Alex Nikitin is one of hi-fi’s best kept secrets. Not many know his name, but he is widely respected in the industry as the gifted audio engineer behind many of Creek Audio’s products for much of the nineties and noughties. Alex Nikitin Technology (ANT Audio) is his latest venture, and alongside a small range of specialist products he makes phono stages to order, the best of which is this rather unusual creation…
“Some while ago I came up with an idea of a very simple phono preamplifier design, using an unusual transistor type for amplification. There are only three transistors per channel in the Kora 3T circuit using a local negative feedback in a single-ended Class A circuit with a passive EQ in a single stage voltage amplification arrangement. I first built this circuit as not more than a proof of a concept, however my biggest surprise was when I had a listen. The sound quality of this circuit rivals most elaborated solid state designs”, Alex told me. He went on to add that, “it comes close to the level of a good valve phono stage. It is not perfect in technical terms, although its measurements are quite adequate for such a simple circuit.”
So, instead of the usual op-amp based designs, Alex’s phono stage is all-discrete, and uses just three transistors (hence the ‘3T’ suffix). This Limited Edition version was launched in 2009 at £775, and was hand made to order with tightly toleranced capacitors and Holco resistors throughout, Black Gate bias capacitors, and low noise powers supply. The red LED denotes its top-of-the-range status. In the flesh it is very underwhelming – it’s just a little black box of the sort you get from proprietary electronics suppliers (48x91x133mm, 1kg) with no frills.
Sonically though it is special, and ranks as one of the best phono stages ever – in some respects – especially when used with an upgraded Timestep power supply. Unlike almost every other solid-state design, it doesn’t sound tonally forward, ‘well lit’, brittle, harsh, edgy, upfront, two-dimensional or mechanical. Rather, it’s very similar sonically in some ways to the best tube designs, which is to say that it has a deep, dark, sumptuous sound with lots of air and space left to right, and front to back. Moreover, it lets the music flow along in a very unforced, unaffected way. It’s open, even and engaging in a totally natural way.
Most £1,000 phono stages don’t give you the transparency of the Kora 3T Ltd. You can listen right into the mix, enjoying a wonderfully delicate, spacious and unspoiled sound. Trouble is, because it doesn’t add and brightness or ‘zing’, the Kora can sound dull in average systems – you need a really incisive and transparent system to really hear its ability. It has impressive control, with a wonderfully liquid midband bristling with rhythmic snap, and images around the plane of the speakers, which lets you push up the volume and peer in to the recording without having your senses assaulted.
An exceptional phono stage then, both at the price and in its own right. It’s not quite as sweet, euphonic or beguiling as the very best money can buy, but like every great ‘affordable audiophile’ product gives much of that high end magic at a far more realistic price. It’s a highly neutral yet engaging and energetic performer, which to my ears betters anything at or near the price – it deserves to be heard.