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!
     

    Attached Files:

  2. Serious

    Serious Inquisitive Frequency Response Plot

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    Just stumbled upon this. It should make for an interesting comparison to the Skoll. Has anyone else had their ears on this?

    Maybe I can check it out myself.
     
  3. purr1n

    purr1n Desire for betterer is endless.

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    Curious about this myself. It's gone down in price too.
     
  4. wbass

    wbass Friend

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    I auditioned it a while back and thought it was fine but not great. Feature-rich certainly, but a bit flat, hard, thin in my system.

    I ended up feeling that tube phono pre’s were generally better for my wants. The EAR Phono Box (88P?) was my fave in that general price range.

    I’ll see if I can dig up my listening notes.
     
  5. wbass

    wbass Friend

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    Here are my previous notes. I said it was good then, but don’t remember it as fondly. I was comparing to a Luxman tube stage.

    ***
    --EAR 834P (loaner, really good, warm and involving, but the Lux is more refined)
    --Nagra BPS (loaner, nicely detailed but a bit thin in the bass)
    --Parasound JC3 (loaner, the original JC3, great bass, decent tone, but kind of muddy somehow--I think there might have been an issue with the unit I had, it had a bunch of weird transformer hum)
    --Elac PPA2 (loaner, really a lot of phono stage for $1000, very impressive but quite "solid state"/flat sounding. But, again, for the price, just excellent)
    --ModWright PH 9.0 (part of my system for the last couple years, but the Luxman is better)
     
  6. lehmanhill

    lehmanhill Almost "Made"

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    Actually, after living with it for 2 years, I am still enjoying it, but it's probably a synergy thing with my system. At the time, I was moving away from a tube phono pre, in part because it was a little too soft and warm for my system. You never can tell about these things.

    What I will say is that Mr. Madnick does an excellent job of designing very quiet background amps. In fact, that gives a good idea. I should look for some of his earlier stuff on the used market.
     
  7. wbass

    wbass Friend

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    Nice. Glad it's working out well. Yeah, synergy definitely a thing with phono chain. Possibly even more so than with HP rigs. I needed a bit of tube bloom and mid-bass oomph at the time. Still, I think I remain drawn to tube stages generally for a variety of reasons.

    Ended up settling on an Allnic phono stage that I found for a great deal on the used market. I ended up finding the best way forward, for me, being good SUTs into a good tube stage. Zero noise with what I landed with, even through a pair of very revealing Magnepans.
     
  8. goodvibes

    goodvibes Facebook Friend

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    MC loading has so much to do with how well a high gain phono stage is perceived and every MC phono stage should allow for capacitive loading. I find that many people end up overdamping their low impedance cartridges to correct for the normal rise in high frequency response of many low output moving coils in voltage gain circuits It's usually better to use both resistance and capacitance to get the best result where the bass doesn't become overdamped to tame the highs. Styrenes tend to be good here and I've seen values approaching 1n used though less than 1/2 that is almost always enough. I know many are adverse to capacitors like they're a dirty word to be avoided but they can be a real asset here.
     
  9. goodvibes

    goodvibes Facebook Friend

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    I guess I can't edit after a certain amount of time and had a very busy day yesterday. This is the corrected version of the last post made in haste.

    MC loading has so much to do with how well a high gain phono stage is perceived and every MC phono stage should allow for capacitive loading. I find that many people end up overdamping their low impedance cartridges to correct for the normal rise in high frequency response of many low output moving coils in voltage gain circuits. It's usually better to use both resistance and capacitance to get the best result where the bass doesn't become overdamped to tame the highs. Styrenes tend to be good here and I've seen values approaching 10n used though less than 1/2 that is almost always enough. I know many are adverse to capacitors like they're a dirty word to be avoided but they can be a required asset here.
     
  10. Mr.Sneis

    Mr.Sneis Friend

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    I have this phono preamp but admittedly have not had time to sit down with it.

    There are some things I would mention.

    There are cart loading settings on this amp that are next level compared to what I've owned in the past. You can adjust channel load L and R via trimmer pots on the back and the front panel will tell you what it's dialed in at. I haven't fiddled with any of this but probably need to.

    Balanced out + RCA output simultaneously has been real wonky for me so far. I send the SE out to a integrated amp and then XLR out to a Stax earspeaker amp. When the Stax amp is in the chain I completely lose the left channel on the RCA out. I don't know if this is the Stax amp's fault, the fact that the turntable is Single Ended and I'm trying to push balanced out, or what but it's more or less the largest reason why I haven't spent any real time with it yet.

    Microprocessor-wise the amp saves your settings after reboot or power off which is really cool.

    What I have heard so far, I do like the sound, the resting noise floor of many phono preamps seems higher than the PPA-2 which is impressive on its own.
     
  11. InsanityOne

    InsanityOne Acquaintance

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    Glad to see another positive review of an Audio Alchemy (now ELAC Alchemy) product. I have been a huge fan of Peter's designs ever since I bought my Audio Alchemy DDP-1 / PS-5 combo back in 2017. I have greatly enjoyed using it as my main DAC over the years, and even when I had to have both sent in to ELAC for repairs, I had nothing but good experiences with both Peter and his team throughout the entire process.

    I recently inherited an original Pioneer PL-12D-II turntable that was only used a handful of times. So I've been looking at converting the turntable to balanced outputs and picking up a second-hand PPA-1 to go with my other AA gear. But, I have also been considering just selling the DDP-1 / PS-5 and upgrading to the DDP-2 and PPA-2 respectively, since both of those devices are selling used for anywhere between $600 - $900 each.

    For the PPA-2 specifically though, $600 is starting to get down towards the price of Schiit's new Skoll, and I was also thinking about just buying one of those and calling it a day. So along with @Serious I too would be very interested to hear any impressions of how the PPA-2 stacks up against the Schiit Skoll.
     
  12. lehmanhill

    lehmanhill Almost "Made"

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    I totally agree about Peter Madnick. I have also enjoyed any time I have seen him interviewed. He is so quiet and looks like a mad scientist, but you can tell that he is a total audio savant.
     
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