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Phono 1+ Phono Stage
as reviewed by John Hoffman
Vinyl is certainly in the midst of a renaissance, and the predictions of its demise in the mid 1990's have proven to be false. In that bleak period, compact discs held the promise of improved sound quality and convenience, while only the deficiencies of an LP were worth discussing. With the passage of fifteen years, the outlook of these formats have been transposed in a dramatic fashion. The soothsayers of audio prognostication peer into the future, and claim that digital downloads will be the death knell of the compact disc, while vinyl has appeared to have found a sustainable niche. The ability of records to survive what was deemed a death sentence speaks strongly to the strengths of the format, and hopefully the compact disc will show the same resiliency. I am not sure I want to live in a world where the physical medium of music is utterly disposed, so I will root for the continued viability of those silver discs. Even though analog products are flourishing in the market place, there is still a need for components that offer a high level of performance, yet have a price tag that makes it accessible to the cost conscious hobbyist. Currently, there is a wide variety of phono stages that can be had at $150 or $1500+ price points, yet quality units in the $350 to $500 range is frighteningly thin.
Vista Audio is a company that specializes in high value audio products. The first blocks of the companies legacy were laid with the i82 mk II integrated amplifier, which quickly garnered attention from a large cross section of the audio community. Boris Sasic is the owner and designer of Vista Audio has updated the amplifier line up, and has also developed a high performance phono stage that is extremely affordable. The Phono-1+ is a direct coupled design that has the ability to support low output moving coil cartridges, and has an attractive price tag of $399. Vista Audio products are factory direct, which keeps the retail price enticingly low, but also limits the exposure of the piece in the market place. I requested a review sample from Boris to find out if the scuttlebutt on the audio boards about this piece was believable, for many owners feel this piece outperforms many higher priced phono stages that are currently available.
The Vista Audio phono stage is small in stature, measuring 4" wide by 2.25" deep and 1.25" tall. The steel case has an attractive black hammer tone paint finish. Two sets of RCA plugs, the power switch, and a ground nut are located on the back panel. The compact physical dimensions are not solely cost saving measures, but provides enhanced performance due to the short signal path of the circuit. The Phono 1+ uses a linear power supply, with current being supplied by an outboard wall wart. Typically, the use of wall warts in audio is a sign of a rudimentary power supply, although in this case Boris has installed a Class A circuit in this phono stage.
The Phono 1+ is capable of either 40dB or 60dB of gain, and can handle either moving magnet or low output moving coil cartridges. This phono stage can be configured at the factory for use with a specific cartridge, with tailored gain and load settings. This design does not contain user adjustable load settings, for Boris prioritized performance and cost over adjustment features. One configuration change is included in the price of the unit, which needs to be completed by Vista Audio. This Phono 1+ stage is a direct coupled design, which means there are no blocking capacitors in the circuit. This circuit allows for a low noise floor and bandwidth from 10Hz to 150KHZ. The power supply is a Class A design, which also contributes to the low noise floor. Closely matched parts are used in the passive RIAA circuit, and when combined with an deceptively simple layout, results in a remarkable .07dB RIAA tracking error.
The compact size of the Vista Audio phono stage allowed me to set it to the side of my Galibier Audio Serac turntable. Open real estate in my rack is quite scarce, so I appreciate the flexibility in placement this piece allows for. An Accuphase AC3 low output moving coil is used for this evaluation, the .20mV of output is a challenge for any phono stage to process. My reference phono stage is the Liberty Audio B2B-1, which also happens to be a direct coupled design using JFETS in the gain stages and power supply. These two components are not close in terms of price, however it will give an insightful comparison of what the capabilities of the Phono 1+ are.
When the needle settled into the groove on the Pretenders "My City Was Gone"[Learning to Crawl; RCA 23980-1] I instantly knew that the Internet buzz was just not all hype, and that the Vista Audio phono stage had some remarkable qualities. This pint sized box has transparency and dynamics in spades, which is something that just does not occur at this price point. The opening bass line is loaded with energy, and has a satisfying weight and authority. The snare drum and cymbals have remarkable clarity, with a sharp leading edge of the notes. When vocals, and guitars are added to the mix, the song still retains its focus and definition. The Phono 1+ does a respectable job presenting the energy of a great rock and roll band, which is a difficult task to do when being asked to amplify the signal from a moving coil cartridge with exceedingly low output signal. A run of the mill phono stage will just wilt when paired with a difficult cartridge load, and the dynamics of the music will suffer. This was not the case with the Vista Audio piece.
