Phono Stage Comparison – Classic Audio Spartan & Pro, Pro-Ject, Ifi

The review below was kindly contributed by Nipper Varney. Michael Fidler of Classic Audio asked me if I would consider publishing a review of his latest Spartan 15 phonostage contributed by Nipper. I agreed and what follows is a fantastic in-depth comparison of a number of phono stages, including the Spartan 15. Also featured are the Spartan 5, Spartan 10, MM PRO, MC PRO, and units from Pro-Ject and Ifi too. There are a few editor’s notes intermingled, but what follows is Nipper’s content unedited. Take it away, Nipper!

Full disclosure – I am writing this for fun and because I have the opportunity. I am purely amateur, am not receiving any money either directly or in the form of advertising which may otherwise possibly affect the integrity of my personal opinions expressed herein. I am a lucky owner of three of these phono stages, have borrowed the iFi from a mate and been sent the other three units in the perhaps vain hope of selling at least one of them to me, hence my opportunity to write this. My views and conclusions are, of course, entirely personal opinion.

I first became aware of Michael Fidler / Classic Audio on the 10th December 2021. He had just joined a Facebook audio group and posted if anyone fancied having a go on his new demo prototype of the not-yet-launched Spartan 10, his first ever product to market, as he was looking for feedback. I took the bait and offered to try it out and perhaps give him some altruistic advice with his new venture, if wanted (which it wasn’t) even though I wasn’t in the market for this unit.

Ortofon 2m Black Black Spartan 5 Ifi Zen Phono Mc Pro

What turned up was a scruffy looking thing with “DEMO” badly scratched into the aluminium faceplate, as if by a ten year old needing practice with graffiti. An inauspicious start. Then I listened to it, comparing it with my recently purchased £800 ProJect PhonoBox RS, a top-of-the-range phonostage from a well established, experienced and respected mainstream brand and costing more than double what this was going to retail for…. and the demo Spartan 10 blew me – and the ProJect – away!

I wrote what I think was the first ever review of a Classic Audio product and said as much but, with no other opinions to compare, I was perhaps afraid of accusations of hyperbole, saying really quite how stunningly good this scratched up, shabby little box genuinely sounded and so toned down the prose just a little. The review, relevant to this comparison as it is, is presented Here for reference.

Having heard it there was no way I wasn’t going to buy one, and so I did, at full price – the production one actually sounding a smidge better still! Months later I also went on to get his MC PRO phono stage for MC cartridges as soon as it was launched and they are the only stages I currently use on my two turntables. My review of this can be found by Clicking Here.

You may think that an unknown jumped-up young man arriving from nowhere with such a competition beating and well priced product may ruffle a few establishment feathers – and you’d be right. In his initial excitement at getting such good objective test results on the Spartan 10 – and be in no doubt they were exceptionally good – Michael, possibly naively, played a winning game of Top Trumps posting on his website a comparison of manufacturer stated measurements with a well known and regarded competitor model costing twice as much but unnamed. According to Graham Slee’s own – public for all to see on social media – words Graham sent him a “Cease and Desist” threatening legal action letter as it seems he was both rattled and embarrassed that his own products measured comparatively so poorly whilst being priced so highly. I strongly doubt Graham had a legal leg to stand on. This only made Michael even more incentivised to make more, even better performing products (which are what I have before me) – the perfect response.

However the baton of comparison was independently taken over by a number of others including AudioPhil on YouTube where you can hear for yourselves in 4K the Spartan 10 against a Slee phonostage costing three times as much, as well as Michael’s MC PRO against a Slee at twice the price, and come to your own conclusion (sadly the links to the raw files no longer work). Be in no doubt – the Spartan 10 is an absolute cracker of a performer.

Spartan 5


This retails for £150, a hotly contested, high volume, “starter” segment of the market. A simple small box, it doesn’t even have an on / off switch as, consuming less than 0.5W when idle (comparable with many appliances in standby), it is designed to be left on when in regular use. The only switch is for stereo / mono which I suspect will mostly be little used. In some ways I think it may be better without this function – keep it as simple as – and lower the cost even further in this price competitive market sector.

