Zinamp valve phono stage MM/MC edition
The Zinamp phono stage is designed for vinyl enthusiasts of both traditional varieties. The ‘I have one and that’s fine for me’, and the ‘I like tweaking so have three turntables and five cartridges and four arms which I like to mix and match’ camp. There seems to be very little middle ground. That having been said, fortunately cartridge types have tended to stabilise into either moving magnet or moving coil types. However, within the MC camp there are many different loading settings which manufacturers specify that profess to offer the best performance, whereas the MM variety tends to be relatively consistent, with little variation. From the above it’s a fairly safe bet that over the lifetime of turntable ownership, and the ongoing quest for something better, a change of cartridge, arm turntable or all three at one or more times during a lifetime’s journey through sound is likely to occur.
Then there are those, like me, who are fascinated by the premise of dragging a rock through a carefully ploughed furrow in a piece of revolving vinyl and who collect different cartridges, arms, turntables and inevitably phono stages. So a manufacturer making a phono stage which doesn’t incorporate some flexibility in its cartridge-matching would seem to go against the mainstream grain of exploration’ in the vinyl replay world.
Enter Zinamp, a newish enterprise from Nick Cresswell, himself an audio addict, but with considerable electronics engineering know-how. In essence, a phono stage is simply an amplifying gizmo with a relatively specific set of equalisation curves built in. With the plethora of available EQ curves to choose from, Nick has played relatively safe and opted for the standard RIAA. Any deviation from this will exclude probably (now) over 99% of all vinyl disc-released media on the planet. Yes, there were different curves from different manufacturers prior to the development of the RIAA, but there are specialist almost brand-specific options for those.
Zinamp phono stage is a rare beast
While the Zinamp phono stage might be conformist in that respect, in others it’s something of a rare beast. When first slotted into my system there was the most awful interference on the phono inputs. While it had been mildly annoying in the background on the kit I had installed usually, with the Zinamp phonostage it seemed worse than ever. This is neither an implied criticism of the Zinamp phonostage nor in reality an actual one. While the source of this sporadic noise vagary was unknown, during most listening, unless the volume was really cranked right up, it was not a major issue. Nothing more than you get living on a busy road and enduring the noise of continually passing traffic.
However, I’m pleased to report that about half-way through the review period the noise mysteriously disappeared. I turned on the system one day and it simply wasn’t there anymore. The answer, it would appear, was the building work for new supermarket taking place a couple of hundred yards away. Inevitably there was work on the local supply – with some of that work causing (temporary, fortunately) vagaries on my mains supply.
What it did show, though, was that the Zinamp phono stage is a very sensitive piece of kit, but more of that later. I would argue that any phono stage might’ve been affected by so much interference on the mains – particularly an MC stage with a gain of 72dB at 50Hz, so that’s definitely is not a criticism, in fact my own phono stage also suffered as a result of the construction work. The Zinamp demonstrated its sensitivities in music portrayal later on with a great deal of finesse, so really, as with any phono stage, be careful where you place it.
Zinamp phono stage sound quality
For the most part I used a very low output Audio Note Io cartridge and later an Audio Technica AT-OC7, a Tannoy Variluctance, an Ortofon Cadenza and a couple of moving magnets were all tried. Many years ago, as a music student, I was encouraged to compare and contrast. For that reason Radio 3’s Building a Libraryis fascinating to me – where a work (or works) are taken apart, different performances and recordings evaluated, and a judgement made. Rarely, these days, is sound quality per se a determining factor in the final analysis, but sure as eggs are eggs when the sound quality is good it makes hearing what’s going on a lot easier to hear. With vinyl, the differences in cutting techniques, the particular thoughts of the mastering tech, the preference of the performer and so on, the spread of variables across the vinyl output over decades is very wide.
