I've been an audio acquaintance of Ron Sutherland, head of Sutherland Engineering, from my earliest days visiting audio shows. Seems, charming, friendly Ron attends them all. He's a great supporter of our industry. Although a staple in high end audio for two decades, Sutherland gear flies under the glitzy marketing radar, but is very well known to discerning and knowledgable audiophiles looking for great sound tagged with some value.
I reviewed his very popular and inexpensive entry level PH-1 phono stage many years ago (under the brand name AcousTech). It was a solid piece that bumped up the quality from the usual phono cards found in receivers and integrateds popular at the time.
In the almost 20 years since, Sutherland has refined and refined, producing highly regarded, jewel-like analog pieces; all have garnered very positive reviews. The products culminate with the 10K, two-chassis PhonoBlock phono preamplifier. I've only heard it during show conditions, but it's a knockout product, the qualities of which I'll write about momentarily. An easy task, as many of the technical and musical values in the mighty PhonoBlock have trickled down into another two-chassis gem, the subject of this review, the $4000 DUO Phono Preamplifier.
Sutherland explains a little about the development of the DUO from his products above and below its 4K MSRP:
No expense was spared in the design and construction of the PhonoBlocks. The PhonoBlocks are at the pinnacle of phono preamp performance. It just doesn’t get any better.
The 20/20 [A current one-box phono stage priced at $2200-Ed] was designed to get the most performance possible at its predetermined price point. To get there, extra was spent to get premium parts and circuitry into the signal path. Consequently, some expenses were squeezed out of less important areas. Those trade-offs have worked very well. The 20/20 has delivered an extremely high level of performance at a reasonable price. It is an incredible performance value.
What if all the price constraints in the 20/20 were lifted? The price goes up, the performance goes up. It starts looking a lot like the PhonoBlocks.
The actual signal path of the 20/20 is quite good. It uses a circuit very similar to the PhonoBlocks. In critical positions, it also uses the same premium quality (and high cost) components. Very little was held back in that area.
The opportunity for upgrade is focused on a more refined power supply, improved circuit board properties and dual chassis construction.
The DUO is derived from the cost-no-object Phono Blocks and the cost-optimized 20/20.
The units came with a few hours on them with loading/gain set at 47/40, the default, which worked well for my Phasemation PP-2000 MC Phono Cartridge. Loading/Gain adjustment is easy and accessed by unscrewing the top plates. Don't forget to set loading and gain values the same on each chassis.
The design, like all of Sutherland's recent products, is minimalist, sexy, and tank-like in construction. Take off the top plate for loading/gain adjustment, and a pristine workspace awaits. Exquisite fit and finish.
Sutherland prefers to work with mono circuits rather than stereo—he suggests they are less complicated and offer better sound. Hence the DUO design philosophy. The rears of the units are also models of ergonomic efficiency.
Each DUO has a built in AC power supply. There is an IEC power inlet on each chassis to accommodate the user's personal power cord choice. The shielded power supply module has one output. That output is split into two branches. One for each of the two gain stages. Each of those branches is independently filtered and regulated to provide a substantial foundation for the gain stages.
Circuit board dielectric properties can introduce detail damaging artifacts into the signal. The DUO mitigates circuit board dielectric properties using the same approach that has worked so well in the PhonoBlocks. Circuit board thickness is doubled from the standard 1/16” thickness to 1/8” thickness. Not only is dielectric absorption addressed, but further advantages are realized with an extremity rigid platform for component mounting. It is the cost-no-object, preferred way to go.
Specifications and Parts
The DUO units feature FR-4 fiberglass circuit boards, double-sided with plated thru holes. Dale/Vishay 1% metal film resistors. Wima polypropylene capacitors for power supply by passing and DC servo, custom wound, 1% polystyrene film capacitors for equalization. 14 gauge cold rolled steel base baked epoxy powder coat finish. 1/2 “ thick anodized aluminum panel with artwork gold plated. Teflon insulated RCA connectors with gold plated configuration headers and shunts.
