Swan Song Audio is a Tulsa, Oklahoma manufacturer that has been building its reputation since 2013 as a boutique, built-to-order audiophile brand. We, at the NOVO magazine, were first exposed to the brand, when Glen Wagenknecht reviewed the Swan Song Audio White Swan Headphone Amplifier / Preamplifier [with Built-in DAC]. In his review, Glen concluded that “if you covet lofty levels of upscale performance without the traditional big rig real estate demands, this solution will bring smiling spousal approval and absolute joy to your ears.” That’s a pretty high praise from a long-time audiophile and a good illustration of Swan Song’s main goal: to produce high performance audio components at fair prices.
The Swan Song Audio Mini Phono, under review in this article, is a rather unique audio component. It combines a phono preamp, a USB ADC (Analog-to-Digital Converter) and a rechargeable battery in a single, very small aluminum enclosure. The preamp section is designed for playback of common Moving Coil and Moving Magnet cartridges. The ADC section is not a feature commonly found in phono preamps and will be appreciated by listeners who wish to transfer some of their vinyl albums to a digital format. Another unique feature of the Mini Phono is that it’s designed to run exclusively from its built-in LIPO batteries. This approach enables the Mini Phono to achieve higher levels of performance compared to phono preamps that run from built-in or wall wart power supplies, since power supplies inherently generate a lot of noise and power coming out of the wall outlets is never clean. The on-board batteries offer a run time of 8 to 9 hours and take between 3 and 4 hours to recharge.
As its name implies, the Mini Phono offers compact dimensions that measure just 3″ wide by 4″ deep by 7/8″ tall. It’s so small, it fits in the palm of your hand. Its front panel sports dual MM / MC switches that allow you to select your turntable cartridge type as well as 3.5mm input and output jacks. Swan Song opted to use 3.5mm jacks in its design to keep the size of the Mini Phono as small as possible. This however means that you’ll need to use two 3.5mm to RCA adapter cables to connect your turntable and power amp. Swan Song provides both these adapter cables in the box. The rear panel of the Mini Phono offers an ON / Charge switch, a grounding jack (which is optional) and a mini USB port. The Mini Phono comes from the factory with a USB cable and a USB charger. The USB cable is used for recharging the batteries and connecting the unit to a computer when recording vinyl. The standard edition comes with acrylic end plates and retails for $750 USD. An upgraded version is available with aluminum end plates and a grounding jack and can be ordered for $830 USD. As you might expect, the upgraded version offers slightly improved sonics.
At first glance, you may think that the Mini Phono’s diminutive dimensions limit its audio performance. After all, in the world of audio we are often made to believe that larger components sound better. But that’s not exactly the case here. The Mini Phono was designed with the shortest possible signal paths which result in a low noise, high performance audio delivery. These short signal paths are possible thanks to the use of tiny surface mount PPS capacitors and thin film resistors. The signal path from the input jack to the RIAA filter and final amplification, for example, is a mere 1.3 inches in length. Using PPS capacitors offers another advantage: they have a tighter tolerance compared to traditional capacitors and this allows the Mini Phono to produce a more accurate RIAA stage along with improved left right channel matching. Finally, a very small circuit board results in less antenna effect which further lowers the noise floor. All of these factors combined are a potentially big win for audio performance.
Technically speaking, the phono preamp section is capable of handling Moving Coil cartridges (with a gain of 63dB / 100 ohm loading) and Moving Magnet cartridges (with a gain of 44dB / 47K loading). And what about the USB ADC? The Mini Phono will convert and output your records via its USB port with a resolution of 16-bits 44.1kHz or 48kHz. If you’d like to learn more technical details about the Mini Phono’s design, I recommend checking out the Swan Song product page – there’s a good deal of additional information here.
Of course, the design approach and specifications only tell us a part of the story. The big question is – how does the Swan Song Mini Phono perform?
Phono Preamplifier Performance
With the Mini Phono connected to my Gold Note Giglio turntable [with a Dynavector 10X5 MC cartridge], I began my listening sessions by reaching for the Dire Straits Love Over Gold album. The composition of this album, the recording quality and the number of instruments used in its production make this an absolute must-own Dire Straits record. The slow paced intro of my favourite track “Industrial Disease” features keyboards, drums and short electric guitar bits that had me dancing around the room in no time. When the pace of this track picks up and additional layers are added into the mix, the listening experience became even more engaging. The Mini Phono had no trouble resolving the large number of layers of this song. The vocals were clear and distinguished from the rest of the mix, while the instruments were presented with good scale and texture. When you play a clean, well recorded album like this, the Mini Phono is capable of great detail retrieval and a quiet background – I’m certain that its battery operation has a significant impact in these areas. Many sub-$1,000 phono stages I’ve listened to over the years can sound flat or 2-dimensional but I wasn’t hearing that here. Instead, I was rewarded with a well presented 3-dimensional soundstage. In contrast to my experience with Dire Straits record, when I played the Mumford & Sons Wilder Mind and The Verve Bitter Sweet Symphony records, they sounded pretty dull and unengaging. This was of course not the fault of the Mini Phono but rather the poor production quality of these albums. This proved that the Mini Phono is rather unforgiving with poor quality records.