Manufacturer published objective performance figures are good for a phonostage and excellent at this price point. Michael not only hand builds each unit himself but also measures every one to ensure results at least match if not better the official figures. No mere random sample testing here – and what’s more each unit is sent out with its own test result! How cool is that? Quoted RIAA accuracy, for example, is +- 0.25dB but he tells me 80% of the current batch are +- 0.1dB or considerably better. By comparison a Graham Slee Gram Amp 2 Communicator (£180) is quoted at +- 0.5dB. Time to give it a listen.

First I compare it with my old ProJect PhonoBox USB-V which cost me £135 a few years ago. When I did this with the Spartan 10 demo unit I wrote that the USB-V “is far more versatile in that it accommodates MM & MC cartridges and also has a USB out for creating digital files of your LPs. The sound comparison didn’t last very long, though, as by comparison the Spartan is in a completely different league altogether; the USB-V sounding flat and dull, the emotion sucked out of the music as it it were full of antidepressants rather than electronics.” The same description holds true here. The USB-V indeed sounds like it is full of antidepressants – wrapped up in cotton wool, at the bottom of a well.

Next I compare it with an iFi Zen Phono (£200). From what I can glean from the various internet forums the Zen was widely regarded as the best at this price point until the £50 cheaper Spartan 5 came along and a number of forum members went scurrying off to sell their Zens to buy replacement 5s, claiming sonic benefits in doing so. I borrow my mate’s Zen to see for myself if what was generally considered to be the bar had indeed been raised.

I had first compared the iFi in MC vs the MC PRO and whilst the latter was clearly superior in every way (as it should be given the price differential) I was pleasantly surprised with the iFi. It was in a different league better than the little ProJect USB-V and had low gain hiss even in MC, better than my top of the range PhonoBox RS. I was thinking the iFi and 5 would be very similar in performance and so called on the services of my son to join me in comparing this and all the others. His ears are 30 years younger and he has zero bias to confirm or otherwise as he knew nothing of the products he was listening to.

I was surprised at how different the iFi Zen and Spartan 5 sounded. The 5 sounded fuller, warmer and richer with more bass and authority. It was faster, sharper and more energetic and enriched. The soundstage was larger and there was more decay as notes faded away. It was more musical, conveying more emotion. Don’t get me wrong – the iFi is a great performer at it’s price point but by comparison the 5 made the iFi sound thin, flat and harsh. I understand an upgraded power supply improves the performance of the iFi Zen, but that’s more money. I much preferred the 5

Next to put the 5 up against its old bigger brother, the Spartan 10 (£350 at time of sale).

Where the 5 had a full, rich and warm presentation, the 10 had more insight. It was more natural, accurate and even handed, coherent and synchronised. The 10 was faster with more dynamics. Whilst I personally preferred the 10 there was no doubting quite how excellently the 5 performed. Be in no doubt the 5 really is an absolute cracker regardless of price and worthy of audition even if your budget is much higher.

Editor’s note: I previously reviewed the Spartan 5, which you can Click Here to read. I’d generally agree with Nipper’s findings, though I like the inclusion of the mono switch.

Spartan 10

Front Panel

Now discontinued, I have owned one since launch and my aforementioned original review can be found by Clicking Here. Long version short – it is fantastic.

Spartan 15


Success in business requires, amongst other things, ability, hard work and good decision making. Where Michael has more than ticked the first two boxes, it is fair to say he has made a couple of bad decisions (as well as several good ones). One of these was discontinuing the Spartan 10 just as word was getting out and demand was increasing. Many folk had it on their shopping list but hadn’t yet got round to making a purchase. His hope (I suspect based on poor advice from some in the industry) was to upsell them to his newly launched, but more expensive and presumably more profitable, MM PRO. These folk were pissed off and weren’t slow in voicing their disappointment as the MM PRO was out of their budget. Michael listened and then acted on what they were telling him and within just a few months he launches the Spartan 15. He should be applauded for such a quick and positive response to customer feedback.

This is a direct replacement of the 10. From the outside it looks basically the same, except to say smartened up with a more nicely finished and thicker front panel featuring bevelled edges and recessed screw heads and power light. The appearance compared to the original I saw with ‘DEMO” scratched into the front is night and day better. The product has come a long way in just a year and very much has the feel and appearance of a high quality product. The features also seem identical with rumble filter, switchable low frequency crossfeed for improved bass, and mono switch. Inside, though, I am told it is 95% different. This scares me as the Spartan10 is so good – if you have struck gold, why restart from scratch?

