Allnic Audio H-3000 Phono Stage
by Marc Mickelson | August 20, 2010
Designing high-performance audio equipment is not something done by committee. History continues to prove that it is the endeavor of talented, driven individuals who are compelled to bring their ideas about music reproduction to fruition. Such is the case with Allnic Audio, which is based in South Korea. Kang Su Park's title is CEO, but his role, as the person who designs every Allnic product and many of the components used for them, is much more far-reaching. He has a 20-year history in the audio industry, having produced his designs under the Silvaweld name before founding Allnic in 2005.
The company's line of electronics is immense and includes multiple integrated amplifiers, power amplifiers, preamplifiers, phono stages, step-up transformers and a phono head amp. Oh, I almost overlooked Allnic's line of moving-coil cartridges, which will soon expand with the introduction of the company's first mono cartridge. Mr. Park is intimately engaged in these as well, designing them all and building each one himself, the audio equivalent of being a world-class sprinter and swimmer.
I can't make the case that the H-3000 phono stage is the most ingenious or intriguing of the Allnic products -- none of them is a me-too design -- but I can say that it's the one that immediately interested me. It embodies all of Kang Su Park's purist ideals for the design of audio electronics and includes a couple innovations. Chief among these is the H-3000's inductance-capacitance-resistance (LCR) network for RIAA equalization, which Mr. Park designed from the ground up. Central to any phono stage is the way it handles RIAA EQ, which restores the music on each LP to its pre-equalized state. In most cases this is accomplished through the use of a capacitance/resistance (CR) network, which has no gain and thus makes the tiny signal from the phono cartridge susceptible to loss. CR networks also have very high impedance -- 100k ohms or more.
Among the virtues of Allnic's LCR network is much lower impedance -- 600 ohms, with a mere 13 ohms series impedance -- and lower signal loss than with a CR network. But it was the sonic performance of his LCR network that convinced Kang Su Park, who said that better dynamics, better bass, and greater speed were the results of this way of achieving RIAA EQ.
Just as significant to the sonic outcome of the H-3000, and all other Allnic products, are the transformers used, each of which was designed for its particular implementation and manufactured in-house. Kang Su Park has been designing and manufacturing transformers for more than two decades. "I tested several that were available," he told me, "but I couldn't find what I wanted." Necessity continues to be the mother of invention in the 21st century. Central to Allnic's transformers is the use of Permalloy, an amalgam of iron and nickel developed almost a century ago. Among its properties are high permeability and low coercivity, making it exceptional for use as a transformer core. It improves the sensitivity of the primary coils, resulting in lower signal loss and wider bandwidth.
The H-3000 is fully class A and fully transformer coupled. Avoiding coupling capacitors means removing their sonic signatures as well. Voltage regulation for the H-3000 comes courtesy of pairs of 7233 and 6485 tubes. Four E810F industrial pentodes handle gain. None of these tubes is a common type, and the 7233 and E810F have no equivalents. Each tube is mounted on a socketing structure decoupled from the chassis by Allnic's patented Absorb Gel Tube Damper. This isolates the tube from the others and the rest of the H-3000's circuitry and is said to prevent propagation of microphonics.
Voltage gain for the H-3000 is 44dB for the moving-magnet inputs and up to 74dB for the moving-coil. The latter use a pair of Allnic-designed step-up transformers with top-mounted dials for adjusting the gain factor. There is another dial at the rear of the main chassis for adjusting loading from 10k to 47k ohms. These rather high values are in series with the step-up transformers, so they are not the actual loading values. With either of my Dynavector low-output cartridges or the bargain-hunter's delight Audio-Technica AT33EV, there was one loading choice that was better than the others (10k ohms for the Dynavector cartridges, and 20k ohms for the Audio-Technica).
The H-3000's separate power supply is handsome and small, easy to tuck away instead of take up room on your equipment rack. It connects to the main unit by a detachable umbilical. The H-3000's front panel includes a large knob for input selection, along with pushbuttons for Mute and Phase. There is also a pair of attractive half-dollar-sized meters that indicate current for the gain-stage tubes.
