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The Michell Delhini Phonostage

by Werner Ogiers

Back in November 1998, on the day I wanted to suggest to John Michell to make a cheaper skeletal version of the GyroDec turntable, on the day John Michell silenced me by showing prototype parts of what was to be the Gyro SE (that being a cheaper skeletal version of the GyroDec), well, on that day I was also demoed a prototype of a new phonostage which was to replace the reputed Iso HR.I've been waiting ever since to get my hands on what later was named the Delphini phonostage. Or rather, the Delphini range of phonostages. Tested here is the original thing: a two-box phonopreamp with the actual electronics in one small acrylic-fronted and stainless-steel-roofed box, and a big regulated power supply in a similar package (incidentally, this is the same power supply unit as delivered with the £1600 Orca linestage). This two-box affair costs £1000 or thereabouts (I may be mistaken for 10 or 20%). A cheaper Delphini, comprising the very same electronics but with a much smaller outboard PSU, costs a mere £495, and can at any time be upgraded to the full-spec version at the outlay of similar money. And coming soon is a super-duper dual-mono Delphini, having two of the big PSUs and delivering something Michell calls - tongue in cheak - "my new surround sound thingy". In addition to this range, owners of the older Iso and Iso HR can buy the big Orca/Delphini power supply unit separately, which indeed constitutes a very serious upgrade for these older phonostages, at a cost of £500. Click here for full size image
Back to the electronics, the actual phonostage. Delphini's gain can be switched (with internal jumpers) between 4 modes, the lower gain setting compatible with MM or high-output MC cartridges not delivering more than 3mV @ 5cm/s. The other settings are all for low-output MCs. Input impedance can be set too, offering 33, 100, 330, 1000 and 47000 Ohms. One set of inputs, one set of outputs, both using nice big Teflon-isolated connectors. That's it. Oh, the internals? IC-based (funny, up till now I always thought the Delphini was a hybrid affair, with one IC and a lot of transistors per channel…), class-A'ed, half-active half-passive RIAA equalisation with 0.1% metal film resistors and selected polystyrene and polypropylene capacitors, DC-servoed, and with opamp-based ultra-wideband voltage regulators: the (expensive) IC I use as the actual gain stage in my own phono-pre, designer Graham Fowler coolly employs here as a voltage regulator… That's all I know. The double-sided PCB looks very neat (saying this as a fully grown-up engineer working in the aerospace and chip business), and is crowded with rather expensive components, a number of them SMD-mounted.
It was a long wait from November till now, the reason being that the Delphini was being developed in the UK, with critical listening tests being carried out by distributor Philip Matthews in Belgium (this being a curious Anglo-Belgian with an aversion of the clinical sound of most of contemporary 'high-end' gear, playing himself with a system comprising the very first Orbe, SME V with gold wiring, Jan Allaerts MC-1 Sapphire, Orca, four Quad IIs, huge MB Quart speakers, or alternatively, Quad ESLs in several guises and configurations, and indeed no CD-player.) After seven design iterations Philip deemed the Delphini worthy, and production could start. And even then it took a few months before he could let me have his shop Delphini for, like, 24 hours. Better than nothing, as this still allows me to get a world scoop with this article since as far as I know no UK magazine so far has tested this phono preamp. But please do keep in mind that this is not a formal review: while I am not employed by Michell engineering, I very much am their webmaster and the designer of their website, so I can hardly be labelled completely objective. On the other hand, I am just a human being (…) wanting to get a fine sound from my LPs. So, consider this the report of someone pretty much involved in things Michell, but also someone who has waited a looong time for hearing this phonostage. (And no, I am certainly not paid for writing this. For the matter: my turntable was bought second hand in Belgium years ago; my preamp was bought used in Oxford; and the non-original parts of the turntable are rejected left-overs (and so they look!) from Michell's production. You won't see a glimming Orbe, an Orca, or a brace of Alectos in our house, simply because I can not afford them.) Click here for larger image
I had to compare Delphini to my own phonostage, which, incidentally, I may describe here in mode detail before long. Suffice to say now that it is also IC-based, architecturally more or less resembling a super-version of the LFD MM0, with one single AD-797 per channel, biased into class A, with fully-active RIAA employing polystyrene capacitors, and finally with an AD-711 for a 2.5th order DC-servo, all assembled on a custom-designed breadboard with all components in headers for easy replacement and experiments, so say byebye to short signal paths. Oh, and all fed by a pathetic 10VA EI-frame transformer. And a host of big capacitors in a CRC array.
Despite a low gain of 50dB, this preamp sounds pretty good already, its major drawback being a certain lack of colour (which I, depending on the weather, tend to attribute to the tonearm, but read on …), and a coolness. Bass, while lean, goes very deep and is extremely tight. The soundstage is very wide, reaching beyond the speakers when the source calls for that trick, and quite deep.
The rest of the system? First a curious turntable which is an old, but QC-driven, Michell GyroDec below the, er, waist, and which is from the subchassis up a Michell Orbe, with a silver-wired Rega RB-300 arm, and a 0.5mV Ortofon MC-25FL cartridge. After the phonostage follow the Michell Argo/Hera line preamp, Quad 306 power amp, and old ESLs on Target stands. No comment on wiring, though.
