The Seta Piccola is brought to us by Channel D, the folks who make and sell Pure Vinyl, Pure Music, and other software. Channel D's head honcho Rob Robinson is as proficient at programming as he is at designing an electrical circuit – so it makes perfect sense that the Seta Piccola Mk2 isn't an ordinary phono preamplifier. Channel D designs and sells the program Pure Vinyl, which creates digital transcriptions of our LPs. The Seta Piccola Mk2's retail price is $2199 plus $249 for the RIAA circuit, so it undeniably enters into a class of phono stages that rises above the middle-of-the-road into a more premium class of outboard phono stage. On the program it has various EQ correction curves, including the ubiquitous RIAA. The Seta Piccola Mk2 is a MM/MC phono preamplifier with two types of outputs, one that works as most every other phono preamplifier on the market by applying the RIAA curve to the signal, but it also has a pair of output jacks that deliver the signal without the RIAA curve when using a computer program that applies this correction curve.
Of course the feature of delivering an output without an RIAA curve is not the only feature that sets the Seta Piccola Mk2 apart from other phono preamps. Hardly. First of all, on the unit's front panel is a "channel balance TRIM control", which could come in handy for many audiophiles who would like to fine tune their phono cartridge's performance. This rotary balance has a 2dB range that provides cartridge channel balancing that is not affected by the overall gain of the phono preamp. The Seta Piccola Mk2 phono preamp is also fully balanced, has "ultra-wide" bandwidth providing for both Moving Magnet (MM) and Moving Coil (MC) phono cartridges, and has a low noise internal AGM battery power supply. If one purchases a Seta Piccola Mk2 specifically for use with Channel D's Pure Vinyl computer program, or any other program that applies the correction curve it can be ordered without the RIAA circuit. Conversely, if one desires an all-analog signal path one can order the Seta Piccola Mk2 with the RIAA curve with its associated hardware. This includes balanced outputs (Neutrik gold-pin XLRs) and single-ended (gold-plated RCAs) for its RIAA phono output. The RIAA outputs and the flat outputs (non-RIAA) can be used simultaneously.
This phono preamp has internal signal traces that work at a low impedance which enable cartridges with a load resistance as low as 1 Ohm to be used. "State of the art", "premium quality" milli-Ohm ESR (equivalent series resistance) polymer dielectric and tantalum filter capacitors are used, and "ultra-precision" (0.1%) tolerance metal film low-noise and MELF (metal electrode leadless face) surface mount technology resistors are utilized throughout the interior of the preamp. It has metallized polypropylene film cartridge loading capacitors, and the "ultra-low distortion" low impedance output driver circuitry and more than 40 MHz signal bandwidth "preserves transparency" in the output signal. The RIAA compensation module, if ordered, has "carefully hand matched precision components", and has a separate signal chain for its RIAA and flat signal outputs. The single-ended RIAA output is obtained by the summing of the balanced signal inputs to lower the amount of noise and obtains the "highest common mode rejection possible for single ended signal conversion".
The somewhat small 5" wide by 3.7" high by 5.5" deep cabinet of the Seta Piccola Mk2 is connected to its external power supply by a rather long, but thin cable. I was a bit surprised that the power supply does not have an IEC socket, instead having one that one sees mostly on portable audio components. Owner Rob Robinson told me that since the power supply is decoupled from the phono preamp circuitry, he found that its galvanically isolated power supply, with its two-wire line cord gives it better isolation and sound quality than the three-wire cable that is usually used with an IEC socket. The Seta Piccola Mk2's cord can be swapped for international line voltages since the input is auto-detecting from 100 to 240 Volts. There is nothing to be gained by using an after-market cable since the preamp only needs a couple of Watts to operate.
A transcription of an LP is only going to be as good as the front-end that feeds it, including the phono preamplifier. So, I'm also going to assume there are as many audiophiles who like me, every once in a while like to burn LPs using a phono preamplifier that has internal RIAA equalization, but more I simply just want to listen an LP. So that's how I used the Seta Piccola Mk2 the largest majority of the time it was in my system, as a phono preamplifier connected to my linestage, my linestage connected to my power amp, my power amp connected to my two speakers, and me seated in in my Poang chair listening to my favorite LPs.
