Listening #58 Ortofon, EAR, Koetsu, September 2008

Art Dudley auditioned Ortofon, EAR, & Koetsu transformers in September 2008 (Vol.31 No.9):

Three moving-coil step-up transformers have arrived since my last attempt at a comprehensive survey of same, in the October 2007 issue: the EAR MC4 ($1995, footnote 1), the Ortofon Verto ($849, footnote 2), and the more plainly named Koetsu ($3500, footnote 3). I've also found time to change the configuration of the hardwired, multitap K&K step-up transformer ($275 kit, $335 assembled) from high-gain to low-gain mode—so I now have a better idea how that model stacks up against such "dedicated" low-gain models as the Auditorium 23 Standard ($975), as well as the low-gain inputs of various other, more flexible step-up transformers.

As with my original survey, there were no flops in the flock: All appeared to be well conceived and well made, with no audible gain irregularities between channels and no hum or noise. Best of all, the new step-up transformers played music consistently well, and embodied those qualities that seem now to distinguish all modern transformers from their active counterparts: superior flow and momentum, superior scale (and "scale dynamics"), and an altogether more natural, organic sense of touch.

I've ceased my mudheaded practice of using a digital voltmeter to measure the DC coil resistance of transformer samples—not just because resistance is an imprecise predictor of impedance, but because the current produced by all but the most specialized voltmeters might magnetize such a coil. The effect would be slight, but it could be enough to swamp very tiny voltages, and that ain't good. From now on, I'll just parrot the specs like a good boy.

From the standpoint of functionality, the nice-looking Koetsu is every bit as simple as its appearance would suggest. Understandably for a manufacturer whose phono cartridges all have the same number of turns of coil wire, the Koetsu transformer has a single primary, rated at 10 ohms, and its coils are said to be 5N (99.999%) oxygen-free copper, with pure silver wire for the internal hookups. The Koetsu's otherwise serene rear panel is disturbed by two pairs of phono plugs, for signal input and output, as well as a ground lug; the whole thing is encased in solid rosewood.

The Koetsu trannie was musically adept, with a mildly laid-back midrange and soft, grainless trebles. Detail and clarity were fine, but most of the competition had more (natural) color and texture, and a few had much greater drama and scale. Overall, the Koetsu bettered the K&K and the VAS MC-One ($750), as I might have hoped, but the Ortofon and stock Shindo Masseto trannies—both made by Lundahl—gave it a run for its money, and the Auditorium 23 Hommage T1 ($4295) and Audio Note AN-S8 ($8675) whomped it decisively, even with a Koetsu Black cartridge.

The Koetsu step-up was competent, but its design appears not to have changed for nearly 30 years, and while its price has risen, so has the quality of the competition—only more so, I think. Owners of Koetsu cartridges in particular should definitely consider used samples if attractively priced, but $3500 for a new Koetsu transformer seems a little steep to me.

Notably less green than its name implies, the Ortofon Verto step-up transformer has a heavily chromed front plate, and is otherwise enclosed in a neat black box. Like the Koetsu, the Verto has only one pair each of input and output jacks—but it has two primaries, rated at 30dB and 24dB of gain. (Input impedances aren't specified, although one can assume that the 24dB setting is more suitable for cartridges with more highly resistive coils.) As with the K&K kit and the full Shindo Masseto preamp, the Ortofon uses custom-made Lundahl trannies; unlike the bare-bones K&K, a soldering iron isn't required to switch between primaries: Just open the box and move two pairs of circuit-board jumpers.

As supplied, the Verto was set up for use with a low-output, low-impedance cartridge. It appeared to have a little less gain than the Lundahl transformer built into the Masseto, but the musical and sonic characters were identical: melodies flowed brilliantly well, and timbral colors and textures were very good. The high-gain side of the Verto had excellent drama: among the high-gain competition, only the Hommage T1 and Audio Note were clearly better, while the distinction between it and the fine EAR was negligible. The Audio Note and Hommage T1 had more color, and the Hommage was also much better at conveying sheer scale.

Set for low-gain performance, the Verto was a fine match for my Denon DL 103 phono cartridge, though it had a little less impact and touch than the Auditorium 23 Standard. Again, the distinction wasn't huge, and the Ortofon scored big value points for being, essentially, two trannies in one. And great trannies they are.

And where the multitap Ortofon shone, the multitap EAR MC4 was downright radiant. The best of the new batch by far—and one of the three best I've tried so far, period—the new EAR MC4 transformer succeeds the MC3, which remained in EAR's product line for well over a decade. That model had three primary windings per channel, each addressed by a separate pair of input jacks; the MC4 retains the individual pairs of jacks, but adds a fourth primary. Now the EAR user can choose among four inputs: 3, 6, 12, and 40 ohms.

Auditioned through its lowest-gain (40 ohm) inputs, the EAR MC4 performed better than all of the directly comparable step-up transformers I've tried: the Auditorium 23 Standard, the K&K transformer (when wired for 14dB of gain), the Tamura TKS-83 (price uncertain at this time) used via its 40-ohm primary, and the VAS MC-One used via its 43-ohm primary. Used through its highest-gain (3 ohm) inputs, the MC4 nipped even the Audio Note's heels, and was decisively beaten by only the Hommage T1—and then only because nothing in my experience sounds as Godalmighty huge as the Hommage. (If you're skeptical regarding the notion that a simple transformer can have an audible, let alone drastic, effect on the size and scale of reproduced sound, one spin with the Hommage T1 will change your mind.) The EAR also had marginally less drama—but the English trannie was every bit as colorful, tactile, informative, and involving as the Hommage. All that for half the price and four times the flexibility. It was a delight, not only being able to switch transformer primaries in a matter of seconds with no apparent degradation, but to do so while maintaining that level of musical quality. The EAR MC4 could stand on its sound alone, never mind its comparatively low price.

Although the MC3 impressed me when I reviewed it for Listener a while back, I didn't remember it being quite this good. I mentioned that to distributor Dan Meinwald, who sent an inquiry on my behalf to EAR's owner and chief designer, Tim de Paravicini: Art Dudley is going to write about the MC4. He heard and wrote about the MC3 a few years ago, and he wonders if there are any changes to the design aside from adding the extra tap. Tim's answer, in its entirety: No. Guessing that Tim de Paravicini would rather listen to music and design gear than gab with reviewers, and judging from the exceptional performance of the MC4, I can only commend his priorities.—Art Dudley


Footnote 1: EAR/Yoshino Ltd., Coombe Grove Farm, Ermine Street, Arrington, Cambridgeshire SG8 0AL, England, UK. Tel: (44) 1223-208-877. Web: www.ear-yoshino.com. US distributor: EAR USA, Inc., 1087 East Ridgewood Street, Long Beach, CA 90807. Tel: (562) 422-4747. Web: www.ear-usa.com.

Footnote 2: Ortofon A/S, Stavangervej 9, DK-4900 Nakskov, Denmark. Tel: (45) 54 91 19 15. Fax: (45) 54 91 19 11. Web: www.ortofon.dk. US distributor: Ortofon Inc., 500 Executive Boulevard, Suite 102, Ossining, NY 10562. Tel: (914) 762-8646. Fax: (914) 762-8649. Web: www.ortofon.com.

Footnote 3: Koetsu, Japan. Koetsu USA, P.O. Box 1909, Carolina, PR 00984. Tel: (787) 752-1083. Web: www.koetsusa.com.

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