Sometimes in my daily dealings, I’m following the intuition in connection with some of the high-end audio products. No worries, I’m not talking about any telepathic skills. Some high-end audio products simply draw attention to themselves with their design, unique topologies or different approaches and usually, the curiosity quickly follows toward deeper internet research.
One of such products was Dynamic Sounds Associates Phono II phono preamplifier. It’s more or less unusual these days for me to reach out and ask for the review samples. In 99.99 % it’s the other way around, but if something grabs my attention and my gut feeling alerts me, and it’s not gone soon enough, I’m happy to reach out and contact the manufacturer.
After my initial inquiry, David Sckolnik, director of sales and marketing replied, and we exchanged few emails. David was thrilled with the review idea and a few weeks later the Dynamic Sounds Associates (further on DSA) The Phono II phono preamplifier had arrived.
The sheer amount of loading settings, front panel hands-on adjustability and the innards of the DSA Phono II ignited my imagination and I was not disappointed when the actual, tactile experience was ready to be explored.
Yes, I like and love, when a high-end audio product is designed and executed properly. Not, that I’m one of those audiophiles, that demands the very innards to be packed to the last available tiny spot. I like the well designed high-end audio gear and I do have a soft spot for fine electronic accomplishment that radiates something extra and for the start manage to activate my left brain hemisphere.
And I was not disappointed with my first hands-on experience, as well as with the prolonged evaluation time, but more about that later on.
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
As it will reveal through the review, DSA’s designer Doug Hurlburt created something very special, that had triggered my pre-initial-and-final enthusiasm. It is great when the reviewer capture some of the original enthusiasm, encapsulated by the designer. I believe, that this is what exactly has happened with DSA Phono II preamplifier.
As a son of two scientists, Douglas Hurlburt, Ph.D. Founder and Principal Designer of the Dynamic sounds Associates, had pursed a rich and impressive carrier path, that involves RCA Ltd. (Montreal), MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA), Department of Defense etc…
Douglas work has included designing integrated circuits, surface acoustic wave (SAW) devices and systems, ultra-wideband spread spectrum communications systems and airborne radar systems, critical systems components for advanced concept communications, radar systems etc.
With his professional obligations complete, Dr. Hurlburt has been able to focus entirely on his lifelong passion for designing audio components. Over his life, he has designed and built many of his own system components. Finally, in 2004, he went “public” with the introduction of the Phono ONE. Its development came out of a desire to design the finest possible phono preamplifier without regard to the potential cost. Its no-compromise philosophy was transferred to the Phono II in 2012, a unit which weds the sonic performance of its predecessor with unprecedented versatility and ease of operation.
Here are the highlights and initial design goals of the Phono II:
• Design every gain stage to be “stand-alone” having very low distortion; very high dynamic range; and bandwidths orders of magnitude greater than the audio band.
• Use specifically selected JFETs and MOSFETs and expensive, tightly matched pairs of devices.
• Employ highly regulated high voltage DC rails combined with separate voltage regulators and constant current sources for every gain stage.
• Use no global or loop feedback.
• Only use passive low pass filters, when required, located between individual gain
stages for frequency compensation.
• Avoid coupling capacitors in the audio chain.
• Utilize separate, low impedance, output driver stages.
• Employ great care in the layout of the components and traces on all of the printed
circuit boards used in our designs.
From the ground up Douglas Hurlburt wanted to create the ultimate phono preamplifier that will deliver the ultimate experience and his upper echelon endeavors have materialized in the wide array of features and most importantly in the sound that matter!
You can connect up to three different tonearms/cartridge combinations and Phono II offers very simple switching from Moving Coil to Moving Magnet cartridges with stepwise gain control 40, 50, 60 and 66 dB.
There are over 120 options to optimize Moving Coil loading impedance and over 20 options to optimize Moving Magnet capacitance. On the from panel one can operate the Standby, Mute and Run options, there is Stereo & Mono switch, polarity switch, and low Pass filter options and a unique ability to accurately set and correct cartridge azimuth alignment.
All above-mentioned functions appear on the front panel of the Phono II.