In addition to everything else, Allnic machines its chassis parts, including faceplates and knobs. The H-3000 has a retro look that is underscored by the reassuring "clunk" that its input selector makes. All four inputs are single-ended RCA only, while outputs are single-ended RCA and balanced XLR -- the H-3000 is in fact fully balanced.
From its design brief and outward appearance, the H-3000 is an artisanal product with an obvious seriousness of purpose -- just what I would expect at its considerable price. There is nothing elementary or derivative about it, and there aren't many audio products about which you can rightly say this. "One person directing is the best way," Kang Su Park opined about the distinctiveness of his products, adding that this allowed him "to have control over everything." And we return to where this review began.
Getting down to it
The manifold duties of a phono stage -- provide equalization and a massive amount of gain for the musical signal while interfacing with the phono cartridge in as benign a way as possible -- are only complicated by the inherent sound of analog playback. A well-made and -maintained LP can present a massive amount of musical information, and when things are right, this happens with an intrinsic ease that pushes reproduction a giant step closer to accomplishing the goal that all audiophiles seek: the sound of live music at home. If a phono stage injects too much noise, loses too much of the signal, or skews the spectral balance toward any one region, the multi-faceted sophistication of analog sound is diminished, and along with it the realism.
Right from the very start, the H-3000 impressed with its high resolution and ease, and things only improved from there. It was effortless in its delineation of instrumental lines, especially in the uppermost frequencies, which were quick-paced and varied in character. The music truly existed in three dimensions, with instruments occupying space in a way unique to each recording. The soundstage was never less than wide, very deep and, above all, layered. This made for some of the most eerie listening I've ever experienced. The sense of one performer being in front of another conjured musical specters in my listening room time and again.
Bud Powell was a tortured pianist whose genius was displayed in fits and starts over the course of 15 years. His album titled simply '57 [Verve UMV 2571] is a compilation of two different trio sessions that feature Max Roach and Art Blakey on drums -- it doesn't get any better than that. While originals don't fetch ridiculous money, I would still opt for the Verve remaster from the early '80s, which is part of a series of remasters pressed on very quiet virgin vinyl and released initially in Japan. These LPs eventually made it to America, where you could find them in cutout bins for a couple of bucks -- an amazing deal for such fine pressings. Powell's playing is luminous on some cuts, and wanders a bit on others. "Thou Swell," which is part of the Art Blakey set, was arrayed with an acute sense of space through the H-3000. The recording is in mono, but that means nothing regarding front-to-back placement. At points, rimshots seemed to come from another place -- in my case, the deck behind my listening room. Consistently, a unique relationship between image specificity and solidity presented the music with spooky palpability. Great recordings don't always achieve this, and phono stages rarely do. The H-3000 was clearly in a league of its own here.
Once this ability was established, it was impossible to ignore. Every LP benefited, and some were downright unnerving. Among these was One Foot in the Gutter [Epic/Classic Records BA 17008], jazz drummer Dave Bailey's highest musical point as a leader. The album has only three cuts, including the Thelonious Monk tune "Well You Needn't," whose taut, dynamically scaled bass line had an airy aura of its own within the spacious soundstage. I wouldn't call the low frequencies a strength of the H-3000, but they were pretty close, sounding tightly rhythmic yet bloomy, never turning into tubey goo. And they displayed directionality equal to the best digital sources.
