108 Station Road
Great Neck, NY 11023
Dual-mono design phonograph preamplifier; 18Hz-22kHz RIAA accuracy +/- .2dB; THD+N of .01%; gain 40, 65 or 70dB, loading 100, 500, 47k; high current, Class-A discrete output stage; variable gain and loading via internal switches; 3.3 pounds; 5.1” W x 8.3” D x 1.7” H; one year warranty.
Marantz TT-15S1 Turntable, Krell KAV-400i Integrated Amplifier, Musical Fidelity A5 Integrated Amplifier, Marantz SA-11 Integrated Amplifier, PS Audio GCPH Phono Stage (for comparison), Musical Fidelity XLPS (for comparison), Musical Surroundings Phonomena (for comparison), Rega Apollo (for preamp comparison), Bowers and Wilkins 803S speakers, Audioquest cabling.
Setup, Testing and Description
The preamplifier seems to be one of the most overlooked aspects of an audio system. Consumers tend to focus in on speakers, amplifiers, or sources, but many years ago I discovered that, although it should impart the least sonic signature, the preamplifier can radically change the quality/character of an audio system. (Of course I’m not saying to neglect other areas, only that more attention should be paid to the preamplifier).
The build quality of the Whest is understated, but there is a separate power transformer with a proprietary plug-in, a single torroidal transformer inside the chassis, and the rest of the circuitry is completely separate for each channel. If you plan to be the one to adjust the gain and loading (and what audiophile wouldn’t?), be careful to open the component from the front and not the back! This procedure requires a metric Allen wrench for the front panel and then a Philips for the bottom. Why make it so hard to get at?
Once inside, the adjustments are straightforward and given that I was using a MM cartridge I set the unit for 47K and 40 dB of gain. Even though the there are preset values of adjustment, the manual suggests that the unit can be reconfigured to ANY setting by calling Whest. Power is always on and make sure you follow the manual’s recommended procedure for connecting the unit to avoid damage.
The Whest comes with a set of decent interconnects (read ~ $200 pair sound-wise) and an RCA to mini-plug cable to connect to a computer soundcard. The mini to RCA cable looks sufficient for the task, while most users will have interconnects that they prefer based on system-matching and long-term listening and testing.
When I first received the Marantz turntable last month for review, I realized right away that a good preamp would be necessary to complete the package. Having sold my Audio Alchemy VITB years ago and only having the phono section in an old receiver to listen with, I made it a priority to obtain a high quality phono preamp. Before the review began I lent the Whest out to a friend to try it out as he was using the Musical Surroundings Phonomena.
Taking the initiative, he set the preamps he had up for the same cartridge (with loading and gain as close as possible) and recorded the output from the same recordings into his computer. He then burned a CD that contained a few tracks with four different phono preamplifiers. This was good enough to allow us to rate the preamplifiers with a few different records and separate them in groups. The preamplifiers were: The Musical Fidelity XLPS, the Musical Surroundings Phonomena (old version), the Whest (under review), and the PS Audio GCPH (future review).
He level-matched each preamp using Sony SoundForge and an Echo Audio Mia MIDI sound card and recorded the music at 16 bit/44.1 kHz. His source is a Clearaudio Champion turntable and Benz Micro L2 cartridge. He knew which preamps were which during the audition, but I and a fellow audiophile did not know which preamp was which. We quickly separated the pieces into three groups of quality.
It was clear that the PS Audio and the Whest were a large step above the other two in terms of fidelity and were in the same league but offered a different presentation. (See the PS Audio review for more information on this piece.)
The differences between the Whest and the XLPS and the Phonomena was a much improved sense of resolution, less compression and congestion, truer midrange presentation, improved bass and dynamics, more realistic soundstaging and depth—just to get started. There should be no reservation for a serious vinyl listener to jump up into the $1K+ category. The sonic rewards are huge. With the lesser preamps I did not get the Goosebumps I did while listening to the recordings mentioned in the review of the Marantz turntable. The sound was simply okay to good. With the Whest, the music was elevated to a whole new level.
Critical listening began with the title track from The Eagles’ One of These Nights record. Bass was punchy and tight but not overly full. Transients were quick and the music had good extension, but the balance leaned towards the lighter side. Imaging was good and voice was neither up front nor set back in the soundstage. I would have liked a little more depth and presence/involvement but otherwise the sound was very good.
From Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled record I chose the song “Landslide.” The portrayal of voice was quite beautiful—big, full, and rich. The guitar work was delicate and tuneful. It was easy to imagine the images hanging in the space between the speakers. It will be hard to ever listen to this track on CD again after hearing it sound this good.
From Yes’ The Yes Album I picked another fun classic rock guitar track “I’ve Seen All Good People.” The tendency that I had heard earlier that was not bothersome became more noticeable on this cut—an ever so slightly laid back characteristic to the sound present on the initial chorus. Again there seemed to be some foreshortening of the deep bass. And there was the leanness, but along with it a slight reticence—a trait that was often associated with English electronics and speakers—a lack of aggression…a politeness to the sound. I expect the music to really grab the listener and pull them in, but it just didn’t happen on this track. Pace was hard to fault, but the sound just wasn’t rockin’!
On the lighter side of things I tried “Las Manos De Fuego,” a track from Earl Klugh’s Blue Note Album. The record is mainly 70s-influenced jazz (some funk, those Phil Collin’s style horns, etc). I expected the preamp to help this music really shine and it did. The sound was lively, clean, and had better dynamics than many of the other records I auditioned. It was still missing some of the “oomph” I’d like, but for the listener who prefers a relaxed quality with low/no irritation this preamp would be worth auditioning. It is extremely liquid and the listener never feels that it is getting in the way of the music. Guitar work on this cut was vibrant and pulsing.
Like many other higher end components, the Whest cannot be judged based on its failings. Choice becomes more a matter of taste and although the ideal may be complete transparency, it is rare to find any electronic component that can fully achieve it. Designers also tend to have a particular characteristic sound they strive for in a design. Thus some companies begin to have a reputation for a particular sound (for better or for worse). The Whest offered superior transparency in comparison to sub $1000 preamps that I had on hand making me cognizant of the important contribution of the preamp in the system yet again. Music issued forth from it without any obvious additive coloration.
If I had to nitpick with the piece I’d say there was some lack of deep bass and front to back depth—although some of the depth issues were recording dependent. As Whest’s entry level piece this piece is surely not entry level. I can’t profess to be an expert in this category and there are a quite a few other pieces in this range. Time will tell if my impression of the Whest improves or declines after I’ve had a chance to compare it with other phono preamplifiers. For now, I would recommend it to those looking for a large upgrade to the analog side of their system.
— Brian Bloom