PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier by Greg Voth

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Gregvoth.jpgOf the handful of preamps I own, my current everyday favorite is the PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC. This well-built line stage with remote, balanced, and unbalanced inputs and outputs and high-quality internal digital to analog converter that I reviewed back in mid-2018. Of all its options, the one feature the Gain Cell lacks is a phono stage. That is no longer the case with the recent release of the company’s new Stellar Phono Preamplifier, which is the subject of this review.

Announced in the fourth quarter of 2019, I found myself excited and anticipated the imminent arrival of the new PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier. PS Audio made a name for itself in 1974 with its first offering, an affordable phono stage that sold by the thousands, putting the company on the map. They’ve offered others since but if what I’d heard about this new one was correct, the Stellar Phono might prove very special indeed. The review sample arrived early in 2020.

Origin250.jpgWith a degree in Electrical Engineering and an interest in audio, Darren Myers set out to make a go of designing in the audio industry. After a short stint at B & W and some time at Classé Audio, Myers came to PS Audio and subsequently immersed himself into projects. Myers, the designer of the PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier, was most recently involved in designs of the company’s Stellar S300 amplifier, M700 mono-block, as well as the Sprout100 and has been called to work on their FR30 Speaker, a passion project of the company’s, bringing to life the vision of the late Arnie Nudell, of Infinity fame.

As I understand it, the Stellar Phono Preamplifier was designed to measure well, but it didn’t sound as good as they had hoped. The Stellar Phono then underwent numerous modifications as those closest to the project listened by ear. The Stellar Phono was released in a public beta test in January of 2019 for a wide-ranging comment. Watching an interview of Darren Myers by Michael Fremer, Myers confirmed, when asked if there are measurements that, while there are indeed things to measure, it all depends on what you measure. Tuning this unit by ear for best sound involves results that sway to the non-scientific and the somewhat immeasurable. From my time listening to and playing with the Stellar Phono, it sounded refined, tactile and eminently dimensional. PS Audio’s by-ear tuning effort paid off.

Cartridges

I thought myself well set with a few phono cartridges on hand with which to test the PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamp  – a Benz Glider with a medium output moving coil that’s been my go-to reference cartridge and a vintage ultra-low output Ortofon MC-20 moving coil – that’s been part of my collection since 1979 when purchased new). The vintage Ortofon MC-20 moving coil cartridge, with its .07mV of gain, a load Impedance of < 10Ω and 1.7g recommended tracking force), might prove to be the best challenge here. Thankfully, the Stellar’s gain section offered enough boost (up to 72db) for this very low .07mV output MC. A few years after purchase, it developed an issue and I boxed it. Over the next three decades, I resisted the urge to trade it in. All those years later, I (finally) sent it out West for repair, expecting a substantial charge but a mere $100? The suspension just needed tightening. The repair tech then remarked how new the stylus looked. I’ve been wanting to hear this cartridge for decades.

I mounted the MC-20 first on my self-made arm that resides on my Shield MO-19 idler table, made of the broadcast market by Neat. Due to the moving coil’s minuscule mV output, a very slight hum in that arm was amplified when using the MC-20 and magnified by the Stellar Phono; This slight arm hum vanished once I switched the MC-20 to my Well-Tempered Turntable, with its LP Labs carbon fiber arm, one of many upgrades made to it over the years. I then moved the Benz Glider to the idler where it performed very well, perhaps even more musically there than on the WTT.

