Gramophone Dreams #50: Kitsuné HiFi LCR-1 MK5 phono preamplifier, Sumiko Songbird & Starling phono cartridges

In my world, the quiet ritual of choosing a record and placing it carefully on the platter is always followed by a sequence of three rough sounds.

With the volume at listening level, I hear the bristle-by-bristle rasping of my stylus brush as it drags across the exposed tip of the cartridge cantilever. Next, as I dip the diamond in Onzow gel, I hear a little suction cup pop and feel the compliance of the cantilever's rubber-tire suspension. Finally, my brain registers that sizzle sound as the stylus contacts the grooved surface. These sounds are tattooed on my brain. They "cue up" my consciousness, preparing it for attentive listening.

I've been hearing these electrically charged noises since I was a child playing my father's records. What I cherish about them most is their raw, mind-triggering, motor-revving physicality. There is something about a cantilever shaking a piece of iron or a wire coil in a magnetic field that feels like a generator generating current.

For me, the sonic difference between digital and analog is simple: a processor-processing and a converter-converting makes recordings sound less physical than a mechanical generator-generating.

I've noticed a similar effect in audio amplification. To my ears, the more amplification involves chunks of iron and currents pulsing through wire coils, the more tangible the sound. This tangibility is most obvious when amplifying the low-level currents generated by moving coil phono cartridges. Of all the ones I've used, those phono stages with overspecified power transformers, choke-filtered linear power supplies, and LR (inductor-resistor) or LCR (inductor-capacitor-resistor) RIAA correction sound the most corporeal. This type of phono amplification is expensive to make and thus rare in the audiophile marketplace.

Kitsuné HiFi LCR-1 MK5 phono stage
The Kitsuné HiFi KTE LCR-1 MK5 phono stage I am about to describe (footnote 1) is one of these rare products. It is described by its importer-distributor, Kitsuné HiFi's Tim Connor, as an LCR EQ-corrector that uses handwound 80% nickel-cored inductors and a linear power supply encased in a heavy, separate chassis. It costs between $1198 and $1398, depending on options.

The LCR-1 MK5 is the latest version of a design by Korean engineer Kuo-Wei Tsai (also known as Kevin Valab) that began taking form 20 years ago. Kuo-Wei's original design was inspired by the totally passive and extremely expensive Japanese-made Tango EQ-600P LCR RIAA module, which was itself a recreation of the original Pultec/Western Electric phono-equalizer circuit. For cost-saving reasons, the phono-EQ in most consumer-audio circuits employs no transformers or inductors—only tiny, inexpensive capacitors and resistors in either passive or active (feedback-type) RIAA-deemphasis circuits. The made-in-Korea KTE LCR-1 MK5 is one of only a few commercially available LCR or LR phono equalizers.

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A first impression: With the Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum moving coil cartridge, loaded at 100 ohms, the LCR-1 MK5 distinguished itself by presenting The Tony Williams Lifetime (Turn It Over) (1970 Polydor LP 24-4021) with more force and unbridled energy than either the tubed Sunvalley SV-EQ1616D RIAA equalizer kit or my long-term reference tube phono stage, the Tavish Design Adagio. The Tavish Adagio is a superb preamp that has better-than-good vigor and drive, but it's not quite as much allegro vivo as the KTE LCR-1 MK5.

The LCR-1 turned Lifetime's (Turn It Over) into a memorable, fast-moving, trance-inducing late-night buzz. It even out–vim'n'vigored my solid state phono stage reference, the John Curl–designed Parasound Halo JC 3+.

Before the MK5 version of the Kitsuné KTE LCR-1 arrived, I had been using and enjoying the MK4 version for almost a year. When I exchanged the MK4 for the MK5, my ears perked up. The MK4 version was enjoyably well-controlled and detailed, with enough mass, definition, and texture to make listening interesting, but maybe for my taste, a bit too plain-vanilla. I found the MK5 distinctly more arousing and engaging.

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Something tells me that Kuo-Wei Tsai's addition of high-nickel inductors to the MK5's RIAA circuit might be contributing to this enhanced vigor. Another reason the LCR-1 feels high-torque and tight-cornering might be Kuo-Wei's choice of output buffers. He could have cut corners by using a popular, inexpensive op-amp, but he chose instead to use a discrete, four-transistor "diamond" impedance converter (footnote 2).

