Benefits of LO MC vs. using step up transformers.

Sorry if this seems like a novice question, but I've read conflicting opinions on the benefits of low output MC cartridges versus using a step up transformer. My old phono stage only had 56 db of gain, so this was not really an issue. My new stage has up to 79 db of gain using the internal step up transformers.

Now I've never owned any cartridge with less than 0.5mV output. I'm currently using a Lyra Helikon. I've heard many folks claim that the lower output versions (Helikon SL) of various cartridges sound better, and are more resolving. I've also read from those that claim that no step up transformer is the best step up transformer.

So for all of you vinyl experts, my question is: Is it better to run the super low output MC through the step up transformer, or the medium output MC with no step up?
Will it be a case by case scenerio? No clear cut answer?

I know I could just buy one and find out for myself, but I'd like a little feedback before I just buy another cartridge. They can get pretty pricey.

First, I think it's instructive to ask: What is it about lo output MCs that they should be "more resolving"? And the answer is going to be, of course, better transient response of the mechanical assembly (stylus, cantilever, and coil) due to the lower inertia of a lighter weight (fewer windings) coil, assuming the other two parts and the suspension remain the same.

Lately however, two significant attempts have been made to reduce the effective mass of the moving assembly:

1.) In the van den Hul Colibri and Condor by lightening up the other two parts (the stylus/cantilever) by eliminating the front pole piece and shortening the cantilever, while maintaining (in some models) the larger number of coil windings, providing the best of both worlds: less inertia (livelier response) without sacrificing output. And let's not forget the good ol' Decca which, in the inscrutable British approach to things mechanical, has more or less been doing just that for years.

2.) The Transfiguration Temper, and to a slightly lesser degree, the Lyra Titan, have somewhat reduced the cantilever length and greatly reduced the number of coil windings, but still maintained a high-ish output (.5mV or more, depending which test record is used). They accomplish this feat by immersing the lighter coil in a much higher magnetic flux than that found in more conventional motor designs (such as the van den Huls)

There is an ongoing debate as to whether the magnetic inertia (or magnetic lag) inherent in step up transformers, trumps the increased transient response gained by using a lighter (fewer windings) lower output coil cartridge in the first place.

I don't wish to engage in that debate. Instead I will say, that in my ever so humble opinion, things have now advanced to the point where accepting that traditional tradeoff is no longer necessary. Shorter cantilevers, lighter all-diamond one-piece stylus/cantilever assemblies, lightweight coils in stronger flux fields, and better suspensions materials, have all yielded cartridge designs that produce respectable output levels without sacrificing that last little bit of resolution. I just don't believe it is necessary anymore to buy a 0.2mV cartridge to hear the last little detail. And then of course, take a chance that you might lose it all by running it through a transformer.
I couldn't have put it better than Nsgarch.
Nsgarch, thanks for the detailed response.
That was my initial impression, but I haven't played up at the Titan/Temper/VDH level yet.

So it seems that there is no reason to go after a Helikon SL now, even though my new phono stage is capable with it's built in transformers. I'm currently using my standard Helikon w/o the step-up transformers engaged, which gives me 59 db of gain instead of the 79 db. This is plenty of gain for this cartridge.

Thanks again,

I have heard a couple of low /high output carts played back to back incl. 2 Benz Gliders. The low output always seemed to have that little bit more speed and detail even when played through a transformer – in fact I could not discern the transformer at all. I use low output exclusively now.

Nsgarch makes some very good points. I would just like to add that the relentless march of technology and new manufacturing techniques benefit both the low and high output carts. In other words, the techniques use to lighten the mechanical assembly on high output carts are also employed on the low output carts. Both carts get better BUT the low output remains that little step ahead.

A lot of individuals claim transformers degrade sound but I do not buy into that. I build amps as a hobby and have found transformer coupling to be the least obtrusive; a modest quality transformer degrades the sound a lot less than very best capacitor (my subjective view). You do not mention the equipment you use but you possibly have many components in your signal path that are infinitely more intrusive than what the stepup would be.

Hi Paul,

Thanks for the reply. The phono stage I'm now using is a BAT VK-P10SE w/Super-Pak. It does have internal 20db step-up transformers, which would be what I would use. I have no desire to go out and spend more on specialty step up transformers, as trying a low output cartridge doesn't interest me that much. I'm not sure if there is anything good/bad about the internal step-ups in the BAT, as I haven't used them yet anyway.

FWIW, it seems like there is no real answer. I also posted this question on VA and got similar responses. Some prefer the lower output MC run through a step up, some prefer a higher output MC with no step up. So it seems like a personal choice option, where one will just have to try for one's self. Like asking which is better silver or copper cable, no?

