August 2012 Paul Rigby, HIFI World Magazine (5 Globes) UK
The Pulsare phono stage was AVID HIFI's first official foray into electronics, supporting its turntables, although the company had been making 'electronics' all along via its turntable power supplies, but still...
There was another good reason as MD, Conrad Mas, explained, "We noticed that there was a real shift in how (phono stage) electronics were made. They seemed to curtail or alter the frequency spectrum, highlighting the upper frequencies and giving a false impression of how much detail there was in the sound. That is, cutting away the bass to make it sound more top end." AVID tried to redress that balance to provide a more even sound spectrum with more lower frequency meat on the bone.
That was the philosophy of the Pulsare II phono amp. That meant avoiding valves, though, "Valves are romantic", said Mas, "but it's impossible to have equipment that are the ultimate in state of the art. You are limited in terms of noise and they are susceptible to mechanical disturbance too. There are too many limitations with valves".
The Pulsare is a fully balanced design, to reject noise and outside interference. To that extent the power supply was placed within a screened separate box. More than that, unlike its competitors, AVID refused to feature digital components which also harbour noise. "Our audio signal doesn't go through any solid-state switches, they're all operated via relays. Our number one element is signal integrity. There's no outside interference to distort the signal." There's also no DIP switches for the same reason.
Spanning 290x240x100mm and weighing in at 3.8kg for the control unit and 6.4kg for the PSU the control unit features a series of inputs for balanced, RCA and RCA (balanced). "The latter is useful for pick-up arms which are subject to hum: some Rega arms are earthed through the cable screen which can produce earthing problems, for example".
You can also utilise the phono amp with a two-armed turntable or, in fact, two turntables, flicking between the pair. "Ideally, we recommend XLR only so that the cartridge is run fully balanced", said Mas. "The cartridge itself is a fully balanced device. As such, the arm cable offers much less chance of noise or hum. This phono stage is also fully balanced inside, also rejecting alien noise coming into the circuit.
When faced with RCA, the system allows noise to come in through the earth, RCA's link the earth and the signal together. For balanced cables that changes, the earth is separate. We have a balanced option on the Pulsare II because there is a need for it. There wouldn't be on a power amp, for example.
The reason? A cartridge handles micro volts. For such a small amount of power, there is a greater chance of that tiny voltage being corrupted by noise. On the other hand, a power amp, for example, offers a great deal of power, so it tends to drown out the noise".
The gain selector includes MC (High) of 70-72dB which is around 10dB more than conventional phono amp. "We like to take the signal from the turntable and elevate it as high as possible instead of allowing the pre- and power amps only to increase the level, we want to do that from the off. The Pre-amp will not have much gain to include. When you have a high input signal, its less prone to be influenced by outside distortions," said Mas.
The resistance values selector offers a load to the cartridges. You can tune it to what you want. But, "most people forget that a cartridge might recommend 500 Ohms, say, but it might be worth clicking down to 300. The arm and cartridge leads will also have resistance values. By the time you've added that in, that might up the value to 500 Ohms anyway. It's worth having our facility to tweak it. You won't harm anything by trying the other values".
The capacitance option is mainly for MM cartridges but exotic MC models might benefit from the included high capacitance levels. A mono switch has also been added along with a new subsonic filter. "For those who do not have a decent turntable or have the wrong cartridge in the wrong arm. It's there to reduce cone flap". Inside is a further option to add your own resistor value for quirky cartridges.
The power supply features a large transformer, a toroidal of 300VA, double regulated to provide a pure and stable source of power. On the rear of the power supply, you can have the earth floating or grounded to zero volts. You can flick it if you have a hum problem in your system. Other differences include new capacitors within both boxes that promises to elevate the sound.
But are those promises fulfilled?
From the first few seconds of playing Kansas' 'On The Other Side' from the album, 'Monolith', the sonic highlights of the Pulsare II could be discerned immediately. The lead vocal on this LP can run the risk of a touch of midrange bloom, giving the impression of uncontrollable crescendos. The AVID removed the bloom and added, instead, focus which immediately made his voice an expressive instrument, capable of nuance and texture.
The track can, with the wrong set-up, be subject to some upper midrange lift too as this LP has been mastered with a touch of compression. The AVID eases the compressive traits, revealing a more considered presentation. Continuing the high frequency performance, there are a host of percussive elements on the track that also reach into the treble region. More detail was noticeable via the AVID which sounded like it had de-cluttered the upper frequency, allowing the turntable to properly present the music on offer.
The eradication of these distortions pulled me deeper into the mix, opening up many new midrange and treble elements previously masked by noise. The accompanying strings were prime example of that. On my reference system, the strings sounded smooth and engaging but the Pulsare II added a richer and more emotional rendition.
As for the soundstage? That was 3D, in effect, with added layers providing complexity and oodles of air - the wood block percussion offered long reverb tails, for example. Finally, bass was bold, yes, but also deep and tight with a huge degree of body and a confident sense of control over the entire low frequency spectrum.
Taking a jazz path and June Christy's rendition of 'give A Little Whistle'. What was surprising here was how much bass appeared in the mix of this midrange-centric track, offering a wholesome balance to the mix as well as great drive to the performance. This underpinned the track, giving it sense as a song, providing plenty of information to the ear.
It was easy for the strong Christy vocal to be affected by bloom, such was authority. The AVID avoided this likelihood, producing a focused vocal delivery. Broad clarity ensured rim shots were sharp, and brimming with impact.
With piano the Pulsare II gave a complex rendition, producing a busy and involving performance whose complex key work was remarkable for its distinct nature.
Spinning the original mono cut of Mel Torne's 'Sunday In New York' from the album of the same name on Atlantic, the bass was, again, prominent. The first several seconds are dominated by a bass sax accompanying Mel Torme's vocal. The instrument, via the AVID, had a deep, rounded sound that was both vibrant and satisfyingly modulated. Torme's vocal delivery was calm and focused. The supreme male vocal jazz singer, he can produce a complex, difficult-to-follow delivery but the AVID managed it easily.
The mono soundstage had obvious boundaries but the performance was complex. Apart from Torme, a backing orchestra and skilled soloists are present. The AVID succeeded in resolving every instrument, tracking them without effort - quite a feat within the restricted mono soundstage. A highlight was the brass section that possessed a sparkling sheen and purity. Cymbals, also had an attractive sheen, their treble quality was light and they could be discerned throughout the length of the track.
The AVID Pulsare II is the best phono amp that I have ever heard. It's concentration on removing distortion from the hi-fi chain is the primary source of my enthusiasm. As such, it remains true to the primary source, ridding the signal of noise and maintaining a colour-free presentation with great focus.
Top notch sound, great build quality and excellent value for money, the Pulsare II is a leader in its class.
