OTHER INTERESTING STEP-UP DEVICES
There is not much choice in this category because very few "all-out" step-up devices have been made by the audio industry. They were discouraged 30 years ago by the influential (at the time) magazine The Absolute Sound. In their combined idealism and technical ignorance, pointed out by both The Audio Critic and International Audio Review, they influenced preamplifier manufacturers to build high-gain preamplifiers instead.
The results of this campaign were units that were far inferior to what was achievable with superior step-ups and low-gain phono stages. Only that combination can retain the true dynamics, body and low-level detail of the original signal.
Ironically, when a manufacturer in the late 1990ís finally did create a superior high-gain preamplifier, with an internal step-up, virtually no one took any notice. In fact, The Absolute Sound never even reviewed it! I placed this unit (Audion Premier Quattro) within Class A of the Preamplifier section.
Note- Moving-coil cartridges generally have more overall energy than moving-magnet cartridges. This is mainly because their (stationary) magnets are more powerful than those that are "moving". The problem to overcome is that their energy is mainly in current, while preamplifiers sense and amplify voltage.
This mismatch can be overcome by either amplifying their existing tiny voltage or transforming their excess (and otherwise useless) current into more voltage before it reaches the phono stage of the preamplifier. The "phono stage" then further amplifies the signal and also equalizes it at the same time, using the RIAA equalization curve.
Moving Coil Transformers- These are passive devices (with no power supply) that "transform" the excess current from the moving coil cartridge into voltage, which can then be amplified (and equalized) by the (MM) phono stage of the preamplifier.
Moving Coil "Head Amplifiers"- These are active devices, with power supplies, that amplify the tiny voltage from moving coil cartridges so that it approximates the normal voltage from a moving magnet cartridge. The phono stage must still further amplify and then equalize the signal.
Another name for this active type of device, that is also commonly used, is: Pre-preamplifier. Because it is "passive", the transformer has some theoretical advantages over the "head amplifier", but execution is still critical for both devices.
Finally, "Step-up devices" are NOT "phono stages"...
The EMIA/Slagle is an outstanding step-up transformer, one of the three best I've ever heard. However, I had an unusually difficult time, at first, comparing it to the Bent Audio Silver, which has been my personal Reference since 2006. So I decided to ask two of my associates to assist me. I had to feel certain that we get it right, and that we didn't miss anything, for better or worse. So, after numerous A/B comparisons (most done by myself), I am happy to report that we ALL heard the same sonic differences, though our reactions to what we heard were somewhat different.
The Bent Silver was noticeably superior in those areas that have always been its strong suits; It had a lower sound-floor, greater delicacy and immediacy, reproduced more fine details, was more cohesive and had superior focus. The EMIA was also excellent in all these areas, but still second-best when compared to the Bent. The EMIA did have one easily noticeable advantage though and, for many audiophiles, it may be a very important and critical factor; The EMIA had the best bass reproduction we've ever heard, of any MC step-up; in power, frequency range, detail and solidity. In fact, since I felt it was unprecedented (especially for silver), I tried every challenging LP I could to find any weakness in the EMIA's bass reproduction, but I failed. Only the quality of the Bent's bass could match the EMIA, but nothing else did. Further, the EMIA's image size was also outstanding, a little larger than even the Bent, though at the expense of some focus.
Our three reactions all varied when hearing these sonic differences. My first associate (who has the most "conventional" musical preferences) was somewhat torn between them, first preferring one SUT, then the other SUT, depending on the music. My second associate preferred the Bent period, in all cases, feeling it was literally, in his own words, "in another class". My reaction is different, though definitely closer to the second associate; I also, without question, prefer the Bent overall, but I acknowledge that the EMIA may be more satisfying with certain recordings (particularly non-classical). Further, I give the second associate more weight for two reasons; first, his taste in music is closer to mine (classically oriented, unlike the first associate), and second, he heard the Bent at its finest, unlike the first associate (see "Another Proof"* below), who only heard the EMIA at its finest**.
It's first relevant to note that the Bent Silver has now been long discontinued (and is almost impossible to find used). This means that the EMIA/Slagle just may be the best SUT I know of that is actually being built and available today. It has only one serious competitor that I know of, the Coincident Statement, which is eerily similar (to the best of my memory) to the EMIA in performance (overall and in specifics), and even sells for the same price ($ 2,500). Accordingly, I will attempt to make a direct comparison between these two models later this year, using the UNIverse IIX.
As for now, I can only state that an audiophile can not go wrong with either of these two models, since they are both outstanding performers. In fact, as I stated earlier within the Coincident review, it's possible that many listeners may even prefer either (or both) of these two current step-ups to the Bent, because of the greater popularity of their strengths. However, in our experience, neither of them matches the Bent Silver in its unique strengths, which is why I am still keeping it in my system as my personal (ultimate) Reference.
The audio system otherwise remained the same during each trial. The cable used from the EMIA was a 3' version of the Reference cable (also used from the tonearm), while the Bent has its own 9" (internally connected) cable going to the Jadis JP-80 phono stage. The EMIA had slightly more gain than the Bent, so I used the volume pots on the line stage, just one click, to equalize them.
*Another Proof- My second associate and I discovered that it was much easier to hear (most of) the sonic differences between the Bent and EMIA after the Graham tonearm cable was replaced by the Reference cable. Before the switch, the Bent's strengths were being disproportionally*** compromised by the Graham cable's deficiencies, which is why I had "an unusually difficult time" comparing them at first. This is also additional proof for a longstanding audio theory of mine (and many others) - Even one weak link is enough to mask the sonic differences that are otherwise more easily observed between two components (and even software). My first associate only compared the Bent and EMIA when using the Graham cable, which is the main reason why I give his opinion less weight than I normally would.
