Review: PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier

The PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier more than lives up to what I have come to expect from a PS Audio phono stage. At every audio show, the PS Audio room is always a can’t miss and requires more than one visit. Above is a picture of their room at AXPONA 2019. Remember when we used to go to audio shows?

I first became acquainted with PS Audio in the late 70s when I became a PS Audio dealer. I came on board just when the PS Audio IV Preamplifier was being released. We sold a lot of these. Virtually every unit we sold went out the door with the optional larger outboard power supply.

The power supply was a very noticeable upgrade and, at the time, it was quite revolutionary. This was my first exposure to the impact a power supply has on the performance of an audio component.  That experience has remained with me throughout my audio career.

We remained PS Audio dealers through the mid-80s and enjoyed success with their products and our interaction with the company. PS Audio’s owner, Paul McGowan, was steadfastly committed to putting the customer first.  Back in the 70s and 80s, PS Audio this was sometimes to the determent of their cash-strapped young company. Paul is to be commended for this continued commitment. Today they are one of the most respected names in the industry. Just last month, Jack reviewed their PS Audio Windom DAC.

PS Audio Phono Stages

Over the years, I have been exposed to various PS Audio phono stages, and some are better than others. With my renewed focus on vinyl, I decided to contact PS Audio and request a sample of their latest effort. They sent me the PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier. This is engineer Darren Myer’s $2,499.00 effort to make one of the best phono stages at its price point and beyond.

Darren made an informative video describing his efforts to build a phono stage that he was happy with. He started by building a circuit that, on paper and in theory, should have sounded great. In real world listening tests, it ended up falling short of his desired result. He scrapped that circuit and started building a circuit “by ear”. This was one of the things that piqued my interest in this product.  You can check out the video here.

Stellar Phono Preamplifier Design

Here’s Darren’s quote from the product manual. It gives you techies a window into his thinking and describes the circuit he settled on:

“It is inconvenient, yet utterly enthralling, to realize that measurements don’t always correlate with what we hear. This realization is what’s been fueling my design career; it’s so exciting and invigorating to know there are mysteries to be solved.

Some of the most commonly used circuit typologies suffer from what I call overexposed sound—the edge transients lead with far too much high-frequency energy and the overall tonality has a grey sheen that washes out the tonal contrast. Many have claimed that this is what happens when a circuit is transparent and has low distortion. I beg to differ.

 The Stellar Phono is a fully discrete phono preamp that utilizes proprietary circuits that don’t rely on high amounts of global feedback to lower complex distortion or increase bandwidth. On the contrary, they were designed to be innately transparent and present the music with a correct display of tonal balance.

The circuitry is DC coupled from the input to output and doesn’t contain any complementary circuits. The signal path is relatively short and utilizes MOSFET and JFET semiconductors biased in pure Class A.

After hundreds of hours of listening with many different cartridges and systems, I ended up with a phono preamp that always presents the music in the correct light. It gets out of the way of the music and lets you focus on really what matters – our connection with the music and most importantly the opportunity to share those moments with the people in our lives.”

Darren is committed to being open-minded. I seem to gravitate to designers and engineers who rely on their ears and not test instruments to determine their product’s success.

Stellar Phono Preamplifier – The Basics

PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamp in black
Stellar Phono Preamplifier front panel in black (click to enlarge)

The Stellar Phono Preamplifier (SPP) uses the same size casework as the other Stellar series components. The full-width chassis is available in black or silver, and it weighs in at a solid 22 lbs.

However, unlike the alloy casing of the other Stellar components, the SPP uses a steel chassis. I suspect this is an effort to provide superior shielding to the circuitry.

Owner’s Manual

PS Audio gets compliments from me for the attention given to the Stellar Phono Preamplifier’s owner’s manual. It is well laid out and very informative with technical details and suggestions for getting the best performance out of the unit.

The graphics are very helpful as is the troubleshooting section (as we will see). Kudos for the efforts put into this manual. It should be a template for other manufacturers who pay much less attention to this area.

