Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
It was very late on a cold, rainy January night in 1975 when The Köln Concert was recorded. Everything went wrong. Instead of the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano ordered by the show’s promoters, a mix-up led to the concert hall’s poorly maintained baby grand being brought out on the stage. Technicians slaved for hours tuning the instrument to get it into a playable condition; the sustain pedals were beyond repair and thus would be useless. The performer, Keith Jarrett, had spent five hours riding in a small, rickety French economy car from his previous concert in Switzerland. Dinner was served late, too late for a full meal before showtime. And Jarrett had been battling severe back pain and sleep deprivation for days leading up to the concert.
The show he put on is widely regarded as one of the finest solo piano performances of all time.
It’s understandable that any musician might have reservations about performing in public under such inauspicious circumstances; for a musical savant like Jarrett, whose perfectionist bent was well-known, to call the whole thing off would have seemed the only course of action available. Martin Wieland, a mobile recording technician from Bauer Studios, had already positioned two Neumann U 67 vacuum-tube condenser mikes above the piano by the time Jarrett arrived at the Cologne Opera House and was informed of the circumstances under which he was expected to perform. Vera Brandes, a scrappy 19-year-old student moonlighting as a concert promoter, pleaded with Jarrett to perform despite his misgivings. It’s said that notwithstanding his repeated threats to cancel the concert, Jarrett finally acquiesced upon learning that the recording equipment had already been set up. The show would go on as planned, despite fate’s every attempt to stop it.
Köln, Germany, more commonly known as Cologne in the English-speaking world, is also home to Lehmannaudio. Specializing in phono preamplifiers and headphone amps, the electronics company has become something of a hi-fi press darling since the introduction of the original Black Cube phono preamp in 1995. The full phono preamp line includes several other products: from the entry-level Black Cube Statement ($459, all prices in USD) up to the reference-grade Silver Cube ($4699). The company’s latest product, the Decade Jubilee ($3499), was introduced in North America in the spring of 2022. While the Decade Jubilee externally appears as an evolution of the older Decade ($2099), Norbert Lehmann, the company’s founder and managing director, spoke with me about the Decade Jubilee and emphasized that it is an entirely new product.
Like the Decade, the Decade Jubilee consists of two boxes, each measuring 4″W × 11″D × 2″H. The first houses the PWX II LC power supply, and its brushed-aluminum faceplate bears only the Lehmannaudio logo and a single blue LED, while the second contains the phono amplification and RIAA compensation section. The front of the phono preamp case also has an LED to denote that it’s receiving power, as well as three switches, each with an LED indicator of its own. Those who are bothered by retina-searing blue LEDs needn’t fret, as these indicators have been tuned a soft, almost-purple hue that doesn’t overwhelm in a darkened listening room.
The three small aluminum switches on the phono preamp case actuate with a resolute click, and beyond that are quite utilitarian, with markings that prioritize conveying meaning without undue fanfare. The first switch is marked by a graphic of a downward slope; this indicates that switching it to the “on” position activates a low-frequency roll-off of 6dB per octave with a 50Hz cutoff frequency. The second switch is marked High, and activates a 10dB boost. The third switch is marked MC and switches from a 36dB gain level for moving-magnet cartridges to 56dB of gain for those of the moving-coil persuasion. Thus, between the two switches, there are four available gain levels: 36dB, 46dB, 56dB, and 66dB.
The PWX II LC power-supply unit is connected to the amplification stage via a shielded 2m umbilical with four-pin Neutrik connectors. There are two outputs on the power supply, which allow it to be used to power another of Lehmannaudio’s products, like a Black Cube, for example. The PWX II LC supplied with the Decade Jubilee is a regulated bipolar PSU with the same schematic as the Decade’s PWX II, but with an upgraded circuit board and components. It uses Mundorf electrolytic capacitors, and the copper pours are three times as thick as in the PWX II to maintain as low an impedance throughout the power supply as possible. Like the older model, the power transformer is a toroidal unit shrouded in dual mu-metal shields. This prevents electromagnetic interference from causing noise or other misbehavior in nearby electronics. An isolation coil between the primary and secondary windings of the transformer serves to prevent spurious ground currents from flowing that might induce noise in the phono stage or other equipment.
The inside of the case of the Decade Jubilee’s PSU is treated with a damping material, and both its chassis and that of the phono-stage unit are equipped with Lehmannaudio’s 3S Device Feet, which utilize a textile-based damping compound to reduce the effect of vibrations on the operation of the electronic circuits.