My review sample was the same as any customer would acquire, except my sample had some hours already put on it – so some customers might find that their unit needs a bit more burn-in time. The Channel D Seta Piccola Mk2 was at first connected to the marvelous Ares-Ceres Incito linestage which I reviewed in the August 2015 issue. The phono preamp spent quite a bit of time during the review period feeding this linestage before I had to pack it in its crate to be returned to its distributor.
I honestly tried my best, but it was just about impossible for me to not compare the sound of this phono preamp to my reference. Yet one of the first things that struck me about the Seta Piccola Mk2's sound was that its transparency put in the same league as my Pass Labs phono preamp. No, it doesn't have the same level of transparency, and there are other differences that make the nearly twice the price Pass Labs worth its asking price, but this Channel D phono preamp also somehow pulls off the same sonic magic of being a solid-state phono preamp that doesn't sound very solid-state. It doesn't mask solid-state's flaws by decreasing the level of its high frequencies. Nor does the Seta Piccola Mk2 sound like a tube unit -- it just sounds like a great phono preamplifier. This all goes back to the high level of transparency that a more than decent phono stage exhibits.
The cabinet of the Seta Piccola Mk2 is rather small, but the sound of this Channel D component certainly doesn't sound small, that's for sure. Its ability to handle macrodynamics is indisputable, but this characteristic is combined with a very large, appropriately scaled sound stage. Furthermore, it also has a way with microdynamic shadings, favoring the music on the record over surface noise. And again, this solid-state phono preamp doesn't have any blatant sonic sins that would easily identify it as being powered by transistors – yes, it has a powerful, pitch stable low-end as one would expect from a solid-state unit, but there is no hardness or glare in its mids and lower treble, the upper-treble doesn't sound overly sibilant, and it has a very musical sound, as a tube unit would have, but without any loss in focus that might plague some tube units.
One of the best bands that came out of this scene was Amon Duul II, and their first few albums remain classics of the genre. One of the best is their second album Yeti, a double LP recorded in 1970. It is still available on LP, as most recordings are these days, but I have a clean all-analog pressing made in Germany in the 1970s. They were very much aware of their penchant for rejecting blues-based Anglo-American rock, and the music on Yeti reflects this. Of course they heard and liked popular American and British rock on the radio and from imported records, so it wasn't as if they were inventing a totally new musical form, just their spin on it. They were also more than a bit political leaning, and according to an interview I heard with one of their singers Renate Knaup, although not overt, their lyrics and their music touched on the fact that the majority of the older generation (including their parents) were on the wrong side in the relatively recent world war, and these people still lived among them. Amon Duul intended to live their lives and play their music totally opposed to their atrocious behavior.
Yeti has only two tracks on side one, the bulk of it the nearly 15 minute "Soap Shop Rock". The rudimentary theme of this tune sounds as if it was composed by a high-school garage band, as if Amon Duul II is mocking the bands of the West during these few measures, but then it disintegrates into an almost improvisational sounding mid-section. This track features the guitars of John Weinziert and Chris Karrer, John taking the role of rhythm guitarist on an electric 12-string, and Chris a more distorted lead along with the lead vocals. Chris' sings as if he is a bit crazed, and I suppose the lyrics can be interpreted as if they were attempting to be "psychedelic", or it might be that English is not his native language (and is undeniably one of the charms of this genre of music, as it is easier for them to create non- sequiturs). The Seta Piccola Mk2 does a fantastic job of deciphering all that is going on within the very complex mix of the song. Not only are there two guitars, softly panned in the right and left channels, but plenty of percussion and sound effects beneath the racket. The Seta Piccola Mk2's is detailed but never over-analytical, as it's easy to hear that reverb is added to the mix while its level was raised and lowered, and at the same time applied to different instruments and voices in a haphazard (yet artful?) manner. Chris' lead vocals are upfront but barely loud enough to make out his accented English, with Renate's voice underneath his and floating in a separate space of the large soundstage that the Channel D phono preamp expertly extracts from the phono cartridge's signal.
