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Building a DIY Reference Phono Stage

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Why Upgrade My Phono Preamp?!
That’s a damned good question since I already own the very decent Schiit Mani which I purchased with my Marantz TT15 S1 turntable. See my earlier post to read the full story. I attribute the desire to get something “better” to my curiosity. I wanted to test what factors contribute to the sound quality most in my vinyl setup. After spending countless hours chatting with long-term vinyl junkies, I came to the conclusion that it must either be your cartridge or the phono stage. Michael Fremer’s video on the sonic comparison between a Technics SL1200 vs his Caliburn turntable (that one costs three times as much as my car!) further confirmed my resolution to try a better phono preamp instead of looking elsewhere.

I quickly learned that things weren’t that simple. A slight improvement was already in the 1000 Euro range and above. I wasn’t sure whether the gains would justify that investment. Alienated by a supposedly trustworthy reviewer on YouTube who put the Schiit Mani head to head with way more expensive phono stages, I either had to pay big bucks are cancel the idea altogether.

My DIY Nelson Pass XONO Clone
I discovered Ralph Stens DIY website (https://www.rstaudio.de/en) in late summer of 2018. Ralph is selling his own custom designed PCB boards to help DIYers build a clone of the mighty Nelson Pass XONO phono preamp. He’s a great guy and helped my work out a couple of problems with my setup as well. His boards are super high quality and everything he does isn’t simply a knock-off but a custom design based on the original circuit. Nelson Pass, the mastermind behind the XONO is very DIY-friendly and often releases circuits to the DIY community. Fortunately the XONO is among them. For those of you who haven’t heard of the XONO – this used to be Pass Labs top-of-the-range phono preamplifier and still ranks among the 10 best preamps on this planet. This phono stage is fully balanced and built on discrete parts (no opamps or chips in the signal path). It took me quite a while to source all the parts (especially the FETs are hard to come by) and populate the boards but results are astounding.

Sound Quality Evaluation
I listened to the Schiit Mani and compared it head to head against my XONO clone. My DIY build definitely has much more resolution, dynamics and punchiness but keep in mind we are comparing a 100 Euro product vs a multi-thousand Euro reference phono stage! Even my wife and kids can hear the difference. My friend Alex brought his battery-powered Hifiakademie phono preamp and it is still slightly inferior to my build. A totally worthwhile investment and it was fun to build. My phono setup now sounds much better than before. I still can’t believe how quiet the XONO is. I paid about 800 Euros for everything including the enclosures. Not a cheap project but you probably cannot find anything (even pre-owned) that sounds anywhere as good as the clone.

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