I’m a real nerd. I can admit it. I love immersing myself in the technical details of stereo equipment, down to trying to understand circuit topologies, Thiele/Small parameters, and the operating characteristics of tubes, transistors, and op-amps. Developing a knowledge of the choices an engineer made in designing a piece of gear can give great insights into what its strengths and weaknesses might be in real-world use. After all, the reason a piece of equipment has the sonic qualities that it does is a direct consequence of the design employed.
This topic came up in my discussion with Lehmann; he told me that in past years, when recording studios relied on large mixing consoles, the console itself was a determining factor in the sound quality of the studio. And even with today’s digital recording tech, the channel strips and microphone preamps used still have a great influence on a studio’s sound signature. Astutely recognizing that the phono preamp plays a similar role in an analog playback chain to that of a mike preamp or console in the recording process, Lehmannaudio attacked the design of the Decade Jubilee in much the same manner as a microphone preamp. After all, a moving-coil cartridge operates similarly to a dynamic microphone, but with a cantilever system instead of a diaphragm. So, if the phono stage is a determining factor in a high-quality analog audio system, it follows that a hi-fi enthusiast should pay the same attention to it as a recording engineer would pay to their mixing console and microphone preamps.
Though it’s clad in the familiar SOIC-8 packaging that most would rightly associate with monolithic operational amplifiers, the THAT Corporation 1510 is not an op-amp. The 1510 is actually a low-noise integrated microphone preamplifier that the Decade Jubilee employs to handle the delicate low-level signal coming from the cartridge.
THAT Corporation, a small company based in California, has a purpose-built semiconductor foundry for maximal quality in its specialty area of pro-audio products. Components like the 1510 may be found in the mike preamps and mixing consoles of professional recording studios; thus the parallels between the design objectives for high-grade pro-audio gear and for a hi-fi phono preamp are shown by its use in the Decade Jubilee. The THAT Corp 1510 helps the phono stage achieve a signal-to-noise ratio of 78dB for MM and 69dB for MC. These are RMS unweighted specs, so bear that in mind when comparing to other phono preamplifiers, which typically tout their A-weighted SNR specs. I pored over the 1510’s datasheet and found perhaps the most important sonic aspect for a no-compromise analog setup—its low-impedance differential input made up of bipolar transistors biased by constant current sources. In other words, the 1510 ought to be happiest with a low-output MC cartridge hooked up. I asked Lehmann if he knew of other companies that utilize such integrated mike preamps in their phono stages. “No. Not anyone serious that I know of. There are a few copycats I am aware of, things for sale on eBay and stuff like that.” He paused and gave a wry smile. “‘Inspired-bys,’ we might call them.”
What comes after the intriguing input stage is where the Decade Jubilee proves itself closer to the reference Silver Cube than to the Decade whose basic architecture it shares: The passive RIAA compensation section uses the same Mundorf tin-foil capacitors as the Silver Cube. While the Decade uses three relays to switch between gain levels and to implement the filter for the 50Hz roll-off, the Decade Jubilee doubles them up to a total of six for a true dual-mono design throughout the phono preamp. The unique four-layer circuit board that enables the dual-mono design also helps to shield the signal-carrying traces from errant noise or hum; it has twin ground planes and the signal path is routed mostly on the inner layers of the board. Finally, the Decade Jubilee’s output stage uses complementary pairs of transistors wired in parallel. Compared to the big, high-current transistors used in the Decade and the Linear line of headphone amps, these smaller components allow for a faster slew rate and a wider bandwidth. At the same time, they use less power, which is what allows the Jubilee’s PWX II LC PSU to power two Lehmannaudio products at once. By way of comparison, the output stage of the Silver Cube is similar in execution but uses JFETs instead of bipolar transistors. To extend the analogy of a studio choosing mike preamps and mixing boards for the best audio quality, the Decade Jubilee’s design correlates directly with the premium-quality pro-audio products designed to eke out the very best recordings.
Speaking of studios, the Decade Jubilee’s story has a connection with that of The Köln Concert: Bauer Studios. The Ludwigsburg-based company’s technician had dutifully trekked to the Oper Köln, replete with Neumann mikes and a Telefunken tape recorder, to record Jarrett’s 1975 recital, and his presence supposedly was the deciding factor in Jarrett’s decision to perform that night. By this time, Eva Bauer had taken leadership of the firm her father, Rolf, had founded and would have overseen the recording of the concert.