Phono Cables

esp-stereo-times-ad_250x250_1.jpgThe Stellar Phonos manual states, “most users of moving magnet cartridges will be happy with cables of average capacitance and the 100pF loading, but you may try different cables if you wish to change the capacitive loading of the Stellar Phono.” I’ve read that capacitance adds a small delay to the sound, which varies with frequency and can cause roll-off. Over the past decade-plus, I’ve purchased on eBay ultra-low capacitance (first silver-plated copper and, when introduced) Litz phono cables from “CustomCans,” a seller located in the United Kingdom. CustomCans works in the custom headphone and phono cable realm of our hobby. Made from woven stranded copper wire in a Litz configuration, their ultra-low capacitance cables “typically measure between 7.5-40pF up to 2m with smaller connectors or up 90pF for longer 3-4m cables with larger connectors.” The long lengths mentioned here are for their headphone cables… you wouldn’t want to run phono cables that long for a turntable installation – something a lot of newbies aren’t told. I try to use no more than a meter of phono cable, though I have had CustomCans make a 42″ pair for my most distant table – the ultra-low impedance helped me gain a bit more length.

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The PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier

250x250_1.jpgThe Stellar Phono came in for review on the heels of my purchase of the SBS Designs S2 PRO Power Amplifier review unit [report now published]. As I unboxed the Stellar Phono Preamplifier and, no doubt, due to the Stellar Phono a perfect match to my silver Stellar Gain Cell DAC, my wife said: “I hope you do not want to buy this too?…” Harsh words to hear when you haven’t even plugged in a review component in!

I procrastinated a bit when approaching this review, due, in part, to a minor medical issue and an accident that took out one of my Dynamique Audio Tempest 2 speaker cables [review now published]. Thankfully, the replacement terminator parts were delivered promptly and I was able to finish the review with Tempest 2 speaker cables intact.

I originally thought I’d stack the Stellar Phono and Stellar Gain Cell on the top shelf of the rack since they are designed to look very much alike (17″ W x 13″ D x 3.25″) and offered in the same silver or black finishes. When off, the Gain Cell DAC’s large volume knob sets it apart from the Stellar Phono; when on, each unit’s display reveals its use. The Stellar Phono proved to be the heavier of the two and well-deserving of its plinth, so it was placed on the shelf below.

Over the next week, I familiarized myself with the Phono’s literature, enabled the accompanying remote and listened to my Sumiko Rainier moving magnet, mounted on my self-made arm on the Shield MO-19 idler table. I decided to continue the review with the Benz Glider M moving coil, a better performing cartridge, then mounted to the LP Labs carbon-fiber arm on my Well-Tempered Turntable. When first connected to the Moving Coil input of the Stellar Phono, and played on the setting with the least amount of gain, I found it a bit gritty and distorted. Once I moved the WTT/Glider’s cables to the Moving Magnet inputs of the Stellar Phono, I preferred the MM inputs for that cartridge.

Pureaudiobanner.jpgThe PS Audio Stellar Phono’s cartridge settings were easy to navigate and adjust with the necessary remote and its large mute button served me well since a turndown of the volume is a necessity twice with the play of every record side. On the remote, one can select between two analog sources, MC or MM, be they two arms on the same table or two separate turntables. The moving coil section also offers a user the ability to select loading presets, and three gain from the remote. Settings for source, loading, gain and mute are visible on the Stellar’s front display, 60Ω, 100Ω, 200Ω and 47kΩ are available as load presets on the remote and two rear user-adjustable knobs allow custom loading from 1 to 47kΩ, if desired. Your custom loading preference is then available on the remote as a custom preset.

The Stellar’s moving coil section delivers up to 72dB of ultra low noise gain for cartridges as low as 0.15mv. It handled my Ortofon MC-20’s even lower .07mV gain quite fine to my ear, with just a few clicks of the remote’s volume. It’s passive RIAA curve is said to offer seamless performance and having both single-ended and balanced outputs provided added flexibility in set up. Its front panel standby button wakes the Stellar Phono from standby to full function promptly upon press.

The Stellar Phono is built with hand-selected premium discrete components in an all-discrete FET design, with no complementary FET transistors for lifelike performance and Class A analog circuitry throughout. The Stellar Phono is DC coupled from input to output for unfettered bass, with no ICs in the signal path and delivers up to 20V RMS output for exceptional headroom and dynamics. Its high current oversized power transformer provides ultra-low noise discrete pre and post voltage regulation stages and low internal feedback for increased transparency and openness.

