August 2010

Nagra VPS Phono Stage

If you equate value with heft, if you need to tear muscle tissue shifting a bit of kit to convince yourself that you’ve achieved adequate value for the dollars you’ve spent, then the diminutive Nagra VPS phono stage ($5995 USD) will underwhelm you. Small and light, with an even smaller, separate power supply, it seems to fly in the face of many high-end products of the battleship-build-and-rack-choking-girth ilk. But you’d have to ignore the fact that, starting 55 years ago, Nagra cut its teeth in the professional market, making small recorders that were and still are technically brilliant paragons of utility and excellence. They also clove to a certain visual aesthetic that survives to this day: great if you like it, not so good if you don’t. Except for the battery-powered and rather unfortunately named Bipolar Phono Stage, all of Nagra’s front-end components have the same basic size and appearance, which a friend says “look decidedly 1960s Japanese lo-fi -- and not the good kind.” But one man’s cheap transistor radio is another man’s Japanese lacquer box -- or, in my case, a component that, while low on sex appeal, didn’t repel me. I found the VPS’s utilitarian looks oddly comforting; they reminded me of Nagra’s pro heritage. Guys who’ve won numerous awards in this field must know something about hi-fi. 

The Nagra VPS 

Measuring just 12.2”W x 3”H x 10”D and tipping the scales at 7.3 pounds, the VPS phono stage is compact. Its casework is constructed entirely of a satiny brushed aluminum, with the front and top panels milled from solid blocks. The faceplate is a study in understatement, with a large rotating switch with which you can power the VPS on or off, select one of the two available inputs, and engage the mute mode. A smallish, ice-blue light indicates that the VPS has been turned on, and blinks for about 90 seconds on power-up as the tubes are gently warmed up by an internal microprocessor -- something that should prolong tube life. (Nagra tests each tube for 48 hours and says it rejects more than 90% for reasons of noise or other sorts of substandard performance.) 

Things are a little busier around back, but not by much. There are both balanced and single-ended outputs (I ran the VPS unbalanced) and two grounding points, one for each input. This second input is an extra-cost option (circa $1495 for moving-coil cartridges), available for users running two tonearms or a second turntable. The main input will handle both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges and can be configured for either, as can the optional second. A LEMO connector at the bottom right corner accepts a connection from the small, external, regulated power supply. My review sample came with the optional and beautifully machined Nagra Spikes ($395), made of a nonmagnetic amalgam of copper, nickel, and zinc, with ball tips of Delrin resin; but without the optional Vibration Free Support platform (constructed from 7mm aluminum plates and alpha-GEL footers and priced at $1495) or the second input. 

With a chassis this small, you’d assume that one potential sonic benefit would be short signal paths. Nagra has, in fact, made this a design principle in what the literature describes, in meticulous Swiss fashion, as a “carefully calculated manner.” In addition to any possible sonic benefit, Nagra feels this also reduces the possibility of stray electromagnetic interference with the sensitive phono circuitry (the all-aluminum casework should also provide further shielding from the outside world). In another effort at isolation, a “special” shielding covers the voltage converters that power the circuitry, and the engineers have mounted the main circuit on alpha-GEL supports to prevent any vibration from disrupting that same delicate signal. 

Nagra has also put considerable thought into the components used in and the user configurability of the VPS. Given their substantial pro-audio heritage, one would think that Nagra knows more than a little about component quality and performance. Here the “new generation” MC transformers are custom-made (and protected by an antimagnetic shield), as are the polypropylene caps, and the literature reminds us that all active and passive components meet the “strictest of norms.” The quality of final assembly inside the case is a masterstroke of Swiss attention to detail that you’ll actually see from time to time: to load your MC cartridge, you must take off the lid, insert one of the six supplied loading modules (Nagra will supply up to three additional custom modules for a limited time post-purchase), and set the jumpers to their correct positions. Compared to some magnifying-glass-and-tweezers installations I’ve done, this was a snap; it took about a minute. This process is the same for both inputs. 

