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George 47

PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier

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PS Audio Stellar Phono Amplifier

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PS Audio is not so well known in the UK but is a significant audio company in the USA in their home town of Boulder, Colorado. PS Audio is run by the charismatic CEO Paul McGowan. You may have come across him in his YouTube presentations Ask Paul. In these presentations, Paul McGowan answers questions from audio fans across the world. And his approach?  They are billed as Ask Paul: You’ve got hifi questions, he’s got long-winded answers.  Love it. And his gentle sense of humour comes through all his videos. Importantly PS Audio’s way of designing audio is also refreshing in that he aims for high-quality audio at sensible prices, without using pretentious, over-blinged cases at ultra-high prices. More importantly, the audio is initially designed using computers but then it is listened to and refined. And then listened to and refined until the sound quality is good enough to satisfy the designer, Paul and some selected listeners.

Given that I am surprised that PS Audio does not have a higher profile in the UK.

Anyway, I noticed that there was a great deal of interest in their new Stellar Phono Stage (I like the name).  There are many reviewers in the USA going overboard on the PS Audio Stellar phono amplifier. Now there is always a tendency to have a ‘flavour of the month’ for some audio but this looked way more serious with many of the ‘big names’ shouting its praises, including Michael Fremer. Michael Fremer is an extremely knowledgeable reviewer from the USA print magazine Stereophile, who is not prone to going overboard on audio equipment.   But he did with this phono stage.

A quick exchange of e-mails with the UK Distributor, Kevin Akam of Signature Audio Systems and the PS Audio Stellar Phono Stage was winging its way to me.

Meanwhile, I looked at the company’s web page and saw their various discussions on YouTube. The PS Audio Stellar was designed by Darren Myers. Despite looking a young fella he has already worked with B&W and Classe and he has an interesting approach to audio. Paul McGowen was taken with him and offered him a job.

Darren has since designed two PS Audio Class D amplifiers the M 700 and the M 1200. As they are successful, he started work on a new phono amplifier. This was in PS Audio’s middle stream of audio components, the Strata level.

Darren Myers has some interesting views on phono amplifiers.  He says if you look at the design of less expensive phono amplifiers they tend to use (cheap?) op-amps as they perform reasonably well, are inexpensive and are not too demanding on the support circuitry. He is complimentary about their sound quality. And if I am honest, he has also learnt how to damn with faint praise. For serious phono amplifiers, his preference is for circuits with discrete components. That is clear because he says it makes the phono amplifier sound better.

Many phono amplifier designers agree with him.

However, whether it was because Paul McGowen had limited the final costings or because Darren Myers wanted it, or both, Darren decided he would not use boutique components in the circuit but a mixture of excellent design and good components. Getting great audio from discrete circuits using ultra-expensive components must be easier than using brilliant design with more reasonably priced components such as the FETs used in this phono amplifier.

Speaking of design there are many ways to achieve what is needed of a phono amplifier. The RIAA stage can be achieved passively, actively or with a hybrid of the two circuits. And that can be taken further using LCR circuits. But as this not a discussion on phono amplifier design let’s just say there are some really interesting design twists in this circuit. So, what do you get?

 

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Well the PS Audio Stellar phono amplifier comes in a straightforward silver or black box. Straightforward does not mean the normal soulless square black box but this one has nicely rounded edges. At 10 kgs it is also one of the heavier phono stages I have used. It is well equipped with a nice, unique feature.

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The PS Audio Stellar can accept moving magnet and moving coil cartridges. MM inputs have 47K loading with a sensitivity of 44db (low), 50db (Medium) and 56db (High). MC inputs are switchable between 60 ohm, 100 ohm, 200 ohm and 47K ohm and a unique custom loading. MC has three sensitivities 60db (Low), 66db (Medium) and 72 dB (High). All of these adjustments are available via the remote control. Custom loading? Yes, there is a variable control to load the MC from 1-100 ohms. I have not seen that before. The outputs can be via RCA or XLRs. A very versatile phono amplifier and it has a remote control to make all those changes from the comfort of your armchair. The custom MC loading is a variable pot on the back of the amplifier and that is altered manually.  The only small issue is the adjustments can only be made via the remote control not on the amplifier (Do not lose the remote!) and the LEDs showing your selections are a little bright.

