AVM’s Versatile Ovation PH 8.3 Says “Have it Your Way”
it gets a standing O here.
AVM’s Ovation PH 8.3 vacuum tube-based phono preamplifier is among the most versatile, useful, and well-conceived phono preamps I’ve yet encountered. How’s that for an opening paragraph?
As with all models in the Ovation 8 series, the PH 8.3’s output stage uses a matched pair of AVM’s 803T tube, which is a 12AX7, modified per AVM’s specifications, that helps produce, according to the company, “an unmistakably charming tube sound”. BTW "AVM" stands for Audio Video Manufaktur.
The D.C. coupled circuit (which means it doesn’t use “easy fix” sound-degrading coupling capacitors) features five separate power supplies, with equalization passively applied and claimed accuracy better than ± 0.1dB. Resistors are matched to 0.1% accuracy, with film caps matched to 0.5% accuracy.
AVM offers a trio of consumer-installable preamplifier modules one of each of which comes installed in three of the four chassis slots. For your $13,995 you get single-ended RCA and XLR balanced MC modules and a single-ended MM module.
If you have a Rotation series AVM turntable like the R 2.3 I reviewed at my previous endeavor, the PH 8.3 has a fully independent, built-in highly filtered power supply that improves upon the one that comes standard with the turntables.
So, there’s that, but the versatility and useability extend far beyond. You can control everything using the remote control or do it via the well laid-out front panel, which is a bit more of a chore because neither the buttons nor their functions are illuminated. Rather, they are machined into the front panel below the corresponding button and under some lighting circumstances, may be difficult to read.
Here's what you can do from either the front panel or via the remote, with each series of settings for each module stored in memory:
Switch between mono and stereo
Invert absolute polarity
Choose between RIAA, Teldec, NARTB, EMI, Columbia and Decca equalization curves
Select MC RCA/MC XLR sensitivity 55/100/170/315/550µV (seen on the screen in dB gain as 0dB/+5dB/+10dB/+15dB/+20dB)
Select MC impedance: 1kOhms/500/100/50/30 ohms
Select MM capacitance (mislabeled “impedance” in the manual): 50pF/100/150/200/300/400pF
Select 30Hz@12dB/octave subsonic filter
mute/ output and power on-off
In other words, the remote gives you complete armchair control (though it doesn’t control your armchair).
In addition, the 8.3 features a “personal setup” mode in which you can adjust screen brightness, de-select the “auto-standby” default mode that puts the unit into standby if no signal is detected after twenty minutes (but why would you want to do that?), and you can rename the inputs using a total of eight upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters.
When you turn the unit on it does a self-diagnostic test that among other things senses how many slots are in use, so you don’t have to browse past the empty ones. Adding and removing modules is relatively easy and can be done by you at home.
The rear panel offers both single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs, a global “on-off” switch, a USB port for possible firmware updates, supply socket for AVM turntables, an input for an external infrared sensor (should the unit be placed out of the remote’s reach) and a phase indicator light that if lit tells you your mains is out of phase. I’m not sure what you can do to reverse it if you find the LED on.
Set-Up and Use
No point describing it because it’s so easy and straightforward thanks also to a well-written and thorough instruction manual. One more point: the unit comes packed in a nice and secure flight case.
Well, there is one more thing: if you don’t have a two arm or two turntable setup, or you’re not contemplating one, I’m not sure if it makes sense to buy a four bay phono preamp that comes with three filled. Of course that’s your choice.
“Unmistakably Charming Tube Sound”?
I’d take this a step further and write that the sound of this phono preamp is charming and sophisticated but you could mistake it for a charming solid state design because unlike many all-tube designs the hybrid AVM PH 8.3 doesn’t scream “tube signature”. It’s more like a background whisper—and I don’t mean to suggest it’s a noisy background. The solid state gain stage is very quiet. I haven't the means to measure its frequency response but observationally I'd say it's flat or close to it, on both bottom and top and in between as well. It sounds that way.
I just mean it has the ease and flow of better tube designs in the mids and highs, combined with a solid bottom end. As solid as the best all solid state designs? No. But unless all you listen to is the hardest rock you’ll find it’s all there. Even if all you do listen to is electric bass, this phono pre could work well for you. And what it gives you from there up is mighty fine listening.
Its bottom end attack is clean and tight with just a touch of forgiveness that prevents overdamped, mechanical overtones. Extension is down almost all the way, even on organ records, where the low pedal notes grip and help pressurize the room.
Among the records I used to test that, was this multi-LP French Erato box set (Erato ED0 250/252), which is a superbly recorded production that gives you the enormous cathedral space of the the St. Christophe Cathedral in the city of Belfort and a solid rendering of the organ, which was built around 1750, modified in the early 1800s, and then underwent a major one mid-century. A storm in 1966 did major damage that was repaired with a total reconstruction. The organ recorded here has 52 stops spread over four keyboards and pedals. It produces an enormous sound that the PH 8.3 does a spectacular job of reproducing both in terms of three dimensional space and instrumental focus within it.
The stage was deep and wide with the instrument appearing, sometimes menacingly so, between the speakers as a large, brooding entity. Instrumental attack was clean and precise without excessive edge and sustain was generous and "juicy" followed by realistic, lengthy decay.
The backstory is interesting too: the organist, Marie-Claire Alain is the younger sister of the composer Jehan Alain, who was killed in battle at age thirty nine in 1940.
