Lyric Audio PS 10 Phono Preamplifier
One of my great deficiencies as a hi-fi guy is that even after thirty odd years in this hobby I have an especially limited scientific understanding of how my gear works. Oh, I’ve got a rough idea of what a 20Hz – 30kHz frequency response means, but I couldn’t tell you the practical differences between a triode and a pentode, only vaguely grasp impedance, and in my mind the word ‘Ohm’ conjures an image of six hippies chanting in a yurt. It’s the curse of a liberal arts degree. I should have taken a couple more STEM classes in college, but it was easier to philosophize than to calculate, and there was beer…
And yet, somehow within my hi-fi world I consistently gravitate to the audiophile’s equivalent of technical self-flagellation: vacuum tubes and LP playback. When it’s all working right both sound great, but when they’re not working right they’re both a complete pain in the ass. Anyone who’s ever cycled though a dozen EL34s in an amplifier’s No. 1 socket, trying to figure out which bottle explodes with purple flames when you throw the switch, will understand (This method, believe it or not, was suggested by Cary’s service tech and, in case you were wondering, it’s always the very last tube you plug in).
But I do love records: the triumph of finding a W. 50th St. Prestige on the back shelf of a dusty junk shop, or re-discovering some musical gem that’s been out of print for fifty years. Sure, it’s easier to plug and play a CD player or DAC, but it’s impossible to read the liner notes on an MP3, and when’s the last time you hung a CD jewel case on the wall for decoration?
And most importantly, of course, is the sound. Vinyl, at it’s best, gives me that visceral analog connection to the musicians that makes playback so compelling. Yes, there is some great sounding digital, but to my ears I’d rather listen to a chewy old monaural record than to a digital copy of the same performance almost any day of the week. There’s just a vivid rightness to it that pulls me in. I think most vinyl obsessives would feel the same way.
Needless to say, listening to all those records requires some equipment acquisitions: turntables, cartridges, cables, cleaning supplies, setup tools and of course, if you’re using separates, a phono pre-amp, which is the subject of this review.
My main turntable is a Series Three SOTA Star Sapphire with vacuum hold down, a new Jelco SA-750D tonearm, and an Audio Technica OC/9 III moving coil cartridge. Though the tonearm is a recent upgrade from an AudioQuest PT6, itself a rebadged Jelco, and I replaced my old OC/9 with the latest version late last year, this has been my basic setup for a decade or so. For that entire time, all of those items have funneled their signal to my preamp through a humble MM/MC Pro-Ject Tube Box.
For what it is – an inexpensive stand-alone phono stage – the Tube Box has been great. It’s definitely basic, but it sounds far better than it should for what it costs. Mine was around $350 ten years ago and I think they’re around $500 today, making it – with one big exception that I’ll get to in a moment – the least expensive bit of gear in my system. It’s warm, reasonably detailed (though tubey), reliable, and it’s been musically satisfying. It’s still in productions and I’d still recommend it as a great option for anyone just getting into vinyl.
Vinyl is a Lifestyle Choice (Mono Curious)
A couple of things happened over the last year that prompted an exploration of other phono stages. First, after hearing some higher buck systems I had to concede what I’d always known in the back of my head: there’s a lot more detail, dynamics, and extension to be had from a lot of my own records than I was getting out of the Tube Box. It’s certainly better than average, especially for the price, but as my system evolved over time the Tube Box wasn’t keeping pace with an improving chain.
The second thing that occurred was a spur of the moment decision to add a second turntable specifically for monaural records. By ‘spur of the moment’ I mean that I was wandering through a flea market one Saturday morning when I found a rather grungy looking but functioning Technics 1200 Mk I for a hundred bucks. It’s the earliest version of this table c. 1972 with an on-off switch instead of push buttons; knobs for pitch adjustments instead of the more familiar slider; and the old style S-shaped arm that had been held over from the 1100. By ‘grungy’ I mean the platter is badly oxidized; the hinges for the cover were and remain rusted solid; and the tonearm adjustments took several months of periodically applying penetrating oil to loosen them enough to properly set up the arm.
