PS Audio Stellar Phono phono preamplifier

We usually save the question of value for the end of a review, but this time it's worth mentioning up front, if only because PS Audio has been in the news lately. Late last August, the company announced they were switching from a traditional dealer network to a factory-direct sales model. So, to some readers, it might seem fair to judge the brand-new, full-featured Stellar Phono Preamplifier ($2500) against ones selling in stores for $5000.

Then again, to speak with the Stellar Phono's talented designer, 30-something engineer and vinyl enthusiast Darren Myers, is to know that this is a product that will stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of price.

The Stellar Phono, designed and assembled in Boulder, Colorado, using globally sourced parts, is an attractive and unique-looking piece, available in both black and matte silver finishes with a curved/split front surface and a switch- free fascia. Any way you look at it, from any angle, the understated and entirely bling-free Stellar is a damn handsome, even fashionable piece of hi-fi. At 21.6lb, it's also relatively heavy—and from the looks of its sleek outer skin, the weight of the approximately 17" × 13" × 3" Stellar is mostly in its componentry, not its casework.

Apart from its rear-mounted master power switch, a pair of rear-mounted potentiometers for dialing in custom resistive loads, and its front-panel logo—I'll come back to that last one in a moment—the Stellar Phono is operated entirely from its remote handset; a series of LEDs on the front panel alerts you to the selected operating status. The handset is encased in plastic and non-illuminated, but ergonomics are good, and it's easy to use.

From the handset you can turn the Stellar Phono on and off, select MM or MC inputs—there's one pair of each—toggle through various gain settings (44dB, 50dB, and 56dB for MM cartridges, 60dB, 66dB, and 72dB for MC), and select between buttons for four preset loads—60 ohms, 100 ohms, 200 ohms, or 47k ohms—or a button that enables the above- mentioned custom-setting knobs, which range from 1 ohm to 1k ohms. There's also a Mute button that, when pressed, illuminates a red LED on the left side of the Stellar's front panel; the rest of the indicator lights are blue. The identifying labels next to the latter aren't illuminated, and the bright LEDs overwhelm the text, but it doesn't really matter because those LEDs are logically grouped, their meanings easy to remember.

120ps.bac

Around back are rear-panel–mounted, gold-plated MM and MC inputs (RCA), the latter separated by the custom loading knobs. There's also one pair each of balanced (XLR) and single-ended (gold-plated RCA) jacks. A ground lug located between the MM and MC inputs is of the useful banana jack/threaded-screw type.

Circuit details
In the manual, designer Myers both describes the design and makes some bold claims. He writes, "It is inconvenient . . . to realize that measurements don't always correlate with what we hear. Some of the most commonly used circuit topologies suffer from what I call overexposed sound—the edge transients lead with far too much high-frequency energy and the overall tonality has a grey sheen that washes out the tonal contrast. Many have claimed that this is what happens when a circuit is transparent and has low distortion. I beg to differ."

That design philosophy led Myers to implement a fully discrete circuit that doesn't rely upon high amounts of global feedback to lower distortion or increase bandwidth. "To the contrary," he writes, "[the circuits] were designed to be innately transparent and present the music with a correct display of tonal balance."

To that end, Myers designed a circuit that is "DC-coupled from input to output and doesn't contain any complementary circuits." The short signal path utilizes class-A–biased MOSFETs and JFETs. MC and MM inputs feature paralleled Toshiba JFETs, which are directly coupled to low-feedback, high-bandwidth discrete amplifiers. Each fully class-A output stage uses a single MOSFET output device; Myers says this approach produces "subjectively innocuous distortion products compared to complementary designs." The passive RIAA EQ implementation uses Wilson Audio Specialties–manufactured REL film and foil capacitors.

The designer concludes by claiming, in the manual, "I ended up with a phono preamp that always presents the music in the correct light." Of course, that's what they all say! At least those who say anything like that.

Setup and use
The well-written, informative instruction manual makes several important points, including the suggestion that, if the choice is between a long AC power cord or long interconnects, go for the long, well-shielded power cord. The instructions aren't afraid to claim "significant performance improvements" with the use of high-quality aftermarket power cords. In my view, anyone unwilling to try such a cord because they "just know" it can't possibly make a differ- ence deserves the degraded sonic performance they will get.

Upon powering up, the front-panel PS Audio logo lights up and the unit loads the default settings: "mute," "MM" and "47k ohms." Pressing either the PS Audio logo or the remote's On/Off button extinguishes the logo LEDs and puts the unit into "idle mode," which retains all of your settings and deactivates the output relays. Holding down the PS Audio logo button for more than 3 seconds will activate or deactivate the "mute" function. You can still play music even if you lose the remote! This is an extremely well- thought-out operating system, making the feature-packed Stellar a most pleasant and configurable phono preamp. At this price point, you usually get either little adjustability or the dreaded adjustment-by-DIP-switch torture. One boldface caution in the manual: "Activate idle mode before powering down your unit using the rear panel master power switch." It doesn't say why, but I assume it's to avoid a nasty "thump" through the speakers.

