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ART USB Phono Plus

February 5, 2006
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The unit itself feels substantial and solidly built. Upon first inspection, I have two qualms with the unit cosmetically: the silk screened “ARTcessories” on top kinda makes me feel like I’m buying jewelry or soap in the shape of a famous sculpture at a museum gift shop, and the use of the word “audiophile” to describe what quality of computer interface it is makes me kinda squeamish. Obviously, it has a wall wart. Awesome.

I first tried the Phono Plus as a phono preamp into my stereo, comparing it to both the built in pre in my Kenwood receiver, and an Esoteric Sound phono equalizer. The ground lug sucks on this thing. Sucks. The lug is much smaller than the ground terminal on my Technics 1200 . . . certainly not a rare or esoteric turntable. After about three minutes of fumbling with the thumb screw and ground terminal, I finally got it to grab one of the sides of the “fork” so I could actually hear what it sounds like. The thoughtful people at ART included a trim knob on the front panel offering +/- 10db of gain, but failed to include a center detent, which is annoying to anyone who wants to know where “0” really is. To test the sound quality, I grabbed Radiohead’s Amnesiac, Pet Sounds, and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.

It seems to have more gain than both the receiver pre and the Esoteric Sound pre, although this also meant that the clip indicator was solid red during the louder moments of Amnesiac. Sonically, it seems to have a slightly more pronounced low end than the other two, and it’s high frequency characteristics sit somewhere between the two, with the Kenwood the least revealing and the Esoteric Sound the most transparent. The only really weird thing I noticed is that the phono pre in the ART box will self oscillate when no turntable is plugged into it . . . weird to say the least.

Most users of this unit will probably be using it to bring their record collection into their computers or for sampling beats and such for making electronic music. At this application, the Phono Plus excels. Setup with my iBook was truly plug and play . . . no drivers to install or control panels to fiddle with. Stupid easy and solid. Within about three minutes of plugging in, I was mid transfer on Bowie’s Station to Station. This box sounds really good in this application, and saves a lot of hassle.

The low end of the record was captured accurately and tightly . . . the disco-y kick drum sound lost none of it’s nice dry punch, and the high end retained the pleasant vinyl quality. I think it has some sort of a soft limit in the converter, as I was clearly hitting zero quite consistently during the transfer, but did not notice any bad digital artifacts. On playback, the audio sounded exactly as I expected, although (perhaps because of the audio engine of Live 4.0), I felt that I could hear the “digital-ness” of the vinyl surface noise before the music started. I’m sure with an audio restoration bundle, it would be fairly easy for one to achieve both clean and good sounding digital archives of their favorite records. My only gripe is that the audio playback only comes out of the mini-plug on the front, not the RCA line outs (these are for use as a vinyl pre only).

So until there exists a USB cassette deck or Firewire ¼" reel-to-reel machine, the USB Phono Plus fills what was previously a very large gap in terms of a simple means to transfer and/or archive consumer analog formats. It isn’t going to give most dedicated RIAA preamps a run for their money, but can probably hold it’s own against many receivers’ built-in preamps. As an input to a DAW for sampling or archiving, it could not be any simpler, and does what it should. And for a street price around $99, there isn’t much to complain about.

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