Just for the record iFi’s new iPhono3 Black Label phono stage is the perfect fix for vinyl addicts, ensuring every record is heard just as the artist intended
Southport, England – As music lovers across the land return to the tactile virtues of vinyl, so the demand for high-quality turntables has increased. This has raised the need for high-performance phono stages to make the most of the wonderfully natural and engaging sound of which vinyl records are capable.
By necessity, every turntable has to be partnered with a phono stage to amplify the low-level output from the phono cartridge to ‘line level’. Some integrated amps and preamps have phono stages built in, but these vary in quality and are never as good as a well-designed offboard phono stage placed in the signal chain between the turntable and a line-level input on the amp. For serious turntable users, a separate phono stage is a must.
Several years in development and incorporating technology derived from the £12,000 PH-77 phono preamplifier from sister-company AMR, iFi’s new flagship phono stage – the iPhono3 Black Label – has been painstakingly designed to satisfy the most discerning vinyl enthusiast. User-configurable to match any MC or MM cartridge and all manner of LPs, it delivers performance and versatility that place it in a league of its own in the circa £1,000 category, competing with devices at much more rarefied prices.
Driven by iFi’s Class A TubeState engine and Direct Drive Servoless design
Wide range of settings – gain, load and EQ curves – to precisely suit the connected phono cartridge and the LP being played
Ultra-low distortion and class-leading dynamic range
Super-low noise floor – one of the ‘quietest’ phono stages at any price, lets you hear every detail
High gain of 72dB on par with high-end phono stages at twice the price
Cable connections are at opposite ends of the slim line chassis – MM/MC inputs at one end, power in and audio out at the other.
The direct approach
Unlike a typical phono stage, the iPhono3 Black Label’s circuit is direct-coupled – that is to say, there is no coupling capacitor from cartridge to output. It achieves this without requiring a conventional DC servo – iFi calls this design Direct Drive Servoless, incorporating the company’s proprietary DC Infinity circuit that boosts DC gain to a level approaching infinity.
Once the feedback loop is closed, the DC gain cancels all offset voltages to deliver a direct-coupled output with 0V DC offset. The key to the DC Infinity circuit is that it only changes the gain below approximately 0.01Hz, while leaving the AC behaviour of the circuit at higher frequencies unchanged, injecting neither noise nor distortion into the audio signal. This contributes greatly to the iPhono3 Black Label’s audible clarity, accuracy and transparency.
Let the music flow
In the world of high-end audio, some folk advocate solid-state signal amplification while others swear by the sound of valves (or ‘tubes’ for those from the other side of the pond). Both have their inherent advantages – among them, solid-state circuits typically offer lower distortion and high durability, while valves offer natural tonality and fluid, grain-free sound.
At the iPhono3 Black Label’s heart lies iFi’s third generation TubeState engine, the result of four decades of research into valve and transistor technology by the company’s Technical Director, Thorsten Loesch. TubeState is a solid-state circuit design created to capture the key attributes that make valve circuits so sonically appealing whilst maintaining ultra-low distortion.
Specialised JFET op-amps combine with a Class A buffer circuit featuring hand-matched PNP bibolar transistors; the buffer circuit minimises the loading of the amplifier circuit and biases the output stage into single-ended Class A. High input impedance approaches the ‘zero loading’ a valve grid provides, while excellent drive ability allows the iPhono3 Black Label to drive 1V into 600 Ohm loads with THD (total harmonic distortion) of 0.005%, dominated by low order harmonics. When driving less-demanding loads, THD reduces even further with no high order components whatsoever.
The TubeState engine delivers a sound of exceptional poise – crystalline clarity without a hint of edginess; free-breathing dynamics; engaging pace and timing; and a soundstage brimming with texture and fine detail. From the moment the needle hits the record, everything sounds crisp and clear, yet no single element within the musical whole is over-emphasised – you hear the music, cohesive and in its entirety, as it was intended to be heard.
Sonic tailoring to suit you, sir
Many phono stages offer nothing in the way of adjustment to tailor performance to suit a specific system or record, save perhaps switching between MM and MC cartridge types. Some supply settings to match the electrical characteristics of individual cartridges. But very few offer the sheer range of adjustment provided by the iPhono3 Black Label, enabling a vinyl enthusiast to tailor the performance to precisely match his/her phono cartridge and record collection.
A series of DIP switches on the underside of the unit enable gain and load to be set – essential to wring the very best performance from a high-performance cartridge. Gain can be adjusted between 36dB and 72dB, alongside a wide variety of load values – eight for MC cartridges and a further five for MM cartridges. Spending a little time to set up the ideal combination to match the cartridge on your turntable delivers great sonic reward – iFi has created an online ‘cartridge calculator’ to assist with this.