Thanks again,

Hi John

I do not believe you need to spend more on specialty transformers. I am not familiar with the BAT phono, but BAT is a very reputable company and there is no reason to think they skimped on the step-ups.

FYI - What I did not mention in the previous post though, is that new step-ups require extensive burn in time. Burned in step-ups have a much more open and natural sound. Green step-ups can sound constrained. (And no, I have no idea what the technical reason for this is)

Unfortunately the output of a low-output moving coil is way too low to burn in a step-up (and for that matter the phono cable). I have run a green step-up for about 200 - 300 hours behind a Koetsu (0.6 mV output) and it was not burned in at all. It sounded as green as the day it arrived. I suspect many folks have issues with step-ups due to the fact that they just never burn in during normal use.

I now use a reverse RIAA circuit with a – 40 db gain which driven behind my DVD player produces about 2mv of output. After about 100 hours of burn in time the step up is transformed (excuse the pun).

So if you do decide to go low output you may want to invest in something to burn in your step-up. I think the reverse RIAA circuit I use was about 20 or 30 bucks from Jim Hagerman.

Thanks for the information Paul. I have to admit, I've never even heard of a reverse RIAA circuit before, or knew that step ups required so much burn in attention.
That was very helpful, thanks again.

Kevin Carter hard wired output cables in my K&K step-up. He recommended 100 hours of burn-in. His suggestion was to take the output cables from the step-up and plug them into the outputs of my CDP, then let it run 24x7 with a CD playing. There was a definite improvement in sound, especially tighter bass.

Paul's recommendation for the Hagerman iRIAA device will work for transformer burn-in as well. I think the price is $49 and has a 30-day trial period.
Granite Audio sells a CD with test tones in a reverse RIAA format with two sets of signals, one at MM output levels and one at MC output levels. You should be able to run straight from the CD player in repeat mode into the phono stage without need of a volume control. You can check your phono specs and there should be an overload voltage. I bought mine at Music Direct.

My dealer said that transfomers need 400 hours of break-in at the highest voltage your phono stage can stand. Also good to check with the phono stage designer about what break-in voltage the phono stage can handle.
George_a, thanks for the reply. I bought the Granite Audio MC phono burn in cd, and I'm extrememly impressed! This disc made an incredible improvement on my new phono stage. It now sounds terrific! Thanks again.

Hello Jhonny

This thread got me interested, as soon as you mentioned your phono stage. That is exactly what I have. I'm presently using a Shelter 901(0.5mv) with beautiful results. I just got an Ortofon SL 15E MK II. This cart has an output of 0.015mv--(Talk about LOMC) This should be a good test for this 10K Phono Stage. I also have a Shelter 411 Step Up transformer that is rated at 32db. Whether this is a better step up than the internal one in the BAT--I don't know. I sure am dying to find out.


Hi John,

I got to thinking about this after your email. Did you put the P10SE in your system at the same time as the new ZYX? If so it may be what you're hearing is the cartridge starting to come around. I still think your in for more thrills as both the cartridge and phono stage get a few hundred hours on them. Anyway, keep us posted on this Granite Audio CD. I'll probably need it in a few months.

Hi Dan,

The phono stage arrived about 4 weeks before the cartridge. My initial impression upon hearing the new phono stage was it was a nice improvement, great bass, but I was slightly disappointed overall, considering how much $$$ I spent. Then I got the ZYX, and listened for one day. It was a nice improvement again, solid, but not stunning. Then the Granite cd arrived.

Then I shut the analog rig down for 2 days to burn in with the Granite cd. The next listening session was stunning. The midrange is full, and palpable. The soundstage is spooky in it's realism. It extends far to the sides and behind my speakers. I'm still burning the stage, as it's running 24/7. When I stop listening, I switch the Granite cd back in for more burn time. I can't imagine it getting much better, but time will tell.

The only concern that I have is running up hours on my NOS Amperex tubes. Maybe I should throw in some Sovteks for the next week or so as I continue to run the tubes 24/7.

I'm sold on the Granite Audio cd though.

Dear John: +++++ " I've heard many folks claim that the lower output versions (Helikon SL) of various cartridges sound better, and are more resolving. " +++++

I agree with this statement, at least for the Colibri's, Transfiguration's, Allaert's and Koetsu's. The low output MC cartridges have a more natural presentation of the music. Yes, you need a high gain phono preamp with out external/internal step up transformer for you really discover that kind of quality sound reproduction.

If you don't have it, please don't do it: that will be a waste of time and money.

Now, your phono preamp can handle ( with out SUT ) cartridges with an output from 0.5mv and up, there are many great options out there: including high output MC cartridges and many great MM cartridges.

About that the best SUT is NO SUT, please read why I agree with that statement:

Regards and enjoy the music.