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The Luminous Audio Arion Phono Preamplifier

09-21-2014 | By T. C.

Holy Moly! There’s a subway running under the house!
An early, para-musical reaction to the new Arion phono preamp from Luminous
Audio ($6000). We’ll get back to the train, but first a disclaimer. The Arion is the
result of a collaboration between Luminous Audio’s president/owner/sous chef Tim
Stinson and GAS Audio’s Mike Bettinger. Tim has been a personal friend for many,
many years, Mike for several, and both Tim and Mike are fellow members in the
Richmond Audio Society.* The Arion was heard in prototype form at a couple of RAS
meetings, which I unfortunately could not attend, but I heard raves from fellow
members. One wants one’s friends to do well, but there is also a little part in all of
us (come on, admit it) that would enjoy a moment’s private glee at our friends falling
flat on their faces. Suffice it to say, I wanted to like the Arion, but I was totally
unprepared for just how much I would love it.

*See http://luminousaudio.com, http://www.gasaudio.net and
http://richmondaudiosociety.com

Design:

The Arion is a ground-up, all-out assault on the problems of phono
amplification and EQ, and is Mike’s first fully realized, commercially available
product. That commercial realization, plus hours of listening and design discussion,
are Tim’s contributions. Luminous Audio also offers the Axiom passive line level
preamp, soon in remote control form, which is more Tim’s design, and would make a
lovely companion piece.
As a look at the GAS website will show, Mike has 40 years of experience,
starting with a BSE; his wife Lynn recalls curing etched circuit boards in the toaster
oven during the grad school days. He then opened an audio repair business,
moving on to restoration and total rebuilds/mods of not only the classic James
Bongiorno GAS and Sumo amps, but also products from 35 other major high-end
manufacturers. The Arion is the result of this experience, plus hundreds of hours of
listening.

From the owner’s manual:

“The Arion incorporates a two stage design with a cascoded discrete JFET input stage,
followed by a differential cascoded/JFET second stage; servos provide stability. A
combination passive/active RIAA network supplies equalization. The power supplies
are instrumentation amplifier-based designs.”
As for parts quality, Mike says:
“I used all quality metal film resistors, polyproplyene film caps from Vishay and the
main filtering is supplied by Panasonic electrolytics designed for switching power
supplies and 105"C operation. I use Toshiba and Sanken transistors. These are all
parts I have used in my restorations for the past few years with exceptional results.”
The front panel is simplicity itself, with pushbuttons surrounded by glowing rings
for mute and MC/MM selection. MC loading is set at 1K Ohms, which Mike felt
provided the best subjective sound with this circuit, even for MCs that specify a
different load as optimal. For those so inclined, the MC load can be changed by
inserting different value resistors in the MC load sockets, as can MM capacitance.

The back panel sports sturdy Cardas RCA input and output connectors, as well as
XLR inputs. The Arion is a single-ended design, as virtually all phono cartridges
provide a single-ended output. The XLR is there only to satisfy the rare owner who
has an XLR connector on his or her phono cable. No XLR output is provided, as this
would only be “pseudo-balanced”, and Mike and Tim did not want to mislead
prospective buyer. We applaud the integrity. Especially appreciated is a large,
beefy, easy to find blind ground connector, which, almost uniquely in my experience,
actually works as well as attaching the ground lead to one of the RCA collars. The
unit is compact, nicely finished, runs cool, is mechanically quiet, and dead quiet
through the speakers at anything near reasonable listening levels. The extra care
paid to circuit layout, shielding and grounding has paid off.

Listening:


So, back to the subway. As I leapt from my chair to turn down the music, the
better to hear the subterranean rumble, the train disappeared. I was pretty sure
there had been no major excavations under the house, and a dim recollection
surfaced that one of the major English orchestras recorded at a hall that had
wonderful acoustics, but also the Tube running beneath it. A little investigation
confirmed that the subway was on the record: I was listening to the Elgar Enigma
Variations perfomed by Pierre Monteux conducting the London SO, recorded at
Kingsway Hall, beloved acoustically, cursed by the London Underground Railway.
While I had no doubt heard this before as a vague rumble , now I was experiencing it
as a real subway train.

A second extra-musical example, then on to music. On one live recording after
another, applause sounded like multiple pairs of hands clapping, not the usual
vague static. Digital never seems to get this, among other things, quite as well as
analog done right, as it is here. Analog at home wasn’t quite there previously, either.

