The Bent Silver is the "finest moving-coil step-up I've ever heard". My "associates" concur with this opinion. Our one major caveat is that it must be loaded correctly (see details below).
The Bent Silver's outstanding performance has inspired me to write an in-depth perspective and history about Step-ups, which, despite their critical importance in a phono system, have probably been the single most ignored and neglected component category in both research and development. This audio apathy is the primary reason for the pitiful choice of models available to serious audiophiles.
Below is a picture of the actual Bent Audio Silver Transformers, one per channel, currently being used in my system:
We need "Step-ups" because the finest (low-output) moving-coil cartridges don't have enough voltage for a typical RIAA phono stage.
There are two methods to achieve this:
1. Simply amplify the signal beforehand with a "head amp" (tube or transistor), or
2. Transform the excess current of the moving-coil cartridge into more voltage (with a transformer, obviously!).
(There are also "Internal" step-ups, already inside preamplifiers, that use one of the same two methods, but we are focusing on "External" (outboard) step-ups here.)
Which method is better? Well, that depends on personal priorities, execution (optimization) and when the comparison is/was made. I was fortunate to hear virtually every step-up in existence back in the 1980's and even up to the early 1990's. Since then, only a relatively few models have come out. I've heard most of them also, but there are at least a couple of prominent exceptions (Audio Note and Jensen transformers). Here's a short history of my/our experiences:
Up until the early 1980's, moving-coil cartridges (and their required step-ups) were rare, but the successful Denon, Dynavector and Koetsu cartridges changed the entire phono playback landscape, quickly and profoundly. Suddenly, most serious audiophiles wanted moving-coils to replace their (now "old-fashioned") moving-magnet cartridges. (A Quick Reminder- CD players didn't even exist yet back then.)
Since these audiophiles had only "normal" (low-gain) phono stages, just as suddenly an avalanche of (now required) step-ups came on the market. Most of them, as could be easily predicted, were mediocre, or even worse. Some were "OK", and a rare few were actually exceptional (Klyne, Cotter, RWR, Audio Research, Counterpoint, Conrad-Johnson, Classe etc.). I heard almost all of them, good and bad, either as a dealer, or as trade-ins by unhappy audiophiles, obviously because of their unsatisfying performance. (I wish I could identify "a diamond in the rough" among them for cheap, but there's none I can remember.)
Personally, I went from a Denon to a Cotter, then to a Klyne SK-2, then to the CJ, back to a Cotter and lastly to an Audio Research MCP-33 (my then favorite, along with the problematic Counterpoint, when working well). However, I finally gave up on ALL of these devices after they stopped evolving, and instead went to a Jadis JP-80 (which I still have!) and a high-output moving-coil; the excellent Dynavector XX-1, which did not require a step-up. The sound was superb, with no noises or other problems, and the system was simple. I was really happy at the time.
Then, from out of nowhere, and totally unexpected within the anti-step-up environment of the time, came a new component that "shook up the audio world" (or should have).
To appreciate the (then) unprecedented achievement of the Expressive Technology (ET), you must realize that, prior to its appearance, no step-up type, or model, ever had a clear advantage over the other(s). Every single one of them had easily noticeable problems. You just made your choice about which problem(s) least bothered you (a strategy that's still most appropriate today). In this instance, it was either excessive noise, loss of subtle detail and noticeable distortion etc. (head amps), or blunted transients, veiling, frequency roll-offs etc (transformers). That's why I eventually gave up on all the step-ups. But...
The ET was very different; it was as good or better than all the other step-ups in every area of performance. Its ultra-low "sound-floor", in particular, was truly outstanding. (So, maybe a transformer was the superior method after all?)
In short, the ET was the closest component to theoretically "perfect" that I, and my associates, were aware of at that time (1992). It was outrageously expensive ($ 2,500 to $ 3,500), but worth it, because it was a seemingly "final purchase". (I even received another huge and unplanned benefit; its 28 dB of gain allowed me to bypass my entire line stage as well!)
