February 10, 2012

No Glases Required! Sutherland 20/20 MM/MC Phono Stage.

How times changed. I remembered that not too long ago, one would have to pay more than RM$10k for a very decent sounding phono stage. Those who craved for high end vinyl sound without the accompanying cost like me, can only look at the pre-owned classifieds. The arrival of the Ayre P-5xe and the recently voted best phono stage for 2010 here in Hifi-Unlimited, Parasound JC3 had proven beyond doubt, the vinyl revival and it's trickle down effect changed all that.

Today, we have another contender, the Sutherland 20/20 MM/MC phono stage, supplied on courtesy of The Audio Store, who had just opened their doors two months back. Retailing for RM$7,200.00, the Sutherland 20/20 is clearly in the budget of high end gears. Can it really deliver the sonic goods like the Parasound or the Ayre?

The Sutherland 20/20 MM/MC phono stage with it's top open for setting up, my Linn LP12 spinning in the back ground. 

For the price, there are bound to be areas of compromise, namely a lack of balance signal input or output. Gain is limited to 64db max for MC cartridges. There are other lower gain settings available. There are only 5 loading option for MC cartridges, at 100 Ohms, 200 Ohms, 475 Ohms, 1k Ohms and lastly the wide open 47.5k Ohms. What you do get for the money is a well built, dual mono design(right down to the wall wart power supply modules) phono stage. the circuit boards are of high quality and looks well laid out with decent enough quality parts. One area I am extremely fond of is the earth terminal knob. It's just the right sized, and comfortably knurled texture to be grabbed by the thumb and index finger, resulting in assuring grip and feel. Perhaps some may think I am making too much out of this, but my resident Pass Labs X-Ono, came with a slippery, cheap, feeling plastic earth terminal, which made me curse each time I had to use it!

I set up the Sutherland to mate with my low output Benz Micro LP cartridge of 0.34V, with maximum gain of 64db, and loaded at 475 Ohms. I proceeded to hook up the two(one for each mono chanel) wall wart power supply, closed the top casing, and was ready to play in 15 minutes or so.

A closer look at one chanel of the audio board. Note the 11 smoothing/storage power supply e-caps taking up most of the internal real estate. The audio section only takes up a small portion of board in the rear for most direct signal routing between input and output. 

The other area that Sutherland did not compromise is the sound quality. From the very first LP playback, it was apparent that the 20/20 had a neutral tonality, with a naturally warm enough quality. There was no harshness or graininess in the highs and mids are as naturally weighty and "honeyed"(remember that Strepsills advertisement with the cartoon guy and a chain saw gear in his throat, and the post Strepsills treatment?)  as they come, and the bass is articulate, bouncy and once hard hitting if the music demands so. I played Nat King Cole's recently re-issued on 4 side 45rpm LP, Love is The Thing, featuring the opening track, When I Fall In Love, I heard sweet soaring violins in the backing orchestra and Nat's flexing vocal cord, breathing techniques all golden honeyed yet retained his voice's complex texture, transferring all his emotions, in to song. It felt like as if good ol' Nat pop a honey lemon flavoured Strepsills lozenges before he started crooning! Another area that impressed me the most is the dead silent back ground and LP surface noise. My older Pass Labs sounds whitish in the back ground accompanied by LP surface noise a plenty. See/hear how much has technology come along in the past decade or so?

The 20/20 is transparent enough but not in an apparent way, much unlike the Parasound JC3 was. In terms of macro dynamics, the Parasound with it's balance analogue outputs has the clear advantage, but the 20/20 makes up for it in the transient response department. One more area the more expensive Parasound has an advantage is bandwidth. Just like it's name 20/20 suggest, the Sutherland offers a generous see thru wall to wall sound stage with excellent stereo separation qualities. Creating a perfect vision of sound staging without the aid of visceral sonic glasses, indeed, must be the true dual mono circuit design at work here!

The Sutherland however, is not about technical prowess, but natural musicality. Despite it's slightly short coming in the above mentioned two areas, I think many listeners will find it to sound more right musically without an A/B comparison against any of the more expensive competitors. In the end I guess a lot of it depends on the music genre being played, with the Sutherland sounding more excellent with intimate jazz, vocal, chamber and most acoustically powered music. That doesn't mean the Sutherland don't do rock or symphonies well either, it's just that the Parasound is the more balanced musical all rounder here, but lacking the natural warmth of the Sutherland, which I am sure many will find comfort with. It's tough being an audiophile because there are always choices and preferences to factor when shopping for upgrades.

Note the dual mono power supply wall warts(the two black plastic boxes) for the Sutherland 20/20 phono stage.

I think the Sutherland is the perfect fit for those who are just knocking at the door step of high end vinyl dom, but does not necessarily want to chase the up grade merry go round further. The Parasound on the other hand, is perfect for those more ambitious souls, who may wish to go further with their turn table and cartridge up grades in the near future. Then again, Sutherland has the more expensive, battery powered Hubble for that very kind of people. In the mean time, I know it's early days, yet I believe the Sutherland 20/20 is a strong contender for Best of 2012!

Sutherland is sold by The Audio Store, contact Mr Aw or Antiq Low at 03-78872233

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