That all sounds terrible, I realize, but after some patience, elbow grease and proper tuning the damned thing runs like a top, with excellent speed stability despite its lack of the quartz lock. To this mess – after scrubbing it, of course - I added a few drops of bearing oil from the tube that was still in it’s clip under the platter; a thicker (and cleaner) Denon platter mat that had been lurking in my garage; a new heavyweight headshell as an attempt to add some mass to the tin tube tonearm; and a Grado ME mono cartridge with the elliptical stylus.
Total investment: $300. Improvement in monaural playback: Unbelievable!
That set up lasted about three months. In the midst of this review, I ham-handedly destroyed the Grado, which I then replaced with an Ortofon 2M mono. It’s been a bad year for cartridges. This was the second one I crushed within six months, although at least the Grado’s stylus was still attached, albeit bent at a perfectly right angle.
I can hear people thinking, ‘That seems painfully low-fi,’ to which I reply: Don’t knock it ‘til you try it. I added this deck to play my growing collection of old monaural records, not all of which are in pristine condition (you know you have a few of those too). The improvement with the monaural cartridge over a stereo pickup on those records is profound. Left and right channel noise effectively disappears leaving the mono image in the middle. It won’t erase distortions created by wear or damage, and scratches are still scratches, but residual sonic grunge is greatly reduced and contained within - and often completely buried by - the musical image. Some records that had been borderline unlistenable with a stereo cartridge sound unbelievably good played with even these two modest mono carts.
I’m fortunate to a have a first pressing of Sonny Rollins’ Newk’s Time (Blue Note BN-4001, W 63rd, No ®/No Inc. for those concerned with such things) in – shall we say – less than optimal condition. The lead-in and dead wax are noisy, but once the music starts it’s pretty much all there with only a few intermittent pops during the tracks: quite amazing really, considering the visual condition of the vinyl. On a stereo table this one would practically be a throw-away.
I’ve gained the evangelism of the converted: If you’re playing old mono records with a stereo cartridge, stop! You’re doing it wrong.
You want everything, don’t you?
With the second turntable, using the Tube Box meant having to re-wire equipment every time I wanted to switch decks, which got old pretty fast. I clearly need a second stage for the additional table. Also, I found that in my system, particularly when using the moving magnet setting, the Tube Box was a bit noisy. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s definitely there.
A conveniently fortuitous three-way email conversation between our fearless editor, Clement Perry, and Alfred Kainz of Highend-Electronics, Inc. offered an intriguing option. Alfred Kainz is the importer for – among many others - Lyric Audio of Schluchtern, Germany, and he was looking for someone to review Lyric’s PS-10 phono stage which happens to have two inputs: one MM and one MC.
With two tables on hand, a phono stage with two inputs makes a lot of sense: one power cord, one set of interconnects, one less box to stuff into an already crowded equipment rack. It sounded like something I wanted to check out and a few days later a big box showed up at my office.
And 1,400 words later we get to: The Lyric Audio PS 10 Tube Phono Preamplifier
The Lyric Audio PS 10 tube phono preamplifier - or Rohren-Phonovorverstarker, as it says on the cover of the manual - is a compact, simply styled but rugged looking, single-ended piece of equipment, 8.5” wide, half as tall, and 14” deep constructed from exterior panels of thick aluminum. Inside there are five vacuum tubes: four 12AX7s and one 12AU7 attached to a neatly laid out circuit board. Based on photos, all of the internal wiring looks to be heavy gauge and is tightly strapped in place. The transformer for the moving coil section is housed in a separate box attached to the main unit with a heavyweight umbilical cord, presumably for isolation. The IEC jack for the power cord is on the main unit. The front panel has a power switch with a red LED surround, and a second switch that allows the user to choose between the MM and MC inputs. On the back there are three pair of RCA jacks – two in, one out - a single grounding nut, and two rotary knobs to adjust MC cartridge loading. Given that the loading controls are on the back and relatively inaccessible it’s likely that the PS 10 is intended to be set-and-forget rather than the infinitely adjustable type of phono stage that has some audiophiles tweaking in real time. There are also two screened vents on the top panel for heat dissipation, though the unit never got warm to the touch. The whole thing has a very high quality feel, with solid clicks and positive snaps to the various controls. The review sample was natural silver, but I’ve also seen pictures of the PS 10 in black, which looks super-sharp. The MM/MC version under review is $4,495. There is also a version with two MM inputs, which is priced at $2,990.
