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The Beatnik on the Best Way to Play LPs

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The absolute best for the best price isn’t something we talk about much in the audio world. We talk a lot about the best real world priced or bargain priced equipment. I don’t see much written about how to get the very cutting edge state-of-the-art for the best price. So, I would like to share with you how I think you can do this when it comes to playing LPs.

When it comes to turntables, it seems that the sky is the limit when it comes to price. I haven’t heard any of the $100,000 plus turntables except at shows. I have heard several table-and-arm setups up to $70,000 in my system. I love the drive and pace of the Shindo 301 or Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 turntable. I love the deep bass of the Merrill-Scillia MS21 or the DaVinciAudio Labs In Unison turntable. I also love the detail and quietness of really good belt-driven turntables. As good as many of those tables are, I have only found one turntable that combines the essence of all these. It is the AMG Viella V12 Turntable and Tonearm, but you need to consider the purchase of the Harmonic Resolution Systems M3X-1921-AMG V12 Isolation Platform as part of the turntable; it not only improves the sound, but also looks great without the wood skirt.

While there are a few tables that do a few audiophile things better or have a touch deeper bass, none I have heard get more of the music right. The cost of this table, arm and HRS platform is $17,650, if you don’t get the wood skirt.

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Merrill-Scillia MS21

Now let’s talk about the preamp/cartridge combination. It seems that if you look at products from companies like Aesthetix, Allnic, Audio Note and Audio Research just to name a few that start with the letter A, the price for a world class cartridge starts around $5,000 and goes up from there; one of the phonostages with a cartridge would start around $35,000.

Now, let me suggest another world class system that I think is as good and, to be honest, better, than any of those other options. A Soundsmith Strain Gauge SG-200 combined with an Emia Manual Attenuator will set you back about $10,500. You could add a High Fidelity Ultimate Phono Cable and two High Fidelity Ultimate interconnects (one from the Soundsmith SG200 and one from the Emia to your power amp) and you would be out a total of $25,500. Of course, the other combos didn’t come with any cables. The Soundsmith comes with its own power supply and filter. The Emia does not use a power cord.

One would need two power cables that are not needed with the Soundsmith/Emia setup because I know you’re thinking, “but the Emia is not an active preamp.” Well, yes and no. The Emia functions as a pair of volume controls, and it is the best volume controls I have heard. It has two inputs, so it meets all my needs. I also love that it has a way to set the balance very precisely. By the way, if you have to have a remote, they also have the Emia Remote Attenuator, which gives you the ability to adjust the balance perfectly from your listening chair.

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High Fidelity Ultimate cables

While the Soundsmith Strain Gauge SG-200 is the basic, featureless version of their top strain gauge cartridge, the great news is you give up only features; it sounds exactly the same as their $13,000 SG-230. In my review of the Soundsmith Strain Gauge, I said, “a properly set up Soundsmith strain-gauge cartridge reproduces the cleanest, clearest, most transparent midrange and top end I had heard. It also had the fastest, most dynamic bass I have heard. It also let me hear more air around and within instruments and more of the hall than I had heard by a large margin. Lastly, it produces by far the most three-dimensional soundstage I have encountered.”

So what is it that makes this way of playing LPs so special? I think you have to remember what these two pieces of equipment don’t do. They don’t add much of their own sound. The Soundsmith Strain Gauge cartridge doesn’t ring, vibrate, or in any way smear the sound. In the review, I also said, “the problem with describing this is if I hadn’t heard my system with the strain gauge, I probably wouldn’t have had any idea my setup is doing this. As good as the Miyabi Standard, the latest Benz Ebony TR, or the Shindo SPU are, and they are really good. Still they each add a degree of reverb and smearing that I don’t hear with the strain gauge. The Benz Ebony TR with its single winding per channel comes closest but does not have the power or bass that the SG-220 does.”

When it comes to the Emia Autoformer, what makes it so good is also what it doesn’t do. It allows the sound to come through my system in an immediate, direct, and transparent way. Yet, unlike any other passive I have ever used, it has great harmonics and does not reduce the leading edge of string instruments. The Emia is quite simple in design and appearance, but it is the sound of my system that is beautiful and impressive instead of the equipment.

So, if you are willing to think outside the box a little, you can achieve the best way to play and LP I know of without spending six figures or even $50,000. I know this is by no means an inexpensive setup, but the goal wasn’t to find a giant-killer way to play LPs, but just the very best way I had found. Good luck to our readers on finding what you’re looking for.

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6 Responses to The Beatnik on the Best Way to Play LPs


  1. Jack;

    Many thanks for this posting. One correction – The SG-200 may not produce enough output level for a passive control to drive some amplifiers unless they have very high input sensitivity. For that use, the SG-210 which has both fixed and +15dB of variable gain outputs. That unit sells for $9600 with cartridge. The SG-210 was designed with that function in mind, in that it has a manual volume control – so it can drive an amplifier directly without need for any external line stage preamp or volume control.

    Peter Ledermann/President/Soundsmith

  2. patb says:

    Hi Jack,
    I’d be very interested to know what your opinion would be on a phono stage for a shilabe catridge, using a music first ‘baby ref v2’. As this is a passive unit, I am concerned about having enough gain, but want to lose my line stage because of noise. My thoughts were to use a Bob’s sky SUT into a really good MM stage. But what? Any opinions?

  3. patb says:

    Sorry Jack, with regards to using a passive baby ref preamp, and looking for a suitable phono device, I am using a pass 30.8 (Thanks to your fantastic review) and horning aristotle speakers which are 96db.
    Any advice appreciated. Thank you. Pat Brennan

    • Jack Roberts says:

      I like the idea of a MM phono stage with a SUT. If you would consider tube I suggest the one from Leban.

      • patb says:

        Thanks Jack,
        Looks like an audionote M1 is in my future along with a ‘Bob’s devices’ Sky stepup.
        Being that my Dac prefers XLR and so does the Pass Amp, do you have any preference on XLR cables?
        Thanks Jack.

  4. Jack Roberts says:

    I need to mention that now I have found another alternative to using phono preamps and active linestages. I just finished reviewing the DS Audio DS-W1 Optical cartridge and EQ/Power Supply Unit. This combo sells for $8,500 and fits into a system exactly like the SoundSmith Strain Gauge. It has considerable more gain than the SoundSmith and gives you the choice of no equalization like the SoundSmith or an output with RIAA equalization. My review of this wonderful cartridge will be up soon here on Dagogo.

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