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Basis Exclusive 2X MKII Phono Preamplifier - the Future of Analog is Now
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
After the concert we all went out to our usual haunt, O'Flanagans, famous for their draft beers, if not their dinner entrees. During the customary post-mortem, one of the music lovers at the table inquired out of the blue in a hushed tone, as if she were uncomfortable voicing the thought out loud, "Is it true that vinyl has it all over digital? Digital was supposed to be the second coming—is it not all its cracked up to be?"
They know that I know—I'm asked the question fairly often nowadays. My reply is definitely… maybe… it depends. While not the case if you're talking about the low-end of the high-end, if you step it up and put comparably priced mid-level rigs side by side it is the likely outcome, but if you compare higher-level rigs you can be assured of an affirmative: The higher up you go, the more analog excels.
In my case, the two front-ends totaled up to about $25Keach. The analog consists of the recently arrived, pacesetting ASR Basis Exclusive 2X Mk. II Phono Preamp (MSRP $11,400). It joined the V.Y.G.E.R. Baltic M turntable ($8400), Shelter Harmony cartridge ($4500) and either the Kubala-Sosna Expression ($1800) or the TARA Labs Zero GX ($3800) phono cables. My reference digital consists of the mbl Noble Line separates, the1511 F DAC ($10,650) and 1521 A transport ($10,950) and either the K-S Emotion ($1300) or the TARA Labs Zero Gold ($8200) digital cables.
Of course I am going to tell you how the Basis Exclusive stacks up against other phono stages. I am also going to attempt to answer that lady's questions more fully with a point-by-point comparison of the two mediums. So don't be confused when I switch back and forth in the copy that follows.
Let's begin with a two CD set of the Beethoven complete works for cello and piano. When an acquaintance of mine extolled the under-appreciated cellist Pierre Fournier, I ordered the Original Masters CD reissue featuring him and pianist Friedrich Gulda (Deutsche Grammophon DG 477 6266). This series resuscitates some of the treasures from their vault: so far every one I've sampled has been splendid. I use this CD quite a bit for evaluating transports and DACs.
Original Masters CD and Battery pack
On the Original Masters CD every keystroke and bowing is distinct. There's lots of space between notes and it's sooo quiet, so clean, except for the shadowing tape hiss. Did they embellish with reverb? I notice the piano's upper register, which is clearly exposed and has a ring sometimes bordering on brittleness, and the cello's vibrato.
Fournier and Gulda attack the Sonata in A major with gusto. It's an extroverted performance and quite exciting. Whatever else you think about digital playback, you must admit this medium lends itself to certain things: wide dynamic range; great stereo separation; a high signal to noise ratio; a vanishing noise floor that some have christened "digital silence;" new standards of resolution; and a well-damped and powerful low-end that some have described as "digital bass." These characteristics have been digital's forte from the beginning.
The LP Source
As it happens, I have an original DG tulip label LP of the Sonata in A major, Op. 69 from the set (SLPM 138 082). I'm sure it's not news to tell you the CD and the LP from the same master tape do not sound alike. (Even the LP doesn't sound like the "LP," when played back through different phono stages, but that's another story.)
Played through the ASR Basis Exclusive, the sonata begins quietly. The duo is somewhat restrained. They slowly build drama—there's plenty of time later for the fireworks.
Fournier is sawing away in a decidedly French manner. The cello's beautiful tone and nasal rasp are prominent—not the scraping of horsehair on gut, nor the vibrato. Vibrato is a subtle expressive device, which shouldn't be in the foreground, where it would be deemed mannered or an affectation. The piano's top notes still have a ring and crystalline clarity, but they're not prominent and are far from brittle.
The perspective is unrealistic, closer than any concert hall seats I've ever purchased, and it sounds dry—there's no hall acoustic to speak of. As any dyed-in-the-wool analog devotee knows, DG engineers in the LP era weren't known for capturing the recording venue or producing reference quality LPs. (Isn't it funny how this has flip-flopped—current digital products from DG are routinely great sounding, easily surpassing CDs from the legendary British LP labels EMI, Decca, Argo, etc.)
