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REVIEW: Aesthetix Aesthetix IO Signature Phono Preamp

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Model: Aesthetix IO Signature
Category: Phono Preamp
Suggested Retail Price: $9,000
Description: All tube fully balanced phono stage
Manufacturer URL: Aesthetix
Model Picture: View

Review by Audioquest4life ( A ) on July 23, 2006 at 10:01:06
IP Address: 217.86.99.254
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This is a review of the Aesthetix IO Signature phono stage with stock tubes and one power supply. I have been on a search for a phono stage to finish my system for over two years. It took me that long for several reasons. One, I had an integrated phono section that was pretty darn good compared to the test subjects that I brought into play. Two, I did not find any phono stage that had a dramatic and worthwhile effect on my listening sessions to warrant a purchase. This is my third review posted to Audio Asylum, the B&W Nautilus 800 and the Krell SACD Standard being the others.

The settings of the phono stage I finally settled on and sounded best to me was 62db gain and 1000ohm to accommodate the Benz LP with .34mv output. I am using the IO Signature with the RCA connections.

Prior to my final selection of phono stage I had been fine tuning and experimenting with room acoustics and damping material for years. Finally I have set up the room conditions in order to hear the smallest differences in cables, speaker, racks, polarity and component switching. The Copulare racks were the final step in my particular room. I had thought for a while that I needed to change the interconnect cables, I had experimented with pure OCC copper and pure silver and although the copper sounded more natural, the silver added a slight upper frequency accentuation that was both good and bad, the good was that the cymbals had more crash and zing, the bad was the cymbals lost the natural sound that I associate with those instruments, and the trumpet suffered the same fate. When I placed the Copulare racks in the system, the entire music playing field become much more focused and detailed. This was such a big improvement that I immediately decided that the existing pure OCC copper were in fact excellent cables and the racks brought the music forward another level that was equivalent to a preamp, amp or tube swap. The difference was that great. Go figure that I was going to dump money in a bid to get cables, when all along the system was out of focus. I use a modified form of the Cardas speaker placement method. Details of the room tuning and equipment break down are as follows:

Room specs:

14.5’ x 17’

slab basement, concrete walls

2’ carpet

Acoustic treatment:

Echobusters Bass Busters in each corner

Echobusters Corner Busters in the ceiling corners

Echobusters treatments at 1st reflection zone and rear left and right of speakers

RPG Skylines ceiling treatment

ASC tube trap on back wall centered behind speakers

Velodyne SMS-1 subwoofer equalizer (yes, I used this as a room treatment because of room modes, the SMS-1 is great tool to mitigate standing room modes using all of its features)

DIY room measurements using Stereophile Test CD2, Rives Audio Test CD and Radio Shack Sound Pressure level meter

Professional room measurement by dealer (Waste of money….you can hear with experimentation what works and using the test CD’s know the peaks and dips in the room, it just takes a lot of time and work to DIY, the dealer measurements are more finite, but the major changes that affect the room can be measured using the tools I mentioned above)

Racks:

Copulare Sial amp stands with custom cherry red wood inlay work (www.copulare.de)

Copulare Sial equipment stand with custom cherry red wood inlay work

Clearaudio MontBlanc turntable stand (www.clearaudio.de)

Cables:

Neotech OCC pure copper for amps and preamp

Audioquest Jaguar IC from phono amp to line stage

Note about cables: I experimented with silver hybrids, pure silver with standard RCA’s and the new WBT’s, and copper. For me the OCC copper represents the most neutral and transparent sound for my system.

Equipment used for evaluation:

Speakers – B&W Nautilus 800, 1.30 meters from side wall, 2.30 meters from rear wall

Subwoofer – B&W Nautilus 850, slightly behind and right of right speaker

Amps – Octave MRE 130 (4 KT-88’s each, with Super Black Box (outboard large capacitor power supplies) a reference system in the March 2006 edition of Audio magazine (www.audio.de), a shootout with the Mark Levinson gear left the reviewers scratching their heads. also an Image Hi-Fi winner in the Japanese magazine. www.octave.de

Preamp – Octave HP500SE limited (number 50 from 100 built), a reference system in the March 2006 edition of Audio magazine (www.audio.de) , a shootout with the Mark Levinson gear left the reviewers scratching their heads. Also an Image Hi-Fi winner in the Japanese magazine. www.octave.de

Equalizer – Velodyne SMS-1 subwoofer controller

Turntable – Transrotor Apollon with 3 motors and quartz DC controlled variable speed controller, (Tonearm – SME-V), (Cartridge – Benz LP .34 output)

Phono Preamp – Aesthetix IO Signature with one power supply

The review of this phono stage is quite simple. This phono stage lifts voices and recreates the recorded venue like no other phono stage I have heard in my system. The list includes the Bat VK-P10SE with SuperPak, ASR Basic Exclusive, Ear 834P, Pass Labs Xono and Clearaudio Reference Phono and the integrated in my own Octave HP500SE tube preamp, with a 12AX7 based phono stage.