In my book any half-decent phono stage should be able to allow those differences to shine through. If it makes everything sound the same then it’s not doing its job. The Zinamp does this really rather well. Once the aforementioned noise had gone the most worrying thing about the Zinamp stage was that you couldn’t hear it. Plug it in, turn on the wallwart power supply (which is not a compromise – read on, dear reader) and crank up the volume. Go on. Keep going, there yet? It’s unbelievably quiet. When you get to 11 there is some hiss but it’s not of the level that you’d normally expect from an outboard RIAA stage, whether MC or MM.
What about hum. Well, due to an error of placement, initially right over the mains transformer in the CD transport, there was some hum. However, once the Zinamp phono stage was re-sited there was no hum. Zilch. Nada. This bodes well. With the jumper connectors set to the highest level of gain (for the Io) I lowered the diamond into the groove.
Zinamp phono stage roaring glory
Initially a little vinyl roar, then glorious music burst upon the scene. Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartets on EMI – SLS5171 with the Alban Berg quartet from 1979. A very immediate fresh and dynamic performance. From the first bite of the bow on the string you know you’re in for something rather exciting. The Zinamp allows all the passion and pathos of the performance to shine through. You can hear the effort in the playing, the sonorities of the quieter moments and perhaps most importantly the space between things. Not just between notes – music is composed of a collection of sounds and the spaces between them. (Ask John Cage about 4:33). But it’s also about the spaces between the performers. The Zinamp’s ability to create the illusion of a live performance space where you could almost imagine yourself walking into the players in the round and watching and listening from a central point. The Zinamp phono stage really does do a very, very good job.
Next on the platter was the slightly hackneyed Paul Simon album Graceland. Unlike the earlier Bridge Over Troubled Water, this isn’t quite so treble-heavy. It was amazing in its time, but the sound quality has been criticised as being a bit brash (probably due to the Dolby encoding used in the recording). Graceland has a much warmer feel to it, and its content is probably a lot more personal to Simon. The two stand-out tracks are Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, and You Can Call Me Al. The latter gives Simon an opportunity to conjure such a feeling of yearning and longing through his voice; a simple balled in essence, and wholly Simon, telling a story over an African funk riff. When the additional instruments are brought in – penny whistle, sax and trumpet you can really hear the contrasts in tone and timbre – very difficult to achieve with a phono stage with insufficient resolution as they’d all end up sounding the same. Here they are quite clearly separate and different. Diamonds’ is simply pure fun and if played on a good system will immediately set your own rhythms alight – the Zinamp phono stage did it with ease. I swear the cat was even grooving to this one…
Freya Ridings is another newbie, though she’s been hitting the airwaves for a few years now. Similar in genre to London Grammar, her self-titled album (GSR0707V) is full of depth, dynamic contrasts and a very strident (in a good way) vocal range, exploring all the corners of expressionism in a modern soundscape. Lost Without You and Castles are two tracks which stand out particularly for their atmospheric air, where, unless the phasing is right in the phono stage it will all feel disjointed. The later part of Castles with the rock-band accompaniment fails to upset Ridings’ voice, and the multi-vocal elements are so clearly defined and laid out it’s abundantly obvious where each of the singers is in relation to Freya herself. Again, it’s the air and space thing, coupled with the ability to discern between very similar vocal textures.
Another ‘bit of fun’ hit the platter with Elton John’s Funeral For A Friend which segues into Love Lies Bleeding from his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, a fantastic rock anthem. Starting off with an eerie bell tolling and winds blowing, an electronic organ heralds the start of the music part – and boy does EJ give it some. Turned waaay up loud (you can’t really experience it fully at half-volume) the mix is laid out for all to hear. Again, despite the busy-ness of some of the passages, and the strident upper reaches being pitted against deep bass the Zinamp phonostage handled all with consummate ease. At no time was there a loss of focus or blurring of what was going on. And this was on the most ‘difficult’ load setting, with a measly 0.3mv input signal, so utilising the highest gain the unit could manage.