The instructions also offer useful load- and gain-setting guidance and advice on what to do if you hear whining, beeping, humming, buzzing, whistling, or any other kind of noising.

Darren Myers and PS Audio's Bill Leebens delivered and installed the Stellar. I think they wanted to hear how a $2500 phono preamp would perform when driven by a $200,000 front end, itself driving a bigger rig than would most likely be used by most Stellar purchasers.

Tell me something I don't already know
At the 2019 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I got a preview listen to the Stellar phono preamp in the PS Audio room. The turntable there was VPI's new HW-40 direct-drive model, combined with a VPI Fatboy tonearm ($15,000 together), on which was mounted a low-output MC cartridge. (It might have been an Ortofon A95—I forget.) The rest of the system was (of course) PS Audio electronics driving PS Audio loudspeakers. Though I was unfamiliar with much of the system, I felt by the end of the show that I could probably write the review then and there. (That's a game I often play at shows listening through unfamiliar systems to gear I'm about to review at home.)

COMPANY INFO
PS Audio
4865 Sterling Drive
Boulder, CO, 80301
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Ortofan's picture

... a subsonic filter?

Do the various EAT E-Glo hybrid phono preamps exhibit an "overexposed" sound quality with "far too much high-frequency energy" and "a grey sheen"?
Consider the Petite model that costs $1K less than the Stellar:
https://www.absolutesounds.com/pdf/main/press/HFN%20Feb%20EAT%20E-Glo%20Petite%20Reprint[1].pdf

georgehifi's picture

At least it's not a few opamps like many are, though this board looks fairy well stuffed.
https://www.analogplanet.com/images/styles/600_wide/public/0419DM.JPG

Cheers George

JRT's picture

It is not easy to exceed the performance of some of the best monolithic operational amplifiers when properly implemented in a circuit.

The now obsolete (shame on you Texas Instruments) TI / National Semiconductor LME49990 was truly excellent for many uses in audio circuits.

LME49990 datasheet:
https://upverter.com/datasheet/7cd4a4f0b32df3909631d7b5fda12936b94811b9.pdf

Jack L's picture

.....monolithic operational amplifiers when properly implemented in a circuit." quoted JRT

Chip op-amps? Thanks but no thanks.

First off, We have to know an op-amp is built up with MANY bipolar junction transistors with built in feedback loops all over.

So however immaculate measured data published only show the STATIC performance working on sine/square waves test signals in the lab. But when used in audio amps to handle music signals which are for ever fluctuating DYNAMIC complex multi harmonics. It will be another story!

The published static performance data do not show how the op-amp in question will operate with dynamic music complex harmonics at all !!!!!!!!

Logic will tell the huge number of bipolar transistor junctions & the feedback loops inside the op-amp chip the complex music harmonics have to pass through, only cause harmonic & phase distortion to the music complex harmonics, substantially compromising the music sound quality. This is physics.

My critical ears just can't tolerate the clinical sound of any op-amps. Period.

Listening is believing

Jack L
Canada

hollowman's picture

It's good to see such an extensive Measurements section for a phono component. I don't recall Stereophile ever publishing THIS many measurements before. In fact, I only recall the late Audio (USA) magazine publishing this many phono metrics in their reviews.

Jack L's picture

...... a phono component." quoted hollowman.

Measurement however "extensive" can never tell how it will sound to our ears. So let yr ears have the final say !!!!!

Jack L

Anton's picture

This review generated hobby excitement for me.

I could see this or the Mu Fi Nu Vinyl being a good foundation for a 20 year system.

davip's picture

Capacitance switching for that MM input -- an extraordinary omission for "...a product that will stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of price", particularly when money is wasted on a useless feature like remote gain-switching...

JRT's picture

Pass Labs XP-27 product marketing web page:
https://www.passlabs.com/preamplifier/xp-27

Product specifications:
https://www.passlabs.com/sites/default/files/Product_specs_17_27.pdf

Owner's manual:
https://www.passlabs.com/sites/default/files/xp-27_om_prelim.pdf

It still needs a good AD converter to get your FLAC files onto the server. I would suggest an RME ADI-2 Pro FS. It was on sale for $1499 in a few months prior to 2020, and you might still find it for that, but be sure that it is the newer FS variant. It is also a good DA converter and headphone preamplifier, so has other uses in the system.

