19 April, 2016

Shure SC35C, BAT P5, ARC PH1, Shindo

Review: Shure SC35C Cartridge, Part II
Letter from NYC (53) 2016 (9)
Review: BAT VK-P5
Vinyl Talk: MM vs MC, Part I
Phonoamp Shootout: BAT P5 vs ARC PH1 vs Musical Surroundings Phonomena II vs Parasound JC3

Note: At first I was perplexed that I got terrible results from the Shure SC35C (see Review: Shure SC35C, Part I), but I now know why. Read on.

Shure SC35C
Puzzling First Impression Almost a year ago, I read a Stereophile article by Herb Reichert, in which he (like others on the net) praises the evergreen $35 DJ Shure SC35C cartridge, used on a Pioneer direct-drive PLX-1000 (his review of the TT here). Now, HR is a seasoned reviewer (though now on the cheap), and the Pioneer he uses is almost the same thing as my AT-PL120 (I suspect they have the same OEM). As he got curious about the Shure, I did too. I bought one from Amazon and enlisted my idling Pioneer PL-10 for the purpose. As stated in my Note and the link above, the result I got was terrible. Frankly, I have never heard a worse sounding setup.

Rejuvenation/Culprit Revealed Still perplexed by the result, this time around I decided to shift the SC35C to my Audio-Technica AT-PL120 for a second chance. As I took off the cartridge leads on the Pioneer headshell, I noticed that they have deteriorated quite a bit, with clip barely hanging on. I installed it on the AT-PL120 and was immediately captivated. Yes, it was a little rough at first, but now I could hear the potential (more sonic notes down below). There! Cartridge Leads are easily damaged with time and during manipulation, and any poor connection adversely affects the sound. The degree of damage the leads did still amazes me.

I added the AT-PL120/Shure SC35C to my reference System II. As I have 2 Thorens tables fighting for the Shindo Monbrisson's 2 phono inputs, I needed to add a phono amp anyway, I used the opportunity for a little fitting.

This is an older model, a super-bargain at current second-hand prices. As you can see from the pic, its battleship built and topology bears great resemblance to its current offerings, including the current flagship VK-P12SE (just rave-reviewed in the current May/June 2016 TAS). If you compare, the more expensive offerings differ little in topology, more in component grade and added options, like input transformers (I prefer my own) and output transformers. The P5 uses 8x6DJ8 and 2x6SN7. I have all old stock tubes in them.

The P5 is highly configurable. The maximum (high) gain of 56 db is a little low for very low output cartridges (like my Denon DL-304), but the low gain is a highish 50 db. One can further trim two pots to attenuate another 6 db (44 db). Two dip-switches allow for loading and capacitative adjustments.

For some reason, I have never formally written this up. Perhaps it is because I have previously only used it in balanced mode with the BAT VK-3i preamp, not my usual connection (RCA, as I use SET amps). My previous experience, with Air Tight PC-1 and with Koetsu Black, was very positive, and so is completely at odds with the surprisingly negative review on 10audio (usually this site is OK) and more in keeping with Toneaudio (summary only; more details in its review of the similar P6).

Compared to some other big names, BAT gears are less popular. I think this is due to their insistence on balanced topology. While the preamps have concessions to RCA's, the P5 phono amp does not; there is only a single pair of balanced output, necessitating the use of adaptors when used with non-balanced gears.

Audio Research (ARC) PH1 There is not much info on the net. For an introduction, see my previous experience.

Parasound JC3 Previously reviewed extensively (see here).

Musical Surroundings Phonomena II (see here).

Analog Rig: Audio-Technica AT-PL120/Shure SC35C (and other after-market styli)
Preamp: Shindo Monbrisson (has MM stage)
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL Audio 4-way horns
Phonoamps: Musical Surroundings Phonomena II; Parasound JC3; BAT VK-P5, ARC PH-1
XLR to RCA Cable: Gotham GAC-2/1 and DGS-1