The rear panel continues the unprecedented versatility of the Phono II. All three inputs and outputs can be operated through single-ended (RCA connectors) or balanced (XLR) operation. AC can be accessed through the supplied shielded cable or by the user’s choice. The Phono II also allows for the user to customize parameters to accommodate cartridges with unusual loading requirements.
It’s suggested, that once powered up, it is best to leave the Phono II in the Mute or Run modes. This assures that whenever you want to play music the unit if fully “warmed-up.” Like with many contemporary high-end audio device, there is no problem of leaving it on all the time, but if you’re having any reservations, you’ll have to wait around two hours for the optimum sound and that Phono II stabilizes.
Unlike many phono preamplifiers, that have switches either on the back side or on the inside of the chassis, DSA Phono II elegantly hides them under the front “door”. Capacitance and resistance loading can be easily adjusted while the music plays.
There is really no shortage of the “usual”l load settings, but Phono II does offer more. With the cartridges with the extremely low output (Audio Tekne, Kondo) Phono II offers an easy solution via installment of a resistor. This makes it a true analog chameleon, that also extends to the multiple tonearm/cartridge combinations. If the cartridges have similar output, then switching between them is no brainer. You just press the mute button and select the new input. If the gain needs to be adjusted, you’ll have to press the standby button and wait for 3 seconds for the switching to take place.
Don’t be fooled by Phono II versatility. This is just an extra option to allow fine setting and multiple outputs. The most important thing connected with DSA Phono II is its heart. Douglas Hurlburt wanted to create something very different and realistic. With Phono II he succeeded far beyond my initial expectations, by delivering a sonic scope, that can unveil unparallel drama, density and spectral shading not associated with this price range or far above. Actually, some of the attributes, that DSA Phono II exhibited have opened up a new chapter in my analog journal. Read on…
THE SOUND OF MUSIC!?
Each new phono preamplifier, that comes in for an evaluation is a separate story. But, when my reviewing task moves in the realms of the rediscovery, I’m more than happy to spin some of my special discs.
One of such gems is the recent incoming, the re-release of the highly sought after ERC028 release, Music For Viola & Cello Herbert Downes And Jacqueline Du.
Nope, this is not exactly a cheap and affordable record, but with original first presses going for more than 3k, ERC has opened the door to 300 lucky people around the world to experience this unique recording in their homes.
And the sound!? There are a lot of vinyl records, that are highly cherished for many different reasons, but among few rarities, I have the privilege to own, this release is a true analog cameo.
Its all about the purism and non-compromised emotional intake. The sheer vibrancy of tone and natural transparency that DSA Phono II have accomplished is not to be taken lightly by any means. Similar to the dealing with noise power, the symbiotic blend of tone and transparency is very, very hard to get it right. Especially with this magnificent recording, the gravity of acoustical instruments must avoid any overblowing effect, to stay close to reality. DSA Phono II succinctly covered all the salient attributes of the acoustical instrument beyond typical believability. Its lab-like transparency allowed the mighty reconstruction of timbre’s and tone’s resonant structure. On the same level the stand out density of the of molecular-like acoustical anchor points, that play the major role in portraying the instruments’ form, three-dimensional positioning and the sense of space, ignited an unforgettable experience, that still resonates with me. The unique, and for some phono stages unimaginable juxtaposition of syntactical acoustical cues and elements of tone created morphed into the sort of sonic triumph.
The recording itself belongs to the fabled collection of rare gems and DSA II Phono has simply rendered Music For Viola & Cello with more soul.
On the upper plane of phono preamplifiers, I’m always trying to step deeper into the universe of complex harmonics and tone structure density, and for this particular task, for me, there is no better reference as Zia Mohiuddin Dagar playing the Rudra Veena, recorded by Georges Kisselhoff and released on the French label Auvidis.
DSA Phono II allowed extensive convolution of the notes, that have formed an impressive rendition of Rudra Veena. When I’ve explored the Mridangam drum complex playing, my paths crossed the almost extinct, sonic world of Veena. By any means, this is no usual instrument. Rudra Veena tubular body is made of wood with two circled round resonators on each side. This tubular zither is one of the oldest Indian classical instruments and it produces tones, that are more familiar to the wider audience via widespread and “mainstream” Sitar.
