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Positive Feedback ISSUE 69
The New Valve Order SPA One Phono Preamplifier
Back in Issue 57 I introduced you to a talented fine audio constructeur, Andreas Hadjiminas, working out of Nicosia, Cyprus. Andreas is one of the brightest new lights in the firmament of vacuum tube circuit design, and I was particularly impressed with his New Valve Order Audio SPA-II (Stereo Phono Amplifier-II) that contained an astonishing twenty-two vacuum tubes! Along with its twenty-two vacuum tubes lighting up the darkness of my listening room, the SPA-II also lit up my heart & soul with its sonically astute, musically superb, and emotive presentation of the music.
Since the review in Issue 57 Andreas has made some improvements to his original design of the SPA-II, and has switched to a more robust wooden shipping crate. The SPA-II is now called the SPA-II squared, or SPA-II2). Panikos Kontemeniotis (who is the exporter of the New Valve Order electronics) told me:
"The new SPA-II2 has some cosmetic changes, namely three toggle switches instead of the original push buttons, in a new arrangement on the front plate. It will also have the new white cathode follower output circuit that has lowered the output impedance by 5-6 times compared to the original circuit. This has resulted in a much more transparent and refined sound, more effortless dynamics and a more 3-D soundstage. The mother board of the SPA-II2 will also be decoupled from the chassis, like the new SPA one." Retail price for the SPA-II2 is $7000 USD, and it is available through Steven Klein at Sounds of Silence in North America.
New Valve Order SPA one ($4250 USD)
However, as you know from the title of the article, this review is about Andrea's new phono equalizer, the New Valve Order SPA one ($4250 USD).
Andreas has once again been busy designing vacuum tube circuits, and has now released a 'real world' version of the SPA-II that he calls the SPA 'one'. You can think of the SPA one as a simplified version of the SPA-II that is housed on one chassis instead of the two chassis of the SPA-II. Panikos told me:
"The SPA one is a simplified version of the SPA-II, mostly in the power supply sections. In particular, it has two-plate supplies and two heater supply regulators, whereas the SPA-II has four each. This reduces the tube count down to sixteen. A more basic cathode follower output stage and one 6C45Pi per channel at the input gets us down to thirteen. The other obvious difference is the one-box design. This was a big challenge, that is, to include the power transformer inside the same chassis with the audio circuits. To make this possible, the transformer has been specially manufactured and encased in magnetic isolation material, and is also installed in a way that minimizes magnetic interference (hum). At its core, the design of the audio circuits is virtually the same as that of the SPA-II. The only differences are the one 6C45Pi per input stage, and one 12AU7 cathode follower output tube for both channels."
Think about that for a moment: the SPA one's vacuum tube count has been reduced down to 13 (photo above left) from the SPA-II's 22 vacuum tubes (photo above right). The SPA one still has more vacuum tubes at 13 than any other phono stage I am familiar with, and it is an awesome sight in a darkened listening room! Vacuum tubes rule!
Through those 13 glowing vacuum tubes the new NVO SPA one has 60dB of gain in its moving coil (MC) stage, and 50dB of gain in its moving magnet stage (MM), with a frequency response of 20Hz – 200kHz within 0.5dB of the RIAA curve. The total harmonic distortion for the SPA one is less than 0.05% in MC mode, and less than 0.005% in MM mode. The SPA one's signal to noise ratio is better than -60dB @ 0.3mV MC input, and better than -80dB @ 2mV MM input. The minimum recommended input for the MC stage of the SPA one is 0.2mV. The input load for the MC stage of the SPA one is 1000 ohms, and 47000 ohms for the MC stage.
One of the really nice aspects of using the SPA one (and the SPA II for that matter) was that with 60dB of gain it had enough gain that I never had to worry about using a step-up transformer (SUT), which was a significant plus for me. Given that I had been using a SUT with my prior phono equalizer, I found that one less pair of interconnects and the absence of a SUT to worry about was a real plus for me. A quality SUT and a good pair of interconnects is an expensive proposition, and while a SUT can be a good choice if you have a phono equalizer you love that doesn't have enough gain for your cartridge, I came to the conclusion from my time with the New Valve Order phono equalizers that you're probably better off putting your money into a high-performance phono equalizer that has already been properly designed and optimized for an MC cartridge.
The Review System
To gather listening impressions for the review of the New Valve Order SPA one I used an EMT TSD-15 phono cartridge mounted on a VPI Classic turntable, with the New Valve Order SPA-II providing phono equalization as a comparator, and with the output going to the direct inputs of the Leben RS100U vacuum tube preamplifier.
The front-end electronics drove my restored vintage McIntosh MC240 stereo 6L6GC vacuum tube amplifier (which was fitted with a mint set of RCA 6L6GC black plates).
