It can be easy to feel a little overwhelmed when faced with the amount of features and controls presented by a product such as ART’s USB Phono Plus.
Place Mozart in front of a Moog synthesizer for the first time and even the Austrian maestro would take an hour or two to figure it all out.
Build and features
But don’t let the busy appearance put you off. Despite its add-ons and connections, there’s really no more for you to do here to extract great performance from this talented ripping phono stage than there is with any rival.
Best to start with a run-down of what’s on offer here, though. Beginning at the front, there are options for phono or line-level input, and flat or low-cut filter to the left of the USB Phono Plus’s main dial for gain control.
On the right there's a three-way toggle for monitor source, a headphone jack and another, smaller dial for output level.
Other than that headphone terminal, all other connections are housed on the rear of the chassis. These include a USB for ripping to a computer, opticals in and out to USB, coax to USB and RCA in and out for linking up to your traditional hi-fi.
It’s also where you’ll find your power connection – though you can also use your computer, via USB – and grounding terminal.
Though we’re testing it mainly as a phono stage and means of recording vinyl to a laptop, which we assume is where ART will gain most of its custom, the USB Phono Plus is described as a “high performance audio interface between analogue and digital sources”. And there can be little argument against offering all that extra scope.
Though we’re more used to seeing relatively spare-looking phono stages at this price point, the layout helps keep the running of the USB Phono Plus from being at all confusing. It's very much a case of ignoring what you don’t need – and, as long as you keep its phono option selected, you only need connect your turntable and amp, sit back and let the ART do its business.
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Our first impressions are good. Immediately striking is the spacious soundstage on offer.
It is possibly even roomier than our favourite ripping phono stage, the Rega Fono Mini A2D. We also notice how tidily the USB Phono Plus is able to organise each strand within it.
Timing is one of the most difficult things to nail for any product, at any price - but ART stands out here as well.
It has a generally laidback nature, but it’s far from half-hearted, keeping rhythms in check while serving them with musical understanding that keeps from sounding overly processed.
Dynamically, we’re looking at more of the same. There’s a warmth and smoothness to the textures delivered here, and that’s mirrored by a fluid sense of dynamics that captures the human element to our music as much as sight-reading the swells and troughs of a score.
Our only real criticism in that regard is the ART's slight lack of punch. More striking shifts aren’t delivered with the zeal of its main Rega competitor, nor is there quite the determination to drive a track - but there is still enough there to keep the performance fun and sufficiently entertaining.
That’s probably the line that most readily divides the two, along with a snappier rhythmic sense that gives the Rega more a sense of reading ahead as well as knowing exactly where it is on the page.
There’s not much to choose between the two in terms of outright detail, and their balance is equally even-handed.
Like the Rega, the USB Phono Plus is compatible with any free recording programme, but also saves you the bother of remembering your wi-fi password by shipping with a copy of the Audacity software.
There are no disappointments with the ripped versions of our vinyl either, each being transferred with that same instantly likeable character really only bettered by the Rega at this sort of price.
Unlike the occasions when a star’s difference in products' ratings denotes an absolute preference between one and the other, ART’s inclusion of those extra connections will, for some, make the USB Phono Plus a compelling proposition when compared to our favourite ripping phono stage.
If taking into account all of this product’s features leads you to opting for ART over its rivals, we can confidently recommend it thanks to performance that treats your music with the respect it deserves.