Has anyone here had much experience comparing mc step-up transformers vs. tube pre pre amps? Several things conspired together to cause me to send my Counterpoint SA-5.1 to Alta Vista in order to have the Sowter 8055 transformers installed. I own a Counterpoint SA-2 pre pre amp which was simply magical with the SA-5.1. Unfortunatly, my SA-2 broke and then my listening room was flooded out (thus the conspiring events). When my listening room flooded, I decided to take the "opportunity" of my music downtime to send the 5.1 back to Mike and have the Sowter mc transformers installed as an "upgrade" and then not have to worry about having the SA-2 repaired. After all, the Sowters' were supposed to far superior to the SA-2 and it would remove a bunch of tubes from my system by replacing the SA-2. Well, my listening room was fixed from the flood and slowly my system came back together again. When I installed the SA-5.1 back into the system with the Sowters' now in place, I was bummed to say the least. The magic was gone. In its place was a homogenized, dumbed-down version of what my LPs used to sound like. Had I not known any better (i.e.; I didn't know what information was really on my records), I would think the Sowters' sounded really good. However, I do know better. My question to the forum is does anyone else have any experience going from a quality tube pre pre and switching to transformers? I don't mean to pick on Sowters' in particular, they are just what I have installed and Mike feels they are the best of breed. I am beginning to think that the problem lies in using any mc transformer. At this time my SA-2 is in route back to Alta Vista to be fixed. I am going to send my SA-5.1 back and have the Sowters' removed and my phono stage restored to the way it was. I want the magic back that I had. And the magic that I am speaking of is the difference between your system sounding like live musicans are playing in front of you with all of the dynamics that implies vice having a system that sounds very "nice" in the usual audiophile sense that would impress people who didn't know better. For the record, my system consists of the VPI TNT MKIII with the new 300 RPM motor, ET-2 tonearm, Denon 103R cartridge which replaced my Van den Hul MC-2 special which it simply smokes, Counterpoint SA-5.1 pre, and Quicksilver MS-190 amp on the main speakers. I have a DBX electronic crossover that feeds a pair of Denon POA 6600A monoblocks for the subs. My speakers are my own designs. They are all (main speakers and subs) 1/4 wavelength transmission lines. Bottom line is that before I ever take another blind alley on "upgrades," I want someone to come to my house and show me that what they have is better. For the here and now, I would step over all of the mc transformers out there in order to get my hands on a SA-2. And if anyone has heard another pre pre that bests the SA-2, please let me know what it is. One last tid bit. If you have a British copy of the Beatles lp Abbey Road, listen to the beginning of Sun King. Let me know if you can hear Ringo hitting the cymbals with a mallet, and if you can hear pressure waves coming off each of those strikes with differing dynamics. If the answer is no, it just sounds like cymbals being hit, you are in the "missing information" catagory which is where I am currently back to with mc transformers.
I'm sure many will disagree, but I've not found the step-up transformer that doesn't sound synthetic relative to cartridge straight into tubes. I've tried Jensen & Cinemag with BAT P10 & Atma-Sphere MP-1. But step-ups are a necessary evil for very low-output cartridges into most tube phono stages.
There has been extensive discussion on this issue; search the fora under step up vs gain stage, etc. Also check threads by/contributed to by Dougdeacn and others. Most but not all feel that the added gain stage is superior to the xformer, but not everyone.
Thanks so much for your response. I will check out the threads.
I have a Counterpoint SA-9 and have resisted having the same upgrade you had done because even though it may become quieter, I was afraid of it not sounding as good. I am glad to hear from someone who knows. The SA-9 has plenty of gain and sounds great as it is. I did have the output level control bypassed by Michael a few years ago and it did improve the sound alot.
In my estimation, most phono transformers I have heard soften the bass.
If I had a Counterpoint SA-9, I would not have mc transformers installed. What I find ironic about Alta Vista upgrades for the SA-5000 and the SA-9 is that Mike removes the SS components from the phono sections so that now they don't have enough gain anymore to run low output mc cartridges straight in. With both the SA-5000 and the SA-9, he is stripping them down which makes them more like the original SA-5.1. Even though some people may think the SA-5000 is a better preamp than the SA-5.1, I think it is only better in terms of ergonomics (two sets of outputs, cartridge loading on the front panel, lots of gain on the mc input). The SA-5.1 has a more sophisticated tube regulated power supply. Back to the main point, I think that active mc preamps sound better than transformers. Therefore, if I had a SA-3000, SA-5000, or an SA-9, under no circumstances would I have that phono stage altered to remove the J-FETs that give it the added it gain it needs for low output mc cartridges. Right now, I just want my SA-2 back and my 5.1 phono stage restored. Those two pieces are MAGIC together. Maybe the combo should be called the SA-10.
FWIW, I am pretty sure that the Doshi pre-amp uses Jfets in the phono gain stage (at least for LO MCs) and it sounds wonderful, IMO.
Hi Mepearson,

I also have a Counterpoint SA5.1, which I am considering sending to Alta Vista to have the line-stage upgrade, and have the phono stage converted to the SA9 Jr. status. I wonder whether you got the phono/line stage upgrades, or just have the MC transformer installed?

