Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Musical Fidelity V-LPS
My brand new Musical Fidelity V-LPS phono stage finally arrives from UK today, after a long wait of 5 weeks. The sweetest part, however, is seeing the words of 'DUTI KASTAM DILEPASKAN' stamped on its envelope, ie. having Malaysian custom duties waived by the local authorities. This phono stage is unavailable in Malaysia; I was made to understand that the local agent needs to order at least 100 units (minimum order quantity) at one go and he does not foresee there would be enough demands to justify doing so.
The V-LPS is part of Musical Fidelity's newly launched V-series products (apparently "V" stands for VALUE) offering superb performance at modest prices by slashing costs of non-functional parts (metalwork, front panels and packaging) and concentrates on functional electronics beneath the modest package. It is purportedly built from the same op amps based circuitry of X-LPSv8 minus the front panel and has inputs at one end and outputs at the other. This has the profound effect on cost saving and attains a shorter signal path in the internal layout of PCB. It is also claimed to be a technically accurate phono stage and has virtually perfect RIAA correction (+0.3dB 20Hz – 20 kHz) which translates to surprising good sonics. Read more about the cost saving philosophy on V-series products by Musical Fidelity here: http://musicalfidelity.com/products/vseries/overview.html
The V-LPS, designed in UK and assembled in Taiwan, measures 170mm (L) x 95mm (W) x 40mm (H) is relatively small although there are smaller units of phono stage available out there. It is finished entirely in black with a blue coloured LCD on the side where the output connectors are located; its layout no different from the Lehmann Audio Black Cube which I had all these while loved to own but deterred by its uncompetitive pricing. A 12V DC 500mA made-in-China wall wart power supply unit is bundled with the V-LPS. Specifications: Input Impedance: MM=47KΩ MC=100Ω / Input Sensitivity: MM: 3.5mV MC: 450μV for 300mV out / Total Harmonic Distortion: MC= 0.01%, MM= 0.01% @ 1kHz, 300mV out / Signal-to-Noise Ratio: MM: >80dB MC: >70dB “A” weighted / Input overload margin: MM: 15dB MC: 22dB.
I plugged the new V-LPS into my main system through its MC input. It works perfectly. My first impression is it has more than adequate gain for my Denon DL-160 high output MC cartridge (2.2mV) with loudness of my record playback now exactly same as my CD playback at a same volume. Or was it slightly louder? Its sound, fresh out of packing material, is aggressive with occasional shouts, flat and slightly out-of-phase although centre imaging is reasonably well projected. This is not unlike the sound after fitting in a new stylus and the V-LPS needs to be broken in before fairer comments could be made.
My V-LPS was not fully broken in as I was penning this article. I have, however, continuously powered it up for the past 90 over hours and listened to no less than 15 different records during which its sonic traits I picked up thus far are as described below. The gain of its MC input is very sufficient for my application and the loudness of my record playback now is indeed identical (perhaps just a tad higher) as my CD playback. I hear a lot more details (both instruments and ambience noise) from my records which were previously vague through my highly-modified ProJect mk1 phono box. Along with this, I also hear more of surface noise and the irritating occasional crackles and pops became more pronounced than before. Highly revealing! I was expecting V-LPS to sound sweet with its bass slightly slow as with other Musical Fidelity products but it turned out the opposite, ie. transparent enough, unrefined at times and reasonably well-timed bass which is a lot faster than my other phono stage. It is dynamic and incisive sounding with instruments and voices sounding bold and more authoritative. It conveys a huge sound field and digs deep into both extensions that subtleties in high frequencies and movements in the low bass grunts are clearly audible. I find the sound airy and thought the V-LPS extracts everything available on records – instrumental lines and voices, the space in which they exist and the surface noise. There is very little veiling, additional sweetening or unnecessary warmth but instead the as-is-where-is sonic performance and every musical nuance found in the grooves of records.