Listening

My system certainly has improved in both dynamics and resolution over the years and nothing brought that home more than a listen to the music I played back in the day with this very same Ortofon MC-20 moving coil. This moving coil was my first MC residing in my then second full rig change to get audio right. That solid-state system certainly had its moments with components like my Harman Kardon Rabco ST-7, dB systems dB-1b pre, dB-4 head amp, dB-6 power amp, Allison 3 speakers and Revox reel to reel). This memorable rig didn’t have the dynamic response, resolution or PRAT of my current system. 

lachesisv.jpgFor the Ortofon MC-20, mounted on my Neat-made Shield MO-19 ilder’s self-made arm, I selected the highest gain of the Stellar Phono’s MC inputs and set the loading to the 60Ω preset and sat back to soak in what I hoped would be a revelation. Once the Ortofon MC-20’s needle dropped on Harmony Rockets “Lachesis • Clotho • Atropos” (Tompkins Square 2018), it was clear that an old and very dear friend was, once again, here in my home. The added detail and finesse produced by this vintage combo brought literal tears to my eyes. The remote’s loading presets were easily changed from the sweet spot.

ecma.jpgThe next platter on the idler was Terje Rypdal, Miroslav Vitous and Jack DeJohnette’s “To Be Continued” (ECM 1981). I honestly can’t recall what this music sounded like back in the day, 41 years ago when I was 27, but, with this same cartridge in play, but today, this timeless music sounds big, bold, dynamic and without exception, glorious through the Stellar Phono Preamp.

“Speedball” from Stanley Turrentine’s “Cherry,” a CTI from 1972 release, was just cookin’! I don’t recall hearing such bass and dynamics from a CTI release. As a big supporter of CTI back in its day, I’ve often remembered the bass as lacking. The Stellar rendered a nice depth to the stage, as it projected well-defined imaging and captured the synergy of this group of skilled musicians, each soon a master.

Terje Rypdal’s “What Comes After” (ECM 1974) has been a favorite since it was recommended to me in a college record shop in 1974, when a stranger walked up to me and said “Buy these two records, they will change your life,” handing me his offerings. This release was one of the two and my introduction to Rypdal, music. The Stellar Phono saturates this records playback with immediacy, dynamic zing and with PRAT that’s merely inescapable. 

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I put on side 2 of Abbey Road’s 50th-anniversary edition LP (Capitol 2019) and sat back astonished at the added bass response and weight in the grooves of this new release – better dynamics and taut imaging were present on the stage of excellent depth and width. Listening to the entirety of this favorite side seemed far more captivating than at any other time played over the years.

paulsimon.jpgDrifting back to the present day, with Paul Simon’s “Stranger To Stranger” (Concord Records 2016) on the Well-Tempered and the Benz Glider serviced by the moving magnet section of the Stellar Phono, I played “Werewolf,” the LP’s first track. Through the Stellar Phono, it became a full-blooded delight, providing everything a music-lover craves. As good as my standalone EarMax PhonoMax is (and it certainly is), it sure ain’t this! 

Musicality abounded with the Stellar Phono, with great depth and drive.

I’ve never heard the Benz Glider moving coil on the Shield MO-19, before, and I was not prepared for the breadth and depth of KT Lang’s “Ingenue” (Sire 1992) from this 41-year-old moving coil and 55-year-old idler combo. Big, broad, lush and almost tube-like in presentation, this standard-issue LP was stunningly coherent in its resolution, dynamics and, image density. The bass was firmly rooted and very much enjoyable. Listening at a 42 setting on the Stellar Gain Cell DAC, this medium output .8 mV MC delivered a great punch through the moving magnet stage of the Stellar Phono without the need for any added head amp boost. The picture presented was full-throated, and utterly captivating, with growling bass and wide-ranging dynamics on a densely rendered stage. Taught and textured, and very tube-like, this disc kept both my wife and I wholly captive and wordless.

