PS Audio Stellar Phono phono preamplifier Page 2

What I heard at home more or less confirmed what I heard at RMAF (though the home experience was considerably better than the already fine performance I heard under typically lousy show conditions)—that is, once the "whining, beeping, buzzing" issues had been solved. That's not a product indictment! It's more about Myers's "no compromise" design philosophy, which is well documented in the instruction manual: As I immediately discovered, and as Myers and Leebens also heard, the Stellar is extremely sensitive to grounding, ultralow-capacitance cables, RF, and other kinds of interference.

High-quality, well-shielded cables and careful cable positioning and grounding solved every issue I encountered, including an alarming "whistle" when I tried Luminous Audio's super-low–capacitance interconnects (which I really like!) between the VPI HW-40 and the Stellar Phono. (Substituting Analysis Plus Silver Oval, which I also really like in spite of its being less open on top, solved the problem.) I also encountered motor noise pick up using the SAT CF1-09 tonearm's hard-wired cables—adjusting cable placement cleared that up—and buzzing that I solved by running a ground wire from the VPI's ground lug to the Stellar Phono's. My point: If you audition this phono preamp and run into these issues, don't fret and don't blame the Stellar. They are solvable.

But is it worth going to all that trouble?

As I mentioned above, what I heard at the show was confirmed by what I heard at home: The midrange on this phono preamp is as open, uncongested, transparent, and revealing as that of any phono preamp I've heard at any price.

How's that for a "pull quote"? But it's true, not hyperbole, and I stand by it. In the midrange department, the Stellar Phono is the darTZeel of phono preamplifiers. Considering the price differential, that's saying a lot!

Because of its openness, transparency, and freedom from midband congestion, the Stellar did tell me some things I didn't already know, on many recordings. Small, subtle-though-significant things that surprised me. Sure, it could have just been slight frequency anomalies compared to my reference electronics. (John Atkinson's measurement will be interesting, footnote 1).

As I played more favorite records, I kept hearing familiar things with a slightly different twist—like putting the accent in a different place on a familiar word or seeing a familiar object from a slightly different perspective. Not what I was expecting from a modestly priced phono preamp.

120ps.2

At RMAF, I played the test pressing of the first movement of the upcoming Bruckner Symphony No.7 recording with Bernard Haitink conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, and the crowd sat through the entire movement, clearly enthralled (despite the noise outside the room) by the recording's insane transparency, three-dimensionality, textural delicacy, and airiness. The string sound is to die for, and the Stellar captured and unleashed all of it.

At home, using the Ortofon Anna Diamond cartridge on the SAT arm, the result was sensational and fully corroborated Myers's claim that his design was "innately transparent and present(s) the music with a correct display of tonal balance." It did that and more. The brass on the Bruckner was equally glorious, sacrificing none of its "bite" in service of string tone.

Nor was transient performance diminished. Through the Stellar Phono, the Dave Rawlings Machine's all-analog, string-driven (acoustic guitars, mandolin, fiddle, and string section) Nashville Obsolete (Acony ACNY-1512LP) delivered all of what I assume producer David Rawlings intended, especially in terms of the clean, shiver-inducing acoustic guitar transients.

The Side One closer, "The Trip," is a very long, "Desolation Row"–like (or "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"–like) downer tune that climaxes with a furious (though intensely pleasing) onslaught of acoustic strings that the Stellar delivered with full transient clarity and instrumental separation while never turning it mushy or hard. It got this just right. I wish Mr. Rawlings could hear his production through this system, with this phono preamp. The RMAF attendees did, and one came up to me and said, "That was long, repetitive, and seemed to go on forever, but once 'locked in,' I couldn't not listen." Exactly.

Yet when I switched to Joel Ross's new mallet-driven Blue Note release, King Maker (Blue Note B003046301), the vibraphone's round, bell-like transients weren't softened or diminished in intensity, nor was the decay shortchanged.

When Darren Myers visited my home, I played him some things that he was unfamiliar with, like the Move's rousing "Tonight," from the UK compilation California Man (Harvest SHSP 4035), which features masses of strummed acoustic guitars, electric slide guitar, joyous vocal harmonies, and a rousing, slamming finale. Through lesser phono preamps it can sound congealed, confused, cacophonous, and "meh"—or worse, it can sound harsh, as the hard strums can turn edgy. Not so through the Stellar Phono.

