Paradox Phono 70

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This is the second piece of Paradox gear reviewed by Audiophilia. Paradox is based in Victorville, CA, in the high desert east of Los Angeles. Owner and designer Terence Robinson has been in the audio business for many years, beginning as a hobbyist, then a modifier, and for the past three decades a designer and manufacturer. The first Audiophilia review featured Paradox's beautifully finished mono block amplifiers. Not only did they look intriguing, they were very powerful and helped my system produce refined sounds that remained musical and rich whether played quietly or very loud. I think it was the amplifier’s first professional review. 

In fact there are very few reviews posted on Paradox's very basic Web 1.0 website (a big refresh, please—your outstanding kit is worth a cool, informative introduction to prospective customers). First impressions, and all that.

The paucity of reviews is not all editorial's fault. Robinson has a low opinion of audiophile print outlets (and digital) and those who oversee. He's not an 'oddball', eccentric, or know-it-all. Actually, he's a lovely chap, but with strong opinions. Interestingly, he was gobsmacked after he contacted me to review his monoblocks. He was waiting for the 'pay to play' conversation, just as he's experienced so many times. It never came. 

It's a real shame the manufacturer/reviewer divide is there (but slowly fading away in Robinson's case) because Paradox has produced a phono stage that deserves to be known.  

In addition to the aforementioned monoblock amplifiers and the subject of this review, Robinson designs cables and modifies cartridges. He is very proud of his work, especially the new Phono 70, which he describes to all who will listen as a ‘giant killer’.  

Design

The case has small dimensions, the outboard power supply even smaller (Phono 70: Weight 5 pounds; L9” x W6” x H3”. Power Supply: Weight 1 pound; L5.5” x W3.5” x H2”). They are diminutive dynamos.

Robinson is a tinkerer. I know many of these types of folks in our business. They are not the corporate type or heads of design for legacy companies. As such, Robinson asked me to hold off using the power supply sent originally, and FedEx'd a new, upgraded version that now is sold with the Phono 70. I heard there's a Phono 70 Signature in the works.

 Phono 70 Power Supply.

Phono 70 Power Supply.

The 70's casework is solid but smacks a little of DIY along with the font choice and silk screening. I've seen a lot worse, but a Dan D'Agostino Design or Boulder it ain't. Of course, that type of casework adds huge bucks to the MSRP. Robinson eschews fancy casework to keep the price down. All the goodies, he says, are on the inside. 

Robinson describes the Phono 70 as '70 dB of passive RIAA gain which will be enough for most any MC cartridge you want to use.'

Key features include: external power supply, external loading via RCA, JFET low noise amplification and passive RIAA with only 1 tantalum resistor in the signal path. Cardas phono wire is used for all signal and power supply paths. The unit comes with 5 pairs of load resistors that are plugged into the rear of the unit—100, 220, 330, 470, 680 ohms (additional loads are available upon request).

 Paradox Phono 70 rear plate. External loading via RCAs. The unit comes with 5 pairs of load resistors that may be plugged into the rear of the unit. Don't want to plug in a resistor? The base load is 100 ohms.

Paradox Phono 70 rear plate. External loading via RCAs. The unit comes with 5 pairs of load resistors that may be plugged into the rear of the unit. Don't want to plug in a resistor? The base load is 100 ohms.

Gain/Loading

Whither the wonderful dip switch? On the Rega Aria phono preamp I reviewed, switching gain and cartridge loading (an important and fun way to improve the sound of your cartridges—yes, DO try this at home) was an easy task. On my reference Sutherland Engineering Duo Phono Preamp, simply remove the top casing and change well marked switches by hand. Also very easy.

The Paradox scared me a little. Opening the very well packaged kit (Pelican Case), I was presented with a Ziploc bag of resistors. WTF?! I'm a musical artiste, I don't do DIY resistors! A call to Robinson put my mind at rest, and if needed, I guess I could bend and push a resistor or two. Luckily, a pair of 470 ohm resistors were already connected, so, I used them exclusively. Serious analogue tinkerers will be laughing at me right about now. They'll be able to switch loads in a jiffy. The standard onboard gain of 70dB was plenty to drive my Phasemation PP-2000 MC Phono Cartridge.

Background

Robinson was very quick to answer questions and to give help where it was needed. In one of our many email exchanges, he discussed his background:

Anthony

My first speaker sale came in 1983 and our first and only CES exhibition (with planar magnetic speakers, dynamic subwoofer) was January 1985, people called it the monolith from 2001, because of its size and shape being almost 7' tall and 3.5' wide by 4" thick.

