One thing that makes playing vinyl so much more of a commitment than playing CDs is all the stuff you have to assemble before you can even get going. Let’s call it a labor of love. At the most basic level you can buy a pre-packaged turntable setup, like one of those found in this issue’s Start Me Up column. But even then you have to do a bit of assembly and adjustment. And, oh, does your integrated amp, receiver, or preamp have a builtin phonostage? That’s the extra bit of circuitry that properly equalizes a phono cartridge’s signal and, with luck, allows you to match it to your cartridge’s impedance, capacitance, and output (gain).
Back in the day, the answer was typically “yes.” But now most preamplifiers are actually linestages, designed to handle line-level, not phono-level, signals. So, in addition to thinking about turntables, arms, and cartridges, vinyl fans must also consider which of the myriad phono preamps out there they should purchase.
Canada’s Simaudio has a couple of easy answers—two terrific-sounding phonostages, the $1500 LP5.3 and the $499 LP3 (with circuitry based on that found in its big brother). Each is designed for different market segments, and both excel at their price points.
For those just getting into vinyl, the LP3 is a very convincing performer. Housed in a small machined-aluminum box, it offers 40dB of gain for moving magnets and 60dB for moving coils, and either 100 ohm or 47k ohms loading. Both gain and loading are adjustable via small internal jumpers on the unit’s tiny dual-layer circuit board. Parts-quality is military spec.
Perhaps the single most impressive attribute of the LP3 is how quiet it is. I was struck by this while playing Luigi Nono’s A Carlo Scarpia [Edition RZ], a hauntingly lovely minimalist work for large orchestra that mixes big climaxes with lingering decays. A phono playback system must not only be well balanced, detailed, and airy to capture the emotional impact of this piece, it must also be silent. The Simaudio is, reproducing a convincing sense of the hall’s atmosphere and the orchestra’s layout, and allowing those lingering notes to hang in mid-air. Oh, don’t expect its top end to be super-extended. But it isn’t wiry, either; it’s nice and smooth.
On “Gallows Pole,” from Classic Records’ reissue of Led Zeppelin III, the LP3 showed a truthfulness to the source. Robert Plant’s voice was firmly planted in the center, with plenty of air (or reverb) around it. Guitars and bass showed good textures, and when John Bonham started to pound the skins, I was impressed by this unit’s bottom-end punch and dynamics. As with the upper frequencies, don’t expect the LP3 to deliver miracles of extension; still, it does very well for itself.
I continued to be impressed, enjoying diverse music ranging from Neil Young’s Prairie Wind [Classic/Reprise] to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman [Impulse]. After a while, you’ll notice that, when compared to the best, the LP3 is somewhat hooded in the midrange, and not as tonally rich. But then, I frequently notice Porsches and BMWs flying past my Scion xA on freeways, and you know what, I can live with the Scion. When the LP3 is considered in the context of the systems it was designed to be used with, I can’t imagine any music lover not being tickled with its sound.
As much as I enjoyed the LP3, I was actually taken aback by how excellent the LP5.3 is. While I’m not going to claim that it’s better than anything selling at four or five times its price, I will say it’s as good as anything I’ve heard under $2000. And again, silence is a theme.
So is transparency. No matter what record you play, the LP5.3 is going to deliver a strong sense of what was happening at the session. For example, on Nono’s A Carlo Scarpia, the LP5.3 conjures about as specific an impression of the recording venue as I’ve heard, with a tremendous sense of air and depth. During the quiet sections, notes hover in space with an eerie, spectral quality.
Tonally speaking, this design seems to be ideally balanced. I wouldn’t call it warm or cool but neutral, in that tonality seems to be decided by cartridges and records, not by the LP5.3.
On the Coltrane/Hartman LP, Hartman’s baritone was beautifully breathy, warm, and lilting in its phrasing, with no sense of honk or “shout.” Coltrane’s tenor had that dry yet sweet nature he mastered for ballads; McCoy Tyner’s piano was limpid and lyrical; Jimmy Garrison’s bass was solid yet nuanced; and Elvin Jones’ brushwork was as subtle as a breeze. Best of all, the LP5.3 lets you really hear how they’re playing together.