27 October, 2017

MoFi StudioPhono, Schiit Saga, Shelter 201, Citation I, Monbrisson, Gotham

pic: Innards of the StudioPhono. Click to Enlarge. Caution: the case is well designed. After unscrewing, take off the cover gently; you will encounter a little resistance, but gentle wiggling helps. I actually like the look of it, well laid out and built.

Review: MoFi StudioPhono, Part II
Review: Schiit Saga, Part II
Review: Shelter 201, Part II
Review: Shindo Monbrisson, Part III
Review: Harmon Kardon Citation I, Part III
Talk Cable: Gotham GAC-2 and DGS-1
Letter from NYC (70) 2017 (9)

MoFi StudioPhono, Part I and Shelter 201, Part I
Schiit Saga, Part I
Shindo Monbrisson, Part I (extensive basic info and review); Part II (vs Manley 300B preamp)
Harmon Kardon Citation I, Part I (basic info and review), Part II (in a group preamp shootout)

Round I (MoFi Studiophono; Shelter 201)
Using my Reference System II, In Part I of my MoFi StudioPhono review, I used the Schiit Saga as preamp. Since elsewhere I did find the Saga to be on the neutral/lean side, this time around, I swapped it out for my usual tube preamps, and that made all the difference in the world. Whereas last time I had to use a smoother cable (DIY 47 Labs) with the StdudioPhono to tone down the sound, this time I re-instated my Gotham DGS-1 with no problem. I also think more run-in helped.

Equipment Used:
Analog 1: Audio-Technica AT-PL120/Shelter 201
Analog 2: Thorens TD-125/SME 3009i/Denon DL-304
Preamp: Shindo Monbrisson and Harmon Kardon Citation I
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL 4-way Horns


LPs Used: For this rather big round of testing, I relied on several LPs which I wrote up in my last post (roll down, or here). The same LPs were played through both preamps' own phonostages, and through the StudioPhono through the preamps' linestages.

As there are a lot to cover, I shall be brief with each entry, and sum up my findings in my Conclusions section.

StudioPhono + Shindo Monbrisson
Through the line section of the Shindo Monbrisson, the StudioPhono performed brilliantly. As with the Schiit Saga, I was particularly impressed by the way it separated the orchestral instruments and defined them in space. In Finlandia, I definitely could visualize the front, middle and back of the orchestra. As also with the Schiit Saga, the bass reached impressively deep and was suitably taut. The Shindo's warmth and sweeping power in the bass, however, was like a great air cushion and immeasurably enhanced the StudioPhono. However, when it came to the Budapest Quartet, there was still a little lingering leanness.

MoFi StudioPhono + Harmon Kardon Citation I
The performance was still very good, warmer than with the Schiit Saga. However, the line stage of the Citation I, though still warm, lacked the depth of the Shindo, and at higher volume things became just a little ragged. The lower brass in Bruckner 4th did not have quite the desirable heft.

Interlude: MoFi StudioPhono chez Andy
I took both cartridge and phonoamp to Andy's for a brief listen. On the Garrard 401, the Shelter 201 replaced a Decca cartridge. In his more forgiving system, the sound was quite listenable, without any undue leanness. The Shelter, however, did not have the color and force of Decca. Andy actually thought the StudioPhono to possess a reasonable warmth, whereas he was not too enamored of the starker sound of the Shelter. We noted the calibration may not have been precise.

Round II (Shelter 201, Denon DL-304, MoFi StudioPhono and Full-Function Preamp Use)
Up to this point, I had used mostly the Shelter 201. Then, I added to the source my Thorens 125/SME 3009i/Denon DL-304, likely better in every way than my go-to Audio-Technica.

StudioPhono
As mentioned in Part I, the StudioPhono had no problem whatsoever with the low-output Denon DL-304. Indeed, through either the Shindo or the Harman Kardon, the sound acquired a new smoothness and have a subtler inflection, while retaining all the positive attributes mentioned above.

