I hope the continuing quarantine is finding you all happy, healthy, and well. I’m not sure what you’re all up to in particular, but as for me, I’ve been up to a few things. Namely, I’ve been sharpening my culinary skills (largely on the grill), avoiding all political debates on social media, doing a lot of yard work, and spinning a ton of vinyl. More than for just enjoyment, I’m engaging in critical listening, and evaluating speakers, cables, an integrated amplifier, and a turntable. At the heart of all of this has been the Music Hall PA2.2 phono preamp, translating what is coming from the turntable, and turning it into a line level signal fed into the amplifier. Needless to say, this is my system’s essential work.
The $449.00 PA2.2 is a fairly small unit, about 6” square, and less than 2” high. There are controls across the brushed black front for stereo/mono, phase invert, phono/line, a ¼” headphone jack, and a rotary volume control. With four aluminum vibration-damping feet, it makes for an elegant, but understated presence. In the rear there are inputs for both MM and MC cartridges with a grounding post, an MC gain switch, an MM/MC switch, a line level input, a USB digital output, and both fixed and variable outputs. The PA2.2 is indeed a remarkably versatile unit and can be used as a fully-functioning preamp for both phono and line level inputs! The USB output allows digital recording to a computer.
Though it may be one of the most overplayed records of all time, I start here with Boston’s self-titled debut album, particularly to dig into “Foreplay/Long Time.” Spinning on the Music Hall MMF3.3 turntable with Ortofon Red cartridge, the PA2.2 pulls out all the spaciousness of this track. There are huge dynamics in this song, and it goes from bombastic, then drops into a pair of widely-spaced acoustic guitars with lush vocals and clapping hands, right back into screaming guitars. This record demands a serious phono stage to extract all these peaks and valleys without getting muddy. This song sounds miles wide in my listening room, just as it should.
As soon as the groove kicks in of “Miss You” from the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, the sharp detail of the MM phono stage in the PA2.2 is readily apparent. The steady rhythm of Charlie Watts’ high hat is perfectly crisp with enunciation and the right amount of punctuation to the snare. The bass line punches continually underneath, pulsating in and out, never overwhelming, but always there. The record progresses to “When the Whip Comes Down” and I continue to be impressed by the sibilance of the cymbals and the smoothness of the vocals. Keith Richard’s and Ron Wood’s guitars have wide separation between them in the ample soundstage.
The extra effort that went into the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs release of The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty comes shining through the moment the needle meets the groove of side one. Jerry Garcia’s lead vocal is hard panned to the right, with backing vocals in the left as “Box of Rain” flows from the Usher SD-500 speakers in my listening room. The classic “Friend of the Devil” is layered with several guitars, finger-picked and strummed. There is fantastic clarity to each instrument even as the song ramps up.
With this kind of left-right separation, it’s obvious that American Beauty is a great headphone record, and the PA2.2 is also a headphone amp. For side two, I plug in the KLH Ultimate One headphones and give a listen.
Not everything with a headphone jack is truly a headphone amplifier, but the Music Hall PA2.2 is a bonafide headphone amp. With a twist of the PA2.2’s rotary volume control, the Ultimate One headphones fill with music. Bass response is exceptionally strong and full. All the clarity and detail that was being translated to the amplifier and speakers is now being filtered into my headphones. The vast soundstage that the PA2.2 is able to create from the RCA outputs is right on my head. What a bonus for apartment dwellers and vinyl lovers with kids who still want to enjoy their collection on their time!
A Lot to Wrap Up
I’ve reviewed other phono preamps before, and what they do, they do well. If the only thing that the PA2.2 did was to serve as a phono preamplifier, it might very well still be worth the $449.00 asking price. It is just that good. However, it goes beyond that, providing a digital recording output via USB. It functions as a preamplifier for both phono and line level sources. If that weren’t enough, it’s a high-quality headphone amp for vinyl lovers. That feature alone makes this component a winner. The Music Hall PA2.2 phono preamp is an upgrade that I am happy to recommend to you. Happy listening!
Music Hall MMF3.3 turntable
Quad Vena II Play integrated amplifier
Usher SD-500 loudspeakers
Canton AS 22 SC subwoofer
Audio Art Cables IC-3 e2 RCA interconnects
Audio Art Cables SC-5 e2 Cryo bi-wire speaker cables
Audio Art Cables Power1 ePlus power cable