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Musical Surroundings Nova Phonomena
A Natural Sounding Solid State Phono Stage
 

 

November 2007

 


   


For my previous evaluation and review of the Benz-Micro Ebony L phono cartridge, I was lucky enough to be able to borrow the Musical Surroundings Nova Phonomena phono preamplifier from it’s renowned designer, Michael Yee. By continuing to read the account of my experience below, you will fully realize why I consider myself “lucky.”

A battery of reasons
Michael Yee made a wise decision to build a high quality phono preamp that is powered by a clever, dual-mono rechargeable battery circuit. I probably don’t need to lecture this crowd on the perils of AC line pollution and the considerable lengths many high-end designers go to in order to strip the RFI and EMI interference from the incoming power before it passes through a component’s basic critical circuitry. Look around and you’ll see a large selection of sophisticated and costly AC filters and power regenerators specifically designed to eliminate the bulk of this interference before it even enters the actual component. That’s because high-end designers know how performance degrading the incoming AC power can be (and usually is) in a typical home.

Of late, some designers have gone the battery route for components that don’t require a lot of power and this makes perfect sense. The power supplied from a DC battery is free of interference and noise. It is basically, a pure power source. Did you ever wonder why your junky car stereo sounds halfway decent? Right—it’s running mostly off a big battery.

Unlike some designers who build a bank of many D-cells that are bulky and don’t seem to last very long, Michael Yee has chosen to use a small, rechargeable, dual-mono NiMH battery pack with a “Smart Sensing” auto-recharge feature. In practice this works very well and can run the Nova Phonomena for a minimum of 3 hours before it switches to the recharge mode (indicated by the front-panel indicator turning from green to blinking red with a short dropout in sound while it does so). Even then, the unit can continue to perform very well while it recharges. When the battery is fully charged, the blinking red light turns to solid red. To switch back into the pure battery mode brush your finger across the proximity sensing light switch and it will turn green indicating the pure-battery mode. This state-of-the-art battery system ensures long play time and battery life. The Nova Phonomena can normally run for 3 hours off the battery after being in the charging mode for only one hour.

The Nova Phonomena actually uses the same circuit topography as it’s much more expensive big brother, the SuperNova, and is manufactured by Musical Surroundings in California. The SuperNova’s distinction is that it has three selectable phono inputs each with its own load and gain settings, a front panel volume/gain control, and a remote power supply. But hey, if you have a volume control on your line stage preamp, and don’t need 3 phono inputs in the same system, buying the Nova Phonomena at only $999 can save you a whopping $2,000, and deliver the same high level of sonic purity.

Features and controls
The only control on the clean looking front panel of the Nova Phonomena is the aforementioned proximity-sensitive, green/red battery-mode indicator switch. With a light brush of your finger you can change from the charging mode (red light) to pure battery power (green light). On the rear panel we have one pair each of heavy-duty gold-plated RCA inputs and outputs and a solid ground post. On one rear corner is the DC receptacle for the provided DC wall-wart.

   

Additionally, and this is the best part, the rear panel contains the DIP switch arrays for each channel’s gain and input loading options. If you are a fan of moving coil cartridges (as I am) the Nova Phonomena provides no less than fifteen different load settings spaced between 30 ohms and 2000 ohms. For moving magnet cartridges and some moving coils there are two additional settings of 50k-ohms and 100k-ohms. Fantastic! Plus, the first position on the load-switch modules allows one to increase the input capacitance from 200pF to 300pF. Increasing the input capacitance is normally more useful with moving magnet cartridges to tailor the high-frequency reproduction to suit individual taste.

Gain options are found on the smaller DIP switch modules and there are more than a dozen possible gain settings between 40dB and 60dB. All in all, the myriad gain and cartridge loading options of the Nova Phonomena make it one of the most flexible and useful phono stages available. And the fact that you don’t have to remove a bunch of tiny screws to get the cover off in order to access the settings is the icing on the cake. The owner’s manual has charts explaining all the DIP switch settings. It’s so easy, even a Geico customer could do it.

Dial it in
In my experimenting with the Nova Phonomena, I found it to be an extremely useful diagnostic tool. The many gain settings let me pick the optimum gain levels for both of my systems. In the case of my large-room VMPS system, I use a couple of different line stages and one has quite a bit more gain than the other. I found that with the Nova Phonomena, I could either set the perfect gain level for each preamplifier, or leave it somewhere in the middle, so that a single gain setting would work well with both preamplifiers.

Additionally, having copious input loading options proved to be a big plus. Again, in my large-room system with the Michell Tecnodec and the Benz Reference 3 low output MC cartridge I was able to dial in the perfect gain setting for this cartridge. Believe me, when I finally hit the nail on the head (150 ohms) it was readily apparent on my hi-res rig. The highs tamed down just a little, the midrange sounded natural and in the correct proportion, and the bass became quite tight, articulate, and defined. Further, the lower treble area started sounding very realistic. Cymbals sprang out and shimmered with a rightness of timbre that let me know I had hit the mark.

Similarly, in my other system using the Michell Orbe SE turntable with the Benz Ebony L cartridge, I was able to dial in the correct load and VTA by using the Nova Phonomena. I played with the VTA until the vocals and acoustic guitars on Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane’s Rough Mix (MCA 2295) sounded lifelike enough to bring tears to my eyes. Their song “Till The Rivers All Run Dry” with its emotive guitar strumming and vocal harmony is of notable tear-jerking quality if you’re looking for a good cut to test this out. Needless to say, when the tears started welling up the Nova Phonomena let me know in no uncertain terms that I had the VTA spot on. Improved incisiveness and smoothness throughout the high frequencies was another big clue that my settings were just as they should be. With the Ebony L the best sounding load setting turned out to be 280 ohms (up from my previous 243).

