The Ensemble Fonovivo Phono Preamplifier

The Ensemble Fonovivo Phono Preamplifier
Jason Thorpe
22 January 2001


Bandwidth: 10 Hz – 85 kHz (-3dB points)
RIAA Accuracy: 20 Hz – 20 kHz
Line Level Output: Max 9.5 Vrms
Phase correct
Tolerating Low impedance loads of >3 kohms
Output impedance Maximum Input: MC 4 mV
MM 60 mV (=23.5 dB overload margin)
Sensitivity / Gain:
MC 250 uV for 4 mV output : 24 dB gain setting
125 uV for 4 mV output : 30 dB gain setting
MM: 4mV or 640 mV output : 44 dB gain
Total maximum gain (MC : 30 dB) : 74 dB
Input Impedance: MC switchable between 16 values (51.7 ohms – 1 kohms*) in parallel with 1500 pF *
Input capacitance: MM 47 kohms in parallel with 1500 pF*
Hum and Noise: MC better than -60dB, referenced to 0.775 Vrms, unweighted
MM better than -78dB, referenced to 0.775, Vrms, unweighted
THD: Dimensions / Weight: Phono Stage: 250 × 100 × 170 mm (whd) / 3 kg
Power Supply: 80 × 72 × 180 mm (whd) / 1.2 kg
Power Supply:100 / 115-120, 230 V, 50-60 Hz, AC (mains), 75-32 mA
Voltage selector /fuse holder in IEC socket
Dual rail, low-noise regulated ouput 15DC, 100 mA

I get the feeling that I’m in the minority here, but I really hate it when I try out new gear and it sounds better than what I already have. I’ve always tried to keep the little beast that lives in the materialistic cesspool at the base of my skull under control, but occasionally he gets loose and shrieks until I get a new piece of stereo equipment.

Unfortunately, he can holler all he wants, as cash is at a premium right now in the Thorpe household. Bill payments take precedence over sound and I’m forced to enjoy the gear that I have hence the discomfort when something new and better appears in my listening room.

But the little lizard is laying a beating to me as I write this, because it’s just about time to send back the Ensemble Fonovivo phono stage that I’ve been listening to, and the bastard doesn’t want it to go.

Over the past decade, I’ve put in my chops in the analogue trenches. I didn’t sell my records when I got my first CD player, and my plastic Technics SLB-200 (with Ortofon Concorde P-mount cartridge!) was eventually replaced with a Rega Planar 3/Blue Point combo. A Rotel phono stage matched my P-3 in both tone and status, and did yeoman duty for many years. Later, a friend hit on hard times and was forced to sell his Roksan Xerxes/Tabriz and I was there to help him out with cash. A used Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature eventually ousted the Rotel, and there I was with a decent analogue front end.

A later find was another Xerxes with a sagging plinth that made it useless to its owner. I was kind enough to buy it for $300 and the Artemiz arm and nearly new Shiraz cartridge made a splendid upgrade. Getting closer…

The rest of my system consists of a modified Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp, EAR 509 monoblocks, Audioquest Midnight and Emerald cables and Magneplanar 1.5 speakers.

I’ve had several good phono stages in my system, including that contained within the Audible Illusions Mod-3, the Lehmann Black Cube, and the aforementioned SFP-1. I honestly thought that I’d reached the knee in the price-performance curve, and that throwing more cash at the phono stage would only bring marginal changes. I was wrong.

The Ensemble Fonovivo recently appeared in my system, and with it has come gains in transparency, detail and speed. Should you run out and get one now? Perhaps, perhaps not. Wait for the end of this review and make your decision then.

What’s a Fonovivo? It’s a small, nondescript stainless steel box with a compact outboard power supply. It comes with one of Ensemble’s own power cords, the Powerflux, which I used exclusively for the review period.

I didn’t pop the hood on the Fonovivo until I was about to send it back, as I didn’t want to be influenced in any way by the potential beauty of its Swiss craftsmanship. On the other hand, I also didn’t want to be startled if there was nothing in there but an LED, a 9 volt battery and a brick. Let’s have the sound speak for itself.

This thing is a solid state unit, with moving magnet and moving coil inputs, and single-ended RCA’s on the output side. There is switchable gain, and dip switches with which to set impedance for moving coil carts. Strangely enough, there isn’t a setting available for 47Kohms, the values starting at 1Kohm instead. Ensemble’s literature doesn’t say very much about the unit, except to tell me in no uncertain terms how good it is. We shall see, thought I upon its arrival.