Stellar Phono Preamplifier – Front Panel

PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamp in silver
Stellar Phono Preamplifier front panel in silver (click to enlarge)

The front panel of the Stellar Phono Preamplifier is very clean. Other than the blue illuminated PS Audio Logo power/standby/mute switch on the left side, there are no physical controls. You can press the logo switch once quickly to put the unit into standby mode. If you hold it down for more than 3 seconds you activate or deactivate the mute function. I liked the ability to mute the sound directly from the front panel. Occasionally I forget to hit Mute on the remote when I get up to change an album or track.

LED indicators on the right side of the front panel display settings for Input, Gain, Loading, and the Mute mode.  

Stellar Phono Preamplifier – Rear Panel Display

PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier Rear Panel in black
Stellar Phono Preamplifier rear panel in black (click to enlarge)

Connections on the rear panel of the Stellar Phono Preamp include an MC input and an MM input along with balanced and unbalanced outputs and 12-volt trigger connections. There is also a rear panel main power switch.

One unusual feature is a pair of variable controls to adjust the custom loading value anywhere between 1 and 1,000 ohms for an MC cartridge. This is a great feature to have, but like my Parasound JC3+ that also has rear panel variable load adjustment capability, it is quite hard to get accurate or matched adjustments once you have installed the unit in your system. Obviously if these controls were on the front panel, it would be a LOT easier. However, in both cases, I feel certain the location of the control was dictated by the circuit board layout both physically and sonically. In any case, I would certainly rather have the variable loading ability than not have it. Finally, all of the connectors are of excellent quality and are adequately spaced for some of the oversized cables that exist.

One feature absent from the SPP is a Mono switch, which is useful to reduce noise when you play a mono album with a mono cartridge. In talking with Darren about why it was excluded, he felt the audience for this switch is small compared to the overall added complexity/cost to the interface and circuit. The unit worked wonderfully with my Hana mono cartridge. Even so, perhaps this feature will be added on a future PS Audio “no-holds-barred” effort.

Remotely Speaking

PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamp remote control

Yes, the remote that is included with the Stellar Phono Preamp can be used to turn the unit on or off. It also has an excellent package of features that make it a pleasure to use. You can switch between MM and MC input and adjust the MM gain (44, 50, or 56db) or the MC gain (60, 66, or 72db). You can also change the MC loading between 60, 100, 200, and 47K. As I mentioned earlier, you can also vary the “custom” setting (1-1000 ohms). 

I really liked the ability to move directly from one load setting to another without having to cycle through all of the settings. The largest button on the remote is the mute button.

It is in the center and easy to locate when it is needed. I used this mostly for cueing tracks as I auditioned albums.

I will point out that the remote control did not misbehave during my evaluation. There were no pops, thumps, or strange noises when switching. Bravo!

Making Connections

Connection and cable hookups for the Stellar Phono Preamp were straightforward. For the majority of my evaluation, I used my Micro Benz LP-S MR cartridge. I also used to lesser degrees my Denon 103, Hana Mono, and Soundsmith Paua cartridges.  I attached my phono cable to the MC input and a pair of balanced cables went from the balanced output of the SPP to my Vinnie Rossi L2 SE-i. Once I had everything powered up, I had a high-pitched noise coming out of my speakers. It was not the typical phono hum you hear from a ground issue. This was more of a low level, high pitched whine.

I picked up the owner’s manual and lo and behold I found this enlightening paragraph in the excellent troubleshooting section:

“If a whining, whistling, beeping, or other noise is coming from the Stellar Phono Preamplifier, it is likely due to RF interference from another component. Components such as computers and servers should be located as far away from the phonostage as possible. We recommend using high-quality, shielded interconnect cables between the turntable and phonostage.”

I would add that your power cord choice and orientation is as important as signal level cables. I remedied my particular noise issue by rerouting the power cord to the SPP. With the noise issue resolved, I was ready to spin some vinyl.

Stellar Phono Preamplifier – The Sound

I have decided to forego the regular format of describing the sound I experienced with examples of particular songs and comments about how these songs sounded with the component in question inserted in the system. I find that once I have listened to a variety of music, the overall characteristic (or lack thereof) sound of the component I am auditioning begins to present itself.

Instead, I would like to try something a bit different, and you can let me know whether or not you like it. I will present my observations as if you walked up to me and asked the question, “What do you think about the PS Audio Stellar Phono Stage?”