August 2011 Martin Appel, Audiophilia.com (Canada)
Conrad Mas, the guru of turntable design and creative force behind AVID HiFi emailed me about a year and a half ago to tell me about his new, “amazing” phono-preamplifier, the Pulsare. Normally, when manufacturers contact me about their new, best in the world gizmo, I’m very skeptical. But, this was Conrad Mas, the creator of a line of superior turntables from England, with a track record of excellence. So, when he enthused so rapturously about this new product I took it seriously, but as any reviewer worth his salt with a good dose of skepticism.
My analogue rig is composed of AVID’s Volvere turntable with SME IV arm and a Shelter 7000 cartridge. I’m using the very fine Aqvox Phono 2 Ci Mk ii phono preamplifier as my reference.
The Pulsare is comprised of twin matching chassis — one contains a large, double regulated, 300va power supply and the other the electronics. The two are connected with the provided umbilical cord about 1m in length. The unit runs fully balanced internally and the front panel has rotary knobs that control input selection (RCA and XLR), Gain, Resistance and Capacitance. One may connect two turntables using the two different inputs. Though I prefer the XLR, the RCA comes very close in performance. Having all the controls on the faceplate gives the user great flexibility and any changes or adjustments can be made on the fly and immediately evaluated. This is a reviewer’s ( and user’s ) dream. Imagine doing this with a remote, from your listening chair. Am I getting lazy? I wonder if Mas is thinking about a remote controlled product for the future?
The aesthetic appears to take its cue from the turntable design and matches it reasonably well. The faceplates are robust and the casework is solid. I have seen heavier gauge casework used in ultra expensive `hi-end’ products or those that machined a case from a solid billet of aluminum but at what additional cost. Perhaps Conrad could offer the PULSARE in finishes that match all off his turntables: an Acutus inspired version with its highly polished chrome look, a clear anodized aluminum look to match the Volvere, etc. Just a thought.
I burned in the Pulsare playing records for 150 hours. Early on in the burn-in period, I tried not to listen, but I was drawn in by a whole new level of musical excitement well before the 150 during burn-in was completed. It soon became impossible to ignore that I was hearing something special.
It was ready for some serious listening and I brought out at least a half dozen of my favorite records and the fun began. My current reference, the Aqvox is a fine performer with many virtues and at the time of my review, it retailed for about $2,000 USD. It performs well above its price point. The Pulsare retails for about $5,000USD. At two and a half times the original price of the AQVOX, how much better could it be? Well, when the first notes on the opening trumpets of ‘Capriccio Italien’ on Telarc exploded from my system, I knew. Yeah, it was worth it. It brought the experience of the living breathing performance into my listening space like never before. The sound was so three dimensional, detailed, penetrating, with front to back depth that I was completely enthralled. The notes hanging in space, fully developed with such natural decay, was a revelation. This was bringing my vinyl to a whole new level of joy.
It was immediately clear, the Pulsare excelled in bass reproduction. That’s not to say it didn’t excel in sound reproduction across the board to an equally stunning degree but the bass lays the foundation for the music. Without really good bass a system doesn’t cut it and bad, overblown, bass reproduction could cause problems by mudding up the mid-range. On Sheffield Labs, Direct to Disc, Dave Grusin’s Discovered Again has Ron Carter playing bass. The quality of the sound is quite extraordinary. The impact and fullness of the bass was visceral, as well as, definition with fingering clearly in evidence. The bass seemed more complete and did not impact the midrange in any negative way.
Voices were glorious and took another step towards reality. The increase in detail and nuance gave you a closer look at what the artist was trying to achieve bringing you a more intimate listening experience. Additionally, a greater sense of a human being, present and alive, was achieved by the Pulsare and every recorded voice had this three dimensional quality. Willie Nelson’s scraggily country voice on his album, Stardust, a half speed mastered CBS Mastersound recording, full of nostalgic classic songs, was so gritty and alive in my living room that I couldn’t stop listening and was truly amazed.
The Pulsare’s ability to separate and clarify orchestral complexities was another area where it performed outstandingly. Not only did the increase in resolution allow one to hear and identify the interplay between various orchestral sections more clearly but it did so without any strident etching or emphasis of the initial attack. Violin sections sounded like individual violins playing together, not some amorphous violin sound. I feel the greater clarity was accompanied by, and maybe due to, the envelope of air around instruments giving you greater separation and an increased perception of instrumental body. This greater separation not only manifested itself two dimensionally, but in greater soundstage depth as well as adding more ‘flesh to the bones’. Imaging was superb and instruments were full bodied with air aplenty. The increased clarity made the overall presentation more lifelike and rewarding because of your ability to now hear more of what the composer created and how well the orchestra performed it.
The units’ $5,000 price is not an outrageous sum, but it is substantial and to many it will be prohibitive. What you get is such outstanding performance that it challenges phonostages costing much more. As such, this unit will remain as my reference for some time to come. It’s not leaving my house. It gets me more involved with the music then ever before and brings me another step closer to the real thing.
Thank you, Conrad Mas.
June 2011 Myles B. Astor, Positive Feedback Online (USA)
High-end audio designers have literally attempted since the dawn of time to transcend that elusive sonic gap between the sound of solid-state and tube electronics. So great the gulf in fact, that it wasn't until the arrival of AVID HIFI's new Pulsare phono section did I think the two technologies would ever narrow their differences. This solid-state phono section, designed and manufactured by the UK company better known for its turntables, is a more than a worthy competitor to the tube phono sections that have passed through or are now ensconced in my reference system. AVID HIFI's Pulsare doesn't exhibit the stereotypical whitish, bleached, thin, cold and edgy solid-state sound. Moreso, this phono stage does many things that didn't think possible from a solid-state phono sections such as spatiality, low level resolution and imaging. Where the Pulsare falls slightly short of ultimate is in the areas of midrange presence and harmonic overtones, sense of instrumental body and upper octave bloom. But that's not a fixed quality as we shall see later.
Now selecting that phono stage to complete the analog front-end isn't a trivial task. Obviously, the first and foremost consideration is sound quality, closely followed by price. The next concern is whether the total gain of the phono plus line stage is up to the task of handling the output of your cartridge (a problem nowadays since the gain of many of today's line stage's gain fall in the 10 to mid-teen levels in order to integrate with the higher output of digital equipment) without the intrusion of noise or loss of dynamics. On the whole, most modern day phono sections work quite well with cartridges down to 0.5 mV output. It's when the cartridge's output dips below 0.5 mV, however, that things, principally with tube units, often become a little dicey. So why choose a low output moving coil cartridge if gain and noise are a problem? Simply, many vinyl lovers feel that these low output voltage cartridges represent the ultimate in transparency, resolution and musicality.