Next, I decided to have a listen to John Williams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens record. This album offers not just well recorded audio, it has an out-of-this-world special feature: each of the two records displays a hologram of a Star Wars ship when you shine a flashlight at it. It’s a great party trick – that’s for sure! Right from the opening track, I was presented with a rich musical experience. The Mini Phono demonstrated its ability to resolve the soundstage very nicely, placing the various sections of the orchestra in a three dimensional space. The background in the quietest passages was admirably low, exposing very fine details of the music and the natural textures and timbres of instruments. Equally as important the black background allowed me to hear lots of space between the instruments, greatly contributing to the scale of the sound. The size of the soundstage, warmth and timberal accurity didn’t reach the same levels as I’m used to with my Gold Note PH-10 phono stage [with an external PSU-10 power supply] but that wouldn’t be a fair comparison as the Gold Note combo retails for three times the money. The Mini Phono also had no trouble playing through the large dynamic swings on this record. I was really enjoying what I was hearing and I continued listening to the whole first side of the record.
Following this, I once again switched gears – this time placing Jeff Buckley’s Grace album on the platter. Listening to Buckley’s cover of the song “Hallelujah”, I was given a chance to evaluate the Mini Phono’s vocal performance. The vocals on this track fluctuate between soft and loud, the Mini Phono conveyed a deep sense of emotion thanks to its ability to accurately retrieve the subtle vocal details and nuances. Although the Mini Phono wasn’t able to reach the same levels of low level detail retrieval and air between the vocals and the instruments as my Gold Note PH-10, the vocals sounded embodied and tangible. This in turn pulled me deep into the performance. Overall, the Mini Phono presented a well balanced sound and brought great pleasure to my ears – I could easily listen to my records for hours at a time.
USB ADC Performance
If you own a large record collection and desire to transfer some of your records into digital files, you’ll be excited to play around with the Mini Phono’s ADC [analog to digital converter] function. Swan Song does not provide any instructions on how to do this so you’ll have to figure this out on your own. There’s of course lots of information online about this process. In a nutshell, you’ll need to download good quality recording software to get started. There are lots of free and paid options on the Internet. Swan Song recommends Sound Studio 4 ($49 USD) software for ripping records but I chose to go with a popular free software called Audacity for my tests. If you’d like to take this a step further, you can also purchase software to clean up the pops and crackles after transferring your records into digital files. Swan Song recommends Auto-Tune’s SoundSoap 5 for this purpose, which you can download for $149 US.
With my turntable still connected to the Mini Phono’s analog input, I used a USB cable to connect my PC laptop to the Mini Phono’s USB jack. My Windows 10 laptop automatically installed a required software driver that allowed the Mini Phono to function. Next, I installed the Audacity software and spent a few minutes re-learning how to use it (I had used this software previously several years ago). The process was smoother than I expected and the software was very easy to pick up again. Of course every piece of software is different and your personal experience will vary.
I recorded several tracks from two albums: Automatic For the People from REM and Pretty Hate Machine from Nine Inch Nails. I recorded all tracks at 16-bits / 48kHz. Then, I listened to the vinyl and the digitally recorded files back-to-back to compare them. The freshly recorded digital files offered a satisfying sound, although as you might imagine, they didn’t exactly have the same richness or 3-dimensionality as the original vinyl versions. Both my records are in amazing condition and very clean and hence my recorded files sounded equally clean. Overall, the digitized tracks sounded a little thinner and picked up some digital characteristics such as more pronounced sibilants. None of this was a surprise of course – this is just how digital files sound in general when compared to records. The main benefit of transferring your records into the digital domain is the convenience of accessing the tracks from your digital music library. In my case, I added the digital tracks to my Sonos library and so I was able to control playback from my iPhone. Overall, I was pleased with the Mini Phono’s performance as an ADC and the ripping process is something that most users should figure out without any problems.
The Swan Song Mini Phono is a compact and versatile audio device. Its phono preamp offers an engaging, musical performance when listening to records. I really appreciate the additional levels of detail and background blackness it’s able to achieve thanks to its battery operation. However this benefit does come with a small cost: you have to remember to charge the device on a regular basis. I was also pleased with its ADC functionality – there’s no question this will be a useful feature for some listeners. If you’re in the market for a small phono preamp with a built-in ADC, the Swan Song Mini Phono is definitely worth a consideration.
To learn more about Swan Song and its products, check out www.swansongaudio.com