The Zinamp phono stage can be purchased with a crossfeed filter. In order to limit groove excursions (both horizontally and vertically) in vinyl mastering, frequencies below about 150Hz are effectively combined to be mono because bass is allegedly omnidirectional (ie you can’t tell where it’s coming from). This filter is switchable, so you can opt for the setting which best suits your system. Unusually Zinamp have devised some devilishly clever circuitry and unlike everyone else who uses a 6db/octave filter, opted for 18db/octave. By using a steeper curve they can start the cross-feed-to-mono at a much lower frequency, preserving all of the stereo separation above 100Hz.
Zinamp phono stage crossfeed for better bass
Having tried it the effects/benefits vary from recording to recording. It’s not a universal truth. Sadly, at the moment, my ‘big system’ is in mothballs (home decorating dictates) which uses a discrete sub per channel and I would have liked to have heard its effects in that system. Suffice it to say that you can hear a difference but I think you need to be slightly careful how you use it. The circuit itself is derived from the original Marantz M7, but brought up to date and carefully reworked to reduce hiss’. The noise floor is particularly low, as mentioned above.
Another word on the Zinamp phono stage itself. The valves used are JJ with two 12AX7s in the gain stage and a 12AT7 as the follower (though apparently a 12AU7 can be substituted for the latter with little material difference). Nick informs us the 12AT7 makes a superior follower as it draws less current and has a lower output impedance, and a little less heat than a 12AU7.
Once the cover is off you can alter the loading for MC loading and gain using small jumpers. They’re a bit fiddly, but the process is easy enough, and there’s a helpful chat in the exemplary manual where alternative/non-standard settings can be used as well. The MM input impedance is fixed at 47k, but its capacitive loading is variable between 50, 100, 220 and 320pF. Custom loadings for both MM and MC are also available as a special order e.g. 470pF for MM or 10ohms for an MC like the Audio Note Io.
Inputs might at first sight appear to be confusing, but in reality they’re not. PH1 for MM, PH2 is MC. Pass is for a CD player or similar line level source, and bypasses any internal circuitry – meaning it works with the power off. Output one is direct and supplies some 750mV peak. The other is volume and any signal passing through can be controlled by the helpful volume knob on the front panel. So, if you have simply a turntable and a line-level source, this preamp has you covered.
Zinamp phono stage conclusion
Substituting the different cartridges, setting their loadings appropriately and doing a lot of listening to the same tracks with different front ends, this is a remarkably flexible and competent performer. It certainly allows the very best of each recording through. It’s not ruthless, but it does lay everything out for the listener to enjoy. It’s amazingly transparent, highly dynamic and has a superb sense of authority at the bottom end – not doubt due to the hard work done on the EQ circuitry and researching the effects of the RIAAA curve and groove excursions.
Whatever you play through the Zinamp phono stage (as long as the rest of the system is up to it) you won’t be disappointed. It has to be one of the most revealing phono stages I’ve heard yet, retaining all the virtues of the best examples but without any of the potentially nasty downsides (noise, hum etc). It offers a very open window on your record collection, that’s for sure.
There’s no lack of detail but equally it’s not tiring to listen to. It’s been on for days at a time and was never found irritating or unlistenable. In fact, at the end of the day I certainly wasn’t keen to turn it off. It really does perform very well, and has to be seen as great value at its price point. Late night listening was a real joy, particularly on sacred choral music or some more intimate jazz LPs.
The wall-wart simply provides a DC voltage source. All the HT, LT and other power supply hard work is done within the unit using among other things, fly-back circuits which means that the unit itself is a very tight neat package. Visually it’s interesting – with the three valves poking up through the top casing – and the front and rear panels are heavy aluminium; all in all very nicely finished.
The accompanying manual is a model of clarity, not only with good illustrations but sensible explanations of the what and why of how things have been done. A few others might learn from this. If the Zinamp phono stage is indicative of the quality of this company’s products, then their future should be rosy and bright .