Beta Test Impressions for New Stellar Phono Preamp!

Thanks. And fdreed is right. Factory direct only from this point forward.

13 posts were split to a new topic: Stellar Turntable?

Is it possible to connect the output of the SPP to the aux input of the NUWAVE and do a recording?


I haven’t tried it so don’t know for sure. I’ve also never done any recording of LP’s with the NPC, so really don’t know the process. I did look through the manual and I did not see anything indicating you could not record from the analog input. There were some references to using an iPhone through the analog inputs to set/confirm levels, so that seems to indirectly confirm you can do it. As such, the only issue I can think of is the input level. Aangen, you indicated you had to play with the phono gain to get the input level correct for the program you were using. This could be an issue if the analog input was not sufficiently variable at the source. In this case the SPP has only three gain levels versus the 21 of the NPC.

Yes you can record whatever from the analog inputs. Seem to recall having done it at one point. The line ins are…line level ins, so you can take the output of the SPP (or any line level source) and feed it into those inputs to digitize.

If you look at the back you will notice there are separate phono ins and line ins. You select which you are using via the front panel menus.

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I know about the back of the device, as I own one. I have just never tried to use the aux inputs with the recording software that I use. I don’t want to apply RIAA EQ to a signal that already has it. I am not certain that I can disable it. Perhaps the NuWave applies RIAA on the TT Inputs and not the AUX and the recording software doesn’t have any issues at all. I just have to try it. My Preamp has a sensational phono stage that I have not used to digitize an LP. Unfortunately the only outputs it has are balanced and unbalanced. I am guessing I could use the unbalanced from the Preamp to the AUX input on the NuWave and use preamp volume to set the recording level. (Since it wishes to have the external device control that…)
Winter is coming, I’ll have time. If I like what I hear I just need to re-record two dozen LP’s.

The NuWave sounds okay, but as others have found there is room for improvement.

The phono inputs would have the RIAA applied. The Line inputs, named “Analog” on the back - are plain old line level ins.

Stellar doesn’t even begin to describe how good this phono preamp is!

So, WHERE to begin? Earlier this year I contacted James and Paul about the ETA for the Stellar Phono Preamp (SPP) and they replied with something like summer 2019. A week ago this past Saturday, the beta SPP arrived and I set it up in my rack and turned it on. It has been on continuously since then and hasn’t been switched to standby by except to make a cable reconnection. My main phono pre for the past 7 years has been a Manley Labs Steelhead (version 2 with Remora remote) and I replaced the tubes with Manley-sourced, tested and burned-in valves earlier this year. I have always enjoyed the bloom and apparent tightness of bass with the Steelhead along with the silky smooth mods and highs, so I was eager to hear the SPP, make an attempt to give it a complete review and perform the acid test for me, which is how it stacks up against the Steelhead. An appetizer; more on this topic later.

I have been listening to vinyl as more-than-a-toy-as-a-young child, when I started caring about my records so as to not damage them, since I was 10. I’ve always listened to records, even during the cassette and CD craze of the 70s and 80s when I bought my first horrible-sounding-but-affordable player in 1987. Even then, going back and forth from my Yamaha turntable with $25 Audio Technica cartridge (I think it came with an elliptical stylus, it sure sounded good!) into the phono stage of Pioneer SX626 receiver to CD revealed that vinyl just sounded more natural and was punchier and warmer, especially on tracks with big rock drums played by Bonzo and Moon. Some of my first real albums that, at the age of 11, were mine and not my parents (they didn’t play records but only listened to music on the Philco tube car AM hit radio WBZ 1030, Boston), and that I seriously began to listen to around 1968 on a small $69 JC Penney stereo rig were Big Brother and the Holding Company - Cheap Thrills, Bookends – Simon and Garfunkel, Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery – Beatles, Disraeli Gears – Cream, Bayou Country -Creedence Clearwater Revival. I didn’t even own a standalone phono stage until around 2000 when I acquired a Krell MC phono pre that I enjoyed for years. Other stages have come and gone since then and include, EAR 834P Deluxe (MC and MM version), EAR 834P (MM only), Audio Research PH7, Jolida JD9, Aesthetix Rhea, Liberty Audio B2B-1, Bellari VP130, and, yes, Schiit Mani (for fun).

