Some audiophiles are perpetually on the quest for the “ultimate” piece of equipment. You know the type—megabuck preamplifier in today, out a week later. The latest and greatest cable that finally, finally promises to deliver sound just like you hear it in the concert hall is extolled by your chum as offering unearthly performance one day and banished the next. And so on. The truth is that these equipment- churners move so quickly that they leave a wake behind that would be the envy of an Olympic swimmer.
There is, one hastens to add, nothing felonious about such behavior, despite whatever tut-tutting you may hear from more sanctimonious audiophiles, who want to lord it over everyone else by engaging in the reverse snobbery of condemning someone for burning through equipment. For those with oodles of the green stuff, it may even be a rite of passage or, for others, simply part and parcel of the addictive pursuit of chasing the best and the brightest in the audio firmament. More power to them.
Still, the longer I listen, the more convinced I’ve become that it can be a bit delusional to think that there is some Holy Grail that’s going to deliver, in one fell swoop, audio Nirvana. It would be nice if this were the case. But it’s often rather tricky to say, with complete certainty, that one top-notch piece of equipment is, in absolute terms, better than another, isn’t it? Did that last preamplifier you heard really smoke yours—or is it just presenting a different sonic picture? Sure, every so often an epochal piece comes along that redefines the state of the art. But more often than not, good equipment tends to emphasize (and illuminate) different aspects of musical truth.
These thoughts are prompted by the Lector phonostage. The Lector, which is imported from Italy, is a deluxe component that comes with cherry boards on the sides of the main unit and the separate power supply (you can also order it with cherry boards only on the main unit or with none at all). In spite of the bling, it is not an all-out assault on musical reproduction. It does not have crushing dynamics, Stygian bass, or killer resolution. Rather, it excels at delivering a suave and silky sound that is well nigh irresistible.
Some of these qualities can likely be traced to the Lector’s lack of a step-up transformer that, in many tube phonostages, supplies the necessary gain to amplify the tiny signal coming from the cartridge. It’s a bit of a mystery to me how Lector pulled this off because it’s very hard to get away from a step-up transformer—if you rely solely on tubes for gain you run the risk of excessive noise. Admirers of the Aesthetix Io, which uses a boatload of tubes, swear by its lack of a transformer (though critics complain about excessive tube rush). After hearing the Lector, it’s not hard to see why Aesthetix fans rave. It sounds grainless and non-fatiguing.
At first this wasn’t the case. Initially, I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to use the Lector because it was humming so badly. But after trouble-shooting with the importer, the urbane Victor Goldstein, I reset the tubes and, after that, experienced no problems—though I should note that it’s more of a hassle to open the unit than it should be because the top plate is rather tenaciously and awkwardly clamped around the body of the chassis. In any event, it proved to be pleasingly immune to RFI and other nasties; the owners’ manual (which is something of a hoot to read as it rather literally translates Italian into English) suggests keeping it at some distance from power amplifiers and observes that it takes about 24 hours before it really warms up properly. Its solid-state power supply undoubtedly helps to provide a blacker background from which notes can emerge. You can also roll the tubes (three E81CC and two 6922 tubes), almost always a good idea if you’re up for it, to further improve the sound, though I did not. Consistent with its purist approach, the Lector also comes with loading plugs, rather than a dial in front, to set the impedance. In fact, apart from on-off switches, the Lector has no controls on its front panels, which means that you need to make sure that your amplifier is off when powering the unit up or down, or it can shut down your amp if it has a protection circuit— or worse.
None of this would matter much if the Lector were a musical snooze that offered adequate performance. In this case, however, the purist approach has really paid-off. It is precisely the nuances that the phonostage captures that help make it so appealing. One of the first things that became apparent was its translucent treble; I’ve seldom heard jazz vibraphone, whether it was Milt Jackson or Lionel Hampton wielding the mallets, emerge with such clarity and precision from the Magnepan ribbon tweeter. With the wrong front-end equipment, the ribbon can be prone to a bit of tizziness. Not here. Sure, the VPI HR-X wasn’t exactly hurting the sound and Harry Weisfeld’s new and much heavier 30- pound platter for the table, which is a marked improvement over the original acrylic one, brought the music to an even higher emotional pitch. But the Lector proved fully capable of revealing these changes, whereas a lesser phonostage would have glossed over them.