Analog Corner #97

Before I write about Music Hall's MMF-9 turntable (above), in my March 2003 review, I wrote that the SME 30/2 turntable's combination of attributes "might just make it the finest turntable in the world." Earlier in the review, I'd said, "The SME 30/2 is perhaps the most tonally neutral turntable I've ever heard. Only the Rockport System III Sirius, which includes an integral tonearm, is in the same league, and it doesn't stand up to the SME's low-frequency extension and solidity." I wrapped up the review with: "Overall, the SME Model 30/2 is the best turntable I've heard."

Since then, I haven't heard the end of it. It didn't help that the editor put "WORLD'S BEST LP PLAYER" on the cover. Thanks, boss. [You're welcome Mikey.—JA.]. Lost in most of the e-mails I received were the words "might just make it," "perhaps," and, especially, "overall." Considering its price ($25,000 without tonearm), size, simplicity, ease of use, and stupendous sound, the SME 30/2 is, overall, the best turntable I've auditioned. But do its build quality and design sophistication match those of the Rockport System III Sirius? No. I never said that they did. And, yes, I was indeed speculating about the bass issue—I didn't have both 'tables in-house at the same time, so I made what I consider to be an informed guess, my memory aided by CD-Rs cut using the Rockport. That's something I have to do all the time—unlike some other reviewers I know, one of everything I've ever reviewed is not in the next room. If I had to choose one turntable, which do you think I'd pick?

On a related subject, after reviewing the SME 30/2, the Avid Acutus, and V.Y.G.E.R. Atlantis and returning to my reference rig of Simon Yorke S7 turntable with Graham 2.2 and Immedia RPM-2 tonearms, I wasn't disappointed. I still love it—especially when fitted with an outer ring/weight machined for me by Sound Engineering. Like Clearaudio's stainless-steel Outer Limit (which doesn't work on my 'table), this custom ring fits over the record and does for a record's outer rim what a weight over the spindle does for the center: flattening warps, damping the vinyl, and adding a flywheel effect to the platter. Prices vary with the turntable to be used. (Sound Engineering also makes other analog accessories.)

More Phono Preamps!
Hagerman Technology Bugle: For $125, Hagerman Technology sells the Bugle, a battery-operated phono section that's ridiculously good for the money. You can even buy it as a "half-kit" circuit board with plans; for another $25, you can buy the parts from Digikey. You can play with various op-amps (they mount on plug-in sockets) and resistor brands—all of which, of course, sound different. There's a place to solder in loading resistors of your choice. Because the Bugle uses a split, passive RC-type equalization network, it's easy to optimize it for alternative EQ curves such as pre-1955 LPs or 78s. Hagerman calls this AnyEQ; you'll find everything you'll need to calculate resistor values for various curves at

The Bugle can be built with 40, 50, or 60dB of gain (mine was configured for 60dB), but there's one drawback: the estimated life of the two 9V alkaline batteries is around 16 hours (there's an On/Off switch). However, a new plug-in power-supply option ($25, half-kit only) solves that. And the Bugle comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee. You can't go wrong.

The Bugle sounded very quiet, surprisingly somewhat warm yet reasonably detailed, and a bit woolly. I ran the $4500 Lyra Titan (as well as more appropriately priced cartridges) into it, and you know what? It wasn't bad! Images lacked pinpoint specificity, and transients were a bit softened, but for $125—or more than twice that—the Bugle was quite a credible performer.

Also on Hagerman's website was a new $895 transformer-based step-up (12, 18, or 24dB gain) that makes the superb-sounding all-tube Trumpet ($1895, reviewed in the December 2002 "Analog Corner") friendly to MC cartridges. I tried the Trumpet with a very expensive Audio Tekne transformer, and the results were Class A. Hagerman's own combo of transformer and Trumpet, for $2790, should be a sweet performer.

