Once in a while, you have to reconsider your objections to mail-order for costly purchases that plug into the wall. Acoustic Sounds is a well-established source of software, accessories and whole components, so we have a supplier that's a) knowledgeable, and b) trustworthy. But US$3000, let alone twice that, is still a lot of dough, so we have to be talking about something very special. And the name 'Sutherland' usually promises the unexpected.
Ron Sutherland is responsible for an on-going series of electronics that operate like no other manufacturer's offerings, e.g. a valve D/A converter that runs off a computer's USB socket to improve the sound of your PC. From the styling to the ergonomics, Ron has an almost Zen-like approach, always seeking purity while valuing minimalism and simplicity over unnecessary complexity. Moreover, he doesn't understand shoddy construction or cynicism. He shares his personality with his products: If you are ever fortunate enough to meet Ron, you will find him to be a delightful mix of garden gnome and dotty scientist. In a biopic, he would be played by Robin Williams on mild sedatives.
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For a couple of years, Ron's been promoting components more accessible than the circa-$20,000 gems for which he's known. Although the products are mail-order-only and have to ship from the USA, we decided to try The Director line-level pre-amp and the matching Ph.D. phono stage, to see what the fuss is all about. This pairing has garnered so much favourable press Stateside that we couldn't resist.
The Director is a screamingly original solid-state line-level pre-amplifier most notable for a fascia that contains only one rotary control...and 20 lights. The remote - unlabelled, of course - controls everything from only four buttons. (Are you starting to sense the madness?) You get source selection, volume adjustment and gain setting in utterly unconventional ways.
Input selection, for example, is accomplished not by pressing a button or flicking a switch: you simply hit 'play' on your CD player or lower your stylus and The Director instantly senses what you're listening to, whether CD, LP or one of the other inputs. The argument goes, 'Traditional input selection is based upon naming each input on the front panel and then associating that name with back panel labelling. But there's a very good chance that the labelling will not match an individual's particular system requirements. Memorising, for example, that phono is associated with the AUX 2 label is certainly a less-than-elegant solution.'
Although it's now common for computer-based pre-amps or receivers to allow user-assigned alphanumeric names, Sutherland finds this unacceptable because alphanumeric displays, "...require a constant scanning update, creating a very intrusive high-frequency buzz. With The Director, there's no need to even label the inputs.' Quirky thinking, but you get used to it because, well, you're not doing the choosing. You don't have to look at a button to see if you're pressing the right one, or lining up a rotary with the correct detent for, say, 'tuner'. And if you don't think you can adjust to this mode of behaviour, then stay away from Sutherland gear. The only things I can liken to the culture shock of going from traditional knobs, switches and labels to none at all would be going from a normal car to a Citroen in the days before they became conventional, or switching from a PC to a Mac (or vice versa) after years in either camp.
I repeat: When The Director detects a musical signal at an input, the selector automatically routes that signal into the preamplifier. That's all there is to it. To listen to a CD, hit play on your CD player; to then listen to an LP, stop the CD and lower the stylus to the record. As soon as the signal from a phono stage reaches The Director, it recognises that you want to listen to LPs. Additionally, the volume automatically adjusts to the level last used when you played an LP.
Here's where it gets really clever: if more than one input is in use, 'the conflict is indicated on the four discrete input LEDs. They will toggle between the active inputs, indicating the need
to shut down all but the desired input. Also, as soon as a signal for any source is detected, that signal detector is disabled. If it weren't, the signal detector would add digital noise to the preamplifier environment.' Some will deem this an inconvenience, but then, how often do you have three or more sources playing all at once?
Sutherland is equally unhappy with most popular volume control chips, 'laden with features but short on musicality.' He abhors 'mediocre op amps and analogue circuitry squeezed onto a chip
full of digital circuitry. Fine for home theatre or car stereo, but not appropriate for high-end goals.' In The Director, volume control involves a basic attenuator function that consists of only J-FET switches and a precision resistor ladder, which Sutherland believes are sonically neutral, with low noise and excellent channel-to-channel matching. The topology also adheres to the 'simplified signal path philosophy that drives all Sutherland Engineering designs.'