**The EMIA was at its best with the Graham tonearm cable, which allowed all the strengths to be heard, while minimizing its relative weaknesses. It is a thrilling combination with the right musical material; well-recorded, large scale, dynamic and with powerful bass.
***However, it is also important to note that the EMIA's greatest sonic virtue, its bass reproduction, was, in turn, disproportionally compromised by the Reference Cable. Thus neither cable revealed the entire audio truth. This further proves "the weak link theory", while also demonstrating the critical importance of signal cables in certain situations.
Most Important Evaluation Records:
Medieval Xmas Music/Nonesuch,
Pines of Rome/Maazel/Mobile Fidelity,
My Audio System
Intact Audio (Dave Slagle)
The Coincident Statement is also one of the three finest MC step-ups I've ever heard, of any type or at any price. However, the Coincident and the other top Class A Reference, the Bent Audio Silver*, both have sonic advantages in their favor.
Here are the details of all the direct comparisons (including the latest in 2012):
The Coincident was slightly superior in the recreation of "body", deep bass and image size. This was most easily heard in the cello/baritone range and lower. Meanwhile, the Bent Silver has its own subtle advantages in immediacy, delicacy, transparency, purity, speed, intelligibility and focus. However, the Bent's improvements aren't as easily noticeable as the Coincident's improvements. In fact, almost none of these "improvements" could be heard without an immediate and direct comparison. In short, they aren't "serious" by a long shot.
The bottom line: I can live with either of these transformers (but nothing else I've heard), though I still slightly prefer the Bent Silver in my own system at this time, because its improvements, however subtle, better match both the strengths of my (Jadis JP-80) phono stage and my musical preferences. However, I still suspect that many, if not most, listeners will probably prefer the Coincident* over the Bent, especially since its strengths are somewhat more easily heard, and it must not be forgotten that the Bent (if it can even be found in the first place) is very difficult to optimize, and can be "lean" on many systems, regardless of the loading.
*The Coincident may even be further improved by soldering other resistor values inside the unit, which would then reduce some of the slight sonic advantages of the Bent Silver.
There are few odds and ends that may prove important to some readers...
First of all, the Coincident has around 2 db more gain than the Bent (when everything else is equal). This was unexpected, since both of them are specified at exactly 26db. When questioned, Israel Blume, of Coincident, stood by this specification, so either the Bent really has only 24db of gain (at its highest setting), or Blume is wrong, and the Coincident actually has 28db of gain, which is the same as the third outstanding transformer I've ever heard, the Expressive Technology (ET) SU-1.
Then there is the critical loading issue. The Bent has exterior posts, which can be easily and conveniently loaded with resistors to reach any value. The Coincident has a switch on the back panel, with 4 positions, while the ET has no user provision for loading (short of DIY, after opening the chassis). The Coincident can also be loaded DIY style, but that also involves soldering. The Bent, despite its ease of loading, is still difficult to optimize with many cartridges and systems, and this is its greatest weakness.
As for "looks", the Coincident has the same shape and appearance as the Line Stage from the same company. It's also quite substantial for a transformer, weighing around 25 lbs, and it has excellent shielding. As advised, I broke-in the Coincident transformer with 300+ hours of various (line-level) CD signals. Finally, while we weren't able to try out a large number of cables, I can state that the Statement did sound its best with Coincident's own Extreme Interconnect cables going to the (Jadis) phono stage.
I know of three "great" M/C transformers: The Coincident, the Bent Silver and the ET. The latter two are now long discontinued, and extremely difficult to find used. The Bent, if ever found used, could be a real bargain. What if you already own the Bent? I don't believe it's worth going to the Coincident unless you just must have the extra gain, or you are having problems with "leanness", despite trying different loads.
The real shake-up here is with the ET, which usually goes for "big money" if found used, meaning something in the $ 4,000/$5,000 range. In contrast, the new Coincident Statement sells for $ 2,500. In short, I see no reason to ever search for a used ET any longer, let alone pay serious money for it. The Coincident has noticeably (though subtly) better performance, more versatility and it costs almost half the price (and it even looks more elegant).
*Coincident also built a prototype silver transformer, but it was sonically inferior to the copper version (according to Coincident owner/designer Israel Blume).
From a "historical" perspective...
Looking back over the last 20 years, which was when the (then revolutionary) ET initially arrived on the scene, I now believe we are near the end of the line of M/C transformer development. The ET was the truly "big jump", the Bent Silver a nice refinement over the ET (though only with the right system), while the Coincident is another subtle improvement over the ET, though with greater system flexibility. The trend is now obvious. If, and when, there are further improvements, I expect all of them to be just as subtle. If this were not so, there would have already been more serious advancements during these last two decades.
The fact that these top three transformers are all very similar in performance, can only mean that they are close to "perfection", which is defined by me not in the literal sense of that (dangerous and overused) word, but as "what is possible with current technology". In practical terms, this means that you can purchase any of them with confidence, and never have to worry about "obsolescence". However, the really good news is that the Coincident Statement is available now.
Finally, what about the Coincident's selling price and "value for the money"?
The Coincident is somewhat expensive, though it's far less costly then some of the current competition (especially models from Japan and Europe). In fact, it is important to remember that the (now legendary) ET originally sold for $ 2,500 (20+ years ago), and it eventually sold for $ 3,500 (10+ years ago). Accordingly, by any comparison or measure, the Coincident Statement, at $ 2,500, in 2012, can only be described as an exceptional value for the money.
