I think my powers of observation are weakening as I grow older. When a courier showed up at my house with a diminutive box sent to me from the UK, I was mystified. The audio hobby has conditioned me to expect things to be bigger than I had anticipated, and so entombed in packaging that I end up buried in a mountain of paper and cardboard, and dreading the day I must repackage the bloody thing and ship it back. (Esoteric’s E-03 phono stage packaging could make an environmentalist faint dead away: It still holds the record for the greatest ratio of cardboard to gear in my experience.) I looked at the delivery person, wary as I am of the breed, and asked where the rest of the bits were.
But this little box turned out to be Box 1 of 1. It contained precisely one small, extremely lightweight phono stage, a very compact user manual, and no power supply. In fact, the Artisan Silver moving-coil phono stage is so small and lightweight that I had to tussle with my interconnects and position the whole assembly just so, to keep its rear end flat on the rack! Artisan, of course, doesn’t hide the fact that the unit is small -- that’s down to me not paying attention while visiting their website. Nor do they hide the small price: £209, or about $305 USD or Canadian at the time of writing.
For those unfamiliar with Artisan Silver Cables, the company is based in the UK and builds and sells, as its name suggests, an assortment of cables made of pure silver. Their line comprises interconnects, speaker cables, and digital links, as well as replacement cables for headphones. Only Artisan’s own pure-silver, Teflon-coated cable is used for the Silver MC’s internal wiring.
Finding space for the Silver MC on an equipment rack is not a problem: It measures a mere 4"W x 0.75"H x 5"D and weighs less than a pound -- it’s smaller than some of the external power supplies I have on hand. That said, the MC should be positioned securely on any surface; being so small and light, it was easily pulled around and lifted by even my interconnects, and its simple stick-on rubber feet couldn’t begin to hold it in place. It will be tempting to place it close to or even atop other components, but I caution against this: Of all the phono stages I’ve reviewed, the Artisan was easily the most susceptible to ground hum. Although I tried to isolate it by moving it about, experimenting with various grounding schemes, and finally just swearing at it, I never could eradicate a slight hum/hash sound in the left channel. Such are the challenges of analog. Other than this, however, I experienced no operational difficulties with the Silver MC.
The MC’s case is made entirely of aluminum, and its internals include good-quality Panasonic caps and what Artisan claims are “very low noise amplifiers.” Like my reference Holfi Battria SE phono stage, the Silver runs on a battery: an internal Vapex 280mAH NiMh. The MC can be left plugged in, in which case the battery effectively decouples the internal circuits from the mains supply. Unplugged, the MC runs off the battery until it needs to be plugged in and recharged. I ran it both ways and heard no difference in the sound, so for the course of this review I left it plugged in. The unit I received came without the requisite 15V DC power supply, but I easily found, at a local electronics store, one that met the simple requirements laid out on Artisan’s website. Alister at Artisan has informed me that the North American price is £20 cheaper than the £229 charged for the Silver MCs sold to European residents, which are delivered with power supply.
The rear panel is a model of straightforward utility, with two pairs of high-quality, single-ended RCA connectors for input and output. These flank a large grounding post, and at the far right is a jack for the 15V power supply. There was just enough room to plug in my bulky interconnects along with everything else. The process was made even easier by the fact that I could play Gulliver while doing this, picking up and maneuvering the MC with one hand.
A two-position toggle switch on the right side of the front panel powers the Silver MC on or off -- a large red LED lights up to indicate that it’s on and ready to go. Right next to this LED is a smaller one that glows green when the battery is fully charged; when the MC is shut off and plugged in, this blinks until the battery has been fully charged. If you’re new to the hobby, or don’t like to fuss with settings or do more than plug something in and have music come out, then the Artisan should float your boat. It doesn’t get much simpler.
Once you’ve got a power supply, you can plug in and play at record speed: the Silver MC comes preset from the factory and needs no adjustments of any kind. This will be a boon for many, but frustrating to those who like to experiment with loading and gain. Artisan specifies the range of output of moving-coil (no moving-magnet) cartridges that can be used with the Silver MC as 0.15mV and above, and points out that anything below that will probably require a step-up device. My Ortofon Jubilee, rated at 0.34mV, seemed fine, though I found myself turning up the volume just a bit more than usual. The MC’s loading is fixed at 100 ohms -- again, great for my Jubilee, but prospective buyers should make sure that their cartridges fall within the range recommended by Artisan.
Although I should have learned my lesson well enough by now, I arched my eyebrows and looked somewhat doubtful when I first switched on the Artisan Silver MC. I’ve been on a bit of a tear lately, having been asked to review some pretty high-performance, high-priced phono stages, and I admit that the Artisan’s tiny size and tiny price did not scream “High Performance!” But as that guy once said, “a rose is still a rose . . .”
Right from the get-go, the Artisan belied its size by laying down bass that was strong, rhythmic, tuneful, and tight. Where so many budget phono stages tend to let go at both ends of the audioband to concentrate on the midrange, the Silver MC held on down low. These were not the seismic lows you can get with some more expensive models powered by supplies many times bigger than the MC’s, but the Silver’s bass had bounce and great pace. Drums had the same infectious snap and pop, and I often found my foot and head bobbing in time. When I played music that highlights complex time signatures or is built on a strong rhythmic pulse, the Silver kept time beautifully, delivering the full flow of the music right on time for dinner.
Highs were nicely extended, with a very slight rounding off near the very top, though there was more than a hint of top-end air that remained. With the Silver MC’s good extension at both ends of the audioband and its clear, robust midrange, well-recorded acoustic jazz, chamber music, and acoustic folk and pop all came off rather well. This was perhaps the Silver’s greatest strength: a tonal consistency and overall coherence that sang right along with the music. The Silver’s sound was very natural and unforced -- there were no obvious tonal aberrations or frequency-response bumps that spotlit instruments in a certain way or highlighted specific frequency ranges. This is a good thing in any phono stage, and somewhat unexpected in one so reasonably priced.
