Full review and independent laboratory test of the Allnic Audio H-1201 Phono EQ Amplifier by Australian Hi-Fi Magazine. Free download.
This equipment review consists of a full subjective evaluation of the Allnic Audio H-1201 Phono EQ Amplifier written by George Engler together with a complete set of independent laboratory tests conducted by Newport Test Labs and a test report written by Steve Holding.
The following downloadable pdf is an exact replica of the original pages on which the review appeared in Australian Hi-Fi Magazine, November/December 2014 issue (Volume 45 Number 6).
Download PDF here (2.5MB): Allnic Audio H-1201 Phono EQ Amplifier Review & Test
The review below is complete but does not include the independent Lab Report, Test Results and response graphs included in the magazine and on the PDF above.
Allnic Audio H-1201 Phono EQ Amplifier by George Engler, Australian Hi-Fi Magazine
Many audio reviewers would have you believe that high-end components designed and built by a single person are often distinctively individual… sometimes, even, verging on ‘quirky’.
And it’s products such as the Allnic Audio H-1201 Phono EQ Amplifier, designed by Kang Su Park, that prove there’s more than a grain of truth in that theory.
Before getting onto the ‘distinctively individual’ elements of the H-1201’s design, let’s get the nuts and bolts out of the way. And they are ‘nuts and bolts’, because there are certainly no ‘bells and whistles’ on this Spartan phono stage. As a phono stage, it has inputs for both moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges. The voltage gain of the MM section is fixed, at 38dB, as is the impedance (47kΩ).
The voltage gain of the MC section is variable, as it’s able to be switched between an indicated 22dB, 26dB, 28dB and 32dB. However, because the MC section includes a fixed gain stage with a voltage gain of 40dB, the actual gains are 62dB, 66dB, 68dB and 72dB. When you switch gain on the MC section, you also necessarily switch input impedances, which Allnic confusingly labels as ×13, ×20, ×26 and ×40, stating only that the highest input impedance the MC section offers is 280Ω. In fact, according to Kang Su Park, the corresponding impedances are 29Ω, 69Ω, 117Ω and 278Ω. In each case these are suitable for cartridges ‘up to 29Ω,’ ‘up to 69Ω’, ‘up to 117Ω’ and ‘up to 278Ω’.
The construction of the transformers (which are made in-house at Allnic’s facility in Korea) is what gives rise to the company’s name, because they use cores made from Permalloy, which is a Nickel-Iron compound developed by Gustav Elmen (Ref 1) when he was working at Bell Laboratories, and Allnic says that the word ‘Allnic’ is a contraction of the words ‘All Nickel Core’. This confused me because Permalloy not pure Nickel at all, but a mix of Nickel and Iron. Notwithstanding, Park is apparently a great admirer of Elmen’s work; he even includes a dedication in the Owners’ Manual for the H-1201 that says: ‘Allnic is grateful to Mr G.W. Elmen of Western Electric for inventing Permalloy for transformer core use, and in so doing, providing an enormous service to recorded music listeners everywhere.’ Permalloy is most useful because of its extremely high permeability, but its other highly desirable magnetic characteristics, including low coercivity, almost no magnetostriction—and its significant anisotropic magnetoresistance—made it the ideal material to use in tape recorders, which is presumably the application for which Allnic is lauding Elmen.
However as a tape recorder head material, Permalloy had several drawbacks, the main one of which was its relative softness, so it was eventually superseded by ferrites. (This obviously isn’t an impediment when Permalloy is used in a transformer, as it is in the Allnic H-1201.)
As you can see from the photographs accompanying this review, the gains are set individually for each channel, as you’re actually changing taps on the transformers themselves (one for each channel), and these transformers are located at the back of the unit, behind the four E180CC NOS twin triodes (Mullards, made in Holland, were the ones fitted to my review sample). Rather than use E180CCs, you can also use 12AV7s, 7062s, or 5965s, but Allnic’s Owners Manual warns that while these ‘equivalent’ valves are: ‘approximately electrically equivalent’ they are not, says Allnic, ‘sonically equivalent.’
