The offer to review cartridges and phono stages is usually accepted with “my pleasure” as the answer. Though I have found a couple of phono stages that really rock my world, I know that there may be better units out there from unknown companies. My opinions on cartridges and phono stages are based on my years of experience, but the science doesn’t stand still. No matter how good the current state-of-the-art, eventually there will be another product to supplant it.
The tricky thing about phono stages and preamps is that the simpler, purer product is the entry-level unit, unlike the fully armed and operational battle station. There are products more complicated just to justify their asking price. The more complicated the design, the more things can go wrong. Take the Shuttle Program and compare it to the Saturn V: history will judge the Space Shuttle as a disastrous fiasco. Back to audio…. When the simpler phono stage is partnered with complementary cartridge and preamp, magic can occur.
Though I love tubes and reckon the tube is a fundamentally better amplifier than a transistor, I’m married to none of it. Having suffered through many noisy 6DJ8s, I can tell you that it is okay to sacrifice a little fidelity to get rid of the constant hissing and ringing of tubes that look and test perfect, but sound anything other than perfect. Music is why I listen, and when the equipment becomes so obtrusive that it ruins the listening experience, it’s time to look for alternatives.
If you’ve read my reviews, you will know I have tested and enjoyed some transistor units, even units with feedback and op-amps. I lost my audiophile membership as a result. You will also know that the best I have heard were tube-based units that were much more expensive than the transistor phono stages. For the readers among you who are just getting in this hobby, mixing transistor and tubes might be the fastest and most affordable path to good sound. If that sounds like you, then I have another transistor unit for you to consider: Einstein The Little Big Phono.
Ach! Why Isn’t This Standard Practice?
Cartridges used in this review included the Miyajima Shilabe and Haniwa, with the Shilabe being a better match.
Before I give you listening impressions, a little discussion on the Einstein phono stage’s architecture is worth mentioning as I think it partially explains the sound of this unit.
While other phono stages have detached power supplies, the Einstein takes it further by having two small mono units supplied by two umbilicals off the same power-supply box. Honestly, there is no reason why this shouldn’t be common practice, other than it’s more expensive to build two units instead of one. There is less interaction between the two channels, there is very little chance of the power supply transformer coupling to the signal carrying circuit (AC hum). Maybe another power supply could be employed so that both channels are mono all the way to the wall-plug. I didn’t ask Einstein about the possibility of using another power-supply and hope they will comment if it is a viable upgrade.
Besides the electrical advantages of two small mono units on power-supply umbilical cords, there are obvious system-integration advantages. Because the power-supply is feeding DC, there shouldn’t be radiated AC fields coming from the signal units. You can put these chocolate-bar sized bricks right next to, or under, your turntable. My Denon DP80 is injecting more noise than the Einstein power supply, much less the signal units. To get the best sound from your cartridge, especially a low output MC, using a short tonearm cable will help lower the equivalent-series-resistance (which generates noise on a linear scale), inductance and capacitance (which just sucks signal into oblivion). Less wire equals better sound. If subtracting from the length of your cable, keeping all other variables equal, gives worse sound, you’ve got some issues to be addressed. More wire should never equal better sound (that would violate the laws of physics).
The Little Big Phono
(Where digital gets the George Armstrong Custer treatment)
Compared to the other transistor phono stages I’ve used the last few years, the little Einstein seems to be the most accurate (the white-lab-coat textbook meaning of accuracy). In terms of low levels of distortion, flat frequency response and transparency, the Einstein compares favorably. It just has no noise—none—no noise at all, even when the volume was cranked. Maybe my combination of equipment and my setup was accidentally perfect (serendipity). By comparison, the little Jasmine LP2.0 SE phono stage ($639), in both stock and modified versions, was very susceptible to magnetic fields, light switches and machinery in other rooms, and seemed to have a small amount of pink noise in the noise floor.
Comparing the Einstein to a tube phono stage is a little unfair: I’ve never heard tubes as quiet as good transistors. Not that people buy tube equipment for its low noise and perfect accuracy.
The little MCP2 phono stage from The Soundsmith ($699.95), powered by an unassuming wall-wart, was not as quiet as the Einstein. Where The Little Big Phono maintains constantly low noise, the noise from the Soundsmith seems to be integrated into the music, if that is making any sense to you. It’s as if the Soundsmith, and quite a few others I must add, have noise that rides the signal, where the Einstein maintains the noise-floor regardless of signal. With the Haniwa HEQA01 phono stage ($4,000), it sounds incredibly quiet, especially with less complex music; but when the distortion shows up, it rises in level almost exponentially, which isn’t as bad as it sounds if you have vanishingly low noise to start with. The point is, the Einstein is extremely quiet and doesn’t “hide” noise inside the music. I never heard noise or distortion from the Einstein in the way I know it sounds. Is there some kind of distortion? There has to be, but I can’t hear it as such.
