Trichord Research's Dino Mk3 Phono Stage:
Bringing Out The Beauty Of Vinyl Playback
By: Joe Kanaan
There is something special about playing an album on vinyl. Anyone who enjoys music enough to invest in a hi-fi system, no matter the systems price point, cannot deny how personal vinyl records are. Countless times I have spoken to hi-fi enthusiasts who have done away with their record collections, many who regret it, but during these conversations a sparkle in their eyes is always present when recalling the cherished albums that once made up their collection.
The unique connection people have with vinyl records has something to do with how one must interact with this playback format - selectingthe record by physically going throughyour collection, holding the record in your hand while enjoying the album artwork, extracting it from the cover and its protective sleeve, placing it on the turntable, and maintaining a level of awareness in order to know when the record is ready to be flipped so its entirety can be heard. All of this sounds like a bit of a chore, but subconsciously an intimate connection with your music is created that other playback formats cannot replicate. This could be why the trend of analogue playback in home audio is on the rise once again.
Anyone who tells you that vinyl records are of yesteryears might just be a little out of touch with the current trends of desired audio formats. Around the world record sales have been steadily increasing. The UK hasn't seen a surge in vinyl sales like this since 1997; just last year there was a 101% increase in sales. The US has also seen more than a 400% rise in vinyl albums sold since 2007.
With the resurgence of vinyl-playback here to stay, high quality analogue components are in demand more and more. It is a known fact in the hi-fi industry that a system will only ever sound as good as the "weakest link" within it. This could be a person amplification, speakers, source (CD player, network/streamer, turntable, etc.), DAC, cabling (speaker cable and analog/digital interconnects), etc. One component that is greatly overlooked by many manufacturers and consumer alike is the phono amplifier, aka the phono stage.
A high quality phono stage should be at the top of a person's priority list if vinyl records are part of their listening enjoyment. A vast improvement of sound quality can be easily achieved by adding a good phono stage. Many integral phono stages found in 'less expensive' amplifiers are substandard and though they help people to start enjoying vinyl records, they always seem to leave something desired. Many "second-thought" phono stages elude how truly wonderful records can sound. So when I came across the Dino Mk3 phono stage, I jumped at the opportunity to review it.
Trichord Research, who is responsible for manufacturing the Dino Mk3, has a wonderful reputation for developing high-quality components that maintain a great sense of affordability. The last generation of the Dino (Mk2) was received well within the hi-fi community. With this in mind, my expectations of the Mk3 version were set high. It would be going up against the fabulous integral phono stage that Tim De Paravicini developed when he was designing the Quad Classic II Integrated amplifier. It must be noted here that I hold De Paravicini's amplifiers very highly in my book. The Classic II Integrated amplifier has one of the best integral phono stages I have listened to and would give me a nice benchmark for evaluating the Dino Mk3.
The Dino Mk3:
When I think of Trichord Research two words come to mind, quality and value. Since the company's inception in 1993 they have continually sought to improve sound quality in home audio. From their early work on clock-circuit upgrades for CD players to the latest version of the Dino phono stage, Graham Fowler and his team have been developing and manufacturing products that punch well beyond their price point - inevitably making an audiophile's life so much more enjoyable.
After a nice conversation with Graham, I had a better understanding for the man who develops products that not only sound good but are also affordable. There was even a hint of remorse in his voice when the conversation turned to the price increase for the Dino Mk3. I have to admit, listening to him explain in detail the reasons why the price went up, I found myself respecting him and his company more and more. From the new aluminum case work to the circuit board layout and the use of OPA827 op-amps for the analogue output stage, were among some of the upgrades/improvements that Graham talked about. However, it seems the upgrades, and consequently a price increase, were a necessity to bring the Dino Mk3 up to a whole new level in sound quality over its predecessors. I must add in here that while £100 is not pocket change for some, at £499 the Dino Mk3 is still a product of exceptional value.
So how did the Dino Mk3 perform?
The Dino comes in a plain brown cardboard box with an inner cardboard packaging that properly protects the unit and it’s PSU, Only a small white label on it that indicates what the box contains. Some may see this as a bit of a letdown, but not this reviewer. I would rather see a plain brown box than fancy packaging, knowing my hard earned money was being spent on the actual product and the components within it.