Shindo Monbrisson
I then turned my attention to the performances of my preamps in their intended full-function mode. Most interestingly, much as I like my Shindo, I did not find running the Shelter 201 into its MM section to be decisively superior to using the StudioPhono. Although it produced fleshier images and a fuller tone, the Shindo was darker, less detailed and somewhat colored. It also did not reveal space in the highly accurate manner that StudioPhono did. With the MC Denon DL-304, which I first ran through the Western Electric 285L and then through the Shindo's own input trannies (which I prefer in this case), it was a different story - clearly superior to Shelter 201, through the Shindo MC stage it in almost all aspects of performance surpassed the StudioPhono, which however still managed to have image definition and layering precision to its advantage.

Harmon Kardon Citation I
Used as full-function preamp, the Shelter 201 performed much like with the StudioPhono, with just the right added warmth. Unlike the Shindo MM section, the Citation I was almost just as good in the areas where the StudioPhono excelled, and a little better it other parameters - not surprising given the Citation's modernist tube bent. I did not get to use the Citation with DL-304 as it would necessitate trials with SUTs.

Round III (Schiit Saga; reunited with StudioPhono in System III)
At the end of my last trip (see Schiit Saga, Part I; link on top), I left the Saga in my Reference System III, but was not happy with the phono setup. Equipment:

Analog 1: Pioneer PL-50/Raos MC Mono
Analog 2: Thorens TD-309/Denon DL-A100
Phonoamp 1: 47 Lab Shigaraki

Phonoamp 2: AQVOX 2CI MkII vs MoFi StudioPhono
Digital: Sparkler S303
Buffer: Schiit Saga
Preamp: Langevin 102
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL Acoustics 4-way Horn Speakers


This time, most of the time I was preoccupied with System II, but as the StudioPhono was soon to be retired from this station (which has too many good phonoamps and preamps), I refocused on System III.

I swapped in the StudioPhono for the AQVOX, using the same Gotham DGS-1 cable to the Saga. But I also swapped out the phono cable, switching from Mogami 2534 to Gotham GAC-2. That did it! A Miracle! Unlike the duo's performance in System II (again, see Part I link), the sound was synergistic, indeed superb. It even had gravitas in the Bruckner 4th. And in Pollini's Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 (EMI HMV Concert Classics), the strings now sounded much sweeter, the woodwinds natural and the piano focused. Most amazingly, even though I knew the StudioPhono was good in the bass, I was surprised that the system had a sweepingly solid bass foundation much like the Shindo - for this credit must go to the Langevin 102 preamp.

Note on Remaking of System III  I also did a bit of re-cabling for the rest of the system. For the Sparkler CDP, I installed the Gotham DGS-1, to excellent effect. Now, only a small trace of dryness remains, even in big-boned pieces like Finlandia (PO/Ashkenazy, Decca) and Brahms 3rd (VPO/Giulini, DG) - some of this is definitely the inherent character of Sparkler; and some of this may be due to the recording (the DG is certainly drier than the Decca). I also installed the (DIY) Belden 8451 (another unsung hero; good at cooling things down) and it similarly improved the mono LP playback. I hereby declare this system ship-shape. Done!

Yes, the Schiit Saga forced me to re-cable the system, almost from top to bottom, but it is eminently worth it, and it is staying in the system (saves me space)! More below in Talk Cable and Conclusions.

Round IV (Shelter 201 with Nagra PL-P in System IV)
The Shelter 201 did well in my newly promoted System IV (here.)

Round V (Linn LP-12 Lingo/Ittok LV-II/Air Tight PC-1 in System II)
This is part of Restructuring. System I right now is seeing less action, so I decided to move the Linn LP12/Ittok/Air Tight PC-1 to System II. Also, in System II, my Thorens 125/SME 3009i/Denon DL-304 is doing so well that I did not want another Denon cartridge in the system, Hence, I moved the Thorens TD-124/SME 3012/Denon DL-103 to System I. Suffice to say, the sound of the Linn/Air Tight was just absolutely splendid through the Shindo. Even more detailed, warmer and sweeter than the TD125/SME/Denon DL-304, the PC-1 exudes a subtle elegance. More on System I later.

