Sutherland Ph3D Phonostage Review

Discussion in 'Vinyl Nutjob World: Turntable and Related Gear' started by purr1n, Mar 1, 2016.

  1. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    In ancient times, there was a phono preamp known as the Sutherland PHD. I have never heard it, but it was well-received by the usual hi-fi magazines and supposedly Steve Hoffman owns one. The PHD was battery powered and employed discrete solid-state circuits. The PH3D is a descendant of the PHD. Supposedly, the PH3D is “80%” of the PHD at one-third the cost. I actually find this 80% statement appealing because it seems believeable (rather than “95%”). Like the PHD, it is battery powered. The PH3D uses 16 D batteries. Lifetime of the batteries is supposedly 1200 hours. Unlike the PHD, the PH3D uses opamps instead of discrete circuits. Gah!

    20160301_095603.jpg

    Well, it turns out that this implementation is pretty darn good. In many ways, opamps are a good candidate for phono stages because of the immense gains required. A lot of gear based on opamps probably sounded bad (dead and lifeless) because of the massive amount of feedback use to tame the massive open loop gain (like 150db or something nuts like that). When we are feeding back 144db of the 150db of gain, that probably isn’t a good thing. Fortunately, we are not doing this with phono implementations. The other advantage with opamps is that we can probably eliminate a few capacitors in the signal path. The downside is more shit in the way since each opamp has a chain of transistors inside of them.

    20160301_095713.jpg

    The complementary model to the PH3D is the Sutherland Insight. The Insight is pretty much the same thing, just not battery powered: it has an internal power supply. Above this range is the highly lauded Sutherland 20/20. The 20/20 circuit appears similar (still opamp based), but the 20/20 has a third opamp for a servo to correct DC offset. Because of this, I would assume that the 20/20 does not have any capacitors in the signal path and that the PH3D probably has one capacitor. I haven’t traced the circuit so I am not sure. The PH3D goes for $1000 retail, but we can easily find it going for less than $600 used. BTW, I am sure there is room to slightly improve the performance of the PH3D by upgrading the stock OPA134 opamps and coupling caps.

    There is a good set of cartridge loading options and gain settings via jumpers on the board. Gain can be set from 40db to 60db in 5db increments. 60db should be enough for MC carts with decent output. There are no cap loading options however.

    20160301_095736.jpg

    Operation is simple. Flip a switch on the front panel to see the LED go on. Thumbscrews for the top cover are provided for easy access to gain and loading settings and to replace batteries. This should not be overlooked because dealing with screwdrivers and unscrewing stuff for the most basic of things is a pain in the ass. Kudos to Sutherland for making our lives easier. The back panel is simple with RCA inputs and outputs and a ground terminal. The chassis looks flimsy in photos, but I assure you it is not. The gauge of the metal is sufficiently thick and the unit is fairly weighty, even without batteries. This isn't some made in China special.

    20160301_095621.jpg
    20160301_095919.jpg

    Finally, this item is made in the USA, if that matters to you.

    GET TO THE POINT, HOW DOES IT SOUND?

    As usual, I will be succinct.
    • Overall a very polished sound. Stately, graceful, precise, are words that come to mind. Like a good ballroom dancer. (Real ballroom dancing, not sloppy and garish Dancing with the Stars shit)
    • Great extension in the bass. Hits low and clean. Not bloated.
    • Big dynamics. Hits hard, especially in the bass.
    • Neutral. Natural treble timbre. No solid-state nasties. The treble tends slightly toward a rounded characteristic as opposed to an etched or sharp sound.
    • Location of the stage is slightly upfront. 10th row. For reference to what a lot of people know here, not as close as Yggdrasil/Gungnir Multibit, but not as far back as most tube phono preamps where you might be in the 15th to 25th row.
    • Depth of stage is a little bit more limited without complex layering. Not as deep and expansive as Yggdrasil, but probably on par with Gungnir Multibit. The stage is intimate rather than super wide, deep and layered, and open and expansive. And I mean intimate in a good way. (If the stage sounded claustrophobic, I would have thrown this in the garbage already). The width of the stage extends a little bit beyond the outside of the speakers, but is mostly concentrated in between. There is quality that sucks you into the stage and there is still a good sense of openness.
    • Imaging is super precise and stable. Much more so than my reference (a custom 6SL7/6922 phono stage).
    • Microdynamics and outlines are excellent. The presentation of textures is superb. The clean transients facilitate the presentation of textures which can often be smeared in the time domain. The very tips of the transients are rounded.
    • Tiniest hint of veil or haze, most evident in the bass and lower mids.
    • Ultimate resolution falls a bit short. The lowest levels of microdetail are not present. Simplified bass which is missing texture. It’s not incompetent in this regard (if it was, I would throw it in the garbage – and many of you know that I am a resolution freak). The extent of how much you will notice this will depend upon downstream gear. One thing for sure is the PH3D is definitely more resolving than the Franken TC-750 (modded with external power supply). However, the PH3D is not as resolving as my reference phono stage.
    Despite the solid state opamp design, I find the PH3D surprising “musical”. I hate to use that word because it is largely nonsensical. But put it this way: I continue to want to listen to music until I fall asleep on the couch drooling. The things that the PH3D does well, it does so well that they outweigh the slight negatives. This relatively inexpensive phono stage has actually made it into my lineup for nightly listening. It’s good enough that I’ve been too lazy to change the RCAs to go back to my reference phono stage for the past few days – and again, it does bring certain things to the table that my tube phono can’t.

