The Gold Note PH-10 has a host of features including various equalisation curves, nine load impedances, facilities for MM and MC carts and a whole lot more to boot. Janine Elliot takes a listen to what on paper looks almost too good to be true for the £1315.20 asking price. 

My love of vinyl goes back to the days of the crystal pickup on my Philips integrated system that I had saved up my pennies for back in the 70’s. Since then I have collected a lot of Hifi, including equipment much older. Whilst my Philips assumed all my records would follow the standard RIAA EQ curve for all the records, my 1950’s Leak Varislope preamplifier has provision for a selection of alternatives, including NARTB, 78OE, and 78NE (see Retrobyte column on Record Equalisation). Gold Note’s PH-10 phonostage similarly allows you to play your Decca London or American CBS-Columbia records, should you have any.

Gold Note are a rapidly growing Italian Hifi company based in Montespertoli (Florence) Italy, that as well as being foremost a turntable, arm and cartridge manufacturer, is also now specialising in electronics and loudspeakers. Not one of their products seems to be a weak link, all being carefully and beautifully designed and engineered. Their PH-10 phono stage is no exception. This replacement to their PH-11 is available in Black, Silver (Gold or Red available as a limited edition) in non-magnetic anodised aluminium, produced from a solid piece of metal to guarantee (so the blurb goes) low frequency resonance, feedback vibrational control and low magnetic inertial field. The design comes from Maurizio Aterini (CEO and Founder) and Giovanni Rialti (Chief Engineer); both highly focused on analogue and with more than 20 years of experience in electronics, both pushing features and audio in a new direction to their previous model.

With 2 phono inputs this slab of aluminium also provides RCA and balanced XLR output, and four adjustments of output (-3dB, 0db, +3dB, +6dB) as well 9 choices of load impedance (10Ω, 22Ω, 47Ω, 100Ω, 220Ω, 470Ω, 1000Ω, 22kΩ, and 47kΩ) and selecting of MM or MC. All is done via a single knob at the far right of the unit and all beautifully visible on a TFT screen. My only gripe is the positioning of that SKC (single knob control) knob. Whilst operating and selecting is all very easy (turn it to browse options, push to select, turn to change a setting), the front design with the gold icon on top left and button bottom right is perhaps the only afterthought in this unit; I must have OCD, but a larger button just to the right of the screen might have looked better, although having it so far from the screen prevents your hand getting in the way of the display! The shape of the box with the machined angled fins and a red light inside to bring it all to life. The internal red light might be an operational feature to confirm correct working of the electronics, but it does look good appearing from the fins of the red unit supplied to me for review! All in all the light and fins make this unit a really good looker, and my eyes just lit up opening the package. More importantly, the design and features of the machine truly brings phono-stages into the 21st century. What is such a relief is that there is no inconvenience of dip-switches or a “one fits all” mentality; this unit is very user friendly enabling correct setting up for your choice cartridge, with a clearly laid out 2.8” colour display. It is good to see a graph of the appropriate RIAA curve shown on the screen. As well as following closely the curves of three record standards the unit even allows you to select an “enhanced” curve following the Neumann 3.18us[50kHz] single pole filter, to give a more exciting sound by changing the EQ curve at the higher frequencies, though as a staunch purist I didn’t use that function for most of my listening. The Neumann 3.18us[50kHz] single pole filter is a bit of a white elephant; Some believed it was there to stop higher frequencies gaining in amplitude as the logarithmic curve goes on to infinity, which could mean cutterhead-coils burning out. In reality sound and lathe engineers actually just make sure the frequencies are suitably attenuated at very high frequencies which knocks that idea on the (cutter)head. The curve was really to give extra headroom at higher frequencies, by changing the angle of roll-off of the RIAA curve above 20kHz. So if it wasn’t ever used in the recording and you followed the reverse in playback then it would make for an extra top end boost as Tommaso confirmed;
“…the playback results a bit more exciting in the high frequencies since the “enhancement” provides a slightly slower slope while the recording follows the standard RIAA, which means gaining a few dB in the highest part and can result in a more airy and delicate reproduction.”

If the three selectable curves are not sufficient, there is also the possibility of other EQ curves through modular intervention (more on that below), should you ever need to play rare aged LPs. Indeed, there are over 200 different EQ curves out there for different types of 33, 45 and 78rpm recordings! What make the PH-10 so unique and unlimited in what it can do are all the features it has. A USB link allows software and firmware updates simply by insertion of an SD card and I hear that an optional Wi-Fi App is proposed, allowing you control all the setting from your phone or a tablet. Not only this, but with the GN port at the rear, this will allow easy connecting to external units, such as the Class A tube output stage. This modular philosophy is very important because it means external plugins can connect in different parts of the audio chain, allowing it to be placed at the input stage, in the middle of the circuit, or that output stage. So, for example, the Curve Enhancer module could be added to replace the EQ curves inside PH-10 and therefore to offer a wider selection of record types. Gold Note is also working on the dedicated external power supply, called the PSU-10, which will no-doubt improve sound still further. This phono-stage basically upgrades just as and when you want it to, and a worthy replacement, albeit a significantly different design, to their older and more imposing 3-box PH-11.

