Sutherland Engineering Little Loco phono preamplifier Page 2

Astute readers will notice that I haven't yet mentioned the Lyra Titan i—and that points to another example of the unpredictability of current-mode phono preamps: Through the Little Loco, the Lyra played music and didn't hum much, but fell flat in the same areas the other cartridges excelled. The Titan i is an excellent cartridge and is pretty forgiving with respect to load and gain, so its failure is hard to understand—a sobering reminder that you have to try a cartridge with the Little Loco to know whether it will work.

Loco listening
With the Little Loco in place of my reference Sutherland PhonoBlock Refined phono preamp and with the Benz Micro SL installed in my tonearm, the first album I queued up was a recording of Corelli's Concerti Grossi by the Slovak Chamber Orchestra (Crossroads 22 16 0198). Through the Little Loco, the music consisted of beautiful, flowing lines in an expansive, enveloping soundstage. The instruments sounded natural, and each projected what seemed an infinite well of inner detail: They were clearly defined as distinct, three-dimensional images within the surrounding space.

The Little Loco's portrayal of this space was striking, with an openness and transparency beyond anything I've heard before. The spaces between the images were much more obvious and significantly larger, especially deeper.

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There was a lovely lightness to the musical flow, a sense of air moving around me, as with live music. It was different from the smooth liquidity and ever-so-slightly viscous character I hear from even the best phono preamps. The phrase "lightness of being" popped into my head, and I realized that it was a perfect description of what I was hearing.

Eventually, I found the discipline to drag myself away from the music and begin sorting out the elements of the Little Loco's better-than-best performance. Underpinning everything else, the Little Loco was silent. I don't mean it was quiet, incredibly quiet, or preternaturally quiet, as other Sutherland phono preamps are; this was something else altogether. When nothing was happening, the Little Loco was silent, as if it had turned completely off.

When I listened critically to the Little Loco's flowing musical lines, I realized that my system was resolving temporal information at a much finer level than with my reference phono preamp. I was aware of notes starting and stopping within continuous lines being played by each of the instruments in the Slovak Chamber Orchestra. The initial and final dynamic transients of notes were portrayed so finely and precisely that I was hearing impossibly brief silences between immediately subsequent passages and individual notes within a passage. Even the smallest dynamic transients were articulate in a way that caught me off guard. At the other end of the spectrum, the explosive, out-of-nowhere chops in Rickie Lee Jones's rendering of "Under the Boardwalk" on her EP Girl at Her Volcano (Warner Brothers 1-23805) were even more explosive with the Little Loco but not the least bit harsh or edgy—with a fine delicacy at their very first and last edges that seemed right. It was impossible to avoid the conclusion that the cartridge and Little Loco were extracting more information from any given slice of time, akin to how half-speed mastering puts more information into a given slice of time.

An album I use to test how well a component handles big, blazing-fast dynamic transients amid a dense ambient environment is Friday Night in San Francisco, a recording of a live performance by Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucïa (CBS HC47153). Playing it through the Little Loco exceeded any expectations I might have had.

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I switched my focus to the Little Loco's handling of spatial information. I returned to the open, expansive soundstage surrounding those first few flowing lines. The soundstage created by the Little Loco was unfathomably large. My system had been creating soundstages that typically stretched to perhaps a foot beyond the speakers. Installing the Little Loco was like flipping a switch, instantly extending the edges another 2' out on each side.

Less obvious but even more striking was the way the Little Loco opened up the sounds of performance or recording spaces. Imagine looking out across canyons and meadows through a large, crystal-clear set of floor-to-ceiling glass doors . . . then opening the doors and walking out. The difference was most striking with acoustic performances recorded in large spaces. One that merited a few notepad pages of fawning praise was a Decca Jubilee recording of Friedrich Gulda performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.1 in C, with Horst Stein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Decca JB 39). The sense of space captured on the recording was beyond reproach through my reference system. The Little Loco turned a key, liberating ambience cues and opening up an expansive, immersive space.

The glass-door analogy was apt for smaller spaces and those with denser ambiences as well. The recreation of San Francisco's Warfield Theater and the mayhem within Friday Night was a spectacular example. The dense, reverberant mélange of sounds that was there, the guitar pyrotechnics, the audience, and the insane, layered echoes from a mishmash of different surfaces were more detailed in space and time and felt thicker and more tangible. I wasn't in a wide-open space that stretched from here to infinity, but I still experienced the transition of walking out the door when the Little Loco was installed.

Another factor that contributed to the expansive, open character of the soundstage was its absolute transparency, which struck me as the spatial equivalent of the "it's turned off" silence I described earlier. If there'd been nothing between the performers when the recording was made, there was nothing between them in the Little Loco's soundstage. If the recording was made in a large, reverberant hall, I heard the hall's ambience in the spaces between the performers.

