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Price: 3500 GBP

Polish distribution: Pełne Brzmienie

Piotr Bednarski
tel.: 695 503 227


WWW: Art Audio

Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Translation: Krzysztof Kalinkowski

I had the opportunity to talk to Tom Willis, the owner and constructor from the British Art Audio during the Audio Show 2008, when he came to Warsaw to present his gear. I remember well his quiet voice, when he explained why tubes are the best thing, that can happen to an audiophile. The harmonic coherence of the tubes, their natural timbres and resistance to clipping are for him the key to success. So it should not be a surprise, that all his products are equipped with vacuum tubes. The Vinyl One Reference is not different. Its looks are characteristic for this manufacturer – the fascia is made from polished stainless steel, and large writing is engraved on it. Inside – all tubes: in the amplification stage the 12AX7LPS Sovtek and the 6FQ7 in the rectification stage. At least it looks that way, I am not sure about that. Also important is the fact, that I could receive something else. Art Audio is a small company offering their devices in many different finishing versions, with different equipment elements and different tubes. This is probably the way to success for many “specialist” companies – something, that my friend calls “audio custom”, and what means “tailoring” a device to the customers’ needs. Why? Because only in that way you can create a synergic, coherent system. This is the reason, that the version I received for testing is only one from the many available options. Instead of a silver front panel we can have a black one, instead of a silver volume knob – a golden one. Or there can be a version without volume control, with fixed output. The tested version was the model Reference, with improved power supply and amplification circuits, but for 2600GBP you can have the basic version. And you can have different tubes. And you can order a MM version, using an external step-up transformer.

To date we tested:

  • Integrated amplifier Jota Sentry – test HERE
  • Line preamplifier + power amplifier Conductor + Diavolo – test HERE
  • Integrated amplifier Quintet MkII – test HERE


Discs used for testing:

  • Musik wie von einem anderen Stern, Manger Products, MANG-2010, 2 x 180 g LP.
  • Billie Holliday, Songs For Distingue Lovers, Verve/Classic Records, One-sided, 2 x 180 g, 45 rpm LP.
  • Depeche Mode, Fragile Tension/Hole to Feed, Mute Records, 12BONG42, 2 x 180 g, maxi-SP LP.
  • Frank Sinatra, Sinatra&Strings, Warner Music/Mobile Fidelity, MFSL 1-313, No. 199, 180 g LP; review HERE.
  • John Coltrane, Giant Steps, Atlantic/Rhino, R1 512581, 2 x 45 rpm LP.
  • Julie London, Julie is her name. Vol.1, Liberty, LRP 3006, LP.
  • Kraftwerk, Tour The France Soundtracks, EMI Records, 591 708 1, 2 x 180 g, LP; review HERE.
  • Mel Tormé, Mel Tormé Sings Shubert Alley, Verve/Polydor K.K. Japan, KI 8212, LP.
  • Mel Tormé, Mel Tormé at the Red Hill , Atlantic/London Records, HA-K 8021, LP.
  • The Cult, Electric, Beggars Banquet/Sire, W1-25555, LP.
  • Yamamoto, Tsuyoshi Trio, Midnight Sugar, Three Blind Mice/Cisco Music, TBM-23-45, 0080/1000, 45 rpm, 2 x 180 g LP; review HERE.

Japanese editions of the CDs are available on CD Japan.

Art Audio is a tube preamplifier, and although some things remain the same when talking about vacuum and electrons flying through it, others can be modified. I am talking about the so called “tube sound”. The tested preamplifier has such ancestry, no doubt about it, but this is not imposed on the listeners, pressed through the keyhole, so that everybody understands, that “you are dealing with tubes, for god’s sake!”. Tom Willis sees it differently. Although he claims – as I told before – that the tubes are the best thing, that could happen to mechanically reproduced music (please look at the mini-interview before the test HERE), does not force anything, rather suggest things, than imposes them. This results in a sound not being “warmed” in the sense we usually think about that, when talking about tubes. The upper treble is slightly softened and more delicate, than that what is around it, but about that in a moment. This is not the reason to treat this sound like I told before. Going around and around – I finally reached what I wanted to say – the treble is not rounded or withdrawn. Those are the two elements, that are usually associated with tube sound. And in my opinion this is an error, admissible only when we are trying to achieve this on purpose, knowingly, and when we consciously accept this departure from neutrality, relying more on our preference and not “accurateness”. I could become convinced, that the treble is strong, clean, un-fogged, when listening to the new Depeche Mode single Fragile Tension/Hole To Feed, pressed with 33.3 rpm on 12” vinyl. Those are remixes of the title tracks destined for dance clubs, not fearing “shrieking” treble and a massive beat, slightly “technicized”. Although the last Depeche Mode album is very well recorded, what can be heard best with the vinyl version, yet such remixes always sound more distinct than the originals. Art showed it nicely, trying to extract the artist, the intention, the ideas. But it did not happen at the expense of the “technique”. Like I say, those are dance, club versions, and it is necessary to keep this aspect of them. The British preamplifier behaved like a gentleman, slightly underlining the “human” side of the event, without excessive courtesy. So I had a quick pulse, splendidly kept, but also fantastically shown voice games, projected before this rhythmical machine below it.

