Pro-Ject are best known for a vast range of turntables but the company also produces an extensive electronics range under the “Box Design” brand. These micro-sized components come in various flavours and prices. The range consists of amplifiers (integrated, pre/power and dedicated headphone amplifiers), CD players and transports, DACs, Phono Stages, streamers, IR controllers, power supplies and even a pair of speakers. The Box Design range allows a space-saving budget or high-end system to be constructed to meet any requirement without compromising on performance or quality.
The nine-strong DS2 line is the latest in the Box Design range. It currently includes analogue and digital preamplifiers, stereo and monoblock power amps, a DAC, CD transport, two phono stages and a headphone amp. I hope to cover most of the range in due course but on reading the press release, one product in particular caught my eye. The £520 PhonoBox DS2 USB is a combined phono stage and high-quality USB interface, capable of digitising vinyl at resolutions of up to 24-bit, 192kHz PCM or DSD128 if desired. Dual-mono internal construction and ultra-linear RIAA equalisation are complemented by fully adjustable gain, capacitance and impedance, supporting both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges on either of the two switchable phono inputs.
The entire DS2 line is available finished in black or silver with either metal / aluminium casing or with Walnut or Eucalyptus side panels. I love the design; the micro-sized format means that multiple units will comfortably fit onto a standard rack shelf, and the facias are clean and uncluttered. The effect is retro yet modern at the same time; unmistakably traditional hi-fi, yet modernised and sleek. The PhonoBox DS2 USB measures just 206 x 227 x 70 mm (W x D x H), or 240 x 227 x 72 mm if you opt for the wooden side panels.
Provided with the PhonoBox DS2 is a basic 18V DC switch-mode power supply with outlet adapters that clip onto its underside. The power supply is extremely light (even for a basic switching supply) and during my tests produced some extraneous audible noise up close – though I should note that at no point did it adversely affect the sound. Pro-Ject offer a range of upgraded linear power supplies for their Box Design models, but given the price and quality of the PhonoBox DS2 I feel a power supply of higher quality should have been provided with the unit. A better quality switch-mode unit would be perfectly sufficient. The cheap, flimsy device supplied is not at all commensurate with the quality of the product it powers.
On a more positive note, the PhonoBox itself is well constructed with a solid metal chassis finished with wooden side panels. It feels substantial for its small size with the connectors and controls being also of excellent quality. Round feet beneath stop the unit sliding around, and tapping on the case yields little excessive resonance, though a bit of damping on the top panel wouldn’t go amiss. The front controls could offer more of a solid ‘click’ when pressed, but that’s a minor gripe and the PhonoBox feels like a product built to last.
On the back, two phono inputs cater for multiple turntables or tonearms, while a third line input allows line-level analogue devices to take advantage of the USB recording functionality. An analogue line output passes audio to your amplifier, and an optical digital output can send the audio directly to any DAC at a selectable sampling rate of up to 192kHz. Finally a USB type B output provides connection to a computer, and trigger in/out allows the PhonoBox to control the power status of other units as well as to be controlled by them.
Settings are made using a range of front-panel controls, organised in two neat vertical columns on the right-hand side of the front panel. Controls include input selection, a switchable 20Hz subsonic filter and control of the sampling frequency applicable to the digital output.
Cartridge adjustments include gain (40, 45, 50, 60 or 65dB), capacitance (100, 220, 320PF) and impedance loading (10Ω, 20Ω, 50Ω, 100Ω, 1kΩ or 47KΩ). Settings are stored for each input so it is possible to connect up a pair of turntables or tonearms and switch between them at the press of a button.
The large central knob allows for recording level adjustment to prevent clipping, and a standby button (complete with blue LED) places the unit into an eco-friendly standby mode when not in use.
The PhonoBox DS2 is provided with some documentation and a software CD containing windows drivers. The PhonoBox is CoreAudio compliant and thus plug and play under MacOS, though the Pro-Ject driver control panel under windows does offer some extra features, most notably the ability to upgrade the unit’s firmware. I used the unit exclusively within MacOS 10.12 Sierra and it ran flawlessly using Audacity and Logic Pro X.
I tested the PhonoBox DS2 using my Technics SL-1210 turntable with modified arm and AT33PTG/II low output moving coil cartridge. Loading was at 100Ω with the gain at 60dB, though raising the gain to the maximum 65dB did not overload the phono stage even with loud pressings. I did turn the gain up when recording quieter LPs, such as Ed Sheeran’s “Live At The Bedford” and Bob Dylan’s “Fallen Angels”.
For recording, the front-panel gain control was set such that the loudest pressing I own (Shinedown’s “Amaryllis”) was just below the point of clipping on the loudest peaks, and remained there for the remainder of my recording sessions. This enabled me to capture recordings with no clipping and minimal noise, even when normalisation was applied. Even so the gain control was almost maxed and as it was I left many of my recordings untouched, only trimming the start and end in post-production. I used the peak meters in Logic, though the unit does provide a clipping LED on its front panel.
I also tested the PhonoBox DS2 connected to my Cambridge Audio 851N DAC/streamer via the optical output. The sampling frequency of 192kHz was detected by the 851N and the pairing performed flawlessly. As the front-panel level control affects the output feeding the analogue to digital converter, it affects the optical output as well as the USB output.
There is really only one way to describe the sound of the PhonoBox DS2 – natural. My AT33 is a very warm-sounding cartridge; in fact some would consider it somewhat bland. I don’t find it so and think it really shines with a great phono stage. The PhonoBox didn’t disappoint. The sound was detailed with an excellent stereo image, no sibilance and levels of idle noise so low as to be irrelevant. Vinyl fans obsess over silent CD-like backgrounds far too much in my opinion, but that is what the combination of the Technics 1210, AT33 and PhonoBox DS2 produced. Instruments were accurately portrayed and the overall performance was enjoyable in the way that a great analogue experience can be. The analogue to digital conversion appeared particularly transparent too. I had a hard time distinguishing between recordings made with the PhonoBox DS2 and the sound produced live through its analogue outputs, which is a major plus.
With more and more high-end all-in-one systems, active speakers and even high-end preamps lacking analogue inputs, the PhonoBox DS2 offers a neat solution to bring your turntable into the digital age. It offers those looking to transfer their vinyl for safe keeping or regular listening a convenient way to transfer their records in the best quality possible. And on top of that it’s a truly excellent phono stage for those looking to maximise the performance of any turntable and cartridge combination. Small in stature with plenty of useful features and excellent sound, this is yet another highly recommended pro-Ject product.