The images created with the Little Loco in my system were more solid and three-dimensional than with other phono preamps, and they had significantly more inner detail. There were finer and clearer microdynamic transients, for example, subtler shadings of pitch, and more nuanced variations in tempo from moment to moment. I often listen to what's going on within Emily Remler's guitar solo on the cut "Mistreated But Undefeated Blues" from The Ray Brown Trio's killer LP Soular Energy (Concord/Jazz LELP 111, Half-speed Mastered Edition). When moving from a very good preamp to a truly excellent one, her bending and flaring of notes went from merely noticeable to demanding attention. There's a level of inner detail and scale of dynamic transients that starts to distinguish the characteristics of individual strings. With the Little Loco, a completely new amount and level of detail was present. The image of her fingers on the strings now had depth and distinct spatial detail. What had sounded like the simple, linear decay of notes now had a choral nature that continued to develop as the notes faded away.

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A thread running through everything I've read about current-mode phono preamps is that instruments sound "more like themselves." With the Little Loco, it was true in some ways but not in others. Instruments and voices had a clarity and purity that seemed truer to their nature than with other preamps. The Little Loco clearly, audibly removed veils of grit, smudging, distortion, haze, etc., that had been covering instruments and voices. It was most evident on the best recorded, most natural-sounding ones. The best instrumental example was János Starker's cello in the Mercury recordings of the complete Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. With the Little Loco, the instrument was so richly nuanced that even simple things like the resinous feel of the bow moving against a single string had a lifelike immediacy and glowing, in-the-room presence. As for a voice, the one I listened to over and over was Warren Zevon's on his eponymous 1976 album: There were moments when everything came together just so, and I felt I was in the room with him. The Little Loco didn't uncover more of these moments, but it turned the intensity of the existing ones up to eleven.

These two LPs were great examples of the one way that instruments and voices sounded less like themselves than with other top-tier phono preamps. For all their glorious inner detail and lifelike presence—for their incomparable, realistic immediacy—the timbre of instruments and voices was just a little too light through the Little Loco. Its low-frequency response was extended and had excellent pitch definition and detail, with no apparent shortage of impact. But the harmonic balance of Starker's cello, for example, lacked a bit of the weight and warmth it has with other superb phono preamps I've heard. It lacked the deep resonance of the real thing. The same was true for Zevon's vocals. Immediate, in the room, spooky lifelike—all true,yet the distinctive low growl that underpins everything just didn't have the weight and prominence I was used to. The Little Loco's timbre was slightly too light, to a degree that varied among the cartridges I used. Slightly. I can't imagine it preventing someone from being gaga over the Little Loco.

Okay, but why?
After listening to the Little Loco, I couldn't help asking Ron Sutherland: Why did he decide to build a current-input phono preamp? And, considering how staggeringly good its performance was, why did he wait so long?

"I only did it because a good friend who had one of the expensive ones told me I should build one," he replied. "I had no interest in doing it. . . . They were complex, and I didn't see any engineering advantages. I viewed them as gimmicks, or a thing that someone might do if they were desperate to differentiate themselves. I ignored him for a while (two or three years), but he just wouldn't let it go.

I thought about it from time to time, though, and then bang—one day it hit me, a way I could do it really simply, so I decided to give it a try."

"Want to tell me how the simple way works?" I asked.

"No," he replied. "I built a prototype. . . . I had no idea how, or even if it would work, but when I tried it, wow, I was shocked. Things just opened up. I'd never heard anything like it. So, I built a real one using the best of every thing. Cost was no object. Nothing was off the table. I was just building it for myself. I had no intention of making it a product. It made no sense. It was loco. But everyone that heard it loved it, so I started thinking about it. Then I beta'd it, and they all wanted to buy the prototypes. So that's it, the Phono Loco."

Would it be loco to buy a Little Loco?
If you're timid or wedded to a certain cartridge that you know won't work, then yes: It would be a little loco for you to buy a Little Loco. On the other hand, if you're willing to take a little time to find a cartridge that works well with this out-of-the-ordinary design and then live happily ever after, then buying a Little Loco wouldn't be at all, um, crazy. It might in fact be the best audio decision you ever made.

My experience with the Little Loco convinced me that it wouldn't be hard to find a reasonably priced cartridge that sounded beyond incredible with it: I just tried what I had in my closet, and most of them worked beautifully—good enough to stop shopping then and there. The combination of the Little Loco and the $500 AT-OC9ML/II sounded as good as a $20,000 combination of my experience, in nearly every way—and better in some. With the $1600 Benz Micro SL, the Little Loco did things I've never heard my system do before.

For my money, the Little Loco is the best way to spend $3800 on an audio system with an analog source.

COMPANY INFO
Sutherland Engineering
455 East 79th Terrace
Kansas City, MO 64131
(816) 718-7898
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

If it weren't for streaming, I would have never engaged with a computer to interface with my Hi Fi. Download, Winn this AFLAC that...I was never gon' do it.

