The first time I saw the LKV Research Phono 2-SB phono stage was in an advertisement. I'm not sure what caught my eye at first, the claims of its superior performance or its cabinet's robust looking appearance. But next I noticed that this phono preamp was offered for sale only factory direct with a 30 day in-home trial, at which time one can either return the component for a refund or keep the unit and enjoy its two year limited warranty. Obviously, bypassing the retail chain of command and acquiring it straight from the source rather than a retailer eliminates many stages that increase the price. It's undeniable that there are advantages to buying from a retailer, be it either a brick and mortar store or website, but one is going to pay for the privilege, since everyone deserves to be compensated for their efforts. The price of the LKV Research 2-SB is $3000, but I figure the Phono 2-SB would cost as much as $5000 if purchased through a retail outlet. Even at this price, most experienced audiophiles would consider the Phono 2-SB to be a moderately but still affordably priced phono preamplifier.
LKV Research stresses that dynamic headroom is an important design goal, and is essential for accommodating the wide dynamic ranges of music without strain or compression. They accomplish this by using relatively high power rail voltages, biasing the active devices properly, and carefully adjusting the distribution of gain among the amplification stages. The 2-SB uses all discrete Class A gain circuitry with zero loop feedback. To achieve accurate RIAA equalization, the preamp uses an RIAA filter using precision metal film resistors and polypropylene capacitors. LKV acknowledges that this accuracy is essential so LP listeners hear a valid reproduction of what the microphone at the original performance heard.
The 2-SB is a two-box affair. The smaller of the two cabinets houses the power supply, which helps tremendously with keeping the 2-SB as silent as possible because of the distance it creates between the power supply and sensitive circuits housed in the main unit. The power supply has one of its ground post located on the rear of the small black shoebox-sized unit. The front panel has a toggle that switches between the normal ground and a floating ground. The rear panel of the power supply also contains a fuse holder, the power switch, a jack for the gray umbilical cord that connects the two units, and of course an IEC power cord socket.
As not to spend too much money on something that Bill Hutchins thought didn't affect the phono preamp's sound, the main preamp section is housed in a rather plain black box measuring a more or less standard 17" wide by 4" high by 13" deep. The large LKV Research logo is in white on the upper left hand side, the model number on the lower right. An unobtrusive yet tasteful single blue LED in the center of the front panel indicated that the power is on, which I never turned off whenever I had the 2-SB located on the third shelf of the Arcici Suspense equipment rack. The rear panel of the 2-SB is laid-out smartly and with enough space between all the receptacles to accept any cable width I've ever used or could imagine using, and has both unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR sockets for both the turntable's inputs and the preamp's output. There is a toggle switch for choosing between the RCA or XLR ins and outs, a conveniently located ground post, and the input for the DC umbilical smack is situated dab in the center of the rear panel.
A plethora of loading options is at one's disposal, although all the switches for these options are located in the interior of the cabinet. LKV Research assumes that 99% of the time the settings will remain the same for an extended period of time for 99% of users, so it's perfectly fine that the settings are made at the factory to each customer's specific cartridge requirements. In the event of a user wanting to either set or re-set the loading options, the manual of the 2-SB has detailed instructions, photos, and diagrams to help set these parameters. In fact, the manual of the LKV Research 2-SB is one of the best I've ever encountered – with instructions that are easy to understand, including diagrams and color photos to walk one through any loading situation one is likely to confront. The gain of the 2-SB can be set to what equals either 40, 50, or 60 dB when using the balanced outputs, or 38, 44, or 54 dB when using the RCA outputs. The resistance loading options are broad, and there are six positions that can be set, ranging from 50 ohms all the way to 47.5 kOhms. Bill Hutchins opened the cabinet before we placed the unit on the shelf, and since I use the Moving Coil (MC) Lyra Kleos the gain was set to 60 dB, and was loaded to 100 Ohms. This seemed to bring out the best in the cartridge, and did not stray too far from its intrinsic character that I was accustomed to before the 2-SB arrived in the system.
The tonearm's internal cable is made by Discovery, and rather than using a terminal box the cable continues for 1.5 meters and is terminated with Cardas gold-plated RCA jacks. These jacks were connected to the LKV Research 2-SB phono preamp's unbalanced inputs. The 2-SB's unbalanced XLR outputs fed either Audio Art IC-35SE or MIT Shotgun S3.3 interconnects, which made their way to a Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) preamp, which was connected with the same choice of balanced interconnects used above to a Pass Labs X350.5 power amp. The amp was connected using Audio Arts or MIT cable to Sound Lab DynaStat hybrid electrostatic speakers augmented by a Velodyne HGS-15b subwoofer. The phono preamp and the preamplifier's power cables were connected to a more powerful PS Audio Power Plant than the unit used for the turntable, and the subwoofer and speaker's power cables were connected to a Chang Lightspeed ISO 9300 power conditioner. The two dedicated 20 ampere lines use Virtual Dynamic wall receptacles, and the room has Echobuster acoustic treatment panels on the rear wall, side walls, and behind the listening position. LP shelves as well as the wall-to-wall industrial carpeting aid further in dampening the room. The CD shelves probably do more harm than good, in a number of ways.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the 2-SB, was that after a very short time I realized that any positive comments I have about this phono preamp were also the same positive comments I had in regards to the music or the recordings themselves. The 2-SB did possess some traits that varied a bit from my reference Pass Labs XP-15, one of the finest solid-state phono preamps anywhere its price class I've ever had the pleasure of hearing. But still, the LKV Research could stand on its own, without comparison to others because it possessed so many traits that make a good phono preamp, period. So back to the Fritz Reiner conducted Pictures with his Chicago forces. This piece of music, and this recorded performance in particular, is a wonderful showpiece that still holds up, despite the fact that I've listened to it countless times. Some might erroneously call this piece of music a warhorse, as some may forget that there is be a reason why a composition ends up labeled as such in the first place – that listeners want to hear it again and again because it is worth hearing again and again.
