As those who read my output will know, vinyl replay is one of my favourite subjects, both from exploring new releases, and from the ‘new bits of kit’ perspective. Those who delve back through the archives will also note that to date most of my hardware reviews has been of the mid- to hi-end variety. That’s not to say those at a lower price point don’t perform, very often they give ‘more’ performance for a modest price (on a pound-for-pound basis), but usually the bigger-ticket items do ultimately give more. Or do they?
I found myself challenging that statement with a more serious look at a diminutive package, the Tisbury Domino phono stage. The Domino was launched way back in pre-pandemic times, late 2017 to be accurate. Physically, it’s tiny. A nice lightweight aluminium enclosure with a wooden faceplace sporting a green neon tell-tale and a neat etched monogram are all you see. Round the back are two pairs of phono in- and output sockets, a ground connection (a nice chromed knob affair), an on/off switch and a socket for what appears to be a wall-wart power supply but is actually a regulated 15V AC adaptor.
Tucked away underneath the box are two banks of DIP switches which allow the user to select the loading and gain most appropriate for your cartridge and system. Output is line-level, so this is a proper fully-fledged phono stage, and not a step-up device boosting the miniscule output of an MC to MM levels. The gain settings are variously 40, 49, 58 and 67db. The compromise (if it is one) is that there are only two impedance settings: 47kOhms for moving magnet (MM), and 100 Ohms for moving coil (MC) cartridges. In practice (I tried quite a number of other cartridges besides the ones mentioned in this appraisal) the loading made marginal differences compared with a couple of other phono stages, but weren’t significant in terms of sound quality, so would appear to be sensibly-chosen values, altering the gain made no difference to sound quality, and I never managed to overload the input (as far as could be discerned at least).
RIAA equalisation is a claimed 0.2db accurate (but this wasn’t checked), and the circuit topology nestles a passive RIAA filter between two separate gain stages where 0.1% thin film resistors and 1% polypropylene caps are used in key places.
The system that the Domino was used in is rather a price-mismatch, with an single ended valve amplifier, horn loudspeakers and a fairly heavyweight arm/cartridge combination, with an Audio Note (Kondo) Io MC on the front end, a cartridge that’s well known for its measly output. If anything was going to show up any noise anomalies, this would be it. But no, it was simple to dial in the ‘best’ settings for the Io and the Domino sounded pretty good from first switch-on.
For those that need to know about noise, I cranked the volume knob up with the arm still in its rest. The result (at virtually full volume): hum – virtually none; hiss – some, but quite frankly, so little that any music you’d play at that level would more than mask it. And would you really want it played that loud?
So to the auditioning. My son has a soft spot for London Grammar, and in deference to his gift of one of their LPs, Truth is a Beautiful Thing landed on the platter and I pinned my ears back. As those who know this album will be aware, Hannah Reid’s voice can sound strident, a facet which can upset some audio systems. Soaring as it does over some uber-bass on this album, there’s a recipe for disaster if things aren’t properly set up. Fortunately the Io is a very good performer, and gave a clean signal to the Tisbury. So how did the Tisbury handle these extremes? Effortlessly.
The deep bass was clear, deft, and weighty without being lugubrious. Reid’s voice retained its strident qualities, yet also revealed its softer side in other parts of the album. The Tisbury handled the overall soundscape with no distress, and no upset. In fact it remained (if it can be said) remarkably poised throughout. Upper reaches were clear, unfatiguing and free from any hint of glare. So far, so good.
Next on the platter was an old favourite – Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas under the direction of Thurston Dart on L’Oiseau Lyre (SOL60047). I am fortunate enough to have a particularly fine copy of this, and despite the vagaries of age which now afflict the performance, the sound quality is particularly good. The Tisbury allowed the performance to sparkle. There was a good impression of space around the performers, especially the St Anthony Singers, and the orchestra was well focussed. The strings never came across as shrill, and the bottom end of things was firm, vibrant and very clean. The other aspect which came as a surprise, but which, on reflection I should have been looking out for was the range of dynamic contrasts. Admittedly, with the Io’s ridiculously low output I had the Domino on the highest gain setting, but nevertheless at times I was almost on the point of being made to ‘jump’ with some of the freshness and vitality of the rendition.
An older recording then hit the platter, Columbia Jazz Festival, a showcase disc from 1961, and very raw. Most of the recordings were simple twin-mic affairs, with no place to hide for the performers. Again the Tisbury excelled, with a deftness, excellent reproduction of the rasp of brass and the earthy vocals which really began to put me in the recording space.
OK. So that’s with an Io on the front. What about something a little more mainstream such as a Rega Planar 3 with an Ortofon 2M Black moving magnet cartridge on the front end. I flipped the Domino over, reset the DIP switches and sat down again. Simply Red this time, Stars being the album which first came to hand. Quiet lead-in grooves, and again, firm bass, alert and open treble and Hucknall’s voice eerily realistic between my speakers. Cranking up the volume didn’t produce any nastiness, and if anything brought the band more into the room rather than being slightly recessed as before.
A bit of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, followed by Frank from Any Winehouse. It seemed that none of this was going to catch the Domino out. A bit of organ music, Christopher Herrick’s Organ Fireworks (MHS7187A) was given a spin. This was the most surprising disc of all, as you may know, the majority of concert organs are within large ecclesiastical buildings (or concert halls) with an often system-upsetting echo. Not here. The Domino revealed the size of the acoustic space, the enormous power of the instrument and the splendour of the performance without any fuss at all. All in a day’s work – though the end result was anything but workmanlike – it was engaging, musical, engrossing and quite frankly a revelation. Even the ultra-low bass pedal notes from 32- and 64-foot pipes failed to upset the apple-cart.
My conclusion? Well, it comes as a rather worrying realisation that a phono stage with such a range of adaptability, which costs less than 1% of the value of the rest of the system, actually fitted in with ease, and complemented the rest so very well. It really was (in the very best sense) a revelation. If funds are tight and you need a phono stage, the Tisbury Domino has to be the way to go. If you’ve a lot more available to spend, and you need a phono stage, then it’s more than worthy of very serious consideration. Quite often an inexpensive system, set up well, can sound a lot better than a poorly set up highly-priced system. However, here, in the Domino we have a product which does so very much, and which will more than hold its own in any well-set-up system, regardless of how far up the price-ladder you push it.