Tuesday, February 9, 2010

TTVJ Hybrid Phono Preamp

(Here's another phono preamp from my $1000 survey. This one sounded great, looked like hell. Way too often phono preamps are red-headed stepchildren when it comes to the outer design.)

For those of you familiar with Todd the Vinyl Junkie's partnership with designer Pete Millett, you'll know that these two gentleman have placed sound quality and circuitry design squarely over cosmetics in their first three products. The TTVJ Millett 307A headphone amplifier, a state-of-the-art design, resembles a kit version of a tube amp from the '70s, yet offers the most penetrating views into recordings I've encountered. (For $6000, you should expect no less.) The Hybrid Portable headphone amp, which was actually the pair's first commercial offering, is a more modest product which still provides unusually high value despite its tiny size (an obvious virtue for something that's portable). After having reviewed both products over the last few months, it seemed natural that I should complete the TTVJ trifecta and review the remaining product, the Hybrid Phono Preamp.

Innards and Outards
While this small preamp won't win any beauty contests (what phono stage would?), it is certainly far from homely. The simple aluminum case is vented in the front, consistent with the shape of the TTVJ logo, with two vacuum tubes peeking out of the top plate. When switched on, the Hybrid Phono Preamp glows from every direction, yet its compact dimensions allow it to be conveniently placed almost anywhere on your equipment rack without drawing too much attention to itself.

The HPP is extremely flexible in terms of its tube complement, with each option providing a slightly different sound. For the basic $850 asking price, you get a choice between 6DJ8/ECC88/E88CC or 6BK7/6BQ7 tubes, either NOS or current-production. For an addition $240, you can upgrade to Mullard ECC88s, and for $250 you can opt for Amperex 6922s. (I received the Amperex version.) A high-frequency switching power supply provides juice to the tube stage, while low-voltage DC current is sent to the amp via a 12V wall adapter.

Loading options are unusually flexible for an MM/MC phono stage in this price range, with 9 individual settings available from 92 to 5K ohms. Six gain settings are offered as well, including a beefy 80 dB option. Both of these settings can be altered by two small rotary knobs on the back panel, so you won't have to worry about taking the HPP apart every time you switch cartridges.

Beyond these features, however, the HPP is a fairly no-frills design. If you're looking for a fancy grounding hub, you'll be surprised to find ordinary screws for your spade lugs. While the power supply is designed to reduce ground loops and hum, I did have to seat the lug precisely in order to achieve an acceptable level of silence. The aluminum case didn't exactly inspire confidence, either—the top plate rattles loudly when tapped. I know that Todd and Pete Millett are trying to put most of the effort into the inside of the box, but when you spend over $1000 on a phono preamp, you might be willing to toss out a few more bucks for solid casework.

Shut Up and Listen
As with the 307A, most of these concerns vanished into thin air once I hooked up the HPP and gave it a listen. Using my reference J.A. Michell Orbe SE turntable, SME V arm, and both the Koetsu Rosewood Standard and the Zu Audio DL-103 cartridges, I felt that the HPP offered a warm, almost classic tube sound. I know the word liquid can be one of those foo-foo audiophile terms at best, and a euphemism for excessive coloration at worst, but the HPP sounded wet and enveloping and comforting. Some of the best SET amps, especially those which use 300Bs, can make the same first impression without sacrificing detail or a believable upper register. In other words, something about the sound of the HPP shimmered ever so slightly without obscuring details or compromising dynamic swings.

On a lark, I went out and found Steve Martin's first three comedy LPs, Let's Get Small, A Wild and Crazy Guy and Comedy Is Not Pretty! I used to be a huge Steve Martin fan back in the '70s, mostly because he went to the same high school I did, and because I came this close to interviewing him for our school paper. The HPP did an amazing job of not only taking me back to the first time I heard these routines, but it expanded on those memories by tracking Steve's explicit movements on the stage and conveying the exact space which the audience occupied. I was astonished at how great it all sounded (as well as how funny it all remained). At the same time, the HPP constantly reminded me that these performances occurred thirty years ago by preserving the slight tint and dynamic restraint typical for comedy recordings of the time.

Todd would probably beat me with a Ponderosa Pine branch if I didn't move on to something more, uh, musical. (TTVJ is based in Montana, in case you were wondering.) I'm not one of those audiophiles who is obsessed with using the female voice as an ultimate standard for reproduction, but I have been equally delighted with the MFSL pressing of Madeleine Peyroux's Half the Perfect World and the Tonefloat 180g pressing of Anja Garbarek's Smiling and Waving. The TTVJ Millett did an exception job of delivering the playful momentum of the former recording, and preserving the vast and delicate soundstage of the latter.

A Vintage Sound
The HPP played in the fields of the big dollar phono preamps by maintaining an unlimited sense of space, and only fell short when it came to providing more detail at the frequency extremes. In this regard, the HPP provided an almost “vintage” sound by blending a rich, seductive midrange with a slightly rolled-off treble and less than subterranean bass performance. Both the Koetsu and the Zu are warm cartridges to begin with, so a slightly more neutral cartridge such as the Dynavector 17D3 may be a better overall match. In fact, the HPP may be the perfect phono stage to tame cartridges with a slightly more incisive and analytical delivery, such as a Sumiko Blackbird or certain models from Clearaudio or Benz-Micro.

The only other caveat I had about the HPP involved the appearance of “tube rush” at higher listening levels. Much of the design of the HPP revolves around lowering the noise floor, such as the aforementioned power supply and the fully-balanced moving-coil inputs. This noise always seemed to emerge just slightly above comfortable listening levels, so I didn't find it to be an obstacle. Still, some listeners may resist a product that places a ceiling on the ability to crank up the volume.

Overall, the TTVJ Millett Hybrid Phono Preamp is very competitive with other products in its class, and even edges out most of them in delivering that warm and soothing listening experience so many vinyl lovers enjoy. The HPP is the perfect phono stage for vintage equipment enthusiasts who wax rhapsodic about the phono sections of their classic Fisher and H. H. Scott amps, but secretly wish for more flexibility and detail. It's also a winning solution for audiophiles who have noticed that the overall sound of their analog rigs have drifted into the Lean Zone, a complaint that I've heard fairly frequently these days.

In other words, this is the perfect phono stage for audiophiles who want to be reminded of the reasons why they've stuck with vinyl. So plug in the HPP, sit back in your favorite chair, and listen to some guy prancing around the stage with a banjo in his arms and an arrow sticking out his head. It'll take you back like nothing else.

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