August 2000Shearne Phase 2 Reference Integrated Amplifier
by Tom Lyle
A mishap, perhaps
I humbly admit that I am a very limber fellow, but I am also more than a bit lazy -- and as you will read, somewhat of a klutz. I was setting up the Shearne Phase 2 Reference integrated amplifier in my main system. This was after it spent some time in my second system to break in. The fourth shelf on the equipment rack is where I thought it should go, but that was where another piece of equipment was residing. So, instead of removing the cables from that other unit, clearing the shelf, and installing the Shearne, I thought I could save some time. I tried to place the Phase 2 atop the other piece of equipment, but it really wouldnt fit totally between the two shelves with the other unit. So I had to let it overhang a little so I could first remove the cables from the bottom component and then lower the Shearne into place.
I held the Phase 2 steady with one hand while twisting myself around and using my other hand to reach around back of the rack, at the same time as keeping my balance so I wouldnt step on the power amp on the floor (are you following this?). I started to remove the cables from the other unit, taking them and hanging them over the edge of the BAM! The Shearne hit the floor. It fell about three feet onto its top-front edge, but not before first smacking its back panel against the metal leg of the rack. Bummer. The ground plug on the rear panel snapped off. There was a scratch on the top edge of the front panel. I opened the top cover and did a visual inspection. It looked OK.
A bit shaken, I removed the other unit from the rack, cleaned and dusted the shelf, and then placed the Shearne Phase 2 on the shelf. I carefully re-routed the interconnects, making sure they didnt come too close to any power cables or power supplies. I connected the cables to the Shearne, plugged in the power cord and turned the unit on. I let it warm up a little while. I listened -- it worked perfectly.
There is a famous rock band that claims before they tour they throw every piece of equipment off the roof -- those that survive are taken with them on tour. The Shearne is likely road-worthy.
John Shearnes products are designed and manufactured in England, and his is one of the many brands being imported to us deprived New World-ers via O.S. Services. Shearne Audio was established ten years ago, the company's first product being the Phase 1 integrated amp. According to Shearne, the UK and international press have bestowed much acclaim upon this integrated, and it was the initial version of the Phase 2 Reference. Today, Shearnes product range includes integrated amps, power amps, preamplifiers and a CD player.
When I unboxed the Phase 2, my first thoughts were that it looked quite different from most other British components Ive had in my system over the last few years. It looked more, well, North American. Its rather simple design is only enhanced by the optional faux-blue-marble faceplate. Its front-panel controls number only four, and from left to right they are: power, volume, source selection and record selection. On the rear is an IEC for the supplied power cable, a pair of banana-plug speaker jacks and single-ended RCA inputs for six sources, including an optional phono stage. There is also a set of outputs, so you can use the Phase 2 as a preamplifier or along with the Shearne Phase 3 amplifier for bi-amping purposes. There is no remote control.
John Shearne says that the preamp stage in the Phase 2 is designed to be about as simple as possible. It has one FET input op-amp integrated chip per channel, with 12dB of gain via two resistors. He feels that FET units offer the best sound quality because they allow simple circuits to be used. He admits that sometimes when these op-amps are used in combination with high-value resistors, a bit of noise is generated that can be heard as a slight hiss through very sensitive speakers -- although he feels this is an acceptable trade-off. The power-amp section uses a 250VA toroidal transformer, and careful routing of power lines on the main printed circuit board minimizes hum.
The Phase 2 has a push-pull output stage that was chosen because it yielded the highest sound quality. The only drawback of this configuration is that there is a relatively loud "pop" through the speakers when switching on the unit (although it is more of a "thud" when using speakers that are full range). This is the result of small DC offsets settling down when the power is turned on. The literature says this surge might be disconcerting, but it is not dangerous to the speakers. A way to deal with this sound is to use a relay in the signal path, but Shearne says he chose not to do this because it has negative effects on sound quality. High-quality parts are used throughout the Phase 2, including an ALPS Superpot volume control. After the units are assembled, each one is set up and tested personally by John Shearne. Adjustments to the DC offsets and the output bias are performed, and the channels are matched closely.
Like the preamplifier stage, the optional phono stage is also designed with simplicity in mind and with parts of high quality. It has two gain stages separated by a passive RIAA equalizer, and the input stage uses a low-noise op-amp and is available in either a moving-magnet or moving-coil version. Its output stage is also an FET op-amp.
