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Positive Feedback ISSUE 55
allnic audio labs
H-3000V Phono Stage
as reviewed by Roger S. Gordon
Allnic Audio Labs, founded in 2005 by Mr. Kang Su Park, is a Korean manufacturer of audio equipment. The Allnic name is derived from the fact that the output transformers used in its products are made of 78% nickel core perm alloy. As a manufacturer they love vacuum tubes and vinyl. The current product line includes four different tube amps and three tube line stages. For the vinyl lover they offer two phono cartridges, three tube phono stages, two step up transformers and one Nuvistor based head amp. My first encounter with Allnic was at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in the TTWeights room which was using an Allnic T2000 75wpc amplifier (US$8900) and an Allnic H3000 LCR Reference phono stage ($11,900). The sound in the room was very good. At the 2011 CES (Consumer Electronics Show) I was talking to a friend and fellow vinyl lover. He said that he had sold his expensive phono stage and had replaced it with the less expensive (US$11,900) Allnic H-3000 LCR Reference. He thought it was a better sounding phono stage and he did not have to spend US$7,000 every time he had to retube (the best sounding NOS tubes can be very expensive). My friend also mentioned that Allnic had just released a new phono stage based on the H-3000 LCR Reference that not only had the standard RIAA equalization curve, but also had adjustments for both turnover frequency and treble roll-off. This allows the new phono stage, the H-3000V (US$13,900), to play with correct equalization many of the records (78, 45, and 33 1/3 rpm) produced before the RIAA standard came into being in 1954. (1)
I own 20 lineal feet of mono 33 1/3 rpm LPs, quite a few of which don't use the RIAA equalization curve. For a number of years I have been playing the pre-RIAA LPs with a rebuilt 1958 H.H. Scott stereo preamp that has a selector switch for most of the major equalization curves. While the sound is acceptable, I have always wanted to upgrade to a better sounding unit. Unfortunately, the availability of phono stages that can provide the pre-RIAA equalization curves has been limited and the units that have been available were either very inexpensive (less than US$800) or very expensive (over US$20,000). Because of that I have not upgraded. Thus, I was very eager to hear how my pre-RIAA mono LPs would sound on a top quality phono stage using the correct equalization curve. An exchange of phone calls and e-mails with the Allnic global distributor resulted in a H-3000V arriving at my door.
The H-3000V had just been in the hands of another reviewer. Thus, the unit was definitely burned in. The unit arrived in two boxes: one for the separate power supply and a larger one for the phono stage itself. As I was taking the two units out of their boxes I was impressed by the appearance, build quality, and finish of the units. Money was obviously spent on designing the appearance of the units. More money was spent on fit and finish. Very elegant. Very nice.
Set up was a very easy three step process. First, take the shipping rings off of the eight tubes in the phono stage (four E810F, two 7233, and two 6485). Second, open up the power supply case, remove the bubble wrap from the 5AR4 tube and insert the 5AR4 into its socket. Thirdly, connect the umbilical cord from the power supply to the phono stage, plug the power supply into an outlet, and turn on the power supply.
The H-3000V is a full featured phono stage with all of the features that vinyl lovers want. It has two inputs each for MM and MC cartridges. You can select between four different inputs with just a rotation of a dial. The front panel contains an on/off switch and an absolute phase inversion switch. Also on the front plate are two analog meters, one for each channel. If the meter is out of range to the left that tells you one or more of the E810F tubes needs replacing. If the meter is out of range to the right it means one or more of the 7233 or 6485 voltage regulation tubes needs replacing.
