Cyrus Audio Phono Signature Phono Stage

by Guy Lemcoe | November 24, 2016


I'll admit it: I’m a vinyl junkie. I unfailingly surrender to vinyl’s call. I can’t pass a thrift shop without entering and asking "Any old records?" Record fairs, swap meets and flea markets? Count me in! To the dismay of my partner, vacations are often planned to destinations having promising record stores. Just this past summer, we flew to Denver. Thanks to Twist & Shout and Wax Trax, the 60 LPs I bought had to be shipped home in suitcases purchased at Goodwill. When storage shelves overflow with LPs, instead of culling the collection, I purchase more shelves. Over the years I’ve accumulated drawers full of paraphernalia somehow or other related to vinyl playback, including record mats, record weights, stylus-force gauges, stylus-cleaning brushes and fluids, bubble levels, alignment protractors, small mirrors, small flashlights, record cleaning brushes, headshells, headshell screws, tweezers, and jeweler’s screwdrivers. I spend way too much time reading and researching dead-wax inscriptions.

You get the idea -- I’m hooked, and according to some, certifiable. Like any dedicated audiophile, I try to optimize playback by choosing the most appropriate transducer for the particular record on the platter. I have often thought that it would be nice to have a component that allows a choice of playback options at the touch of a few buttons. Enter the Cyrus Phono Signature, which sports four inputs to which four turntables can be permanently connected. Settings are dialed in according to each cartridge's specifications (or by ear, so you can tailor the sound to your preferences).

The smartly styled shoebox-shaped Phono Signature measures a mere 3"H x 8 1/2"W x 14"D and weighs slightly over 9 pounds. Around back are dedicated RCAs for Cyrus’s MC-BUS system (allowing system integration with other Cyrus components), a pair of unbalanced RCA outputs, a pair of balanced XLR outputs, a male IEC connector, a PSX-R connector (for Cyrus’s PSX-R2 external power supply; see sidebar), a ground switch and four pairs of RCA inputs immediately above their corresponding ground lugs. The front of the Phono Signature sports a Standby button (with indicator LED), remote-control sensor, 1" x 3" backlit display and a rotary knob. Directly beneath are seven pushbuttons controlling input selection, warp filter, MM/MC selection, gain (40dB, 50dB, 60dB and 70dB), resistive loading (11 to 47k ohms), capacitive loading (220pF, 1000pF, 2000pF and 3000pF) and Store. A pair of bar graphs working in real time enables gain adjustment to optimize the headroom available from your system for each MC cartridge.

After you read the instruction manual (supplied on CD-R), dialing in cartridge settings is simplicity itself. Select input 1 through 4 by pressing the Input button and turn the rotary knob until the desired input is visible in the display window. Press the rotary knob to select. If you feel a need to remove low-frequency signals caused by warped records, you can activate the warp filter by pressing the Warp button ("WARP" will appear in the display window). Next, select cartridge type -- either moving coil or moving magnet. If a moving-magnet cartridge is selected, the tiny indicator LED above the MM/MC button will turn yellow and you’re done, because the parameters are set by default and the other pushbuttons are disabled. Just hit the Store button to save the input’s settings. If selecting a moving-coil, the indicator LED will shine green and you’re able to select gain, resistive load and capacitive load. These settings are made just like the Input selection above. As before, after everything has been set, pressing the Store button will save the information.

To add icing to this cake, these adjustments can be made from the comfort of your listening chair using the backlit IR14 remote control. I found this to be a very useful feature, especially for a couch sloth like yours truly. I would have liked a dedicated remote, though. Out of the control’s 39 buttons, only seven are used for the Phono Signature.

Initially, I configured the Phono Signature to accommodate my Sumiko Talisman S moving-coil cartridge (.22mV output), setting the gain to 50dB, resistance loading to 100 ohms and capacitance to 220pF. What first struck me after cueing up one of my favorite LPs was the utter silence of the background. There was no hum, hiss or other distracting noise. Nada. CD quiet. My Emotiva USP-1 phono stage is quiet, but what I was experiencing took the definition of "quiet" to another dimension.

That eerie silence lent a greater sense of believability to otherwise fine recordings. For example, on the cut "Uxxak," from the folk collection Music of Xinjiang [Sublime Frequencies SF 101] featuring Uyghur musician Pahat, the sense of the great outdoors was made even more real as his enthusiastic performance is accompanied by a flock of feisty birds obviously inspired by the buzzing of the plucked strings of the tanbur. I like our avian friends, so to hear more of them, I dropped the needle on "Praeludium VI" from William Christie’s recital of selected harpsichord works of Johann Caspar Fischer [Harmonia Mundi HM 1026]. Immediately after the release of the keys following the opening cascade of notes, a group of birds is stirred up in the rafters of the recording venue and voice their approval (or surprise). These extremely low-level sounds were well focused and precisely placed.

