Nagra HD PHONO review by Kat Ourlian

Discover Unparalleled Audio Excellence with the Nagra HD PHONO In the high-fidelity audio realm, the Nagra HD series stands as a…

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Discover Unparalleled Audio Excellence with the Nagra HD PHONO

In the high-fidelity audio realm, the Nagra HD series stands as a paragon of sonic purity and engineering excellence. Since the 1950s, Nagra’s dedication to capturing and reproducing sound in its truest form, has gained it a prestigious standing among audio connoisseurs. The Nagra HD PHONO emerges as the pinnacle of this legacy—a reference-class device that orchestrates an audio experience of enchanting clarity.

The exclusivity of the HD PHONO is apparent, not only in its extraordinary performance but, also in its impeccable construction. Its flawless machined chassis houses complex technology designed to harmonise with the most aspirational hi-fi and luxury audio systems.

For those seeking the essence of vinyl reproduction, the HD PHONO reveals its magic when paired with some of the finest cartridges.

I started off using the Ortofon MC A95 mounted to the SME Model 60.

The Ortofon cartridge gives us only .2mV with an internal impedance of 7 ohms.

I normally recommend any (of my) clients to use MINIMUM 68dB of gain with an output as low as this – that is with a standard RIAA phono amplifier. If I can get one to use a step up transformer, or if the cartridge coiling allows, a transimpedance unit, then of course, I might try to take them in that direction.

No worries here! This unit gives us the step up needed for any cartridge.

Nagra designed extraordinary custom cobalt core transformers that are cryogenically treated and hand-coiled with meticulous care.

This is special for several reasons:

  • Permeability and power: the strongest magnetic field obtained, DC saturation level w/ max AC flux
  • Ratio and gain provided: get the most out of any cartridge
  • Micro dynamics and control: dead silent

Cobalt is very expensive to incorporate, rare, and the actual coiling process takes hours just for one transformer. This is dual mono of course.

This unit stands as a testament to unparalleled precision and craftsmanship:

  • Ultra-low noise floor
  •  Ratio gain 26dB
  • Switchable loading from 5 to 390 ohms with 5 ohm incremental adjustability
  • A remote control allowing refined adjustments from the convenience ofyour listening position.
  • 2 MC inputs + 1 MM input + 1 optional (custom stereo/mono)

Nagra embraced the monumental power of six vacuum tubes, including the rare use of EF806S—a high-gain pentode tube. We’re all familiar with the E88CC tubes as you see those very often in other input stages of phono / various amplifiers but I would like to highlight the EF806S tubes as these are much more rare to see used. Enhanced from the other 86 tube from the 50s that you will find in the more industrious microphones and or used in preamp stages. It can withstand a lot of drive and very high gain. This tube is extremely low in microphonics. This was a very careful and brilliant decision made by Nagra. This tube also displays a very different sound, harmonic, but clean. Gives you the right amount of airy-coarse sparkle in the top end, won’t impeded the warmer cartridges and will smooth out the real transparent ones. The listening tests and development were seemed almost endless for the engineers behind this machine.

Going back to the system I was using to start this review, Ortofon A95, Nagra HD preamp, Nagra HD monoblocks, and the Rockport Avior II Loudspeakers. These speakers have become a very neutral reference point for me. Carbon fibre drivers, beryllium tweeter, custom crossovers, the Rockports deliver a measured, linear sound. So, it makes sense, for me as reference point. The MC A95 is one of the easiest cartridges for me to achieve the proper left and right channel balance. Its a fine cartridge to use as a starting point.

I had a few records to reference with, Muddy Waters, ‘Folk Singer,’ Norah Jones, ‘Come Away with Me,’ and of course Morphines ‘Cure for the Pain.’

I put the Nagra Classic Phono on at first and this gave me glimpses of the Nagra sound. It was unmixed, quiet with soft mids. I was curious if I could achieve THAT much more. YES, this happened. Immediately the sound came to life. It was full, forward, it had special texture in the top end I have never received from an Ortofon/ Rockport combination and it allowed every vocal pumped through it to thrive. Delicate but tight bass, bottom end response. The tone I achieved from Mark Sandman’s vocal was almost monstrous it was that much more prominent. I was completely absorbed in “candyland.”

Settings I landed on for the Ortofon, 80 ohms, +6dB gain.

So what would other cartridges sound like with this glorious unit?
Let’s talk those combinations, since everyone desires and deserves their own sound.

I’ve described my experience with the Ortofon A95 combination and found if you’re looking for a smoother sound overall but keeping that linearity, try the Hana Umami Red. Bump up the mids, widen the attack on the bass and separated highs. You won’t need the added 6dB with this one, although you could if you want to get more of the EF806s sound.

For speed, higher output and to attempt the level match of a digital system while giving you extreme extension, I recommend Lyra Atlas. No doubt that the purest, titanium cartridge will love to be matched with this tube driven phonostage. Allow the unveiling and the sparkle to occur. Remember, it’s best not to directly compare the sound to the digital source, because it won’t keep up!

The two cartridges I found to present the most velvety, ‘running your finger through clay’ sound, were the Koetsu Signature Platinum Rosewood and ClearAudio Goldfinger. The Koetsu doesn’t quite have as much of top-end energy as the Goldfinger and both have totally different output voltage but if you want the easiest going sound, allow to be wrapped in molten texture with one of these choices.

Lastly, pairing the Audio Technica ART-1000 series will give you an overall lighter and more blissful sound, less attack than Lyra, more transparent mids than the Hana.

Overall, for me, the Nagra HD PHONO is not merely an investment; it is a milestone in one’s musical journey. Do yourself a favour and embrace this exceptional opportunity to own a piece of history and experience the truest reflection of what it means to listen.

written by Kat Ourlian

Cartridge Specs:

Ortofon MC A95.2mV, int. impedance 7 ohm, Neodymium generator, Boron Cantilever, Titanium body
Hana Umami Red.4mV, int. impedance 6 ohm, Samarium Cobalt generator, Boron Cantilever, Duralumin/Wood body
Lyra Atlas.56mV, int. impedance 4 ohm, custom dual magnet generator, Diamond-coated Boron Cantilever, Titanium
Koetsu Signature Platinum Rosewood.3mV, int. impedance 5 ohm, Platinum generator, Boron Cantilever, Rosewood Urushi lacquer
Clearaudio Goldfinger.6mV, int. impedance 5 ohm, custom 8 magnet generator, Boron Cantilever, Gold
Audio Technica ART-1000.2mV, int. impedance 3 ohm, custom non-magnetic core, Boron Cantilever, Titanium body