As for your SA2, are you just sending it in for repair, or getting some upgrades on it also? They didn't list anything about SA2 upgrade in their site.


My 5.1 has had the line stage upgraded, all rca jacks replaced, one set of tape outputs was converted to another set of main outs, the phono stage was upgraded, and the mc transformers were installed. Quite a lot of upgrades.

As for the SA-2, I am only having it repaired. It sounds GREAT as is. The reason Mike doesn't list any upgrades for the SA-2 is that they are very rare. If they were being made today, the price would probably be $3K. He has the comment "contact me for upgrade info" listed under the description of the SA-2. Knowing what I know, if I were you, I would keep my eyes out for a SA-2. I would consider having your phono stage upgraded, but I wouldn't add those transformers on a bet. If you want transformers, I will give you a good deal on mine when I have Mike remove them. I have the latest and greatest Sowter 8055 transformers and they were just purchased and installed in March.

As for the 5.1, most people don't realize how special the power supply is and how great the preamp really is. Not to mention the fact that it looks cool as well. Most tube preamps use cheap diodes for rectification and they may be followed by some SS voltage regulators. Some expensive tube preamps may use a vacuum tube rectifier, but most still use SS voltage regulators. The 5.1 uses all vacuum tubes for voltage regulation and rectification. The SA-2 also uses a vacuum tube rectifier and all tubes for voltage regulation. In fact, if you look at an SA-2 on the inside, it is very close to how the 5.1 looks. I had a CAT SL-1 Signature MKIII preamp and I sold it because I think the SA-5.1 is better sounding in a way that makes music seem live. That is the trait that Michael Elliot seems to have mastered with his better designs. They sound real. If the big knock against tube mc head amps is that they add some noise compared to SS or transformers, give me the noise any day because when the music starts you don't hear it and I would much rather have something that sounds like live music is being played in my room vice something that specs out great but dumbs down what is in the grooves and robs the life out of your system. Like I said before, had I not heard the 5.1/SA-2 combo work their magic and I didn't know what was really in my record grooves, maybe I could have lived with the transformers. Now I can't and won't.
Hi Mepearson,

Thanks for the detail reply. When you get back he SA5.1 with the MC transformer removed, I would be very interested to know how does it compared to the original unit before the upgrade.

Thanks in advance.

Hi, I used the classic combo of an ARC SP-8 and Counterpoint SA-2 for almost 20yrs.

Both my mint SA-2 and SP-8 are sitting on the shelf gathering dust. They are great pieces that hold their own today, if a bit noisy...the noise can be managed though.

This is a great debate active vs. passive for low level phono. I tried transformers and always went back to an active device. The SA-2 was "the" pre-preamp in its day..until most designers went xfrmrs for ease and to avoid the pitfalls of poor active design at such low signal levels. The Aesthetix IO sig is my replacement...but for musicality and enjoyment the old combo still is very impressive.

I've only briefly tried Jensen stepups (I use them with a 2nd TT for background listening), and definately prefer my ARC MCP33 or Music Ref RM4 over the Jensen (going into an upgraded ARC PH3). The MCP33 is more musical than the RM4, while the RM4 is quieter than the MCP33.

However, by getting an ARC LS5/II preamp, with the PH3, I now have enough gain that I've taken the MCP33 out of the system, and that sounds the best!