For loudspeakers I used my Tannoy Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers hot-rodded with the absolutely amazing Duelund CAST external crossovers developed during the Duelund-WRSE Project, which I will be writing a full feature article about in my next review for Positive Feedback Online.
I'm using the Sablon Audio Panatela component speaker cables supported with Acoustic Revive RCI-3 Cable Insulators. I use a full set of Panatela component speaker cables as the internal wiring for my WRSEs that were installed as part of the Duelund-WRSE Project. The Panatelas are connected directly to the Dual Concentric drivers inside the Westminsters, then routed down and out through the cabinets to connect directly to the Duelund CAST external crossovers. This approach eliminates all of the sonically degrading internal connections within the Westminsters, providing an ultra-pure and uninterrupted Panatela signal path direct from the Duelund CAST external crossover to the WRSE's Dual Concentric driver. That combined with the aforementioned Panatela component speaker cable set from the amplifiers to the Duelund external crossover makes for a complete Panatela signal path from amplifier to the Dual Concentric driver.
I used Sablon Audio Panatela interconnects from my turntable to the New Valve Order SPA one or SPA-II phono stage, and from the NVO to the Leben RS100U line preamplifier. I used a long run of Acoustic Revive Single Core interconnects (scheduled for review in Chapter 11 of the Acoustic Revive Chronicles).
I used Acoustic Revive RPT-2 and RPT-4 Ultimate Power Distributors for connecting electronics to wall outlets via Acoustic Revive Power Reference AC power cords. Acoustic Revive Power Reference AC power cords were used to connect the VPI Classic turntable and Leben RS100U to the Acoustic Revive RPT-2 Ultimate Power Distributor, and a Sablon Audio Gran Corona power cord connected the NVO SPA-II and SPA one phono equalizers to an Acoustic Revive RPT-4 Ultimate Power Distributor.
I used the rather addictive combination of an Acoustic Revive CB-1DB receptacle base plates, CFRP-1F carbon fiber outlet plates, and the Acoustic Revive modified Oyaide R-1 receptacles installed in the two wall outlets that power my system, which quickly revealed to me that good sound starts at the AC outlets!
My friend Leo went off on vacation and left his LP box set of Joseph Keilberth conducting Wagner's Die Walkure (from the Ring Cycle) on Decca / Testament with me for a little listening. I liked what I was hearing so much that I ordered the entire Decca / Testament Ring Cycle box set from Acoustic Sounds after a few minutes of listening - it rocks!
No small part of my satisfaction with the Ring Cycle was due to the NVO SPA one. Like the NVO SPA–II, the SPA one gripped my heart & soul with its sonically astute, musically superb, and emotive presentation of Die Walkure. In fact, before the SPA one I don't think I ever really got Wagner, and here I went off the deep end after listening to Leo's Die Walkure and ordered the $600 USD box set! And I'm a jazz guy, not an opera guy! Granted, the Decca Ring Cycle recorded live at the 1955 Bayreuth Festival is a remarkable achievement in the recording arts. Kenneth Wilkinson and Roy Wallace placed three microphones in the sunken orchestra pit about 20 feet above the stage, capturing this grand live performance in fine fashion.
I was really impressed by the SPA one's ability to present those aspects of Die Walkure that are most associated with evoking an emotional response. Take tempo, for example, which is usually considered to be the most important technique musicians' use for evoking an emotional response from the audience. With the SPA one, tempo, and changes in tempo, were obvious and stimulating, and pulled me along emotionally, thrillingly, with the music of Die Walkure. The SPA one also handled the dynamics of the performance superbly, adding to the thrill and excitement that is Die Walkure. Tonality was obvious, with rich timbral textures, which when combined with the tempo & dynamic astuteness of the SPA one it made the music remarkably emotionally evocative. I pretty much went nuts listening to the box set through the SPA one, which made the music unfailingly fun and emotionally engaging to listen to.
The SPA one makes the music of Die Walkure very emotionally engaging to hear by very adeptly handling tempos, dynamics, and loudness, which of course also makes melodies and rhythms come alive and grip you by the ya-ya's! I was having a blast playing Die Walkure loud, like it was The Rolling Stones! The SPA one kept up just fine at those loud levels, which is important from an emotional engagement perspective, and because of its overall slightly rich & warm balance, and low distortion, it was very easy on the ears. For those wanting to add some human warmth & realistic timbral textures to their phonography I think the SPA one will be an excellent choice, particularly for those plagued by somewhat brighter systems.
