It would be instructive before reading my thoughts about the L2 phono stage module to read the full line stage review of the Vinnie Rossi L2 Signature Preamplifier.
Skinny audio seems to be all the rage these days. Fewer boxes, smaller boxes, fewer cables and a much lighter lifestyle footprint. While this trend can look the part and put a few more dollars in your pocket, the sound trade offs can be quite powerful. It’s why flying cars never took off, pardon the pun. Jacks of all trades and masters of none. I’m much more of a do-one-thing-well kind of guy.
Vinnie Rossi, designer and manufacturer of the tremendous L2 Signature Preamplifier ($16,995) has given the high end community a benchmark sub 20K line stage to propel reference components to the next level. It pushed my Jeff Rowland amplifier, Mytek Manhattan DAC II, Antipodes CORE Music Server and Sutherland Engineering DUO Phono Preamplifier into rarefied air. As such, it was a crying shame when I took it out of my system.
Rossi has added his voice to the small footprint collective and developed two add on modules for his brilliant preamp. The phonostage and DAC modules retail for $3495 each. The reviews of the modules were completed after a lengthy review period with the line stage. I wanted to get a good understanding of the big unit and how it interacted with standalone phono stages and DACs before committing thoughts to paper on its relationships with the onboard modules. The DAC module review will be published in a few weeks.
Comparative components to the Phono module included the aforementioned Sutherland Engineering DUO Phono Preamplifier ($4000) (my long term reference phono stage) and brief connections to the Allnic Audio H-1202 Phono Stage ($3750) and ModWright Instruments PH 9.0 Tube Phono Stage ($2900). All three are similar or thereabouts in cost to the Rossi module and fair comparison. Stiff competition, too, as the aforementioned components are among the very best standalone phono stages at their price points current in the market.
I used one of the module’s MC inputs for my Phasemation PP-2000 Phono Cartridge ($6000), set the loading (via the fabulous remote) to 200 (the last load setting returns each time you turn on the preamp, until changed ). The gain is set at the factory to 60 dB. You can fiddle with jumpers internally to set it upwards to 66 or 72, but I left it at 60. I’d settle on 66dB in a perfect world for my particular needs. But 60 was certainly enough for review and comparison. Cabling was the Allnic Audio MU-7R RCA Cable ($2300–review forthcoming) and no ground was needed.
So, other than gain changes, sit in a nice comfy chair, grab the super functional remote, and you’re good to go. See, skinny lifestyle. Very enticing, especially with the L2 line stage and its 300Bs as the heart.
The phono module had about 20 hours on the review unit. Rossi explains break-in this way:
I recommend 100 hours of playing music, and it does not matter what the volume setting is when burning in the L2 Dac or L2 Phonostage modules.
Part of the burn-in process is getting acclimated to the sound, and part of it is somewhat more 'controversial' (e.g. capacitor dielectric forming). Right out of the box everything should sound excellent, but many of my customers have informed me that after the approx. first 100 hours of use, the sound gets even better. Usually, they report about how the top end becomes more extended and effortless. That has been my experience as well, especially at audio shows where if I bring a brand new piece of equipment with low burn-in hours and it remains playing every day for 24 hours, by the last day of the show, it is sounding its best (with no other changes to the system).
The modules are plug-n'-play. Nice. Mine were factory installed. Rossi’s directions via email are:
You insert them from the back panel and literally plug them in (and secure them with 4 screws to the rear panel). The L2 automatically senses if the modules are installed, and as you switch through the inputs, you will then see the new input options from the module that was installed. One can start out with just the L2 Preamp, and later order the modules.
For a small module, the add on box packs a lot of features and is high spec. My last experience with an add on to a mainframe was the phono card in the single add on slot in the Jeff Rowland Continuum S2. At $400, it was functional; it did the job, but was bettered significantly by Rega’s Standalone Aria Phonostage ($1500) I was reviewing at the same time. The ethereal idea of astounding value/sound ratio only goes so far and is rare in high end audio. You get what you pay for, generally.
I asked Rossi about the connective topology and the way the triodes affect the sound of the module.
The module feeds into the L2's DHT linestage, so the tube used (no matter if it is a 300B, 2A3, PX4, 45, SV811, etc) plays a part in the overall sonic signature. One can also bypass the tubes completely (via the toggle switch next to each tube socket) and use the class A JFET buffer stage, which is very neutral sounding. Of course in doing so, you lose out on the triode magic (as well as about 7dB of gain because the JFET buffer is unity gain).
My review period was spent in the company of the magical triodes.
