Black Pearls Aquarius Audio Phono Stage review


Everyone seems to be asking the same question lately. What the heck is happening with the vinyl? Is it in the full revival, in trend transitional stage or just pushed forward movement of the niche market?

Actual answer is underlined in the sum of all mentioned. It was no brainer for me when I was asked to lay my hands and ears on the first Black Pearls Aquarius Audio Phono Stage. Konstantinos already proven his intuition and skills with Birth 100 integrated amplifier, that I’ve reviewed here. It was expected to be an interesting randevú.


THE COMPANY

For those learning about the Black Pearls Audio for the first time let me recall the indtroduction. The company was founded in January 2012 by Konstantino Papachristou, Ph.D., electronic engineer and lover of sound, music, and high-end equipment. He decided to take it to a professional level and combine his electronic engineering knowledge with his audio experience. Having studied jazz saxophone and attended many live concerts has resulted in a face to face experience with sound, which is invaluable for someone who wants to get involved into the development of high-end audio equipment.

Black Pearls Audio had a clear goal from the start. To produce high-end products with no second-guessing in design and sound. With the trained ears (Konstantino studied Saxophone) on hand and practical experiences that came as the the labor of love and dedication he infused into all of his products. Since my review of Black Pearls Audio Birth 100 integrated amplifier company now offer a complete line of products adding to the Birth 100, Virgo CD player/DAC, Aries preamplifier, Taurus power amplifier and the reviewed Aquarius phono stage.

MEET THE AQUARIUS


Aquarius is a phono stage that features a single enclosure design. It utilizes special operational amplifiers in fully differential configuration, so hum due to the power supply is eliminated. Two versions are available: one with fixed input impedance and capacitance (102 Ohm & 200pF) but with adjustable gain to compensate for various MC cartridges, and one with adjustable input impedance, input capacitance, and gain (for both MM and MC cartridges). Adjustments are made by easily swapping female pin headers on which resistors and capacitors are soldered. This method eliminates additional cables that are susceptible to electromagnetic interference, thus reducing noise and increasing audio pleasure!


Adjustable model features

MC and MM cartridges supported
60dB, 63dB and 66dB gain for MC (adjustable)
40 dB gain for MM
54 Ohm-102 Ohm-200 Ohm-440 Ohm-660 Ohm
1.02 KOhm-48 KOhm-102 KOhm input impedance (adjustable)
94pF-200pF-300pF-540pF-940pF input capacitance (adjustable)
Custom values for gain, input impedance and input capacitance available on request

FIRST NOTE STRIKE


After the years in high-end audio one develop a certain criteria and knowledge, that comes with mileage and listening to the vast array of products and nonetheless countless hours of music. For me its very quickly obvious if something is designed and executed properly or just planned to simply cash in the product. Konstantino Papachristou is well versed in both music and electronics and that was shown quickly as it was evident with the Birth 100 integrated amplifier. One cannot distance himself from certain choices being made when designing and voicing the dedicated audio product. As with Birth 100 Konstantino injected at full scale his DNA signature again into the Aquarius and created another product that glorify and praise the music. 

In past decade we’re witnessing an interesting and to the point scary phenomena. Instead of pursuing and matching the vibrancy and natural imprint of the music many companies just started a nonsense race of specs, resolution etc. I’m always first one to demand electronically refined design backed up with common logic and measurements. This is always an obvious first step in designing any high-end audio product. But! In the 21st century we’re dealing with many products, that are designed with computer modelled software and just being made for the sake of the making and consequently the sales. To finalise a working product it does take know how. Yet, product design too often freezes at the stage where practical results are compared to the real reference. THE MUSIC! Where are the times when timbre, tone and colour mattered!? We have quite few best specced products on the market, but if the final results are miles away from what music should actually sound like then what is the real value of such components?


For a bright change Konstantino Papachristou is following his inner calling for perception of the music. To create something meaningful and musically vibrant one need to have a true respect for music and musical reproduction. Electronic degree or title means a little or nothing if there is no vivid connection to the music as it is. And talking about the real references I cannot urge anyone out there strong enough about taking the high-end reproduction more serious. This goes for reviewers, print and online magazines, music lovers, audiophiles, enthusiasts etc. We need a real reference for giving high-end titles to the products. And the real reference can only be a pure acoustical recording of the music. We know for sure how certain instruments sound in real world. And this imprint must be shown and projected with any product wanting to carry the high-end prefix. There should be no half ways or tricky gimmicks. Regardless of price the product either is capable of bringing the level of high-end audio performance or it doesn’t! Period!

There is a saying: “It takes one to recognise one” and Konstantino is embracing the the aura of music with his creationns. As as saxophone player he cannot escape this even if he wanted to. Timbre of any instrument is quickly recognised by our aural receptors. It is the inherited reception task happening deep in our perplexed human structure, that helps us distinct between the instruments, voices etc. With rare positive imprints from high-end audio designers we’re having the real luxury of coherent musical reproduction. The real luxury now owning the latest bling factor gear, but a pure musical message that can affect the listener. Black Pearls Aquarius Audio Phono Stage carry this message in the right way and with the potency of real interaction.