Cable Talk: Gotham GAC-2, DGS-1 vs Mogami
I have been using professional cables for the last 20 years. Prior to Gotham, I used mostly Mogami (2534 and 2549) but that changed after Gotham. Generally speaking, Mogami is neutral but a little on the "white" side, suitable for warm tube and vintage gears. While Gotham is just as neutral, their cables have a bit more warmth and excelled at the frequency extremes: an airy and extended treble and a tactile and deep-reaching bass. I have used the (Austria made) shielded 4-conductor GAC-4 and 2-conductor GAC-2 for the longest time in HK. The GAC-4 is a little airier than the GAC-2 and hence preferred by most HK audiophiles. Here in the US, I bought a roll of GAC-2 (earlier) and coaxial DGS-1 (later) each and have been using them mostly in my systems. With my sensitive horns, the GAC-2 is more than transparent enough, with a wide soundstage and excellent imaging. The DGS-1 is less so in those parameters, but even more direct and emotive (a parallel would be non-oversampling in digital). Due to the large number of equipment that I have, I cannot make Gotham cables fast enough, and so sometimes in less critical stations/areas use other makes, including Mogami. This was the case when I first tested the Schiit Saga at Station III (see part I, link above). This time I shuffled things around and re-cabled with Gotham and things got much better. With neutral gears like AQVOX, Schiit Saga and MoFi StudioPhono, Gotham works well but Mogami doesn't. It should also be noted that some of the current Gotham cables (like the Ultra Pro series) are even more resolving, but I wonder if it has gone overboard (I have the GAC-1 Ultra Pro, which I like, but Andy thought it too bright).

Conclusions

  • Shelter 201 This round hasn't changed my impression of this cartridge. This is a commendably highly resolving cartridge with a very neutral tone. It is sensitive to VTA. Although generally MC-like in resolution and musical enough, it is not quite as nuanced in microdynamics and tonality. Should be partnered with warmer gears.
  • MoFi StudioPhono The StudioPhono finally found its footing in the round. Perhaps further run-in helped. The StudioPhono has outstanding resolution - image specificity and definition in space are world class. Its bass quality and reach are irreproachable. This is very neutral phonoamp and care should be taken with cabling and partnering gears - not for people who prefer warmth. It is not quite an EAR 324 (from memory) but a seriously good bargain that performs way beyond its price point.
  • Shindo Monbrisson As usual, it was big, bold and colorful (or as Art Dudley would say, force and touch), but with the Shelter 201 it surprisingly sounded colored and uneven. This is in fact a little puzzling, as before I had used it with numerous MM's to great effect. Even so, it shone with low output MC's. My fondness for it has not abated.
  • Harmon Kardon Citation I Compared with older vintage preamps, the Citation I is a model of neutrality. Its phono section is just superb, very neutral, not unlike the StudioPhono with tube warmth added. Its line section is neutral too, but gets a little taxed when the going gets rough, lacking the Shindo's sweeping power.
  • Schiit Saga As before, I am convinced the Saga is like a surgical instrument. While it sometimes demands one to think out of the box, it is a valuable piece of kit. As I said before, if your system needs more details, it is a good choice; but if your system could use more warmth, stay away.

12 comments:

  1. Hello Doctorjohn,

    Congratulations first of all for the site: I found it really interesting, both the gear as well as the record reviews, I'm now following your RSS feed.

    I have gone through your review of MoFi StudioPhono (part 1 & 2) as well as the Mani and I was wondering which one of the two you would prefer. I'm in the market for a phono amp and I've shortlisted these two. I have a very modest system with a vintage Denon DD turntable, Denon DL-160 cartridge, EL84 tube amplifier (Leben CS300-XS) and B&W speakers.

    I also enjoyed your Shelter 201 review and I'm intrigued by the brand. Do you feel this would be a step-up vs a Denon DL110 or Nagaoka 110, or would it compare with a true MC like the Denon DL103 or DL103r?

    thank you in advance for your thoughts,

    Peter

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    1. Your simple system should be pretty good sounding. As for what to choose, it depends on what you think of your system - are you satisfied and just wants to up it or not satisfied because it is too lean or not resolving enough.

      The Mani is smaller and warmer sounding and would benefit if there is brightness in the system. The StudioPhono is the opposite, likely better in an over-warm system. The StudioPhono is ultimately the better phonoamp but may demand some work in adjusting the system, as you have read.

