At £2500 the AVID Hifi Pellere Phono-stage borrows a lot of its make up from its more expensive sibling costing £4300, but does it cut the right kind of groove? Janine Elliot finds out.
AVID Hifi might be best known for their excellent turntables, but this company has over the last 6 years been vastly extending their expertise into other areas such as loudspeakers, preamps, power-amps, cables, alignment equipment, racks, and particularly phono-stages. Indeed, their first foray into electronics was the original Pulsare phono-stage in 2010. I remember this model receiving universal praise in the press, with its high level of adjustment of input, gain, plus capacitance and resistance loads, as well as an exceptionally good sound. Four large 1950’s style knobs allowing a degree of fine-tuning to your input and output that put most other mid and high-end photo-stages to shame. So to be delivered a Pellere in 2016 with no buttons on the front of either box was quite a shock. All that tweakery in this, the second-from-the top-of the-line machine from AVID, needs to be done via a forest of colour-coded micro-switches underneath one of the two boxes.
That box, the gubbins behind this phonostage, now just visibly sports a red light switch and a front panel etched deeply with a large “A” to show that AVID is also a major force when it comes to the art of metalwork. The Pellere and Pulsare II both use a 300VA supply dedicated to each channel in a matching box connected by umbilical cord. The all-important button is the on/off rocker-switch which sits under the front of this unit. Like most discerning manufacturers the power-supply is becoming a major part of the whole “package” and usually sensibly in its separate box, something AVID has always taken seriously with their turntables. I remember Cyrus and Naim, back in the 90’s, really pushing the idea of upgrading the on-board power supply with an external box to improve the performance. Not surprising this is now a major part of any hifi that is worth its price tag. Without a decent mains, little is possible, whether a power amplifier or turntable or phono-stage. Bearing in mind the high amount of amplification needed in a MC phono-stage it is important that the electronics are quiet, and because in simplistic terms the signal is simply modulated on the mains supply to make it louder it means that this mains supply needs to be as perfect as possible to get the most faithful audio. The four phono-stages in the range all have Latin names beginning with the letter ‘P’ and use words to do with music, such as “pulse” and “drive”; though these could equally apply to the mains supply.
So far so good. But would I then be disappointed that the standard multi-switch knobs in the new Pulsare II – which operate relays meaning that there is no outside interference to inhibit the audio signal – would were removed in favour of micro-switches hidden under the phono unit, just as in the cheaper Pellar and Pulsus? Those knobs and relays do put up the price considerably, so removing them is vital in making this phono-stage accessible to more people. Just as the first Morris Minor didn’t have synchromesh on first gear to save 2/11d, Conrad Mas, CEO of AVID, has needed to make these changes to keep that price point down. The Pellere does have the same circuit board just that the Pulsare has some higher grade components and a double-regulated power supply having greater storage capacity, though they are both rated at 300VA. Other modifications to keep that all-important price point down include missing out a few ‘Deluxe Model’ extras such as the subsonic filter, mono switch and even a custom facility to match cartridge load resistance precisely, should you have required that. Little sacrifice, because this phono-stage is by no means the economy edition. This is a serious piece of kit. Only that it is £1800 cheaper. By starting with the best and adapting it to the price point this is a Bentley, and not an Austin Allegro.
Even with these changes the Pellere is an exceptionally quiet phono-stage with an equally good specification, comprising a fully balanced architecture meaning that whether using balanced XLR or unbalanced RCA inputs, the internal circuitry is balanced at all times, and with a switchable floating or grounded earth facility in case there are hum problems; something turntables and arms can often suffer with. And should your arm cable, like most, be unbalanced then AVID are happy to rewire it so that the XLR input can be used. There are excellent balanced phono-stages from companies such as Boulder and Ayre who also see the definite advantages of true balanced wiring in the tonearm, and most arms can be adapted to balanced if not already done. Selection of balanced or unbalanced input is done by the DIP switches, one set for each leg. The other DIP switches alter input gain depending on whether you are using MM, MC low, med or high (40dB – 50dB – 60dB – 70dB) , and a high degree of fine-tuning of capacitance and resistance loading to match your cartridge. Output is balanced or unbalanced. For my Kontrapunkt b cartridge I selected medium gain, 100pf and 100Ω.
Once I got accustomed to the new looks and lack of easy access to the controls I could sit back and admire the simplicity of looks. The Pellere might be cheaper than the Pulsare, but considerable effort has been put into match it in terms of sound quality, design and components. £2500 is a very competitive price, but there are plenty of other manufacturers at this price competing for business. I needed a product that not only allowed good tailoring to my other components but also offered a musical rendition of all types of music I played. My initial observations were of a tight and very flat response, via the passive RIAA Neumann HF correction, as used in all their phono-stages.
Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell starts with seagulls, extremities of bowed double-bass and bass guitar going all the way to the bottom and ride cymbal repetition, both effortlessly played with no sign of harshness, and a speed allowing perfect timing of the rhythms. All instruments played with a clear-cut clarity that in track three ‘Poles Apart’ allowed the solo voice and vocal backing to work together in close harmony, but still with a good degree separation allowing both – competing with different notes and words – to be easily distinct and ordered.