The only other variable end-users need concern themselves with is gain, and the VPS’s cumulative gain stages make it a hybrid rather than a pure tube design. The double-triode tube stage (RIAA or IEC correction curves are offered; I stayed with RIAA) supplies 34dB; as soon as an MC cartridge is used, the VPS kicks in an additional 11dB of gain through those custom onboard MC transformers. 

On the rear panel, right between the unbalanced outputs, is a switch for setting the output to Low or High. The High position adds 15dB, produced by a solid-state gain stage built from discrete components. This gives a lot of flexibility with different cartridges (the 0.34mV output of my Ortofon Jubilee MC wanted and got the full package). For the entire review period, I ran the VPS with its output set to High. 

Associated equipment 

I used the VPS in my regular rig, which comprises a Cary SLI80 integrated amp, Nottingham Spacedeck turntable with Heavy Kit and regulated power supply, Ortofon Jubilee cartridge, and Red Rose Rosebud speakers. The VPS was connected to the Cary with Harmonic Technology Magic interconnects. For a very brief time I paired it with a complete Yamamura Churchill system, with Yamamura Dionisio Horns and a Simon Yorke S9 turntable running a Koetsu Urushi Vermillion cartridge. The VPS was trouble-free during its time chez moi, though on a couple of occasions the left channel developed a slight distortion. On both occasions, shutting it down for five minutes and then powering it back up got rid of the problem, and it didn’t return. The captive umbilical cord on the power supply was long enough to permit easy placement away from my rack, and while Nagra supplies a stock cord, I used my tried-and-true Yamamura Series 5000. Finally, the two tubes (a 12AX7 and a 12AT7) didn’t generate a lot of heat; the VPS stayed cool to the touch even after several days of being left powered up. 


There are those who firmly believe that all phono preamplifiers should be solid-state, and that tubes are too inherently noisy to do the job right. The engineers at Nagra have made Herculean attempts to change this perception, but there’s no denying that the VPS has a higher noise floor than pretty much every non-tube device I’ve reviewed. This was especially apparent with the solid-state Yamamura system and the highly efficient horns. It was not, however, intrusive at any point, and was basically unnoticeable with music playing. In fact, I had to be extremely close to the speakers to notice it at all, even with music playing at higher listening levels. And to those same naysayers I point out that tubes have many inherent qualities that make them a prime choice for this type of application. The Nagra VPS made a most compelling argument for those qualities, especially the ravishing tonality that tubes are capable of producing. 

I was shocked at how convincing some tonal signatures were through the VPS. Brass instruments were spot on, and cymbals were utterly mind-blowing, their sizzling ting imbued with a beautiful metallic glow. I listened to several Wes Montgomery records; with Smokin’ at the Half-Note, with the Wynton Kelly Trio (LP, Verve/Speakers Corner V6 8633), I got a real sense of the warm yet poppy sound of a vintage Gibson L-5 -- the cozy, liquid-chocolate resonance of that big hollow-body guitar. Acoustic bass, too, was fabulous; the VPS had an uncanny way of convincing me that those bass sounds were emanating from the inside of an actual resonating chamber of wood that had a distinct sonic fingerprint. This magic was spread over acoustic and electric music with equal aplomb; the VPS nailed down any and all instruments as specific physical presences, then delivered the tonal density and distinctive voicing to make each seem real. 

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the VPS is one of the most liquid performers I’ve heard. By liquid I mean that the sound had a flow free from any sense of artifice, and more akin to the continuity of musical line you might hear in a concert hall. The VPS let music breathe while still delivering everything with proper pace and drive; notes had a certain roundness or dimension, a complete harmonic envelope, that swelled and contracted on a microcosmic level, and right on time. 

