Many TAS readers have heard— or at least heard of—Ron Sutherland’s Ph.D phonostage, which was reviewed quite favorably by Wayne Garcia in Issue 144. WG found the $3000 Ph.D impressive not only for the silent backgrounds its battery-powered circuit afforded, but also for its natural timbres, exceptional soundstaging, and three-dimensionality. These are laudable qualities to be sure, but ones we might well expect in phonostages of the Ph.D’s stature. It is one thing to achieve great results with a $3k phono preamplifier and quite another to do so with a product designed to sell for onethird that price—yet this is precisely the goal Sutherland set for his latest creation, the $1000 Ph3D phonostage. Does the Ph3D succeed in its mission? You bet it does, and in ways that may introduce many budget-conscious enthusiasts to levels of analog excellence they have never experienced before.
How does the Ph3D compare to the Ph.D? Sutherland says the Ph3D is designed to appeal to those who see “beauty in simplicity and no-frills functionality,” adding, “the Ph3D is a slice of the Ph.D and a slice of the (AcousTech) Ph-1P, two of my earlier phono preamp designs.” Both the Ph3D and Ph.D are powered by banks of 16 D-cell alkaline batteries and provide extensive useradjustable gain and loading features that make them suitable for use with a broad range of cartridges. I recently met with Sutherland and asked what cost-control strategies he pursued in bringing the Ph3D to market. He explained that one area where costs were trimmed was in the Ph3D’s chassis. Where the flagship Ph.D features an enclosure whose gem-like surfaces make you want to reach out and touch them, the Ph3D provides a simpler, more cost-effective box formed from two sheets of cold-roll steel, powder-coated in matte black.
To further minimize costs the Ph3D foregoes the Ph.D’s automatic signalmonitoring/ power-switching functions, providing instead a manual power switch with a voltage-monitoring light. (When the light goes out, it’s time for fresh batteries.) Next, where the Ph.D uses plug-in “daughterboards” to configure gain and loading settings, the Ph3D accomplishes the same task via sets of gold-plated header-pins and shunts, said to maintain signal integrity better than the inexpensive computer-type rocker switches used in some competing phonostages. Finally, where the Ph.D uses discrete low-noise transistors, the Ph3D uses high-quality, low-noise op-amps. Both designs feature top-shelf passive components such as Wima polypropylene/film capacitors and Dale/Vishay metal-film resistors. Of these changes, only those that involve core amplifier circuitry significantly affect sound quality, so that in many respects the affordable Ph3D shares the sonic virtues of its bigger brother.
The first thing Ph3D users will notice is how profoundly quiet the batterypowered phonostage really is. But more importantly, the Ph3D fills the silent spaces it creates with a wealth of lowlevel detail that translates directly into a heightened sense of three-dimensionality and focus. The sonic effect is quite dramatic and reminds me of moments in children’s cartoons, where characters who have been squashed flat miraculously reinflate themselves so that—with a sudden “pop”—they spring back to their normal three-dimensional shapes. Through the Sutherland, musical material that normally sounds good but flattened in perspective suddenly snaps into sharp 3-D focus, so that the back wall of the listening seems to melt away, revealing the world of the original performance.
I played an old but superb Musical Heritage Society recording of the Parrenin Quartet performing Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, and was floored by the sheer realism of the sound the Ph3D achieved. The Sutherland exposed previously hidden low-level details, helping me to visualize the sizes and shapes of the instruments and the positions of the performer on stage. This resolution of small sounds, such as the distinctive patterns of resonance stimulated as each instrument responded to bowing changes, made it easy to pinpoint performers within the quartet and to tell which instruments carried specific musical lines, even when those lines overlapped or became intertwined. The upshot of this is that the Ph3D encouraged me to forget about equipment and focus my attention on the performances at hand—much as I do when attending live concerts.
Although the Ph3D is capable of resolving very fine-grained low-level details, it by no means forces sonic minutiae to the foreground in an unnatural way. On the contrary, the Sutherland offers a smooth organic sound that some audiophiles—especially those who equate a touch of treble zing with “highdefinition” sound—might find a little too self-effacing. Over time, however, I think many listeners will come to appreciate the fact that the Ph3D imparts no sound or artificial sense of excitement of its own, but rather lets drama and energy flow, as they should, from the music itself.