The top and back of the phono stage are open so that you can access the seven knobs that allow you to adjust the unit. The signal from MM inputs goes directly into the phono section. The MC inputs, however, are connected to step-up transformers. The knob on top of each transformer allows you to select either +22dB (x13), +26dB (x20), +28db (x26), or +32dB (x40) of gain. Which gain you select is important as it affects the input impedance that your cartridge sees. There is another knob that allows you to select between an input impedance of 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 or 47,000 ohms. However, because of the step-up transformers the impedance that the cartridge sees is a fraction of the 10K, 20K, 30K or 47K ohms. To calculate the impedance that the cartridge sees you divide the input impedance of the phono stage by the square of the gain. For example, with the input impedance set at 10,000 ohms and the step-up set at 22dB or 13 times gain the impedance the cartridge sees is 10,000 ohms /(13 x 13) = 59 ohms. The owner's manual contains a table that lists the sixteen possible impedances which range from 6 ohms to 278 ohms. You will need to try different settings to arrive at the best sounding pair of input impedance and transformer settings for your cartridge and system.(2)
The remaining four knobs deal with the equalization curves. One knob on each channel controls the turnover frequency and the other knob controls the treble roll-off. The selectable turnover frequencies are 700Hz, 500Hz (RIAA), 400Hz, and 250Hz. The selectable treble roll-offs are -16dB, -13.7dB (RIAA), -11dB, and -5dB. Refer to Note (1) if you want to know what these numbers mean. The owner's manual has a short listing of the recommended settings for the major record labels. For the settings for other record labels refer to the link in Note (1).
Once I had the H-3000V dialed in I listened to it exclusively for several months. My initial impressions of the H-3000V were very favorable. The H-3000V does need to be turned on for at least ten hours before it sounds its best. However, from a cold start, after being turned off for several days, the H-3000V still sounds very, very good. No matter what type of music I played, large orchestral, rock, small ensemble, soundtrack, heavy metal, ethnic, etc. the music was a joy to listen to. Even poorly recorded material did not sound that bad. Having gotten familiar with the H-3000V it was now time to start the serious listening.
The first serious listening I did was with pre-RIAA LPs. Now you may be asking yourself why would anyone want to listen to antique (pre 1954) vinyl recordings particularly if the recording has been reissued on CD. That question was answered with the first pre-RIAA LP that I played. That LP was Columbia ML 4001, a 1945 recording of Bruno Walter conducting the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with Nahan Milstein as soloist. This record was released in October 1948 and it was the very first 33 1/3 rpm microgroove LP ever issued. With the H-3000V adjusted for the correct equalization this recording was captivating both from a performance and a sonic viewpoint. On one of the days I was doing my listening an audiophile friend came by. He had never heard a mono recording played on a mono system so I played ML 4001. After listening for a few minutes he said "This is mono? It can't be. There is incredible depth. The violin sounds so real, it's like the violin is here in the room." He was right. The sound stage was narrow, extending only 1/3rd of the distance between the speakers, the vinyl was not as quiet as that of currently manufactured LPs, and there were a ticks and pops. Despite those shortcomings, this recording was an excellent recreation of the performance. This LP was audiophile quality when it was released in 1948 and it still is today when played on the proper equipment. But why go to all this trouble to play a noisy LP when you can buy the CD? The answer to that is to be found in the 50th Anniversary reissue of this LP. In 1999 Classic Records reissued this recording using state of the art vinyl mastering and pressing. Doing back to back comparisons with the reissue LP on my reference turntable and the original LP on my mono turntable was really simple. Switch the selector dial from MC1 to MC2 while changing the input impedance from 10k to 47k ohms and then reverse. Simple and fast. To my ears and to my friend the original LP blew away the reissue in terms of dynamics and realistic recreation of the sound of the instruments. My guess is that the 54 years, from 1945 to 1999, had not been kind to the master tape. The highs that were sparkling on the original LP were missing on the reissue. Likewise, some of the subtle inner detail was missing on the reissue. If it is no longer on the master tape it won't be there on a reissue whether it is vinyl or CD.