I also recently ordered the Analogue Productions 45 RPM reissue of The Gil Evans Orchestra's Out Of The Cool. Out of the Cool is one of twenty-five Impulse jazz titles that Analogue Productions has reissued, and it is absolutely fantastic! The guys over at Acoustic Sounds had a simple formula when producing those 25 Impulse Reissues: "Incredible jazz records + the original analog master tapes + cut at 45 RPM + mastered at AcousTech Mastering + pressed on two 180-gram virgin vinyl LPs = The Ultimate LP Reissue!"
Acoustic Sounds isn't kidding, as they really did cherry pick the Impulse catalog for some of the greatest titles in jazz history, and they did a fantastic job of producing the albums. As an aside, Out of the Cool is particularly good for evaluating the performance of Hi-Fi gear because of the album's great music, the extremely good production values used for the original recording sessions (Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Edgewood Cliffs), the broad range of instruments used for the recording, not to mention the incredibly inspired musicianship.
The Gil Evans Orchestra's Out of the Cool album on Impulse is one of my all-time favorite jazz albums (above in gatefold view) because the music is magnificent! Inside the gatefold you'll find a nice conceptual map of the Gil Evans Orchestra (enlarged below) with the instruments they're playing (and the microphones used to record them), which made this a really great recording for audiophile-style fun like picking out instrumental images from left to right on the soundstage, and seeing if could hear all the 'instrumental layers' back into the soundstage's depth. If you listen closely you'll notice that the images on the recording don't necessarily match the musicians' positions as identified on the orchestral diagram. Can you hear the imaging anomalies?
So how did the SPA one do with imaging and soundstaging on Out of the Cool? Well, on La Nevada (which means 'snowfall' in Spanish) the SPA one presented the images with lots of body and tone color, with a good spread of images from side-to-side & front to back, and a nice sense of space around them all. On La Nevada I could easily hear the maracas providing extra texture to the cymbals, and that they were behind and to the left of Ron Carter's upright bass. Ray Crawford's guitar had a big cushion of soundspace air around it, but it sounded further to the right and further forward on the soundstage of the recording than I would have guessed from the orchestra diagram. Can you identify the other imaging discrepancies with the orchestral diagram? (Hint: there's a lot) I could clearly hear the game of musical chairs taking place with the SPA one, which made playing musical detective while listening quite a lot of fun from song-to-song.
I mentioned earlier that the SPA one did a nice job of portraying the tone color on La Nevada, where it was easy to hear that the music moves back & forth between G minor seventh and G major, and stays in G minor thru the solos: this is perfect for getting a feeling of how well a system or component highlights major and minor tonality, which helps inform an emotional connection to the music. Listen carefully... can you hear the changes easily? I could with the SPA one doing phonography duty, which means its doing some good things for the music, and my emotional connection to it, as informed by the major & minor tone color.
So you've probably guessed by the above paragraph that another useful trait of Out of the Cool is that its great album for evaluating whether a system or component has 'a nearness to the truth' when portraying the musical structural features encoded in a recording, like timbre, tone color, tempo, melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, and loudness. Take the timbre of the above mentioned maracas providing extra texture to the cymbals as an example, where the SPA one renders them utterly, transcendently, natural and realistic sounding, while still being easily distinguished from each other. When I listened to the timbral textures and rhythmic variations in When Flamingos Fly it sent shivers up my spine, with the SPA one capturing it beautifully, compellingly, and in a way that built incredible suspense and trepidation as the music progressed.
I thought that the SPA one did a superb job of portraying the classic audiophile-style non-musical structural features encoded in recordings, like imaging, soundstaging, soundspace, and transparency. I thought it got the balance of those features just right, making them exciting and stimulating to hear, but never were they so overblown that they detracted from the musical performance, rather they served to enhance the musical experience.
What impresses me the most about the SPA one is how easily it produced an emotional response in me as I listened to the music, and it is really something special in that regard. The more I thought about it as I listened I came to the conclusion that it performed particularly well on those structural features of music that musicians use to evoke an emotional response in their listeners, which translates to the SPA one's ability to evoke an emotional response in the listener of recorded music.
Next up for a little listening was the 40th anniversary edition the three LP set of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The Circle Be Unbroken on Capital. Who could have known in August 1971 when the long-haired hippy country-rock band kids Jimmie Fadden, Jeff Hanna, Jimmy Ibbotson, John McEuen, and Les Thompson of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band met with elder American music traditionalists Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Junior Huskey, Norman Blake, and Pete Oswald Kirby to record Will the Circle Be Unbroken that it would end up as one of the most important albums in American music after its release in 1972.
Like Out of the Cool, Will the Circle be Unbroken is great music performed by awesome musicians, using extremely good production values, and a broad range of acoustic instruments, which makes it a treasure for evaluating Hi-Fi gear.
