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Should You Buy a MM-Only Phono Preamp If You Are Using a MM Cartridge?

Should You Buy a MM-Only Phono Preamp If You Are Using a MM Cartridge?
Many vinyl fans using a moving magnet phono cartridge invest in a MM/MC phono preamplifier figuring they'll eventually get a moving coil cartridge. But is that a wise decision?

Or does it make more sense to buy a dedicated MM phono preamplifier now and maximize performance for the dollars spent and later add a "head amp" or a step-up transformer to use with a moving coil cartridge?

So here is the same excerpt of "Cool Struttin'" from the great 1986 Black Saint album Voodoo (120 109 1) performed by The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, which was Wayne Horvitz, John Zorn, Ray Drummond and Bobby Previte.

I chose this because A) it sounds awesome, B) it has excellent dynamics C) it is a good test of "rhythm'n'pacing", D) it has really taut bass, and E) the music is outstanding (someone should reissue this AAA recording along with many other Black Saint/Soul Note records).

The same excerpt has been recorded through eight different phono preamplifiers, a few MM-only and the rest MM/MC using the superb sounding Audio-Technica AT150ANV MM cartridge mounted on a Rega Planar 3.

The phono preamplifiers (in no particular order) are the:

Music Hall pa 2.2
AVM P 1.2
Lejonklou Gaio
Lehmann Silver Cube
Graham Slee Era Gold V
ifi phono2
Musical Fidelity MX-VYNL
Jasmine 2.5DU

Please download the 96/24 files and listen. Then vote in the order in which you like the sound. Also please post comments about which you preferred and why.

The prices range from $399 to $4500. The files are not listed to match the above order! In another story to be posted shortly, you'll find a description of each unit's features but not the editor's sonic assessment, which will only be posted after the close of voting in a few weeks (giving you plenty of time). At a later date, we will repeat the vote with the MC inputs of the units that are MM/MC and with both a Bob's Devices step-up transformer and a Hagerman Audio battery powered "head amp".

Here are the files:

File "1"

File "2"

File "3"

File "4"

File "5"

File "6"

File "7"

File "8"

Ortofan's picture

... how the extra gain needed for a (low-output) MC cartridge is realized.

The simplest solution is to increase the gain of the existing high-output/MM amplifier and change the value of the input load resistor. In this case, the marginal cost increase may be as low as the cost of two resistors (per channel) and a switch, so the cost penalty for having an unused (low-output) MC option is relatively minimal.

A better and more costly approach is to add either an extra active gain/amplifier stage or a step-up transformer. The amplifier stage can be as simple and economical as, perhaps, a single transistor and a few passive components or as complex as the designer deems necessary. The cost of a transformer depends upon several factors such as the quality of the material used in the laminations, the winding configuration and how well it is shielded.

On a pure financial basis, it makes no sense to pay for the capability to handle
a (low-output) MC cartridge if you never expect to use one. OTOH, if you prefer the sound quality of a preamp that can be used with both high and low-output cartridges, you need to decide if the added cost is worth it to you.

Chris F's picture

The link for File 6 is broken (typo) it should be:

Also, the files are not normalized (in terms of RMS) so you need to use replaygain or similar as there is a 2dB swing between quietest and loudest.

I preferred File 2. It had the best bass overall and with nice tone and good instrumental separation. Only critique is the highs were a bit sharp otherwise very nice.

File 3 is also good but the tone is a bit off.

4,7,8 are OK.
4: lacks speed but other wise good; bass has the extension but there is a hole in it somewhere; nice mids
7: slow
8: good but a little laid back; piano is flat

1,5,6 are pretty bad.
1: brittle top and tubby low end
5: bass to mid integration is MIA no instrumental separation at all
6: the bass is awful

I've become a believer in SUT to (tubed) MM stage but the good ones tend to not be budget solutions.

Thank you for doing these types of sound sample comparisons Michael. They are my favourite content on the site (along with your needledrops on youtube) by a large margin and I think they provide a great service to the buying public.

Michael Fremer's picture
I fixed that link....o instead of 0.....
szoze's picture

It would really be interesting to see the results to know which file is matching which phono stage.

