Bob’s Devices CineMag1131 and Sky 30 Step Up
My interest in reviewing high quality standalone passive Step Up Transformers (SUTs) was prompted by the extraordinarily lifelike sound that I heard emanating from my friend Barry’s vinyl rig. Barry, another audiophile crazy like me, has often used separate SUTs to boost the signal of his low output moving coil cartridges. The last time I visited his house, the vinyl setup nearly blew me off the couch. So I wondered whether the external SUT significantly contributed to the lifelike presentation I enjoyed at his house. I decided I needed to find out for myself and dip my toe into the waters of standalone SUTs. After all they did sometimes appear to have a more robust appearance than the small passive moving coil step up transformers built into my phono preamp. So maybe bigger could be better. Time would tell.
The opportunity to test a standalone SUT arose at the Capital Audiofest when I met Bob Sattin of Bob’s Devices (above photo). Sattin is well known for producing quality standalone SUTs without the stratospheric price that some high end manufacturers demand these days. After a short chat with Sattin, I popped the question… No, I didn’t ask Sattin to marry me, but did ask if he would mind loaning me one of his highly touted SUTs for review. Sattin was kind enough to reach into one of his boxes and send me off with his model CineMag1131, so I could explore the world of separate SUTs.
Description of Bob’s Devices SUT
The model 1131 like the other SUTs in Sattin’s lineup is a relatively small rectangular shaped black glossy enclosure with two round transformers sticking through the top with round metal caps over the transformers. There is a pair of RCA inputs and outputs on one side of the housing with a grounding post in between the pairs of RCAs. On one of the short sides there are two toggle switches, one for the high and low output ratio settings (Sattin offers different SUTs with different step up ratios depending on the needs of your particular setup), and the second to lift or engage the ground. The bottom of the SUT is supported by four small round feet and has a piece of black tape that contains the step up ratios for the high and low settings. The ratios were 1:20 and 1:40 for the model 1131 SUT I borrowed.
Setup is a Breeze
For those unfamiliar with SUTs, setup is relatively simple. You run the cable from your tonearm into the RCA inputs on the SUT, and another pair of cables from the SUT outputs into the moving magnet (MM) inputs of either a phono preamp or the MM phono section of a regular preamp/integrated amp/receiver, etc., (if your component happens to have a MM phono section). And if everything matches appropriately (a BIG if), you should be ready to roll.
System Matching Can Be a Monumental Task, But Can Pay Off Big Time
I wasn’t quite prepared for how much effort I needed to exert to optimize integration of the 1131 into my system, and the difficulty in performing a head to head comparison with my existing phono stage, which has small Lundahl step up transformers built in for moving coil cartridges. I was happy with the sound I was getting with the Lundahls in the Art Audio Vinyl Reference phono stage, but I was hoping perhaps the separate seemingly more robust transformers would be the ticket to audio nirvana. But, making this change was a bit of a pain because a SUT must not only be a good match for the particular phono cartridge you are using but, as I learned through trial and error, it must also integrate well with the phono stage/preamp and can be particularly sensitive to cabling. So, everything must be “just right” to get the best possible results.
My Vinyl Reference has a host of settings to tweak it to a particular cartridge (both output level and cartridge loading/impedance). On the other hand, the Bob Devices trannies only have limited tweaking capability (step up ratio switch essentially raising the output/volume level). Although you could get lucky and hit the mark on the first try, but this was not the case for me.
As a result of all the need to properly match an SUT with a cartridge, phono stage, and cabling, this was admittedly one of the more difficult and time consuming reviews to complete. I found that I had to adjust the cabling and experiment with different phono stages/sections to get the best results from the Bob’s Devices SUTs. Also, these variables made it difficult, if not somewhat unfair, to compare the Bob Devices SUTs to other external SUTs and to the trannies in my reference phono stage.
I was using the moving coil (MC) stage of my Art Audio Vinyl Reference phono preamp for LP listening pleasure when Sattin’s SUT arrived. So the comparison to my existing setup required me to make a significant change and use the SUT with the MM section of the preamp, with which I had no experience in terms of sound. So, I was essentially initially comparing how my MC section of my phono preamp sounded compared to the MM section with a SUT. I also needed to add another cable in the chain to run from the SUT to my phono stage, since the phono cable from the turntable gets plugged into the input on the SUT rather than directly into the input of the phono preamp or phono stage of a regular preamp. Therefore, the changes necessary to use a separate SUT meant that the resulting sound could certainly not be entirely attributed to the SUT itself (a significant caveat).
