Well, I usually write about digital, but why not write about analog?
Analog sounds awesome, vibrant, and natural. It has certain bass, midrange and high frequency qualities that digital does not seem to be able to reproduce. I wont say one is better than the other. Both are enjoyable in their own way. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
On review today is the Rod Elliot PO6 op-amp phono stage and the Little Bear valve phono stage.
Both are DIY kits, the Little Bear comes fully assembled, and the P06 requires assembly.
Of the two kits, the most DIY friendly is the P06, after soldering, it just works. It is silent, and it accurately goes about its business of applying the inverse RIAA curve and amplifying the small signals from your turntable.
The P06 is a very neutral sounding phono stage. This actually goes in it favor. It does not over emphasise any frequency, and gives a very tidy and clean presentation to the sound. If there is a quiet passage, its quiet, and if there is a dynamic passage the sound jumps out. It doesn't sound restrained, it provides good high frequency reproduction, and the bass well extended, tidy, clean, and clear.
Its probably like an excercise in technical perfection. If you check out Rod Elliots site you will see the engineering effort that went into it. Rod seems to be a straight down the line kind of guy, calling a spade a spade. He has a very technical approach to audio, designing his gear to achieve low noise and a flat frequency response (or in this case, an accurate inverse RIAA curve), and really, what more do you need?
The P06 sounds great!
The Little Bear phono stage comes from China and can be ordered from eBay or Aliexpress.
I know nothing about its designer, or the engineering philosophy. I have created an RIAA curve using software and checked the performance of the Little Bear. It was close enough for me to give it the thumbs up. I'd say it was designed to provide an accurate inverse RIAA curve.
Straight out of its cardboard box the Little bear is a big disappointment. It's 100Hz noise is terrible, but, through that noise it is possible to hear the potential. Now I just needed to fix that noise!
The high gain required for a phono stage, along with un-sheilded valves results in the valve picking up every bit of noise from the ether that it possibly can, including transformer radiated noise, and noise from the mains wiring in the house.
The solution was to put it into a metal box. Problem solved (- well, almost see far below) Now I could get on with listening to some music.
The Little Bear is a vibrant sounding unit. The valves seem to be giving that extra bit of "valvey" goodness. The mid range is luscious and forward, the bass is very strong and tonally rich, and highs explode from the speakers in a smooth and satisfying way, and despite the forward sound there is never any harshness to mention. There is also a great deal of clarity, but not quite as much as the P06.
On review here today are two excellent phono stages which come from opposite ends of the spectrum - the technically perfect P06, and the problematic humming Little Bear.
Both offer a sound which presents analog at its best. If you are able to assemble a kit without killing yourself or blowing something up, It really comes down to a choice between, valve sound, and solid state sound.
Op-Amps are technically perfect, and go about their business quietly and correctly. Valves are always "boiling off" electrons, always vibrant, glowing in their box (even if you can't see them) and will eventually wear out, -a very natural and organic trait, and perhaps this is what is reflected in their sound.
The P06 gives a slightly cleaner and more pin-point sound. Notes start and stop very cleanly. The Little Bear is more gentle in its starting and stopping, but when an instrument jumps out, it really jumps out with a vivacious lust to be heard.
Taking into consideration that an off the shelf "reasonable" phono preamp you can buy in a shop tends to start around the $150 mark for something quite basic, and the next step up is around $250-300. For this sort of money, you can try both the P06, and the Little bear.
You probably want to know which one is my favorite - It was the Little Bear for quite a while, but now is the P06!.
Sound is very personal and subjective and I like the vivacious presentation that the Little Bear provides, but after a couple of years, I now much prefer the P06 for a few reasons.
I can't completly eliminate the hum from the Little Bear, and hum really is very distracting. Nobody wants hum in their audio. After doing some AB comparisions with classical music its pretty obvious to me that the P06 has far more detail, and accurate tone. The Little bear is "nice" sounding. The P06 is more accurate, has much lower noise, and gives me more long term satisfaction.
The P06 gets my highest recommendation for people who want excellent sound. Its amazing budget price, and low voltage for safety is icing on the cake. I give it 10/10 for sound. 10/10 for price. Perfect! I'd like to point out that I've never before thought that something was good enough to rate it a perfect 10, so this is very high praise from me.
It may be too much work for the casual DIY person to get the Little bear into a case and sounding good? The P06 appeals to my electronics engineering background, for - its excellent engineering, low noise, and it works out-of-the-box! The Little bear appeals to my "musical" side because it is a bit more "fun" and "musical" to listen to, but the hum that refuses to go away is a problem for me. I have to take points off it for that. If it didn't hum, I'd score it a 9/10. With the hum reduction techniques I employed i'll give it a 7/10. As supplied from ebay - without case and humming as it did, I'd give it a 5/10 becuase hum totally wrecks your listening experince. Hum has no place in a modern audio system. Don't hope or think or assume the hum is fixed. Don't assume you wont get some hum. Depending upon your skills, it can reward you or can annoy you. Think very carefully before buying the Little Bear.
Some people may be wondering if the valves give a "colouration" to the sound. I don't believe that they do. I believe that the difference in sound is simply due to the technology used. Valve or transistor. Each has its own sonic signature. Valve guys might say that op-amps give a colouration to the sound. Both opinions are probably correct. But the op-amp has far lower distortion and gives a more truthful insight into whats on the recording.
When the Little Bear was first sold a few years ago, with the high Australian dollar, and lower overall price, it was worth a try. These days the price has gone up, and I no longer think it is the bargain it used to be. For someone wanting a top notch phono stage, the DIY P06 phono stage is a no brainer.
It will give higher sound quality at half the price of the Little Bear.
Below a spectral content shots of the same song recorded on the Little Bear (top) and the P06 (bottom) Also please note the Little bear has a hotter output than the P06 and this may have affected the colours in the spectral content. The audio recording was made at 88.2Khz 16bit to capture any high frequencies present on the LP.