As I was listening to this track my attention would shift from the details hidden within this record's multi-layered neo-psychedelic sound, and then I'd take in the entire sonic picture. The Seta Piccola Mk2 somehow managed to make this record sound very musical, despite the band's attempts to the contrary. No, this phono preamp didn't change the band's sound, it just made me aware that there are some very talented musicians and singers on this record, and the Seta Piccola Mk2 was able to make me aware of this by reproducing their instruments and voices as the "real" instrument and voices they are, despite being part of a complex mix and the very obtuse composition. The frequency extremes were as extended, with enough detail as one could hope for – it was obvious that bassist Dave Anderson struck the strings of his bass with his fingers rather than using a plectrum, his Fender Bass had a warm sound yet reached deep into the lower frequencies that appeared to be limited only by the recording, not the audio gear. The Seta Piccola Mk2 reproduced these lowest notes with a very limber sound, providing the drive of the tune. The kick drum on Peter Leopold's drum kit isn't mixed loud enough for it to be able to make much impact, sounding more like an "oof' than a "thud", but on the other end of the frequency spectrum the cymbals shimmered with no sibilance that could be blamed on the phono preamp, and each type of cymbal sounded very different from one another. This trait is usually the responsibility of the upper-treble prowess of a good phono cartridge such as the Kesiki Purple Heart, but to its credit this phono preamp did not add or subtract anything that makes this phono cartridge so great in the first place. Which brings us full circle – it is the Seta Piccola Mk2's transparency that is its greatest asset. Amon Duul II might not be everyone's cup of medicinal-marijuana infused tea. I like it, but that doesn't mean that you will. But the Seta Piccola Mk2 lets one make up one's own mind by presenting this album in the best sonic light possible.
From the perspective of an outsider (me), from the late 1950's to the middle of the 1960s it seems as if jazz' most talented artists were stretching and reshaping the art to its outer limits. Players such as Ornette Coleman began this revolution, and it continued until John Coltrane brought it to its extreme, and with nowhere else to go it began to change once more back to either an accessible sound, or fusing it with rock. Even Miles Davis became infected with this change, at one point inviting experimental sax player Sam Rivers to join his band. I love this period in the development of modern jazz, and the album One Step Beyond recorded in 1963 by Jackie McLean is one of my favorites. This album takes advantage of this "new" jazz, leaning towards post-bop and even free jazz. On this album he uses vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, Eddie Khan on bass, Grachan Moncur III on trombone who wrote two of the four tracks on the album, and a 17 year-old Anthony (Tony) Williams on drums in one of his first recording sessions (some say his very first). The album was originally (and is still in print) on Blue Note, a copy of which I've had in my collection for quite some time before I acquired the exceptional 2012 reissue on Music Matters, a two 12" version which spins at 45rpm.
The original Blue Note sounds great, as it was of course recorded by Rudy Van Gelder at his Hackensack, NJ studio. Although some criticize his recording techniques, his recordings are easy to recognize as his own, and as he recorded the majority of artists on Blue Note I suppose I've gotten accustomed to the sound, I rarely spend much time thinking about how the sound of the instruments deviate from the real thing, as I wasn't there to hear them lay it down to tape. I admit that the piano was Van Gelder's Achilles heel, so since this Jackie McLean session is a piano-less ensemble I have nothing but praise for this album – both its sound and performance are first-rate.
One Step Beyond was the perfect album to demonstrate how the Seta Piccola Mk2's transparency can lead to a listener to imagine him or herself as a fly on the wall of a recording studio. One of the devices that Jackie McLean uses on this album is space -- as in the space between the notes – either real or imagined. He makes these spaces as important as the notes themselves. The Seta Piccola Mk2 allows one to revel in this space, as this phono preamp is a silent partner in the analog chain. The instruments do not enter the room, but I felt as if I could see in my mind's ear the band playing in this real space that is the studio. Van Gelder's use of hard panning each instrument right or left might disturbs some listeners, but when using the Seta Piccola Mk2 it is easy to notice the bleed of each instrument not only into the other speaker, but the air that surrounds the other instruments on the recording. The air around each instrument also mixes with the studio reverb yet remains separate, adding to the illusion that one is hearing a performance made by some very talented musicians in the real space of the studio.
RIAA Compensation Module (Optional)