Besides ML 4001 I played other LPs of the ML 40XX series. I played early Mercury and American Recording Society LPs that used AES equalization. If you like 20th century music by American composers the ARS and Merc recordings are a must listen. Of course, some of the Mercs were later reissued in stereo. The Henry Cowell Symphony No. 5 on ARS 112 I found to be an incredible piece of music. A search on Amazon.com showed that the only version of this symphony currently available wa an original copy of ARS 112. I also played London LL 569, Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic in Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 2 ‘A London Symphony'. The performance was recorded in 1952 "at Kingsway Hall in the presence of the composer in observance of his 80th birthday". A Decca recording made in Kingsway Hall. That sounds familiar. Kingsway Hall was the recording venue of many of the great Decca stereo LPs. Aside from the reduced sound stage width and slightly noisier vinyl, this recording can hold its own with any of the Decca stereo greats. This performance is available as part of a CD collection of all nine of Vaughan Williams' symphonies. A reviewer on Amazon.com commented that he thought the strings on "A London Symphony" were a bit thin on the CD. I did not find that to be the case on the LP. Some of the other reviewers felt that the 1952 mono performance of ‘A London Symphony' surpasses Boult's later stereo recording and depending on your tastes might be better than the #1 ranked stereo Previn. Hmmmm. Now why was it again that people buy antique vinyl recordings?
Not all of the pre-RIAA LPs I listened to were ear candy. One LP that I had high hopes for was Alfred Newman conducting his film score from "The Captain of Castille". I can't tell if it was a bad recording, a bad mastering, or both. The LP was virtually unlistenable even with the proper equalization. Caveat Emptor. Like vinyl from the stereo era, antique vinyl has both good and bad. The bad can be very bad. However, antique vinyl that was well recorded, mastered, and pressed, when played through the H-3000V, can be a source of tremendous listening pleasure. (3)
While listening to pre-RIAA LPs on the H-3000V is an enthralling experience, most people will also use the H-3000V to play LPs that use RIAA equalization. So how does the H-3000V sound with modern stereo LPs? In order to find out I did A-B-A-B-A-B.... comparisons between my Herron VTPH-2 phono stage and the H-3000V. To do the comparisons I first used pink noise to match the sound levels between the two phono stages. The Herron needed a one dB increase in volume in order to have the same sound volume as the H-3000V. The next step was to listen to the Herron using the 487 ohm resistors in the binding posts that sounded the best with the H-3000V versus the 536 ohm resistors I normally use with the Herron. The difference in sound quality was not that significant. Not having to switch resistor pairs with each switch in phono stage would save considerable time. Thus, I did not change them. The routine to switch between phono stages was to 1) mute the preamp, 2) adjust the volume up or down one dB (digital volume level readouts on preamps are wonderful), and 3) move the interconnects from one phono stage to the other. This could usually be done within 20 seconds which was before my aural memory faded.
The LPs that I used for comparison were:
Warner Brothers 25491 – Trio with Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt, and Emmylou Harris, track 1, side 1
Island 12 WIP 6598 – The Secret Policeman's Ball, side 1, tracks 1 and 2 – Pete Townshend singing Pinball Wizard and Drowned while playing acoustic guitar.
Classic Records 45rpm reissue of Louis Armstrong – St. James Infirmary side
Columbia OC 40158 – Turbo, Judas Priest, side 1 track 1
Geffen Records DGX 24727 – Nirvana Unplugged in New York, track 1, side 1
Rhino RNLP 70130 – Blue Cheer, Louder than God, track 1 Columbia FC 37152 – Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco De Lucia, Friday Night in San Francisco, side 2, track 2
Reference Recordings RR-58, Pomp & Pipes, side 2, track one (Wills: The Vikings) Warner Bros 25668-1 – Empire of the Sun soundtrack, side one track 1, Suo Gan for boys choir and boy soloist
Virgin 90567 – The Mission soundtrack, side two track 1 (flute solo), track 2 (drums)
Reissue of Capitol SP 8373 – Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, introduction, a very dry studio recording with superb recording of individual instruments
As I did the comparisons I was listening for the following if present:
Sparkle on top with triangles, high hat cymbals, etc.