    Tweaks and Mods: http://www.superbestaudiofriends.or...rland-ph3d-phonostage-review.1499/#post-38578
     
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2016
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  2. Mr.Sneis

    Mr.Sneis Friend

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    That is an ass ton of batteries.
     
  3. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Radioshack had a special on D batteries.

    Now taking questions. Don't be shy. There is no such thing as a stupid question.
     
  4. shaizada

    shaizada Friend

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    What RCA cables are you using there? Into and out of the phono?
    I bet you can tweak the phono with vibration control and cables to change the sound to your liking. Want front row center instead of 10th row? Can be done.

    Want to increase depth, resolution and layering? Also can be done :)

    Phono sections are really sensitive to the smallest changes and it is amplified through the whole setup. I love phono stages!
     
  5. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Linn cables in. Transparent cables out. This phonostage of course makes me interested in hearing the 20/20 since the PHD is no longer available. The 20/20 I believe is direct coupled and uses better opamps. I'm waiting for my VPI stand before the tweaks. Evidently, SoundStageDirect was able to source a few of these stands at the Indiana Jones Ark warehouse.
     
  6. shaizada

    shaizada Friend

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    Awesome! Yes, get the stand sorted first. The wood will change the sonic characteristics of everything. Once that is setup, you can address each piece with proper cables, weights, vibration control etc to tweak it to YOUR listening tastes.

    Sutherland phono sections are top notch sounding. CLEAN circuit design, high quality parts and total analog centric mindset of the designer.
     
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  7. BioniclePhile

    BioniclePhile The Terminal Man - Friend

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    That actually doesn't look too hard to DIY.. Any options out there for that route?
     
  8. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Buy a breadboard from PE. Easy to test ideas. No guarantees though. Lot of it is execution, layout, compensation, gains, bypassing, tricks, etc.
     
  9. deniall83

    deniall83 Acquaintance

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    Yes! I've been looking at this phono stage for about a month so I really appreciate the review. Unlike a lot of made in USA products, the price of Sutherland gear in Australia is fairly reasonable. Because this is battery powered, a lot of people comment on the jet black background. Was this your experience as well? What carts did you try it with?
     
  10. OJneg

    OJneg The Most Insufferable

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    3 pairs of high performance opamps have been posted to Marv. Let the audiophile nervosa opamp rolling commence

    Perhaps we need a dedicated thread where we post pictures of the opamps we bought on eBay in Shaffer-esque style?
     
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  11. JoshMorr

    JoshMorr Friend

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    I am about to build a p millet pre w/o caps that purrin recommended where they show 2 large - 12v batteries as the power supply. They only claim 50 hrs between charges, but am sure it's just a question of how many batteries and how large.
     
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  12. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Only tried it with the 2M Black, I have three other cheaper carts, but too lazy to mount and I already know they are not as good.

    Yes. Very quiet. Not only that, but a sense of grace, ease, and smoothness which I think reflects the sound of the battery power. Would be interesting to rig up different power supplies to it. Power supplies do have a sound.
     
  13. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    OP-AMP ROLLING

    @OJneg sent me a few opamp singles to roll. Here are the subjective results. FWIW, the stock OPA134 (the duals are the omnipresent OPA2132) are actually pretty good IMO and don't get enough respect - probably because they are cheap. Will these opamp candidates sound better than the OPA134?

    What I did was replace the opamp before the RIAA EQ and output opamp, since this will probably have a little bit more of an effect. They are circled below. A quick examination seems to show that the stages are coupled with 1uF cap. Not a bad idea to place the cap here as I bet the first opamp is responsible for most of the gain. There doesn't seem to be a cap after the last output opamp.

    20160301_095736a.jpg

    These are the results for my speaker setup. YMMV. I didn't take a lot notes, but here they are:

    1. LT1115: Emphasis on upper range. Clarity and sparkle. Fast and lean, but delicate. Mids lack body. Actually pretty good and cohesive throughout. Would be good in a darker sounding setup.
    2. OPA604: Expansive, open, airy. Bass is a bit on the thuddy side. Very coherent. This is a good one for my setup.
    3. AD744: Wide, but flat presentation that seems to lack separation, layering, and nuance. Stage is more bordered than OPA604. Very good clarity. The most macro-detailed with sharper transients. Overall bright.
    Stock OPA134: This one is just right. I actually prefer the soundstage for this one. Not overly expansive which can sound diffuse. Speakers are different in that the overly diffuse stuff doesn't work as well as with headphones. The stage is mostly between the speakers with some feathering along the edges and an emphasis in the middle. The effect of this sort of sucks you into the music. The depth is just past the speakers a little bit, not out in fifth dimensional space. The treble is laid-back compared to the LT1115 and especially the AD744. Laid-back is a good way. Nothing at all like Audeze laid back, but more like not in your face solid- state etchy shit laid back. The bass is a bit tubby, but tubby with texture is better than thuddy or thin. Overall tonal cohesiveness is better than the others.