So the choices for a high gain, phono stage basically boil down to this: a "pure," all tube based circuit, a hybrid tube plus solid-state circuit, a tube circuit plus step-up transformer or a completely solid-state circuit. The problem simply stated: very few (pure) tube phono sections can successfully amplify very low output voltage cartridges without running into noise, hiss and a host of other issues (though the ear is able to filter out a lot of things; once hears the drop in background noise, especially with solo instruments, however, it's near impossible to go back).
Nor does the quality of present day tubes help the situation either (Remember manufacturer's have to select and stock vacuum tubes that will be available in large quantities for the foreseeable future for their customers; tube stocks can add up to significant overhead costs for a small high-end company!). So even though manufacturers specially select low noise, low microphonic tubes for their phono section, there's absolutely no guarantee for how long they'll remain that way. Of course, one can dabble in tube rolling using NOS tubes; realistically though, unless a tube comes in a sealed package, more often than not these tubes have seen plenty of use. Many times these "NOS" tubes may sound wonderful but have one small problem: they lack any balls eg. dynamics. (after all, did the claimed 10,000 hour lifetimes refer to how a tube would function or how long a tube would be sonically viable?) And just as with new tubes, NOS tubes won't be up to the task of being used in phono section unless they're specially selected. Hence to get adequate gain to amplify the low voltages—and without the intrusion of noise—of low output moving coil cartridges, many tube phono section manufacturers turn to the use of hybrid circuitry or step-up transformers, each of which offers their own unique set of advantages (as well as disadvantages) over pure, all tube phono sections.
Last but not least is opting for a solid-state phono section. In yesteryears, this often meant sacrificing harmonic integrity, low level resolution, ambient space and instrumental three dimensionality for low noise and dynamics. In retrospect, this was a very unfair trade-off. Clearly the Pulsare breaks with this stereotype and is the harbinger of even better things to come with future solid-state phono stages.
AVID's founder and designer Conrad Mas is no Johnny-come-lately to the high-end audio or analog scene. Mas, a self confessed analog devotee tracing back to his days working at Acoustic Arts in Watford, UK, has designed and built turntables for close to 25 years. The Pulsare phono section is however, if you don't count the power supply/motor drive for the AVID turntables, Mas's first foray into electronics realm.
The Pulsare phono stage consists of two roughly square black boxes, one housing the beefy outboard power supply unit and the other the ever so critical phono circuitry. Needless to say, the two units should be situated as far away from each other as possible to minimize noise, hum, etc. No, the Pulsare won't be found on display at MOMA any time soon but it's a whole ‘nother story when it comes to user friendliness with the all controls (including six capacitive and nine resistive loading options, selectable gain, and input selection [RCA, XLR balanced]) conveniently located on the front panel of the control unit. Mas chose to situate the controls on the front of unit for ease of use, flexibility and shortening the signal path. (On the whole, most cartridges in my experience is that cartridges prefer to loaded at 47 K and that held true with the Pulsare.) While MC cartridges are generally considered insensitive to capacitive loading, one cartridge, the Air Tight PC1, did benefit from loading at 1 nF resulting in improved resolution, speed and openness.
In addition, the Pulsare is a fully balanced design, even if using a single-ended input. Running balanced allowed Mas to "maintain the purity and integrity of the miniscule signals flowing thru the phono section." Other benefits of running balanced include "low distortion across the audio spectrum, large headroom and preventing the phono stage from running out of steam regardless of the music." Mas also opted for a passive RIAA with Neumann HF correction circuit w/audiophile grade caps for optimal linearity (see interview for more information on the RIAA curve).
Not to be forgotten is the second, rather hefty 14 pounds power supply consisting of a doubly regulated, dual mono 300 VA power supply. Separating the circuitry allowed Mas to reduce noise, vibration and susceptibility to outside interference. In addition, this decision also allow Mas to build a much larger, higher current power supply, crucial he feels to the unit's ability to portray rhythmic integrity and dynamic range.
Finally, it's painfully obvious that the choice of AC power cord is paramount for extracting the last few percent of performance from phono sections (as well as digital gear). This observation holds true for all the phono sections in house including the Pulsare, conrad-johnson TEA1bc, Allnic H3000V or Doshi. (In fact, it is next to impossible to go back and listen to the unit using the stock, supplied AC cord.) To date, the best results were obtained mating the Kubla-Sosna Emotion AC power cords with the Pulsare. Using the Emotion, the Pulsare's low level resolution, reproduction of instrumental harmonic structure and an uncanny ability to recreate the three dimensional sense of an instrument playing in the room were all improved. Moreso, the Emotion AC power cord just fleshed out that midrange quite a bit more than the stock or ESP Reference AC power cords. When it came to phono cables, excellent results were obtained with either MIT's Oracle MA-X phono cable or Kubala Sosna's Emotion IC/phono cables.
In some respects, the solid-state Pulsare challenged tube electronic's long standing hegemony in the areas of low level information and detail retrieval, spatial recreation and soundstaging. Not unexpectedly, the Pulsare also scores high marks for where the best of solid-state designs excel: a vanishingly low noise floor, transparency, dynamics, transient attack and frequency extension. All without having to deal with tube noise and rush or when a tube would eventually go microphonic or noisy.
And then again, there's the Pulsare's dynamics, that continued to grow on me as time went on. There's no question that having adjustable and adequate gain and drive at the phono section end really improved the sound. When the Pulsare's gain was dropped from 60 to 50dB (producing a total gain now of 74dB—and still realistically capable of working with a 0.5 mV cartridge), the unit did not exhibit the same sense of dynamic freedom. Yes, the music still sounded pretty but bordered on boring. This extra "horsepower" manifested itself in a sense of ease to the music, a freedom from dynamic constriction, much like one hears on a good 15 ips tape. On wonderfully recorded Decca operas such as Puccini's Tosca (Decca Stereo Set 5BB 123-4), one is constantly adjusting, albeit annoyingly so sometimes, the volume, say in the opening aria of Act 1. Voices and we're talking about stars like Leontyne Price, were effortlessly reproduced and projected out toward the listener.
What really stood out in the end, however, was the Pulsare's neutrality and ability to extract the most from, yet clearly define the sonic differences among, the ZYX Omega G, Haniwa, Lyra Titan i and Air Tight PC1 cartridges. While the Pulsare phono stage lacked the thinness, coldness and edginess of some solid-state phono sections, neither did the Pulsare exhibit the romantic lushness and syrupiness other tube phono stages either. In the case of the Titan i, this neutrality translated into an uncanny ability to resolve the finest of nuances—especially in the upper registers—as well as an unfettered sense of ease and unmatched transparency. For the Haniwa, it was revealing the cartridge's midrange and upper octave purity. For the ZYX, it was tightening up the cartridge's mid and upper bass. Alas, even using the Pulsare, the Air Tight PC1 just never sounded right in my system (and the VPI arm).