The iPhono3 Black Label is not only great at pairing perfectly with your cartridge; you can also tailor the sound to match specific records in your collection, thanks to a variety of precisely engineered EQ curves.
Some brief background: in 1954, a few years after the birth of the LP format, the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) promulgated the use of a specific equalisation curve to standardise the sound and playing time of LP records. While RIAA equalisation was widely adopted in America, different EQ curves were still being applied by record labels in other countries two decades later. By the late 1970s most European labels had adopted RIAA equalization and by the 1980s it had become the global standard, with just a handful of Asian and Eastern European labels sticking to other EQ curves until the end of the decade.
A toggle switch at one end of the iPhono3 Black Label allows the user to select between three EQ curves: RIAA, Columbia and Decca. It can generally be assumed that records produced from 1980 onwards were made with RIAA equalisation applied, which means they should sound best with the RIAA setting engaged. But pre-1980 recordings may have been made using different equalisation and may sound better with the Columbia or Decca EQ curve engaged.
This applies not only to records released by those specific labels. For example, many of Deutsche Grammophon’s classical records released before 1980 can sound dry and flat – this is because they were produced using the Decca EQ curve and very few phono stages provide this option, but with the correct EQ applied they sound superb. As a general rule, if an LP sounds thin and edgy with the RIAA EQ, try the Decca EQ curve; if it sounds overly bright with overblown bass, try the Columbia setting.
But that’s not all! Further DIP switches on the underside allow the RIAA EQ setting to be further tuned to taste. Users can choose the standard RIAA curve – applied with +/- 0.2dB accuracy – or an enhanced version called ‘eRIAA’ offering extended high-frequency response. Alternatively, if the user has problems with warped records, which can cause a large signal output in the subsonic region, the IEC setting takes the standard RIAA curve and applies a subsonic filter to tackle the issue. Finally, the eRIAA+IEC setting applies the subsonic filter to the enhanced RIAA curve.
A series of DIP switches on the underside of the iPhono3 Black Label enable the user to optimise performance – an exceptional level of control for the true vinyl enthusiast.
The iPhono3 Black Label comes with the 15V version of iFi’s new iPower X ultra-low-noise AC/DC power supply (£99 when purchased separately). This delivers an exceptionally low noise floor and contributes significantly to the phono stage’s class-leading performance.
The ideal phono stage for passionate vinylphiles looking to unlock the true sound of their LP collections, the iFi iPhono3 Black Label is available from selected retailers from tomorrow at an RRP of £999 (€1099, $999).
iFi audio iPhono3 Black Label - Tech Notes Beauty and Beast
iPhono3 Black Label over other phono stages
One of the quietest phono stages. Bar none.
Ultra-low distortion. High gain of 72dB en par with flagship phono stages.
Computer-matched high-gain bi-polar input transistors and more.
All new specifications
Dynamic range improved by 5dB to 108dB. 36-72dB gain.
85dB A-weighted SNR is 3dB quieter (re 0.5mV/5mV per Stereophile standard).
The increase in the power-supply voltage of the external iPower X ultra-low noise adapter for iPhono3 Black Label to 15V allowed for greater undistorted signal levels for LPs like the legendary (and often unplayable) Telarc 1812.
All-new hand-matched Burr-Brown Soundplus® J-FET type operational amplifier. The Burr Brown is complemented by Panasonic Japan-made ECPU Film Capacitors designed for audiophile applications with vanishingly low distortion of (<0.005%!), infusing the iPhono3 Black Label with dynamic range performance that is second-to-none.
Computer matched pair complementary planar high gain bi-polar input transistors means 6dB lower output noise. The planar transistor is constructed by an etching and diffusion technique in which the junction is never exposed during processing, and the junctions reach the surface on one plane; characterized by very low leakage current, high gain and very low noise. These transistors being matched pairs, is labour intensive and expensive.
The iPhono3 Black Label is packed with the latest generation of surface-mounted components. By eliminating multiple joins between parts and lead-out and reducing the size, parasitic behaviour across the board has been drastically reduced over classic leaded parts.
The iPhono3 Black Label features for the first time, audiophile-grade Nichicon capacitor, providing lower ESR, faster speed, and deeper bass. Complemented with the new hand-matched bi-polar transistors, it lowers noise and distortion even further.
It uses Panasonic OSCON totaling 14,800uF. This gives very-low Equivalent Series Resistance (ESR), excellent noise reduction capability and frequency characteristics.
It is packed throughout with TKD Japan made C0G type capacitors. Capacitors owning the C0G specification have lower thermal drift and distortion than Polystyrene capacitors. The iPhono3 Black Label uses them for the actual equalisation AND power supply bypass capacitors.
