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Putting vinyl back into your life

LPs are make a comeback but modern stereo systems often don't have the circuitry to play records. MSNBC's Gary Krakow reviews a great affordable alternative.
This great sounding device is based on a single vacuum tube.  You can see it beneath its protective cover.
This great sounding device is based on a single vacuum tube.  You can see it beneath its protective cover.Rolls Corporation

LPs are making a comeback. Not that CD manufacturers and Internet download sites should lose any sleep, but many people out there — including those firmly rooted in the iPod generation — are enjoying vinyl recordings and their rich musical sound once again.

Ready to jump aboard? You'll need a record player, obviously. But you may also be startled to find that your home stereo doesn't contain the circuitry that lets you listen to LPs. It's not that it's particularly complicated — but when CDs took over, electronics manufacturers stopped including the circuitry that lets you listen to records.

There are expensive high-end options, of course. But I’ve found a new, little red box that allows you to listen your LPs in style without paying a bundle.

The item in question is the Bellari VP129 Tube Phono Preamp made by the Rolls Corporation, an audio electronics manufacturer in Salt Lake City. It processes and amplifies the very, very small electrical signal that comes from a turnable's high output, moving-magnet phono cartridge and needle, amplifies it and sends to your music system. It’s very, very good at what it does. (Very low output moving coil cartridges will need yet another step-up device.)

The whole concept began when people at Rolls wanted to listen to LPs and didn’t want to spend a lot of money doing so.  You see, once this type of circuitry was removed from equipment we can afford, people started making separate, super-duper boxes we couldn’t afford.

The VP129 measures 6 by 2.5 by 5.4 inches and weighs less than a pound. There are RCA inputs (from your turntable) and output (to your amplifier/receiver) jacks, a headphone jack, plus volume controls for LP playback and headphones, a rumble filter (in case you don’t appreciate heavy bass notes) and a mute button. 

Oh yes, there’s one 12AX7 vacuum tube sticking up right smack in the middle of the box. For the record, it’s a modern-day Electro-Harmonix model made in Russia. Rolls chose a vacuum tube because it makes the VP129 sound terrific. The tube circuit was designed in house, based on a very old schematic blueprint.

Using the VP129 is straight forward. Plug the record player to the device, plug the device to your amplifier/receiver, let the tube warm up for at least 15 to 20 minutes, adjust the volume to your liking and then sit back and listen.

Sounds great, no? The Bellari has the sound of very sophisticated hi-fi gear, of items that retail for a lot more money. The VP129’s tube-driven circuit reproduces voices and allows them to sound real.  There’s no other way to explain it. The bass is authoritative. The high notes are smooth and extended.  And the critical midrange — where most music and voices occur — sounds absolutely right.

The VP129 now retails for $249 — still a relative bargain for such a terrific sounding device.  Actually, the people at Rolls just raised the price after receiving raves in a recent issue of Stereophile magazine (a high-end hi-fi fanzine). When I received my test sample the box sold for $199. Luckily, if you search the Web you can still find the Bellari at the $199 price.

If listening to LPs sounds good to you and this preamp peaks your interest as it should — I’d recommend that you jump on the chance to own a great sounding device, made in the United States, selling at the old price. But even at $249 you won’t be disappointed.