      The StudioPhono, the Schiit Saga and Shelter 201, do not make easy recommendations. They are rather neutral and certainly do not have excessive warmth (like the Mani) which many, if not most, audiophiles crave. The good thing is, you are using a tube integrated.

      The Denon DL-110 I used to know quite well, as a good friend used it. It is excellent sounding, but like many hi-output MC's (think also Sumiko Blue Point's), also not particularly warm. As you already have the DL-160, I think you can skip this. BUT, I am a BIG fan of Denon, unbeatable for price/performance ratio. So I'd actually urge you to think about going MC. I personally would get the cheaper DL-103, often substantially discounted if you search hard (we used to get them from Germany and Comet Supply USA) and not the more expensive 103R. the 103 is not perfect, but it is damn good. Since you mentioned my record reviews, I presume you listen to classical music, and MC is the way to go, over MM, and you eventually will go that route anyway. Your TT probably has removable headshell, which would empower you to have your choice of using either!

      Both Mani and StudioPhono work very well with Denon DL-103.

      BTW, which models are your Denon TT and B&W?

      No experience of the Nagaoka.

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    2. Hi Doctorjohn and many thanks for your reply, your insights on Mani vs Studiophono are really good and I will think my choice with that criteria. I was particularly intrigued by your suggestion to go towards the Denon DL103: sounds like a great idea but I'm concerned about how it will work with my arm. I have the DP-1700 turntable that I believe carries a light arm, so I'm a bit afraid to partner it with the DL103 that as I understand requires a heavy arm. I'm also concerned as I've read that the DL103 is suffering on the top-end (not sure how true that is though). My speakers are B&W 601 and I'm currently in the process of upgrading them (I'm considering vintage Tannoys, I simply love their sound).

      I'm listening to pretty much everything, but Classical is the one area that I'm dissatisfied with in-terms of performance. I play music as well and I find the timbre of the instruments quite unatural.

      thank you again for all your help!

      Peter

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    3. Ah, this is interesting! The fact that you are dissatisfied with classical and the timbre of instruments.

      Very important: First, do you play digital? And do you find your digital in some ways better than analog? This happens sometimes, even with seasoned audiophiles! Plug in any CD/DVD/Blu-Ray player, play a few cuts and see what you think.

      Vinyl is a strange thing - things can go awry at multiple levels. However, I surmise your humble setup cannot go too wrong (usually the expensive ones go very wrong easily).

      I analysed the situation and have some other thoughts. But this is going to take a while. Where are you? Judging by the spelling of "timbre" you may not be stateside, am I correct? Otherwise we can talk on the phone.

      You are looking to upgrade your loudspeakers, and that is the best idea. I actually wanted even before to say to you that the Leben, while good, is limited in power. I am not sure they will do justice to B&W (a company that I like). My own experience with B&W is limited to the old and splendid (but top series) Matrix 805 and the considerably newer CM1. With the M805 I never got good bass until the day I sold it, when I partnered it with my little used Cyrus - ah, it worked better with ss than tubes! The CM1 did well with my tube stuff (my Blog has entries).

      The 601s are reputable, but I have never heard them, but I have heard smaller but newer ones like 685, which is more polite, as if you cannot really open them up. It is a trade off for power handling in small enclosures. Andrew Jones' designs (Pioneer, Elac) are like that too. Watts these days are cheap, which is why this happens. Incidentally, have you driven the 601 with a more powerful ss amp? Maybe your old integrated? Are the virtues evenly spread between it and the Leben?

      What I am really saying is, it is likely there are other factors also at play. Judging by what you said about the Lehmann Statement, I suspect other areas have to be improved before the phonoamp and cartridge upgrade.

      Moving up to a more efficient loudspeaker (assuming you're going to stick with the Leben) is worth thinking about. I am a Tannoy fan, but some of these old vintage stuff are weathered, so it'd be best, if possible, to take your amp to the seller's house to see for yourself.

      Just some food for thought! Should you like, tell me the details of your cabling, digital etc.