Power on is continuous (no on/off switch) with gentle amber LEDs on the front for power on indication.
Loading Options: 47k, 1k, 475, 200, 100 Ohms.
Gain Options: 64, 58, 52, 46, 40 dB.
Inputs: one pair (RCA). Outputs: one pair (RCA).
Dimensions: Each unit: 17" (430mm) W by 2.5" (65mm) H by 12" (305mm) D.
Weight, each unit: 11 lbs (5kg), 19 lbs (8.6kg) shipping.
Don't let the simple aesthetic fool you or lull you into expectations of unsophisticated (or simplistic) sound. This could not be further from the truth. The gorgeously simple front plate or the perfectly laid out innards belie the complex musical truths that will unfold. Cold as witch's tomb, right out of the boxes, the DUO stated its musical claim. Another one of the small number of components that flabbered my gasted in the first 8 bars.
My first thought was 'cinematic'. Really kaleidoscopic colours of the most indulgent nature. Big, refined, sophisticated, and sexy. Me want more.
I had just heard at length the wondrous Pass Labs XP-17 Phono Stage, which comes in $400 more than the DUO. With a VPI/Grado front end, the Pass Labs was really dynamic, very refined and detailed, and did not implode at loud levels like others I've heard in this price range. While getting to know the DUO, I remembered with great fondness the Pass' exceptional qualities and began the comparison with the DUO. While I was using a vastly different front end than the All-American setup (mine is Rega/Phasemation), the analog superiority from both these phono devices was heard easily.
Back to the cinema. I waited about 30 hours to begin serious listening. To be honest, my only 'casual' listening is when writing reviews on the house's main level with the lifestyle SONOS system playing. My reference system in our music room demands a serious, quiet focus. I almost always comply.
When referring to my DUO review notes, the word 'effortless' crept in several times. Like the Pass Labs XP-17, the Sutherland was not bothered by the thorniest, most complex orchestrations (Arcana by Edgard Varèse on an incredible Decca reissue with the LA Phil/Mehta), or, my torture tests—chest tones from sopranos or French horns (the conical bore of the horn—its fundamentals and harmonics—plays havoc with the audio chain). Nowhere did I hear strain. In fact, the DUO was as outstanding in this regard as the incredibly good Audia Flight FL Phono or the mighty and very highly regarded Manley Steelhead. Both are considerably more than the Sutherland, which leads me to believe that even at 4K, the DUO is one hell of a bargain.
Sutherland is rightly very proud of his 10K PhonoBlocks, praising them as the best you can buy for your analog rig. Even if his trickle down DUO gets 80% of the PhonoBlocks, purchasers may well be getting the equal of the Steelhead or FL Phono for a grand or two off. Something to think about when you're setting up auditions.
After the 30 hour break in, I went back to the disc that blew me away with the DUOs right out of the box, the splendid Argo original of Sir Michael Tippett's magnificent Second Symphony and Quartet for Four Horns. Argophiles will know this LP. You don't? Search. It's a top of the pile vinyl—great music, amazing sound, played with incredible style by the LSO/Colin Davis and Barry Tuckwell's Horn Quartet (in truth, the LSO's horn section).
From the opening chugging low strings and horn 'fifths' of the symphony (think Sibelius), a careful listener will know that this LP could be (will be) problematic. There is a hell of a lot going on. And when the violins come in on their hairy syncopated melody, listen for distortion and confusion.
The world premiere under Sir Adrian Boult was an exercise in confusion and how real leaders take responsibility for musical train wrecks. As such, never blame the band. Are you listening Ashlee Simpson? Sir Adrian gave the downbeat and a few bars later, BBC Symphony Concertmaster Paul Beard led the fiddles in too early and chaos ensued. Boult had to stop. He turned to the audience and said 'Completely my fault. We'll begin again'. Class. Not many like him on the box these days.