RME ADI-2 Pro FS marketing web page on the new poorly done website:
https://www.rme-audio.de/adi-2-pro-fs.html

RME ADI-2 Pro FS marketing web page on the older and better, but now archived website:
https://archiv.rme-audio.de/en/products/adi_2-pro.php

User Manual, includes section with product specifications, and includes a section describing and showing advantages of digital volume control when properly implemented.
https://archiv.rme-audio.de/download/adi2profs_e.pdf

Glotz's picture

The Stellar is $2500.

Ortofan's picture

... short shrift in many modern preamps.

The venerable Apt Holman preamp offered adjustments for both load resistance and capacitance - plus a switchable subsonic/infrasonic filter.
https://www.kenrockwell.com/audio/apt/images/holman-preamplifier/D3S_5281-back-1200.jpg

Michael Fremer's picture

Most buyers will end up using MC cartridges. The fixed capacitance is probably fine for most MM cartridges too.

Bill Leebens's picture

...for an extraordinary, heartfelt review.

One thing I notice from most of the comments—thanks, Anton, for being the exception—-can’t we focus on what is right, rather than constantly pissing on good work? Celebrate what it is, rather than diminishing it by saying it should have been something else?

Have any of these folks ever agonized over a design as Darren did for a year, working to ensure that a brilliant prototype became an amazing piece in production??

I love audio, its designers, and the people who devote their energies, heart, and soul to it.

Armchair experts? Not so much.

Ortofan's picture

... offend you. If, in your opinion, this magazine or its website should only contain positive comments, then it becomes no more than a cheerleading section or a form of advertising.

In my several decades long experience of designing and developing products, prototype units have always been submitted for evaluation by focus groups and/or field tests. Feedback - both positive and negative - is reviewed and changes are incorporated as necessary and where feasible.

Did PS Audio conduct any outside testing? It seems as though the design was deemed complete once it met Mr. Myers "one note" criteria. Who determined the feature set for this product? Had PS Audio solicited my input, I would have suggested eliminating the remote control and including adjustable resistive and capacitive loading for fixed-coil/high-output cartridges. While the remote control selection of MC cartridge loading might constitute a 'unique selling proposition', the load only needs to be set once for any given cartridge. The unit already has separate inputs for MC and "MM" cartridges. How much more would it have cost to include a pair of switches and a few extra resistors and capacitors to enable adjustable loading for the "MM" input?

Glotz's picture

Their negativity is a result for a simple desire to be noticed.

We are all bigger than that.

Bill Leebens's picture

There are always a number of outside evaluators of proposed/new products at PS. Beyond that, I shouldn’t comment further as I’m no longer with the company.

I’ve probably already shot my mouth off wayyy too much.:-)

Catcher10's picture

For me and my Lyra Delos at 0.6mV, only need about 56-57dB to match my preamp input sensitivity. My Nova II is set at 56dB and anymore I could be over loading.
I don't understand the need for so much gain for MC carts....Starting at 60dB does me no good.

Jack L's picture

...... with a phono preamp that always presents the music in the correct light." quoted Michael Fremer.

Both JFET & MOSFET devices are nonlinear devices with transfer curves
kinked sharply, leaving the linear ohmic operation zone pretty narrow for linear music signal swings, even more nonlinear than bipolar junction transistors.

Like it or not, ONLY truly linear active device which exhibits linear transfer curves is triode vacuum tube. period.

That explains why critical ears, like yours truly's. can distinctly tell amps employing triodes only active devices sound so much more musical than solid state amps.
But please forget the measurement data which, IMO, bear little relevance, if any, to what our ears perceive.

Mind you, not all tubes are as linear. Pentodes & tetrodes are nonlinear like JFETs & MOSFETs, also with kinked transfer curves, but the ohmic linear tranfer zones there are much milder & wider than their solid states counterparts. So more musical friendly than sold state devices.

Yes, passive RIAA EQ is the better EQ topology than conventional active
RIAA EQ which employs some feedback loops across active stages.

Listening is believing

Jack L
Canada

RHM's picture

All fets used in linear amplifiers are operated in the saturation region (nearly horizontal lines), not in the ohmic region (sloped lines starting at zero), similar to the way pentode vacuum tubes are used.

The fet ohmic region is used for analog switches, not linear amplifiers.

Jack L's picture

........the saturation region (nearly horizontal lines).." quoted RHM.

If you read carefully the tranasfer curves of MOSFET. for example, the kink or the "knee" of each curve line is far from being SQUARE (which is ideal), but rounded off instead. So the sorta "horizontal lines" are hardly horizontal at all. They are tilted upward towards the right. Much much worse than a pentode or tetrode.

So designing the operation points of a FET type bipolar devices has to be very careful assuming there would not be thermal runaway during operation.

