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Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Turntable: Acoustic Solid, Classic Wood with Rega RB300 and Denon DL103
Phono stage: clearaudio Nano
Preamplifier: Adcom GFP750
Amplifier: Genesis Reference 360
Speakers: Nomad Audio RPDs
Cables: Zu Varial, Zu Libtec, Zu Gede
Power Cords: Zu Bok & Zu Mother
Powerline conditioning: Monster Power HTS5100mkII
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics, Standesign stand
Room size: 15' x 30' x 9' opening to 3 other rooms, short wall setup, suspended wood floor, sheetrock walls and ceiling.
Review component retail: $350

Like Linnman on staff who reviews only what he has first purchased, this is not really a formal review. Nobody from clearaudio or their US distributor contacted 6moons to have the Nano phono preamplifier reviewed. I simply bought it for personal use like any normal citizen as I was moving from my phono-equipped integrated amplifiers to separates deprived of phono capability. As it turns out, the Nano is such a good bargain that I decided it was worth sharing the news. Summarizing the Nano is very simple. It is the tiny box that could far more than it should.

I ended up purchasing the Nano without first hearing it because I was looking for a phono stage below $500 that would accommodate MM and MC cartridges and provide enough flexibility to adapt to overall system gain and cartridge changes that constantly plague a reviewer's system. Hours of web searching did not turn up a flood of options and the Nano was one of the few. A set of tiny jumpers underneath allows MM to MC switching and rumble filter activation as needed. In addition, MC cartridge loading can easily be adapted by inserting resistors in the designated loading slots.

As of August 18th 2008, all Nanos will ship from Germany with a set of 4 resistors to change the load to either 50, 200, 400 or 1000 ohm. Being from June 2008, mine did not include said resistors but all it took was an email to US distributor Musical Surroundings and a set was on its way a few days later. A clever knob on the top of the unit allows for continuously variable gain from 34dB to 67dB to put the final touch of versatility on this budget unit.

At 80 x 100 x 20mm (3.1 x 3.9 x 0.79"), I knew the Nano was not going to be big but the cardboard box holding the external power transformer had me fooled for a minute. Once the box opened, I confirmed that the Nano was indeed minuscule, barely exceeding an Apple i-phone. The surprise was how much the tiny box
weighs, betraying a more solid construction than expected. I could not find the exact weight mentioned but when grabbing the Nano, it feels like a solid chunk of metal, not a box full of air and components. The nice benefit of small size and heavy weight was that the Nano quickly disappeared under the turntable without a problem but was never dragged down by the heavy Zu Varial interconnects I use it with.

I started listening to the Nano with the Ortofon 520mkII that came standard with my Acoustic Solid turntable. The Nano confirmed that it performs on par or even slightly ahead of the phono boards inside my McIntosh MA2275 and Musical Fidelity A5 integrateds. That may seem like faint praise but the phono stages in those two are actually well regarded and often compared to phono pres costing $500 to $700. Hence the performance of the half-priced Nano was more than respectable.

Compared to the McIntosh's phono stage with its pair of NOS Mullards costing more than the Nano itself, the clearaudio lacked in midrange transparency but responded with greater bass weight and extension, better macrodynamics, sweeter treble and lower noise. Like the A5, the Nano had greater authority down low than the Mac and sounded warmer but like the A5, the Nano could not quite match the overall ability to convey micro information as the McIntosh can. All three units conveyed similar senses of space but the Nano clearly won with its macrodynamic ability which, although not as impressive as the best phono preamps I have heard, was unexpected from this tiny package and its generic-looking power transformer.

At that point I felt the Nano could reasonably compete with the famed Bellari VP129 and Project Phono Box SE -- trading some resolution for warmth and dynamics -- but I was wondering if its added versatility was really worth the extra $100 it commands over those two references among budget phono pres.

All this changed a few days later as I installed the Denon DL103 (standard version) that had been delivered at the same time as the clearaudio. I have heard this cartridge many times in multiple settings and have always been amazed by its price-to-musicality ratio. I don't know of any other cartridge at this price that can so effortlessly extract music from the grooves. Tones are gorgeous, dynamics quite engaging and although extension at both ends of the spectrum is somewhat truncated, it sure beats the entry-level Ortofon hands down. People who do not like the DL103 usually focus on its lower resolution vs. more recent designs and an upper midrange that can at times call attention to itself; but more often than not they've just heard it with the wrong loading.