Not only is this machine highly versatile, but it is an exceptionally musical machine. As Tommaso Dolfi, Marketing Manager, told me;
“The PH-10 is based on a hybrid resistor and capacitor design to get the best of two worlds since our goal was to deliver top performances at this price point while being also able to include many features on-board to make a really ‘smart’ phono”.
Indeed, the design is not only very clever but it is also completely user-friendly and with no compromises on audio quality. At £1096.00 + VAT (£1315.20) I was immediately impressed at the sound per pound, and despite the technological prowess of the unit it still feels very analogue, not just in the sound, but also in the way the controls are handled on the UI. The PH-10 is 100% analogue and selected with MOS-FET’s which act as super precise switches in the analogue circuit. The output stage is class AB. If that wasn’t enough, the unit has two separate and independently set inputs, just to make the design even more of a technological mind-field for the manufacturer, but very user friendly for those lucky enough to have two turntables at their disposal. There is no need to change the settings dependant on which of the two turntables you decide to use!

The Music

For the review I used a Townshend Rock7/Rega301/Ortofon Kontrapunkt b through my MFA/Leak Stereo 20 into Wilson Benesch Arc/Torus. Setting up the cartridge was very easy via the TFT screen with its Gold Note logo in the background, as well as it being etched in the top of the aluminium shell and on the gold logo next to the screen. Gold Note has every right to be proud to advertise their marque. With balanced output even when set to -3dB gave me a few dB more gain than from my Manley Steelhead. The Doors remastered “The Doors” album is a very powerful and ‘in your face’ production from 1967 that whilst very aged in its instrumentation, mixing and effects, still sounds impressive when put to work on the right kit. Whilst “Light my Fire” is the best known track in this album all the tracks are equally attractive in their own right. The recording will show any weakness in the stages from needle to speaker, each instrument clearly placed in their correct space; the drums to the left and the guitar or Vox Continental combo organ to the right. Interestingly this band never had a bass player for their live gigs, so the keyboardist played a Fender Rhodes piano bass keyboard. ‘Back Door Man’ came across very forward, detailed and exciting, that my even-more-aged Leak Stereo 20 seemed to relish playing. “Take it as it Comes” was very precise and if I ever wanted more detail in the top end all I needed to do was switch to “Enhanced” mode. There is no facility for altering load capacitance, though this is really only effective on moving magnet cartridges. With a rise in moving magnet cartridges from major manufacturers including Gold Note themselves, perhaps such a feature should be included in the future, something Tommaso agreed with.

Turning to “A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald” I was able to test out the enhanced setting on the excellently recorded cymbals and brass ‘stabs’ from the Syd Lawrence Orchestra with vocal soloist Clare Teal, which added life, and improved positioning of the various instruments. This feature is perhaps a good idea for some of those boring or unexciting records in your collection. To quote my article on Record EQ “…the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) curve has around -20dB taken off the signal at 20Hz and rising logarithmically to +20dB at 20,000Hz. That means in playback the EQ needs to amplify by 20dB at 20Hz and attenuate by 20dB at 20kHz”. By attenuating at a lesser rate at the top frequencies in all the “Enhanced” settings means the top frequencies will be several dB brighter, giving that more exciting sound at the expense of a very slightly reduced S/N if the record is very quiet and very hissy. I remember recording cassettes with Dolby B and playing back with Dolby switched off to get a brighter sound, though that did make for another 10dB of hiss. GN’s enhancement is not so acute, giving for a very useable setting to liven up your music, if you need, with no worries about degradation of sound. “Night and Day” was clear and very precise whilst still allowing Clare’s temperate vocals to contrast with the instrumentals. “Too Darn Hot” was just warm to the touch, the phono-stage giving great detail and precision, and that enhanced setting not affecting noise levels in my listening. What was notable, and with whichever setting I used, was the amount of detail, speed and musicality I could etch out of this recording. All of this way exceeded the price point of the PH-10. Adding to this the features and good looks this was one ‘darn hot’ bargain.

Mark Knopfler’s “Get Lucky” is one of those albums you just have to stop what you are doing and relax and listen and move away from the speed and stress of city life and head back into the green rolling hills of the aged bluesy past. Well, the album actually came out in 2009, but who’s counting. It is a regular feature of musicians that as they start to age they start producing records in older “styles” of music. George Michael’s “Songs from the Last Century” and Sting’s “Mercury Falling” (particularly the start of “I Was Brought to My Senses”) are just two examples. Dave Brubeck even started writing large classical works. Mark Knoffler’s “Get Lucky” comes supplied with accordion, flute, whistle, cittern and fiddle; an album that was well liked when it came out, but not quite as iconic as the Dire Straits albums before. However, it is very well recorded and gives me a chance to eke out the characteristics of cartridges and phono-stages. “You Can’t Beat the House” starts just like the live studio chatter at the start of John Lee Hooker’s “Deep Blue Sea”, and Mark Knopfler’s distinctive voice and refined style of music came through as if he was personally sitting down in front of me. Detail of music and instruments was surprisingly fluid and passionate, showing that designers Maurizio Aterini (CEO and Founder) and Giovanni Rialti (Chief Engineer) could link musicality and electronics in a way I regularly see GN do so well. This machine was not only user friendly in terms of its operation and versatility, but also in how it portrayed that music. Everything seemed natural and precise, only slightly losing out to my choice phono-stage in terms of three-dimensionality.