Roy Martin's picture

...please, the label is Black Saint/Soul Note. "Black Saint/Soul Not" is funny but inaccurate.

Ortofan's picture

... Hagerman rather than Hageman.

recordhead's picture

Kudos to those who can. I'm jealous! I downloaded and played these at work (radio station) in our production room through a pair of JBL studio monitors. Maybe I'll try again tomorrow.

recordhead's picture

Kudos to those who can. I'm jealous! I downloaded and played these at work (radio station) in our production room through a pair of JBL studio monitors. Maybe I'll try again tomorrow.

RR's picture

Michael, your work (as an editor/writer) never stop to amaze me.

Keep em coming.


RR's picture

But, it seems that the left channel is brighter, consistent from one preamp to another.
Not trying to be rude, the LP is noisy, and the recording is "hard" and "harsh" (feeling of holding something made of hard material).


randybass's picture

I preferred listening to file 7. Seemed to me to have the nicest, relaxing sound (without being boring) and with good separation of instruments.

szoze's picture

I agree! Very nicely balanced too. It also had very quiet background. Nr 2 is also really nice. Nr 5 is completely off compared to the others.

pessoist's picture

but I'm not sure, barely could hear a difference - two are clear to me. #2 is too diffuse, the worst in my ears and #8 kind of less volume/silent/slower, whatever felt behind somehow.

Listening on Fostex TRP50, via RME babyface ADDAC's headphone port, connected via USB to the PC, playing the titles on foobar2000.

chervokas's picture

I gotta say, I bailed out after listening to three. Trying to compare 8 of these things at once over the internet is way too unwieldy. It's 8 big downloads, and then at a certain point going back and forth I lose track of which ones I've listened to already and which I haven't. I dunno what your participation rate is on this, but my guess is that whatever it is would be considerably higher if it was two, three, maybe four files being compared at a time.

saronian's picture

1 - First
8 - Second
6 - Third
3 - Fourth
5 - Fifth
4 - Sixth
2 - Seventh
7 - Eighth

Roy Martin's picture

...that's not the preferred order, that's an NCAA Bracket!

Corsair's picture

Listening through dragonfly black and PM-3's. Not hearing many crucial differences. Difficult to even pick out a clear winner, which surprises me.

Bernd's picture

I find it rather difficult to decide amongst so many alternatives and I wished there was fewer noise in the right channel. So the outcome may be highly embarrassing... Hopefully, I did not pick the Music Fidelity, as I gave it back after a listening test against the Lehman Decade!

I think in terms of spacial representation and instrument separation, I prefer number 2. It is a tad too laidback, though (could be a slight difference in loudness, though).
However, I quite like 5 too, as the ride cymbal in the last part of the song has a nice driving and swinging sound. A bit more brittle, though.
These two pickups are my favourites.
Numbers 3 and 6 are not bad, but their cymbal sound is too imprecise for my taste.
Alternative 4 is quite listenable, too.
Overall, number 7 is not bad but too laidback for my taste.
I don't particularly like numbers 1 or 8.

253mal's picture

From my favorite to least = 3, 7, 8, 4, 6, 5, 2, 1. I would be happy with any of the top four. 1, 2, 5 and 6 have too much bass for my tastes. 3 sounds even, with some top end air. 7 jumps. 3 and 4 sound similar, as do 7 and 8. My system is imac through Audio Engine D2 into a NAD C 320BEE and Vandersteen 2c speakers. Thanks for this Mike, I've been considering trying a different phono preamp. I enjoyed meeting you in Seattle a couple of months back.

bazelio's picture

At least out of Roon, through an EAR Acute III, Focal Utopia headphones ... 5 is my preference. Some of the clips suffer in the treble region. In others, I lose bass definition in various spots. 2 is a bit flat, 5 has a bit more bloom but in a natural way and retains good definition through out. 5's cymbals sound the most right, where 2's are a bit overdamped.

kramth's picture

The last 15 seconds or so were what I ended up using for my evaluation and File 5 seemed the most "open" and 3-dimensional. The bass there displayed better dynamics as well.
File 2 was a close second and 8 third but a little bloated in the bass.

