Channel D Lino C 3.3 phono preamplifier

Years ago, at a San Francisco Audiophile Society gathering, I was lucky enough to spend time with the late, brilliant electrical engineer Roger Modjeski, whose Music Reference RM-200 Mk.II hybrid stereo tube amp is among my most prized hi-fi treasures. I asked him what he knew about transimpedance phono preamplifiers. He grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and drew a detailed transimpedance phono preamp circuit, quipping, “These have been around forever, but until recently no one has paid much attention to them.”

We talked about the newer, low-internal-impedance cartridges that were being introduced and becoming fashionable. We agreed that such cartridges, which phono preamps see as a near short circuit, were a great way to induce generous current flow and produce useful amounts of low-noise voltage without loading. (For more about this circuit type, read the AnalogPlanet review of the MR Labs VERA 20 MC.) Sadly, that company’s founder, Maximilian Rottmann, passed away a few years ago and the young man who assumed control couldn’t make a go of it, so the company and its products are gone.

Fortunately, everyone else related to this column is still alive, including Channel D’s Rob Robinson, who designs that company’s hardware as well as its Pure Music server software and Pure Vinyl recording and editing software.


I reviewed the Transimpedance Lino C 2.0 a few years ago (footnote 1). The 3.3 keeps the 2.0’s basic circuitry. It’s a direct-coupled, wide-bandwidth, balanced, transimpedance circuit with differential-summing outputs that retain common-mode rejection even though they’re single-ended, with 0.1% metal-film low-noise resistors throughout, hand-selected-and-matched RIAA components, and battery power. In addition, the RIAA circuitry can be switched out so you can record “flat” and apply equalization in the Pure Vinyl software during playback: RIAA or any of a dizzying selection of available curves. Read more on the company’s website.

New 3.3 features include a high/low cartridge impedance damping switch that allows the use of cartridges with internal impedances up to 40 ohms even in current mode. “Each active device handling the audio signal chain now has its own additional local, ultra low ESR, low inductance bulk storage located less than 2 millimeters away from each device,” Channel D says. “This improves dynamics and channel separation (which already were excellent) and slightly reduces harmonic distortion.” Supporting devices also have their own “ultra low ESR, low inductance bypass.”

Among the other circuit improvements is an impedance reduction by a factor of 3 of the passive part of the RIAA network made possible by main circuit board improvements.

Robinson says that changes to the main circuit board lowered the impedance of the passive part of the RIAA network, which, he says, “improves clarity and definition while also slightly improving SNR.” That lower impedance, he said, also allowed for an upgrade of the active part of the RIAA amplifier, which lowered noise and distortion. The revised, four-layer circuit board “improves loop current management, improving channel separation and reducing distortion. The RIAA accuracy is also improved.” The RIAA board now has its own class-A auto-bias circuit.


The biggest difference between the 2.0 and the 3.3 is a series of options. There’s an optional moving magnet input, balanced or unbalanced, and an optional voltage-based moving coil input. Input is selectable via buttons under the bottom edge of the front panel. The voltage-based MC input can be set via rear panel DIP switches to 61dB, 64dB, 67dB, and 70dB of gain. The MM input option can be set for 39dB, 43dB, 46dB, or 48dB. The price for the basic 3.3 is $3799. The fully loaded Lino C 3.3, which includes some options not yet listed—ultra-high-precision RIAA certification, front-panel LED indicators, remote control—costs $7082.

The review sample came fully loaded. Pay the extra $199 for the “Ultra-High Precision ±0.01dB RIAA Certification,” and you get your unit’s actual measurements. The review sample’s RIAA accuracy was slightly better than ±0.01dB, 20Hz–20kHz.

