Beta Test Impressions for New Stellar Phono Preamp!

The JC3 JR is a great ss phono pre, it was the last one I had after testing 6 phono pres in the last 2 years. I settled on the Wodwright PH 9.0 I should of paid more attention to this forum and became a beta tester as I was for Dan and the PH9.0 I really enjoy the tubes on the analog signal chain

Yeah - I currently have a (3)AX7 phono section, but this puppy is better in a whole lot of ways. While not being tubed, it sounds like it could be, and is in fact an analog device. I also preferred it in my system to the regular JC3.

After several class A, double mono or not, discrete or chip, tube phono stages of several price levels and combinations of those specs I also finally arrived back at discrete Class A, double mono in this case. Before that I also preferred tube ones. But indeed it’s (rarely) possible that a class A solid state combines tube like holography and energy/lifeliness with the much lower noise floor and channel separation of the solid state. Great if the reasonably priced Stellar does it similar, too!

OK, I’m back, after my usual evening listen of ~90 minutes and 2 beers. I played some more LPs, of course, and tried to keep my note-taking to a minimum. (Forgive me, but I used to be an editor.)

Hey, now. This SPP is starting to impress me (and, naturally, I’m trying to lean against any expectation effect. [Er, right!]).

But the last thing I played (yeah, after 2 good, high-ABV beers, so factor that in, please) was a wretched sound production that I dearly love: HISTORY OF OTIS REDDING, which has the confession in the upper right corner of the front cover that, yes, sadly, it’s fake stereo.

But the songs! OK, specifically, side B, cuts 3 through 6. They impressed me. Keep in mind, please, that, with the JC3 Jr., I was able to override the rechanneled schmutz by pressing the MONO button. Anyway, B3 and B4 are my favorite Otis! And the SPP had me jubilating! Yeah, it was suboptimal that the amazing voice of Otis Redding was trapped in my right speaker.

Sometimes, the bad LPs have to be listened to. And enjoyed. And the SPP certainly let me do that tonight. On DAY ONE of being in my hifi. Not even 6 hours after being hooked up.

I’m trying to maintain some dignity here and not drink the KoolAid, but, damn, it’s sounding mighty fine already. And with suboptimal source material.

Related, to Paul or Darren or anybody who would care to answer: Are there easy to reveal reasons why the SPP did NOT include a MONO switch?

Best to y’all, Chaz

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Beautiful table. What is it?

A new phono stage was the furthest thing from my mind, but when I heard Darren give a talk about the new phono stage he was working on at a Colorado Audio Society meeting that PS Audio hosted a while back the hook was set. Fast-forward to the present and I couldn’t resist signing up for the beta program to test drive his creation. Vinyl hasn’t been my main focus for the past decade or so, as getting the digital source squared away has been the primary objective – which hasn’t been easy given the speed at which the tech has been evolving. So this is a good excuse to re-focus.

Spoiler Alert: The Stellar phono stage is an impressive piece of work. Once you move past the $2,500 price point for these devices, things get crazy pretty quickly. For the vinyl newbie or someone looking for their first high-end separate phono stage, this is pretty much a no-brainer. For anyone who is contemplating a $5k - $10k spend on a phono stage upgrade, this is a must audition product at the very least. Darren’s creation is going to cause some heartburn elsewhere in the industry.

The details from my listening sessions so far follow. First, some preliminary housekeeping to provide readers some context:

Overall, I have a fairly “revealing” system (read: “persnickety and demanding”) that in my current room tilts away from “warm” and towards the “analytical” side of the spectrum.

The analog front end consists of a VPI TNT-Jr table (perched on a Bright Star isolation platform) with a vintage ET-2 air bearing arm and a Dynavector 17D3 Karat MC cart (100 ohm loading). The reference phono pre for this comparison is my Pass XP-15. All front-end electronics are powered by a Power Plant Premier. The XP-15 and Stellar are sharing the same “zone” of the PPP.