Imaging, however, is persuasive. The view through the Basis Exclusive has Fournier and Gulda bunched up in center stage, quite the opposite of digital's wide spatial separation. This has nothing to do with the Basis Exclusive's left / right stereo separation or imaging ability, which is actually outstanding, again better than most phono stages and the equal of my mbl Noble Line digital. It has to do with postproduction mastering and manufacturing choices for the LP. The Basis Exclusive lays a pristine, jewel-like virtual stage before you, scoring top marks among phono stages in terms of image specificity and rock-solid placement and matching digital. Additionally, instruments have roundness and 3-D depth, a common and desirable artifact with tube phono stages, but rare for a solid-state one such as the Basis Exclusive, and virtually unheard of with the bits and bytes devices.
And there's nothing like those silences between the notes. Through the Basis Exclusive the sound is continuous, the notes flowing.
There is no doubt the Basis Exclusive has one of the lowest noise floors you'll encounter in analog. To a man, everybody remarked about this. I imagine most of the credit goes to the battery power supply. However, the advantage here is still on the side of digital. Some groove noise, tape hiss, tics and pops are inevitable with analog—you can't escape it.
The Basis Exclusive's transient has all of the trappings of an upper crust machine—coherent, integrated and unabrasive with consistent quality into the sustain part of the note. It is a model of proper decorum and this contributes to its ever-present composure and poise. The transient is a little soft compared to other phono stages. The mbl Noble Line's leading edge is softer still, even though the machine is more dynamic overall. (A curious turn of events. More on this in a moment.)
So far I've described the solid-state Basis Exclusive in glowing terms and given it very high marks. Now we come to the make or break attribute, timbre. As far as I'm concerned, if that ain't right, you can chuck the rest and take back the component. With solid-state units, you have to be vigilant against thinness or dryness; with tube stages, the tendency is towards lush and mushy.
The predecessor Basis Exclusive was so neutral it became a problem for me. And it was a little dry in the midrange. That's why I recommended pairing it with "musical cables." The present Mk II version remedies both of these concerns to a degree, but the voice is still matter of fact and forthright, so the recommendation stands. On the timbre grading, the Basis Exclusive slips off its high perch, coming in around average.
If you like body, the Basis Exclusive is your man. It has tons of taut flesh well beyond most phono stages, even tube ones. These two, timbre and body, have always been digitals weakest suits.
Tonal temperature is not exactly warm, certainly not chilly; more like tepid-warm. This is related to the dark tonal balance. The Basis Exclusive comes in darker than most, including the original version of the ART Audio Vinyl Reference (not the later ones with the various capacitor mods, all of which tended to brighten things up).
I know from my comparison of five stages in the Phono Stage Hoedown that the Basis Exclusive is the pick of the litter in the resolution department. It dredges up surprising amounts of information, so much so that the spectre of becoming analytical lurks in the shadows. This is held at bay by the realistically sized, full-fleshed images and dark tonal balance.
However, we're now on digitals turf. From the beginning, resolution has always been digitals forte and the Basis Exclusive pulls up short here.
But there's more to real-life sound than hearing details. Don't get lost in the pursuit for ever greater levels of resolution. After a certain point it does not make it more real—it becomes surreal. Besides, resolution is not what ails digital. There are other things that are wanting.
What ails digital
By now it's tiresome to talk about what's wrong with digital. Apart from the fact that nobody has nailed just what the problems are, they persist. In study after study, people report hearing differences in the two mediums and most prefer analog.
Here's my two-cent's worth. The issue is that the cello and the piano sound too much alike, not in the general sense, but in the details. (Remember, I'm not talking about the low-end of the high-end, where digital is superior. I'm talking about what you can hear with good high-end gear.) It is apparent in the way the note is packaged.
