iFi Audio’s iPhono3 Black Label phono stage doesn’t look like an audiophile hi-fi component—it measures only 2.3ʺW × 1.1ʺH × 6.2ʺD, with a set of inputs on one end and a set of outputs on the other (all single-ended RCA), and weighs just over half a pound (265g, to be precise). At $999 (all prices in USD), it’s also relatively inexpensive. But despite its smallness and unusual shape, light weight, and reasonable price, the iPhono3’s feature set is exceedingly rich, and its sound quality compares favorably with phono stages priced much higher. In Jason Thorpe’s review of the iPhono3 Black Label on this site last month, he called it a “devastating bargain.”
iFi Audio ships the iPhono3 with the company’s iPower X power supply, which Jason described as “a wall wart on steroids—there’s a lot to it. It uses iFi’s Active Noise Cancellation II circuit, which cancels incoming EMI and RFI noise.” Oddly, another external power supply is included with the iPhono3, but iFi Audio recommends using the iPower X for the best performance.
Features of the iPhono3 Black Label include support for moving-magnet (MM) and moving-coil (MC) cartridges, and, according to Jason, enough adjustability “to accommodate pretty much any cartridge out there. . . . For MM cartridges, there are five capacitive loading options from 100 to 500pF. For MC cartridges, there are seven resistive loading options from 22 ohms to 1k ohms, and 47k ohms for high-output MCs.”
The 24 DIP switches located on the underside of the iPhono3 are used to make this multitude of adjustments, which some users might find confusing due to the large number of switch combinations and the very small print on the case that describes them—even experienced users like Jason. In the review, he wrote: “I first tried to set the iPhono3’s DIP switches by myself, but after three tries it still didn’t sound right.” Thankfully, there’s an iPhono Calculator on iFi Audio’s website to assist, and Jason used it to correctly configure the iPhono3 for his EAT Jo N°8 MC cartridge, which he used throughout the review.
The gain on the iPhono3 can be set to 36, 48, 60, or 72dB, and Jason noted that the highest setting should accommodate any “but the most waif-like of cartridges.” The user can also switch between RIAA, Columbia, and Decca equalization curves, which could be handy for some listeners. But Jason had a word of caution about the Columbia and Decca curves: “Suffice it to say that pretty much every modern LP is encoded with the RIAA curve. If you want to get the most out of older LPs made with one of those other curves, it’s worth exploring those other settings—but if your collection is anything like mine, if you set the iPhono3 to RIAA and leave it there, you’ll be fine for 99% of your listening.” Further adjustments to the RIAA curve can be made via the iPhono3’s DIP switches.
Before he began critical listening, Jason noticed the iPhono3’s exceptional quietness: “My first impression was that the iPhono3 was unbelievably silent. Though my Aqvox phono stage is fairly quiet, there’s a bit of hum when I turn the volume up. But with the iPhono3? Nothing. With it set to 60dB of gain, the noise floor was below that of my tubed preamp.” Jason found the iPhono3’s quietness to be “on a par” with the Constellation Audio Andromeda phono stage he reviewed last year. Which, as Jason pointed out, “retails for $19,900, or precisely 19.919919 times more than the iPhono3.”
But it wasn’t only the quietness of the iPhono3 that drew comparisons with the Constellation—when he played music, Jason found that the two phono stages “were more alike than different.” When listening to the White Stripes’ XX (LP, Third Man Records TMR-649), which he described as “a compilation of White Stripes outtakes,” Jason stated that he typically associates the “wide dynamic swings” that he heard “with a huge power supply—lots of caps, a big transformer,” which the iPhono3 Black Label doesn’t have. Yet he found that it still “delivered transients with satisfying bite.”
When Jason played a half-speed-mastered version of the Tragically Hip’s Day for Night (LP, Universal Music Canada 7747461), he wrote that “a whole article’s worth of material” sprang from the speakers, including the iPhono3’s ability to “slam out transients so impressively.” Next came “Tria Prima,” from John Zorn’s The Last Judgment (LP, Tzadik TZ 6009), an album Jason categorized as “super-heavy metal with bass, drums, and organ” and described as being like a “physical assault.” According to Jason, “‘Tria Prima’ should make you sweat, and via the iPhono3 it was appropriately terrifying.” Jason said he “could listen to it loud,” and the more he increased the volume, “the richer the images became. It was all there—deep bass, crisp highs, and solid, fleshed-out aural images. The iPhono3’s tininess utterly belied the huge sound it reproduced from this challenging recording.”
“Unconditionally recommended” were the two words that Jason chose to conclude his iPhono3 Black Label review. These words, combined with his high praise in the review and its reasonable retail price, earned the iPhono3 a Reviewers’ Choice award when the review was published. But Jason continued to sing its praises to other SoundStage! Network reviewers, and when Doug Schneider listened to the iPhono3 in one of his systems he also found it to be outstanding. Finally, Jason’s subsequent purchase of the review sample for use in his own system convinced us that this small, affordable phono stage from iFi Audio deserves more recognition—so this month we are presenting the iPhono3 Black Label with a Recommended Reference Component award as well.
Manufacturer contact information:
79 Scarisbrick New Road
Merseyside PR8 6LJ
Phone: +44 (0)1704-543858
Abbingdon N.A./iFi Audio USA
105 Professional Parkway, Suite 1506
Yorktown, VA 23693
1085 Blair Avenue
Sunnyvale, CA 94087
Phone: (800) 799-4342