Acoustic Signature Tango: Up the ladder we go, to the Acoustic Signature Tango ($599). The German turntable manufacturer's entry-level phono preamp features an outboard dual-12VAC/500mA off-the-shelf power supply with IEC AC jack. The main chassis, nicely machined from aluminum, includes a pair of rear-panel DIP switches that permit a wide variety of moving-coil resistive loadings (10, 100, 1000, and 47k ohms) and moving-magnet capacitive loadings (50–300pF in 50pF steps), as well as a choice of MM (48dB) or MC (64dB) gain. It's nice having the DIPs on the outside! The Tango's op-amp–based circuit, built on a dual-sided PCB, includes a 6Hz rumble filter that helps prevent woofer-pumping subsonics from soaking up valuable amplifier power.

The Tango is in the same league and price range as the excellent Lehmann Black Cube: very fine performance for the price. It did nothing particularly wrong, and quite a bit right. It was quiet, well-organized, and rhythmically taut, with good extension at both ends, but was somewhat brighter and more forward than the Cube—even when driven by a loaded-down (100 ohm) MC cartridge. Your choice of Tango or Cube will depend on the rest of your system, especially your cartridge. The Tango's presentation was somewhat forward spatially, though not at all bloated, in-your-face forward or fisheye-lens distorted. The build quality and appearance are very good.

When I first reviewed the homelier Lehmann Black Cube, I hadn't heard anything that good for so little money, and I gushed accordingly. However, that ratio of performance to price is becoming more common in phono preamps, so don't take my current lack of gush to mean that I think the Tango isn't as good. It's every bit as good—but to raise goosebumps, you'll need to spend more.

EAR 834P Deluxe: I've been meaning to review this Tim de Paravicini design for years (footnote 1). Finally, egged on by readers, here goes.

Double your money and more than double your pleasure with EAR's now venerable but still vital 834P, a three-tube (12AX7) moving-magnet stage that also has, for moving-coil use, a pair of step-up transformers (3–50 ohms) available at the push of button. The 834P in basic black will set you back $995; the chrome Deluxe version costs $1295 (I've seen it discounted to $995).However, I can't guarantee that these prices will be current by the time you read this; the dollar has been plunging of late. It will be difficult for importers to hold the line on prices.

You can run any cartridge you like into the 834P—its noise level is relatively low, with just a bit of "tube rush" well below normal signal level—but get to 0.25mV and you're pushing your luck. But there was no problem with MM or high-output MC cartridges, of course. I had great results with newer low/medium-output cartridges such as the Lyra Titan and Transfiguration W.

The 834P's sound was absolutely gorgeous in the midband, with a touch of "golden glow," and an overall spaciousness and enticing musical wholeness that let me sit back and get lost in whatever was spinning on my turntable. Apparently you can swap sonic flavors by changing the frontmost of the three tubes, but Stereophile's policy is for its reviewers to review what they get. Besides, the stock sound was so satisfying that I kept the 834P cranking for well over a week without pain.

The 834P's bottom-end delivery was well extended though a bit loose, if only slightly so. If you're using small two-way speakers whose midbass hasn't been bumped up, it could be ideal, but even in a full-range system, I didn't find the bass blubbery or overripe—in fact, it had a believable physicality that could make me think solid-state bass sounds a bit too tight and overwound. The 834P's high-frequency extension and transient performance perfectly balanced its bottom: not sharp and etched, of course, but not soft or overly romantic, either. You'll need to have the ideal cartridge to optimally balance the 834P's virtues—a slightly sharp, fast-sounding cartridge should really get this thing singing.

Do you want a big, expansive soundstage populated by lush, full-sounding images? A rich picture you can sink your ears into without feeling as if a velvet cloth is muting cold pleasures on top? The 834P will give you that. As much as anything, what you're buying is the design expertise of Tim de Paravicini, whose experience and knowledge in building very expensive products has now resulted in one of the best-balanced, highest-performing, under-$1000 hi-fi components I've heard.

