Steelhead vs LP2 etc with Revel Krell and Sota

Hey guys,

So I'm in the market for a new phono preamp. Here is my current system:

Sota Sapphire with Vacuum just refurbished at factory
Denon DL-160 Cartridge (temp cart waiting on a mysterious lyra kleos!)
PS Audio GCPH phono preamp
Placette passive linestage
Krell 400cx
Revel Gems (new in box about 8 months ago)
Revel B15

So I'm not sure if it shows but i've pieced this system together from amaizng deals/free of being in the industry. The synergy of the system could be improved. The Krell and the Revels are great at what they do but seem out of place in the vinyl tube relm. That said I don't really know if i'm ready to swap speakers and amp at this stage.

I'd like to get a phono preamp that is very flexible and will last me several different cartridge changes and hopefully i'll stick with the SME arm. I'd like to mount that to an SME table one day.

I'm thinking of using the volume control on the Steelhead and running it directly to my amp and sub. I'm gonna sell a Levinson 30.5 DAC, the PS Audio GCPH and the placcette linestage. I've thought about the Aesthetix IO with volume control. Maybe the Lamm LP2 going into the Placette.

I'd like to say "hey I'll just get a demo and try it out in my system". But I don't think the cartridge I have now would allow me to really see a defining difference.

Anyone have thoughts?

Dear Rhohense: As you point out that Denon can't show you very high quality performance you need a better cartridge, either LOMC or MM/MI, before you think in a new phonolinepreamp. IMHO the most important link in an analog system is the source and this means: the cartridge.

Now, you talk about your Revel rig ( that I know very well. ) and you think that maybe you need a change here too.
I don't know which kind of room you have and which kind of room treatment are using but Gem's/B-15's are great combination with very high quality performance.
I read you have only one B-15 and your pictures on the B-15 room place seems/means to me: problems ( room interaction. ) that could preclude better system performance. I can't be sure because I don't know how performs your system so maybe I'm wrong.

Anyway please read here some interesting information about:

Regards and enjoy the music,
If your thinking about upgrading to an SME table why not save some bread and move up to a current spec Cosmos. Ive compared the 30 to a Cosmos side by side and preferred the Cosmos hands down. Once you get your phono stage and cartridge sorted out you will better be able to evaluate how the rest of the system works together.
Hi Russ:

The Kleos has the same electrical parameters as the Helikon. Output voltage 0.5~0.6mV at 5cm/sec (JVC test record), 5.4 ohm coil DCR, 9.9uH coil inductance.

I'd suggest using a tonearm cable with as little capacitance as possible, because this will allow you to load the cartridge more lightly, which should yield benefits in dynamic range and transient impact. Hope this information is of help when preparing the tonearm cable and phono stage loading.

I'm still working on simulations and measurements for how the electrical characteristics of the Kleos change with loading (including cable capacitance and phono stage resistance). I will incorporate this information into the instruction manual (as it was with the Delos).

The Kleos itself has entered production, but I am still working on the artwork for the packaging, and the information and text for the aforementioned instruction manual. I find these aspects to be tedious work, but unfortunately we aren't allowed to send cartridges to our distributors and dealers without proper packaging and instructions.

My estimate is that we will start shipping in around 2 weeks.

cheers, jonathan carr
Small update.

A Kleos (from the first production run) will be demonstrated in Munich. I believe that this will be in a room shared with Fast Audio and AMR.

I've continued to work flat-out on the graphics and page layouts for the packaging. I'd estimate that I'm 80-90% finished. Graphics and layout work are all complete; colors, paper and coating need more refinement. But we have hand-made some initial packaging samples for Munich.

Next on the must-complete list is the instruction manual and the electrical simulations and measurements.

cheers, jonathan carr
I have an SL bought from needle doctor. It has been a good option for me since I use a Tandberg 3018A preamp. Its MC sensitivity is 0.05 mV (I believe the gain is 75 db or so) - the best phono stage I've heard so far: clean, transparent, dynamic! What are my exchange/retip options?
I was really hoping Jcarr was going to answer something about this. I believe it is a legitimate question. I have spent more than 2000 USD less than 3 months ago relying in the consistency of Lyra. What happened with the SL version of the Helikon? Is Lyra going to keep offering low output MC cartridges or not? Are they going to do the same thing that most cartridge manufactures are doing: making concessions to mediocricy by making coils longer and degrading the sound just because preamps and phono stages nowadays are nothing, but Shi..... Well, we still have the top of the line Koetsus, The Benz Ebony TR (0.1mV, 1ohm, The Ortofons SPU, some Denons, the Linn Klyde and close to that at 0.28 the Dynas. But I made the wrong decision. I went for the Lyra who had promised a cartrige for real good, high gain preamps. Make no mistakes my friends, if you want real music out of vinyl the only way is with 70 db gain (for an MC low output cartridge) in the phono stage y only a few preamps capable of that have been made. The TR 3018A, the MAC C22 and just a few others. Nowadays you have to pay 20K USD minimum for a Nagra or a FM Accoustics to get that. Everything the reviewers and the manufactures are saying about this issue is just nonsense and garbage. They are either stupid or corrupt. Why Mr. JCarr has not answer anything?
Mavare: Apologies for the delay in responding - I need to fulfill my daily production and design responsibilities, and this particular period is even crazier than normal (since we are still scrambling to prepare for the commencing of Kleos shipments).

