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PostPosted: Fri Oct 19, 2018 5:57 pm 

Joined: Sat Aug 15, 2015 7:22 pm
Posts: 12
Location: los altos hills, CA, US
Preamp shootout update

Ok, time has passed and so my system has evolved (a lot) as well. When I last wrote, I rated the following phono/line stages as follows:

-6 Audible illusion Modulus 3B
-5 Coincident Statement phono direct to amps
-3,4 - (tie) Doge 8 Clarity w SUT, CAT SL-1 w SUT
-2 CAT SL-1 Ultimate phono/Doge 8 line stage
-1 Coincident Phono Stage/Doge 8 line stage

I have a two new entrants to rate and some further thoughts after longer and more varied listening sessions. But first, a major change to my system- gone is the Inspire fire-bottle and ARC 100.2 amps (bi-amped) and enter the Coincident Dragon MKll and Counterpoint NPS-200a amplifiers (bi-amped).

My reordering of the first race, considering my priorities and biases, AND especially the new amplifiers is:

-6 Audible illusion Modulus 3B (internal line stage)
-5 Coincident Statement phono direct to amps
-4 Doge 8 Clarity phono w EAR SUT (internal line stage)
-3 Coincident Statement phono/Doge 8 line stage
-2 CAT SL-1 Ultimate w EAR SUT (internal line stage)
-1 CAT SL-1 Ultimate phono hotrod w EAR SUT/Doge 8 line stage

After much more thorough listening, living with the system for months, I can make a general statement as to why the reordering- what was first a positive response to the dynamics and slam, started, over time, to grate on me. Initially, and for a couple of weeks, the clarity and linearity of the Coincident Statement phono and Doge based systems (both quad tube 12AX7 (5751) implementations by the way), was exciting and visceral. But over time, my interpretation of the sound, the tone and presentation became a touch to antiseptic and strident for me. I believe my initial rankings would have reflected this had I not had the SEP Inspire fire-bottle in the path. Going back to the importance of system synergy- I feel that the comparatively low sensitivity Inspire presented a “laid back” picture. When I mated it with the CAT, what I would call a warm phono stage, things were a touch to warm and “tubey”, allowing the Coincident to be rated higher because it was a better, more balanced match with the laid-back Inspire. When I substituted the 1mv sensitive Coincident Dragon MKll mono-blocks and Counterpoint amps (bi-amped with the Dragons driving the mid/tweeters and the NPS driving the bass) for the Inspire/ARC, the match with the CAT was much more pleasing that just sounded “about right”. With the Coincident Statement Phono mated with the Dragons/NPS, the tone shifted to the cooler side with a bit less 3D and a tad to much aggressiveness for me. As noted above, my favorite configuration was the CAT SL-1 Ultimate phono hot-rodded / SUT to the Doge 8 line stage.

Ok, so the fun continued.....after awhile I obtained two more phono sections to throw into the mix at opposite ends of the price and size spectrum: a Benz Micro Lukaschek pp-1 and an Aesthetix IO Signature.

First, the Benz. I am running a Benz LP-S on my Vpi arm and table so I was hoping for some synergy with the phono stage. This unit is a different beast and a pretty decent price performer. This is an attractive, small, solid-state unit with enough gain to do away with the need for a SUT. This unit is about the size of a couple of packs of playing cards and it replaced two shelves full of electronics. It creates a pretty decent sound stage, brings a bunch of speed and slam and is dead silent. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it doesn’t compete very well with the tube units in the test. Missing is the warmth, the space, the air and the organic realism. Listening to the “Look of Love” sung by Dusty Springfield on Casino Royale is a real treat on a great system, but on the Lukaschek, it was a bit disappointing. From a price/performance perspective it was reasonable, maybe even ok to good, but from a pure performance viewpoint, I preferred all the other phono sections except the Audible Illusions .
On the other end of the size and cost spectrum is the Aesthetix IO Signature phono stage. This is certainly the largest phono unit I have ever seen (barely fitting into my “SolidSteel” rack) as well as the most tubes I have ever had in a phono stage (besting my ARC SP-10 by a total of 9!!! tubes). With its massive 24 tube complement, it also requires a lot of breathing space. So, what do you get for all this overhead, heat, inconvenience and cost: something close to Nirvana! Listening to vinyl material through my system with the Coincident Dragons and Aesthetix IO signature was, for me, breathtaking. In comparison, everything else sounded mechanical, anemic, stressed or flabby. For car aficionados, I could imagine it was akin to running a just tuned 60’s era Ferrari flat out up highway 280 just as the sun peeked over the mountains with no CHIPS in sight. On “The Look of Love” I was teleported back in time to a smokey jazz club, sitting close enough to the stage to be enthralled by the deep breath of the saxophone player right before the final tone is struck, followed by the most realistic representation of brass I have ever heard on my system as the song fades out. The organic richness of this sound is real. There are probably better sounding systems out there, and there are a lot of tweaks I still have left to implement, but I’m pretty happy with the current presentation my system delivers. I believe the main reason for this is the Aesthetix IO is the only solution in my test which did not require or include a SUT. It is pure tube analog gain for your phono cartridge (by the way, The Benz LP-S is .36mv)
. I invited a few of my friends over to audition and A/B some cuts between the Aesthetix IO based phono / Doge line stage system and the CAT / EAR / Doge line stage implementation. After listening to a few cuts on the CAT, which again is no slouch, I flipped to the Aesthetix IO and spun up a 45 analog recordings of “Saint James Infirmary” off of Satchmo sings King Oliver. Ten seconds into the song one of my friends threw his arms up into the air and said “jeez, this is so far superior, why did we waste time listening to the previous setup?”
Like a Ferrari, the Aesthetix IO isn’t for everyone, but man, what a performer. It is the best phono stage I have heard.

