6 Phono Pre Amps Tested (mini shoot-out reviews inside) - Project, Dynavector, Moon, Cambridge Audio and iFi


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I hate reviews that bang on with pointless backgrounds. Here was the lineup:
Cambridge Audio Solo MM (£130)
Project S2 Ultra (£220)
Moon 110LP V2 (£450)
Project RS (£700)
Dynavector P75 Mk4 (£795)
iFi iPhono 3 (£999)

My setup:
Project 2XPerience SB DC
Nagaoka MP-300
Roksan K3 Integrated
Tannoy XT-8F

I ended up preferring the Dynavector over all the others. Initially, I wanted a phono pre with a bit more gain. The Nagaoka isn't the highest MM output and I was finding to get a good volume out the amplifier was requiring over 50% volume. I also only wanted to spend about £200 on a pre. My main problem with pre-amp reviews online is they rarely compare them to others or only get compared to very high end reference kit. I find they lack the information to buy product "X over Y". I'll skip details like flexibility / compatibility as these can be found elsewhere online. I'll preface the "reviews" by saying I personally don't strive for that entirely perfect presentation of music. I think a frequency response should be a little warm, fun and musical.

So the Cambridge Audio (CA) was first up, and sounded very similar to the integrated phono stage. High frequencies are resolved a little better but I found it introduced some sibilance and would probably fare better with warmer sounding cartridges. It didn't really blow me away, which either means the Roksan integrated pre is about 10% of the amplifier cost (likely), or it just didn't mate very well with my cartridge. Otherwise, sonically it was quite similar and imagine that in a cheaper system, would be a worthy upgrade to many integrated stage offered.

Next up was the project S2 Ultra (S2) which lifted the bar again on high frequencies but without the sibilance problems the CA introduced. Soundstage was improved (more on that later, though), with instruments having more clarity and placement. I initially liked this pre a lot and contemplated keeping it. But then the itch went "what happens if you spend a bit more" and an RS was ordered...

The project RS (RS) has god awful PSUs, I've had 2 now and project have cheaped out on the power supplies. On the second one, touching the plastic back of the supply induced an audible hum at typical listening volumes. It really feels like a ploy to force you to cough up for the RS battery packs and the dual 28V DC design with a custom 3 pin plug means sourcing a replacement is not trivial. After running an extension cord from a different outlet and connecting the first RS up, hum was removed. Bizarrely, daisy chaining that into the usual surge protected extended lead also worked (but didn't on the second one). Without a good mains conditioner, the RS would be difficult to live with, and part of the reason why I'm not fond of it. All that said, when the first one worked, the soundstage expanded to the point where the "digital sound processor" in Tubular Bells II appears to do a complete 360 around your head. I was sold on the sound and it was the first time for me that a 3D sound stage clicked. After switching back to the S2, this effect was vastly lessened. I knew what I was aiming for in a pre after that. Must be quiet. Must have a very good sound stage. I really wanted to keep the RS but knew the plaguing humming, buzzing and interference problems would put me off listening to vinyl. When it works, it's absolutely brilliant, but when it doesn't, it's terrible to the point of putting you off music.

The Moon 110LP V2 (Moon) was next and while the only pre in this lineup to offer a 0pF setting, lacked the sound stage of even the S2. The frequency and detail resolution was fantastic, but the soundstage just collapsed into largely a flat mess of 2 speakers. Instrument placement and "air" just weren't there. I wasn't impressed and quickly gave up with it. If you have an S2 and are thinking about a Moon, my advice would be "don't". I don't see it as upgrade, except maybe to fix capacitance issues.

Which leads me nicely to the last two... the Dynavactor P75 MK4 (Dynavector) and iFi iPhono 3 (iFi). I really struggled to pick between these, I spent days going back and forth between different records and struggled to pick a champion. The Dynavector (and iFi) are very like a project RS without the humming and buzzing. The Dynavector is a little less flexible (there isn't a way to get to 60+ dB gain on the MM selection), but makes up for it in build quality compared to the RS. The iFi initially was equally as good, with probably a 1% of 1% increase in instrument placement over the Dynavector. Coherence of instruments from both pre's was good. It wasn't until Queen - A Night at the Opera that the iFi showed it's colours and let itself down. Let's be clear: neither of these pre's are bad, and I'd be happy with either sat in my hi-fi cabinet, but the iFi appears to have a problem with instrument decay cutoff. Where an acoustic guitar should have a reverb ring, the iFi clouds this slightly cutting it off and doesn't seem to represent instruments with as much accuracy as it should. I believe iFi have added filtering or damping somewhere to reduce sibilance, but at the cost of masking instrument transients. It's possible altering the resistance would "fix" the iFi, but I didn't feel that was a fair test. All amps were tested at their lowest capacitance, with 47K ohms of resistance.

In the end, the Dynavector was chosen, having that magic of soundstage and the sound signature I liked. It's different to CD (warmer, but with still great resolution of high frequencies) and different to the integrated (better sound stage, less veiled, less muddy and more expressive in vocals).
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