What a Load!
In part, I chose the PS 10 - out of two P-Stages Alfred Kainz had available for review - precisely because it’s a fairly simple machine to operate. Having only two rotary knobs to adjust loading – one per channel – really minimizes the number of variables to work with. I correctly surmised that even a liberal arts major like myself could figure out how adjust the loading – if not scientifically, then at least by ear - until I was happy with the sound. Like most things, versatility is useful, but keeping things simple wins my day.
I started this review by admitting that I’m no technocrat, and cartridge loading in particular always seems to be one of the more arcane bits of hi-fi setup. I’ve recently tried to read up on the subject, but explanations tend to be written by engineers for engineers with gobs of impenetrable jargon. The closest I’ve come to a simple layman’s explanation came from a thread on the Lenco Heaven website which read, “A higher input impedance will shift the frequency response towards higher frequencies while a lower input impedance will emphasize lower frequencies. So if you set the impedance too low for the cartridge it could sound dull, set it too high and it could sound too bright.” That I understand, though I’m sure it’s a gross oversimplification. Nevertheless, with this bare minimum explanation in hand, I plugged it all together and went to work.
Magnets and Coils, Oh Boy!
I’ll start with the Moving Magnet section, because it’s the simplest part. The PS 10 comes from the factory with the MM section pre-set to an input impedance of 50 Ohms, which is not adjustable with the exterior controls. However, if the user has other specific MM requirements Lyric can provide internal plug-ins to achieve the necessary fine-tuning. As is, this section is set up to accommodate the vast majority of moving-magnet cartridges and it worked very nicely with my now deceased Grado, and even better with the Ortofon.
On the moving-coil section there are six loading options ranging from 50 to 1000 Ohms at intervals. The PS 10’s manual states that 100 Ohms, in the number 2 switch position, will be suitable for most applications. The specification for my Audio Technica OC/9 III recommends a minimum load impedance of 100 Ohm, so this would have seemed to be the appropriate place to start. I played around with the loading on a variety of different records, doing A-B comparisons on the same tracks just to see what the sonic differences would be. I narrowed it down to two options, and eventually decided that I universally preferred the 250-Ohm switch in the number-three position with my cartridge. It had the best top to bottom balance with appreciably more air and shimmer than the 100-Ohm setting. On the title track of Bobby Timmons Easy Does It that audible air – diminished a hair at 100 Ohms - added discernable stage depth and more pronounced decay on the cymbals without over-cooking it into a hot tizzy mess.
Although cartridge loading as a subject still seems somewhat mysterious, as a practical matter the PS 10 made it pretty simple using that tried and true method: I followed the directions and listened.
Schluchtern, we’re playing records
As I started to listen to the PS 10 – right after ‘gee, this thing sounds nice’ - there were a few things that stood out.
First, despite the presence of five glass bottles under the hood, this is not an especially tubey sounding piece of equipment. In my system, which is reasonably well balanced despite being all tubed and point-to-point wired, the PS 10 sounded far more detailed and natural than soft or bloomy. And precisely because my kit is all tubed, those qualities proved to be a fine match. The hazard of adding ill-conceived tubes over more tubes is sonic mush. That was not at all the case with the PS 10. It did the things you want a new piece of equipment to do, pulling out previously unheard elements in the music in a most musical way. Clarity and transparency are abundant, certainly with high-quality stereo recordings played through the AT moving coil, but also very much so with old mono records played with Ortofon moving magnet. I’m not going to pretend my system is solid-state neutral, it’s all tubed and there’s no getting around that, but the PS 10 actually made it sound a little less so and that proved to be a solid match: a neutral arbiter, if you will, in a good way.
Second, The PS 10 has really good bass: appropriately taut and well defined. Plucked bass fiddles have a woody ‘Thwap!’ and pretty much any record I played sounded weightier and more completely filled out on either turntable. The added depth made most recordings sound more muscular and powerful when called for. I’m not suggesting in any way that the bass was overblown, it was just more completely realized. The PS 10’s bass added gravitas!
