
beyond my wallets capacity.
Not that long ago AMR Audio launched a far more
affordable spin off called, ifi micro.
AMR tells us they employed their Trickle Down Technology in the design of the
iPhono stage. On the bottom of the iPhono, the company logo is silkscreen
printed on the components in these same ifi lower case letters. Prior to the 2012
RMAF, the company designed and produced three small components all sharing the
same aluminum housed rectangular form factor.
In approximate order they are:
iFi Micro iCAN Headphone Amp ($249)
iFi Micro iDAC Headphone Amp/DAC with 24-bit/192kHz resolution ($299)
iFi Micro iUSB Power Module ($199
And lastly, we have the subject of this aural investigation the iFi Micro iPhono
This compact component measures 6.5" x
2.5" (LxW) and is housed in a one-inch thick aluminum case. In fact, it is
small enough so that you could slip it into your shirt pocket. What makes the iPhono such an innovative stand out besides the $399 price is
its amazing array of features/adjustments. Maybe the best way to describe it
would be to call it a universal moving magnet/moving coil phonograph cartridge
amplifier. Obviously, there are many phono amplifiers that allow capacitive and
resistive cartridge loading adjustments. But far fewer that combines the iPhono
added ability to set six different EQ curves.
It occurs to me as I write this that in this digital
age there are some who may be just now buying their first turntable. I would
like to comment, at this point that you should start out with a fairly good
working familiarly with vinyl recording and cartridge basics. Understand that
some of your specific setup values can only be found and finalized by listening
and then fine-tuning your adjustments to optimize your system. The caveat
here is that you should always begin with the cartridge manufactures
specifications. That said lets start beginners Class 101. The grooves cut into
the vinyl surface of a record are a physical analog of the sound patterns of the
original performance. A heated cutting head mounted on a cutting lathe is
powered by an electrical sum and difference signal that cuts the grooves into a
blank master disk. These grooves mimic the sound pressure waves of the original
performance. The cutting lath inscribes/cuts a blank vinyl disk to form the
original or master disk referred to as the "Mother". A company called Westrex
was a pioneer of this process and manufactured many of the cutting heads that
were used in disk mastering. In order to reverse this analog encoding an
accurate copy of the original electrical signal must be generated by the
cartridge and stylus.
EQ refers to the Phonograph Equalization curve.
Why does the iPhono amplifier have different EQ settings you
Specifically, the equalization is actually an electrical
network used to compensate for limitations inherent in the disk mastering
To make a long story shorter, it is an electronic frequency
pre-emphasis network used in the disk cutting process. The EQ compensation
network in the phono amplifier then functions as an inverse or de-emphasis
circuit that results in flat/correct frequency response on playback. Over the long history of vinyl, recording, various companies
used different electronic circuits/networks to compensate for mastering
If you look at the history of different equalization methods
employed pre-1954 and the RIAA standardization introduced in 1950. You will see
that the EQ correction efforts cover a span of decades going back to the very
first mention of them in 1926. The Marketing Rep. Vincent Luke informed me that
in the U.K. and Europe you will find many more versions of the EQ networks than
in the United States. Therefore, with foresight they designed the iPhono so that
it might have broad compatibility. Before
1954 there were over 100 combinations of turnover and rolloff frequencies in
Features And Fiddly Bits
Let us start our description with the least
complicated feature. On the top of the aluminum, case there is three small green
LED's near three functional symbols. They are a Triangle and next a symbol for
an amplifier function and last a symbol for a jack connection. The right and
left ends of the case hold the input and output connections. The input side has
four female RCA jacks, two are for coaxial moving magnet and the other two are
separate coaxial inputs for a moving coil cartridge. Exactly in the center of
these is a small grounding post. At the opposite end is an input jack for the DC
power plug. In addition, a three-position toggle switch marked COLUMBIA, RIAA,
and DECCA. This three-position switch will allow you to match the EQ curves of
the three most prolific recording manufacturers. (after you set the DIP
switches) And last are the two RCA output jacks for connection to the downstream
Getting To The Bottom Of Things
The diagram shown below is not the same layout printed on the
bottom of the ifi Micro iPhono amplifier. This diagram is expanded a bit for
clarity; it shows some the settings for the 24 miniature DIP switches.