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    4. Thanks for your note and really appreciate your thoughts. A bit more on your points:

      Speakers is by definition part of the problem. I like B&W but the metal twitter does create a harshness and fakeness on higher frequencies and ultimately doesn't work for me. I have auditioned various speakers and the ones that came closer to my taste were Tannoys & Proac (D18, D28), I felt both were sounding quite natural while at the same time delivering dynamics & impact. I have also auditioned Spendor, Audio Note & Harbeth who I though were very natural but lacking a but of the excitement. So my shortlist is Proac & Tannoy, happy to take any additional leads/ideas from you in-terms of the Speakers!

      In-terms of digital I have a few thousands CDs that I have transfered to an Apple TV with a 1TB drive that I'm streaming from there via an Arcam rDAC (noticed you have tested it as well) - I simply don't have the space for all the CDs so got rid of the CD Players. Results are OK but there is more perceived harshness there and I'm expecting by design vinyl to better it.

      You got me thinking with the DL-103 and after investigating a bit my arm it seems that it might be able to carry it (this TBC). I'm really interested on this cartridge and if you recommend it over similar HOMC & MMs (DL110, Shelter 201), then I can definitely try it out. Only concern here is what I'm hearing that it requires a really high-end setup to perform (including a very good phono), which I'm not sure if something like the Mani is enough to deliver. If you feel the Mani could work with the 103 then that would be a nice setup to pursue and get admittedly a different sound out of, let me know what do you think, cheers!

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    5. I actually kind of suspect some of your problems may not related to the source, amplification nor loudspeaker. The Leben, assuming it is run-in, is good, and the rDAC and phono all should be OK. Then it comes down to cables. Please tell me what you are using for interconnects and speaker cables.

      Regarding the DL-103 with Mani, just to be sure I just put the Mani in my system and am listening to it right now - very good! And very different from my (expensive) Aurorasound Vida. I am actually going to write a comparison. Give me a couple of days.

      Later.

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    6. Thanks appreciated! Cables are pretty basic: speaker cables use to be QED silver anniversary (nice but super bright) tha I've replaced with the Carnival Silver Screen (contains no silver and it's quite balanced). Interconnects are QED Qunex & Profigold. In-temrs of the cartridge I understand correctly that you recommend the DL-103 over the DL-110 correct? thanks again!

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    7. Stateside these cables you mentioned are not popular, so I googled them. It seemed they may be somewhat on the bright side (if someone says a bit bass light, then it is on the bright or lightweight side.) I urge you to try a few cheap professional cables. If you can solder then it is even better. If you can't there is always Ebay

      I recommend Gotham for interconnects. DGS-1 would be my choice but it is not on Ebay (at least not with RCA plugs). On Ebay I did find Gotham GAC-2 terminated. GAC-1 Ultra Pro is good too. Also consider Belden 8402 and Mogami 2549.

      For loudspeaker cables, the Belden 9497 is my absolute favorite. Just use bare wire.

      These cheap cables have transformed many systems in my own experience in HK. So many of my friends are using these.

      Yes, the Denon DL-103 is one of my favorites, regardless of price. Not everyone likes it, but no cartridge model has had a longer life than it - there must be a reason. I just listened to DL-103 + Mani for two whole days in two systems (one with 12" arm and one with 10" arm) and didn't find much missing even compared with my references. It is an excellent combo. The 47 ohm loading is more forgiving, the 47k loading brighter and sometimes preferred for classical. You can change on the fly and it is great. I shall soon write an update for the Mani. Recommended combo with confidence.

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    8. Excellent, thanks a lot for all the advice Doctor! I will look into the recommended interconnects/cables and will try them out. If the Mani works then I will go with that but I'm also considering a regular Lehmann Black Cube to make sure I get the most out of the Phono. I will report back in-terms of results, thanks again!

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  2. An addition: I've also noticed that you've used the Lehmann Black Cube, how do you feel the MoFi compares as well? But the key question is between the MoFi and the Mani. thank you again!

    Peter

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    1. Mine is the original (not the SE), not the cheaper so-called Statement, and is too pricey now. It is excellent, and I don't think the MoFi can surpass it. From recollection, the Lehmann is a bit warmer.

      BTW, what phonoamp are you using now, that you want to change out?

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    2. I'm using the Phono stage from another integrated, which is not great + inconvenient. I've tried the Black Cube Statement which I liked the sound of and was an improvement but didn't totally persuaded me.

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