All these extra circuits and switches fit into the same relatively small chassis used for the Lino 2.0, thanks in part to surface-mount technology. Some audiophiles are averse to SMT; they wrongly believe it inferior to old-school circuit boards stuffed with larger components. At last fall’s Capital Audiofest, Rob Robinson gave a fascinating talk explaining why modern SMT technology is superior to through-hole technology, especially when used for low-voltage signal paths susceptible to electrical noise pollution. Robinson avers that late-night listening is better not because of cleaner utility power but because, with most people asleep, there’s less electromagnetic interference (EMI) from cellular and Wi-Fi. EMI causes the obvious audible interference—staticky sounds, hum—but the less obvious sonic degradation is more pernicious: haze, loss of definition, midrange and treble edginess.

Electronics designers from the 1970s through the ’90s did not have to contend with today’s high-frequency EMI “soup,” Robinson says, and so could choose components without worrying about electromagnetic air pollution. Through-hole components have a larger physical loop area, which is determined by the component leads and body. “Loop area” determines component inductance, and inductance increases impedance at higher frequencies. Robinson says that through-hole components are “ineffective” for use in interference filters in the current, GHz-frequency EMI environment.

I wish there was more space to detail Robinson’s advocacy for SMT construction and his conviction that the components themselves, small as they are, produce better measured and sonic performance. Perhaps that’s the makings of a stand-alone article.

Lino C 3.3 in use
Setting up the 3.3 with its current input is easy since there’s no loading. The lowest, factory-default gain setting, marked 0dB, proved more than sufficient for every MC cartridge I tried.

If your tonearm cable isn’t terminated with XLRs, you’ll need RCA-to-XLR adapters—and not just any RCA-to-XLR adapters: Pin 1 must not be internally connected to either pin 2 or 3, as is typical with off-the-shelf adapters. The phono cable must also be balanced, the shield not connected to ground. Which means that, unless you’ve had it rewired, Rega and other grounded tonearms aren’t usable.

Once the battery is charged up—it takes about half an hour—you’re good to go. Upon sensing an input signal, the Lino C internally disconnects the charging adapter, and the preamp is galvanically isolated. The charging adapter reconnects after approximately 10 minutes when no input signal is present. You can disconnect the charger and run the preamp “off the grid” for approximately 16 hours of continuous operation. There’s also a relay accessory that can give you “off the grid” mode with automatic battery recharging.

The back panel of the fully loaded version is busy but well organized. On the left side are the balanced XLR voltage-mode MC inputs; under these inputs are the DIP switches for loading. To the right of these inputs are the DIP switches for capacitive loading for the MM input; below them are the MM RCA inputs. To its right are the “standard” transimpedance XLR inputs flanked by both unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR outputs. Each of the three inputs has its own grounding lug, and there’s a fourth lug for chassis ground.


The “fully loaded” 3.3’s front panel sports five pinpoint LEDs, each associated with a pushbutton under the front edge of the chassis. L–R, these engage (and disengage) the high-pass (“rumble”) filter, choose mono or stereo, set polarity (direct or inverted), and choose among the three inputs. A supplied remote dongle resembling a garage-door opener lets you set these options—especially useful for checking polarity from your listening position. Another pair of pushbuttons underneath the chassis select “standby” and “charge lock”; the former minimizes power consumption at idle by powering down the amplifier section. The latter prevents the battery-charging circuitry from being disabled when it senses a signal.

Don’t come for romance
In all modes, the Lino C 3.3 offered ultratransparency; jet-black backgrounds; deep, tightly gripped, powerful bass; airy, fully extended highs free of etch, grain, or hardness. The soundstage was expansive with solid, 3D imaging—not surprising considering the quiet and wide bandwidth. The sound was fast, responsive, effortless. Macro- and microdynamics were impressive, producing forceful macro slam and subtle micro shifts when on the record.

I’ve heard similarly nuanced, transparent, effortless, dynamic solid state sound, with a well-damped and extended bottom end, but it’s uncommon for under $4000.

I auditioned the Lino C 3.3 with the Haniwa CO Mk.II, the Lyra Atlas SL Lambda, and the Ortofon Anna D. All worked equally well and expressed themselves fully through the Lino C 3.3.