Coincident also has a phono stage which includes two internal M/C transformers. So, what is the story there? I asked Israel Blume to comment on this. Here is what he sent me (my bold):
"The MC Statement can be wired for 20 db or 26db gain. Your model is 26 db, not 28 or any other figure. The integral step-up in the Statement Phono is identical to the separate Statement Step-up in every way, except for the fact that it is wired for 20 db and cannot be changed.
Price of Statement MC Step-Up (Direct Sale Only)- $ 2,499 US"*
*Coincident informed me that their transformer has the lowest mark-up of any component they have ever sold, which is why it is being sold direct only. In fact, with standard industry markups, the Coincident transformer would be retailing for around $ 5,000.
In early 2012, I decided to do some more A/B comparisons between the Coincident and Bent Silver MC transformers, which are my top two "References". I did so once with one of my associates, when conducting the Class A Phono Stage survey. However, I still felt more comparisons were warranted, since there have been multiple changes in my system since the last SUT comparisons were made back in 2010. In fact, importantly, the Bent itself was "changed" (by changing its loading resistors in 2011).
While basically the same, the final results were subtly different than in prior years, but still have some important implications when it comes to choosing a phono stage. This is what we found...
I still slightly prefer the Bent Silver in my own system, because its improvements, however subtle, better match both the strengths of my (Jadis JP-80) phono stage and (even more importantly) my musical preferences. However, I still suspect that many listeners may prefer the Coincident* over the Bent, especially since its strengths are somewhat more easily heard. Further, it must not be forgotten that the Bent (if it can even be found in the first place) is normally very difficult to optimize, and can be "lean" on many systems, regardless of the loading.
*It's even possible for the Coincident to be further improved by soldering more optimum resistor values inside the unit, which could then reduce some of the slight sonic advantages of the Bent Silver.
A careful reader may notice that the differences between these two SUTs are very similar to the differences I've previously described between the Coincident Phono Stage and the Jadis JP-80 (highly modified, and when using the Bent Silver). This means at least some of those differences were from the SUT and not the respective MM stages. The conclusion then is inescapable; the two MM stages are even more similar than I first thought and described, though they are still not "equal".
In short, if you use the Coincident MC SUT with the (highly modified) Jadis JP-80 (bypassing its own inferior MC stage), the overall performance is quite similar to the Coincident Statement Phono Stage. The differences between the two MM stages, while still existing, are relatively minor in most (though not all) instances. Accordingly, this places the Jadis in a very unique position, and begs the question; Is the Jadis even worth purchasing in the first place? Consider this perspective...
The Jadis, if purchased used, and if improved using the most economical modifications* (which still won't equal the performance of my reference model), will cost over $ 10,000. A top-notch SUT is still necessary, so we must add another $ 3,000 or so (when also including the cables). We're now up to $ 13,000 and, at best, it still will be only competitive (and not superior) to the Coincident Statement, which costs $ 6,000, and is brand new. Further, while the Coincident will sound even better with its matching ($ 5,500) line stage, it doesn't require it, while the Jadis does require it, bringing the total cost to around $ 19,000 (when also including another pair of cables).
So, my perspective and advice concerning Class A Reference phono stages has now changed...
At this time (04/12), I see no reason to ever purchase a Jadis JP-80 (MC). The only possible exception would be if you already have a Bent Silver SUT, or know, for certain, you can get one and are also prepared to carry out all of my JP-80 modifications. Even if you already own a JP-80 (MC), I would sell it unless you have access to a Bent Silver and are also prepared to copy all of my modifications. If this is all done, you will have a superior phono stage, but will have paid a huge cost for that slight superiority.
If not, any sonic advantages over the Coincident Phono Stage, if they even exist in the first place, will be minor at best, and then only after still going through great trouble and expense. Worse, it must not be forgotten that even then there will still be more noticeable sonic disadvantages. The Bottom Line- An investment in the Jadis, new or used, is simply unwarranted under almost all practical circumstances. Finally: What about me?
I already have the Bent Silver and I have already done all of the known modifications on the JP-80, making me that rare exception. I obviously prefer the end results, so I'll keep what I have. Maybe I was lucky, or maybe I was tenacious, but I have what I want for now.
*Which I described in detail in Part Two of the 2011/12 phono stage essay/review.
An Important Update from November 2012...
I've had a Coincident MC Transformer in and out of my system for more than two years now, but until recently I've only auditioned the "standard" 26 dB version (I'm not counting the version used in Coincident's Phono Stage). Now I've finally heard the 20 dB version (with my Jadis JP-80). It is the exact same transformer, except for a few simple internal wiring changes. These changes can be made by Coincident at the time of purchase, or later by anyone handy with a soldering iron (around 30 minutes of work), and they can be reversed if desired.
So, how do they compare to each other? (The reference system was exactly the same, including the cables.) Easy answer: The 20 dB is superior, in the same manner that a .25mV version of a MC cartridge will be better than the .50mV version of the same cartridge (though not to the same degree). The "20" is bit faster and more lucid and precise ("lighter on its feet"), and with no downsides that I could detect. The "26" sounded like a cartridge with the VTF set a little too high. The two versions are obviously much more similar than different, but the small differences that do exist all favor the "20". So what do I advise to those interested in purchasing this component?
Anyone who has decent gain in their phono stage, plus a line stage in the system, should get the "20". If you are not sure, I would still get the "20" if you (or a friend) are competent with a soldering iron, since it can be easily converted back into a "26" if necessary. If your system requires every dB of gain it can get, than you have no choice but to get the "26". The price is the same for both, so that's not a factor. Finally, what about someone who already has the ("26") Coincident in their system? If you have more gain than you require, then I would have it changed to a ("20"), ASAP, one way or the other.