Was it Worth All the Trouble???? You Betcha
Through all the trials and tribulationsof adding an external SUT to my system, I greatly appreciated the added benefits I heard from using the Bob Devices SUT. As a result, I have been seriously contemplating a permanent conversion to using an external passive SUT. The bottom line on Sattin’s SUTs (I wound up trying several to get the correct one for my system) was that I found they made all the musical performances more lifelike, with added presence and immediacy in vocals, and with a bit more subtle details from the top to the bottom of the musical spectrum.
Based on my experience during this review, whether a particular SUT will work well for you seems to be largely a function of what cartridge, cabling, phono stage/section you intend to use with it. While I have learned over the years that synergy among components is more important that each particular component individually, it seemed even more important in integrating an external SUT because it amplified (no pun intended) sensitivity of proper matching to a much larger degree.
ALL SET and READY to LISTEN, But… a Few Tweaks Were Needed
Once I matched Sattin’s SUTs with the proper phono stage and cabling and allowed several weeks of break in, I was in audio nirvana. As previously mentioned, one aspect of the musical performances that I repeatedly noted from album to album was a significant bump up in presence of voices (more in the room feel) and additional detail and articulation of instruments. I noticed this improvement initially when I connected the 1131 to the MM section of my Art Audio Vinyl Reference phono stage, in comparison to the MC section of the Vinyl Ref without a step up. However, initially I heard a bit of distortion, so I asked Bob if he would send a different SUT with lower output, since I thought perhaps the SUT was overloading the phono stage. I sent back the original SUT to Sattin for testing, just to be sure there was no problem with the SUT. It tested fine…
The new SUT I received, an 1131 with step up ratios of 1:10 and 1:20, improved the sound but did not completely eliminate the distortion problem, so I tried vintage Peerless 4665 trannies on loan from a friend, but with the same results. So I knew the problem was not in the transformers. My next step was to remove the Vinyl Ref phono stage and my reference Conrad Johnson preamp, and insert a custom German preamp with its own MM phono section. That was the trick. So, I suspect there was either a problem with the MM section of my phono preamp (that I previously never used) or it was not a good match with the SUTs I had on hand. But, with the new preamp in place I immediately noticed that the distortion was gone using both the Bob and the Peerless SUTs. I then inserted a longer silver cable in place of copper to get more resolution, and noticed that this brought back a bit of distortion. Ahhh, so I surmised there is more to this external SUT business than I originally suspected. I resorted to a shorter run, this time a silver Audio Note cable, and that was the final ticket to success. No distortion and better resolution. Now everything was “JUST RIGHT.” The bottom line here was that the synergy among the various elements was of utmost importance in integrating the SUT. I found the results staggering once I had the right combo of cables and phono section with the correct SUT boosting my Ortofon Cadenza Bronze cartridge.
Let the Listening Pleasure Really Begin
While it was really not an “apples to apples” comparison using a Bob’s Devices external SUT hooked to the MM section of my phono preamp, as opposed to a direct hookup from my turntable to the MC section, my consistent subjective impression after the change to the external SUT was a definite overall improvement in both intimacy and resolution.
After proper setup of the 1131 SUT set at the 1:10 ratio, I dropped the needle on Lucinda Williams West album, LP 2 side one, Where Is My Love?, and immediately noticed how focused Lucinda’s voice was, dead center, with all the gravel and grit and resonance one would expect to hear of Lucinda up close and personal. The presence of the voice and detail and articulation of instrumentation was to die for. It was a bit more focused and in the room sounding than I heard when I played the same album through the MC section of my Vinyl Reference phono stage.
Switching to a completely different genre, I threw on the RCA Living Stereo version of Heifetz playing Bruch’s Concerto in G Minor, LSC-2652, and was immediately immersed into the musical performance, with tons of orchestral details shining through from the New Symphony Orchestra of London. The beauty and articulation of Heifetz’s violin drew me even further into the performance. This experience of being pulled into the music and forgetting about the review was even more prevalent on Side 2, Mozart’s Concerto in D Minor. I was mesmerized by the articulation of the strikes of Heifetz’s bow against strings and the ease of the overall performance. I noted added presence and details I never noticed when playing this record through my phono stage without Bob’s SUT, with more texture and subtle nuances in the strings.