Description: The LCR-1 is encased in two matching 3" × 6.5" × 12" black-anodized aluminum chassis connected by a flexible, 30" DC power cable fitted with cinch-type quick-release connectors. Though it is tempting to stack them, to minimize noise, the power chassis is best kept on a separate shelf or as far from the circuit-chassis as possible.

Located on the circuit-chassis bottom, a quartet of four-pin DIP switches allows users to easily set gain at any of 13 levels between 40dB and 72dB and resistive loading at any of 12 values from 47k ohms to 14 ohms.

With My Sonic Lab's Ultra Eminent EX: The highest-level cartridge in my arsenal is the $6995 My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent EX, designed by a Japanese master that I have long favored, Yoshio Matsudaira, who has designed for Supex, Koetsu, Air Tight, and Miyabi, among other companies. The Ultra Eminent EX is a moving coil cartridge with an unusually low 0.6 ohm internal impedance and a surprisingly normal 0.3mV output.

To achieve this output from the EX's tiny coils requires strong magnets, a requirement Matsudaira satisfies with his unique SH-µX high-permeability core material.

Unusually for a cartridge of such low internal impedance, My Sonic Lab recommends loading the Ultra Eminent EX at "100–800 ohms (ideal is around 400 ohms)." The closest choice with the LCR-1 was 200 ohms, so I started there.

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Playing Kalpana Improvisation (Nonesuch Explorer Series LP 72022), the Ultra Eminent EX reproduced the timbre on Sen Gupta's sarod and Latif Ahmed Khan's tabla in a straight-up, natural manner but not vividly enough to be exciting. Likewise, Moondog's The Viking of Sixth Avenue (Moondog Records HJRLP19) sounded true of timbre and relaxed but really not happening pacewise or excitementwise.

Seeking a more dynamic sound, I switched to the LCR-1's next-highest setting, 47k ohms. Then, for fun, I played a 1986 white-vinyl reissue (Line Records LILP 4.00263 J) of Big Star's 1972 #1 Record and was happily rewarded with a taut, well-paced, lifeforce–infused reminder of how much I still love Alex Chilton. The sound was strong and forward-driving in a way I think classic rock aficionados would enjoy. Still loaded at 47k ohms, I played something totally different: Evensong for Ascensiontide (Argo LP ZRG 511), sung by The Choir of St. John's College Cambridge, directed by George Guest. The chants, hymns, organ, and prayers of the Ascensiontide service moved along effortlessly but were shadowed by a halo of fuzzy, blurry "air" that I found distracting.

With a specified 0.6 ohm internal impedance, the Ultra Eminent EX should play well with the LCR-1's lowest value (14 ohm) load resistor, so I tried that.

At 14 ohms, the fuzz on Ascensiontide disappeared completely. Vocal intelligibility improved considerably. Low organ notes were presented with more detail in a tauter, more harmonically believable, less hi-fi–ish musical presentation. But I still was not satisfied.

At 47k ohms, I thought the fuzzy halo sounded like IM distortion. At 14 ohms, the midrange sounded quiet and "low-distortion," like my HiFiMan Susvara or HE6 headphones. But it also sounded unnaturally dark, excessively tight, and closed in.

The LCR-1 would not permit me to load the My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent EX at its designer-recommended 400 ohms, but at 200 ohms it sounded very good. It was not too dark or too tight, and it was quiet.

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The Ultra Eminent EX came fully alive when I ran it through my 80% nickel-core EMIA 1:10 step-up transformer (SUT) into the LCR-1's 47k ohm load with gain set at 52dB. That arrangement provided plenty of light, beauty, and dimensionality plus a complete freedom of rhythmic expression

With the Zu Audio Denon: Some of my friends modify Denon DL-103's, but I like my 103's stock—or better yet, tested and sorted with thick aluminum bodies like Zu Audio's Zu/DL-103 Mk.II in its Grade-2 Premium version.

As Art Dudley used to, I usually run the Zu/DL-103 through an Auditorium 23 SUT made to match the Denon's high (40 ohm) internal impedance. This combination sounds fast, polished, and vivacious. Without the SUT, the 10:1 rule suggests an input impedance of 400 ohms, but, as mentioned above, the KTE LCR-1 doesn't have a 400 ohm setting. So again, I started at 200 ohms.


