People have been coming up with new ways to build a better record player for over a century, so somebody must have thought of it before. But only now has the technology advanced sufficiently that a company managed to put a phono stage inside a headshell. Clearaudio did just that last year with the Absolute Phono; it results in a slightly thicker headshell than most, but it provides the first stage of gain with the bare minimum of connecting cable between it and the cartridge coils. This avoids exposing the miniscule output voltage of a moving coil cartridge to radio frequency pollution and should mean that noise is significantly lowered as a result.
What appears to have given this idea a boost is that unlike the majority of phono stages that use voltage amplification, it is also possible to use current amplification. Clearaudio is not the first to put such an approach into practice, but they did manage to build current amplification into a phono stage that is partly in the headshell with the rest in a separate case. All of which is fine if you want a Clearaudio tonearm but it has limited potential if you prefer something else. This has spawned the Absolute Phono Inside, a stage that uses the same current amplification technology in a box that can be connected to any tonearm and cartridge.
This claims to “almost match” the 10dB signal to noise advantage claimed for the ‘outside’ version because current amplification obviates the need for cartridge loading and eliminates coupling capacitors in the signal path. The impedance is actually 120 Ohms (for unbalanced), but the current amplification aspect is said to mean that it’s easy for any moving coil to drive. When you consider that many stages have a fixed 100 Ohm impedance that doesn’t seem too bizarre.
The Absolute Phono is a fully-balanced design to keep noise to a minimum and has both balanced and single-ended inputs. On the output side, however, there are only XLR connections. I guess at this price point, balanced input preampliers are not uncommon, except among us pesky British reviewers!
The Absolute Phono Inside is a two-box stage with some rather elaborate boxes. These feature aluminium clamshells that are separated by panzerholz (high density engineering plywood). This arrangement provides a degree of damping without undermining overall rigidity. One box contains a power supply and mains connection, with an on/off switch as well as a dimmer for the blue circular light on the stage itself. The light surrounds an on/off switch that flashes to indicate on, off, and mute states. Fit and finish are to a very high standard and the RCA sockets in particular are very high quality. In fact, it’s a lovely box, as is the power supply.
While it’s beautifully executed, the price seems high for the size of the components. The Inside contains some high quality parts in Vishay Dale resistors and Clearaudio Silver Glimmer capacitors, but one suspects that you are paying for the time spent in R&D as much as anything else.