Anyhoo, I've heard the album on the simplest Regas and with some fairly grotty MMs, and the audiophile problems kept getting worse. It takes a well-nigh perfect setup with good quality kit to get the LP right. The combination of the brilliant Rega RB2000 arm, Phasemation’s gem of a cartridge and the stunning execution of the DUO unraveled any complications offered by the scrambling strings. I’ve never heard this record better. Or clearer.
Coincidentally, it was also the first album on the list for my Phasemation PP-2000 review. A 6K hand made cart through a $400 phono board in my Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 Integrated Amplifier. The cart was magnificent. So damn good, I bought it. No way was it leaving my music room. It was leaps and bounds ahead of the sub $2000 carts I have been using for the past two years (Rega Apheta, Phasemation PP-300, Shelter 501 Mk. III). And in several ways, topped my benchmark MC cart, the Clearaudio Titanium. Sitting on the rack throughout the review, however, was the unplugged DUO. I knew a good phono stage would make things better, but the DUO knocked the sound out of the park. It was the perfect tonic to the world's best gin.
The fizzy, tart tonic made its presence known with diaphanous strings (an original RCA LSC 2500 Reiner/Chicago SO Strauss Waltzes) in perfect balance, and found on many Reiner RCAs. The DUO's layering of instruments, their presence felt in the most tactile way, was streets ahead of my Rowland add on phono board. Quality phono stages do count.
Treble was never less than sophisticated, but recording dependent. However, it was the layering bottom to top and side to side that caught my ear. The detail at times was quite unbelievable.
I remember having some fun with phono preamps at a Toronto store some years ago. The Audia Flight FL was an easy winner, but the ‘loser’ was from a more famous manufacturer. I can remember my disappointment with the $3500 device as it crapped out at musical climaxes. Nothing crazy, but the energy was sapped from the performances. As such, it is so important that you listen carefully and get good advice before you plonk down your cash. There are near misses out there.
The DUO’s midrange was indulgent, drawing this listener deep into the musical fabric of hundreds of records. I think the audiophile word du jour is ‘involving’. Involved? By this time, I was up to my neck in it.
Bass was foundational, wholly accurate, and regularly blew my mind with its definition and control. Percussion instruments' sound were a constant delight.
Dynamically, the DUO is a killing machine. Triple f? No problem. Triple p? No sweat. And every level in between. And with the layering I was talking about, the dynamics can turn instantly, as they do live in front of an orchestra. Beethoven’s sfz never had it so good. The transients and decay of minute changes are handled with efficiency and immediacy. Unless you have cloth ears, you won't miss a thing, even on your very favourite recordings. The replication of voices matches the quality of instruments. Perfectly positioned, with diction, sibilants and vocal range gorgeously intact.
Audiophilia colleague Karl Sigman came out to the island last month to visit shortly after I received the Alta Audio Celesta FRM-2 Loudspeakers. There was no problem with my vinyl rig until the day he arrived. Then, a little subsonic nonsense and rumble was creeping in. Man, I was pissed as my audiophile ego got the better of me. A little like your kids acting up in front of the boss. A slight adjustment in the PP-2000 tracking force (it’s a heavy bugger) helped. But with the DUO in the system, nothing but inky blackness and pristine record surfaces. Remarkably quiet. Solved.
An audiophile mentor tells me home truths. ‘There’s still room for the full featured preamplifier’. And always goes on about the unending musical benefits of a quality phono stage. And, ‘play with the loading/gain’. The DUO is that quality phono stage.
The Sutherland Engineering DUO Phono Preamplifier is of superior quality in and out. It’s a gem of a high end product, easily worth its expensive asking price and will give a lifetime of analogue pleasure.
I was not in the audio market for anything after purchasing the very expensive Phasemation cartridge, but the thought of splitting up these two miraculous analogue devices was simply too much to fathom. In the here and now, with my new speakers, new cartridge, new power cords (throughout the system), and now the dynamic DUO, it’s musical Nirvana over here on the island. Very highly recommended.
Further information: Sutherland Engineering