Especially impressive was how well the PH 8.3 delivered everthing—low bass notes and the sense of space— even at low SPLs. But raise the volume( and the hair at the back of your neck if you have any) and the presentation becomes epic and flowing with churning transportive energy. When the organ gets going, the sound should be bright and present without edge or hardness while maintaining transparency. The PH 8.3 did a great job conveying all of this as well as fading into blackness following lengthy decay. The sense of being in and surrounded within by the cathedral was palpable.
For Black Friday last fall Craft released a limited edition mono version of Gil Evans' Gil Evans & Ten (Prestige CR00674), which was originally available only in mono though it was recorded in stereo as well. Analogue Productions released it in stereo but using the mono artwork, which was all that was available. Pretty shocking forgetting to flip the mono switch and hearing it in really great stereo!
However, the mono version makes a good case for mono. Evan's piano, full bodied, tactile and rich occupies a big chunk of sonic real estate between the speakers with Steve Lacy's juicy soprano sax directly behind and in the same space as Jimmy Cleveland's juicy trombone. The recording's dynamics give the PH 8.3 a change to show off its macro and microdynamic prowess. When Paul Chambers does his arco bass thing on the opening tune followed by muted trumpet. The PH 8.3's kiss of midband richness (not a sloppy wet kiss, but a clean but pleasantly damp one) works wonders here. Kevin Gray cut from tape using a stereo cutter head and you won't care less.
The record that really confirmed the quality and craft that went into this design is the Don Cherry Art Deco record recently covered here. Well, the original A&M not the recent reissue.
As I wrote, it's an early digital recording direct to 2 tracks. Rudy knew his microphones and yes, the original pressing has a "new sound" of digital, but that sound in retrospect is quite enticing and this phono preamp delivered it with super-clean cymbal transients and with plenty of convincing "chime". Not at all "crisp" or harsh, nor annoyingly softened. Just right. Bass was also impressively delivered, dynamically and with clean, transients—neither over damped nor soggy, which you sometimes get with toobs—but more often with all-tube designs not hybrids like this.
I ran the Supatrac Blackbird with Lyra KLEOS SL installed using a balanced DIN to XLR cable and the SAT CF1-09 with Lyra Atlas Lambda single-ended and both set-ups delivered great performance (Supatrac review coming up). I also used the MM input with two transformers under review, the TONA 120/40 and one of three Erhard Audio Premium Lundahl set-ups intended for the Atlas (these are single-ended so I couldn't use with the Blackbird/XLR. Explaining how these interface with cartridges requires a lot of math, and being mathlexic I'm still working on it but having the PH 8.3 here to use with the transformers was extremely useful.
This preamp well-served every musical genre and yes, it delivered " an unmistakably charming tube sound" without ever sounding soft, cloying, or imaging-bulbous, or really, without ever making their presence obvious, which I really appreciated. I didn't do any "tube rolling" because I feel the job is to review a product as delivered but were I buying this, I'd surely try some Bugle Boys and a pair of costly military grade U.K. N.O.S. Mullards I bought last year. That combo might lift this from really impressive to staggeringly good—or maybe not! You never can tell when you second guess a truly competent design like this one.
AVM's Udo Besser brought to AVM in 2010 when he took control of the Black Forest located company, fifteen years of experience with Burmester plus an electrical engineering degree and of course a lifelong love of music. All of that is obvious in the Ovation PH 8.3. I can't measure the performance, I can only judge by listening but if you do some internet searches you will find measurements of various AVM products that confirm what I heard.
If you have but a single arm set-up and are not interested in adding more arms or more turntables, the PH 8.3 may be more phono preamp than you need and you might be better off putting all of your phono preamp eggs into a single MM/MC unit. But, if you have more, or plan on more, the AVM Ovation PH 8.3 should definitely be on your "to listen to" list. It combines solid engineering, ergonomic excellence and convenience and sonics that kept me happy for months listening to every musical genre imaginable.
– Tube phono preamplifier with up to 4 inputs (as optional plug-in modules)
– Available plug-in modules: MC XLR (balanced), MC RCA, MM RCA
– All settings can be remote controlled (gain, equalization curve, phase, load etc.)
– Five separate power supplies: Main power supplies for + & – voltages (separated), power supply for processor unit, power supply with high voltage generation for tube stage, high-performance power supply for use with turntables of the AVM ROTATION series
– Fully DC-coupled (depending on selected settings)
– Analogue and purely passive equalisation of incoming phono signals
– Extensive menu functions (adjustable input sensitivity, peak power, etc.)
– Stand-by consumption <0.5W
– Mains phase display (LED off = mains phase OK)
– Large, blue illuminated graphic display
– Housing variants: Aluminium silver or black, chrome front optional
– Packaging: Sturdy AVM OVATION Flight Case
Output impedance: RCA 50 ohms, XLR 100 ohms
Max output voltage RCA 7 V, XLR 14 V
(for some reason the company does not provide the full list of measurements normally expected in the manual regarding distortion, S/N etc. I've seen lab results published in some magazines that are outstanding but it's not possible to publish them here. Given the results I find it curious that AVM isn't more forthcoming in its manual or online).
Aluminium Silver, Aluminium Black, CELLINI Chrome
355 x 430 x 130 mm (L x W x H)
1 x Line/Fix Out XLR, 1 x Line/Fix Out RCA