ELNA Japan made Silmic Capacitors are used for the power supplies. These use special silk fibre paper for the isolating barrier resulting in decreased odd-order distortion and reduced micro-phonics/mechanical resonance.
Vishay MELF type thin film resistors, these resistors show dramatically decreased noise and distortion compared to the standard surface-mounted resistors. Previously, just like C0G specification capacitors, they were reserved for the most critical positions.
EQ curves. Even the same LPs may not have the same equalization
Because as LPs even from different pressing plants can have a different equalization curve.
Descending from the AMR PH-77, the iPhono3 Black Label has impressive DNA. One of the key aspects is the ability to precisely ‘correct’ the recording with the intended equalization curve. There are 6 curves on the iPhono3 Black Label that are trickle-down technology from the PH-77 which had a total of 22 EQ curves!
Not all LPs have been equalised using the same RIAA equalisation, additional equalisation curves are needed. At the introduction of the Long Play record (LP) in 1948, most record companies implemented their own particular equalisation curves and continued to experiment with equalisation in order to extract the best performance from the new medium. This led to a baffling array of different and incompatible equalisation curves being applied worldwide.
In the mid-1950s, as all its members agreed to adopt the RCA Orthophonic equalisation curve, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) promulgated this curve as a common standard that became known as the ‘RIAA equalisation’. However, as this was essentially an American standard, it had little impact outside of the USA. The RIAA equalisation only became a truly international standard by the mid to late 1970s when European recording labels slowly and finally began to adopt the RIAA equalisation. It was even later when some Asian recording labels joined the bandwagon and adopted the RIAA standard. Right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many Eastern European recording labels (including Russian recording labels) were still, using their own CCIR equalisation.
To further complicate matters, even after officially agreeing to implement the RIAA equalisation curve, many recording labels continued to use their proprietary equalisation, even well into the 1970’s. Columbia is one such prominent example in the USA, and Decca/Telefunken/Teldec in Europe is another.
The choice is there for the customer to choose ‘by ear’. Or alternatively, simply leave it on RIAA permanently too.
A most delicious irony is that the actually quite excellent and ground breaking sound quality of early Decca and Deutsche Gramophone digitally mastered LPs tends to be considered as “strident” and “digital” by many audiophiles, which is of course true when replayed using an RIAA equalisation stage, as the mastering EQ used was Decca FFSS which boosts the high frequencies around 2db more than RIAA.
The reason for the objectionable sound quality of these LPs is not the digital mastering at all, but the equalisation. In fact, since the early 1970s practically ALL LPs were cut with the aid of a so-called cutting computer to maximise playtime, which involved passing the analogue signal to be cut onto the LP through a Digital Delay system with 16-Bit/48KHz A2D and D2A convertors. Hence, virtually ALL commercial LPs since the early 1970’s are in fact “Digitally Mastered”, not just those that explicitly employed digital recording and production systems and hence stated this on the Label.
Replay the same “bad digital sound” LPs using the correct equalisation and a most glorious and natural sound quality is revealed, which was always there, just hidden by a lack of tone controls or adjustable equalisation.
The iPhono3 Black Label’s sub-sonic filter is well designed and implemented. Why is it needed? A warped track or record will cause a large signal output in the subsonic region, typically well below 20Hz.
For example. A 33 1/3 RPM album with a single warped section can create a signal in the pickup at 0.55 Hz (33.3 RPM / 60 = 0.555 Hz). This is a signal that will cause significant cone movement, and is is very undesirable. By ‘nailing’ this issue at the root cause stage, the rest of the system will sonically benefit.
The iPhono3 Black Label demands the ultimate power supply. That means the newly launched iPower X. Just like the rest of the power supply range, it has an exceptional noise floor of <0.1uF which is lower than what the Audio Precision measures to.
Direct Drive Servoless is an important element of the audiophile experience, which is not visible in measurements, but is quite audible. Unlike a standard phono stage design, the iPhono3 Black Label continues the special design tradition of being direct coupled (i.e. no coupling capacitor) from cartridge to output and it does so without requiring a conventional DC servo. Below is what a standard phono stage looks like:
In iPhono3 Black Label the unique ‘DC-infinity’ circuit boosts the circuits DC gain to approach infinity (it is approximately 1 trillion one million times one million; 1012).
Once the feedback loop is closed, this near infinite DC gain cancels all offset voltages to deliver a direct-coupled output with 0V DC offset. The key to the ‘DC-Infinity’ circuit is that it only changes the gain below approx. 0.01Hz, while leaving the AC behaviour of the circuit at higher frequencies unchanged, injecting neither noise nor distortion into the audio signal.
Any noise and distortion of the DC-Infinity circuit happens at the same signal level as the output signal and is by design, 100 times less than the noise and distortion of the actual amplifier circuit. Noise and distortion it effectively disappears.