May I ask if you have already talked to Needle Doctor? If you did, you should have received the answer that if your Helikon SL wears out or gets broken, we can replace it with a new one (using 100% new parts), or if you want, we can rebuild the one that you have (using new replacements for all wearable or damaged parts). If your dealer, national distributor is out of inventory at the time that you require a replacement cartridge and a new one needs to built up from scratch, the complete production process could take about 35-40 days (we normally don't keep surplus inventory).

We also support our distributors in their trade-in and/or trade-up programs, so that would be another option for you when the time comes.

I must caution you that I don't have the authority to dictate the policies of our distributors or their dealers, so the person who you should be talking to the dealer that you purchased the Helikon SL from. If you can't get satisfaction, I can attempt to facilitate things on your behalf, but the general procedure should be that you talk to your dealer first, and as a next resort, to your national distributor. Our gross margin per cartridge sale is several times less than what the dealer earns, and taking good care of customers is a major part of how delears are supposed to earn that margin.

FWIW, although I agree that it would be nice to have more contemporary phono stages that were comfortable with low input voltages, and that it would open up more options for me (as a cartridge designer), your post suggests that you are overly fixated on low output voltage, but not considering how that is achieved. When you look at output voltages, you should also study the source impedance, because that will be a better guide to how much wire was used to wind the coils. Low output voltage can be the result of reduced coil windings, but it can also imply the use of generator systems which aren't particularly efficient. To make things more complex, generator efficiency and generator linearity are two separate things, and my experience so far has been that it's better to compromise a bit on generator efficiency if this enables generator linearity to be improved (IOW, reduced distortion).

Let's look at your cartridge list. The SPU and Benz Ebony TR do have low-impedance coils, and that tells us that the coils are made with fairly short wire lengths, and perhaps fat wire. But in the case of Denon cartridges, the lowest output is 0.25mV achieved from a 13-ohm coil, which suggests rather longer wire. The lowest coil impedances that Dynavector uses are 5 ohms. Same for Koetsu. This certainly isn't high, but neither is it extremely low (the non-SL Helikon is 5.4 ohms). And if the coil former (core) is made from non-permeable materials, chances are that longer coil windings will be required to achieve output levels that don't cause fits for even higher-quality phono stages. As a case in point, the Benz Ruby cartridges employ at least 38-ohm coils to achieve their output levels of around 0.35mV.

In my experience with designing phono amplifiers and cartridges, the outcome is usually best when designs don't excessively focus on one or two parameters at the cost of a half-dozen others. I normally keep coil impedance below 10 ohms, but I wouldn't hesitate to exceed this for a particular design if I thought that the net benefits could outweigh the demerits (although extensive listening tests would be performed to make sure that the net sonic effect was positive).

OK, I better get back to those Kleos'.

hth, jonathan carr
O.K. Sir. First many thanks for your answer and thorough explanation. One important point here is I have no reason to worry since my Helikon SL will always be exchanged or retiped. I understand keeping the same specs meaning 0.22 mV output voltage. I wonder how you can guarantee that! Another point is that you seem to admit that Lyra will no longer offer a lower output cartridge since that Kleos is the last word replacing the Helikon and that's 0.6mV

Yes, that's probably a good achievement if you manage to keep impedance within 5-6 ohms, but if you can do that, at 0.2mV you could put out on the market a cartridge with only 2 or 3 ohms meaning a more neutral, natural and pure sound. So why don't you do that? I can only guess this is a concession to "market conditions" as I stated it above. The sad story here is that those "market conditions" are not imposed by the end user who just want good sound, but by the preamp manufactures who are unable or unwilling to do their job properly.

Trying to put myself in Lyra's feet I guess the Helikon SL, being the best sounding cartridge and the best value in the entire line of Lyra was not precisely a success on the market because users have no phono stages good enough to appreciate it. Quite the opposite, the SL most likely becomes unlistenable in those tubee preamps which can hardly give 50 db, but claim they can handle moving coil cartridges. That's why nobody knows how good an Ortofon SPU can sound!

I have just read a famous reviewer, talking wonders about a less than average cartridge and claiming it sounds better than the Koetsu Urushi Vermilion which sounds dull and lacks dynamics in comparison! When I checked his listed reference gear I found the total gain after adding the phono stage's and the preamp's was just 60 db! The Vermilion's output is 0.2mV! For that you need 75-80 db as per my experience. Yeah, I know "the greater the gain, the bigger the pain" That's the axioma that reigns among contemporary preamp manufactures and for them that applies indeed! That's why cartridges like the Helikon SL are a failure in today's market, but since I don't have the money for a Nagra, an FM Accoustics or and Accuphase I buy a classic.
Hi Mavare:

Sorry again for the lengthy delay in responding.

