whest MC REF V User Review

This is an owner’s review of Whest MC REF V (MC V) Reference phono stage. It has been written over a period of 4 months as I journeyed with the phono as it evolved first with usage, and secondly with power cords. I bought this Whest from the local agent Modular Audio (MO). It was the first set of its kind sold in the SE Asian region. Delivery lead time was almost 3 months, inclusive of a 1-month delay caused by an unfortunate accident at the DHL depot at Frankfurt airport which required a total rebuild. My unit finally arrived in November 2010. The delivery lead time for orders placed now should be about a month according to Modular Audio. The MC V is made to order and the prospective owner can specify 6-step impedance loading and 4-step gain settings to personal system needs. My settings for gain were slightly higher than standard, whilst impedance loadings selected were to suit the more popular Japanese and European MC cartridges.

In the packing boxes supplied as standard were 2 kettle-grade 13A UK power cords, an audiophile grade RCA interconnect and another interconnect for ripping vinyl onto MP3 players. I did not use the supplied interconnects, but did use the kettle power cords, DIYed into a Y configuration for my listening till the optional Whest power cord arrived. [See the post script below for details on Whest power cord]. My set is the latest incarnation, identified by a black fascia and brownish-red side panels. There is an under-belly opening for adjusting gain, and cartridge loading impedance. There are 2 sets of dip switches per chassis, one for gain and the other for impedance.

The MC V cost me an arm and a leg by my limited budgetary standard. To make the risk of buying it even higher, the local agent MO did not have any MC V unit to demo. They had a RDT, which is 2 rungs down from the MC V as the model for a listen. My guess was at best, it could tell me the house sound of Whest. The absence of any detailed review by any major magazine or user I am familiar with made my then decision to buy even more fraught with risk. I did the best due diligence available to me which was to correspond with Whest Audio’s James Henriot through MO’s proprietor, Chee aka Oyster.

Through a very supportive MO, I entered into a series of lengthy correspondences with James to find out more about the MC V, beyond published specs and marketing hype. We all know that specs never tell the full story so I asked some probing questions to James. In the long series of frank e-mail exchanges I managed to find out what TT/carts his European customers pair the MC V with, feedback on differences between MC V and other phono brands, what phono present Whest owners used before switching to the SE or MC V, what is inside the MC V chassis, why 2-box mono, how the chassis is made, what is the thinking behind the design, how best to connect power, and whether power cords make a difference. All this upped my comfort level.

What clinched it for me to put the down payment down were 3 little bits of information gleaned from the numerous e-mail exchanged. I had made a big buck decision to buy, both deaf and blind:
1. A few of his customers in Europe switched to Whest SE from ASR Basis Exclusive, which at that time was my phono. I had and still do have high regards for ASR Basis Exclusive;
2. James personal system comprised of my favourite ATC SCM100 Active speakers as a component. This is the most comforting as we will have common ground on way music is presented. For those who have not heard them before, the active ATCs excel in PRaT and making music sound raw/live/being there on good recordings. The ATCs strip everything bare and play it the way it was recorded with no painting over the cracks. Any hint of harshness will be exposed along with every detail. This is a trait from their studio monitor heritage. So I concluded that the Whest should do rhythms very well and not have any edginess.
3. There are 20 power supply regulator boards in each chassis of the MC V, so the Whest can take fluctuations +/- 10% and noise from 230v without any loss in performance. Important to me as my temporary home’s power supply is not clean. Plus James ‘opinion that the MC V comfortably out-performs the SE due to the better power supply.

Order for Whest MC V was committed.  I waited for the arrival of a potential “king of phonos”.  My educated guess was that the Whest will match well with my table which shows the same strong attributes. My turntable is the superb sounding and built SME 30/ Basis Vector 4 / Dyna XX-2mk2. IT is placed on a Mana Reference stand. The Whest phono will be placed under the TT on the same Mana support.  Rest of system downstream comprises of Audio Research Ref 3 pre, Goldmund SR150 power and Sonus Faber Cremona M speakers. Power is supplied through an Isotek except for the Whest which James says sound best plugged into the wall. This system even before Whest is a joy to listen to. Although not the most accurate in terms of timbre, detail or most dynamic sounding, it plays music well in a fun and engaging style. It does PRaT well, has refinement, quietness and ambience.

My temporary listening room also functions as a store room in my transit home. For room tuning, it is stacked with unpacked mover’s boxes (no kidding). I use Eight Nerve absorbers, Harmonix Room Tunes (32 pieces) around the walls and ceilings, and a single Acoustic Revive RR77 with a still stock power supply.