A perfect album that both the Pulsare and Martin-Logan Summit-Xs eat for breakfast and nicely illustrates the phono section's neutrality is the movie soundtrack Missouri Breaks (United Artists UA29971). With the ZYX Omega G, there's a slight rounding and softening of the banjo. By contrast, the Titan i was far more neutral, faster and detailed and the lower octaves considerably tauter. The banjo is less smeared and exhibits more of its characteristic "twang." The Titan i also far more convincingly recreates the eerie atmosphere of "Bizarre Wake." Really losing out in these comparisons was once again, the Air Tight. Despite numerous attempts at adjusting the SRA, capacitive and resistive loading, could, I could never get the proper upper octave extension. Missouri Breaks sounded ponderous, especially in the low end.
Another must-have LP is the spectacular 1966 recording of Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb (Argo ZRG 5440—and the best pressing of the lot and one to hunt down is the earliest round Argo label, thick pressing). Using the ZYX Omega G, one hears, as with the finest phono sections, the boys entering from the back left of the church, coming closer to the microphones and filing onto and spreading out over a vast soundstage. With the Pulsare, one can almost feel the boys making a sharp left to enter the stage. Individual voices in the choir are rendered with precision; when the various soloists enter—especially the luscious Maria Robles on harp—there's no image wander. Moreso, it's clear that this is a boys, not a men's choir, by the higher pitch of their voices (even more intonation of voices is heard using the Titan i.)
One of the hallmarks of this church—and this recording in particular—is how the engineer captured the rich sense of ambience and space of St. Johns Church, along with the decay of the performer's voices (as this long and narrow church does so wonderfully live!). Clearly it was no easy task for the recording engineer to balance the direct with reflected sound on this recording. And here, the Pulsare's vanishingly low noise floor allows for even more of the music, ambience, detail and space to emerge. For instance, it's now possible to identify the low frequency rumble on the recording being trucks passing by on the street, not the "blower" for organ!
Of course, nothing is perfect and there are a couple of areas where the Pulsare falls somewhat short of ultimate, most notably in the areas of resolving the finest overtones and sense of space and to a lesser extent, the palpability of performers. For example, the Pulare's transparency allows the mind's eye to see to the back of the stage but there's not as much retrieval of the solidity of back and side walls as with the best tube phono sections.
Then there's one of my long time reference—and fun discs—Saul Goodman's Mallets, Melody and Mayhem (Columbia CS8333). Few albums prove a greater torture test for each and every component in the chain, beginning with the transducer and continuing down the line to the speakers, than Mallets, Melody and Mayhem. Each and every track on this LP is an absolute blockbuster (I don't know why someone hasn't reissued this recording; perhaps the tapes are missing or damaged?), thoroughly testing a component's ability to reproduce every nuance, instrumental frequency response, transient attack, macro- and micro-dynamics and complex palette of tonal colors. Of late, Adolph Schreiner's "The Worried Drummer" is seeing a lot of play time but Morton Gould's "Parade" will do in a pinch! Practically every component loses something on these cuts and it only the ne plus ultra system that reverses that trend and begins to show that there's even more in the record grooves than previously heard.
What really stood out about the Pulsare when playing Mallets, Melody and Mayhem was the unit's shocking sense of transparency, dynamics and detail. There was an unmistakable sense of the mallets striking the drum head, the drum size and the decay of the instrument. Yes, the fatness of the Columbia pressing was still there, but markedly reduced in amplitude. At the other end of the frequency spectrum, percussion instruments had limitless extension and a good sense of dynamic snap and freedom from smearing. Interestingly, what had appeared to be high frequency cartridge mistracking on certain records with other phono sections disappeared or was greatly reduced with the Pulsare.
The first cartridge cued up on "The Worried Drummer" was the ZYX Omega G. Here the Pulsare nicely recreated the recording's exceptional soundstage and layering of instruments. On "The Worried Drummer," the Pulsare's vanishingly low noise floor contributed to the unit's excellent, overall sense of transparency and the ability to "see" the space between the piano and drum. Chimes were slightly blunted, yet very dynamic with a nice decay. Wood blocks had a solid, knotty quality. Drum whacks were far tighter with good decay.
Inserting the Air Tight PC1 proved disappointing. Despite playing with loading (both capacitive and resistive), SRA and azimuth, the cartridge refused to sing. No matter what, this cut from Mallets, Melody and Mayhem just sounded sluggish, boring and dark.
Swapping out tonearms once again (of course adjusting SRA) and now playing back "The Worried Drummer" using the ultra-neutral Haniwa cartridge into the system (review forthcoming) resulted in much better upper octave extension than with the two previous transducers. The ringing and decay of triangles and sleigh bells—as well as the sudden damping of the triangles—were clearly revealed. With the Haniwa, there was a greater sense of individual sleigh bells being shaken with the Haniwa than with the ZYX accompanied by a greater sense of openness and transparency. No, not that black coloration so often now described in equipment reviews. Black never enters into my mind when I hear live classical, jazz or rock music. All I hear at the best halls or clubs in a colorless, unfettered, expansive sense of openness.
The cartridge though, that really brought this disc to life and really showed off the AVID's transparency, neutrality, resolution and speed (or vice versa) was the Lyra Titan i. In fact, the AVID phono stage kicked the Titan i's performance up several notches and gave it a new lease on life. As a result, the Titan i is now far and away my favorite and reference cartridge. What's special about AVID/Titan i combination? The Pulsare now allows the Titan i's ability to retrieve the finest of low level information without any trace of etching to shine through. With this combo, there's far more inner detail and air surrounding the piano without any trace of hardness or coldness. This combo allows for an unfettered sense of being able to see to the back of the stage and literally reach out and touch the drums. Chimes and other percussion instruments on Mallets, Melody and Mayhem float on a bed of air. Sleigh bells display more upper octave extension and individual bells jingle and jangle than the three previous cartridges.
Another area where the Pulsare proved slightly subtractive was the ability to recreate an instrument's sense of body and to a lesser extent, the air and overtones surrounding the piano. The tambourine occupied a real space on the stage but the Pulsare feel slightly short of ideal in recreating the tambourine's characteristic ‘pop', body and the feeling of the metal jingles eg. zils shaking. That prevented the mind's eye from totally visualizing the instrument and in particular, the edges of the tambourine. The same quality is even more apparent on either Musik fur Flote and Laute au Renasissance und Barock (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi HM 1C-65-99859) where the wooden flute loses a bit of the air surrounding the instrument and the lute loses some of sense of body and harmonic overtones or Getz /Gilberto (MFSL 1-208), namely "The Girl from Ipanema," where Astrud's voice loses a little of its ethereal and breathy quality.