Its tonal balance is exceptionally neutral

 One of the characteristics I came to love about the Stellar Phono Preamp was that it does not draw attention to itself. You install it in your system, and it seems to disappear. It has no particular “house sound” and presents the music with exceptional neutrally. The low noise floor and neutral tonal balance allow it to do its job but don’t make you aware of their presence. I love components that “get out of the way” of the music and this is one of them. None I have heard do it better in the midrange than this unit.

It has a wide-open midrange

The midrange on the Stellar Phono Preamp is without a doubt, one of the best I have experienced in my system. This was the first note I wrote down as I started listening for my evaluation. It is apparent from the moment you lower the cartridge onto the album. It is as if you have thrown open a window to the performance. Yes. I know this is a somewhat cliché statement but trust me, it is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear it. It is simply an unfettered, wide-open feel to the midrange. VERY NICE!

It is very quiet and dynamically expressive

The microdynamics of the Stellar Phono Preamp are excellent. When they are right, it is easy to become involved in the music. It is what makes the “art” of music interesting to me, and it is one of the factors that separates a good artist from great ones.  That is what I want to be able to hear from my stereo system. The SPP’s bottom end has very good focus, extension, and drive. While it is not the last word in bottom-end authority, the SPP gives up just a hair of “weight” to the very best that I have heard, and that cost 10 to 20 times more.

It has exceptional resolution

It is very transparent and reveals every detail your cartridge can dredge up from those vinyl grooves. The upper frequencies are nicely rendered with the appropriate density and speed. It conveys cymbals with a wonderful texture. There is a sense of flexing and change in tone as the drummer moves in and out on them. There was never a “bite” to the upper frequencies yet they were always open. There’s no “thinness” to be found here.

It has an exceptionally low noise floor

Micro details are presented in a way that creates a wonderful soundstage and sense of the recording venue. This very low noise floor also contributes to the dynamic expression of the sound. Leading-edge dynamics jump out of the dead quiet background and grab your attention. I promise you it will get your foot to tapping.

Stellar Phono Preamplifier – Conclusion

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, Darren’s goal was to make a phonostage that would be one of the best at its price point and higher. Has he succeeded?  The answer is an unqualified YES. It is easily a competitor for “Best in Class” and quite a bit beyond.

This is a complete package both in terms of its sonic achievements and in the flexibility and user experience which extends all the way down to the packaging and manual. Its array of adjustment capabilities will ensure that it is a unit you can be comfortable in investing in for the long term. If you change cartridges it will be there to extract the best performance your new cartridge can offer and not hold it back.

So how would I answer if someone asked me, “What do I think about the PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier?” The answer becomes very simple. If you are considering a phonostage anywhere near this price point (or even quite a bit more expensive), you simply MUST audition this phono preamplifier. I suspect that once it is in your system, your cartridge will have never sounded better. I recommend it very highly.

By the way, don’t forget to investigate PS Audio’s very generous trade-in program. In the case of the Stellar Phono, you can get up to a $750.00 reduction in the $2,499.00 price with an applicable trade-in. That brings the price of this outstanding preamp down to $1,749.00! There is not an easier trade-in program in the industry. You have nothing to lose with PS Audio’s 30 day Risk Free Home Trial policy.

 Additional information is available at www.psaudio.com

Price: $2,499

3 thoughts on “Review: PS Audio Stellar Phono Preamplifier”

  1. Ken, listing the system used to evaluate the PSA Stellar Phono preamp would be beneficial, especially the phono cartridges used to evaluate its performance. Were both Moving magnet and low output moving coil phono cartridges utilized for the evaluation?

  2. Ken,
    My apologies as I see the information I seek is provided under the heading Making Connections. I am accustomed to seeing it listed as Jack typically does. Thus I skipped it as I thought it was likely limited to interconnects and power cords used. My bad. I have considered this pre-amp but have been somewhat concerned regarding its susceptibility to RFI noise and power cord selection. Probably best to take up PS Audio on their 30 day trial offer and find out for myself.

    1. Thanks for the inquiry and I am glad you found the info you needed in the review.
      In the case of the PS Audio Stellar Phono, the investment of your time to see if it will work in your environment would be worthwhile.
      I suspect it will work fine. It is a very good phono stage in an absolute sense… and when you factor in the price it is a steal.

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