So what do these sound effects have to do with music? Lots. Together they
presage bass that is absolutely sub-rock solid, mids, highs, transients, percussives
and decay that are orders of magnitude cleaner, faster and more realistic than
anything I’ve heard at home. For classical lovers: when the Marschallin, in her long
soliloquy, is accompanied by the deepest voice in the orchestra, a solo
contrabassoon, both Schwarzkopf and the bassoonist are in the room with you.
Apologies to any who still hold her and Karajan’s politics against them; I do too, but
this is wonderful music making (EMI 77357). String tone is to die for. Music for
Strings Percussion and Celeste, by Reiner or Dorati, sounds just like its title, with
the ability to hone in on any detail, but no loss of the dynamic, enveloping whole.
Even when all heaven breaks loose in the finale of Mahler’s 2nd, chorus, full
orchestra with organ, bass drum whacks, cymbal crashes, the whole shebang, or
any part of it, is fully convincing, even on sub-optimal recordings. Try Bernstein with
the NYPhil, or Klemperer or Walter: all just now make more musical sense out of a
dense weave. From Aagard to Zemlinsky, my classical record collection sounded
cleaned up and dusted off. Limitations I had thought were in the medium clearly are
not. This is like 24/192 pristine clarity, but with analog continuity, life and warmth.
For rockers: oh man, are you in for a treat. Whether it’s classic Zeppelin, in
original or remastered format, or newbies like The Arctic Monkeys, from Afghan
Whigs to ZZ Top, the dynamics, bass slam, and boogy factor will get those not yet
dead jumpin’ and jivin’. Rhythm sections are bolted right down to the ground,
underpinning whatever mayhem is going on above or around. Take Alex Chilton on
“Stuff” (French New Rose EP if you can find it) where Alex, a bass, a drum kit and a
few horns make a truly joyful cacophony unto the Lord. The jump of the bass and
drum, the bite of the horns along with their various tonal colors, the twang of Alex’s
guitar and the insouciance of his voice were electrifying.
I could go on, but in any genre— blues, jazz. bluegrass, alt-whatever— the
results were the same. I would suspect that measurements would show very low levels of IM and THD, fast rise times and capacious power supply, all those good
things. That’s how it sounds, and its effect on the enjoyment of my LPs was
transformative.

Comparisons:


On hand were a Dynavector P75 MK2, and my current reference Aesthetix Rhea.
The Dynavector is a great bargain at its price, but could not compete with the Arion
or the Aesthetix on any level except quietude when not playing music. The tube
based Rhea ($4500) is more formidable competition, and I preferred it to the
excellent, more expensive ($7000) DSA Phono-One when I had the two in for a direct
comparison. I bought the Aesthtix then, mainly because it had a harmonic richness
that the DSA lacked, IMS. I no longer have the DSA available, and it has been
superseded by the still more expensive ($12,000) DSA Phono II, which I have not
heard.

Between the Aesthetix Rhea and the Arion, the Arion has much better low-end
slam and articulation, better top-end speed and transients, and is subjectively
cleaner overall. These are achieved with little or no loss of tonal color or harmonic
richness, usually thought to be the strong points of tube designs. Sound-staging is
a toss-up; do you prefer the perhaps slightly exaggerated depth of the Rhea or the
specificity and breadth of the Arion? Then there’s the issue of trying to get all ten (!)
of the Rhea’s tubes quiet and gain-matched. Overall the Arion would be my choice if
I were buying now. A fairer comparison might be with the Aesthetix Rhea Signature
($7000), and if Aesthetix would like to send me one, I’d be delighted to do that
comparison. For what it is worth, and that is considerable, the consensus at RAS
meetings was that the Arion won all comparisons, including with some very well
respected tube and solid state designs.

Summary:


The Luminous Audio Arion is a well designed, well built, hassle free phono
preamplifier that made it clear that my records were capable of conveying more
musical information more pleasurably than I had thought possible. It is a resounding
success, and will probably be my next audio purchase. That it is a product of friends
is icing on a very yummy cake.

**Associated equipment:


Benz Glider low-output Moving coil cartridge, Clearaudio Performance turntable and
arm on Target wall-mount shelf ; Jeff Rowland Consonance line stage, home-brew
monitors consisting of Dynaudio woofer and cabinet with dipole Aurum Cantus Aero
Striction tweeters, driven by an external 24db/octave active crossover, connecting a
Vincent 331 directly to the woofer, and a C-J MF 2250 directly to the tweeter, with
Quad “Lite” 10” active remote control subwoofer (a gem), all in small room.

And/or


Goldring 2400 MM in a Yamaha YP-D10 direct drive ‘table, Hegel H-200 integrated,
Magnepan 1.7QRs, with two Genesis subs, in a much larger room.
Cables in both systems a mix of TARA, Acoustic Zen, Luminous Audio and Cardas,
based on the theory that yes, it matters, but there’s no BEST. Horses for courses.



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