Emmeline XR-2: Can you buy more detail, transparency, and rhythmic snap without losing any of the EAR's tubey richness? Yes, but you'll spend more to get it. I would have said "much more" had I not then encountered Conrad-Johnson's EV-1 ($1495)—but first, the EAR 834P's solid-state counterpart, the Emmeline XR-2, manufactured by Ray Samuels Audio, an online company selling a wide line of tube and solid-state preamplifier products.

The solid-state XR-2 includes a robust regulated power supply connected via an umbilical cord to the juice-supplying end. The MM/MC phono section, based on the Analog Devices AD797 op-amp chip, is configurable by internal DIP-switch loadings of 30, 50, 80, 100, 475 ohms, and 47k ohms. It also has a pair of resistor sockets so you can load your own. The quality of construction looks high—especially the superbly finished "clamshell" chassis work—and with a price of $1050 and a money-back guarantee, I figured, why not check it out?

I'm glad I did. The XR-2 was just on the solid-state side of the EAR 834P's tubed personality: tighter and somewhat drier in the bass, very good extension and control, leaner in the midband, a bit too lean in the midbass, more sharply drawn on top, and with greater transient snap. Overall, it drove the music with greater focus and a more tightly wound spring, but not to the point where it sounded relentless. Its high-frequency transient performance brought an excitement to percussion instruments that the more laid-back 834P didn't, though the XR-2 couldn't match the EAR's lush, luxurious midrange. Just as the 834P didn't sound excessively "tubey," the XR-2 didn't sound markedly solid-state. Tube-lovers won't go for it, despite its good behavior and black backgrounds, just as solid-state partisans won't go for the 834P, despite its accomplished bottom-end performance and wonderfully rich midband. This same debate plays out in far more expensive gear—between, say, the Manley Steelhead and the Pass Labs X Ono—and there's no resolving it.

Overall, I absolutely loved the Emmeline XR-2 and was immediately impressed with its rhythmic drive and confident musical personality. With its subjectively quiet noise floor, it was impressive at resolving low-level detail, and its dynamic performance was exuberant. Any analog fan going from any of the $500–$600 phono stages I've tried to the XR-2 will immediately know that the extra money has been well spent. The XR-2 allowed the Transfiguration Temper W's high level of transparency to express itself, while floating finely focused, richly textured images on an impressive volume of air. The XR-2's portrayal of depth was outstanding, and it pushed the front of the stage forward in an exciting manner while not neglecting the backdrop. And it's rated at 70dB of gain in MC, so you can throw any cartridge at it with confidence.

Compared to more expensive phono stages, of course, the Emmeline XR-2 missed a few things. Its development of harmonics was somewhat limited, but its biggest shortcoming was a sin of omission: a midbass leanness that stunted the development of the kind of effortless, coherent soundstage you get with more expensive phono sections. The 834P did a better job in this regard, but erred a bit on the side of too much warmth. The XR-2 shortchanged instrumental textures somewhat, but, like the 834P, did nothing terribly wrong.

If you're using small two-way speakers that cheat the lack of LF extension by bumping up the midbass, you might find the XR-2 a perfect match. Its performance is very satisfying for the price, and its build quality appears to be very high. If you're looking for something for $1000 or so, I confidently recommend the Emmeline XR-2. And because the op-amps are socketed, you can try various brands of op-amp to tailor the sound to your liking—like changing tubes in the EAR 834P.

Conrad-Johnson EV-1: More expensive doesn't necessarily mean better, though it does more often than not, including this time. Conrad-Johnson's tube-driven EV-1 ($1495) is a scaled-down version of the far more expensive Premier 15, which I reviewed in July 1999. With today's higher-output MC cartridges, the EV-1's 50dB of gain doesn't present a noise problem, but I'd be careful with 0.25mV low-output MCs. The zero-feedback circuit uses two 12AX7s, a 12AU7, and a 5751 in the input, gain, and cathode-follower stages, respectively. C-J's own polystyrene and polypropylene caps litter the circuit board, which is also populated by top-shelf resistors. Internally mounted DIP switches provide loading options of 200, 500, 1.9k, 9.6k, and 47k ohms. I preferred 47k ohms for the Lyra Titan and Transfiguration Temper W cartridges, though Transfiguration recommends loading the W way down.

