- Category: Full-Length Reviews
- Created on Thursday, 15 December 2011 00:00
- Written by Garrett Hongo
As I write this, fall weather has come on just over a week ago here in Oregon. Two or three days of coolish, overcast days were followed by a day and a half of soft rain showers. Then, clean, crisp, coolish mornings gave way to a lovely slanting light of afternoon, warm and yellow, bathing the plum and Japanese maple trees, both on the verge of turning, subtle tonal colors of their varied green leaves shining in the rich luminescence of the new autumn. Things in the garden that had seemed blonded by the intense sun of summer now appeared somehow freshened -- hennaed tassels of corn fringed more deeply purple, yellow marigolds more golden, red and orange heirloom tomatoes shining as if lantern-lit from within. Even the colors of the earth seemed to gain gravity, their browns deepened with new umber. Time to put away gardening tools, fishing rod and reel, and get back into audio!
These past few years, fall has always meant moving away from summer life outdoors and back inside, to my study and listening room. Curiously, come fall, I seem to hear music better, the season’s intensification of floral colors echoed in the varied timbres and tonal lusters of the music I hear through my audio system. It’s especially the case with analog, where any change in the chain of amplification can intensify and transform listening, often revealing heightened details, the gorgeous splendors of playback having been suborned by memory and the summer’s distraction. Therefore, I think of the MC 4 step-up transformer ($2195 USD) from E.A.R. as a kind of perfect autumnal instrument for my audio system. It does for music all that fall does to my garden’s living colors.
The step-up transformer has long been a mainstay of the analog hobby: a device placed in circuit between the relatively low-level signal generated by a moving-coil cartridge and the moving-magnet input of a phono preamplifier. Basically, the step-up amplifies the tiny analog signal from the MC cartridge to an MM level, which then can be amplified even more by the phono stage. You’ll find step-ups built into preamps made by VAC, E.A.R., and Shindo, and in phono stages from Lamm and Tron, among others. More commonly, a step-up is a standalone device that amplifies the analog signal passively, through the windings of its transformers, rather than actively, as with the FET devices and tubes used in many MC phono stages. Consequently, when amplifying the signal from an MC cartridge, many purists of the old school much prefer step-ups to the active gain of tubes and FETs.
Designed by audio legend Tim de Paravicini, the MC 4 is a bit unusual as step-ups go: It has four primaries, accessed via four different sets of taps on its copper-wound transformers. This gives the device four sets of gains and impedances rather than just one, via four pairs of gold-plated RCA input jacks on the rear panel. Each pair of inputs provides a different impedance -- 3, 6, 12, or 40 ohms -- to produce respective outputs of 30x, 24x, 18x, or 10x the input voltage. For example, the MC 4 increases the 0.3mV output of my Ortofon Anniversary SPU cartridge to 9mV (3 ohm tap), 7.2mV (6 ohms), 5.4mV (12 ohms), or 3mV (40 ohms). This makes the MC 4 incredibly flexible, suitable for use with a variety of MC cartridges with various outputs and internal impedances. Apropos of this flexibility, the rear panel has two grounding posts, each isolated from the signal grounds with a pair of 10-ohm resistors.
Note: A transformer presents a different kind of load than does a resistive network, which is what most preamps/phono stages have. Transformer loadings can be converted to the corresponding resistances with a formula: a step-up’s reduction of resistance can be figured by dividing the impedance by the square of the turns ratio. For example, a 47k ohms impedance becomes:
1:10 turns ratio: 47,000 ohms ÷ 100 = 470 ohms
1:20 turns ratio: 47,000 ohms ÷ 400 = approx. 120 ohms
1:30 turns ratio: 47,000 ohms ÷ 900 = approx. 50 ohms
1:40 turns ratio: 47,000 ohms ÷ 1600 = approx. 30 ohms
The EAR MC 4 itself is quite small, and can easily fit behind a phono preamp on the same shelf. My review sample measured 5.25"W x 3"H x 5.5"D. The cylindrical tops of the twin transformers stick up an inch more from the top plate, and you can count on the ground posts adding about 0.75" of depth. While the chassis is finished in a gloss black paint, the transformers and faceplate are distinctively chromed. "MC 4" is etched in 1"-tall letters into the chrome faceplate, as are the smaller "E.A.R. designed by Tim de Paravicini" legend and logo across the bottom of it. Underneath are four largish Sorbothane footers that are so substantial that I never felt the need to use any other isolation tweak. Overall, the unit had a nice, solid heft that attested to its density, though I don’t think it weighs more than a few pounds. I could easily move it around, from desktop to audio rack to behind my phono preamp.
