Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 Phono Preamplifier Review
Never overlooking the value-for-money offerings on the Hi-Fi market in Australia, StereoNET takes a closer look at Pro-Ject's $280 compact phono preamplifier capable of bringing out the best of either MM or MC phono cartridges.
Phono Box S2
Compact MM/MC Phono Preamplifier
AUD $280 RRP
Shortly after the delivery of Pro-Ject's new Phono Box S2 phono preamplifier, I had a daydream.
I imagined I was in the Pro-Ject factory watching as a horde of workers assembled before a giant poster of a Pro-Ject turntable before the start of their shift. A bell rang, and they began chanting a mantra over and over. I could hear them intone the phrase “Value for money, Value for money, Value for money.”
More seriously, Pro-Ject continues to build an extensive range of nicely priced, well-built turntables that sound better than their price tags suggest and are moreover, as reliable as the Flinders Street clock.
Pro-Ject also builds a decent range of digital and analogue ancillaries that includes a DAC, streamer and several nicely priced phono stages that perform way above what their RRPs indicate.
There's a compelling elegant simplicity to all of Pro-Ject's ancillary components. The Phono Box S2 exemplifies this elegance with a chassis so compact it easily fits on the palm of a hand-including the plug-in outboard power supply.
This simplicity starts at the S2's facia which is bereft of embellishment save for its Pro-Ject logo, model number and solitary on/off power switch.
This lack of clutter is designed to suit its primary customer group which is bound to include a crowd of first-time turntable buyers. Most will be snaring a Pro-Ject turntable priced under $599 or thereabout.
These models may have a preinstalled moving magnet cartridge. But as Pro-Ject rightly surmises, the amplifier that's likely to be used with these entry-level vinyl spinners is bound to be a line stage model with plenty of inputs, but no built-in phono preamplifier.
Around the time CD surfaced in 1984, audio manufacturers started saying sayonara to amplifiers with phono stages. A cost-cutting measure which seemed to align with a turntable-less audio future.
But this didn't stop them from labelling one of their amplifier's line inputs “phono” - go figure. A generous interpretation may be that all this signified was the input one would use with an external phono stage.
Whatever the reasoning, Pro-Ject, as usual, was on the money with its affordable valve and solid-state phono stages.
But to continue the theme of elegant simplicity, you need to peer at the back of the S2. What you'll see are a pair of RCA inputs and a pair of RCA outputs and a connection for the power supply bundled with the S2.
That's it, right?
No, like the Dentel dude used to say in the ad, “Wait, there's more.”
And so there is. But you'll have to flip an S2 on its back to reveal eight small adjustable switches. Five are used to set the impedance a cartridge will see when it's connected to the S2. The remaining three allow you to set the gain of the S2 to 40, 43, 60 and 63 dB levels. There's also an earth screw if required to earth a tonearm lead.
Lastly, there's an on/off switch for a subsonic filter for turntables with a lot of rumble. This operates at -12dB @ 20Hz.
Specs wise, the S2 is impressive with a signal-to-noise ratio of 85dB and THD level of just 0.01% for moving magnets and 0.05% for moving coils. In use, the S2 was remarkably quiet for a $280 phono stage.
Internally the S2 is as neat as the proverbial pin, and the parts include audiophile-grade polypropylene capacitors.
The Phono Box S2 is nicely packaged, and while the manual skimps on presentation, it is simple to read as it's written in English that is also grammatically spot on. A point worth mentioning if trying to decipher an Asian-to-English manual has done your head in recently.
Wired And Fired
It took all of five minutes to connect the S2 to a $399 Pro-Ject Essential II turntable fitted with an Ortofon OM5 moving magnet cartridge. An Ortofon MC10 low output moving coil was also used.
When it became obvious the OM5 was holding the S2 back, an Audio Technica AT160ML was also used.
The amplifier was a NAD 3020 amplifier that I've had forever. Price, when I bought it was $289. Lastly, the speakers enlisted for this gear were a pair of $949 B&W 607.
