Listening #58 Page 2

So then, in alphabetical order:

Audio Note AN-S8 ($8675): The AN-S8 is built into the same paint-on-copper chassis as the other transformers in the current Audio Note UK line, which range from the AN-S1 ($700) to this demi-flagship. (Believe it or not, an AN-S9, price to be determined, is being developed.) Whereas some Audio Note step-up transformers allow the user to switch between different primaries, the AN-S8 does not, and is offered instead in three single-primary versions: 1, 16, and 64 ohms. My review sample was the middle one.

The AN-S8 is wound with Audio Note's custom-drawn, 99.9%-pure silver wire on a larger-than-usual, fully interleaved mu-metal 250 core. The input and output connectors are Audio Note's superb silver RCA jacks, and construction quality is average. (I was surprised that the rear panel retains the holes for the impedance selector switches that aren't there.) Input resistance measured 0.4 ohm, output resistance 270 ohms; a physically large 12k ohm resistor is wired in parallel with each output jack.

My first stand-alone step-up transformer was a well-loved Audio Note AN-S1, and I remember my surprise at hearing that the AN-S2 ($975) sounded even better in my system: At the time, the difference between the two was merely that the S2's chassis was solid copper and the S1's wasn't. (That and other inter-model differences have changed since then; consult your dealer or Audio Note's website for specific details.) Even so, I would have been ill prepared for the shock of hearing an AN-S8.

When I first used the Audio Note with my Miyabi cartridge, playing the Grateful Dead's American Beauty (Mobile Fidelity MFSL-1-014), the background studio chatter during the second verse of "Operator" was so startlingly realistic that I called out into the empty house, thinking that maybe someone had walked in while I wasn't paying attention. Every beat on the snare drum— every beat—was a slightly different intensity from the next, just as in real life. Similarly, the Audio Note made it easy to hear how one of the background singers—I think it's Jerry Garcia (footnote 2)—tends to overpower Phil Lesh's lead in "Box of Rain."

The Audio Note was unique in its ability to imbue mere sounds with real body and color. During "Home from the Forest," from Tony Rice's Manzanita (Rounder 0092), there are moments when Sam Bush, on fiddle instead of his usual mandolin, bounces his bow against the strings while other players are soloing—a common enough thing in bluegrass. All of the trannies caught that sound and got the timing right, but with the AN-S8 it was more than just a scratchy percussive noise: the Audio Note fleshed it out and made it more musical.

Something else the Audio Note did especially well, and which you should listen for when evaluating any step-up device: In the same sense as the above, it restored body and color to the sounds of cymbals—an absence of which I've probably taken for granted during 40 years of listening to recorded music. Try listening to the title song from the Band's Stage Fright (Capitol SW 425) for an example of a small-diameter ride cymbal beautifully recorded (and played). All the different transformers I tried reproduced that sound with varying degrees of success, but none better than the Audio Note AN-S8 with both the Miyabi and Koetsu cartridges.

The list of examples could go on for several pages, but it all adds up to one thing: Difficult though it may be to reconcile the price of the AN-S8 with its humble appearance, its sound is another matter entirely. If you're into trannies, this is the one you've got to hear.

Auditorium 23 Standard ($975): In much the way that the young Arturo Toscanini gave up composing after he heard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde for the first time, the German audio impresario Keith Aschenbrenner responded to his first Shindo Laboratory system by ceasing his own efforts at amplifier design and turning his talents toward other things. Luckily, transformers were among them.

This step-up device, designed and voiced for use with Denon's evergreen DL-103, was among the first commercial products from Auditorium 23, Aschenbrenner's Frankfurt workshop. Its two sealed trannies are fastened inside a nondescript case of extruded aluminum more or less the size of an electric shaver, and the input and output connectors are the same type of Switchcraft RCA jacks used by Shindo Laboratory, with a long, flexible ground lead hardwired to the output side. Input resistance measured 7.8 ohms, output resistance 505 ohms.