As I've done previously (after reaching a general impression of the Statement with a broad range of music), I went back and forth several times with some specific (and highly familiar) program material. I scrupulously avoided reading my earlier assessments, because of my concern of potential bias (and lazy thinking). Surprisingly, I had to keep the Bent at its (current) "26 dB" setting to match the same volume (or gain) levels of the Coincident at its "20 dB" setting. I am unable to explain the reason for this obvious discrepancy in specified gain, which I have noted before (though it could be related to the phono cartridge used). Finally, I used the latest Coincident (top of the line) interconnect cable from the transformer to the (Jadis) phono stage, which was suggested (and provided) to me by the manufacturer. The results after all this...
I eventually realized that not much had changed. I assume because the differences between the two Coincident settings (26 and 20), while noticeable, were just not that significant in the "big picture". In short, I still prefer the Bent Silver, in my own system, for the same reasons I've given before (see the Reference MC Step-Up File for the details). And, also as before, there are still small pluses and minuses for both of them.
Using "My Hierarchy/Levels of Audible Improvements", I previously described the Bent Silver/Coincident as a "Level 3" difference, while I feel that the "20/26" difference is closer to a "Level 2". Further, it's important to keep in mind that these different "Levels" are not "absolute" or exact. There are shades at each "Level" (2.1, 2.2, 3.1, 3.2 etc). In reality, it may take several "Level 2" changes to equal just one "Level 3" change. So, in the end, everything remains the same, with the exception of what I already described and advised in the first part of this update (above).
The Bottom Line- The "20" Coincident is a noticeable improvement over the "26", and should be utilized if practical, but it still does not close the (even more) noticeable performance gap between it and the Bent Silver, at least in my system. While it is possible that the Coincident may be even further improved with an internal resistor impedance change (which means that I may still haven't heard it at its very best), I didn't want to make that effort at this time.
Finally, to reiterate, once again, "The Big Picture" when it comes to the finest MC transformers I've ever experienced:
There are only three "great"* step-up transformers that I know, with certainty, to exist; The ultra-rare Bent Silver and Expressive Technology SU-1 (both long discontinued), and the still available Coincident Statement. The Expressive is (now) way overpriced when purchased used and it has no impedance switch, though it has considerable gain (28 db). The Bent has the highest potential in my experience, and it also has the easiest and best impedance switching, but it has the least gain and lacks the capability to add "body" to a lean(ish) cartridge (or system, which has already disqualified it in more than once instance I know of personally), so there's a real risk of incompatibility. The Coincident also has lots of gain, decent impedance settings (though "precise" will require internal soldering) and it's compatible with every phono cartridge (or system) I can imagine.
*"Great"- Not even one "serious" flaw I've ever heard.
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 the details in the dedicated file, link below).
The Bent Silver's outstanding performance 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.
Bent Audio Silver MC Transformer Dedicated File
The Expressive was the only Class A step-up any of us had ever experienced. No other step-up that I am aware of, except the Bent Audio Silver above (along with the Bent Copper and ZYX below), even comes close to it. It is virtually flawless in sound quality. This company is now out of the audio business, another audio tragedy.
This transformer performs at its best with low impedance moving coils. It doesnít work well with all cables, because of the potential ground/hum problems. The input impedance of the preamplifier should be 47K. The ET will improve the performance of all preamplifiers, with the single exception of the Audion Quattro, and maybe some custom models that have recently become available. It was very expensive at $3,500 U.S.. Very difficult to find used. This may be that extremely rare "final purchase". (I would avoid using their own phono cables. While they are very good and well made, there are others that are even better.)
FURTHER- Expressive Technology also had an "all-out" preamplifier, with a phono stage. They worked on it for 7 years. It cost $ 15,000, and only a few were made. This is the preamplifier that Myles Astor, of the (now former) print magazine Ultimate Audio, actually refused to listen to with his own analog front end. See "Reviewing the Reviewers". I don't know anyone who has actually heard it.Top
This is, most likely, the finest head-amp I've ever heard. I state this because it is competitive with the finest transformers I've had, while all the many other (external) head-amps I've heard are simply not in that league.
Disclosure- The ZYX head-amp is a solid-state device! It is highly unusual for a successful cartridge manufacturer to also design and build an audio component that is so different in fundamental nature (non-mechanical in this instance), with such excellent performance. The relevant details...
The ZYX basically equals the Bent Silver TX-103 transformer in immediacy, neutrality, frequency extension and the size of the soundstage. The ZYX has excellent channel separation, and the macro dynamics are absolutely breathtaking. In direct comparison, the Bent Silver is superior in two areas; its ultra-low sound-floor and its freedom from electronic haze. These areas are considered "subtle" by many audiophiles, though not me, and can be especially noticeable on certain acoustical music.
Please don't misunderstand me, the ZYX's background noise (hiss) is very soft, basically non-existant, and lower than any head-amp I've ever heard. It just loses a bit of individuality, harmonic completion, sense of space and micro dynamic "tension" compared to the Bent Silver. It's not alone, so does every other step-up I've ever heard. For the sake of perspective; the ZYX's "weaknesses", only compared to the Bent Silver, are still actual strengths compared to almost every other step-up I've heard. That's how good it is. In fact, there were many times I was not even able to distinguish between the two of them, because their basic sonic character is so similar*.
(*I wrote previously that I believed that even a "perfect" step-up wouldn't be that much better than the Bent Silver. This is because I felt that the Bent Silver is already pretty close to "perfect" itself. The closer components come to practical perfection, the more similar they must sound, no matter how differently they are designed and built. This is because they will have fewer imperfections to distinguish themselves from each other. ďAll happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.Ē-Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
The ZYX also has some practical advantages...