In keeping with Sutherland's dislike for noisy alphanumeric displays, The Director features a 16 LED bar graph above the four input LEDs to indicate volume level. There are a total of 128 volume settings available on The Director, for a control range of 78db. And Sutherland has avoided op amps in the gain stages, preferring instead a gain stage using all discrete transistors, with hermetically-sealed dual J-FETS in the input stage, followed by bipolar gain stages and a class-A push-pull bipolar output stage. All bias currents are appropriately high to maintain a dynamic reserve, and extensive use of a high-capacity, low-impedance power supply reservoir 'contributes to the effortless, unstrained sonic signature of The Director.'
As for the remote control, once you've determined which end is the front, the upper row of two buttons controls the volume, left to reduce and right to increase, with the row of LEDs on The Director moving left or right to indicate the corresponding action. The lower left button controls muting; when activated, the volume LED bar moves rapidly all the way to the left and a flashing volume LED indicator indicates the stored volume level. The right button restores the volume and the LED bar illuminates back to its previous position.
Although The Director is externally minimalist - the back contains only an IEC mains input, a pair of gold RCA phonos for output and four pairs for line source inputs - it's a remarkably adaptable unit. You can, for example, by-pass the volume and set up The Director for unity gain, for use in a multi-channel system. Additionally, you can configure the level of each input in case one source is much louder than another, e.g CD versus your choice of phono stage. Straight out of the box, The Director has all four inputs configured for standard input voltage levels. When configured DIRECT, the maximum input voltage before clipping is 3Vrms. When fed components with a higher line-out voltage, the inputs associated with that source can be configured ATTN, with a maximum input voltage before clipping of 18Vrms. Gain settings are accomplished by moving shunt connectors located near each pair of input jacks to the
appropriate setting on the circuit board.
Reach underneath the fascia and there's a small thumb-wheel knob mounted on the front panel circuit board. This allows the user to adjust the display brightness. I love the note that reads: 'All voltages on this board are very low, so there is no risk of shock. An input must be selected for the brightness control to be sensed, i.e. a yellow light must be on.'
Although Sutherland makes a point of this being a no-frills unit of sane pricing, its constituent parts give up nothing: The Director reeks of luxury. This 17x4.25x15in (WHD), 24lb component boasts a sturdy, epoxy-powder coated 12-gauge, 1/8in thick steel case and a machined, precision-grained and clear-anodised front panel made of aircraft grade 6061 aluminium. The machined knob turns in a large steel ball bearing and has a wonderful 'feel' reminiscent of far costlier rivals. Remember: at today's exchange rate, this sells for £1699, hardly what you'd call 'absurd' when you can spend 10 times that without much effort.
Sutherland put the money where it counts. They supplied an inexpensive but adequate AC cable. You can upgrade it yourself to something silly if you like. The remote is 'el cheapo', too, not machined form a block of solid anything. But the unit offers 'extreme' magnetic and electrostatic shielding, all connectors are made via gold-plated, Teflon dielectric RCA sockets, the innards include 1% tolerance, industrial-grade Vishay/Dale and West German-made, polypropylene dielectric Wima capacitors. The ICs are socket mounted, with each pin 'grabbed by four gold-plated beryllium-copper fingers' and each contact is loaded into a precision-machined shell; you can replace the ICs without risk of board damage. The PCB itself is made with an environmentally-stable FR4 fibreglass substrate and the earthing plane on both sides of board 'establishes a stable ground reference, as well as electrostatic shielding.' The toroidal power transformer has a low radiated magnetic field, it's encapsulated in epoxy for rugged environmental protection and it is of dual-primary construction for 120/240 volt operation. So that's certainly not a mail-order issue.
Ron already had highly-rated phono stages in his c.v. with the Sutherland PH-2000 and the AcousTech Ph-1P, but he wanted to deliver something even better while maintaining reasonable costs. His main concerns while the Ph.D. were improving 'the purity of the power source and on lowering the background noise floor. Both goals are interrelated.'
As Ron explains, for non-tech-y types such as I, 'An amplifier does not make the input signal "bigger" - instead, it uses the input signal to control the delivery of power from a power supply. So the increased size of the output signal comes entirely from the power supply. The quality and purity of the power supply is an essential foundation for creating a high-quality output signal.
