Of the many mysteries that puzzle me, a particularly unfathomable one is the ever-growing product category of the cheap, all-parts-included, turnkey (and turkey) record player partnered with an equally cheap built-in A/D converter. Yes, I get what it’s supposed to do. What I don’t understand is the point of the whole macabre creation. Is it really a step forward to make a lousy digital transcription of a perfectly good LP by chopping its signal to pieces with a down-market digitizing device? How many wrongs can be put together before the right appears?
I’m so troubled by this category of audio gimmickry that it wasn’t easy to get past a certain bias when I was asked to review the Parasound Zphono.USB ($349.99 USD). Being a standalone component, it at least takes this digitizing business to a more audiophile level. Then again, the idea of putting a potentially noisy digital device in the same box as a small-signal amplifier seems just plain wrong.
Which is probably where my biases would have remained had I not listened to the thing.
This member of Parasound’s Z line of compact, inexpensive components made me think back to what the manufacturer of a full-size phono preamplifier under review once said when asked about all the empty space surrounding the lonely little circuit board cowering in a corner of its big, empty steel box. If I recall correctly, he said that all that empty space was a good sign; it was the result of a painstaking process of removing everything that wasn’t necessary -- everything that added cost or got in the way of the sound. In other words, his design team had started with a big box full of useless stuff and had ended up with air, and his customers were glad to pay for that.
This manufacturer unwittingly proved once again that low-power, small-signal devices are best served up small, even if they’re marketed in a big box. Problems of heat buildup and dissipation are then minor. Picking up noise through unnecessarily long signal pathways is a no-no. Electrons are tiny. It’s OK for phono preamps to be small, even the expensive ones.
Tiny is what Parasound seems to have been doing very well in their microsize Z models, all of which are rack mountable, but are only half the normal component size. Rounding out the Z line are an amplifier, a preamp, a tuner, a CD player, a phono preamp, a speaker switch box, and a cooling fan (for the amplifier, I presume), and every one comes in a case 9.5”W x 2”H x 10”D. Judging from my review sample of the Zphono.USB, tiny though the Z models may be, tinny they are not. The Zphono.USB felt and performed as if it were very well put together.
It also made the most of its limited surface area, providing a generous number of user-adjustable controls and connectivity options. From left to right on the front panel are the Power switch, a mini jack for headphones (this output has a fixed level and is recommended for monitoring purposes), a Mono button (yes!), a display window indicating which input has been selected and a Clip indicator for the USB gain, a Rumble Filter, an Input selector, and a USB Gain knob.
From left to right on the rear panel are a ground screw, three single-ended inputs (two are at line level), a single pair of line outputs, a USB Type B output jack (a 2m-long USB cable is included), an AC Polarity Normal/Reverse switch (for eliminating hum in some setups), and an IEC socket for the included AC cord. Just below the ground screw are more useful items: a three-position switch for setting the Zphono.USB for moving-coil (100 ohms or 47k oms) or moving-magnet (47k ohms) cartridges, and one labeled “RIAA for USB On/Off,” to cancel the RIAA equalization at the digital output (more on this later).
Especially given the price, the Zphono.USB felt like good value even before I’d listened to it: The fit and finish were at a very high level. Perhaps the only clue that it’s a “budget” model was the indicator light for the Mono switch: For some reason, its glow ring didn’t completely surround the switch, as was no doubt intended; in a darkened room, it looked like a tiny crescent moon. Yes, I know, it’s churlish of me to point this out -- but I had to find something that could use improvement.
Use and listening
The Zphono.USB is really two separate and very different audio devices that just happen to occupy the same chassis -- its two functions are not intended to be used simultaneously. For example, you can’t listen to a record while digitizing a cassette tape; the Zphono.USB allows only one of its three inputs to function at a time. Therefore, I first put the phono stage through its paces, then gave the A/D section a whirl.
As expected, the Parasound’s power draw was insignificant. Using my Kill-A-Watt power meter, I observed that the Zphono.USB consumed only 10W when fully operational, and shut down completely when switched off. Leaving the Zphono.USB on all the time will not break the bank.
Compared to my Bellari VP-129 tubed phono stage, which is very different from the Zphono.USB in both design philosophy and provenance, two things became immediately apparent: The Parasound was extremely quiet, and it had quite a bit more gain than the Bellari. The combination of these characteristics forced the retirement of my trusty Shure V15 V-MR cartridge, which had lately been developing a hum in the left channel. For now, I’m back with the humble yet crazy-overachieving Audio-Technica AT-95B that was thrown in free with my Thorens TD 309 turntable.
Another trait of the Zphono.USB was that it had a more compartmentalizing effect on the music, which resulted in a more localized sound. To a degree, instruments and voices tended to stay in a more defined place in the soundstage than what I’m used to hearing. While this lent a boost to the pinpoint imaging so earnestly sought by some, it may not make for a completely accurate and believable reproduction of some material, especially overproduced, multimiked recordings of symphonic works, which have enough trouble sounding natural. Try, for example, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (LP, London Digital LDR 71091), or pretty much any of the digitized treats from the 1980s.
The Zphono.USB was the sort of component that celebrates the performance of the music contained in a good recording, regardless of vintage. Flipping on the Mono switch, I lowered the stylus into the groove of the Budapest String Quartet’s recording of Beethoven’s Quartet No.14 in C-sharp Minor, Op.131 (LP, Columbia ML 5785). I was impressed by how easy it was for me to focus on the music rather than being distracted by this pressing’s age and the relatively archaic process by which it was made. No, the Zphono.USB was not able to make my old LP sound like virgin vinyl, but the playback was so quiet that it was easy to forget just how old this well-loved and oft-played record actually is. It was also good to be reminded that monophonic is not to stereo as conventional film is to 3D. The soundstage was wide and deep.