While both the ZYX and the Bent Silver are rated at 26dB of gain, the Bent Silver loses some of its gain as soon as it is loaded-down, which is a requirement. The ZYX is already "loaded-down" as is, so it has more real gain in practice. For many systems, this may prove irrelevant, but in my own system, it is the difference between some records coming "alive", or not. There is another advantage to the ZYX; it is virtually "cable proof", since it is an active device.
While signal cables, both to and from the ZYX, are still obviously important, there's never going to be a true mismatch. Sadly, this is still possible with the Bent Silver, because it is passive by nature. I've already directly experienced this potential problem. This reality can be critical for cable freaks and/or experimenters.
In short, the ZYX's high level of performance can be experienced in every system, while the Bent Silver, though it has even greater potential, will only reach that potential with time, effort, patience and maybe some further expense.
The ZYX's power supply consists of high-quality (9 NiCd) batteries, which are re-charged in a few hours (overnight is easiest). It broke-in very quickly, only after around 10 hours or so of play. It doesn't sound good for the first few minutes of each session (it's veiled, dry and ill-defined), but it warms up fast, and after 20 minutes (1 LP side), it's already at its best. It can also be played while the batteries are being re-charged, but I'm not sure about the sonic compromises, if any, while doing so.
Despite the ZYX's relatively small size, and its lack of a large power supply reserve, I can assure you that its large dynamic swings, plus its mid/deep bass weight and impact, are as good as I've ever heard. These qualities, plus its outstanding neutrality, immediacy and spooky silence, are what most impressed me about this unit. All of this was unexpected. The "standard" model of the ZYX pre-preamp has 20db of gain, with a slightly simpler circuit. It's very possible, if not probable, that it will sound even purer.
This is the step-up to get if you want superb sonics, complete background silence, with no fussing around and total cable compatibility. If there's a better head-amp around, I haven't heard it, or even of it, yet. Its selling price is $ 1,650, direct on Audigon, which is $ 375 more than the Bent Silver. This may be an issue for some. However, for those audiophiles who don't like any MC transformer, for whatever reason(s), the ZYX is a "no-brainer" choice, if it's affordable.
The Bent Silver still has greater potential, which is why it is in Class A, but I can't absolutely promise you that this potential will be realized in every system. For the most serious phono fanatics, meaning those audiophiles who are prepared to make every effort to optimize it, the Bent Silver continues to be my highest Reference and, it shoudn't be forgotten, it can never break down. Just don't forget the caveats I've posted.
It must be emphasized that I have not yet heard the Bent Silver or the ZYX CPP-1 at its best: The Bent Silver can still be loaded-down some more, and the ZYX's 20dB gain model has still to be properly auditioned. Both require either a more sensitive system, and/or a cartridge with higher output. This will all happen in the next few months...
The first ZYX UNIverse I will audition has a .48mV output (while the Airy 3 I'm now using is .24mV). I'm also receiving more sensitive amplifiers and speakers from Coincident Speaker Technology.
The more I think about this, 2006 is shaping up to be a truly major year for audio developments and its evolution.
The ARC was a pre-preamplifier that used 6DJ8 tubes as amplifying devices. It is one of the two best of its type ever made and is very well built. It is an excellent performer, but far behind the Expressive above, since it just makes this class. It can be improved with modifications.
The biggest problems with the MCP-33 is that the high quality, low-noise tubes (6DJ8s) it uses are not only difficult to find, but they also turn noisy quite quickly.
More Recent Information (3/05)- I received a letter from a reader who feels he may have solved the inherent problem of this component; tube microphonics. Here it is, with slight editing;
"After experimenting with various types of tube dampers and cones, I found that the spring suspensions made by Loyalty Sound of Alberta, Canada, could be the most effective cure for the noise problem associated with the MCP33. After supporting the MCP33 on a set of the Loyalty spring suspension, I found that there was no need to put tube dampers onto the 6DJ8 tubes.
These spring suspensions could also be used to good effect for supporting CD players. I have heard significant improvements in sound stage and even tonal balance after a friend of mine put a set of these suspensions to support his Marantz CD7, which build quality is already rather exemplary. It should be noted that however the spring suspensions must be carefully placed so that all three individual suspension is subject to a similar loading (which could be verified using a spirit level). Loyalty Sound offers different spring ratings (140 lb, 70 lb and 40 lb) for the suspensions. The suspensions I used for the MCP33 are of 40 lb rating. The spring suspensions, just slightly cheaper than the Goldmund cones, are quite expensive however."
Personal Notes- This letter almost seemed like an advertisement for "Loyalty Sound", but this reader is most likely unaffiliated with them, and he could be right, so I'm requesting feedback about these "springs" from any reader who has first hand experience with them. Also, despite this reader's judgement, I still feel that Herbie's Tube Dampers are a requirement for the 6DJ8s used in this unit.
The Classe was the finest solid-state "head amplifier" ever made (until the ZYX CPP-1 above). It was beautifully built, it weighed 35 lbs., and it even had a separate, heavy-duty power supply. The majority of phono stages and step-ups of today are literally like toys compared to it. It had some (potential noise) problems with set-up when it came out because of the cables of its day, but that shouldn't be a problem now.
The sonics can be described as very clean, detailed and dynamic. It still had some transistor problems (some dryness, darkness and hardness), but they were more subtle than any other solid-state model. TAS, in its review (Issue 34), also mentioned some soundstage anomalies. I didn't find them to be a serious problem. It's a shame that no one today makes a modern, improved equivalent of this component.
This model will be hard to find, but it's well worth the search. It was designed by the original (and now former) owner of Classe Audio, Dave Reich, who was/is both talented and passionate about audio.