Dynamically, the H-3000 was equally adept at both the macro and micro ends. It did not possess soaring large-scale dynamic prowess like some all-solid-state phono stages do, but its noise floor was low enough, even with the tubes it uses for gain, to unearth low-level detail and convey the small shifts in volume that diverse music has. This effectively extended its dynamic range, which was not presented in a showy manner. Recordings both new and old were instructive here. A vintage mono copy of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration Porgy and Bess [Columbia CL 1274] revealed the subtle breath-beats and minute inflections of Miles' playing, while the Music Matters reissue of Eric Dolphy's great Out to Lunch [Blue Note/Music Matters MMBST-84163] swelled in power in a way that seemed ahead of its time (1964) in sonic terms. Rudy Van Gelder, the renowned jazz recording engineer, was decades ahead of his time, his sonic fingerprint helping to define the excellence of the Blue Note catalog. And when you hear his recordings with everything that modern remastering can muster, you realize that reissue label Music Matters is doing all it can to preserve Van Gelder's pioneering legacy. The low-level dynamics, not to mention the acute spatial characteristics, of the H-3000 enlivened the sound of the Music Matters LPs all the more.
Tonally, the H-3000 was slightly burnished, which, along with its finely drawn treble, imparted a natural litheness to the music. Instrumental lines had equal amounts of transient speed and tonal grace, a combination that is at the heart of analog's magnetism for listeners, and one I always find particularly appealing. This gave the H-3000 a wide palette from which to draw, no kind of music sounding more impressive than another. Nirvana's Nevermind [Original Recordings Group ORG 032] was up front and densely distorted -- just as it should be -- while, on the other end of the spectrum, Alexander Brailowsky playing Chopin's Preludes was atmospheric and demure, with a more removed viewpoint. I have the same LP in both stereo [Columbia MS 6119] and mono [Columbia ML 5444], and I prefer latter for its tighter, more realistic focus of the piano. Here the H-3000's ability to resolve space paid great dividends, the harmonic overtones of the piano helping to define the recording as having a more distant perspective, not merely sounding soft.
The preceding paragraph, beginning with a discussion of tonality, then ending with another mention of the H-3000's spatial acuity, is an indication of the specialness of this phono stage. One quality melts into another, creating a totality of musical experience that's intensely satisfying for both sides of the brain. If you are a listener who likes to analyze your equipment, the H-3000 will give you plenty to chew on. If, on the other hand, you listen to records to be transported away from analysis of the means in order to get closer to the musical end, the H-3000 is even more adept here, conveying the music in a way that draws from analog's inherent strengths. It is literally the case that the more I listened to the H-3000, the more I wanted to listen to it. When I consider that Kang Su Park also makes cartridges, my intrigue intensifies at what seems to be his innate understanding of analog playback.
A pair of kings
I have had many talks with Vladimir Lamm, the head of the company that bears his name, and have come to admire his ability to distill concepts down to telling metaphors. During a recent conversation, Vladimir called his company "a theatre with one actor," which explains not only his central position within Lamm Industries but the fact that he directs the design and manufacture of all his products. As I pointed out earlier, Kang Su Park not only empathizes with Vladimir's situation, he prefers it. Such are the lonely ways of artisan audio engineers: no one else need apply.
So the Lamm LP2 Deluxe ($7290) has this in common with the Allnic H-3000, along with separate inputs for moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges, the latter engaging a Jensen step-up transformer. Both phono stages also use tubes in their gain stages and power supplies. However, this is as far as the similarities go. The LP2 Deluxe is bare bones in terms of features -- there are no gain or loading adjustments, for instance -- while the H-3000 offers everything short of alternate equalization curves (the new Allnic H-3000V offers those). The LP2 Deluxe also doesn't offer as much gain -- 57.5dB -- as the H-3000, nor does it have balanced outputs. The front panels of the two units are especially indicative: the LP2 Deluxe's has only a single LED, while the H-3000's has the large selector knob as well as Mute and Phase buttons and the visual flair of the meters.
The divergence continues with the two units' sound. The LP2 Deluxe is first and foremost extremely low in noise, and it's from this that much of its sonic appeal flows. Instruments and singers are solidly defined within a direct, unadorned soundstage -- one that's not showy in terms of its perceived airiness but whose size and population are well specified. Its bass is exceptionally nimble and detailed, easy able to differentiate between electric and synthesized bass lines, for instance, and plumb the depths of every recording. The LP2 Deluxe has a matter-of-fact presentation -- neither billowy, tubey nor sweet. Rather, its tonality is naturally rendered, its images are solidly portrayed, and its soundstage is vivid.