I lived with the ET, with complete satisfaction, for 9 years. I/we eventually heard some minor problems with it, using a "bypass test" (see below), but they didn't bother me. Then I moved from Canada to the U.S. in late 2001. I sold the ET to a very grateful friend, since I wouldn't be able to use it for an indefinite period of time. Besides, I was also told that ET was coming out with a new and improved model, that even included a highly desirable phase-switch, for $ 5,000! However...
I was soon shocked to find out that the "new and improved model" didn't actually exist and, even worse, neither did the "older model" that I used to own! ET had apparently permanently left the audio business. Now what was I going to do? (Going "backwards" in audio is close to torture for an audiophile.)
I did the best I could by purchasing an EAR MC-3 Transformer, which ended up being an excellent performer, and it even had 3 different inputs to optimize it with almost any cartridge. Soon after, I was loaned a Bent Audio TX-103 transformer, in kit form, which originated from Stevens and Billington (SB) in England. It was even better than the EAR, though not as easy to optimize (or on the eye). The Bent even seemed to approach, but not equal, the performance (at least in my fading memory) of my much missed ET. So...
I decided to bring it to an associate who had owned the ET himself for 8 years, and was obviously very familiar with its performance. This was in October 2003. The (very thorough) comparison we conducted was actually with the Audion Quattro's (Internal) head amp, which had been highly modified. According to my associate, this was the head amp that had shockingly outperformed the ET in 2001, which is why my associate later sold it. So what happened...?
The Audion head amp was better again, in almost every area, though the Bent was still "respectable", meaning it wasn't "blown away". I then asked my associate the big question:
"How did his ET compare to the Audion and the Bent?"
His answer was, as usual, immediate and to the point:
"The ET's performance was almost exactly half-way between them."
So, to makes things simple, if the Audion was a "9.5" (nothing's a "10"), and the Bent was an "8.5", the ET was a "9.0". My associate's assessment matched my own memory of the two transformers in my own system.
Before we finished, I made absolutely certain that I could not forget the approximate differences between these two models. I felt it could be critical in the future, and it would be...
Another associate called me around 9 months later (Summer/Fall 2004) with some interesting news. John Chapman, the owner of Bent Audio, had talked SB into making a (prototype) pure silver transformer. This was a fantasy of mine for many years, but I never thought I would actually hear one in real life. Even better news arrived later; I would get a "loaner" sometime in the Spring (2005), and I did. The eventual listening results were posted on this website.
To condense what I wrote and posted at the time; The Bent Silver was both Heaven and Hell. In short- it had superb performance, probably better than any step-up I had ever heard in my system, but it also had a disqualifying problem; its tonal balance was unacceptably lean and light. I didn't have the time to experiment with it, so I put it aside for what I thought would be a few months, but it turned out to be almost a year.
This brings us to the present...
I've known about "loading"* MC cartridges for decades. (IAR's 25 year-old write-up on the subject is excellent.) The Klyne head amps, which I sold and owned personally, had both resistor and capacitor loading, but I've had very little experience loading transformers. Very few of them even had the accommodation for loading in the first place. I never loaded down the original Bent (Copper) transformer, and didn't originally load down the Silver either, mainly because I wanted to have a direct comparison between them. I kept the loading as my backup "Plan B".
The Bent Silver did come with a package of new resistors; enough to "ballpark", if not fully optimize, any cartridge. It also has two (easily accessible) binding posts to attach the resistor(s). Before I began, I first read the informative threads about loading on the Audiogon Analog Discussion Forum (highly recommended), and then I started with 20K. The results- Much more than I bargained for...
The "lean and light" tonal balance was now virtually gone and, as a bonus, the sound was even purer, more precise and had greater separation and inner texture. The sound-floor also seemed to drop. The overall volume also decreased, which concerned me, since I don't have much volume to give away. Then I went to 10K...
There was another noticeably qualitative improvement, though not to same degree. The sound was incredibly pure and natural, but it didn't matter, since the volume was now just too low for me to live with. After trying a number of values between these two, I ended up settling right in the middle; 15K. At this time, with this present system, it's the best balance of sound quality and volume that I can probably achieve.*Placing a resistor(s), and sometimes a capacitor, in parallel with the input, and/or output, of the step-up. I used the output on the Bent Silver.
