In his June 1 review of the Pro-Ject Audio Systems Phono Box S3 B phono preamplifier, Philip Beaudette explained that when he reviewed Pro-Ject’s X2 B turntable last December, he “liked” the turntable, but it was the S3 B that “surprised” him because of “its combination of great sound and remarkable feature set.” As a result, after both the X2 B and S3 B had been returned to the distributor, he asked for the S3 B to be sent back so he could review it independently.
The S3 B is priced at $499 (in USD) and is made in Europe. It is both light and compact, measuring 8.1″W × 2.2″H × 6.4″D, including connectors, and weighing just over two pounds, not including its external power supply. In addition to conventional single-ended (RCA) inputs and outputs, the S3 B has balanced connections—a five-pin mini XLR for the input, and a pair of XLR connectors for the output. The “B” in the model designations for the S3 B phono stage and X2 B turntable stands for “balanced.”
Balanced connections are commonly used for line-level connections to eliminate induced noise that is picked up as the signal travels along interconnect cables from one component to the next. But only recently has this type of connection been promoted as a way to send audio from a turntable to a phono preamplifier. Pro-Ject is one of the companies leading that charge, equipping several turntables and phono preamps, including the X2 B and S3 B, with balanced outputs and inputs. But it’s important to realize that you have to use a moving-coil cartridge for a balanced connection between such components—a moving-magnet cartridge can’t output a balanced signal.
Naturally, the S3 B supports MC cartridges via a balanced connection, but it also supports MC and MM cartridges through an unbalanced connection. That means users can start with a single-ended connection and move to a balanced connection later, which makes the S3 B somewhat future-proof. In fact, while Philip used his Sumiko Songbird MC cartridge with the S3 B for his review, he used the preamp single-ended, because his Thorens TD 160 HD turntable lacks a balanced output. But he did run the S3 B balanced when he reviewed the X2 B turntable in December last year.
Although Philip found this option for the S3 B’s connection interesting, he felt that “its best feature” wasn’t “its balanced architecture.” Instead, what impressed him the most was the S3 B’s flexibility and ease of use. Philip liked being able to adjust gain, impedance, and loading “using a series of pushbuttons on the front panel,” rather than with dip switches placed underneath or (even more inconveniently) inside the component, which is how most phono preamplifiers enable these adjustments. This caused Philip to write: “I’ve never been able to do this with a phono stage before, and after having had these adjustments at my fingertips, fiddling with dip switches or jumpers seems cumbersome now.” Philip pointed out that because the S3 B has both single-ended and balanced inputs, and stores “whatever settings were last used for each input,” this means that “two turntables can be connected simultaneously”—another feature that could be convenient for some.
Philip wasn’t concerned about not using the balanced connection for his review of the S3 B. He remarked: “I didn’t hear a difference between the balanced and single-ended inputs when I reviewed the X2 B / S3 B combo last year (heresy, I know), so my inability to use the latter’s balanced configuration was a nonissue for me.” Furthermore, the measured performance of the Phono Box S3 B is roughly the same whether using balanced or single-ended inputs. That doesn’t mean that a balanced connection is not worthwhile—in a setup where noise could contaminate the signal from the cartridge output as it travels to the phono preamplifier, this feature could be beneficial. Philip’s setup didn’t present that problem.
For his review, Philip spent a lot of time “listening to classical music through the Pro-Ject, including Franz Liszt (Sony Classical MOVCL070),” which is “a collection of solo piano works performed by Khatia Buniatishvili.” He remarked that during the first movement of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, he didn’t “just hear Buniatishvili’s playing,” but “felt it.” Through the Pro-Ject, Philip could “appreciate her touch” as she performed the piece: “The delicacy with which some keys were struck contrasted sharply with the intensity and vigor of other notes. Even during the most frenzied passages, every note was distinct, so that it was easy to ‘see’ what her hands were doing.”
While Philip enjoyed “the ‘wow’ factor of hearing so many notes played at rapid-fire tempo,” his attention “was equally drawn to quieter moments on this record,” and Philip found himself “lingering on the decay of the notes into what was essentially a black background.” Being able to appreciate “the space between the notes” made Philip realize that the S3 B didn’t put a “mark on the music” and that it “isn’t a tone control.”
With Herbert von Karajan’s 1962 recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 138 804)—music Philip described as being “dynamic and captivating”—he wrote that “the S3 B simply conveyed it as such,” and “it contributed nothing to the music, other than rendering an extremely low noise floor that provided a quiet backdrop from which detail and nuance could emerge.”
Philip played other recordings, including Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um (Columbia Records / Legacy Recordings 8697-335681). With “Better Git It in Your Soul,” Philip remarked that the “sound was so utterly clean and transparent,” it was if he “could reach out and touch it.” It was at this point in the review that Philip enthused: “At $499, the S3 B didn’t concede much to phono stages I’ve auditioned that cost several times more than that.” Then, on “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” he pointed out that the S3 B “again imparted nothing to the sound.” Philip added: “If you’re looking for a phono stage that will add a lusher character to your analog setup, this isn’t it.” In other words, he found the S3 B to be neutrally balanced and highly resolving, and none of the other recordings he auditioned swayed that opinion.
Philip’s high praise of the Phono Box S3 B, in conjunction with its relatively low price, earned the phono preamp a Reviewers’ Choice award on June 1. But Philip also observed that there “simply aren’t any European-made balanced phono stages at this price that can be so easily matched to one’s cartridge and amplifier,” and that “the S3 B is a benchmark product” because of its performance and features. These comments showed us that the S3 B also deserved to be honored with a Recommended Reference Component award, which we’re now presenting. As Philip concluded in his review: “The S3 B sits alone as an incredibly special product. Bravo, Pro-Ject!” We agree.
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Pro-Ject Audio Systems