"Cheap, fast and dirty phono stage? You bet!" After a recent flood in my home and studio, I was left without my beloved phono stages. (And everything else for that matter) Nothing will tug at the heart of an audiophile more than seeing his lovingly cared for and extensively tweaked gear soaked. I literally cried when I saw water pouring from every hole and button on each and every prized heirlooms. I guess you could say I cried a river and then some. So that brings us to what to do about getting some music back into the air around these parts! Time to break out the soldering iron, a new test rig and get to work I guess!
So, I managed to bring a few components back to life. At least enough to start reviewing gear and music! You see, we often forget how special one component was when it is replaced by some newfangled gadget with more lights and dinging bells than its predecessor. When you are hit with a disaster, it often forces you to take another look at the gear that brought you so much pleasure in the past. (At least until the insurance company and lawyers pull it together and replace your stuff!!!) I have certainly gained a new appreciation for the old greats again. I’ll most definitely post reviews on some of the other equipment I pulled out of moth balls recently. All relevant to where HI-END audio has been and where it is now.
For now though, let’s get started with this seemingly silly unit called the Rolls VP29 Phono Preamp. Lacking a phono stage and the patience to build a new one at the moment, I decided to make a run down to a local pro audio shop about a block from here. I always see this little red box hanging on a peg and was looking for the excuse to try it out some day. That someday came! The shop that sold me the unit mostly supplies them to DJs in order to add a third or fourth turntable to their setups. Naturally, I figured it was of little quality and geared toward that “LO-FI” DJ sound. We shall see then. Upon first opening the box I noticed it was a terrible packing job. The kind you would relate more to a tool in a hardware store, then to a piece of audio equipment. You know that plastic crap that is impossible to open without a fat set of sheers? The kind of packaging that sends you to the hospital with lacerations if you accidentally slip while extracting the product. Not cool. Furthermore, the unit was snuggled in a bed of open cell foam that does little to protect it from the rigors of shipping and being dropped by stockers. I think they should take a closer look at this in the future. I have seen cheap dime store CD players packed better than this.
What IS nice is how coolio/retro the designer made this unit appear. You could sense how the designer’s utilitarian leaning ideas were implemented into making this a very unique unit. I especially liked the straight forward and no frills circuit layout of the output device. The vp29 is a solid state phono preamp for use with moving-magnet and high output moving-coil cartridges. The vp29 is designed to amplify an RIAA equalized phono signal to a hi-level signal. It’s cheap cheerful and manufactured in the US. Inside and out, that about sums it up. What makes it unique is just that. There’s nothing to it!
After careful setup it was time to see how this unit sings. One of my favorite recordings is the tried and true Miles Davis Kind Of Blue. I have several pressings of this album and know exactly what each one should sound like. The first one I used was the recent re-release by Sony Records on 180 gram vinyl. There's something special about the way this music's air was picked up so well all the way back in 1959. On a great system, you can hear into the room so well you could swear you are SEEING the flickering light on the ceiling. Although the microphones were primitive, they just worked. The placement of the instruments in the room is superb, even for modern standards. A properly set up and tuned system can image this recording to a spooky degree. This aspect of the recording and how it was recorded is what makes some systems sound great, or go home crying for mommy. Especially the way the John Coltrane’s tenor sax reaches. Only one example of what really sets this recording apart.
Upon careful audition it was easy to tell how the VP29 really imaged and could keep a good pace. Even a close friend, was astonished how well a $75.00 unit could do this! It was only when my friend and I turned the volume up did we notice that the soundstages became too overly emphasized. It was as though some kind of cheap bra made the stage bits too; well let’s just say “lumpy” for our taste. If my friend and I agree on anything, it’s that we both prefer the more “natural” and “structurally sound” variety. It was time to see if this unit could really jam. Reaching into my vinyl stash I grabbed the most awesome recording of Tool-Lateralus. Now this is music to grind to! In the middle of the recording I began to feel a bit dirty, which made me want to shower with a steel file. This may be due to the poor quality capacitors used in the power supply. It’s a small wall wart with an attached power cord the size of dental floss. For what it is though, man, can this thing rock! MAN-O-MAN, even my cat “Bob” started to cough up fur balls as the music was playing. It was at this time I realized the music was way too heavy to get a real read on this little phono “Tool”. Man I love this album!!!