Anyone ‘experienced in the art’ of valve design will have done a double-take when they read above that Allnic is using E180CCs, because these valves were not designed for audio use. To quote the descriptor for this valve on the ‘The National Valve Museum’ site [www.r-type.org] “The E180CC is a special quality double triode designed for use in computer circuits. The E180CC will maintain its emission characteristics after long periods where the valve is biased to cut-off. This characteristic equates to use in a bi-stable or flip-flop circuit. The E180CC is not designed for audio use.” This apparently didn’t deter Park from experimenting with the E180CC valve, with the happy result that he’s now a convert. He reportedly told reviewer David McCallum (Enjoy The Music) not only that the E180CC is ‘a very good tube’ but also that he: ‘loves this tube.’ (Ref 2.)
The fact that Park loves the E180CC puts him in very good company, because according to none other than English electronics designer Phil Taylor of Effectrode [www.effectrode.com], the E180CC is a great-sounding valve. He says of it: ‘Audiophiles have been seeking it out since the price is generally lower than the premium ECC81 NOS prices currently. Like the 5965, it has slightly lower gain than the 12AT7, and has the added advantage of a 10,000-hour heater life to make it another audiophile “secret” tube. A super bargain when you find them, since they are musical and smooth to listen to, and actually sound better than many standard 12AT7 tubes. This tube is about a half-inch taller than the standard 12AT7, so chassis space is an important consideration.’
Allnic says the H-1201 is a pure Class-A design that does not employ any negative feedback, and that the RIAA equalisation is done passively, using discrete capacitors and resistors to an overall accuracy of ±0.3dB. Distortion is specified at ‘less than 0.3% at 1kHz’ and signal-to-noise ratio is specified at ‘68dB at 1kHz (CCIR).’
The front panel of the H-1201 has a push-button for mains power (with a status LED above), a push-button for muting (again with a status LED above it) plus a large rotary switch for selecting either the MM or MC input. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I couldn’t understand what the graphic on the mute button meant. Obviously I knew that one position muted the output and the other unmuted it, but I could not tell just from looking at the graphic which position was which, nor could I work it out from the chameleon tell-tale LED above it. (For the record, ‘out’ is muted, and the manual has this information in it.)
The rear panel has gold-plated RCA connectors for the MM and MC inputs, along with nickel-plated earth terminals, plus a single pair of gold-plated RCA connectors for outputs (which have an impedance of 1.2kΩ, according to Allnic). The Allnic Audio H-1201 measures 310×230×140mm (WDH) and weighs 13.2kg.
Now, let’s look at those ‘distinctively individual elements’ of the design I mentioned earlier. First, the H-1201 has no overarching external chassis, so what you see is most definitely ‘what you get’ with this design, which means the four valves are somewhat exposed. It’s true that the valves are afforded a very high level of protection by virtue of being enclosed in clear tubing, the tops of which are covered by circular perforated steel casings to allow heat to escape, but it’s not the same level of protection that would have been given by a fully-enclosed chassis.
A second ‘distinctive element’ is that the valve shields are actually higher than the front panel, so they protrude above it. This means that if anyone places anything on top of the H-1201, it will rest directly (and only) on these shields, rather than the front panel. If the front panel had been just 13mm higher, it would have at least been as tall as the valve tubes.
A third ‘distinctive element’ is actually two distinctive elements, by which I mean the two sculpted carrying handles—which to me looked rather like knuckle-dusters—that are located either side of the ‘deck’ that supports the valves and transformers. Although I found the design of these handles rather unusual, I cannot deny that they ‘felt’ great when I was using them to carry the H-1201 around, and they also allowed me to move the H-1201 with supreme confidence that I’d never lose my grip. They’re also beautifully balanced. So practically—and ergonomically—speaking, the handles are a runaway success.