Footnote 1: Kitsuné HiFi, 19410 Highway 99, Suite A #366, Lynnwood, WA 98036. Web: kitsunehifi.com

Footnote 2: See Cordell, Bob. Designing Audio Power Amplifiers, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2019 (p.267).

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Ortofan's picture

... a more satisfying under-$2000 cartridge–phono stage combo than the Denon DL-103 with the Kitsuné KTE LCR-1, perhaps he should try the Ortofon Quintet Blue with the EAT E-Glo Petit.

https://www.ortofon.com/media/147374/401b018eMC%20Quintet%20Blue%20HiFi%20News%2012-2014_Eng.pdf

https://www.absolutesounds.com/pdf/main/press/HFN%20Feb%20EAT%20E-Glo%20Petite%20Reprint[1].pdf

Anton's picture

I'd wager this was basically a statement of fondness for the products rather than herb admitting he actually can't imagine things.

Did his review pique your interest in the product(s) being discussed?

It certainly did for me. I hope that was his main intent....I mean, I can't imagine that Herb actually couldn't imagine a more satisfying match!

Ortofan's picture

... pique my interest in any of the products being discussed.
Then, again, I don't have an aversion to op-amps and RC equalization circuits.

As for phono cartridges, I have my own particular brand preference.

By the way, if HR needs a solid-state phono preamp (in a similar price range) with the capability of providing a 400Ω load for the MC input, he should investigate the Musical Fidelity M3x Vinyl, whose amplification circuits, incidentally, are all discrete.

https://www.musicalfidelity.com/products/m3series/m3x-vinyl

https://www.henleyaudio.co.uk/_Assets/_managed/shop/product/files/MF_M3x_VINYL_Review-_Hi-Fi_News_May_2021.pdf

Anton's picture

Has anybody managed to invent a continuously variable loading scheme for a phono pre?

I understand why it isn't typically a feasible idea...but wonder how or if it could be done?

I dunno. As they said in National Lampoon: "Great idea, why don't you go invent one, Edison?"

I would call it the Rube Goldberg Phono Pre.

John Atkinson's picture
Anton wrote:
Has anybody managed to invent a continuously variable loading scheme for a phono pre?

Pro-Ject's Phono Box RS2, which will be reviewed by Julie Mullins in the September issue, allows the resistive loading for MC cartridges to be continuously adjusted between 10 ohms and 1000 ohms.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Anton's picture

Thank you!

Ortofan's picture

... for the MC phono input is available on the Parasound JC3+, JC3Jr and the Zphono XRM.

https://parasound.com/jc3+.php
https://www.analogplanet.com/content/parammmcsounds-new-jc3--phono-preamplifier-offers-feature-and-sound-refinement

https://parasound.com/jc3jr.php
https://www.analogplanet.com/content/does-curls-jr-have-beef

https://parasound.com/zphono_xrm.php
https://www.analogplanet.com/content/parasound-z-phono-xrm-mmmc-phono-preamp-offers-lot-599

volvic's picture

Isn't the Cyrus Phono preamp capable of doing the same?

mcrushing's picture

This amp was already on my shortlist for a listen. I learned of LCR EQ only recently and couldn't find many reviews, but as an EL84s/90dB/W/M kinda guy the concept definitely had some appeal.

Then yesterday - in a lightning bolt of fate - not only did I get to read this artful description of an LCR stage, I actually got to hear one implemented in a system: an EAR 912/509 combo with a Garrard 301 at one end and Graham LS5/8s at the other. Talk about physicality! Talk about mass, definition and texture! For a number of reasons, this system was on a different level from mine. BUT...

I pulled the LCR-1 trigger first thing this morning.

I appreciate what you put in the column, Herb. But I wonder if you might be kind enough to address a couple more things: First, did you experience any burn-in? I ask because Kitsune's trial window is a bit short at just 10 days. Also, did you happen to try any high-output cartridges with either the Mk4 or Mk5? I'm currently in love with Soundsmith HO moving-iron, and at 40dB/47k it will probably do fine, but having lived a while with two versions of this amp, I'm wondering if you have any impressions to share.

Thanks for any thoughts on the above, and for another wonderful column in any case.

Herb Reichert's picture

for reading my currents-in-wires story.

To answer your question (probably too late – sorry) I did not experience any break-in time issues with the LCR-1. In general, amps and speakers that haven't been used in a while need a day or two to get their mojo fully up. To me, stories of 500 hour break-in periods sound like urban legends.

