Last week I was given a chance to play around with a very interesting component - PH-10 phono stage from the Italian luxury audio manufacturer Gold Note (www.goldnote.it). I've heard and read good things about this brand and its products, so naturally I was excited at the opportunity to try this phono stage in my modest system and see how it performs.After using it for about a week, I decided to write a short (and hopefully unbiased) review.
Looks and build
The first thing I noticed about the PH-10 is how elegant it looks. It is my belief that high end gear should look good. The unit I was given is in gorgeous red color with a round Gold Note logo (in gold colour naturally) in the upper left corner of the front panel. In a world of black and grey (and occasionally champagne colour) boxes of the high end audio components, this is a welcome and striking change.The unit is made of a solid machined aluminum with a shell body that minimizes frequency resonance and feedback vibrations.
The front panel features 2.8" TFT colour display and a single knob, which operates various functions and features (more on them below).
Modular design of the PH-10 allows upgrade with an optional External Inductive Power Supply. My unit came without it, so I won't get into that. Perhaps something for a future review.
Features and functionality
PH-10 comes with two inputs, both of which can be configured for either an MM or an MC cartridge. Output options are RCA (unbalanced) or XLR (balanced).
Unlike other phono stages in this price range (approx.$2000 CAD), PH-10 possesses features normally found in much more expensive phono stages. Specifically, it has the ability to switch between 6 equalization curves, depending on the records you play. They are: RIAA, Decca-London, American-CBS-Columbia plus three more "enhanced" curves, which are proprietary additions by Gold Note, designed to further enhance the vinyl listening experience with these internationally recognized modulations.
There are 4 gain options: -3dB, 0dB, +3dB, +6dB. They allow more precise matching of any kind of output level of MM or MC cartridge.
There are 9 load options; 10Ω, 22Ω, 47Ω, 100Ω, 220Ω, 470Ω, 1000Ω, 22KΩ, 47KΩ. Since my cartridge is MM (Ortofon 2M Red), I only used the 47KΩ setting.
As stated above, the operations are performed using a single knob on the front panel of the unit, which Gold Note refer to as SKC - Single Knob Control. Using it to change the functions could not be easier. You switch between features (inputs, input types - MM or MC, curves, gain, load options and display on or off) by turning the knob and then selecting the feature you want by pressing the knob. Once inside a feature, the switching between options is also performed by turning the knob and then pressing the know once again to select the desired one. With a brief click the selected option is loaded.
So how does this phono stage sound? I can only surmise it in one word: amazing! The difference between PH-10 and my own Cambridge Audio Azur 651P was immediately apparent and quite striking.
The first record I played was "90125" by Yes (ATCO Records – 79 01251). It is my favorite Yes album and it has a powerful and clear production. Everything was turned up - details, clarify, instrument separation. Imaging was much more precise and the whole presentation was much bigger and sounded more realistic. I noticed some distortion in the form of graininess in the upper frequencies and had to play around with gain to find the sweet spot, which turned out to be the lowest setting of -3dB.
I briefly switched to my Cambridge Audio phono stage and it just wasn't enjoyable anymore. I then compared the vinyl sound with the PH-10 to streaming the same Yes album from TIDAL in MQA quality. The vinyl was the clear winner!
Other records I played produced similar results. It was like hearing them for the first time! Whether it was Sade's "Promise" (Portrait – FR 40263), Peter Gabriel's "So" (Geffen Records – XGHS 24088) or Saint-Preux's "Odyssée" (Quartz's – QTS 18213), everything sounded amazing in my system. One record which absolutely floored me was Chris de Burgh's "Spanish Train And Other Stories" (A&M Records – SP-4568), especially the first track called "Spanish Train". Very powerful song that starts with just an acoustic guitar and vocals and soon swells on chorus with full rock band and strings. Absolutely captivating. Chris de Burgh's vocals felt almost like he's in the room with me.
Being a long-time metalhead, I obviously played some metal records, specifically Ayreon "The Source" (Mascot Label Group – MTR 7515 1), Psychotic Waltz "Mosquito" (Century Media – 9980581), Black Sabbath "Mob Rules" (Warner Bros. Records – R1 3605). The problem with metal albums is the music is so intense and compressed because of the nature of the genre, it's not always possible to achieve good sound. But with properly produced albums and a great phono stage such as the PH-10, the results are quite good.
I am not a professional reviewer, so I tend to focus on my experiences as a music lover rather than bore people with technical details and jargon. Because this is what this hobby is about, after all - enjoying music using available tools. In this case the tool is well made and it works great in combination with my other components. The end result is evident in my enjoyment of my favorite records.
Given my modest system and record collection, I was not able to explore and test all available options of the Gold Note PH-10. I don't have an MC cartridge, XLR cables or old Decca records. But given its performance in my system, I can confidently say that this phono stage punches well above its weight and will be up to the task in any high end system with components in any price range. It is a great value for the money!
Lastly, I would like to thank Jonathan and Ed from Sonic Artistry (www.sonicartistry.ca) for giving me an opportunity to experience this amazing product.