Review: Mobile Fidelity UltraPhono Phonostage
MoFi UltraPhono Review. The journey into analog as a primary digital source user is such a fascinating path. The act of playback becomes such an event. The curation of music, dropping the needle into the groove. It all hovers with a distinct sense of purpose and demands that the participant pay close attention. No longer does one fumble from song to song on a moments whim, but rather a careful intentional pattern begins to emerge. Starting out our new series of long looks into analog is the Mobile Fidelity UltraPhono review. A small footprint phono stage that includes a headphone output, and a $499 asking price that represents a slight upriver option from the MoFi Electronics $299 StudioPhono.
About the size of “a little black book”, the Mofi UltraPhono plugs in-between the turntable and the owner’s designated pre-amp (likely obvious to most audiophile’s reading this). It is capable of both Moving Magnet and Moving Coil cartridges and offers up adjustable gain from 40dB – 66dB with load impedance from 75, 100, 500, 1k, 10k, 47k Ohms (MC). Once you have the gain all dialed in, the top panel includes two switches for mono playback and subsonic filtering. A class A headphone amplifier is also included on this version, with a standard 1/4 inch headphone jack located on forward-facing side.
As a box, the MoFi UltraPhono feels well-built, there is a little give to knobs and buttons that adds a slightly spongy effect to their resistance, but overall the piece is built like a solid brick of hifi. The smaller, longer-but-not-wide footprint is a welcome one against the backdrop of the in-house Pass Labs XP-17 – a much physically larger specimen of aluminum, wire and solder. The unit is “always-on” as in, there is no on-off switch on the device. But sitting next to (and directly wired to) the Naim Uniti Star amplifier, it was hard to slight the feature as neither the Naim nor the nearby TV plugged into the same outlet ever turned fully off either.
Critical listening was done with the Pass Labs INT-250 and the previously mentioned Naim Uniti Star (for A/B comparisons to digital) sourced from the MoFi UltraDeck Turntable equipped with their UltraTracker Cartridge. Loudspeakers used were either QLN Signature 3 or Sonus Faber Olympica III with AudioQuest cabling.
Getting down to business, my first impressions for this MoFi ultraphono review were laced with an immense dynamic capability for the price. Soundstage was huge, immersive and with the perception of a great amount of detail. The sound is unashamedly upfront, and even depth is portrayed very clearly and explicitly. The upper mids and high end are certainly not shy though this amp, but I didn’t feel that they were over overblown or harsh. This is a very tastefully done forward tuning with lots of excitement.
Backing up the excitement however is some amount of refinement and excellent dynamics. While it’s not the most effortless or smooth phonostage I’ve heard, what it sacrifices in ultimate clarity or texture it makes up for with a sense of scale and punch that I have not heard before in phonostages at this price point. Soundstages have height and width, going easily beyond the sides of the speakers, and pouring out thunderous and commanding bass that is well balanced with the pleasing brightness of the top end. While there may be just a little in the very middle mids that gets left behind, it’s something I only noticed after extensive listening, and the slight u-shape never distracted from my listening or felt like it was severe enough to unbalance familiar records.
The dimensionality of the very best tube and some solid state phonostages wasn’t as present here, and I didn’t quite get the organic sense of liquid coherence that those top-of-the-line stages present, but the sonic fabric of the MoFi reminded me that sometimes ‘real’ isn’t as fun as, well, fun. The MoFi often reminded me that I was listening to a recording, and sometimes that felt like a more transparent insight into a recording than some higher-end more sugar-coated, deliberately colored stages.
Whatever the record though, the MoFi UltraPhono always engaged me, and I was never really worried about this particular sonic color, as it just made everything sound awesome. Modern? Most definitely, and just to be sure I wasn’t going crazy I did compare it to a Schiit Mani I had one hand. The Mani had a more aggressive U shape to the tuning, with brighter highs, and a slightly grainy texture. While remarkable for the very low price point, the Mani definitely doesn’t have the dynamic slam and refinement of the MoFi, nor does it make soundstages as huge and expressive. That said, the Mani seems to have a little more depth, perhaps due to slightly more recessed mids, and in general I had no problem enjoying either pre, though my clear preference for having fun with the music and greater insight into the recording was the MoFi. In this case I do think the higher price point is justified.
As a headphone amplifier the class A system is surprisingly potent. It didn’t fall short of expectations in any major way, although hardcore fans of personal audio might find some gains with full-size, more expensive outboard amplification. What was most intriguing however, was the performance against similar digital files from the Naim Uniti Star. It was the innate sense of resolution that impressed, comparable in weight to that of the high end digital capabilities of the Star, tapped straight from the source on Qobuz and native files. That’s not to say that analog and digital miraculously merged into a new crystalline being, but rather that quality which high resolution digital takes so much credit for – appeared tit-for-tat next to the vinyl equivalent. In short, the odds that the MoFi UltraPhono shows up as a weak link in your chain is extremely unlikely. That’s not something that can really be said about all phono stages in the $500 and lower price range.
Overall, for the asking price I can’t find much to fault the MoFi for – it makes music engaging, has no major flaws and is tuned in such a way that it should sound fantastic and revealing with cartridges of comparable price points. It plays to all the strengths that I think a phono stage at this price point should, and I have no problems heartily recommending it.
More info: MoFi UltraPhono