Wyetech Labs • Ruby P-1 Phono Stage

New tricks for an old dog.

by Ken Choi | August 11, 2014

rowing older isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Over the past three years I’ve experienced plantar fasciitis, tennis elbow, a frozen shoulder, and a torn knee meniscus -- and that’s only the right side of my body! Audio gear is also subject to the ravages of time. Although it was sounding fine, my Nagra PL-P preamp needed a little extra help to power up. I brought it in for "preventive maintenance," which, to make a long story short, concluded in my being sans preamp for several months. It was during this aurally vulnerable time that the Wyetech Labs Ruby P-1 phono stage and its companion Ruby STD line stage (see sidebar) came into my audio life.

Price: $6800.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Wyetech Labs
1662 St. Bernard Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1T 3P7 Canada
(613) 526-5390

I jumped at the opportunity to listen to the Wyetechs -- not only so I’d be able to selflessly enjoy music at home, but also because of this low-key company’s longstanding reputation for making solid audio gear. Wyetech Labs is the singular vision of Roger Hebert, an Ottawa-based engineer who has been designing and manufacturing vacuum-tube audio electronics for some 20 years. The family-run, artisanal concern has a long product cycle and sells direct to the consumer, with little in the way of advertising. Such a noble business model is uncommon now in high-end audio, and wins considerable respect from me -- I sense that the primary motivating force behind Wyetech Labs is not profit but passion.

Inside a Ruby

he Ruby P-1 phono stage is unique for Wyetech on a couple of counts. It’s Hebert's first foray into phono preamplification, and when its case is removed, there’s nary a tube in sight. I favor full-function preamps for their simplicity, and when I asked Roger Hebert why he had not previously included a phono section in his highly regarded line stages, he replied that such internal phono stages always involve unacceptable compromises. While this train of discourse was not pursued, a look at the Ruby P-1 provides at least part of the answer.

The Ruby P-1 is a two-box affair in which the phono module is dwarfed by the separate case housing its massive power supply. In dual-mono fashion, two overbuilt power supplies are provided for each channel. The power-supply output is shunt-regulated to provide the preamp circuitry with more than enough current at all times, current status monitored by LEDs on the front panel. The 6’ umbilical connecting the two boxes permits flexibility in their placement.

The phono module’s case is big enough to comfortably accommodate the input and output connections at the back. There is one input; both single-ended and true-balanced outputs are provided. The circuit board, accessed by removing the front panel and sliding off the case, is very small: just 4" by 2 1/2." It is neatly and densely populated with various surface-mounted devices, including the transistors and op-amps that provide gain (there are no step-up transformers), and four banks of DIP switches. A small wooden tool is provided for the manipulation of these switches.

Wyetech Labs Ruby STD

The Ruby STD ($8900) is an evolutionary product -- a direct descendant of Wyetech’s well-regarded Opal line stage. Like its forebear, the heart of the Ruby STD is a unique three-stage tube circuit -- a grounded-grid configuration with cathode followers "fore and aft" -- that is responsible for the un-tube-like speed, bandwidth, and drive of the design. By using a new tube complement (pairs of 12B4As and 5687WBs), simplifying the circuit, using fewer parts, and optimizing the power supply, Wyetech believes its Ruby is now the STanDard against which other line stages should be compared.

The Ruby STD has four line-level inputs, a tape loop, a line-level bypass output, and two pairs of single-ended outputs. The package is clad in Wyetech’s trademark case of deep-purple metal, and the knobs and switches have a very smooth and substantive feel. The retro appearance brings to mind the instrumentation in my father’s chemistry lab, where I spent my weekends as a child in the 1960s. As such, it exudes a sense of forgotten old-school quality, so I suspect that those who favor a more modern aesthetic may not cotton to its looks.

The sound was anything but retro, though, being characterized by tremendous clarity, speed, and detail accompanied by an almost total absence of a noise floor -- as with the Ruby P-1. In addition to the linearity and wide bandwidth evinced by its design, the Ruby STD presented music with complete and complex tonal and harmonic structures, and an organic (i.e., nonmechanical) sense of flow. It partnered flawlessly with either of my 50-60W, class-A tube and solid-state amplifiers driven via 6m of interconnect. And, no surprise, it was the perfect match for Wyetech’s Ruby P-1 phono stage.

-Ken Choi

The first two banks of DIPs are for setting a cartridge’s resistive and capacitive loading. Input loading can be set from 10 to 47,000 ohms, with 19 steps in between. Additionally, four capacitance settings are offered. The second set of DIPs is for setting gain: 34 steps within a range of 40-80dB, with a 6dB increase at any setting if you use the balanced outputs. These switches also allow the user to deselect the default IEC-modified RIAA playback curve, that Wyetech generally recommends for subsonic filtering. Of all the standalone phono stages I’ve encountered, the Ruby P-1 is the most flexible and offers the highest gain.

