Vendetta Research SCP-2 phono preamplifier Page 2
Equipment used for my tests included the Ortofon MC-3000 cartridge in the Well-Tempered Arm, the SOTA Star Sapphire turntable (footnote 2), the Threshold FET-10HI line controller and SA-1 power amplifiers, and Sound Lab A-3 speaker system. Audio interconnects were Monster M1000, speaker cables were MIT Music Hoses, and the listening room is extensively treated with ASC Tube Traps. Program material consisted of discs from Sheffield, Opus 3, Telarc, London, and Reference Recordings.
The MC-3000 cartridge has the second-lowest output of any MC I know of: 0.1mV at 1kHz. (Only the MC-2000 is lower, at an appalling 0.05mV.) It requires a prodigious amount of gain, and an extremely low-noise step-up, and the fact is that, to date, I have not found any head amp that met the MC-3000's needs in both areas at once. Every one I tried that had adequate gain had entirely too much hum or hiss or both, so I have been forced to use the T-3000 step-up transformer Ortofon makes for that cartridge. The sound has always been excellent, but I have had no way of knowing how much the transformer may have been affecting the sound, or in what ways. For this reason, it was impossible for me to directly compare the SCP-2 with my previous reference preamp, the FET-10PC, because the latter could not be used without the step-up transformer. It must be understood, then, that the comparisons which follow are between the SCP-2 by itself and the FET-10PC with the Ortofon T-3000 transformer.
First, it must be said that the differences between the SCP-2 and the FET-10PC/T-3000 were not dramatic. They were, in fact, subtle, but the SCP-2 was clearly superior in every respect. I won't enumerate the sonic areas; you know them all now. Suffice to say that, with the Curl phono preamp, every disc I played sounded a little more like a master tape than it did through the (nonetheless superb) FET-10PC. I found this rather disconcerting, though, because I really believed the FET-10 preamp was close enough to perfection that there was little room for improvement. After all, the FET-10 had passed my bypass tests with flying colors. How, then, could the SCP-2 be that much better? Obviously, because bypass tests are not necessarily any more reliable than A/B tests.
I am beginning to understand that the major reason "controlled" A/B tests usually fail to reveal small differences is because of lack of system familiarity: most, if not all, of the participants are hearing an unfamiliar system. This may also explain why bypass tests often fail to reveal small differences which, after prolonged listening to a new component, are suddenly audible from the same bypass tests. Case in point: Initially, I could not hear either section of the FET-10 when it was inserted into the system. Now I can. I can also hear quite noticeable differences between it and the SCP-2. But I am unable to tell, now, with the SCP-2 in circuit, apparently because I haven't used it long enough to zero-in on what, if anything, it is doing to the sound that it shouldn't be doing. To date, it seems to be doing only what it should, and superbly at that.
The SCP-2s I tested were the standard version, with 62dB of gain. This was barely enough for the MC-3000, but it was enough with the system gain cranked full up. What flabbergasted me was that, at listening levels peaking at around 95dB, there was no audible noise from the SCP-2 at all (footnote 3). When no disc was playing, there was a very faint, muted hiss and not a trace of hum. Playing a disc, the hiss was completely submerged under the surface noise. As far as noise is concerned, the MC-3000 is almost a worst-possible case, and the SCP-2 was able to handle it with aplomb. This has got to be one of the quietest preamplifiers around. I would advise, however, that you order the high-gain version for an MC-3000; it will be absolutely necessary with the lower-output MC-2000.
The Vendetta Research SCP-2 is the costliest phono preamplifier on the market; it is almost certainly the best, and is well worth the money if you can afford it. I hope it brings a measure of fortune to John Curl; he deserves it.
Footnote 2: The Versa Dynamics, which had been my reference turntable and arm until a signal cable opened up, has since been repaired, but has not yet been returned to use; I didn't want to switch 'tables in the middle of equipment testing.—J. Gordon Holt
Footnote 3: John Curl hand-selects FETs for the SCP-2 with a transistor tester which not only measures noise but classifies that noise according to frequency. Thus he can select both on the basis of low noise and of noise with a particular spectral density.—John Atkinson