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The Sutherland Engineering line up begins with the PH-3D phono preamplifier. It is a favorite of audiophiles, reviewers and critics. The Absolute Sound selected it as ‘Phono Preamplifier of the Year’ in 2007.
Many TAS readers have heard— or at least heard of—Ron Sutherland’s Ph.D phonostage, which was reviewed quite favorably by Wayne Garcia in Issue 144. WG found the $3000 Ph.D impressive not only for the silent backgrounds its battery-powered circuit afforded, but also for its natural timbres, exceptional soundstaging, and three-dimensionality. These are laudable qualities to be sure, but ones we might well expect in phonostages of the Ph.D’s stature. It is one thing to achieve great results with a $3k phono preamplifier and quite another to do so with a product designed to sell for onethird that price—yet this is precisely the goal Sutherland set for his latest creation, the $1000 Ph3D phonostage. Does the Ph3D succeed in its mission? You bet it does, and in ways that may introduce many budget-conscious enthusiasts to levels of analog excellence they have never experienced before.
How does the Ph3D compare to the Ph.D? Sutherland says the Ph3D is designed to appeal to those who see “beauty in simplicity and no-frills functionality,” adding, “the Ph3D is a slice of the Ph.D and a slice of the (AcousTech) Ph-1P, two of my earlier phono preamp designs.” Both the Ph3D and Ph.D are powered by banks of 16 D-cell alkaline batteries and provide extensive useradjustable gain and loading features that make them suitable for use with a broad range of cartridges. I recently met with Sutherland and asked what cost-control strategies he pursued in bringing the Ph3D to market. He explained that one area where costs were trimmed was in the Ph3D’s chassis. Where the flagship Ph.D features an enclosure whose gem-like surfaces make you want to reach out and touch them, the Ph3D provides a simpler, more cost-effective box formed from two sheets of cold-roll steel, powder-coated in matte black.
To further minimize costs the Ph3D foregoes the Ph.D’s automatic signalmonitoring/ power-switching functions, providing instead a manual power switch with a voltage-monitoring light. (When the light goes out, it’s time for fresh batteries.) Next, where the Ph.D uses plug-in “daughterboards” to configure gain and loading settings, the Ph3D accomplishes the same task via sets of gold-plated header-pins and shunts, said to maintain signal integrity better than the inexpensive computer-type rocker switches used in some competing phonostages. Finally, where the Ph.D uses discrete low-noise transistors, the Ph3D uses high-quality, low-noise op-amps. Both designs feature top-shelf passive components such as Wima polypropylene/film capacitors and Dale/Vishay metal-film resistors. Of these changes, only those that involve core amplifier circuitry significantly affect sound quality, so that in many respects the affordable Ph3D shares the sonic virtues of its bigger brother.
The first thing Ph3D users will notice is how profoundly quiet the batterypowered phonostage really is. But more importantly, the Ph3D fills the silent spaces it creates with a wealth of lowlevel detail that translates directly into a heightened sense of three-dimensionality and focus. The sonic effect is quite dramatic and reminds me of moments in children’s cartoons, where characters who have been squashed flat miraculously reinflate themselves so that—with a sudden “pop”—they spring back to their normal three-dimensional shapes. Through the Sutherland, musical material that normally sounds good but flattened in perspective suddenly snaps into sharp 3-D focus, so that the back wall of the listening seems to melt away, revealing the world of the original performance.
I played an old but superb Musical Heritage Society recording of the Parrenin Quartet performing Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, and was floored by the sheer realism of the sound the Ph3D achieved. The Sutherland exposed previously hidden low-level details, helping me to visualize the sizes and shapes of the instruments and the positions of the performer on stage. This resolution of small sounds, such as the distinctive patterns of resonance stimulated as each instrument responded to bowing changes, made it easy to pinpoint performers within the quartet and to tell which instruments carried specific musical lines, even when those lines overlapped or became intertwined. The upshot of this is that the Ph3D encouraged me to forget about equipment and focus my attention on the performances at hand—much as I do when attending live concerts.
Although the Ph3D is capable of resolving very fine-grained low-level details, it by no means forces sonic minutiae to the foreground in an unnatural way. On the contrary, the Sutherland offers a smooth organic sound that some audiophiles—especially those who equate a touch of treble zing with “highdefinition” sound—might find a little too self-effacing. Over time, however, I think many listeners will come to appreciate the fact that the Ph3D imparts no sound or artificial sense of excitement of its own, but rather lets drama and energy flow, as they should, from the music itself.
I put on one of Chick Corea and Return to Forever’s early masterpieces, Light as a Feather [Polydor], to enjoy hearing how the legendary ensemble sounded when it was first finding its collective voice. What struck me in particular was the delicate and mysterious, yet also vibrant sound Corea achieved with his Fender Rhodes piano— an electronic keyboard instrument whose ringing, chime-like tone is unlike any other. Add to the mix the intricate and propulsive acoustic bass lines played by a young Stanley Clarke and you’ve got a performance that, curiously, manages to sound contemplative and vigorous at the same time. In fact, in the rollicking track “Spain,” the interplay between Corea and Clarke fairly crackles with energy. I mention these listening experiences by way of illustrating the fact that the Ph3D often combines two sonic qualities that don’t necessarily travel well together: namely, delicacy and energy. As a result, the Ph3D consistently invites listeners to look beyond sound quality to experience genuine emotional involvement.
Some pundits say that battery-powered components can’t sound gutsy or robust, but all it takes is hearing a few tracks from a house-rocking electric blues album such as Jimmy D. Lane’s It’s Time [Analogue Productions, 45rpm LP] to realize how wrong those folks are. Backed-up by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band Double Trouble, Lane lays into the track “Bleeding Heart” with a vengeance, his Stratocaster howling as only Strats can, even as Tommy Shannon supplies a bass foundation so solid it seems carved from granite. Similarly, on Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint’s The River in Reverse [Verve], the Ph3D captures the album’s swamp-inflected, down-and-dirty New Orleans sound in a dark, powerful, yet relaxed Big Easy kind of way. My point is that this Sutherland is no wimp; it offers refinement and serious muscle, too.
Some phonostages in the $3k and above range offer greater detail and even more spectacular clarity than the Ph3D does, but within its price range the Ph3D has few peers (though Michael Yee has designed an affordable new phonostage for Musical Surroundings that may give the Ph3D a run for its money). One of the most compelling aspects of the Ph3D is that it can achieve surprisingly satisfying results with modestly priced phono cartridges. The sounds I have described in this review, for example, were achieved with a relatively inexpensive Benz Micro ACE “L” cartridge. In the months to come, I hope to try the Ph3D with more exotic cartridges, and may issue a follow-up report to tell readers how those experiments turned out. For now, though, I feel Sutherland’s entry-level phonostage occupies a unique position in the analog marketplace. On one hand, the Ph3D sounds so good—and so much better than less-expensive competitors—that it will, for many listeners, be a wonderful destination in its own right. On the other, even for those who would like something better, the Ph3D makes a great place to stop and listen while saving up for dream phono preamps such as the Ph.D. TAS