It’s been a few years since a phono preamp crossed my path, whose superb sound culture is still in my mind today. You could hardly adjust anything with this device because it was a current amplification concept. Still, the records you listened to with it unfolded a splendor and analog magic of “lonely island quality.” Only the five-digit price tag of the Clearaudio Absolut Phono Inside had kept me from buying the amplifier at the time.
But now the torment of missing the chance to win the Olympus of sound could perhaps come to an end because Clearaudio has a brand new phono equalizer and this time the analog specialists from Erlangen are letting it be good at “only” 7,900 euros. Like the Champ of the time, the Pre, known as the Balance Reference Phono, has a compact housing made of solid aluminum half-shells and is available in silver or black.
Do you think that’s still a lot of money? That’s right, but you must pay around 70% more for an Absolut Phono Inside. So let’s see what the latest nifty box has in it: First of all – it’s two boxes because the power supply is separated from the actual electronic circuitry. This is a good sound for phono amplifiers and has been taken to heart by the Franconians for a long time, especially with the ambitious models.
A look at the back reveals two pairs of input sockets, which are also available in both connection types, in addition to the balanced XLR and unbalanced cinch outputs. Two pickups can be connected to the Balance Reference Phono at the same time since two completely independent amplifier trains are doing their job inside the high-quality chassis. Both can be individually adjusted, as seen from the double mouse pianos on the underside.
Since both MC and MM systems can be operated on the Balance Reference Phono, you can choose between practical impedance values of 50 ohms to 50 kOhm and capacities of 50 to 400 pF. The decision for a symmetrical or asymmetrical connection can also be made on the underside. Subsonic filters and mono/stereo mode selector switches can also be found here.
However, Clearaudio has to put up with a bit of criticism at this point, which of course, does not only apply to the engineers of the Franconian analog manufacturer but to all those manufacturers who represent the ingenious idea that all DIP switches for impedance adjustment and other essential setting options belong on the bottom of the housing. Any attempt to change the settings after the phono stage has been completely wired up will not bring much joy, even if shorter signal paths are used as a sound-weight argument for this bad habit. Incidentally, the Balance Reference Phono constantly equalizes according to IEC-A, a characteristic curve that essentially follows the well-known RIAA curve but also has a reduction below 20 Hertz.
To be fair, it should be mentioned that Clearaudio’s latest prank entices remote controllability. However, this is limited to switching on and off, volume control including a mute function, and the selection of the respective amplifier section.
Yes, you read that right; the developers of the Balance Reference Phono have given it a level control that precisely controls an SMD resistor network using a control or the adjustment wheel on the front and is intended to make a dedicated preamplifier superfluous. This a real temptation not only for fans of puristic systems and minimally short signal paths. Another unusual feature of phono preamps is the two headphone outputs accessible on the front.
The connection cable to the power supply cannot be removed, which is fine, as it avoids unnecessary contact points. The cable is long enough to place the power supply far enough away. What surprises me is that Clearaudio places the cable’s multi-contact connection so close to the power socket that only power cords with flat plugs can be used. I don’t have such a power cable in my inventory, which forces me to operate the Balance Reference Phono with the accessory pack. You will probably take the opinion of the manufacturer that your power supply will send perfect current to the Balance Reference Phono, no matter which cable supplies it. By the way, the external power supply is designed in double mono,
Clearaudio already relied on SMD components and integrated circuits for the Absolut Phono Inside, which allows the signal paths to be significantly shortened. The Balance Reference Phono largely follows this constructive strategy. However, the RIAA equalization, which is often decisive for sound, has been implemented purely passively by the developers. The phono amp shows remarkable precision: Only 0.1 dB is specified as the maximum deviation from the RIAA curve. The Class A output stages should be able to drive long cable runs without any problems, which projects the image of a wonderfully reduced chain of drive, Balance Reference Phono, and active loudspeakers in front of my mental eye.
By the way, if you frown at the mention of the volume control of the Clearaudio Balance Reference Phono because of a potentially sound-degrading signal path extension, you can relax again because at complete control, it is completely removed from the signal path. So nothing stands in the way of connecting to a top preamp. And that also corresponds to the configuration where I start using the Clearaudio Balance Reference Phono. It goes to the Silvercore Linestage 2 via a symmetrical Bastanis Imperial NF cable. The cables to the tone arm have been chosen to be symmetrical and asymmetrical to be able to explore the tonal differences between the two operating modes.
Clearaudio recommends connecting MC pickups symmetrically if possible because moving coils are accurate symmetrical sources and if the symmetrical signal routing is strictly maintained, interference affecting both conductors will cancel each other out, leaving the pure audio signal unaffected.