Other than the banana-plug-only speaker outputs, set up was rather straightforward. Not much room was needed above or around the Phase 2 because it generated little if any heat that I was aware of. The inputs on its rear panel arent too far apart, but far enough away from each other that I didnt have any trouble hooking up the slightly above-average-diameter plugs of the MIT interconnects. I started my listening sessions using an outboard phono stage (actually, another preamp that has a phono stage). Later on, I had the optional moving-coil phono board installed.
Oh, how I wish the Phase 2 were fitted with "normal" five-way speaker jacks. And, of course, its banana plugs were not spaced for double plugs. No doubt this is for the British Isles audiophiles protection, as the UKs power cords are constructed with the same spacing as dual banana plugs -- and inserting wall current into a unit's speaker jacks would not only ruin the component but would apt to be life-threatening. The spacing of the plugs really wasnt much of a problem. The MIT bi-wire Terminator 2 speaker cable I used for most of the review is thick and heavy, and the weight of the cable made getting the banana plugs to remain in place a challenge. I devised a way to strap the cables to the equipment rack using twist-ties; this was a little unsightly, but it did the trick. I dont think that most users of the Phase 2 will use such a unwieldy type of cable, but I guess Im only mentioning the trouble I had to bolster my complaint regarding the lack of five-way binding posts. Blast those wacky Britons.
Big speakers, small speakers
The term "lack of power" is relative. These days, with the popularity of single-ended-triode amplifiers and super-efficient speakers to match with them, 50Wpc could be considered quite considerable -- although in my listening room it is not. The Legacy Classic speakers I use, even though rated at over 90dB/W/m, need some serious power to come alive. Thats likely due to their dual 10" woofers. When I hooked up the Phase 2 to them, it proved not to be an ideal match. The bass was weak and noticeably indistinct, and the midrange was pushed a bit forward. The treble, along with most of the rest of the frequency spectrum, did not exhibit nearly the same characteristics as when using the Phase 2 with more suitable speakers.
Next up were the smaller, but still full-range, Dynaudio Audience 80s. Their driver complement is more modest, especially the two woofers, which are only about 5" in diameter. Their cabinets are also smaller. The Phase 2 found these speakers much easier to deal with, and I ended up listening to the Phase 2/Dynaudio combo for quite a while. Even though these speakers presented the Shearne with a much more user-friendly load, Im used to the Dynaudios exhibiting much better transient response. Those with a musical diet that consists mostly of music on the mellower side might find something to like with this combination, however. When I spun the sampler Selected Signs [ECM 1650], on which the largest ensemble is a sextet, this mild to moderate jazz and other nondescript music was a good example of program material that showed off both the Shearne integrated and the Dynaudio speakers. The bass was controlled, and the mids were natural-sounding.
I then mated the Phase 2 with a couple of pairs of small speakers I had on hand: the venerable PSB Stratus Mini, which is what I use in my second system/home studio, alternating with a pair of Heybrook Duets on loan for review. Both are small two-way speakers -- a bit larger than what many would designate a minimonitor, but still stand-mounted and considered by many to be of the bookshelf variety. Either of these speakers was a perfect match for the Shearne. The low end had the solidity of solid-state in every respect, and when the Phase 2 was mated to either the PSBs or the Heybrooks, every last ounce of potential in the low frequencies was extracted. Even through most of whats heard is in the middle to upper regions of the bass, the lows were still tight, tuneful and pitch-specific. And bass control was excellent.
The midrange stole the show, however. It was transparent, natural, and relatively grain-free. If I were to compare the Phase 2 to units costing much more, its faults would be that less overall refinement and soundstage layering. Therefore, I thought Id be limited to lighter fare -- acoustic jazz combos and the like -- but I was wrong. When I was in the mood for Jimi Hendrixs fabulous Live at the Fillmore East [MCA D2 11931], the room was filled with sound from New Years Eve '69/'70. Even though the Shearne couldnt shake the rafters, I never felt I was missing one iota of the din captured by the recording or Eddie Kramers excellent mastering.
