Vendetta Research SCP-2 phono preamplifier Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Comparison
For the past three years I've used the Stereophile-owned Vendetta Research SCP2B phono stage designed by John Curl. This $3000 phono preamp set a benchmark level of performance when it was introduced, and in my experience has yet to be equaled. Unfortunately the Vendetta is no longer in production, but a few are available on the used market. Although no longer a commercial product, it serves as a benchmark against which other phono stages can be judged. I'm also very familiar with its sound.
I drove the SFP-1 with an AudioQuest AQ7000nsx cartridge mounted in a heavily modified Well-Tempered Turntable and Arm. The AQ7000's 0.3mV output matched well with the SFP-1 in the MC position, providing a good output level. The stock 47k ohm input impedance was ideal for the AQ7000nsx. After spending a few weeks with this front end, I changed the cartridge for a Dynavector DV XX-1, a high-output (2mV) moving-coil, and used the SFP-1 in the MM mode. The Dynavector also allowed me to directly compare the SFP-1's MM and MC configurations.
The turntable was mounted on a Marigo Audio Labs Micro Suspension System and Motor Terminator Kit, then on a spiked and lead-shot-filled Merrill Stable Table. The turntable was also fitted with a Marigo Well-Damped Arm Clamp and Platter Interface System.
The phono preamps drove an Audio Research LS2B line-stage preamp. Phono-stage interconnects were AudioQuest Diamond, Monster Cable Sigma, and Straight Wire Maestro. Power amplifiers included the VTL 225W monoblocks, Forté Model 4, and Mark Levinson No.23.5. Interconnect to the power amplifier was a 20' run of AudioQuest Lapis (balanced or unbalanced, depending on the power amplifier). Loudspeakers included the Thiel CS3.6, Lynnfield 500L, and Genesis III, connected by AudioQuest Midnight and Sterling. Most of the auditioning, however, was through the CS3.6 driven by the VTLs. AC power to the system (except power amplifiers) was conditioned by a Tice Power Block and Titan.
With the AQ7000nsx driving the SFP-1 in MC mode, it was obvious this was a very different-sounding phono stage from the Vendetta. The tubed unit was more laid-back, had a softer treble, less bass extension, and was decidedly noisier. The SFP-1 tended to soften instrumental textures, taking off their raw edges. On many recordings, the effect was euphonic: bright and hard records were rendered listenable through the SFP-1. Well-recorded discs, however, lost a little sheen in the top end. The SFP-1 wasn't syrupy or thick, just a little soft in the mids and treble. Cymbals didn't have the same sense of air and extension through the SFP-1, and snare drum had less snap compared with the Vendetta.
The SFP-1 revealed more of the recorded acoustic than the Vendetta, which sounded drier. Although the SFP-1 threw a deeper soundstage, the Vendetta's stage was more transparent and crystalline. Image focus was tighter and better defined through the Vendetta. The Vendetta also had pinpoint precision in localizing images. A good example is the drum solo in "What is Hip?," from Tower of Power Direct (Sheffield Lab 17). The toms were a little larger spatially and tended to overlap one another through the SFP-1.
The SFP-1's bass was a little woolly compared to the Vendetta's, but full and satisfying. The SFP-1 had a weighty midbass but lacked extension. Kick drum lost much of its impact compared to the Vendetta, making the SFP-1 less rhythmically involving. The Vendetta dug down deeper, presenting tighter, more powerful bass. Comparing the SFP-1 and the Vendetta was like listening to a tubed and then a solid-state power amplifier. The SFP-1 was slower, a little fatter, and not as extended; The Vendetta was quick, lean, and deep.
Similarly, the SFP-1 was lacking in dynamics compared to the Vendetta. The tubed unit didn't have the same degree of punch and impact, a factor whose musical significance varied greatly with the program. Coupled with the lack of LF extension, the SFP-1's softer dynamics took something away from music with bass power and drive.
The SFP-1 also revealed less detail than the Vendetta, with slower transient edges. The Cascades LP (Milestone M-9109), by the Brazilian group Azymuth, is, with its layers and layers of percussion, an excellent test of transient detail resolution. The SFP-1 was less incisive, revealed less detail, and didn't have the sense of razor-sharp transient edges heard through the Vendetta. The SFP-1 was the opposite of analytical, etched, or forward. Again, the SFP-1 was more like some tubed power amplifiers—smooth, but with lower resolution.—Robert Harley