There are people with considerably more experience with transformer loading than me, but I would still like to summarize what I have experienced first hand:
1. Loading makes a definite difference, and sometimes a huge difference, as with the Bent Silver,
2. The quality of the loading resistor(s) does make a noticeable difference (Holco and Vishay were better than the "stock" resistors),
3. Multiple resistors must be the same brand and type, or there will be a slight smearing and loss of focus,
4. Experimentation is required- I'm speculating now, but I believe every system is different, so the most precise resistor value from anyone else should be a start only, no matter how many components are the same,
5. When the resistor value is too high, the sound will normally be bright, forward, light and lean,
6. When the resistor value is too low, the sound will normally be dark, recessed and compressed,
7. I would start "high", and then go down around 25% at a time (40k, 30k, 22.5k, 15k etc.), until you feel something is definitely "wrong". Then you "back up" and start "fine tuning".
Finally, because I ran out of volume, I'm almost certain that my current load, 15K, is NOT the true optimum value for the cartridge and transformer. I suspect it is lower. In the future, if and when I use a more sensitive amplifier and/or speaker, I'll go through this entire process all over again, and report back the results.
The Bent Silver has the largest amount of positives, and the least amount of problems, of any step-up I've heard, if not any component in any category. Right now, in the "Honeymoon" stage, I can't definitively state that I hear any problem with it, short of a hint of a blunting that MUST be present due to inescapable reality that all transformers are made out of wire.
Still, I'm not certain that the (unavoidable) interconnect cables I'm using are not the main source of the "problem". I've already placed the transformers behind the turntable, instead of behind the preamplifier as intended, and suggested, by Bent. In doing so, I received a slight improvement (a little more direct, precise and dynamic sound). I intend to further rearrange my entire phono playback system later this year, which will minimize, if not eliminate(!), the cables' impact (the cable itself may be eliminated). For now, put another way...
The Bent Silver provides more musical information, in a natural manner, with less loss and other aberrations, than any other step-up device I, and my associates, have heard to date. It is as direct and immediate as can be imagined. It doesn't roll-off the frequency extremes. It is as tonally natural as any component, once it is loaded down. It is as pure and clean as a high-quality cable. It provides incredible amounts of detail, inner and outer, and at all frequencies, and without the sense that it is ever overemphasizing, or enhancing, any of it. It is dynamically uncompressed at all volume levels. It has greater separation of instruments, and less homogenization, than anything I've heard.
For just one relevant example; I've never heard massed violins sound so natural, individualized and detailed, all at the same time. The individual "shimmers" can be heard on a surprising number of records. This is done without any sense of exaggeration. Also, it does not, in any manner, "romanticize" the music. It is simultaneously natural, revealing, accurate and unforgiving.
It's as close to "not being there" as any component I've ever experienced, and I'm pretty certain it can be even further optimized. To hear its actual deficiencies, in my case anyway, will require an even better step-up, or a lot of time, but I'm starting to actually think that even a theoretically "perfect" step-up wouldn't be that much better than a totally optimized Bent Silver. That may sound foolhardy, but how much room for real improvement* can there be left for a component category that has now evolved to such a high level of performance? Of course, I hope I'm really wrong about this. Audiophiles crave big improvements, where ever they can find them.
*(I feel the same way about the best signal cables. Once you've heard an actual direct-connection, meaning a connection without any cable, you soon realize that the finest cables, at least in short runs, degrade the signal by only a small degree, so the room for improvement must be, by definition, also small.
Let me summarize how the Bent Silver compares to the other top performing models that I, and my associates, have heard:
Bent Silver Vs. Bent Copper- We've made several direct comparisons. (With proper loading...) The Silver is FAR superior in most areas; Inner and outer detail, immediacy, transparency, separation of instruments and voices, sound-floor, purity, focus, high frequency extension etc. The two transformers are basically equal in tonal balance, bass extension, the size of the soundstage and (macro-not micro) dynamic contrasts. In retrospect, I'm reminded, in certain ways, of the comparison I recently made of the ZYX Airy 2 with the superior Airy 3. While the details may be different, the overall final impression I had is quite similar.