Listen to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous album Thanks for the Dance comes across as calm and contemplative. Just the correct fare for late listening hours. It is also sparsely instrumented, which makes it easier to follow individual instruments. The first impression: This preamp sounds very tidy. Every instrument has its place, on which it remains immovable and physical. The amount of “air” around it and the distance to other instruments always appear to be precisely measured. Compare that with a star-winning menu, in which the correct dosage of each ingredient is significant for the perfect taste and quality. The Reference Phono knows the right “dose” and controls the sound image to the smallest detail. Delicate strumming of the guitars, for example, on “The Night of Santiago,” every breath of Cohen,
This has little to do with cloudy analog playback that mercifully conceals the technical shortcomings of bygone days. Regarding reproduction precision, Clearaudio’s youngest is looking for the proximity of the ASR Basis Exclusive HV (7,590 euros), which in this respect, almost sets the standard and made an impression in the test with an excellently structured sound pattern. The ASR separates sound details with even more meticulousness. In contrast, the Clearaudio Balance Reference Phono, although capable of similar fine detailing, seems to place a little more emphasis on integrating them into the overall sound.
The Clearaudio Balance Reference Phono is located on the largely neutral side in terms of tonality, and you will look in vain for a warmed-up midrange. Euphonic euphony was hardly at the top of its developers’ shortlist. Of course, it’s not about a kind of colorless sobriety; no, with Clearaudio, everything revolves around a factually highly correct, multi-faceted representation of the recording immortalized on the vinyl. A noble goal. And that seems to work quite well because Cohen’s organ lacks neither the usual rough sonority nor the associated chest volume. It neither sounds thinned out nor cozily warm.
ASR Basis Exclusive HV and the Chord Symphonic (approx. 4,400 euros) may give the blessed Leonard a more pleasant vibrato and bring the listener closer to the singer. Whether you prefer this more intimate scenario or the larger distance maintaining an overview is a question of personal taste.
The Clearaudio doesn’t go as deep into the bass cellar as the ASR, but the acoustic bass on “Don’t explain” by Siri’s Svale Band (album: Blackbird) also rumbles along very realistically; the difference comes across more clearly with the subsonic sounds on Kari Bremne’s album Svarta Björn.
The Clearaudio Balance Reference Phono treats the treble more discreetly than the greatest equalizer from the same stable. There is no lack of resolving power. Instead, mild tinting can be stated far above. Good thing: high female voices are only annoying with the Clearaudio in blatant exceptional cases. The Franconian masters the rather complex vocal part of “Lay all your love on me” on Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part by Caroline Shaw and Sō percussion without overemphasizing the sibilants.
Clearaudio and ASR play in the same league regarding homogeneity in the sound. Both bring the frequency spectrum pleasantly even and stress-free to the ear. The chord is close, and accurate, but in direct comparison, it seems a bit more erratic, less of a piece. Of course, the nagging takes place at a high level, as all three belong without question to the upper class of their guild.
To check the dynamic range, I pull Charlie Antolini’s legendary direct cut Knock Out (token 100.3304) from the shelf. The brutal impulses, which regularly brought tweeters into serious trouble over forty years ago, are now easily digestible for modern systems. However, the direct cut played at a species-appropriate volume still causes downright baffling, especially for fewer HiFi-affine visitors to my listening room faces.
The take “Christal for Christel” contains some heavy drum rolls, the clean reproduction of which can quickly cause problems for mediocre equipment. Not so with Clearaudio and the other bandmates, who, across the board, get along very well with the antics of the Swiss drummer. More giant drums don’t appear as robust and full-bodied as the Franconian equalizer but are well-defined. With this material, I had identified the ASR as the primus inter pares at the time and would not rate it differently now. At the same time, the Balance Reference Phono, with its lightning-fast attack ability, is on par with the competition in the price range of around 8,000 euros, for example, compared to (tube-equipped) phono stages such as the Rike Audio Sabine III or theAVM OvationPH 8.3. Of course, the Balance Reference Phono can go further if it is connected directly, i.e. without going through a line preamplifier. More of that later…
Anyone who pursues their passion at night with reduced levels will be amazed at how much dynamic fire the Clearaudio still exudes even then. Even when listened to quietly, he can finely differentiate micro dynamic gradations, leaving the music with its natural drive. The Balance Reference Phono brings the sensitive interplay of cello and piano to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 (Album: Duo Per Albena, Opus3) perfectly. Recordings by the Swedish label Opus3 mostly sound unvarnished and astonishingly natural, which can be heard clearly and distinctly at any time of the day or night and with different levels thanks to the Clearaudio equalized, thanks to excellent fine dynamics.
It’s not easy for me to clearly state the spatial impression that Clearaudio’s phono equalizer leaves behind. Because it is precisely this that changes significantly when you play with the various impedances. The more high-impedance systems like the Titan I and the Aventurin 6 are terminated, the wider the space behind the speakers opens up. This is not a new insight; of course, physicality and precision changes can also be noticed. Still, how the three-dimensionality differs and the impressiveness with which this can be understood via the Clearaudio is a pleasant surprise.
