iFi iPhono3 Black Label

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iFi iPhono3 Black Label
Friday, May 22, 2020

iFi’s new iPhono3 Black Label phono stage (£999) is the “perfect fix for vinyl addicts, ensuring every record is heard just as the artist intended”. Several years in development and incorporating technology derived from the £12,000 PH-77 phono preamplifier from sister-company AMR, iFi’s iPhono3 Black Label is configurable to match “any MC/MM cartridge and suit every record”.

The iPhono3 Black Label’s circuit is direct-coupled – there is no coupling capacitor from cartridge to output. This is achieved without a conventional DC servo; iFi calls this design Direct Drive Servoless, incorporating a proprietary DC Infinity circuit to boost DC gain to a level approaching infinity. Once the feedback loop is closed, the DC gain cancels all offset voltages to deliver a direct-coupled output with 0V DC offset. The key to the DC Infinity circuit is that it only changes the gain below approximately 0.01Hz, while leaving the AC behaviour of the circuit at higher frequencies unchanged, injecting neither noise nor distortion into the audio signal. This contributes greatly to the iPhono3 Black Label’s audible clarity, accuracy and transparency. 

At the iPhono3 Black Label’s heart lies iFi’s third generation TubeState engine, the result of four decades of research into valve and transistor technology by the company’s Technical Director, Thorsten Loesch. TubeState is solid-state circuitry designed to capture the key attributes that make valve circuits so sonically appealing whilst maintaining ultra-low distortion. Specialised JFET op-amps combine with a Class A buffer circuit featuring hand-matched PNP bipolar transistors; the buffer circuit minimises the loading of the amplifier circuit and biases the output stage into single-ended Class A. High input impedance approaches the ‘zero loading’ a valve grid provides, with excellent drive-ability and “vanishingly low distortion”. 

A series of DIP switches on the underside of the unit enable gain and load to be set – essential to getting the very best performance from a high-performance cartridge. Gain can be adjusted between 36dB and 72dB, alongside a wide variety of load values – eight for MC cartridges and a further five for MM cartridges. Spending a little time to set up the ideal combination to match the cartridge on your turntable delivers great sonic reward – iFi has created an online ‘cartridge calculator’ to assist with this. 

The iPhono3 Black Label is not only great at pairing perfectly with your cartridge; you can also tailor the sound to match specific records in your collection, thanks to a variety of precisely engineered EQ curves. A toggle switch allows the user to select between three EQ curves: RIAA, Columbia and Decca. It can generally be assumed that LPs produced from 1980 onwards were made using RIAA equalisation, which means they should sound best with the RIAA setting engaged. But records released before 1980 may have been made using different equalisation and may sound better with the Columbia or Decca EQ curve engaged. 

This applies not only to records released by those specific labels. For example, many of Deutsche Grammophon’s classical records released before 1980 can sound dry and flat – this is because they were produced using the Decca EQ curve and very few phono stages provide this option, but with the correct EQ applied they should sound more natural. As a general rule, if an LP sounds thin and edgy with the RIAA EQ, try the Decca EQ curve; if it sounds overly bright with overblown bass, try the Columbia setting. 

More DIP switches on the underside allow the RIAA EQ setting to be further tuned to taste. Users can choose the standard RIAA curve – applied with +/- 0.2dB accuracy – or an enhanced version called ‘eRIAA’ offering extended high-frequency response. Alternatively, if the user has problems with warped records, which can cause a large signal output in the subsonic region, the IEC setting takes the standard RIAA curve and applies a subsonic filter to tackle the issue. Finally, the eRIAA+IEC setting applies the subsonic filter to the enhanced RIAA curve. 

The iPhono3 Black Label comes with the 15V version of iFi’s new iPower X ultra-low-noise AC/DC power supply (£99 when purchased separately). This delivers an exceptionally low noise floor and contributes significantly to the phono stage’s class-leading performance.