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REVIEW: Eastern Electric Minimax Phonostage Phono Preamp

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Model: Minimax Phonostage
Category: Phono Preamp
Suggested Retail Price: $1499
Description: all tube phono stage equipped with the permalloy core MC step-up transformers, with 57dB of gain
Manufacturer URL: Eastern Electric
Model Picture: View

Review by Gopher2K ( A ) on November 17, 2005 at 07:48:15
IP Address: 130.184.151.106
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for the Minimax Phonostage


Background:

Over the course of the last few months I’ve noticed an increasing number of positive reviews and feedback on my online forums about the products of a company called Eastern Electric. In particular, the internet buzz seemed to universally praise a small, point to point wired, minimalist preamp the company titled “Minimax.” As I read review after review of this preamp I became more suspicious that all the component juggling I’d been doing over the course of the last couple years may have been in vain, and that my Sonic Frontiers Line-1 preamplifier may indeed have been the product bottlenecking emotional communicativeness in my system.

After toying with the idea of checking out this “Minimax” for a few weeks, I finally decided to give Bill O’Connell at Morningstar audio ( http://www.morningstaraudio.com) a ring to see what he had to say about the product. Bill is a great guy who is very enthusiastic about the Minimax line. The two of us had a nice conversation at the end of which I decided to purchase one of his Minimax Preamplifiers along with a factory upgrade package.

To make a long story short, within two weeks of its arrival I was excitedly reporting to Bill that this little, ‘stock-tubed’ preamp had trounced my $2500 reference (even with its costly NOS tubes) in nearly every way and will be remaining in my system for a long time to come. Bill, excited but not surprised with my report, responded by asking me to audition another product in the Minimax line which had not yet gained the popularity of the preamp: the Eastern Electric Minimax Phono Stage.

The Review:

I’d been using a Dynavector P-75 phonostage in my 2 channel rig for almost two years without much desire to upgrade. The signature of the 20X-L/P-75 combination was fast, lively, and notably better then digital, and it was not until replacing my Sonic Frontiers Preamp with the Minimax Preamp that I became aware of just how much amazing music my modest vinyl rig was outputting. With the new preamplifier in place I heard my Dynavector phonostage offer an expansive soundstage, explosive dynamics, much better focused imaging and seriously improved micro-dynamics with the addition of tonal richness all while maintaining the speed and excitement I’d grown to love. The trickle-down upgrade was huge! Unfortunately, like many upgrades in this hobby it was merely a gateway drug and I quickly began to wonder what phonostages above the Dynavector’s price range had to offer.

My first stop was the alleged ‘giant killer’ Rogue Stealth. While the stealth offered an increase in overall resolution and imaging, the unit was extremely analytical, unmusical, and soul-less and thusly was kicked to the curb. For a more detailed account of my Rogue experience click here: http://db.audioasylum.com/cgi/t.mpl?f=vinyl&m=459833

First impressions (stock tubes):

Upon receiving Bills package and inspecting the contents, the first thing I noticed is that that the phonostage was slightly deeper and a bit heavier then my Minimax SE preamplifier, but still uniform in width and general appearance. I noticed also that rather then sitting on 3 vibration absorbing legs like the preamplifier, the phonostage sits stably on four. Finally, I noted the manufacturer’s attention to detail as they provided both RCA caps to be placed over the unused inputs and an RFI deflecting tube cover.

Excited to have the phonostage in my possession, I quickly installed it in my rig using the Tung-Sol 6x4 rectifier tube Bill had provided for my listening. The settings were very easy to figure out and in almost no time the unit was warming up on my shelf as I was sorting through my collection for albums to listen to.

The first few minutes of listening to a new piece of equipment tell you a great deal about a product as auditory memory is relatively short and, at least in my experience, the sound of the original unit can quickly become fuzzy in my memory when listening to the newcomer. Consistent with this, it was within the first few minutes that it became to me apparent that this little ‘Minimax’ was something very special.

With the Minimax driving my cartridge I didn’t have to concentrate to hear a difference, its was OBVIOUS: Right off the bat, music had more body and power than I’d heard with the P-75. It wasn’t that the P-75 was anemic by any means, but was a bit light and lively in nature when mated with my 20X-L. The Minimax on the other hand sounded BIG. From top to bottom of the frequency scale everything sounded more solid, voices had real meat to them, brass had more bite, and bass was thunderous. The soundstage being thrown also seemed to be super-sized, with equally wonderful imaging to boot.

I also noticed fairly quickly that this unit had a significantly lower noise floor than I’d grown accustomed to with my solid state P-75. This one was a real surprise to me, as I just sort of expected solid state to dominate tubes, especially given my cartridge is a low output moving coil, however. When listening at similar volume levels to those of the reference phonostage, the Minimax was significantly quieter allowing me to hear more music and less distortion.

Long-term impressions:

Patience has never been one of my strong points, and the day after my first very positive listening session with the Minimax, I decided to roll in the trio of Grove Tube 12ax7s which Bill sent me along with the phonostage. These tubes have remained in the Minimax since day two and are to be taken into account when considering my comments on the unit.

Treble: The high frequency performance of the Minimax has been surprisingly pleasing to my ears. The Dynavector rig I had previously been using is known for its balance being slightly on the trebly side, and to my ears this has not been a fault. I’ve found the treble detail and extension I’d heard from it to be exciting and non-fatiguing during my extended ownership, and I was a bit worried that in going to the tubed Minimax I might loose some of the top end energy and extension in favor of a more ‘mid-rangy’ presentation. This, however, was not the case.