Imaging was another strong suit of the Silver MC. Instruments were placed very precisely, and were reasonably well defined -- they were just a little hazy around the edges -- with a density that made things seem very solid and there. Soundstaging was good if not great, with plenty of soundstage width but not a commensurate amount of depth. It was here that the Silver MC began to lose some ground to more expensive phono stages. Its shallow presentation made things seem much more bunched up than usual, and images weren’t surrounded by the kind of space I’m used to hearing. The picture was more two-dimensional, more akin to how a good CD player might reproduce it, and less descriptive of the fuller ambience that good analog recordings contain.
This phono stage lived more in the moment -- emphasizing the pluck of guitar or bass string, the snap and sting of drumstick on cymbal -- than in developing and describing the tonal body of a given instrument. The tabla is ever-present in Steve Tibbetts’s sonic masterpiece, Big Map Idea (LP, ECM 1380). Through my reference Holfi Battria SE phono stage ($1450 when available) I hear each and every slap of Marcus Wise’s drumheads, along with the sound of his hand sliding ever so briefly across the instruments’ skins, and the resonant thump that describes the volume of each tabla itself. Through the Artisan Silver I heard only the slap -- forceful, dynamic, and rhythmic, but less than the full sonic portrait. This lack of fine detail also truncated the decay trails of the sounds of instruments -- cymbals had a lot of splash but not much shimmer. And though I said that instruments had more than a hint of air around them, this air was confined to a sort of halo around each image -- halos that were never expansive enough to connect everything together and describe a given recording’s overall sonic envelope. I played many records recorded in vast acoustic settings (large recording studios, churches, etc.); the Artisan tended to make them sound as if the music had been recorded in smaller, more intimate venues.
Finally, though it sounded great with smaller-scale, more intimate music, the Artisan came up against its limits with large-scale classical and, generally, more heavily dynamic music. With large-scale symphonic works, not only were orchestras less layered than I’m used to, but when the interplay of instruments became more complex, the Artisan Silver began to lose its grip, and things began to compress and smear together. Some more bombastic rock’n’roll was treated the same way. Is this a product of the Silver MC’s small footprint and its commensurately smaller power supply, or its op-amp-based circuitry? Hard to say, but I do think that those whose tastes run to full-scale symphonic music or really hard and fast metal or hard rock would probably be better served elsewhere.
The Artisan Silver MC can’t do it all (and that includes MM cartridges), but who in his or her right mind would expect that of a $450 phono stage? Happily, the Silver errs on the side of sins of omission rather than commission, which itself is something of an achievement at this price. Some of my critiques will add up to being deal breakers for some readers, but if you’ve gotten the impression that I didn’t enjoy my time with the Silver MC, that would be dead wrong.
As I write this, I’m listening to Tears for Fears’ The Seeds of Love (Fontana 838730), one of my all-time favorite pop records. The CD is rather steely, but the vinyl sounds fantastic through the Artisan, as have many more LPs from my collection. Without comparison to phono stages costing many times the MC’s price, the Artisan’s enticing blend of tonal and frequency coherence, good extension at both ends of the audioband, and a bubbling, snappy rhythmic capability might get me thinking I’m pretty satisfied. If something like the crisp and brisk, direct and forthright sound of older Naim products speaks to you, then you’ll really like the Artisan Silver MC.
I think the Artisan would pair nicely with something like a Rega P3 or Pro-Ject turntable, and an MC cartridge such as a Dynavector 20X2, an Ortofon Blue, or a myriad of others. It would be a killer upgrade for those who have good-quality integrated amplifiers and who use the afterthought built-in phono setting. My point here is that those who play LPs but don’t want to sink a lot of money into associated equipment now have a great starting/stopping point. If the Artisan Silver MC doesn’t pull the carpet out from under truly high-end phono stages, it’s still a solid, robust performer, and I’ve heard more expensive phono stages that can’t better it.
All this for 305 bucks? Fuhgettaboudit. I don’t think I’ve heard the Silver MC’s equal for anywhere close to that amount. To better it, you’d need to move higher up the price ladder.
. . . Graham Abbott
- Analog source -- Nottingham Spacedeck turntable with Heavy Kit, Wave Mechanic power supply, and Space tonearm; Ortofon Jubilee MC cartridge; Holfi Battria SE phono stage
- Digital sources -- Cary 303/200 CD player-processor; Apple MacBook Pro with internal SSD, 8GB RAM, external 1TB FireWire hard drive; Amarra 2.2 player; Wavelength Wavelink USB-to-S/PDIF 24-bit/192kHz converter
- Integrated amplifier -- Cary SLI-80
- Speakers -- Red Rose Rosebud 2
- Power cables and conditioners -- Shunyata Research Guardian power conditioner; Harmonic Technology Fantasy, Yamamura Churchill Series 5000 (phono stage only) AC cords
- Speaker cables and interconnects -- Harmonic Technology Magic, Kimber Kable Hero interconnects; PS Audio Extreme Reference speaker cables
- Accessories -- 70-pound custom speaker stands, Stillpoints and Risers isolation devices, Final Labs ball-bearing isolators, Quantum Resonant Technology power conditioner, Lovan foam-filled equipment rack
Artisan Silver MC Phono Stage
Price: $305 USD.
Warranty: 30-day money-back guarantee.
Artisan Silver Cables
98 Cowes Road
Newport, Isle of Wight PO30 5TP