Richness/Fullness in sound
Pace, rhythm, and timing (PraT)
Liquidity of sound
Drums - the sound of the initial stroke and the following decay
Realistic sound of vocals
Realistic sound of instruments
As I was doing the comparisons I was not trying to rank one phono stage over the other. What I was attempting to do was to differentiate the sound of one from the other and thereby learn what each phono stage was adding or subtracting from the music. On the evening of the day that finished my comparisons I went to a San Diego Symphony concert. As I listened to the concert I tried to determine how the sound of the two phono stages differed from the sound that I was hearing in the concert hall. The next day I spent more hours listening to each of the eleven LPs on both phono stages to see which sounded closest to my aural memory of the sound that I had heard the night before in the concert hall. Based on these comparisons between the two phono stages, the comparison with what I heard at the live concert, plus my experience from listening to some of the eleven LPs in rooms at CES over the years, I came to the following conclusions regarding the H-3000V when playing modern stereo LPs:
1) The H-3000V appears to be very neutral. It does not appear to add any colorations to the sound. Nor does it appear to subtract anything from the sound.
2) The sound is very liquid. There is no discernable graininess to the sound.
3) I have played a number of these LPs on quite a few systems at CES. There are certain places on these LPs where I specifically look for certain inner details. With the H-3000V in my system I was able to hear slightly more of this specific inner detail than I was able to hear from these same LPs on the best sounding vinyl systems on which I have played them at CES.
4) The imaging on these LPs with the H-3000V in my system is as good as anything I have heard from the LPs in any of the rooms in which I have played them at CES.
5) The music played through the H-3000V on my system was involving. I found myself tapping my foot or waving my air baton many times. I loved listening to all of the scores of LPs I played using the H-3000V.
6) Music played through the H-3000V has drive, pace and rhythm. It is not the same as being in the concert hall, but it is as good as I have heard from these LPs in any room at CES.
7) With the H-3000V there is plenty of air on top. Triangles and cymbals shimmer and sparkle. A very impressive top end.
8) Drums, vocals, and instruments all sound very realistic on the H-3000V when compared to live music. Obviously, no recording will ever be the same as live. However, on well recorded material, the H-3000V can make music sound very life like.
9) The H-3000V adds a fullness, a richness to the sound of instruments and voices that is entrancing. At first I wondered if this fullness/richness was a euphonic coloration. I listened for this when I was at the concert, but did not hear that same fullness/richness when individual instruments were playing solos during the concert. When I was listening to the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra with the H-3000V on the day after the concert I kept trying to figure out what the difference was between what I was hearing on my system and what I had heard in my seat in the mezzanine at the concert hall. I have sat in a number of different locations in the concert hall over the years. Each location has its own unique sound - all seats in a concert hall are not created equal. Based on my memories of the difference in sound at the various locations in the hall, my conclusion is that the H-3000V sounds most similar to the sound I heard in the Grand Tier seats in Copley Symphony Hall. The Grand Tier seats are at the front of the upper level, are very close to the stage, and have the best view and sound of any of the seats in the hall. And they are priced accordingly. I have only been able to sit there during rehearsals. Gee, with the H-3000V I can move from my $25 per concert season tickets to the $500 per concert season tickets.
If you think I am enamored with the H-3000V, you are correct. The H-3000V was a marvelous addition to my system. I will be very sorry to see it go. As a normal stereo RIAA phono stage it is a superb unit. I could listen to it for ten hours straight and love the music just as much at the end as I did at the beginning. Its ability to handle the major pre-RIAA equalization curves is a wonderful bonus. This ability to play most per-RIAA LPs unlocked countless hours of glorious music from my antique LP collection. There are only two drawbacks to the H-3000V. The first is its price. It is not cheap. However, in comparison to other highly regarded phono stages which may or may not perform as well as the H-3000V, the H-3000V it is actually a bargain. This is particularly true when you consider the cost and frequency of retubing.(4) The second quibble that I have is that I wish the H-3000V had a few more options for treble roll-off so that more record labels could be properly equalized. More options, however, means more complexity, more parts and more cost. I think most people who are looking for a phono stage for their 33 1/3 rpm pre-RIAA LPs will be happy with the options that the H-3000V provides. If you are not, then you can always buy one of the US$20,000+ phono stages.