I completed the majority of this review with the Stellar Phono’s stock power cable. For comparison sake, replaced the stock power cable with an Oyaide Tunami GPX-R V2 and connected the Stellar Phono Pre-Amplifier to my Gain Cell DAC with balanced Oyaide Tunami Terzo RR V2 interconnects to see if the sound would vary. “Don’t misunderstand” from Melody Gardot’s “Currency of Man” (Decca 2015) appeared before me quieter and came to the ear out of denser black. There seemed to be an added ease to the presentation and dynamics were more interesting with added velocity. Listening at a setting of 50 on the Gain Cell DAC’s display, the system seemed primed and willing to respond to the slightest dynamic challenge. This is a subtle and quiet album that pounces on you in a blink. Low frequencies slink underfoot and reach up to rattle the molars. The Stellar Phono’s presentation was solid, tactile and stimulating.

The Wrap

After hearing about PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier through the media, Paul McGowan’s blog and an early press release, I was afraid my anticipation would get the better of me and the Stellar Phono would not up to the hype… this was thankfully not the case! While there are a number of phono stages out there from which to choose, the Stellar Phono offers great, ear-pleasing sound and ease of use few can match. If you want great sound, especially if you have a table with 2 arms or multiple tables, the Stellar Phono delivers great sound and a wonderfully thought out remote experience. If you have but one table and arm, it might prompt you to add another.

PS Audio has changed its business model and is now selling directly to the consumer. Give ’em a call!

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greg voth        

 

The PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier

US MSRP: $2,499

CONTACT:

PS Audio

4865 Sterling Drive • Boulder, Colorado • 80301 • 720.406.8946

Our office hours are 8AM to 5PM Mountain Standard Time. We are available via email: support@psaudio.com

Website: PS Audio.com 
Email: sales@psaudio.com 

Phone: 720.406.8946


Specifications: 

STELLAR PHONO PREAMPLIFIER

Unit Weight21.6lbs. (9.8 kg)

Unit Dimensions17”W x 13”D x 3.25”H 

(43cm x 33.02cm x 8.255cm)

Shipping Weight25.1lbs (11.4 kg)

Shipping Dimensions22”W x 8”H x 17”D

(55.88cm x 43.18cm x 20.32cm)

Color OptionsBlack 

Silver

Voltage Options

(Factory set only)Japan 100V

North America 120V

Europe/Asia/Australia/New Zealand 230V

Mains Power InputIEC C14

Idle Power Consumption26W

Fuses100V: T250V-2.0AH (2A Slow Blow)

120V: T250V-1.6AH (1.6A Slow Blow)

230V: T250V-1AH (1A Slow Blow)

Accessories IncludedUS (NEMA 5-15P) (100V/120V versions)

Schuko (CEE7/7) (230V version)

UK (BS1363) (230V version)

Remote Control

Audio InputsRCA (Unbalanced) MM,MC

Audio OutputsRCA (Unbalanced) 1 Stereo Pair

XLR (Balanced) 1 Stereo Pair

DC Trigger3.5mm 12VDC (2)

Performance

All measurements are with both channels operating,

gain set to low, and balanced outputs. 

Input frequency is 1kHz.

GainMM: 44dB, 50dB, 56dB

MC: 60dB, 66dB, 72dB

Input LoadingMM: 47KΩ (100pF)

MC: 60Ω, 100Ω, 200Ω, 47KΩ, Custom 1-1KΩ

Output ImpedanceUnbalanced <200Ω

Balanced <200Ω per leg

Frequency Response20Hz – 20KHz +/- 0.25dB

THD0.5V out @ 1kHz: <0.01%

Maximum Output@1%THD: 24VRMS

Overload Margin@1kHz: >22dB

S/N RatioMM: >82dB A-Weighted

MC: >74dB A-Weighted

Interchannel Crosstalk>74dB

Power Consumption26W

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