Lehmann tells me that Bauer Studios has used Lehmannaudio products as its references since 2017, a cooperation which Bauer made mention of at last year’s Analogtage (“Analog Days”) festival. In fact, Lehmann says he’s seen photos from Ortofon and the German arm of Technics showing Lehmannaudio products in use with their gear, too. So evidently, this concept of the phono preamp being as important to the reproduction of music as the mike preamp and mixing console are to recording it holds water. The aforementioned companies wouldn’t use Lehmannaudio gear if it didn’t. So how will it hold up in my home? Could I really expect to hear the sound of the recording studio in my own living room?
Not right away, as it would turn out. There was a lengthy break-in process for the Lehmannaudio Decade Jubilee, though setup was easy enough: simply plug the power supply into the wall using the supplied IEC power cord, connect it to the phono stage via the 2m XLR umbilical cable and switch on the power, then hook up the turntable and phono preamp as normal using the standard RCA connections. At first, I tested the Decade Jubilee with the power supply sitting right next to the preamp unit, but I realized (and Lehmann later confirmed) that the two boxes may be separated by some distance due to the long power umbilical, which is how I carried out most of my testing.
Two sets of six DIP switches on the bottom of the preamp unit allow adjustment of the cartridge loading. Capacitances from 47pF up to 1347pF may be selected, and 100, 1k, or 47k ohms resistance values may be switched in, with an option to use a custom resistance value as well. This requires additional resistors to be soldered to the circuit board, and so is best left to a technician, but it does mean that perfect cartridge loading for low-impedance MC carts may be achieved.
With that out of the way, I began burning in the phono preamp. The sound only began to really open up after leaving the phono stage turned on for a week or so, which I suspect was due to the Mundorf capacitors. I occasionally power-cycled the unit to give the caps a chance to discharge.
For the first part of my auditioning process, I used my trusty old Audio-Technica AT95 MM cartridge (no longer for sale), modified to accept an AT-VMN95SH Shibata stylus ($179). The result is nearly the same as the AT-VM95SH cartridge ($199) that Audio-Technica currently offers. The Decade Jubilee matured in sound a great deal over the first week, but it was obvious from the start that its sound signature was rather laid-back, in more than one sense. I spun Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker (Modular Recordings MODVL128), since I guessed it would be well-suited to the Decade Jubilee. I was right; there’s nothing “forward” or overly energetic about the Decade Jubilee’s sound, and it cast a wide and deep soundstage compared to other phono preamps I’ve heard. It was perfect to let the swirling, fuzzy guitars on Innerspeaker sweep me away.
I soon found that well-recorded jazz music truly revealed the Decade Jubilee’s strengths. First I played RoundAgain by Joshua Redman, Brad Melhdau, Christian McBride, and Brian Blade (Nonesuch 075597921090). The Decade Jubilee, relaxed as ever, painted the music with slightly darker tonal colors than I was used to, with a slightly recessed presentation of highs and lows; however, there was no loss of precision, and I felt I could hear how closely and deliberately the quartet’s instruments were miked. J Mood by Wynton Marsalis (Columbia FC 40308) was next in the queue, and I recognized that what I was hearing was closely aligned with Lehmannaudio’s objective of correctly capturing the subtle shades of detail and nuance that artists and recording engineers go to great efforts to preserve on the record. Then again, the images of Marsalis and crew created when I played the album through the Decade Jubilee were not as hard-edged as on some gear I’ve heard; not as laser-cut or sharply outlined.
At a live musical event, the visual experience is often as strong as the auditory one. In other words, when we actually see the performers playing we build expectations about how the music is “supposed” to sound. A mindful listen reveals that the sound emanates throughout the environment in a much more diffuse manner once that visual component is removed. A lot of stereo gear creates razor-edged images to compensate for the lack of visuals. The soundstage created by the Decade Jubilee had width beyond the speakers, depth several feet behind them, but softly outlined instruments and performers. As Jeff “Tain” Watts’s firecracker drum solo exploded into my room during “Insane Asylum,” I realized that the Decade Jubilee was not interested in sounding like a good piece of stereo equipment, or even a great one. Actually, it was concerned with sounding like the real thing. Still, pairing this phono preamp with a relatively cheap MM cartridge wasn’t doing it full justice.
Enter the Sumiko Blue Point No. 3 Low Output MC cartridge ($499). The low output impedance of the Sumiko ought to be better suited to the Decade Jubilee, and while it’s modestly priced, it made a good match. Lehmann recommends spending at least twice as much on the phono stage as on the cartridge; he regards the cartridge as being essentially disposable while the preamp should provide many years of service. So the Sumiko was an appropriate choice, and all I had to do was adjust the loading to 1k ohms using the DIP switches. It was instantly clear that the MC cartridge was a better match for the Decade Jubilee than my Audio-Technica MM.