I thumbed through a stack of recently cleaned LPs and pulled out the classic 1965 Verve jazz record release of the Oscar Peterson Trio’s wonder We Get Requests. I love this record and though it was recently reissued on heavy vinyl, the original pressing is so realistic, that I couldn’t justify plopping down big bucks to get the reissue in the hopes that it would trump the original. With Peterson on piano, infamous bassist, Ray Brown, and Ed Thigpen on drums, this album presented the perfect opportunity to gauge the presentation of an intimate musical performance. It did not disappoint as the Trio was in my listening room with Oscar’s piano dead center on Side 2 track 2, The Girl from Ipanema, Ed’s drum work to the right, and Ray Brown’s bass to the left reverberating, with strikes, sustains and decays of bass notes readily apparent. Track 3 “D&E” contains much syncopation, and the musical inflections were amazing.
I dropped the needle on the 1978 Pablo Records release of “How Long has this Been Going On?” This well-recorded record features the stellar lineup of Sarah Vaughan on vocals, Oscar Peterson on piano, Joe Pass on guitar, Louie Bellson on drums and Ray Brown on bass. Sarah’s voice was textured with nice weight. I was drawn in by the subtle beautiful interaction between Sarah and the strikes of Oscar’s piano keys, which was tied nicely together in an engaging musical performance by the smooth rhythm section acting as the glue and meshing together Sarah’s voice with Oscar’s piano. I felt like I was surrounded by the incredible musicians in my listening room. Pretty awesome, with great presence and articulation of instruments; a consistent theme with every record I played with Bob’s SUT.
Flick the Ratio Switch and See What Happens
I began switching between the 1:10 step up ratio and the 1:20 setting on Bob’s 1131 SUT to see which I preferred with my particular set up. After adjusting the volume for the differences in output I noticed that I liked the naturalness and details in instruments on the lower output, but the higher output seemed to give more forwardness and presence to vocals. I liked the attributes of both, but was really yearning for both in one setting. I also had Bob’s Sky 30 SUT on hand (photo right), as well, since Sattin was kind enough to send it while I was trying to figure out which SUT was just right for my system.
After playing with 1131 on its 1:10 and 1:20 settings for several weeks and noting the attributes of each (a bigger more forward sound with the higher setting but a bit clearer more detailed presentation with low setting), I was hoping perhaps one of the settings of the Sky 30 may give me the best of both worlds on the MM section of my custom German preamp.
Reality Check, Let Go Back to the Beginning
But, wait, hold the presses, I felt compelled to do a reality check and refresh my recollection of what the MC section of my Vinyl Reference phono preamp sounded like in my system without all this separate SUT business. I immediately noticed a loss of presence and in the room quality with vocals, but the Vinyl Ref did give me more impact/kick in the bass and more weight in the mids. I definitely liked these added characteristics, so decided to try something different to see if there was a way to use the external SUT with the Vinyl References’ MM without getting the distortion I experienced previously. This time I experimented with a shorter .75 meter run of cabling from the SUT to the Vinyl Ref to see if that would eliminate the distortion I experienced when using 1 meter and 4 foot runs. Interestingly, using the shorter run completely eliminated the distortion that I previously detected. Now I was getting everything the SUT had to offer in terms of intimacy, along with the added weight and bass slam that the Vinyl Reference seemed to impart to the musical performance. Sweet indeed…
I was ready to dig out some more of my favorite LPs to test Bob’s SUT with my Vinyl Reference. I used the Sky 30 SUT with the 1:15 ratio setting. I started with a female vocalist favorite, the 45 RPM reissue of Julie London’s Julie is My Name, a mono pressing,which happens to have great jazz backup instrumentation. I was astounded by the weight of Julie’s voice with lots of warmth and texture; bass and guitar notes were extremely articulate and musical throughout side 1 of LP 1. I was so drawn in by the music that I stopped taking notes and just listened. Next up was Nat King Cole’s, After Midnight, another excellent vocal and instrumental mono pressing. I noted weight, texture, and warmth in the vocals with subtle inflections being mined out of each track, and the attack of the piano keys sounding like there was a piano in the room. I then turned to the classic 1972 Sussex Records release of Bill Withers, Still Bill. I was totally immersed into the performances, from the beautiful soulful tone of Bill’s voice, to the backup instrumentation. The instruments were clear and articulate, to a much greater extent than I remember hearing using only the MC section of my phono stage. Plus, it was ohh so musical and engaging, with great presence. My head was moving and bobbing during Use Me, my favorite song on the album. The hand clapping on the next track, Lean On Me, was clean and clear as a whistle, and Bill’s voice had nice weight and texture. The entire album was extremely musical and engaging using the Sky 30. I switched back to Bob’s 1131 set to 1:10 setting and replayed side 1. The results were very similar, with a tad less forwardness.