To often we’re not really understanding the fragility of vinyl reproduction, dealing with the signal levels of the most miniature scaling. As such the signal is prone to any hubrises. At this fragility anything can alter the signal with everything happening on the path from cartridge via phono stage. Do we really want that somebody is making their decision with the topology and parts based solely on time constraints and profits? I’m for sure against it! Analog reproduction can offer something very sublime and intimate, that is still not achievable with digital. For me the vinyl replay is an art with the impact that goes beyond cultural and academic discussion. It does something right for the human side of man and the way we’re sublimely affected by the music. For example… I can listen to vinyl all night long. More often then not I must stop myself in very late night and morning hours with rationalising the needed time to recoup. This is never happening with the digital. I can get to same level musical impact with digital, but never it will give me the same relaxing and feel right gut feeling as analog does. 

I’ve spend quite some nights with Black Pearls Aquarius Audio Phono Stage being a great partner and medium for signal transfer of my beloved music on the black discs. And the sum it most profundity. I’ve enjoying the music not working for the review :).

MUSIC


Quite some music travelled through the veins of Black Pearls Aquarius Audio Phono Stage when being under the testing scope. Here are few stand out ablums:

Monty Alexander Trio, The ‎– Montreux Alexander - Live! At The Montreux Festival. This album is tour de force of energetic impact and instantly shows any lackings of power and complexity handling. Aquarius embraced the speed and virtuosity of Monty on the grand scale and let the pace of the music very intact. This is still a 2000 EUR phono stage, yet it brings out quite some attributes that are closely connected with the bigger brothers priced far above Black Pearls phono stage. 


RCA LSC 2446 RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Scheherazade REINER CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA is for sure one of the well known classics. Both in the terms of the sound and performance. This album takes you on the journey of delicacy and power. It is a record to show a vibrancy potentia. Again Aquarious managed to keep an impressive level of music actualisation. The smallest nuances of pianissimo was happily conceived as were crescendos leading to forte fortissimos. 

Doug MacLeod Come To Find on 200g LP from Analogue Productions is completely different genre, yet Aquarious enliven the intricate blues poetry of Doug with the correct heartbeat. Simple, direct and raw to the bone. 

Moving further with the Tracy Chapman self-titled debut album  released on in 1988, by Elektra Records. This is among the finest examples of quiet revolution themed albums. Tracy perfected songwriting moves emotionaly up and down with almost poignant heart bleeding music, that launched her into the world wide fame. This is the album that might look simple to reproduce in the right way, but in reality demands well designed and executed electronics to keep the vibe going. The “PRAT” either work or not with this album and Aquarious “swings” with h authority.


Counting Crows August and Everything After is another stand out debut studio album from American rock band. This is masterpiece, that set the corner stone for the genre and still shine with the inspirational light even today. Band might be quickly recognised by the hit song Mr. Jones, but there is no filler on this album. The music, the lyrics and the energy radiating from this exceptional creational endeavour lingers on long time after needle hits the the last grooves close to the vinyl label. Konstantino Papachristou vision again hit the highly recommended mark with the objective performance, highlighting this fully analog recorded and mixed album. Aquarius for sure glorify the Chad Kassem efforts for finding rare analog gems without masking what makes this one special. 

CONCLUSION


When talking about the high-end audio vinyl reproduction the first merit I always want to point out and embrace is the “stress” level. If my vinyl music listening is fluid, without taking to much notes and remarks, then designer of such phono preamplifier did his homework! We can talk about the different levels of resolution, dynamic, pace etc. Yet, there are only two ways for me to judge the potency of any phono stage regardless of design, brandname and price. It either clicks with the music or it doesn’t! As simple as it might sounds its not. We’re very complex beings and when it comes to the subtle nature of musical reproduction there are still so much unknown things up in the air. As humans we’re possessing a true magical gift of ability to transcribe the music. We need more of products like Black Pearls audio that follow this path.

So how does stand along some of other phono preamplifiers? I’ve had few of them on hands to compare. iFi iPhono preamplifier still stands on its own in the terms of flexibility and bang for the buck. Compared to Aquarious it holds on to the great attributes, but Black Pearls phono stage is capable of establishing more concrete form of the music. Also the flow was on very different level. Brining other interesting phono preamplifier into the loop opened up further insights into the Aquarious intimacy. Tom Evans Microgroove + is another very capable phono stage, that is very fast and resolving. Sometimes it reminds me more on the F1 racing spirit with all low level details one can experience with music played through it. 


Black Pearls Aquarius Audio Phono Stage proven, that it follow its own path. Konstantino Papachristou managed to encapsulate a mighty performer, that brings out the best in music and it certainly and constantly squeezing out the potency of my three cartridges used for the test. 

Aquarius follows the same DNA, that Birth 100 already projected as special. It managed to resolve musical complexity with ease and in a way, that connects the listener very intimately with the music being reproduced and the performer. 

Black Pearls Aquarius offers impressively well versed phono preamplifier with a wide array of settings suiting different cartridges loadings. Its flexible, great sounding, reasonable priced and most importantly musical. 

Retail price: €2.000 

Black Pearls Audio
ADDRESS 4, 
Moschopoleos str.,
Papagou 15669,
Athens, 
Greece

PHONE +30 6932 668846