During the whole listening session, this orientation towards the performer was visible. I mentioned the withdrawal of the upper midrange. This was audible as the lack of sharpening and clicks. This was the first thing. And the second one was the favoring of the vocals. This is not “boosting” them, warming them, etc, but a straight consequence of vividness of the sound – when something is quieter, everything around it seems stronger. This is the case with the midrange. The vocal of Mela Tormé from Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley was strong, powerful and – yes, actually slightly warm. But it is so, that the sound on this disc is just like that – the cymbals are slightly withdrawn, although very rich internally, not like paper, and the midrange plays the main part. Art Audio just pushed this range a little. Nothing tumbled, but the step forward was made. The things I am talking about are heard better on the disc Julie London Julie is Her Name. Vol. 1, where – different to the HQCD digital re-edition – the vocal is a little nasal and very deep. In this case the character of the preamplifier and the disc imposed on each other. But do not panic – nothing happened, just the voice was less bright than with my preamplifier. Frankly speaking it resembled much that, what I heard with the Avid Pulsare. It was exactly the same way of treating the midrange.

And the Art Audio differs with one detail, it has a better worked out, more precise treble. It was not heard so well with London, because it is such a warm disc, but with Tormé – it was heard better. And the difference was shown even better with the new re-edition of the disc Giant Steps John Coltrane (Atlantic 45 RPM Master Series). It is clear, that Tom Willis wanted to create a product, that would be tonally balanced, which would not fall into any category due to its shortcomings, but due to its assets.

Well – assets. I made a lot of the listening sessions using the cartridge Miyajima Laboratory Waza, which I liked very much. Its tonal balance is moved in the direction of the lower midrange, but the thing that enchanted me in it, was the total coherence, internal concordance of everything with everything. Waza does not bring the answer to every question, it is limited in a certain way, but the answers that are given, are absolutely sufficient, we could say, that they are exhaustive in most cases. Of course I exaggerate a little trying to show everything well, because the Air Tight PC-1 and Air Tight PC-1 Supreme do everything better, and they – especially the Supreme – seem to be the “ultimate answer”. But it is not about weighting everything with pharmaceutical precision. My opinion about the Art is based on a long listening session, without switching forth and back between the available preamplifiers. And each subrange of the sound spectrum was saturated, as usual for the tubes, but precise, without washing out the edges, without flattening out the perspective, without bringing it closer, or further away. If an instrument was registered close, if the microphone was placed directly in front of it, then it will be big, it will have the tendency to get in front of the loudspeakers. If it will be far away, then it will be smaller. And that – here I return to the Miyajima – despite the fact that this cartridge is going in the same direction. If warming, withdrawal, and softening would be written into the character of this preamplifier, then combining it with a cartridge having the same character, would only made it worse. Here it was different – those two combined supported their assets, while slightly covering their flaws. The voice of London did not became more nasal or Sinatra’s warmer.

According to Bible researchers, one of the basic assumptions for acknowledging its truthfulness is “internal non-contradiction” or “internal consistency” of each fragment of the Bible with another one. It is assumed, that each fragment, that cannot be “agreed” with another one, is treated as an apocrypha. Maybe this is a big caliper, but I wanted you to think about the Vinyl One Reference in that way – everything is coherent, consistent with itself, completes itself and works well together. I do not claim, that this is the ideal sound, or a canonical one. But it is coherent, and this really means much. There is no chaos in that sound, there is good dynamics and depth. The sound stage is quite deep and wide. It is organized rather around the individual events rather than “generated”. This is a really successful device, which happens to be a tube one.