If the whole purpose of a phono preamp is balance, then the EV-1 scores 100%. I don't see how anyone hearing it wouldn't warm up to the EV-1, whether using a MM or an MC cartridge. Even if you're lucky enough to own far more expensive and (in some ways) more accomplished phono sections, I think you'll fall hard for what the EV-1 manages.

I got a 180gm test pressing of Ian and Sylvia's fabulous-sounding Northern Journey (Vanguard VSD 79154) from Cisco Music's Robert Pincus, and used it throughout this series of auditions. The EV-1's rendering of this rich-sounding recording combined the warmth and midband richness of the EAR 834P (but with a more nimble lower midbass) and the forthrightness of the Emmeline XR-2. Sylvia's voice has a bit of hardness in it, and that came through. Ian Tyson's voice is just the opposite—warm and mellifluous—and that was transmitted as well. At the same time, the guitar and autoharp had just the right transient snap, neither brittle nor soft, and the stand-up bass had excellent definition, texture, and extension.

Solid-state advocates still might not be convinced, but as one who tries to toe the middle line, I found the EV-1's tonal, textural, and rhythmic balances nearly ideal. It may have masked a lack of ultimate top-end extension and sheen with a slightly prominent upper-midrange "push," but whatever was going on, the effect was to provide a sonic cushion for my head to rest on.

But don't worry—though I could sink into that pillow, the EV-1 never put me to sleep. Every time I went back to the EV-1, I found it difficult to concentrate on analysis, tossing it away in favor of the music's transmitted emotion. The EV-1 had a magical ability to make musical lines flow with relaxing, velvety ease, which is not to say that it emasculated music designed to grate. Still, I wouldn't use the EV-1 with an overly warm system, as it already tended toward that side of the tonal continuum. While it might not give you all of the Premier 15's textural resolve, nuanced dynamic expression, and overall harmonic sophistication, the EV-1 gives more than a taste of these for roughly a third the price. The most expensive phono preamp in this survey is, in some ways, the biggest bargain.

Music Hall MMF-9 turntable
The top of Music Hall's turntable line uses the same outstanding tapered carbon-fiber Pro-Ject tonearm as the Pro-Ject/Sumiko RM-9 'table, which I wrote about in the January "Analog Corner." (See that column for more details about the design.) It also uses the same inverted thrust bearing with Teflon ball that fits in a brass boss (sleeve) that is fixed to the bottom of the same acrylic platter as is used in the RM-9. And it uses the same outboard motor sitting on a platform riser, and the same square drive belt.

There are differences between the $1495 RM-9 and the $1695 MMF-9, however. The MMF-9 uses a much more refined-looking and nicely finished "three-layer cake" plinth system with Sorbothane filling (actually a series of small discs), whereas the RM-9 uses a rounded slab of MDF slightly larger in diameter than the platter. The MMF-9 has an electronic speed control that switches between 33 1/3rpm and 45rpm at the push of a button, and drives the motor at 50Hz. (Running the motor at a slower speed is claimed to make it quieter.) A larger drive pulley compensates for the speed differential. The RM-9 uses a more conventional drive system, and a two-step pulley for 33 1/3 and 45rpm.