'While several preamplifier designs have aimed to isolate the AC power line with varying degrees of success, ultimate power supply purity cannot be achieved without absolute elimination of the AC power line. In the case of the Ph.D., there is no connection to the AC power line at all. Period. Instead, the power for the Ph.D. is 16 alkaline "D" cells. In this application, the batteries have a useable lifetime of over 800 listening hours. As they age, low-power supply impedance is maintained by high-value storage capacitance. And unlike designs
that use rechargeable batteries, the Ph.D. is not compromised and encumbered with battery-charging circuitry. In fact, one of the surprising features of the Ph.D. is the absence of ANY power connections on the back panel. It is totally isolated from any outside power noise.'
You read that correctly: the Ph.D. is powered by sixteen non-rechargeable D cells. That figures out at running costs of maybe £15-£20 a year, if you listen to vinyl two hours a day, 365 days a year. Oh, and you've not spent any money on electricity, nor on a trick mains cable, so please, no whinging about battery costs.
Adapting a primary component to practical, all-battery use wasn't easy. Sutherland had to create a sophisticated power management system. As Ron realised from the outset, the use of a conventional on/off switch would inevitably lead to users occasionally, accidentally leaving the unit in the 'on' position, thus draining the batteries much faster than necessary. Instead, Ron designed a power manager that monitors for a signal from the turntable, or 'specifically the stylus.'
Once the Ph. D. detects a signal, whether simply from cleaning the stylus or the stylus making contact with a disc, the unit powers up for 30 minutes. During this time, signal monitoring is inhibited to avoid any impact on the low-noise environment. At the end of 30 minutes, the unit automatically begins looking for a musical signal. While looking for a signal, a yellow light is illuminated. If a signal is not detected within 30 minutes, the Ph.D. will automatically power down. If a signal is detected, power is extended for an additional 30 minutes. The red lights indicate that the batteries are running low.
Unlike other phono pre-amps, the Ph.D. demanded extremely low power consumption. As negligible power is used, very little heat is generated within the components. Ron points out that, 'There is essentially no temperature rise and no need for "warm-up" time. The design also has very little or no DC voltage across the signal-carrying capacitors, so that dielectric forming is not an issue. If you do prefer to power-up the Ph.D. before listening, simply tap the cartridge headshell or brush the stylus.' This, by the way, turns out to be a very cool party trick. Unless, that is, you know of another phono stage that switches on if you tap the headshell.
To ensure further that there's no unnecessary wastage, The Ph.D. features a Sensitivity Control that sets the threshold of the signal monitor; it's set at midpoint from the factory. Sutherland emphasises that this control does not affect the audio circuit. Because phono cartridges can exhibit 'quite a variance in the output voltage, some adjustment may be necessary.' So, if the Ph.D. sometimes turns itself on when there is no musical signal, the user reduces the monitor sensitivity by turning the control clockwise. If the yellow light stays on while music is playing, you increase the monitor sensitivity by turning the control counter-clockwise. As the Ph.D. behaved perfectly while in my possession, I never touched it.
Housed in the same case as The Director, the Ph.D. boasts a thick front panel with indicators showing the status of the power management circuit. When a signal is detected, both green lights will illuminate, indicating that the unit is operating properly. This takes place within a fraction of a second. And true to Ron's remarks, there is absolutely no change over time, indicating no warm-up period. God bless batteries, eh?
In keeping with Sutherland philosophy, the Ph.D. avoids conventional switching, which Ron feels is inadequate for configuring the low-level signal from a phono cartridge. Instead, the Ph.D. incorporates a unique plug-in configuration system. As the Ph.D. is true dual-mono, each channel has two configuration boards, one for cartridge loading and one for selecting the amount of gain. The boards are square, with each side having an associated configuration value. Settings are adjusted by unplugging the board and rotating it to the desired value. Ron argues that, 'This approach gives the highest-quality connections with the shortest and most direct signal path.' Correct orientation is indicated by reading the board when you are facing the front of the Ph.D. Sutherland can also supply custom values, as they did for this review, for oddballs including Decca/Londons, older AudioNotes and others that adhere to neither the 47k ohm norm nor the usual mid-to-high-gain moving-coil values.