Fast forward to now; better paying jobs meant more disposable income for audio toys, and I’ve owned both tube and solid state stuff, with notable vinyl playback gear from VPI, Rega, Technics and Thorens. I still use a VPI Aries 2 blacknight with Lyra Delos cartridge for MC playing and a Technnics SL1200GR for MM and MI listening with a variety of vintage and current-issue cartridges.

My musical interests are all over the map from classical to metal to pop to rock to jazz to electronica to house to Phillip Glass and Shakti. Albums I played for the past week that ended up being the music I enjoyed and evaluated the SPP with include:

Art Blakey – Caravan
Donald Fagen - Sunken Condos
ELO – Out Of The Blue
Dennis Wilson – Bambu
Steely Dan – Katy Lied (original Kendun 1stpressing)
Joe Walsh – Barnstorm
Talking Heads – 77
Tony Williams Lifetime – Believe It
Midnight Oil – Red Sails In The Sunset
Phildephia Philharmonic/Eugen Ormandy – Philadelphia (compilation of several classic composers from Bach to Prokofiev to Copland)
Joni Mitchell – Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter
Jeff Buckley – Grace
Rush – A Farewell To Kings

And more…

Cartridges include the Delos on the VPI, and on the SL1200GR include Pickerings, Stantons, ATs, Shures, Grados, Empires, Ortofons and Nagaokas. Recently I picked up a Shure V15VMR with original stylus and used that for the majority of the MM listening. A wonderful cartridge and stylus, a gem from a bygone era of USA technological and manufacturing prowess.

On the opening of Buckley’s Grace is Mojo Pin, a roller coaster of a track that has superb sonics and musicianship. With the SPP set on medium gain with the 3.5 mV V15VMR revealed dynamics and detail previously unheard. My audio buddy who is also into vinyl playback stopped by for an evening of listening and we both exclaimed that this was the “first time” we’d both heard this album, even though we’ve played it at least 20 to 30 times each. Top to bottom frequencies are balanced, that’s a given, but what really stands apart are the separation of people and instruments in space, with a wide and deep stage and those miniscule microdynamics that reveal surprising textures, especially in the drums and bass notes. The SPP does not sag in the least; it‘s extremely quick and the voltage rise of transients is immediately apparent. This accounts for the detail, which is never hard or etched, there is just the right amount of tube-like burnishment to the edges, making the ears relax. Even at nominal 80-85 dB SPLs, the sound gets bigger, not so much louder. I know Paul has discussed that there is an ideal volume per track per room and he is so on the mark about that. For me it ranges from 75 to 85 dB from my listening position.

So, after much listening and rocking to clear, powerful subsonics to wonderful mids and silky high percussives and female vocals, it was time to switch over the Steelhead and see how the SPP compares. Reminder, I had been listening to the SPP for a week before going back to the Manley. I prewarmed the tubes or at least an hour before hooking both tables up and I played the Buckley album. Right away the drums were not as quick. The transients were too soft. In fact, though the stage width and depth were almost as good as the SPP, the lack of quick transients sort of made the music sound sluggish and my friend and I simply missed to the quick and compelling oomph of the SPP. Plus, the stage WAS larger and created a more “disappearing walls” illusion. Speed, articulation, detail, dynamic punch when required, deepest bass ever, lilting highs, nuance and breath, rosin and horn blat, all balanced and where they should be. No glare, beaming, or ear fatigue. None of that. Long listening sessions are totally non-fatiguing. It’s difficult to stop listening, one wants to grab yet another record and keep on needle dropping. Piano rendered on the SPP is correct and sounds as though it’s in the room. That’s as much a challenge for the cartridge as the phono stage but don’t blame any miscues on the preamp here! The attack is just right, the note immediately following has the proper bloom and it is “there.” Joni’s Court And Spark underscores this in spades.

