The Star Malaysia - Star2
Aime Audio SE-P2 phono amplifier
Here’s the sort of homegrown analogue gear that can take on the big ones comfortably. IVEN all the trouble vinyl fans go through to get things right, it seems amazing that the format is still in business. Yet, when all factors are in harmony, few things apart from a live concert can match the listening experience.
Setting up a turntable, tonearm and cartridge to perfection is best left to practitioners of the dark arts; linking the set-up to the hi-fi system is a task mere mortals can confidently tackle.
If your amplifier has a dedicated phono circuit, it makes things easier although you’re restricted to a default setting. The ambitious vinyl enthusiast, however, will prefer a standalone phono amp with more features, like load and gain options, plus both moving coil (MC) and moving magnet (MM) compatibility.
Such gear can cost a few hundred bucks for the basic type to tens of thousands of ringgit for true exotica.
What if you’re reluctant to spend a fortune, and yet, want the flexibility of the costlier “branded” units? Well, how about the Aime Audio SE-P2 phono amp, made in Malaysia, no less?
The SE-P2, built into a thick, solid aluminium casing, has its roots in a locally-made two-box phono stage offered by Audio Image until recently. Despite its obvious “cottage-industry” trappings, in the area of cosmetics and presentation, the older unit was a versatile and flexible piece of analogue kit, impressing us enough to end up in the systems of three AudioFile reviewers (including yours truly).
Earlier this year, Aime Audio was officially set up, and the company immediately addressed one grouse presented by some owners of the two-box unit who preferred a single box taking up less shelf space.
This, of course, entailed redesigning the chassis to accommodate the power supply – surprisingly, despite this, the SE-P2 is quiet. Also, in the process of the redesign, and despite maintaining the original circuit, some I APPROACH assignments to evaluate cables with trepidation. Actually, I’ve been quite successful at avoiding them. The editor must have noticed – he handed me a power cord to test! I’ll come clean and confess I’m conflicted when it comes to cables.
On one side is the way my educational background has taught me to evaluate things – which, as theory goes, should lead me to find that a properly specified cable (including its connectors) for a particular application should produce better results than a poorly specified one. But after the basic scientific requirements are met (which they are, for most included power cords), there shouldn’t be any sonic differences.
On the other, is my experience from listening – like it or not, I did hear, or was convinced I heard, differences between power cords in some cases.
I had used Rega’s premier power cord when I reviewed its Valve Isis CD player (with which it comes standard, as also with the Osiris amplifier), but didn’t test it in other applications. I got to do so recently.
Rega founder Roy Gandy, over a dinner organised by the local distributor some time capacitance values were raised, and the featurestures tweaked just a little bit – in the context of the latter, the SE-P2 will accommodate higher output MC cartridges with a recommended loading of 47kOhms.
The SE-P2 offers eight gain settings – 51.8 to 68.5dB for MC and 40.3 to 57dB for MM. These are set via jumpers, while the MM/MC and load selections are accessed via internal dip switches. Yes, you have to unscrew the top plate to get to them. Apart from the 47kOhm load setting, you also get a range starting from 100 to 1,000 ohms, with 100, 220, 330, 470 and 750 ohm settings in between. There is another set of dip switches to fine-tune the unit to the capacitance of the tonearm wire used, although this may be overkill for some (it was already present in the older unit).
Behind, you get the usual set of RCA inputs and outputs, with a recessed ground terminal – a pin would have been more convenient, I thought as I inserted a banana plug and screwed in the ground wire.
Compared with the older unit, the SE-P2 is certainly a step up in presentation, with the name neatly screened on the front panel, which also sports a bright blue LED that may be distracting – my solution was to tape it over with sticker labels! At this point, even without taking performance into the equation, the SE-P2 already seemed like a bargain.
Given that the previous iteration of the SEP2 had provided me with many hours of vinyl pleasure, I was naturally keen to have a go at this one.
Two turntable set-ups were used – one was a VPI Classic with Dynavector Karat 17D3 low output MC cartridge, the other an Amari LP10 with AudioTechnica AT95E MM cartridge ago, told me they produced the cord because dealers’ feedback was that customers at the Isis/Osiris level expected to see “commensurate” mains leads. Thus, the company brought in a cable which it felt offered engineering merit and set about terminating it properly. There must have been sufficient demand for Rega to also make the cord separately available.