Simplicity defines the rear panel. All you see are phono inputs, outputs and a ground lug, as printed instructions for the LED indicators and for removing the Ph.D.'s cover. That's it.
Inserted into my usual system, The Director was the first to pee on the tree: Damn, is this thing quiet. Despite it being mains-powered, it seemed to these ears to be as ghostly as its battery-driven sibling. As a long-time user of older Sutherland components, this was perfectly in character, including its professorial mien: this unit is about transferring information in the most coherent, unpolluted way possible The magic is doing it without resulting in a hygienic, stripped, quasi-digital way.
With a variety of CDs (just to check the line inputs before concentrating on the Ph.D.), The Director proved itself to be, well, colourless. It was wide open and transparent, wonderfully detailed, yet somehow non-aggressive. This is the curious stare of affairs I usually prefer, because I want all the information, but I don't want it rammed down my throat. There's nothing heavy-handed about the sound or the presentation - on the contrary, the performance is slightly laid-back - but it's impossible to find if anything is lacking. Dynamic behaviour is forceful and broad, and The Director can handle both bombast and subtlety with utter ease. What it doesn't do well is 'slam', so the mindless hammering of thrash, dance music, rap, and most other abuses of both level and the lower octaves would be better-served by something less refined.
[A tiny caveat: It did take a while to get used to the oddball operation methodology. I can't deny it. And I suspect that for some, e.g. those who figured out their iPods without looking at the instructions, it will almost seem natural and intuitive. I'm an old fart set in his ways. I have to admit that I prefer to stay with convention. On the other hand, I didn't hate it.]
Given that The Director hardly imposes itself on the signal, that its volume transitions were smooth and precise, and that it even exhibited an almost valve-like conviviality to vocals, I was eager to hear what it would do with the Ph.D., alongside my reference phono stages from Audio Research and AudioValve. Here's where the fun begins.
Because I had a fistful of options - spare boards, the standard selection of settings, gain adjustments, etc - I found the Ph.D. to be as truly useful as the AudioValve Sunilda and the various EAR-Yoshinos in terms of true adjustability for analogue addicts, There really isn't a cartridge this can't match, and the Ph.D. will show you, as do all good and flexible phono stages, what rewards there are when you can fine-tune the cartridge settings. I was able to optimise every cartridge I tried, and the benefits are not slight.
With this in mind, I attacked the Ph.D. hungrily, a stack of LPs to hand from both normal and audiophile sources. Classic's Porgy and Bess as realised by Cleo Laine and Ray Charles is a perfect example of how the Ph.D. resolves vocal textures, and it captures all of the air surrounding the vocalists. This is a 'big'-sounding phono stage, and it was clearly fine-tuned by listeners who value three-dimensionality. Even with a mono cartridge playing the Jefferson Airplane mono reissues from Sundazed, you could detect clear layers to the sound. Uncanny, true, but so audible as to incite a bout of delicious bewilderment in those who think that stereo is the be-all and end-all of sound reproduction. And that's without a mono switch.
The Ph.D. seems to favour piano and acoustic guitar or anything else that creates its own 'atmosphere' while demanding a delicate hand, but it really surprised me - given its battery power - with Pure Pleasure's pressing of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Couldn't Stand the Weather. While not the most 'dynamic' phono stage I've used - the Sunilda is hard to beat - the Ph.D.'s actual speed when handling transients perfectly complemented Stevie Ray's more intense moments, and it will confound those who fail to appreciate that dragging a chunk of mineral over plastic ripples can yield such fast and solid notes.
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If noise is the only thing that annoys you about vinyl (not the mechanically-induced swoosh but the by-product of adding so much gain), then Sutherland has dealt with it so effectively by going battery in the Ph.D. that you will need convincing he hasn't simply unearthed the old dbX system - yes, it's nearly that silent in the background. The Director matches it perfectly, but the ergonomics take a while to appreciate. These product are so clever that the design brilliance almost overshadows their raison d'etre: LP playback. Throw in near-total adjustability, and you have a phono system for the cognoscenti. Oh, and it plays line level sources just as well.