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Allnic H-1500 II SE Plus Phono Preamplifier Review

The tale only Phillip Holmes can tell

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Allnic H1500 II phono preamplifierLearning from the past must be a lost pursuit in some kind of inherent human retardation. Consider all the wars we’ve fought, several times over. All our current money problems? It’s all happened before. Now consider that when our audiophile friends in Japan started dusting off old Western Electric gear (and Klangfilm, RCA, Altec, Leak, etc), they heard things that were lost in modern equipment.

Of course it’s all been talked about: about single drivers, horns, SEDHT, transformer coupling and how their Renaissance delivered a different version of the truth from what state-of-the-art high-end designs were delivering. Lagging behind the speakers, amps, preamps, tubes, and topologies were phono stages. Most companies that are building single-ended triode amps packed with iron are still using one of the standard designs: feedback type, passive type, or split feedback and passive. These designs used various arrangements of capacitors and resistors, usually sandwiched between two triodes. Lurking out there in the mist was something completely different: the LCR filter. I’m not capable of delivering a dissertation on how the LCR stage does what it does. However, it boils down to this: the signal goes through one very special choke, fewer resistors and almost no capacitors. In my opinion, the result makes lame ducks of the traditional CR type circuits. If I understand correctly, an LCR network is/was used to accomplish the RIAA curve on many records; put another way, the RIAA preemphasis, during record mastering, used an LCR network. Yet again, iron has proven mightier than the condenser, which was the original order of things. So why did CR circuits come to rule the RIAA roost (also NAB, NARTB, IEC, etc.)? Because it’s cheap and easy to use. The kind of choke needed for the LCR network is expensive.

LCR designs have made their way around the internet for some years, with a small cadre of DIYers advocating their superiority. But as a friend put it, they’re expensive if you don’t like the result. Those high quality chokes don’t come cheap and are only offered by a handful of winders. You might be out a couple hundred dollars for some caps and resistors, which can be reused on a different project, on some rearranging of the traditional CR network. You might be out a couple thousand dollars depending on which version of the LCR circuit you chose. So, a few guys are preaching the good word, but very few were accepting the invitation. Fortunately for those of us who don’t want to build an entire phono stage from scratch, which would be most of us, these designs are starting to appear in real products that you plug and play.

A True Believer?

I first heard the Allnic H-3000, Allnic’s top phono stage, at this year’s T.H.E. Show, at Tom Vu’s KT Audio Imports room with GamuT amps and speakers, and a Musical Life front-end. About a month later I heard it at Albert Porter’s place, where he was auditioning a new phono stage every few weeks. My first impressions at T.H.E. Show were positive, but I was stunned by what I heard at Albert’s. T.H.E. Show can be a confusing experience with unknown room acoustics and systems with all new equipment. Hearing multiple phono stages in an otherwise unchanging system made it easy to hear how good the Allnic was. Anyway, after listening to the Allnic H-3000 and considering its virtues, a tune came to mind: “Savoy Truffle” by George Harrison. A snippet:

You know that what you eat you are,

But what is sweet now, turns so sour–

We all know Obla-Di-Bla-Da

But can you show me, where you are?..

Creme tangerine and Montélimar

A ginger sling with a pineapple heart

A coffee dessert–yes you know its good news

But you’ll have to have them all pulled out

After the Savoy truffle.

Yes, you’ll have to have them all pulled out

After the Savoy truffle.

After some weeks of shock and awe, the peanut gallery had to ask: “are all CR phono stages fundamentally flawed?” Were we hearing something that is so much better that it completely changes the audio landscape? I’m not exaggerating, the Allnic was creaming the competition, with some pieces costing several times more than its $10K asking price. They were very expensive units equipped with the best NOS Mullard and Telefunken tubes, selected for transconductance, gain, noise and matching. Was the Allnic H-3000 juiced up, like a muscle bound athlete? Was it Technicolor? Was I drinking the Cool-Aid?

