The best phonostage ever? Here's what some of the most prestigious reviewers in hi-fi had to say about their experience with the Steelhead:
Michael Fremer raves in his 2001 Stereophile review that "The Steelhead delivered the best vinyl playback I've heard from my system . . . it combined speed, frequency extension, resolution, harmonic structure, focus, air, stage depth, image specificity, and, most important, overall musical coherence in a way that made the music seem to fly from the speakers unrestrained by mechanical or electrical bounds."
Wayne Garcia of The Absolute Sound writes, "[The] Steelhead is one of the quietest, most detailed, and highly musical preamps out there. The Steelhead has a stunningly crafted RIAA stage, accepts three phono cartridges, and gives you so much control that you can fine-tune it to get the best out of any cartridge."
"I'm prepared to say that the Steelhead is the best-sounding phono stage I've ever experienced," praises Ken Kessler of Hi-fi News in England.
What makes it so cool?
The Steelhead has two Moving Coil inputs with selectable impedance load 25, 50, 100, 200 and 400 ohms via Mr. Clever "Steelhead" transformer/autoformer. It also has variable and selectable Moving Magnet input impedances 25, 50, 100, 200 ohms and 47Kohms. Very nifty is the selectable-dial-able-in-able-from-the-faceplate-able capacitive loading for all three of the MM & MC inputs 0 to 1100 picofarads in 10 picofarad steps. Very cool! Equalize baby! TEN picofard steps! Wow! Now you can really dial this in for perfect cartridge matching with ZERO penalty. None of this switching detracts from the sound quality or adds any extra anything to the signal path.
It's got six glowing vacuum tubes: two 6922 tubes for the gain. Upscale Audio has some of the coolest NOS 6922s on the planet, and we can get you something that will just make your Steelhead sing! The other four tubes are 7044 (or 5687) output tubes. The Steelhead already comes with some nice NOS types here... no need to change them until they need to be replaced.
It's got a big honkin' volume control knob controllable from afar by the new REMORA REMOTE. The Remora is a Radio Frequency commander for the volume up/down functions for the Variable Outputs introduced to the Steelhead with the RC version in late 2008.
You can drive the Steelhead directly into an amplifier if you so desire. It is equipped with a pair of variable outputs, controlled via the knob on the faceplate or the new Remora Remote. There's even a LINE LEVEL input, so you can even hook up another external source and use the Steelhead as a preamp! If you happen to have three turntables set up, we give you 2 x MC and 1 x MM selectable inputs! The Variable and Fixed level outputs are also totally vacuum tube buffer circuits and deliver really low impedance high current drive. Like inherently 20 ohms plus the little 47 ohm "OK drive those high capacitance audiophile cables why doncha" resistor, so it's real output impedance is only 67 ohms. No wanky cathode follower (oh bor-ing) output here like the other guys. We got your real low impedance all-tube outputs right here! It will drive anything and everything. Long cables, no problem.
Selectable gain. 50, 55, 60, 65dB on a switch that even auto-mutes as you change it so no nasty bangs. Gain switch markings are referred to from the input of the 1st active electronics at 1 kHz to the fixed output @ 10k load, regardless of whether source is MM or XFMR stepped-up MC.
It is not really practical to include MC step-up gain on the front panel markings due to the variable SOURCE impedances of the MC cartridges and the variable LOADING that the input XFMR will have on any given cartridge. All of this total MC gain variability should be confined to about 3 to 12 dB of range though. XFMR step-up gain plateaus as the load Z on a given MC cartridge is optimised...producing no VOLTAGE gain but in fact a bit more POWER gain... All this means you should set a load Z which sounds best with your particular MC cartridge and adjust gain to suit your system's operating level. Whatever you like. You will not blow anything up.
Bottom line: There is plenty of gain... enough to do justice to your fave lo-output MC cartridges.
Now... let's talk a little bit more about that LINE LEVEL input...
There is a stereo LINE input included standard. This means you can drive your amplifiers directly from the Steelhead's Variable Outputs and select whether you are listening to the Steelhead phono stage or any LINE source (CD, SACD, Tape, Tuner, a whole 'nuther preamplifier's main line output, or better yet, use a Manley SKIPJACK to add up to 4 more LINE inputs into your Steelhead!) This feature turns the hifi world upside down.
Other features we should mention:
LINE input comes after RIAA stage, but before the volume control and Variable output white follower buffer. The LINE button on faceplate selects LINE input or the output from the built in RIAA stage.
There are clever anti-RFI grounding options user selectable via dip switches on the back for those in high Radio Frequency Interference zones. If you are picking up a local radio station through your system, try playing with these switches.
All the inputs show up via standard RCA jacks.
There is an additional pair of RCA Outputs for those bi-amping or driving amps and a subwoofer directly from the Variable Outputs. This second set of outputs is wired in parallel to the Variable Outputs. If you need them wired to the Direct Outputs, we can do that too upon request.
The motorised volume control has a smooth action when turned by hand or one can control it via the REMORA REMOTE push buttons.
Badge illumination uses nice looking white LEDs which will never burn out.
Output Muting relays short out the outputs if power is turned off preventing unwanted bangs or pop noises.
The SLEEP button puts the unit into standby conserving power and tube life.
The audio (audible) circuitry has remained largely unchanged since the first Steelhead shipped in 2001.