Rega’s website itself states no more than that “the cable is constructed from the highest quality 1.5mm² copper conductors with fully earthed braided tinned copper RF screen (which) provides the best possible coupling between mains supply and product whilst ensuring low resistance at high current levels”. (which comes with its own outboard phono stage with MM and MC modes). I also made comparison with the onboard phono stage (MM and MC, and very well done) of my Odyssey Audio Tempest 2 preamp, hooked to Khartago Extreme SE power amp. Speakers were Magneplanar MG1.6 and Odeon Audio Nova.
Both set-ups were taken much closer to their full potential when fed into the SE-P2. Let’s take the MM option. The Amari/AT is already an excellent combination via its own phono box, but through the SE-P2, the cheap AT95E began punching above its weight. The treble revealed more headroom and a crispness previously not observed, with beautifully articulated vocals and instruments across the midrange.
Bass was taken to a depth I didn’t think the Amari/AT system could achieve, sounding taut, weighty and well controlled. The whole event was lent a new level of rhythmic incisiveness I hadn’t experienced with the system previously. Finer and more intricate nuances in the recordings I didn’t know existed were revealed. Importantly, at the right gain and volume settings, the Amari/AT, which could sound a mite laidback with its own phono, now delivered with more slam and pace, the SE-P2 posing no hindrance to the AT95E’s inherently admirable qualities.
The simplicity of MM made it easier to appreciate the SE-P2’s capabilities ... I set the gain at the minimum for most listening, and the phono was quiet as mouse ... even at full gain of 57dB, there was no noticeable noise
I substituted the Rega cord into several applications.
In the case of a Parasound Halo JC3 phono stage, which was being run in for review, there was hardly any noticeable difference from the stock power lead.
It did seem to improve the sound of the Euphonic Research Amp-80 hybrid power amplifier (which has a robust, over-specified, generated by the unit; the preamp volume was set just a bit lower, and the listening experience was just as enjoyable.
Using an MC cartridge is always more finnicky, and despite the recommended load factor, one is always messing for better results. Despite some issues I’ve been hav-having with the Classic picking up some noise, it partnered well with the Dynavector through the onboard stage. However, plugged into the SE-P2 showed the Tempest’s phono section to be a bit darker sounding, with less of the majesty, grandeur and resolution of the standalone unit.
The Classic/Dynavector/SE-P2 combination brought about inspiring results – musical and finely detailed, amazing finesse in presentation, and yet never holding back. I had the luxury of trying a couple of other MC cartridges on the Classic, routed through the SEP2 – a Benz Micro Gullwing and Sumio Blue Point No.2. Both delivered far superior results going through the SE-P2 than the onboard phono stage – the level of drive, detail and depth in staging kept me spinning more black plastic than I’ve done in the pre-SE-P2 months!
Make the plunge
This is indeed a clean and well-detailed phono preamp, without once sounding sterile or detached; the involvement factor is high, the only downside being the time you’ll waste trying to figure out the best settings for your cartridge. I recommend going with the cartridge manufacturer’s quoted specs, and setting gain somewhere in the middle to start with; this will work best most of the time.
So here’s the question – are you willing to take the plunge, leaving aside any prejudice you may have against locally-made hi-fi gear? If you aren’t, expect to pay much more for any “branded” unit that delivers the level of performance available from the Aime Audio SE-P2 phono amplifier.
If you are, enjoy the music. power supply). Things sounded mildly more relaxed, a perception which crept up on me rather than announce itself – sonic parameters weren’t altered or anything like that, though I did suspect the bass was a smidgen more firm.
The most noticeable difference arose where least expected – with my Marantz DV-7001 DVD player, connected to a Hitachi plasma monitor via component-video (progressive scan on). Here, I was confident I saw a better picture, specifically darker colours seemed more differentiated and the picture seemed overall easier on the eye (never learnt the video gear review jargon, so forgive me as I struggle to describe things).
Again, differences were not earth-shattering, but after reverting to the stock cord, I wanted to put the Rega cord back in, so there you go.
Aftermarket power cords are a bit of a hitor-miss kind of accessory. They can do nothing (but lighten your wallet), or worse, make things worse sonically. As an engineering company, Rega makes no outrageous claims for this product, but looks to try to offer genuine value. You may just find it helping to unshackle the performance of a component with which you are currently satisfied.