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Audio Note M9 RIAA Signature phono stage Review, Part 2: S9M Step-Up Transformer

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Audio Note M9 (RIAA) Signature Phono Stage/Ypsilon 26L Silver wired Transformer (all comments are in comparison to the M9 with the S9M equipped with captive Pallas output wiring):

Audio Note S9M

 

Ypsilon MC10L Moving Coil Step-Up Transformer (MC16L/MC26L uses the same cylindrical chassis)

At this point, Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports, the importer of the Ypsilon electronics, was kind enough to loan me his personal Ypsilon 26L (28dB output versus 24dB of the 16L, with silver wired/amorphous core) step-up transformer for this comparison.  As will become obvious from the following comments, it was quite a different beast from the copper wired version of the transformer and superior in almost every way.

Barbara Kenney – In some ways, the sound was very competitive with the AN S9M transformer.  The singer’s voice was very open and I could hear wonderful detail of her breath and sibilants.  As small a role as the cymbals play in the recording, they were more prominent with the Ypsilon transformer.  There also might be a bit more sense of space between instruments; however, there was also some accompanying thinness to the sound.  The acoustic guitar in the Greensleeves’ cut, which was a bit tinny on the AN, was more so here.  Likewise, while the detail in the voice was great, every now and then there was some edge not present with the AN.  The more that I listened to Kenney’s voice on the Ypsilon the more I became aware that I was listening to a record and not to a person.  Nevertheless, based only on this LP, I couldn’t be sure which of these transformers I would prefer.

Art Pepper, Analogue Sounds (33 rpm) – This almost sounded great, but there were any number of things missing that made it terrific with the AN.  The drums did not speak the way they did on the AN – the heads of the snare and toms had a wonderful full-bodied thwack on the AN which they lacked with the Ypsilon.  Moreover, the antiphonal wind choirs were not nearly as fully fleshed out.  The notes were there but missing a richness and completeness of voice that was just plainly breathtaking on the AN.  There might be somewhat more detail on the top here, and I could hear the ride cymbal more clearly on the second tune.  Yet, this did not always pay such great dividends – for example, I was not as aware of when Pepper was playing tenor or alto sax.  It’s a personal thing I suppose, but I was hearing the same record that excited the hell out of me three days ago and nothing was happening; same music, but missing something.

Rubba, Symphony No. 8 – Here the advantages of the Ypsilon’s more clinical sound paid some dividends.  With the AN transformer, I remember finding the midrange to be somewhat luxurious, but at the same time detected an accompanying vagueness at the louder spots.  Here we have something closer to pinpoint imaging accompanied by greater clarity among the various string parts.  Except that the upper strings, in particular, sounded somewhat bleached and with the AN, the lower strings sounded especially rich.  So much so that I recall getting a particular thrill out of them at the outset of the piece.  I appreciate certain benefits of the clarity which the Ypsilon could at times offer, yet the more that I listened with the Ypsilon, the more I tired of the bleached strings and the emphasis on the top octaves.

Holst, The Planets, Sargent, EMI ASD – My first thought was that the frequency tilt of the Ypsilon was bringing out the worst of this typically top heavy ASD.  And, indeed, there were some moments that could only be described as excruciating; however, I could also, at times, hear more of those things which some audiophiles would find attractive about ASD’s.  This one had great soundstage and seemed very revealing of detail in the strings and woodwinds…and had a lovely harp.  You could easily tell where everything was across the stage.  Yes, the upper strings sounded as if they were being played with long knives at times rather than bows and the Ypsilon was, well, generous in its reproduction of every bit of crud baked into the crusty industrial grade stuff that passed for vinyl in the late 1960’s.

It was perhaps worth mentioning that I used the Ypsilon 26L in conjunction with Nordost Odin 2 cables.  In retrospect, I wonder whether the substitution of another interconnect between the transformer and the phono stage such as the Jorma Prime might have changed the tonal balance and eliminated the issues noted in the midrange as well as the slight treble emphasis in some instances.

 

Audio Note M9 RIAA Signature with Audio Note S9M (custom version):

At this point, I was torn between the sound of the AN S9M Step-Up Transformer as provided with the captive Pallas interconnect on the outputs and the silver wired version of the Ypsilon 26L transformer.  They were both excellent but very different in their balance of plusses and minuses with the Ypsilon having more resolution and a more extended top octave response but at the expense of some loss of warmth and body.  At this juncture, I began to wonder whether some of the difference that I was hearing was an artifact not of the S9M but of the captive Pallas interconnect.  As a result, I asked Audio Note whether it would be possible to get a version of the S9M sans the Pallas leads.  They were reluctant and were concerned that given the rather miniscule signal levels from the cartridge that adding additional mechanical connections would degrade the sound.  None-the-less, they provided me an S9M with RCA outputs which would allow me to use an interconnect of my own choosing, which would be the Nordost Odin 2.  The brief comments which follow reflect the sound of the S9M equipped with Odin 2 both from the turntable to the S9M and a second pair from the S9M to the M9 RIAA Sig.

