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Artemis Labs LA-1 Preamplifier & PH-1 Phono Preamplifier Review

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ArtemisPL1 PH1 preamplifierEditor’s note: please note that this review has not received fact-check approval from AYDN. We sent the draft to the company on December 28, 2009, followed by 2 subsequent email inquiries for the status, one on 1/1/2010, the last one on 2/3. While Sean Ta of AYDN acknowledged the receipt of the draft at CES, we never received any reply to this day. Instead of waiting indefinitely, we are publishing this review. To our readers who are familiar with the products, if you detect factual erros in our review, you have our apologies, and we ask your help by informing us of them.

For the past few months I have had the pleasure of living with the Artemis Labs LA-1 Line Stage pre amp and the PH-1 Phono Amp. These pieces have intrigued me since the day they arrived. They share the same look and build quality, both are compact, elegant and score very high on the W.A.F. scale according to Paula!

Let’s start with the LA-1

This US built pre-amp combines the sound of a single triode line stage within a very rugged and well made architecture. The LA-1 offers five stereo inputs that are controlled by a rotary switch. Two pairs of output jacks allow connections to a powered subwoofer as well as a stereo or monoblock amps. The preamp provides for a 12dB maximum gain and provides enough push without the noise and hum caused by excessive gain. The preamp employs a Goldpoint™ stepped attenuator and custom wound chokes, metal film resistors by Dale and switch mechanism by Elma. An interesting feature you do not often see is the dual conductive-plastic-balanced controls. Each has a separate potentiometer to balance each channel independently. This allows the maximum gain in the normal balanced condition and permits the use of high-quality conductive plastic pots with no sonic degradation according to Artemis. The preamp also sports a MONO/STEREO switch on the front panel with its own indicator light. The LA-1 employs one 5687 tube per channel in what Artemis calls a Cool-Swap™configuration. This uses an idle spare of each tube and allows the tubes to run cooler. Choke loads for each triode allows tubes to run in their most linear mode and permits lower plate supply voltage. Low-Gain MOSFET high voltage regulation design provides one regulator per channel and minimizes cross-talk, gives a firm, stable sound without sounding “solid-state”.

And the PH-1

According to Artemis Labs, the PH-1 phono pre amp is the result of several years of perfecting a simple yet extremely high quality tube-type preamp. High quality parts are used throughout and the design is rugged and reliable. Supposedly, the sonic qualities in terms of tonality, detail, smoothness, and presence are outstanding. The PH-1 is optimized for medium- to high-output cartridges, either moving coil or moving magnet. Some of the more interesting features are 50dB of gain with low hum and noise allows the use medium- to high-output cartridges.

TexTool™ ZIF socket connected to phono inputs allows any shunt loading resistor or capacitor to be effectively attached. Because of the use of a three-stage design with passive RIAA equalization, the curve is claimed to be flat within +/- 0.2dB from 20Hz to 20 KHz and is flat to +/- 0.5dB to 40 KHz. Last two stages have gentle feedback and can drive as low as 8K loads without the use of cathode followers. All key audio circuits are wired point-to-point using military-style terminal boards. Sonic degradation due to fiber-glass PC boards is minimized accordingly.

One 6N1P tube, two 12AX7/ECC83 tubes and two 5687 tubes complete the tube compliments. All but 6N1P are run in Cool-Swap™ Configuration, which provides for an idle spare of each tube, plus tubes run cooler just as they do in LA-1 pre-amp. Choke loads for each triode allows tubes to run in their most linear mode and permits lower plate supply voltage. Low-Gain MOSFET high voltage regulation and one regulator per channel minimizes cross-talk and gives a firm, stable sound without sounding “solid-state”.

According to Artemis, “All Artemis Pre-Amps [are] designed and built in the United States using the best parts from around the world!” That claim seems to be substantiated by the quality of the products. Open one up and you can see how well thought out the components are and the quality of the sub-chassis structure.

And So? How did it all sound?

During my time with the line stage and phono stage they both performed flawlessly. Both units are easy to set up and both can be placed side by side on a standard rack shelf. Inputs are easy to reach and clearly marked. Due to the size of the units you can quite easily swap in and out various components with relative ease. Flexibility of placement is always a plus in my book.

I first inserted the line stage into my system to see how it would mate up with both tube amps and solid-state stuff. I was very pleasantly surprised as the Artemis unit integrated well with not only my Jolida Music Envoys tube monoblocks but also very well with the Gamut 200i solid-state integrated amplifier. The gain from the pre-amp seemed a fairly good match to that of my Jolida unit and sounded as good if not better than the Jolida when matched with the tube monoblocks. I found that the upper frequencies came through a bit brighter and more up front than with the Jolida which was a nice, if unexpected, result. I think that this may have been due to the Cool-Swap configuration.