Music played via the IO is quite simply extraordinary. I am still amazed at how holographic, live sounding and just plain real music sounds when I am listening via the IO Signature. I state real sounding for some obvious reasons, the tender parting of lips and light wisps of breaths that Diana Krall portrays sings as she plays Girl in the Other Room is just part of the amazing sound quality the IO brings to any listening session, the other part is that the entire acoustic atmosphere is recreated right in your listening room. I have never felt so close to the music source and location listening to vinyl as I do via the IO Signature. It does create the entire atmosphere of the location, whatever location that may be.

I played three tracks consecutively from Poco, Legend (MFSL) and starting from track one, In the Heart of the Night, the song is just incredible, I never realized that it was about New Orleans, let me tell you that when I say it was emotional, it was emotional, and I have heard that song many times before when I was younger. I never paid that much thought to the song either, it was a cool song, however, well because of New Orleans and the disaster that happened there, I was caught up in this song. The accompanying singers could easily be heard playing left and right of the lead singer, the sax stands out with the right amount of heft and sounds proper. Again, the voices seem to just jump out and appear in a landscape before, beside or way behind when played. The best way to describe how the voices sound coming off of the vinyl is to imagine you are attending the last live close up musical session with live singers, instruments and microphones and you are sitting up close, like front row seat, with the singers almost a few feet away and you hear both the live and amplified voices of the musical event, that is how it sounds with the Aesthetix IO Signature. You can hear the live event like it is transpiring right in front of you with the added benefit of recreating the atmosphere of the location. The next song, Cool Changes, an easy listening classic sounded just as thrilling and exciting to listen to. I heard every singer in place and the notes of the instruments had excellent decay. The last song from Poco I listened to was The Last Goodbye. This song starts out slow and mildly turns up the heat to a dramatic drum roll, but one that goes either left or right and one that is so deep you can feel the resounding thwack of the drum as it is being hit, this is what it is like in a drum session. It really conveys the music more and adds so much realism to hear drums like that when listening and suddenly there is a deep dramatic drum roll. You will raise your head in pleasant surprise, not because the bass is improper or lacking but because it resounds so real and lifelike. I am asking myself how much better does it cost to get to the real thing, in all of my years of music listening, my current combination of the components add up with the Aesthetix IO Signature to bring back the life, the dynamic impact, and intimate details of music that I have for so long yearned for. There is no reason for me to go further in my pursuit of the happiness in music playback. The Aesthetix IO is the Holy Grail of which other phono preamplifiers will be judged by in the future. I truly believe that once someone hears the IO Signature properly setup, you will be making several decisions, one is spending the dough, and the other is creating the space needed to place it. The IO Signature has an all 16 tube separate power supply.

Another jaw dropping music experience happened while listening to Sade, an original Epic album, Promise, the song Sweetest Taboo just mesmerizes you as you listen to her voice, and in the song you will here a portion that sounds like it is over mic’ed and her voice rolls out with an uncanny and startling accuracy, as if she was standing there in the room performing live. Listening to Sade, Jesible was an enchanting experience. The saxophone and piano are so balanced together and there is a very quick start and stop crescendo with sax, piano and cymbals all crashing at the same time. This interlude combines the essence of what the IO Signature can do, it recreates the listening event. All of the instruments are balanced, with no emphasis in either direction, just a natural sound that captures the musical event and causes the listener to be transfixed to the listening session, no one will ever walk away from an IO Signature configured properly without feeling some form of regret, it is that good.

