The Avari C1A Phono Stage Review

Plain vanilla does not get plainer than this. The Avari Phono stage is by all accounts, a very boring black box. It is no-frills styled and scores low on the wife-acceptance factor, in fact, there are no aesthetic flairs whatsoever. The chassis is made of aluminum with a single ON/OFF button in the front, and a set of inputs and outputs at the back. Even some generic chassis found on eBay, such as this one, looks more exciting than the Avari.   

The juice, however, lies with the Avari circuit. Not just any circuit, but the very popular “Current Amplification” circuit which has captured audiophile headlines from around the world. It was recently made popular by the uber-expensive CH Precision P1 Phono stage which I reviewed here, and subsequently again here by my boss Matej Isak, and once again here by me once more for TONEAudio magazine. Mono & Stereo was one of the first to review the CH, but by now, many magazines from the around the world have jumped on the review wagon, generating a lot of buzz on the CH P1/X1. The “Current Amplification” circuit has been revived and raised to stardom. However, the four chassis CH Precision P1/X1 cost nearly USD 100,000, whereas the base model of the Avari C2 Phono starts at only $ 4,800, less than 1/20 the price of the CH, so this no-frills black box looks very attractive all of a sudden!

CH Precision did not invent the current amplification circuitry. It is generally agreed upon that Dr. Noburu Tominari of Dynavector was the first to invent it, but there have been a few others who have tried to claim a piece of the invention pie. From a consumer’s perspective, it makes no difference who invented it, and it is what the circuit does that matters the most.

Why use low output cartridges?

Let’s backtrack a little to look at Vinyl playback in general. Your turntable cartridge, or “needle”, as some would call it, is a device used to retrieve analog information recorded on the record groves. As the vinyl spins, a small diamond glued on a cantilever attached to a coil winding of hair-thin wires glides between the grooves and moves the cantilever. Attached to the end of the cantilever, is a small coil winding that sits in between small magnets within the cartridge. As the coil moves between the magnets, the process converts mechanical vibration into an electrical signal – hence the name “Moving Coil” cartridges. If you reverse the process by mounting magnets to the cantilever instead of a coil, you have “Moving Magnet” cartridges.  
Here’s an excellent GIF image is taken from Goldring’s website which shows the working mechanism of an MC cartridge:
(MC Cartridge working mechanism. Photo Source:
Imagine the diamond as a kayak running through the grand rapids in white water rafting, one could never argue with physics, so a small kayak will rip through the rapids with a lot more agility than a sailboat. By the same token, the smaller the object attached to the cantilever, the more agile the cantilever can maneuver between the grooves, resulting in a more accurate retrieval of information. Typically, coil windings are much smaller than magnets, so MC cartridges are more agile than MM cartridges. It is advantages to keep the coil as small as possible to reduce the moving mass, but a small coil generates much smaller electrical signals, which requires the phono stage to amplify the signal by a much higher level – a very difficult task to accomplish well.
(Photo courtesy of Francois Saint Gerand of Ana Mighty Sound of France. Ana Mighty is one of the world’ greatest cartridge rebuilders, for more information please see my Interview with Francis Saint Gerand).
For MC cartridges, the size of the coil winding is indicated by the “Internal Impedance” spec of the cartridge, the smaller the number, the smaller the coil, the smaller the output, the more agility they will have, which leads to better transient response, better dynamics, and more accurate retrieval of information. It is not a mere coincidence that of the MC cartridges which I love, all happen to have very small internal impedances. The ZYX Optimum 1 Ohm (0.2 mV), the King of the hill cartridge in my book, retrieves micro & macro-dynamics like no other on earth. The My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent BC (0.2 mV, 0.6 ohms), and the new Signature Platinum (0.5 mV, 1.5 ohms) have super-fast transient responses. The Kondo IO-M (0.1 mV, 1 ohm), my go-to cartridge for human voices exhibits life-like realism. The same for my beloved Lyra Olympos (0.3mV, 5.5 ohms), which I often call “the most realistic sounding” cartridge on earth – All of them have very low outputs, very low impedances, and require very high-quality phono stages. Generally speaking, cartridges with higher outputs, and bigger coil windings, simply do not deliver the same level of detail and transient response.
Herein lies the dilemma, analog lovers are always engaged in a tug of war between low output MC cartridges (with tiny coil windings) versus less agile higher output cartridges. The signal from Low output MC cartridges is very difficult to amplify. Most phono stage on the market employs “Voltage amplification” circuits, where MC signals as small as 0.1 mV (or 0.0001V), will have to be amplified by almost 25,000x to reach the line-level output of approx. 2.5 Volts. Usually, this involves several gain stages, but the more gain stages you add on, the more likely they will be subject to noise and distortion. This is why you sometimes high “hisses” on high gain phono stage settings.
The first gain stage is the most difficult as component noises can easily contaminate low-level signals. Very often a Step Up Transformer (SUT) is used to amplify the signal anywhere from 10 to 40 times so that it can be further amplified upstream. SUTs have the advantage of being very quiet, but they also have a few shortcomings. When voltages are amplified 10x to 40x, the laws of physics dictate that the energy has to come from somewhere, in the case of SUTs, the energy comes from converting current into voltages – a process which often robs micro-dynamics, resulting in a sound that is somewhat veiled and less dynamic. High-quality SUTs are also very expensive, and they also carry a very strong sonic signature of their own, so unless if you have an arsenal of SUTs at your disposal, finding the right SUT for a low output cartridge can be an expensive and frustrating exercise. On top of that, you have to know how to adjust the impedance load on a SUT to match with the cartridge, otherwise, the resultant frequency response of the signal will be changed, almost having the same effect of adding an equalizer to the equation by randomly pushing the bars. 

