If you already splurged on a great turntable and phono cartridge, maybe it's time to hear them at their best with a top-notch phono preamplifier, like the Lehmann Black Cube SE II. That one had me, once again, rethinking the appeal of high-resolution digital audio. The Black Cube SE II is capable of producing extremely high-resolution sound, with LPs.
The Black Cube SE II preamp is a tiny thing, just 4.6 inches by 5.5 inches by 2 inches (116mm x 140mm x 51mm), but its separate power supply is a little larger at 3.6 inches by 9 inches by 1.75 inches (91mm x 229mm x 44mm). They are connected to each other with a 75 inch (1.9 meter) long cable. I planted the Black Cube SE II just to the side of my VPI Classic turntable, and put the power supply on the floor under the equipment stand. There's no power on/off switch because the Black Cube SE II is designed to be left on 24/7 (it draws 3 watts of power). Internal switches are provided to match the Black Cube SE II to moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges (and there's a provision for custom loading to a specific impedance of your choice), and "gain" can be adjusted to 36 decibel, 46dB, 56dB or 66dB levels.
The Black Cube SE II is as an essentially neutral/accurate component that doesn't editorialize the sound of my LPs. If you want warmth and sweetness added to the sound of your music, the Black Cube SE II won't be right for you.
I feel differently about music when listening to LPs with a first class turntable. I usually find the best LPs are the all-analog ones which were recorded, mixed and mastered without any digital conversions. That's quite rare for contemporary music, even albums that were recorded to analog tape are almost always digitally mixed and mastered from digital files. If you really want to hear LPs at their best, stick with original pressings of pre-1980s records. Even so, newer LPs can sound awfully good, Bob Dylan's 2015 "Shadows in the Night" LP is a prime example of that.
Live, unamplified music from acoustic instruments is never bright or harsh, and that's the way some of my better folk and jazz recordings sound over the Black Cube SE II. There's a natural sweetness to the sound, but on the other hand, electric instruments sound fully charged. The Black Cube SE II just lets the music sound the way it's supposed to, without adding or taking anything away. As turntables, phono cartridges and preamps have continued to improve over the years, they've liberated more and more of the music in the grooves. That's why my older LPs sound so much better now then they did new.
Turntable vs. SACD player
I compared the sound of my VPI Classic turntable with an Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge with my dCS Puccini SACD player. Switching between the high-resolution SACD and LP of Duke Ellington's "Blues in Orbit," the LP sounded fuller and richer, so instruments had more "body." The SACD was brighter, and the soundstage lacked depth. Bass definition was the same, and dynamics were also very close. It's worth pointing out that this music started out as an all-analog recording made in 1960; the LP and SACD were both mastered from the analog tape.
I tried again with Bob Dylan's "John Wesley Harding" album, and heard a larger difference: The SACD was much thinner and harder sounding than the LP. Stereo imaging was pretty flat over both, but a tad wider over the LP, and again, the LP and SACD were made from the same analog master tape. So the turntable, aided by the Black Cube SE II faired well in direct comparison with a high-resolution SACD of the same music. The best of analog recordings do indeed stand up in direct comparisons with high-resolution digital.
I said at the top of this review that upgrading to a bona-fide high-end phono preamp only makes sense after you have a great turntable from the likes of Clearaudio, Linn, Rega, Thorens and VPI among others as well as a top notch phono cartridge. If you do, check out the Lehmann Black Cube SE II, it runs $1,149 in the US, and £700 in the UK. If that's out of bounds, I still recommend the $129 (£112 including VAT) Schiit Mani phono pre.