We went back to the SPP and now compared the MC section with the Delos feeding. Again the SPP simply broke new listening ground for me with that cartridge and 1) I had no idea that it could provide that much dynamic power, nor 2) could I imagine it ever sounding better than through the Steelhead. The Stellar Phono Pre exceeded all expectations of what vinyl could sound like in my room. I got a nice text from my friend today saying he thought the rig sounded “killer.” I’ve been listening today through a variety of MM carts and in each case, they all sound musical and more different from one another than I originally knew. I can hear the hard work Darren put into the MC section; he nailed it. Darren knows that “one note” experience and it happens on first power up and listen, even though I believe the preamp has improved over the past week now that it’s settled into my set up.

I’ll be finding a new, good home for the Steelhead, I thought for awhile that maybe I’d keep it; I don’t have to sell it. At the same time I don’t think I’ll be hooking it up anytime soon so I removed it from the rack so that the SPP has its own space. So there you have it; Darren and Company have created pure magic with this preamp, it does everything I hoped for and then some. I had no idea my records have so much music on them! It makes my entire record collection more than new and out performs a phono stage that is more than three times the price. I need to also mention that, along with the GCD and M700 monoblocks, all connected with BlueJeans Belden 1800F balanced cables with Neutrik NC3-B connectors, there is truly synergy between these amazing, very high value, electronic jewels. PS Audio Power Punch power cords power all components in the rig.

Kudos, again, Darren. You have designed and scored a major hit in the analog world. You’ve knocked out of Fenway onto the Mass. Pike. If Mikey doesn’t give you anything but a top notch, RAVE review, his hearing is seriously defective and needs to be checked. I’ve yet to be as excited about a new audio component, and the GCD and M700s certainly did the trick, but the SPP blows all of them out of the water. If anyone is still listening only to CDs and digital feeds and hasn’t heard a good turntable/arm/cartridge properly set up through the SPP, they are missing a life changing experience.

The Stellar Phono Preamp is component of the year! No question. Absolutely. And it is BY FAR, the best audio value of the decade.

Simply, thank you James, Kevin, Darren and Paul for providing me with the honor to beta test, listen to, review, approve and enjoy this finest of phono preamps that could easily be priced 4X higher. I am simply and humbly proud to be part of the PS Audio family. My ears think so too. Know anyone in the market for a mint Steelhead with all the fixins?

Medford, OR

PS, I’m keeping it and sending my trade in to you soon.
Questions anyone?


Wow, so this is a comparison with serious competition and more than honors Darren’s work!

While I only share one previous phono amp with you (EAR 834P Deluxe, playing in a lower league), I was long time interested in the Steelhead, too but never managed to hear it. My other personal experience is Omtec Antares, Gryphon Orestes, Octave Phono, Tom Evans The Groove/PSX, ASR. The Einstein I use now is one of Fremer’s current references he owns himself and also uses for his vinyl rips. As I know a few years ago he also owned and used the Steelhead as reference, the Stellar seems to play in the top league actually. Ok, there might be some more or different conclusions due to Fremer’s better front and backend, but your review sets high expectations for everyone I think. As outside the US I can’t participate in the beta, I have to wait if I read a short comparison by Fremer if he reviews the Stellar :wink:

I guess with the SPP you might also benefit from system synergy with your other Stellar gear compared to the possibly less well integrated Steelhead. I also chose to use phono & pre from one manufacturer, which is really an advantage.

Damn! Pardon my language Steve but this is incredible. Thanks you so much for the in-depth review! Really great to hear that it did a good job with a HUGE range in genres.

I swear to god I’m going to give up and quit the forums and just listen to the fekkin music. This is a review of the Stellar Phono Preamplifier, but it’s also an open letter to the psychiatric community to come and take me away for a long, long time.

Anyway, I’m late to the party, but I did finally get my act together to have James send me the Stellar Phono Preamplifier for the beta. I got an early e-mail to be in the test group, but I just couldn’t commit, as I’d recently spent a good chunk on a pair of speakers. But reading all of these reviews, I was really curious about how the SPP might work with my system. So I threw caution to the wind and decided to go for it.

