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Over 2009 I reviewed six phono preamplifiers ranging from $350 (Clearaudio Nano) to $7500 (NAT Signature Phono). Although each review linked to below has far more detail and nuance in its respective assessment, I thought it would not be a waste of time to summarize my impressions while bestowing one concluding award. The Clearaudio Nano, no bigger than an iPod Classic, is the clear winner of this showdown when it comes to value. You'd be amazed by how much this $350 miniature has to offer. It's slightly on the warm side of neutral to make it very compatible with many entry-level systems. And, the Nano has a bold and big sound. There's nothing puny coming out of this little box. Of course compared to the pricier phono stages, it won't image on as large a scale; it can get a little confused  on big orchestral masses; and the midrange won't have the magical wetness of the NAT. But on value it remains phenomenal.

Truly remarkable also is the feature set. The Nano is compatible with both MM and MC cartridges, provides for cartridge loading via external resistors (supplied with the Nano) and adds a rumble filter (which the NAT and Esoteric lack) as well as continuously variable gain between 34 and 67dB. Its only competition to my mind is the Pro-Ject Phono Box SE-II which offers similar features at the same price and a more neutral presentation. On the other hand, the Nano's dual-mono design pays dividends on image specificity. For anybody setting up an entry to mid-level vinyl system, this is a serious contestant that will be hard to beat for less than a grand. Wholeheartedly recommended.

The Sound Quest SQ-PH-1t ($1595) is a true-to-breed tube phono preamplifier. Its top end is slightly rounded, its bottom end a little loose and it's not the quietest phono preamp by a long mile (I suspect the variable pot destined to drive amplifiers directly is no small cause in this matter) but it can certainly sing. Sound Quest typically demonstrates their unit with their own SQ10 hornspeaker where those qualities tame an otherwise biting top end. In that vintage sound context, the SQ-PH-1t is a nice option. I would not exclude it from consideration as in the right context, it will be quite fabulous. It can even be taken to the next level by upgrading its tubes with the best NOS available and adding a dynamic and punchy power cord.

Granted, this will take the SQ-PH-1t significantly upward of $2500 but with top Mullards and an Acoustic Arts Ferrite II power cord, it had no problem competing with the ASR Mini-Basis Exclusive. I wish cartridge loading was available and the variable volume pot removed (replaced perhaps by two gain levels but no more). But that's just me. I feel the SQ-PH-1t has more potential than is currently exploited.

The ASR Mini-Basis Exclusive ($2900) is as much a typical representative of mid-level solid-state phono preamps as the SQ-PH-1t was a true tube unit. I mean clean, quiet, dynamic and with a ton of loading and gain options. The clear limits of the ASR are tonal richness, harmonic development and a soundstage that is narrow and shallower than the Sound Quest. Compared to the Clearaudio Nano though, the ten times difference in price was easy to hear with superior dynamics and the ability to remain unfazed by complex orchestral works. I was not able to compare the Exclusive to the Standard version but was not enamored with the power cord which is supplied with the Exclusive package, finding the Accustic Arts Ferrite II a far superior match for the ASR.

It therefore raises a question of value for the Exclusive version. It relies on only an upgraded IC to justify its price. If you are considering an ASR Mini-Basis, I would certainly listen to the Exclusive compared to the normal version with a top notch power cord. I can't predict which you'll prefer but the test is certainly justified.

Moving on to what I consider the three stars of this review series, I must preface what follows by saying that each is truly a superior phono preamplifier with strengths and relative weaknesses but each is worthy of your interest. In the end, one nabbed a Blue Moon award based on my preferences but depending on your system and your expectations, this award recipient may not be the best choice for you.

The Audia Flight Phono ($6100) is certainly the most well-rounded, complete and hardest to criticize. Its only weakness may actually be that it comes second on almost every single check-list category one would consider for a phono preamp. But in truth, it has no weakness to speak of and of the three is probably the easiest to recommend by being the most polyvalent by far. The Flight Phono offers all the bells and whistles one might want in a top-level phono preamplifier. In no particular order, here we get two separate and independent inputs which can be ordered as either MM or MC boards, complete loading options via jumpers, two gain levels, a rumble filter and a decent power cord.

