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January 2008
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Hagerman Piccolo MC Headamp
Excellent sonics and great flexibility for a bargain price!
Review By Clive Meakins
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

Hagerman Piccolo MC Headamp  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.

 

Piccolo Features
The Piccolo offers flexible configuration of gain and cartridge load. Gain can be switched to 12dB, 20dB or 26dB, this equates to gains of 5, 10 and 20 times, the circuit is based on JFETs and is zero-feedback. The standard cartridge loadings are 47R, 100R, 220R, 470R, 1K and 47K, you are free to alter these to loadings of your choice. This head amplifier can be battery-powered; the required 4 AA batteries are said to last 200 hours. Battery power should remove a potential source for hum, when amplifying voltages in the range of 0.1mV to 0.5mV by 10 to 20 times, any hum or other noise introduced from an AC power supply could render the head amplifier noisy, but this needn't be so. There is also the option to plug in an external power supply that provides DC of between 6V to 24V. The on-board power supply in the Piccolo uses a DC to DC converter chip to insulate the circuit from nasties.

 

The Competition
This should be described as the ex-competition for the Piccolo; my SUTs are the very highly regarded S&B TX-103. These are mu-metal shielded transformers with the same gain options as the Piccolo. Loading is normally implemented on the secondary side of the transformers. It is instead possible to load the transformer primaries, more about this later.

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.

 

Hagerman Piccolo MC Headamp CircuitboardThe Build
With the Piccolo everything, including the battery pack, attaches to the printed circuit board. You will need a soldering iron with a small tip to solder the components onto the board; this was quite a change from my typical point-to-point tube amplifier construction of recent years. Indeed I soon realized that I would need the help of a magnifying glass to check joints.

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 Sound
Most of my listening was been done with battery power though I can discern little or no penalty from using an external power supply. The Piccolo was fed from an Ortofon Kontrapunkt B and Denon 304 carried by a Ladegaard style arm made by Vic Patacchiola of Trans-Fi Audio, this an incredibly good sounding arm that I must tell you about another time. The phono stage is a much-tweaked design by Andrew Lehane based around 6072A and ECC88 tubes. The power amplifiers I used were Diyhifisupply LadyDay 91 300B SETs feeding Basantis Atlas open baffle loudspeakers.

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.

I found it hard to detect much difference in bass or soundstage size between Piccolo and TX-103. From the mid-range to upper treble I found that the Piccolo delivers additional clarity and definition of the leading edge of notes. Treble is more refined and seems in better balance with other frequencies. There is a clarity, sparkle and air to the top-end that the TX-103s just cannot quite reach. The differences are not enormous but the enhanced treble is just what I was looking for and the increased mid to top-end resolution was a bonus. What I did notice was that the position in the soundstage for some sounds changed between Piccolo and SUT. Checking the same music with CD showed that the SUTs were inaccurate; possibly a phase shift being to blame but ultimately I can't explain the reason.

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.

 

Specifications
Type: Moving coil cartridge to MM level amplifier.

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

 

Company Information
Hagerman Technology LLC 
P.O. Box 26437 
Honolulu, HI 96825

Voice: (808) 383-2704
Fax: 808-394-6076 
E-mail: jim@hagtech.com
Website: www.hagtech.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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