Elac PPA-2 phono pre-amp overview and subjective impressions

Discussion in 'Vinyl Nutjob World: Turntable and Related Gear' started by lehmanhill, Aug 31, 2021.

  1. lehmanhill

    lehmanhill Almost "Made"

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    After years of moving magnet and moving iron cartridges, I managed to buy a SoundSmith Zephyr MIMC Star which is a low output (0.4 mV), moving iron cartridge. So now I need phono pre with moving coil gain to play the Zephyr.

    You are probably thinking, why not just get a step up transformer (SUT) and use it with your existing MM phono? It turns out that the Zephyr has inductance of 2.75 mH per channel. While that is much lower than the 400 mH or so with a typical MM cartridge, it is near the top of the range for an MC cartridge. An MC cartridge can have inductance as low as 5 uH. With a low inductance MC cartridge and an SUT, the frequency response can be flat and extended, but at 2.75 mH, the SUT and the cartridge may interact to generate a significant response peak in the treble region. That can also affect phase over the top half of the audio range. In other words, an SUT with a high inductance cartridge is risky, so I decided to find a phono pre-amp with an active first stage.

    [​IMG]

    Enter the Elac PPA-2. It is a discrete component, solid state phono pre-amp with balanced input and output on one of its two input channels and has continuously adjustable cartridge loading between 5 Ohms and 1k Ohms. I'm a fan of balanced cartridge connection. But balanced in and out isn't the only feature. There are lots of features, but rather than list them all here, let me refer you to this short video with Peter Madnick, the designer.



    The Elac PPA-2 has been available for a couple of years and currently has a retail price of $1150. When I bought mine, it was widely available for $999.99 and was as high as $1249, so the price does seem to move around a bit.

    Elac switches.jpg

    The PPA-2 is very well constructed. The main body is steel with a thick aluminum face plate. It feels solid and is heavier than expected. No short cuts here. The size is typical of a full size stereo equipment, just not very tall. It is 17 inches wide, 13.5 inches deep, and a little over 2 inches tall.

    Elac in.JPG

    One interesting feature is that the gain switch between MM and MC is independent of the input impedance adjustment. Also, using balanced output, the MM gain is a relatively high 48 dB. Since switching in the MC gain adds a bit of noise, it may be possible to use the Zephyr in balanced mode with MM gain. At the same time, I can dial in the input impedance that best matches the Zephyr. I may have to turn up the volume, but that's OK because the volume control is only passively attenuating gain, at least in my pre-amp.

    Elac out.JPG

    A Huge Caveat

    Unfortunately, it's going to be hard to relate to my subjective impressions based on similar equipment. I have too much DIY in my system. Even my high output cartridge is a relatively rare, hand built moving iron, the Music Maker III made by the late Len Gregory. Once upon a time I had an Audio Technica AT150MLX in the system, but that was too long ago to be useful. So take any of this with a big grain of salt.

    For today, subjective impressions will be with the Music Maker III, balanced in and out, and the loading set to the fixed 47k Ohms. The Zephyr impressions will come later. And this is strictly a speaker evaluation. I've given up on headphones.

    I would like to say a little something about the DIY phono pre I will be comparing. It is a balanced design by Stuart Yaniger with 2 stages of hybrid tube amplification in a circuit that is a variation of a David Berning phono design. It is called the Equal Opportunity MM or EqOpp. The EqOpp has a passive RIAA filter between the amplification stages. It has a measured distortion of 0.001% and noise of -72 dB depending on the tubes. As you can see, it is a nice design and it is much better sounding then cheaper phonos I have tried. To me, that means that the EqOpp should be pretty stiff competition for the PPA-2.

    Subjective Impressions

    The PPA-2 paints a nice soundstage. The first thing that stands out with the PPA-2 is the very stable and precise location of instruments and voices. The PPA-2 is like a photo in tack sharp focus compared to the EqOpp that is just a bit soft or fuzzy. The other impressive thing is that this focus appears on a fairly wide range of recordings. Records that seemed like a poor recording before, now seemed more concise and sharp.

    The soundstage is wider than the speakers although the depth doesn't stand out. The EqOpp soundstage is only as wide as the speakers and the depth is the same or maybe slightly deeper than the PPA-1.

    The PPA-2 has excellent attack, sustain, and decay. The attack just feels tight and full without being hard. Meanwhile, the realistic sustain and generous decay make instruments sound real without adding unnatural warmth. Overall, the sound signature is neutral with just a slight blush of warmth.

    The PPA-2 is very quiet. The combination of the clean attack with the black background seem to give a sense of presence and pace that are a clear step up from the EqOpp. With the quiet background, voices and instruments sound clear and more alive. It's nice to be able to listen with clarity to a background instrument playing it's line under the foreground instruments.

    The PPA-2 has more extension in both bass and treble. The bass is deep and clean, noticeably better than the EqOpp, even with my best tubes. Micro and macro dynamics are are very good, although the EqOpp matches it.

    Of course, no phono is perfect. My wish list has only one entry, improved soundstage depth. In depth, the PPA-2 is almost as good as the EqOpp, so the limitation on depth may be somewhere else in the system. But I would still love to find a bit more soundstage depth to match the excellent width.

    Overall, the PPA-2 is a nice design and makes almost all of my records a good listen. I admit to wasting lots of time going through my record collection to hear how it sounds on the PPA-2. If this peaks your interest, I would recommend going over to Analog Planet and reading Mr. Fremer's comments.

    Analog Planet Review - Elac PPA-2 phono preamp

    A listing of my whole analog chain is below.

    The signal chain runs Music Maker III cartridge mounted on a SME 3009 s2 imp arm, an AR ES-1 turntable with Merrill mods, CAT5 braided balanced phono cables, Elac PPA-2 or EqOpp phono, Canare L-4E6S balanced cables, DIY Reliaxed2 pre-amp, Canare L-4E6S balanced cables, Fremen Edition amp with mods, Canare 4S11 speaker cables, DIY speakers with Dynaudio drivers, and a NHT1259 subwoofer in a concrete enclosure.

    One final word about balanced phono connection. If there is any place in an audio system that can benefit from a balanced connection, it is between the cartridge and the phono pre-amp. The signal is incredibly small, not that much more than the noise level. The cartridge is balanced by nature and the common mode noise rejection that the balanced signal provides can really improve the signal to noise ratio of the signal entering into the phono pre. It is very easy to convert most turntables to balanced, if you have a balanced input phono to plug it into. I know there is 70 years and more of industry inertia behind using unbalanced connections between turntable and phono, but I wish we could change that somehow. XLRs for everyone!
     

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