My guess is, a bit cooler running tubes equaled a bit less sonic warmth and helped create a sound with slightly more forward top-end. I felt that there also seemed to be a bit more detail in the upper mid-range when compared directly to the Jolida Music Envoy pre-amp with both the Jolida monoblocks and the Gamut. I can say that while I did not prefer this pre-amp to my Jolida when running with the monoblocks, I did prefer it when it was fronting the Gamut. Call it synergy but the overall sound in this combo was much more pleasing overall. With the Gamut the Jolida seemed to bring a bit of darkness to the overall sound. When the Artemis unit was swapped in, the sound was more balanced without any glare or edginess and the slightly darker sound of the Jolida disappeared. This was a very sweet sounding combination and really had my attention for quite a while. Quite honestly, I could have been quite happy with that combination as it gave all the punch, clarity, detail and speed of a solid-state set up with just the right warmth of tube sound to make it very balanced-sounding and pleasing. This was one of the best arguments for experimentation with mating different types of components from differing manufacturers as I have experienced. Both units ran very cool to the touch and the design gives the active tube a good deal of open space to operate in and to vent heat. It seemed to work very well as the tubes were only hot to the touch and not searing!

My only complaint with the Artemis LA-1 was the absence of a remote. Call it old age, bad back and a streak of laziness, but when I am enjoying a dram of fine tequila and listening to music I do not want to have to get up and walk to my rack to adjust volume. Give me a remote any day!

The PH-1 was inserted into both of these other combinations and it always sounded great. This unit employs much of the same technology as the LA-1, and the same physical architecture making it easy to insert into a system. The gain is only 52dB and could have been a bit stronger considering my Koetsus’ low-output; but overall it proved satisfactory. Artemis allows you to adjust the impedance via resistor packs to fine tune the unit, but this is a bit cumbersome compared to competing units that allow variable gain and impedance adjustment on the fly via switching or rotary selection. Never underestimate the audiophile’s desire to do less and get more! At 55, I am finding myself less willing to fiddle with my gear than I was even a scant 10 years ago. Despite these niggling little complaints, and at the end of the day that is exactly what they are, the overall performance is on par and to some degree better than many of the competitors in the same price range.

Being very familiar with a cartridge helps to pinpoint differences that occur within various phonostages. With the Artemis I noticed a bit less brightness out of the Koetsu Azule than I am used to hearing. It was not overwhelming but just enough to notice that it was different. It was more noticeable when running through the full Jolida ensemble than with other configurations. Not an unpleasant thing but just a noticeable reduction of sparkle. What that really means, again, may well be matching and nothing else. It certainly did not lead me to take the phonostages out of the system any time too soon. Over the period I had the Artemis, I began to prefer its overall balanced sound to other phonostages I have. The PH-1 did not seem to overtly favor any part of the frequency range to any other but seemed to present the overall music in a very balanced way that never detracted your attention away from the music. Had I not been looking for minute differences I doubt I would have paid any real attention to it. This is something that makes general listening for pleasure a tough thing at times for reviewers.

We get so used to looking for absolute, minute differences that it can get in the way of simply listening to the freaking music! What the PH-1 did was allow me to relax and just listen to my LPs without drawing any undue attention to itself. That is what it is supposed to do and to this end it performed admirably. As I stated earlier the only real complaint I could lodge is in regards to the gain. I think it is worth mentioning and should be considered by Artemis. With the proliferation of very low-output cartridges, a gain of 60dB would be more suited to the unit. I ran a Goldnote Tuscany through the PH-1 at an output of .15 mV, and it took a good crank of the volume knob on the LA-1 to get things going with this cartridge. With a phono stage this well built and with such a great balance of sound a bit more gain would really put the icing on the cake.

Can you buy better performance? Yes, you can, but at what price? Can you get more features? You bet you can. See above! Is it worth spending more to get such small improvements? Well, that is up to the buyer as always. What I can say is that I could be quite content with these two pieces (provided the increase in gain and a remote), especially when mated to the right amplifier.

As a pair these two components are an excellent bargain. A clean, crisp and balanced deliver of music. Excellent design aesthetics, backed up by Paula’s high WAF rating. If you are looking for a solid pre-amp and phono stage, I would definitely recommend you check out the Artemis Labs duo. After all, how can you resist a “Cool Swap”?

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