One of the first things you'll notice about The Circle when the stylus touches down on its surface is its huge sense of recorded space, and the NVO one certainly impressed me in the way it filled my listening room with the recorded acoustic of the album—it really grabbed my attention. I was impressed with the SPA one's ability to unravel the orchestra-like collection of musicians on The Circle and still provide pinpoint imaging; wide, deep, and naturally tall soundstaging; a magnificent soundspace; a high level of transparency, while never making the non-musical structural features of the recording a distraction from the music-making in the slightest. I thought that SPA one's balance of sonics & music was about as perfect as I've ever heard in my system.
Not only are the SPA one's sonics splendid, but also its musical chops have 'a nearness to the truth' when portraying the musical structural features of The Circle that is awe-inspiring. The timbre of guitars, violins, banjos, and bass made me feel like I was sitting in with the band. As I mentioned earlier in this article, the major & minor tone color was easy to pick up on and feel, so if you want to sit down with your guitar and pick out the chord changes or melody it'll be no problem at all.
I probably shouldn't admit to this, but hell, it's true: I loved the way the SPA one played the music loud and with such tremendous feeling, without ever making my ears want to shut down. Baby, I cranked it up until my windows were bulging from the sound pressure out of my big Westminster Royal SEs, and I felt like I was in the middle of the band jamming at full tilt! Man, the SPA one makes music so fun to listen to - woo hoo!
One of the things that I thought was so special about the SPA one was how well it did tempos and dynamics, which made the melody & rhythm come alive and made The Circle incredibly fun and exciting to listen to. When I cranked up the volume to live-like levels it was an exhilarating rush to hear the utterly natural sounding timbre and tone color of the instruments in the room with me.
You'll hear a lot of harmony going on in The Circle, and the SPA one presented it all very naturally, with each instrument and musician's technique being easily discernable in the way it contributed to the whole.
I thought the SPA had a truly exceptional ability in letting me connect emotionally with the music for a really exciting roller coaster ride through The Circle—it was truly breathtaking! Aside from SPA one's canny balance between sonics & musicality, much of the reason it was such an emotional lightening rod for me was its superb handling of tempos and dynamics, which made rhythm and melodies come to life before my ears, not to mention its effortless ability to play really loud in a very natural and stress-free fashion.
The SPA one is all about feeling the music and the experiencing the emotions the musicians intended to convey in the music. When I listened to music with the SPA one—any music—I got the feelings the musicians intended to convey through it. This is one of the SPA one's great strengths as a musical device, it allowed my emotions to come alive through the music. The SPA one is the most musically satisfying phono equalizer I have ever listened to, bar none.
The SPA one isn't quite as transparent & resolving as the SPA-II, and it's a little warmer, darker, and more dramatic & romantic sounding. I think that's one of the reasons that it plays music loud so convincingly & engagingly, its just got the perfect balance of transparency & resolution, which allowed me to crank it up until I was completely immersed in the music, without any of the usual stress & strain associated with playing the music loud. In that regard it is even better than SPA-II.
From a build standpoint the SPA one seemed very well designed and thought out, and those 16 glowing vacuum tubes in the circuit certainly produced musical magic with pretty much everything I threw at it. The only thing I would wish for in the SPA one is a more rugged and non-resonant chassis. The chassis is built a little lighter than I would like for it to be at this price point, but that's really my only criticism (although the chassis build level is something I could easily live with considering its world-class musical prowess). I've found no phono equalizers that can run with the SPA one musically at any price, so I guess I can forgive it that one criticism. I should also mention that its big brother the SPA-II has been completely reliable and trouble free since I reviewed it in 2011, and I expect that the SPA one would be a similar trouble-free joy to own as its big brother has been.
The SPA one has really challenged me to think about the connection between Hi-Fi gear and its ability to stimulate an emotional response while listening to music. In my experience very few components can create a emotional connection to the music at the level of the SPA one – and no other phono equalizer that I am aware of can match it musically – making it a very special device indeed.
As I mentioned earlier, the canny balance between the SPA one's sonics & musicality gives the SPA one its overall musical character, and its adept handling of tempo, dynamics, melodies, rhythm, and tone color, are what makes it so incredibly engaging on an emotional level.
I'm deeply impressed with what Andreas has accomplished with the SPA one. At the SPA one's price of $4250 USD I haven't come across anything that can come close to its combination of sonics & musicality, and it plays music with a verve that'll light up your heart, thrill your senses, and keep you up late at night listening to music!
Yes, very, very, highly recommended!
To find out about availability in other parts of the world please consult the New Valve Order website or contact Panikos Kontemeniotis directly (who is the exporter of the New Valve Order electronics).