I'll take the tube hiss over the flatness of the Jensens.
Awesome responses guys! I can see a preference starting to emerge from those that love the sound of music that transformers can't compete on sonics with an active head amp, they only offer reduced noise. I would love to hear the MCP33 along side the SA-2.
it is somewhat unfair to compare transformers to preamps with which they were never designed to compete. they were disigned to compete with another add on device a pre-preamp. imo they x-former beat it hands down. Given the length of existence of the low output m/c there is no excuse for a modern preamp not to have sufficient gain for m/c. If the preamp does not have sufficient gain i still think the x-former is the way to go.
Nkj-Curious as to the differences you hear between the IO and the ARC SP-8/SA-2 combo? If you ever want to the sell the SA-2, let me know. My brother is looking for one.
A question for those who found stepup x-formers to be flat - how many hours did you run them before coming to your conclusions?
Darkmoebius-how long does it take for mc transformers to break in? I didn't like mine the first time I heard them. I probably have 50 hours at the most on them now and they sound the same-real "nice" if you don't know any better. There is a "jump" factor with the SA-2 that the Sowters' couldn't approach if they were wired to a defibrillator. I was really hoping the transformers would sound at least as good as the SA-2 because it would simplify my life by removing tubes from my system. The SA-5.1 uses 8 tubes, the SA-2 uses 8 tubes, and my Quicksilver MS-190 uses 15 tubes in lucky serial #7 (the very early MS-190s only used a single rectifier tube vice two in the later versions) and my "newer" Quicksilver MS-190 uses 16 tubes. I normally use lucky #7 only because according to Mike, the very first MS-190s sound better because of the single rectifer tube and better output transformers. The bottom line is that I am maintaining 31 tubes in my system. And of course the 4 69J8/6922 tubes in the gain stage of the SA-2 have to be very low noise tubes which means they are the most expensive grade to buy.

You hit it with the jump factor comment. IMO you just can't get this with transformers. I've not tried the Kondo or ultra expemsive Audio Note... but have tried the moderately priced AN ,EAR,jensen and some highly touted microphone transformers too. Quiet and dull was my impression. They were of the correct turns ratio for the cartridge to see the right impedence.

Some will like this eery "undynamic" sound that is quiet. However, I fall into the active camp. At the twilight of the LP during the mid-late 80's many high end designs, "classics" were put to rest: the Sp-10, SA-2,Roger Modjeski's RM-4.... As the industry went to line stages for CD and add on phono for LP for the loonie fringe, lack of demand resulted in an absence of good thoughtful design(transformers) for active stages . Now there is a rennisance and some very good active stages are available.

For example, just listen to the Manley steelhead with and without the transformers,even though there's solid state devices in the path, the difference without transformers is not subtle.

For the SA-2 the soviet 6h23n is a good rugged tube that is quiet and works well. The 6dj8's are paralleled for each channel to form a giant triode of sorts with better S/N ratio. Roger Modejeski RAM labs can supply ultra quiet tubes at a price. The original Yugo's were not bad tubes either.
I used the Bent Audio MU's with my old preamp. A great product for the money and John Chapman is a great guy.
I use a solid state Gram Slee "Elevator-EXP" transformerless stepup(+21.5dB) into a GS Era Gold mkV phono preamp. It provides excellent gain while being dead quiet. I've never had the chance to compare it to a quality MC transformer stepup, but amp not sure it's worth the effort.

I am, though, seriously thinking of getting a tube phono, Art Audio Vinyl One is at the top of my list(because I have their PX-25) and the Wright Sound AG-phono.
Dear Mepearson: I agree with you and with the music lovers that think that the step-up transformers are not the right way to go. This what I already posted about some where:

+++++ " The SUT is an old patch for bad SS phonopreamps designs and for the inherent limitations on tube phonopreamps for handle low output MC cartridges. It is a " chip solution to a complex problem ".

Any SUT has many inherent disadvantages like: distortions generated at the core ( it does not matters if is: air core ), heavy phase discharge ( landslide ), high apt to take hum, the wide zone ( band ) can't go down to DC, severe roll-off at high and low frecuencies, the reactive impedance on the SUT is incompatible with the cartridge impedance: this cause that we never could have flat frecuency response when we are using SUT, this mismatch between the impedances promote that the signal that pass through any SUT will be equalized ( yes, exactly like the problems between tube amplifier and loudspeakers because of those impedances ).
Any time with any of you we can make the tests and prove all those disadvantages and others like the additional cables that you have to use, additional connectors, the SUT is an additional ( filter ) link in the analog audio chain: How can you love it? !!!!!!!!!!!

I want to let clear that there is no single advantage, in any way, using SUT's, any of them: it does not matters their design or price.

The SUT always be a : wrong PATCH. " +++++

+++++ " Dear friends: I'm not against the SUT " per se ", I'm against what the SUT makes to the cartridge signal: heavy degradation.

I like many of you used the SUT for many years till I discovery that the best SUT is NO SUT. I already try severals SUT's and all of them do a severe degradation to the cartridge signal.

Maybe some of you can think that an Audio NOte Kondo or Expressive Technologies SUT's don't have any problem: wrong, all SUT's have the same problems and all of them degraded the cartridge signal.

