The number of turntables on the market has increased massively since 2010, and the number of phono preamplifiers there are to choose from has grown along with it. You need a phono preamp if your amplifier or receiver doesn’t have its own integral phono stage. Among the scores of outboard phono stages available today, you’re unlikely to find one like the Music Hall PA2.2, which is priced at $449.99 (all prices in USD). That’s because of its secret ingredient: an analog-to-digital converter (ADC).
Why is this a big deal? Because it allows you to easily digitize your vinyl collection. Granted, some turntables include an ADC, but these are usually bottom-of-the-line units that may not treat your records with the delicacy they deserve. The PA2.2 lets you use your own ’table.
The PA2.2 also includes a line-level stereo input so you can digitize audio from other sources, such as reel-to-reel or cassette tape decks. And for the hat trick, it also serves as a headphone amplifier, complete with volume control. Music Hall calls the PA2.2 the “Swiss Army knife of phono amps.” That sounds about right.
The PA2.2 is not especially large, measuring just 6.3″W × 2″H × 6.7″D. It weighs two pounds but feels heftier. It’s housed in a very nice heavy aluminum case, all black with gold lettering.
From left to right on the front panel are four small toggle switches that serve the following functions: turning the unit on and off, switching between stereo and mono, inverting phase (0° or 180°), and switching between the phono and line-level inputs. To the right of these is a 1/4″ headphone jack, plus the aforementioned volume control.
On the left side of the back panel are two sets of RCA inputs, one for moving-magnet (MM) cartridges and the other for moving-coil (MC) cartridges. Next to these are two small toggle switches, one for setting gain for the MC input and the other for switching between MM and MC operation, and a grounding post. The PA2.2 provides 39dB of gain for MM cartridges. Choosing MC operation adds either 20dB or 26dB to achieve 59dB or 65dB of total gain. These options should cover just about any cartridge. Then come stereo line-in jacks for a tape deck or tuner, a USB Type-B port for output to a computer, and two sets of output RCA jacks—one for fixed and one for variable output (with the latter, output is controlled using the front volume knob) levels. Finally, there’s a jack for power input from the external wall-wart power supply.
The ADC chip is the highly regarded Wolfson WM8786, which can produce 24-bit data at sampling rates of 8, 16, 32, 44.1 (CD standard), 48, and 96kHz. To record into your computer, Music Hall recommends Audacity, a versatile open-source freeware recording application available in Windows, macOS, and Linux versions at audacityteam.org.
Before I describe the setup process, I want to introduce readers to my new turntable. If you’ve read my reviews over the past year or so, you may recall me repeatedly mentioning that my long-serving Dual CS 5000 has been shown up by many of the modern models—even ’tables priced under $600. I recently purchased the Music Hall Stealth turntable ($1649 with Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge), which I reviewed in February 2022. The Stealth went on to win a SoundStage! Network Product of the Year award for Exceptional Value. After the Stealth was delivered, I let it break in for several hours before listening. From the very first record, I knew I had made a great decision.
Moving to the PA2.2, setup was dead simple: take the unit out of its box, connect it to its power supply, plug the supplied USB-B to USB-A cable into the destination computer, connect source components (turntable, tape deck, etc.) to their RCA inputs, and connect an amplifier to its outputs.
If, like me (and most other users), your turntable has a moving-magnet cartridge, use the MM connectors. To play records, make sure the front-panel source switch is set to Phono, not Line. If you want to use your amplifier to adjust volume, use the fixed line-output jacks—the PA2.2’s volume knob will then be inactive. If you want to use the PA2.2 to adjust volume, use the variable line-output jacks.
Operation as a phono preamplifier
When I sat down to do some serious listening, my first selection was an orchestral piece, “Hoe-Down” from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Louis Lane (Telarc DG-10078). The PA2.2 distinguished itself with a fast, punchy performance. There are a lot of staccato notes in “Hoe-Down” and they were reproduced cleanly and clearly. The overall sound of the PA2.2 tends to the lean side; there was not a lot of bass “boom” and the brass and xylophone stood out. Compared to my APT Holman preamp (long since discontinued), highs had slightly less sparkle, but the sound was still good.
In my younger days, I had an abiding crush on folk singer Judy Collins. She was beautiful and had an angelic voice. Several of Collins’s songs made the hit list on popular music stations, the first of which was a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” from her Wildflowers album (Elektra EKS-74012). This recording has more prevalent bass than the Copland LP—and the PA2.2 lets you know it. Collins’s voice is pretty much dead center, and she has a bit of a warble, which makes it sound as if she’s nervous. Initially, there’s only Collins, a soft snare drum, double bass, and a harpsichord. Later, strings enter the right channel, drowning out the harpsichord—and nearly drowning out Collins herself. With those caveats in mind (the singer’s nervous voice, strings mixed too loudly), I thought the PA2.2 delivered a very fine sound.
When I was in the army, back in the early 1970s, I was stationed in Hawaiʻi. One of the songs that made the charts on Honolulu radio was from a group called Los Blues. Their brass-heavy instrumental style resembled Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago but tilted heavily towards jazz with some Beach Boys close harmonies. Their one hit in Hawaiʻi was “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherry Bombs” from their Los Blues/Volume One album (United Artists UAS-5542). It starts out like a ballad with vocals that resemble the Beach Boys and Four Freshmen, but quickly moves into heavy jazz riffs. The PA2.2 delivered an extremely lively and rhythmic rendition of this track. The horns were especially vibrant. The seven musicians were spread right across the soundstage, but the recording didn’t offer much depth. Still, it was a most enjoyable performance.
