by Mike Levy
AQVOX was founded in 2003 by Susanne Candeias, who is a high-end audio device developer and designer with over 20 years of experience. Her passion, though, is for the music, which began at the age of eight when she learned to play the violin. She has designed at almost every stage of the audio chain from the CD player, phono preamp, amplification, and cables, to loudspeakers. In 2003 she started Aqvox, which put out its first products in 2005.
The Aqvox Phono 2 Ci is a unique design with several design points to pique the interest of any analog audiophile. These design points achieve a high level of sonic clarity, openness and detail without any artificial bloom or coloration.
The Aqvox Phono pre amplifier is a handsome black unit that is solidly built in a slim cabinet. The front of the unit has two potentiometers, a power button and a subsonic filter, each of which has a pale blue LED indicator. There is also an LED input source indicator. The rear of the unit features two sets of inputs and outputs. There are balanced and RCA inputs and outputs. There are switches for loading a moving magnet cartridge, adjusting gain when using the RCA inputs and for lifting the ground. Switching is also provided for balanced or RCA inputs. It is the balanced inputs that intrigued me. I had never hooked up a turntable to balanced connectors. I wanted to use the balanced inputs with my Kuetsu rosewood moving coil cartridge, but I did not want to modify the cables coming from my turntable. The company supplied adaptors that allowed me to make that connection, although I am told the modified cables offer a better signal to noise ratio and improve the sound.
Aqvox as a company definitely has a point of view, and it is reflected in the design of unit which is unique in several ways, The balanced inputs, the phono equalization curve and the purpose of the front potentiometers are among them. While the front potentiometers would seem to be gain controls, and they do alter the output level, they are used to adjust the input level to match the cartridge output to the input. The balanced input directly couples a moving coil to the amplifier making it in effect a part of the amplifier. This changes the damping and requires careful setup of the vertical tracking angle and counterbalance for the best sonic balance and most open sound. This took some listening with several recordings, including using the same recording on CD to match the overall sonic balance. The sonic characteristics of the turntable were not the same as the CD. While the overall balance could be matched, the Aqvox seemed to extend the response. Bass went down further and was more dynamic, offering the kind of power on some selections that you expect in performance [achieved all the more easily on your amazing speakers, Mike! - Ed]. The high frequencies were also more dynamic and extended. Also, the sound was more open at all frequencies.
Our purpose here at Audiophilia is to achieve the closest possible reproduction of the live event. Our illustrious leader, Anthony Kershaw, is a professional conductor and thus very familiar with live natural sound. I also make every effort to listen to live natural instruments and vocals as often as possible, as do the reviewers I know personally on the magazine, so that we are never confused into believing that any system could be “better than live”. The sonic characteristics of being up close to a natural performance are breathtaking. The sound goes right through you. That is the reference to which we compare in our listening.
I am restating this purpose because it is in this respect that the Aqvox excelled. The organ, for example, in Cantate Domino excited resonances in the room that were not elicited by the CD at the same volume. The high frequencies were also more extended dynamic and detailed. There was an increased sense of space between the vocals, the size of the stage was increased giving a more realistic feeling of the church it was recorded in, and the individual voices were more solid and three dimensional. The male vocals had more body and resonated in a way reminiscent of a live performance.
So what are the unique design points of this unit and what are their sonic effects?
Balanced phono inputs: these have become the standard for the high end audio industry. By feeding the signal in a full negative and positive mode greater linearity, lower noise and better detail are achieved, but in the case of the moving coil cartridge they are the perfect match because moving coils are balanced current generators.
True balanced circuitry through the signal path: The benefits are maintained when that balanced architecture is continued throughout.
True Balanced Single-Ended Advanced-Class-A amplifiers: Extremely fast, linear response is maintained with smooth open low level detail by eliminating crossover distortion.
Zero overall feedback: Contributes to the open and dynamic sound of the unit. Overall feedback tends to make a unit sound sterile. Local feedback is used to maintain low noise and distortion.
RIAA equalization with Neumann constant: The accuracy of the RIAA curve is critical to the sound of a phono stage. Aqvox has done extensive study on the exact nature of the RIAA curve as used in the cutting lathes. While closely following the curve in the audible frequencies they add a correction for the Neumann constant, a 50kHz filter that was used on most lathes. This corrects the phase at the high frequencies giving more air to the sound.
Link to company information on the use of the Neumann constant with graphs.
Current amplification for moving coils: Current amplification matches any moving coil impedance correctly. As used, it is basically a shortcut current measuring device with gain. –“ in which the pickup cartridge itself becomes part of the amplifier, and where the MC-pick-up is the termination itself, therefore no termination is required.” “ Dynamic losses and distortions are remarkably lower compared to common voltage amplifiers.”
These sonic attributes extended throughout my vinyl collection. Jennifer Warrens’ version of Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire was not only more dimensional and present, but also sweeter and smoother while exhibiting increased detail. The Aqvox never got in the way of the sound. It always remained neutral. There was no artificial blooming, sweetening, or edge to the sound. Images were neither bloated nor too small, and the space between them and their shape were more evident. This difference extended to digital recordings on SACD as compared to vinyl. Telarc’s version of Pictures at an Exhibition conducted by Lorin Maazel was originally recorded on the Soundstream 50kHz mastering system and is available in SACD, CD, and vinyl. While you would expect the SACD to have the advantage here, the vinyl excelled in openness, dimensionality and detail.