DSA Phono II phono preamplifier has rendered the complex note overlays with a surprising sense of easiness. Something special happened in the realms of resonances, where Phono II renditions of miniature decays and delays delivered the density, that is usually reserved only for phono stages priced far above its given price. Even some phono preamplifiers with two, three separate boxes couldn’t reveal the immediacy of the tone and timbre, that Phono II achieved. Highly accomplished act!
Dvorak* – The London Philharmonic Orchestra – Itzhak Perlman – Daniel Barenboim – Violin Concerto in A Minor & Romance in F Minor (Angel Records – EAC-80183)
For violin aficionados and connoisseurs Itzhak Perlman need no introduction. Like in high-end audio, talking about the performance can ignite an endless discussion which particular component is the best (in particular and general setup). Similarly, in the world of classical music, there is a neverending discussion regarding who performs best the certain composition.
Anyhow. Its hard not being fully immersed and spellbound with these Antonin Dvorak’s composition. Itzhak Perlman seems to be less focused to show his masterful technique, and rather lock to the emotional side with integrity.
The balanced reproduction of the music from the black disk represents the biggest challenge for any phono stage. The golden triad of tone, timbre, and color have no solitude standing, without the impact of the transparency and speed. Both sides need to be combined properly, in order to form an objective illusion, where violin notes embody the very needed anchor points, that’re essential at the recreation of proper tone structure and acoustical cues.
DSA Phono II again revealed more in-depth, lab-loupe like the ability to decipher pivotal data. Phono II have performed the onerous process without excessive hyperbole, that is too often associated even with the much costlier phono stages.
DSA flagship phono preamplifier never failed to render Itzhak Perlman articulated playing even with few of his’ other records, that I’ poses. I really like and loved the way Phono II had provided the microstructure. The arpeggios, phrasing and especially Itzhak’s interpretation never felt to be lost in translation, but have captivated the aural senses with the seldom, festive musical glitter.
Steve Reich – Kronos Quartet / Pat Metheny – Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint (Elektra Nonesuch 979 176-1)
The luxury of having both Steve Reich and Pat Metheny working together on an album is no ordinary thing. At least not for yours truly. I was exposed to the works of both masters from my early age and their compositions created a lasting impression and opened my mind to a bit different understanding of the music.
Yes, Electric Counterpoint is minimalistic, yet, it comes with an unprecedented lyricism and interplay, that is very special. We all know how vinyl recordings can project the sense of space with a stand out three-dimensionality. Even with the mediocre analog front one can experience the masterful guitar coaction, but when everything is set right, then the hypnotic rytms starts to evolve into the far-out pin-pong melodic escapade, that gravitate towards the listener with archaic, almost mystical potency.
DSA Phono II again acted with uncompromising stance, extruding the music’s bits in such potent form, that it could be unfolded as the seamless whole and as an authoritative singleton. DSA Phono II fit perfectly into the role of an efficacious phono preamplifier. Electric Counterpoint demands much more than a typical set of attributes to expand fully. Phono II avocated guitar notes and chords with a grander portion of the gravitas. Phono II’s sonic sophistication had further manifested with trenchantly materialized reproduction where both chords and notes could form “tout de suite” appearance from the abyssal blackness. And that alone, is worthy of more, than just grand appreciation and recognition!
DSA Phono has surprised and allured on more than one level. First of all with the intriguing juxtaposition of, what it seems to be impossible “marriage” of the warm and full sound blended with the speed and transparency.
Douglas Hurlburt managed to combine the unexpected attributes, that explores the vinyl universe profoundly differently and most importantly with a sonic impact, that was not only refreshingly new but also surprisingly involving and able to deliver minute dynamic shifts with utmost efficiency and transparency.
I’ve found more than just great working synergy with Lyra Etna SL, Gold Note Tuscany, Takeda San (last batch) cartridges, but perhaps in this particular setup with Dohmann Helix 1, My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent BC and Gold Note Tuscany were most synergistic matches.
