Sutherland Engineering Phono Blocks monoblock phono preamplifier 2x
Note: R60000 for both units
Description: Two-chassis, dual-mono phono preamplifier.
one each (RCA).
two paralleled each (RCA).
Gain: 45, 50, 55, 60dB (user-selectable).
Cartridge loading: 50, 100, 200, 475, 1k, 10k, 47.5k ohms (user-selectable).
Blank loading card supplied to allow user to create additional, custom loading values.
Power consumption: 20W (10Wpc each).
Operating voltage: 110–120VAC or 220–240 VAC.
Dimensions: (each) 17″ (432mm) W by 3″ (76mm) H by 17″ (432mm) D. Weight: 20.1 lbs (9.5kg) net, 26 lbs (11.8kg) shipping.
Serial Numbers Of Units Reviewed: 1060, 1061.
Price: $10,000/pair. Approximate number of dealers: 7.
Manufacturer: Sutherland Engineering, 455 E. 79th Terrace, Kansas City, MO 64131. Web: www.sutherlandengineering.com.
Sutherland Engineering Phono Block monoblock phono preamplifier
Saying that Sutherland Engineering builds a nice line of phono stages is like saying that the Porsche 911 Carrera is a nice line of sports car. The Sutherlands all share common design philosophies, features, and sonic attributes—but just as ramping up from Porsche’s classic Carrera Coupe ($78,000) to the GT3 ($115,000) or the Turbo S Cabriolet ($172,000) increases the level of performance and distills the Porsche experience down to its essence, ascending the Sutherland line from the PH3D ($1000) to the 20/20 ($2200) to the Hubble ($3800) buys more of what Ron Sutherland is all about.
For the well-to-do Porscheophile, the line’s ne plus ultra is the GT2 RS ($245,000)—the ultimate expression of the Porsche 911 concept and “the fastest and most powerful road-going sports car ever built in the history of Porsche,” in the words of Porsche CEO Detlev Von Platen. Every detail of the GT2 RS’s design and execution has been stripped down, scrutinized, and optimized, to produce what is, essentially, a civilized racecar for the street. At the top of Sutherland’s line is the Phono Block. Though its price of $10,000/pair and general availability make it a bit more obtainable than a GT2 RS, the Phono Block, too, represents a stripped-down, optimized, no-compromise design.
Under the Hood
In keeping with Ron Sutherland’s no-compromise philosophy, the Phono Blocks are just that: two completely separate but identical monophonic units. The approach is extreme, but as Sutherland points out, it maximizes separation and eliminates any crosstalk. Each Phono Block chassis externally resembles a Sutherland Hubble, but instead shares its architecture with the 20/20, which I reviewed in the February 2011 Stereophile.
Each Phono Block itself comprises two heavily shielded, individual subchassis, linked by the front and rear panels. The right-hand subchassis is the power supply, which Sutherland says is key to the Block’s performance. As in the 20/20, the Block’s supplies are AC driven, but according to a much more extreme take on the Sutherland philosophy of putting as much distance as possible between the wall outlet and the audio circuits. Here, the AC is run first through a toroidal transformer, a dual-pi ferrite-bead/film-capacitor filter, and a second toroidal transformer. It then is split into two parallel paths, one for each amplification section of the audio circuit. Each path then runs through a discrete-diode, full-wave bridge rectifier, filter capacitors, a constant-current regulator, and two more RC pi filters. From there, power travels between the power supply and audio chassis via an umbilical nestled in a shielded channel in the front panel, through three more RC pi filters, and a constant-voltage shunt regulator at the load. Even more filtering is supplied in the form of electrolytic and film capacitors bypassing each of the active devices. Sutherland notes that, all told, the power supply has over 100,000µF of capacitance and takes over 20 seconds to charge up when power is applied.
The left-hand subchassis is the audio side, comprising the final power-supply filtering and two gain stages. The first is a low-noise instrumentation amplifier, which acts as an input stage to load the cartridge and supply the initial gain. For the second stage, Sutherland uses an op-amp to accomplish the RIAA equalization and to supply the output current. Rather than use coupling capacitors to eliminate any DC, as he has in some of his other designs, Sutherland wraps both of each Phono Block’s amplification stages in a DC servo loop.