The treble I’ve experienced with the Minimax seems to extend just as high as its solid state competition while offering additional resolution. As I’m writing this portion of the review, I am spinning Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ and the presentation of his trumpet is extremely energetic and exciting. In addition to tonal accuracy, there is a certain ‘bite’ that consistently leaves me wanting more. Additionally, the improved resolution of Minimax is apparent in this portion of the frequency spectrum when listening to the jazz drummer in the background—particularly the decay of the cymbals and high hats. It may not be entirely fair to compare decay between a solid state and tubed unit, but for me this greatly increases the realism of the performance and I feel it should be noted.

Midrange: The midrange of my reference P-75 has always been pleasant, albeit not exceptional to my ears. It does a very good job at presenting midrange detail, but at times I have found myself wanting for a touch of additional warmth and body. The Minimax has provided me with precisely this. As I’d mentioned previously in my first impressions, the midrange of the Minimax carries significantly more weight then the Dynavector did while adding a splash of tube warmth to the equation. With the Minimax in place, female vocals are presented with a seductive delicacy I was not quite prepared for. I suspect it has something to do with the Minimax’s ease in handling micro dynamics as small voice inflections are presented very naturally and emotional state of the vocalist is never in question. While listening to the title track of Allision Kraus and the Union Stations “New Favorite”, a song whose effect on me had long worn off, tears literally welled in my eyes as I listened to the sorrow and desperation she felt in describing the loss of her loved ones focus.

Listening to male vocalists with the Minimax was always pleasant as well. I read another review within which the author commented on the Minimax missing out on some of the gruffness and anger of male voice. To be honest, my initial impressions lined up with this as at the time I felt the P-75’s comparably cooler presentation made masculine voice inflections more readily apparent. On the second track of AKUS’ album, for instance I felt I might have lost out on a very tiny bit of the performer’s grit, however. After experimenting with some of the variables in my rig, and in particular moving to a more transparent interconnect then my Acoustic Zen (the Oritek X-1) the texture of the male voice was restored in full while maintaining the body and smoothness I have been spoiled by.

Bass: The bass performance of the Minimax has been yet another of its points of merit. To my ears the P-75 had pleasing bass—punchy, tight and fast. I could see how some might consider it to be a little lean, but in my experience that is a far more forgivable flaw then flabby, and loose. The Minimax proved to be right there with the P-75 in terms of speed and punch, while adding more heft to the equation. The end product is something I’m having a hard time putting into words as its not just body, but a certain drama that doesn’t come from extension alone. Perhaps it is what is meant when people talk about texture in the bass region. Whatever the case, in addition to my toes steadily tapping I find myself far more excited to hear what will happen next down low, and I’ve never really prioritized this area of the frequency spectrum before.

Dynamics: There is absolutely no question about it—the Minimax is a beast with dynamics. Aside from the ease at which it handles micro dynamics (previously mentioned) this thing will go from whisper to a wail like nothing I’ve heard before. I think is has something to do with the low noise floor of this unit, but whatever it is listening to albums like Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain where his horn very dramatically shouts out of nowhere, gives me goose pimples.

Imaging/Soundstage: The final audiophile aspect I want to comment on with this unit is its ability to recreate a venue. The Minimax’ ability to reproduce large scale pieces is quite impressive to say the least. I am working with an admittedly small listening room (12x12) but the performances I hear when listening through the Minimax have the potential to be astronomically larger. In addition to sheer size, this unit has spoiled me with tremendous layering/depth. I’ve often heard gear claimed to produce a holographic image, and am probably guilty of using this description myself, but until experiencing the Minimax I was not qualified to do so! This unit creates venues both large and small with depth and ease and, quite impressively, has the imaging to back it up.

I’ve had setups that threw large soundstages indiscriminately. Small night club jazz recordings sounded like vast outdoor concerts and in my opinion bigger is not always better. Some albums such as Nora Jones’ “Come Away With Me” are supposed to have a small scale ‘intimate feel’ to them, and the Minimax is versatile enough to accomplish this very convincingly. It has the uncommon ability of transporting the listener to whatever the appropriate setting of a particular piece might be.

Summing up: I found this review very difficult to write. To me, the Minimax, is much more then a mere collage of audiophile adjectives. In the month I’ve spent with the unit, I have concluded that it is something very special, and to comment on its aspects individually does not really do it justice. This phonostage conveys the soul of music; something infinitely more important.

To say that this piece has elevated my listening enjoyment is an understatement—my enjoyment is now contingent upon its presence. To prove it, I’ve put my money where my mouth is: I coughed up the bucks and bought the review sample!


Product Weakness: Prefers transparant interconnects, can't really think of anything else.
Product Strengths: Extreemly emotionally communicative, wonderful job of reproducing space, very affordable considering what it brings to the table


Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Fi 2a3 SE monoblocks
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): Eastern Electrics Minimax SE
Sources (CDP/Turntable): VPI Scout/JMW-9 w/ Dynavector 20X-L
Speakers: Cain & Cain Abby & M&K MX-90 (sub)
Cables/Interconnects: Oritek X-1, Empress phono, Magnetwire
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Jazz, Folk, Rock, Soul, Blues
Room Size (LxWxH): 12 x 12 x 8
Room Comments/Treatments: Quick & Dirty John Risc Bass traps & listening at 45 degree axis
Time Period/Length of Audition: 1 Month
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): PS Audio P-300, Michael Wolff Source, Acoustic Zen Tsunami, K-Works Empowered & Quails
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner




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Topic - REVIEW: Eastern Electric Minimax Phonostage Phono Preamp - Gopher2K 07:48:15 11/17/05 ( 43)