Digital processing is great for picking up signal differences and highlighting them. It expands the dynamic range for all kinds of events. Because of this, digital is more exciting.
The trouble is, it doesn't capture the smallest differences. It's almost as if these machines have a threshold for detecting changes and it's not sensitive enough. Absent a sufficient difference and you hear nothing.
If you've ever seen a performance of a Beethoven cello sonata or a similar composition, you'll have noticed how the bow is in contact with the strings and in motion most of the time. Given that, you should hear something most of the time. Sound is continuous, varying in intensity as the pressure on the bow is adjusted.
That's the disturbing thing about digital. Subtle textural things, what we refer to as inner detail, slip under digitals radar and get lost. The impact from this is felt two-fold. The sustain part of the note, which often consists of prolonged tones with minute variation, is devastated. And the flow of notes, hence the flow of music, is broken up. I'm referring to that darn "silence between the notes." Others have commented about the unnatural quality of the "deep blackness" and compared it to a dead zone. Of course many audiophiles actually get off on this.
One final observation: The shape of notes—flat, round, pointed, etc—and the volume of space they occupy, should change with frequency and as dynamics expand and contract.
In short, digital processing tends to hype differences and fall down with steady tones. Those differences it does detect are magnified and homogenized. The result is instruments come to acquire a similar feel. They lack body, and seem weak and hollow.
This is precisely what makes analog great.
These differences are not huge. Indeed, without a recent concert experience or analog reference, one adjusts in minutes to the sound of CD. But for those who support both front ends, it is always there, lurking in the shadows.
Let's push on, for the best is yet to come. Based on this single cello sonata example, one might think the Basis Exclusive a one trick pony, so composed and refined. He is that, when the program calls for it. But change the selection to something like the well-known Zubin Mehta, LA Philharmonic Mahler Symphony No. 3 outing at Royce Hall, captured by London in 1978 (CSA-2249), and he'll cause you to do a double-take: he has not shown his major card yet.
A large-scale symphony with plenty of brass bombast is the kind of diet the Basis Exclusive enjoys. And what a swell of French horns from deep down center-left opens the first movement, followed by that pummeling thwack on the bass drum. Then there's a quiet moment—the ASR kind of low-noise quiet—a timpani roll, the French horns come back again, and suddenly the brass bombast is blaring from deep right. One after another, the volleys from these powerful instruments take turns, defining the boundaries of the stage. You hear these as sections of instruments, not soloists. The Basis Exclusive scales their dynamic demands with aplomb, producing impossibly loud and distortion-free fortes. Quite often the machine's sang froid at these peaks catches you off guard, leaving you stunned and muttering to yourself, "What the…?"
I especially chose this LP 'cause I know what it demands of the system and 'cause I've heard it in many iterations over time. I can honestly say I've never heard this LPs dynamic needs handled so well in my home rig. Indeed, the startling headroom of this machine is a repeat of what I encountered with the ASR Emitter I Exclusive B integrated amp, and to a lesser degree even with the ASR Mini Basis Mk II phono stage. They all share trend-setting dynamics. In an attempt to explain this in the Emitter I review, I was referred to the total capacitance specification.
The Basis Exclusive has an unprecedented for a phono stage total buffering capacity of 1,300,000 uF. This inordinate reservoir is beyond many power amps.
The Digital Divide is Shrinking Fast
Dynamics, always considered a digital stronghold, are under siege by modern analog designs and the Basis Exclusive is leading the charge.
Keep in mind not all analog components are voiced like this. Some hew close to the cherished Golden Era sound of bygone days, but it seems to me the trend is moving in the other direction. For its part, current digital is certainly a far cry from the abomination unleashed 25 years ago. "Good" digital today is warmer, more full-bodied, and has finally managed to tame its treble, but there's nothing to suggest it has the potential to scale the analog ramparts.