The H-3000V is expensive, but highly recommended. Even if you don't think you can afford it, you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. You will be glad you did. Roger S. Gordon
Allnic Audio Labs
(1)) When the first 78 rpm records were produced these records were cut without any equalization. While efficient, no equalization limited how much music could be put onto one side of a record. This is because bass frequencies require larger side to side excursions with the side to side movement becoming larger as the frequency gets lower. No equalization also imposed a limit on the highest frequency that could be reproduced from a record. This is because as the frequency gets higher and higher, the side to side excursion gets smaller and smaller until at some point the excursion is so small that the phonograph needle will have so little movement that the phono cartridge will not reproduce the frequency. To solve these problems record manufacturers started to roll off the bass frequencies and to increase the volume of the treble frequencies when they cut the records. Each record label set their own parameters for bass roll-off and treble boost. Thus, if you bought an RCA phonograph you could only play back records that had been made using the RCA equalization curve. Records made with a different equalization curve would sound a little off. Can you say Monopoly? Over time independent phonograph manufacturers started to manufacturer phonographs that had a rotary dial that you could use to select between several equalization curves. I remember my parents had a phono console that had such a selector dial that allowed you to select either Columbia (aka LP), RCA, London, AES (American Engineering Society), or 78.
During the years from the first 78 rpm record to 1954, when all the major record manufacturers adopted the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) standard, a total of 49 different equalization curves were used worldwide. For a detailed description of equalization curves, including graphs, go here: http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com/mixphono.htm . For a listing of the 49 equalization curves go here: http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com/mixcurve.htm . For a list of the equalization curves used by different record labels go here: http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com/mixphono.htm and then drop almost to the bottom of the page and click on the link that says "record label usage".
(2) While the input impedance range of 6dB to 278 dB will handle most MC cartridges, it will not handle all. My two Van den Hul cartridges, Colibri XPW and Condor XGP, require over 500 ohms. Because I change cartridges so often, I had my phono cables specially built to include two pairs of binding posts. I have 28 pairs of resistors with values running from 10 ohms to 950 ohms. Placing the appropriate value of resistor pairs (determined by trial and error) into the binding posts on the phono cables can provide optimal loading for any MC cartridge quickly and easily, while avoiding the cost of purchasing dozens of loading plugs. Thus, when I was listening to my reference system (Colibri XPW cartridge, Schroeder Reference tonearm, Nakamichi TX-1000 turntable) through the H-3000V I had 487 ohm resistors in the phono cable binding posts and the H-3000V set at +26dB of gain with 10,000 ohms input impedance which equals an input impedance of 25 ohms. 25 + 487 = 512 ohms which sounded better than using 422 ohm or 536 ohm resistor pairs.
When I was listening to pre-RIAA LPs through the H-3000V on my mono system (ZYX mono cartridge, VPI 12.5 tonearm, and Garrard 401 turntable) I had no resistors in the binding posts. After trying all of the input impedances around 100 ohms I decided that +26dB of gain with 47,000 ohms sounded the best. +26dB and 47k ohms = 117 ohms of input impedance.
(3) I did not listen to any of the pre-RIAA RCA recordings. RCA old Orthophonic is 500Hz and 12.7dB and can be played using the 500Hz and 13.7dB RIAA setting. RCA New Orthophonic is 500Hz and 13.7, the same as RIAA.
(4) I spoke with David Beetles of Hammertone Audio, the Allnic global distributor, regarding tube life and the cost of retubing. The tubes are only running at 60% of capacity. The E810F tubes have a rated life of about 10,000 hours. The 7233 and 6485 tubes have a rated life of about 3,000 to 5,000 hours. Allnic products using these tubes have been in the field for about three years. During that time not very many tubes have need to be replaced. Retube kits are available from Hammertone Audio for $500 plus shipping.