First off, I replaced my SFP-1 with the Fonovivo using an older (but still great) Alchemist S cartridge, which is a high-output moving coil with a sapphire cantilever. I ran the cart straight into the MM input.

Not being much for supportive tweaks (unless they look really cool), I didn’t futz with the setup of the Fonovivo too much. I plunked it down on a Townshend CD Sink, and plugged the supplied power cord into my Chang Lightspeed 6400. There was a slight 60hz hum with this setup, but I was able to eradicate it by routing the power cords differently and by using another powerbar plugged into the Chang. This seems to indicate to me that the Fonovivo is quite sensitive to power/ground conditions. I hesitate to mention this hum, as it was very slight and easily remedied, but in the interests of full disclosure… As a side note, the manual for the Fonovivo (yes I did read it) states that it’s possible to lift the ground by unsoldering a wire inside the case. I neither needed nor wanted to do this, but it’s nice to have the option.

My girlfriend loved the sound right out of the box, but she’s still a little new to this sport, and was initially impressed by how GODDAM BRIGHT the thing sounded. But I’ve heard of this phenomenon, and realized that it really should be broken in for a while before I make any snap decisions. Usually I don’t give much credence to break-in tales, but this was a true eye-opener.

So I hooked up the $3250 silver box to my old BSR changer, loaded on a stack of 1001 strings, bagpipe music and, just for laughs, my “You Don’t Have to be Jewish” LP (Give me an eggcream please!), and let it burn in for a while. Every few hours I’d go back into the basement and flip all six albums.

The next day, things were decidedly different. Compared to my SFP-1 tubed phono stage, the tonal balance was still more aggressive (surprise!) although it was now in the ballpark for good sound quality. In this state, it remained for the duration of the review. I left it constantly powered up – a nice option when the rest of your system is tubed.

The most immediately notable feature of the Fonovivo using the MM inputs was its resolution of detail. Compared to my SFP-1 this increase of detail was significant. Background instruments became more delineated, both in position and depth and I found myself consistently being drawn into the recording, even when I was reading a book and in casual listening mode.

The increase in detail seemed to favor instruments that were more stereophonically separated from the body of the recording, at the expense of centralized voices. On Ella’s (do I really need to use a last name?) “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” (Classic Records/Verve V6-4053), there was a bit less lushness to the vocal line, while the guitar, piano and drums were much more clearly placed and better fleshed out. Neither the SFP1’s version nor the Fonovivo’s version seemed wrong, but they were quite different from each other.

The bass was just a little bit tighter than I’m used to, but not dramatically so, although there was an increase of resolution in the nether regions. I have to admit that I’m guilty of enjoying 70’s and 80’s progressive rock. Anyone else? No? Anyway, I recently picked up a record that I hadn’t heard in almost 20 years. When Phil Collins wasn’t moping over being dumped by his latest girlfriend, he was often drumming for a group called Brand X. This is the Phil Collins that it appears we’ve lost to terminal commercialism in recent years. “Moroccan Roll” (Charisma 9211-1126), is an incredibly dense album that is richly recorded and seems to have absolutely no compression, as there are some very delicate parts that fight with the noise floor for attention. The bassist, Percy Jones, is very busy, and his constant pops slaps and tickles on the fretless bass make for an analogue workout. Via the SFP1, I had to fight to make out the subtleties of this album, especially in the bass. The Fonovivo with its revealing nature, opened up this recording, giving me further insights into the brilliance of this group of musicians, especially Percy, who is one of my all-time favorite bassists..

Unfortunately with increased resolution comes a touch of brightness. At times, the Fonovivo could impart a bit of a bright edge in the upper treble. Notice here that I use the work “bright” instead of “harsh”. There was no harsh edge to the treble region whatsoever. This edge was VERY material sensitive. Harsh rock recordings left no place to hide. Keep in mind that what I term brightness another might call excitement. While in no way bothersome with my Maggies, it was a bit much with the set of Hales T5’s that I recently tried. I won’t call this a flaw in the Fonovivo, merely a requirement for careful system matching. More on this later.

