Spartan 10 By Michael Fidler Retrospective Review

The review below was kindly contributed by Nipper Varney. This review was written some time ago and is referenced in his recent phono stage comparison contribution. The Spartan 10 has now been discontinued, replaced by the Spartan 15, so I am publishing this as a kind of retrospective as there are certainly plenty of Spartan 10s out there ‘in the wild’. What follows is Nipper’s content unedited. Take it away, Nipper!

When I was a wee Nipper, as strong as soup but only knee high to a sensible thought, I used to race bicycles. Within walking distance of my front door were a number of bike manufacturers, one man businesses brazing frames and sticking their names on them. My mates raced on Chas Roberts, Ron Coopers, Ken Birds and Barrie Witcombes, to name but some. I rode a T.J. Quick, mainly because I wanted “Quick” on the downtube in the forlorn hope it might make me faster.

I still remember walking into Mr Quick’s poky little shop on the South Circular that seemed to extend back without limit behind the counter into a workshop where I could glimpse self made tools like the frame jig and angled tube mitre. I breathed in that smell of engineering, before asking “Hey Mister, can you make this for me?”. I showed him my school exercise book with my carefully researched design drawn inside. I also still remember getting detention for saying “Sorry I can’t hand in my homework Miss, it’s at the frame builders”.

When I collected my shiny new steed I said to Tommy, as I later came to know him, “Hey Mister, gi’s a job.” And so, aged 14, I spent my summer holidays working for £30 a week shot blasting paint off frames by day and blowing vast quantities of iron filings out of my nose by night.

Those micro business local tradesmen were true artisans, producing world class products, better than what many professionals in the Tour de France were racing on at the time, fully custom for each client and yet cheaper than some of the peg big brands. The frame builders would also join us on club rides and race meets where they sponsored promising young talent who couldn’t afford a bike. You could chew the fat with them over a coffee – they were real people and part of the community.

Sadly not one of those businesses still exists, the last, Roberts, closing its doors in 2015. Nowadays kids of all ages race super light and rigid mass produced plastic things adorned with Italian and American names that are little more than marketing brands on frames made in third party Shenzhen or Taipei factories, which no rider has heard or knows anything of. Race bicycles, previously unique and made with real passion by people you knew, have become soulless appliances with about as much personal connection as a washing machine.

Back when I was a wee Nipper, as strong as soup but only knee high to a sensible thought and raced bicycles, Britain’s hi-fi industry also thrived. Every town, it seemed, had someone making speakers, amplifiers or turntables. Like bicycle frame builders some were big businesses but many were micro enterprises most had never heard of, producing small quantities of high class products to those in the know, each unique but yet could still compare with the best. Unlike the cycle industry, though, this is still pretty much the case. Okay, the bean counters at the big boys have shipped production out to China (whilst, in at least one example, slapping Union Jack stickers on the front fascia of their products), but there is still a healthy, if diminished, number of micro, small and medium sized hi-fi manufacturers still making their high quality products with love and skill on these shores.

And it is into this cottage industry that Michael Fidler steps. He recently launched his company Classic Audio and spent a year researching his initial product (after 10 years of design experience), the Spartan 10 Phono stage. Only just released, he sold half the primary production run in the first week. So maybe it’s worth a look at. His website goes into great depth and technical detail so I will just summarise some of the main points. 

Front Panel

It is MM only with claimed exceptional measured performance to cost and some interesting features. The front contains an LFC toggle switch. This is apparently the first commercial phono stage to implement “low frequency crossfeed” which converts stereo to mono at low frequencies, in line with the record groove, for claimed sonic benefit, particularly with headphones. It also has a mono switch to make the most of your mono records. The non-switchable subsonic filter stops insidious subsonic content from both record surface and platter bearing, protecting the loudspeakers and removing intermodulation distortion, improving sound quality, whilst not affecting the lowest recorded sonics. The linear PSU provides improved isolation from the mains. In general the phono stage claims an original, new and unique topology, use of high quality components, chosen for sound quality (including superior RIAA accuracy for uncoloured sound), reliability, durability and repairability, all sourced from UK suppliers and carefully hand assembled and individually tested in the UK. Interesting then! Time to listen to it…

Using MC as I do in my main system and this being MM only, I plug it into the 2nd system in the garden room. Somewhat appropriately, I thought, the turntable here is a Systemdek, manufactured by Mr Dunlop and his two sons in a garage on the west coast of Scotland in a grotty New Town south of Glasgow well over 30 years ago; a perfect product example of the British hi-fi cottage industry. Proven durability and a sound quality, now that I have modified it a little, that can easily hold it’s own against my new SL-1200GR. The two brothers now manufacture speakers and I recently contacted them, the individuals who actually made it, for servicing advice, not something you could do for anything made by faceless corporations. It is fitted with a 2M Black, which is one of the better MM cartridges on the market with a self confident presentation. The amp is a Cambridge CXA-80 and the speakers Monitor Audio Silver 8 floor standers; the equipment arguably at around the price point for a £350 phono stage.

For this review to be of any use, rather than just saying the Spartan 10 sounds wonderful, or whatever, which is meaningless, I really need to compare it with other phono stages to hear its’ relative strengths and weaknesses. To hand I have two well known Pro-Ject stages, the Phono Box USB-V and Phono Box RS. They bookend the Spartan in price (albeit they both have been superseded with new models), the retail prices being USB-V £135, Spartan £350 and RS £800. The Spartan I have is marked as a demo sample that I can only assume is the same as those sold. I am doing this review purely for the fun of it and have no favourite in the fight. The conclusion entirely my own subjective opinion.

With the cartridge in the air I turn the amp volume knob to 12 o’clock to compare the phono stages gain hiss. The USB-V was intrusively loud; the RS considerably quieter; the Spartan about half the noise level of the RS. Now to spin some records.

Rear Panel

First up USB-V v Spartan 10. The USB-V was less than half the price and less than half the size. It is also far more versatile than the Spartan 10 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.

Next up RS v Spartan 10. The RS, Pro-Ject’s well regarded top model prior to the recently launched RS Mark 2, was more than double the retail price and size of the Spartan – and, to be fair, double the product as it caters for both MM & MC with variable settings. The sound comparison was far closer than with the USB-V, the differences relatively more subtle. The RS sounds slightly fatter, softer throughout the full range from bass to treble and more acoustic with longer decay, the music flowing more smoothly. It imparts slightly more of its own sonic character and has a little more distortion, however it is easier on the ear. The Spartan is 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. On very long listening periods at high volume it more clearly reveals the slightly fatiguing bold presentation of the 2M Black. If this is how you listen then I suggest a slightly more subtle and nuanced cartridge to partner it. In short it better replicates the sound as it is transferred from the cartridge than the RS.

Unfortunately for me, as I have only recently purchased the RS and don’t yet own a Spartan (edit – I do now), my conclusion is that the Spartan is clearly the better sounding of the two. I don’t know if it’s the best sounding phono stage at around its price point as I haven’t heard them all, however the claimed performance numbers suggest it’s at least up there with the best. 

What a shame then that Michael Fidler hasn’t seen fit to put his own name on the front of it like the artisan bicycle frame makers of old did. It’s more than good enough to – and then some. You would then know him as a modern true artisan, a new producer of world class products, should you get to chew the fat with him over a coffee, and you would also know that, in owning a Spartan 10 with his name written on it, you own something made with a personal passion that makes it that bit more special than a faceless appliance.

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