Miles Davis Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain
Here's another example in a different genre to demonstrate soundstage and resolution. Let's give MILES DAVIS –PORGY AND BESS a spin (original Columbia Six Eyes, CS 8085). This is one of three great collaborations between Miles and arranger Gil Evans. What a stellar lineup—the cream of the sidemen available in the summer of '58.
The "Buzzard Song" on side 1, track 1, begins with a mighty blast from the brass section assisted by three French horns and a tuba. It's about as loud as you would want and the tape about as saturated as it can get, landing just shy of irritation, and then fading into a shimmering cymbal roll. And yes, there's audible straining, but it sidesteps breakup. The orchestra is panned hard left / right, Miles and the double bass are dead center, the drum kit just on Miles right. He's in a Kind of Blue groove.
Odd then, when Miles introduces the melody on the following cut, "Bess, You is My Woman Now," he's way off on the left, a phantom behind me and out of phase. The orchestra comes in, and then Miles is back, only now he's where he's supposed to be, locked dead center. The out of phase means they were doing tape splicing back then—I didn't know that.
On "Gone," the third track, the orchestra comes in hard in an Ellington kind of groove, all bunched up down center like wide mono. They fade, then come back more subdued for the next chorus and now they're panned wide left/right. I never noticed these things.
And so it goes. The next track is softer with wide horizontal spread but the loud, dynamic passages close in and converge in the center—why does it do that? Musically speaking, this is a splendid album: these critical observations can't take that away. But sonically, it is the least successful of the Davis/Evans collaborations. Try Sketches of Spain, another collaboration recorded a year later for a top-notch experience all around.
Mk II updates
The Basis Exclusive has been in production for two decades. Over the course of that time there's been ongoing incremental improvements. The designer feels the mods in the current production, principally consisting of a revised power/battery supply and new gold traces on the circuit board, are significant enough to give the product Mk II designation. You won't see that marked anywhere on the chassis. The only way to tell is by the serial number.
My unit had two sets each of single-ended and balanced inputs marked A and B. Two turntables can be connected, each with a full complement of independent DIP switches. For those of us with the luxury of two tonearms or tables, switching between them is a simple rotation of the front panel Selector knob. This is called the Basis Exclusive 2X and it is the only version currently in production. ASR strongly recommends using a balanced phono cable. From the manual: "…(The) Basis Exclusive is designed for using the balanced input and has best results only with balanced connection. With unbalanced connection at the input you don't have the full possible sound quality". I couldn't try that mode—I've never even seen a balanced phono cable.
Outputs are supplied for both single-ended and balanced. ASR is not particular about which is used: either RCA or XLR will do fine. The Basis Exclusive as shipped supports Moving Coil cartridges and low output MM. Your dealer can re-configure it for higher output MM cartridges.
Battery Care and Feeding
The external battery pack went straight into the wall using the supplied ASR power cord. The battery pack is big and heavy. It dwarfs the smallish phono preamp chassis, which I put on a TAOC shelf. At first I left the battery on the floor, later I moved it to its own TAOC shelf. Needless to say, the support makes a difference.
Battery Pack front
There are two modes set by a large Selector switch on the front of the preamp for music playback. In either case the preamp is running 100% off the battery's stored DC. Set to LINE and the battery continues to charge even as you're listening. Set to BATT and charging stops—it is functionally disconnected from the wall. Naturally BATT is the recommended setting for listening.
There's no need to bother with a power conditioner—the stored DC is the closest you'll come to achieving electric nirvana. And there's no need to bother with an aftermarket PC. Logically, if you operate in BATT mode, the power cord into the battery doesn't make a difference. Use the LINE setting when the battery is low.
Battery strength is indicated by a row of ten LEDs on the front panel. To keep it in good shape, you will want to let it discharge and recharge periodically. Normally, when you are done for the night simply set the Selector switch to either LINE or OFF, and the battery will recharge. Once a month or so, unplug it from the wall. Continue to use it until the LEDs dwindle to three. That's enough—you don't want to go lower—plug it back in.