This effect though, was greatly dependent upon the AC cord mated to the Pulsare. First of all, don't even bother with the stock, throwaway AC cord; with this cord, the piano's midrange was slightly lacking. Substituting the ESP Reference AC power cord for the stock AC power cord improved transparency, transient attack and frequency extension but the piano was still a little lean sounding. Kubala-Sosna's Emotion AC cord proved the lifesaver, significantly aiding in fleshing out the midrange and in particular, the overtones of the piano and other instruments.
Nor does the Pulsare quake at the sight of other musical genres either. The Titan i/Pulsare duo reveals dynamics on "Better We're Right" from Supertramp's classic rock album Crime of the Century (Mobile Fidelity 1-005), that today's rock combination can only sadly dream about. The soundstage is incredibly deep and wide. There's a kaleidoscope of dense orchestration without any bloody hint of congestion. Individual voices are nicely separated and float in the mix. On "Bloody Well Right," this combination has an amazing ability to localize both piano/synthesizer and guitars as well as recreate the distinctive tone of each guitar.
At the risk of being excommunicated from Sunday morning music listening sessions by my tube loving audiobuddies, there's no denying the fact that the Pulsare is one of the most musical and revealing solid-state phono sections that I've had the pleasure to audition. Where the unit is right, it's nothing short of thrilling; where it falls short of ultimate, the Pulsare never detracts from the listening experience. You owe it to yourself to give a listen to this phono section before choosing any other moderately priced—or even top of the line phono stage.
Conversations with Conrad Mas of AVID HiFi:
1. Conrad, could you tell me what led your company's decision to expand your product offering from turntables to electronics?
This is something we find ourselves being asked frequently. We already make electronics! They're called turntable ‘power supplies' and ours are essentially fixed output, two channel integrated amplifiers. If you take a look, especially at our Reference PSU, it puts a lot of amplifier manufacturers to shame. However, I can see your point that most don't see the power supply and just see a turntable, so a stand alone electronic box is different. It's a bit like asking a company who makes active speakers what made them go into power amps.
However in essence there are a few reasons for starting into electronics per se.
Making source components makes you reliant on other components down the chain; over the years, we have seen mixed results from customers using our equipment. Mostly they are favorable, accounting for our ever increasing turnover. Over the past few years, however, we have seen a steady, in our opinion, decline in the quality of electronics.
There seems to be a drive to ever higher levels of detail resolution, typically at the expense of music sounding real. At a live performance, especially pop/rock, distortion and other noise is huge, but the performance still has power and a solidity to the sound whereas of late, electronics seem to sound like high resolution transistor radios with about as much balls as a castrated choir boy!
As our turntables are known for deep, realistic, clean tight bass we wanted something to allow this through, whilst keeping noise extremely low so the mid/high detail remained and didn't make it sound harsh. Many have remarked that the Pulsare sounds smooth like valves, but clean, deep and tight like solid-state. A lot of the design technology that has gone into the Pulsare is directly derived from the Reference Acutus PSU, so you see there is a strong connection already with electronic design.
The other reason is a business decision to expand through diversification and electronics is a logical stage, especially as we already manufacture our own cables and accessories. We did the same some years ago when we diversified into commercial engineering which now accounts for some 30% of our business. These days there's no standing still. You either progress forward or you'll be left behind.
2. Where did you think current phono section fall short of ultimate and how did you think you could improve on that?
This one's simple: sound quality; it's what drives everything we do. The facilities offered on the Pulsare make set-up and fine tuning easy, but the main goal was sound quality. Specifically we wanted to put the ‘balls' back into sound reproduction. Like when you hear a kick drum, you also feel it in the chest. Noise levels had to be extremely low, because again like our turntables, we want you to hear the music not the equipment.
3. What were your major design objectives in the Pulsare?
Firstly to produce a Reference Standard unit that would redefine phono quality and put AVID on the map as a serious electronics manufacturer.
Apart from sound quality, there were certain key elements we wanted to include. First, the design should run fully balanced, but allow for XLR and RCA connections both in and out. Next, resistance and capacitance should be adjustable from the front panel for ease of use. Then, we wanted to totally eliminate the use of microprocessors so as to avoid noise. Finally, was the use of a separate, dedicated, power supply.
4. Could you explain how the Pulsare runs balanced even if the user inputs a conventional cartridge leads? What are the sonic differences between single-ended and balanced with your phono section?
The internal electronics of the Pulsare run fully balanced. This is done to keep the vital and delicate signal free of interference, hum or RF noise. Obviously when a balanced input is used the signal passes unaltered; however if an unbalanced RCA input is used the signal is automatically converted into a balanced signal through to the output. At this stage there is a choice of either balanced output or its converted back to an unbalanced output.
There is a sound difference between balanced and unbalanced, but the question is confused as the Pulsare only works balanced and not unbalanced as suggested. The difference in sound quality comes from the use of either balanced or unbalanced input from the cartridge. Ideally to obtain the best quality sound, fully balanced connections should be used from the cartridge to the phono stage. By doing this, the sound is clearer, more dynamic and simply more realistic. Why the audio industry ever used RCA connections for a turntable defies logic and it's almost criminal (If I had a dollar for each time I've heard that comment, I'd have a custom built listening room and 150K speakers—MBA).
5. Why did you opt for a separate power supply and could you talk about the power supply design and its importance with the phono section and electronics/parts selection, etc?
The power supply of any electronic equipment is critical to its performance. A separate PSU was decided upon from the outset to make sure any potential noise was kept away from the phono electronics. As with the phono section itself, component choice is important and everything from the mains transformer to capacitor to resistor selection is critical.
Describing the importance of a PSU can never be under-played and again our turntables are testament to this. A good analogy would be a high performance car engine. Most these days are designed to run on high octane fuel, however they'll still run on low performance fuel but just not give such a good result. The same with electronics; given the right size, design and component selection and you'll reach a whole new level.
6. I've found that the Pulsare sounds much better with a after market power cord. Many of the issues I was hearing were remedied by a better power cord. What are your thoughts on choosing a proper AC power cord to mate with the Pulsare?
This does not surprise me and customers should experiment with suitable mains cables. Depending upon their supply, cables will sometimes make a limited difference but on other occasions the improvement can be dramatic.