I had more mono fun with Errol Garner’s Soliloquy (LP, Columbia CL 1060), a solo-piano performance of standards and another LP that has been well loved throughout its long life. Lord only knows what this record has been played on over the last six decades -- it shows battle scars a-plenty -- but that’s why you need a Mono switch. In canceling the left- and right-channel out-of-phase signals, I was able to more easily ignore what little noise remained and focus on the music -- which was immediate, dynamic, and oh, so intimate.
Perhaps the main reason I think the coupling of A/D converters with turntables is misguided is that it completely ignores geezers like me, who, back in the 1970s and ’80s, recorded everyone and everything that the built-in mikes of a JVC boombox would pick up. I’m talking high school concerts, high school rock bands, high school musicals (!), and, later, the sweet voices of my own young children. You can debate the quality of these recordings all you want, but no one can argue with one thing: they can never be replaced. I want to keep these recordings forever, but how long will they last on the compact cassette tapes they were originally recorded on? Given the condition of some of the earliest cassettes in my collection, I’d say that after 30 years they start to self-destruct. If the tape itself doesn’t begin to disintegrate, then the cassette mechanism does, usually beginning with the glue that affixes the little felt recorder-head contact pad to its spring. To me, preserving such irreplaceable recordings is what A/D converters were invented for.
When people make digital recordings of vinyl or shellac records, it seems to be more for the convenience of playback than to preserve the recording, though of course the former, too, is a benefit. Yet while I hate to think that folks find it that much of a chore to put a record on a turntable, I also know that it used to be common for turntables to be completely automatic, with mechanisms that allowed the pre-loading of multiple 7”, 10”, and 12” discs for long periods of unattended play. The modern approach, which most likely will take place on a fully manual turntable, requires far more listener involvement, not to mention wear and tear on the rug. Still, I think the preservation of sound made on analog recording tape (including reel-to-reel, which also doesn’t age well) should be the real raison d’être for consumer A/D.
Parasound appears to agree with me in providing not one but two line-level inputs, just waiting to be hooked up to that old Nakamichi cassette deck. Also, if you must digitize your LPs, Parasound wants you to at least do it right, and so recommends premium recording software from Spin it Again, Vinyl Studio, and the one I actually used (it’s free), Audacity. Audacity worked quite well for me, though the user does need to be comfortable with the whole free/open-access philosophy, which in this case required a trip to Wikipedia for directions and additional software downloads. Audacity also lists on Wikipedia an extensive (if not complete) list of house equalization curves for various original issuers of 78s and some early LPs. So while the Zphono.USB’s built-in RIAA settings will be more than adequate for post-1954 LPs, you should turn off the EQ (which the Zphono.USB permits) and digitally dial in the correct EQ for those funky 78s.
While the results of my experiments in digitizing 78s aren’t quite ready for prime-time reporting, I did have a relatively satisfactory experience copying and playing some LPs of the last 40 or 50 years, namely Donovan’s Mellow Yellow (Epic LN 24239) and Steely Dan’s Aja (MCA 1688), both chosen as excellent examples of recording quality. The mostly acoustic instruments of the Donovan sound stunningly real on my original American monaural pressing, and John Paul Jones helped with the arrangements (yes, that JPJ). Indeed, I’m happy to report that if you must digitize your records, this is the way to go: Open Audacity, run USB cable from Zphono.USB to computer, put needle down, hit Record “button” on computer screen, and save 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC file. Playback through a combo of JRiver Media Center and a Hegel Music Systems HD2 D/A converter was impressive, with perhaps the slightest high-frequency shimmer peeled away from direct, undiluted, unmolested playback of my original LP.
With the Zphono.USB Parasound has created a niche product that, for audiophiles and music collectors of a certain age -- or any age, for that matter -- may prove supremely useful. As a phono stage it hits way above average, and if offered alone would be exceptional value for the price. Actually, it is offered alone, in the form of the original Zphono (still available for $200). Consider the inclusion of the flexible, high-quality A/D converter as almost a gift. This is a smart, sensible, well-made product that makes it fun to be in this hobby.
. . . Ron Doering
- Speakers -- Snell EII, Polk Audio LSiM705, Gallo Acoustics Classico 2
- Integrated amplifier -- NAD C 325BEE
- Sources -- Dell Inspiron 530 computer running Microsoft Windows Vista and JRiver Media Center 15; Hegel Music Systems HD2 digital-to-analog converter; Rotel RDD-980 CD transport, Meridian 203 DAC; Thorens TD 309 turntable, Audio-Technica AT-95B cartridge, Bellari VP-129 phono preamp
- Interconnects -- Kimber Kable PBJ, Cardas Cross phono, Canare Digiflex Gold (75-ohm coax), Staples Gold USB
- Speaker cables -- Kimber Kable KWIK (12 gauge), homebrew RadioShack hookup wire
- Headphones -- Sennheiser HD 600
Parasound Zphono.USB Phono Stage/Analog-to-Digital Converter
Price: $349.99 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Parasound Products Inc.
2250 McKinnon Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94124
Phone: (415) 397-7100
Fax: (415) 397-0144