Of course some might want to picture (sorry) in their mind each painting that is being musically depicted, but this is hardly necessary. In fact, when I was younger I was not aware, nor did I really care about what it "meant". When having the pleasure of listening to this excellent pressing through the 2-SB I was extremely impressed by not only the way it could take each instrument or group of instruments and separate them from the whole, but also how at the same time it could take these sounds and integrate them into the whole – like in real life when listening to a large ensemble – one's attention is drawn to a single instrument or section when a theme demands it, then the mind might wander back to the orchestra's powerful sound, then back to a solo or section of instruments. I've made this observation with other equipment in other reviews, but this is only because regardless of the type of high-end gear this should be a trait of all audio equipment that attains to be the highest of the high-end – the ability to not only reproduce instruments with the utmost in realism, but to transport us to the music's meaning, and at the same time rendering an exact reproduction of the master tape as possible.
I usually don't need an excuse to listen to Kraftwerk's The Mix. Nevertheless, it is a great album not only to assess a piece of gear's ability to deal with its expansive frequency extremes, but traits such as transient response, soundstage, dynamics, and a components overall rhythm and pace. "But wait a minute", you might ask, "Isn't The Mix a CD?" Well, yes... this is true, but I was keen enough to notice the smaller number of LPs for sale when it was first released in those dark days of digital, 1991 to be exact. I nabbed a copy of the double-LP that was pressed in the EU. The lyrics on the record are sung in German, but as I'm so familiar with all the tunes on this re-recorded hits album it's hardly a deterrent to enjoying this album to the fullest. OK, this album won't test a components ability to sound "lifelike", but that's obviously not the point. Listening to the decay of the reverb with a hint of repeating echo on the mutated robo-voice in the beginning of "Radioactivity", the decay seemed to go on forever, demonstrated that the 2-SB phono preamp is a champ at retrieving not only low-level information, but can effortlessly draw one into the program material at the same time. Once we get to the verse of the tune the four-on-the-floor beat is shrewdly mangled even further with the addition of the gated-reverb'ed snare and other electronic percussion bits, and although none of it got lost through the 2-SB, most listener's brains will be the only thing being fooled into interpreting this as a simple beat played under a simple melody.
The 2-SB clearly reproduces the famous ten note melody on the high-pitched synth, while the call and response of the "No-Radioactivity!" robo-voice and Ralf Hutter singing the tunes lyrics becomes a toe-tapping distraction to their anti-nuke message. The synths on this tune can challenge the entire stereo-system, from the tip of the stylus to the acoustics of the listening room with their extremes of frequency – from the synthetic sub-bass foundation to the twinkly, spatial, über-treble electronic percussion overtones. The 2-SB passed this test with flying colors, mainly by making itself invisible. This phono preamp seems to pass the information it receives to the next step in the audio chain while providing the necessary RIAA curve and adequate gain while, most importantly, preserving the emotional message of the music and the recording engineer's intentions.
With Fritz Reiner, the CSO, and Kraftwerk gauging whether the LKV Research can deal with extremes of not only frequency, but just about anything else, it was time to calm down a bit and spin a string quartet album. I've been again listening to a relatively early recording of two Martin Bresnick string quartets on CRI recorded in 1985, my current favorite of the two on side one, his String Quartet No. 2 "Bacephalus" Despite the erudite parable he ties to the work, I have always loved this record. And since Bresnick dedicate it to one of his teachers, Gyorgy Ligeti, who is also one of my favorite post-war composers I suppose that is one of the reasons I can easily overlook his pedantry (not to mention the fact that Bresnick is still on the staff of Yale). Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned Ligeti, as one might expect this quartet to be ultra-contemporary. It isn't, although it is written in modern language, it is for the most part tonal, mixing some Romantic as well as minimalist technique into a style that ends up being his own. The 2-SB takes us into Sprague Hall on the campus of Yale where the Alexandria Quartet seems very familiar with this work. The quality of the pressing isn't the best in the world; there are audible ticks and pops here and there, and a light rush of surface noise. Was this noise relegated to a separate compartment in the soundstage the responsibility of the LKV Research phono stage, the turntable, cartridge, tonearm, or a combination of all of them? I may never know. But I did feel that it was the phono stage that made the instruments sound like they were played by human beings, my mind's ear imagining the quartet sitting in a semi-circle subconsciously shifting and moving to the music of the five movement work. The viola was just a bit more forward in the mix than the other instruments, allowing its rosiny sound to resound through the empty hall more than the others, especially during the crescendo of the first movement.
It also takes a clever audiophile to realize what phono preamp will match the rest of his or her system. Compared to my reference Pass Labs, the Phono 2-SB has a slightly more detailed sound. I wouldn't call it overly analytical, but the rest of my system, especially my speakers, tend to lean this way and this may be why I'm so happy using a tubed linestage, and a phono preamp that has been compared by some to have a sound that is similar to some tubed phono stages. Despite this, the overall sound and flexibility of the LKV Research makes it one of the best phono preamplifiers I've ever had the pleasure of using in my system. I could imagine owner Bill Hutchins having to deal with backorders in the near future, because when word gets out that he is selling such a great product for such a reasonable price, the LKV Research is likely to become a very popular product... and for good reason! I highly recommend ordering one of these babies now, before everyone else gets the same idea.