So my question: why FETs have been chosen for the amp in the first place?

Jack L

RHM's picture

Fets have an essentially square law transfer characteristic (and hence mostly second order harmonic distortion), and have especially low THD in a push-pull circuit which cancels the second harmonic.

All power devices (triodes, pentodes, fets, bipolars) have their own advantages and disadvantages; none are perfect. All types can designed into circuits which work well.

Jack L's picture

..... (and hence mostly second order harmonic distortion)" quoted RHM.

Sorry, I disagree.

Pentodes generated mostly 3rd harmonic & hiher odd harmonic distortions. Only beam tetrode, e.g. 6L6, KT66, generate mainly 2nd harmonic distortion like triodes.

Like it or not, human ears like listening to 2nd harmonic & higher even
harmonics but dislike odd harmonics.

Push-pull power output topology delivers more power but cancels out even order harmonics. Critical ears can detect it. That's why single ended
class A power output design using triodes which produce mainly 2nd & higher even harmonics pleases our ears most.

Thanks to my being addicted to analogue music (owning 1,000+ vinyl LPs), my acute ears can differentiate triode sound from beam tetrode or pentode distinctly. FET type bipolar junction devices can't even come close to any tubes sound, let alone triodes.

FYI, I design/build audios. My home-brew 2A3 single-ended Class A power amp (9W+9W) (without any loop feedback ) sounds so real musically that I just can't tolerate any other output devices. Why, because 2A3 is a filament-direct-heated triode, no other tubes, like beam tetrodes, pentrode (which are all cathode-indirect-heated) can touch musically, let alone any bipolar juncrtion devices.

Love of music + design knowledge = great music enjoyment AFFORDABLY.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Glotz's picture

"Meyers designs using a deft combination of technical knowhow and careful listening, more interested in the sonic outcome than in getting the absolute best measured performance. In my view, that's a winning combination."

rex's picture

I'm guessing that everyone here who has written insightful comments and offered expert knowledge
on hours of listening to the Stella PhonoPre is on Paul's Beta testing list or is as sharp on show demos as Mickey. Honestly the bitter vile expelled here based on WHAT listening experience? is as useful for us musical consumers who are looking for the best phono pre that we can afford, as a teaspoon is to the Titanic Crew. Mickey's reviews seem to bring out all the Know It All, Wanna, Should of, Could of's.

Armando's picture

Is this an engineering pissing contest? It sure seems like it. The review is meant to help those of us considering the purchase of this component make a decision. I would have loved to hear performance comments from anyone who has heard it.

The beauty of buying from PS Audio is that if you don't like something you return it. No hassles. Full refund and they pay for return shipping. It takes confidence in your products to have that policy.

Post what you like or don't like, and return it if you decide it's not a good fit for you. Either way, write in a way that is helpful to fellow audiophiles who are looking for feedback.

If you are angry for any reason take a Valium or wait until whatever is causing you to piss on each other goes away. If you think what you write are honest and to the point critical comments, think again.

Yes, MF's review is very positive. I'm getting my unit this week and will post what I think after a break-in period. Maybe I'll agree with MF, maybe not. I can tell you whatever I write will not include a tube diatribe.

Armando's picture

No one can pry the Stellar Phono Stage from my fingers. I may be cremated with it and spread the ashes around the mountains in Palm Springs. Does burnt metal produce ashes?

Well, you get the point. Suffice it to say that I've never heard vinyl sound so good. My reference recordings are mostly 1960's vintage Mercury Living Presence and RCA Victor Living Stereo original pressings of some very wonderful performances. I have others, including some of the ones MF used for his review. The Stellar gave them all new life.

There is no point in detailing my impressions. I agree with what MF wrote, including an initial noise. Mine was an unexplained whine upon moving the tonearm after choosing 200 ohm loading. It was solved by simply using custom loading and choosing the same loading via the controls in the back of the unit.

A comment above criticized having a remote. I, for one, love it. Switching among cartridge loadings to find the best fit is so very easy from my recliner. I can't fathom doing a proper evaluation of load settings having to get up every time to change them.

I'm still scratching my head over what MF means by a slightly overripe midrange. Perhaps the illusion came from a dream I have not shared. God only knows what MF dreams about after a night of listening in his very crowded man cave.

Otherwise, anyone looking for a superb phono preamp, at a very reasonable cost by audiophile standards, should audition the Stellar. PS Audio's return policy can't be beat or I would not have taken a chance on so many of their products, including the power plant P15, DSD DAC and BHK 250 amp.

They compliment rather nicely my Focal 1038 speakers and new generation Technics TT SL-1210GR with Lyra Delos cartridge.

Have a listen. You just might like what you hear.

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