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Orange crush: Wyred 4 Sound’s PH-1 phono stage

  • The beginning is a familiar one, told a thousand times: I slide the record from its sleeve, and carefully place it on the turntable platter; I delicately pull the tonearm across so that the needle seen from above sits above (but just inside) the record’s outer edge. With the lever I lower the tonearm…

    …a gentle THUNK hits the loudspeakers and we begin. Sometimes with a slow build but in the case of the Kitchens Of Distinction’s The Death of Cool, a chiming guitar and a drum fill and puts us in swift indie rock motion. When did this record ever sound so delightful? Moreover, when did Autechre’s usually icy, detached Amber sound quite so present?

    What had changed?

    Not the Technics SL-1200G turntable. Not the Zu-DL103R low-output MC cartridge fitted to its tonearm. Not the PS Audio BHK Signature pre-amplifier and not the Genelec 8341 ‘The Ones’ active loudspeakers. The newcomer – the culprit! – sat between turntable and pre-amplifier: the PH-1 phono stage (US$1399) from Wyred 4 Sound.

    Designer EJ Sarmento, a long-established pack leader in Class D amplifier design and ESS Sabre DAC implementations, explains how his Californian brand’s first vinyl playback-related product came about:

    “The mechanical aspect of a turntable is really interesting to me. Over the years, I’ve developed several complete phono stages and have helped on many more, so this came naturally to me. Surely customers have asked for this since the inception of the STP-SE and it’s always been on my mind but I finally decided the time was right. After putting so much work in on the [SST] Thoebe II phono stage and reading such great feedback from it, I really wanted something more. Rick [Cullen] and I had many fun days playing around enjoying good sound which was incredible at that. I just knew we could get more!”

    “Another important design factor for us was to include high amounts of input overload which is paramount for high dynamic transients. This is very important for proper playback on many classical and orchestral records which many designers of such circuits tend to overlook.”

    This video makes the reviewer-side introductions:

    This story didn’t start with the PH-1. Nor did it start with another phono stage, the ADC-loaded NuWave Phono Converter from PS Audio. Like the best hi-fi stories, my savouring of the Wyred 4 Sound’s unit’s more mellifluous, less ostentatious take on vinyl playback was seeded at a record store.

    With the overwhelming majority of the audiophile press favouring classical, opera and jazz, my living in Berlin provide double the justification for digging into electronic music for reviews. For slices of techno and electronica pressed to the black stuff head to Kreuzberg’s Hard Wax, a record store that’s back from Paul-Lincke Ufer in a Hinterhaus. We traverse a cobblestoned courtyard, step carefully across a crooked drain cover (an ominous sign of our impending financial forfeit?) and up a gloomy stairwell to the third floor.

    Hard Wax is intimidating for newcomers. Records aren’t displayed by artist but by label, sub-divided according to country of origin – the UK, USA and Europe – and alphabetized. Underpinning this system is the idea that music from a certain label, like hi-fi hardware from the same manufacturer, shares a house sound: Perc Trax for industrial; Tresor for four-to-the-floor weirdness; Dystopian for dark, brooding sprawlers; Perlon for esoteric house.

    A personal favourite is Ostgut Ton’s techno/electronica that straddles the club/home listening divide – perfect for listeners like yours truly who have traded the Saturday night dancefloor for the couch but maintain a sharp interest in electronic music. I’m all set to pull up Answer Code Request’s Gens when a record I’ve been after since its 2011 release steals my attention: Surgeon’s Breaking The Frame, a long player on the Dynamic Tension label that dials down the Brit producer’s usual hard-hitting machine funk in favour of extended home listening. In the ‘New D & EU’ bin glows the bright orange sleeve of Aleksi Perälä’s Paradox, released via Nina Kraviz’s always interesting TRIP label – another must have. Rounding out the afternoon’s selection, Rhythm & Sound’s The Versions – dub techno from Moritz Von Oswald and Hard Wax owner Mark Ernestus – that’s more dub than techno.

    Back at home in Mitte, the new acquisitions are unwrapped and the PH-1 is powered on – a soft start to avoid speaker thump. Like many of our most cherished records, some pieces of audio hardware give up few of their secrets upon first listen. Time is needed to discern their true personality. I took three weeks and two cartridges.

    Listening to Breaking The Frame for the umpteenth time I note the Wyred 4 Sound piece’s impeccable sense of timing and delicacy. Behind headphones, Paradox shows us just how very capable the PH-1 is in unravelling complexity but doesn’t shout about what it’s found. Showy it is not.

    I didn’t choose the Technics SL-1200G because of its standing as one of the best-sounding turntables at its price point. I haven’t heard them all so I couldn’t possibly know. The SL-1200G’s speed-stable direct drive motor is a real drawcard. So too the one-click plinth-mounted speed control and a detachable headshell that makes for easier cartridge mounting and change-up. And yet the SL-1200G’s most persuasive quality is its cultural heritage.

    By the end of the 1980s, the original, less pricey SL-1200 and its derivatives had become the defacto club standard. Its ability to withstand the rough and tumble of club DJ life was unsurpassed and so the SL-1200 cut its reputation on hip-hop and later, techno. Audiophiles didn’t make the SL-1200 Technics’ best selling turntable, DJs did.

