REVIEW: OAD ULTRAFIDELITY UP1 PHONO PREAMPLIFIER
If you want the very best from your vinyl playback system, then you're going to want to consider an external and dedicated phono preamplifier. We take a look at the latest offer from OAD Ultrafidelity, designed and manufactured right here in Australia.
AUD $2,799 RRP
Phono stages, also known as phono pre-amps, are usually unseen and are often under-appreciated for their contribution to an analog sound system.
Many music lovers plug their turntable directly into the phono input of an integrated amplifier or preamplifier and don't give it another thought.
Wouldn't you want the best sound that your system is capable of? There are definite gains to be had, especially for those of us that have a decent turntable/arm/cartridge combination, by using a discrete outboard phono stage.
Rather than a small, cost-effective afterthought by many amplifier manufacturers, why not use a specialist purpose-made component? It will almost always sound much better.
Although you can buy a phono stage for less than one hundred dollars, true high-end models are usually north of a couple of thousand dollars, and literally, the sky is the limit. For users that have invested in expensive low output moving coil cartridges, the need for a low noise and high gain phono stage is crucial to get the best sound quality from your investment.
Melbourne-based Jon De Sensi, previously from Music Labs and now the chief designer and owner of OAD Ultrafidelity, has answered the calling to create a genuinely high-end phono stage. It's hand made here in Australia and was designed to better the competitor's products, but sell at well below the cost of many of them.
The Evaluation System
I was invited to Sonic Purity, a high-end boutique showroom in Moorabbin, Victoria, where a variety of OAD components were already set up and playing. Sonic Purity is the retail outlet of the Pure Music Group, which distributes the OAD Ultrafidelity brand. So it was no coincidence that the UP1 Phono Stage was plugged into an OAD CP1 Preamplifier and UF1 Power Amplifier.
The Preamplifier and Power Amplifier have been around for a year or two now, but the UF1 Phono Stage ($2,799 RRP) is brand new. I wasn't complaining, especially as proprietors Warwick Freemantle and Rom Beyerle have a particularly lovely shop, stocked with lots of tasty turntables better than any of the three rigs that I own.
The analogue rig consisted of a Thales TTT-S II Turntable, a Thales Easy Tonearm & Cable and a Phasemation PP-500 MC Cartridge for a total cost of $21,600. OAD Ultrafidelity amplification was connected to Gauder Akustik Vescova Mk II, Macassar Ebony Loudspeakers using an Argento Flow set of cables.
The OAD UP1 Phono Stage is a two-box device, with a separate smaller box holding a toroidal transformer, so that stray magnetic fields and micro-vibrations are kept well away from any sensitive areas of the system.
The main box contains the rest of the electronics, and a detachable cable connects the two. The fit and finish on the metalwork is a thing of beauty. As most items of this type are, it's available in any colour that you prefer, as long as you prefer black. Yes, but it's black with a soft satin finish that feels very classy, and unlike any metalwork that I've previously seen that's been made in Australia.
The case starts as 12mm thick aluminium sheets and is CNC machined on the inside to around 6mm on the sides and back panel, with hidden fasteners and internal strengthening. It ends up like a clamshell with the precision-fitted top cover, keeping everything inside safely hidden. The design ensures that the device is very rigid and free of resonances.
Inside sits a DC power supply with ultra-low noise voltage regulators and six 47,000uF smoothing caps, almost overkill until you consider that in audio, sound quality is ultimately determined by the quality of a power supply.
Power is fed to two separate boards for the left and right channels, as it's a dual-mono design. Jon De Sensi paid careful attention to grounding and to keep noise to extraordinarily low levels; each of the boards has a separate ground plane layer. For the RIAA equalisation, precision 1% polystyrene capacitors are used.
One of the design criteria of the UP1 was to provide enough gain so that it would suit even the lowest output moving coil cartridges available. An active stage was necessary to achieve this. There are several dip switches on the rear panel of the device that allow the end-user to tailor the exact amount of gain required. A general MM 40db gain or MC 60db is the first step, but then a separate gain set of dip switches are provided so that you can switch in an additional 20db of gain, in 5db increments.
Six cartridge impedance loading switches are provided, for a total of seven settings, plus combinations of settings along with three capacitance settings, ensuring that you can match almost any cartridge to your system.
The output from the phono stage features pairs of high-quality, balanced XLR or unbalanced RCA connections, but input is unbalanced RCA only.
A small barely noticeable green LED is lit on the front panel to indicate that the stage is powered up and operational, which happens as soon as the power is connected, as there are no on-off power switches anywhere. The unit is meant to be continuously powered on for maximum sound quality. The unit only draws about 5W of current and does not even get warm to the touch.
With the complete system already put together and warmed up before my arrival, it was easy to get comfortable and start listening to some music. The Phasemation PP-500 MC Cartridge was optimised to 75db of gain via the DIP switches, and there was absolutely no hint of noise or hum present. It was utterly silent, and this silence was used to very good effect with music that virtually erupted from a very dark background with clarity and dynamic expression.
Unless you have heard vinyl at its best, and by that I mean on a decent high-end rig that's been professionally set up with everything working the way that it should, you cannot believe how good it can sound.
For those that have only heard digital, you would be amazed at how incredible in almost every parameter good vinyl sounds. It's natural, smooth, and beautiful, with instruments and vocals, ah vocals, sounding so lifelike, so real. The OAD system delivered that in every way, and I was not the least disappointed. If anything, I remained shocked at how good it sounded.
