iFi goes in for compact audio in a big way, I've lost count of the number of models there are that look a bit like this but they seem to do nearly everything including digital to analogue conversion, USB power line clean up, headphone amps and a tube preamp to name but a few. I guess the work that has gone into iFi explains the absence of anything new from parent company AMR, designer Thorsten Loesch must have found that small is not only beautiful but commercial as well.
The iPhono 2 is an MM/MC phono stage with separate inputs for the two cartridge types and a genuine plethora of loading options on tiny dip switches. These settings include the usual impedance and capacitance loading variables alongside some options that are rare on the most exotic phono stages, including iFi's enhanced RIAA EQ as well as EQ specific to records made by Columbia and Decca In the early days before RIAA had been universally adopted. There is some debate as to when this actually happened and iFi suggests that variations existed right up to 1980, shortly before the ascendance of digital audio. Hence Columbia in this instance applies to the sub labels CBS, Epic and EMI etc while Decca also applies Deutsche Gramophon, Archiv, Argo etc. Regardless of label these settings allow a degree of tonal balance that will be useful for albums that sound too bright or dull.
The compact nature of the iPhono 2 means that it needs an external power supply that comes in the form of a wall wart built into the mains plug, which means that PSU change would be an easy way to upgrade this stage, but take care as this needs to be a 15 volt type which are not common. But it doesn't need upgrading unless you move up to a genuinely exotic cartridge. With an optional 12dB of extra gain for lower output cartridges it will work with pretty well any real world turntable.
In a system with a Rega P2 turntable and the Rega Carbon moving magnet onboard it revealed the slightly bright nature of this budget cartridge, Laurie Anderson's song ‘Monkey's Paw’ (Strange Angels) reveals the digital nature of the original recording with tight bass and rather obvious treble. The fretless bass sounds juicy and clean however, and the whole piece has all the sparkle that you expect of an eighties recording. Switching turntables to another Rega, the RP8, with a Rega Apheta 2 moving coil revealed no shortage of gain in the iPhono 2, as can sometimes be the case with more affordable stages. It also revealed both the image solidity and the fabulous groove of Freddie Hubbard's Sky Dive, an early seventies CTI recording with a slightly lean sound and great trumpet tone in the iFi's hands. Moving from standard RIAA to iFi's eRIAA makes the timing more obvious and extracts more power in the bass, a good thing with this turntable and cartridge. Another album revealed more substance and immediacy with this setting, it seems to reflect the quality of the source better giving the music more integrity, inner detail and no shortage of low end power. Voice in particular is supreme thanks to the way that turntable and phono stage reveal so much of the reverb and tonal colour. It's hard to see why you would use the standard RIAA at all or why iFi decided to include it.
This stage compares favourably with other phono stages as the price, providing a more engaging sound thanks to the bass power, strong timing and clean sound with no emphasis on sibilants. The latter usually come from the record not the phono stage but there's a lot to be said for playing them down if it doesn't mean masking detail at the same time. The iPhono 2 also compares very well to onboard phono stages found on even quite prices integrated amplifiers. I contrasted it with the one in a Parasound Halo integrated and was shocked at how much space, depth and swing it brought out on a big band record. Not only was the sound more relaxed but it sounds more interesting thanks to better resolution of light and shade, dynamics etc. This was achieved with an MM cartridge that should not have been a challenge to the onboard stage but such things are usually limited in their potential. Adding the 12dB gain option brings more power and solidity to the sound and gives the band more of the energy that a brass ensemble is capable of. With another track, Patricia Barber's ‘Company’ (Modern Cool), the bass is appropriately phat, the vocals full scale if slightly soft and there's plenty of power to go with the solid groove. Compared to pricier stages the presentation is a little over energised perhaps but I suspect that turning down the gain would have helped calm it down.
The iFi iPhono 2 is a remarkable phono stage for the money, not only does it have more loading options than you can shake a stick at but it sounds remarkably sophisticated for something so small and affordable. It also has enough gain for pretty well any cartridge you are likely to use. You'll need good eyes and the supplied screw driver to adjust the settings but as long as you get the loading right and stick with eRIAA the others can be left alone. If you want to enjoy the timing skills of your turntable alongside decent bass power and an open mid and top this is one of the best options at the price, and it’s amazingly small. What more do you want?
Type: Solid-state, MM/MC phono stage with external PSU
Phono inputs: separate RCA phonos for MM and MC
Analogue outputs: RCA phono
Gain: 36 – 72dB (adjustable).
Input impedance options: 33, 75, 100, 250, 330, 1k, 47k Ohms
Input capacitance options: 100, 200, 300, 400, 500pF
Output impedance: <100 Ohms
Distortion: < 0.0007% THD (MM 36dB 1V out 600R load)
Signal to Noise Ratio: >85dB A-weighted
Dimensions (HxWxD): 28 x 67 x 180mm