Conclusion- The Bent Copper is still "Excellent", while the Bent Silver is "Great".
Bent Silver Vs. Expressive Technology- This is much more difficult, since I no longer have the ET. Still, it's my opinion that the evidence strongly favors the Bent Silver over the ET. My thinking on this is mainly indirect and somewhat complicated, so please bear with me. First...
Two of my associates actually made this direct comparison, using my own (former) ET. The Bent Silver was easily superior, but I think there may have been a problem, because the Bent Copper was also better when it was compared to the ET at the same time. This, of course, is a direct contradiction of the Bent Copper/Audion comparison my other associate and I made earlier. It also contradicts an experienced reader's direct comparison of the two units. However, I've been told that other listeners also preferred the Bent Copper to the ET. No reconciliation of all this is possible that makes logical sense, someone must be wrong or there were serious mismatches at the time.
My present take- I believe my other associate's more revealing (Audion) system, and memory, plus my own memory of the ET, override the Bent Copper's "victory" of that day, as well as the others. We also made multiple "bypass tests" with both the ET and the Bent Copper, though not at the same time, and while these tests can never be conclusive, the ET was slightly closer to the cartridges' direct-in sound to the preamplifier (it had less "rounding"). (It was this acid test that finally confirmed to us that the ET was not "perfect".)
In the end, considering all of the evidence, the ET and Bent Copper transformers must be reasonably close, but I still feel as I did when I first heard the Bent Copper; the ET will have the advantage in most systems. This brings us to the experiences of my 5 associates, and myself, who have heard the Bent Copper directly compared to the Bent Silver. These results were profoundly different to most of ET/Bent Copper comparisons...
Let's go back to the Audion/Bent Copper comparison described above. At the time, I felt the Audion was a solid advance over the Bent Copper. The Silver's advance equals, or even goes beyond, that. It is totally "mesmerizing" to the listener; in the manner that only a serious improvement can ever be. Five other associates, who have also heard the Silver, feel the same way about this degree of improvement that I do. In a recent conversation with the Audion's owner, he reiterated that he still felt the gap between the Bent Copper and his Audion to be quite large; also a serious improvement.
But how could the ET, with around half of the Audion's similar degree of improvement, equal the Bent Silver's total improvement? I realize that this is indirect (A/B/C/D) logic, but it's all we have right now. There's another common audio comparative methodology which I feel is appropriate in this instance; the ET/Bent Copper differences, no matter which one was preferred, have been almost always described as a "matter of degree", while the Bent Silver/Bent Copper differences are more described as a "matter of kind".
Another associate, with excellent listening skills, and who is intimately familiar with all of the transformers, almost instantly told me the Bent Silver "was better than anything" he's heard, including the ET. He previously didn't care for any transformer, because of their "veil" and "rounding" (which he had heard in the "bypass tests" we conducted together). The Bent Silver was a revelation for him. He was so impressed, that he even admitted to me that he never thought the tweeters in my system were actually capable of what he was hearing, and he had personally modified those tweeters himself.
Bottom Line for Me- If I had to make a choice, right now, between the Bent Silver and the ET, with only my present experiences and knowledge, I would, without any hesitation, choose the Bent Silver. My associates' enthusiastic observations only confirm this choice. Still, I realize that only a direct comparison with the ET, in my own system, can provide the final confirmation of that choice.
Bent Silver Vs. Audion- This is really "academic", because the Audion head amp is Internal, and can't be used by any other RIAA stage. Still, in my memory, the Audion's degree of improvement over the Bent Copper did not equal the Bent Silver's degree of improvement. However, my associate, who owned the Audion, recently reminded me that the sonic differences between the Bent Copper and the Audion were quite large, and if I had heard them from a reverse perspective, I would be just as "enthusiastic". He may have a valid point here. I know this conjecture is all as "unscientific" and "subjective" as can ever be imagined, but I want to communicate this anyway...
