Recently, iFi Audio, a companion company to British ultra-high-end equipment provider Abbingdon Music Research (AMR), has made a name for itself with lines of affordable DACs, headphone amps, small music systems, and the subject of this review: the Micro iPhono2 phono stage ($499 USD). But its utility extends far beyond simply adding phono capability to an amplifier.
The Micro iPhono2 will be particularly valuable to the record archivist. Whenever an LP is mastered, some sort of equalization is applied to it -- usually, the bass level is reduced, to decrease lateral modulations in the groove (to make the groove easier for the stylus to track without damaging the groove), and the highs are increased (to overcome surface noise). It’s therefore important that, on playback, the phono stage apply to the signal from the cartridge a degree of equalization that boosts the lows and cuts the highs to the same, complementary degrees, to theoretically return the signal to its original state. However, in the early days of the LP, from the late 1940s to the mid-’50s, many labels had their own ideas about what those two sets of equalizations should be. One website I found lists nearly every curve ever applied to discs, from the beginning of recording until 1964: 44 in all!
In the LP era (post-1948), three curves matter most. Columbia/CBS, inventors of the LP, had their own curve in the early days; London/Decca had their own until the 1970s; RCA was an early adopter of the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) curve, which for at least the last 35 years has been the industry-wide standard. Also, there are two curves designed for the latest discs: eRIAA, which iFi describes as being for recordings “with excessive phase shift and high-frequency rolloff”; and two iterations of the newer IEC curve. So if you’re a serious collector of old LPs and 45s, the iPhono2 will be a helpful aid that should correctly EQ almost any recording you have.
Of course, such versatility means little if a phono stage’s basic circuitry is substandard. iFi has used developments from its colleagues at AMR to give the iPhono2 some attributes formerly found only in high-priced phono stages. The Micro iPhono2 supplants the Micro iPhono, and iFi says that the new model includes a number of improvements. The iPhono2’s higher-voltage power supply raises the overload margin by 4dB, which iFi claims permits the playing of Telarc’s early digital recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with real cannon, originally released on LP in 1979, and which often overloads even the best phono stages.
iFi also uses what they call a “Class A TubeState” circuit for the iPhono2’s gain circuits. With this, they attempt to reproduce the sound of a class-A tubed circuit with solid-state electronics. Such a quest is not new: engineer, designer, and audio enfant terrible Bob Carver took his own approach to tube sound in some of his solid-state amps of the 1980s and ’90s. The general line of thought is that the distortion audible in tubed circuits is largely caused by the “sweeter,” even-order (second and fourth) harmonics, while solid-state circuits’ distortion is caused by the harsher-sounding, odd-order (third and fifth) harmonics. To mimic tube sound, some designers have simply added more even-order distortion to their products.
iFi, on the other hand, uses a junction-field-effect transistor (JFET) and a bipolar transistor class-A buffer. JFETs have the advantage of looking to a circuit like a very-high-impedance tube, so the circuit has the near-zero load of a tube’s grid output. They claim that the result “is a sound that combines the best features of tube sound (lack of grain, edginess and naturalness of sound) with the best of modern solid state (low distortion, low noise).”
The iPhono2 will work with moving-magnet or moving-coil cartridges, selectable via DIP switches on its bottom panel. Be advised: The switches are labeled in tiny type, on both the unit itself and on the setup sheet. Among other improvements, iFi says that the iPhono2’s noise levels are lower than the iPhono’s by 5dB for MC cartridges, and by 10dB for MMs. Those are big numbers! In addition, the iPhono2 offers excellent accuracy for the RIAA curve: +/-0.2dB, 20Hz-20kHz. Its A-weighted dynamic range is specified as 111dB for MC cartridges, 106dB for MMs -- both exceptionally good figures.
The Micro iPhono2 was connected to the Line 1 input of the Rogue Audio RP-1 preamplifier. Feeding the iPhono2 was my Dual CS5000 turntable and tonearm with Shure M97xE cartridge. The rest of the system is detailed at the end of this review.