Visually, I’m still not quite sure…
The other distinctive element is that the wiring behind the MM/MM switch is not hidden or protected in any way. Damage is unlikely, but it looks untidy… or quirky and individual, take your pick!
In Use and Listening Sessions
I used the Allnic Audio H-1201 with both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges. When used with moving-coil cartridges, despite finding settings that suited all the different MC cartridges I used, I did make note of the fact there are only four different settings from which to choose. It’s true that the H-1201 is Allnic’s entry-level phono stage, but I have reviewed similarly-priced phono stages from other manufacturers that have offered more than thirty different impedance settings, along with more than half-a-dozen different capacitance settings, plus additional options for gain. The difference is that all the manufacturers offering this flexibility were using active circuitry—often solid-state—with all the issues and problems these approaches bring to audio, whereas Allnic Audio uses primarily passive circuitry—and valves!—which makes such options impractical.
But when you hear the sound of your favourite LPs, as reproduced by your favourite phono cartridge operating through the Allnic H-1201, you will instantly forget all about resistance and capacitance matching, because you will be so thrilled by the incredible purity of the sound you’re hearing, to the extent that it will likely be as if you’re hearing the music for the first time. The H-1201 retained everything I love about vinyl: the incredible realism of the stereo staging, the precision of the treble, and the organic, rich sound of the bass, but at the same time delivered an even-more sweet-sounding midrange than I’ve heard before, plus an over-arching ‘richness’ in the sonic tapestry that I can’t find words to describe, other than to say I was enchanted. And perhaps that’s the reason: the Allnic Audio H-1201 had (like Carlos Santana’s Black Magic Woman) cast a spell over me. (And for all the pedants out there who will otherwise send complaining emails to the editor, yes, I know that Santana did not write Black Magic Woman, and that it was Peter Green, of Fleetwood Mac. But it was Santana’s version on the album Abraxas—which I used when auditioning the H-1201—that made the song famous. And for the ultimate pedants, the song owes much to another tune—Gypsy Queen—composed by Hungarian jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó, which in early versions was played as an instrumental at the end, and in others also used as an introduction, but in yet others omitted entirely. A band I was playing in at the time played all the versions of this song, depending on how much time we had to fill when we’d almost exhausted our repertoire!)
Yes, the Allnic Audio H-1201 is ‘distinctively individual’—and yes, some may even say it’s verging on ‘quirky’—and you’re certainly paying for the fact it’s all made almost entirely by hand, and that each one is individually tested and inspected by the designer himself. But the sound… ah, the sound… it’s truly magic! George Engler
Brand: Allnic Audio
Category: MM/MC Phono Amp
FOR Individual design, Superb sound, Great value
AGAINST Limited MC matching, Exposed wires behind MM/MC switch
Warranty: Two Years
Distributor: Audio Heaven Pty Ltd
Product page: www.audioheaven.com.au
About Allnic Audio
Allnic Audio was established in 1997 in South Korea, by Kang Su Park. Park had previously (March 1990) established Silvaweld Audio Design, which merged with another Korean company (Hanil, owned by Han Jin Cho) in 1993. Park (who had been the chief designer) then sold his interest in the company in order to found Allnic Audio Labs. From all accounts, K.S. Park has decided to keep all Allnic Audio’s production not only ‘in-house’ but also ‘in the family’ so to speak, because it appears that all Allnic Audio’s products are individually hand-made in South Korea only by people who are immediate and extended members of Park’s own family, which includes his wife (who works as the company’s accountant) and his son (who works as an assistant engineer). The company even winds its own transformers… by hand. In addition, Park personally inspects and signs off on every Allnic product before it leaves the factory. (His are the distinctive spidery initials you’ll see alongside the ‘Final Inspection’ section on the quality control certificate that is supplied with every Allnic product.) Allnic’s global distribution is handled by David Beetles, of Hammertone Audio in Canada, who is also responsible for producing the English-language versions of Allnic Audio’s Owners Manuals. Here in Australia, Allnic Audio distribution is handled by Craig and Annabelle Johnstone, of Audio Heaven.