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A SUT That Fits - Bob's Devices CineMag 1131 Blue MC Phono Step-Up Transformer by Alón Sagee
Musings & Methods
On the wide spectrum between mid-fi mass-market audio gear and the cost-no-object assaults on the high-end, my stomping ground lies at around 70% in the direction of audio insanity, with occasional gusts up to 80%.
I try to keep things very simple. I rarely spend any time with testing and measurements before auditioning a component. Not that I don't find measurements useful, I do. However, what I've found in my years of audiophilia is that measurements cannot tell me how the component will sound in my system—which, to me, is the only system that really counts. I look at measurements only after the product in review passes my first test.
What I listen for in each component, before any other criteria, is how it plays its part in recreating a natural, believable musical experience—especially live performances faithfully recorded in pure AAA analogue (with only a few, well-positioned mics). Specifically, can I close my eyes and be transported through time and space to a small, smoky jazz club in New York to witness a legendary performance by a new singer named Ella—which happened, wait for it... before I was born! Or how about this one: A third row center orchestra seat from which I can "see" Vladimir Ashkenazy playing the solo in Beethoven's Piano Concerto #3 only a few feet in front of me, and actually feel the power of the deep and wide Chicago Symphony Orchestra rising like a epic wave behind him... in 1972? Seriously, aside from being all of 12 years old that year, no one in my world could have afforded that ticket, let alone the required penguin suit.
Every upgrade I consider needs to take me closer to those experiences, to part yet another veil, to reveal surprising elements of familiar performances that I never knew were there. That's why this hobby is so addictive... it's a treasure hunt that never has to end, perpetually fueled by the unspoken credo of high-end audio: "There's always more in there!" Yeah, and we're gonna find it.
In trying to explain my obsession to friends—or even some random teen strapped into his iPod playing concert-level brain damage who somehow overheard me talking audio with his dad (this kid must read lips)—I relate the following: High end audio is the key to unlock a vast "museum of music" that allows us to recreate a musical event of our choosing… at home! If that in itself is not amazing to you, well, who am I to judge?
What a gift it is to be able to experience a stellar performance of a favorite contemporary band, or to "attend" a monumental event in our culture's musical history—a moment plucked out of time—with all its beauty and intensity... and to feel like you are there! This is what makes what we do meaningful. If not for our shared avocation, these gifts would be possible only in our imagination – which, to me, is not all that satisfying.
No, you don't have to be rich to experience this, just rabid crazy enthusiastic and somewhat patient. I've been able to achieve this in systems I've owned at a range of price points by searching for products of high value—not necessarily affordability—because that will create wildly different ideas depending on whom you're speaking with. Value: products that perform way above their price point... the giant killers.
Having used these auditioning criteria for many years, I believe my 2-channel analogue set-up is really great sounding (see full components list below). For my friends, it's likely the best reproduced music they've ever heard. So I was careful in speaking with Bob that he not take offense if I was a tad skeptical about his product. After all, my VAC Standard LE's built-in tube MC phono stage is quite remarkable without any outside help, thank-you-very-much.
I asked Bob how long the new SUT would take to burn in, so I could make a good and fair comparison. To this, his response was quite confident and clear: "If you don't hear a difference right away, just send it back to me and I'll refund your money." Fair enough.
Part of my love of this hobby is our ability to speak with the garage-based designer-manufacturer-support tech-audio entrepreneur (who usually still has a day job) about his product. I've met really good people who love what they do and actually make time to talk shop with me, which I am careful not to abuse.
OK, let's get this audition going.
Description from Bob's website
Hand Crafted, Moving Coil (MC) Cartridge Step-up Transformer (SUT) built with new CineMag CMQEE-1131 (Blue Version) Transformers and gold plated hardware in a hand polished black powder coated cast-aluminum enclosure. All lettering is laser etched. Included are 2 switches: high/low gain and ground/lift. (Reviewer’s note: Bob asks purchasers for some details about their phono cartridge so that he can pick the right gain profile for their SUT)
Connecting the 1131 into my signal path was easy. Think of it as a mid-station between your turntable and your pre-amp's MM inputs. The only option is a handy ground/lift switch. Whichever setting gives you a quieter background is the right one.
