by Martin Appel
Paul McGowan of PS Audio has made a practice of developing products that solve audio problems. His design approach usually results in value laden products that have a unique, no nonsense, practicality about them. So, it was with great anticipation that the GCPH Phono preamplifier was coming my way for review.
I met Paul recently at a New York Audiophile Society presentation of his new CD system and I approached him about reviewing some of his products. He put me in touch with his VP Sales & Marketing, Dave Kakenmaster, another very cordial fellow.
The first product Dave sent me was the superb Power Plant Premier, which I reviewed herein January 20, 2009. I now awaited the shipment of the GCPH Phono Preamplifier. It arrived shortly thereafter, in perfect condition, and I proceeded to install it in my system with Acoustic Zen’s Absolute single ended interconnects and power cord. The Rega 300 arm is hard wired with single ended terminations and therefore I could not try any after market cables to the GCPH. The rear panel has both single ended and balanced outputs. The GCPH is fully balanced.
After considerable experimentation, I found that the Shelter 7000 cartridge worked best at the 100 ohm setting and that’s what I used. In my Nova Phonomena review for Audiophilia, I mentioned that a setting of 50,000 ohms was used. I’ve since changed it to 100 ohms and achieved better results. The GCPH has two selector knobs on the rear panel, a four position knob for impedance (100/500/1k/47k) and a four position knob for gain (48/54/60/66dB). A knob for further fine-tuning and adjusting the gain (see next paragraph) is provided on the front panel. The front panel also contains a mono button and phase switch which I later found out had a major impact on the sound. The gain, mono and phase switches are all available via the remote control and can be used on the fly to optimize the unit’s performance. Great flexibility.
The PS Audio website explains its ‘Gain Cell’ Technology as ‘…Using the front panel gain adjustment control on the GCPH, you can set the Gain Cell for the perfect gain to feed your preamplifier or maintain absolute control from zero gain to any other gain and feed your power amplifier directly from the GCPH! This is a vinyl lover’s dream come true. Complete control over any cartridge and it can act as a complete system or an outboard phono preamplifier to feed your preamplifier directly.’ Thus, Gain Cell Phono.
According to Kakenmaster, the GCPH needs 2-300 hours of burn in to achieve maximum performance. That’s a lot of record playing (especially during my tennis season) and I appreciate that he was gracious in allowing me the extra time required to properly do the review. In this case about three and a half months.
My first listening impressions were rather cool and I waited patiently (well, maybe not so patiently) during the burn in period for the sound to develop. Up until this point (several months had elapsed), I had ignored the phase switch. During one of my colleague’s visit I tried the phase switch. Eureka! I hit the button on the remote and there was a fairly loud ‘pop’ and suddenly the sound opened up dramatically. Why this happened, I don’t know. I’ll chalk it up to the vagaries of high end electronics or the characteristics of my system. I tried repeating this again but no ‘pop’ happened and the change was not anywhere near as dramatic: in most cases, barely noticeable. Once this initial change happened, the sound approached the sweet spot great vinyl is capable of. Whatever background noise existed almost disappeared, nearly matching my battery operated reference.
My overall impression was of increased dynamics. More punch and drive than my reference. The bass was more extended with greater solidity and impact. Along with excellent bass performance, an accompanying increase in instrumental textures and definition was clearly evident. There also seemed to be a greater fullness to the sound that wasn’t quite there before. I was liking this.
Continued burning in brought further, subtle improvements. The soundstage opened a bit further and deepened, and separation of instruments became further enhanced. I was pulling out record after record and the music was alive and vital. My favorite rediscovery was the group, Dire Straits. I couldn’t stop listening to cut after cut. Hearing their creativity, understated power and artistry brought me a new appreciation of their talents. These boys can play. Musical timbres were accurately portrayed without emphasis in any region. I also found the imaging to be spot on. Mark Knopfler’s voice was gritty and solid capturing the essence of his message.
Clifford Brown’s album, Study in Brown, was also wonderful. Drummer Max Roach’s opening cymbal strikes on the track, George’s Dilemma, were riveting, full bodied and had startling clarity. The music jumped out of the speakers and Brown’s opening trumpet solo was alive. I felt like I was in the studio with them.
Large classical works were very well served by this unit. Power and subtlety were equally portrayed with great articulation of the instruments. The ability to identify individual instruments and their position in the orchestra was achieved very well. The recreation of the orchestral soundstage with depth and air was significant and well noted with the Stokowski Rhapsodies album. My only reservation is about that very soundstage. In the absolute sense, I’ve heard greater soundstage width produced but it took units costing at least two to three times as much to achieve that result. I don’t mean to say that the soundstage was small but that it remained within the speaker boundaries. The cost no object phono preamplifiers can produce soundstage width that go beyond the speaker boundaries. How important this phenomenon is is up to the listener.
In conclusion, it is apparent that McGowan has done it again. He has created a unit with such wonderful performance and great flexibility that for only US$995.00 it rivals those in the megabuck range. Ultimately, it inched ahead of my Nova Phonomena reference in all areas except one and that was in ultimate quietness. Nothing beats the shear silence that the Nova’s battery operation provides. However, the GCPH is no slouch in this department. It certainly is quiet enough so as not to interfere, in any way with your enjoyment of the music. The GCPH is a real audiophile bargain and I highly recommend it. It has taken over as my reference in the sub US$1,000.00 category and it is the new ‘Star’.
[It is with great pleasure that we award the Audiophilia Star Component Award to the PS Audio GCPH Phono Preamplifier. Congratulations! - Ed]
On behalf of everyone at PS Audio I would like to thank Martin for his thoughtful and careful review of the GCPH phono preamplifier. As many readers know, PS Audio started in the early ‘70s with just one product: a phono stage! Top-notch music reproduction, whether analog or digital, has always been near and dear to us. It is great to know Martin agrees our design goal has been met and the GCPH is your new Star!
Thank you again,
VP Sales & Marketing
BSK 3266 1978 Warner Bros. Records-DIRE STRAITS
25264-1 Warner Bros. Records – DIRE STRAITS-BROTHER IN ARMS
TRIP JAZZ TLP-5530 BROWN/ROACH INC.-STUDY IN BROWN (mono)
CS 8192 Columbia- Dave Brubeck Quartet / TIME OUT
MQ 30443Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Bernstein / NY Philharmonic (SQ Quadraphonic) LSC-2471-200 gram
CLASSIC RECORDS reissue-RCA LIVING STEREO, RHAPSODIES with Stokowski and RCA Victor Symphony
Amplifiers: 4-Nuforce 9V2 SE’s monoblocks
Processor: DEQX PDC-2.6P
Preamplifier: Marantz SC-7S2
Phono Preamplifier: Nova Phonomena
CD source: Marantz SA-7S1
Analogue source: Avid Volvere / RB300 arm.
Cartridge: Shelter 7000
Speaker cables: Acoustic Zen’s Absolute, Wasatch’s Ultama Power Cords, Acoustic Zen’s Absolute Interconnects: Acoustic Zen’s Absolute(xlr)
Accessories: Herbie’s Audio Lab Tenderfeet, Black Diamond Racing Cones, Soundcare products, Acme Audio Labs wall outlets.
Surge Protection: Brick Wall 2R and 8R Surge Protectors
Power Conditioning: PS AUDIO Power Plant Premier
Source: Manufacturer loan