The back end of the system consists of a Pass XP-30 preamp, Pass XA-160.8 monoblocks, Martin-Logan Summit-X electrostats, and a quirky, not-so-cooperative room. Interconnects from the XP-15 onward are balanced Kimber Hero XLR cables (pending an upgrade to Iconoclasts). Speaker cables have recently been switched over to Iconoclast SPTPC.

Some system shortcomings that will color any conclusions: the room/speaker combination has some as yet unresolved bass nodes at ~23Hz and ~100 Hz that require further acoustic work, so I won’t be overly focused on differences in bass response. Also, the Logans have an annoying sensitivity to any input that is less than perfect in the upper mids, so any problems in frequency balance in that region are immediately apparent. Elsewhere in the PS Audio forums, Wglenn put it perfectly in his description of Martin-Logan CLX’s: “… the CLXs are brutal speakers to deal with. If there is the slightest link in the chain that is out of whack the CLX will punish you with the results…” I would add that the same goes for the lesser ‘stats in the M-L line. But on the other hand, you are well rewarded when you get things right.

Out of the Box:
The first impression was heft. The Stellar is no light-weight piece of goods, which indicates that a substantial power supply is tucked inside. Chassis fitment was solid and defect-free. This was my first “hands-on” experience with chassis that the Stellar line uses, and I must say it’s a pretty nifty looking design.

Set-up:
Pretty much dirt simple. Incorporating a remote to control the gain setting and MC loadings from the chair is brilliant. As are the pots to dial in a “custom” loading setting. In contrast, my XP-15’s settings are controlled by four rows of tiny DIP switches on the rear panel. While there is a mind-boggling number of possible settings, getting there is a PITA and requires using the cheat-sheet in the manual.

Cool Factor:
I have no idea what the blue LED’s on the circuit board are there for, but they light up the insides of the box and a blue glow emerges through the air vents providing a halo effect that is sure to get some “ohhhs” and “ahhhhs” from visitors to your listening room.

First Listen:
I plugged the unit in and let it sit for 5 hours or so before the first listen. First impressions of a raw unit at the high gain setting and without benefit of burn-in were:

• Smooth, extended frequency response. No issues at all with the upper mids and highs.
• Nice “presence” throughout the mids, conveying an immediacy and a sense of “in the room with you” kind of thing.
• Allowed speakers to do their “disappearing act.”
• Wide soundstage. Maybe the XP-15 was a few inches wider … maybe.
• Great soundstage depth, but it did not reach quite as far back as the XP-15.
• Good delineation of individual instruments and voices, but not as much “air” between them as with the XP-15.
• Whatever improvements a full burn-in might produce - clearly an exceptional price/performance ratio right out of the box.

The difference in soundstage depth was small. The sense of “air” was more apparent, and probably the biggest difference I heard between the two, so I’ll be paying close attention to this as the unit burns in.

A deeper dive after a day or so warm up:

Next, I set both phono preamps to their mid gain settings, which happens to be 66 db for both units. I also employed the SPL meter found in the AudioTools app running on an iPad Mini to keep loudness levels reasonably matched.

• The soundstage of both devices presents the “in the room” effect that others have noted. With the Stellar, the front of the soundstage is pushed back a bit with voices/instruments at the forward edge of the soundstage recessed towards the plane of the speakers a bit.

• Both do a great job of maintaining separation between voices/instruments in the mix. The Analog Productions re-issue of “Art Pepper +11” features big-band style jazz with Art’s sax front and center. I could easily follow individual instruments in passages featuring massed horns. On this recording, both phono stages deliver all of the brass and body of the instruments without any trace of glare.

• The XP-15 is a bit better at retrieving minute, miniscule details from the soundstage. For example, I hear more of the “body” of acoustic instruments that are placed towards the rear of the soundstage. There is also slightly more retrieval of transient/attack detail. For example, on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” there is a bass line and bass drum beat that drives the tune, and the XP-15 lets me hear the “snap” of the drumhead being struck more clearly. Overall, I perceive the soundstage as more open.

