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Reviewer: Marja & Henk
Financial Interests: click here
Sources: PS Audio PWT; PS Audio PWD; Dr. Feickert Blackbird/DFA 1o5/Zu DL-103; Phasure NOS1 DAC [in for review]
Streaming sources: XXHighEnd; iTunes; Devialet AIR
Preamp/integrated/power: Tri TRV EQ3SE phonostage; Audio Note Meishu with WE 300B (or AVVT, JJ, KR Audio 300B output tubes); Yarland FV 34 CIIISA; Qables iQube V1; Devialet D-Premier; Hypex Ncore 1200 based monoblocks; Trafomatic Kaivalya; Trafomatic Reference One [in for review]; Trafomatic Reference Phono One [in for review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Acoustic Duo Omega; Arcadian Audio Pnoe; Vaessen Aquarius
Cables: complete loom of ASI LiveLine cables; full loom of Crystal Cable cables; Nanotec Golden Strada #79 nano 3; Nanotec Golden Strada #79; Nanotec Golden Strada #201
Power line conditioning: Omtec Power Controllers; PS Audio Powerplant Premier; PS Audio Humbuster III; Commino Powerline Harmonizer H 3.1 [in for review]
Equipment racks: ASI amplifier and TT shelf
Sundry accessories: Furutech DeMag; ClearAudio Double Matrix; Nanotec Nespa #1; Exact Audio Copy software; iPod; wood, brass, ceramic and aluminum cones and pyramids; Shakti Stones; Manley Skipjack; Blue Horizon footers [in for review]
Room treatment: Acoustic System International resonators, sugar cubes, diffusers
Room size: ca. 14.50 x 7.50m with a ceiling height of 3.50m, brick walls, wooden flooring upstairs, ca 7 x 5m with a ceiling height of 3.50m, brick walls and concrete floor downstairs.
Price of review component: € 3.600

Audio remains surprising. Whilst consensus firms up regarding less is more in digital playback where eliminating a preamplifier can benefit sound quality, in the analog domain more is still merrier. Here a phono stage precedes a preamplifier and subsequent power amplifier. These additional steps including their interconnects are still considered superior to a fully integrated solution. Even though this plentitude of electronic gear undoubtedly influences the sound, clever matching can keep noise as a consequence of the long signal path through several stages to an acceptably low level.

Analog playback starts with the tracking tip of the cartridge riding the wobbly and winding road that is the LP groove. The tip’s movement transforms into an electrical signal with the magnet and coils at the end of the cantilever in the cartridge. Too bad its signal is so bloody tiny. Our beloved Zu/Denon DL-103 outputs just 0.3mV. Some form of preamplification is absolutely mandatory to elevate this voltage so the next step in the chain can work with what commonly is something between 1 and 2 volts.

Since analog lacks snazzy buzz words like upsampling, let's call what a phono preamp does upjuicing. This gain increase is preceded by RIAA deemphasis to reverse a form of lossless compression that's always used to fit the full audio spectrum into a record groove. Were this compression omitted and full-scale 20Hz-20kHz encoded directly, the chance of a stylus tip launching from the groove with each powerful bass signal wouldn't be a thing of lurid imagination. To capture the correct ratio of higher frequencies all records also write them to vinyl in emphasized or louder form which RIAA conversion also must recalibrate for playback. All of this is done to the tiny fragile signal which the cartridge passes on. It's mission critical then that any introduction of noise or distortion during this process be avoided utterly and at all costs.

But all this isn't merely a matter of connecting the ends of the cartridge leads to a phono preamp and starting play. Supposing the cartridge is mounted and aligned to perfection in the tone arm and the needle pressure is set accordingly, there is still more to adjust before optimal playback starts. When dealing with an MC cartridge, its impedance should be matched with the phono stage. This cartridge loading influences both noise and frequency response. A popular guideline is to choose an input impedance for the phono stage whose value is 2.5 times the impedance value of the cartridge coils. In our case the specification of the Zu DL-103 is 40Ω, thus a load impedance of 2.5 x 40 = 100Ω should be a correct match. This isn't rocket science, just something to know.