The preamplifier Vinyl One is a device of standard size, resembling a medium sized integrated amplifier. Its fascia is made from a stainless steel, polished plate, which has engraved markings. Photographs on the company page shows, that different color versions are also available – for example a black-golden one. The volume knob can also be in different color. Mine was silver, but a golden version is also available. And this knob is important – it is connected to the Alps Blue Velvet potentiometer, mounted on the output of the preamplifier, allowing to hook the Vinyl One directly to a power amplifier. At least, when we do not have any other sound source. It was similar in the hi-end icon, the phonostage Manley Steelhead v2. But there we had an additional line input, which did not limit the system to turntable only. Anyway, the volume control in a phonostage suggests, that in such a system the analog will be the main sound source. The potentiometer is connected with two pairs of RCA socket, so we can opt for bi-amping. When the potentiometer is maxed out, we get a classic RIAA preamplifier, we can plug into a line preamplifier. It is a pity, that there is no separate, fixed output, which would simplify the system. But you can order a Vinyl One without a potentiometer. Except for the volume knob, on the front panel we have only a mechanical power switch and a blue LED indicating power is on. On the back, except for the mentioned output we have two pairs of inputs – one pair for MM (and MC HO cartridges) and one for the MC. We choose the active input with a small switch. There is also a ground connector, not gold plated.

The MC input is not so typical – those are the same RCA sockets as in the MM input, but not bolted to the chassis, but mounted directly on cylinders from mu-metal, covering the input transistors. The MC section of the Vinyl One is handled by step-up transformers. Tom writes, that the core consists from Nickel in 75%, and it has two balanced sections separated by four electrostatic shields. The mu-metal cups are extremely thick. The circuit inside is made on one, big PCB. The signal comes from the transformers to the first tube – this is a double triode 12AX7LPS from Sovtek, LP means large plate. Those are NOS tubes, not manufactured any longer. The MM input leads the signal directly to the first gain stage, then from there, via Wima capacitors we go to another two tubes, from the same type, one per channel. And that is it. On the output we have two, very large, and very nice looking capacitors Hovland Musicap. From there the signal the signal goes to the front panel, the potentiometer, and then back again to the outputs.

The power supply is very worked out. It is based on a medium sized toroidal transformer with two secondary windings. One is for heating, which is rectified and filtered in four capacitorsmade by the American Dubilier, 10000μF each. Next is another one, with splendid capacitors BHC and an integrated amplifier and a double triode 6FQ7 (non-octal 6SN7) from Edicron, working in the rectifying circuit. Next to it we see two very big capacitors from Mundorf – MtubeCap, connected in parallel with thick wires. The whole circuit looks very solid, interesting is the star topology grounding.

Technical data (according to manufacturer):

MM section
Gain: 50dB (47kΩ - other values upon request)
Distortion: <0.05%
Input impedance: 100Ω
Noise: -75dB
Frequency response: 20Hz-20kHz (±1dB)

MC section
Gain: additional 20dB (together 70dB; 1kΩ - other values are available upon request)
Frequency response: 10Hz-20kHz (±1dB)
Clipping: 75mV

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  • CD player: Ancient Audio Lektor Prime (tested HERE)
  • Phono preamp: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC (tested HERE)
  • Preamp: Leben RS-28CX (tested HERE; soon to be changed to Polaris II, tested HERE)
  • Power amp: Luxman M-800A (tested HERE)
  • Integrated amp: Leben CS300 (reviewed HERE)
  • Loudspeakers: Harpia Acoustics Dobermann (tested HERE)
  • headphones: AKG K701, Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, 600 Ω version (reviewed HERE, HERE, and HERE)
  • interconnects: CD-preamp: Wireworld Gold Eclipse 52 (tested HERE; soon to be changed to Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, article HERE), preamp-power amp: Velum NF-G SE (tested HERE)
  • speaker cable: Velum LS-G (tested HERE)
  • power cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9100 (CD; reviewed HERE) and 2 x Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC7100 (preamp, power amp (reviewed HERE)
  • power conditioning: Gigawatt PF-2 Filtering Power Strip (reviewed HERE)
  • audio stand Base
  • resonance control: Finite Elemente Ceraball under the CD (article HERE ) Turntables change continuously, as do cartridges. My dream setup: SME 30 with Series V tone-arm and Air Tight PC-1 cartridge (also in the PC-1 Mono version).