Speaking of balanced, I find the IO Signature truly capable of capturing all of the fine details that are recorded on vinyl, the slight strike of a drum or the slight rattle of a cymbal, it all comes across fully exposed and without any discernable loss of definition to what we know a real instrument sounds like in a live event. I keep reiterating the comparison to a live event; well because there is no other way to describe it. You can here the brush start its slide or the pluck of guitars and the blow of saxophones with an uncanny sense of realism. Music is suspended, yes suspended in place with the instrument characteristics defined in that space, absolutely amazing. The instruments are placed in perspective with ethereal lifelike clarity, there will be no confusion about what instrument is doing what and how hard or soft it is being played, you can actually discern all of these fine details with the IO Signature. There is a definite aura in listening to music and this device will captivate you.

There I was playing the Weavers at Carnegie Hall and the performers were walking back and forth, front and back and I was clapping my hands and stomping my feet with them as they rattled their typical folk type music, I was actually getting down with some folk music, I could not believe it! The content of the music on the Weavers album at Carnegie hall will highlight the capabilities of your system to portray the stage and depth and once again the IO Signature proved its worth and capabilities. Have I given the IO Signature enough accolades, hardly, this phono preamp is transforming every listening session into a musical experience and as I run the musical signal through it’s tubes it allows me to hear as close as I can get to what the recording event sounded like that day.

With Patricia Barber, MFSL Nightclub album, Bye Bye Bluebird, is one of those songs that captures Barber’s voice in a sultry delicate manner. After the lead in and some other voice and instrument performance, there it is, the Steinway, it starts to dance lightly yet with a powerful overtone that you will hear and you will not forget or mistake the sound for anything else but a Steinway, it is defined by it’s commanding presence and well, the Steinway sound, you can tell that this not an ordinary piano. During the rest of the Steinway interlude, it gets more pronounced and as if I was listening to a recital in my room, it was so amazing to have a couple of friends say that it was if they were in the same room as a piano and hearing the taps of the keys as she is hammering away. The sound of the Steinway envelopes the room and commands a presence, like yeah, I am the (shiznit) best thing since sliced bread and provides a powerful reminder of why the Steinway is one of the best pianos in the world today.

On Muddy Waters, MFSL Folk Singer, Good Morning School Girl, Waters demands a presence with his voice as he gets close in to the microphone and belts out his music, it is somewhat comparable to listening to a PA system but with a glorious music backdrop and a musical singer, the IO Signature captures his close microphone singing technique with aplomb. The details in the singer’s voice and the recording venue are truly captured and portrayed allowing you to hear into the music and interpret the atmosphere allowing one to perceive the recording space.

Al Dimeola, John McLaughlin, Paco Delucia, Friday Night at San Francisco, this is probably one of the best live duel guitar events ever recorded. You can feel the excitement and perceive the presence of the players on stage as they play against each other. The guitars fill the air with charged electrical energy and present a live dynamic that is found at a concert. You can hear the picking and slides of the guitar as they battle with each other. It comes across so clear that you are transported to the concert by the Aesthetic IO.

Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain, Will of the Wisp, This song makes me feel as if I am in the middle of some sort of slow battle hymn, kind of melancholic in a way. The delicate manner in which Miles Davis blows his horn exudes the passion that he had with this style of music, you are just captured, mesmerized and in awe with the story that is being told. The IO Signature allows me to feel the passion and the emotion that he wants you to feel. Simply amazing.

It should be noted that the Aesthetix Io Signature is sensitive to power cord placement, in regards to crossing paths with other cables, when I separated the main power cable from the other AC cables the noise floor dropped considerably, to the point that I could turn the volume past the half way point without any audible distortion despite a combined 24 tubes in the IO section and a combined total 20 more tubes between the mono amps and preamplifier. Move the cables over each other and it sounds like I am listening to a reel to reel tape with no music and tape hiss in the background.

The Aesthetix IO Signature is also finicky with phase. I measured the phase for each of my components and the IO Signature AC cord to the wall measured with the cable plugged upside down. One night I forget to plug the AC in the right way (phased tested) and plugged it in and I heard a chuffing sound in the background. I immediately knew that something was not plugged in right and started with the AC and reversed the cable connection and voila, sweet silence again.

