Model 4712 Phonocube Review

HALL OF FAME

by Milan Rupic

Wam (Croatia) Summer, 2000

     To make children with not such a great appetite eat something from time to time, parents are ready to resort to all sorts of tricks, from imbecile grinning, singing, or standing on their heads, to feeding a spoiled brat showing a lack of enthusiasm for swallowing chunks of food while it is sitting on the toilet bowl, accompanied by background music featuring periodic flushing of the toilet and similar foolery. However, this is all harmless and understandable in a way because, as crazy as all of it may seem, this is still our progeny, a helpless human being, incapable of understanding the necessity of opening the mouth and pushing the chunks of food to the stomach for the purpose of mere survival. But what to say about a man, a grown-up person, supposedly normal and sane, who uses similar gimmickry to make his/her audio system, i.e. its individual component function in line with its supposed potentials?

Naughty Child
      The name of the naughty child for which its owner/user need not stand on the head or hang down from the lightning fixtures but has to take, in normal terms, completely abnormal actions is Phono Cube. This is a phono (MC) preamplifier, model 4712, coming from the freakish Japanese high-end manufacture 47 Laboratory, whose ID is already familiar to all the readers of this and some other foreign magazines, as well as the performance and sonic achievements of their Gaincard amp, recently tested and presented somewhere between the cover pages of the thirdissue of the magazine you are just reading. Phono Cube resembles in many ways the above-mentioned amplifier, which is bizarre enough in and of itself. The major similarity is, of course, the cylindrical power supply Power Humpty, which is the same for the both apparatus, whereas both Phono Cube and Gaincard can be powered by two Power Humpties, representing in this way a true double mono system.
      The apparatus themselves could not melt in the crowd of other ones. They are made of the same material, display similar design, a double mono system... It is just that the integrated amplifier is flat (hence Gaincard), while the phono stage is cubical (hence Phono Cube) and shows a stunning resemblance, especially when viewed from the front or from the side, to a tenfold increased cartridge. And while the dimensions of the integrated amplifier were rather discouraging, arousing the darkest forethought, the visual aspect of Phono Cube would not inspire any prejudice at all. If any, especially for someone who has established first contact with it without having seen the amplifier before, they are likely to be of quite the opposite nature. Namely, when viewed as a system, Phono Cube and Power Humpty appear quite substantial for a phono stage, both in terms of mass and dimensions.

The Cause of the Problem
      What kind of a device could provoke so many problems for which a grown-up person, longing for a feeling which can be achieved only by a quality phonosystem, would act as a moron? How is it designed, what is it composed of? According to the designers and the manufacturer, Phono Cube is a unique equalizing unit amplifying all voltage generated by the MC cartridge, without any losses. It has a double mono construction and design, and each channel is separated in its own case/housing. The rigid and pronouncedly compact case enables fast and effective release of vibrations that could otherwise adversely affect the sound balance. There are 25 components in each channel, and the path that the signal has to pass through the apparatus is only 44 mm long. But, what is it inside which enabled the designers, in their own words, to achieve what they wanted, and that is exactly the same sound as it is stored in the grooves of well recorded LP records, i.e. to accomplish a sound that would be exact but not at the same time sterile, or chemically neutral and tasteless like distilled water? In a sense, it is very much similar to the sound produced by a top-notch CD player but with all the elements in which a phono integration even today surpasses by far digital sound reproducers. Unlike the majority of the phono stages on the market, Phono Cube has been designed in such a way that its input impedance is zero, which enables all of the voltage generated by the cartridge to be forwarded directly to the amplification circuit of the phono unit.
      The next issue to which 47 Laboratory paid a lot of attention was the negative feedback. Despite being well aware that its utilization results in a higher signal-to-noise ratio and a more linear frequency response, they did not make the most of this advantage because they were convinced that there is also a side-effect - the typical and easily recognizable emphasis of the high-frequency range. Their system, so they say, has maintained, thanks to the solutions they say nothing about, nor do they explain them, a low noise level, along with entirely linear frequency response, deprived of any harshness and emphasis of the high frequencies.

