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  Firestone Audio Korora MC/MM Phono Preamp

      Date posted: July 22, 2008

Korora Phono Stage
Price: US $329
Distributor: www.audiophileproducts.com

Here’s a little phono stage you’ve probably never heard of. I certainly hadn’t heard of the brand when I stumbled upon the Audiophile Products website a few months back. I love finding good budget-oriented analog gear so I asked for a review sample. Within a week I had a Korora breaking in.

Nothing terribly shocking in the basic description department, the Korora being a small metal box made in China, with RCA ins and outs, a light on the front to tell you it’s on and a small outboard power supply. What is a little more interesting, however, is the fact that the Korora can run off an internal rechargeable battery and/or off the power supply. Simply yank the plug and any AC power noise is history, at least for eight to ten hours, which is how long the charge is said to last (the trick, as I discovered, is remembering to plug it back in when you’re done listening – I started spinning an LP only to confront the silence of a dead battery more than once). What’s also remarkable, for such an affordable phono stage is that the Korora not only handles low output moving coil cartridges, it handles them with ease, with gain (adjustable) up to a whopping 69dB – that’s three dB more than my own Audiomat Phono One phono stage. Even better is that the Korora is rated for a signal to noise ratio of -100 dB under battery power. In short, these are not specs one normally associates with “budget” phono gear.

Rockstar

I started listening to the Korora with my reference moving magnet cartridge, the Clearaudio Aurum Beta S (details on my tweaked Rega P3 turntable setup can be found here). Set for 51 dB of gain (the default) and 47 K ohms loading, and coming straight off listening to the unfailingly suave Audiomat (it is French, after all), the sound was a little on the thin side but had drive, speed and dynamics to burn. On well recorded rock records the Korora was very lively, fast, snappy and involving. Pavement’s Terror Twilight was a perfect example of where the Korora gets it truly right, conjuring up big, punchy bass, splash and sizzle free treble, rock solid center images that floated out in front of the speakers, big upfront vocals and a generally bold and compelling presentation that makes you want to not only listen but move. It may lack the bass solidity and slam of the Graham Slee or the spooky good microdynamics and inky black backgrounds of the Tom Evans (both of which I’ve reviewed semi-recently), but the Korora sure as hell knows how to rock.

This is not to say, however, that it fell down with other, subtler genres of music. Howe Gelb’s Confluence is gorgeously stripped down and eccentrically quiet desert folk-rock which, while it lacked the silky refinement and richness of the Audiomat, the Korora did a very commendable job with. A good test of any component is how it reproduces well recorded piano and the Korora does an admirable job getting piano tonally “right”; bold, full bodied with muscular, well defined transients. Also important is that when the music gets quiet, so does the Korora. Remarkably so in fact, both in terms of surface noise and background noise/hiss at idle.

It was while listening to the Howe Gelb record that I decided to make some comparisons with my previous budget phono stage reference, the Rotel RQ 970BX. Admittedly the Rotel is a little long in the tooth at this point, but it’s similarly priced to the Korora and also handles both MM and MC cartridges. Well it sure didn’t take long to realize how much better the Korora is. It simply sounded more alive, more open, more neutral, more detailed, bigger, bolder, more spacious, and more effortless. By comparison the Rotel sounded splashy on top, darker tonally (think warm and woolly), less transparent and less involving.

Now for the real test: a low output moving coil cartridge. Ok, well it’s not really that low at 0.4 millivolts, but my good old Audio Technica OC9 still needs a healthy amount of gain to sound its best (and anyone paying big bucks for a super low output MC is likely to look a little further up market for their phono stage). Even at 51dB the Korora didn’t sound bad with the OC9, but the sound was a little flat, if very quiet. The Clash’s London Calling was enough on the pale and thin side to convince me more gain would definitely be needed, and so the Korora was cranked up to 69dB (its maximum setting) via its internal DIP switches. I now had sound with life and drive that was lighter on its feet than ever, if a little more prone to surface noise than the Audiomat or the supernaturally quiet Graham Slee and Linn Linto (the Korora was slightly quieter and more dynamic on battery power, but the difference was more slight than I imagined it would be – I did all my critical listening by the way, under battery power). On Gil Evans’ Out of the Cool the Korora did a great job conveying the bite and blatt of the brass section, putting any digital reproduction of horns I’ve ever heard to shame. The Audiomat had an edge in terms of sheer vibrancy and involvement, plus it’s quieter, and, as always, smooth and lush enough to make you think it’s got tubes in it (it doesn’t). The Korora, however, held its own far, far better than I’d expect from any phono stage at this price point. In sum, it’s not merely paying lip service to low output MC cartridges, it really can make them sing. The synergy with the OC9 was very, very good and with the OC9 still available for around $300, it’s a compelling combination.

So how much more is there to say? From what I’ve heard from budget and not-so budget phono preamps over the years the Korora is in a class of its own below $500. Comparison with a Lehmann Black Cube ($499 and up) would be interesting, and Graham Slee’s entry level preamp, the Gram Amp 2 Special Edition ($399) certainly has pedigree (but only 41 dB of gain, making it unsuitable for low or medium output moving coils) but considering the way it dispatched the Rotel, the fact that it didn’t embarrass itself against the Audiomat, and its flexibility and battery power supply, the Korora represents unimpeachably good value. If you’re willing to spend $1000 or more, you can certainly do better, but if you’re shopping below $800 and value dynamics, drive and musical involvement, the Korora should be on your short list of candidates. With a 30 day trial period available from Audiophile Products you can even have your own extended audition, which, of course, is always the best way to decide for yourself.

Aaron Marshall

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