As you can see there are three banks containing eight DIP
(Dual Inline Pin) switches. They are divided into left and right Channel
sections. The two banks of switches shown in the top frame are: Left side MM
(Moving Magnet) capacitive loading and on the right side these switches are for
MC (Moving Coil) resistive loading. You should begin with the optimum loading
values; they will be specified by the cartridge manufacturer. The lower frame
shows the DIP switches for matching the EQ compensation networks used by various
record manufacturers. Last, the right side of the lower frame shows possible
cartridge gain settings up to a maximum of 66 dB.
Notice the EQ Compensation adjustments, this is where it gets
more complicated, across the pond in England they might say it get's a bit
fiddly. To be ultra accurate you should know what company produced the recording
and if possible when the recording was made. To address this the small print on
the iPhono case lists the three most common EQ compensation settings for the
United States 9i.e: Columbia, RIAA, and Decca0. The iPhono printed chart tells
us the standard RIAA curve is for most recordings issued after 1980 and some
issued after the 1950's. Additionally it tells us the Columbia EQ compensation
will apply to most Columbia/CBS, Epic, and EMI recordings issued under Columbia.
What you should know is the applicable iPhono EQ DIP settings.
These are listed like this: Standard
RIAA is the Default, than IEC,
this is actually the Standard RIAA curve + a Subsonic Filter, Next eRIAA
is called enhanced RIAA, Next: eRIAA + IEC
is called Enhanced RIAA + Subsonic Filter, and last is the standard for the Decca/Columbia
EQ Curves. Remember that three-position EQ toggle switch on the input end of the
case? The center RIAA position engages whatever you have selected using
the DIP switches, however both of the Decca and Columbia settings are fixed.
If I had, a criticism to make it would be that, the silkscreen
printed settings on the case are too small and crowded to be easily read.
Additionally the individual switch banks serve multiple functions for gain,
load, and EQ settings that are used for both MM and MC cartridges and they are
not intuitive. However, I was informed that in the future there would be a
clearer printed version of the layout included with the amplifier.
The factors/variables that could effect the sound quality are
almost too numerous to list. They would depend on the type of cartridge and
therefore the gain and load settings. In addition, the cartridge compliance and
arm mass should be compatible. Additionally are all the cartridge alignment
adjustments correct? The EQ settings for the recording are they correct.
Consider the recordings surface condition. And last but not insignificantly is
the turntable set up correctly and rotational speed spot on? I mention all these factors even before the signal goes
downstream through all the circuits and wiring into your speakers and ultimately
arrives at your pinnae.
Since there are innumerable cartridges in existence, we will
need to establish a benchmark. In an effort to minimize variables, I am going to set up and
use two cartridges, a Moving Magnet and a Moving Coil. In addition, I will
employ a pristine high quality recording: Diana Krall Glad
Rag Doll [Verve 6-02537-12694-1]. Not as a reference but as a check
to see how close the vinyl EQ is to the digital EQ we will compare the CD
version of Glad Rag Doll
[B0017326-19]. The MM we will use is the Sure V15 Type V-MR, because this is the
most ubiquitous and performance measured MM cartridge. The second cartridge is
an unusual $5000 Dollar high compliance 0.35mV Haniwa HCTR01 Super Low
Impedance MC design. This was chosen simply because it will be a challenging
interface for the iPhono amplifier. I have been using both cartridges for
several months with various review samples.
First at the gate is the low inductance Haniwa HCTR01
cartridge. It is difficult to get it right because it requires an unusually low
input impedance and precise set up. For this test the iPhono DIP resistance was
adjusted at 22 Ohms and the Gain set at 66 dB and the EQ was fixed at eRIAA/IEC.
The test vinyl Glad Rag
Doll has a unique sound, portions of the instrumental arrangement
sound like a carnival merry-go-round calliope. The fourth track is, You
Know-I Know Everything Is Made For
Love. The bass end sounds as if they placed a microphone inside of
the acoustic bass. The sound is replete, even including the buzzing sound of the
bass strings. However, Diana's breathy voice serves up a warming and intimate
counterpoint. This Vinyl recording played through the iPhono is an exact match
to the digital EQ of the CD version. At the risk of being obvious, any
respectable Audiophile knows the Vinyl recording should be better than the CD.
