Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Financial interests: click here
Digital source: Auraliti PK90, SOtM sDP-1000EX
Analog source: VPI Scout 1.1, Lounge Audio LCR MkIII & Copla, Zu-DL103 MkII, Dynavector 10x5 mk5, Ortofon Quintet Black
Preamplifiers: SOtM sDP-1000EX, Burson Conductor
Amplifiers: Triode Labs EL84TT, FirstWatt F5
Speakers: Ocellia Calliope 0.21 Twin Signature
Headfi: Burson Conductor, AKG K701
Cables: Genesis Absolute Fidelity (speaker), Zu Varial, Ocellia Silver Reference, Slinkylink Silver (phono)
Power cords: Genesis Absolute Fidelity, Ocellia Reference power, Zu Mother
Powerline conditioning: Isotek Nova
Sundry accessories: Isolpads, ASI Heartsong racks
Room size: 21'x13'x7.4'
Review component retail in Europe (incl. 20% VAT): €6'995, €280 for replacement tube set, €1'500 for second MC input with step-up transformer, €350 for second MC without step-up, €1'890 for VFS

If you have not done so already, I would strongly encourage you to read Srajan's detailed reviews on Nagra's Classic Amp and HD DAC. They document the transformations Nagra is currently undergoing whilst under new leadership. Not only have two new product lines HD and Classic emerged, Nagra's trademark sound signature is subtly evolving towards more resolution and transient speed than had been the case before. The component under review is squarely a Nagra legacy product. As far as I can tell, it has been around for about seven years and is meant to be the ultimate expression of the phono circuit of the now discontinued Nagra PL-P preamplifier. The VPS (for Valve Phono Stage as opposed to the all-solid-state BPS) shared similar dimensions with Nagra components of that era to allow for easy stacking. More recent components do not despite their obvious aesthetic similarities. A future Classic phono preamp has been hinted at that will likely address this size discrepancy going forward.

The Nagra VPS comes standard with one MM/MC input but can be ordered with a second input for convenience (either MM only as in my loaner; or a second MM/MC). The circuit is single-ended throughout but Nagra provide balanced XLR outputs in addition to the RCA connectors to integrate more easily in a balanced system. There might seem no option for balanced inputs however, for folks who like to exploit the inherently balanced nature of phono cartridges but actually, "one can use a balanced cartridge and connect it to the transformer using the RCA input, the ground being on the ground post". Another option available for the VPS is the addition of the Vibration Free Support or VFS platform for short. It comes with three vibration absorbing cones in addition to the dual-base plate decoupled with viscoelastic pellets. As you will see later in the listening notes, I consider this accessory a must have if you want to hear the full potential of the VPS. The effect is easy to hear and highly desirable.

To round out introductions, the Nagra VPS offers two compensation curves, the ubiquitous RIAA as well as the less bass-endowed and far less common IEC1976. Selection is by internal jumpers. All my listening was done with the RIAA curve and I felt no need to explore the second option. Without a doubt, one of the VPS promises of greatness arrives from Nagra's proprietary step-up transformers wound in house for the first 11dB of gain when using MC cartridges. I don't know much about the technology behind the highly regarded Nagra tape recorders but a lot was supposed to come from the extremely high standards of build quality and from the unique transformers developed in house. Either know-how is heavily exploited in the VPS phono stage.

The step-up transformers visible on the input board are followed by a 34dB dual tube gain stage employing both ECC81 and ECC83 in a circuit optimized for extremely short signal paths. Should the resultant 45dB of gain prove insufficient—likely the case unless the VPS is plugged into a high-gain preamplifier—one can add a 15dB solid-state gain stage by flipping a switch on the back of the unit. Obviously at this level of price and expected performance, the VPS offers loading options for both MC and MM pickups through interchangeable boards. That's similar to what we saw in the Nagra BPS a few years ago. This is supposed to provide higher performance than dip switches or the rotary controllers seen in other luxury preamps but it also makes switching loads more cumbersome at times. For that reason this Nagra may not be the best choice for OCD listeners who need to constantly fiddle with loading.

For me, the 100Ω loading worked so well with all my cartridges that I suspect the VPS will be a delight for anybody with a 'set once and enjoy' philosophy. The Nagra ships standard with three boards for MC cartridges and three for MM pickups but they will also ship up to three custom-made boards to new buyers to suit whichever esoteric cartridge loading values are not covered by the standard options. It is in such little details as well as the superb care put into the packaging or inclusion of measurements for each unit shipped that one appreciates just how much attention to quality Nagra put into everything they make. For them Swiss-made quality is more than a label. It is the way they work.