Now, this carn sarned complicated stuff hits me right in my 12 inch!

So, to use this preamp, I need a random cartridge, chosen in the hope that maybe it will work with my system, perhaps, and also get a different wiring set up for my tonearm...as you say: "The shield and ground of the phono cable must be isolated from the plus and minus conductors, which eliminates certain cables and tonearms from consideration. There's nothing a user can adjust to optimize the circuit for a certain cartridge—no adjustment of load resistance, in other words. You're almost entirely limited to moving-coil cartridges, and apparently, even among moving-coils, some combinations don't work at all. Got a cartridge you want to use? Plug it in, hold your breath, and see what happens."

That is so inconvenient, I don't know how us vinyl aficionados can resist!

Whole new layers of inconvenience, expense, and complexity.

Sign me up!

I would buy this if it were plug and play...can we beg a primer on how the Hell to get a system ready to install this crazy thing?

Ortofan's picture

... caliber should settle for nothing less than the CH Precision P1/X1 combo. It has both voltage and current mode type inputs, so that you can switch back and forth between them in search of the ultimate sound quality until you drive yourself silly.

https://www.ch-precision.com/en/products/source/p1
https://www.ch-precision.com/en/products/extra/x1
http://ch-precision.com/images/reviews/1704_Stereophile_P1.pdf

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The Rolexs of phono pre-amps .......... CH Precision and Soulution (see TAS review, Soulution 755) ......... Swiss Precision :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Drive yourself silly" and get into a nervous breakdown :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Parasound Halo JC3+ phono pre-amp ....... $2,995, Stereophile Class-A :-) ...........

Anton's picture

Think you'd be able to tell them apart by listening?

Saying something like "Nagra BPS: $2459 phono preamp, Stereophile Class A :-)" is meaningless.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I don't know ...... You can read the reviews and decide ......... JC3+ provides several user adjustments in the back panel ....... It would be nice if, Stereophile did a comparison review :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

HR said " ... best commercially available phono pre-amp, I have used - Period" about JC3+ :-) ........

Anton's picture

Did you buy it?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I no longer listen to any analog playback gear (sad!) ........ I was trying to make some helpful suggestions to fellow comrades (audiophiles) :-) ........

JRT's picture

The transimpedance amplifier provides extremely low load impedance at its input.

Phono cartridges have an optimal load impedance for flat response to high frequency. Jim Hagerman provides a good explanation at the following link.

http://www.hagtech.com/loading.html

Stereophile has provided an industry profile of Jim Hagerman at the following link.

https://www.stereophile.com/content/industry-profile-jim-hagerman-hagerman-audio-labs

JRT's picture

https://www.electronicdesign.com/analog/whats-all-transimpedance-amplifier-stuff-anyhow-part-1

JRT's picture

https://www.passdiy.com/project/other/zen-i-v-converter

Mökö Koo's picture

http://www.hagtech.com/loading.html

Sadly mr. Hagerman makes an error. Formula for Ropt should be:

Ropt = √(L/C)/2.

Without the divider 2 we get peaking frequency response with ringing in the time domain.

Graham Luke's picture

...The cleanest industrial design chic yet!

JRT's picture

As an alternative, one might try using a Bob's Devices Cinemag Sky to step up the voltage and provide impedance matching between a moving coil phonograph cartridge and a moving magnet phonograph preamplifier.

https://www.bobsdevices.com/product-page/sky-cinemag

Similar:
https://www.stereophile.com/content/bobs-devices-cinemag-1131-phono-transformer

JRT's picture

RIAA filter ... phono equalization

http://www.hagtech.com/equalization.html

Reference inverse RIAA filter

http://www.hagtech.com/pdf/riaa.pdf

Ortofan's picture

... buy a well-designed phono preamp that works with both fixed and moving coil type cartridges.

https://www.lehmannaudio.com/phono-stages/black-cube-se-ii.html

https://www.lehmannaudio.com/assets/products/black_cube_se_II/reviews/EN_review_Hifi_News_02_2010_SEII_screen.pdf

https://www.analogplanet.com/content/lehmann-audio-black-cube-se-ii-mmmc-phono-preamp-reviewed

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Lehmann Audio Decade phono pre-amp ($2,099) was better rated Class-A by Stereophile :-) .........

Ortofan's picture

... only a 3% increase (according to Hi-Fi News) in sound quality, then by all means be my guest.

tonykaz's picture

Everyone can have an Opinion.

The above Summary Opinion needs qualifiers:

Best $3,800 Analog Money Spent for folks that can spend $50,000 a year on audio hobby purchases. ( about $4,000 per month considering Sales Tax )

Circuits like this demand an appropriate Transparent Audio Cable costing near $5,000 for the entry level priced one.