I was about to publish this update when I stumbled across two additional changes that turned out really well. I initially ran with Aesthetix’s hand-picked tubes in the IO Signature. Sounded pretty darn good but I thought there was room for improvement since most of the tubes were current production Sovtek and JJ’s. So, I started putting in historically proven GE and Sylvania 5751’s and 12AX7’s ( As well and Amperex 6922 white label’s and RCA 6NS7’s). OK, and now the challenge of the Ferrari, I mean Aesthetix. I could tell that the sound had improved (sound stage width, instrument isolation and air in particular) but it was accompanied with a noticeable increase in tube rush. I did a lot of work swapping things around without a significant amount of improvement, so it was back to the factory tubes for me. I liked what I was hearing but every time I listened my mind would ask, “what if I tried....”. So to take out a LOT of experimentation I will just tell you where I (happily) ended up. In the first two high-gain segments (8 tubes) I purchased Grant Fidelity’s triple-MICA Black Treasure 12AX7’s (top 10% grade). In the remaining two stages (8 tubes total), I purchased two matched quads of two-MICA Gold Lion 12AX7’s (which were about half the cost of the Black Treasures). (I had done a power tube shootout about a year ago and the Gold Lion KT-88’s pretty much crushed the other 3 quads in the Fire-Bottle amp (results were 1-Gold Lion KT-88’s , 2-Psvane KT-88 T-ll, 3-Winged C 6550’s and 4-Shugang Black Bottle KT-88’s). I really liked the tone of the Gold Lions and was pleased it seemed to carry over to the input tubes. I’m really happy with this setup as I don’t feel I’m giving up anything I heard vis-a-vis the NOS tubes and I’m using new, dead quiet tubes.

Then the last and most recent discovery resulted in the replacement of the Doge 8 line stage (with NOS tubes) with a passive line stage. Btw- this is “in process” as I write. After reading and re-reading Aurthur Salvatore’s ratings of line stages, where he gives “The Truth” hybrid passive line stage one his highest reviews ever, I decided I should probably at least look into this (Aurthur also rates the Dragon MKll amps, the Benz LP-S cartridge and the Aesthetix Phono amp which I like very highly, so it seems we have a similar audio value system). It so happened a fellow audiophile had a spare FirstWatt (Nelson Pass) B1 buffered passive line stage available. So a week ago I got it and inserted it in my system in place of the Doge 8. My sound sharpened up nicely. It became much more lively and full, to the point that I disconnected my Counterpoint bass amp. With the Counterpoint and the B1, I felt things were just to aggressive, but when I disconnected the Counterpoint and ran the Coincident Dragons full range I liked what I heard, A LOT! Great Coherency and PRAT. I’m still letting it settle in and we will see if I go back to some tube rolling in the Aesthetix to soften things up a bit by replacing some, or all of the Gold Lions with GE 5751’s. But man, things are good. So good that I ordered “The Truth” line stage. It will arrive some time next week and that sound you hear just might be coming from my stereo room as I crown a “winner” and slow down for awhile.
Next up I think I’m going to copy Audiogon member whitecamaross and give a review of my long list of amplifiers.

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 01, 2018 3:14 pm 

Joined: Thu May 07, 2015 3:09 pm
Posts: 5
Location: Ridgefield, CT, US
Thanks for this post on all your equipment reviews. It seems this is not a very active forum, so hopefully you've shared your perspectives elsewhere too.

I've had some of the same equipment as you've discussed here, and your experiences are consistent with what I've heard as well. My phono stage is a bit further down the line from yours (Aesthetix Rhea Sig), but even that one beats the pants off the Audible Illusions I had, the CAT full function preamp, the Benz Lukaschek I had, or various other phono stages I've tried. I can only hope some day to have the Aesthetix IO.

On my Rhea, I've had good success with a mix of tubes/brands suggested to me by Jim Mcshane: 4 12AX7 Mullard long plate reissue matched pairs, 4 tested low-noise Sovtek 12AX7LPS spiral wound heater tubes for the input tubes, and a pair of 6922EH tubes. These are much quieter than the stock set of tubes from Aesthetix and are reasonably priced, especially compared to trying to find quiet NOS tubes.

Thanks again!

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