It was a simple matter to remove my Krell Reference MC phono amplifier and install the PS Audio Stellar. The Krell is my SS reference and has seen off a lot of other phono stages (valve and SS) and is very convenient to use despite using those silly DiP switches. I have also taken it to bake-offs (remember them?) and it was a rare day something was convincingly better. I know its strengths and weaknesses well.  So out goes the Krell and in comes the PS Audio Stellar into my main system. This consists of a Voyd 0.5 Ref turntable, an SME V arm, Audionote Io II cartridge, Audionote S2 SUT, the phono amplifier, an ARC Ref 5 preamp, ARC Ref 110 power amp (new KT 120s) into my Audionote Es Silver Signatures with external crossovers. I used a variety of cables from Cut Loose silver, Cardas Golden Reference, and Transparent Audio. What does it sound like?

Not what I expected.

It was better than my Krell. 

This was not a stroke the chin, try a thousand of albums on all different types of music but an easy, it is better. The overall frequency response was very level and did not emphasise any part of the spectrum. It was neutral. When I read that in a review I think, neutral and boring? Not here. The dynamics of the PS Audio Stellar were excellent. It has the overall dynamics that allows the music to go loud, fast, whilst retaining a natural balance. That is rare in a phono amplifier. But it does not stop there. The bass was tight and natural. It did not go ultra-tight which some SS phono stages do even to the point of making the music staccato. Or the alternative, a full-fat type of bass with tremendous weight but not a lot of information. This phono amplifier has a great balance where a stand-up bass has real power and weight but still allows the bass to flow. If you go into analysis mode you can tell the bass used, the type of strings played and whether the guitarist is playing ahead of the beat to add tension to the music or releasing it by playing just behind the beat. That, of course, does not come from music using Pro Tools mixing desks with their super metronomic bass of exactly 90 BPM. A robot playing music not a human being. And for classical music, when a Timpani is struck hard, you get the power of a huge drum but with enough information to tell where on the drumskin it was being struck.

I never expected that. A convincing victory to the PS Audio Stellar.

But wait, time for the big guns to come out and in this case it was the Audionote M6 Line Stage with Phono. Being honest nothing I have heard has bettered it bar the dedicated Audionote M6 RIAA. The M6 had seen off every other phono stage I have heard. That is why I bought it.

And the result? Complex!!

The Audionote produces a very natural sound and soundstage. It reproduces voices well and they sound incredibly realistic. The dynamics are very good and not ‘pumped up’ like some SS phono stages or the other extreme a lovely sound that is just nice. A lot of valve phono stages do that, lovely and nice. And the PS Audio Stellar? Well, the bass was tighter than the Audionote, the noise levels were much lower and there was a wider soundstage. The mid-range and voices were not as smooth or supernatural but the differences were not huge.  The Stellar did have a bit more top end sparkle than the Audionote. Overall, it was damn close.

I played my test albums. Firstly, Holly Cole and the Temptation album playing the track The Briar and the Rose. Wow, this was in the room realism. The acoustic bass was very realistic. You could tell how the strings were being played and the different emphases the player David Piltch was using. It can sound laconic but with the PS Audio Stellar the sound was relaxed, not slow and sluggish. And then Holly sings and she is standing in front of me through a very intimate recording. And as the track carries on, in comes a nice piece of brass playing. A brassy sound which is not over smoothed and soft or a sound that is sharp and aggressive. Yes, the AN M6 does a slightly better job with Holly’s voice but everywhere else the Stellar won the day and equalled or was slightly better the AN6 phono.