It is, however, the same architecture as the 10 with the bits used in the MM PRO, so maybe I needn’t be so worried… The good news is that, in this time of double digit inflation, Michael has managed to actually bring the price down to £330 now that he has the better buying power and experience of an established business. A rare achievement!

The moment of truth… time to compare the sound of the Spartan 15 with it’s previous incarnation, the Spartan 10, back-to-back. Truth be told I’m a bit scared incase the magic has gone. First the familiar S10. Then swap to the S15.


Auditioning is a fickle thing. When I first heard the 15 I thought – “OMG! Where the heck did that come from?!? The sound is so jaw-droppingly, breath-takingly wow that 30 seconds in and I need to go and change my underpants…. Be in no doubt”, I thought, “it is THAT good, that It takes the excellence at even 3x the price that the 10 provides and builds on it – and not subtly. It sounds like the sonics from my MC PRO, which surprises me” – the MC PRO comparison was surprising as, at that time, I did not know they shared components. By the end of the first side of the album I was definitely going to be selling my 10. 

Then a few days passed of not listening to it as I was swapping out the turntable motor and trying to get the platter ball bearing out to replace (see the Origin Live motor kit review Here). Next I stick both the 10 and then 15 into my second system with the Technics SL-1200GR and, probably due to the familiarity of an old friend, or possibly my mood or the change of system (same stylus), I actually warm to the 10. What? This is clearly going to take longer to audition. Back into my main system and my son, with his younger ears and zero potential bias, is re-employed to join me for listening.

On balance their performance is not dissimilar – which is excellent news given how incredibly high the 10 had set the bar, a huge relief! In my original review of the 10, when comparing it with the top of the range ProJect PhonoBox RS I noted the 10 was “sharper, faster, cleaner and more neutral, with clearer detail. The sound is closer to the digital version reference, more accurate and less coloured. The bass is noticeably tighter and the treble cleaner and brighter, creating a bigger, more expansive sound stage. There is a more clearly defined separation of instruments” By comparison to the 10 the 15 has all these attributes but with a slightly fuller, enriched tone (though not as much as the 5) and the mids are a little more to the fore.

Three day’s break over Easter and I listen to the 15 again with fresh ears. Again the sound blows me away with it’s clear, self confident presentation. I would be absolutely delighted to have the 15 in my system for many years of pleasure without wondering if there was anything better out there, that I might be missing something. It is an “end game” phono stage and I am delighted and relieved that the 15 isn’t a flop after the greatness which was the 10, that the 10 wasn’t just a one hit wonder. Objectively the 15 officially performs very well indeed and better than the very good 10 on the test bench.

MM Pro

Where the 5 is single stage and the 15 double stage, this is a triple stage design. It offers two levels of output for both MM and HOMC, as well as active loading, the option of balanced outputs and adjustment of the crossfeed over the 15. All for £600

But does it sound any better? Time to find out…

The 15 and PRO have very similar sonics i.e. slightly warmer and more enriched than the 10. Comparing the two ended up doing my head in as the similarity was so great and yet I needed to adjust the volume to compensate for the MM PRO’s higher output and the volume affected the meatiness of the bass etc. So I did several listening sessions between these two and didn’t always reach the same conclusion. Altering the volume seemed to affect the sound more than the difference between the two. At the end of each of all the A / B phono stage comparisons I did a five blind test guess which one was I listening to at different volumes. With the other stages I was correct every time. Between these two I was only 3/5 correct. I would say I could hear absolutely no discernible distortion with the MM PRO. Objectively the PRO officially performs extremely well and better than the very good 15 on the test bench.

Editor’s note: An MM Pro is now in my system and a full review will be written when I can stop listening to the thing long enough to write one.

MC Pro

Mc Pro Powered Front

I have previously written a full review of my own MC PRO, Click Here to read it. Where the MM PRO gives a choice of gain of either 42dB or 52dB for MM and HOMC cartridges, the MC PRO offers 63dB and 73dB gains for LOMC and VLOMC (+6dB with XLR) for £650. Other than the head amplifier both units are identical.