The kind of hi-fi system a first-time quality conscious buyer might choose. I know all about the theory of spending plenty on a signal source and skimping on the amp and speakers. But that's not the route first-time audio buyers like to travel. They'll splurge on the speakers and skimp on the rest of the gear. Take that to the bank.
With the system nicely warmed up and no CD player to worry about, I put a copy of the new Ry Cooder LP called Prodigal Son on the platter.
Initial impressions were of a highly communicative midrange, a treble with a little coarseness, and warmish but taut bass. Impressed, I moved the tonearm to the track Harbour of Love that features Cooder on acoustic guitar accompanied by the most delicate percussion and keyboard you're ever likely to hear.
The latter proved a real test for the OM5 which is simply a cheap, entry-level starter cartridge. Tracking wasn't an issue, but refinement in the treble was. So was a lack of fine detail.
The midrange was better. Cooder's vocal and guitar carry the track, particularly as the vocal acts as a focus for the timing of the other instruments. Usually, this is the task of the percussion player.
The OM5 provided a warm midrange, but as noted above, the lack of detail robbed this sublime track of its richness and emotional impact. The OM5 also reached into the bass shyly and without too much impact.
Moving to the MC10 provided a different avenue into the S2's ability and showed what a sophisticated cartridge this old and venerable MC10 really was. Now the treble regained most of its refinement but not all of the subliminal detail I hear when my Koetsu Red Signature phono cartridge tracks its grooves.
What was surprising about the S2 was its midrange ability. Bass also improved substantially with the MC10. It was now deep with palpable presence and scale.
Moving onto the Stones' Let It Bleed album and the track You Got the Silver using the OM5 the sound was about what I expected. While imaging was very good, the treble gained some spite and lacked detail. The midrange was still warm, but it lacked the transparency of the MC10.
Bass which is always a feature of any Stones album was enjoyable via the OM5, but when the MC10 was used, it was positively thrilling.
A picture was emerging of the S2's performance. Initial impressions were of a phono stage that punched way above its weight with a low output moving coil. But the jury was out vis-à-vis its ability with moving magnets.
So I pulled out an Audio-technic AT160ML from my collection and swapped this for the OM5 and began to play the James Taylor track, Fire and Rain. To suggest everything improved would be a major understatement.
As the sweetness, refinement and detail in the treble went up in quality several notches, I became aware that the S2 was capable of spinning some pleasant surprises. Everything was better now. The midrange was fuller and populated with a level of transparency the OM5 denied me. As for bass frequencies, these became more extended, and they were faster to explode in my listening room.
With the MC10 installed, there wasn't much between it and the 160ML as far as bass, and treble reproduction was concerned. When it came to the vital midrange, I felt the ML160 was more linear and transparent, but the bass was simply tighter and fuller with the MC10.
But the whole point is this small $280 phono stage was showing up all the differences in the three cartridges.
I eventually parked the OM5 and used the 160ML and MC10 to play another dozen albums enjoyably via the S2 phono stage. Finally, a clear picture emerged of what it could and couldn't do.
This is a lowly-priced phono stage that handles both moving magnet and moving coils with an even hand.
Compared to much dearer models it lacks total transparency nor does it retrieve the same level of subliminal detail. In the midrange, the S2 has an admirable presence and an ability to convey musical emotions way above what its price indicates. As for bass, all the S2 lacks compared to more expensive rivals is scale and depth.
For $280 in Australia, the Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 is an authentic audio bargain deserving of much more than an entry-level moving magnet or moving coil cartridges. At its price, it's likely to have few peers and is highly recommended.
For more information visit Pro-Ject.
One of the veterans of the Australian HiFi industry, Peter was formerly the Audio-Video Editor of the Herald Sun for over two decades. One of the most-respected audio journalists in Australia, Peter brings his unparalleled experience and a unique story-telling ability to StereoNET.