In an utmost sense, like with all phono preamplifiers, the noise level can be a bit more evident at the quietest passages with classical music, when the 66dB gain is selected. Then again… This is the hardest challenge for any designer of phono preamplifier, as the most demanding task is always is to deal with noise in such way, that it won’t destroy musical flow and lower the needed transparency.
As with my hands on experiences, back when I was exploring the soldering universe, this was never too inviting and easily accomplished task. When the noise goes down, then as a ground rule the speed, transparency, music flow and dynamics are reduced. The specific sonic direction depends on the circuit design, but the (d)effect is of the same DNA.
Do note, DSA, that the noise traits were evident with the extremely quiet passages with classical music and with the 66dB being selected the noise goes up by 6dB.
At 40dB and 60dB the notes are materializing from (for the phono preamp) the Kapoor “Schwarz” blackness. Douglas Hurlburt has expertly managed to keep the most important aspects of the music with his approach to dealing with the noise hubris. The result speaks for itself. The DSA Phono II phono preamplifier delivers! The sonic performance is far above from what I was expecting and despite my highly pre-set standards, Phono II have changed quite a few personal believes of the phono preamplification.
DSA flagship phono preamplifier didn’t act as another Mondrian or Munch. It delivers the behemoth qualities, where cherry picking of subtle differences was possible with the Phono II loupe like the ability to explore sonic nucleus, hidden inside of the black grooves with much higher tensegrity.
At the end of the day, each phono preamplifier performance will be always closely connected with a proper synergy with the cartridge, the rest of the analog paraphernalia and the system as a whole.
DSA Phono II is one of the most involving and transparent phono preamplifiers I’ve had the luxury to try so far, with the sense of real drama and impressive density, that allows countless hours of rediscovering the very essence of the beloved and familiar black discs.
For me, as a reviewer, DSA Phono II managed to address both of my needs for so-called scientific-highly-flexible-tool and as highly emotionally bounding high-end component, that allows prolonged hours of listening with joy and analog pride.
Such juxtaposition rarely happens and I’m happy to give out the Mono & Stereo Highly Recommended Product Award for this highly impressive analog device.
I’m more than happy, that my intuition was awarded such positive outcome and I do hope, there will be no rush with this musical box returning home and that I’ll have some more quality time on both pro and personal side of affairs :).
Gain stages: DC coupled, balanced-differential
Output Stage: Class-A, balanced-differential, push-pull
RIAA Compensation: Passive, 2-stage LP filter
AC Voltage: 120 VAC (240VAC option)
Fuse Type and Rating: 2 x Buss GMC (20 mm) 1.5 A
Dimensions: 17” (W) x 11-1/2” (D) x 4-1/2” (H)
Weight: 22 lbs
Moving Magnet Input Impedance:
Load Resistance: Selectable: 47Kohms or 100Kohms
Load Capacitance: Selectable: 200pF to 975pF in 25 pF steps
Moving Coil Input Impedance:
– Selectable from 25 ohms to 1525 ohms in 25ohm steps
– Or user value Rx (Input A only)
Gain: User selectable: 40dB, 50dB, 60dB, 66dB
Channel Separation: ≥ 60 dB
RIAA Accuracy: ± 0.2dB from 20 Hz – 20KHz
Max Output Voltage: 20 volts peak-to-peak (7VRMS)
Output Impedance (balanced or unbalanced): 75 ohms
Output Current: Max. 30 mA (for Class A operation)
RMS Noise power (Shorted input to unbalanced output):
40 dB gain
1Hz – 20kHz: – 66dB relative to 3mV input at 1kHz
20Hz – 20kHz: – 70dB relative to 3 mV input at 1kHz
60 dB gain
1Hz – 20kHz: -65dB relative to 0.3mV input at 1kHz
20Hz – 20kHz: -69dB relative to 0.3mV input at 1kHz
Dynamic Sounds Associates
1754 Persimmon Ct.
Naples, Florida 34109