The ability of the Phono Signature to remove barriers between the music and listener is so developed that after cueing up Mule [Nighthawk Records 201], the country blues piano and voice of Henry Townsend were brought into my room. I felt I could get up and shake hands with him after his performance. Instead of guessing at lyrics, I could now clearly understand the words to songs. Vocal doublings, such as those on "Mary Go Round" from Jamey Johnson’s 2009 album, that lonesome song [Mercury B0011237-01], became much clearer and had better separation. Also, the Phono Signature’s handling of the signal was so refined it was embarrassingly easy to discern differences in recording techniques between albums -- even between tracks on the same album. Instead of presenting a euphonic homogeneity between LPs -- a sameness that masks the uniqueness of each and every pressing -- the Phono Signature exposed a record’s sonics as the culmination of decisions reached in the studio and mastering room, be they good or bad, all manifested in a hearty, if somewhat lean, sonic personality.

The Phono Signature revealed myriad fine details, much like a photographic image being brought into focus. On "Chant of the Soil" from Keith Jarrett’s amazing live album Nude Ants [ECM-2-1171], drummer Jon Christensen seemingly cannot hold himself back as he propels the group, like a freight train, into rapturous music-making. His drum kit, captured by ECM’s surgically precise engineering, explodes into the tight, cozy, restricted basement venue of New York’s Village Vanguard (a room I’m familiar with, having found myself there on various occasions over the years) with dynamic swings I hadn’t experienced with such visceral impact before. Raising the volume transported me to that subterranean venue. Turning to quieter music, I cued up Julian Bream’s Dances of Dowland [RCA Victor LSC-2987] and was treated to the acoustics of Wardour Chapel (Bream’s preferred recording venue) in rural Wiltshire, England, captured to perfection as Bream’s fingers danced over the strings of his delicate-toned lute. In addition to the Phono Signature properly scaling the performance, each nuance of the recital was captured in abundant detail, including the occasional "string whistles" caused by finger squeaks on unburnished bass strings.

A while back I bought an album of Hawaiian songs sung by Bing Crosby consisting of five 78 RPM shellac discs recorded 70 years ago [Decca 460]. Anxious to hear them, I installed a Shure M91 cartridge with a 3.0 mil conical stylus into an Ortofon headshell, made appropriate changes to the Phono Signature’s settings, set the speed on my turntable to 78 RPM and carefully cued up one of the fragile 10" discs. To say I was unprepared for the resulting sound is an understatement. Outside the ravages of time and the groove noise generated by the rapidly spinning disc, Crosby’s voice had a fullness and texture equaling and, in some respects exceeding, today’s best standards. That magic quality was maintained throughout all five records. I couldn’t help but attribute this experience to the wonderful job the Cyrus Phono Signature was doing handling the signal. Not surprisingly, this experience whet my appetite for more of these weighty, easily broken discs.

So involved did I become in the music that it was extremely difficult to do anything other than listen to records. Indeed, one of the unintended consequences of this was that I tended to play both sides of a record instead of just one or two cuts as is my usual practice. My only regret was the loss of sleep as LP after LP hit the platter late into the night and I rediscovered my record collection.

The final step in my review process usually has me returning the system to its configuration prior to the introduction of the item(s) under scrutiny and noting my response to the music. In cases where this action has resulted in a lowering of excitement and emotional involvement, the gear in question has generally gotten a glowing review. In those cases where the emotional element remained the same or increased, the review has usually been unfavorable. I’m happy to say the Cyrus Phono Signature easily fell into the former category.

Curious to try the Phono Signature in balanced mode, I talked a friend into bringing over his Oppo HA-1 headphone amp, a feature of which is fully balanced topology with XLR inputs and outputs, so it can be used as a preamp. After listening for a while to familiarize myself with the sound of the new gear on streaming audio sources, I connected the Phono Signature to give a listen to some LPs. Immediately obvious was a noticeable increase in soundstage depth; it was as if the wall behind the speakers had been pushed back several feet. In addition to this spatial enrichment, it was also apparent that the bass had tightened up a bit, lending greater focus to, for instance, plucked string bass. Since the Phono Signature is dead quiet to begin with, any added noise reduction was lost on these ears. Vowing that my next preamp would have balanced inputs, I reluctantly returned my friend’s Oppo HA-1.

As it came time to wrap up the critical listening for this review, I reached for an album that holds special meaning for me: the two-LP set Indian Architexture [Water Lily Acoustics WLA-ES-20]. I was privileged in the summer of 1992 to attend a recording session held at Christ the King Chapel in Santa Barbara. In charge of the event was Kavi Alexander, internationally recognized recording engineer and owner of Water Lily Acoustics. Being recorded was the late Dr. Ali Akbar Khan, world renowned sarod player, and his fellow musicians in a concert of North Indian classical music. To me it was two days of bliss. Now, 24 years later, and thanks to the Cyrus Phono Signature, I was transported back to that chapel in sound and spirit. After the stylus found the first groove, the silence gave way to the sound of the church and the persistent drone of the tănpură, as the steel strings of the sarod lift notes from the fingerboard to resonate in the still air of the chapel. To the Phono Signature’s credit, I have heard this music many times, but I have never been more aware of the various microtonal inflections Dr. Khan coaxed from those strings -- until now. Deep into the răg, the trance-like state that evolves from the dialogue between the sarod and tănpură is broken by the sudden, hollow percussive slap of the tablă. That moment awakened me from my reverie and conjured up precious memories of those sessions. And so the music continued, with my emotions riding on each phrase.

