Audio Ideas: Being Transformed

      Date posted: September 3, 2008

Macintosh MCP-1 Head Amp
In the past year I’ve gone through an experience I never expected, the process of moving from the best head amp I’d ever used to a series of transformers in my phono system. It all started with the final fate of my twice-retipped Ortofon MC-3000 MK II, which was to become mono, the left-channel coil failing. And the thing about this wonderfully civilized and detailed cartridge was its very low output, a nominal 30 microvolts, which dictated the active MC stage, the legendary McIntosh MCP-1.

My chosen cartridge fallback, among several options, was another Ortofon, the much more modern Kontrapunkt b, a higher output MC, with a close second being the very reasonably priced Dynavector DV-20X, with even higher output, and closely matching weight (and tracking weight too), important for quickly swapping cartridges in my SAEC universal headshells. The more upfront character of the 20X was more fun with some pop and rock LPs.

During this period, I started to see some MC transformers coming up on eBay at wildly varying prices, some just gussied-up old Ortofons or Denons. It’s amazing how a little chrome or brushed aluminum and gold connectors can triple the asking price. Seeing a few original classics like the Ortofon T-10, (with its rated frequency response shown on the side of its casing as a graph), at prices under $100.00 sold at auction, I started to bid, and bought a T-10 (shown), and swapped it in instead of the Mac just to see what the result would be.
Ortofon T-10 Transformer
Boy, was I surprised! Not only was the sound much more transparent, but noise went through the floor after a bit of placement experimentation. That was with the Kontrapunkt. The Dynavector was just as quiet, with even higher output, but still a little brasher, and seemed to lack top end extension. The Ortofon also sounded a little mellower, and both were very quiet in the groove, quite a bit moreso than the active stage, clicks and pops notably less intrusive. I’ll say more below about why this might be so.

But it seemed to me that the match of the older transformer and newer cartridge from Ortofon was a match made in Heaven, especially with my favourite Classical and Jazz discs. I could hear into the music in a new way, with an amazingly quiet background. This was also partly the contribution of a new mat, the Sonic Bliss, which had recently replaced my RingMat, which was gradually losing its rings. But the DV-20X still did not sound the way it should, so I kept on looking.

I saw many too-expensive transformers (How much effort, time, skill, and materials does it take to precisely wind coils that convert a low-voltage, low-impedance signal into a higher voltage and impedance one?), and was struck by a pair of tiny trannies made by Sony; they looked to be about the size of the little female-to-female adapters that you buy at The Source for five bucks a pair. The price seemed reasonable as the bidding waned, so I got in and bought them for under $200.00.

Sony HA-T10 Transformer

Not sure quite what to expect, but impressed by the Japanese giant’s tuners in the glory days of analog, I replaced the T-10 with these HA-T10 individual adapter-like thingies, each about 2 inches long, with RCA females on input and male on output (RCA females on the output would have saved a female-to-female adapter, but I had a shielded pair at hand).

Once again, the sonic surprise was a highly positive one, with a greater degree of neutrality, especially in the upper octaves, these little transformers having no effect on the native frequency response of the cartridges, including a NOS SAE model I picked up for a song. And the Dynavector sounded much better, the match seeming optimum for its output impedance. And the noise floor, if anything, was even lower, with much less worry about placement, being in the chain as directly as they could be.

Think of it: no wires outside the tiny transformer, and no need for extra shielding, like some of the chrome boxes I’ve seen. The specs do give us some insight into why this little gadget pair works well with my 3 cartridges. The input impedance matching range is 3-40 ohms, a quite broad one, and it can handle 100 mV with distortion under .01%, with maximum gain of 26 dB, this latter determined, of course, by the output impedance and current of the cartridge.

As a result, the Sony HA-T10 is now resident in my system, and the T-10 up for sale as I write. And I believe that I’m enjoying phono reproduction as clean, accurate, and musical from my Heybrook TT2/SAEC 407/23 turntable, especially with the Kontrapunkt b, as satisfying as I ever heard from the MCP-1/MC-3000 combination. Certainly quieter, and maybe even better!

Andrew Marshall

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2 Responses to “Audio Ideas: Being Transformed”

  1. murray reiter c-unknown Says:

    “HEY”…I “two” have a Heybrook TT2 with a Sumiko cartridge.
    my pre-amp is Perreaux SA2 with MC. my amp is also a Perreaux. my speakers are Celestion 6’s. I just put on Palm Court Orchestra. system and records about 30 years old??? but sound great. I also have a Philips CD650, same vintage. still plays well. so, who needs new stuff! not me.

  2. Dave Smith c-unknown Says:

    Thank you Andrew for this review!
    I just bought a pair of these on Ebay. Using with a Tech 1210M5G with all KAB mods, and an Audio-Technica OC9-3, with either a Threshold Fet-10e Phono, or a Spectral DMC-6 Series II. I can’t wait to try them, and your review pushed me over the top to try transformers.
    a penny for your thoughts!

    Dave Smith

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