This was definitely true with big-butt pop music - Us3’s Flip Fantasia had the subwoofer bouncing around the room - but it also made an appreciable difference on the acoustic jazz recordings that make up the bulk of my listening. Duane Tatro’s Jazz for Moderns (Contemporary 1956) offers a good demonstration. The star of this date is the arrangements and for a mid-fifties jazz recording there is very little improvisation. While not an especially bass-heavy date, the bass that is there is particularly well recorded (by the Wizard in the Warehouse Roy DuNann). What this record does have is a lot of really complicated dissonant instrumental chord structures employing the baritone saxophones and the upright bass as a foundation. The PS 10’s ability to go deep gave those passages more oomph and authority, enhancing the scale of the sonic image. The bass truly carried the rest of music on it’s back, making it all more lifelike and – yes – dramatic!
Finally, while I found the PS 10 to be very neutral top to bottom, it is also quite lively. Treble is really extended and natural sounding, and it transformed many recordings into more rousing musical events in the way that keeps you up until 3 AM to hear just one more record. It really delivered the energy of performances, with a palpable sense of pace and drive. If a record swings it really swings with the PS 10.
I can’t come to work, I have mono
Since I went into such a lengthy explanation of my new/old, dedicated monaural table, we should delve into moving magnet listening with the PS 10.
At their best, old mono records will recreate a soundstage almost as wide between the speakers as a stereo image, but with one big difference: Instruments on a stereo recording will be spaced across the stage, while instruments on a mono recording are layered over each other right in the middle. As a recreation of a live event, either is valid. I’ve been to plenty of concerts where, depending on the room, the sound hits my ears sounding more like a mono recording, with everything seemingly emanating from one general vicinity. On the other hand I’ve also been to plenty of concerts – particularly in big symphony halls - where the sound is more stereophonic. Like I said, both are valid.
Now, allowing that both the Grado Mono SE or the Ortofon 2M Mono are really inexpensive cartridges, and they may not be frequently paired with a $4500 phono stage, they’re still notable for the things they do right and the role the PS 10 has in delivering that sonic goodness. I collect old jazz records, often in their original monaural pressings. I know these records well and I was surprised just how good the PS 10 could make them sound with such modest cartridges: lots of texture; tone colors, especially with the Ortofon; similarly deep and articulate bass; and just a ton of grip on the music. In essence, all the qualities that were in evidence with a more refined moving coil cartridge were very much in evidence with lower end moving magnets. The PS 10 made both of them look like superstars, taking records I already loved and bringing the musicians back to life more thoroughly than I expected. Nice trick!
Dollars and Sense
At $4500.00 the Lyric PS 10 is not an inexpensive piece of equipment, especially for a phono stage with a simplified set of adjustments. Many comparably priced p-stages – as well as some that are significantly less expensive - offer more fine adjustments. Obsessive audiophiles who insist on the ability to make continuous, miniscule real-time adjustments may want to keep looking.
I’d make a different case for the PS 10. Features for the sake of having them aren’t necessarily a good value if you don’t use them. Putting higher quality into the things that are really necessary – flexible MC cartridge loading in this case - instead of adding gingerbread that most people won’t mess with is the better value equation. Once I figured out where my cartridge sounded best I never touched it again except to switch between inputs.
After spending time with the PS 10 I believe that’s what we’ve got here. The PS 10 has distilled the most important elements of phono adjustment into an effective, easy to use package. Sure, there are some esoteric cartridges that might not be perfectly served by this phono stage, but I’d wager that in most systems, with the vast majority of cartridges on the market today, the PS 10 would be as much phono stage as most people ever use or need, especially because it really does sound terrific.
Then there’s that second input, which effectively gives the user two phono-stages in one. That feature is not exactly rare among today’s phono stages, but it’s also not nearly as common as it aught to be. If you’re running two turntables the benefits are clear. Simple push-button table changes aside, you’ve only got to deal with one box with just one power cord and one output cable. With the current prices of wires, those things alone could easily represent a savings of a grand or more over running two separate components, and there’s definitely value in that.
And of course, in an era when some of the print rag’s analog gurus boast of using $75,000 (!) phono stages, the PS 10 seems like a much more sensible proposition: Still pricy by the standards of the uninitiated masses, but not especially so in the world of high end audio.