Supporting players:

  • Cambridge CXA80 Integrated amp

  • Thorens TD-150 MKI / SME 3009 tonearm / Shure V15 MKIII cartridge with new Jico stylus

  • NAD PP2e phono stage

  • Harbeth P3ESR Anniversary loudspeakers

  • Topping D50 DAC + Matrix X-SPDIF 2

Also starring:

  • Audiolab 8000A integrated amp

I love the sound from the turntable as it is. Warm but really detailed. I was very interested to see what the SPP could do that the NAD couldn’t do.

I listen mostly to jazz on vinyl, as I feel like it’s more of an event. But I also enjoy a rock and/or folk vinyl listening session if it’s well recorded. Dire Straits, Grateful Dead, David Grisman, Steely Dan and Donald Fagen, John Scofield, Elton John, Traffic, Little Feat, Van Morrison, Steve Tibbetts, The Shins, Nick Drake, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Assembly of Dust, etc… My jazz preferences lean to Dexter Gordon, Erroll Garner, Kenny Burrell, Horace Silver, Billy Cobham, Stanley Turrentine, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson, Brad Mehldau, Wes Montgomery, Blue Mitchell, and sure, Coltrane and Miles, why not?

I love a great stereo, but I’d be hard pressed to claim to be an audiophile the likes of many of you. I don’t raise my speaker cables off the floor and I don’t have bass traps in the corner of my office. So I don’t know that I can speak to soundstage shape or holographic effects or bass nodes at 56Hz or transient-revealing microdynamics or whatnot. All I know is that I want the experience to be musical. I want to feel like the musicians are in the room, not hiding inside the speakers. I also want a $2000 piece of kit to make a night-and-day difference. (An aside: a few months back I added the HQPlayer software to the Roon setup on my Mac mini. THAT was night and day, and I expect this to do the same.)

So… what did I discover upon comparing the Stellar Phono with the NAD PP2e phono stage through the Cambridge?

I sh!t you not: For the most part, I could not tell the difference.

Am I a failure? A joke? Are my ears crap? Is it that the rest of the system isn’t able to pull out the differences that the SPP is capable of?

Mind you, the Stellar Phono sounded great. No question. And, to be honest, I’m not sure how you do these kinds of comparisons effectively. I find it frustrating as hell to try to A/B different pieces of audio equipment. Listening to one, making notes, unhooking it, then hooking up the next piece, dropping the needle, then listening again. I feel like my audio memory is pathetically short. “Did I hear the stick hit the rim of the drum there? Did someone cough? Did I hear a lip smack? Let me listen to the other phono stage!" Repeat process. It’s a nightmare. I need the ability to flip a switch to make an instant, on-the-go comparison, like at the eye doctor. “Which is better? One? Or two? One? Or two?”

Ummm do it again, Doctor.

So I let the SPP burn in for a couple of days.

After this, I do feel that there’s more of a difference. Not so much in the details, but in the dynamics, the intensity of the loud bits. The Stellar Phono did a really nice job with the jazz, which is instrumentally less layered and the details more easily defined and analyzed. Bass and drums especially. I think the SPP brought them forward. Horns really sound alive. It really depended on the recording, though. And is it night and day? Not for me. Maybe one of you needs to come over here to slap me upside the head.

In my email correspondence with James, I’d said I wanted a black SPP, as my other components are black, but he only had silver. So I told him I could envision not only doing the SPP beta, but maybe demo the whole Stellar stack — the SGCD and M700 monoblocks — and we agreed it would look great in silver. Add to the fact that it was no risk, and could return it on PSA’s dime if I didn’t like it, well, why not. Plus, a few forum members suggested that those Harbeths would only fuel the desire to upgrade. They were one hundred percent correct. Congratulations.

So yeah, I did start with just adding the SPP in my existing system. (Gotta be a fair fight and not just replace everything at once, because of course that’s gonna sound amazing, right?) But after a few days of demoing the SPP through the Cambridge, and not feeling completely transmogrified, I unboxed the Stellar kit (really nice packaging, by the way), and set to setting things up.

I do not have high-end power cables, so I used the ones that shipped with the Stellar stuff. My interconnects and speaker wire are good, but not esoterically so. I mean, $100 speaker wire and interconnects. Not in the thousands. That said, surely this will still be an ear-melting experience with the Harbeths, right?