Setting a Ruby

y audio system is housed in a newish, purpose-built room -- 20' long by 12 3/4' wide with an 8' ceiling -- where efforts were made to ensure that it be as quiet as possible, through the installation of acoustic drywall and insulation, insulated ductwork, and low-noise lighting. In addition to the requisite dedicated power lines, terminated in the room with Furutech GTX receptacles, I have all gear plugged into one of two Torus Power IS isolation transformers, which has the salubrious effect of further lowering the noise floor while increasing the density of sonic images.

I use a Brinkmann-modified EMT-Ti cartridge mounted on a Breuer Dynamic Type 8 tonearm and a Brinkmann LaGrange turntable. I did the bulk of my listening to the Ruby P-1 through the Ruby STD line preamp; additional auditioning was done through the resurrected Nagra PL-P. A Luxman M-800A and Nagra VPA monoblocks alternately amplified signals for Tidal Audio Piano Diacera speakers.

Roger Hebert made note of my system and ensured that the Ruby P-1’s settings were optimized for it: 57dB gain and loading at 600 ohms, which was the cartridge manufacturer’s recommendation. This experience is not unique to reviewers -- Wyetech Labs deals directly with the end user and is known for its personalized attention to system matching and integration.

The Ruby sparkles

t the end of my first evening of listening, my notes read: "very clean, spooky quiet, and transparent. . .but not sterile." I was very favorably impressed. Over the next few months, these initial observations were expanded on and reaffirmed, time and again. Because the Ruby P-1 must be used with a line stage, the sound will always be the sum of both parts. As one might expect, the Ruby STD perfectly complemented the Ruby P-1; after listening to them together, and in combination with other gear, I concluded that the solid-state P-1 and the tubed STD were cut from similar sonic cloth.

About 18 months ago, I found myself with some spare time, so I ripped much of my CD collection to a hard drive. Although I’ve still not entirely figured out what to do with this data, it was an informative exercise on several fronts. For example, I learned that I own more discs by Diana Krall than any other individual artist or group. This might not be something to brag about, but it is what it is. Another consequence of getting older is that I care less about what others think of my musical tastes. I suppose Krall has become an audiophile cliché, but I enjoy her music and the production values of most of her albums. Besides which, I think many more of you would be familiar with her recordings than that of some obscure 14th-century English motet, for example.

A widely available and affordable two-LP compilation, The Very Best of Diana Krall [Verve 0602517468313] is a nice representation of her work, and it sounds great. "Little Girl Blue" (originally from the album From This Moment On) is a melancholy ballad that begins with John Clayton’s densely sonorous bowing on double bass. Krall’s contralto emerges front and center from an eerie quiet, with spare accompaniment from her piano and the backing trio. The dark backdrop enhances her phrasing and timing (something I find no fault with, unlike some music critics), which in turn elicits a nice emotional connection to the song. It is for this quiet that I built this room and conditioned its power, and the Ruby P-1 added to it no inherent noise at all.

This black background was not dead space but a living, breathing entity -- the recording venue itself. Studio recordings, such as "Little Girl Blue," contain the fewest ambient aural cues and the darkest backgrounds, while live recordings, depending on the venue and how it is captured, offer a sense of space and air that might transport the listener to the performance. This latter characteristic is largely the province of the phono stage, its amplification of the signal from the cartridge, and the Ruby P-1 did not disappoint. The next song on this album, "Fly Me to the Moon," is taken from Krall’s Live from Paris. While this cut may not be the best example because of the close miking used, one can still readily appreciate that this performance took place in a much larger space. Again, the Ruby P-1 made this plain.

A low noise floor is not only valuable with slow ballads. The late Michael Hedges was a solo guitarist with a unique style and sound. His music is akin to some types of abstract art -- I’m at a loss to describe it, but I know I like it. It is almost atonal, yet melodic. Additionally, it is propulsive, percussive (almost primitive), yet pensive. "Rickover’s Dream," my favorite cut from his second album, Aerial Boundaries [Windham Hill WH-1032], is a great piece with which to assess an audio system. Hedges’s musical hooks include sudden starts and stops, as well as percussive effects in which he uses his hand on his acoustic guitar’s body and strings, all of which tax electronics and speakers. A lower noise floor translates into a greater "jump" factor when the deliberate moments of silence between his notes or sounds are suddenly broken.

"Rickover’s Dream" provides a wonderful medium for demonstrating dynamics and transients -- attributes that might be overlooked when considering phono preamplification. Suboptimal gain is another of the commoner reasons why an analog setup might sound two-dimensional and lifeless. The Ruby P-1, with up to 86dB of gain onboard, should be able to accommodate any cartridge extant without the potential distortions introduced by step-up transformers. It produced a very vivid and engaging presentation of "Rickover’s Dream" that was as dynamic as all get-out. Dynamic swings were consistently well rendered, and without the exaggeration that characterizes some phono stages and can lead to listener fatigue. Perhaps this was due to the extreme flexibility in gain settings that the P-1 affords, although I can't say for sure, as I didn’t experiment with changing the gain.