All of these things apply to the H-3000 as well, but it's impossible to ignore its unique spatial abilities, as it places images right to left as well as fore and aft with remarkable specificity. Tonally, it is slightly duskier than the LP2 Deluxe, giving vocals especially a more rounded, dimensional presence. Its low-end power is the equal of the LP2 Deluxe's, though it comes with more warmth and bloom, which are detrimental if they are excessive, and they're not. Perhaps because of its greater gain, the H-3000 has superior dynamic potential, although many LPs won't tax either phono stage enough to reveal this.
One record told the story particularly well. Iron & Wine is actually singer-songwriter Samuel Beam, whose indie folk is often described as "lo-fi" because its stripped-down sound eschews instrumental excess. I find the unadorned, inventive sound and dense, poetic lyrics of Our Endless Numbered Days [Sub Pop SP 630] endlessly fascinating. If your knowledge of this music comes from the CD, you are in for a treat when you play the LP, which sounds bigger in all dimensions and more detailed from top to bottom. With the LP2 Deluxe, the music was built up of vocal and instrumental nuance and existed on a sonic plane stretched between the speakers. There was a parsing quality, however, the instruments and vocals existing as discrete entities. With the H-3000, the "plane" of the music was distinctly three-dimensional. Instrumental nuance created a strong sense of right-to-left spread and especially layering, and each of the music's elements had a distinct connection to the whole. In isolation, these probably seem like small distinctions, but when heard together, they made listening to this LP a much more participatory experience with the H-3000.
Work is worth
Audiophiles and members of the audio press alike can become easily smitten with novel solutions to supposed issues of sonic reproduction, believing that pure reason always leads to better musical reproduction. Products like the Allnic H-3000 certainly rely on technology developed through solid engineering, but I would argue that what makes it a significant piece hardware for reproducing music is the singular artfulness that its designer brings to it. The H-3000's LCR network has technical advantages, but its pairing with Kang Su Park's circuit design, custom transformers, and tube dampers makes it consequential. The H-3000's performance bears this out, presenting music with rich tonality, lavish dynamic realism and unequalled spatial spread and specificity. This is a powerful combination, and it underscores much of what continues to make the vinyl LP an enduring playback medium.
High-end audio is as much the domain of talented people as it is of the products they make. I welcome Kang Su Park to my personal roster of audio artists, and I'm eager to hear more of his bountiful work.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
1105 Sicox Tower, 513-14
Sangdaewong-1dong, Jungwon-gu, Songnam-City, Kyuungi-do
252 Magic Drive
Kelowna, BC V1V 1N2 Canada
Analog: TW-Acustic Raven AC and VPI Classic turntables, Graham B-44 Phantom Series II and Tri-Planar Mk VII UII tonearms, Dynavector XV-1s (stereo and mono) and Audio-Technica AT33EV cartridges, AudioQuest LeoPard phono cable, Lamm LP2 Deluxe and Audio Research Reference Phono 2 phono stages.
Digital: Audio Research Reference CD8 CD player, Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP universal player.
Preamplifiers: Audio Research Reference 5, Convergent Audio Technology SL1 Legend with phono stage, Lamm Industries LL1 Signature.
Power amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 110 stereo amp, Ayre MX-R and Lamm Industries M1.2 Reference monoblocks.
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio MAXX Series 3, Tidal Contriva Diacera SE, Vivid Audio G1 Giya.
Interconnects: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research Aeros Aurora-IC.
Speaker cables: AudioQuest William E. Low Signature, Shunyata Research Aeros Aurora-SP.
Power conditioners: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research Hydra V-Ray Version II.
Power cords: Essential Sound Products The Essence Reference, Shunyata Research CX-series (various).
Equipment rack and platforms: Silent Running Audio Craz² 8 equipment rack and Ohio Class XL Plus2 platforms (under Lamm M1.2 amps), Harmonic Resolution Systems M3 isolation bases under digital gear.