After a good bit of music it was time to really get things cookin'. So I took out my favorite live recordings of everything I could pull from the racks and sunk into my listening chair with a hot tea. Gotta tell ya, live recordings surely can't be beat. Over the next few days, everything from Rush to Tony Bennet was in constant rotation. From Roy Orbison to Dead Can Dance, each vinyl sounded better than the last! Listening to all of them, it was as if the live recordings of these great sessions began to come alive. Some even real and not recorded at all. In fact they were so real that I listened to it again and again. Perhaps that crappy power supply was getting burned in, or the circuit itself was settling somehow.Getting a good handle on how this unit reproduced music was really easy. At the same time it was frustrating the hell out of me. Since I have regularly attended live concerts and shows like Prince, BB King, Boogie, JP Smoke Train, Rush, Etc. and soon the Honolulu Orchestra, (finally back from the dead) my ears have been tuned to the real thing. Sometimes it gets depressing after hearing a great concert by Dave Mathews, then going home and listening to my music reproduction system. Actually, I’m kidding, I have a ridiculously tuned system and often prefer it to the drunken sound guy behind the boards at the show. Though with this little red yummy in my system the music really is believable!
So, after spending a long time with this piece I can confidently say it's among one of those few units that makes me feel happy and content. Don’t get me wrong though. Let me be clear. This is NOT what I would call the HI-END. This unit will never compete with the other units my ears have become accustomed to. It was simply not designed to plumb the depths like a Parasound Halo JC3. Nor will it resolve the delicacy of the upper limits of the Fosgate Signature Phono Preamp I loved so dearly. What it will do is something we so easily forget. Play music with no sonic artifacts of its own to speak of. It simply passes signal from turntable to preamp. It is only as good as what it is fed from your cartridge. Put a crap deck in front of it and crap is what you will get out the back. In this case, I noticed that although you will never be able to make out what the voices in the background on Jazz at the Pawn Shop, what I did get was a lively and robust “LIVE” sound from the unit. A happy sound if you will. Like the sound of your first HI-FI. The one you mowed 40 lawns all summer back in high school for. That’s a good thing in my book. Highly recommend as a back-up piece, or just for some nostalgic sounds. I rate it in my Recommended Components list in class “C”. I'm keeping the review sample! For the price of dinner at Roy’s, who wouldn’t?
“Keep your records clean Ya’ll”!
Rolls VP29 Phono preamp
I/O Connectors: RCA, ¼” TRS Stereo
Input Sensitivity: 35 dB gain
Input Capacitance: 5pf + cable capacitance
Input Impedance: 50k Ohms
Output Impedance: 1 Ohms
Max Output Level: >10dB @ 1kHz at .1% dist.
Equalization: RIAA +/- 1.5 dB, 20Hz to 20kHz
THD .02% @ 1KHz
S/N Ratio: >80 dB unweighted
PWR: 12 - 18 VDC
Size: W3.25 x H1.5 x D2 in.
Weight: 1 lb.
Indicator: 1 Power LED
JWM Designs LLC MAG-lv/VPI/Rega/SL-1200/Funkfirm/SME Turntable (Custom built)
Shelter 201, Ortofon 2M Red and 2M Blue, Shure 97XE phono cartages
Hitachi FT-2 Tuner (Custom modified JWM Designs LLC)
Oppo HD 980H, HP dv7-4183cl Notebook (extensively modified JWM Designs LLC)
Musical Fidelity XA-1 (Custom modified JWM Designs LLC)
Mcintosh MC2105 and MC2125 amplifiers (Custom modified JWM Designs LLC)
Sound Craftsman DC2215 Differential/Comparator Equalizer
Klipsch Cornwall II (Custom built)Front
Klipsch Tangent T50 (Custom built) Rear
JWM Designs LLC JMSW12 Servo driven subwoofers (X-2) Each with 1,340 watt custom built HYPEX digital amplifiers
Audio Quest Columbia and Colorado interconnects
Kimber Kable 12HT speaker cables
Audio Quest NRG-4 IEC power cables
Dedicated 200A power source from mains panel feeding PS Audio Power Port Classics 20A
1 box of TAZO Earl Grey Tea!