Speed and transparency, which I noted in my initial impressions, were validated when I listened to "Rickover’s Dream." Clarity and detail were additional hallmarks of the Ruby P-1’s sound -- everything played through it sounded clean and clear. An analogy: having worn glasses for most of my life, I decided to splurge on some higher-end lenses a couple of years ago -- not an inexpensive proposition, given my funky prescription. Just as the lens manufacturer suggested, the results were "perceptibly crisper details and heightened contrast." The aural equivalents were exactly what the Ruby P-1 brought to my listening room.

Transparency, speed, dynamics, and detail -- all of these would be for naught were the music to lack the harmonic texture and tonal richness that make it pleasing to listen to. The P-1’s transparency were so striking on first listen that one might reflexively expect them to be accompanied by threadbare sound. "Not sterile," I was quick to add to my initial notes. The Ruby P-1 was by no means euphonic -- don’t expect it to add meat to the bones of a lean-sounding system -- but it did full justice to whatever was on the record. Take, for example, Gary Karr’s Adagio d’Albinoni [Firebird 360R 56012], an old audiophile chestnut featuring double bassist Karr accompanied by organist Harmon Lewis. There’s not a lot of speed and dynamics here in Karr’s reading of "Ave Maria," but simply a ton of highly emotive bass playing wonderfully captured -- and so beautifully re-presented by the Ruby P-1 that the result was a totally engrossing listen.

Other gems

hen the battery-powered Nagra PL-P returned to my listening room, the first thing I did was to listen to some records through its built-in phono stage, followed by listening to the same cuts through the Ruby P-1 fed to one of the Nagra’s line-level inputs. I then listened again to the same tracks with the Ruby P-1, this time through the Ruby STD -- a sound with which I was, by now, admittedly smitten.

I was a little surprised to find that records played through the Nagra and the Ruby P-1 sounded more alike than not. Neither could be described as euphonic, but the Wyetech’s overall sound was just a touch drier and a bit faster than the Nagra’s. Nevertheless, both phono stages conjured up satisfying corporeal images with equally rich texturing and dense tonal coloration, and provided stirring dynamic contrasts when called on to do so. Where the Ruby P-1 came out ahead was in its cleanness and clarity. It became apparent that every note and sound the Nagra PL-P generated was ensconced in a barely perceptible mist or haze, something that was magically lifted when the same tracks were played through the Ruby P-1.

The sound of the combo of Ruby P-1 and Ruby STD most reminded me of the Convergent Audio Technologies (CAT) Ultimate Mk I preamp I owned for several years. Both are ultraclean, high-definition preamps that feature gobs of dynamics, bandwidth, and drive that completely negate the stereotypical image of tubed-preamp sound. The Wyetech gear did everything as well the CAT (with perhaps the exception of bass slam), but it also brought to the sound a touch more tonal richness and a more liquid sense of musical flow.

I could find little to fault in the Ruby P-1’s sound or operation. However, I wished its casework were a little sleeker, a tad more au courant in appearance. The old-style LEDs on the P-1’s power supply couldn’t help but remind me of the dbx dynamic-range expanders I used almost four decades ago, when I would sit in a darkened room and watch their LEDs pulse along to the music. I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that Wyetech Labs abandon its well-earned reputation for solid engineering and great performance in favor of bling and higher prices. However, at the northerly end of today’s high-end audio market, where the Wyetech gear clearly plays, appearances matter to many of us. The restrained use of clever, modern industrial design might just broaden the appeal of this magnificent-sounding gear.

A final pearl

n addition to physical alterations, age can also bring about changes in attitude. With time, some grow increasingly rigid and fixed in their beliefs. For the past 30 years, my day job has been as a physician, a role that continues to invigorate and educate me. It regularly reinforces in me the need to put aside prejudice and dogma and to keep an open mind.

The same applies to audio. If, 30 years ago, you had asked me about the best way of enjoying analog playback, I would have said that the only real way is with a tubed phono stage, with or without a step-up transformer. Heck, I might have said the same thing only a few months ago. Roger Hebert’s solid-state Ruby P-1 phono preamp has taught me otherwise. Although I’ve certainly not come close to auditioning every phono stage available, the Ruby P-1 is the finest I've heard in my system.

Associated Equipment

Analog: Brinkmann EMT-Ti cartridge, Breuer Dynamic Type 8 tonearm, Brinkmann LaGrange turntable with RoNt I tubed power supply and Auditorium 23 record mat, Silver Audio Silver Breeze phono cable.

Digital: EMMLabs CDSD CD/SACD transport and DCC2 DAC, Mac Mini (iTunes and Audirvana+) through M2Tech HiFace Evo USB-to-S/PDIF converter (with external power supply and clock) into EMMLabs DCC2.

Preamplifier: Nagra PL-P.

Power amplifiers: Nagra VPA, Luxman M-800A.

Loudspeaker: Tidal Audio Piano Diacera.

Subwoofer: JL Audio Fathom f113.

Interconnects: Purist Audio Venustas, Cardas Hexlink 5.

Speaker Cable: Purist Audio Venustas.

Power Cords: Purist Audio Venustas, Essential Sound Products The Essence.

Power Conditioners: Torus Power IS-15 and IS-20 isolation transformers.

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