Component Reviews

Phonomena II Phono Preamplifier

Low noise floor, transparent reproduction, sensible cost.

Published on March 12, 2009

Phonomena II Phono Preamplifier
Phonomena II Phono Preamplifier

Phonomena II Phono Preamplifier
SRP: $600

Specs:
Gain Dip Switches: 40 thru 60dB in 13 steps
Input Loading Dip Switches: 30 to 100k Ohms in 17 steps
Dimensions: 8.5” W x 6” D x 2” T
Weight: 3 lbs.
Warranty: 3 years

Musical Surroundings
5662 Shattuck Ave.
Oakland, CA 94609
503-547-5006
info@musicalsurroundings.com



Intro

When I moved to Portland eight years ago I needed a phono preamp for my SOTA Star turntable setup, the various multichannel preamps I was using no longer offering moving-coil inputs, only moving-magnet, which I don’t have.  I tried a couple of tubed phono preamps, but both were extremely sensitive to both hum and also interference from a local rock FM station.  (My Transfiguration Spirit MC cartridge is quite low output.)  I ended up with the Grado PH-1 solid state wood-body preamp, which is very basic in having only a switch for High and Low – no other settings.  Currently $500. It has a rather high noise floor, but after covering with foil and grounding it I was able to reduce the FM interference to a very low level most of the time.

I’ve had some concerns lately when doing A/B comparisons of original vinyls and various audiophile optical disc reissues that the vinyl didn’t always sound audibly superior to the digital discs – often sounding nearly identical.  One of my writers recommended I try Michael Yee’s new Phonomena II Phone Stage from analog turntable maker/distributor Musical Surroundings, and I’m glad he did.  The Phonomena II is based on the highly-regarded Nova Phonomena phono stage but without the battery pack, and at a $400 savings.  There is also a no-holds-barred SuperNova model phono preamp which sports three inputs.

Basics

The Phonomena II has the same discrete circuit as the Nova, with multiple accessible dip switches (engineers call them mouse pianos) on the back panel to set a great variety of gain and loading options.  The unit brings either MC or MM signals up to line level to feed any preamp or amp.  A supplied wall-wart provides the power supply for the preamp.  It has a too-bright blue LED on the front, as seems to be de rigeur with many audio components now.  No level controls, of course, since your main preamp would be handling that.

Usage/Evaluation

My Transfiguration cartridge requires only 10 Ohms loading impedance and the lowest setting achievable on the Phenomena II was 30 Ohms, so I selected that.  There was no exact correlation between the .4 mV output of my MC cartridge and the many different gain levels as I had hoped, so I started at about 52.7dB and kept raising it while auditioning until I settled on 58.4 dB.  You raise or lower the four dip switches in various combinations to achieve the settings you want.

My first pleasant discovery was that the Phonomena II had such a low noise floor that switching between the MC Input and any other normal-level input on my Sunfire preamp resulted in no audible difference in noise – as had been heard with the Grado.  (I have quite a long Jena Labs cable going from my SOTA to the Sunfire as well.)  In addition, there was absolutely no interfering signal from the dastardly FM station and there was no need to cover the phono preamp with foil either.  Also no hum whatever. Whoopee!

I next switched back and forth between the Grado and the Phonomena II with a number of vinyl sources and in comparison to CD versions of the same. First was the new Jazz at the Pawnshop DXD Silver reissue from F.I.M.  The sonics of the Grado had more spatiality but they also had a somewhat “honky” EQ to them, definitely not as flat or transparent as the Phenomena II.  There seemed to be more extended high end with the Grado but it also magnified surface noise and it didn’t seem as continuous with the rest of the spectrum as did the Phenomena II. The spatial quality was also unnatural with the Grado, seeming on some recordings as almost the verboten hole-in-the-middle effect.  The various instruments sounded overly separated from one another, and in quiet passages you could discern the much higher noise floor.

Next I compared both my original Mercury Living Presence vinyl of the Rafael Puyana “Golden Age of Harpsichord Music” with the new Speakers Corner 180-gram vinyl reissue and the Mercury reissue on CD of some years ago. Via the Grado, both vinyls sounded a bit better than the CD transfers but also a bit “horny”.  While sounding more like a genuine harpsichord, there was noticeable rumble and on the Speakers Corner an emphasis on the instrument’s mechanism noises, along with a slight rolloff of the extreme high end – as though the master tapes had lost some of their high end in storage over the years.  

Upon switching to the Phenomena II (and giving it a few minutes to settle down) I found both vinyls much richer-sounding, making the CD sound somewhat tinny in comparison.  The high-frequency loss on the Speakers Corner disc was less noticeable.  In my particular case I found the Phenomena II to be a perfect solution to my phono preamp requirements without having to get into the luxury super-high-end phono preamp area.

 - John Sunier




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