Bass from the Einstein is impressive, though not as powerful as the gut-whomping bass of the Haniwa HEQA01. It stands comparison to the majority of well known units. Against a tube stage, the Einstein will usually give better depth and volume. Dynamics, something that goes hand-in-hand with good bass and low noise levels, are first rate. I will caution you that proper cartridge loading and the input impedance of the preamp (or amp if going passive) will greatly impact bass and dynamics. If the Einstein sounds limp and bright, you have a bad match somewhere.
When it comes to stereo staging, this Einstein is definitely number ein. Really bad joke, I know. It’s as good as any tube unit I’ve heard in outside-the-box imaging, while still placing a good center image. I’ve always believed the strength of transistor units is the soundstage width. The thing really going for a transistor is that if the maker matched devices for transconductance and gain, it will be better matched, channel-to-channel, than all but the best tube units, and when the tubes age, you lose the balance. Actually, other than units providing for fixed bias and channel balancing (balance control), a tube unit is going to have unmatched channels, it’s the price for not using feedback. I can’t say that the Einstein is “way better” than every tube stage I’ve heard, but it definitely did the cool stereo effects better than the tube stages I know. If spectacular sound-staging is your thing, you should give the Einstein eine listen. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.
The downside to transistor units, one aspect I’ve heard with every transistor piece I’ve used, is a shallower, not-as-deep image. It’s above average with the Einstein, but can’t compete with the Ypsilon, Allnic, Aesthetix Io, etc.. Is it bad or severely lacking? Heavens no! If you incorporated the Einstein into a system with good tube amp and preamp and your cartridge had good depth, you would probably have a very balanced image, depth versus width. It’s just a general weakness I hear with transistor phono stages, and it’s definitely not a figment of my imagination.
As I said before, the Einstein’s transparency and frequency response are very good. Bass artifacts from big venues could be felt, the flavor of individual cymbals came through. The RIAA deemphasis of the Einstein must be very good: there aren’t peaks and dips that I could hear. Whatever circuit is being used and I don’t have a clue, the signal path is clean. Also, the power supply must do a first-class job of filtering out noise. I could hear detail, from top to bottom, with ease. Compared to a classic 12ax7 phono stage, the Einstein would mop the floor with it. Come to think of it, the little Einstein had superior transparency than an Aesthetix Io, the fully hopped up version with all NOS European and US military tubes. The transparency was close to a LCR unit, though the sound of the Einstein and an LCR are very different.
Flexibility is rather so-so. Unless I missed something obvious, the only thing you can change with the Einstein is loading, accomplished with the customary RCA plug (male jack with loading resistor built in). You do give up some features with the Einstein, but the music benefits, especially if the music has complex layers. It’s like a Lotus, which doesn’t have a lot of room, a big boot (trunk), doesn’t go off-road, isn’t a grand-tourer, but sure can run rings around most cars. The hyper-pure signal path will be what the doctor ordered for some listeners, as long as their cartridge and preamp are good matches.
Zwei Daumen hoch für Einstein
(two hotdogs, hold the relish)
Constantine doesn’t like reviewers comparing units, preferring that I tell the reader how the unit sounds. The problem is that some pieces don’t have much sound to describe. The Little Big Phono definitely fits that description. When I first hooked up the unit, it was cold, with no break-in hours, and I thought it was a good unit but not special. As it broke in and filled out, it got much better. What really tells me the Little Big Phono is excellent is the big step backwards when I took it out of the system. I immediately missed what I wasn’t hearing. The low noise and low distortion of the Einstein is something that is not heard, and only heard when you switch to a lesser unit. It’s a good sign that the Little Big Phono is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing—amplifying small signals into bigger ones faithfully. That sounds easy. But, as you know, it’s not. It’s the biggest, most complex designs, the ones that try to be all things to all people, which fail most miserably.
The $3,900 price point is a competitive one, and there are plenty of good choices out there. However, because the Einstein is simple and utilitarian, it hits above its weight, to use a boxing metaphor. It “sounds more expensive” than $3,900, comparing favorably to more expensive competition. If you don’t need your audio equipment to be an extension of your manhood, or to show how much money you can blow on entertainment, or to exist as a visual work of art (more than an aural one), you might find that the Little Big Phono a Little investment that pays off Big.
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