I also played, for Myers and Leebens, "Transfusion" from John Renbourn's Sir John Alot . . . (UK Transatlantic TRA 167), which features one of the most transparent and pristine recordings of a glockenspiel you'll ever hear, along with finger cymbals and various exotic drums accompanying Renbourn's guitar, all set in three-dimensional relief against a black background. "Insane!" Myers exclaimed. And that it was, though through lesser gear it can sound bland and very sane, or disappointingly coarse and edgy.

This is one of the records that, upon hearing it for the first time through the original SAT CF1-09, got me to drain the bank account for that very expensive tonearm. The $2500 Stellar Phono did not diminish the experience.

Dynamics and bass extension
The Stellar's portrayal of microdynamics, the small shifts in volume that let music breathe, left little to be desired. The Stellar got that part so right, especially noticeable on the aforementioned Bruckner.

The Stellar gave way somewhat on macrodynamic expression and "slam," yielding to the far costlier phono preamps here (costing up to 20 times as much) on ultimate bottom- end extension and grip—something you'll only notice and/ or miss if your system has full or near-full bottom-end extension and grip. The Stellar's bottom end was, however, very well-extended, well-focused, forceful, and not at all wimpy.

While I thoroughly enjoyed through the Stellar the double 45rpm Mobile Fidelity "One Step" edition of Monk's Dream by the Thelonious Monk Quartet (UD1S2-011), especially Charlie Rouse's jagged sax riffs, when I switched back to one of my references (the CH Precision P1/X1) I heard the slam, crackle, and sizzle of Frankie Dunlop's drum kit that the Stellar somewhat diminished—but not to where I noticed it until I made the change.

Even on Tyler, the Creator's highly entertaining and well-crafted album Igor (Columbia 19075965221), where the synth bass is probably wider than it is deep, the Stellar lost a bit to the far more costly references, more in terms of weight than extension. But until the swap I didn't feel as if anything on bottom was lacking.

I could cite a half-dozen more references to jazz, rock, chamber, and symphonic music I listened to through the Stellar Phono over the weeks I had it in the system, using it with the Continuum Caliburn turntable/SAT CF1-09 tonearm, the HW-40 turntable/Fatboy tonearm, and, at the very end, the Air Force One Premium/Graham Elite combo—all far beyond the Stellar's pay grade. But, rather than go through that list, I'll just reiterate and certify as true what Myers said in his manual note: "(The Stellar is) innately transparent and present(s) the music with a correct display of tonal balance."

Conclusion
I spent a great deal of time listening to and enjoying this $2500 phono preamp—not enjoying it "for the price" but just enjoying listening to music, oblivious to its price and that of the product it stood in for, be it the Ypsilon VP100 (silver edition) phono preamp/MC16LSUT step-up transformer combination or the CH Precision P1 phono preamplifier/X1 power supply combination, both of which cost more than 20 times as much.

I left the Stellar Phono in the system far longer than needed for me to draw conclusions, because I found listening to it pleasurable, particularly its midrange clarity, transparency, textural and tonal richness, and accurate and generous spatial performance. It's a preamp you want to listen to.

With up to 72dB of gain, >74dB A-weighted S/N ratio, and unlimited loading options, the Stellar should partner well with any MC cartridge out there now and probably ever.

Aside from the aforementioned areas where it falls somewhat short of the best out there, were there any other sonic areas worth criticizing? I have to reach to find anything, but I'll say that the midrange might be slightly over ripe, though its transparency and freedom from congestion mitigate that as an issue. In the PS Audio room, using a cartridge that would normally load at 60 or 100 ohms, we found 200 ohms sounded best, and that's what I found at home as well. I'd say unless you like really rich and ripe, you're better off pairing the Stellar with a neutral or even a lean, not-rich– sounding cartridge. Myers used among his references the Ortofon A90—one of my favorites, so I used that for some listening and found it to be a fabulous combo (loaded at 200 ohms)—but so was the Stellar Phono when paired with the Lyra Atlas SL and with less costly cartridges like the $1800 Goldring Ethos.

I recommend a listen to the Stellar to anyone in the market for a new phono preamp, regardless of price. I don't think I've ever written that before. Like darTZeel's clever engineer Hervé Delétraz, Myers 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 approach.


Footnote 1: As you can see in the measurements section, JA called the RIAA response "superbly accurate."
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.

JenniferMartin's picture

Thanks, Michael. Great review. I just ordered the Stellar. Can't wait to get it!
By the way, the Renbourn wasn't Transfusion, it was Forty-Eight with the glock, finger cymbals, etc.

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