Current Amplification

There is an Indian proverb that says “You can touch your ear this way, or that way,” meaning you can reach the ear with the arm on the same side, or use the other arm to wrap around your head to reach the same ear. The voltage amplification circuit is basically trying the reach your ear the more difficult way – it is forever fighting with a handicap – You are either battling with noise and multiple gain stages with low output cartridges, or you can have a higher output cartridge at the expense of a sound that is less detailed and with less transient responses.    

This is where “Current Amplification” or “Current Injection” (C.I) comes in. C. I operate in the exact opposite fashion as voltage amplification circuits. The C.I circuit treats the MC cartridge as a current source and amplifies the current from it, taking advantage of the low impedance of low output cartridges to amplify the signal. The Avari phono shorts the circuit of the cartridge, it converts this current to a voltage and amplifies the voltage to a useable level, thus the term “Current Injection”.
Shorting the cartridge output reduces the magnetic distortion caused by the nonlinear characteristics of the magnetic materials of the cartridge. The result is better linearity across the whole frequency range. Ultra-low output cartridges with their super small coil windings are no longer subject to the usual amplification constraints; the lower the impedance, the smaller the coil, the higher the gain! 
The Avari phono preamp is an all FET direct-coupled design offering two gain stages, and a passive RIAA equalization circuit sandwiched in between. The design is fully Class A utilizing JFET inputs, JFET drivers and MOSFET output buffers – Not that we need to understand what these are, except they take the handicap of low output cartridges and turns it into an advantage, fulling realizing the potential of their agility.    

Current Amplification circuits do have one limitation, they do not work well with high output cartridges or anything with a high internal impedance. There is no hard line drawn in the sand, but generally speaking one should avoid using anything with an impedance higher than 5-10 ohms, otherwise, the sound can quickly become lifeless and veiled, even after you fine-tune your unit to match with the cartridge’s impedance. This applies to all the C.I phono stages in I have tried including the CH Precision, BMC and others, the nature of the circuity simply does not work with higher impedances, and it quickly loses its advantage when the number gets beyond 5 ohms.
 The Avari’s circuit inverts the signal so those who want to preserve phase integrity should reverse the connection on the phono pins, i.e connect the Red to Green, and Green to Red, and vice versa for Blue and White. It is well explained in the 2 pager owner’s manual, not that you will need instructions because other than the ON/OFF switch, there’s nothing else to adjust. You simply plug everything in and “GO”.
My review sample is called the C1A, a souped-up version of the $ 4,800 C2 base model. The C1A ($ 6,800) comes with:

  • Dual Shunt JFET Regulators for each channel;  
  • Dual Shielded E-I Core special metal core Transformers on each channel power supply,
  • Copper IEC inlets and Connectors including Ground binding post.   