The frequency extremes were good if not completely stellar. In ultimate terms, the upper treble was slightly rounded off, though there was good bite with well-recorded trumpet or violin, and adequate air at the top. The bass didn’t rattle my window frames, but it was tuneful, and surprisingly tighter than I’d anticipated, with a tendency toward a slight plumpness at the lower end of the range. Transients, too, had a little tube softness that probably contributed to the liquid quality I spoke of, but didn’t take anything away from the music’s drive. But while these things could ultimately be seen as shortcomings, I never felt I was missing much -- and I don’t think I’d want more in these areas if that would mean a corresponding sacrifice in others. 

Finally, and in keeping with what one may expect from a tube-based product, soundstaging was another VPS strong suit. Even with that foreshortening in the treble, the sense of space in a given venue was impressive. The soundstage’s width was phenomenal -- the best I’ve heard -- while its depth was on a par with the very best. Images were spaced out nicely, and while not as well defined as some of the top-range solid-state gear, they were very solid. And there was no spotlighting of instruments within this soundstage, but a pleasing coherence that was always of a piece, rather than an assemblage of sounds that never quite jelled. Rather than just sitting and listening to a series of events unfold, this allowed me to believe. 


In my last outing, in February, I reviewed the solid-state Esoteric E-03 phono stage  ($6000) and found it to be of reference caliber in many areas. The E-03 offers an easier loading facility than the Nagra in the form of control knobs on its faceplate, and its titanic build and bulk make it, in those regards, the antithesis of the diminutive VPS. In fact, the somewhat radical difference in the sizes of these phono stages has a corollary in their sounds. 

The Esoteric is incredibly quiet -- much more so than the VPS -- and that quiet lets detail pour forth in a never-ending stream. Nothing escapes its notice; if you want to know what is on a recording, the E-03 is the phono stage to own. The Esoteric has an unflappable presence, a sense that it will never lose control of things; but its iron grip is always evident, and music just doesn’t breathe as freely as it did through the Nagra VPS. The VPS was like a babbling brook: sounds popped out and relaxed back again into their surroundings; most of the details were there, but they were more organic, and I had to listen harder to pick them out. The Esoteric gives music a snappier overall feel, with sharper transients but less decay and richness. 

But what really divides the two is tonality. The Nagra made instruments sound tonally real, and that just made everything fuller and richer. The Esoteric sounds paler -- I can hear the minutest details, and the transient edge of a guitar string will make me bolt upright, but images seem thinner and more two-dimensional. The E-03 has a slight dryness that, while extremely accurate, just can’t match the more fleshy and ebullient VPS. To put it another way, with the Esoteric E-03 I listened to music and came away having heard things I’d never heard before; with the VPS, I just really got into the music, and never had the feeling I’d been missing anything. 

While both of these phono stages are excellent and cost about $6000, they come at sound and music from different angles. It’s not a question of which is better -- both are superb -- but of which will better suit the tastes of a particular listener. I know that, at the end of the day, when the newness and shock and awe had worn off, I listened to more music for longer periods of time with the Nagra VPS. It just made me happy. 


The VPS delivers what Nagra’s promotional literature describes as a “sumptuous” sound. If you like your records to sound like the analog recordings they are, with a rich, deep tonal palette and soundstaging that delivers the original recording venue each and every time, then look no further. In fact, if you’re a collector of Blue Note records, you really must consider the Nagra VPS; I played a lot of Blue Notes during these listening sessions, and have never heard them sound so great. Lee Morgan’s Search for the New Land (LP, Blue Note BST 84169) and Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles (LP, Blue Note BST 84175), among many others, just blew my mind. But the VPS is no one-trick pony; it served all types of music equally well, from intimate chamber music and jazz to bombastic symphonic works and gritty rock’n’roll. The Nagra never failed to get to the heart of the music. 

The VPS has been very well engineered, and will probably prove as reliable as a Swiss bank vault -- something you should expect for $5995. This phono preamplifier taps that lustrous, rich analog experience that vinyl enthusiasts love; it drives home the joy of listening to LPs, and that makes it pretty good bang for the buck.

 . . . Graham Abbott

Nagra VPS Phono Stage
Price: $5995 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Nagra USA
180 N. Belvedere Drive
Unit 5A
, TN 37066
Phone: (615) 451-4168