The Auditorium 23 Standard was wonderful with the Denon, Zu, EMT, and Benz cartridges: dramatic without being brash, and consistently full-bodied and colorful. Attack components of notes were sufficiently clean and unambiguous that the music never became slow or ponderous, and the Auditorium 23 was so dynamically faithful, and so finely nuanced, that it seemed to let the most distinctive performers, from Backhaus to Hendrix, sound more like themselves.

The Auditorium 23 was slightly coarser than the Audio Note: Its sense of flow was excellent in absolute terms, yet the British product sounded a shade more natural. Similarly, with the German transformer, the percussive sounds I described earlier were a bit lacking in sweetness and color by comparison.

The Auditorium 23 Standard performed its best with the highest-impedance sources I tried: To hear it with the Denon (or Zu) was to hear both products at their (seeming) best. Or, looked at from the other direction: To hear the Denon without this or some other very suitable transformer could be to conclude that the Denon is laid-back, is lacking in bass slam and drama, or is dull and lacking in presence and sparkle. And that just ain't so.

I haven't abandoned my belief in a system hierarchy—that the more influential component will always be the one that's closest to the source. That said, if one considers an MC cartridge and its transformer together, then the Denon–Auditorium 23 combination could emerge as a superior alternative to pairing a more expensive cartridge with a less carefully chosen device: It's difficult to imagine spending $1204 on a cartridge plus step-up and doing better than this.

Auditorium 23 Hommage T1 ($4295): Keith Aschenbrenner does, in fact, make a low-impedance, high-gain version of his Standard transformer, for use with low-output cartridges—but this is something completely different: The Hommage T1 is a statement product, intended as a companion to Auditorium 23's well-received Solovox loudspeakers.

The upmarket Hommage T1 is over twice the size and weight of the less expensive Standard transformer (its ground lead is longer, too!), with a textured-paint finish and a nice-looking pair of white-oak endcaps. Its input and output resistance were 3 and 2530 ohms, respectively.

This trannie, too, got along well with the Miyabi and Koetsu cartridges, with the same excellent timing, flow, and overall drama. Acoustic instruments were even more richly colored through the Hommage—as with the charming woodwinds in Nick Drake's "I Was Made to Love Magic," from Time of No Reply (Hannibal 1318).

But the big thing was the big thing: Just as one hears when working upward through the Shindo amplifier line, to move from the less expensive Auditorium 23 transformer to this one was to increase the size of the soundfield by a significant degree. (I'll cave to my inner audiophile's silly predilection for numbers and declare that the Hommage T1 made the soundfield 40% larger!) That in itself enhanced the Hommage's senses of drama and scale—especially with orchestral music. Mono recordings in particular—such as André Gertler and Paul Kletzki's recording, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, of the Berg Violin Concerto (Columbia 33C 1030)—commanded my attention from start to finish, regardless of where in the room I sat.

The Audio Note AN-S8 was slightly richer and more "organic," but the Auditorium 23 Hommage T1 was arguably the more exciting of the two, at least with the cartridges I tried. Is it all right to think of a $4295 transformer as a bargain?

K&K Audio moving-coil phono transformer ($275 kit, $335 assembled): I was browsing the website of the Swedish transformer manufacturer Lundahl when I came upon a link for their US distributor, K&K Audio—and thereupon discovered this high-value transformer kit. It's designed around a pair of Lundahl's LL9206 transformers, wound on layered, amorphous cores, and its primaries are tapped for three different gain configurations: 14dB, 20dB, and 26dB. Electric-guitar enthusiasts will recognize the alloy enclosure as the same one used for the sadly defunct Diaz Tremodillo pedal. Wired for high gain and low source impedance, the K&K exhibited an input resistance of 2.5 ohms and an output resistance of 720 ohms.

Compared to a transformer costing 31 times its price—God, I loved writing that—the K&K sounded a little bit dull and lacking in rhythmic accuracy and nuance. On any good recording of Beethoven's Piano Sonata 21, "Waldstein," it wasn't as easy to hear the humor in the writing with the K&K as with the other choices described here.

Footnote 2: This time I'm reasonably sure it wasn't John Lennon.