My experience with external phono stages in my own system is limited to NAD PP2 and the highly-modified ProJect mk1 phono box but unlike these entry-level units, the V-LPS does not concentrate in projecting a smooth sounding midrange but opens up both extreme ends (treble and bass) considerably. I have yet to hear the X-LPSv8 hence no comparison against it is possible. I would think that cheaper electronic parts in op amps, capacitors and resistors are being used in V-LPS (built to a price point) and replacement of some of these parts could bring back the missing tone richness and midrange liquidity that I truly cherish. Nevertheless, well-mastered original and a select few of reissued records sound fabulous with the sonics surpassing that of CD playback with its sheer airiness, speed, slam and dynamics but minus the predictable 'mechanical' sound of the latter. When I listened to my reissued Ella and Louis record, I found myself being transported back to the 50s era and their music really touched my soul. I may opt to upgrade the wall wart power supply unit to a linear transformer-based power supply and/or replace some electronic parts in the V-LPS circuitry down the road but that would be story for another day, if I do eventually get to it at all. What matters most at present moment is to enjoy my music on records with the V-LPS. A truly great-sounding and great-value gear to me and it would remain in my system for a long time to come!
Addendum on 19.05.2009: The impressions on sound of my vinyl playback through the V-LPS were made before its full 'run-in'. As of now, with the unit almost broken in if still not completely so, the overall sound is way smoother with the rough edges gone and few of my LPs are beginning to sound rich and liquid, an example being Antonio Forcione & Sabina Sciubba - Meet Me in London's LP. Its highly-revealing nature has toned down a little; less of the irritating occasional pops and crackles (or could it be that my ears have gotten used to them and my brain automatically filtered them off?) but insufficient to prevent me from detecting a major weakness in my vinyl playback. I shall come back to this below. The bold and incisive sound, however, remain. Although the sound does not break up, I find the gain of its MC stage at 56.5dB a tad too high for the Denon DL-160 MC cartridge in my system with Simaudio Moon i-3 integrated amplifier that has an active pre-amplifier.
I acquired the V-LPS under the belief (whether rightly so or otherwise) that its circuit design is excellent. It is claimed that the V-LPS has basically the same circuitry as X-LPSv8, a much-improved version from the earlier X-LPSv3 and derived from their kW550 integrated amplifier. MusicDirect of USA pronounces that "…the "v8" version for 2008 really bested the older "v3" version in their reference system". What I heard thus far: the dead quiet backgrounds, its extremely low noise floor and great extension at both frequency extremes sort of confirmed my belief. I had initially contemplated building myself a single opamp-based VSPS from ground up using a pre-printed circuit board or acquiring an off-the-shelves (either the Cambridge Audio 640P or Musical Fidelity V-LPS) phono stage and to perform upgrades by replacing the supplied wall wart and electronic parts therein with a linear power supply unit and premium parts such as Blackgate capacitors, Shinkoh resistors and the likes respectively. The aim here, really, is about improving futher an existing fine-sounding phono stage. A long thread at vinylengine on DIY upgrade (parts replacement) on Cambridge Audio 640P could be accessed here: http://www.vinylengine.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=9098&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=0&sid=6eacd8bbb708897ac2a995eda3f4490b. I did not get to hear both these phono stages prior to my acquisition of the V-LPS but was informed that their sound characteristics differ with one sounding spacious and the other rich. I opted for the latter.
Okay, back to the question of the so-called major weakness in my vinyl playback system. What is it? For the first time now, I am hearing a slight lack of "focus", ie. absolute clarity. My earlier upgrade from the stock glass platter with its mat to an acrylic platter has refined the sound substantially to the extent that instrument edges are so refined compared to the metallic edges and sibilances emanated from the stock platter. The V-LPS enables the slight blurriness in instrument edges to be revealed to me. How would I overcome the problem? I thought the answer lies in acquiring a precision machined alloy Subplatter – The Groovetracer Reference Subplatter!