L2 Phonostage Features
Inputs: 1 set of Moving Magnet (MM), 2 sets of Moving Coil (MC)
Built-in, on the fly MC remote adjustable cartridge loading (10 – 1000 ohms). Cartridge load setting viewable from L2 front panel display
Adjustable gain jumpers for MM and MC inputs
Belleson Super-Regulated split-supply voltage rails
Four low-noise and low distortion gain stages. Each stage has a nominal gain of 20dB, resulting in higher bandwidth per stage and lower phase shift across the audio band
Low output impedance design
DC coupled from input to output (no dc blocking capacitors added in series to the signal path)
DC Servo keeps output offset negligible
RIAA is designed to prevent internal overload by first attenuating treble, and then boosting bass
High accuracy resistors and capacitors used throughout
4-layer PCB with separate ground planes for analog and digital (control circuitry)
Cardas Audio input jacks
Connect up to three tone arms and switch between them via L2 front panel or the remote handset
MM Gain Settings: 40dB, 46dB
MC Gain Settings: 60dB, 66dB, 72dB
Output Impedance: < 100 ohms
Noise (3Vrms output, 1kHz): > 90dBV
THD (3Vrms output, 1kHz):< 0.002%
RIAA Accuracy (20 – 20kHz): +/- 0.5dB
Output DC Offset Voltage: < 2mV (servo controlled)
The unit sounded excellent upon first listen, echoing much of what I’d heard from the line stage—refined sound with considerable detail. After a couple of weeks listening, I found the sound did not shift too much from the initial impression. Maybe after the 100 hours suggested by some of Rossi’s customers, there would be some moderate changes, primarily in the upper registers. To my ears, everything was balanced and ship shape.
With the big brother directing traffic, these little modules should have a pretty healthy head start. The line stage and its 300B topology added (not coloured) the most glorious glow and distillation to all instruments and voices and echoed what I have experienced my entire performing career when listening to wonderful artists in lovely acoustics. What I had to figure out, especially considering the brilliant way my components and the L2 interacted, is where the L2 ends and the phono module begins.
The phono module threw large scale images with great colour and with fervour. The Reiner Chant du Rossignol (Stravinsky—RCA Shaded Dog) seemed to be purpose recorded for such a phono stage. Stravinsky threw the colourful orchestration kitchen sink at this Chinese fairy tale. And the L2 phono module responded in kind with beautifully rendered solos and replication of Chicago Symphony Hall’s ambiance. Where I feel more time on the module may be effective is in unravelling very complex, thorny orchestration. There are some passages in Chant that defy/confuse your ears—and unless you know the score backwards (like Reiner), things can get a little sticky. Only the very best phono stages such as the $15,000 H7000 from Allnic Audio I reviewed last year, can make real sense out of the thick texture. The DUO and the H-1202 did excel, here, but both the H-1202 and the Rossi module had better bass—better as in a little deeper and more characterful than the DUO.
The phono module’s treble was very extended and sounded beautiful on well recorded LPs with envious high string playing. The lower midrange/upper bass was tested with the Starker/Bach Cello Suites/Mercury reissue set and passed with flying colours. Or, lets say, with flying neutrality. Under some conditions, these LPs can get a little out of hand and sound over modulated in some frequencies. The Vinnie Rossi kept everything under complete control. This is a much glossed over tenet in many phono stage reviews. Can the unit hold the musical picture together? Can it grasp the imaging and soundstage offered and give you an honest picture? A happy yes. A highly regarded $4000 tube phono stage I heard at length at a musical party last year fell apart constantly (smeared and hollow with lack of focus) whenever audio difficulties showed their fangs.
All the phono stages I’ve reviewed this year kept it together when things got rough (and very loud), with the fully solid state monoblock DUO a master of this.
The timbres of instruments faired better with the tubes. And the 300Bs affect them with beauty like no other. The 300Bs and how Rossi implements them into preamplifier and phono duties are wonderful. The module also complemented my very dynamic turntable, the Bergmann Audio Magne, with great control over macro and micro dynamics. The subtlety you love from your great LPs will never go unnoticed.
So, this listener has been spoilt for phono stage choice. The wonderful ModWright is almost 600 bucks cheaper then the module and is tube based (not 300Bs, though) with loading on the fly (from the front panel). The superb H-1202 is a couple of hundred bucks more and is also tube based. Long time readers will know of my love for the Sutherland DUO, at over $500 more. But remember, each of these needs a good power cord (the DUO needs 2) and interconnects. I have been provided with superb cables from Allnic Audio, AntiCables and Antipodes Audio adding significant amounts to the cost of a standalone. The module wants for nothing. Plug in, enjoy.
If you like looking at and admiring components as I do then you may want a standalone unit. But, with the L2 phonostage module, you really are choosing winner, winner, phono dinner. Lifestyle footprint, more rack space, fewer cables, performance among the very best phonostages at this price (or higher), serious triode love, and that remote with loading from your listening chair.
You want the full Rossi experience? An excellent phono stage? A no brainer, then.
Look for the L2 DAC module review in a few weeks.
Further information: Vinnie Rossi