We have to understand that the low output MC cartridges was not build " thinking " in a low gain phonopreamps ( tube or SS ). The low gain phonopreamps like yours is only for CD, high output MC and MM cartridges ( btw: Music Maker, Sumiko and Audio Technica have great cartridges too ).
Tha's why I can tell you that if you have a low gain phono stage with a low output MC cartridge: you choose the wrong cartridge to go. For any one can enjoy and discover ( really enjoy ) the " magic " quality sound reproduction of a low output MC cartridge any one needs a high-gain phono preamp, with out any PATCH ( external/internal SUT/Autoformer. With out any mis-match between cartridge impedance and SUT that equalized the cartridge signal, always. ) ) no question about. " +++++

+++++ " Dear friends: Here are some facts about why exist the SUTs for LO cartridges ( at least is my point of view ):

- In the fifthies appear the MC LO cartridges ( As a fact: Ortofon invented in 1948. ). In that time all the phonopreamps were designed for HO cartridges MM/MI/etc. No one was in the design of high gain PP because no body need it.

- Ortofon and latter other MC LO cartridges never ask to the PP designers/builders to manufacture a high gain PP for their MC LO cartridges. What I mean is that never exist a cooperation job between the MC LO builders and the PP manufacturers.

- What was the comercial attitude of almost all MC LO cartridges builders?: to put on sale their MC LO cartridges along with a SUTs ( designed for it self ) for those MC LO cartridges.

- I can remember from Ortofon when they design the MC10, MC 20, Mc 30, Mc 2000, Mc 3000 and MC 5000, cartridges at the same time they offer the respective SUT: T 10, T 20, T 30, T 5000.

- Like Ortofon everybody do the same: Denon, Audiocraft, Fidelity Research, Koetsu, Micro Seiki, Accuphase, Dynavector, Highphonic, Audio Technica, Entre, etc, etc.

- In the mid-time what does the PP designers ( SS or tube ) for the development of a high gain PP?: almost nothing, almost all take the easy " cheap road " ( wrong/worst one ): that the customers buy SUTs along with their PP if they want to handle a LO cartridge. Some of the PP designers/builders incorporate in their " high gain " PP internal SUTs, exactly like today ones.

- No body take the challenge to design a HG PP with out SUTs.

- So we all are suffering the " easy road/ wrong road " that almost all designers/builders take it more than 55 years ago.

- All those comercial attitude never take into account us: the audio customers and never take into account the QUALITY MUSIC/SOUND REPRODUCTION. They don't care about in those times and many of them don't care about today. " +++++

IMHO the SUT can't compete with a well designed high-gain integrated Phonolinepreamp ( with out any additional cables/connectors between the phono and line stages. Those additional cables/connectors always make a signal degradation: adding veils to de sound reproduction. )

Your SA-2 was a benchmark on those times.

Regards and enjoy the music.
A discussion on xformers vs preamps would not be right without Rauls's input. It is a discussion that should have been made moot by the existence higher output MC's and higher gain preamps. Yet there remains many vintage preamps and new carts that seem to go lower and lower in terms of output level. Suffice it to say Raul can't abide anything but ruler flat frequency response. I can't abide noise. Morevoer ther is simply so much magnification of anything you can do by conventional means before you begin to distort.