So, all in all, the Fonovivo is a damn good moving magnet phono stage. But for this application, I think it would be overkill, given the substantial asking price and considering the type of cartridge it would likely be hooked up to.

About two-thirds through the review period, I mounted a Roksan Shiraz cartridge. The Shiraz is a low-output jobbie, somewhere on the order of .3mv. There were gobs of gain available, even on the lowest MC gain setting. The high gain, combined with the overall quietness of the unit should make the Fonovivo ideal for those insanely low-output cartridges that only Hong-Kong real-estate developers can afford.

Here’s where the Fonovivo really came into its own. Compared to the Alchemist high-output, the Fonovivo showed just how much snap the Roksan had. Although I was impressed by the sound previously, the MC capabilities of the Fonovivo made me sit up and take notice. With the SFP1, I actually preferred the Alchemist over the Shiraz. Via the Fonovivo I found out just how much better a good MC cart can sound.

The Shiraz sounded best at the wide-open 1Kohm setting, giving me pause to wonder how a higher setting would have sounded, had one been available.

“Anatomy of a Murder” by Duke Ellington (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-214), and pressed by MoFi is a dynamic record that shows just what the combo of Roksan’s ideal front end and Ensemble’s Fonovivo can do. In the past I’ve been just as impressed with the Classic Records’ version of “Blues in Orbit” (Classic Records/Columbia CS8241), as I have with the aforementioned MoFi record. The Fonovivo, however, allowed me to hear just how much more information Mobile Fidelity was able to stuff into the grooves. The Fonovivo displayed a depth and richness on this album that was distinctly missing-in-action with the SFP1 and the Black Cube. This silver box rules for jazz.

Classical suited the Fonovivo too. The London FFRR version of Turandot (London OSA-131-8), is a prime example of how well the Swiss ‘stage can stage. This is simply a swell-sounding record, even if they put sides one and three on the same disc (all the better to use that BSR ‘changer for uninterrupted listening). While I rarely listen to Opera at home, I found myself thoroughly caught up in the music and atmosphere that this record projected via the Fonovivo. Instrumental depth, layering and soundstage width were precise and realistic in a way that I have previously never experienced in my system. It’s certainly a fine juggling act when a component can deliver more detail and yet still present an extraordinary illusion of depth.

But, as I stated earlier, all was not a bed of roses with this precise Swiss instrument. As I’ve previously experienced with extremely high resolution components there could at times be a touch of glare that made some of my albums a bit of a chore to listen to. This was much more noticeable through the Hales speakers as compared to my Maggies. I suspect that a hot metal dome tweeter may not be a match made in heaven for the Fonovivo. But this brings up that important point about system matching. I honestly don’t think that a good system can be built by lobbing cash at a salesman. Unless you’re Julian Hirsch, you choose your components like colors in a palette. Since very little is truly neutral and since truly flat sounds horrid, you mix and match components in order to achieve a pleasing tonal balance. So the Fonovivo, although ideal with my Maggies, didn’t work well with the Hales’ – while some records sounded fabulous, others that I could enjoy via the SFP1 were rendered too aggressively for my tastes. This doesn’t mean that it’s a bad ‘stage – far from it – merely that it will work better with gear that complements its slightly forward character.

One feature that left me cold was the Fonovivo’s cosmetics. For over three large I felt deserving of more than just a folded stainless steel box. The power supply, while small and undoubtedly adequate, also seemed minimalist. The RCA jacks are of reasonable quality, but I’d be happier with Kimber or Cardas jacks. As I stated earlier, the sound should speak for itself, but impressive coachwork should be a prerequisite when laying out this amount of coin. Please keep in mind that these quibbles are truly in the eye of this beholder. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary.

I opened up the Fonovivo the night before I sent it back. Build quality is, as our friend Mr. Hirsch would say, fine. There are two circuit boards in the main chassis, and each is rubber mounted. Parts quality seems adequate, with a couple of juicy high-end caps prominent in the audio circuitry. The power supply uses Nichicon caps and a small but business-like transformer, and is most likely up to the task. But the proof lies in the listening, and the Fonovivo delivers.

Up at this rarefied level of price/performance, a blanket recommendation is impossible. However, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Fonovivo, although I am a true tube-head. If you want to extract the most information out of the grooves of your records, and favor detail over lushness, you owe it to yourself to try the Fonovivo. You may end up buying it. I would if I could afford it.

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