We haven't decided if there will be a single-layer coil version of our latest cartridges designs or not. Design-wise there are zero obstacles to doing so, but from a business perspective, sales of the Helikon SL have not been strong enough to justify keeping it in our lineup. I am told by some of our distributors that most Helikon SL sales occur when the standard-output version happens to be out of stock, and the customer is willing to accept an SL version instead. IOW, keeping an SL model doesn't appear to have increased our sales of the Helikon series - it looks to exist in more of an either-or situation with the standard output version.

Our SL models use a different coil/cantilever assembly system from the standard Helikon, likewise the voicing is also accomplished differently, and for this reason building these do not happen alongside the standard versions. Cartridges at and below the Helikon's price bracket are made in batches, and we set aside a distinct production batch and schedule for the SL versions when they need to be made. So in terms of production efficiency and making effective use of our builder's time and labor, keeping an SL model in our lineup is a detriment rather than an advantage.

Cartridges at, say, the Titan's price bracket are built in smaller groups, and more time is spent over each cartridge, making it easier to justify an SL variant for this class of cartridge.

I tend to agree with you regarding the situation with current-day phono stages and phono preamps, but I will add that I do not consider S/N ratio as the be-all and end-all of high-performance phono stage design. My experience has been that reduction of intermodulation distortion and maintaining good in-circuit bandwidth (and therefore good phase response) is a higher priority than pure S/N ratio. For example, it is relatively easy to design a phono stage with a good S/N ratio by using multiple input devices in parallel, and there also exist semiconductor devices which tout extra-low noise levels. The problem is, both of these approaches tend to increase non-linear capacitances in the input stage, and my hands-on experience is that I have not particularly liked the type of sound that such a circuit delivers. There is nothing wrong with designing for as good an S/N ratio as possible, but at least in my opinion, this should not come at the cost of increased non-linear input capacitances, intermodulation distortion, or in-circuit bandwidth.

It is far easier to design a good-sounding MM-level phono stage than it is a stellar MC-level phono stage - implementing the extra 30-some dB gain required at a high level of quality does not come easily nor cheaply. My experience is that this is why folks may get better sonic results with a high output high-impedance fixed-coil cartridge (MM or MI) into a low-gain phono stage than a low-output low-impedance cartridge (MC) into many MC-compatible high-gain phono stages. Although the higher inductance of fixed-coil cartridges practically guarantees that the electrical phase response within the audible bandwidth will be messed up, in many cases the sonic penalty for this is less than the sonic penalty imposed if a low-inductance low-output cartridge is used with a phono stage that has noticeably insufficient S/N ratio, marked non-linearities in the RF region, or increased non-linear input capacitances. And the lower the output voltage from the cartridge, the more capable the phono stage needs to be.

But I don't mean to be overly critical of most phono stage designers - to design a world-class phono stage that can do justice to low-output cartridges is not a trivial accomplishment. And the reality is that if we cartridge designers want our products to sell, it is prudent to take the capabilities of contemporary phono stage into consideration, and emphasize cartridge designs that have a good chance of working well with commercially available phono amplification.

To take the SL/low-output cartridge example yet further, the ideal moving-coil cartridge would be one possessing only one coil turn. The electrical bandwidth and phase response in particular would be awesome. But the extremely low output voltage would also mean that such a cartridge would be an utter beast that practically no real-world phono stage would be able to accommodate.

Due to the constraints of real-world phono amplification, cartridge designs which are less than perfect when viewed from a theoretical, idealistic perspective will in many cases deliver more optimal sonic results than a more extreme, "better" cartridge. Conversely, better phono stages are able to extract more of the performance potential of the cartridge, thereby allowing cartridge manufacturers to come up with more idealized, extreme cartridge designs, and users to have a better chance of fully accommodating and enjoying such capable yet demanding cartridges.

Incidentally, we were finally able to start shipments of the Kleos. Because it is a new design that involves new material choices, new surface processing and new building methods that entail a lot of work during the preparation and assembly stages, initial production quantities remain quite low (the first shipment consisted of a grand total of 15 cartridges). Gradually, as we learn how to deal with all of the new design decisions in a time and labor-effective manner, our production rate should go up, and we will be able to deliver Kleos' to more markets.

I think that the Kleos is the most natural-sounding Lyra cartridge yet, but that's just my opinion. I will be quite interested in hearing the impressions of those who get a chance to hear or use it.

As was the case with the Delos, I've done a fair amount of work regarding the effects of phono stage loading, and this information is summarized in the Kleos' instruction manual. Electrically, the Kleos is very similar to the Helikon, Skala and Titan (but not the SL or Mono models), so the loading analysis for the Kleos should be useful also for Helikon, Skala and Titan owners. Please feel free to let me know if if you use one of these cartridges and would like to have this information, and depending on the level of interest I will either send out email replies, or post the information here.

cheers to all, jonathan