Andrew Gold rose to fame as a leading member of Linda Ronstadt’s band in the 1970s (he played almost all the instruments on her hit “You’re No Good”) and a record producer. In 1976, he released an album of his own, What’s Wrong With This Picture? (Asylum 7E-1086), which contained the hit “Lonely Boy.” I selected another number, “Doo Wah Diddy,” his version of Manfred Mann’s hit “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy.” Gold’s version is very different from Mann’s. His syncopated guitar phrases don’t really fit the melody, but they do fit the song—they’re sharp and piercing, and they really move the song along. Through the PA2.2, I felt I was hearing them as they were meant to be heard. They were right in the center of a broad soundstage, with the five backup singers spread from left to right. The drums sounded a little further back through my system, while the rhythm guitar was off to the right. Gold’s vocal fought with the guitar for the center spot; the guitar often won. Gold created a very fun version of this 1963 hit, and it was well reproduced by the PA2.2.
Why not end this section with something from Gold’s one-time “boss,” Linda Ronstadt? I pulled out her Simple Dreams album (Asylum 6E-104) and played her take on Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” Through the PA2.2, the soundstage was broad with reasonable depth. As expected, Linda was right out front, with the backup singers hovering around her, which worked well with the song. However, the highs sounded a bit closed in—high-frequency extension was slightly limited. Still, the PA2.2’s performance was more than acceptable.
I connected the Stealth turntable to the Phono 1 input on my APT Holman preamp. Right from the beginning of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” I noticed better high-frequency extension—those high notes no longer sounded closed in. As with the Music Hall, the soundstage was quite broad, but through the APT Holman, it was slightly deeper. The backup singers didn’t sound as if they had been grouped tightly around Ronstadt; instead, they were slightly behind her.
The PA2.2 as an analog-to-digital converter
Throughout my 30 years in radio broadcasting, I had a fascination with DJs, jingles, and bits of audio. I’ve collected about ten seven-inch tape reels and 60 cassettes of assorted radio air checks and jingle demos. I know these tapes are probably deteriorating, so I’ve wanted to digitize them for years.
Following the advice in the PA2.2’s manual, I downloaded Audacity to assist in the digitization of these tapes. Along with the application, I downloaded FFMPEG, a set of open-source libraries Audacity uses to handle various file types. Installing Audacity was a breeze, thanks to the great instructions on the audacityteam.org website. The website also offers a detailed manual.
Audacity is pretty easy to use—although there are a couple of things that I still don’t understand about it. But I pulled out a record, put it on my turntable, and started recording; the waveform in the screenshot above shows a few seconds of the process. Audacity recorded the song quite accurately, and even let me remove a “pop” from the record.
I played the recording through my system and compared it to the original LP. The sound was quite close to the original record; I’d say 99.5% identical. One cautionary note provided in the Audacity instructions is to keep recording levels at -6dB or less. If you exceed 0dB, you’ll end up with a heavily distorted recording, the likes of which you’ve probably never heard.
The line-level input makes the PA2.2 perfect for digitizing analog sources like cassette and FM radio. And of course, you can record from your turntable very easily. For me, the PA2.2’s digitization capability is its primary appeal.
The PA2.2 as a headphone amplifier
I’m not much of a headphone enthusiast. I think ’phones deliver unrealistic listening experiences. I’ve never found a pair that feel comfortable on my head. The over-the-ear variety are often too heavy, too hot, and too cumbersome, and earbuds bother my ears. However, I pulled my Grado SR-80 ’phones out of storage and listened to “Doo Wah Diddy” again. The listening experience was interesting and quite different. The sound wrapped 180° around my head from hard left to hard right. The sound was just as fine as it was through my regular system, with plenty of gain via the volume control. If you’re into ’phones, the PA2.2 will serve as an excellent companion.
To quote Will Smith’s reaction to flying an alien ship in Independence Day: “I gotta get me one of these!” No, the PA2.2 won’t help you save the planet from cosmic invaders, but it sure can help if you have records or tapes you want to digitize—and I have a bunch!
Playing records, the sound of the PA2.2 was mellow yet lean, clean, and delightful. It compared favorably to the phono preamp in my APT Holman preamplifier, but it was different: a little less sparkle, a little leaner. However, I think the PA2.2’s sound may simply be the result of its design philosophy. Overall, it’s a fine phono stage. Thanks to its ability to digitize vinyl records and other analog content, the PA2.2 earns my strong recommendation for anyone who needs this capability.
If you think your system could use a “Swiss Army knife” for phono playback, headphone listening, and digitization of analog recordings, look no further than the Music Hall PA2.2. It’s a good little component—and a bargain to boot!
. . . Thom Moon
- Speakers: Acoustic Energy Radiance 3; Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer.
- Amplifier: NAD C 275BEE.
- Preamplifier: Apt Holman.
- Turntable: Music Hall Stealth with Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge.
- Headphones: Grado SR-80.
- Analog Interconnects: Music Hall-supplied interconnect (turntable to preamp); Dayton Audio (PA2.2 to Apt); Wireworld Luna 8 (preamp to amp).
- Digital Interconnect: Music Hall-supplied USB (to computer).
- Speaker cables: Acoustic Research 14-gauge terminated in banana plugs.
Music Hall PA2.2 Phono Preamplifier / Analog-to-Digital Converter / Headphone Amplifier
Warranty: One year, parts and labor.
Music Hall Audio
108 Station Road
Great Neck, NY 11023
Phone: (516) 487-3663