Alex Nikitin is one of the best-kept secrets in hi-fi. Although few people are familiar with his name, he is well-known in the business as the talented audio engineer behind many of Creek Audio’s products during the 1990s and 2000s. Alex Nikitin Technology (ANT Audio) is his most recent endeavor, and in addition to a modest selection of specialized items, he custom-builds phono stages, the best of which is this very unusual design…
“I had an idea for a very simple phono preamplifier design using an odd transistor type for amplification a long time ago.” The Kora 3T circuit, which uses local negative feedback in a single-ended Class A circuit with a passive EQ in a single stage voltage amplification arrangement, has only three transistors per channel. I developed this circuit as a proof of concept at initially, but the biggest surprise came when I gave it a listen. “The sound quality of this circuit is on par with the most complex solid state circuits,” Alex said. “It comes close to the level of a good valve phono stage,” he continued. In technical terms, it isn’t ideal, but its measurements are adequate for such a small circuit.”
Alex’s phono stage is all-discrete and uses only three transistors (thus the ‘3T’ suffix), as opposed to the standard op-amp based solutions. This Limited Edition version, which retailed for £775, was hand-built to order with fine tolerance capacitors and Holco resistors throughout, as well as Black Gate bias capacitors and a low-noise power supply. Its top-of-the-line status is indicated by the red LED. In person, it’s a plain black box (48x91x133mm, 1kg) with no frills, as you’d expect from a proprietary electronics provider.
However, acoustically, it stands out as one of the best phono stages ever – in some ways – especially when paired with a Timestep power supply update. It doesn’t sound tonally forward, ‘well illuminated,’ brittle, harsh, edgy, upfront, two-dimensional, or mechanical, unlike practically every other solid-state design. Rather, it sounds in some ways like the best tube designs, that is, it has a deep, dark, luxurious sound with plenty of air and room from left to right and front to back. Furthermore, it allows the music to flow naturally and unaffectedly. In a completely natural way, it’s open, even, and engaging.
The transparency of the Kora 3T Ltd is unmatched by most £1,000 phono stages. You can listen directly into the mix and enjoy a very delicate, expansive, and unadulterated sound. The Kora, on the other hand, can sound dull in typical systems since it doesn’t contribute any brightness or ‘zing’ – you need a really incisive and transparent system to hear its true potential. It boasts outstanding control, with a beautifully smooth midband brimming with rhythmic snap and images that wrap across the plane of the speakers, allowing you to crank up the volume and peek into the recording without being overwhelmed.
The result is an amazing phono stage, both in terms of price and performance. It’s not nearly as sweet, euphonic, or seductive as the best money can buy, but it, like any excellent ‘cheap audiophile’ device, delivers a lot of the high-end enchantment at a far more reasonable price. It’s a neutral but engaging and lively performer that, in my opinion, outperforms anything at or around the price point — it deserves to be heard.