• Given the above observation, it follows that I find that the Stellar tilts towards warmth tonally - especially through the midrange. The XP-15 tilts in the opposite direction.

• I can’t say which presentation is more accurate, but here’s an analogy that might help. Imagine you’re at a live orchestral performance. You want some light on the stage so you can see the players, but how much? Not enough light and you can’t see enough “detail.” Turn up the lights and you can now see what size mallets the tympanist is using. Turn them up more and now the resulting glare off of the drumheads means that you can barely see the mallets at all. Your individual preference will lie somewhere in the middle.

• Overall, this is picking nits. Like, are there 12 or 12.375 angels dancing on that pin head? Consulting the printed specs, the XP-15 has a lower noise floor (-81db) than the Stellar (-72db) which might account my observations relative to detail retrieval. The XP-15 is also a true dual mono design that has been cleverly packed into a single chassis. However, the XP-15 retailed for 50% more than the Stellar when it was a current design five years ago. The updated version (XP-17) is priced higher by around 70%. I can’t imagine that the performance difference will be worth it to many audiophiles, depending of course on how much empha$i$ they put on analog and the degree to which they suffer from audiophile OCD.

• To add some additional perspective, swapping out my MIT speaker cables to the Iconoclasts made a far, FAR bigger difference than what I hear between the XP-15 and the Stellar.

Well done, Darren !

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Dr. Feickert Blackbird

Beautiful turntable, which tonearm(s) and phono cartridges are you using? I ask as this is one that is on my upgrade list. The other being the AMG Giro.

@hthaller- Thank-you for an exceptional review of the impressive Stellar Phono Preamp. From your comparison to the Pass X-15 it appears the SPP is punching above its weight.

As do most all of the PS Audio products. The BHK monoblocks ended up in a dead heat with the XA 160.8’s in a review by Tony Cordesman in The Absolute Sound. Again, the difference was primarily in sound stage perspective. And at about half the retail MSRP.

They launched several years after I had secured my XA monos, or it would have been a nail-biting decision :wink:

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On the right a Thales Simplicity II with an Air Tight PC7, in the back the new Jelco TK850M 10" with a Grace F9 with SS ruby cantilever and Nasotec swing head shell

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And of course PS audio products will be cheaper. Now if we can just get Harbeth to sell me some 40.1’s for UK cost… : )

7 posts were split to a new topic: Import prices, etc

That is one sweet turntable. Not familiar with the Thales tone arm, but the new 10" Jelco 850 looks intriguing.

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no mono switch is an advantage soundwise (but a disadvantage comfortwise)

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One of the reasons I choose Sutherland way back when was the fact that it has outboard power, which allowed me to stack it with my Cary SLP05, which also has outboard power (so, no power transformers near the preamps).

Since this new preamp has onboard power, I wouldn’t want to put it near the Cary; so, i’m thinking I would stack it with the DS Sr, but then I read the SP owners manual warning against placing the SP near a computer. So does this mean that stacking the SP with the DS is ill advised?

Just thinking possible logistics is all…

Everyone, let’s please get back on track and let the Beta test participants discuss their impressions.

And please play nice.

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I have deleted the parts of this thread that have gotten out of hand and do not serve the title of Beta Test Impressions for New Stellar Phono Preamp. If folks want to complain about pricing of PS products overseas or promote other manufacturer’s products and pricing that’s fine, please just pick or start a new thread.

This forum is not for that purpose. I agree with Elk. Let’s keep to the point. If you have a Stellar Phono Beta test unit please post your finding here. If you want to discuss or comment on the findings of others, or ask questions, this is the perfect venue to do so.

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I moved some post to a new thread on import prices if anyone is interested in carrying on that discussion. I appreciate what is now in that thread is scattered, but it is enough to get one going on the topic.

There has been some quality reviews of the new phono preamp. More!

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3 posts were merged into an existing topic: Import prices, etc

I moved some new posts over to the new thread.

Again, this thread is for the impressions of those who have a Stellar Phono Beta test unit, discussing these impressions, and asking questions of the testers.