AOM Logo December 2007

The Musical Surroundings Nova Phonomena Phono Preamplifier

Martin Appel



It was the evening of the last day of CES 2007 and we all were exhausted and trying to get out to our cars. As I was exiting the Venetian Hotel, going toward the door to the parking garage, a man approached the door in front of me struggling with a large box of records with a black metal box on top. I offered him a hand and held the door for him. I introduced myself and inquired about the black box. He informed me that it was his latest phono preamplifier and it was 'killer'. We chatted briefly and I dropped my card in the box and said I’d be in touch for a review sample. It turned out I was helping the very highly respected phono preamplifier designer, Michael Yee. Many months went by, but eventually the unit arrived.

The unit is 10.125 in. x 10.125 in. x 3in. high and is matte black with ‘no frills’ metal casework. Its one distinguishing feature is its very bright 'eye' centered on the front panel. When it appears red, the unit is playing on A.C. current. When you place your hand in front of the eye, it turns green and plays on its internal batteries, disconnecting the A.C. completely. It plays a little over three hours on full charge. When the unit is flashing red, it the unit is charging. When operating in the charging state, you’re listening to A.C. operation. The unit comes with a wide variety of gain and loading settings on the rear. The factory settings were 50,000 ohms, fine for my Shelter 7000, and a gain setting of 40dB, which I adjusted to a 57.5dB. Yee derived much of the circuitry from his more expensive ($2,800.00US) SuperNova. The dual mono designed Nova Phenomena has all discrete circuitry with nary an op amp in sight. Now we listen.

I used Acoustic Zen’s Absolute power cord and single ended interconnects for the review. My Avid Volvere turntable was ready and it was time to start. I let the unit burn in for about a week and started to listen critically. My immediate response to what I was hearing was one of relaxed neutrality. What do I mean by that? The sound, while utterly smooth, was also delightfully transparent, allowing details and spatial cues to be clearly perceived without that “HERE I AM” quality that overly aggressive equipment can produce. This in no way diminishes its ‘live’, dynamic presentation. You ARE there. Whether listening to an intimate performance of the Modern Jazz Quartet or the delicacy of a Fasche trumpet concerto, or the rockin’, Ry Cooder in Bop Till You Drop, or the power and drama of Also Sprach Zarthustra, the Nova Phenomena brings forth all the magic that’s in the recorded performance. Instruments are clearly defined with ample air and the soundstage seems to be quite convincing with good depth, width and appropriate height. Timbres of instruments are accurately rendered across the frequency range.

As I previously indicated, tonal neutrality is maintained and the unit will portray what’s on the record without glamorizing any sonic aspect thereof. If a recording sounds cool or dry, it will be accurately rendered without coloration. Don’t blame the sound on the messenger, but on the message. This unit is not a tone control.Lastly, the quietness of battery operation is simply gorgeous. Backgrounds have a velvety blackness with instruments emerging organically with a quiet power and reality. The unit is quite good on AC, but on batteries, it is something special.

Some folks out there are of the opinion that battery operation is detrimental to the accurate portrayal of dynamics. Well let me disabuse you of that notion. This reviewer could not find fault with the dynamic presentation at all. As with all equipment reviews, each system will respond differently. I suspect, in this case, that this phono stage might expose characteristics in other parts of the audio chain that one may be made aware. As this reviewer and other reviewers have commented on in the past, personal preference, system synergy, along with economic realities will all factor into making one’s choice on equipment.

I suspect that there are better phono stages out there but one would have to spend many times the ($999.00US) price of this one. The Nova Phenomena will be my new reference for both performance and price. How fortuitous running into you at CES 2007 Michael Yee. A stunning achievement. Congratulations. I’m nominating this for an AUDIOPHILIA STAR AWARD. Keep Listening

[It is with great pleasure that we award The Audiophilia Star Component Award to the Musical Surroundings Nova Phonomena phono stage. Congratulations! - Ed]

Musical Choices

CS 8171 Columbia- Charles Mingus / Mingus Ah Um
CS 8192 Columbia- Dave Brubeck Quartet / Time Out
MQ 30443Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Bernstein / NY Philharmonic (SQ Quadraphonic)
FRL 1-5468 RCA Red Seal- The Pachelbel Canon /Two Suites For Strings, Fasch Two Symphonias/Concerto For Trumpet / Maurice Andre / Paillard Chamber Orchestra
PR 24005 Prestige- The Modern Jazz Quartet
BSK Warner Bros. Records, Inc.- Ry Cooder / Bop Till You Drop.

Manufactured by Musical Surroundings

5662 Shattuck Ave.
Oakland, CA 94609

phone: 510.547.5006
fax: 510.547.5009

Source of review sample: Manufacturer loan


Musical Surroundings website