The MMF-9 includes a dustcover; the RM-9's is a $100 option. The MMF-9 includes a Ringmat Developments XLR mat of cork and paper; the RM-9 has no mat but includes a substantial record weight (the Ringmat is not designed to be used with a weight). The MMF-9 sits on three adjustable cones and includes an integral bubble level, the RM-9 on three Sorbothane feet. Finally, the MMF-9 comes with a Music Hall Maestro cartridge ($550 when bought separately), a modified version of Goldring's Eroica high-output MC fitted with a Vital line-contact stylus. The RM-9 is sold sans cartridge. Some dealers sell the MMF-9 without cartridge for $1495, same price as the RM-9, though it does comes with the dustcover. Just the facts, ma'am.

The MMF-9 is a far more handsome and elegantly finished turntable, and adds more features at no extra cost to the basic components of the RM-9. It also ran at as close to 33 1/3rpm and 45rpm as any fixed-speed turntable I've reviewed: 1000Hz was 1005Hz. (The RM-9 ran slightly less than 1% slow.) For the extra $200 you also get a very accomplished cartridge.

I broke in cartridge and 'table with a few weeks of endless spinning and noncritical listening before sitting down to assess the sound of the MMF-9/Maestro combo. What first impressed and interested me about the MMF-9's sound was how much it resembled the RM-9's: tight, fast, and punchy, and not because it ran a bit fast. Minute changes in tracking force had a profound effect on the sound. Given the MMF-9's fast, lean character (though bass extension and control were superb), I tracked the Maestro at 1.8gm (in their excellent instruction manual, Music Hall recommends 1.75gm).

If you like fast, tight, and snappy, this combo will give it to you, as will the RM-9. But I found myself wanting a little more richness. I felt the MMF-9/Maestro's sound, like the RM-9's, was somewhat clinical. The sounds of the two 'tables were so distinctively similar that I speculate that something in the character of the drive system (platter, bearing, etc.) or tonearm actually trumps the effects of the cartridge—I didn't have a Maestro to use with the RM-9.

At the end of my review of the Pro-Ject/Sumiko RM-9, I asked if it was worth spending the extra money to go from the $1000 Perspective to the $1495 RM-9. I didn't think so, and that made the Sumiko boys so happy. I preferred the richness and "give" of the Perspective, and suggested putting the difference into a good cartridge.

This time, the question is: Is it worth another $500 to go from Music Hall's MMF-7 to their MMF-9? The quality of the components, particularly the arm, is higher, and the cartridge is a small but significant step up, but I'm not sure the difference is sound is worth the difference in price. My sonic memory had me preferring the bit of warmth and "give" the MMF-7 had over the MMF-9. Depending on the rest of your system, you might feel otherwise. Your other choice at this price is the Rega P25, which I think still has the best tonearm, though the Pro-Ject has adjustable VTA—and, of course, the MMF 'tables include good cartridges. If you're shopping in this price range, it's clearly a buyer's market. If the sound suits you, here are three good choices.

I have found (or should I say, I was sent for evaluation) the best platter mat I have ever tried. The Living Voices Mystic Mat features a gel-coat carbon-fiber skin on bottom, a layer of ceramic textile, and a 2mm skin of CF polyurethane foam on top. It's not too thick, and very light—only minimum VTA adjustment, if any, need be made when you switch from your normal mat.

The Mystic is designed to be used with a clamp, and I found it the ideal mat to use with an outer record ring. I normally use a carbon-graphite mat, but the Mystic blackened the spaces between notes, and seemed to allow a lushness and depth to develop that I hadn't had before, while causing no sonic damage in terms of transient speed and detail. My sample was not perfectly flat, which is a serious flaw, but my use of the outer ring did flatten it out perfectly over time. I'm sure you can put it under some books or some other weights (not too heavy, though) to get it to lie perfectly flat. It's used rough-side up, but don't worry—it won't cause any damage to your records.

It will dent your bank account, however: the Mystic Mat, which Living Voices claims is difficult to make, costs $300. But if your experience with it is like mine, you'll agree that it's worth the money. A real find, and highly recommended.

Footnote 1: Bob Reina also wrote about the 834P for Stereophile in July 2000 (Vol.20 No.7).—Ed.