On to Paul Simon’s Negotiations and Love Songs 1971-1986 using the Mother and Child Reunion track, the entrance of the band was full-on and filled the room with the PS Audio Stellar in circuit. I was held captive by the sound and had to play the complete album; all 4 sides. I was enthralled. It was so close to the Audionotes I was surprised and for some tracks, it had a tighter bass sound. Overall, it was ahead of the Audionote all from a non-audiophile album.

Right, let’s try some real dynamics. Pink Floyd’s The Wall has a large number of crashes and bangs throughout the album. The PS Audio Stellar took to it like a duck to orange sauce. Very tasty. The Audionote was a little softer and warmer and made Roger Waters voice incredibly real and his passion came through more clearly. But the power to shock came from the PS Audio Stellar.

And so it went on album after album with the Audionote favouring classical, jazz and softer natural music a little. But the Stellar had many tricks up its sleeve with big bold music and had real power to shock. A preference…….hmmmm not really and I can see either being preferred depending on the type of sound you want or the music you like. The differences were small.

Now that is a major achievement. No, it really is.

My Audionote M6 phono line-stage has not been approached by any other phono stage or had a phono stage equal it. And the coup de grace? The AN M6 costs about £13,500-£14,000 and the PS Audio Stellar £2,500.

Yes, £2,500……..not chump change but if you want to get above the morass of competent phono stages full of op-amps then this phono stage will give you a good taste of the ultra-high-end without the heart attack-inducing  prices.

In all my reviewing I have only had one component that I called a game changer and this phono stage should be the second. But it is not, why? Well, I have been told that they have taken Darren Myers off the leash and he has designed an even better phono stage that will be released in 2021. Now that could get that title.

Oh, what the hell, the PS Audio Stellar phono stage is the second game-changer I have reviewed. It is that good. And I threw caution to the wind and bought it and I am enjoying what it is doing.

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Specifications

Unit Weight

21.6lbs. (9.8 kg)

Unit Dimensions

17”W x 13”D x 3.25”H
(43cm x 33.02cm x 8.255cm)

Shipping Weight

25.1lbs (11.4 kg)

Shipping Dimensions

22”W x 8”H x 17”D
(55.88cm x 43.18cm x 20.32cm)

Color Options

Black
Silver

Voltage Options
(Factory set only)

Japan 100V
North America 120V
Europe/Asia/Australia/New Zealand 230V

Mains Power Input

IEC C14

Idle Power Consumption

26W

Fuses

100V: T250V-2.0AH (2A Slow Blow)
120V: T250V-1.6AH (1.6A Slow Blow)
230V: T250V-1AH (1A Slow Blow)

Accessories Included

US (NEMA 5-15P) (100V/120V versions)
Schuko (CEE7/7) (230V version)
UK (BS1363) (230V version)
Remote Control

Audio Inputs

RCA (Unbalanced) MM,MC

Audio Outputs

RCA (Unbalanced) 1 Stereo Pair
XLR (Balanced) 1 Stereo Pair

DC Trigger

3.5mm 12VDC (2)

Performance

All measurements are with both channels operating,
gain set to low, and balanced outputs.
Input frequency is 1kHz.

Gain

MM: 44dB, 50dB, 56dB
MC: 60dB, 66dB, 72dB

Input Loading

MM: 47KΩ (100pF)
MC: 60Ω, 100Ω, 200Ω, 47KΩ, Custom 1-1KΩ

Output Impedance

Unbalanced <200Ω
Balanced <200Ω per leg

Frequency Response

20Hz - 20KHz +/- 0.25dB

THD

0.5V out @ 1kHz: <0.01%

Maximum Output

@1%THD: 24VRMS

Overload Margin

@1kHz: >22dB

S/N Ratio

MM: >82dB A-Weighted
MC: >74dB A-Weighted

Interchannel Crosstalk

>74dB

Power Consumption

26W

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