You may exclaim, how so! Well dear reader it's all in the details. The
tactile tonal shadings, the image placement/specificity painted on a larger
stage, add in the human warmth of Ms. Krall voice, much of it realized by the
natural sustain/decay of sounds recovered from the grooves of vinyl.
The Sure V15 Type V-MR
iPhono gain now set to 40dB; standard loading is 47 kOhms and
Standard RIAA. This is a study in contrasts. Compared to the moving coil
Haniwa it exhibits a stage of another color. Polite by virtue of a dead flat
frequency response it paints a broad but less detailed sound stage. This is
because it does not have the transient speed of a MC. This is most noticeable at
low frequencies were the bass just seems slightly bloated.
Pay attention! Understand the primary goal of this missive is not to just
describe the recordings or even the cartridges used. It is instead to ascertain
the role of the phonograph amplifier. Ideally, a phonograph amplifier should be
totally transparent and add or subtract nothing on its own. The amplifier should
be like a straight wire with gain. Note: All the listening started with the DIP
switches set just as the cartridges manufactures specified. Also, understand
that even using a single recording the switches controlling gain, compensation
and loading were employed as the record played to determine the effectiveness of
the controls. FYI, there was test sampling of other record labels. A 1967
recording in French issued on the Fontana label also a 1968 Decca London
recording, and more.
It is very hard to isolate and describe what should not be
there. Nevertheless, or none the less I have discovered a baseline personality.
Firstly it is above all dead quiet. The manufacturer says the amplifier is
designed to operate in pure Class A operation, and it does but! Do not think of
Class A in the same way you think of tube-based amplifiers. This is Class A
solid-state and it has absolutely no tube warming tonal colorations. What it
does is present musical performance in a distortion-less pristine and pure form.
This is as it should be; it will never impose anything on the performance. The
caveat is, only if you have not done something stupid.
The $399 price and the unusual range of adaptation make this
device truly unique. Buy it if you play vinyl, for you most certainly could not
lose. More and more by bucking the pricing escalation this is a rare audiophile
no-brainer bargain. On a personal note: "I have
learned a few things about my vinyl system and in the process enjoyed every
fiddly minute" From the magazine
Enjoy the Music.com and from me,
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Fozgometer Azimuth ranging meter
SOTA turntable with Grado Signature tonearm
Shure V15 Type V-MR Cartridge
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Music Hall dac25.3 Tube up sampling D/A processor.
Sanders ESL Power Amplifier
Luna Prologue 2 amplifier
Audio Research SP-9 MK 3 Preamplifier
Aurum Cantus Leisure 2 SE two-way ribbon monitors
Mark and Daniel Omni Harmonizers.
Kimber 12 TC
Von Gaylord Legend 7000s speaker cables
Monster Reference, 1 meter and 1.5 meters
Nordost Red Dawn, 1 meter
Audio Research Litzlink 2 pairs,1.5 meter
Chord Silver Siren, 1 meter
Audiobhan 0.5-meter digital
Power cords are (Wonderful) Kaplan Cables.
Islatrol Industrial 20 Ampere AC line conditioner
Richard Gray 20 Ampere Sub Station
Alpha Core Balanced Transformer Power Supply
Audio Power PE-1 power enhancer
Richard Gray 20 Ampere Sub Station
Alpha Core Balanced Transformer Power Supply
Audio Power PE-1 power enhancer
Type: MM and MC solid-state phonostage
Frequency Response: 10 Hz to 100 kHz (0.5dB)
Dynamic Range(MM): >96dB
Dynamic Range (MC): >90dB
Signal to Noise Ratio (MM): >76dB
Signal to Noise Ratio (MC): >82dB
Crosstalk: <-70dB (1 kHz)
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.01%
Output Impedance (Zout): <110 Ohms
Input Voltage: AC 100 - 240V, 50/60Hz
Power Consumption: < 4W
Dimensions: 158 x68 x 28 (LxWxH in mm)
Weight: 0.44 lbs