Continuing on with this song from the Pretenders, I notice that the Vista Audio phono stage forms a reasonably wide and deep sound stage, especially in light of its modest price point. Chrissie Hynde's vocals are placed in front of the speakers, and bass and lead guitars are located slightly behind her. The drum kit is placed on the back of the stage, and is tightly focused. The image created by this phono stage is stable, without any noticeable smearing or distracting shifts in position. Inexpensive components often have problems in these areas in on degree or another, so the absence of these faults in the Phono 1+ is a refreshing change from the norm.
The Vista Audio phono stage has an extended and defined top end, high frequency information is not rolled off or diminished in any significant degree. Entry level components often sacrifice performance at the top and bottom ends of the music spectrum, for it takes a well executed design to get these areas correct. Certainly high frequency performance is related to the clarity and transparency, but the seamless intertwining of these two attributes is important to note. George Winston's piano on the album "Winter Into Spring" is lithe and nimble, with realistic reverberation and decay characteristics. I appreciate the the relative absence of grain or an etched presentation of the upper registers of music. One important point to consider, the Phono 1+ will not cover up any deficiencies in the associated analog equipment. If the turntable or cartridge has any issues with its high frequency performance, this phono stage will lay it bare for you to hear.
This phono stage has a light and airy presentation, with its tonal balance shaded lightly to the realm of detail and resolution. "On January Stars" [Winter Into Spring; Windham Hill WH-1019] by George Winston I clearly hear the piano hammers strike each string, and listen to each note resolve as the hammer lifts and the force imparted into the string fades away. The music has texture and feeling, even though the tonal balance is slightly cool. In some respects, vocals could have more body, but this is a minor limitation to a fine product. Rickie Lee Jones vocals on "Living It Up" [Pirates; Warner Bros BSK 3432] are not as robust and vibrant as they should be, and certain passages and phrases are slightly diminished in scale and the texture is whitewashed to a degree. The Accuphase AC3 cartridge has a admirably even tonal balance, and does not overtly editorialize the midrange band, which does draw attention to the light tonal balance of the Phono 1+. When the pocket book friendly price of this component is taken into account, this deviation from perfection is in my mind quite insignificant.
Comparing a $399 Vista Audio phono stage to a $1749 Liberty Audio unit is not a fair comparison, although it is a useful exercise in terms of understanding the merits of the less expensive unit. Actually, in many respects the Phono 1+ emulates the capabilities and strengths of the Liberty piece. A direct coupled circuit is used in both of these units, and I would credit this similarity in architecture as being the primary reason why these two units have a convergence in sound quality. The Liberty B2B-1 has a refined presentation when compared to the Vista Audio piece, but it should, given its over four times the price. The sound stage formed by the B2B-1 is delicately layered, with a greater degree of separation between instruments, and improved front to back definition of acoustic space. Finally, the bass region is far more powerful and extended, which happens to be one of the defining characteristics of the Liberty . The B2B-1 is the superior phono stage, yet the Vista Audio turns in a spirited performance. It would not be an exaggeration to consider the Phono 1+ to be a Liberty B2B-1 Junior, for it reflects the strengths of its higher priced brethren. The Vista Audio phono stage images extremely well, presents striking dynamic contrasts, and possesses a fairly even tonal balance for its price point. The Phono 1+ may lack a degree of refinement, and be slightly compromised at the frequency extremes, it is by far and away the finest $400 phono stage I have listened to.
The Vista Audio phono stage is designed to offer unparalleled performance at its price point, but may not be the ideal component for everyone. The fixed loading and gain design means that the Phono 1+ needs to be optimized for one cartridge, and hobbyists who rotate cartridges on a regular basis will not be able to get an optimum match. The ideal application for this phono stage is to pair it with the highest quality cartridge that a person can afford, and then just play music with that combination. Whenever its time to make a cartridge upgrade, send the Phono 1+ back to Boris for reconfiguration. This product is all about sound quality at a price that can be afforded by most anyone, which means that certain convenience features must be sacrificed in order to meet the design goals.
As a whole, the Vista Audio piece offers an enviable balance between price and sound quality, and in doing so bridges the gap between high end performance and affordability. When I look at the the big picture, the Phono 1+ is my favorite moderately priced phono stage. This is a piece I could recommend to either a person getting their feet wet in the world of vinyl, or a seasoned veteran searching for that elusive gem needed in a secondary system. Actually the Vista Audio unit could be used in a high dollar analog rig where the owner is short on funds, and needs a high quality phono stage for an interim solution. Do not let the modest price tag of the Phono 1+ fool you, this unit has the ability to be used with high performance turntables and cartridges. In many respects it echo's the capabilities of my reference component, and provides more than a taste of what high quality analog playback can be. There are a handful of great buys in the analog world, such as the Rega RP 1 turntable, Ortofon 2M series of cartridges, and Audio Advisor's house brand record cleaning machine. The Vista Audio Phono 1+ should be added to this list, as it advances the performance ceiling of what can be achieved by affordable priced audio gear. John Hoffman