The outer aluminum case is easy on the eyes and when I asked Graham about why he changed it from the Mk2 version, he gave me two reasons; first for looks and durability. The Mk2 used a shiny black acrylic case that was prone to scratches. Secondly, he said he felt it gave the Mk3 a bit more protection from any outside interference (e.g. RF interference and the like). However, he did mention, and this is where I really respect the man for his honesty, he didn't feel the aluminum case improved the sound quality by staggering proportions from the previous casework and not nearly as much as the upgraded internal components improve the sound. Then he added that metal cases on amplifiers are like a "double edged sword." From his experience most amplifiers sound better with less metal surrounding them. "Take off the case work of an amplifier and you'll generally notice a difference in sound quality." He then added how phono stages, being very sensitive amplifiers, also benefit from being protected from outside interference. And so appears the "double edged sword."
Please Note: Graham nor I recommend and do not advise anyone to listen to their amplifier without its proper case work on as the manufacturer intended the product to be sold and listened too.
A quick read through the manual provided me with clear and ample information to insure the dip switches (there are four sets located on the bottom of the unit) were properly in place for my Ortofon 2M Black cartridge. The entire process of setting the dip switches took less than three minutes. Plugging the Dino Mk3 into my Quad Classic II Integrated amplifier was straight forward and took less than a few minutes. There was only one snag while hooking up my SME phono cable. The SME cable has healthy sized spade connectors for the two grounding wires. The spades needed to be held in place while I tightened down the ground terminal. Again, it only took a few extra seconds to get them properly secure. So, in relative terms not a huge "snag."
My Harbeth Super HL5 Plus speakers did not hiss or did not produce any unwanted loud noises that sometimes can be associated with phono stages. Only when nothing was playing and I turned up the volume to levels I wouldn't normally listen too, I heard amplifier noise coming out my Harbeths. Be assured, the amplifier noise I mention here is not different than any other phono stage I have come across, including the integral one in the Quad Classic II Integrated amplifier.
Once the needle hit the record I could instantly tell that there was something special about the Dino Mk3 phono stage, and though the sound differed from the one in my Quad, I didn't feel I was missing out on the beauty my records have pressed within them.
Listening to the Eagles' album Hotel California (Asylum Records 8122-79915-1) with the Dino didn't disappoint me one bit. I have always found when chatting to people about music and when the Eagles come into the conversation, there is a love-hate reaction. Either you love or hate them. I am on the former side of it. I really enjoy their work and I find myself putting it on every time I add a different piece of kit to my hi-fi system that allows for analogue playback. The album seems to be pretty straight forward when it is playing in the background. But when you really start to listen to the music you instantly realize there is a lot more than what appears on the surface. All the little intricacies that give body to the songs can be lost, either becoming disjointed or simply not present, if the hi-fi kit (the 'phono stage' in regards to this review) is not up to the challenge. I am happy to report the Dino did not miss a beat and allowed me to hear everything. The sound staging, accuracy of timbre, detail, musicality, etc. were all so well presented that as I read back over my notes I realize I underlined and put question marks around "£499." I couldn't believe this phono stage only cost that much, something had to give, so I went on to an album that can crucify hi-fi kit if something in the 'chain' is lacking.
"I'll show you." Is exactly what I said to the Dino when I pulled out Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Not Now NOTLP120) and put it onto the record deck. Before I go any further, it must be noted that this reissue is by far the best I have heard. It is decent enough, but what I've found with this pressing is if there is a tendency for something to go amiss (usually splash high notes with the cymbals or trumpet) within my system it will amount to almost ear-bleeding proportions within the first minute of playback. Knowing the Quad's phono stage handled the album without any issues leaving my ears free of blood and a smile on my face; and knowing other phono stages in the same price bracket as the Dino have failed miserably in the past, I knew this would be a good test to put it through.
