Old-school technology and the sweet sound of LPs

For the ultimate in analog bliss, listen to Eddie Current's vacuum tube Phono Pre Amp.

The Eddie Current Phono Pre Amp (left) and power supply (right) Steve Guttenberg

By the late 1960s everyone assumed solid-state gear would soon replace tube electronics, but here we are in 2011 and tubes are still here. Rock and blues guitar players still crave the sound of tube guitar amplifiers, and a significant number of audiophiles are die-hard tube fans.

While tube amps don't measure as well as their solid-state counterparts, some people feel tubes more faithfully reproduce the sound of voices and real instruments. As always, opinions about sound quality don't necessarily correlate with by-the-numbers assessments. We like what we like.

I was curious to hear one of Eddie Current's latest tube designs. A few phone calls were made and the company sent their newly revised Phono Pre Amp to me. The amp was designed by Craig Uthus, who I met around 10 years ago when he had just started making tube-powered headphone amplifiers. Before he went into business for himself, Uthus was a project and design engineer for UREI and JBL Professional.

Uthus' Phono Pre Amp uses a pair of Russian-made 12AX7 tubes and one 6SN7 tube. The Pre Amp works with moving-coil and moving-magnet phono cartridges. The amp is nice and compact; it's just 6.5 inches by 8.5 inches by 4 inches, and the separate power supply chassis is 6.5 inches by 9.5 inches by 3.5 inches. I used my VPI Classic turntable, fitted with a Van Den Hul Frog cartridge for all of my listening tests.

The first thing I noticed about the Eddie Current Pre Amp was that it made my LPs sound nicer than I thought they were. For example, a lot of 1980s LPs made from digital masters tend to sound rather thin and aggressively bright, but the Eddie Current sweetened and warmed up their sound. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Damn the Torpedoes" LP rocked with rare gusto, and the sound had the sort of open, unforced quality you never hear from CDs. The sound is so engaging you may find it impossible to multitask when listening through the Eddie Current.

Shelby Lynne's 2008 LP, "Just a Little Lovin'," sounded wonderful and its easy-rolling vibe was a real treat for my ears. It's one of those records that sounds realistic, thanks to its restrained production that lets the music speak for itself. It's an all-analog recording, so there's a relaxed tone, and Lynne's voice is fully present. She's in the room with me.

The best tube electronics reveal spatial depth and a tactile palpability in recordings, and the Eddie Current worked its magic on Philip Glass' "Powaqqatsi" LP. The layers of percussion and orchestral strings took on a three-dimensional presence between my Magnepan 3.7 speakers. The soundstage's depth extended back a few feet behind the plane of the two speakers. Bass went deep and was reasonably tight, but not as clear as my solid-state Simaudio 310LP phono preamp ($1,800). The Eddie Current did a better job revealing the LP's depth and spaciousness; the 310LP has superior definition and treble "air."

Craig Uthus didn't just design the phono preamplifier, he personally hand-builds, tests, and listens to each one. Eddie Current's original phono preamp was $1,500; this revised version I'm testing is $1,200, which I consider reasonably priced for hand-made audio of this quality.

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