It’s an oversimplification, but largely true, to say that the Phono Block’s audio board resembles that of a 20/20 or Hubble on steroids. For example, the Hubble is itself an extravagant, beautifully executed design, but where it has a 12,000µF bank of thimble-sized electrolytic capacitors, the Phono Block has D-cell–sized whoppers totaling over 100,000µF. Everywhere you see a 1µF WIMA polyproylene cap bypassing an active device in the Hubble, in the Phono Block you see both the polypropylene and a pair of 660µF electrolytics. With the Phono Block there’s more of everything, everything is bigger, and it’s all done to the nth degree. Looking at the audio board, it’s obvious why the Phono Blocks are mono units—two boards wouldn’t fit!
The over-the-top execution applies to the board itself. Sutherland points out that material between the traces on the top and bottom of a circuit board will act as a dielectric, effectively putting an additional capacitor in the circuit. He mitigates this effect by reducing the width of the signal-carrying traces to just 0.015″ and having no traces on the underside of the board in signal-carrying regions. Plus, the FR-4 fiberglass circuit board itself is 1/8″ thick, which is twice the norm. As Sutherland notes, “I could use exotic materials for the board and get a 10% or 20% reduction in the dielectric effect, but that can cause problems with traces not sticking. By simply using a 1/8″-thick board, I cut any dielectric effects in half. . . . plus, I get easier manufacturability, better durability in the field, and a more stable, rigid platform for the circuit,” Sutherland said when I spoke to him about the design.
The Phono Block uses plug-in cards to select loading and gain, which eliminates any switches and puts only a single set of resistors in the circuit at a time. It’s an approach typical of Sutherland’s design ethos: optimize performance while eschewing any frills or features that might compromise the final sound. “Sure, I could have included a switching circuit to select gain and loading, and had it adjustable with a remote control. I could even have added a digital readout to show what values were selected, but doing any of that would have added complexity and cost, and created noise that I’d have to work to eliminate. At best, the final product would sound no better, and quite likely, it wouldn’t sound as good.”
The Phono Block does, however, have a couple of features that the other Sutherlands don’t. One is a choice of one of three grounding schemes: audio grounding directly to the chassis, floating the audio ground off the chassis, or “soft grounding” through a 50-ohm resistor. Another is the inclusion of a white-noise generator: a small plug-in board that allows the Phono Block to burn itself in quickly and efficiently, or to burn in a set of phono cables. When the burn-in is done, the generator is replaced with the proper loading card and the unit is ready to go. “I’m into adding features that do no sonic damage to the final product,” states Sutherland. “When the customer is done with the white-noise generator, they just take it out and there’s no harm done.”
Use and Listening
Ron Sutherland’s strip-down-and-optimize design approach has resulted in the phono-stage equivalent of Porsche’s GT2 RS: the Phono Block provides a simple, straight-ahead user-friendliness that no amount of frills and features could approach. At Sutherland’s suggestion, I began with the 50-ohm soft-ground setting, plugged in cards for 100 ohms of loading and 60dB of gain to match my Lyra Titan i cartridge, hooked up the Phono Blocks, and I was done. No muss, no fuss, no switches, no adjustments, no remotes, no further choices to make. All that was left to do was to listen.
It would be simple, and mostly accurate, to say that the Phono Blocks captured all of the strengths and eliminated all of the weaknesses of Sutherland’s various earlier models, but that wouldn’t do the Blocks justice. They were better than that—so good, in fact, that I found it almost impossible to get a bead on them in my system. About the only way I can think of describing them is in terms of the music they played.
First and foremost, the Phono Blocks replicated the uncanny ease and purity of Sutherland’s battery-powered models: the PH3D, the Hubble, and the discontinued PhD. Michael Fremer’s famous description of the PhD—”freedom from electronic detritus”—came immediately to mind with the Phono Blocks, and the absence of any sort of grunge or noise let instruments and voices bloom with a natural purity that could be startling. The simplest and perhaps best example from my listening notes was how well the Blocks reproduced Suzanne Vega’s voice in the a cappella “Tom’s Diner,” from her Solitude Standing (LP, A&M SP-5136). The Sutherlands’ purity gave her plaintive lines an absolutely “in the room” realism.