7. Could you talk about the RIAA curve you chose and how designing a RIAA section is not such a trivial matter?
When the Pulsare was originally conceived, we did consider offering various RIAA curves to cover the period before the mid-1950's when each record company applied its own equalization curve. We considered this option for about 5 seconds, as when you think there were over 100 combinations of turnover and roll-off frequencies in use, the only way of doing this would have been the use of a microprocessor, something we did not want to use. As AVID makes pioneering ‘new' technology turntables and in all the years of doing shows and speaking to customers, none have mentioned these older recordings. Consequently, we decided to use the RIAA equalization curve industry standard for the recording and playback of vinyl records since 1954. That should cover it!
When we looked into this matter further, however, we realized that most recording studios whilst sticking very closely to the standard curve, used treble emphasis limitation in recording for decades (there is a quasi-standard defined by the leading record-cutting-machine manufacturer Neumann). Applying a correction according to Neumann standard makes a small but very audible difference. Whilst it's important to follow the RIAA curve, not doing so only alters the tonal balance of the sound; there are actually other items and components within a phono-stage that alter or make a bigger sonic difference than slight deviations off the correct curve. For instance if you played a record that was not cut with a perfect RIAA setting, say 1 dB difference between 1 K and 5 K, you'd be hard pressed to even notice. If we, however, changed the type of capacitors used in the phono stage, there would be a much bigger and totally noticeable difference.
8. What are you feelings about loading cartridges, pro and con, at 47 K or lower?
Correct cartridge loading is simply essential. Every cartridge is different and requires the phono stage to be optimized to it to get the best performance. I was at a show recently where we had our turntable and phono stage playing within a system. Typically one listener remarked that the speakers were fantastic, as if it were the only thing making the sound quality. A quick adjustment of the resistance loading soon showed the importance of the phono stage and easily proves the system is only as good as the weakest link.
9. What does the future hold in store for AVID electronics?
Like our other products, the electronics we design will have their design philosophy and technical side and we appreciate that as a hobby to many, they wish to know, learn and discuss these aspects. However our goal with all our products is to bring a new level of sound quality to the listener were rather than simply listening to music: they experience it.
Phono stages were a logical step for us and we quickly launched the more economical PULSUS phono stage. In 2011 we'll see our Reference Pre-Amp and Reference Mono Amplifiers, followed by other preamps and stereo amplifiers and even an A/D converter. Our electronic design road map extends all the way into 2012, and with other analogue products, cables and supports in design we'll soon not been seen solely as a turntable company, but as a audio solutions provider at different budget levels with its roots firmly planted in high quality sound experience and not just making a noise.
March 2011 Jeff Dorgay, Tone Audio (Exceptional Value Award) (USA)
While turntables have comprised AVID’s core business for ten years, the company recently moved into electronics. When I visited the UK headquarters in February (watch for in-depth coverage in issue #36), principal Conrad Mas gave me a full tour and product backgrounder. He acknowledged that most people know AVID for turntables and, “When they found out that we were producing electronics, the initial buzz on the various Internet boards was skeptical. Of course, no one had actually heard anything. But as product got into people’s hands, they realized what we had done.”
Built entirely at the firm’s UK factory, the Pulsare is a class leader. Operations manager Stuart Stowe ensures that each unit is carefully assembled and tested by one person from start to finish. When complete, the serial number and measurements are logged, should the unit ever need service in the future.
The Pulsare is a two-box fully balanced design, with the preamplifier and control circuitry in one box and a 14-pound power supply that features a 300VA transformer in another box. It sports an identical aesthetic to the power supply on my AVID Acutus Reference SP turntable, with a big “A” machined into the front panel and matching chrome-plated feet. A six-foot umbilical cable connects the two boxes, and while Mas assured me that I could place one on top of the other, old habits die hard: I kept the power supply at a distance.
Admittedly, the Pulsare’s $5,000 is a somewhat odd price point in the sense that there are competent phonostages hovering right around $3,000 and a number of excellent models in the $10-$12,000 range, but precious little in between. Yet the Pulsare is a welcome product for the analog enthusiast that wants a big jump in performance from the $3,000 boxes but wants to remain a little more fiscally responsible. It’s like being the guy that can comfortably slip into an Armani suit and looks good with only the slightest of alterations rather than having to outlay twice as much cash on a higher-end garment. Or the auto geek that chooses an upper-market Porsche 911 over a Ferrari, even though they can afford the more expensive car. Consider the AVID Pulsare as the thinking man’s high-performance phonostage.
A fully balanced design from input to output, the Pulsare offers two sets of inputs: XLR and RCA. The balanced input provides the highest performance, but the RCA input isn’t all that far behind, making the Pulsare that much more valuable as a two-input phonostage. Since most analog maniacs like to have a second table/arm/cartridge for a different sound or configuration, this is a great feature.
Front panel adjustments for all parameters add to the Pulsare’s versatility. Gain is adjustable in four 10db increments from 40dB to 70dB. There’s a wide range of resistance load settings (10, 30, 100, 500, 1K, 5K, 10K, 47K) as well as capacitance load settings (100pf, 200pf, 500pf, 1.5nf, 10nf, 20nf). AVID will also accommodate customers that require custom values. And, since each front panel is laser cut, the custom values will be shown on the front panel—a nice touch!
Users that use multiple turntables will have to keep track of their settings, but it’s a small price to pay for added flexibility, and the front-panel controls make for quick and easy changes. The only thing missing? A mono switch. However, as all three of my reference linestages have them, it wasn’t an issue. When I brought the feature up with Mas, he laughed and asked, “How many mono LPs do you own?” Good point.
I put the Pulsare through its paces with a wide range of moving magnet, moving coil, and moving iron cartridges ranging from ultra budget to mega expensive. It worked equally well with everything but the Clearaudio DaVinci. The Pulsare’s neutrality and DaVinci’s slightly forward character offered a bit too much resolution for my taste. I had a similar result with said cartridge and the Boulder 1008. So, unless you are an ultimate detail freak, use the Pulsare with a cartridge that possesses a neutral to slightly warm character. The Denon DL-103R, Koetsu Urushi Sky Blue, and SoundSmith Sussurro Paua were the three favorites that I ended up using on a regular basis for the review.
Thanks to the front panel controls, going from one cartridge to the next was a snap.
Having tried both the balanced and unbalanced inputs, I can state that it’s worth having your phono cables re-terminated with balanced connectors. Remember, we’re talking about millionths of a volt here. Everything that can keep that precious signal intact is worth exploring. Even with the relatively low-budget Denon cartridge, I experienced an increase in fine detail with the balanced cable while auditioning both the balanced and unbalanced versions of Cardas Clear. Of course, the reference turntable happened to be AVID’s own Acutus Reference SP with SME V tonearm.