Fast forward to November. My Whest MC V reached the Modular Audio showroom. Running-in a phono stage is my least but 1 favourite activity. Only running in a new cartridge is more painful than running in a phono stage, to me that is. With this in mind, I had struck a deal with MO’s Chee to clock 50 hours for me at the showroom, and at same time use it as their demo for prospective buyers. I would take delivery after it reaches that mark, when rumour has it that things start to sound normal. It took 3 weeks at the shop to reach 50 hours.

Chee finally delivered the pair of MC V to my home one Saturday evening. I used the RCA sockets, and took power direct from the wall. Both as recommended by Whest. It sounded good – but did not totally thrash my previous ASR which cost about half the price. I was disappointed, but kept it to myself. The promise in the showroom did not translate into reality in my home system. The bass was bloated, leading edges were only slightly better and it was no quieter than the battery powered ASR. Were my expectations too high?

As the days went by, and the unit clocked more hours and the supplied “kettle”power cords ran in, things got better. The difference between playing when cold and warmed up narrowed, background sound became quieter.

At around the 70 hr mark and after leaving set on for days, something good happened. I put on Harry James’ King James Version. When the trumpet blasts came on, I jumped. The immediacy, the dynamics, the texture came through so clearly. My speaker sounded as though it had a horn tweeter and a horn midrange driver. Something fundamental had changed. The bloated bass and slight veiling during the early hours was gone, and in its place was music with presence and “live”. Leading edge speed was shocking and notes were well defined.

Not convinced, I next played my favourite Ventures Hawaii 5-0 as high volume. I thought to myself, “This sounds like ATC actives”. Then it was the Casino Royale LP’s turn. Again the trumpet was so raw and alive. I heard the textures of drum sticks against skins when the marching drums made their entrance. Things were now sounding very promising. Separation was more than a notch up and there were layers of sound front to back

My test for PRaT have always been Shadows’ Foot Tapper, and Dick Hyman’s Age of Swing. If my feet don’t tap, then it is no good. I don’t think when I listen, just let my heart rule my feet. The Whest effortlessly and calmly sailed through both albums. It was able to unravel the combination of short fast staccato guitar plucks with the driving drums at the back. When Bruce Welch/Hank Marvin allows a note to decay, it does so very naturally without truncation. Dick Hyman’s piano playing with double bass and drums had a nice lively tempo fully allowed to come through. Fast leading edges and naturally decaying notes. Transients were unhindered by slowness or lack of dynamic room. This was foot-tapping fun at its best!

Paul Simon’s One Trick Pony for percussions and brass full of passion and energy on the opening track was gloriously and cohesively played. I have not heard it played any better.
I choose Chet Atkins Goes Hollywood for quiet but virtuoso guitar technique unmistakably Chet’s. The MC V could resolve nuances within a prolonged note in this relaxing album full of subtleties. Not only could I hear into a prolonged note, I could hear how Chet produced the note.

The Whest at a 100 hours has put daylight between itself and what the ASR achieved in the same system. In musically complex and dynamic pieces or in pop/rock, the superiority over the ASR is in the areas of leading edge speed, attack, low level resolution and ability to portray nuances.

The leading edges are so fast, that a note can bloom and decay naturally. Fast but never sounds hurried or at edge of its capability. The presentation style of the Whest if I take sports cars as a parallel is a Bentley. Neither a Ferrari nor Lamborghini. With Ferraris and Lambos, you know they are fast from the sharp, loud engine sound whose note gets more piercing and louder as it picks up speed. On the other hand, when a Bentley is going just as fast, the massive W12 engine is still hushed and is cruising along. This is how the Whest feels. It cannot be ruffled by anything thrown at it, plenty more speed, control and headroom in reserve.

Background noise recedes further as the unit ran in. Opening bars explode from near silence. There is some hiss as due to RF noise from a wireless modem next to the Whest, separated by a solid but thin party wall. The modem cannot be moved to another better location due to the number of concurrent internet users within my family.

The MC V does everything very well with the exception of lush vocals when cold. Only after getting warmed up for 3 days, the sound is tube-like, more lush and organic. But still the human voices do not get sugar coated. It tells it the way it is. What it does exceptionally well creating a sense of scale and power effortlessly. Huge orchestral pieces are presented vividly in all its full power and glory. Yet the quiet passages are portrayed with a sense of delicacy. The Whest goes from a whisper to a roar in an instant, not losing nuances and details along the way. Always able to unravel complex passages into clear parts. Bands made up of of virtuoso musicians like Dire Straits, Shadows, Ventures and Eagles get dissected where it is possible to discern the individuals playing, but as one. Listen to harmonicas and there is correctness about it that I have never heard before. The harmonica solo is Neil Young’s Heart of Gold was an ear opener.