The Io needs a good hour of warm up to fully exploit all it can offer you, not to say that it will not sound good when you first turn it on, but to fully extract the full 3d imaging and awe inspiring dimensionality I described above, it needs to stay on for at least an hour. I leave mine all weekend with no problems. Speaking of leaving on, I hear some people say that it has a heat issue, well yes if you stack them on top of each other or to close to other components. The components of the IO, the main power supply and the control unit take up every inch of my Copulare rack on their own shelves. They are separated by about 8 inches with a 2 inch thick piece of wood between them both. Heat was not an issue, and even at the end of the weekend when I powered down the system, they were warm but not hot, my mono amps were hot. Come on people, we are talking about a 24 tube unit here, how anyone can not expect to have some sort of heat beats me. My main point here is that one must give the IO components space to breathe and proper separation between power supply and control unit. An estimated 3 foot interconnect is provided to facilitate the connection between power supply and control unit so close connections that may cause interference can be eliminated.

As far as tube rolling and other tweaks, the only thing I did was use Walker Audio Extreme SST on the phono cables between the IO and the main preamp on the advice from a fellow Audio Asylum member. I burned in the IO using Granite Audio burn in cd at night when going to bed and playing the unit normally after work. I am keeping the factory stock tubes (Sovtek and EH) in place as they provide the sonic level of performance that I am describing and do not want to change any of that.

The IO has projected my listening experience pretty much into the stratosphere. I can’t think of many other pleasurable things outside of spending time with my family that I would rather be doing besides listening to music. Listening to music via the IO Signature is addicting. I crave having listening sessions. Is there any tell tale sign that the IO has a signature sound? For me the craving and addiction to the IO that I have translates to that signature sound, the lust for the portrayal of music that it delivers. I know it can playback a Steinway piano like it is supposed to sound, at least as much as current technology allows, playback of the music hall or recording venue to include the presence of audience members in its entirety and place individual instruments in their own space and with the appropriate amount of dynamic aura. Low level details are so defined and add overall to the level of live presence I keep talking about and provide a compelling reason why equipment like this exists. Bass notes are deep and proper with the snares rattling across the entire sound stage when required, highs are excellent and dynamic and not lacking any detail, shimmer is also excellent, providing a natural tone and vibrancy when the cymbals are lightly rattled at the end of a song or solo.

The big B&W 800 Nautilus speakers disappeared so much more into the background when the IO Signature is in operation, much more than I thought possible as they were already optimized, a seamless sound field that is both extra wide and deep, this has been the case with the IO Signature more so than with other phono amps, the image never really became as transparent as it does with the IO, the B&W N800’s always played the capabilities of what ever was being played further down the line in the system. This is perhaps an issue with the IO Signature, make sure the rest of your components can truly exploit its capabilities or it will be left sitting idle and you will not hear what I am describing.

Lastly I would like to add system synergy has allowed me to achieve these results. Everyone has their own system demands and individual room requirements and of course our own hearing is quite different. A listening test at home is the only way to really justify if the IO Signature will suit your needs. I listened to the IO Signature at depth in several show rooms and the equipment was not optimized to allow me to hear low level details on one of my reference albums by Karen Allison. At home it was night and day. The low level details were present in ample amounts to allow me to grin from side to side. Once your system is optimized in regards to proper speaker placement, equipment isolation, acoustic room treatments and correct phasing of all AC cables you will hear the results I have described. But, you will probably notice most of the fundamental properties I described with the IO Signature in whatever system you decide to place the IO in as it makes that much of a difference. I can’t speak about RFI/EMI interference because I do not have any of that, but I am sure it would be problematic to hear such interference when trying to listen to music.

Comparisons to other equipment, well if you desire the properties that other phono preamps deliver such as extra deep bass or emphasized midrange or overly extended highs, then your taking into account perhaps a shortcoming somewhere in your system, the IO Signature is neutral in it’s presentation and thus there are no over or under emphasized artifacts of music detail that I can really comment on. The amount of low level detail capture and the way the IO Signature blooms and explodes may surprise many who have not heard how music should sound like and will most likely be a profound moment in music listening, I know, I keep having them when I play music through the IO Signature.


Product Weakness: big, excessive heat in small places, addicting
Product Strengths: one of the best phono amps in the industry


Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Octave MRE 130
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): Octave HP500SE
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Transrotor Apollon
Speakers: B&W Nautilus 800
Cables/Interconnects: Audioquest
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Various
Room Size (LxWxH): 22 x 15 x 8
Room Comments/Treatments: works effectively
Time Period/Length of Audition: 5 months
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): none
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner
Your System (if other than home audition): N/A




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Topic - REVIEW: Aesthetix Aesthetix IO Signature Phono Preamp - Audioquest4life 10:01:06 07/23/06 ( 26)