The decision as to whether the space behind an orchestra is narrow or expansive, whether the stage is deep or narrow, is made here by selecting the appropriate terminating resistor. This is where the Franke differs significantly from other phono pres, including the Chord Symphonic, where pressing the button for selecting the impedances usually only results in a marginal change in the spatial impression.
The MM entrance
Along with the test device, Clearaudio provided me with a very high-quality Charisma V2 MM system. A system that colleague Christian Bayer summed up in his test report as a fantastic all-rounder whose competition is far more likely to be found in the MC camp than among MM systems.
So what changes as soon as the Balance Reference Phono has to equalize the stronger signals from the Charisma V2? Actually, not very much: A dash of warmth now seems to have been added to the sound, which, as there is no excruciating loss of precision to be lamented, is not detrimental to the analog listening experience, God knows. Well, the Charisma V2 doesn’t play as mercilessly defined as my Lyra in the bass, and the treble is also less pronounced. But other than that, the Erlangen-based top MM is impressive with such excellent dynamics, tonal credibility, and class-appropriate fine detailing that, if I didn’t know better, one could fall for the fallacy of listening to a skilfully musically tuned MC. The phono preamplifier can also call up its qualities at the MM inputs. What more can you ask for?
For example, never worrying about a bulky and money-consuming high-level preamp again. Worded a little provocatively? Let’s see if the Balance Reference Phono can hold its own as a complete pre-amplification solution. Once the Bastanis Imperial XLR cables have connected to the Dartzeel power amplifier, it’s time for the Clear audio’s included remote control.
Even if I do trust my Silvercore Line 2 preamplifier musically, the Clearaudio does its job exceptionally well in this puristic combination: With the Duo Per Albena, the cello and grand piano are now even more clearly defined, while the sense of space expands at the same time. Only about nuances, but still. While nothing changes in tonality, the Balance Reference Phono has a particularly dynamic effect. Listen to Antolini’s Knock Out again briefly. Do you think the performance gets so much additional impact and power that I remain nailed to the listening chair over both sides of the record?
By the way: If you follow Clearaudio’s advice and operate the phono stage strictly symmetrically from the pickup to the preamplifier, the Balance Reference Phono can still get a few little sound points – it then appears more direct and cleaner.
Clearaudio’s new phono preamplifier scores with tonal balance, dynamic staying power, and a superior overview. With the Balance Reference Phono, the people from Erlangen are primarily targeting those vinyl connoisseurs who operate more than just one system or one tonearm on their turntable and appreciate the convenience of not having to readjust the phono preamplifier when changing. The Balance Reference Phono comes up with two utterly independent amplifier sections and a range of well-thought-out functions for flexible adaptation to MC and MM pickups. In addition, he does not close himself to a consistently symmetrical signal routing.
Headphone fans are happy about the corresponding outputs. Still, the integrated level control, including the remote control, should be the absolute highlight of the Balance Reference Phono – especially for pure analog listeners. Anyone who uses them can save themselves the detour via a line preamplifier. You must own an excellent high-level preamp to pass this puristic solution’s coherent performance.
Characteristics of the Clearaudio Balance Reference Phono:
- Resolving power at the best class level. If you want more, you will probably have to invest five figures.
- The Balance Reference Phono always maintains a cool overview. Individual sound bodies stand with him as if nailed down in space. Good depth graduation.
- Neutral tonality with quite deep, but not extremely deep bass. Honest and informative in the middle tone. It resolves the treble well and is “suitable for long-term listening” because it is mildly tinted high up.
- Fine dynamic excellent, coarse dynamic good. It has attack and enough power – it gets even better when the equalizer is connected directly to the power amp.
- The spatial impression clearly depends on the choice of impedances. Can sound generous and wide, with mismatch rather mediocre.
- The Balance Reference Phono sounds excellent when connected directly to the power amp. This makes a line preamp unnecessary for pure phono listeners.
- Special features include two complete amplifier sections, balanced and unbalanced connections for inputs and outputs, integrated volume control, and remote control.
- Concept: symmetrical phono stage with two amplifier sections and separate power pack, MM and MC capable
- Price: 7,900 euros
- Inputs/Outputs: balanced and unbalanced (XLR/Cinch)
- Dimensions & weight: two 240 × 145 × 78 mm (WxHxD); Preamp: 2.9 kg, PSU: 2.2 kg
- Colors: silver or black
- Miscellaneous: two separate amplifier sections, volume control, remote control, two headphone outputs (6.35 mm jack)
- Idle power consumption: about 12 watts; Standby mode: < 0.5 watts
- Guarantee: 3 years after registration