With a vinyl playback system, every component that touches the record and then amplifies the signal is critical and can damage any of the previous step's attempts at fidelity. That is why a phono preamplifier is so essential. And that is especially true of the purest and most coveted of cartridges, the low output moving coil. The UP1 phono stage is capable of cleanly and quietly delivering a line-level signal output with a phono cartridge input as low as 80 micro-volts. That's an almost insignificantly minute amount.
Dropping the needle on the slow and deliberate track by Ella and Louis, “Tenderly” it was devoid of any surface noise, as Armstrong's trumpet played the introduction that sounded very clean and unmistakably Louis, but much fuller sounding than the digital copy.
Then Ella's gorgeous voice filled the centre stage with a wow moment; it was so effortless, as smooth as silk and thoroughly real. There was not even a suggestion of stridency or strain, but rather a very relaxed performance with a vast three-dimensional soundstage, everything sounding lovely.
The same with the saxophone in a Count Basie track that sadly I didn't get the name of. The instrument sounded breathy like a real saxophone does, and the image was big and filled the room with its tone. The lower registers to me were a standout, with dynamism and a jump factor that you don't hear very often unless you are in a nightclub, or hearing it live.
Switching it up to Yello and their “Touch” album, tracks sounded so incredibly dynamic and punchy that it was like listening to a gunfight. Reading back through my handwritten notes - “slam by the bucket loads” - because there was so much physicality and punch.
Yes, vinyl can deliver as much, if not more power and kick than digital when it's done right. I also noted the long decays and reverb tails, observing the excellent definition and very low noise floor. The soundstage was superb with a spread of the instruments and vocals in a three-dimensional plane, with images extending well beyond the loudspeakers.
Reading this review back, it could sound like I've been describing the entire system rather than the OAD UP1 phono stage, which, technically is the subject of the review, and you would be partially correct. Yes, the system as a whole performed incredibly well, just as any professional setup should. However, every component contributed to the overall soundscape.
With that thought in mind, we swapped out the OAD UP1 for another high-quality phone stage, the German-made ASR Audiosysteme Mini Basis.
By switching back and forward between the ASR phono stage and the OAD, it allowed me to hear each of their collective strengths and weaknesses. Initially listening to the ASR was pleasant, but as time progressed, something was missing. After a few minutes, I worked out the dynamics are blunted, and it's not as punchy and powerful sounding.
It also seemed a little hazy and comparatively indistinct with detail glossed over. Swapping back to the OAD was a bigger deal than I imagined. The noise floor of the OAD was lower, allowing a more transparent window into the performance. The soundstage was again large and gloriously three-dimensional while the way that it handled bass or lower notes were far more tuneful, textured and realistic.
There was no doubt that the OAD UP1 was a far superior product, and all of the qualities that I was hearing were due to the phono stage doing its job so darn well.
We finished off our session by playing a rare album recorded in Germany back in 1986 named “Virtuose Tänze” with Winfried Rüssmann on Violine and Carmen Piazzini on Klavier. The composer is Pablo De Sarasate, and the track is “Habanera OP. 21 NO. 2”.
It's a Spanish dance and is happy, lively and expressive. The soundstage was massive, filling the gap between the loudspeakers and extending beyond their locations, even with only two instruments playing. I really enjoyed how natural the violin sounded, and you could clearly hear the technique that Rüssmann used. With your eyes closed, you can see him swaying his head from side to side and hear the texture of the bow on the strings and how they resonate and create sound. The amount of detail and musicality is something that I enjoyed immensely and will long remember.
I think that anyone in the market for a phono stage owes it to themselves to have a listen to the new OAD UP1. Those with a decent turntable and cartridge may discover how much they have been missing out on, especially with more affordable phono stages.
The UP1 has been designed for a specific purpose, and while its price puts it at the entry-level of the high-end phono stage market, it delivers a performance much, much higher. It has intentionally been priced aggressively and in my opinion, should surpass virtually everything in its price range.
The UP1 performs sonically at very high levels and has no apparent flaws or limitations. The simplicity of design, combined with its excellent build quality is up there with the best products available at anywhere near the price.
It has enough gain to match the lowest output moving coil cartridges and enough flexibility to provide optimisation with virtually all cartridges, making the UP1 a future-proof investment when it comes to equipment upgrades.
Many enthusiasts head down the cartridge upgrade path first. It would be prudent to consider a new phono stage before you change cartridges, as you just may not be hearing all of your analog system's potential.
- Input: RCA
- Output: 1 pair Unbalanced RCA (single ended) , 1 pair Balanced XLR
- Input impedance: 22 Ohm – 47 kOhm (selectable in 8 steps)
- Input capacitance (without additional switched capacitance): 100 pF
- Input sensitivity: 200uV – 20 mV
- Gain: 40 – 80 dB (2 VRMS output at 1 kHz)
- THD: 0.005 % (1 kHz)
- Signal to Noise Ratio: MM cartridge: >107 dB A-weighted, input shorted, MC cartridge: > 85 dB A-weighted, input shorted
- RIAA linearity: +/- 0.2 dB (20 Hz – 20 kHz)
- Output impedance: 50 ohm
- Nominal output: 2 VRMS
- Maximum output: 10.5 VRMS
- Power consumption: 5 W
- Dimensions: Preamplifier W 210 x D 183 x H 95 mm, 2.3 kg. Power Supply: W 114 x D 130 x H 63 mm, 1.25 kg
- Mains Fuse: 500mA slow blow
- Shipping Weight: 5kg
For more information, visit OAD Ultrafidelity.
Starting his first audio consultancy business in the early ’80s whilst also working professionally in the electronics industry, Mark now splits his time between professional reviewing and AV consultancy.
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