When I heard Albert mention the name of the importer, David Beetles, I was taken aback. I knew the name. His David Beetles was in Canada. The David Beetles I knew was also in Canada. About 13 years ago, I purchased a preamp from the David Beetles I knew. Was it a coincidence? Of course not. How many David Beetles could be in Canada selling tube equipment, eh? I contacted David to let him know he would be allowed to send his equipment for a review. Okay, I begged and pleaded, and offered my unused kidney for some Allnic. His condition was that I audition the H-1500 II Plus LCR phono stage, the L-1500 line stage and Verito MC cartridge. Talk about twisting a guy’s arm! By the way, I’m a slow worker, and the preamp and cartridge reviews will be coming as soon as possible.

Before talking about the sound, stats and features are important:

Two pieces of linear reactor (a special quality choke/inductor), assisted by precise RC filters to lower impedances and insertion loss.
LCR RIAA filter’s impedance is a constant 600 ohms, for more dynamics and more detailed reproduction.
LCR RIAA filter’s series resistance is less than 13 ohms.
GIS KOREA LTD. manufactured and developed the LCR RIAA unit with 600 ohm impedance and a matching method without coupling transformers, the result being the H-1500Ⅱ SE Phono Stage. The avoidance of coupling transformers lowers complexity and cost.
For higher signal-to-noise ratios the H-1500Ⅱ SE is equipped with high speed automatic pure vacuum tube voltage regulators for each channel and with a detached power supply unit.
MM/MC dual Input; high quality MC Step-up Transformer with Permalloy core included.
Patent pending tube damping sockets are used for blocking vibration and microphonic noise.
Non-negative feedback circuit.

The main thing to know is that there is an outboard power supply sporting the 5AR4/5U4 rectifier, the built-in step up transformer has four loading options, the tube sockets use Allnic’s proprietary gel tube sockets to reduce vibrations, and there are four inputs. I say there are four because there are four sets of inputs. Allnic says two inputs, but on the back of the unit there are four pairs of phono jacks. Two say MC 1 and 2, and the other two say MM 1 and 2. On the front of the H-15000, you choose input one or two, then whether it is MM or MC. So I think that means you can connect four arm/cartridge combos.

The Bottom of the Groove

The overall impression I get from the Allnic H-1500, and its more expensive brother, is that I can hear much further into the music (or down into the music, whichever you prefer). It’s as if you had gone to Lake Mead for years, never seeing the canyon that was there under the surface. Then you get to strip away the water and see the massive canyon that makes it America’s largest reservoir. The affect on music is multi-fold.
First, the H-1500 is more dynamic than any tubed phono stage I’ve used, and as good (maybe better) as any transistor unit I know. Since you are hearing further into the noise floor, it makes the peaks and valleys more dramatic. Second, because it has better low-level detail, the imaging is more specific, and the soundstage depth goes further back with better saturation. It’s kind of like medium format film versus 35MM format: both are good, but the larger format gives more dimensional images. And yes, this is a very 3-dimensional sounding unit. There is constantly a deeper and more vivid sense of the three dimensions, and all this is done with very low distortion. The “.17%” THD figure seems wrong. I never heard anything that I would call distortion. Perhaps that “.17%” is predominantly even-order harmonics, which would make the distortion very benign. If you’ve heard a two-track master tape, then that is close to what the Allnic can do with some records, even non-audiophile pressings. Layers of noise and veiling are taken away.

Frequency extremes sound above average for a tube unit, though it doesn’t go as deep as many transistor phono stages. It’s not poor or lacking in the bass; it’s just not as full and deep as some semiconductor competitors. However, it was better in the bass than a typical tube phono stage. Compared to the classic CR designs I’ve had, there is a larger scale to the bottom-end, with more nuance, better slam, plenty of extension and much superior speed. Attention must be paid to the mating preamplifier. A transistor unit with low input impedance would cause some loss in bass extension and dynamics. The highs are outstanding, making minced meat of the transistor units that came to mind.

I looked back at my listening notes and saw some general impressions worth reporting:

The Allnic makes background listening almost impossible. Music takes on a more urgent “hey pay attention to me” quality. The extra detail and better dynamics are omnipresent, even at very low levels. It’s similar to going to an orchestral concert and getting the cheap seats. Even though you’re in the nose bleed section, you can hear the details almost as well as concertgoers in the middle of the hall. This is accomplished without harshness or ugliness. I’ve heard detail freak equipment that does this by pushing the presence range up in level. At first it seems like they have lower distortion and better detail. Eventually though, you get listening fatigue. There is very little listening fatigue with the H-1500. As a matter of fact, the combination of the H-1500 with Roger Sander’s 10b electrostatic speaker system (including his ESL power amp, bass amp and crossover) could play louder and longer than any combination I’ve used. For the first time in my home I was approaching a live music experience.

