I can’t remember the last time I sat down to evaluate a new component with so many questions swirling through my mind. Does this thing really use a wall wart power supply? Who needs this many gain settings? Is it really truly dual mono? Is this really Herb Reichert’s brand of choice for “reference” phono stages? Why aren’t there more reviews of this thing? Do they really build them in the US? A fellow co-worker even chimed in “It looks so unassuming. Where is the massive external power supply? Where is the chrome?!” I’ll address most of this later on, but first a quick overview.
The Musical Surroundings Nova III is the latest in a long lineup of products engineered and built in California by Musical Surroundings. Little can be learned about design specifics from the manufacturers page however they make a few claims that would otherwise be unheard of in this price point (hence my initial skepticism) Claims like; Super Low Noise voltage regulation, Dual Inductor de-coupling, 10,000uf of regulation and perhaps most surprisingly not a single op-amp is used anywhere in the design.
Don’t let the look of the back panel intimidate you, this was a surprisingly easy setup. A quick check in the owner’s manual informed me of exactly which rear mounted dip switches needed to be flipped in order to tweak the gain settings properly, and at 51.5DB it was immediately a near perfect match for my 2.5mv output Sumiko Bluepoint no.2 cartridge (but more on that later.) I’ve seen many people complaining online that Musical Surroundings recommends a “small non-metallic tool” although they failed to provide one in the box. I made a venture into the kitchen in search of a wooden toothpick, little to my surprise it worked perfectly, crisis averted. All that was left was to connect it to my system, so I dug through my old box of random cables and pulled out a pair of Audioquest Water RCA cables that I had long ago stopped using. I turned off my internal phono stage and I was up and running.
Now everyone has their own opinions on break in time for most components, and I will avoid straying too far down that particular rabbit hole here, but I generally like to refrain from any critical listening for at least a day or two of break in time, regardless of the type of component. Against my better judgement I decided to sit down and listen to just one track while I ate lunch. Suffice it to say I was very glad that I did, and that one track may have turned into three (or maybe even four, who’s counting?)
I have long advised my clients that audio is a hobby based around tradeoffs. I often ask my clients about their specific goals for a system, are they looking for harmonic richness? Timbral accuracy? Pinpoint imaging and sound staging? Dynamic range? Bass slam? The absolute last word in resolution and detail retrieval at the cost of all else? And while many of these elements don’t have to be mutually exclusive, you can certainly have both a harmonically rich sounding system with lots of dynamics and bass slam, it’s definitely going to cost you to get it. And that is where my one piece of universal advice always comes in to play: “buy the best that you can reasonably afford” So what does that mean really? For the large majority of my clients that means finding the best value product. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve said “hey this thing has 75% of the performance as the next highest model and its half the cost!” and I should point out that I never say it unless I really do believe it’s true. I’ve said it about speakers, amps, turntables, you name it. So, the big question here is how does the Nova III stack up with its higher priced competition?
After I finally got around to doing some real critical listening, I found myself no longer caring about all those questions I had bouncing around my head earlier: Why is it so unassuming? Who cares, it means they put more cost into the circuits and less into the casework. Why is this $1500 phono stage still using a wall wart for power? Oh, because they sell a linear charging power supply for geeks like me who care about that sort of thing. Is it really dual mono? It sure as hell sounds like it!
I found, instead, that the Nova III was continuously checking off all the important boxes for me, and some of the really difficult ones at that. Not just the usual buzzwords like “smoothness in the midrange” and “tube like warmth” or my most hated buzzword of all time “musicality” (side note: can we as audio enthusiasts agree to start challenging each other to come up with better descriptors than simply saying something sounds “musical” it’s a non-descriptor folks, all of these devices create music.)
As I was saying, this thing was checking off many of the particularly tough boxes, depth of soundstage, pinpoint imaging, harmonic richness, and not just that, but it felt lean and fast and accurate without sounding clinical or overly analytical, definitely not an easy task to fulfill at any price point south of five figures. Orchestras sounded large, guitars were precise and tonally complete, voices floated in the air and sounded full and throaty in a way they don’t normally come across unless someone is standing right there in front of you. It had the presence of a SET system along with the dynamics of much more expensive components. Those tradeoffs I talked about earlier, nearly all of them were gone.
I’ve always had trouble evaluating phono pre amps in the past, while my Bluepoint No.2 is an expressive cartridge with a great sense of pace, rhythm and timing (read: “musical”) I always struggled with its low output. It sounded great with most stages at lower volumes, especially for casual listening purposes, but as soon as I tried to bump up the volume to appropriate listening levels for orchestral recordings the whole thing would just collapse in on itself, the dynamics were gone, the soundstage restricted, the imaging was smeared and imprecise, for a long time I thought I hated this cartridge, not anymore. Suddenly, and for the first time, I was hearing its true potential. I nearly took back every bad word I’ve ever said about “high output” moving coil cartridges.
It has long been my experience that, especially with phono stages, you don’t want any more gain than only what you need to reach appropriate volumes, and by being able to set the gain almost anywhere in the range of 40-65db, in increments as small as 1db in some areas, it means that there is barely a cartridge on the planet that the Nova III couldn’t support with exactly the correct amount of gain. How many other under $2000 phono stages can make that claim and still sound this good? None that I have heard.
While I won’t take the time to muse on my experience with every single album and test track that I used in my evaluation I will say this: This is not at all the type of 75% as good for half the price item that I mentioned earlier, not by a long shot. This is an “every bit as good or better than anything I’ve heard at twice the price, it’s no wonder professional reviewers have been using these as reference phono stages for almost 20 years, it’s so good” type of product. And not only that but this is far from a niche product, this is one that will work for cartridge swappers and casual listeners alike. The Nova III is a true “Giant Slayer” in every sense of the word, and that’s high praise coming from someone who’s built their career on the philosophy of “under promise and over deliver”.
MartinLogan Impression 11A
MartinLogan BalancedForce 210
Peachtree Nova 300
Pro-Ject 2Xperience SB with Sumiko Bluepoint No.2
Furman Elite 15pfi