Whether you evaluate it from the standpoint of design, construction, or sound quality, PS Audio’s $995 GCPH phonostage seems like it ought to cost more than it does. Several things make this phonostage special, starting with its basic circuit topology. The GCPH is a fully balanced design configured as two gain blocks with a passiveRIAA equalization circuit sandwiched between them. PS Audio claims this topology offers significant performance benefits because it allows both gain stages to keep “negative feedback low and uniform at all frequencies.” The input block functions as a high-quality head amplifier with gain and load settings suitable for use with almost any type of phono cartridge. The output block, in turn, provides variable outputs that let you fine-tune the phonostage’s sound while enabling the GCPH to drive power amplifiers directly—something few other phonostages can do.
Use and convenience touches abound. For example, there are externally accessible (hallelujah!) gain and loading selector knobs to facilitate tweaking, plus a remote with controls for volume, muting, stereo/mono switching, and even phase-switching. As I quickly discovered, the phase switch is, for many though not all LPs, a “must-have” feature that can spell the difference between a recording that sounds tightly focused and three-dimensional or an LP that sounds somewhat muddled, diffuse, and flat.
But circuit topologies and features aside, the real beauty of the GCPH involves its core sound, which is characterized by five salient characteristics: absolutely killer bass, a rich and colorful (but not colored) midrange with just right touch of natural warmth, smooth and sweet highs, effortless three-dimensionality, and the ability to deliver high levels of resolution in an utterly unforced way. Let me illustrate these points with a handful of musical examples.
To hear the GCPH’s low-frequency prowess in action, put on the Copland-conducted version of the composer’s El Salón México [Columbia] and listen carefully to the bass drum whacks that figure prominently in the penultimate section of the piece. Unlike most phonostages, the PS Audio captures the abrupt thundercrack-like pressure wave that erupts when the drum notes are struck without losing or smearing the subtle, membrane-like resonances of the drum head that follow. What is more, the GCPH accurately and forcefully recreates the sensation of tsunami-like waves of bass energy traveling from the front of the hall to the rear. Few phonostages at any price handle low frequencies more convincingly. In short, the GCPH gives analog bass the same weight and extension one might hear from great digital players, but with even greater subtlety and nuance.
To appreciate the GCPH’s resolution, soundstaging, and beautifully balanced voicing, try putting on the Michael Tilson Thomas/Boston performance of Debussy’s Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune [Deutsche Grammophon]. The piece opens with a delicate and yet darkly evocative flute and harp passage that is deceptively difficult to reproduce well, in part because many phonostages tend to give the passage a too lightly balanced treatment. Happily, the PS Audio does not. For example, it balances the light, breathy embouchure sounds of the flute with the instrument’s warm, resonant, tubular fundamentals. Similarly, the GCPH catches the hush of fingers gently running across the harp’s strings, while revealing the deeper, more luminous bloom of the instrument’s arched frame resonating as notes unfold. As the Prélude develops, the PS Audio lets you hear the orchestra in the proper context of a huge 3-D soundstage, inviting you to savor Debussy’s sumptuous orchestration without cloying, syrupy sweetness. In a word, the GCPH sounds downright “organic.”
Are there drawbacks? Maybe. Listeners who prefer vigorously defined transients and an upfront presentation of the high-frequency “air” between instruments might initially find the GCPH sounds softly focused or even slightly rolled-off. But having used the PS Audio with highly transparent moving-coil cartridges such as Shelter’s remarkable Harmony MC, I’m convinced the GCPH delivers as much detail and treble extension as anything in it class, though without the treble artifacts and artificial sheen many other phonostages impose. To get significantly higher levels of resolution, you’ll have to spend quite a bit more.
Overall, PS Audio’s GCPH is the most versatile and best sounding sub-$1k phonostage I’ve yet heard (though Musical Surroundings’ Phonomena II, which I’ve not yet tried, might offer competition). It is also as quiet (if not quieter) than fine battery-powered units such as Sutherland’s excellent Ph3D. But perhaps the GCPH’s greatest strength is that it constantly reveals and reinforces the unforced beauty of analog playback in this digital age.