You’ll forget about all the fiddly bits when you listening to the Pulsare; it sounds fantastic. Mas claims that the design’s main goal was to achieve a “big weighty sound with the grip of solid state and an ease offered by the best valve electronics.” The only other solid-state phono preamplifier that I’ve heard that accomplishes this feat is the Burmester 100, and it sells for $20k. And although it isn’t housed in as shiny of a box, the AVID gives up little ground to the much more expensive German model. Certainly a lot less than you would expect for a quarter of the price. (Your extra $15k could go towards an AVID Sequel SP turntable, tonearm, and cartridge, making for a very formidable analog front end.) Mas notes that “the Pulsare comes packaged in a custom case, and we haven’t scrimped on any of the essentials.”
Sonically, the first trait you’ll notice about the Pulsare is its extremely quiet background; there is no noise, even with your ear pressed up against the tweeter. This makes for a wider scale of dynamic contrast that classical and acoustic music aficionados will instantly appreciate. Listening to Dexter Gordon’s A Swingin Affair revealed layer upon layer of texture. During the quiet piano interlude on “Soy Califa,” the drumsticks that were rapped against the side of the snare drum jumped out, front and center. On the following “Don’t Explain,” the gentle brushwork maintained its pace as Gordon entered the soundscape. The extra helping of dynamics doesn’t hurt when listening to favorite metal, either. When cranking “Here Comes The Pain” on the newly remastered analog version of Slayer’s God Hates Us All, bass drums and low bass guitar strings proved to be absolutely explosive.
Low noise and dynamics? Check. The next test the Pulsare easily passed concerned timbre and tonality. Running through the usual classical warhorses, pianos, violins, and oboes sounded as they should. And Paul McCartney’s signature Hofner bass possessed just the right amount of texture on the mono version of “Lady Madonna.”
All of these attributes add up to a highly resolving phonostage that peels away the haze from your recordings without ever being harsh. With a very wide and deep soundstage, the Pulsare pushed my favorite hot button. In many aspects, such thrills are what make the analog experience so vivid—yielding a big sound that you can’t quite reach with lesser gear.
Here’s the bottom line: If you want to pay for nothing but sonic performance, the AVID Pulsare is one of the best $10,000 phonostages money can buy. The good news is that it only costs $5,000. It does everything right, featuring major flexibility, two inputs, and the peace of mind that comes with never having to hunt down costly (and often unreliable) NOS vacuum tubes.
The no-nonsense, high-performance design ethos that has characterized AVID’s turntables for the past decade is a perfect fit for the Pulsare as well. On all fronts, the company’s first phonostage is a tremendous success. We’ve added the Pulsare to our arsenal of reference components and are happy to give it an Exceptional Value Award for 2011.
January 2011 Tony Bolton, HIFI World Magazine (5 Globes) (UK)
Now celebrating their fifteenth year in the industry, AVID Hifi Ltd have gradually built up a range of products focused around turntables, but which latterly includes cables, equipment supports and now electronics. All are manufactured in-house at their premises in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, to high standards. The Pulsare is no exception; the quality is apparent from the first moment that you unbox it and its partnering power supply.
The internals are made to the same standards as the casework, with custom capacitors in the circuits, which are carefully engineered so that the signal path is separate from the switchgear. The rotary controls on the phonostage operate relays, rather than the more conventional concept of having the delicate signal passed through these components, which should reduce any chance of degradation of the sound. The circuit topology is fully balanced from beginning to end, regardless of whether the RCA or XLR inputs are used, and should benefit from the inherently lower noise floor of such designs. Both types of input may be used at the same time, allowing two sources to be permanently connected, with selection choice being controlled by the rotary switch.
The most immediate sensation was one of scale. I'm not talking of an overpowering audio edifice placed in front of me, but a sensation of space and size that seemed to reflect the different requirements of differing types of music. There are a lot of phono stages, even at these prices, are very good at producing a sense of intimacy with a performer when playing solo or small ensemble pieces, but seem to get a little crowded when playing Mahler for instance. And at the opposite extreme there are those that 'big everything up' so that Joan Baez, with her guitar, seems to be this huge presence, almost looming over the listener. I give full credit to the Pulsare for avoiding falling into either of these traps.
Instead it seemed to find the right balance of near tactile closeness when required and yet, after a change of record, give a convincing portrayal of the splendour of a full orchestra and chorus building to a grand denouement. This is a phono stage that will satisfy the Wagnerians and folkies alike; an unusual accomplishment!
My first evening's listening finished with some very soothing unaccompanied choral work from the Tallis Scholars, recorded in the chapel at Merton College, Oxford in 1980, featuring pieces by Allegri, Mundy and Palestrina. The first of these, the 'Miserere', varies between the full chorus and the lyrical solo tones of soprano Alison Stamp. I felt that the gentle, contemplative nature of this music was displayed, allowing me to sit back, close my eyes and just let it wash over me.
The smoothness of the delivery was matched by the subtle details in the sound that help create the sense of realism that differentiates top quality reproduction equipment from merely good. I was aware of the acoustic of the chapel, with the long decay of a note at the end of a phrase seeming to hang in space undisturbed, until it reached its natural termination. The pin-drop-quite silence before the next voices rose, gradually filling the space and then falling away again. It was thoroughly absorbing and very restful.
The next day I was in a more up-tempo jazz mood, and settled down to a LP called 'Come Blow Your Horn' by Jack McVae and his orchestra. Although not well known nowadays, McVae was highly regarded from the mid-1940's and through most of the 1950's. This recording dates from 1955, although the record itself is a 1980 mono reissue on the Ace label, with a couple of extra tracks thrown in. The music still has the cohesive beat of good Swing, but is flavoured with what is now regarded as the forerunner of R&B. McVae on saxophone was joined by his wife, Louise Beatty, providing vocals on several tracks, and the combination of a wailing sax and throaty, full bodied singing with a driving dance beat behind them makes for excellent listening. The band tended to lock themselves into the studio (complete with bar!) and record late into the night until the tape (or booze) ran out. The results have a life and energy to them that are often missing from 'studio' recordings.
Feeding this into the Pulsare resulted in a forceful portrayal of exciting, exhilarating jazz that sounded very fresh, and belied the fifty five years since the record was made. The live recording style favoured by the group came through well, with my main focus on the music but again, the little background details of the studio acoustic and occasional comments from the band helped to create a convincing window looking onto the proceedings. The Pulsare seemed to come alive to the insistent beat, and the last track on side one, 'Chop Chop Boom', with its latin-hip-grinding flavoured rhythms proved impossible to stay seated for.
Over the next few days I wandered through various chunks of my record collection, ending up with modern electronic sounds. Some of my favourite pounding trance tracks were propelled along with the same vibrant energy as the McVae LP exhibited allied to some truly floor shaking bass that a nightclub would have been proud of. Towards the end of my listening I was playing Massive Attack's 'Blue Lines' LP and again I found a satisfying depth and detail to the music, along with a comprehensive display of the differing textures of sounds, both real and sampled.