I first heard this transformer in my friend's system, where we compared it to the EAR MC-3 and the MC stage of his Audion Quattro. We both preferred it to the EAR, but we also felt the Quattro was still slightly better, overall. The TX-103 did have an advantage in the high frequencies when the music was loud and complex. It retained its integrity, while both the Quattro and EAR had problems.
I've now lived with the TX-103 in my own system for more than six months. When first compared to the EAR, it was slighty, though still noticeably, superior in transparency, immediacy, preserving inner details, definition and it had a lower sound-floor. They were basically equal in neutrality and in the frequency extremes. Since then, I have broken in the TX-103 using the helpful instructions from Thorsten Loesch. The improvement was quite noticeable, which means this transformer is now competitive with the Audion Quattro and the (Class A) Expressive Technology. (One of my associates will try to arrange a shoot-out with the Expressive and both the silver and copper TX-103.)
The TX-103 has one important practical advantage that converts into a sonic plus; it's output consists of a short (7") wire with a RCA male termination, which allows a direct connection into the phono stage without the need of an extra cable.
My TX-103 is a DIY copper version, but recently this company came out with finished models. According to their website, the copper version is $ 745 and the silver is $ 1,075. I expect to audition a finished model, including the silver version, in the next month or so. See Bent Audio, the North America distributor, in the Links File for more information concerning this component.
This worked very well for me, so I recommend it highly. This is what Loesch wrote, with a little editing:
"(The TX-103)... will require a substantial period of "forced burn in" to give it's best, simply because the magnetic core is huge and will not see much magnetisation with normal MC signals. Please consider connecting a CD-Player to the secondary (Output) of the TX-103 and then terminate the input with a low resistance resistor (quality uncritical), I'd say 27 Ohm when connected for 14db gain, 6.8 Ohm when connected for 20db gain and 2.2 Ohm when connected for 26db gain. Leave with a highly dynamic, wide bandwidth signal CD to play for a week or two. I would use music, but I'd expect pink noise to work well too."
Personal Note- While on a week's trip, I connected the signal (a tuner on a 24 hour "grunge" station) to the primary (Input) instead, and had great results. The rest of the circuit followed Loesch's instructions.
These models were the finest moving-coil transformers ever made at one time, and the best I heard, overall, before the Expressive Technology came into existence. They had excellent sound; natural, detailed and dynamic, though with both of the frequency extremes rolled off a little.
It came stock with its own (4') output cables already attached, which was a strong advantage, but now it is a decided disadvantage. The cable's excessive length and (now) mediocre quality both compromise the Cotter's inherent performance. A competent technician must be found to remove and replace them with good quality RCA females, which would then allow the use of any superior phono cable.
There are different models of this transformer that have different input impedances. The model with the lowest input impedance (2L) is usually the most desirable version with current cartridges.
The Verion was the exact same transformer as the Cotter, before the name changed due to legal reasons. However, unlike the Cotter, no version of the Verion was ever offered with the lowest (L) input impedance, as far as I know.
FURTHER: The original Bryston transformer (black) was the exact same model as the Cotter, with just a different name and color. It was even built by Cotter.
However, the current Bryston transformer, with the model name TF-1, is a different design. Chris Russell, the CEO of Bryston, claims this model "has a wider bandwidth and 40% of the measured distortion of the Cotter/Verion unit." I am sad to admit that I haven't heard this unit, despite the fact that it is made in Canada.
The RWR is a MC transformer that is very similar in sound quality, size and shape to the Cotter. The Cotter is only very slightly better.
This model also has the important advantage of user switchable input impedance's, which the Cotter lacks. This could be an important feature for those audiophiles who change their cartridges on a regular basis. It is very rare and was built in Canada.
This is another transformer that is very similar in quality to the RWR above. It's also very rare and difficult to find.
Further- A reader has informed me that he compared this model to a Verion (Cotter). He felt that the Verion sounded "thin and harsh by comparison". He also commented that the Audio Interface lost nothing at the frequency extremes and had plenty of "body". In another comparison, this same reader felt that a different version of the Verion was much better ("a dramatic improvement"), but it was still not the equal of the Audio Interface.
Even if both of the Verions had an impedance "mismatch", the fact that the Audio Interface was equal or better to them is a very strong endorsement for this model.
The Klyne is a very good and versatile pre-preamp, and itís solid-state! It is neutral and it retains the frequency extremes. This was the finest transistor head-amp before the Classe NIL came out, and it is very possible that it is still more neutral than the NIL. It also has switches for both input impedance and a variable capacitor filter to "tame" cartridges with high-frequency peaks, which were common 20 years ago.
As for its performance, itís somewhat dry and a touch noisy in comparison to the others. Their earlier model, the SK-1 was too noisy for very low-output pickups (below .4mV). This exact same headamp is also incorporated inside some of the Klyne preamplifiers.
I've lived with this transformer and I am impressed with it. I used it with a Shelter 901 within a system in which the entire front-end was new to me. Meanwhile, one of my associates also has some experience with it.
The MC-3 has 3 inputs, each with different gain and input impedance, and one output. The sound varies with each choice of input. I had no problem with hum and/or noise with it at any time. In fact, it is "dead quiet", at least in my system.
At its best, using the lowest impedance and gain with the Shelter, it is neutral and has excellent midrange naturalness, detail and dynamic force. The bass is also special, especially for a transformer, going deep and with detail and impact.
The high frequencies are also good, being smooth and clean, but there is a sense of a "rounding" of the tiny details which individualize music. This may be caused by either a roll-off or a subtraction of low-level harmonics (and other musical information) or both. One other problem is that this model doesn't have the dynamic "jump" or "shock" of the Expressive Technology transformer, though it is competitive in this area with other step-ups. The Expressive should be better, costing more than 3 times the EAR's price.
