iFi Phono3 Black Label Review

Discussion in 'Vinyl Nutjob World: Turntable and Related Gear' started by purr1n, Jun 22, 2020.

  1. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    The iFi Phono3 is absolutely insane. I don't even know where to start or how to explain, so I figured I will make this another one of those stream of consciousness reviews with measurements along they way. Like other iFi products, the Phono3 offers a ton of user adjust-ability, except in this case I feel it's warranted. To borrow a phrase from someone I had just spoken to regarding the Phono3, the Phono3 is geared for the tweaker or perfectionist!

    [​IMG]

    I'll start first with how it sounds and keep it short and sweet. The first thing I noticed about the Phono3 is how clear and free of veil it sounded compared to practically all other phonostage unless they were super high-end or special custom jobs designed for a specific use case. iFi says the Phono3 is direct coupled design, and it certainly sounds like it. Most phono stages will have several caps in the signal path, even disregarding the caps in the RIAA filter. I don't know exactly how IFi pulled this off, but they did it and I'm not about to trace the PCB to get hints. No, this isn't a giant killer. Some more expensive tube phonostages with top notch SUTs are more detailed. Other phonostages near the same price range may stage deeper or have zippier transients (this is more a matter of synergies and personal taste).

    iPhono3 on top.
    phono3.png

    The super clarity of the iPhono3 actually lends itself well to lower end turntables. However, I found it disconcerting with the more energetic VPI Classic 4 table, until I realized I was running that setup with the "cheapo" Crown CDi1000 pro amp which is all muscle, sinew, but not much finesse. One gets used to the sound of phonostages with several caps in the way. Take that out, and maybe it becomes a bit too much. I tweaked the loading resistors, gain, and no matter what I did, it couldn't get rid of that slight glare in the upper mids and lower highs. Ultimately what did the trick was replacing the Crown amp with the Aegir. (I had the Crown in the system and had forgotten since I had been blasting it recently for kicks). This goes to say that synergy is crucial. If I had to sum it up in a few words, I'd say that the iPhono 3 is extremely clear, very expressive, and has good heft and sustain in the lows with great texture in that region.

    The above impressions were with the MC input. There are two inputs on the iPhono3. I have not tested with the MM input yet. I don't know if the inputs are optimized for MM or MC, i.e. if the MM input skips unnecessary gain stages. I do know that the MM inputs are run through selectors for capacitive load switches and that the MC inputs are run through the resistive load switches. One thing I would be curious about is if the MC inputs with the resistive loads can be used from MM carts. The reason is that some MM carts respond more to changing resistive loads than the capacitive load like the Ortofon 2M Black - read here.

    I don't think many folks understand how much tweaking there can actually be with phonostages. Most phonostages will provide a handful of tweaking options if we are lucky. Others will simply assume a single set: 47k-ohms 220uF for MM and 47-ohms for MC. As I mentioned earlier, the Phono3 is for the tweaker and perfectionist.

    loading.png

    upload_2020-6-22_10-54-30.png

    Here are a few things that I hope to accomplish in the next week:
    • Show measurements comparing the various RIAA equalization curves. Read the Wiki article to catch up on this. The iPhono3 offers RIAA, "Columbia", and Decca or TELDEC/DIN curves.
    • Examine subjective MM performance, maybe test if MM can be used with MC inputs' resistive loading options.
    • Measure THD, etc.
    • Show measurements with various cartridges the effects of loading using a test record
    • Take a few vinyl rips comparing to other phonostages
    BTW, iFi also sent this little sucker below, the iPower X. It's not a showstopper if you don't have it. I can see me preferring the stock switcher on systems which are too warm or smoothed over. However, the iPower X in place of the stock switcher offers a less coarse more refined sound with even a blacker background and warmer tone. I said to myself "oh no, this is gonna cost an extra $350" (we know how diminishing returns works in audio), but I was pleasantly surprised that it was $99.

    upload_2020-6-22_10-58-51.png
     
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2020
  2. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Here are the various phono equalizations.

    Note that the Columbia and Decca equalizations are not as bright as the standard RIAA. The Columbia is similar but has less bass. Both the Decca and Columbia are with the IEC and enhanced in place per here (https://ifi-audio.com/home/iphono-calculator/)

    GRN = RIAA
    BLU = enhanced RIAA and IEC (subsonic filter)
    ORA = Decca
    RED = Columbia
    upload_2020-6-22_13-5-21.png
     
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  3. The Life

    The Life Facebook Friend

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    It looks like the iPower X comes standard with all iPhono3s (at least my purchased-from-Amazon one did).
     
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  4. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Similar to above but with IEB sub-sonic and enhanced taken out of the picture.

    GRN = RIAA
    BLU = Decca
    RED = Columbia
    upload_2020-6-22_13-23-57.png
     
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  5. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Indeed. I feel so much better now. The recommendation factor goes up slightly more because of this.
     
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  6. Joe Bloggs

    Joe Bloggs MOT: iFi Audio

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    This looks like it could build up to be the ultimate guide for the iPhono3!
     
  7. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    The graphs below are for gain on the MC inputs. Note that only 72db and 60db gain settings are supported. I set the dip switches to see if I could get a lower gain for MC, specifically 48db (which is only supposed to work for the MC inputs), but this did not work and yield the desired 48db gain. It would appear that the signal path for MC is different from that of MM and vice-versa.