Whilst I stated that the objective test results for the lowly Spartan 5 were very good, and the 15 even better, they are stunning for the MC PRO. From the manufacturer’s site (currently being rewritten) “…lower noise than any moving magnet system available, despite 10 times less signal at the input.” Ashley of Audio Appraisal goes even further, claiming that he is yet to find a phono stage at any price up to and including 100 times the price of the MC PRO that can equal it in objective terms. It’s worth taking a pause and then reading this again. Those are quite some statements!

Editor’s note: I did claim this, and I stand by it. If you’d like to prove me wrong, and can back it up with objective data, do so in the comments. My original MC Pro review is Here

It will be fun to compare my two turntables, one with MM and the other with MC cartridge fitted.

In the red corner I have my old Systemdek IIX, now much modified with acrylic platter, O.L. DC100 motor kit with speed box and round transformer, damping etc., etc. and fitted with a rather nice Acoustic Signature TA1000 arm and Ortofon 2M Black MM cartridge through the Spartan 10…. And in the blue corner is my Technics SL-1200gr with Audio-Technica AT-OC9XML MC cartridge on an AT-LH13H headshell and 3mm Achromat with 3mm Heavy Silicone mat on top through the MC PRO. Both decks have isolation pads under their feet and upgraded cables.

So not so much a phono stage shootout as a turntable, tonearm and cartridge combination shootout then. Perhaps the only similarity is the price of the respective cartridges. Place your bets now!

Social media favourite with its performance to value, paired with the AT MC cart and phenomenal phono stage is the Technics – and with good reason. Excellent it certainly is. Pre needle in the groove it is quieter and everything is much more user friendly. But… but… my 35+ year ol’ Systemdek IIX, with all its mods and upgrades, grabs victory quite easily. Don’t get me wrong, in it’s standard spec. the Systemdek is merely average but now it is simply stunning. More dynamics, soundstage, insight, nuance, emotion, musicality. And bass – such bass! Play Dogs on P.F.’s Animals 2018 remix with the volume cranked and the bass is very good with the Technics but it is on another level, massaging your internal organs with the Systemdek, achieving real depth whilst maintaining detail and control, literally adding to the impact of the music. The arm, platter, etc all play a major part in this but there is the unmistakable unique character, charisma even, that the suspended chassis design adds which allows the music to effortlessly, smoothly flow and makes the Technics, by comparison, sound a little flat.

Editor’s note: I’d buy the Technics.


My ProJect PhonoBox USB-V is rubbish. It hisses like a stove kettle and sounds muffled and lifeless. The iFi and, particularly, all the Classic Audio units are, however very good, indeed excellent at their respective price points. In the unscientific test of needle in the air, crank up the volume, all of them proved very quiet. At normal listening volumes I would need to put my ear to the speaker to hear the hiss and even at loud listening volume knob position it was barely audible from the seat. This is a much better performance from all of these than many a more expensive product. They also all have a decent sound, the Classic Audio products especially.

I can understand why the iFi seems to be so popular with owners on internet forums. If you have a limited budget but use various cartridges with different outputs then I doubt there’s much out there with four gain settings can get near its performance for £200. 

For £50 less, though, if you stick to only MM and HOMC cartridges (I am reliably informed it works well with Denon’s DL110 for example) as most folk do at this price point, you can get the Spartan 5. This is a great sounding phono stage at any price point and for £150 it is phenomenal. It’s full and rich, emotion conveying sound makes the iFi sonics thin and bright.

The 15 and MM PRO both sound incredible. Their presentation is more defined with individual, separated notes and no hint of distortion all with a virtually silent background. Their tone is somewhere between the 5 and 10 in terms of rich vs natural whilst adding crispness and the PRO adds further output power and lack of distortion. Note: these phono stages gave different outputs so comparing had the added difficulty of trying to find the same volume level.

