It’s not just the distance or the cultural differences that gives Japanese audio hardware its exotic appeal. It’s a combination of that nation’s hard-earned reputation for attention to detail with the general impression that they are even more obsessed with sound quality than we are. The last is probably not true, but to put a video of your loudspeakers being installed on YouTube, even if they are JBL behemoths, is pretty darn keen, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They also have a penchant for tube electronics, which is always a good sign, even if it results in crazily expensive products once they get to these shores. Sadly, not that much genuine Japanese tube gear gets here these days.
Puresound builds a range of tube-powered electronics, but that doesn’t mean that proprietor Guy Sargeant limits his horizons to audio that glows: the Aurorasound VIDA is a solid state phono stage, or ‘VInyl Disc Amplifier’. And a pretty sophisticated one at that despite the idiosyncratic, but ultimately cool styling. For a start, it provides RIAA filtering with an LCR circuit using a coil that not only results in “much fulfilling midrange” but also provides a constant impedance at its output. It’s a system devised by Western Electric (the one-time megalith of American audio electronics) that avoids the use of capacitors and resistors in the signal path. The VIDA uses Lundahl filter coils that look much like that company’s popular step-up transformers, but perform RIAA equalisation. Here the extra gain required for moving coil cartridges is performed actively. The circuit is pure DC with no capacitors in the signal path, which is achieved with semi-conductors rather than conventional components as a result of Aurora’s founder Shinobu Karaki’s experience working for Texas Instruments before he made his hobby a full-time occupation.
The VIDA’s front panel is encumbered by one of the ugliest badges in the business but everything else is lovely.Well, almost; quite why the mute button has to be so big and yellow is a mystery. The row of toggle switches select between MM and MC inputs, mono and stereo, subsonic filtering, high and low input impedance, and a degauss/demagnetise option. Each operates a relay for long-term reliability. The MC impedance settings are limited to 10 and 100 Ohms, which is a bit limiting. Those interested in seeing how their cartridges might perform with other impedances might be tempted by the six position option mentioned on Aurora’s website. Stereo/mono is a useful feature if you have many mono recordings, and I have heard older vinyl recordings that would benefit from subsonic filtering. A mono phono amplifier is crying out for more tone curves than just RIAA, however. The degauss option is said to be beneficial once every six months.
As is the custom, the power transformer for this phono stage is in a separate and more compact, but equally well finished case with a switch on the front. Connection is via a modern looking umbilical lead, and the VIDA is supplied with a metre long cable. Build quality throughout is very high. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that this is the same sample that ‘did the rounds’ four years ago, but except for a bit of damage to the woodwork, it’s in great condition. I should also mention that the input sockets are rhodium plated; a small touch but a nice one that promises better conductivity than gold and – unlike silver – long term shininess.
Listening commenced with a Transfiguration Proteus moving coil aboard an STST Motus turntable (the latter also distributed by Puresound). This proved a particularly sweet combo. The fact that the Proteus likes a very low 10 Ohm impedance undoubtedly works in the VIDA’s favour. But it’s a great cartridge and here delivered a combination of power and finesse that was beguiling, thanks to a slight emphasis on the midband that brings out vocals a treat. The VIDA is quite tube-like in character, combining rich tonal rendering with clear open highs and fluid yet clearcut basslines. In multitracked recordings it’s easy to hear the different layers in the mix and to pick out the various instruments and effects but this doesn’t undermine an overall musicality that’s very engaging. And it ‘times’ well; not as well as the best, but well enough to pull you into the music and focus your attention on the groove. Imaging is good for the price as well, with an excellent recording of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ [España, NSO, Chasing the Dragon], the voice stands out from the orchestra with considerable solidity and presence. The orchestra fills out the soundstage with ease and brings the vitality of the performance into the room. It is a very good recording, but you need everything in the system to be sorted to hear all of its scale, dynamics, and charm. The dynamics are perhaps the area that could do with some bolstering – gain is not that high and with a low level recording, I have to wind up the wick quite considerably to get some energy into the room.
Patricia Barber’s ‘Postmodern Blues’ [Modern Cool, Premonition] is another great recording that again is allowed some dynamic range and thus needs a bit more gain than the VIDA (and my admittedly passive preamp) can muster. But it still sounds captivating because there is so much feeling in the voice; all the nuance and inflection that Barber brings to the piece is clearly presented thanks to good low-level resolution and an effortless rhythmic backdrop. The double bass solo reveals much more timbre than usual and it’s impossible not to appreciate just how much poise this band possessed. Tom Waits [Swordfishtrombones, Island] also manages to get out of the speakers into the room rather well, in fact to an uncanny degree. Again it’s the timbre of voice and instruments that grabs the attention: the guitar, vibes, percussion, and ‘is that a mandolin?’ all take up space in a large, focussed soundstage.
Moving to a more familiar record player – the Rega RP10 with Rega Aphelion MC – ups the timing to the next level, in fact without comparison it’s hard to hear how it could be improved in this regard. With Mop Mop’s Isle of Magic [Agogo Records] the decay of a big, skinned percussion instrument is remarkably well resolved, as is the echo applied to other instruments that has rarely raised itself above the parapet. Contrasting the VIDA with my Trilogy 907 reference makes the latter sound more like a solid-state device than usual. It has a crispness to highs that doesn’t seem as natural as the VIDA, but it could just be avoiding roll-off. This extension does widen the soundstage beyond the speakers, however, making me inclined to think that the Japanese stage does have a smoother top end than is strictly neutral. Overall, however, and with this turntable and cartridge the VIDA wins the day with its relaxed yet well resolved presentation, and with strings in particular it seems highly natural, making the competition seem a little grainy. Even the dynamics are a bit better with this cartridge set at the higher impedance setting, which is conveniently the same figure as Rega recommends.
Switching needles for a Dynavector DV-20XH proved that the MM input has enough gain for high output MCs. The result wasn’t as refined as the dearer Rega, but the timing got pretty close and the imaging has plenty of solidity. In a quest to get a fuller picture, a bigger turntable in the form of SME’s mightly Model 20/3A was brought to the party. This has the Series V arm carrying a Van den Hul Condor moving coil and the combination delivered oodles of character from a variety of records. I had a bit of a session with The Mothers of Invention that revealed just how even, open, and transparent the VIDA is. There is an emphasis on the midband that reminds one of a tube stage, but the bass has plenty of power and the treble is well extended if a little sweet as mentioned above.
The Aurorasound VIDA is a very easy phono stage to enjoy. It makes the most of all manner of cartridges and turntables, emphasising the qualities of each, and letting you forget about the mechanics. It won’t be the first choice of those looking for maximum bandwidth, but it does offer a lot of tube charm without the noise and hum issues often associated with the breed. Just as importantly, it is very nicely built. If the company could just find a Leben style badge, it could be a worldwide hit!
Type: Two-piece, solid-state, MM/MC phono stage
Phono inputs: Two pairs single-ended (via RCA jacks)
Analogue outputs: One pair single-ended (via RCA jacks)
Input Sensitivity: Not specified
Input impedance: 10 Ohm, 100 Ohm, 47kOhm
Input capacitance: Not specified
Output impedance: Not specified
Output level: Not specified
RIAA linearity: +/– 0.25dB, 10Hz–20kHz
Distortion: 0.025% THD, MC A-weighted
Signal to Noise Ratio: Not specified
Phono stage preamp: 100 × 260 × 250mm
Power supply unit (PSU): 70 × 114 × 200mm
UK Distributor: Puresound
Tel: +44 (0) 1822 612449
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