The midrange was not like a tube amplifier's; it just did not have that "magic" that even modestly priced tube units can impart. However, the Phase 2's midrange was certainly clean and quite transparent. "First, do no harm," should be the rule of all preamplifiers, amplifiers and integrated amps, and fortunately the Phase 2 did not have much of its own sound to shade the recording. Human voice was natural-sounding, as was electric guitar. Did I say that electric guitar sounded "natural"? Sure. A well-recorded instrument should sound like the real thing when played through a decent piece of high-end gear, and the Phase 2 was able to accomplish this. One of my favorite Pink Floyd albums is Obscured by Clouds, my version a Japanese pressing of the LP [EMI/Harvest EMS80323]. When David Gilmore is playing what sounds like a Fender Stratocaster recorded with very few effects (although I think it might be a more obscure British manufacturers guitar from the photos Ive seen from that era). His axe sounded as if the speaker of his amp were right there. The recording became almost sonically invisible.
The treble was admirably transparent. Thankfully, it was not painfully detailed as that of some solid-state units Ive heard. Like the midrange, it was not tube-like, not like solid-state, but rather true to the source. Again, that is all you can really ask for, and this lack of its own sound was quite appealing.
About two-thirds of my listening is on vinyl, and it would have been a shame if I werent able to try out the Shearnes onboard phono section. So about halfway through the review period I had the unit fitted with the moving-coil phono stage. With it came a note from Shearnes chief engineer, Michael Meiny, that stated using my Lyra Clavis DC with the phono section of the Phase 2 was a "financial mismatch." The Clavis is an excellent cartridge, but its output is very low -- I think he was worried there would be too much noise that would only be blocked when there was loud music playing. Would most folks who purchase the Phase 2 use an analog setup similar to mine? Doubtful. But my turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination revealed exactly what this unit is capable of.
The phono section performed admirably. There was plenty of gain, and very little, if any, extraneous noise generated by the phono section itself. Its sound mimicked the line stage -- it was quick, clear, and although the soundstage was flat, the Phase 2 was able to sort out the most complex of passages. Because I was using a cartridge that cost as much as the integrated itself, I was able to notice that the Phase 2 compressed the signal slightly, and its treble performance had many of the same traits of the rest of the unit -- both good and bad. There was a slight wispiness was more noticeable, and record-surface noise seemed to be exaggerated a little. Am I dwelling on the negative? I shouldnt. The Phase 2s phono section kicked butt, and I recommend it as an option much more highly than I would an outboard phono section of the same price.
I also used the Phase 2 as a preamp by connecting the outputs of the unit to my power amp. The sound of the Phase 2 when used as a preamp versus as an integrated was mostly just a matter of power, and then it depended almost totally on the efficiency and size of the speakers more than anything else. Ive had some rather pricey solid-state preamplifiers in my system over the years from some very respected manufacturers, and the Shearne Phase 2 could easily match the sound of many of these units. I could only imagine how good the more sophisticated (and more expensive) Shearne Phase 6 preamplifier is.
I compared the Phase 2 to my reference setup (an Audible Illusions Modulus 3A or my now-departed Conrad-Johnson PV-12A hooked up to my Krell KAV-250a amp) driving all of the speakers mentioned earlier, and the differences were quite obvious. There was more of everything with my reference equipment. Most noticeable was that the soundstage of the reference was much more enveloping. It was wider and deeper, and depending on which speakers were used, at times it seemed to make them sonically disappear. The bass through this system was also more authoritative, and the highs more crystalline and yet natural. The mids were see-through and had that almost indescribable tube magic. Despite all of this, however, the Shearne could hold its own. There were times when I left the Phase 2 in my system, enjoying the clarity that came from using a good solid-state unit. Long listening sessions were many because the Phase 2's sound never, ever became harsh. And combined with all its other sonic benefits, the Phase 2 made for some very enjoyable listening sessions.
I guess its time to apologize. I am not the perfect candidate to review a low-powered integrated amp. I dont regularly use a small system to try it in, and Im a big speaker sort of guy (OK -- and limber, a bit lazy, and somewhat of a klutz). Thats why the Phase 2 spent time in my main system being used as a preamplifier. But I have to admit that the Shearne Phase 2 is an excellent piece of gear. Of course, in considering an integrated amp around this price, there are others that you should, and probably will, think about too. I am not going to make any suggestions -- I'm not the perfect candidate for this either. However, I cant imagine anyone who wants a unit of the Phase 2's power to be unhappy with the British integrated that can take a fall.
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