Review by Noam Bronstein
My review of Audio Exklusiv’s P0.2 happened during a busy time, didn’t get off to a great start, and almost got “lost in the shuffle”. I knew (from hearing it at TAVES) that this preamp was a solid performer, but I couldn’t get any decent results with it at first. Sound was flat and lifeless, and there was a persistent hum. What the heck? Finally, Charisma Audio’s Bernard Li got the review unit back from me, and gave me a call a couple of days later. The problem was the wall transformer! His local supplier of DC wall-warts for the North American market had supplied him with a bad power supply. It was only, uh, supplying 20.5 VDC, and had some distinct noise issues. After sourcing a good working 24V replacement, I got the P0.2 back from Bernard, and was off to the races.
And what a fantastic little phono preamp this German-made unit turned out to be.
At $1325 Cdn, Audio Exklusiv’s basic model, while not exactly “cheap”, is meant to fill a niche – in the vinyl system where the user demands top notch sound quality but isn’t willing to commit to an all-out package that might include the $8k P2, for example. As such, the P0.2 is very stripped down. It’s little more than a small black box with an external power supply and a few DIP switches for load resistance, gain and capacitance. This is not going to impress your audiophile pals, win any cosmetic awards, or hurt your back with a thick heavy faceplate or oversized chassis. What it does sonically though, is just about the polar opposite of its’ appearance. If the P0.2 were clothed in a big fancy package with gold plating and wood trim, I could listen to it smiling and nodding because it would be totally believable. But in its minimalist (dis)guise, the sounds this preamp produced had my jaw on the floor in disbelief many times! The only other time I can recall being dumbfounded by the music pouring forth from a tiny nondescript black box, was when I heard the original 47 Lab Gaincard. This is high-end stuff, guys.
Where to begin. The noise floor is low…very low. A basic expectation from any solid-state preamp, but with a phono stage this is also a good indication that it makes good impedance matches, is shielded well from EMI/RFI issues, and is properly grounded. So the audible distortion is extremely low. At the same time, musical detail was there in abundance. Inner detail and instrument separation were excellent. Nothing sounded obscured or glazed over.
But the story gets better. The P0.2 gave no indication of its transistor nature, and gave up no ground whatsoever to my reference tube phono stages. Leaning just slightly to the warm side of neutral, it sounded amazingly natural and fleshed out – never thin, hashy or analytical. What’s more, the soundstage presentation was to die for. Big, wide, deep – this was a phono preamp capable of delivering Mahler’s largest works to your living room.
Dynamics were superb – again, the inner detail and speed capability both allowing very fine reproduction of musical nuances. Piano music, always an acid test, was handled beautifully. The more I listened to my system with the P0.2, the less I found to criticize. In direct comparisons with my Musical Paradise MP-P1, the AE P0.2 won the day, handily – as it should, being about double the price. I was prepping myself for the possibility of a jump to the dark chocolate, solid-state side. However, I kept experimenting, and when using the MP-P1 in MM mode with the Altec 4722 mic transformers, the performances were, in all the respects that I consider critical, very evenly matched. I had the opportunity to verify this with a few TT/cartridge combinations, and had fun doing it. Where the MP never caught the AE, of course, was in the self-noise department.
Keep in mind that the MP-P1 solution would need to include a SUT and an excellent additional interconnect – items which I already have on hand here. If you add those in….well, then the P0.2 value proposition – a one-box solution – begins to look very attractive indeed. So, for now the mighty-mouse MP/Altec combo is staying. However: if I had to go out today looking for a MM/MC solution, and musicality, price and noise floor were key determinants, I would have to consider the P0.2 to be extremely competitive with everything out there that I’m familiar with. I preferred it to the Benz Lukaschek PP-1, and even to the BAT VK-P5, which now retails at $3k. It’s that good.
A peek under the AE’s hood revealed a tidy PCB layout with short signal paths, one of the designer’s stated objectives. I noted a pretty impressive bank of electrolytic caps for power filtering, given the space available. All the regulation is done in-house: the wall-wart is just a voltage transformer. One very nice touch: the DIP switches aren’t just for resistance loading. Through using a combination of switches, well explained in the owners’ booklet, three levels of gain are available for MC cartridges, and MM capacitance is also adjustable. My testing was with two MC’s – the Denon DL103, and Charisma Audio’s Reference One.
Music? Joy. Everything, and I mean everything that I threw at the AE sounded excellent. It seems redundant to include a list of discs, because I played a lot of music through this puppy. I will say this though. If you have a chance to audition the P0.2, bring some recordings that paint a good orchestral soundstage. Be it something recent from the Tacet catalog, or a classic RCA or Decca from the golden age, just be prepared to blow your mind.
Quibbles? Really, just one. Location of the grounding post is very close to the input jacks…too close. Here’s a tip – terminate your ground wire with a banana plug…it’ll plug straight in. Otherwise – just connect the ground wire first, and then the signal cables. If you do it the opposite way, you may end up (like me) trying to “finesse” the ground wire and ending up with a loose grounding post, and a trip to the tool box to open the unit up for the required re-tighten. Not a big deal, really. The input and output jacks themselves (pairs) are spaced very closely – use of “sensible” interconnects is indicated. Makes sense to me, anyway: in phono we’re dealing with tiny voltages. You don’t want 10awg cables in fat jackets carrying the audio signal. There is actually room for fattie cables, but the connectors you use should be svelte, and lightweight units. Heavy ass RCA plugs will jack this preamp up off the shelf, and won’t mate well. Think about it.
What really staggers me is how amazingly well this preamp performs with just a cheap wall-wart transformer. I did, once or twice, wonder, what if I powered this thing with a better transformer (there is a PS upgrade for the P0.2, which Bernard Li informs me is available at $1075)? What about a pair of 12V SLA batteries?? I had great results with big batteries when I used Hagerman’s Bugle phono, a number of years ago. So I couldn’t help but wonder. But the number of minutes I really spent wondering about these things could be counted on one hand. In the end, the great thing about a great piece of gear is that you don’t find yourself obsessing about “what if” scenarios and “upgrade strategies”. Instead, you sit back and smile. And enjoy your music – and discover more great music.
In the end, the Audio Exklusiv P0.2 surprised me. Alternating between my trusty MP and the fabulous all-tube NVO SPA One SE, I was not expecting a little black solid-state box to slide up the middle and steal a piece of my heart. This unit did just that, and made me smile many, many times over. It conveyed the life and emotion of my music. If I had to summarize my thoughts on the P0.2 into one line, I think I’d say that it performs like a tube preamp – a really good tube preamp – yet at the same time, it exhibits all of the traits that make solid-state phono preamps desireable. Most highly recommended.
Audio Exklusiv P0.2 Phono Preamplifier, $1325 CDN (MSRP)
Source: Charisma Audio