Purity of Timbre
I cannot stress enough what having accurate timbre can do for a system. If the timbre is truly correct every instrument, including the human voice, sounds more natural and believable. Strings have the proper bite and tone, brasses have the honk, bite, and vibrato of the actual horns, and piano notes sound convincing with their sharp attack and lingering decay. Without the proper reproduction of timbre, an audio system will only be capable of sounding like the electro-mechanical amalgam that it is – it will never come to life in a cogent manner.

I must praise the Nova Phonomena because it is one phono preamplifier that allows its user to adjust his turntable system to achieve proper timbre, provided the rest of the system’s components are capable. In such a system, the Nova Phonomena can provide an acoustic experience that rivals acoustic instruments and vocalists as they sound in a live venue. To clarify, the Nova Phonomena does not have an actual “Timbre Control,” it’s just that the unit is capable of reproducing natural timbre and passing it through the system’s electronics chain when the load settings are correct. Kudos to Michael Yee and Musical Surroundings for developing and offering a product that can provide this very intimate connection to the actual performers and their instruments.

And that’s not all…
Not only does the Nova Phonomena provide natural instrumental timbre, it provides tight, articulate, and powerful bass. There are some very low, bombastic bass notes on the 45 rpm version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax (Island 0-96975) about half-way into the song, that very few systems can portray with all the intensity recorded on the disc. I purposefully selected this recording just to see what the Nova Phonomena could do with it. Well, I have to say, that when those notes hit, they coupled to the room with taut, 3-D bass slam that had me praying for my (and my system’s) survival. This was truly spectacular, not to mention that the bass notes in the intro were uncommonly deep and punchy right off the bat.

Moving up the audible frequency band, violins are rendered smooth, soulful, and poignant without that screechy quality that plagues many lesser quality phono preamps. Again, the instrument sounds natural leaving the listener wanting more rather than making him wince or hold his ears in agony. And plucked guitar strings sound magnificently incisive. Listening to the airy twang of the plucked strings on the aforementioned Rough Mix LP; cuts like “Misunderstood” and “Heart To Hang Onto,” give one a clear picture of what the instrument is doing – so much so, that you can almost see the strings vibrating.

Last but not least, the treble band is every bit as impressive in its precision and naturalness as the slam-bang bass and that lovely liquid midrange. The detail, delicacy, and air delivered within the soundstage are first rate by any measuring stick. Cymbals ping and shimmer when hit with a stick and provide a soft backdrop for the other instruments when lightly brushed. With performance of this quality I was definitely enjoying the music more and not thinking about comparisons to other gear or distortion specs.

That said, precisely to contradict my previous statement, the Nova Phonomena bears a similarity in the clarity and precision of the treble with the original Musical Surroundings Phonomena. Yet paradoxically, this is also the area where the new Nova Phonomena sounds the most different and improved. Having owned the original Phonomena for the past few years, my feeling is that it tends to sound a bit bright and zingy. It could give me a brain-freeze headache with some material. The Nova Phonomena, on the other hand sounds extended and detailed, but not as piercingly poignant. Its sound is bit better balanced, and I feel, more natural and musically fulfilling.

Where have all the caveats gone?
Make no mistake, the Musical Surroundings Nova Phonomena is one of today’s best performing and naturally musical phono preamplifiers. It is capable of providing spot-on timbre, wide dynamic contrasts, vivid reproduction of fast musical transients, and expansive, precise soundstaging that can be quite holographic if it’s in the recording. In fact, when I had the low-output Benz Ace in my system the soundstage bloom was so extensive, it seemed to envelope the entire room and then some!

If I have one caveat worth mentioning the only area of performance that I felt could be improved is the ability of the soundstage to remain clear, focused, and unruffled at times when many different instruments are all playing intensely at once. In those instances, the Nova Phonomena can lose a tiny bit of its normally unflappable composure, resulting in a small reduction of clarity. But for all the Nova Phonomena’s considerable virtues, I view this as a small flaw. It’s one that many users will not notice and one that only mega-buck state-of-the-art phono stages can hope to better.

Only One Conclusion Exists
Based on my experience with the Musical Surroundings Nova Phonomena over an extended review period using two different turntables and arms and a bevy of different cartridges my only possible conclusion is that the Nova Phonomena is exceptionally well named. At only $999 USD, I highly doubt that there is another phono stage that delivers such outstanding musical performance. And its plethora of gain and loading settings are truly a vinylphile’s sweet dream.

For sooth, the wide range of user adjustments that the Nova Phonomena provides will enable almost any cartridge to perform very near its optimum in the vast majority of audiophile systems. In my experience, running it into a sweet-sounding tube line stage is a match made in heaven. Michael Yee and the good folks at Musical Surroundings are to be congratulated for this wonderful achievement. Run, don’t walk, kiddies, to your favorite audio dealer!

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Manufacturer
Musical Surroundings
5662 Shattuck Ave.
Oakland, CA 94609
Phone: 510.547.5006
Fax: 510.547.5009
Web: http://www.musicalsurroundings.com/benz.html
Nova Phonomena
Price: $999.00