This makes xformers for those low output mc's with vintage preamps,not only a good choice but sometimes the only choice.
It is often the case that hich output MCs just don't sound as good as the lower output versions.
SUT's can have a characteristic sound or influence on cartridges. Shopping for one that works well with your setup can be tedious. If you have one that has a character that you don't like, then it will irritate you and eventually you will not live with it. However, if you find one that is a good match with your cartridge, system and setup, you won't want to listen to anything else and you probably won't find any tube or SS stage you like better. Aficiandos find that SUT's give "flow" to the sound and a spectral character that matches well with MC's, it's not just a matter of flat response or noise. Once you have found a good sounding SUT, you might find an active stage a little obtunded and unnatural by comparison, whether it be tube or transistor. Tone control? Maybe, but it is the difference between something that works well sonically in practice vs. something that just works in theory.
Cjfrbw-I don't agree with your defense of transformers, but then that is why we have this forum. I find the exact opposite to be true of your last two sentences. I find the SA-2 to be very natural by comparision to the Sowter 8055 transformers and it works very well "sonically" vs. the transformers that work "in theory." The SA-2 absolutely passes more information in a way that sounds like live music is being played in your room than the Sowter 8055s could dream of. In addition to soundstage abberations induced by the tranformers, the overall loss of information they cause homogenizes the sound of all recordings that pass through them. Mediocre recordings still sound mediocre, but unfortunately, really good sounding recordings also sound mediocre (in comparision to how they really are capable of sounding). Tranformers are a cheap method of stepping up the voltage of a low output mc (and when I say cheap, I mean they SHOULD be much cheaper than well made active gain stages-specially a tube gain stage with a tube power supply, but I know there are absurdly priced transformers just as there are absurdly priced wire and cables which is another discussion), but they don't sound like their active stage brethren. You may have less noise with transformers, but you also have less information and less music. I will trade a little more noise for a lot more music any day. Nothing is perfect in this wacky hobby of ours, but I will vote for more information from the grooves that is true to the source every time.
I have yet to hear a transformer that can do what a proper tube phono stage that is capable of MC operation can do on its own. The transformers rob detail, bandwidth and are less interesting to listen to.
It's fine that you don't like your experience with your trannies, but it is a rather large leap to generalize that all transformers have the cited negative characteristics. Certainly SUT's are capable of enormous subtlety, tone, texture and some remarkably high, wide and deep imaging. I haven't heard any active stage that approaches the silk and texture of a nice SUT with a decent MC cartridge.
I have listened to my own system through solid state amps rather than the tubes I typically use. The sound from the SUT coupled inputs is so hyper detailed and almost phosphorescent that it is like the difference between a nice tan and radiation burns, The solid state was interesting but rapidly fatiguing. In that kind of system, it might very well be that an active stage would sound better, but by subtraction, not addition.
There are whole segments of audiophiles who devote enormous energy and attention to the use of transformers in amplification stages, and they pursue their solutions to the point of mysticism. I doubt that they do it because they are losing imaging or information.
Again, SUT's are a pain but if you like what they can do I doubt you would find an active stage competitive. If you don't like them, then screw them and enjoy your active stage.
Cjfrbw-my system is all tubes, all 32 of them when everything is working. The SA-2 has 8, the SA-5.1 has 8, and the Quicksilver MS-190 has 16. So, my experience using the Sowter 8055s is through all tubes. The other point is, I have tried to be careful and relate my experience using the Sowter transformers. That is why I started this thread to see if my experience is an aberration or is there some commonality with my experience and others who have compared both tubes and active head amps. I can't speak for how many different transformers sound as my experience is limited to only two transformers. The first experience was so long ago that I can't compare that experience. It was in one of my first decent systems and I had a Denon cartridge that came with its own transformer in the same package. My equipment back then was far inferior to what I have now. We are talking around the 1980 timeframe on that system (maybe a Denon DL-302 cartridge?). Judging from the responses so far, it seems that people generally agree with my experience that well designed active head amps pass more music than transformers. I can see why the allure is there to use transformers because I bit on it. They are relatively cheap, they can be installed inside your preamp, and you can omit a pair of interconnects-all desirable attributes. It cost me just under $600.00 to have Mike Elliot purchase and install the Sowter 8055s in my 5.1. I looked at it as a good excuse not to repair my SA-2 when the power transformer crapped out and move "up" to the wonderful world of transformers. Now I know better. The magic I had is gone and that is why my SA-2 is back at Alta Vista to be repaired. I can't wait to get it back.
I'm late responding to this but hope this will be helpful.

I have an ARC Ref Phono (with built-in Jensen JT-346-AX transformers, factory configured at 1:12) and a pair of Mu transformers (S&B TX-103 Cu) that I originally configured at 1:10. For various reasons, including the .5mv output of my MC, I chose to forego the trannies and go "straight-in" the phono stage. I should note the Ref Phono is not stock, having V-caps, HexFreds, Caddocks and various other mods, and this certainly does not sound like a stock unit.

I recently reconfigured both transformer pairs for lower gain, 1:4 for the Jensens and 1:5 for the TX-103s. Now, I've never been that happy with the Jensens, but reconfigured they were actually very good, with abundant low level detail and only a very slight 'lightness' in character -- something I could live with in any case.

The TX-103s sounded (then) much like Mike Elliot describes them in his comparison of transformers -- good tonal balance but bland -- missing low level detail. It occurred to me that their sound was similar to an MC that needs demag, ala a Fluxbuster or similar device. I used T. Loesch's recommended burn-in (running the Purist Audio cd for nearly 24 hours non-stop) to open up the transformer cores, and the transformation (no pun intended) was quite honestly huge. The even-handed tonal balance remained, but there was now tremendous low level detail, even exceeding the Jensens a bit, and without their 'lightness'. I'm guessing that Mike Elliot did not burn-in the S&Bs enough (or perhaps at all?), though that's a moot point given that S&B trannies are nigh impossible to get now -- all their production is apparently targeted to their Music First offshoot.

Compared to "straight-in", the transformer loading of the cart improves the low end, the dynamic range and S/N.

This doesn't address if an active step-up is better, but properly done, transformers can be quite good, and better than apparently some here have experienced for themselves.

Best regards,