Aavik Acoustics RIAA R-180 Phono
In July of 2021, I reviewed Aavik Acoustics's I-180 integrated amplifier, D-180 DAC, and S-180 streamer / network player. In the review, I practically raved about the sonic quality of all three components, so it was no surprise that Aavik earned a hard-fought Enjoy the Music.com 2021 Blue Note Award within our September 2021 issue.
The three Aavik components bestowed a 2021 Blue Note award are not cheap, but neither are they extravagantly priced at $7200 each. That is certainly reasonable for high-end audio components that I thought were some of the best I've ever heard within and above their price range. Not only that, but these three components took a surprisingly noticeable step up in their sonic performance when used together.
It should be no surprise to anyone that Aavik Acoustics's RIAA R-180 phono preamplifier had similar traits to those pieces I previously reviewed. However, as our high-end systems improve, system matching becomes more of an issue. Many believe that no other audio component relies on other equipment used in our systems other than the phono stage. Yes, characteristics such as transparency to the source are essential, but for example, if the phono preamp is not a good match for one's cartridge, all bets are off.
And quiet it is.
I'll try to be brief for those unfamiliar with my "reference" system or who don't remember all of it (even though I'm often unsuccessful at being brief). A Basis Audio V turntable sits on the top shelf of an Arcici Suspense equipment rack. It uses a Tri-Planar 6 tonearm with a 2020 Blue Note Award winning Top Wing Suzaku "Red Sparrow" phono cartridge mounted on its headshell. With only .2mV of gain, calling this Top Wing cartridge "low-output" is accurate.
Since the Top Wing phono cartridge only has an output of .2mV, the Aavik R-180's 65 dB of gain was just enough to set the system's volume to a "normal" listening level, with very little to spare. Luckily, the system's 250 WPC Pass Laboratories X250.8 power amplifier is a high-current beast, having no problem driving a pair of Sound Lab Majestic 545 electrostatic monoliths to a sufficient volume. Augmented by a pair of SVSound SB16-Ultra subwoofers relieved the power amp of sub-bass duties with their onboard 1500-Watt amp powering their 16" drivers.
Like most phono preamplifiers, the Aavik R-180's rear panel is uncluttered. It has an IEC power cord input next to its on/off switch, an RS-232 input for firmware updates, two trigger switches to switch on the phono preamplifier when other components are connected to it.
Last but not least, the rear panel of the R-180 has a pair of RCA inputs and outputs. Initially, I was disappointed that there were no XLR outputs on this phono preamplifier. Most of my equipment is connected with interconnects terminated with XLRs. Not only would XLR terminals possess physical properties worthy of a high-end audio system, but they would also boost the signal 6 dB (every little bit counts when using a low-output moving coil cartridge).
Upon learning about my disappointment in not having XLRs on the rear panel of the R-180, Aavik's Michael Børresen, a chief designer at Aavik Acoustics, explained to me that the lack of XLRs on their phono stage is because they get non-grounded (floating) balanced signals from the left and right channels. They enclose these signals in a common shield/ground that is also connected to parts of the tonearm and even the chassis of the phono cartridge via the ground connection on the rear of the R-180. If they were to use XRLs, they risk generating a ground loop, thus creating noise. He finishes with, "These ground loops are fully avoided in our setups, which in return can deliver one of the quietest phono setups on the market." This makes sense, and I feel foolish for getting so upset about it. Aavik apparently cares very much about noise in the system!
Sure, I had to set my preamplifier's volume near its maximum level for many selections, but the rest of my system was quiet enough for that not to have been a problem. Plus, the black background of the R-180 was undoubtedly a positive trait; at times, I could not tell whether or not the phono preamp or linestage's mute circuit was activated or not.
When listening to records through the R-180, I was taken aback by its level of transparency. The only "sound" of this phono preamp was speculative, as it seemed to be extracting more of the phono cartridge's signal and converting it into a musical signal. In doing that, its frequency response seems to be more extended than I was accustomed to, its soundstage more 3-dimensional, more expansive, and extended further behind the front wall of my listening room. Images within its soundstage seemed more lifelike, with characteristics of individual voices, instruments, and sounds within its huge soundstage replicating what was contained within the grooves of the record, or at least what the phono cartridge was reading from those grooves.
Aavik Acoustics' RIAA R-180 phono preamplifier and this Miles Davis album pressed by Mobile Fidelity seemed to be made for each other. The R-180's silent background, combined with the lack of surface noise on this MFSL pressing, left only the tape hiss as background noise. The Aavik R-180 is proof that a component's silent background increases the occurrence of positive traits from a recording that passes through it.
When I'm auditioning an unfamiliar phono preamplifier, its signal-to-noise ratio, that is, the lack of noise that it produces from the design of its internal circuits, is one thing. But just as important is the ability to suppress noise that is created from outside sources. Electromagnetic interference (EMI), radio signal interference (RFI), and even its cabinet's susceptibility to vibrations caused by what comes from our speakers may cause extraneous noise.
Sometimes I had to move either the phono preamp's power supply or the phono preamp itself during an audition to lessen the noise coming through the speakers. That didn’t even occur to me during this Aavik phono preamp’s stay. It was dead quiet from day one, despite having to raise the volume of my linestage more than I usually do. This made it so I was able to hear “into” each recording I played through it. Including the “In The Silent Way” album. There are lots of details hidden underneath the octet of musicians that are playing on this masterpiece. There are, after all, three keyboardists on it, yet the large soundstage it rendered never sounded crowded, especially when listening through the R-180 phono stage, which was adept at separating these sounds and instruments.
When recording the In A Silent Way vinyl LP, Mr. Davis might not have thought about the often-misquoted Claude Debussy when he said, "Music is the space between the notes," but this album might be the epitome of what he meant by that. At the time of its release, some called this album "space music." This term became a double entendre, as the space between the notes made it at times seem as if it had no time signature, almost as much as some of it appears improvisational.
When I first heard it at a very impressionable age, it took me quite a while to appreciate what Miles and company were up to on this LP. Likely because it was hardly kid's music. As I thought, "If he is being influenced by rock music, he isn't listening to the same type of rock that I'm listening to." As it turned out, we were.
Aavik Acoustics R-180 was able to let me get inside the music, to hear the nuance, as drum stick brushed a cymbal, to listen to Miles play a note on his trumpet before his breath reached full saturation, and literally, the sound between the notes, as the reverb and echo filled the ambient space.
As I began to understand the musical genius behind it, I also started listening to releases from his brilliant musical sorcerers that played on this album. I discovered guitarist John McLaughlin's pre-Mahavishnu period. I would pick up anything with drummer Tony Williams on it, and check out the electric keyboard offerings of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul. I felt as if I was hardly taking a chance on the other who were on In A Silent Way. When I say, "This is one of my favorite albums," the response from others is very often, "It's mine, too."
The Aavik Acoustics R-180 made my records sound like music because it got out of the way of the phono cartridge's signal that it was boosting. I wasn't hearing the Aavik R-180 phono preamplifier; I didn't even hear my phono cartridge, at least not much, as it is one of the best I've ever heard and the best I've ever had in my system. I was hearing the music on the record.
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