The vinyl revival
When I hooked this unit up something unusual happened. The sound was so much better than the CD that I wanted to listen to everything only on vinyl. After a while I ran out of my usual fare of audiophile recordings, and I got reacquainted with my vinyl collection. I rediscovered many a 30 or even 40 year old recording. Not only had they not faded in quality, but they also benefited from the sonic attributes of the Aqvox. Music being tied to memory, listening to some of these albums brought me back to the days of my youth. I found a pristine quadraphonic Janis Joplin Pearl album at the flea market in Woodstock NY, and playing it flashed me back to 1971 in Denmark with my Danish girlfriend. The automatic turntable playing Pearl over and over again as neither one of us wanted to get up and change it. Also, there was the connection with history when listening to Jim and Jean’s version of Phil Och’s Crucifixion and Janis Ian’s Society’s Child, and they were all brought to a new level of clarity and musicality. I learned how much I had lost to my laziness by preferring the convenience of the CD.
Just when they have you thinking that the CD has come of age and new digital formats offer perfect reproduction, vinyl makes a comeback. Why? Those of us who have a fine turntable and cartridge do not need that question answered. Something, somewhere has been lost in translation in digital formats. Oh yes, they have improved. My first listening to a CD was so bad, it almost led to earbleed. It took decades before they became listenable. Then came DVD audio and SACD. Now there are new high speed formats for the blue ray laser. Why does vinyl still win? I really don’t know, and I will listen to any theories, but I think it is because analog is an art. You can look at the numbers or graphs, or you can let your ears do the work. The difference is in musicality, openness, and dimensionality, and it is obvious. It is even more obvious when you are using the Aqvox phono stage.
This phono stage releases the magic in vinyl. Over the last few months I have auditioned several high quality phono stages, and the Aqvox does something none of them can do. Beyond being very smooth and wide band, it is accurate and detailed. Sounds start and stop quickly. But what differentiates it is that it allows the music to flow. I have been struggling with how to explain this, but that is the best explanation I can give. The music sounds sweeter, yet more detailed. The imaging is wider, while the images are more specific and three dimensional. But most of all, it is unique in its ability to let the music flow out of your speakers and move you. There have been more than a few times recently when I was lucky enough to be in the first or close to the first row for live instrumental performances. Most recently at the Fisher Center at Bard College in Red Hook NY where I heard the American Symphony Orchestra, the Riverside Church in Manhattan where I heard the New York Philharmonic brass section, and at the Bear Theater in Woodstock, NY listening to the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra. At those performances, the music was so impactful, so moving, not because of how loud it was, for the effect did not cease in low passages, but because of the live nature of the music and its proximity. The Aqvox allows this dimension of the music through. It is for this reason that I would give it an Audiophilia star. Also, I will be modifying my phono cables to balanced as I have made this unit my reference.
[It is with great pleasure that we award the Audiophilia Star Component Award to the Aqvox Phono 2 Ci Phono Preamplifier. Congratulations! - Ed]
Audiophilia reviewer, Martin Appel wrote:
I received a call from my colleague and friend, Mike Levy, who told me he was auditioning a new phono stage and was really diggin’ it. He wanted to bring it over and try it out in my system to see if the same result could be achieved even though both our systems and rooms are different. So naturally I said, ‘bring it on’. The manufacturer recommends using balanced connections for best results. Unfortunately, only single ended connections could be used since my arm is hardwired that way. We tried the included single ended to balanced convertors but they produced a hum (probably due to the grounding scheme of my arm) which was not acceptable. Onward.
We sat and listened and all I can say is WOW! I was bowled over with what I was hearing from records I was familiar with. It was thrilling and enlightening at the same time. It was thrilling to realize how more lifelike the musical presentation was with the AQVOX in the system. Images were more three dimensional and alive and the spatial qualities were there like never before. The soundstage extended beyond the speakers and the images seemed to attain a lifelike presence in my listening space.
I could go on and on using all the typical audiophile terminology but it would not do justice in describing the performance of this unit. To have this level of achievement for around $2KUS is astounding and this was with using single ended connections. I can only imagine what using it in a balanced configuration would sound like. Susanne you are to be congratulated in designing and producing a phono stage that rivals and exceeds those costing three to five times the price-a true giant killer. I thanked Mike for discovering the AQVOX and bringing it to my home. You know it’s not leaving. It’s my new reference.
Turntable: VPI HW-19 turntable, Profile II arm , Kuetsu Rosewood moving coil cartridge as modified by Van Den Hul.
Electronics and speakers: DEQX based Wasatch Acoustics tri-amplified system with subwoofers.
Cabling: Acoustic Zen. Power chords: System: Acoustic Zen Tsunami plus,Ear to Ear cables platinum black S (used on the Aqvox Phono 2 Ci.)
Suite from Bizet’s Carmen, Jose Serebrier-Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
TD 1003 French Masterpieces Tioch Digital Records-1982
Brown/Roach, Inc., Study in Brown 1955 Reissued Circa 1960
Special Collection Series-Trip Jazz TLP-5530 Mono
Dire Straits, Brothers In Arms, Warner Bros Records, Inc. 9-25264-1
Frank Sinatra, Nice’N’Easy, Capitol Music from EMI, Original Master Recording MFSL 1-317
Lorin Maazel, The Cleveland Orchestra, Moussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, Telarc Digital: vinyl 10042 SACD 60042
Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Cypress Records 661 11-1 Original vinyl
Joan Baez, Diamonds and Rust, Nautilus Recordings NR 12
Gary Karr, Kol Nidrei, Seven Seas K28C-113
Janis Joplin, Pearl, Columbia CQ 30322
Jim and Jean, Changes, Verve Forecast FTS-3001
Janis Ian, Polydor PD-6058
Cantate Domino, Proprius Prop 7762
Aqvox Phono 2 Ci Phono Preamplifer
Manufactured by Aqvox Audio Devices
Steilshooper Str. 118
Tel +49 (0) 40-410 068 90
Fax +49 (0) 40-467 797 14
Source of equipment: Manufacturer loan