Shy of balanced inputs, the Flight Phono is as complete as one could want. Sonically it is is a pure member of the solid-state pure class A family - very transparent, very dynamic, slightly warm, with its treble a tad shelved down and the bass just slightly rotund. It's the archetype of comfort sound but never pushed too far, never euphonic and always tremendously musical regardless of the type of music I threw at it.

One of the greatest assets of the Flight Phono was its superior operational silence. It enabled all its qualities to come through. Compared to the Esoteric E03, it was neither as resolved nor as dynamic but tonally denser. Compared to the NAT Signature Phono, it won't provide the triode midrange magic but retaliates with greater bass solidity and quite  a bit more dynamics. As I stated above, the Flight Phono does not fall short of an award, I just happen to like one of the other preamps better and not by much. Since I had decided prior to commencing this series that it would not be an “everybody wins” affair, I didn't give the Flight Phono an award - but for once I actually feel bad about that.

The NAT Signature Phono ($7500) is a battery-powered tube phono preamplifier from Serbia. Built like a tank, it sounds like a Dragonfly - light, elegant and refined. The NAT takes time to impress. What it does is so even-handed and discrete that it won't come across during a short session. What it does is perform triode magic of the highest order. The NAT is overtly silent, allowing all the small signals to come through for great unforced resolution. Then it adds this midrange wetness, this full harmonic development of voices and instruments and this three-dimensional holography which make triodes unique.

The price to pay are more reserved dynamics than the solid-state units offer and bass that won't extend as deep nor with as much authority. Depending on where you find yourself in your audiophile journey, this could be the perfect phono preamplifier. If you want an effortless organic sound that facilitates contemplation of the music, the NAT is tailor-made. One word of caution. The NAT Signature Phono is a one input at a time design which is rather unusual at this price. You can use MM or MC with all the necessary loading options but changing cartridge will require modifying the entire setup, which is less than convenient here. It reinforces the prerequisite that prospective owners have arrived at their destination to be all set on what they want without worrying over frequent gear swaps any longer.

My favorite and thus the recipient of our Blue Moon award is the Esoteric E03 diva ($5900). Musically it is an overachiever on transparency and dynamics, operating at levels I would expect from Boulder or Nagra gear costing close to or more than $10,000. When I say transparency, I do not mean an unduly forceful presentation of details but conveying all the sonic textures absolutely unchanged down to the smallest and faintest of signals. And yes, that includes groove gunk so if you consider an E03, an LP cleaning machine should be considered mandatory. Unfortunately this type of exalted performance comes with diva-esque tantrums. The E03 is the most efficient of noise sniffers imaginable.

Power-line noise can be addressed by lifting the ground with a cheater plug but I also discovered post review publication that the E03 will respond to other transformers too closely adjacent. When moving to my new music room whilst awaiting new racks, I sat the E03 atop Esoteric's X03SE CD player. That machine includes two massive transformers and proved a very bad idea. I heard the X03SE transformers interacting with the sensitive phono stage circuitry of the E03 through my speakers with far more presence than I cared for.

Exploiting the full potential of the E03 will require careful implementation on a dedicated shelf away from any radiating transformer fields; a high-quality mains connection (and likely lifting the ground); and definitely the most refined cartridge your wallet can afford. If you coddle this diva, she'll return the favor a thousand fold but there's no corner-cutting with the E03. She'll let you know if you even think about it.

Features are satisfactory with two independent inputs—one dedicated to MC and one to MC/MM—and complete loading options selectable via rotary knob on the front. The latter is a convenient luxury other manufacturers better take notice of. The E03 only offers one gain level for MM and MC respectively but this probably won't be a limiting factor for the vast majority of systems with all but the least sensitive of cartridges. The E03 lacks a rumble filter so owners of speakers endowed with cyborg bass capabilities beware.

The E03 will not please everybody. It is too outgoing, too intense to be universally appealing. There will be no seasoning, no rounding over, no warming up, just the unaltered truth. If you're ready for that, here it comes. Esoteric could have called this the E01 to position this machine at twice the current asking price. Instead they threw a big stone in the small pond of phono preamplifiers to upset the status quo. Give it a try and prepare to be shocked.

Of course this series isn't complete nor was it ever intended to be. Most everyone will feel cheated that their favorite phono stage was not reviewed or used as reference. There just are too many to make this even the remotest possibility. If the opportunity arises though, I'll continue to add new references to this list. Phono stages prove to be far more diverse and entertaining to review than CD players ever were...