I played Jack Johnson by Miles Davis (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-440). Though this jazz-rock follow-up to Bitches Brew always seems to sound great, it likewise always seems to pose a challenge to the analog playback chain, as if saying: “Come on, show me what you can really do.” Michael Henderson’s repetitive bass riff on “Right Off” can often be a problem for overzealous gear, with certain notes being pushed over the edge—becoming too loose, too heavy. The Decade Jubilee conveyed the bass guitar’s intensity while remaining taut and tightly controlled, but still maintained all its warmth and musicality. Mating the Decade Jubilee with an MC cartridge revealed more of the microdynamics within the record’s grooves, so the spatial relationships between instruments, voices, and the listener came more sharply into focus. The Decade Jubilee presented the drums with an immediacy and urgency that made them feel close, while Miles’s trumpet and John McLaughlin’s electric guitar were further back, with the proper reverb and air around them to allow the acoustic space in which they existed to be known. The coolly plaintive trumpet on “Yesternow” sounded personal and honest, due largely to the Decade Jubilee’s deft handling of dynamic shading.
With the Sumiko cart in place, the Decade Jubilee could play rock music, albeit with a touch of restraint. The laid-back character I noticed upon my first listen remained, so the plethora of albums I played during less-critical listening sessions—Keep It Like a Secret by Built to Spill (Warner Bros. Records 163964-1), Sonic Flower Groove by Primal Scream (Warner Music Group 0825646087280), Fresh Cream by Cream (ATCO Records SD 33-206), among others—sounded just a hair polite, or maybe lacking the level of focus I was used to. Nonetheless, they were more than pleasant to listen to, and in reporting this sonic trait I don’t at all mean to paint the Decade Jubilee as a preamp that can’t play all types of music well. Mostly, though, I was interested in revisiting Innerspeaker using the Blue Point No. 3 Low Output and with the Decade Jubilee fully broken in.
The stand-out tracks “Jeremy’s Storm” and “Expectation” now put their dynamics and details on full display, and I got a greater sense of atmosphere as well as insight into all the important little things, like subtle percussive ghost notes and the production values of bandleader Kevin Parker’s vocals. With the MC cartridge, the Decade Jubilee took two steps closer to sheer neutrality, doing its best to transform my living room couch into the engineer’s chair behind the mixing desk at the recording studio. I felt that I really got the artist’s intentions for each of the songs on the record.
So on to the grand finale. Or, perhaps, the most difficult test. If Bauer Studios regards Lehmannaudio gear as its reference for analog recordings, then the ultimate assessment of the Decade Jubilee should test its ability with one of the studio’s reference recordings. I dropped the needle on The Köln Concert (ECM Records ECM 1064/65). Watching the black disk spin on the platter of my old Micro Seiki record deck was, I imagined, similar to watching Keith Jarrett step up to that old Bösendorfer baby grand and sit down at the keys, silently preparing for his performance. Despite the crackles and surface noise of the old and well-loved vinyl, the awe-inspiring capabilities of the Decade Jubilee became clear from the first notes. Suddenly I was on stage with Jarrett’s piano, its scale and immediacy conveyed flawlessly by the phono preamp. The attack of each note, though not as razor sharp or as lightning quick as could be, sounded natural, vital, and organic. I was seriously impressed with the realism, weight, and sense of physicality of the instrument, but the conveyance of upper-harmonic details allowed me to hear the space of the Cologne Opera House as well. Jarrett is known for vocalizations during his performances, sometimes perfectly tracking the piano melody, other times singsong yelps of pure excitement and emotion, and the Decade Jubilee portrayed this detail flawlessly during the first side of the record. His voice seemed to come from above and behind the piano, rendered delicately by the Decade Jubilee beneath the powerful piano ostinatos and melodic improvisations. In short, this live acoustic recording is remarkable, and the Decade Jubilee dropped me right onto the stage, conveying at once all the power, finesse, and emotion of the performance. To adequately reproduce the sound of a live piano performance is a difficult task indeed, and yet the Decade Jubilee didn’t struggle to meet the challenge. I was more than satisfied.
The most obvious product to compare to the Decade Jubilee is Lehmannaudio’s own Decade. I have already discussed the technical differences between the two, so I won’t repeat myself, but it is worth reemphasizing the price differential. At $2099, the Decade is over $1000 less than the Decade Jubilee. While the Decade Jubilee is no doubt the no-compromise option, some may think the difference in cost unjustifiable and opt for the Decade. And, due to the design differences, it wouldn’t surprise me if some actually prefer the sound of the Decade over its more upscale sibling.