    Nowadays, and in spite of the re-issued model/s more squarely aimed at audiophiles, the thousands of SL-1200 that remain in service around the world are far more likely to be spinning Public Enemy and Underground Resistance than Nils Lofgren and Carole King. It could be argued that SL-1200/G-related owe a cultural debt to hip-hop and dance/electronic music more than any other genre.

    Sarmento isn’t kidding when he says that the PH-1 is “one of the quietest phono-stages available in its price category”. Elaborating via email he says, “Noise is such a key factor in the PH-1 because of a hi-fi system’s gain structure. This is the start of your analog signal chain and getting it right really pays off down the line The PH-1’s circuit design is largely focused on minimizing its noise floor and RIAA accuracy. Our “house sound” also requires us to have ultimate transparency.”

    From the back panel, 100 Ohms (the PH-1’s lowest loading) and 62db (the highest gain) were applied to the Zu-modded Denon cart, before cutting over the already tomb silent PS Audio pre-amplifier from an empty input to the PH-1’s. No change. No extra hiss. Barely the hint of a hum – and only with the volume cranked HARD, well beyond an SPL-tolerable position on the volume dial.

    To confirm, the Genelecs were removed the from the picture and the Sennheiser HD800S headphone pressed into service via the BHK Signature’s insufficiently lauded 6.4mm socket: a slightly audible hiss but only with PS Audio’s pre’s volume pot cranked hard to the right – well beyond tolerable SPLs when needle meets groove. Any hint of hiss all but vanished when the the MC Zu cartridge was swapped out for an MM Ortofon 2M Black, the PH-1’s loading rotary clicked right to 47K Ohms and its gain clicked lowered to 44db.

    Could the low noise speaker spill be a direct result of this phono stage’s external power supply?

    Sarmento again: “The included power supply is external. It has the appearance of being switching but it is our own super quiet linear supply that feeds the phono with ultra-clean power. Even though we are employing the use of a toroid transformer, I didn’t want to settle for what comes from placing all of that inside the same chassis as the preamp. I was after THE QUIETEST method possible. Inside this power supply, one will find the beginnings of the raw DC but inside the main chassis is where we really clean-up with multiple points of filtering – and lots of it! This is done with many smaller parts that benefit from the overall reduced power supply impedance.”

    “There IS a small switching supply in the external box that used only for housekeeping: 5v to run the front panel lights and the processor that tells the unit when to sleep etc.”

    In teasing out what the Wyred 4 Sound’s PH-1 phono stage brings to the Technics turntable table we can’t talk in absolutes (or contextless praise). We look to the PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter (NPC) to establish a baseline and talk from there.

    Initial comparisons peg the PH-1 as not as immediately sugar-hit thrilling as its Colorodan rival. Neither does it carve as deeply the squelchy textures painted by the 303-soaked Hardfloor Presents Dadamnphreaknoizphunk?.

    Next to the PH-1, the NPC plays through drier mountain air to lend Rhytmn & Sound’s a certain crispness that can sound at odds with dub’s more usual THC haze. A better fit for the PS Audio’s cleaner presentation comes from Alva Noto’s speckless-ly minimal Uniqav.

    The PH-1 gives us the PS Audio unit’s transparency but favours finesse and tenderness over lapel-pull excitement. It isn’t as pushy as the NPC – a quality that makes the PH-1 better suited to the Zu-DL103r’s lower treble pop that, when mounted to the Technics SL-1200G, extracts maximum detail from techno.

    If phono stages were font styles, the PS Audio piece would be CAPITALISED BOLD and the Wyred 4 Sound underscored italics. We choose according to audible preference. If its needle drops and/or playing a phono stage into a DAC, we’d functionally favour the NPC. Putting the techno to one side, the PH-1 makes clearer its audible advantages.

    Bridging analogue and digital worlds with over-simplistic analogies, phono stages are to DACs what cartridges are to network streamers. For a wetter, more supple presentation I prefer for the Ortofon 2M Black that, when paired with the PH-1, it doses voices with a little extra velvet and electric guitars with a splash of water.

    Now we’re back in idiosyncratic rock territory with David Byrne’s American Dream where the PH-1’s more humid air affords the album’s horn blat and string rosin better air grip (than the NPC) for a tremendously satisfying sense of tone and timbre and an altogether more intimate listening experience. Marvellous!

    A better phono stage elevates the vinyl listening experience in hitherto unheard (and sometimes unexpected) ways. Rarely are those ways as simple as matters of bass, midrange and treble or soundstaging or dynamics. The Wyred 4 Sound PH-1 lends music audible qualities that I hear from great digital sources like the Innuos Zenith SE MKII. It’s the PH-1’s sense of dynamic elasticity and heavy tone that keeps this listener glued to his listening chair, even when the loudspeakers have moved from active Genelec to the less transparent passive ProAc standmounts and the amplification to outboard Schiit. Chalk up another success for source-first protagonists. Chalk up another resolute success for Wyred 4 Sound.

    Further information: Wyred 4 Sound

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile. John used to live in Sydney. Now he lives in Berlin.

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