    CONCLUSION:

    Either it was total coincidence that the stock OPA134 sounded best in my system or Sutherland actually knew what he was doing. The only opamps that I know that will better the OPA134 and keep the same or similar kind of Burr Brown signature are the OPA627 and OPA637. Those opamps cost $$$.

    BTW, I hate rolling opamps as much as I hate rolling tubes.
     
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2016
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  14. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Just a quick update:

    I purchased x2 OPA627 and x2 OPA637 opamps. Those of you who have rolled opamps know that the OPA627 is a laid-back or darkish sounding opamp with great technicalities: spacious, microdetailed, refined, etc. I'm always careful with the OPA because of its dark sound. Used in the wrong way, it's not the sound I would be looking for. The OPA637 is an uncompensated version of the OPA627 with slightly greater bandwidth, higher slew rate, and lower distortion. Subjectively, best to think of of the OPA637 as a neutral OPA627 with an even more evident spaciousness, microdetail, and clarity.

    [​IMG]

    I picked these up on a hunch from my prior experiments with chip amps. The Ph3D uses OPA134, the model above uses OPA228 (I know how these sound, a slight step up from the OPA134). So I figured I'd go for the Cadillac of BB opamps. In the overall scheme of things, OPA134 < OPA228 < OPA627 < OPA637 (with the OPA627 a tiny bit darker than the rest, and OPA637 brighter than the rest). BTW, these pieces are not cheap from Mouser (and I am not gonna buy from eBay for China sources because of fakes.)

    With the photo in the prior post, I replaced the opamp in the first gain stage (circled in white) with the OPA627 (I suspect this first stage is where most of the gain is). The result was better than the OPA134, but just a tad too dark. So I tried the OPA637 instead which was a tad too bright. I wanted a very slightly laid back sound with tonality similar to the stock unit. The final piece of the puzzle was an OPA627 in the second stage. This did the trick perfectly.

    The improvements are increased microdetail (or plankton as I like to say) and spaciousness. For example, on the tracks toward the end of Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing LP, I could hear the tail end of the trailing decays of the triangles and other dinky metal percussion which I did not notice before. The ambient cues or "sense of space of the venue" become more clear. These opamps are expensive pieces; and I am pleased, actually a bit surprised how well the Ph3D took to them.

    The downside? The battery life probably got reduced from 1000 hours to 350. Maybe I will build a power supply next.
     
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  15. KyndCookie

    KyndCookie Rando

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    Thanks for the review and op amp suggestions. Just to confirm, you've put OPA637s in the circled postions and OPA627s in the secondary positions, Is this correct? I've got both sets sitting in my shopping cart at Mouser waiting to go.
     
  16. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Affirmative. OPA637 in the circled positions. OPA627 in the spots at the front end of the board.
     
  17. Armaegis

    Armaegis Friend

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    The 637 needs something like a minimum x5 gain to remain stable without voodoo trickery. The 627 should be stable down to unity.

    I've actually got a whole pile of 627/637's sitting around somewhere. I bought a bunch years ago along with some 634 buffers thinking I'd DIY something but nothing ever came of it.
     
  18. JoshMorr

    JoshMorr Friend

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    I recently bought this off from Marv and I've been enjoying it in the limited amount of time that I've had with it so far. Running it with my Project Debut Carbon -> Ortofon 2M Blue -> ph3d -> vali2 -> HD800. Gain is on lowest setting (40 dB) and the 2M series carts seem to like 47k loading resistance.

    Its is as rugged as mentioned above, the case certainly has heft even before the batteries are installed. First thing that I notice about the sound is how quiet it is. The lack of transformers and noisy power supplies leaves the setup dead quiet. I agree that it has a pretty detailed natural, neutral responce, good dynamic range. While everything sounds right, correct, I am feeling it lacks something, its just not as lively as I was hoping for. Marv mentioned a bit of veil, and I don't think I've fully understood this term, but this could describe what I am hearing a bit.

    One thing that I am noticing is that I think I've hit the ceiling of the performance of my table. While the Ph3D is nice, I feel that it is capable of more. I am noticing only small differences between different pre's, amps, etc. I think the table itself might be holding me back.

    Edit: Listening to some more familiar records and this guy is starting to warm up on me. I am liking what I am hearing...
     
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2016
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  19. KyndCookie

    KyndCookie Rando

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    Did you get it with the factory op amps or were the OPA627/637s included? I'm curious to hear another opinion on that mod.
     
  20. JoshMorr

    JoshMorr Friend

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    I stuck with the factory op amps. I probably should have went with the upgraded ones, but I decided to get comfortable with the stock ones for a while. Curiosity usually gets the best of me though.
     

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