While the Decade Jubilee offers fantastic sound at any price, vinyl enthusiasts would be remiss to not check out other offerings in its price class. The most direct comparison is the Whest Audio whestTWO.2 Discrete, retailing at $3495. Unlike the Decade Jubilee, this phono stage is a fully-discrete machine, using no chips or op-amps at all, which Whest says allows it to offer plenty of current drive. But like the Decade Jubilee, it features a dual-mono configuration and a simple but high-quality build. While it comes in a single case rather than the two of the Lehmannaudio product, connectivity is otherwise much the same, with accommodation for both MM and MC cartridges.
For those who only ever plan to use moving-coil cartridges, the Sutherland Engineering Little Loco Mk2 MC at $3800 is certainly worth a look, too. The Little Loco is a transimpedance amplifier, which works by converting an electrical current to a voltage. This technology is thought by some to be a superior method of handling the delicate, ultra-low output of MC cartridges, which is very low in voltage, but has a comparatively high current. A transimpedance amplifier operates almost like a step-up transformer—great for a moving coil, but not a good match for the higher voltage and lower current of MM cartridges. The casework of the Little Loco follows Sutherland’s general topology of separating the preamp section from the power supply, so though it appears as one box, it is not dissimilar to Lehmannaudio’s approach with the Decade Jubilee. The MC cartridge freaks among you would do well to audition this one as well.
Finally, the Parasound Halo JC 3+, at $3199, is a worthy option as well. The JC 3+ is named for its designer, John Curl, whose résumé includes preamplifiers such as the Vendetta Research SCP-2 phono preamp, the Mark Levinson JC-2 line preamp, and the bespoke CTC Blowtorch preamp. Whatever Parasound has packed into the pair of sealed, dual-mono phono-stage cases tucked away in the chassis of the JC 3+ must be pretty serious; serious enough at least to be worthy of consideration for those seeking a no-compromise phono solution.
To refer to what is, objectively, a high-end luxury product costing thousands of dollars as good value is madness. But, when you consider the level of performance that the Lehmannaudio Decade Jubilee offers, the price begins to feel justified. And when one considers how much more it has in common with the top-of-the-line Silver Cube than with the lower (but still respectable) Decade, suddenly the Decade Jubilee starts to seem like a real bargain. What counts, at the end of the day, is the level of musical satisfaction the device brings, and the Decade Jubilee brings it in spades.
The concept of building a phono preamp using the same design techniques and parts as a high-end microphone preamp is, to me, an unheard-of technique, though it is no doubt responsible for the Decade Jubilee’s sterling sound quality. I probably wouldn’t recommend this phono preamplifier to metalheads and hardcore rockers. But, the Decade Jubilee’s laid-back tonal and soundstaging characteristics, plus its spatial realism and ability to maximize the potential of MC cartridges, is likely to run asymptotically close to perfection for a huge number of analog enthusiasts. And as for The Köln Concert? Well, Mr. Jarrett is welcome to come and perform in my living room again, anytime he likes.
. . . Matt Bonaccio
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
- Speakers: DIY Paul Carmody Amiga speakers, built from Parts Express kit.
- Subwoofers: Paradigm UltraCube 10 subwoofers (2) with MiniDSP 2x4 module for bass management; Jameco 170245 Linear Regulated DC supply for the DSP module.
- Preamplifier: DIY Wayne’s Burning Amp 2018 Line Stage; TentLabs relay-switched resistor-ladder attenuator; separate AMB Labs σ22 power supply.
- Power amplifier: McIntosh MA6850 integrated amp (using power amp input).
- Turntable: Micro Seiki DQ-3; Micro Seiki MA-707 tonearm.
- Phono cartridge: Audio-Technica AT95 with AT-VMN95SH Shibata stylus; Sumiko Blue Point No. 3 Low Output.
- Analog interconnects: Shielded dual-conductor Canare and Belden cables with Neutrik and Switchcraft connectors, respectively.
Lehmannaudio Decade Jubilee Phono Preamplifier
Warranty: Limited two year warranty, parts and labor.
Lehmannaudio Vertriebs GmbH
Phone: +49 221 29 49 33 20
Fax: +49 221 29 49 33 19
500 Executive Blvd., Suite 102
Ossining, NY 10562
Phone: (914) 762-8646
Fax: (914) 762-8649