The Audiokultura Iskra 1 phono-stage is from Poland and costs £340. Ian Ringstead takes a listen.

This phono-stage was meant to be reviewed early on this year but a thing called Covid 19 got in the way and delayed it. I saw Stuart at the Bristol Show in February and he said I’ve got a new phono stage for you to play with. I said great and then lockdown came, so I only recently received the unit to appraise. I have had countless phono stages through my system over the years, many as purchases to then be sold on and quite a few for HiFi Pig to review. Vinyl is in my veins so I eagerly want to try anything new that can offer a new spin on things (pun intended), especially when it is aimed at the budget end of the spectrum.

The Audiokultura Iskra 1 is a very flexible phono-stage that will handle both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges. Iskra is Polish for a spark in simple translation terms, so I assume that is what the design aim was behind the model. Vinyl is definitely on the rise again and here to stay, so for cash strapped music fan, this unit is a very welcome addition. It is made in Poland where hifi has really caught on in the last decade or so and my visit to Warsaw the other year for the audio show was a real eye-opener to what they offer in enthusiasm and fantastic products, many of which are not crazily priced. This item sells for 379,00 € / £340 approx.

Build and Construction

The Iskra 1 comes in a very simple compact metal case in a lovely blue paint (Daphne Blue) finish (also available in black and matt silver) with just the logo and a red power led on the front panel. Connections are on the slim back panel where there are a pair of RCA inputs from the turntable and a set of RCA outputs to your amps line stage input. Also, an earthing post to stop any hum in the wiring loop. Underneath the case is where all the adjustments are made via six cut-outs on dip switches, a commonly used arrangement. You can independently adjust the left and right channels for load and capacitance on eight switches and then there are two lots of gain stages 1 and 2 to cover the vast majority of moving magnet and moving coil cartridges that may ever be used with the Iskra1.

The loads are 100 Ohm, 1k Ohm, 47 k Ohm (mm), and 75 k Ohm. The capacitances are 47pf, 100pf, 100 pf, and 220pf. You then play around with the switch positions to get the load and capacitance you want. If all the capacitance switches are off then only the tonearm cable capacitance is in the circuit. The phono-stage has a passive RIAA filter which is placed between two ultrafast laser-trimmed amplifiers. The first amplifier before the RIAA filter called Gain Stage 1 has two levels 3odB and 40dB.  The second amplifier is behind the RIAA filter which is Gain Stage 2 and this has four levels of gain: 15dB, 20dB, 25dB, and 30dB. You then set the gain to suit the sensitivity of your system – levels that can vary hugely. Basically, set the gain so as not to distort or overload your amplifier input and possibly blow up your loudspeaker drive units. This might sound complicated or off-putting to some readers, but in practice is common-sense and a case of experimenting sensibly.

The Iskra 1 is powered by a commonly used 12v dc plug top power supply (switch mode), but this can be upgraded to an external battery or linear power supply. I stuck with the supplied plug top which worked fine. The Iskra 1 has no instruction manual supplied in the box but it is readily available to download from Audiokultura’s website, which is what I did. There is a QR code on the bottom of the Iskra 1 case so you can scan with your mobile phone and access the instructions easily.

Sound Quality

I used my trusty Audio Technica ATVM95sch moving magnet and Benz Micro ACE Low output moving coil in an ebony body. My Luxman PD151turntable has a detachable headshell tonearm and so cartridge swaps are a doddle – a key reason I bought the PD151 (as well as its superb build and sound quality). I compared the Iskra 1 with the built-in phono-stage on my Luxman L505ux mk2 amplifier, the Temple Audio Harmony 3 moving magnet preamp stage, and their Harmony moving-coil stage with separate power supply.

Kate Bush’s Aerial was first out on the platter and is a personal favourite of mine. I got it on CD originally when it was released and of course, Rolf Harris sang on it on the track “The Painter’s Link.” The later vinyl version now has another artist singing (for obvious reasons), but that doesn’t detract from the original recording’s enjoyment. Kate’s albums are always well recorded and with Aerial on vinyl, it excels. Being a double album there is time to build up the story and finish on a crescendo with the last track Aerial. Kate’s songs are rich and varied. The Iskra1 revealed the complexity of the tracks whether they were simple or complex arrangements and brought out the subtleties of the compositions. Instruments in the background (or vocals) were spaced well with decent depth and spread, not as good as I am used to, but for the asking price more than acceptable. Top-end detail was crisp and clear and through my Jern loudspeakers did not grate or aggravate, showing the Iskra’s careful design and accuracy. Voices were rich and true, which is a must for any good component to achieve. Bass was deep and tight but lacked the authority and weight of my references and when the going got tough on more complex tracks struggled to excel. This is not a criticism, rather an observation of how difficult it is to maintain an overall standard at a lower price level.

Steely Dan’s Aja was next, an all-time classic and definitely one of my desert islands discs. I have both the original pressing which was always a disappointment sound wise and the MFSL version which is sublime in comparison. The clarity and punch this version has is spot on and always brings a smile to my face. Donald Fagan’s vocals were forward in the mix as intended and the instruments around him were etched left to right in all their glory. Fagan and Becker were fanatical about the quality of their recordings and performance and used the best session musicians on all their albums. Saxophone solos were sonorous and a real delight, as were the keyboards, bass, lead guitar, or drums. The rhythm sections drive these songs along and the Iskra1 boogied.

A recording from the seventies, the Commodores “Natural High”, which I bought second hand and cleaned on my Pro-ject VCS really surprised me for its quality of the recording. Lionel Richie’s superb voice and the band’s instruments powered along in the funky numbers such as “Flying High and X Rated Movie”. The album is most famous for the number one hit single “Three Times a Lady” but for me, it’s the funky tracks that really thrill me, even forty years on. As they say, good music never dies and the Iskra1 preserves that heritage.

A dedicated linear power supply would I am sure up the ante and solve the weaknesses that the cheaper switch mode power supply can’t resolve. AudioKultura recommends this as an option and I can testify to this type of upgrade as very effective with every phono-stage I have ever tried it with. AudioKultura are in the process of finalising the Iskra2, an advanced version of the Iskra 1 with front panel access to the load and capacitance adjustments, and other features. The designers are also tweaking the capacitor choices to attain the sound they are after. This is not an easy task and not to be rushed. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Conclusion

If you are after a highly versatile phono-stage for under £400 look no further. There are many units out there now, but the Iskra1 offers such adjustability that tweakers will love it. Don’t let its simplicity at first glance fool you, it has a lot to offer. The systems it will probably be used in will be less critical than mine so it will perform admirably. As it was it still did a sterling job in mine.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality:  Excellent for the price and smart looking in its blue livery.

Sound Quality:  Low noise design that punches above its weight

Value for Money:  Excellent given the competition

Pros:  Highly flexible and handles mm and mc.

Cons:  Only that the dip switches are tiny and hard to alter, so patience is required, and studying the instructions for the adjustments is vital.

Price: £340 / 379,00 €

 

 

 

 

 

Ian Ringstead 

Review Equipment: Luxman Pd151 with Benz Micro Ace cartridge or Audio Technica AT95 SCH, Luxman L505UX ii, Jern 12WS speakers. Cables from TQ Missing Link and Way. (Also, Temple Audio Harmony MM pre and MC phono stages)

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