Japan’s Phasemation began life in 1970 as Kyodo Denshi System. The company name was changed to Phase Tech in 2002, morphing into Phasemation in late 2010. Much like Britain's SME and other precision analogue companies, Kyodo made its real money in more lucrative tech. In this case, developing measuring devices for the IT industry. It just so happens the company CEO is an audiophile.
I became aware of the company a decade ago after brief listens to sundry Phase Tech cartridges. The company was gaining some ground in the advance notice stakes; lots of analog buzz on the forums. In fact, they were splendid and for a reasonable cost. My local dealer went nuts for them.
Although the company has been around for almost fifty years, its recent fame rests with Japanese audiophiles and esoteric vinylphiles. In addition to a series of cartridges, the company makes some very expensive, lovely looking tube amplifiers and a three-chassis phono stage (heard at last year's RMAF).
The Phasemation website (translated from the original Japanese, I think, by Google Translator—have a good read and you'll understand what I mean) describes the company's most recent name choice this way: The new word "Phasemation" is named by combining 'Phase' with 'Information'. The phase characteristics between the channels are very important elements to express a stage feeling played by two channels L and R in the stereo play style; for this reason, it is expressed as the brand name.
With hardly a word about the Phasemation carts on the web other than on the company website, I’m assuming this is the first formal review. I have requested the next in series Phasemation, the $3500 PP-1000, also for Audiophilia review.
The North American distributor was very enthusiastic about the Phasemation carts. She sold out several times when distributing the cartridges under the Phase Tech moniker. As such, was very happy to ship me the 'entry-level' PP-300 at $1799. Packaging, as you can see, is first class.
Finicky. Patience. Technique. Three words that came to mind when setting up this shiny, dark brown gem (publicity shots—see top image—make it look jet black).
Matching the cart’s specs to that of Rega’s masterful RB2000 tonearm was not the problem. Once attached, using Ortofon measuring devices (protractor and DS-1 Digital Stylus Force Gauge), fine adjustments to break-in was minutes. But attaching it to the head shell may have you twisting your fingers in knots getting the tiny nuts into position (the photo below makes them look huge; they're not).
A call to my buddy, Jody Hickson—analog set up man extraordinaire—was incredibly helpful. He explained: you (in my case, my equally extraordinary wife) have to maneuver the nuts into the indentations on each side, pinch them in place, flip the cart, and with the other hand, Allen key the provided screws in as normal. Once explained, it may seem easy, but if you have difficulties, contact your dealer.
Once attached, the PP-300 is a forgiving cartridge. Although it has a fairly low output voltage of .28 mV, it was driven easily by my bog standard Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 Integrated Amplifier MM/MC Phono Board. It also tracks like a Maglev train. Even the most powerful thwacks and banshee trumpets playing fff Minor 2nds (Varese’s Arcana—a Decca reissue LP with Mehta and the LA Phil in Royce Hall from the early 70s) failed to disturb its composure.
You’ll hear nearly all of its charms right out of the box, but a few hours of playtime will clear a slight congestion in the upper mids.
Tracking force may be set anywhere from 1.7 to 2.0 grams. I set mine at 1.9. It has a boron cantilever, diamond stylus, and a body made from something called Duralumin. Whatever it is, the Phasemation looks shiny and expensive.
The general quality of the sound—its ability to convey wide and deep sound stages, offer tight imaging and portray vocal/instrumental timbral accuracy—was commensurate with other fine cartridges I’ve heard at length or owned around the same price. My Rega Research Apheta 2 (a few shekels more) and Ortofon MC Cadenza Red Phono Cartridge (priced on par), chief among them. Each brings its own story to tell, both of significant musical value.
Like the comparisons offered, the Phasemation has a very refined presentation with a low noise floor and a beautiful balance among the octaves. And no matter the repertoire you prefer, the 300 gives you much of what you are looking for, superb ‘presence’ and musical immediacy.
The treble on the Rega—very much its strong point—sparkles a little more, and the Ortofon betters its Japanese counterpart slightly in instrumental separation (not imaging).
Bass? The PP-300 has both by the tiny nuts! The Apheta 2’s bass can be genteel, too much Victorian lady and not enough Sex Pistols. The Cadenza Red does not slam like more expensive models. But the 300’s bass is superbly defined. No bloat.
Two Classic Records reissues helped confirm my suspicions. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 (LSO/Martinon/LSC RCA), a Kingsway masterpiece, has subterranean bass courtesy of London Transport rolling stock. I’ve heard it loud and ill defined. Also, very quiet but a more focused sound. This was outstanding—taut and heard very easily. Among the very best playbacks. And the very low, pp bass drum at the end of mvt 2 in Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole on The Reiner Sound had superb definition. Very fine accounts.
Prosaic classical albums with less than legendary pressings, such as Philips and DGG, sounded very good, but no better than heard on a dozen other carts. An average record will sound average. The PP-300 is not a magic bullet. But, if quality information is there, you will hear it in full colour.
Low level information retrieval is spectacular for such a reasonably priced cartridge, better than both the Rega and the Ortofon. Even better than more expensive Clearaudio cartridges I've tried (eg. Concerto).
Because of the superb definition, I heard lots of information hitherto unknown to me, especially at the back end of percussion sounds. Sometimes, instruments unheard (but there while following a score), became clear via the 300. Another player in the section was simply too loud for lesser carts to decipher the underlying, complex sounds.
I loved the way the Phasemation conveyed visceral energy in performances. The woodwinds have a 'stretto' section moving upwards in a long crescendo from pp to ff in the opening movement of the Shostakovich mentioned earlier. Heard hundreds of times, I'd never felt the energy coming from the players as they intensified their sound to get the appropriate 'stretto' effect.
When the energy level was at 'notice me' levels, like the opening of Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love from Led Zeppelin II, the cartridge was happy to rock the night away. Macro dynamics are a non issue for the 300. Play as loudly as your amplification, ears and neighbours will allow.
Where the price of the PP-300 tells its tale is with translucence and subtlety. Low level information retrieval is outstanding, but more expensive carts shed the most beautiful, diaphanous light upon quiet layers. As such, the midrange is a little 'thicker' than you'll hear from the very best. I'd bet the farm, the PP-1000 sorts that out at $1700 more.
I was very impressed with the PP-300. It looks amazing, has a bass wallop that plays well above its $1799 price (but in total balance with the upper octaves), retrieves information and stored musical energy like a demon, and has a very refined musical spirit. In audiophile, musical and value terms, it is an irresistible bargain. Very highly recommended.
Further information: Phasemation