The battery reserve seems limitless. Unlike other manufacturer's attempts at removing the component from the wall, I never noticed the sound to change or dynamics to degrade as the night wore on. A fully charged battery gives you 60 hours of playing time.
A massive umbilical runs from the preamp, where it is permanently affixed, and connects to the battery with a humongous, heavy-duty industrial connector that snaps and locks in place. It is only detachable at the battery end. This design is the one thing I take issue with. That captive umbilical at the preamp means you'll need two people to safely install or change location: one to move the preamp, the other to hold the heavy snake-like connector at the other end and make sure it doesn't bang into anything.
Fit-n-finish is well done. The battery pack faceplate is smoked acrylic; the remainder is matte black, heavy-duty steel.
The preamp has matching smoked acrylic glass on all surfaces. The designer believes this "…material is audibly more neutral and …smoother than the usual metal cases." There are colorful LEDs inside both chassis. Which ones are lit changes with the Selector switch. Banks of DIP switches located inside provide for Input Resistance, Gain and Capacitance adjustments. There's even a DIP for Low Frequency Cutoff, should you experience rumble. This, and much more, is elaborated upon in the thoroughgoing Operating Manual, which runs to 12 pages.
Tweaks and Wires
This time around I encountered a ground noise problem. (During the Phono Stage Hoedown, this wasn't an issue.) The usual AC troubleshooting had no effect.
I swapped in the TARA Labs ZERO G-X Phono cable, with its profusion of grounding options ($3800/1.2 m), and to a fair degree stifled the hum.
TARA Zero GX
But I didn't stop there. On the output side, I replaced the interconnect to the line stage with a new TARA Labs ZERO Gold balanced IC. Between the TARA outboard HFX Floating Ground Station and the balanced connection the noise was cut in half, not to mention the bennies accrued in top to bottom clarity and stunning timbre.
Consultation with the importer revealed the problem's source and the solution. The gain was set too high. The rule of thumb is to set the gain so that the line preamp's volume control for phono is the same as for other sources. Then drop it one step more. The noise drops as you shift amplification duties from the phono stage to the line preamp. My final settings were: Gain at 50dB, Load at 95 ohms, Capacitance off.
The future of analog arrived recently with products like the ASR Basis Exclusive Phono Stage leading the charge. Now in its Mk. II release, the Basis Exclusive is among the highest scoring components I've come across, and one of the most satisfying.
More than likely, if you've been on the scene for a while and have an affinity for the early days of stereo, initial exposure to the Basis Exclusive is likely to shock. It doesn't sound cozy and comfortable like Golden Age analog—this is LP playback as you've not heard it before.
You will hear a remarkably low noise floor, stupendous dynamic range and unlimited headroom. The grandest crescendos are distortion-free. These areas have always been weak points for analog. The Basis Exclusive gives digital a run for the money in these. But the stuff that has always made analog more convincing is there, too: the naturalistic soundstage and note production, the flowing musical line.
You may even be taken aback by the unit's determined neutrality. In which case, mate it with a wire brand known to possess expressivity and liquidity, like the Kubala-Sosna Emotion series. Or use a cartridge known for those qualities, like the Koetsu line. Avoid ancillaries that will exacerbate the already dominant neutrality.
This is the brave new world where analog is fortified with digitals vitamins, where the two mediums collide and the resulting "analog" possesses the best of both. This is why I found it especially appropriate to do a comparison of the two mediums now, to lay out where we stand at this juncture.
The Basis Exclusive is no longer the outright steal it was a year ago at MSRP $8400. Recent exchange rate fluctuations have pushed the USA price up to a staggering $11,400, a new price category. (Price quotes are for the Basis Exclusive 2X version with provision for two independent inputs. The other versions with a single set of inputs or without the battery pack are, alas, NLA.) Still, in the analog domain, it is the best phono stage I'm personally acquainted with. This one is an acquisition. Marshall Nack
ASR Basis Exclusive 2X Mk II Phono Preamp
ASR Audio Systeme
Half Note Audio