Setting up a Micro iPhono2 can be a bit daunting. It’s best to follow iFi’s setup instructions and take it slowly. A brief description:
The Micro iPhono2 is a small device measuring only 2.6”W x 1.1”H x 7.1”L and weighing just under 10 ounces. At one end are four RCA input jacks and a grounding thumbscrew. Connect your turntable’s output to the proper input for the type of cartridge you’re using: MM or MC. Select and set the proper gain level with the DIP switches. For instance, my Shure M97xE is a fairly high-output model, so I left the MC DIP at its default position of left, or Off, for 36dB of gain. For a low-output MC, you’d slide the MC switch to the right and the “+12dB” DIP switch to the right, or On.
Next, you choose the proper loading for your cartridge. For MMs, this will usually involve selecting the proper capacitance (marked “pF”). Every cartridge’s capacitance is different; usually, your cartridge’s user’s guide will let you know. The process is complicated and could take up several long paragraphs. I advise careful study of the setup guide.
Select and set the EQ curve. In most cases, the applicable DIP switches can be left at their default settings, with eRIAA to the right and IEC to the left. The three main curves are selected with the small toggle switch on the iPhono2’s output end: the upper position applies the Columbia curve, the middle the RIAA, and the bottom the Decca/London. Connect the power supply, and then the iPhono2 itself to your amplifier. You’re ready to spin some LPs.
After some days of casual background use, my first choice for serious listening was “Lucretia’s Reprise,” from Blood, Sweat & Tears’ 3 (Columbia KC 30090). This track features a lot of rapid, staccato brass and throbbing, percussive bass and drums. Even using the various EQ curves available on the iPhono2, this is not the liveliest recording I’ve ever heard. But it was reproduced well, with every detail present and accounted for. And it cooked! David Clayton Thomas’s rough voice came through with every rasp in place. Couldn’t have asked for better.
Another track with a lot of percussive accompaniment is “You Can Call Me Al,” from Paul Simon’s Graceland (Warner Bros. 1-25447). In this superb recording, there’s lots of “air” around Simon and the other musicians -- and lots of transients, all of which came through very well. The depth and width of the soundstage were exceptional, with Simon well out front, and the band and backing singers holding down stable spots somewhat behind.
I love “Finally Found a Reason,” from Art Garfunkel’s Fate for Breakfast (Columbia JC 35780), for the clarity and ethereal quality of his singing. The iPhono2 gave this track a neatly nuanced sound with about ten layers of depth: Garfunkel, each of the backing vocalists, Louie Shelton’s acoustic guitar, the Rhodes keyboard, bass and drums, and lots of echo on the voices, guitar, and Rhodes. Yet in the end, it all cohered. I was most impressed!
The title track of Baubles, Bangles and Beads, a 1958 album by the Kirby Stone Four (Columbia CL 1211), gave me the opportunity to try the Columbia EQ curve to see what difference it made to the sound. It turned out to be slightly “fatter” sound -- a bit more lower midrange, a bit fewer highs -- than with the RIAA curve. With RIAA, the sound was a bit brighter but with hollow mids. The Columbia setting made it sound like really good AM radio from the 1950s: solid, meaty, full -- probably as the album’s producer intended!
Mel Tormé and Buddy Rich’s Together Again -- for the First Time (Gryphon G-903) brought me back to a more modern time -- the late 1970s -- and a more modern sound. Their recording of “Bluesette” offered up a very good soundstage: Rich dead center, Tormé a bit off to the right and out front, and the big band spread from left to right behind them. During his drum break, Rich shows the chops for which he was noted, and the transients were impressive. Tormé’s voice was smooth as velvet and sounded fabulous.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s classic Time Out (Columbia PC 8192) was released in 1959, but my copy was pressed in the 1980s; as near as I can tell, it follows the RIAA curve. Like the rest of the tracks, “Three to Get Ready” is recorded in crude early-stereo style: sax and drums all the way to the left, piano and double bass all the way to the right, nothing in the middle. But it was recorded in one of the all-time great studios, Columbia’s 30th Street facility, in New York City, and has gobs of natural reverberation. The attack of Joe Morello’s brushes on the snare were virtually perfect. Eugene Wright digs extra deep on his double bass. Paul Desmond’s alto sax sounded as good as I’ve ever heard it -- what a smooth, faultless sound he had -- and Brubeck’s piano was deeply dosed with room echo, sounding as if he and it were suspended in mid-air.
