Thought I'd post a review of the M2 Tech Joplin phono stage that Keith so kindly lent me.
This isn't quite the review I thought I was going to write. On one level this phono stage is all about archiving of (mainly old) vinyl and 78s, something I've taken quite an interest in lately, having got hold of several mono cartridges and looking at sensible ways to digitise the result. Most of this material is unavailable commercially, at least at present, and almost all is out of copyright being over 50 years old. So genuinely quite rare material, some of it - worth preserving.
This whole aspect of the Joplin really appealed to me … I'm not the world's biggest fan of digital but I'm well aware how fragile some of my old vinyl and 78s are, and (from the totally mental prices of some of it on popsike), how rare some of it must be as well. It surely is a good thing to capture some of this for posterity, correctly equalised, in a form that will live indefinitely.
There is a point in digitising some modern stuff too. It's hardly worth making the effort to capture and mark up something from the mainstream catalogue that can be had for £2 on CD on Amazon, but there are enough more modern rarities to be worth preserving too, from short-run classical LPs with barely a few hundred pressings, to rock bootlegs, demo cuts and collectors Eps, to rarities by short-lived bands. I'll come to all that in a minute.
(I should add for all those who miss faffing around with cassette tapes, this has it all, from cueing up, to sitting through the recording in anticipation, to filling out - in this case electronic - card indexes, to capturing artwork, with added fun adjusting EQ curves. Geek heaven).
But there is a whole other level here that I hadn't originally considered, though it dawned on me fairly rapidly after setting it up in my system … it was as early as Day 1 that I realised that this whole archiving palaver is far from the whole story about this phono stage. Because, while the archiving bit is the interesting piece for record collecting anoraks (like me), the far bigger market has to be people aspiring to digital-source only systems outputting from an increasingly solitary DAC.
Used in this fashion, it's effectively creating a digital source from vinyl. Straight-through output at 32bit/high sample rates (up to 384kbit, if your DAC can handle it) is all but totally transparent on this thing (and people here well know my skepticism of all things digital) and takes on the character of the DAC when it comes to output, which in the case of my Audio Note, is a high-end valve preamp, and pretty lovely - you don't need to go without your tube fix to use the Joplin. (Though the AN is restricted on the digital side to only 96k/24bit, so perhaps it wasn't the ideal DAC to test this with).
Though I'm not sure it knows it yet it, the market has been waiting for a long time for a really good way of getting digital out of the LP format. Indeed Ayre just brought out a similar product, about £1k more expensive and without the variable EQ.
An obvious partner for hi-res 384kbit playback is of course the M2 Tech Young DAC, which is identical in physical format to this and must be designed to be stacked with it (though there are quite a few others these days from Weiss, dCS etc). Consequently I were M2Tech I'd be marketing the Joplin as the vinyl breakthrough single source digital nuts have been waiting for - play vinyl digitally at such high resolution it sounds just like analog (if that's how you want to think of it), with all your digital gear including DAC, digital preamps, digital room correction and digital crossovers etc all available right where you want them. Could actually be the start of a sea-change in thinking about how vinyl can be handled in a modern system. It might not quite catch on for the 'tubes only' fraternity but this remains a minority interest in the wider hifi buying population.
I have to admit, even with the AN DAC on the end of the Joplin for straight-through output, I did prefer my Nick Gorham/Longdog Audio phono stage. But I love that phono stage, in my setup it significantly bettered the one in an AN M3, and also anything else I've had the pleasure of here including some fantastic phono stages like the Conrad-Johnson EV1, Art Audio Vinyl 1, Whest PS30, and Tom Evans Groove. Very hard to beat. But it was closer than you might think and the Joplin is plenty musical.
Getting into some of the tricks and functions, I think to the word 'musical', the word 'magical' needs to be added, to describe the effect of the 50 or so EQ curves built in to the Joplin that correctly and automatically adjust turnover and rolloff for just about any 78 or LP ever produced. I won't go into the theory of how there was no standard way of cutting records till the mid 50s, or how odd equalisations persisted into the 60s and even 70s - you can read about it here - but in the past I've owned both a Slee Jazz Club and a Rek-o-kut Re-Equalizer which do similar things as the Joplin only in the analog domain. When EQ'd properly, recordings that sounded weird, dull or downright shitty emerge transformed, with even 78s coming to life wonderfully.
