No, folks, vinyl is not dead. And even though my colleague Mikey Fremer is beginning to sound like a broken record, the little guy is right: when it comes to the sound on offer, CD still doesn't come close. There are more turntables, phono cartridges, and tonearms on the market today than ever before. Moreover, with companies like Classic Records, Analogue Productions, and Mosaic offering a steady stream of ultra-high-quality reissues, there seems to be an increasing supply of quality vinyl at reasonable prices.
The original plan, back in mid-2004, was to audition an entire Ensemble system and then review the individual components over the next two years. Most audio companies produce lines of matching products, but Ensemble takes it a bit further, with a modular approach and extensive commonality of everything from chassis to circuit boards. They firmly believe that everything affects sonic performance, and their approach helps ensure a consistent sound throughout their line.
What's this? A review of a $3000 moving-coil step-up transformer in this digital day and age? Yep. Although the market for such a product is small, the fact that the Expressive Technologies SU-1 step-up transformer enters previously uncharted state-of-the-art territory warrants these pages of editorial space. Furthermore, LP playback appears to be alive and well at the upper end of the high-end spectrum, a market segment addressed by the SU-1 (footnote 1).
Modern hi-fi is little more than a way of getting electricity to pretend that it's music. Of course, good source components remain all-important, and even if loudspeakers are imperfect, most of us can find one or two that suit our tastes, if not our rooms and the rest of our gear.
I don't know Gram Slee from Gram Parsons, or which House he was in at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School, but let me tell you: If you'd just been listening to a bunch of budget phono preamps, as I had, then came upon the GSP Audio Era Gold Mk.V, you'd think someone had switched out not just the phono preamp but your entire system. You might think you were listening to a different pressing or a different cartridge. How can this be?
This is an era in which products and websites are "launched," but in the past two years Herron Audio has sort of oozed its way into the public ear. With little visible promotion or splashy advertising, Herron is now spoken of within an ever-widening audiophile circle.
The Jeff Rowland Design Group has long been renowned for the exquisite quality of its chassis. The company was one of the first to promote fully balanced topologies in preamplifiers and amplifiers in the high-end market, one of the first to offer a sonically acceptable remote control, and one of the few to offer a battery power option for their amplifier line.
The Krell KRC-2 can be regarded as a remote-controlled successor to Krell's successful KSL preamplifier of a few years back. The outboard Krell Phono Equalizer (KPE) is a separate box powered from the KRC-2. Priced at $850, it contains a printed circuit board very similar, in fact, to the $499 unit that can be fitted within the KRC. The KPE and KRC phono stages are well-designed universal units; if someone has the need for a stand-alone phono equalizer of Krell KRC standard, a separate power supply may be purchased for the KPE. It is also an advantage to be able to locate the KPE head amplifier in a hum-free zone near the LP turntable.
In an ideal world, I'd have every phono section I've reviewed in the past 16 years on hand to compare with these three and with all that arrive in the future. But because I have a life, I don't, and I wouldn't even if I could, though some readers (and one retailer) have insisted that that's the only way that I could possibly be of any use to them. Ha! And for those who are concerned that I've neglected the Manley Steelhead, not so! It's still my reference.
The Leben RS-30EQ phono preamplifier ($2695) incorporates a pair of common dual-triode tubes (12AT7) for phono gain, but breaks with tradition by using a CR-type equalization circuit rather than the more common negative-feedback type. Total gain is specified as 23.5dB, which is sufficient for moving-magnet pickups; an external transformer is recommended for use with moving-coil types. A silicon full-wave rectifier supplies heater voltage, while the rail is supplied by a 6X5GT rectifier tube.
Far be it from me to surrender these column inches to the whims of a manufacturer.
That said, there's ample reason to break with tradition and offer the thoughts of an obscure English company called LFD, whose products may already have tripped your surveillance wires. In their "Charter to Product Commitment and Traditional Values"which can be read in its entirety on Frohmusik's website and is signed by Bews and Hawksford (see below)the people of LFD suggest, in so many words, that they will not manufacture goods outside of their native England; that their design work is guided by listening as much as by engineering theory; that they believe some component parts sound better than others of identical numeric value, depending on their specific role in an audio circuit; that their philosophy of circuit design is decidedly minimalist; and that they advocate the enjoyment of music on vinyl LP. That the principals of LFD have thus far avoided being burned alive as heretics is a source of wonder.
The all-FET, class-A, B2B-1 phono preamplifier ($1749), made in the US by Liberty Audio, is beautifully built inside and out, and comes in a heavy-duty aluminum chassis with a baked-on crackle finish and a 3/8"-thick, black-anodized faceplate. The overall build quality and physical appearance suggest something that costs more than $3000, which is probably what it would cost were it sold through retailers and not factory direct. It comes with a two-week return policy.
Audiophiles with budget restrictions (most of us, I imagine) could be forgiven for feeling we're afterthoughts to most manufacturers. Even though we probably keep many companies in business by buying their "entry-" or mid-level products, we're always hearing about products designed "without compromise." Waiter, could you bring the reality check, please?
Is it my imagination, or has the low-power tube movement of the last 15 years gone hand in hand with a renewed interest in moving-coil step-up transformers? Trannies remain misunderstood or ignored by most of the audio press—requests for review samples continue to be met with genial shock, rather like tourism in the Budapest of the 1990s—but enthusiasm for the practice seems only to grow. That leaves me to wonder: Did the unquestioning use of active pre-preamps for so many years grow out of the same bad attitude that gave us all those awful-sounding high-power amps and low-sensitivity loudspeakers? You know the mindset: Parts are cheap. Gain is free. Do it because you can...
I was walking through the woods one day when I happened on a large, flat rock near the base of an old ash tree. Conditioned as I am from such rambles with my daughter, whose interest in wildlife echoes that of my own childhood, I bent down and lifted one end of the rock, hoping to catch a glimpse of some exotic creature or another: perhaps a delicate ring-necked snake, or a plasticky-looking red eft. The rock came loose without too much effort and teetered on its broadest edge, but before I could let it flip to one side, I recoiled in horror: There, amid the millipedes and ant larvae, was a cluster of teeny-tiny, nasty-looking old men, writhing in such a tangle that I couldn't even count them. They were bespectacled, to a one, and mostly baldI could tell quite easily, despite the berets worn by some of themand each pair of feet was shod in a teeny-tiny pair of off-brand Birkenstock copies, with thin, shiny black socks underneath.