Why Not Throw Another SUT Into the Mix?
I had stopped by my friend Barry’s house over the weekend and he happened to have received custom mono SUTs housed in Mu Metal enclosures, so it presented a nice opportunity to do a comparison to the Bob Devices Sky 30 SUT that was back in place in my system. While the custom SUTs were a bit higher output ratio of 1:18, another variable in the mix, I was still anxious to see what the differences may be between the two SUTs. More importantly, could it get any better? Before switching out the Sky 30 for the other trannies, I threw on James Taylor’s Dad Loves His Work recently re-mastered on Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs 180 gram reissue series. I am very familiar with the album but wanted to refresh my recollection using the Bob Devices Sky 30 before I made the switch. I noted nice weight in James’ voice with the cues in the instruments I am used to hearing but with slightly more detail and presence then using my Vinyl Reference preamp alone in MC mode. So, I was ready to make the switch, recognizing that the new trannies had not been used for quite a while so they would need a fair amount of play time. The differences were quite apparent Between the Sky 30 and the other trannies on every recording. Bob’s SUT sounded weightier with more presence in mids, essentially with a more forward presentation in the mids. On the other hand, the custom trannies had more details, every little nuance presented with more clarity, but the mids were a bit more recessed without the same weight. So, in the end, which SUT to choose may be a matter of personal preference.
On the realism side of the equation, the custom trannie edged Bob’s SUT by a slight margin due to the added clarity. Having just heard Ricki Lee Jones at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland several weeks prior to writing this review, I can attest to the similarities between the custom SUT and the real deal. But, I really liked the added weight in the mids that Bob’s Sky 30 added to the equation, being a fan of the euphonic end of the spectrum. Plus, the Bob’s devices SUT seemed to subjectively have a much larger soundstage and sweet spot that permitted more movement to the right and left of dead center while still maintaining vocal images in the center.The sweet spot using Bob’s Sky 30 was more than a bit bigger, it was way bigger! In the end, I found that I preferred Bob’s Sky 30.
One Final Listen and Comparison
I knew it was time to return the SUTs but before packing them up, I couldn’t resist throwing on Mobile Fidelity’s version of Frank Sinatra Come Fly With Me. I started with the Sky 30 in place, and noted throughout the LP that Bob’s Sky 30 had great weight in the mids (surprise, surprise), and a huge sound stage. For a final comparison I hooked up the custom SUT competition again and noticed the sound stage receded, along with the weight in the mids, but on the other hand everything was a bit tighter and more focused with more details discernable from the high end to the bottom. I had played this LP a million times with the MC section of my Vinyl Reference phono preamp, but didn’t recall having the presence of either SUT nor the attributes that each SUT seemed to excel at. So, I concluded I was better off with one of these SUTsin the mix using the MM section of my Vinyl Refer than without one. Which one??? Well, that is the $64,000 question.
In the end, I found myself wanting to use a separate SUT of some kind in my system. Which attributes you desire from an SUT are likely a matter of personal preference. While I lean toward the warm, euphonic side of the equation, which is where the Bob’s Devices SUTs seemed to flourish, I couldn’t help but miss some of the lifelike details that the custom SUT presented. What I clearly decided was that using one of the external SUTs I tested was better than using the one that came standard in my phono stage. Which SUT to use is really is matter of personal preference, and very system dependent. Bob’s Devices does offer a variety of SUTs to meet your system’s requirements and Bob will help walk you through the process of what may be best for your particular setup. The best thing I can do is recommend that you try a separate SUT in your system before buying to gauge if it fits in with your existing components and gives you what you are looking for in terms of sound.
One thing I know though is that I can wholeheartedly recommend both the Bob Devices 1131 and the Sky 30 to at least try in your system. They both worked flawlessly in mine once I had them mated with the proper equipment, and cabling, etc. They both presented an overall balanced sound, and a big soundstage with great presence and midrange weight. The improvements I experienced were substantial and are available for a retail price of $1,195 and $1,250, respectively, which is a pretty sweet deal considering I have spent quite a bit more for lesser improvements. All I can say in the final analysis is that you may want to give serious consideration to taking a Step Up…and giving one of Bob’s Devices a try.
Our price: $1195.00
Sky 30 CineMag
Weight 2.00 lbs
Our price: $1250.00