Beverly Kenney – This album sounded terrific before but even better now.  It is a superb Japanese pressing of an extremely rare 1955 U.S. release.  It was easy to hear Kenney’s closeness to the microphone with beautiful detail.  The combination of the Odin cables with the S9M retained all the positives with respect to her voice, perhaps rendering them even more clearly.  The accompaniment was, however, rendered distinctly cleaner and clearer, greatly benefiting Johnny Smith’s guitar which sounded that much fuller and more present than before.  If it was good before, it was now even better.

Art Pepper, Analogue Sounds (33 rpm) – running the S9M with the Odin reaped similar benefits here.  To begin, the soundstage was rendered with greater precision.  The tight heads of the drums spoke with great eloquence, as did the top end of the cymbals which sparkled.  The wind choirs arrangements were revealed with the reeds primarily to the right and brass to the left in most tracks.  The complex harmonic interplay between the groups so cleanly set forth was a pleasure to hear.  Marry Parch, the arranger, favored dense and rich harmonics.  To be able, in many instances, to make out clearly what carried which parts of the chords in one’s own system was a real pleasure that could be elusive even live.

Were there any weaknesses?  I am not really sure.  The sound was different than before, certainly.  Yet, that difference was hard to pin down.  Pepper’s horn seemed to come with a slightly sharper edge.  But was this really a problem?

David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust (Mobile Fidelity) – What a pleasure it was to hear this relatively early Mobile Fidelity effort and get the best out of Bowie’s breakthrough effort.  The mix by today’s standards was peculiar: bass drums in one channel, top hat in the other, that sort of thing.  But it was all there, including Mick Ronson’s close-up, brilliant electric guitar flourishes, the over the top strings, and Bowie’s not quite Bowie yet voice with more than a hint of Cockney impresario around the edges.  But, the important thing was the sound, but as I said, it was all wonderfully there.  Such warts as might be heard were not additive, meaning that they did not exist as a result of any fault in the reproduction of the signal.

June Christy,  Gone for the Day – This was an early mono pressing of one of June Christy’s Capitol LP’s, but you would almost not know it from what the Audio Note gear did with it.  June’s voice was fully present, as were many of the instruments, maybe just a bit much with the occasional strings, but that would be regrettably true of many of the recordings from this era.  As with the Bowie record discussed above, I could not really fault the sound quality.

Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball, (Nonesuch, 180 gram reissue) – The temptation with this particular record was to throw down the pen and notepad and just listen.  This particular evening, we were comparing a British audiophile pressing of this record (circa 1995) with the Nonesuch reissue, having earlier determined the Nonesuch to be superior to the first U.S. pressing.  By the time that I discovered it last year, it cost me $250 for a NM copy on eBay.  Of course, a few months later the Nonesuch reissue came out which cost considerably less and spread the same music over three sides with some additional material filling out side four.  The Nonesuch version is likely more faithful to the artist’s intent, especially that of Daniel Lanois.  Lanois seemed to have conceived of Harris; voice almost drifting above a rich sonic fog (at least according to the DVD that is included with the Nonesuch issue) or perhaps he meant gumbo as this album was recorded in New Orleans, created by relatively few musicians on each track, but brilliantly treated by Lanois.  On the U.K. pressing, some of the richness of the fog was gone with more emphasis on clarity and forwardness.  While I was happy with it at the time, I now much prefer the Nonesuch.

The AN S9M/Odin combination handled both pressings with the same aplomb with which they have handled everything else.  What they accomplish together struck me as the best of several audiophile worlds.  Every bit of information was there.  I wish that you could hear the attacks on the hand drum in the left channel, they seemed utterly complete and as accurate as anyone could ask, but also sensuous and deeply satisfying.  It’s not just all there, it also deeply appealed to my ear and the ears of all the other listeners who have heard it.  The design and voicing continued to impress me in that way.  It was not just about retrieving audible information, even more so it was about recreating the musical experience.

 

Final Thoughts

This has been a very lengthy and at times difficult review.  The real challenge had been to communicate what it was about these products which, when they were used in conjunction with each other, made them unique.  Often in this industry, the listener is forced to choose between resolution and musicality.  Seldom is it possible in one product to maximize both, but at least to my ear, Audio Note seems to have achieved this to a rather surprising degree. While in the end, I did purchase the second version of the Audio Note S9 (sans captive Pallas interconnect) as I felt that it was a better overall match with the other Audio Note components which I own, I continue to have great respect for Ypsilon.

 

Copy editor: Dan Rubin

2 Responses to Audio Note M9 RIAA Signature phono stage Review, Part 2: S9M Step-Up Transformer


  1. Gary Fawke says:

    I appreciated your review of The ANs9 transformer, I also purchased my s9 without the pallas cable, and using various cables to connect s9 to phono stage noticed similar improvements.

  2. Fred Crowder says:

    Gary,

    As you can probably discern from the review, I spend an inordinately long time listening to the equipment being reviewed prior to ever putting pen to paper. Nonetheless, I always appreciate independent confirmation of my conclusions from readers, so many thanks for your comments. What cabling do you prefer? I have tried many and have yet to find anything which I prefer to the Nordost Odin 2.

    Fred Crowder

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