I was "knocked out" by the Bent Silver, but not by the Audion (at least at the time). In stark contrast, everyone who has heard the Bent Silver has been "stunned" by it, even before the loading process. That means as much, or more, than a strictly analytical evaluation of its performance.
Now I wouldn't be shocked if the Audion (and the ET!) still had some minor sonic advantage(s) over the Bent Silver, and there's even one other "caveat" worth mentioning; I didn't hear the Audion's improvements in my own system. That may be relevant, though I'm an audiophile who can still be "stunned" when hearing other people's systems (or components) if warranted. Still, if I could hear the full Audion improvement, in my own system, at this time and with a more revealing system, I couldn't rule out being just as overwhelmed as I am with the Bent Silver.
This is all a "theoretical" argument of course, since the Audion "head amp" doesn't exist independently of the full preamplifier it's part of, but I don't want to leave any of my thinking "off the record". This is because the Bent Silver is a true "breakthrough" in my/our experience, and in rare* (for me) events like this, everything must come out, or it never will. (In the hope of resolving this true "audio mystery", one way or the other, I will make an effort to bring the Bent Silver transformers to my associate's house and have another "shoot-out", with an improved Audion. If so, you will read the results here, because I feel this knowledge is still important to know, even if it can't be put to immediate use.)
* "Breakthroughs" are quite common events now in most commercial audio publications; printed or on the Internet. That's not my personal experience. In this particular instance, it's been 13 years since the last true step-up breakthrough; the Expressive Technology SU-1 (1992-2005). This is also the reason for my uninhibited excitement, after years of nothing but disappointments.
To repeat myself; This is the finest step-up that I and my associates have ever heard. It is so far superior to most other step-ups, they may actually sound "defective" in comparison. There is not one of us who has heard it that feels differently, but its outstanding performance can only be realized with proper loading. I found that out the hard way, wasting almost a year in the process.
According to John Chapman, of Bent Audio, the Bent TX-103 Silver is $ 1,275 finished, which is $ 450 more than the TX-103 Copper. This places it within the price range of numerous phono-oriented audiophiles. Thankfully, it's not the typical "crazy price" you now see for top-of-the-line components. As for availability, sometimes Bent has the Silver in stock, but if not, you are looking at a delivery time frame of around 3 weeks to a month.
If the Bent Silver is coupled with a good, tube, phono stage, modified if possible, you will have near "state of the art" performance, for a fraction of the usual prices of current "all-out" units. The emergence of this model should be a cause of celebration for vinyl lovers around the world, even if they don't know it yet. Remember that the step-up may be as important as the phono stage, if not the cartridge itself, to the final sonics. When was the last time that any "best of breed" component was this reachable?
If you are looking only for the best transformer out there, and can afford the Bent Silver, and are prepared to take the time to load it properly, my Reference designation of the Bent Silver is unqualified (short of some bizarre mismatch). I would get the 26 dB gain version and skip the gain switch. The extra 6 dB of gain may come in handy if you later attempt to eliminate the line stage, which I have already done in my own system. I would place the transformers behind the turntable, so the tiny signal is boosted immediately, before it enters the phono cable going to the preamplifier (or phono stage).
If you can't afford the Bent Silver, my other Step-up References are still valid. These other models, most of them are mentioned above, are also excellent components, but their relative performance to the best available has now been obviously diminished.
If you don't like transformers, because their sonic problems have seriously bothered you in the past, I would still borrow this model if possible, and listen again, with proper loading, and without prejudice. Even my anti-transformer friend is crazy about it. Who knows, it's actually possible that this model may turn out to be the finest ever made. If so, this era, now known for its minimal Step-up choices, may also become, most improbably; "The Golden Age of Step-ups"!Top
REFERENCE MOVING COIL STEP-UP DEVICES
THE REFERENCE COMPONENTS
THE RECENT FILE
The Supreme Recordings
My Audio System
My Audio Philosophy
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