Turning to classical music, Schumann made pleasant symphonies with memorable tunes if not quite so unforgettable as Beethoven and, well, many others. Indeed his role model for symphonic writing was the Beethoven symphonies, and Schumann’s third symphony that was now on my platter particularly suggests Beethoven’s ‘Pastorale’ 6th symphony. No surprise then, perhaps, for me some of the best of the tunes are in this symphony, mostly happy and programmatic; full of countryside, peace and fun. He wrote this whilst he and wife Clara were on holiday in the Rhineland (hence why the symphony is often called the ‘Rhenish’ or ‘Rheinische’), just as Beethoven’s 6th symphony is about the countryside, with the famous second movement about a flowing brook. Schumann’s symphonies are like those of Brahms; full of complex inter-related ideas between instruments or sections of the orchestra, playing off against each other. This makes it ideal to use for reviews. Where some phono-stages can make it all rather clouded and claustrophobic the PH-10 opened up the music, with the beautiful horn lines on the left to the wistful cello pastoral images on the right. The phono-stage gave clear definition and placement of all instruments in the living-room stage area, particularly the slow lines in the cello and powerful blasts on the brass. With the enhanced setting that placement would be slightly greater, though with very slight added top end hiss from the master tape that recorded the Wiener Philharmoniker under Zubin Mehta(Decca), but not that it spoilt any listening. The PH-10 was particularly at home with classical music, making for a very entertaining and educational listening.

Turning to Genesis’s track “Misunderstanding” and “In the Cage” from the album ‘Three Times Live’ the music came across powerful and fast, with the live atmosphere from Phil Collin’s singing and the feisty guitar, keyboard and drum instrumentation, only relinquishing in my favourite “Afterglow”. This performance is highly centre stage, and noticeably more so in the PH-10 than my choice phono amplifier, though that is considerably more expensive. If I had to express any weaknesses in this Gold Note product, it is that three-dimensionality I have heard in the Manley Steelhead or Tom Evans Mastergroove, but they are considerably more expensive. What this phono-stage does excel in, though, is the noise floor. This is an exceptionally quiet amplifier, allowing you to really take in the full dynamic range of your record without music being masked by noises other than the record itself or turntable motor. Coupled with impressive frequency response and a retrieval of information and musicality in playback this is an exceptionally good product, that way belies its price point.

Conclusion

With 6 EQ patterns, 4 choices of gain and 9 impedance settings, this new baby from Gold Note is quite an amazing product even without any of the module upgrades, meaning for a very reasonable £1315.20 you can get serious vinyl speed, depth, detail and transparency, a sound that far belies its modest price.

This machine is very highly recommended and I suggest you take a listen if you are in the process of purchasing a phono-stage, whatever the price.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality: Excellent construction and use of quality components throughout. Add to this versatility of operation and design, this is great product.
Sound Quality: A detailed and honest portrayal of the music, far exceeding this price point.
Value For Money: At £1315.20 this is terrific value considering sound quality and features.

Pros:
Well controlled sound and fast delivery
Excellent noise floor and frequency range
Transparency

Cons:
Not quite such a front-to-back soundstage as I would hope, but well within expectations for any phono-stage south of £5000.
Nothing more

Price: £1315.20

Janine Elliot

 

Features
Equalization Curve control: 3 selectable curves [RIAA – Decca-London – American-Columbia] with enhanced option for each

Frequency response: 2Hz – 200KHz @ +/- 0.3dB
THD (Total Harmonic Distortion): <0.002% MAX
Signal to noise ratio: -102dB
Dynamic response: 122dB
Output impedance: 500Ω
Phase response: linear phase, absolute phase inverted

Audio Outputs
Line output level (fixed): stereo RCA @ 2Volt and balanced XLR @ 4Volt
Audio Inputs
Analogue inputs: 2 separate independent stereo RCA
Input sensitivity: 0.1mV MC up to 7.0mV MM
Input impedance: 9 selectable options [10Ω 22Ω 47Ω 100Ω 220Ω 470Ω 1000Ω 22KΩ 47KΩ ]
Gain: 65dB MC – 45dB MM with 4 options [-3dB 0dB +3dB +6dB]
Power
100V to 245V ▪ 50/60Hz (depending on market destination, not convertible)
Power consumption: 30W super linear power supply
Modular Upgrades
External Class-A tube output stage
Dual-Mono External Inductive Power
Curve Equalizer Extender unit
Class-A Tube Output Stage
Gain Stage Enhancer
External AC filter: Gold Note Lucca AC distributor
Gold Note Lucca Power Cord

Size, Weight and Finishes
Dimensions: 220mm L | 80mm H | 260mm D
Weight: 4Kg
Available in Black, Silver, Gold or Red (special edition)

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