And thanks to the wonders of DSP, the Joplin does this EQ management better than any device I've ever come across. Simply amazing to put on a 1951 Decca FRSS recording of Julian Bream playing Dowland, which sounds dull, muddy and a bit antique, even through an Ortofon Mono SPU GM Mk II. Click to the FRSS curve and the sound was transformed into something with sweet highs and a realistic, 'present' lute timbre that could have been recorded yesterday. Ditto Dennis Brain on French horn (Columbia), not to mention some old Sinatra recordings (Capitol). With the right curve, period charm disappears and what you get is pure music.
With 78s (using Matt from Audio Grail's Tannoy Variluctance mono cartridge at the recommended 7g) the effect was perhaps even more stark. Still a bit of surface noise, but fresh believable voices even if the sound staging was a bit dated (Lieder recordings from the 40s tended to showcase singer over piano accompaniment for example, so the piano was much more background than in a modern recording). But the Joplin fixed the sound balance between treble, mids and bass very well indeed. Richard Tauber, Heddle Nash, Elisabeth Schumann, Rita Streich, and a very young Fischer Dieskau sprung to life wonderfully. To put on a 78 on the Thorens, that's perhaps 70 or 80 years old, and hear it reproduced believably is quite a party trick.
The Joplin worked straight into the Mac with no drivers required, though there is a disk of software containing PC drivers and a Mac/PC version of Audacity so there's no problem getting going. I tried various software for capturing outputs, Audacity has its charms, as does VinylStudio, with the former allowing more detailed editing, and the latter much better ease of use in capturing albums by the side with lots of automated features and some good de-clicking tools. Garageband works after a fashion (for single file capture) and for more high-end mucking around I also tried Adobe Soundbooth (far too many parameters to crash into and just use, but I'm sure it would be the pro's choice).
Some adjustment was needed between recordings to get the input gain right as it was possible to overload it direct from the SUT, and on really dynamic music (such a 1953 recording of Fischer Dieskau Haydn songs where the dynamic range was enormous), it left quiet passages very quiet indeed. However, even these produced decent sound files as it was pretty capable at handling surface noise. I didn't explore tricks for further noise reduction as my experience in visual media with Photoshop has left me of the view that amateurs best leave such things well alone!
Once I'm clear what software approach is best, and before it goes back to Keith, I'm hoping to make some sample files available to wammers on request, but I'm not quite organised yet. I can't post samples on the forum due to Google's rather fascist behaviour in bullying site owners not to allow the merest whiff of copyright infringement when it comes to allowing posting of sound files (even though all material is over 50years old and demonstrably out of copyright, it's just not worth the hassle). But I will be setting something up in Dropbox that won't get James into trouble.
On plain old mono playback, I had great fun just playing stuff from the Thorens straight through my DAC (a bizarre sight it has to be said for a vinyl nut like me). John Martyn's first album London Conversations (recorded in mono only), Brubeck Jazz at the Oberlin, Furtwangler's Beethoven's 9th from the 1953 re-opening of the Festpielhalle in Bayreuth (the rebirth of German high culture after the depredations of the Nazi era), all sounded pretty wonderful. Switching to stereo, with input being the AN-J Io and Kondo S6c SUT, as I say, the Joplin was bettered in terms of sound by my valve phono stage but of course it didn't come within a country mile of the Joplin's versatility.
So where does this leave the Joplin in the marketplace? Well I think there are two ends of a continuum here. It will certainly have an amateur, and most likely also a professional following among people who wish to archive rare 78s and vinyl, at bit rates as high as your disk array allows. It's a fantastic tool for that and very very long-awaited. For them the capture side is emphasised and straight-through playback is a side issue. At the other extreme are people who favour digital, perhaps have a very high end DAC going straight to a power amp with (analog or digital) volume control. Their sources - streamed or silver disk based - need to be digital. They might have room correction in place. This market (surely growing by the week) can now add vinyl as a digital source.
From my perspective, as a committed analog/valve nut, I can't see myself ever going down that route. But I can see the advantages. And if I had £1700 to drop on one of these for archiving and playback of old formats, I'd have it in a flash. Really, really nice product from M2Tech.
I do worry though that the effect of gear like this coming on the market will be a further surge on mono LP and 78 prices which have been climbing steadily in recent times. Get your mono bargains now ....
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