The MC V distinguishes itself from its peers when playing large scale dynamic pieces where it brings a sense of “being there”. Its ability to portray music with no compression, ability to dissect myriad parts yet present as a cohesive picture is something I have not heard done better. It is a paradox that the Whest gives so much detail, yet never sounds analytical or sterile.

I have not mentioned soundstage and imaging before this because it is never an important factor to me. At live concerts, when I close my eyes and listen, I can never make out where the instruments are. The music comes to me like a ball of sound or sometimes a wall of sound. With LPs only on a few recordings done live like Jazz at the Pawn Shop and Peter, Paul & Mary have soundstages portrayed naturally due to the use of few microphones. With the Whest, I am able to pin-point instruments and voices clearly on the virtual stage with these recordings. There is a shape and definition to the virtual images as well as image depth.

This phono has enough oomph to change the character of system from laid-back, to lively by upping the boogie factor quotient. Little nuances, textures, bass line micro-details which were passed over by my previous phono are now presented vividly.

I can’t say that the MC V has given me a new system. But I can say that it has made a difference big enough to keep my upgradeitis at bay for a while. I am openly an active ATC admirer. What has stopped me from owning a pair is its family and neighbour unfriendliness. ATCs have to be played very loud to be most enjoyable. What the Whest has done is to imbue the distinguished and gentlemanly Cremona M with a turn of speed, liveliness and rawness. This makes them sound like a close cousin of ATC.

I had friends familiar with my system individually over for separate listening sessions. I was careful not to influence their impressions. All commented that my system had gained significantly in musicality with an added sense of being in a “live” venue. All also commented on added PRaT, bass grip and definition. Confirming my own impressions

Post script I:
The optional Whest power cord arrived in late Jan 2011. It was a 2m length pair terminated with normal plugs. I made it into a Y-configuration on my own and substituted the wall plug with a higher grade Oyaide. It was a struggle, as the cords are very stiff, and hard to shoehorn 2 cables into the single Oyaide plug. The difference the better power cord made is worth the wait and effort. There is more flesh in the mids, the background is quieter, and the slight edginess with kettle cords in the treble went away. The sound became more natural, and voices more human with added vibrato in their vocal cords. The cord made the MC V better, and I suspect will make the SE better too. The Whest power cord complemented the MC V by making the strengths even stronger, and eliminated the minor sonic weakness. I recommend that potential MC V and SE owners order this power cord for their sets. Of course other makes of power cord may be even better, but will need to try a few to see which make matches the Whest character best.

Post script II:
I tried a fuse change for stock to Hi-Fi Tuning. Changing fuses is a breeze as this can be done without having to unscrew the cover. There is a little tray just above the power cord IEC accessible from the outside with a test-pen. The fuse change brought an extra level of clarity and dynamics. But in my case, it tipped the system over the edge, making it sound too much in a hurry and over sized in perspective. Is a useful tweak for an owner looking for even more speed and dynamics. My system is inherently very fast and dynamic, so this change was not to my taste.

Summary :
The Whest MC V highly recommended for music lovers if the rest of your system is in the same league, and you want more speed and dynamics to make music more life-like. Try a SE in your system first before you commit to a MC V. If your system is very fast and neutral in tonality, the MC V will push it further in the same direction. It has a basic character which can be fine-tuned to personal preferences using power cords and fuses.  It is a source component that can significantly improve entire analogue presentation, making it more lifelike.

Strengths: Ability to superbly portray dynamic swings, musical scale, leading edge attack, transients and PRaT . Is supremely detailed without being overly analytical. Music explodes with fine detail, refinement, with a “being there” presence and a huge dose of PRaT.

Weakness: The need for 2 power outlets and double the rack space normally allocated for a phono. Be prepared to experiment with shielding if you live in an area with strong RF, or have a wireless modem nearby, as the unit is RF and power supply sensitive.

Written by blue-starfish Version 1.0 25 Feb 2011 All Rights Reserved. Copyright (c) 2011

Modular Audio comments:
Thank you Blue-starfish for this great article. We’ve had great pleasure hosting (running-in) your MC REF V. In fact, during this period, everyone who has heard it told us the same – how this single component could up-size our entire showroom system. It was just amazing! As we have visited Blue-starfish’s present residence, we noticed the unique challenge he faces to find a suitable place for the wireless modem in view of the space constraint. Blue-starfish impending move to a new residence spells good news overall. Once again, thank you Blue-starfish for taking his precious time to share his experience with us and also to all future MC REF V owners.

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