The "timing" or phase of the EAR is good, but it is not quite as precise as the Expressive, so the music isn't quite as intelligible, and the soundstage isn't quite as large or as focused.
This is the best value, in every way, for a step-up being made today that I know of. It may even be preferable to the other Class C models.
Further- I have since heard this transformer on an associate's system and I have also logged more hours on my system. I now feel that I can faithfully describe its performance. It is very neutral, and the frequency extremes are excellent, both are extended, especially in the bass. The dynamic qualities are also excellent. There are problems though...
There is a noticeable "drying" of the sound; meaning a reduction of low-level detail. You hear less definition, natural texture, "air" and "harmonics" developing and decaying. There is also a slight reduction of image size and focus; musicians are a little diffuse sounding.
It is still the finest MC transformer I've heard for the money, but it won't join the Class B models as I had originally hoped. (6/03)
I sold this line in the early/middle 1980's, and even owned one of these models personally for a time. They were all excellent, with full bodied sound that this company is famous for, and also less residual "hiss" than most typical tube headamps. The later models were a little more transparent, faster and cleaner than the original HV-1. Unfortunately, none of them were quite as immediate, clean, neutral or dynamic as either the ARC MCP-33 in Class B or the Counterpoint SA-2 below. They all used tiny 6CW4 Nuvistors instead of traditional 8-pin tubes, and I remember the circuit boards being suspended by rubber bands for improved isolation. I don't know whether or not these Nuvistors can still be replaced today.Top
Win Research- This transformer may qualify for Class B or even Class A ranking. Stay tuned and hope for the best, because it is far less expensive than the Expressive.
Counterpoint SA-2- This was a serious tube "head amplifier". At its best, it was one of the two finest ever made, along with the ARC MCP-33 above. Unfortunately, it had problems with reliability, hum and excessive tube noise. The (6DJ8) amplifying tubes had a tendency to become noisy in a very short period of time.
I had experience with two of the early models, and I was never able to keep them working, at an optimum level, for more than a week or so at a time. The later models were supposed to be improved, especially in the area of reliability, but I am not able to verify this claim at this time. I would avoid this model unless there is an extensive audition or a money-back guarantee.
EAR- The early (1980's) EAR transformer was very large and heavy for its time, and it had extraordinary gain and dynamic qualities along with a "large sound" and deep bass, but it also had problems with noise, hum and even had some frequency irregularities. In the right (though unusual) circumstances, it could be superb, but this is another "try it before you buy it" component.
Koetsu- I was a Koetsu dealer for more than 10 years, and I had extensive experience with virtually all their cartridges and their moving coil transformer. Their transformer was expensive for its day, but then nothing from Koetsu was ever a "bargain". It was enthusiastically "hyped" by the Koetsu distributor before it was released.
The performance was mainly typical of the moving coil transformers of its day. It had an excellent midrange, definitely better than average, with good body and excellent retrieval of low-level information. The problem was the frequency extremes, which were noticeably rolled-off, especially in the bass. There was poor mid-bass impact as well. It was a big disappointment for me at the time.
In the final analysis, this was "a good" but overpriced and over-hyped component, that never lived up to its very high expectations. The fact that it is mainly forgotten today is its "testament".
Quicksilver- This was a small and modestly priced transformer. It was clean, smooth, quiet and detailed. It was especially impressive in the high frequencies, with extraordinary extension for a transformer.
Unfortunately, the bass was very noticeably rolled off and it was also dynamically compressed. Further, it was not quite as "rich" or as full-bodied sounding as the much more expensive Koetsu. It was still a good value, considering everything.
Marcof PPA-1- This was a unique battery powered unit that was popular in the early 1980's. It was very inexpensive and had "OK" sound considering the cost. Its main sonic problems were a relentless background "hiss", dynamic compression and a very noticeable dryness. This model is only for "beginners" or those on a really tight budget.
Shelter- I haven't heard this SUT model myself, but one of my associates had it in his system for a while. He said it was "decent", but not "outstanding", even for the money.
I listened to this model for a few evenings, and having now returned to my current (Class A) "reference", I am satisfied that I generally know what it's doing, and not doing. Since this SUT costs far less than any of the models I have lived with, and reviewed, over the last 20 years, I was hoping that "lightning would strike", but that was sadly not the case. I'm sorry to report that its performance doesn't approach any of my top References.
The details (as far as I can provide)- It lacks the immediacy, transparency, (inner an outer) detail, purity, speed and low sound-floor of the top reference models. It also has an easily noticeable "character", which I would describe as "warm, full bodied and forgiving". Some would call it "musical" for that reason, and I realize that some listeners are specifically looking for this, but it could also be justifiably described as "predictable", which is not as flattering (or ever desirable for me).
I also realize it's unfair to compare the Cinemag, at $ 395, with units costing 5 to 10 times more, but I don't have access to similar priced models at this time (in contrast to when I owned an audio store). To be frank, I also don't have the time, or the required interest, to audition anything less than "all-out" SUTs any more. So, in the end, I don't know how the CineMag compares to its true competitors. I can say that it is not "irritating", as were many step-ups I've heard in the past (mainly transistor head amps). The sound was always "pleasant", whatever record I played (like early Magnepans). Depending on your perspective, this could be either a positive or negative attribute. For me, it is negative, though it's possible that, these days, I'm in the minority here.
I further realize that I may not be hearing the Cinemag at its very best, since it is not easy to optimize the load (which can be done by soldering in resistors), but my cartridge and phono stage were also known in advance by the manufacturer.
