Cyrus Audio – home of the ‘singing shoebox’ – is synonymous with good quality audio at a fair price. Occasionally though, it knocks one of its products completely out of the park. That’s what happened with the Phono Signature. This is the best phono stage Cyrus knows how to build, and it’s possibly one of the best phono stages any company knows how to build, irrespective of price. That’s a pretty bold statement, especially from the Editor of a magazine that is not afraid of the upper limit in audio. Still, it stands.
The Cyrus Audio Phono Signature is a discrete, upgradable phono stage, featuring four completely independent inputs, a very highly specified passive RIAA de-emphasis filter with metallised polyester capacitors for the least damage to the sound, a low noise DC power supply as standard (with the chance to upgrade the signal path power feed with a PSX-R2 separate DC power supply), has the option of moving magnet, or highly adjustable moving coil inputs, and can output to either XLR or RCA line inputs. All in the distinctive cast half-width Cyrus case.
Cyrus has actively made the Phono Signature extremely adjustable in terms of cartridge resistance and capacitance, and amplifier gain. There are 160 different permutations of these three parameters available to the user. What’s more, instead of being accessible from a rear panel DIP switch block, these are user controllable on the fly, to the point where these performance aspects are controlled from the remote control or the front panel. This is an entirely conscious idea on the part of Cyrus, which doesn’t adhere to the idea of ‘fit and forget’ cartridge loading. Instead, Cyrus thinks we should tailor the sound of LP through the cartridge, applying a bit of extra capacitance here to take the edge off too bright a recording, or a bit of resisitance here to bring up the presence region of a recording. And it has done this while eschewing both EQ curves and tone controls, effectively using the cartridge’s relationship with the phono stage as its own combined equaliser and tone stack.
This is, er, odd-ball stuff… but it works. Coming very much from the ‘fuggedaboutit’ school of adjusting the loading and EQ of a cartridge, the idea of using the cartridge to compensate for the iniquities in recordings is about as strange as adjusting the colour balance of your TV set for each programme watched… but it works. Coming from someone who isn’t that bothered about different EQ curves because it effects the grand total of maybe five albums in my collection that I rarely play, this level of LP tweaking should be way beyond my ‘give a crap’ level… but it works.
Although the die-cast chassis looks remain close to the classic Cyrus Audio look of old, that distinctive light, slightly bright sound has all but disappeared. The Cyrus sound is as detailed as it ever was, but where that detail tipped over into brightness and a slightly etched quality that typified the traditional Cyrus sound, it’s now more rounded and even-handed, with more bass depth and authority, and greater dynamic range. This seems to be doubly so in the case of the Phono Signature, and is possibly Cyrus’ long-sought ‘break-out’ product to give the company some traction in the US.
In the Phono Reference, Cyrus has made an outstanding phono stage, one that combines the need for a holographic soundstage and massive amounts of detail, and one that gives a musical, engaging presentation… and all points in between. In its standard one-box guise, there is a slight amount of foreshortening of apparent stage width and depth, but this can be corrected with the addition of the PSX-R2. At which point, this plucky little two boxer from England can take on some of the real heavyweights. I found it didn’t sound the least bit out of place in the company of Lyra cartridges and D’Agostino integrated amplifiers, despite residing in a system where I think the fuses cost more than the phono stage! That’s punching above its weight.
The dynamic range here is truly effortless. I rolled out the big guns – an early pressing of Led Zep II [Atlantic] to be precise. This is a recording with plenty of vim and vigour, mostly masked by a recording that leaves much to be desired. A few judicious tweaks of the loading, and some of the worst excesses of the recording have been sort of side-stepped. John Paul-Jones’ bass lines and Bonzo’s powerhouse drumming brushed aside the decades and started beating me round the head, and I loved every second of it! The sense of scale and range on ‘Heartbreaker’ pushed me to play this at Def Con 2 levels and the whole thing delivered a very high degree of awesomeness.
