Discretes vs. ICs

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As we near early August’s beta launch of Darren Myer’s labor of love, the new Stellar Phono Stage, it might be helpful to touch upon a few points that make it the extraordinary performer that it is.

Perhaps one of the biggest deviations from the norm is Darren’s use of all discrete components rather than the more traditional employment of integrated circuits.

The vast majority of solid-state phono stages rely upon some pretty sophisticated ICs. In fact, it’s fair to say that most solid-state phono preamplifiers, regardless of price, rely upon ICs for their gain stages. It’s perhaps also fair to say there are some really excellent and highly regarded phono stages on the market today, so biases against the use of ICs should be tempered with that knowledge. Still, designers limit their options by using ICs.

Integrated circuits are wonderful devices, though they have clear limitations. Chief among them is their inflexibility. They are purpose-built functional blocks and, as such, designer’s hands are tied if they want to customize their performance aspects. For example, one of the tenets of high-performance audio engineering is ensuring open loop stability. That is, can the amplification block operate in a respectful manner without feedback? Integrated circuit amplifiers typically do not, while properly designed discrete stages can. (Because of their power limitations, most ICs rely heavily on feedback to achieve their low distortion specifications, while larger die discretes can sink more power and achieve lower distortion without heavy negative feedback)

Another limitation, just mentioned, is current flow and bias levels. Because ICs are based on small die silicon chips containing (typically) hundreds of components, there’s little tolerance for heat, thus limiting the designer’s options. The opposite is true with discrete designs where the choices are pretty much endless.

In our experience, the highest performance circuits benefit from open-loop stable amplification blocks and high bias output stages, in particular, MOSFETS (like we use in BHK products). When you get a chance to gaze upon the innards of the new Stellar Phono Stage, what you’ll see is hundreds of discretes that allow Darren the luxury of designing this masterpiece just the way he wanted.

If you’ve never heard your vinyl through a fully discrete design, and are accustomed to the sound of ICs, I can’t wait for you to have a listen to this gem.

I’ll let you know when it’ll be available for audition.