In one sense, Vega’s voice was tangibly distinct from the background. Her image was three-dimensional and clearly bounded, sure, but I noticed the difference most vividly in the leading edges of her words: in how the very beginning of a syllable or note would pressurize and expand out into the surrounding space. In another way, however, Vega’s voice was entirely and realistically coherent with the original recording space. I never had any sense that my system was projecting a recorded image into the listening room. Instead, there was a feeling that the system had vanished and taken the room with it, leaving only the original performance suspended before me.
Although the battery-powered Sutherlands are known for this spectacular purity and timbral accuracy, at times they can sound a bit soft in terms of dynamics: the PH3D most obviously, the Hubble the least. “Tom’s Diner” can be achingly beautiful but not have quite the timing or pace that Vega’s voice does through some other phono stages, or that it does live. In this regard, the Phono Blocks resembled and improved on the performance of the AC-driven 20/20 and Direct Line Stage. The Phono Blocks had more snap than even these units, and a more realistic and energetic sense of timing and pace. Dynamic transients were slightly larger through the Phono Blocks, too, and notes began and ended more sharply. With “Tom’s Diner,” the Blocks made the difference between just listening, and listening while tapping my foot and bopping in my chair.
I spent a couple of wonderful evenings with the Charles Munch and Boston Symphony Orchestra recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2608), and the same dynamic panache I noted with “Tom’s Diner” really brought this work to life. At the microdynamic end of the scale, I noted how articulate and delicate the English horn’s and oboe’s phrasings were during their duet in the third movement. The notes bloomed and tailed off, scaling a dynamic range that seemed to pack into each an infinite gradation of levels. Also as with Vega’s voice, there was something about the very beginning of the notes that gave these passages a riveting, realistic feel. And at the other, macro end of the dynamic scale, the first thundering bass-drum stroke later in that movement made me jump in my chair.
The Phono Blocks’ purity and dynamics made Dire Straits’ Live at the BBC (LP, BBC Worldwide WINLP072) snap with urgency and electricity, but I also noticed how extended the Sutherlands were at the frequency extremes, and how balanced across the audioband. At the very lowest frequencies, the Blocks had very nearly the impact of the Parasound Halo JC 3 phono preamp that I reviewed last October, and even some of that model’s sense of increasing power as the frequency descended. That huge, thundering bass drum in Symphonie Fantastique was ample evidence of the Phono Blocks’ bottom-end punch, as were John Illsley’s deepest bass lines in Dire Straits’ “Down to the Waterline.” A bit higher in the bass, however, the Sutherlands could occasionally sound a bit lean and cool. For example, the timpani in the Berlioz sounded a little lighter and smaller than they should have, though they were still superbly articulate, with wonderful pitch definition. The double basses in the same recording, on the other hand, were warm and powerful. And in Live at the BBC, Illsley’s highest bass notes had every bit as much impact as his lowest. Bottom line: The Phono Blocks always had more than enough bass to satisfyingly anchor any type of music.
Higher, across the middle and upper frequencies, the Phono Blocks were superb. Mark Knopfler’s voice in the Dire Straits cuts had just the right balance of pure tone and ragged edge. His guitar cried, wailed, whispered, and sang in the ways that are unmistakably his alone. Pick Withers’ drums were snappy and explosive, and his cymbals filled the air with shimmering, bronze decays. I’ve listened to this album dozens of times, but if I’ve ever heard it sound more alive, more realistic, or better in any way, I can’t recall it.
The Phono Blocks’ balance, as well as their uncanny purity and lack of any background texture, allowed them to do a stellar job of reproducing instruments’ characteristic pitch and timbre. Knopfler’s voice and guitar were great examples; another was the duet of oboe and English horn in Symphonie Fantastique. Through some phono stages—even with, to some extent, the PhD and 20/20—the two double-reeds can sound very much alike, or perhaps even like a clarinet or soprano saxophone. With the Phono Blocks, the characteristic buzzy woodiness of the oboe came through beautifully, as did the warmer, rounder sound of the English horn.