Cyrus has made something so much more than just a headbanger’s phono stage here. Swap fast rock for something more layered and complex – ‘America is Waiting’ from Eno and Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts [Sire], for example – and the way the Phono Reference organises that angular, dense mix of ‘found’ proto-samples, tape loops, and instruments draws you ever deeper into the mix.
The same applied throughout: recordings opened up under the watchful gaze of the Phono Reference with ease, and the gentle tonal adjustment of cartridge loading can bring out the hidden gems within your record collection. It will take you several dozen hours of listening with your own system to determine the right settings to exact a change to the sound of any given LP, but when you get to black belt level here, you can really improve the lot of many otherwise not so inspiring records.
The Phono Reference is not without slight operational idiosyncrasies, but most are design led rather than sonic limitations. The squidgy soft-touch buttons along the front panel are not exactly the most positive feeling buttons around, and that – coupled with a display that gets very hard to read off axis and a modal menu structure that takes a little while to get your head around – can result in a lot of button mashing, especially in the familiarity stages of ownership. The remote too is not ideal, because it’s the Cyrus full system remote and should have more specific loading-related functions if you want the cartridge-loading as tone shaper to become a ‘thing’. In other words, the best way of controlling this phono stage is placing it on a shelf where the display is at a useful height, and you can control it directly. At least at first.
The UK loves a good power supply, but many of our international counterparts aren’t quite so convinced. Rather than bother with the additional expense of an extra box, why not just pay for the thing up-front? The Cyrus Phono Reference goes some way to explaining the ‘why’ of bolt-on power supplies. At its price, the Phono Reference may well end up connecting a good front-end worth a few thousand, or it might end up hooked to one of the very best. If you are going for a more even handed system, the PSX-R2 power supply is a nice addition that tidies up the performance of the Phono Reference, but is hardly the kind of thing you must buy on pain of death. Making the Phono Reference a great £1,200 phono stage. On the other hand, if you are really going for it and slotting the Cyrus stage into one of those best-of-breed turntable systems, the PSX-R2 becomes almost mandatory and the resulting £1,900 two-box phono stage is outstanding. Furthermore, if you are either somewhere between these two poles or frantically building a best-of-breed LP system, the Phono Reference is almost unique in being able to grow and improve with your system. In short, it makes good sense. And once experienced, it’s almost impossible to turn back.
The Cyrus Audio Phono Reference surprised me. I expected it to be good. I just didn’t expect it to be this good! Coupled with the PSX-R2 it’s a true world-beater; dynamically free, detailed, and most of all so damn enjoyable to sit in front of, it’s hard not to play record after record through the system, whatever that system. Yes, there will be those who don’t see the point of any phono stage that only uses a RIAA curve, and there will be many who simply discount the Cyrus Phono Reference for being too small, or even too cheap. More fool them. This is something really special, and comes very highly recommended!
Cyrus Phono Reference
Type: Solid state phono stage with optional DC power supply
Inputs: 4× RCA stereo pairs for individual cartridge inputs, multipin PSX-R2 input
Outputs: XLR balanced and RCA single ended stereo line level outputs, MC-Bus RCA in and out
RIAA filter accuracy: ±0.5dB
MM input sensitivity: 4mV,
MM input impedance: 47kΩ
MC input sensitivity range: 120µV-4mV
MC input impedance values: 11Ω, 16Ω, 33Ω, 47Ω, 100Ω, 150Ω, 333Ω, 500Ω, 1kΩ, 47kΩ
MC capacitive load options: 220pf, 1nF, 2nF, 3nF
Available in: black or silver
Dimensions (W×H×D): 2.5×7.5×36.5cm
Type: Optional sensing DC power supply
Supply: ±35.5VDC (integrated amplifier, stereo power amplifier), ±18-30VDC (mono amps), ±21VDC (low level source components)
Dimensions (W×H×D): 2.5×7.5×36.5cm
Manufactured by: Cyrus Audio Ltd
Tel: +44(0)1480 410900