The acoustic guitar’s sound on the Garfunkel cut made me want to hear how a real guitar master sounded through the Micro iPhono2: the late Andrés Segovia. I have an LP on which he plays the Gigue in A Minor from J.S. Bach’s Three Pieces for Lute (American Decca DL 710167). Segovia’s fingering still amazes, and every detail from every plucked string seemed to surround me. The recording was well done and perfectly reproduced, down to this record’s extremely quiet background.
Manhattan Transfer has always been one of my top picks for amazing vocal qualities. On Vocalese (Atlantic 81266-1), they perform jazz masterworks with fitting lyrics by Jon Hendricks, and one of my favorites is Clifford Brown’s “Sing Joy Spring.” This is a fast-paced performance with lots of quickly sung words that, through some systems, sound smeared and not quite intelligible. That wasn’t the case with the iPhono2. Each word came through distinctly -- even those sung by guest artist Hendricks, who, at 64 when the recording was made, perhaps slurred a little more than he did in the ’50s, with Lambert and Ross. The sound was totally musical, especially the trumpet solo (Clifford Brown’s instrument) from jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. His distinctive playing style was masterfully reproduced.
Comparison: iFi Micro iPhono2 to Rogue RP-1
In my review of Rogue Audio’s RP-1 ($1695), I went gaga over its phono section, selecting it as superior to my longtime reference, the Linn Majik 1P. But in this comparison, the Rogue is up against a worthy adversary.
I decided to put the two models to a fearsome test: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, as performed with real cannon by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, from that 1979 Telarc LP (Telarc DG-10041). On the disc itself, one can see the modulation of the groove when the cannon fire. Telarc warns that the cannon are recorded “at a very high level”; one observer calculated that this level was 160dB at the microphone positions. Back in the day, audio stores always had a copy of this LP, to demonstrate the tracking ability of various cartridges; it made the reputation of Shure’s V15-II, which was one of the few models that could track the passage without shooting the arm off the record. And when it did and the volume was turned up with this recording, many amplifiers blew fuses (or output stages), and many speakers needed new drivers.
Both the RP-1 and the Micro iPhono2 offer multiple settings for gain and cartridge loading. The iFi offers a bit more of both -- not to mention those multiple EQ curves -- but similar signal/noise ratios and dynamic ranges are claimed for both. A little fiddling with my Dual-Shure rig -- a slight increase in tracking pressure, a slight decrease in antiskating -- and I could play the 1812 LP loudly enough that I feared for my woofers.
Between these two phono stages, it was a draw -- and that’s no small praise for the iPhono2. Both handled the overload of the cannon in a fine fashion, with no strain or distortion. Both handled the less conspicuous aspects of the recording very, very well. Both offered fine soundstage width and depth, with the orchestra spread nicely. Both faithfully reproduced the orchestra, as well as the natural sound of Cincinnati’s Music Hall. And both won my highest regard, respect, and affection.
From my very first experience with iFi Audio’s Micro iPhono2, it demonstrated three highly desirable characteristics: 1) “black” backgrounds, with virtually no hiss or noise, which made possible 2) a remarkably wide dynamic range that seemed able to handle any recording I threw at it without strain; and 3) fabulous articulation -- a precision and detail not often heard, and without the dry, clinical sound that sometimes accompanies them. All of this can also be said of the Rogue Audio RP-1.
From most listeners, the Micro iPhono2 will be overkill -- few of us need its various equalization curves, particularly the obsolete ones. But if you collect old LPs or are an inveterate fiddler, consider adding an iPhono2 to your system. Ditto if you need a high-quality phono stage to add to your phono-free amplifier.
I highly recommend the iFi Micro iPhono2. It’s a great-sounding, versatile phono stage that should satisfy the desires of discriminating vinylphiles. It’s fairly priced, beautifully built, and a fitting accompaniment to any high-quality audio system.
. . . Thom Moon
- Record player -- Dual CS5000 turntable and tonearm, Shure M97xE cartridge
- Preamplifier -- Rogue Audio RP-1
- Power amplifier -- NAD C 275BEE
- Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer
- Analog interconnects -- Dayton Audio, Linn Silver, Straight Wire Chorus
- Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research 14-gauge
iFi Audio Micro iPhono2 Phono Stage
Price: $499 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
iFi Audio (USA)
5007C Victory Blvd. #403
Yorktown, VA 23693