Erlangen-based Clearaudio, active since 1978, is continuously expanding its product range. It ranges from high-quality all-in-one turntables to the ultimate high-end turntable and includes accessories such as tonearms, styli, record cleaners and much more. One of the latest developments is the Balance Reference Phono preamplifier, which we’ll be giving a closer look here and now …
The new one Clearaudio Balance Reference Phono bridges a gap. It is positioned between Balance V2 and the top-of-the-range Absolute Phono. One of the things that distinguishes it from the latter is that it allows for two different pickups to be connected in parallel. The combination of a separate amplifier and power supply is packaged in compact aluminum cuboids, which incorporate horizontal grooves and rounded vertical edges to give them a flattering appearance.
On the back of the power supply unit are the mains socket plus power switch and the D-Sub connector to the amplifier unit. Both are so close to each other that one should refrain from using power cords with too large plugs. Furthermore, the power switch is difficult to reach when the cables are plugged in. With some delicate finger exercises, I managed to install my AudioQuest NRG-3 (with still somewhat civilized plug dimensions).
Three blue LEDs on the front indicate operational readiness or standby mode. Since the Reference Phono has two parallel amplification circuits, its back panel is naturally densely populated. A wide range of connection options are on offer, which leave nothing to be desired. Each of the two phono stages offers a balanced and unbalanced input as well as a ground terminal. Outputs to the amplifier are equally provided via both XLR and RCA jack.
The underside of the enclosure is even more exciting. Here you can find the switch banks for independent adjustment of both inputs. Push buttons select the input (balanced / unbalanced) and the pickup type – MM or MC. For MM operation the DIP switches for setting the capacitance are activated, for MC operation the setting of the load resistor. Since the resistors are connected in parallel, intermediate values can be determined with the following formula:
However, this is not explained in detail in the operating instructions. A table with the switch settings for deviating load resistors would be helpful.
The gain is +46 decibels for the MM setting, +66 decibels for MC, in my opinion these are practical values (except for pickups with output voltages < 0.2 millivolts).
Further switches can be used to change from stereo to mono operation and to activate a subsonic filter. This remained in operation during the entire test phase; watching woofers wobble out of control triggers an uncomfortable feeling in me. I couldn’t determine any sound deficits due to the subsonic filter in my setup.
The front of the Clearaudio Balance Reference Phono is visually tidy. Dominantly in the center sits the ring-shaped volume or gain control, which is responsible for both the headphone volume and the control of the outputs. In its center is a button that can be used to activate the mute and, with a longer press, the standby function. A ring of LEDs shows the current control state. The inputs A and B are switched on or off via likewise illuminated buttons, which are located on the top right and left of the front panel. The 6.3 millimeter headphone jacks are located below each of them. The output stage is automatically muted during headphone operation. Four aluminum feet attached to the bottom corners of the housings with concealed, elastic plastic discs ensure a vibration-free stand for both devices.
The essential functions can also be controlled with the remote control included in the scope of delivery. This is adapted to the design of the phono stage and is also made of high-quality aluminum. That pleases me particularly, since I have a phobia of the usual plastic pieces.
My experience with Clearaudio products is limited to various cartridges that have stuck in my mind for their dynamic and detailed reproduction. That these characteristics are also extremely present with the Balance Reference Phono was already apparent during the play-in phase.
I had three cartridges at my disposal as playing partners, which differ both technically and in price and in my opinion are among the best in their class. The candidates were the Excalibur Platinum, the Ortofon Windfeld Ti and the Clearaudio Concerto V2, which falls somewhere between the two. The latter was sent to me by sales manager Niels Hoelscher as a suitable companion from the upper echelons of the extensive range of cartridges.
The different configuration of the pickups was quickly done thanks to the clearly arranged switches on the bottom of the case. Only the positioning of the power supply required some care, as it apparently did not like the proximity to my power amplifier (it was a pre-production model). I connected the tonearm cable to the unbalanced inputs, and on the output side I connected the playback chain (which was balanced throughout) using XLR connectors. Just to have tried it out, I used the unbalanced outputs, but this resulted in a minimal narrowing of the sonic panorama. The differing sound signatures of the pickups were cleanly passed through by the Balance Reference Phono. The Ortofon Windfeld Ti showed its natural characteristic rich in finesse over the Clearaudio phono stage, but fell short of its full potential (probably due to the low output voltage). The Excalibur pleased with its crisp, rhythmic pace, but did not make full use of the phono stages capabilities. The Concerto V2 turned out – no surprise – to be a discerning playing partner and remained under the tonearm during the following test phase.
Out of a nostalgic feeling I reach for the 1975 disc Siren by Roxy Music. In the intro of “Love Is A Drug” Bryan Ferry gets into his luxury car. The sound of the footsteps clearly indicates brand new custom oxford shoes with hard leather soles (so much for picking out details). The stoically pressing bass line, drums and saxophone interjections with Andrew Mackay’s signature nasal sound make the track pick up speed. When Ferry’s voice, always infused with a bit of heartbreak, finally gets the song rolling, I realize that the Phono-Pre is capable of effortlessly melding two characteristics that are not easily reconciled. Tonality and spatial presentation are rendered with aplomb, without slowing down the musical flow that is flung into the listening room with power and juice. An average quality recording, this disc reveals audiophile qualities with the Balance Reference Phono without losing its rocking drive. Astounding!
Time to switch genres to discover more qualities. Among others, it is now the turn of a recording of Mozart’s Kleine Nachtmusik (Berlin Philharmonic under Ferenc Fricsay). Lively, fresh and with sensational depth, the illusion of the concert hall comes to live in my living room. Contributing to this are, among other things, the dynamics reproduced in fine gradations and the clear, natural sound. The strings sound soft and gentle at one moment, taut and stringent, almost rough at another, while the double basses lend a contoured, powerful foundation to it all. And this on a Deutsche Grammophon disc I purchased over 40 years ago, recorded in 1961!
In short, the reproduction quality of the Clearaudio Balance Reference Phono is outstanding, especially in terms of spatial imaging and presentation of the extreme ends of the frequency band. The workmanship is above reproach. Nevertheless, the question of the not inconsiderable sales price arises. However, taking into account the comprehensive feature set (two independent phono stages, a high-quality headphone amplifier, as well as the volume control, which allows for the direct connection of a power amplifier or active speakers) puts the price into perspective.