I very much liked the MC 4’s ground posts. A peeve of mine is that ground posts are often of a quality of build different from the rest of a given audio component. The MC 4’s posts are of high quality, with generously sized center holes that easily accepted the blade of a spade. They never gave me trouble.
I spent a long time burning in the MC 4 before it sounded its best. I first used Granite Audio’s Phono Burn-In and RIAA Test CD (Granite Audio CD-101, $50), recommended by E.A.R. USA distributor Dan Meinwald. I ran interconnects from my CD player to the MC 4 and played the CD’s burn-in track for about three days through each of the MC 4’s four pairs of input jacks. Even this proved not enough: The MC 4’s sound continued to improve over the course of another two months of listening. Not counting the time spent using the burn-in CD, I must have put 150 to 200 hours on the 3- and 6-ohm inputs before I thought the MC 4 had settled into a characteristic and consistent sound.
Otherwise, the MC 4 was very easy to use -- just plug’n’play. I ran phono cables and a ground wire to the step-up, then interconnects to the MM inputs of my Herron VTSP-2 phono stage. With four different MC cartridges, I mostly alternated between the 6- and 12-ohm inputs before I found what I thought was consistently the "best" sound, no matter the cartridge: via the 6-ohm inputs. I used a Zyx Airy 3 cartridge (0.24mV/4 ohms) and three Ortofons: a GM Mono Mk.II SPU (3.0mV/100 ohms), an Anniversary SPU (0.3mV/2 ohms), and a Cadenza Mono (0.45mV/5 ohms).
With every one of my four MC cartridges, the EAR MC 4 put out a consistently pleasing, almost burnished sound that was detailed yet timbrally rich, with saturated instrumental tones and fabulous pace and rhythm. It especially excelled with mono jazz LPs pressed before 1958, seeming to lower the noise floor and give those records a quieter, cleaner, overall warmer sound. But it was no slouch with contemporary reissue pressings either, always seeming to tame tape hiss and extraneous groove noise, brighten tonal colors, make snappier the punch of drums, and tighten up the bass. And I especially liked its way with guitars, both electric and acoustic.
With the Ortofon GM Mono Mk.II SPU cartridge and Ortofon RS309-D tonearm, the MC 4 put out rich, opulent tones with vintage jazz LPs -- my listening notes are full of exclamation points. Oscar Peterson’s piano in "Ad Lib Blues," from Lester Young’s Pres and Teddy and Oscar (Verve VE-2-2502), had such momentum and weight that I felt the music jump from the speakers. Pres’s tenor sax has a fabulous buttery tone in "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)," and his notes, from high to low in his register, were pure, clean, sensuous, and rich, with a great sashaying swing. It was as pure a sound as I’ve heard from my system.
Likewise, using the Ortofon Cadenza Mono half-inch cartridge on the same Ortofon arm, I got similar keyboard clarity and impact, fabulous tonal saturation, and fine soundstage depth from "Mood Indigo," from Duke Ellington’s Masterpieces by Ellington (Japanese CBS/Sony Mono 20AF 1414). What’s more, the MC 4 was able to render distinct timbral differences among the instruments and sections of Ellington’s orchestra. The woodwinds were sweet and open in the stunning intro, played achingly moderato. Further in, the clarinet solo sounded punchy, with a big, woody tone and clear, liquid top notes. Johnny Hodges’s solo on alto sax had lots of typically syncopated and bent notes, and a big tone. Throughout, the MC 4 exhibited great midrange resolution and dynamic articulation, rendering with clarity Hodges’s explosive attack transients and feathery trills as he seesawed like a seagull on the gusts of his solo. At the back of the soundfield, the horn choruses were appropriately recessed and scaled in support, the trumpet fanfares sounding very "champagne." Finally, as she sang "Those feelings go stealin’," Ivy Anderson’s silky, melismatic top notes gave me chills. And the plunger-mute trumpet section accompanied her with great impact and attack, punctuating each verse. I could feel the hollowed, cupped notes inside the mutes, the distinction as the trumpeters dished out heavy vibrato in one passage, then pealing, sharply articulated squawks in another. This was wah-wah before any electronic pedal device was invented.
I thought the MC 4 was especially adept at bringing out the fineness of guitar lines and the microdynamics of amplified sustain on an old rock’n’roll tune taken up by a 1960s acid-rock band from San Francisco. Switching from mono to stereo and my Zyx Airy 3 cartridge on the TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm, I played Bo Diddley’s "Who Do You Love" as performed live by Quicksilver Messenger Service on Happy Trails (Capitol ST-120). John Cipollina’s snarling, ringing electric lead guitar was beautifully clear, resolved, and nuanced. I always thought that this brooding Frisco hippie was a Heifetz of the Gibson SG. Cipollina invented gorgeous cadenzas, runs, and fills, riffing relentlessly off Bo Diddley’s rhythmic tune. Gary Duncan’s own guitar solo on a hollow-body Gibson wasn’t nearly as felicitous as Cipollina’s virtuosic one, but was nonetheless emphatic and satisfying, with rounded, mellow sustains. And when Cipollina started to goof around with distortion and feedback ("I like . . . the rodent-gnawing distortion of the tubes on top," he once said), the MC 4 was easily up to the excesses of both the fine and gross distinctions of timbral character, demonstrating an impressive tonal range and an ability to maintain a solid, punchy, rhythmic bass line.
As fabulous as the MC 4 was with jazz and rock, I was perplexed by its performance with some symphonic music played using the same combo of Airy 3 and Raven arm. While there was good orchestral thrum and midrange impact in the third movement, Scherzo (Allegro), of Beethoven’s Symphony No.2, as performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti (London CS6927), tuttis sounded squashed, and timpani strokes rumbly rather than punchy. I know this recording very well, and have used it as a reference for other reviews; it sounded quite different from what I’m accustomed to. Horns and woodwinds were sweet and mellow, and the overall pacing of the orchestral movement was fine, but the music didn’t seem to breathe easily, or the strings sound open enough. I switched from the 6- to 12-ohm inputs and the sound improved in these areas, but still didn’t sound quite right. Switching to the 40-ohm inputs chased me back to the 12-ohms, which I found optimal. Punch improved, and the violins had very nice tone until the tuttis, at which point they again sounded too tight and constricted on top. It was similar with Géza Anda’s set of Mozart’s piano concertos, with the Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum (Deutsche Grammophon 139 113 ST33). The Concerto No.26, K.537, had a somewhat soft piano sound, not quite crystalline or sparkling, the orchestral violins a bit overdriven in the sforzandi. But there was good separation of the string sections, demonstrating the MC 4’s facility in differentiating timbral signatures.
By contrast, I flat loved the way the MC 4 performed with the stereo Ortofon Anniversary SPU (for "stereo pickup") tracking rock and jazz LPs. For all of these records, this combo proved my favorite front-end playback combo of all. Female voices, acoustic and electric guitar, acoustic piano, and live recordings of all sorts proved unfailingly glorious to listen to. Emmylou Harris’s voice in "I Am a Poor, Wayfaring Stranger," from her Roses in the Snow (Warner Bros. BSK 3422), was still youthful in this 1980 recording, with a rapid and pretty vibrato that made for a penetrating wail of lament. It occurred to me that this was a foreshadowing of the kind of cool, reverb-rich sound she would come to perfect with Daniel Lanois on her Wrecking Ball, 15 years later. Yet the country harmonies in the choruses are rich and reminiscent of the tune’s Appalachian origins. The EAR step-up excelled at differentiating instrumental lines, pacing, and timbres in Harris’s terrific string band of accompanists playing steel- and gut-strung guitars, mandolin, lap steel, stand-up bass, and fiddle. Likewise, from a new reissue of Eric Clapton’s Unplugged (Reprise 468412-1) I heard superb, sensuous detail and differentiation from plucked and strummed acoustic guitars. Clapton puts a bluesy bite into "Malted Milk," with string-bending that was noticeably muscular and picking that was forceful and percussive through the EAR. His solo in "Old Love" was a feast of varied attacks, whispery frailing, and percussive fortissimi damped quickly by his palm. Without any edginess whatsoever, each detail seemed painted with an oil brush: gorgeous, tactile, dripping with sweat and emotion.
My reference step-up, made in the UK by Music First, is probably most familiar to North American audiophiles as being made from the same OEM transformers, the Stevens and Billington Limited TX103, once used by Bent Audio to make its excellent step-up. It features copper-wound transformers and a split, four-section primary winding that allows gain ratios of 1:5 (14dB gain), 1:10 (20dB gain), and 1:20 (26dB gain). Resistive loads are also variable, with 10, 20, 30, 40, and 80k ohms, and a custom setting available. The gain levels and resistive loads are adjusted via big, chromed knobs attached to Swiss-made ELNA rotary contact switches. About twice as large as the EAR MC 4, the Music First step-up comes in a brushed-aluminum case measuring 8.5"W x 3.5"H x 7.875"D. It retails for $2985 -- $790 more than the MC 4 at $2195.
I thought at first that the two step-ups were dramatically different in how they rendered the sound of mono jazz. The free-form avant-garde music on Eric Dolphy’s Time Out (Blue Note 4163) is extremely dependent on timbral differences among the solo instruments. This music was far less involving via the MF step-up than the EAR, which sounded so much more dimensional. And the MF sounded strident by comparison. The Dolphy LP is so free that I focus on the tonal colors of the instruments rather than any musical line as they solo or, less frequently, play together. The MC 4 rendered these timbral differences in a way that was startling yet very pleasing. Resonances, decays, harmonic overtones, and timbral signatures were presented as if in a sonic version of a cubist painting -- stark yet vibrant, with accentuated tonal boundaries absent of etch or sizzle. The MF seemed to overdrive the music, highlighting the treble range, which necessitated some resistive loading (20k ohms) to tame its tendencies. Yet, once so loaded, the music lost spirit, clarity, and verve -- and without those, this LP is nothing.
But in a direct comparison of "My Funny Valentine," from Cookin’ by Miles Davis (Prestige 7094), things seemed a toss-up. With this mono LP, the MC 4 was bloomier, sweeter, with more tonal weight. Again, timbral saturation and tonal colors were terrific. Davis’s Harmon-muted trumpet sounded clear and palpable via the EAR, but the MF rendered Davis’s trumpet with more extension and percussive impact, and with more air. Through the MF the plucked bass had more clarity, punch, and definition -- it was tighter. Via the MC 4, the bass sounded more plummy. With this track, it was hard for me to pick which step-up was "better."
With the Ortofon Anniversary SPU cartridge the EAR MC 4 sounded far more colorful and tonally saturated, with more distinct imaging, and presented a wider soundstage than the MF. Via the EAR there were more presence and liveliness in "St. James Infirmary Blues," from Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo Plays King Oliver (Audio Fidelity AFSD 5930), more dynamic contrasts. The woodiness of the clarinet came through, Armstrong’s trumpet sounded more dynamic and thrilling, and the trombone was richer, more full of swagger. Decays lasted like wafts of cigar smoke in still air. By contrast, the MF step-up was lighter in tone, airier, more laid-back. Without question, I gave this comparative bout to the MC 4, which had superior jump factor, more timbral richness and sophistication, and tighter bass. Instrumental lines sounded more distinctly drawn. The MF was no slouch -- just leaner.
Yet when it came to the same two classical LPs I’d played with mixed results via the EAR MC 4, the Music First was absolutely stellar. With the Zyx Airy 3 cartridge mounted on the TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 arm and using the MF’s 1:20 ratio and 80k loading, I listened with pleasure to Anda in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.26 and Solti conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No.2. Though the orchestral introduction of the first movement of the Mozart sounded a bit thin (as DGG LPs of the period tended to), the violins were sweet and open, a touch frail rather than lush, but without glare or murk. Later in the movement, Anda’s piano sparkled and had fine dynamic articulation. His midrange arpeggios in the third movement, Allegretto, were rich and full, with great tonal depth. And, when they came, the tuttis had both sprightliness and authority, with good, solid bass and orchestral thrum. The music came through much more easily than with the MC 4, displaying Mozart’s characteristic compositional charm and geniality throughout. I thought the MF was spectacular with the first movement of the Beethoven symphony. What a fabulously rich yet open sound! The strings had great warmth, openness, and clarity, while the woodwinds were sweet and clear, and horns rich and brassy. Accelerandi were suspenseful, and the outbursts of orchestral tuttis were fantastically brisk and full of impact. The Music First was able to delineate intricate differences between thematic lines played by the cellos and taken up by the violins, rendering them with glorious contrasts of tone and portraying their overlay with a fine delicacy. Overall, the MF proved both refined and dynamic with classical music.
The performance differences between these two step-up transformers were extremely clear through my system. The Music First would be the obvious choice if most of your listening is to classical music. But if you mainly listen to jazz and rock, the EAR MC 4 is easily the better bet.
The EAR MC 4 step-up is one fine analog instrument. If rich timbral colors, tonal weight and impact, and rhythmic tightness are what you listen for in music, it should be high on your audition list. Add to those characteristics its flexibility in providing multiple gain options, its small size, and its handsome looks, and I think it’s a no-brainer: one of the best values in audio. Get it and you’ll hear rich tonal colors, like a fine mosaic of autumn leaves made brilliant by a crepuscular sun.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Analog sources -- TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable; TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm with Zyx Airy 3 cartridge (0.24mV); Ortofon RS309-D tonearm with Ortofon 90th Anniversary SPU (0.3mV), Ortofon Cadenza Mono (0.45mV) and Ortofon GM Mono Mk II SPU (3.0mV) cartridges
- Digital sources -- Cary 303/300 CD player, Apple iMac with JoLida Glass Tube DAC
- Preamplifiers -- Lamm LL2.1, deHavilland Mercury 3 line stages; Herron VTPH-2 phono stage; Music First step-up transformer
- Power amplifiers -- Herron M1, deHavilland KE50A (both monoblocks)
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR5 HSE
- Speaker cables -- Siltech 330L, 330L jumpers
- Interconnects -- Siltech 330i, Auditorium 23, Nordost Tyr phono cable
- USB cables -- Wireworld Starlight 6, Wireworld Silver Starlight
- Power cords -- Cardas Golden Reference, Fusion Audio Predator and Impulse, Harmonix XDC Studio Master, Thor Red, Wireworld Stratus
- Power conditioner -- Weizhi PRS-6 power strip
- Accessories -- Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack in sapele, HRS damping plates, edenSound FatBoy dampers, Winds VTF gauge
EAR MC 4 Step-Up Transformer
Price: $2195 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Coombe Grove Farm, Ermine Street
Arrington, Cambridgeshire SG8 0AL
Phone: (44) 1223-208-877
1087 E. Ridgewood Street
Long Beach, CA 90807
Phone: (562) 422-4747