Review by Noam Bronstein
Aric Kimball builds tube audio gear at his home in rural New England. Although Aric Audio is not a household name among audiophiles (yet), Aric told me he has built/sold more than 400 preamps. Word of mouth gets around! And after spending about six weeks with these two pieces, I can see why his efforts are being rewarded. This is not the kind of gear that will interest the typical “thick-faceplate audiophile”. It doesn’t have name recognition to buoy the insecure, nor the physical presence to impress their associates. This is cottage industry hi-fi, a niche within a niche. Those who have appreciated the work of Decware, Bottlehead, and Hagerman…read on.
Aric sent us two pieces, a line preamplifier and a moving-magnet phono stage. Originally, I had a reviewer in Toronto slated to review these. Personal circumstances prevented him, and eventually it fell back to me. Although that delayed the process considerably, I’m glad in a way for how it worked out – because I got the opportunity personally to use the Aric gear in my system, and form my own opinions on them. My verdict? These aren’t fancy products, but they’re well made and offer good value. And very good performance.
The $450 Expression is an active preamp with three line-level inputs and a pair of outputs (a nice touch for anyone using a subwoofer). Features are few and basic – the money goes into sound quality. A motorized remote volume control would be an optional, separate device, that Aric also makes, and sells for $210. The audio circuit is straightforward, with a single gain stage employing a pair of 12AX7/ECC83 triodes. Designers tend to focus more effort on the power supply, and here things get rather interesting. The larger tube isn’t a rectifier – it’s a gas-charged OD3 used as a regulator. To quote Aric, “The regulator is simply placed in parallel with the 150 volt DC plate B+, it maintains the voltage steadily like a diode would in the same position. The only exception is that it’s gas-charged and cold fired instead of solid state. It works very well when the current draw is low, as it is in preamplifier stages.”
Indeed. I found the Expression to be an excellent performer. It lives up to its name: the sound character is expressive, not exactly ‘forward’ in its manner, but for sure lively. It reminded me sonically of a fully decked-out Foreplay III – very open and transparent, unbridled. I think this is a flattering comparison, since the Foreplay has garnered wide acclaim. Just like the Foreplay, Aric’s Expression lets it all hang out: the music comes through, and a little bit of hiss along with it. The hiss isn’t really objectionable. Interestingly, the rear panel includes a knob that acts as a hum potentiometer. Adjust it slowly up, to the point where you would start to hear hum in your system, then back off a hair or two, and it should be a done deal. No need to keep fiddling with it, as far as I could see. It works well, and again, I think it’s a thoughtful inclusion.
The choice of the 12AX7 gets a big thumbs up, from me. Now before you bemoan the prices people are asking (and getting) for those increasingly rare Telefunken smooth plates, consider this: the 12AX7 and its’ variants are being produced in large numbers today. You have Mullard reissues, you have the excellent Sovtek 12AX7LPS. You have boutique Chinese tubes under the Psvane and Northern Electric banners. Try them! Many wonderful choices, and they aren’t exorbitantly priced. To boot, if your source has enough gain, you can try lower-gain tubes like the 5751, or 12AT7. You can literally roll tubes all day long. I had good results with GE 5751’s (about $20 each), which, subjectively, lowered the noise floor a little, and sounded smoother than the stock tubes. Not a massive difference, but easily noticeable. Later, I rolled in the “Groove Tubes” 12AX7M – this is one of the “Mullard-style” resissue tubes, and wow, it sounded great in the Expression. Very musical, detailed, authoritative. The same tube is available now under the Mullard name, and is very inexpensive. I would recommend these as a no-brainer upgrade for someone starting out. Order a couple of these and a pair of the Sovtek LPS, and have some fun comparing them. For more experienced tube rollers, well, you probably already have some nice tubes in the drawer ready to try.
Bottom line on the Expression preamp? I liked it a lot. Sonically and functionally, it performs very well, and suits my aesthetic for an honest hi-fi product. If the looks and feature set are acceptable to the prospective buyer, I’d give it a strong recommendation.
This brings us to the Phono Stage. What a sweet little honey of a preamp this is. It could be that my expectations for it weren’t that high going in; as with the Audio Exklusiv phono, the Aric doesn’t look like much more than a little black box, well, in this case a box with a tube protruding from it. But it really blew me away – and definitely surpassed what I expected, by a mile! This unit had real character. It was respectably quiet, at the same time as being really dynamic and lively. This unit handled everything I could throw at it, delivering the music with precision and speed. Yes, it could occasionally get slightly rough, on highly demanding, complex music, but that rarely happened and it didn’t really detract much from the overall experience. The word of the day here was “fun”. If you’re scouring these paragraphs for longer adjectives of the audiophilia nervosa persuasion, your doctor might say you’re not having enough….FUN. Listen to three LP’s on the Aric Phono and call me in the morning. Simple as heck, the Phono is a tried-and-true solid-state RIAA with a 12AU7 tube buffer output stage bolted on it. Not much to go gaga over. Again, a volume pot is a nice thing to have, allowing a user to drive a power amp directly, or to fine tune the Phono’s output and sort out any phono hum.
I do need to make a caveat here on the analog partnering gear– my gear doesn’t really qualify as “budget” stuff. From my Teres/Jelco deck, I fed the Aric Phono with both the moving-magnet Nagaoka MP-500 (review coming soon), and the wonderful Charisma MC-1, fed through the Altec 4722 SUT. With both setups, the Aric portrayed a convincing musical picture, with plenty of meat, insight into the music, and all the good stuff you could ask for. (I’m not getting sucked in with those adjectives! Nooo! Fun Fun FUN)
Summarizing on the Phono, my findings here are both conclusive and a little bit muddled. Conclusively – well, there’s no arguing that the Aric MM Phono basically kicked ass and took names, sonically. I’d describe the Phono as lively, dynamic, and musical. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it was consistently enjoyable to listen to – and by that I mean, really enjoyable. Grin-inducing and just fun. Did you hear me about the FUN??? Have some, guys.
Where things aren’t as clear, for me, is in the value equation. WoS readers are aware that I’ve been reviewing a LOT of phono stages lately, and have found one or two that offer almost unbelievable value – the Musical Paradise and Lounge Audio units, specifically. As to whether “all comers” now have to measure up to these, I don’t know if that’s a fair requirement. But for me, the reality of how far your $300 (or $600) can go in this market segment, has shifted. And that’s where it gets a bit tricky trying to compare apples to apples. If one were inclined to do some blind testing (I’m certainly not), it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Aric Phono held its own against the Lounge. It might even come out slightly ahead. Sonically I mean. Where it needs to compete better though, is in terms of build quality, and price. I think Aric has recently addressed this already – as the current model Phono (shown below), now gets the OD3 regulator tube (and accompanying circuit changes), which not only improves the look of the unit, but should improve its performance considerably as well. And he kept the price at $450. Whether this makes the Phono fully competitive with other comparable models, I can’t say for sure. It is a step in the right direction, from the consumer’s standpoint! Obviously I’m not a pricing expert, I’m simply pointing out the very stiff competition lately from California, China, and elsewhere.
And there you have it. Two very fine audio products, which I’ve greatly enjoyed using and reviewing! Strongly recommended.