So what do I advise? If the unit, as I described above (and there are other reviews* of it on various websites), still interests you, then I would directly contact Bob Sattin (http://www.bobsdevices.com/). Considering that Bob loaned me this unit for 20 months(!)**, and without any complaint I might add, Sattin is obviously a reasonable person to deal with. He also has alternative SUT models from both Altec and Sowter, along with the Zu-Denon 103R.
Odds and Ends- I broke in the CineMag for around 300 hours before I played it. It also has a gain switch (with two positions) as well as a ground lift switch. It was "dead quiet", and I never had a problem with hum.
*For instance, in contrast to what I wrote above, it received rave reviews at Stereophile (Art Dudley, Listening #90), as well as: http://www.10audio.com/bob's_devices_step_up.htm
**I rarely take this long to get to something, but an avalanche of unexpected components, plus historically poor weather, and component breakdowns, changed my schedule numerous times during this period. (10/10)Top
BENT SILVER TX-103 TRANSFORMER- I recently received an e-mail from a long-time reader and contributor, Thorsten Loesch, with news of a different version of this superb transformer, plus other components from the same source. Here it is:
"Just a note or two for you.
Music First Audio, a subsidary of Stevens & Billington, manufacture a fully featured step-up unit of my design around the TX-103 (silver is available on request), including switch adjustable loading and step-up, as well as a most excellent passive preamplifier based around transformers (again mostly my design - the background sketch on the front page is an early drawing of the circuit for it):
While more expensive than Bent Audio product by the simple fact that, unlike Bent's direct sales, Music First Audio Products are distributed through normal distribution and dealer channels; they do offer a different take."
Personal Note- I like options, so this is more good news for audiophiles.
Here's some useful information from a reader about tube replacements for this reference step-up.
"...I have been using/loving one for about a year now and thought you should know that the tubes (4 x 6CW4 Nuvistors or 6SD4) are very readily available NOS on ebay even today, and they are fairly cheap too, $10-$20 a piece. I am using 4 RCAs and the analog sound is really great, much better than any of the solid state stepup units or transformers I have tried (Naim, PS Audio, Denon etc). Another nice thing about the Premier 6 is the cartridge loading can be set internally with plug in resistors anywhere from 2K ohms to about 10 ohms. And yes, you were correct, the main circuit board floats via rubber bands to eliminate any possibility of tube microphonics messing up the sound....." (1/08)
A veteran reader sent me his latest observations. Here it is, with some minor editing and my bold:
"...Finally, I wanted to let you know of an incredible bargain in the domain of stepups: the K & K Audio MC phono Step-up. I've had it for a couple of months now and have spent quite a bit of time comparing it with the ZYX CPP-1, which I was using previously. Although the K&K costs (far) less than the ZYX ($290 in kit, $350 assembled); and based on Lundahl transformers (http://kandkaudio.com/phonostage.html), it's actually better, in particular in the areas of clarity, frequency extension and inner detail. The ZYX is really lovely tonally, specially with piano and other single acoustic instruments (violin, cello are very good). The K&K seems a little thinner at first, but it's just a different timbral quality; not harsh, certainly, just a bit lighter. In comparison, the ZYX sounds like it has a hump in the mid-bass which brings a bit of congestion. Indeed, where the K&K really shines is as soon as the texture gets denser, because it allows for a clearer view inside the instrumental combinations, with more air between instruments and registers, so that polyphonic lines or even individual notes in harmonies are easier to differentiate. (Comparison made with a ZYX Airy 3 and the new Hagerman Trumpet at either end of the step-up. The load in my K&K is 120 Ohms (20 KOhm resistor), and it has 20dB of gain, but it can be ordered in other configurations of load and gain.)
The Trumpet is actually quite a hard unit to beat. I have the opportunity recently to test the Artemis Lab PH-1phono preamp, and after many attempts at optimizing it with various loading resistors, I couldn't get rid of some harshness in the treble; it did actually sound better with the ZYX CPP-1 than the K&K step-up, but I suspect it was because each unit's "faults" were somehow compensating each other. The K&K/Trumpet combination has more transparency, natural tonality and detail; and it's a lot quieter, too.
Still, I'm wondering how the Trumpet would fare against the K&K phono preamp..." (7/08)
A long-time reader, who is also an audio manufacturer, periodically sends me some of his latest observations and thinking about various subjects. I removed the material that may have conflicts and/or "sensitivities", but the remainder is still quite interesting and potentially highly valuable, with my bold as usual:
"I just want to pass on a few observations and suggestions, based on your recent updates.
Regarding the CineMag step-ups that are packaged by Bob's Devices, based on the 10 Audio review, I'm sure that Bob has made no provision for adjusting the loading resistor. Jerry mentions that while he likes the sound in general, he says it's really stunning with the Denon DL-103R. This makes sense, since that cartridge has a 14 Ohm internal impedance and, with the CineMag, is looking for a 47K Ohm phono load. That just happens to be the default resistor which almost every phono circuit uses, so no load adjustment is required.
However, the lower the internal impedance of the cartridge, the lower the phono load needs to be. Otherwise, the CineMag sounds too hard and bright. For my MoFi-branded Miyabi, which has a 2 Ohm internal impedance, a 10K load works best. Of course, that's based on the fact that I can remove the 47K resistor from my phono circuit completely and replace it with any other value. Since most 47K resistors are soldered in place, you'll have to experiment when using one that parallels the 47K default. Unlike normal cartridge loading, gross steps, such as 5K or 10K between values, are fine enough.
As a caveat, I also found that there is a synergistic relationship between the circuit and the CineMag that goes beyond proper loading. You may find that it's character will change, with the phono circuit that it's feeding. (02/10)
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