Aime Au­dio SE-P2 phono am­pli­fier

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - [email protected]­tar.com.my By SUJESH PAVITHRAN

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?

Bright blue

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.

Spin it!

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.

Hold­ing its ground: Aime Au­dio’s SE-P2 phono amp, as good as it gets for the price.

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