We built and sold custom speakers both planar and dynamic to include a few horn loaded boxes the resembled the JBL C-40.

We were called Paradox Speakers, I changed the name to Paradox Enterprise which had always been on the business license around 2000 and about four years ago started the Paradox Pulse line of electronics. 

The Pulse products represent a new and specific level of performance.

Sound

The units had some time on them, so I didn't do a lot of break-in. A few days of casual listening, then a deep dive. 

I used my new haul from a recent trip to Vancouver (the wonderful Sikora Records) as basis for the review repertoire—jazz monos, a DG Speakers Corner reissue and some Decca reissues. All 33 1/3 rpm. 

My first sit down provided a bit of a shock. Rumble. A deep rumble that I had not experienced before. Before trouble shooting began, my heart sank—you know, that audiophile panic. My brand new, 4K Sutherland must be on the fritz, or, worse, the 6K Phasemation! Okay, calm the hell down. It's gotta be mechanical, right? Troubleshooting began. I tried the other Decca LP. Same damn thing! After lots of to and fro, it wasn't my Rega RP10, the wondrous RB2000 arm, the new cart or either of the phono stages. No rumble on any other LP. Just the two new Deccas. Thanks Decca. That's $100 up the Swanee. I asked the guru, Mikey, and he thought it may be the Kingsway tube rumbling along. Nope. Just two crap pressings. Oh well. 

Back to the 70. I began with an original Colgems Casino Royale. The detail was immaculate—clear and present with the famous instrumental and rhythm separation (behind partitions) heard easily. And with Herb Alpert's unique trumpet tone and warbling vibrato also to the fore. Dusty's voice was non pareil—all sex and smoke. My father worked with Springfield in the late 60s. Oh, the stories. A fun gal, and very nice to work with. 

A wide dynamic range was embraced, whether macro or the subtlest micro. Gentle cymbals, triangles, and Debussy's antique cymbals (tuned bells, in fact, and about the purest musical tones imaginable) in L'apres midi were beautiful, with the Paradox making mincemeat of Karajan's unmusical mixes. He's one of the reasons engineers keep conductors out of the sound room 'till playback. I heard a famous British engineer yell at the top of his voice over my shoulder at Maxim Shostakovich (the conductor son)—'don't move the f****** mic!'. 

Bass definition was also very good, not in the Sutherland's domain (so accurate and really deep bass), but for a $2500 phono stage, very good. And the soundstage didn't implode when the going got tough (Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony EMI/LSO/Previn) like the $3500, highly regarded phono stage I heard a few months ago. That the Paradox hung with some of the big boys like Audia Flight and my Sutherland is a testament to Robinson's design prowess.

Record after record surprised me and my guests at the accurate timbral quality and seemingly effortless way the Phono 70 handled thorny and complicated performances. My go to vinyl for a stage's ability to solve orchestral thickets, Arcana by Varèse (Decca/LA Phil/Mehta), was instructive. The last few veils from UCLA's Royce Hall did not lift as I've heard on the magisterial 6K Audia Flight Phono, but the 70 unraveled a lot of Varèse's crazy orchestration. Once again, the 70 did not collapse, especially at the moment when asked to resolve four trumpets well above the stave playing ffff. The vaunted $3500 phono stage heard previously cried uncle at that very moment as Tom Stevens and his gang of hooligans let rip under Mehta's baton. Auditioning vinylphiles, find this record. Have Arcana, will travel. 

Summary

I auditioned the Phono 70 with great Antipodes cables, a superb Rega RP10/RB2000 combo, and a Phasemation masterpiece of a cartridge. My kit, while very forgiving, highlighted the very best of the Phono 70. Yet, if it had weaknesses, my ref kit would expose them.

The boxes were silent, powerful enough to magnify very low output MCs, and highlighted effortlessly the qualities of vinyl reproduction that we crave. It did what the best phono stages do, sat in the rack quietly and did its job without strain. That it had lovely timbral qualities, is a plus. Those qualities were constant during the review.

The Phono 70 certainly punches well above its $2500 weight. FYI, I believe Paradox's $1800 introductory offer is still on. At that price, many people should be able to up their analogue game. Give Robinson a call. He doesn't bite! And with a 30 day money back guarantee, you can't lose.

Further information: Paradox