It was among the least microphonic phono stages I’ve used, maybe the best. I can think of several phono stages that can double as a microphone and phono stage. The techniques used to isolate the tubes from acoustic feedback work extraordinarily well. If you’ve had a 6DJ8-equipped phono stage, you know how noisy they can be. The Allnic uses tubes with frame grids and higher transconductance, making them even more susceptible to microphonics. The company should feel especially proud about their gel sockets. A local audiophile who has a Krell system was astonished at how quiet and un-tube like the Allnic was (meaning no “tube rush” or hiss). Its noise floor is better than any transistor unit I’ve owned or auditioned. My guess is that the LCR EQ network is much cleaner.

All that cleanliness, transparency, dynamism and dimensionality has an almost unique affect on the music. Complicated recordings were subjectively calmer and under better control. With some music that had always been a blur/cacophony, I could now hear time and space between individual notes. With some music, it was as if time was passing more slowly. You know how the scenery speeds past you as drive from place to place? Well, it was as if I was on a motorcycle or in a convertible going half as fast, allowing more processing of what my eyes, ears and nose were telling my brain. Comparing this to some classic gear that sounds veiled, dirty, and confusing, the classic pieces seem to rush the detail, though what they are really doing is obliterating low-level detail, giving you none of the space between the notes that you hear in live music.

At the same time I felt that the music would slow down for me, the speeds of transients were as fast as ever. The tailing ends of notes were longer and cleaner, making even more of the speed. The Allnic H-1500 was faster than any phono cartridge I’ve used. Some combinations of cartridge and phono stage won’t work when the cartridge is appreciably more capable. I doubt there are cartridges that will be “higher performance” than the Allnic.

I Call it a Bargain

To put the worthiness of the H-1500 II Plus LCR phono stage into perspective, the only other phono stages I’ve heard that sound better are Allnic’s own H-3000 at roughly twice the price, and the Ypsilon VPS 100 at roughly five times the price. The H-3000 surpassed the H-1500 II Plus with slightly lower distortion, better low bass extension and impact, smoother response in the midrange and a more organic quality to textures, slightly more real than the H-1500 in general.
That brings up one thing that the H-1500 could improve on: at times the midrange would pop out of the texture, pushing images a little further into the room. It’s not a big anomaly and can only be heard on some records. It’s not glare or harshness, but a slight bending of the response. With my Maggies, which have more top-end extension from the ribbons, I couldn’t hear it. On the Sanders 10b, I could. So perhaps it’s a bit of a system dependency issue. David Beetles told me he thinks the H-1500 is a great rock/jazz phono stage, and the H-3000 shows its superiority with large classical works (and pop like “Amused To Death”). It’s a valid point.

I am not providing detailed listening notes on the Allnic, with page after page of musical references, because the H-1500 doesn’t allow for detached analytical listening. The Allnic made many mundane and non-audiophile pressings more emotionally engaging, it makes the most of my used record purchases, though a thorough cleaning is still in order. In a way, it makes your record collection better and makes regular pressings more exciting.

I think the H-1500 is a bargain. I KNOW it is a bargain. It will give anything in its price point a run for the money, not to mention it betters units costing much more. Is it the best unit at the price? Well, I haven’t heard everything, so making such a statement would be silly. It is by far the best unit I’ve had in my house. Its big brother is one of the best phono stages available, in the company of perhaps three or four units. For half the price, the H-1500 stands on its own, doing most of what the H-3000 and Ypsilon can do, but at a more sensible $5K. Unlike the Ypsilon, it has the built-in step-up transformer with four loading options, selectable from the top of the unit without having to take off the top plate. It has four different inputs, selectable from the front of the unit. This makes the H-1500 a dream come true for people juggling multiple cartridges/arms/tables. It is difficult to foresee this level of performance being surpassed by anything near this price, so if you are in the market at $2-3K, you should listen to the H-1500. It might make the reach worth the grasp. It could be the last phono stage you need, justifying the extra investment.

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