What I usually do with electronics, and I did with the LCR-1, is leave it plugged in for a few days before any studious listening.

As for the high output cartridge question, you may have noticed that it was the LCR-1's 47k moving-magnet section that was the star performer. So, with the Soundsmith, I suspect the LCR-1 will produce enough force body and drive to make the Soundsmith sound solid and vigorous.

Perhaps you could let us know what you discovered.

peace and patience,

hr

mcrushing's picture

The thing that keeps me reading your stories is the way you connect the currents-in-wires parts with the visceral-experience-of-the-art part. Thanks for that, and for taking time to respond. An LCR-1 is in transit and I’m happy to share thoughts on the music it makes.

(And speaking of Tony Williams Lifetime, I recently scored a German copy of “Emergency! Vol 1” and may need to feed it to those inductors right out of the gate.)

mcrushing's picture

Herb, you were very right. The Soundsmith & LCR-1 make forceful, textural, physical music from every record I throw at them.

That's been the main discovery.

But the first discovery was actually the LCR-1's dead silence, absent a musical signal. Well, maybe not DEAD silence – it's a phono stage. A full Nigel Tufnel, "this one goes to 11" with the volume causes a steady whisper when nothing's playing. But compared to the original Phonomena it's replacing, this thing is vacuum-of-space-like quiet.

Over that low floor, the LCR illuminates more of the tone, texture and separation I bought this cartridge for. Notes have more snap on the attack and longer, lovelier tails. Instruments sound more like the wood, brass or reeds they're made of. But they also sound less like INSTRUMENTS, and more like PEOPLE PLAYING instruments.

So one takeaway, fellow audio nerds, is forking over twice as much on your next phono stage probably isn't going to disappoint.

Recalling the EAR system I heard recently, what most impressed me was the magic it extracted from so-so recordings. This is perhaps because I listen to LOTS of so-so recordings. Don't get me wrong, I like Tone Poets as much as the next guy. But many of the world's great musicians have struggled to get records made, and to me the resulting sonic shortcomings and production compromises become a part of the art.

That night on the EAR gear, we listened mostly to deep private-press psych rock records – which the system rendered in a way that made everything sound very "carved out" in the mix. It's hard to describe, but the effect let me "lock in" to the elements engineers got the most "right," feel those performances, and go right to the heart of the music.

That's what I want my system to do. And I suspect it's gonna take more than a fancy RIAA circuit.

But one late night last week, my system really surprised me. "In The Past" by the great Zambian band "Witch" was on the deck. My copy is a well-made reissue, but it's a somewhat dull and compressed recording overall. Or so I thought. With the LCR in the rack, Chris Mbewe's guitar leapt from the speakers in fuzzy, overdriven glory like never before. Suddenly I was feeling not just the energy of his playing, but the whole band's current coursing through studio walls.

So, yeah. I think the LCR-1 and I are off to a fabulous start.

Thanks for the invitation to share.

AaronGarrett's picture

I love Herb's reviews, but my favorite thing about them is mining them for what Herb is listening.

Anton's picture

I went to go check out the Pro-ject phono pre and learned about Parks Audio and the Puffin preamp!

Good gracious, what a toy! (Toy meant in a fun way.)

Anybody have experience with this? I almost impulse bought just because!

http://parksaudiollc.com/

Ortofan's picture

... two load settings, either 47K ohm + 50 pF or 200 ohm + 1 nF.

Also, do you really want the signals from your analog disc player to be passed through an A/D converter, be processed digitally and then be put through a D/A converter to get back to analog?

Anton's picture

Seems a fun toy, and cheap.

I'm in the hobby for fun, not a death march to prefect sound, forever. ;-D

I'd love to kick that Puffin's tires, so to speak!

Plus, never forget...as audiophiles like to paraphrase Wittgenstein: ""Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." You know, "If you haven't heard it..."

I know what you mean, though, this baby could get a person's audiophile purity card yanked!

Ortofan's picture

... have any discs that are in particularly poor condition, then the Puffin's high-frequency filter and "magic" function, which attenuates impulse noises, might be especially useful.

https://hometheaterhifi.com/reviews/vinyl/turntable-accessories/parks-audio-puffin-phono-dsp-preamplifier/

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