The Stack does sound good. And with the SPP, really good. Details were there, no doubt. But for some reason, for me, it wasn’t that much of a difference.

Crisis time. Was it worth all this expense and fiddling and hand-wringing to chase some new dragon when the old dragon I had was really enjoyable? And relatively cheap, to boot.

So, since I was moving all this heavy stuff around, I figured let’s grab the old Audiolab 8000A integrated amplifier I’d temporarily retired in favor of the Cambridge. (I had stumbled upon the gently used Cambridge on Craigslist for cheap, so it was low risk replacing the Audiolab.) The Audiolab is 60W into 8 ohms, and is a nice piece of British kit. Not flashy, not a crap ton of features, but it really sounds nice and natural and I think I was simply distracted by the shiny Cambridge. (And the fact that the guy was selling the NAD PP2e with it didn’t hurt.)

The phono stage on the Audiolab isn’t bad. It’s good, but not great. So let’s listen to that first. Very serviceable, but it doesn’t necessarily draw you in like you want vinyl to do. Like I said, playing records is an event. A ritual. It’s inconvenient and inefficient. So you want it to be worth it. So, the Audiolab sounded good. Like a car with no performance gear. Gets you from A to B just fine but you won’t have a grin on your face.

Then I tried the NAD PP2e with the Audiolab. Ok, nice. Like adding a low-flow exhaust and a cold-air intake. It let the recording breathe a bit. Much more natural and full sounding. Crisp but rich.

Now, Audiolab + Stellar Phono

OK, this is where I did hear the biggest difference. The NAD phono stage sounded great, no getting around it. But I will admit the SPP had a depth that the NAD just couldn’t match. The details were there, honestly, and pretty closely matched between the two phono preamps. But the SPP was fuller, richer. At the same volume level, you could feel the bass with the SPP. I wouldn’t say the NAD was thin, but there just was more growl with the Stellar. No doubt the SPP drew me into the music a bit more, made me want to play more records.

So, yes. I can hear a difference. More apparent than with the Cambridge amp. Could be burn-in for the SPP, but all I know is that through the Audiolab it sounds so good.

So where does the Stellar Gain Cell DAC with the monoblocks fit in? Yeah, they might win in a death match for clarity and detail, but I will tell you that, through the Harbeths, the Audiolab 8000A is more musical to my ears.

This next bit gets away from the phono stage, but it colors my decision about what I will keep: How good is my DAC?

I love my vinyl, but I will admit that I listen to digital files/streaming (ripped CDs and Tidal/Qobuz via Roon) probably 75% of the time. (Occasional SACDs, too.) And so the SGCD needed to be REALLY good to justify such a big investment.

The Cambridge has its own DAC, but the Audiolab (built in the 90s) doesn’t. So I also have a little Topping D50 DAC (which handles DSD). The Mac mini playing Tidal/Qobuz and local FLAC files via Roon/HQPlayer sounds GREAT through the D50. I think it’s better than through the Cambridge’s onboard DAC.

Maybe that little Topping D50 is more special than I gave it credit for. I think the Stellar stack is really, really nice. But for my humble listening space in the den, it looked massive and comical on my sideboard. And the difference from the Audiolab isn’t enough to justify the cost. Not sure how that’s possible, but here we are.

So, bottom line, I’m not going to be keeping the SGCD or M700s.

So what of the Stellar Phono? It’s only a week into the demo, so I need to give it a little more time, but I could definitely see the SPP being a permanent addition. It really sounds good with the Audiolab. The (perhaps feeble) dilemma goes back to my earlier preference of black vs. silver: I have black components and I’m beta-testing a silver Stellar Phono Preamp.

What to do, what to do?



You gave your honest opinion! That’s all you can do.


Great, honest review. I must say, reading reviews, in general (this is not directed to SPP reviews here), I wonder what some of these folks are smoking. My experience is usually there may be a slight difference between the components I’m comparing, but nothing like the “this is the second coming” reviews I read. I’m convinced some of these people are delusional (probably a bit strong, but hey, I’m an audiophile and must “be strong”) and exaggerate the differences. As someone said here recently, “a huge difference, thousands of veils lifted” is reality is, “yeah, I could hear a difference”. Audiophiles tend to exalt any difference as a triumph. I’m not saying that’s wrong, just not how I feel about the results. And I’m certainly with you on the pain of comparing two components, many an audiophile has questioned their sanity doing this.

