In this part of the world small brand Japanese audio has a caché that you just can’t buy, it takes years of consistently high quality in build and sound to achieve but once established gives even new companies a leg up. The good work of Audio Note Japan, Koetsu, Shindo, 47 Labs and many others rubs off on newcomers such as Aurorasound which has been making audio electronics for three years now in Yokohama. It’s founder Shinobu Karaki paid his dues at Texas Instruments and maybe that’s why the VIDA phono stage takes a less trod path to equalising of the signal produced by a phono cartridge.
The VIDA maximises its Japanese appeal with some distinctly retro styling, a look that was revived so successfully by Leben in recent years and clearly has plenty of appeal in certain niches of the market. I like the wooden frame surround but feel that the badge lets it down somewhat, its eighties styling being at odds with the fifties look of the cabinet. The huge button is for muting, not something I have often felt the need for on a phono stage but one way of providing a polished presentation devoid of the thump produced by the stylus landing in the groove. Paul Messenger always felt that this was as good an indication of a speaker’s bass extension as any piece of music!
The layout inside is almost the opposite of the external styling, this is a bang up to the minute phono stage that uses an LCR (inductor, capacitor, resistor) network for the RIAA equalisation, according to its maker it’s the first of its type in this regard. The main benefit of this approach appears to be that resistor values can be kept low and that the EQ stage presents a constant impedance to the first gain stage. The actual inductors used are Lundahl types and are the same size as that company’s step up transformers, Karaki has pictures of his visit to Lundahl in Sweden on his site. The only drawback that Aurorasound points out with this approach is that it is sensitive to noise from power transformers, but this is often the case with phono stages and the reason that many have a separate power supply chassis like the VIDA does.
As well as the rather obvious mute button there are more attractive switches for stereo/mono, direct or subsonically filtered, MC/MM and high or low impedance for moving coils. The fifth switch is a degauss facility. I would have liked to have seen more variety in terms of impedance options which are 100 Ohms for the high setting and 10 Ohms for the low, a slightly odd combination but a typically Japanese one as well.
I used the VIDA with a Van den Hul Condor MC mounted on the Series V arm of an SME Model 20/3 turntable and used my Trilogy 907 phono stage as a point of reference. The VIDA has rather less gain than the Trilogy (which is adjustable) but no shortage of grip in the bass, this end of the spectrum being taut and muscular which I enjoyed a lot. The midrange is rather different with a slight ‘glow’ or spotlighting that brings a freshness to the music but may be indicative of some emphasis in this department. There is plenty of space for reverb to expand into and low noise levels that let fine details through with ease. On Keb Mo’s slightly thick sounding Peace, Back by Popular Demand (Pure Pleasure Records) the organ pulls itself out of the mix more clearly than usual and the bass line delivers what can only be described as slam, things were beginning to get interesting. It appears to have Rega quality timing, eg high, and tube style openness, it was becoming apparent why tube amp maker Pure Sound had decided to bring in a tube free component.
It has something of the tube sound though, this became clear when I put on Patricia Barber’s What A Shame (Café Blue remix/remaster, Premonition Records – a superb piece of vinyl). The presence of the singer in the room was palpable and the space in the recording decidedly expansive. The Trilogy 907 brought more of the bass weight out and had better timing but the voice wasn’t as pure. It was a close call though, they are both fine stages with the ability to deliver a coherent, detailed sound that is replete with dynamic energy. Another fine pressing, the Grateful Dead’s Blues for Allah (Audio Fidelity) seemed a shade short on gain, the stage has a light touch inasmuch as it doesn’t add much to the sound and you can easily appreciate the effortlessness of the band but it could have delivered a bit more of the power from the groove. It occurred to me at this point that the VIDA was probably designed with an active preamp, my Townshend Allegri is not such a device and this could be critical with lower level recordings.
Moving over to a Rega RP6 with a Dynavector DV-20X2H proved a good idea, this high output MC cartridge and turntable doesn’t have the finesse and focus of the previous combo but boy does it swing. It also sounded better via the lower gain MM input which brings back some of the image focus and delivers a stronger sense of three dimensionality.
To balance things a little I also used the VIDA in a system with a Valvet P2c tube preamplifier and the same Condor cartridge, here gain was not an issue, nor was there any hint of hum. The results were very entertaining with loads of recording character coming through from every record played, the Mothers of Invention Live at the Fillmore East sounding ancient soundwise and not as good as they did with Flo and Eddie on Just Another Band from LA, but super nonetheless. The sound was open and transparent with plenty of detail and scale. Simon Spillet on Gearbox (Square One) sounded so authentically fifties that it’s hard to credit its contemporary creation. Al Green Explores Your Mind (Pure Pleasure Records) also provided a vibrant and rich pageant of soul dynamism that has rarely sounded more intense.
The Aurorasound VIDA comes closer to combining the qualities of tubes and transistors in a phono stage than most that I’ve heard and certainly any at the price. It has the quiet gain of solid state and the transparency and openness of tubes, in short it sounds better than it looks, and I like the looks.
I see that Aurorasound has produced a tube powered DAC/preamp called CADA, revealing Karaki san’s appreciation of glass audio despite his solid state background, I wonder what sort power amp he has?