Things I would like to see; My old PhonoBox RS had a “Mute” toggle switch on the front which I miss and would find useful on these units, particularly when de-fluffing the needle etc. The current Classic Audio units have their RCA connectors closer together than with the Spartan 10 – this makes tightening / loosening RCA plugs with screw tightening more awkward to fit / remove (no issue with push on RCA plugs). I was rather uncomplimentary about the very bright orange “on” light on the Spartan 10 in my original review and have covered it with silver masking tape to dim it. The current units, I am pleased to see, have red lights that aren’t as bright – which are perfect in daylight rooms – but they could be slightly dimmer still in darkened rooms.

The MM PRO and MC PRO are designed for different cartridge outputs so I would like to see, in addition to these two units, a PRO unit with all 4 outputs, possibly with an even more upmarket casework – along with a cheaper Spartan 15 based version with just 42dB and 63dB gain options – both from the point of view of a customer who switches between MM & MC and also for the benefit of Classic Audio as sales figures would be perfect market research as to what the market wants, much like offering both silver and black finishes, which is now starting to become available with the full line up. 

I am delighted Michael has picked up on my recommendation in my original Spartan 10 review below and put his name on the front – a sign of how proud he is of his products, as he should be!

Mc Pro Mm Pro Spartan 15 Ifi Zen Phono And Spartan 5 Bottom To Top

All tested on both of two systems in different rooms. System 1 – Systemdek IIX (see above) – Denon PMA-A110 – Monitor Audio Gold 300. System 2 – Technics SL-1200GR c/w 2M Black – Denon PMA-A2500ne – Monitor Audio Silver 8.


A couple or so years ago Michael Fidler was working as an electrical engineer for British Aerospace. He wished his co-worker a good morning, but said it in Polish. His boss overheard and reprimanded him for not speaking English. He told his boss where to stick it, left, and wondered to himself “what now?”. So he started making hi fi products and a year on from launching to market his business is not just going from strength to strength but really going places, his products proving extremely popular and taking the market by storm. That a young man, still in his twenties, singlehandedly starts up a manufacturing company with no decent capital behind him, no business experience, no support, no marketing budget and no experience of (or contacts in) the industry he is producing goods for actually managed to get off the ground is impressive and that he is still trading after 12 months is really quite remarkable – the statistical odds were very much stacked against him. Even bringing just one product to market is an achievement for which he should be proud.

For that product to not just be a gravely flawed left field alternative with major quality control and reliability issues, but instead to be able to actually compete head on with mainstream established products with investment and proven expertise from a team of professionals with evolutionary experience behind them is a huge, jaw dropping achievement. For that product to not merely compete with the established competition, but to outperform them all not only at the same retail price point but double the price point is absolutely extraordinary. For Michael, in the first year of bringing his product to market not just one device but six (yes, six! Including Spartan 78 specifically for… you guessed it) and for each and every single one of them to outperform all of the established competition at double their respective price points – and for his top product to, reportedly, objectively provide the finest technical performance of any phono stage on the market right now at any price up to and including 100 times its price – and for it, as an MC stage, to make lower gain noise even than any MM stage on the market – is utterly, mind-blowingly phenomenal. It is a fantasy script that would even stretch Disney. It just wouldn’t happen. Except it has.


  1. I’m intrigued about the comment that this item measures better than stages up to 100 times more expensive. Wow! To be taken seriously, you need to publish your evidence.

    1. The evidence is out there. Look at the specs for any commercially available phono stage (at least, the ones who publish them). Find specs that aren’t using weighting, input shorting and such to give better numbers. Then find one that offers better performance.

      1. I wonder how the Spartan 15 compares to the Rothwell Simplex, another extremely good designed and made British phono stage?

        1. The Simplex looks interesting but its published specifications are limited. It doesn’t specify a reference bandwidth for the specified gain, headroom, signal to noise or maximum output. They also don’t specify the reference input for the quoted >87dB signal to noise figure, so it’s probably a best-case scenario. There’s no bandwidth given for the RIAA accuracy which is quoted only as 0.5dB, which is a long way off the ±0.1dB, 40Hz to 22kHz that is the minimum specification for a Spartan 15. There are no crosstalk or channel balance figures given for comparison. For reference, Spartan 15 specs are Here and Simplex specs are Here. I have not heard a simplex (I might ask for a review sample) but based on the specifications the Spartan 15 is far ahead.

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