Mike Valentine’s new Clare Teal/Syd Lawrence tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, who would have been celebrating her 100th birthday next year had she stayed around, gave a smoothness of Clare’s voice in clear contrast to the speed and power of the ‘blasts’ from the trumpets and trombones. ‘I’ve Got You Under my Skin’ was toe tapping time for me; something I try not to do. The distinctive melancholy Glen Miller harmonies from the woodwind section in ‘Begin the Beguine’ were clearly separated from the less relaxed trumpet and trombone blasts. Hearing page turns between tracks just helped this direct cut disc to sound even more real; How Clare could get through four tracks on each side of the disc without a cough, splutter or hitting a wrong note just showed how professional she was, as were all the musicians in this excellent album. ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ starts with powerful blasts from the very start, showing the music is very much alive. This was a particularly well performed track. The split notes from the top (concert) D from the trumpets showed a clear control of extremities of dynamics in this piece. All performed with a clarity that showed this phono-stage wasn’t vexed at anything I threw at it, nor did it add anything to the sound, as many phono-stages will do. This phono amplifier was not harsh in its playing, rather giving a neutral balance of sound at all times.
For that reason I thought I would play an album that really does cry out for a phono-stage with its own audio signature to improve a bad recording. Putting on my 70’s short skirt I began to listen to mine – and Conrad’s – least favourite band Steely Dan and “Do it again” (‘Greatest Hits’ album); a track that combines a highly compressed and excessive reverb and double tracking in the vocals competing with strong rhythms and guitar solo, a double-tracking mono synthesiser melody plus even a bell-tree making an appearance at the end of a few phrases which sounds as if it belongs to a different piece of music. This album has tracks from 1972-78 hits combining lots of instruments and mixing styles that, I have to say, was never particularly recorded with hi-fidelity listening in mind, but the Pellere was as honest and as clear as I could have ever wished any phono-stage to be. If you want a machine to make awful recordings to sound good, look elsewhere. This one is about honesty and accuracy.
Moving into the 80’s, “Sky 3” ‘Moonroof’ has powerful drum stabs that compete with gentler acoustic and electric guitar tunes that some phono-stages can’t play without me gritting my teeth and heading for the volume control. The speed of these combined with the ease of performing kept me intent on playing through the entire side of this album. John Williams’s guitar playing is clear and precise. ‘Sister Rose’ with its Premier drum-kit playing with passion one minute and then with gusto the next was powerful but controlled and musical when it needed it. “Hello” is one of my favourite tracks from the Sky repertoire, with long vibrato’s from the acoustic guitar melody and piano accompaniment, only to be interrupted with powerful drum and electric guitar riffs as they get emotionally engrossed. The drum kit really is ‘in your face’ in this album – but the Pellere just kept everything in its correct place and time, with a high degree of space and positioning and allowing all notes to sustain and release fully. This phono-stage really does work. Only the lowest notes weren’t quite as gutsy as I would perhaps have liked.
As a complete contrast Ravi Shankar ‘Tana Mana’ is an excellent mix of Indian Sitar, synthesizers and early digital sampling that is very ethereal and ambient, full of detailed rhythms and high pitched phrases that some phono-stages would make sound harsh and top-heavy. In contrast, the Pellere kept it controlled and clear, opening up all the instruments with clarity and passion that made me realise why this phono-stage wouldn’t feel out of place attached to their top Acutus Reference turntable. Each instrument appeared in its own ambient space, both ‘front and back’ as well as ‘left and right’. This album has many quiet sections as well as thumping tabla drum finger-work, and all hand-hitting was allowed to decay perfectly, something a valve phono-stage might be less controlled in doing. Despite all signals travelling through the DIP switches, the unit was exceptionally quiet in operation being able to give a big blast from vocals and instruments in the Tala’s and Raga’s when required.
This might not be the top model in AVID Hifi’s line-up, but this is no less a model, following very closely the design architecture of its bigger brother. Not a shade of harshness from the solid state circuitry and with a passion and musicality I expect in valve. The fiddly DIP switches were soon forgotten as soon as I started to get engrossed in the music I was playing. Once you have selected the right settings for your cartridge you never need to perform any settings other than switching the Pellere on and off. If you cannot make the move to buy the Pulsare II, then this model should perhaps be your next move. The fact that the phono-stage works in balanced mode means it will be ready should you ever decide to go balanced in the future. With an extremely transparent and neutral presentation of music with extremely low distortion, and an extended and flat frequency response, I found nothing that I could criticise. Perhaps it is just a little too ‘safe’ in its portrayal of the music, and not quite as engrossing as my phono-stage of choice, though that particular one is 3 times the price. This is a very revealing cartridge, and perhaps for that reason it could be too perfect for some.
Build Quality: Bomb proof construction typical of AVID. Available in black or silver.
Sound Quality: Precise, accurate and captivating sound. Flat frequency response, and very quiet in operation
Value For Money: With design closely taken from the top £4300 Pulsare II but is only 60% of the cost. Now that’s a bargain!
Based on the Pulsare II gives it a calibre
Balanced in and out
Neutral portrayal of the music
Flat frequency response
Good amount of control in matching cartridge load
Could be a little too revealing and neutral for some
Fiddly DIP switches