World Premiere Review!
Yes, I am old. Old enough to remember when you could still buy mono and stereo versions of your favorite album. Old enough to have double-disc albums that were set up to play on your automatic record player. Old enough to remember when a company called Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab started producing "audiophile" versions of popular records because many of the run-of-the-mill pressings were so terrible. Old enough to remember walking into a record store and spending an hour walking up and down the aisles trying to figure out which album you were going to purchase with your hard-earned money. That decision was usually based on the one song from that album you heard on the radio. Sometimes you struck gold, sometimes you got an album with only one good song on it. Those were the days, with all this now bringing me to reviewing the TriArt Audio S-Series MM phono amplifier.
For a long time, vinyl was king. Then, all of sudden it wasn't. Those CDs that at first took up a little nook in the record store suddenly took over. Soon, they were called music stores, and those 12" platters were nowhere to be found. The same thing happened to audio gear. In days past, when you bought a preamp/integrated, it came with an input and grounding lug for your turntable. Then they didn't. All of a sudden you had to buy a separate phono preamp. Back then, many of those phono preamps were expensive. Only the hard-core audiophiles who read The Absolute Sound and demanded they still listen to their records because they stubbornly held on to the belief that analog was better. Reactionaries!
Of course, things have changed since then. Vinyl has had a huge renaissance! Turntables and phono preamps come in all shapes, sizes, and costs. To get started with those dark black discs from scratch doesn't need to cost you a month's rent. Yep, if you give things enough time, they come full circle.
It's great to see so much affordable vinyl equipment out there. One of the companies that had embraced this vinyl revival is TriArt Audio. They produce all sorts of equipment, all of which have one thing in common: bamboo. From turntables to electronics to speakers, they are all constructed using the panda's favorite food. Why bamboo you ask? Not only does it look cool, but it's also a renewable resource that has great acoustic properties. In addition, all of the electronics are wrapped in non-dyed wool for dampening. Eco-friendly audio gear. Cool! So what about the TriArt Audio S-Series MM phono amplifier you ask.
TriArt Audio S-Series MM Phono Amplifier
The S-Series MM Phono Preamp normally comes with a normal plug-in DC supply. Mine came with the upgrade of 12 Volt DC Linear Tube Buffered Power Supply. This power supply can be switched from normal DC output to a buffered setting that employs a NOS GE 5670 tube. This buffered setting has three levels of current leached by the tube. Just like the phono amp, it has a bamboo exterior and wool dampening. The phono preamp has a 47kOhm impedance, which matches perfectly with my Sumiko Rainier cartridge. This can make a big difference in how the two work together.
The first big test of a phono preamp is something you hear before you even drop the needle. How quiet is it? Phono preamps have the near-impossible task of boosting a music signal in the millivolts range to line level, which is around one volt, without adding any noise. My Sumiko Rainier has an output of 5 mV. That's five thousandths of a volt! Despite that, once I hooked the TriArt into the system and cranked the volume to a Spinal Tap influenced 11, and it was dead quiet. All that shielding and RF filtering did its job. With such a low noise floor, more of the music can come through.
It's Time To Groove
Okay, on to the music. As some of you know, I don't pull out the sonic spectaculars to try out a piece of equipment, I just listen to what strikes my fancy. Listening to vinyl is such an interesting experience because you can hear such a wide variation in production values, even in the classical realm. A recording engineer could have done an amazing job in capturing a performance, only for a cutting engineer to ruin things at the last step. I've been in a Stravinsky mood lately, so I pulled Petrouchka by the BSO with Monteux [RCA LSC-2376]. What I immediately noticed were the impressive dynamics. This piece has a lot of dramatic stops and starts, and the TriArt gives them their due. The ballet opens up with softly swirling strings depicting the bustling Shovetide Fair, but soon the brass busts in at fff to announce the arrival of the drunken revelers. This moment, along with others in the piece, is rendered with clarity and solidness.
Next up, Thomas Dolby. Poor Thomas will forever be remembered for "Blinded Me with Science", yet he wrote many other great songs too! His sophomore effort, The Flat Earth [EMI ST-12309] was less "techno" than his first album, with a more laid-back approach. I'm discounting "Hyperactive", which was originally written for Michael Jackson. That doesn't mean he wasn't using synthesizers anymore. Some of the sounds he got out of his Fairlight and PPG still sound fresh and original today. What I noticed listening to this album through the TriArt phono amp are all of the different textures that Dolby incorporated in each song. In addition. Dolby's voice sounds full and intimate. It's always fun to listen to music you haven't pulled out in a while and hear it with fresh ears.
Next up for the TriArt Audio S-Series MM phono amplifier is Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra [MFSL-1522]. Yes, I did throw an "audiophile" disc in there. But it's what I wanted to hear. This record is a bit of a torture test for a system because it has so much low-frequency information. It famously begins with that low-low C bass-pedal/bass string note. Throughout the rest of the piece, there's a lot of low string rumblings. The TriArt gave a great rendering of these low-bass notes without ever feeling bloated or soggy. In addition, all the solo string instruments had rich tones and never sounded screechy.
Peter Gabriel's masterful album So [GHS 24088], in addition to having a bunch of well-written songs, this album is brilliantly produced with many talented musicians contributing. This album opens with the ominous track "Red Rain", which starts with brilliant high-hat work by Stewart Copeland (of course). The high hat is crisp with a definite percussive quality. Even when the full band (bass, guitar, piano, Fairlight, Prophet) kicks in with what only can be described as thunderous chords, the TriArt keeps them as distinct instruments.
TriArt B-Series DC Linear Power Supply
The other thing I explored was the different settings on the supplemental B-Series DC Linear Power Supply. This power supply comes with the choice of running it straight or with a tube buffer engaged. Then, once you throw the switch, you can control the amount of buffering going on with a three-position selector. Throughout my listening sessions, I fiddled with these switches trying to hear if there was an effect on the sound of the TriArt. As far as I can tell, there is a slight warming of the sound with the tube buffer engaged, but I really couldn't tell the difference between the different buffering settings.
Type: DC Linear Power Supply (12 Volt, tube buffered)