I’ve been repeatedly playing Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Barn” (Reprise 093624877547). I’ve got a long row of Neil albums, following him through thick and thin (there’s been plenty of both!). This one was recorded to analog tape by Guy Charbonneau with Le Mobile Remote Record Studio (a “blast from the past” credit). It might be the best sounding Neil Young album of all. Neil’s singing sincerity remains 100%. His poetry has generally become jejune—today he’d probably write “I want to live with a girl who smells like cinnamon”—and he can no longer deliver many memorable melodies. But his “Old Black” playing, and his delivery of fine-touch textures, has never been defter. The other guys are on, too. So little is left of this kind of classic rock. The album’s a keeper.

The Lino C 3.3’s current-mode input delivered this record with full-glory transparency, you-are-in-the-barn, gut-stomping bass, and super-sizzling natural cymbals. All the liquid electric textures were on display, thanks in part to naturally aggressive instrumental attack, generous but well-controlled sustain, and believable decay into exceptionally low background noise. All of it exploded out of the black. The louder I played it, the better it sounded.

This record sounded so good that I used it to audition the voltage amplification input, too. Based on this one record, I’d say the current-mode input produced markedly better everything, especially bass control and extension, imaging three-dimensionality, transparency, macrodynamic “slam,” and transient precision. The only listeners who might prefer the voltage amplification mode are those who find the current mode’s midrange threadbare. The voltage input was richer in the mids, but I wouldn’t go back to the voltage input unless your cartridge or cartridges don’t have sufficiently low internal impedances to work well in current mode. I’d pass on the voltage-mode option. (These differences remained consistent from record to record.)

To further check the midband performance with the Lyra Atlas on the OMA K3 turntable and Schröder arm was Henriette Faure playing Debussy’s Estampes (Electric Recording Company ERC 006). The presentation of the piano was certainly not lacking in midrange expressiveness! Quite the opposite. The lack of midrange coloration produced a most believable piano between the speakers with a natural attack and lovely sustain, not shrouded in romantic midrange coloration or additive warmth. Each note fully and subtly expressed itself timbrally and texturally; behind each note was the sounding board occupying its natural space. The keyboard’s upper notes glistened, woody, well-textured, and believable. Bass notes were equally well-expressed, helped by natural and effervescent decay.

About halfway through Estampes, I hit the “invert phase” button, and everything described above greatly intensified in clarity and focus. Apparently, somewhere in the recording/mastering chain, absolute polarity had been inverted. If I bought this latest Lino C, I’d pay the $995 for the high-pass filter, mono, and polarity options. I’d miss those features if I didn’t have them.

I spun side 1 of the Bruckner Symphony No.7 direct-to-disc record with Bernard Haitink conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPHR 200271-2 LP). I heard the same open, transparent picture, uncluttered by warm colorations or that etch, edge, and thinness some listeners ascribe to solid state electronics. Woodwinds were airy and round, with plenty of body; pizzicato string plucks had springy grab; brass was nicely burnished yet appropriately metallic. The Lino C 3.3’s top end was pleasingly open, smooth, and honestly exuberant without exhibiting excessive edge definition or brittleness, and it never sounded stingy.

I dwell on this because it’s where some listeners have issues with solid state electronics, particularly phono preamplifiers. The Lino C 3.3’s sonic performance seemed flawless in every category you could list. That doesn’t mean it does everything perfectly; it just means that I didn’t catch whatever it misses—I didn’t miss it—until I returned to my 10-times-the-cost phono preamps.

If I was buying the Lino C 3.3, I’d order it with the HP filter/mono/polarity option, the precision RIAA option, and the front-panel LED function indicators and remote control, which would bring the total cost to around $5200. That’s not chump change, but it’s also not in the stratosphere. I think you’d be getting your money’s worth.

I wasn’t as jazzed by the previous Lino iteration I reviewed. Why not? Maybe because its transparency was letting me hear the sonic consequences of my lousy electricity, which I have since fixed.

Footnote 1: The Lino C 2.0 also measured superbly.

NEXT: Specifications »


Channel D

Lambertville, NJ 08530-3001


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