Powerful and authoritative sounding, AVID's new Pulsare is a phono stage that reveals in detail and energy in music, yet can also portray the silence in between notes in a meaningful way without being overly analytical about it. As such, the AVID is an excellent high end solid-state phono stage, and I'd strongly urge anyone on the lookout for such a thing to audition one; well specified, well built and fine sound, it stands with the best at the price.
August 2010 Steve Harris, HIFI News Magazine (Outstanding Product) (UK)
When someone as determined and perfectionist as Conrad Mas of AVID decides to enter a new product area, the result is likely to be something special. With the Pulsare Phono, the aim was to produce a phono stage that could do the same things for music that an AVID turntable did. It had to have 'that certain something that makes the music sound and feel real'.
Even a first glance tells you that this an overkill design in specification, construction and features. AVID, which now has design and engineering facilities almost unrivalled in specialist audio, has already delved into electronics with its advanced power supplies, and from there a phono stage was a logical next step.
Many designers have echoed the truism that in reality and amplifier doesn't actually take small signals in at the input and make them bigger at its output. In reality, the amplifier produces that larger output by modulating what's coming from the power supply in accordance with the signal input.
You can apply a rather similar argument to turntables, where the finest motor is only really as good as the power it receives. AVID has always believed in using a very high-torque motor to really control the platter and then using a high-grade power supply to control the motor. Even its standard Acutus PSU is reality a big two-channel amplifier, providing power at a fixed frequency separately and with the appropriate phase angle to the two 'phases' of the synchronous motor.
But in 2006, AVID went further than this with the Acutus Reference Power Supply. Here the already beefy 80VA mains transformer at the input was replaced by a huge custom-built transformer rated at 1000VA. This might seem like real over-engineering, but it gave a sonic benefit.
With this background, it's no surprise that the new Pulsare Phono is provided with a massive separate power supply. Rated at 300VA, this comes in the same elegant casework as the Acutus Reference unit. But if the power supply box looks imposing, AVID has outdone itself with the Pulsare Phono itself.
There can't be many phono stages with such complete front-panel facilities, and there probably aren't any where the controls are executed with such style. The Pulsare's solid fascia, its discreetly business-like silk screened legends and above all its four classic, top-grade rotary control knobs have all the solid quality and seriousness of a 1950's communications receiver. And rather like one of those wonderful all-band radios, the Pulsare is intended to cope with any input you throw at it. So long as it comes from a phono cartridge, of course.
Armed with a small collection of cartridges and a large collection of records, and with the excellent Lehmann Black Cube Decade phono stage as a reference, I started listening.
I put on Joni Michell's Blue and, as so many times before, wondered how this 39-year-old piece of vinyl managed to seem so fresh and communicative. With the Lehmann the performance was delightfully well balanced and informative, and in isolation I think there would have seemed little or nothing to criticise. Yet there was more.
Changing to the AVID Pulsare, on the opening track 'All I Want', there was suddenly a fuller awareness of the guitars and voice and even discreet percussion as individual entities. It was as if you could now hear round them, so to speak, just as you would if a real instrument was playing in front of you. Also, you were made aware of the sheer craft and sophistication of the guitar accompaniment. You weren't just hearing chord changes, you could hear the way the instrument provided bass patterns, harmony and counter melody too. And the AVID seemed capable of uncovering yet further nuances even in such familiar material.
Next up was the great Harry James band direct cut, The King James Version. From the opening of 'Corner Pocket', the double bass sounded plump and firm, rich yet still with a springy quality, the ride cymbal realistically insistent. In the leader's trumpet solo here, you could just feel the way he was shaping every note so expressively, and the same went for his beautifully relaxing playing on 'Lara's Theme' and 'More Splutie Please'. Here the brass really did sound brassy, yet without the sense of strain so often heard on big-band records. On 'Cherokee', Le DeMerle's drums sounded great, and at the same time you could feel that the rest of the band was really steaming with him.
Moving on to Eric Clapton and 'Motherless Children' from 461 Ocean Boulevard , once again I felt that the bass was outstanding, with Carl Radle's deceptively simple playing heard clearly as the indispensable foundation of the track, playing off a rock-solid drum sound. While the bottleneck sound zoomed over them, the rhythm guitars snarled and snapped emphatically, in a background that never became messy or incoherent.
Yet the AVID was even more impressive on the next track, the contrasting 'Give Me Strength', where the atmospheric organ, guitar and rhythm section seemed to fill a huge space with sound that could only be called sumptuous.
With the Lehmann phono stage, playing 'Easy Money from Rickie Lee Jones, the singer sounded sweet and slightly recessed, with the string bass full and in some danger of becoming overpowering. Moving to the AVID, there seemed to be a subtly different balance of forces, Rickie Lee sounded a little more forceful and forward, her voice distinctly set in its own acoustic space with her breathing clearly heard, while the bass sounded powerful and actually still quite dominant but somehow firmer as if under tighter control.
Turning to the classical old faithful, English String Music with the Sinfonia of London under Barbirolli, the AVID seemed able to reveal scale and depth of the venue while giving a feeling of clear precision in the sounds of the strings themselves. In staccato passages, it conveyed the sharp attack of the bowing in a very lifelike way and, in the sweeping legato themes, there was a winning combination of clarity and ambience. The recording could sound atmospheric, but never hazy, as the AVID just seemed to recover detail and ambient clues quite effortlessly.
Next I changed cartridges, installing the Koetsu Black in place of the Ortofon. With the Koetsu, the Harry James band's bass player made a slightly fluffier, softer sound, but still bounced the band along well. And the drums sounded coherent, tight and punchy too. Subjectively, I felt that the AVID was really exceptionally transparent to the virtues of the Koetsu, which as so often happens, gave a cohesive and open-heartedly appealing result overall, even if you could nitpick over certain aspects.
Moving again to Barbirolli's English String Music, and listening to the Elgar Introduction And Allegro, the Koetsu gave a warm, resiny, deep-staged view of the performance, as if the venue was now panelled in dark wood. It lacked the Ortofon's hear-through impression of detail and the bass lacked the clarity and elasticity of the Ortofon, which revealed Elgar's great double bass lines so clearly. Again, I felt that the AVID phono stage was very, very capably revealing the different character of the cartridges.
Scoring on build quality and facilities as well as excellent sonic performance, this is clearly one product that will outlast many other changes in a system. You may not intend to go balanced just yet, you may not need all those cartridge matching options this minute, but it is great to have such flexibility now and for the future, with no need for fiddly DIP switches or jumpers. This is an impressive product indeed.