Nagra Classic Phono Stage – Customer Review
When StudioAV contacted me to ask if I would like to home demo the Nagra Classic Phono I jumped at the chance.
To someone of my vintage the name Nagra conjures up images of open reel tape recorders which, much loved by TV and film, also found their way into many an audiophile set-up.
The Nagra Classic Phono, as its name implies, draws on the inspirational design of those classic Nagra components, whilst making sure that everything is up to modern audiophile standards. In the “metal” this little box, with its Swiss fit and finish, looks simple and beautiful.
SPOILER ALERT – That it sounds even better than it looks is astonishing.
The phono stage has the important job of taking the infinitesimally small signal from your precious cartridge equalizing and amplifying it, before passing it onto the line input section of your pre-amplifier circuit. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Listen to some offerings out there and you will soon realise that this isn’t the case.
Back in the 80’s, when I was starting out in this hobby and putting my first serious system together, the phono stage was an integral part of the amplifier circuit. All amplifiers came with a “phono board”, usually for a moving magnet type cartridge, already in-situ. On more serious amplifiers this could be swapped out for a moving coil board. Those early phono boards didn’t give the user many options for optimisation of gain, or cartridge loadings.
With the switch to CD and the predicted “death of vinyl”, amplifier manufacturers started to leave the phono stage out of their designs; after all, why spend money on something people didn’t need, or want! Enter dedicated phono stages, designed and built by people who retained a passion for all things vinyl. Over recent years the resurgence of vinyl has seen more and more offerings of stand- alone phono stages. Some with modest and others with stratospheric, price tags! Whilst the Nagra Classic Phono isn’t in the stratospheric league, it will still cost you a substantial chunk of change.
The phono stage itself will set you back £19,000. Whilst the optional Vibration Free Support (VFS) will cost just short of £2,000.
The VFS is a separate component and does not come packaged with the electronics, but so fundamental is it to the performance of the Classic Phono that it’s use should be mandatory!
I tried the phono stage with and without the VFS support and so transformative was the support that I never listened without it in place. The phono stage + VFS produced broader soundstages, improved separation, better instrumental texture and voices that projected out into the room in an almost ethereal fashion. Don’t get me wrong the Classic Phono did all these things well, but with the VFS supporting the electronics things just snapped more clearly into focus. Almost akin to that moment when you clean your spectacles with specialist lens cleaning fluid and everything just seems so much sharper, clearer and more detailed than before.
I already run a reasonably expensive (£10,000) and class leading phono stage, so could there really be that much of a performance gain with the Nagra, over my reference phono stage? Read on to find out
The Nagra Classic Phono stage employs new generation Nagra input transformers and triodes operating in full class A mode. But don’t let the presence of tubes bias your thinking here. This is not some lush sounding tube design with flabby bass and euphonic bloom added to every note. This is a very modern design that, when the music calls for it, has bite and attack in spades. The bass is seismic, full bodied and structured. Whilst it is certainly warmer sounding than my reference phono stage it doesn’t call attention to the glass bottles in its circuit.
The phono stage runs warm to the touch but not blisteringly hot. My reference phono stage, which doesn’t use tubes, but does operate in class A, runs much hotter to the touch than the Nagra.
The form factor is also worthy of comment. I’ve already mentioned that, to my eye, this is a stunningly executed design, measuring just 15 inches deep, by 11 inches wide and 3 inches high, whilst the addition of the VFS platform raise the height to 4.4 inches; this little box will be easy to accommodate on even the most bijou rack. Indeed, to make things simpler the unit has (5) small dimples in the top of the unit which can accommodate other Nagra Classic components fitted with the optional “spiked” feet of the VFS system.
Nagra Classic Phono requires a turntable and electronics of utmost quality to give of its best. I use an Avid Acutus turntable, and I would suggest that this represents the minimum standard for use with the Nagra. Feed it a quality signal and the results are simply breath-taking! From the first needle drop of my DRT XV-1S cartridge I was captivated. The music filling my room sounded so much more real, so much more involving and so much more captivating than anything else I have experienced in my listening room.
As I have already said, my reference phono stage is a class leading design which presents a wonderfully detailed image, with good bass weight, an excellent mid-range and soaring high frequency extension. But there is something missing when comparing this to the Nagra which produces a heft and physicality that you only get with live music. It’s not the kind of heft that dulls the high frequencies or submerges the midrange, it’s the sort that underpins the music and provides a firm platform on which all the other frequencies lock into place and shine. Nor is it the kind of physicality that is orientated to one type of music over the other, it is the kind of physicality that one gets when listening to live instruments, of whatever persuasion, be they strings, brass, wind, keys or percussion. The musical presentation is so right that the Nagra also works with all styles of music. During my time with the Nagra I listened to rock, folk, jazz, blues, classical, opera and even a bit of pop. With every style I became immersed and engaged in the musical performance in a way that I have never been before. I give two examples below.
One of my all-time favourite tracks is Joan Armatrading’s “Me, myself, I”, from the album of the same name. There is a strong bass that propels the track along. With the Nagra in place the kick drum slams you in the chest and the bass provides the driving rhythm for the lead guitar and vocals. The whole is presented as a tight ensemble of musicians and Joan’s vocals are spot-lit centre stage.
Switching to Pink Floyd “Breath” from DSoM the first thing that hits you is the realistic and palpable heartbeat that starts the track. The maniacal laughter is so realistic it made the hairs on the back of my arms stand on end and my skin crawl. The machine noises and sound effects build the tension of the track and that bass as a visceral depth to it. This is a big soundstage on which I can picture the band strutting their stuff.
The Nagra is probably on the slightly warmer side of neutral, but it is very neutral. It will tell you everything that is going on in the mix, but not in a hyper analytical fashion that can rip the music apart. Central to its function is the music and the performance. It pays homage to the musical effort of the artist and production team and presents a musical performance. So much so that within minutes of listening to it you forget all about Hi-Fi hyperbole and focus on the music. My reference preamp is manufactured by Music First Audio, so named because it is designed to put the music first. I would argue that the Nagra Classic Phono performs similarly by putting the music and performance first and foremost.
If you can afford it and you have the rest of the system to do it justice, you simply must audition the Nagra Classic Phono. For me the hardest part of my time with the Nagra will be handing it back when Studio AV come to collect it. If I had the funds available, I would buy it in an instant. As it is I might just have to pretend not to be home when they ring my doorbell!
A really big Thank you to Paul for taking the time to put Pen to paper following his extensive evaluation of our Nagra Classic Phono stage. Paul is a Music lover and true Hi-fi enthusiast, so we were delighted to read about his time with the Nagra Classic Phono, We would highly recommend his advice “to book your own demonstration” particularly if you share our Passion for Music & Vinyl playback.
To read more about the Nagra Classic Phono stage or to book your own individual demonstration click here
Alternatively give us a call or send a quick email, we’ll take care of the reset Tel 01753 863300 email firstname.lastname@example.org
NAGRA products are designed and manufactured by Audio Technology Switzerland.