    GRN = 72db gain setting RIAA MC inputs
    BLU = 60db gain setting RIAA MC inputs
    RED = "48" gain setting (intended for MM) RIAA MC inputs (note that this does not work)
    upload_2020-6-25_10-48-57.png
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2020
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  8. k4rstar

    k4rstar Done his time

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    I am curious that they would include Decca and Col EQs and no mono switch

    Any idea how this compares to the Graham slee stuff? both brit-fi, similar features and price points. the ifi seems better value up front
     
  9. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Here are the MM inputs their their corresponding gain.

    GRN = 72db gain setting RIAA MC inputs
    ORA= 60db gain setting RIAA MC inputs
    BLU = 48db gain setting RIAA MM inputs
    RED = 36db gain setting RIAA MM inputs

    upload_2020-6-25_11-7-36.png
     
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  10. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    The following are 1kHz spectrum. All this is pretty normal with phonostages which are asked to to crazy amazing things such as amplifying signals x1000 to x30000 with a minimum of noise. With modern DACs and the advent of Audio Science, I think we may be losing some perspective here. https://www.superbestaudiofriends.o...good-sounding-thread.8661/page-2#post-2812822. In any event, one does't do vinyl for measurements.

    1kHz 1.0mV 60db gain setting MC input
    upload_2020-6-25_11-27-37.png

    MM inputs here. 10mV instead of 1mV for input signal for MM:

    1kHz 10.0mV 48db gain settting MM input
    upload_2020-6-25_11-30-50.png

    1kHz 10.0mV 36db gain settting MM input
    upload_2020-6-25_11-33-6.png
     
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  11. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Getting back as to why all the dip switches, here are some examples:

    Shure M95 HE (a full bodied sounding cart, not bright).
    upload_2020-6-25_12-54-30.png

    Shure M95 HE
    Vertical pink noise
    300poofs
    upload_2020-6-25_12-6-32.png

    Shure M95 HE
    Vertical pink noise
    100poofs
    upload_2020-6-25_12-3-20.png
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2020
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  12. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    upload_2020-6-25_12-35-54.png

    Audio-Technica AT-VM95E (entry level cart)
    Vertical pink noise
    300poofs
    upload_2020-6-25_12-11-17.png


    Audio-Technica AT-VM95E (entry level cart)
    Vertical pink noise
    100poofs
    upload_2020-6-25_12-12-21.png

    Yes, this is a horrible cartridge.
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2020
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  13. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    upload_2020-6-25_12-38-59.png

    Now this one is a bit more interesting. Folks say Shibata stylus (or microlinear or whatever), but basically it has a better motor. In this case, the adjustments aren't so clear cut. Looks like we are trading less high-end rolloff or more of a in the lower treble / upper mids. Looks like this cartridge prefers more poofs for a flatter response past 2kHz.

    Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML
    Vertical pink noise
    300poofs
    upload_2020-6-25_12-34-52.png

    Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML
    Vertical pink noise
    200poofs
    upload_2020-6-25_12-43-51.png

    Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML
    Vertical pink noise
    100poofs
    upload_2020-6-25_12-45-29.png
     
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2020
  14. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    For completeness, 400 and 500 poof loading for the above cart. I would appear that 300 poofs is optimal for this cartridge. One thing to mention is that the capacitance of the phono cable should also be taken into account. If I used a longer cable of the same type that had more capacitance, the ideal setting may have been 200 poots.

    Audio-Technica AT-VM95
    Vertical pink noise
    500poofs
    upload_2020-6-25_12-49-29.png

    Audio-Technica AT-VM95
    Vertical pink noise
    400poofs
    upload_2020-6-25_12-51-0.png
     
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2020
  15. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Couple of thoughts and notes:
    • MC carts will tend to have a rising response in the top octave (no measurements shown, but trust me)
    • MM carts will tend to have rolloff in the top octave
    • Loading, whether resistive or capacitive will have an effect on the sound
    • To get the best sound from any particular cartridge and phono cable, fine adjustments of these will be needed. A phonostage like the Phono3 BL that comes with these adjustments could make that crappy warm-poo rolled-off or "meh" cart into something quite good (or not)
    • Don't worry about not having access to measurement gear. Use your ears. The FR measurements for the Denon DL103 were essentially the same (not shown) for loads from 22-ohms to 1000-ohms; however the sound was different. Not everything is determined by frequency response. There will be differences in distortion or transient response
    • Personally, I would have liked to see an ability to change the resistive load for MM carts as well. But this ask may be rather unreasonable. We are talking about 33k-ohm to 68-kohm adjustments
     
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2020
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  16. Joe Bloggs

    Joe Bloggs MOT: iFi Audio

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    poof?

    (I think I know what this is, just wondering how it got to stand for what it stands for :oops: )
     
  17. monacelli

    monacelli Friend

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  18. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Yes, I forgot to append ML after the AT-VM95. It's the microline.
     
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  19. Joe Bloggs

    Joe Bloggs MOT: iFi Audio

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    I see "puffs" semi-officially noted down as picofarads in the interwebz. Haven't seen poofs anywhere else so far

    They're also both longer to type than pF itself :p

    Oh, don't mind me, carry on, I'm looking forward to the next instalment! :sail:
     
  20. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    poofs is a play on puffs which is a play on pF
     
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