Blasting Extravagance
      The first thing I was curious about, and anxious at the same time, was the level of power with which Phono Cube would energize the line input of my preamplifier. And this for a very good reason. Namely, the Ortofon 7500 cartridge, which I intended to use for the test, has an extremely low output voltage (0.13 mV), which could only with a great difficulty drive most of the phono stages I have had the opportunity to use so far. Which means that, as compensation, I had to turn the volume up and increase the base noise level (especially with tube preamplifiers). The fact that I already had another cartridge of equal quality in store, which is capable of generating almost a threefold higher output than the Ortofon 7500 cartridge, speaks how certain I was that it would not work. However, lucky me, I was wrong. And to what extent!? The signal coming out from Phono Cube was so powerful that, for the first time ever since I have been using this MC cartridge, I had to turn the volume control more down in respect to its position at which I listen a CD of a usual (2 V) output voltage. This was so astonishing that I could not figure it out for a while. And while I was weighing the pros and cons trying to reach a logic conclusion, enjoying from the very first beat (the apparatus was already broken in when I received it), the sound one can only so rarely hear, a thundering blast came out of the loudspeakers! Never before has anything so loud and terrifying come out of my loudspeakers. I thought that something unquestionably came to an end in my system, with a thundering last good-bye. But, nothing of the sort! A genuinely realistic sound continued to come out of the record, filling my room with sound as if nothing has happened. As I was just about to forget the recent sound horror, believing (or convincing myself) that it actually never happened at all, that this must have been a single, temporary collapse, after 15-odd minutes an earsplitting warning that there was something weird and unusual going on came from the loudspeakers again, suggesting that if I kept closing my eyes/ears as a consequence of being flabbergasted by the acoustic scenery which was spreading in the space between and behind the speakers, i.e. if I continued to neglect the cause of the problem, the speakers could suffer final catastrophic outcome. The last big blast was the starting signal for action. But what to do? I identified the originator of the blasting sounds very quickly. It was an old refrigerator, sharing the same socket with the freezer that did not cause any disturbances when switching on and off. As it was also the case with the refrigerator. To be fair, certain phono units indeed produced occasionally some sort of single cracking sound when the refrigerator turned on. But the intensity of the cracking was negligible and more silent than any of usual "cracks" from a record. What was going on while Phono Cube was a part of the system surpassed both by loudness and power anything imaginable. What next, that was the question. It was obvious that voltage spikes were infiltrating the phono stage, which, due to the high gain of the latter, were extraordinary intense. Desperate rather than determined as I was in terms of what I was doing and how to accomplish it, I started to piddle around with ground loops. The cracking structure (now that the sound volume control was set almost at zero) did change indeed but the sheer intensity remained the same. Then I started to move Phono Cube around the room, placing it at various positions. The intensity decreased, but indistinctly, insignificantly. I placed it on a special stand made of textolite. Again, the improvement was small, but not of any practical valuable. And then I put RFI filter on the refrigerator power supply cable. Now, that was a significant advancement! And then another on the Phono Cube power supply cable. And then, finally, normal listening could proceed. Not that the cracking completely disappeared but there was no longer any trace of big blast. One could listen quite nicely, with very mild occasional cracking interruptions, very much akin to those heard in case of minor damage on the surface of the record, which did not threaten the integrity of the loudspeakers and which I gradually got used to and ceased to perceive it. And how could I when the sound was ...