I have heard the DL103 strapped to over $2000 worth of step-up transformers plus preamps and then it clearly did better than with the clearaudio (more transparency, more dynamics, more resolution, more life), but what keeps amazing me is how well the Nano performs at just a fraction of the price. I started listening to it with the standard 47kOhm loading and the sound was rich and warm but lacked top-end air at times. Once the cartridge and Nano were burnt in though, this small problem went away (it took about 20 hours for the tonal balance to settle down). Inserting various loading resistors under the Nano did not seem to improve the DL103's performance. Some of them actually resulted in a tremendously recessed background and flat sound. So I did all my more critical listening with the standard 47kOhm loading against all expectations.

The overall warmth of the Nano and slightly emphasized upper bass complemented the DL103 nicely even if it was at the expense of overall tonal honesty and transparency. That seemed a very slight price to pay considering that the Nano preserves most of the beauty delivered by this cartridge and in many ways actually does a much better job at it than many other budget MM/MC pres. So far, of all the budget pre-amps I have heard with the DL103, only the $700 Project Tube Box SEII succeeded at avoiding dullness. Properly loaded, the Nano now joined this very short list. Granted, the Nano does not resolve like the Project nor does it have the same tonal exactitude but I easily forgive those very small shortcomings. It errs towards warmth rather than leanness but doesn't sacrifice the fundamental tonal elegance of the Denon. That it's priced to seduce only adds to its appeal.

As I was listening to some of my more familiar LPs, I played with the gain control of the Nano to see if it would change the overall gestalt of the presentation. I can happily report that I heard no difference in energy and dynamics with low or high gain. I was therefore able to keep this setting to its lowest level to minimize noise and overall system gain (as it sits today, my system has too much gain to start with, limiting the usable range of the volume knob of my preamplifier - being able keep the Nano's contribution at a low level was a welcome and unexpected relief to this state of affairs).

On its own, the Nano is a fantastic value; offering great versatility in a tiny package for a tiny price. As importantly, it also offers a very pleasant and easy-going presentation. The Nano is warm and dynamic if not ultra detailed and will be a perfect match for many entry-level cartridges that usually shine more with their treble peakiness than tonal precision.

The other value the Nano brings to the table is the very real ability to explore the realm of more refined and expensive MC cartridges without breaking the bank. The Nano is not a giant slayer; there are plenty of other options above $600 that will give you more overall performance. Still, I would be hard-pressed to name anything that will give you more bang for the buck than this unique combination of built quality, versatility, low price and sweet dynamics. The fact that it mates reasonably well with the Denon DL103 then becomes just another one of its numerous charms. This Epilogue reports on my concluding impressions after I'd completed the 6th installment of this review series.

Quality of packing: Adequate - just.
Reusability of packing: Perhaps once.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: No particular issue.
Condition of component received: Flawless but the Nano had dislodged from its carton holder during transport and was moving freely in the box (thankfully it is built to last so no damage).
Completeness of delivery: Nanos manufactured prior to August 18th 2008 will not have loading resistors included in the box (email your country's distributor for a set).
Quality of owner's manual: Minimal yet informative.
Website comments: Minimal.
Warranty: 3 years with warranty card.
Global distribution: Broadly available.
Human interactions: Great response from US distributor when approached about load resistors.
Other: Unique versatility in entry-level phono preamps (MM/MC, cartridge loading, variable gain, defeatable rumble filter)
Pricing: Hard to get this feature set for $350.
Application conditions: Entry level phono pre-amp that allows vinyl newbies to explore MC cartridges without breaking the bank. Great upgrade path when coupled with the Denon DL103 for tables below $2000 that come equipped with inferior standard cartridges.
Final comments & suggestions: Although I do not own any clearaudio cartridge, it would stand to reason that the compatibility with their own cartridges should be at least as good as what I've heard - and possibly even better.

clearaudio's website