Whether any product is a good value is always a calculation that readers will need to do themselves, but the PS 10 makes a pretty good case for itself. It’s clearly got the performance bases covered, it’s easy to use and it’s built to a high standard. If you’re running more than one table, you’re thinking of doing so sometime in the future, or - let’s be honest here – if you’re looking for an justification to sell your better half on the idea, having a p-stage that makes an additional table a plug-and-play proposition is really handy. Be sure to consider the savings on the ancillaries when you make your pitch (But Honey, think of the bread we’ll save on cables!). The price of the PS 10 – while not inexpensive - doesn’t seem especially egregious.
One Small Quibble and a Couple of Additional Notes
Grounding: The PS 10 is a great sounding, well made piece of kit. But in terms setting it up and using it I did have one very minor complaint. In a p-stage with two inputs it would have been nice to have a separate grounding nut for each input. It was a little awkward getting grounding wires with two different sized spades onto a single nut. But again, this is a really minor quibble on an all around excellent piece of hardware.
Tubes: I would have liked to explore tube rolling with this unit. I was unable to ascertain from any of the accompanying literature what brand of tubes the PS 10 is delivered with, and I didn’t open the case while it was here. Come to think of it, the tube types aren’t even listed in the operating manual. I eventually found that information on High-End Electronics’ website. I’ve had great results using NOS tubes in my other gear, including my humble Tube Box, and as good as the PS 10 sounds fresh from the factory, I’d be willing to bet that a good set of old Bugle Boy or Mullard bottles might enhance it further still. According to the Alfred, Lyric is very careful in choosing their tubes to ensure quiet operation, and based on my time with it I believe that. But Lyric also doesn’t object to their customers experimenting a little. Personally, if I owned one I wouldn’t be able to resist trying it just to see how the sound would be impacted.
Noise: No one ever accused the Cary V12R power amp of delivering so called ‘jet black backgrounds’ and mine is no exception. There is always just a little bit of hiss if you put your ear right next to the tweeter. Notwithstanding, the PS 10 did not add any additional noise to my system leading me to believe that it is – in fact - a very quiet piece. Noise always seems to be the bugbear of phono stages and the PS-10 does quite well here.
You Have Reached the End of The Record
I’ve really enjoyed my time with the Lyric Audio PS 10. I loved that it proved to be relatively easy to set up – liberal arts major proof, if you like – and the convenience of a second input simply can’t be beat in a two-table system.
Build quality is refined and every component appears to have been assembled with exceptional care from very high quality parts and milled casework. It’s appearance and tactile feel are a pleasure to use and commensurate with its price.
The PS 10 also reproduces as much detail as I’m likely to get from either of my cartridges, particularly the Audio Technica OC/9 III. Its bass reproduction is excellent and solid enough that it’s almost un-tube like, yet imaging retains that lovely 3D quality that tubes do so well. I did not hear any sonic faults in my system. Simply, it’s a great sounding phono stage.
The PS 10 is no wallflower, that’s for sure. If any piece of electronic equipment could have a personality the PS-10 would be confident and outgoing, exciting and even vivacious (scraping the barrel for adjectives with that last one). Some equipment seems to go out of its way not to attract attention to itself. This thing wants to be heard, and in the best way possible! Check it out!
Chanel equality: +/- 0.1 dB
RIAA MM: +/- 0.2 dB from 20Hz to 30kHz
RIAA MC: +/- 0.8 dB from 20 Hz to 30kHz
SNR MM @ 5mV 78 dC (A)
SNR MC @ .5mV 75 dB (A), 100 ohms
Reinforcing MM: 51 dB
Reinforcing MC: 67 dB
Impedance MM: 5o ohms / 100 pF (nominal)
Impedance MC: 50, 100, 250, 500, 750, 1000 ohms
Power Cons: 30VA max
Voltage: 115 VAC or 230 VAC /50 Hz – 60Hz
Tube Types: 4 x 12AX7; 1 X 12AU7
Fuse: T1.6 (115 VAC)
Dimensions PS 10: 215mm x 103 mm x 365 mm
Dimensions Power: 125mm x 90 mm x 204 mm
Weight: 6 kg
Weight Power: 1.8 kg.
Warranty Mech: 3 years limited
Warranty Tubes: 1 year limited
Price: MM/MC $4,495; MM/MM $2995.
Highend-Electronics, Inc. Alfred Kainz
19593 Roanoke Road
USA – Apple Valley, CA 92307
Phone +1 (760) 4902410