For most audiophiles, putting another component into the signal path usually leads to an uncomfortable rash and/or hives. For medical reasons, the sonic effect of the new component in a reviewer's system needs to be so positive that it more than compensates for its existence in the audio chain, as well as its price. This little SUT was starting off with a handicap.
Before beginning my critical listening, I prepared my rig for maximum performance – warming up the amps with music for two hours, while picking out tracks and sides of albums from my reference collection. I chose tracks that I know very, very well and played some cuts to make sure the system was ready. As always, before any A/B comparisons, I fix in my aural memory the sound I'm starting with—listening closely to the familiar tone, depth, inner detail and speed of my system, which is my audio benchmark. And lastly, I made sure I could move the new component in and out of the chain quickly and easily.
Yes, I did hear a difference right away, but I was not impressed. Indeed, the 1131 is quieter than my VAC's built-in MC stage, which is not surprising when comparing the noise floor of a tube stage vs. a passive device. Blacker backgrounds are good, but not enough. Here's what I found in three hours of attentive A/B testing:
The bass was definitely more pronounced, but loose and unfocused compared to my reference. On Ray Brown's solo on the title track of LA4's Just Friends, I couldn't locate his instrument clearly in the soundstage... he was everywhere.
On Ennio Morricone's spectacular soundtrack from The Mission, the upper mid-range sounded distorted, with some glare in the soprano choral voices. I paused here to clean the album and cartridge again because it sounded like a dirty stylus that caused some mis-tracking. I played it again... hmmm, still there... took the SUT out of the chain and thankfully, I was relieved to be back to the familiar lush sound of my VAC (Whew! This excellent reference album is long out-of-print and I was concerned it was showing signs of wear).
After over two hours of A/B-ing, Bob's top-of-the-line 1131 SUT did improve, but not enough to come close to my VAC. I was ready to pack it up and send it back, but it was getting late, so I figured I would do so in the morning, and write him a letter of explanation with my thanks. Before calling it quits, I decided to put on one of my favorite album sides, Dexter Gordon's "Tanya," from the LP One Flight Up, on a pristine Blue Note test pressing. OK, so something definitely happened about halfway through this remarkable 20-minute jam... It was startling. I got up to check, and yes, the SUT was in the chain and nothing had moved. I could barely believe my ears, and had to A/B this track three times to grasp the transformation.
Somehow, quite suddenly, and without any really encouraging incremental improvement that led up to this, the music came to life! The soundstage blew open and focused the instruments in space with so much air around them that it felt like if I got too close to the tenor sax, I just might get sprayed with some famous spittle! Bass reproduction also took a quantum leap—getting richer, tighter and more musical. The mid-range glare not only disappeared, but left in its place an easy, natural sparkle that made my system without the SUT seem veiled and dull in comparison (this was agony to come to terms with, since I love my VAC). I spent the next half hour doing more A/B and trying to squash the impulse to wake up my wife and drag her into the listening room so I could have someone, anyone, share this experience with me (a really bad idea).
Right out of the box, the sonic signature of the 1131 was adequate musically, but nothing inspiring. I'm really glad I kept listening, because it burned-in quite dramatically over the course of its first 3 hours of continual use.
I bought the review unit (at full price), and I am happy to report that It's getting even better as it ages in my system. In my opinion, spending $1200 to get such an improvement in sound is a good value that only fellow audiophiles would understand. Bob's tiny 1131 SUT is a definite giant killer.
This review turned out to be a very moving personal experience of "You don't know what you don't know until you know." When the stars align and the joy of an audio upgrade reveals itself to us in an unexpected musical epiphany so exciting and satisfying (at least to us hopeless audiophiles) that we shout "Yes! Yes! Yes!" and high-five our wives in celebration of getting one step closer to audio Nirvana (OK, that high-five thing? Never happens. Mostly, I just get that look).