Finally, an experience we’ve all had. Browsing the bins recently at a newly discovered record store, I pulled out a weather-beaten copy of one of Dinah Washington’s better albums, For Those In Love, released on the Emarcy label in 1955 [Emarcy MG 36011]. It captures Dinah in top form, backed by an all-star group of musicians led by a very young Quincy Jones. The jacket was shot, but the vinyl -- deep groove, first pressing -- looked all right. At $2, it was a no-brainer purchase. Back home and anxious to drop the needle on my find, I gave it a cleaning and placed it on the platter. When the first bars of "I Get a Kick Out of You" flowed into the room devoid of any surface noise or other nasties, I felt that warm glow of contentment that accompanies a job well done. It spread over me as the Phono Signature allowed the sound of that 60-year-old recording to bloom. Relaxed and settled in for a treat, I realized it was moments like this that make our hobby most rewarding. After the final bars of "If I Had You" faded, I put the LP in a protective sleeve and back in its jacket, wishing that there were more records as enjoyable as the one I had just heard. Thanks go to Dinah, Quincy, Emarcy, We Got the Beats record store and Cyrus Audio for making that day memorable.

To me, honesty is the name of the game in music reproduction. I want components that expose the verisimilitudes of the recording, whether sonically good or bad. There are tons of bad recordings that we love for the music alone. For every handful of those, there is one that captures those fleeting moments with synchronicity to create musical magic and stir emotions.

The Cyrus Phono Signature is the tool by which those moments are captured. It exhibits all of the preferred audiophile traits -- vanishingly low noise, wide dynamic range, airiness, holographic soundstaging, a total lack of grain, transparency and truth of timbre. Perhaps its greatest asset, though, is its ability to awaken the listener’s passions. It stirs a sense of discovery -- the unveiling of fresh performance facets we all yearn for when listening to our favorite recordings.

Even at $1899 for the Phono Signature and $1199 for the PSX-R2 power supply, you’d have to spend several times as much to get anything approaching the combination's convenience, flexibility and sonic performance. It’s that good, offering unprecedented dynamics and, most importantly, the preservation of the musical complexity (or lack thereof) of any recording, a perfect cure for the audio blues.

And don’t blame me if after auditioning the Cyrus Phono Signature you begin shopping for a second turntable. I did.

Price: $1899.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

Cyrus Audio Ltd., Ermine Business Park
Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire
PE29 6XY, England
+44 (0)1480 410 900

Adding the PSX-R2 external power supply

The Cyrus PSX-R2 external power supply ($1199) is offered as an optional add-on to the Phono Signature. The PSX-R2, with its 300V toroidal transformer and 30,000mF slit-foil reservoir capacitors, weighs almost 16 pounds -- six pounds more than the Phono Signature -- with identical styling and footprint. The back of the PSX-R2 has, from left to right, a power switch, a fuse receptacle, a male IEC connector and a short, attached 5-pin output cable (dictating close placement to the Phono Signature). Gracing the front of the PSX-R2 is a Standby LED, activated by connected Cyrus components. The PSX-R2 is said to offer cleaner and more stable DC due to its separate, isolated and highly regulated power supply. This in turn, Cyrus says, should lead to improved performance from compatible components connected to it.

Listening to the Phono Signature tethered to the PSX-R was educational. It also confirmed the claims. Fine details and inner voicings of records I had listened to many times were revealed anew, such as the complex range and structure of the scoring on Weather Report’s 1977 Heavy Weather [Columbia PC 34418]. The midrange, especially, was richer, lending a pleasing fullness to the resulting sound. On "My Old Flame" from guitarist Joe Pass’s stunning 1974 album Virtuoso [Pablo 2310 708], the close miking puts you inside his favorite D’Aquisto archtop guitar. Every finger movement and string resonance flew out of the grooves with startling presence. Dare I say the even quieter quiet of the Cyrus combo was a contributing factor in raising the bar on my enjoyment of these and every other LP, 45 or 78 I listened to?

I mentioned in my review that adding the Phono Signature to my system caused much loss of sleep. With the addition of the PSX-R2, I gave up on sleep altogether in order to play as much of my vinyl collection as I could before having to return the pair.

-Guy Lemcoe

Associated Equipment

Analog: Audio-Technica AT-1240 turntable, Pro-Ject RPM 6.1 turntable, Dynavector DV-20X and Sumiko Talisman S cartridges, MAC Ultra Silver+ Sound Pipes phono cable.

Digital: Sony DVP-NC685V CD/SACD player.

Tuner: Adcom GFT-555.

Preamplifier: Emotiva USP-1, Oppo Digital HA-1 headphone amp (used as a preamp).

Digital Signal Processor: Emerald Physics DSP2.4.

Power amplifiers: Emerald Physics EP100.2SE and EP60.2, Emotiva UPA-200.

Integrated amplifier: Peachtree Audio nova125.

Loudspeakers: Emerald Physics CS2P.

Interconnects, speaker cables and power cords: Shunyata Research Venom.