Stepping back from the frequency extremes, the wailing guitars, and the buzzy oboes, the overall tonal balance of the Phono Blocks was awfully close to absolutely neutral, enough so for it to act as a sort of chameleon that reflected other changes in my system. When the system was connected with Nordost Valhalla cables, I was always tempted to brand the Phono Blocks as sounding slightly on the lean, cool side of neutral. With Nirvana SL or Stereovox cables throughout, I instead found the Sutherlands completely neutral, or sounding ever, ever so slightly warm. If I had to assign an absolute tonal balance to the Phono Blocks, it would be somewhere between absolutely neutral and ever so slightly cool—but, as I said, any deviations from neutral were small and ephemeral.
Listening to The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Quartet, a performance recorded at Miami’s Airliner Lounge in September 1977 (LP, Artist House AH 9403), I was struck by how large and open the Phono Blocks’ soundstage was. The apparent audience around me was larger, more spread out, and much more obvious in the positioning of individual attendees. The back and side walls of the club were more audible, and farther out than I’m used to hearing. Lewis’s drum set was exactly the right size, and very clearly bounded and located in three dimensions. Harold Danko’s piano was of realistic size rather than a foreshortened version of itself, and was slightly farther upstage. When Lewis stepped forward to solo, I could imagine his entire body behind and below the image of his cornet—and his horn, too, was realistically sized and solidly placed on the soundstage, positioned clearly with respect to not only the other players and the audience, but to the club boundaries themselves.
Another recording that demonstrated how large, open, and airy the Phono Blocks’ soundstage seemed to be was Geoffrey Simon and the London Symphony Orchestra’s readings of the overture to and dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride (LP, Chandos ABRD 1149). I particularly noticed the placement, size of individual instruments, and exquisite layering in the string sections, especially in quiet passages where the violin and viola lines were hardly above the background. Even these quietest lines clearly delineated the hall’s boundaries, and portrayed each string section as the large group of individual players it was. I noticed how realistically the Phono Blocks reproduced the choral nature of these sections, and the specificity and solidity with which the individual players were portrayed was a big part of that realism.
Checking All the Boxes
Music comprises five elements: pitch, timing, loudness, timbre, and location. As soon as more than one instrument or voice is present, all five, together and separately, take on a choral quality. On album after album, regardless of musical genre, scale of work, or vintage of recording, the Sutherland Phono Blocks unfailingly reproduced all five elements and their combined nature no less than brilliantly. In short, they played music—or, more to the point, they got out of the way to let the music play. Each time I thought I’d taken the Phono Blocks’ sonic thumbprint, I’d change something else in my system or play a different recording, and whatever wisp of identity I thought I’d captured would vanish. No electronic device is perfect, but the Phono Blocks were close enough to perfection that I could find no trace of them in my system’s sound.
Out-Sutherlanding the Sutherlands
The Phono Blocks had a tough act, or acts, to follow. Ron Sutherland’s PH3D, 20/20, and Hubble are all excellent products, as are his PhD and Direct Line Stage, both of which I own. The battery-powered units all offer a purity and a natural ease that are rare, if not unique, in high-end audio; the AC-powered models deliver a big chunk of that purity and add a bit more realism in terms of dynamic transients, timing, and pace. Each, as I’ve said, is excellent, and offers exceptional value at what are, for the high end, very reasonable prices.
But like shopping at the Porsche dealership, moving up the Sutherland line buys more of the good stuff. The 20/20 improves on all of the strengths of the PH3D, and the Hubble handily outperforms the 20/20 and the (discontinued) PhD. But if you really want to hear—or, rather, not hear—the best that Sutherland Engineering has to offer, the only choice is the Phono Blocks. Still, $10,000 is a lot of money—as Ron Sutherland says, “It’s not super expensive, but it’s where super expensive starts.” But just as a $243,000 Porsche GT2 RS isn’t only the best Porsche 911, but one of the very best cars ever made, the Phono Blocks aren’t just the best Sutherland phono stage, they’re one of the very best audio components in the world. Absolutely, positively, and very highly recommended.