Dorian Workman's picture

Admittedly only listening on my iPhone, I heard no discernible difference, which I think is not surprising given the crappy DAC and crappy speaker! May I suggest that you add a 'no difference' option to the vote? Thanks.

dadada352's picture

It was only by doing this process I was able to come up my winner - No 5. I'm betting No3 is the Jasmine, after I briefly owned one its a forceful sound but not refined enough for me.

ehodder's picture

So I cranked the volume just a bit and this quickly turned into a contest over which preamps wouldn't push the sax high notes near the threshold of pain.

1, 3, and 4 all pushed that too hard for me. 7 went in almost the exact opposite direction so much that I was leaning in on some of the more subtle notes just to hear.

For some reason I loved the bass on 8.

2 overall was really enjoyable but 5 took my top spot. Maybe the dynamics weren't as broad as some of the others but I loved what it did for the instruments. I could move from player to player at will at any point and if I was going to sit for a marathon that would be the preamp.

Maybe it will be because I'm trying to solve this exact problem right now. I'd like to start trying different cartridges but what's the best platform?

Glotz's picture

In fact, I thought you were doing all of the nicer preamps on the odd numbered offerings, but 8 is quite nice and refined, and 7 sounds a bit dry.

1 and 8 had the best width, depth and separation of instruments, as well as sweetest, most refined treble, or at least most expressive. The bass playing was also most audible on these as well. The best sounded as if they were deeper in the groove for some reason. The best suppressed the surface noise in the right channel as well (to a smaller extent). There was a bit of noise bursting around the notes in the center (near the open), but they were fairly down in level.

I have some slightly better Sony headphones, but alas they are wireless and going through an 'okay' soundcard. Man, I hate headphones. (Please forgive the past, brother.)

1 - First
8 - Second
6 - Third
5 - Fourth
3 - Fifth
4 - Sixth
7 - Seventh
2 - Eighth

MrGneiss's picture

2 and 3 for me!!

dr vinyl's picture

You'll hate this but "they are the most musical"

BigstevE's picture

Well since the polls are already closed but the results aren't in yet I may as well chime in:

1. Bright, a little strident, almost grainy even.
2. Slightly (though significantly) better in every way and less bright than #1. A tad looser sounding; but not enough to sway it's overall presentation and sonic qualities away from something sonically akin to #1.
3. A little more forward (and clear-er/tighter) than #2
4. Darkest one yet (most relaxed). Very lush, detailed and dimensional with the burnished cymbals. My guess is this is one of the more expensive ones.
5. Very neutral.. not much to say either way. The (phono, or is it the tape recording) hiss sticks out a bit. On second thought, the cymbals are a little brighter and less 'dimensional' than #4 but not as unpleasant as #1. That's really pulling at split ends though (see opening sentence to #5 as it still kind of holds)
6. A bit darker/more heft than 5
7. Bass reaches lower here. 'Heft' is more subdued and effortless here than #6.
8. Very good stereo-separation and good bass extension (though not as 'slightly XL-sounding' as #7). Not dark maybe on the neutral-natural side of bright. Conversely to the stereo-separation and frequency properties, the 'soundstage' here is on the narrow but focused and upfront side.

Worst to Best

6 or 7

As a Graham Slee owner and fan (Genera and Reflex M) only having the Era Gold V in your previous cartridge shootout from a couple years ago I recon that the Slee isn't either 1,5 or 2 at the least. Between my two top picks, if either one of those phono-pre's were the Slee I'd suspect it was 8 over 4 only because it is said to have a slightly more upfront/narrow soundstage compared to the more expensive models like the Reflex.

P.S. the only reason 2 beats out 5 for me is cause of the impressive drum & piano sounds and dynamics at the tail end of the sample leave 5 sounding the slightest bit monotonous in direct comparison (and 'maybe' even less so in general); None of the other samples are as long so it's a bit of a teaser, I guess.

jolon's picture

File 5 was the only one I listened all the way through. After finishing them all, I listened to 5 again, all the way through.

artem_art000's picture

When will results be posted with what file matches to what phono?