As my 2M Black gently glided down form the tonearm queue, I felt my jaws starting to tense and clench together from the anticipation that 'So What' would bring to my ears. "The piano sounds good" I told myself. Then came Paul Chambers' bass, decently positioned in the back of the soundstage and sounding good. I readied myself, the brass was about to enter into the mix and it is here, with this pressing, it could go horribly wrong. My jaws were straining under their own pressure and I thought my teeth were going to shatter. But the song continued without hesitation and I found myself relaxing, a smile eased my jaw muscles as the Dino out did itself again. After that, I just sat back and enjoyed the album's entirety. My feet were tapping, my head was bobbing, and at one point I remember my air trumpet even came out to play and I naturally let go of any type of critical assessment in order to write this review - and when this happens I always believe it to be a good sign of a component's worth.
What struck me most about the Dino was how well it worked in a valve based system. I couldn't stop grabbing records from my collection and lining them up with childlike anticipation. My listening session are generally kept from extending beyond 9:30 at night, my neighbors have a young boy who goes to bed early and out of respect for them, I try not to listen late at night. But I couldn't help myself and there I was listening until wee hours of the morning and enjoying every second of it. Romy Madley Croft's voice didn't lose any of its silky smoothness through the Dino and Oliver Sim's voice continued to compliment her nicely on The XX's album XX (XL Recordings XL LP450). The Lumineers' self-titled album The Lumineers (Dualtone 80302-01608-11) also sounded fantastic. Everything I throw at the Dino, from classical records to 90s grunge-rock, nothing seemed to faze it. If the recording/pressing had a good soundstage, dynamic contrast, accuracy of timbre, etc. within it, the Dino Mk3 revealed it. I must admit, I was reluctant to give it up, but be it a reviewer's life good and bad come and go.
The Dino is noticeably more forward than the Quad's phono stage, not that this is a bad quality. To be honest, I really enjoyed having a more in-your-face sound coming through my Quad valves and Harbeths. It brought the music to life in a different manner than De Paravicini's phono stage does; this is neither good nor bad, it's just different. If you you’re listening to an amplifier that has a tendency to be on the warm side and/or is characteristically laid back the Dino will definitely work well in your system by complimenting it with a more forward sound bringing about a nice balance.
The Dino Mk3 could be more refined. The bottom and top ends could be more precise and have a bit more attack and air to them, it's not that it wasn't present but those aspects could be better. But writing that, at its price point you cannot expect everything to be perfect. On the other hand, the midrange sounded great. I have listened to phono stages at the £500 price level and some costing more than three times this amount, that just sound wrong - they might get one aspect of the music right while the rest just falls to pieces. For example, instruments might be spot on with accuracy of timbre but are never brought together as a whole and make the music sound horrendous. Not so with the Dino, it was extremely musical and as for the refinement of the top and bottom ends, Graham has a cure with upgrades available in power supplies and an upgradeable power lead.
I used the Dino Mk3 with the basic in-line low noise 40VA toroidal transformer power supply, which is part of the £499 price tag. Being a man who loves upgrades, I had to ask Graham during our conversation what one might expect from upgrading to the Dino+ Power supply (£329), or the Gen2 Never Connected Dino+ Power Supply (£550), and/or the High Performance Interconnect Lead (£144). To sum up Graham's answer to my question in one word - everything. A person can expect better sound-staging, dynamics, refined top and bottom ends, etc., etc. With future upgrade path available you don’t have to go out and break the bank - you can improve sound quality as money permits without losing your initial investment.
In conclusion, with the sales of records rise over the last decade, the demand for affordable high quality analogue components has risen. People like Graham Fowler and companies like Trichord Research are meeting our expectations and striving to go beyond them. Vinyl playback draws the listener into an intimate connection with their music through the physical interaction it demands from us that other audio formats rarely achieve. I recommend the Dino Mk3 anyone who has an amplifier with a substandard phono stage, to those who are thinking of getting into vinyl playback, to those who are high return on listener enjoyment without a heavy price tag, and/or to those who want to add a little pep to their analogue system. If you are looking for a phono stage up to a £1000, seek out a Trichord Dino Mk3 for an audition - it will be worth it.
For availability of the Dino Mk III click HERE
Amplifier: Quad Classic II Integrated (SRP = £4,500)
Speakers: Harbeth Super HL5 Plus (SRP = from £3,250)
Speaker Cable – The Chord Company Signature Reference (SRP = £200 per meter terminated)
Analog Interconnects: The Chord Company Cadenza Reference RCA (SRP from £250)
Speaker Stands: Something Solid XF (SRP = £300)