When my memory serves me well, and on audio related topics it usually does, the two best phono stages I have had at home were equipped with LCR RIAA EQ networks. So when I noticed that Remton Audio of the Czech Republic was making one I immediately contacted UK distributor BD-Audio. A little explanation of LCR: the RIAA circuits in most phono stages use resistor and capacitor networks in the feedback circuit to reverse the RIAA slope used to make vinyl records. But feedback can alter the sound, so not only do you get RIAA correction but coloration too. Another option is to use coils in the filter network next to the capacitors and resistors. The signal passes through the coils instead of a feedback loop. The advantage is that coloration related to feedback is eliminated; the disadvantage is the cost of precision coils. The other phono stages I have tried that use LCR were a Manley Labs Steelhead and a Van Den Hul The Grail SB, both of which are far more expensive than Remton Audio LCR Mk2.
The LCR factor
The Remton LCR comes in two forms, Remton Audio prefers not to have moving coil step-up transformers onboard. Its philosophy is that every MC cartridge has an optimum MC transformer and you need to find this for yourself. But why not use built-in step-ups if you are prepared to settle for a little less sound quality in order to save yourself a lot of trouble and an extra pair of costly interconnects. That is why the Mk2 was built, it has an MM and an MC input. But apart from the Sowter MC transformers and adjustment options, the electronic circuits in the LCR and LCR Mk2 are the same. Two JJ Electronics double triodes (ECC81 and an E88CC/6922) per channel handle the amplification. Custom Sowter coils are used in the RIAA LCR filter and you will find a power supply with two independent voltage sources, capacitors from SCR and Icel, NOS high precision non-magnetic and non-inductive resistors next to Vishay and Akane types. Remton claims to handpick each part before assembly. Inside the steel and aluminium case there are two neatly laid out circuit boards without any unnecessary frills. The back panel features the two inputs and an RCA output plus an earth post, a single toggle switch to choose between MM and MC and another for each channel to select between a 1:10 or 1:20 ratio on the MC transformers, the resulting gain runs from 38dB on MM to 58 or 64dB on MC. Two dipswitch banks can be used to vary the input impedance.
My record player consists of a Transrotor Super Seven turntable with SME 5009 arm and Transfiguration Axia cartridge. Optimum results were obtained using the 1:20 ratio on the Remton Audio LCR Mk2, giving 64dB of amplification and using an input impedance of 118 Ohm. Cabling was VdH from arm to phono stage and Crystal Cable Ultra to my Audia Strumento No.1 preamp. From there a Pass Labs X250.5 power amp with a pair of PMC fact.12 loudspeakers made all the noise. Source components, including the LCR Mk2, are fed with regenerated mains power using a PS Audio Power Plant P5.
More so than any other phono stages I’ve had at home the Remton Audio LCR Mk2 reminds me of the Manley Labs and the Van den Hul, the LCR network might be the reason for this as it neither distracts from nor adds to the sound which combines perfect harmony and unlimited dynamics. These three phono stages have a correctness that sounds very natural to the ear, although each still has its own pros and cons. I had the Manley at home a long time ago, the Van den Hul was more recent. But we will stick with the results with the Remton from now on. Among the numerous records I played was Dead Can Dance’s Into The Labyrinth, which provided a clear example of the dynamics and micro details available from the phono stage. Voice stands out clearly, but most of all the bass is very tight and controlled, a little more wildness and power might be nice, percussion however is excellent. Stereo image is among the best I have had at home. Music never sticks to the loudspeakers but develops a virtual sound bubble. The stereo image has full height and is wide enough to be among the best too.
The record that always proves how good vinyl can sound is a reissue of the best songs of French singer Juliette Gréco. If she sounds good, the system is good, and the Remton makes her sound very good indeed. Her voice is warm and intimate, Juliette curls up like a cat on your lap. The voice has power and seems totally uncoloured. Little French instruments also find a place of their own, filling the gaps around the voice and adding to the impression. Again the stereo image is larger than I am used to, but without a voice that becomes too big to be lifelike. The scale and tonality of the instruments and the singer are completely correct. It is always nice to be able to hear that the tracks were recorded in different studio and the Remton lets you hear the cues that give it away. Maybe a Manley or VdH is slightly better in some respects, but in terms of value it is in a league of its own.
Playing The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett the concert hall acoustics are very clear, it’s very easy to visualise where the grand piano is on stage and how big the venue is. Keith ‘sings’ along with his playing even though nobody is waiting for it (or wants to hear it, Ed), but it is not masked by the phono stage as can sometimes be the case. The piano itself is very, very clear and pure. The noise Jarrett makes on the stage floor sounds like wood, it all falls into place. However, the piano could have more grandeur, the lower notes should have more impact, more power. This is not only in my notes for this recording, but for classical piano concerts too. The instrument is powerful, so it should sound that way. This might not be noticeable on smaller loudspeakers and less powerful amps but it will be apparent to those who have invested in big systems to reproduce the deepest notes. As Remton probably states it might be better to get the standard LCR version and buy a separate MC step-up transformer for ultimate results (the £500 difference in price would buy a decent standalone step-up if not the partnering cables).
I put on an old record of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-fields playing L’Estro Armonico Opus 3 from Vivaldi. A beautiful work recorded in 1972 for the Argo label that proved how good the LCR Mk2 is in every aspect. The music sounds lively, engaging, dynamic and free from artefacts. Perceived distortion is very low; the tubes inside the Remton produce measured distortion that’s comparable to those from solid state amplifiers. I believe a good phono stage should be stacked with tubes for musicality reasons. It’s probably why I find myself conducting the orchestra from my couch!
To complete the review I treated myself to a couple of wonderful lady singers, one from the England and another from the Netherlands. The Dutch Inge Andersen recorded Fallen Angel for Meyer Records, a high quality label from Germany. Oh boy does this sound good. The human voice is around us every day, which makes it the best to judge a system on, and Inge sounds extremely natural. There’s acoustic guitar, piano and electric bass in the background and a violin playing solo parts. The stereo image is wide open which adds to the sense of reality, it’s a joy to listen to. Next on 33 1/3 rpm is the Changing Lights by Stacey Kent who is also known to for high quality recordings. She has a more trained voice than Inge, nevertheless both singers are adorable on this phono stage. As they both feature musicians playing mainly acoustic instruments these LPs show the rich musicality of the Remton. In the end I went back to my own phono stage, which also has tubes and MC transformers, it’s good but not in the class of the Remton.
Now that it’s off the shelf I am reluctant to repack it and send it back to the Czech Republic. The Remton lets the music flow into the room in such a natural way, it has an ease that is seldom disrupted, no matter what you throw at it. Classical, jazz, pop, male or female singers make no difference to the way you experience the rich and dynamic sound of the LCR Mk2. In my opinion LCR circuits are far superior to CR networks for RIAA EQ, but that’s not the only part of the Remton that counts, the tubes, resistors, capacitors and power supply play an important part too. Actually the complete package reveals a deep knowledge of electronics and love for music reproduction. What makes this phono stage the one to put high on your shopping list? It will bring you closer to the music source than most, it’s a true high end product that deserves high praise.