January 26, 2010

When Performance Matters. PS Audio GCPH Phono Stage.

PS Audio GCPH sitting on my audio rack.

The PS Audio company's first product back in the 70's was a humble phono stage, which was economically priced, yet sounded no less good than the more expensive competitor products. In recent years, PS Audio has made waves with their line of power re generators and cable range, but their amplifiers remain very much their core product line.
That's PS Audio's motto, clearly printed on the packaging.

What better way to get re-acquainted with PS Audio, than to re-kindle their first product, the phono stage? The modern GCPH phono stage belongs to the range of economically priced Trio Series Audio Product, yet boast a couple of technical features unique to PS Audio, like the Gain Cell amplification module, over sized power supplies and regulation circuits. For those following this blog, or my earlier contributions to another audio related blog, will know, that this PS Audio GCPH phono stage was one of my targeted up grades!(my recent pre-owned Pass Labs X-Ono purchase banished those thoughts)
The front panel in detail.

The PS Audio GCPH phono stage is shoe box size designed, with very short signal paths, high gain and flexible loading switches on the back panel for easy accessibility. The front panel has a fine gain tuning control knob, phase invert(very important switch to some as they switch from disc to disc), and mono switch(most important if you have mono recordings and cartridge), for easy fine tuning of tolerances, which can vary from disc to disc(we are talking about the vinyl disc here, just in case you're wondering!). There's also a blue LED "ON" indicator in the cetner of the front panel. The front panel controls can be remote controlled, but the hand held unit was not supplied with the review sample, so I can't test it's effectiveness in practical use.
The busy rear panel, note the gain and cartridge loading settings, no need to open up the box to do so, which is very convenient.

Build quality is sturdy, yet elegant. No complains from me here. I used the GCPH phono stage as a direct replacement to my resident Pass Labs X-Ono, as all the wiring is the same. A power cord, single ended RCA input and a choice of RCA or XLR out put, of which I used the latter. I then proceeded to set the gain to 66db, which is the same setting as the Pass Labs, and continue to set the cartridge loading to 100 ohms as per the Benz Micro Glider's recommended setting. I found the PS Audio phono stage very easy to set up and get good sonic results. I have one small quibble though, switching on the PS Audio again after the last listening session will see all the front panel switches and fine gain tuning knob go back to default, or zero setting.
The proprietary PS Audio Gain Cell amplification module.

From the first impression, I was pretty dumb founded! I found the PS Audio to sound so very similar to my Pass Labs, which was, not too long ago, considered a reference grade design! However, after spinning a few more disc, it slowly became clear, that while tonal quality is virtually the same, on the warmish side of neutral, there are some small but perceptible differences between the two phono stages. I slowly begin to recall hearing just a little bit more resolution from the Pass Labs. I also heard slightly better transient and macro dynamics. I also thought I heard slightly wider band width response on both the highs and the low ends of the frequency spectrum. Taken as a whole, I would say that the PS Audio can give the Pass Labs a very tiring run for the money, considering the Pass Labs X-Ono was costing at least twice as much, when it was last being sold, at the end of 2008! Just one more to note, setting the front gain fine tuning knob of the PS Audio to maximum, can sometimes lead to rather splashy highs and some uncontrolled sibilance in the music. Reducing the front gain fine tuning knob level to about 3 o'clock(7 o'clock being the zero out put and 5 o'clock being full out put) gave the best results.
The insides, note the over sized power supply transformer, the small audio board for short signal path and for nearest power supply regulation possible, and a pair of Gain Cell modules for stereo 2 chanel. Pretty simple but highly effective lay out, certainly less is more here.

Further listening also brought up a better side of the PS Audio. Over the longer term, I did find the PS Audio to be supremely musical, as it never failed to get my feet tapping through out my listening sessions. There's also a certain sweet, lushness to the mids, which makes vocal shine realistically with engaging emotion(with very little audio porn for good measure). Listening to Ella And Louis, a recently re-issued classic vinyl by Speaker's Corner, is a joy. I found Ella to sound so...... very seductive(but looking at the album art cover would surely banish all those thoughts!, no disrespect to the great diva meant of course) and Louis Armstrong so cuddly hug able. The GCPH phono stage brought out all those warm, fuzzy feelings of those classic vocal Jazz repertoire to the fore. I felt like wearing my homey pyjamas and warm socks in to my listening sessions, just to soak it all up. I also found the PS Audio GCPH to be very quiet in use, even in high gain mode, it's noise free, almost none existent back ground hum or hiss, when no music is playing, and pre amp volume wide open at normal listening levels!
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong duets album. Excellent for those who like classic vocal Jazz performance.

To summarize things, the PS Audio GCPH would offer almost 80% of the Pass Labs X-Ono's technical performance, but with it's very own twist of sweet lushness on the mid range, a quality that makes it that bit more special and a joy to listen to. When mated to a mid range MC cartridge(like the Benz Micro Glider) and turn table of similar price range, one can achieve a very respectable, not to mention, special sounding package of an LP play back system(if set up properly).
The recycle able packaging, with high quality printing.

Priced at RM$6,125.00 the PS Audio GCPH offers excellent value to sound performance ratio. Which is seldom the case in the hifi high end dom. Didn't PS Audio just said, "When Performance Matters"?

PS Audio is sold by A&L Audio Station, contact Yap(Wah Chai), tel:03-79582884

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