It’s almost miraculous that the MP3 generation has brought about a revival in the fortunes of vinyl, of all the people to grab hold of a format that has long been dear to the audiophile’s heart you wouldn’t have expected it to be the ones who can carry all their music around on a mobile phone. But there’s nowt queerer than folk it seems and we should be thankful for it, especially since it should sustain the companies we depend on to make and maintain the playback hardware required to enjoy the ultimate format. I know that the youngest vinyl enthusiasts can’t afford serious turntables and what have you but a percentage of them are buying decent turntables which means that some will get the upgrade bug and end up wanting phono stages like the ones that Tom Evans makes in Aberbargoed, South Wales. Of these the lengthily named Groove+ SRX MkII is one of the more ambitious models, sitting just below the two Mastergroove models at the top of the tree.
As ever with this brand the casework is black acrylic chosen for its non magnetic properties, something that despite the claims is not true of most aluminium chassis. Tom started building phono stages when John Michell of turntable fame wanted one to put in his range, that product was the Michell Iso which as those with good memories will remember was likewise encased in black acrylic albeit smaller than this model and closer to the Microgroove that is made to today. The deal with the Groove range is that the more you spend the lower the noise and thus the cleaner the signal, but at this level you also get distortion cancellation. Tom Evans appreciates that it’s noise and distortion in a phono amplifier that limits what it can resolve in terms of musical detail, so with the SRX model and above the circuitry gets more and more complex and the power supplies quieter in an attempt to lift the veil and let more of the music through.
It is hard to comprehend how small the signal from a moving coil cartridge is, but the maximum 2V signal from a DAC is 10,000 greater than the 0.2mV signal produced by an MC cartridge. You don’t need to amplify it to that extent, 500mV would be sufficient to drive a line input but that’s still 2,500x. Which illustrates just how quiet a phono stage has to be if it’s to avoid swamping such tiny signals in noise.
This one has quite a few DIP switches on the back which adjust impedance and capacitance; although this is a moving coil stage and such cartridges aren’t very sensitive to capacitance it can make a difference. There are nine impedance settings from 112 Ohms to 1000 Ohms and Tom recommends that you experiment with these to find the best match for your cartridge and attendant tonearm cable, he says that it’s frequently the case that a higher setting than that recommended will work best. There are five load capacitor settigns from 100 pF, which is usually what’s recommended for most MCs, to 500 pF in 100 pF steps. Again the key is experimentation. There is no option to adjust gain, that’s fixed and is said to suit cartridges with outputs between 0.2mV and 0.6mV, no actual gain figure is provided. I found that I had to wind up the volume about 25% higher than with a regular line source such as a streamer but that’s fairly normal for a phono stage and MC combo.
I used the Groove+ with a variety of moving coils including a Rega Aphelion, Audio Technica ART1000 and Transfiguration Proteus and got superb results with all of them. You can read about what it did with the ART1000 in my review of that cartridge, but in essence it allowed it to reveal just how remarkable a creation that unconventional MC is. The Groove+ has very little in the way of audible character which is presumably why you can hear so much detail through it, it makes the admittedly more affordable Trilogy 907 sound quite fruity and simplified in terms of how much it resolves, and that always seemed quite a revealing phono stage. But this is clearly in another league thanks to genuinely high resolution, if it were a TV it would be in the 10K league, a point still somewhere in the distant future for video technology. It really does dig down into the signal in a fashion that you don’t get with many pieces of kit, the balance can seem lean but when some deep, juicy bass comes along you know all about it. What you don’t get is any thickening of the sound, some designers tune their products to have a slightly warmer sound in order perhaps to make less revealing systems sound more luxurious. But if you want to hear more of the music and less of the equipment then a totally neutral balance is the only way to go and this is very much the case here. Before its had a hundred or so hours of run-in that means it can sound slightly thin with certain records, the top end needs some hours to get it fleshed out. But once you get to that stage there’s no limit to how much fun can be had with a great record collection.
With the Transfiguration Proteus cartridge the Groove+ delivered lovely delicacy of voice and a degree of insight that is rare alongside which produces a very strong sense of presence. High frequency detail is particularly well served which helps with leading edge definition, with this cartridge this key to timing is clearly defined but not emphasised so the result is high on transparency yet has a natural balance. But the actual sense of timing is entirely down to the turntable, arm and cartridge, this phono stage lets you hear just how good your record player is or otherwise. So when it’s an SME 20/3 you get a lovely sense of flow and deliciously deep tonal colour, when it’s a Rega RP10 the sense of interplay between musicians is spectacular and rhythms can get as complex as you like and remain totally coherent. So the stage has a flat perceived response and no tendency to forwardness in order to create a pacier sound, nor a little bit of warmth to enrich the result.
There must be more detail and riches to be mined from vinyl otherwise Tom wouldn’t make the Master Groove, but as with everything high end you have to pay a high price for the last ounce of detail and for my money the Groove+ SRX MkII gets you very close to as good as it gets for a price that while high is less heavy on the wallet than many. This is a serious piece of kit make no mistake, it may not have a shiny metal case with lots of switches but that’s precisely why it’s so good at digging down into the signal, metal cases are not good for sound quality but they are good for marketing and sales. Ditto switches, the fewer breaks there are in the signal the better. It’s also worth noting that phono stages are like other amplifiers inasmuch as it’s hard to realise how much better they can get until you hear it. I remember putting a slightly rather nice Audio Note (Japan) phono stage on a turntable with a £50 MM cartridge once and being staggered at what came out of it. So don’t think that I’m talking about incremental improvements here, the Groove+ can mine real musical gold out of the groove on even worn vinyl. Don’t buy the latest remaster buy a better phono stage and reinvigorate your whole collection.