Well, dammit, this Circuit makes ALL phono Cartridges sound wonderful, even cheap ones statement reveals the reviewer's system deficiency, despite the extravagant costs of the gear.

Superb Phono Cartridge transducers have their own unique voice which is beautifully revealed thru well chosen Pre-Amps, is this review suggesting that Today's Pre-Amps with Phono are no dam good?

I'll suggest that it's the Vinyl being played is not so good. ( along with the Pre-Amps being offered )

Superb Vinyl Analog is super Pricy ( and a pain in the Schiit'r ).

Tony in Venice

Anton's picture

Didn't you used to be the world's biggest seller of Monster Cable?

No way I am gonna believe you, dude, You sold your credibility!

;-D

He didn't say it made all transducers sound the same, he said it appeared to allow them to sound better than they did with the other type of phono preamp.

If you found an amplifier that lowered the noise floor of a system, would you say that it made all preamps and sources sound more engaging, or would you think it made all other components sound the same?

I am wondering if you read the review: did you interpret what he said to mean that it made all cartridges sound the same? try it again and read to the end.

tonykaz's picture

Monster's early days. I bought in Deep

You make good points about these things. He does suggest compelling results.

I checked the Sutherland Company's engineering report to find them a detail oriented Vinyl Playback optimiser .

I too worked with optimizing Vinyl playback and had a range of Phono Step-up transformers and amplification devices and circuits.

So, these guys are making MC circuits as did Electrocompaniet ( the best of my era ) , Audio Research and Conrad Johnson, Ortofon with their thousand dollar transformer for their top of the line MC transducer. All the above plus many more Manufacturers going deep into Low output MC step up circuits.

Vinyl now is populated by an obsessive cult ( which I was once a member ).

I suppose that I over-reacted with the reviewer's claim of best $,$$$ spent. ( an extravegent exaggeration , in my opinion )

I'm suspicious of the worshipful Wilson people, wondering how their claims could be relevant for everyman Stereophiles.

I could regret even reading that Sutherland Review, considering my outspoken position against all things Vinyl. The best money spent claim triggered my angst.

Sorry, Mea Copa

Tony in Venice

Anton's picture

This is all good natured ribbing, of course.

You know the difference between a cult and a religion?

The number of members.

As of this year, vinyl is a bigger 'cult' than CD.

Vinyl is a fun part of the audio hobby, why denigrate it? People enjoy vinyl at all price levels.

Do you troll auto enthusiast forums and admonish people that driving really fast costs millions of dollars so they and their street legal car cult should shut up and shut down their obsession?

Do you whine at wine forums that the finest wines cost tens of thousands of dollars per bottle, so they should quit with the cultish talk about finding great 50 dollar bottles?

Well, maybe you do, but you shouldn't!

;-D

Sit back, enjoy some nice copa and cheese, pop open a fine bottle of wine in your favored price range, and get off the vinyl whiner train.

Or, better yet, do us a big favor....go mewl on the digital review posts about the cult of digital and those 15,000 dollar CD players and 80,000 dollar DAC stacks.

Go tilt at the 50,000 dollar amps, while you are at it! Take down the entire hobby, man!

We all have our points of price ridiculosity. There are times I will agree with you, too! Sometimes, I read show reports that list prices and just shake my head. For fun, watch the show videos and pay extra attention when a manufacturer is asked the price of his piece of kit...there is always a pregnant and embarrassed pause, as if they are wondering if the interviewer will laugh, be outraged, or ask who he's kidding. If these guys were playing poker, we'd own them. They know it's silly, too.

Cheers, man.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Music and passion were always in fashion at the Copa .... Copacabana" :-) ..........

misterc59's picture

I may have missed something in these comment sections over time, but I have never seen anyone troll digital on this site. Good luck getting your point across to you know who. I, probably like yourself, listen to most if not all musical mediums (there's a term for what I just said, but don't know what!) Anyway, happy listening, even if it's through a paper 6x9 speaker in a '57 Chevy!

Cheers,
Terry

rschryer's picture

Yep, it's: "polyphonical".

Feel free to use the term liberally. :-)

Mökö Koo's picture

Using the current-mode in phono amp means that all the cartridge current is sinked by the short circuit in amp's input leaving no current to run in the cable capacitance. As a result the filter that acts on the cartridge signal is now of the LR type instead of the usual RCL type. So, what mostly limits the choise of cartridges is the corner frequency of this filter which must be large enough. It is calculated by the formula: f(-3dB) = R/L/(2π), where R,L = resistance and inductance of the cartridge coil. E.g. for Ortofon Quintet Black whose R and L are 5Ω and 6.2µH we get: f(-3dB) = 128kHz. By contrast, for Ortofon 2M Black which is MM cartridge and whose R and L are 1.2kΩ and 630mH we get: f(-3dB) = 303Hz!

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