Company & Product Overview
Audio Advice has been a fan of Sutherland Engineering products for many years. Ron Sutherland attended the University of Kansas in the heartland of America. While getting his master’s degree in physics, Ron used the lab for his master’s project to build a stereo preamplifier that used digital logic for control. Yes, he had the audio bug at an early age. One day, he wandered into a local stereo shop, where Gayle Martin Sanders was working as the manager. The two struck up a conversation, which led to Gayle agreeing to exchange audio gear for the use of Ron’s lab, where they set out to build a new type of electrostatic speaker. As you might have guessed by now, Ron’s middle name is Logan, and the two friends used each of their middle names to form what went on to become an iconic speaker company, MartinLogan.
As the company grew, Ron wanted to get back to the roots of a smaller start-up with a focus on electronics. Sutherland Engineering was born when Ron used his share of the profits from the now very successful speaker company to fund his research into electronics design. He must have predicted what was coming many years later with the vinyl revolution. Ron decided to focus on the world of phono stages, which turned out to be a pretty good idea!
Today’s review is on his latest product, the Sutherland KC Vibe, a phono stage with all of the typical great design features we have come to expect from Ron. However, one thing is especially surprising...the KC Vibe comes in at under $900!
Packaging, Design & Build Quality
Sutherland Engineering products all share the same design philosophy. The overarching principle to keep things simple. In the world of electronics, this is quite difficult to do as you can design circuits that control circuits, that control circuits, etc, etc. Coming up with a simple design that gets the job done properly is a lot harder than one might think. Sutherland Engineering designs every product with the same focus: to keep the signal path as simple as possible, to work on a circuit design for just one channel, and then duplicate it for the other one. Many products try to save money by combining some of the parts for both channels, but this is not the case with Sutherland. When you pull the cover off, you will notice each channel is a total mirror image of the other.
During the design process, Ron does his best to keep AC line noise out of the signal path and has even used D cell batteries in some of his products to keep AC noise from getting in. He then searches for the highest quality products he can find, without trying to save a couple of dollars on a less expensive part like many other companies. Finally, he builds it in such a way that it will last for decades, and should it ever need service, it can be done simply and easily.
The KC Vibe follows all of these rules to the letter. When you pop the top, you will see a very elegant circuit layout that makes it apparent it is a sibling to some of his multi-thousand dollar phono stages. Build quality, like all of his gear, is about as good as you will see anywhere--and all made in the USA. The KC Vibe also tells an interesting story on Ron’s design philosophy. One of our clients who purchased one (and loved it) noticed there was a part in each channel that showed up in the pictures on the Sutherland website, but was not visible on the circuit board. When we reached out to Ron to ask why, he told us he had lost a lot of sleep thinking about where he had decided to place that particular integrated circuit. He finally decided that moving the integrated circuit to the other side of the circuit board would make it easier to service, should the need ever arrive!
Features and Technology
For those of you just getting into enjoying vinyl, you may have seen some specs on cartridge loading. A lot of the higher performance phono stages let you adjust the loading to best match up to the type of phono cartridge you are using. In the world of moving coil cartridges, this can make a far bigger difference than you might expect. Loaded correctly, your cartridge can sound amazing, however, set up incorrectly, you may take a great sounding cartridge and take it from very dull sounding to very harsh sounding simply by having it see the wrong load.
Our suggestion is to look up the cartridge suggested loading spec, start there, and go up and down one setting.
You also need to match the gain of your phono stage to the output of your cartridge. If you have a high output moving magnet instead of a low output moving coil, you will need far less gain in your phono stage.
So, as you might have guessed, the KC Vibe gives you both of these adjustments in a very simple, elegant method. Both the gain and loading adjustments are exactly the same in just about every single Sutherland Engineering phono stage, sticking to the philosophy of keeping things very simple. Every phono board has all of the possible gain and loading components mounted right on the board. Each channel has two sets of jumpers that let you make the adjustment by simply moving them to the proper spot, keeping any extra parts totally out of the signal patch. Brilliant, and simple!
To keep noise down, the KC Vibe uses an outboard power supply. When you pull off the cover to make your cartridge adjustments, you’ll notice all parts related to the power supply are completely separated from the critical phono stage section, just like all of the more expensive Sutherland Engineering products.
The back panel is just like every other Sutherland Engineering product as well. The input and output RCA jacks are heavy duty and gold plated with a teflon insulator against the back of the chassis. The ground screw is very solid, so that you know once you have tightened your grounding wires down, they are going to stay put. Even the chassis is made of heavy gauge steel to help minimize noise.
Whether you are just getting into vinyl or are a long-time enthusiast, you need to know that noise in a phono stage is not your friend. Compared to the output of a typical CD player, the output level of a phono cartridge is minuscule. We measure CD player’s output in volts (typically around 2) and we measure phono cartridges in millivolts, where one millivolt equals to .001 volt. Your phono stage is dealing with a super low-level signal it has to amplify, so what do you think might happen if there was noise in the phono stage? Well, it gets amplified too!
If you want to hear all of the very subtle nuances your cartridge is picking up in those record grooves, you will want the noise floor of your phono stage to be very low. When you experience a phono stage with a very low noise floor for the first time, you will hear little things going on that you never even heard before as they were being masked by noise. This is what we hear all the time with clients who purchase a Sutherland Engineering product; they just can not believe all of the new little things they are hearing. They are also usually very impressed with how quiet their records sound now. What many people think is background noise on the record goes away with a super quiet phono stage.
The KC Vibe is just like every other phono stage from Sutherland Engineering: super quiet! In our tests, we have never heard a phono stage that performed so well for this price. We decided to do a very unfair comparison and test it against the $4000 Duo from Sutherland Engineering. This is a two piece phono stage where each channel is in its own box. We used a VPI Prime with a Soundsmith cartridge.
You could totally tell these were cut from the same mold, but you just got more (or less may be a better term) as you moved up to the Duo. The Duo had more bass impact, an even blacker background (even less noise), and an ease of presentation that surpassed the KC Vibe. However, we are talking about comparing the KC Vibe to something that costs over 4 times its price! Compared to anything else close to its price, the KC Vibe is able to provide all of the things that vinyl enthusiasts lust for: a quiet background, incredible separation of instruments, bass that reaches down super deep, and a three-dimensional sense of space to the music that will keep you pulling out all your favorite albums!
We feel the KC Vibe is good for many types of people having fun with the hobby of vinyl playback. If you are just getting into vinyl, it is a great phono stage that will grow with you over time as you improve your turntable rig. Any of you with a table/cartridge combination over $1500 should highly consider the KC Vibe. Heck, if you are pushing $3000 and up, you should look at the $1400 Sutherland Engineering Insight.
Basically, if you love vinyl and have a decent turntable rig, you should be plugging it into a Sutherland Engineering phono stage. We feel that strongly about them!
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Made in the USA
Sutherland just flat out makes some of the best phono stages in the business. We are thrilled to see Ron continue his success with the KC Vibe. Not lacking in any features, great sounding, and made in the USA.
Like all Sutherland phono stages, you can adjust both the gain and loading settings. Simply pop off the top and move around some jumpers. It's also fun to experiment with loading on some moving coil cartridges too!