As I have been using my current Step-Up Transformers (SUTs) with moving-coil (MC) cartridges for over three years. My SUTs are the only part of my system that hasn't changed or been subject to close scrutiny during that period. I have been intrigued for sometime now by the Hagerman Piccolo, this is a head amplifier that does the same job as SUTs but rather than being a passive device, the Piccolo is an active (powered) solid-state amplifier. I couldn't bear the suspense any longer. I went ahead and ordered the half-kit version of the Piccolo so that, finally, I would know how these two very different ways to provide initial gain for MC cartridges stack up against each other.
You can buy the Piccolo in either of two versions, half-kit or fully-built. The half-kit comprises a very high quality double-sided, thru-hole plated, printed circuit board with 6 surface-mount devices (SMDs) pre-soldering in place. You also receive some useful nuts and bolts, LED lens, rubber feet, earthing post, a couple of capacitors, chassis hole-punch guide plus chassis lettering layout and a construction guide. Note that you will need to purchase the remaining parts need to finish this project, though Hargerman does provide the Digikey part numbers to make life easy. Hagtech are in Hawaii, Digikey in Minnesota and I'm in the UK. The complete cost for all parts of the kit, including UK import duty and tax came to £118. Purchasers in the United States should budget around $200, maybe a little less. The fully built-version comes in at $349.
So, why do I say ex-competition? S&B have pulled out of supplying the DIY market and even small suppliers of specialist hi-fi components. It used to be possible to purchase kit or assembled SUTs with TX-103 transformers as well as TX-102 transformer volume controls (TVCs). It now seems that if you want S&B units you have to buy assembled units from Music First Audio. The TVC market has moved on apace, the MFA TVCs have very serious competition from several much lower-cost suppliers. Likewise, there are (and have been for ages) many options to the TX-103 SUTs. The TX-103s remain high up the SUT pecking order but are now unobtainable. An option for anyone with an MC cartridge is the Piccolo, of course there are quite a number SUTs on the market too.
For anyone experienced in stuffing and soldering printed circuit boards construction will be relatively easy. If you are not confident about doing this the ready-built Piccolo is available. Note that I have used the Hagerman photos from their website as my Piccolo looks just the same except that I have not spray-painted my chassis yet.
The questions I had were would I notice significant soundstage & imaging differences from my SUTs, would the bass be as tight and powerful, would treble be as pure, would there be any solid-state edge to the sound? If anything I was hoping for improved treble as I have always felt SUT treble to be just a trifle veiled.
Before I tell you about the sound I have to comment on how I faired with hum and hiss. Getting any SUT or head amplifier to be totally quiet can be a hit and miss affair. Sensible grounding and placement is important, there sometimes seems to be little rhyme or reason as to why hum is present on occasion. With the my SUTs there is no hum that I can detect, with the Piccolo I suppose it is just possible to detect some inconsequential hum when really close to the loudspeakers. Hiss on the 12dB and 20dB gain settings is totally inconsequential too. On the 26dB gain setting I found hiss was more apparent but it was still well below groove noise levels between LP tracks. A SUT would not hiss at all but at step-up levels of 26dB the chances are that any SUT will not be delivering its best sound, lower gain is likely to be rewarded with better sound. I was using 20dB of gain with my SUTs. Hum and hiss from the Piccolo were absolutely fine, add to this the flexibility and ease of changing settings then the Piccolo is a winner in term of features. The only slight aggravation being that changing Piccolo gain settings results in a loud thump, so mute your amplifier or change inputs when doing this.
My first reaction to the sound of the Piccolo sound was surprise. The surprise was that the sound was not too different to my SUTs. When you consider the totally different technology approaches between SUT and head amplifier you might expect some significant differences.
There is a theory that loading SUTs on the primary side can be beneficial. I know of some Denon DL-103 users that find primary loading is superior to secondary loading. To configure primary loading I had to remove the 47K resistor from my phono stage input. I then placed a 100R resistor across the SUT primary to correctly load the Kontrapunkt. With my Kontrapunkt I found it was a slight step backwards, bass became a little fat and treble a touch smeared. Inserting a 1M resistor across the secondaries helped a little but ultimately I felt that primary loading was not ideal in my system.
Secondary loaded TX-103 SUTs were not totally outclassed by the Piccolo but the Hagerman head amplifier gave me the treble improvement I was looking for and provided improved resolution too. When comparing the two approaches I was always left with the feeling that the Piccolo was the more transparent option.
The combination of improved sonics and greater flexibility will see me using the Piccolo instead of my highly regarded Step-Up Transformers. The cost to build the kit or buy the assembled version makes the Piccolo a bargain. I certainly recommend that you consider the Hagerman Piccolo when deciding how to step up your MC cartridge.
Gain: 12, 20 and 26 dB
Input Impedance: 47, 100, 220, 470, 1k, 47k
Output Impedance: 300 Ohms
Bandwidth: (-3dB) 10Hz to 1MHz
Distortion: <0.01% @1kHz
Signal to Noise Ratio: 85dB ref 5mV A-weighted
Overload: 140mV @1kHz @26dB
Size: 3" x 5" x 2"
Power: 6Vdc to 24Vdc @15mA
Battery Life: 4 alkaline AA, 200 hours
Price: around $200 for all parts or $349 fully assembled