... simply the best
      Fantastic, unmatched, fascinating, impressive... In a word, absolutely superior! Regardless of whether jazz, rock, ethno or classical accords were pressed in the vinyl grooves, regardless of whether dealing with small or big, vocal or instrumental, silent or loud listening, with Phono Cube as preamplifier stage in my system everything sounded better than ever. And here one should conclude the review because words are not enough to describe the whole of the sound, least to express the subtlest details and emotions that unfolded widely and manifestly in front of me and filled my room through Phono Cube. One should say simply and without any hesitation that Phono Cube produced in my system the best sound I have ever heard at home and brought it closer to the rare ecstatic experiences I had while sitting in front of several best and excellently tuned systems in the world, i.e. the Phono Cube is unparalleled not only as the best phono stage I have ever used but also as the best individual piece of audio gear, regardless of the type, ever being a part of my system. And there were many of them... This would be the end of the tes(x)t. However, to make perfectly clear what sort of audio gem we are dealing with, I will try to put in words as detailed as possible everything that was going on within the walls of my room.
      Phono Cube is, undoubtedly, a phono preamplifier that brought me closest to the ideal of live music so far. It is one of the rare devices used as a paragon for all other and that sets new audio standards, pushing the limits of the possible beyond the imaginable up to the present date. Above all, Phono Cube contributed to making the sound coming from the turntable essentially neutral and transparent. Its absolute noiselessness and thus practically physical absence, enabled a piece of music to be as it really is: with all its strengths and weaknesses. The sound was neutral because all the veils obscuring the finest musical details were lifted, because nothing remained hidden and covered, because not a single trace of parasitic resonance and the related coloration, which is usually considered to be an inherent and unavoidable weakness of the phono preamplifiers, could be perceived, because there were no any admixtures that would add additional character to the sound. Transparent because nothing hindered clear and full insight into the integrity of the intricate musical fabric as well as into the configuration of the orchestral body interpreting it. Nothing less worth mentioning is the purity of the sound and absence of any, even the minor distortions. Everything seemed absolutely natural and exactly as it should be. It is therefore fascinating how one simply stops feeling the need for asking oneself "how?", "why?", "from where?", and starts taking what one hears for granted, laying on the same level something that is in its essence "unnatural" with the live sound experienced in a real surroundings and with actual people who play genuine instruments, simply and easily believing that live musicians are in front of him, and not a pile of electronic components molded into a more or less harmonious audio chain, dreaming only about how everything could sound even better if one would have the one, actually non-existing, ideal audio system that would exploit all the capabilities of Phono Cube to the fullest level.
      The definition of all, including the most intricate, so often suppressed and veiled musical details, as well as the reproduction of the transients from the top to the bottom of the audio range were chilling. Because, when one can hear from the LP record, without any "technical" admixtures, fine and gentle strumming of a guitar so that the resound of every single string is absolutely clearly and distinctly perceived, its structure felt, the full vibration heard and every movement of fingers on the string experienced, then one starts looking around the room, trying to locate the "live" guitar player! The same applies to the solo piano, harpsichord, even to the applause on well done live recordings. The applause could be heard as a harmonic accumulation of individual hand clapping and not as a flat and amorphous noise resembling the one when steak is put on hot grill. The syntagm inter-transient silence, very often used while describing sound, which, in reality, is a very rare auditory experience, becomes "a common thing" with Phono Cube integrated in a well-tuned phono system. The intensity of stroke is easily detected, pause between individual attacks is noiseless, tones last "as needed", with a sharp cut-off and without any parasitic residual vibrations, and the triangle sounds firm, determined, bright and pronounced, without any noise during the stroke or while vibrating, but above all is well positioned.
      It is difficult to extract individual traits from such a primordial harmony, as it would be isolating a living being from its natural surroundings. However, for the purpose of a digest and utterly simplified information, one should say that the high-frequency rage sounded at the same time airy, clear, fast and soft, and absolutely convincingly. One should have heard the sweet sounds made by the flute or the oboe. Sweet like honey! And the vocals! Sopranos were explosively potent and sharp but at the same time naturally soft, humane and articulated, bass section was sonorous, powerful, solid and rich. The bass range sounded unmatched - accurately, faithfully and convincingly natural. If bass was "floating" on a record, Phono Cube reproduced it as such, when it was firm, solid and deep, it came just like that out of the loudspeakers. I was revolving all sort of music on my turntable, from perversely recorded synthetic the closing chords of Mahler's "Eight Symphony" for over 400 performers), from large choir corps to small black vocal bands, from the darkest heavy metal, which was at hand, to the subtlest Schubert's lieder, it was always the same. As recorded, so reproduced by the loudspeakers! Of course, I could write as many pages as I already have, containing information and impressions of the reproduction capabilities of 47 Laboratory's Phono Cube, but I am afraid that this could well be too close to exceeding the limit of good taste, even overstepping it and turn into uncurbed idolatry. Therefore, to conclude, I will simply add that Phono Cube reproduced with exquisite reality the finest shades of numerous dynamic gradations of a big symphonic orchestra; it depicts accurately even the smallest nuances as well as big drifts in dynamics, it fascinatingly faithfully and impressively renders all dimensions of the sound stage, and this is why any verbal description of these features is neither possible to the full extent nor could it fully convey what I had the opportunity to hear. Not just I but a number of my loyal audiophile friends (with whom I do not always share the opinion) either, who hurried to witness such a uniqueaural delight but also to be present, as always, to prevent hallucinating hysteria which (much too) often lurks as a latent danger when an audiophile happens to be near such a ("perfect") thing like Phono Cube.
      Everyone who has listened to any state-of-the-art phono system and who believes that he/she could imagine, based on the experience and my textual description, what (approximately) a phono system with integrated Phono Cube sounds like is, unfortunately, wrong. Phono Cube is something special and unique. A class of its own. This is a global product of a small firm of enthusiasts which embodies perfectly all today's knowledge about cartridges and MC preamplifiers, all efforts and achievements in this area, made, collected and developed over more than half a century, all for which generations of audiophiles and manufacturers have been yearning. But there is also something unique to it, something above and beyond all, which will, despite the fact that it will probably never experience planetary fame, not because of its high price ($4,000), in this age when gramophone is becoming an increasingly exclusive product day by day, secure it a place in the Hall of Fame.


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