There is also a third model called the Avari C1 ($ 7,900). This is a dual-mode phono with both current Injection, and Voltage Injection plus 3 Gain selections utilizing JFETs and a Shunt Regulator Power Supply. This unit will be suitable for those who do not have low impedance cartridges and want to use regular voltage amplification. My review unit does not have the “Voltage Injection” section so I will be unable to comment on its sound.
(Avari C1A – $ 6,800 USD)
The current outputs of moving coil cartridges vary considerably depending on the specific magnetic properties of the specific cartridge. The exact output current will depend on many factors (magnetic materials, number of windings, coil design, etc.). Avari believes that each cartridge must be matched with the proper amount of gain in the circuitry which will result in better linearity across the frequency spectrum. Therefore, each Avari phono stage must be made to order and customized for your specific cartridge, otherwise, the sound quality will suffer by quite a bit, as demonstrated later.
In the fine-tuning of the Avari phono stage, careful attention is paid to the internal impedance more so than the output because each cartridge has a different level of efficiency. My review sample is set up to mate with the Ikeda 9TT cartridge ($ 4,600), a fantastic cartridge by all account, it has an internal impedance of 2 ohms, and an output of 0.16 mV. Thankfully, I have in my possession the My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum cartridge which has an internal impedance of 1.5 ohms, very similar to the Ikeda 9TT, which suggests my review sample will likely work very well with the MSL cartridge.

The Juice

After spending approx. 3 weeks with the Avari, I was able to get a handle on the sonic characteristic and personality of the Avari Phono stage. What a wonderful phono stage it is.

First and foremost, the Avari shares the same “Un-veiledness” in sound as my beloved CH Precision P1. With the My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum cartridge going into the Avari P1, it is as if a thick veil has been lifted which allows you to hear a lot more “air”, ambiance, and clarity to the sound. This is the single greatest advantage of the Avari phono, and very few voltage amplification phono stage can come close to it. This is easily demonstrated with Aaron Rosand playing the music of Pablo Sarasate (VOX ‎– STPL 512 760). Rosand’s violin wheels the famous Guarneri del Gesù violin, which was sold for $ 10 Million in 2009, the highest price ever paid for a violin. The Guarneri del Gesù violin carries an unusually full body and voluptuous tonality, and on the lower registers, it can almost sound like a viola. Unless if the phono stage and cartridge can deliver the utmost transparency, the violin can sound unusually fat in this record – not so the Avari – it sounded unveiled and lively. I cannot think of a single phone stage within its price category which can deliver this level of transparency. The Avari allowed the agility of the MSL Signature Platinum’s agility to shine through, rendering plenty of details, micro-dynamics and “unrestrictedness” to the sound.

How does it compare with the best of SUTs or voltage amplification circuits? The first thing you need to have is a very fat piggy bank because it will take some very expensive combos to deliver this level of transparency. For SUTs, think Steven & Billington S&B TX-103 Silver, Kondo SFz (Silver SUT) or the Consolidated Audio Silver SUT from Berlin; but each of these alone costs almost the same price as the Avari. On top of that, you will need to buy a phono stage which matches well with both the cartridge and the SUT, ie., look forward to a very long and tedious journey, which may or may not work out at the end. 