Now, having said all that I still think the SPP is a great Phono pre. It’s just that to get any improvement really can be a wonderful thing. If you (or anyone else) is happy with what they have, by all means, stay happy. Don’t drive yourself bonkers because that other guy says x is so much better than y.


Good point, reading these reviews made me question my observations. I thought I must be missing something or my unit is defective since I didn’t hear drastic differences between the rega fono MC and the SPP. Sure the SPP I better but I struggled to find the 5x better factor.

You are right pmotz. I think a lot of people hear a big difference because they want to hear a big difference. If you were to tell them to come into their sound room and you change something and ask if they can hear a big change, they probably find it more difficult to tell you if there is a change. Especially if the items are similarly priced. If there is a big difference in price, then the difference in sound might be more obvious. Aural memory is short.

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I think the point is that @terzinator is using an excellent relatively low cost system (the Audiolab 8000A is a classic amp) with a top rated MM cartridge with a 3.5mV output. P3ESR are incredibly revealing. So perhaps the Stellar phono is overkill. If he were using a 0.2mV Koetsu or similar, the result may have been different. That said, I use a Koetsu with a digital phono stage and it works a treat.

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yeah, i think there’s a lot to this.

I have a second Thorens, a TD-126 MKII, with an Infinity Black Widow tonearm and older Ortofon MC20 Moving Coil cart. Purchased off Craigslist on a whim, it’s in the main part of my house, and only occasionally is used. But if we’re playing records as a group, it does. (And the main stereo runs off my Sprout 100, with an Ortofon SUT for the turntable.)

Anyway, I haven’t tried that turntable/cart with the SPP yet, but this weekend I will. The MC20 isn’t a perfect match for that arm (indeed, the Shure probably is!), but I want to have different types of carts on my two tables. And I have no idea how resilient/elastic the mounting rubber is inside the cartridge, so it might be time for a re-tip. (This experience has led me to put a moratorium on major audio purchases for the rest of the year, however, but man I drool over those Koetsu cartridges.)

Anyway, I’ll add a few more words after I bring that turntable into my office with the Audiolab and SPP.

Thanks for the thorough review terz. I thought right out of the box, the M700s sounded good, but not great. Before I got them for my own system, I had heard them here in the factory and was blown away with how they sounded. It goes without being said that my system isn’t quite the quality of the few we have here, but it can certainly hold its own. I told Darren about my disappointment and he said they REALLY need some break-in. I was still pretty new to the hobby at the time and had really only been exposed to used gear, so already broken in. After letting those suckers cook for a few weeks, it was no longer a subtle difference. Even though it’s tough to do, I did some AB testing with them and the old bel canto I had been using. It was clear to a friend and I that the 700s were better. Now was my system completely transformed and the best thing I’ve ever heard? No. The bel canto is a good amp and brought some great life to the system. The 700s simply to it better. Darren’s working on some new stuff, so we’ll have to see about those, but I don’t plan to upgrade the amps any time soon. (:face_with_hand_over_mouth::zipper_mouth_face: Probably shouldn’t mention Darren’s working on new amps…)

Back on August 6th Kevin told me I was one of the first ten non-beta test purchasers. My nice black SPP arrived 20 minutes ago (i.e 3PM). Yep, it has some weight to it. Looking forward to getting it installed tomorrow.

Wow, I already loved my SPP, but mid afternoon, I replaced the fuse with an Audio Magic SHD-Beewax Ultimate. Yeah, it cost $225, but what a great value. As great as my listening had been, I only expected a small improvement. What I got was a dramatic improvement, in every way playback can be improved. Currently listening to the 45 rpm Eva Cassidy 7 album box set, “Nightbird”. I’ve been listening to Eva ever since the beginning of her career, and have numerous albums by her. But, never never never has she or the band sounded so fantastic.