Records played comprised of Clannad, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Iggy Pop, Blondie, The Nits, and numerous others. Funny: most of these things were bought second hand, sometimes visibly in bad condition.
What immediately draws the attention is the Delphini's warmth: the soundscape is wide and deep, totally open, in a very inviting and warm way. On this stage, individual sounds take on a slightly soft-focus (as in real life, as opposed to hi-fi!), full-bodied, yet feathery and airy character. Treble is sweet sweet sweet, but without being dull. No, treble, and indeed almost the whole frequency range, is delightfully detailed: at one instant a single piano note at the end of a song kept fading down into blackness. Bass is full and blowsy, in a manner which makes sense, but all the same it does lack the tightness and insight of my own phonostage. On the other hand, Delphini bass breathes a great deal more, so which one is more correct? Mine, I initially thought. Until later that same evening, after I had lost myself completely in listening to The Nits' Urk live recording (triple LP CBS465843-1, double CD CBS 465843-2): gimme Delph bass anytime of the day (and night) now ...
While we are at it: that Nits recording is something you must have. 29 songs, each a universe on its own, waiting to be explored by the listener. Each accessible for people of almost any musical persuasion: these are arty pop songs, perhaps even rock songs. But what with the overtly classical idiom of the piano? The folk-lore that permeates all songs? The oh-so complex and varied percussion and drums? The experimental keyboards, played by a real virtuoso, the effects sometime flying literally around your head. And tension. Tension in the music, e.g. the song Sketches of Spain, describing the civil war there. And tension in the audience, because it known something is happening. (I know what: I was lucky enough to see them once when they were at their height.) But I am deviating ...
Absolutely wonderful is the coherence over the whole spectrum, bass nor mid nor highs drawing any undue attention. Dynamics are fine too, with e.g. a commendable control over finely shimmering cymbals while the rest of the music goes full throttle. In one instant I heard a single piano note fade away for over 10 seconds. My own phonostage does that job in less than five seconds. How would CD fare? Brass was rendered with absolute control, in a, er, brassy way. Rhythmic? Should have seen me waltzing through the living room.
Width is the same as my reference, and depth is better. I'd say that the Delphini recognisably places music sources twice as deep as my own kit, while at the front, e.g. with vocals, both phonostages place sounds slightly in front of the speakers. Something very funny is that, when no music is playing, the Delphini obviously has a higher background noise than my own preamp (but then, it also had at least 12dB more gain). But when the music played this noise simply did not seem to be there anymore, not even in silent passegs. And groove noise and roar are presented in a plane entirely separate from the music. Sensitivity to ticks and pops is very low. Throw any piece of old or new vinyl at the Delphini, and it turns it into an interesting experience.
All in all this preamp's sound is very musical and involving, addictive, and again a total embarrassment to that technology we know as 'CD'. Instruments and voices have colour and body, and the overall sound is almost neutral, bar a very slight darkening of tone (think the sonic equivalent of a gorgeous sunset at Capetown, or so), touched-up with a hint of polish all over the spectrum, like having a dark-golden hue cast over the sonics. The Iso did something similar, but also whitened the treble a bit, added some emphasis there. This is something Delphini decidedly does not. What it is is a slight departure from total neutrality, but it is a very euphonic departure, and please do not forget that I was playing with a $300 cartridge. So which component actually was to blame here?
But listen: I am not in a position to evaluate the Delphini. One reason I quoted already at the beginning of this article. The other reason is that I have the feeling that my Ortofon cartridge is way too low for this full-blown Delphini. Who in his right mind combines a £1700 turntable with a £150 tonearm and a £200 cartridge with £1000+ worth of phonostage??? No, until I get the chance to play with e.g. a big Jan Allaerts moving coil or a Jubilee I'll have to defer my final judgement on this phonostage. And until someone like Thorsten Loesch tests the Delphini, for TNT or for this website, you will have to wait for anything approaching an objective test report. I do, however, have the feeling that the basic Delphini easily can take on the usual suspects in its price class (with the cheaper power supply I suspect that it will sound a bit mode muddled and less clean; at least that's what I remember from the early prototype), that the Delphini as tested here, with its rich and generous character, will be the bane of the few other real high-end phonostages that are available in Europe, and that the forthcoming dual-mono version will be something very special.
And if you think this is a bit over the top then that's your problem. My problem is that now I almost desperately want one. Which is a real problem of some sorts. Because tomorrow the Delphini has to go right back to the distributor. And tomorrow I'll have to get back to the real world, with its nagging necessities like saving money because the car needs to be replaced, because we'll need to buy a bigger house, because the ever-rising cost of used Quad ESL-63s. ... Sigh.


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