I was on two separate quests to find (1) an easy and high quality way to archive my vinyl to my hard drive and (2) a way to correct the "thin" sound I was getting from my turntable. When I asked questions about this in the forum, a certain piece of equipment came up in each: the Bellari VP-530. Well, the VP-130 (previously the 129) came up, but that doesn't have a USB output. The VP-530 seems to be essentially the same preamp with an added USB out, and RIAA/flat EQ curve toggle (i.e., the option to turn the RIAA curve off). I had found reviews of the VP-129/130, but none for the VP-530. I have now had enough time with it to share my thoughts.
First, my setup is pretty entry level:
Rega P2 TT w/Sumiko Oyster MM cart
Marantz PM7001 (integrated MM phono stage)
ProAc Tablette 2000 Speakers
AKG K701 Headphones
The Phono Preamp
This was actually more important to me. I started looking for another phono preamp when I noticed that my TT input sounded thin or tinny compared to my CD and even iPod setup. This was very disappointing to me, so I tried multiple records and A/B comparisons and had other ears listen. It was, sadly, confirmed. What? Digital sounding fuller than Vinyl?? I was about to abandon all of you. I first suspected the cart, but the helpful people here on the forum directed me to the phono stage.
Setup was easy - I have the stock RCA out for the TT, and used bluejeans RCA cables to connect the VP-530 to my integrated amp through something other than the "phono in." (Interestingly, because of the ability to flatten the EQ, you can actually plug this thing into the integrated phono in if you turn the levels really low. But, why would you? You wanted to get rid of the integrated pre anyway. I just thought it was interesting. Also, if someone makes a flat EQ record, it'll play).
The difference was both immediate and obvious. Seriously. Compared to the integrated phono stage on the Marantz, this was absolute bliss. This wasn't one of those changes that some people may hear and others may not - my wife, who humors my interest and enjoys music, but would be happy with a $500 shelf system (you guys know what I mean), could even here a definite difference.
The sound was much, much fuller, warmer, and detailed (less muddy). Before, the TT through the Marantz phono glared and made things sound very harsh. This was ESPECIALLY true on the AKGs, which have a reputation for being a little on the harsh side anyway. I'm listening through the K701s right now and, with the bellari pre, everything sounds fantastic - no glare, very full, rich, and detailed. It makes the music sound like it is supposed to sound.
I hope this isn't an indictment against the Marantz PM7001 integrated phono stage, but I'm afraid it is. Perhaps it just didn't like my cart, but I doubt it. The fact is, you probably want a dedicated phono preamp over pretty much any integrated pre.
I was a little interested in the headphone out, because I've been looking at getting a WooAudio WA6 headphone amp, as I hear it fits so well with the K701s - if this thing was a decent upgrade on the Marantz headphone out, it would be the steal of the century. But, for $400 MSRP (and the VP-130 $250 MSRP for the same headphone circuit), I wasn't holding my breath on it being better than the Marantz integrated headphone out. And it isn't. It works perfectly well, but the Marantz's head out sounds noticeably better (that is, you can tell within about 30 seconds of listening to nearly anything). Oh well. I wasn't too disappointed here.
I've also realized that the Marantz PM7001's headphone out (unlike its integrated phono pre) is really top notch. My headphones sound really great through it. I'm sure the Woo would be a good upgrade, but I can live without it for awhile.
The USB out is remarkably easy to set up and use. I run Linux (Ubuntu Gutsy) on my computer, and I couldn't find any reviews about whether this thing works on Linux. Much to my relief, it does very, very easily. I just plugged it in and Linux immediately recognized it, so I fired up audacity and I was on my way. The sound quality is great for a digitized file (I save to FLAC, and then convert from there to play on my iPod), and everything works smoothly.
I wish it had an on/off switch. I have that and some other equipment hooked up to an external on/off so it isn't on all the time. This is my first tube, so I'm not sure about having it always on.
It's MM only (although a high output MC should work). If I want to go MC later, I'll probably have to get something else. Because I like this thing so much, it really just means I probably won't go MC.
If you're looking to archive some vinyl and want an upgraded phono preamp while you're at it - the VP-530 is the way to go. It is clearly not worth the extra $150 over the VP-130 if you're not going to use it to digitize some vinyl. Even then, if you have a decent sound card, you may be just as well off using that.