Sonic Impressions
  • Shure SC35C (new stock) Compliance This is a very low compliance cartridge, and my low-medium mass arms are theoretically not optimal (I added a headshell weight). You can press on the stylus and it hardly budges, maybe great for child-proofing? VTF Recommended tracking force is 4-5 gm, and I use 4.5 with no problem. Output As we shall see, the high output of 5mV proved problematic to my system with high efficiency loudspeakers. Initial Sound/Run-In As soon as I mounted the SC35C in the AT-PL120, everything just snapped into focus. Force, colour, everything just exploded. Initially the sound was rather coarse at the top, but it started to smooth out after 20 hours. Likely not fully run in yet even as of this writing.
  • SC35C + Shindo Monbrisson Trying the other phono amps made me realize the presentation of Shindo's MM section - a somewhat softer presentation and narrower stage. But it was perfect for the rather long run-in period. The Shindo tamed the edge of the SC35C (it is important to remember my horns magnify such things) and for the initial period that was what I used. Unusually for me, but highly appropriate for MM, I played many rock and pop records. Even early on, the SC35C took well to rock and the male voices: Willy DeVille's Miracle, Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate, Dylan's Nashville Skyline and Pink Floyd's The Wall were all rendered with unforced dynamic swing, a fast, clean and powerful bass. On these rock/pop LPs the SC35C outperforms my MC's, and its ease of delivery is just admirable. Only when I played the period instrument Bach Violin Concerti (La Petit Bande; Proarte) or digitally recorded Linda Ronstadt For Sentimental Reasons was some residual upper midrange glare revealed. Of course, with MC's vocals and instrumental details are more nuanced, but the Shure is satisfying enough and rhythmically even more urgent.
  • SC35C + Phonomena II Like before, I had no luck with this one. I tried the various capacitance valued but none was able to change the sterile sound. Nothing offensive and neat, but not inspiring either, and that is a no no for LPs. Abandoned again.
  • SC35C + ARC PH-1 Now, this is more like it. The soundstage expanded in width and depth significantly. Bags of air was accompanied by a little over-the-top treble. To smooth out the sound, I resorted to an old Audioquest Ruby, a solid core cable. That did it perfectly. It shows once again that solid cores can sometimes work when stranded prove unsatisfactory. It also shows that one should consider what the vintage item was paired during its time. For the ARC PH-1, it was likely the era of Monster and MIT, old models that were not so transparent.
  • SC35C + Parasound JC3 or BAT VK-P5 Parasound JC3 Previously I had only availed myself of its excellent high-gain MC stage. I was surprised that the (47 db gain) MM sound was equally impeccably detailed, quiet and smooth. Just like the ARC PH-1, as compared to the Shindo, the soundstage width and depth both expanded. Tonally and dynamically a very even performer. This is a full balanced design. BAT VK-P5 The sound is very detailed and with a wide and deep soundstage. Surprisingly for a tubed unit, the transient attack is very fast and dynamics superlative. The unit also needs an hour to sound its best. As this is tube, there is a little more harmonics, but overall the sound is rather neutral, with just a hint of tube bloom; hence I can see why some tube people may not like this. I tried all of the capacitance options but the basic sound remained the same. As the output of the SC35C is a high 5mV, I used the lowest gain of 44 db by trimming the pots all the way down (see above). Parasound vs BAT Compared to the Parasound (even higher 47 db gain), the BAT subjectively sounds like the gain is too high, and the sound becomes just a little wilder/bright with certain styli. I interpret this to mean the BAT VK-P5 is more dynamic than the Parasound. Part of this is also due to its fast transient attack, again subjectively faster than the Parasound. Put it another way, the solid state Parasound veers towards the warm of tubes, whereas the tubed BAT tends not to be tubey. For BAT, I think it is somewhat unusual to be in the position of having insufficient gain for very low output MC's but seemingly too much gain for high output MM's. Hum Like when I had the Raos mono cartridge (here), both the Parasound and BAT have a grounding issue that I could not get rid of. When the music is playing, it is low enough to be inaudible, but one can just hear it during quiet passages. Maybe the fully balanced phonoamp deos not work well with unbalanced downstream gears?
  • Aftermarket Styli Old Stock 766-D7 (SS35C) I first tried this when the Shindo was used. The sound was somewhat veiled and too smooth. However, with the Parasound and BAT, the sound blossomed with a natural balance. It is a little more refined than the stock, but the stock has a stronger and more projected midrange (particularly evident with male voices). Pfanstiel 4766-D7 The box says Switzerland SS35C, 0.7 mil con., but the seller advertised it as N35X, which was why I bought it. Out of the box I knew something was different. The stylus is much more compliant. Indeed, at 4.5 gm, the belly of the cartridge was almost sweeping the record. I then tried 1.5 gm (like an N35X) and it worked very well, without tracking errors! The stylus looks conical, but it s behaving like an elliptical. Maybe the suspension has deteriorated? I don't know. In any case, the sound is very clear, more airy, extended and refined on top than the stock cartridge. Not withstanding the curious difference in compliance of the Pfanstiel, I have to say all three styli sound more similar than different.
Conclusion The SC35C is wildly good and cheap. It does many things better than even an expensive MC (like effortless bass) and makes one seriously wonder why one should spend more than $40. As a result of this, I have also embarked on a project of rejuvenating my Empire's (2000E/III and 2000Z) and I also took them to listen at Andy's setup. So more later as we delve deeper into MM vs MC.

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