If you choose not to go with SUT route and want something with enough gain to drive very low output cartridges, again you will be looking at some very expensive phono stages to reach this level of performance. The Burmester PH-100, Tenor P1 or the FM Acoustic FM-122 or 222 will do the job adequately. But Burmester is more than double the price of Avari, let alone Tenor or FM-Acoustics.
The tonality of the Avari is very close to neutral. With the MSL Signature Platinum, it leans a tad towards the “clean and sharper” end of the spectrum than “warm and fussy”. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say it is a 6, with 10 being the “clean and sharper” end. But with the warmer sounding Kondo IO-M (1 Ohm), I would say it is a 3 or a 4, delivering a warmer and fuzzier sound which means the tonality will largely be determined by the cartridge which you pair it with.
One indispensable evaluation criteria which can never be omitted is the “dynamics” of the sound. Dynamic range is what makes reproduced music sound real and lifelike, and it goes beyond measured specifications. It is a quality in sound which gives instruments weight, separation and solidity in the acoustic space. It requires not only the phono stage but the entire system and the room to cooperate. The lack of dynamic range and contrast, I believe, is the very reason why a lot of systems are incapable of handling classical music. A simple female vocal, a jazz quarter or even chamber music is much easier to reproduce than a full-scale orchestra. I can easily pull out over 50 titles to demonstrate this, anything from Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, with Felix Slatkin conducting the Concert Arts Symphony Orchestra (Capitol SP8373), or Shostakovich Symphony No. 8, with Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (ASD 2917), or Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, with Szell conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (DECCA SXL 6203) – there are no shortages of dynamic sounding titles. Each of these is powerful and difficult to play, your systems ability to project soundstage, dynamic range, instrument separation, weight and contrast to the sound, all of which will be fully put to the test.
Assuming if your system is capable of delivering a wide dynamic range, to begin with, how do the Avari stacks against the competition? The answer to this question depends greatly on the cartridge which you will be using the Avari with. As mentioned before, my review sample is fine-tuned for 2-ohm cartridges. When I tried the 5 ohms Lyra Olympos with the Avari, there was quite a noticeable reduction in transparency as well as dynamic contrast. For the sake of comparison, I plugged a 35-ohm Clearaudio Goldfinger into the unit and everything simply went south. From volume level to transparency, to dynamics, the sound was compressed, veiled, and muffled; which goes to show how important to of fine-tuning your specific cartridge. If you can, get a cartridge with as low an internal impedance as possible. Cartridges such as of My Sonic Lab, Haniwa, Air Tight, ZYX Universe or Optimum, Kondo IO-M, Lyra Etna SL, or the low output cartridges by Ana Mighty Sound, all of which will work very well with the Avari. 
With the MSL Signature Platinum (1.5 ohms), the dynamic range of the sound came alive and fully revealing the full potential of the Avari. On the numerous grand orchestral albums I played, the Avari demonstrated good instrument separation, differentiable contrast between objects in the acoustic space, and an adequate level of “punch” to bass notes. I would rank the level of dynamic contrast to approximately the same level as the FM Acoustic FM-122, Soulution 550; much more so than the Aesthetix Rhea, Ensemble Fonobrio, Audia Flight Phono; but less than much higher priced units such as the Burmester PH100, Tenor P1 and much less so than the CH Precision P1/X1 combo.

I am quite picky when it comes to audio equipment and I have almost zero emotional attachment to them, except maybe for my McIntosh MC3500 amplifiers. The MC3500 represents something more than just performance value. It is the last of the powerful tube amplifiers at the turn of an era, and a piece which powered the Woodstock concert, so it has a special place in my heart. But when it comes to cartridges and phono stages, if I find something better, I will simply sell off what I have without hesitation. My time with the Avari has given me plenty of reasons to own it. if I was after a phono stage with $ 6,800 on hand, the Avari will be exactly what I want to own. It is simply difficult to find something within its price category which can compete with the Avari’s level of transparency, it’s neutral tonality and its adequate dynamic range.
(The McIntosh MC3500 at Woodstock)

Last and not least, many have been dying to ask me whether the $6,800 Avari is better than the $100,000 4 Box CH P1/X1 combo. It is not, in fact not even close. But is the CH 20x better? That I am not sure. I can also say for certain that the gap is much closer when you compare it with the single box CH P1 standalone phono ($ 31,000). Bang for the buck, the Avari is simply too difficult to beat. If you have a low impedance cartridge, I would strongly recommend you to consider the Avari C1A Phono stage.    
By Richard H. Mak – Mono and Stereo Analog Editor  
With Special Thanks to Avari Audio: