Easy – either a good step-up transformer or the very best active MC gain stages.
Almost nothing does a better job of taking extraordinarily small signals from a moving coil cartridge and amplifying them than a step-up transformer, with maybe one exception, which we will get to.
A Perfect Match
Technically there’s a bit to know, but step-up transformers are good because they are completely passive, require no power and have no electronic or moving parts to degrade sonics or add noise.
They match the impedance of the cartridge to the input impedance of the next stage almost perfectly. They can also be chosen to provide a precise level of gain to suit the cartridge and following electronics.
These virtues combine to reveal a level of micro-dynamic detail and resolution you may have thought didn’t exist until auditioning a good step-up transformer in a high-resolution system.
When I got my first transformer, a Fidelity Research FRT-3, in about 2005, I was amazed. Moving to an end-game Fidelity Research XF-1 after some very good advice was the game changer for me, and I’ve used, recommended and supplied many transformers since.
Some of the best phono preamplifiers, such as my Cayin Phono 1, use transformers for their moving coil gain stages because they offer the best performance and lowest noise for sensible money.
Whilst good step-up transformers are ideal for most people in most cases, there are a few cases where alternatives should be considered.
If you have or have access to a really ‘S-tier’ all-active phono preamp, it’s worth comparing this to the best transformers. I recently acquired an end-game Accuphase preamplifier containing a phono preamplifier so good, that it’s actually better than a really good step-up transformer. Mind you, this preamp cost as much as a car when it was new and thousands of dollars even now, at 30 years of age!
In most systems, and for most people, a really good step-up transformer is the best option. But if you can afford an Accuphase C-47 phono preamplifier, this will be the best way forward.
Knowledge and hands-on experience with step-up transformers is something of a lost art. Most people have never even seen a step-up transformer, let alone owned a few of them. They were common in high-end systems in the ’70s and ’80s though.
These days, many discover the almost mythic status of these devices, only to hit their favourite hi-fi store to ask about them and be met with blank stares! Many are left to find someone they can perhaps borrow a transformer from, before placing an order.
I offer this service to my customers who are looking to purchase something through me. The customer who purchased this beautiful Ortofon ST-70 step-up transformer did so before ordering. I had to order the SUT directly from Ortofon and the lead time was months. There wasn’t even one in Australia.
Pros & Cons
- Lowest noise, typically the best impedance matching
- Greatest resolution and micro-dynamic detail, except for premium all-active stages
- No parts to wear out, near 100% reliability
- More expensive to manufacture than cheap consumer-grade gear
- Requires careful matching and should involve a specialist
- Still needs an excellent MM phono preamp
As mentioned, you’ll still need a really good MM/EQ pre, so you cannot get away from this completely. The first part of the chain is what the transformer replaces, doing at least 30dB of heavy lifting.
The very best MC step-up transformers are expensive, but once you’ve heard what one can do, it’s almost impossible to use anything else, other than the very best all-active electronic MC gain stages.