I can sum up this review right now: Turn it up! Loud has never sounded so good!
I reviewed the Bob’s Devices 3440A step up transformer in July, 2009 and found the excellent performance was a bargain at the asking price of (now) $650. The newer model CineMag 1131 Blue step up transformer is priced at $1195. In this business where small improvements have disproportionately large price tags, the 1131 Blue is an even better value than the less expensive model. It offers near-across the board improvements in sound quality when used between a high quality moving coil phono cartridge and an active phono preamplifier.
Here is a description, from the Bob’s Devices Web site:
“Ultra High quality laminations, lower inductance and superior sound. … These are very difficult transformers to construct and require a precision manufacturing process that can only be done by David Geren at CineMag.
“Hand Crafted, Moving Coil (MC) Cartridge Step-up Transformer (SUT) built with new CineMag CMQEE-1131 (Blue Version) Transformers and gold plated hardware in a hand polished black powder coated cast-aluminum enclosure. All lettering is laser etched. Included are 2 switches: high/low gain and ground/lift. … Includes premium construction with C&K Brand Silver contact toggle switches, and Deluxe Gold Plated RCA jacks.
“Switchable for 1:20 (26 dB gain) or 1:40 (32 dB gain). … Into a standard 47k phono preamp, the effective input impedance of the low gain (1:20 ratio) is 118 ohms. At 1:40, the effective input impedance is 29 ohms.” A ground lift switch is provided to help deal with hum issues in a user’s system.
The impedance presented to a cartridge by transformer loading is not directly comparable to the impedance presented to a cartridge by resistor loading. For example, my Miyajima Kansui cartridge sounds best with the 1131 Blue set to LOW (118 Ohms), while with a Whest PS.30RDT Special Edition phono preamplifier ($7300), 300 Ohms resistive sounds best.
Immediately obvious with the new CineMag 1131 Blue is the nicer quality of construction and more finished look. The laser etching on the enclosure looks much better than the applied lettering on my early 3440A Red case. Also obvious is a large improvement in sound quality. In just a short listen – one album side or less – the 1131 Blue announces its superiority with smoother upper frequencies. There is a very welcome sense of rightness that we hear from good vacuum tube products.
Near the end of “Planet of New Orleans” on the Dire Straits On Every Street LP, the guitars have a hard non-musical sound, almost a shriek. While this is certainly part of the recording, it is much less apparent with the CineMag 1131 Blue step up.
The 1131 Blue has tighter bass (or less bloom, depending on your perception) that makes it easier for the listener to hear bass strings and drum heads vibrating. Also apparent is an increase in the performers’ subtle technique in the lower frequencies. The 3440A Red seems just a bit more powerful in the low bass, but with less resolution. I would not put too much value in this subtle difference because the phono cartridge and step-up transformer combination can and will affect this sense of power to a large degree.
What is not so subtle is the way the CineMag 1131 Blue presents a clear picture of the artists performing in a real acoustic space. The sound stage of the 1131 Blue has much better depth and slightly better width than the 3440A Red. The sense that each performer is a solid 3-D image, and not just a flat source of sound, contributes greatly to the enjoyment of every piece of music.
The CineMag 1131 Blue has great continuousness from the lowest bass to the upper treble. This is dependent on two factors. There must be an even tonal balance, with no forwardness, highlighting, recess, or other anomaly from octave to octave. Secondly, the harmonic presentation must treat all frequencies the same. For example, there can be no “rich and deep midrange” with a “thin and brittle treble”. Live music sound doesn’t sound like this and neither should your audio system. The 1131 Blue passes this critical test expertly.
As I noted in my review of the Mark Levinson 326S preamplifier, “…when I set the phono input (of the Levinson’s built-in phono stage) to 40 dB of gain and 47k Ohms impedance, and then added the Bob’s Devices CineMag 1131 step up transformer, the Levinson phono gained a significant increase in overall quality and musicality.” Reducing the gain of the Levinson phono stage to offset the gain provided by the CineMag 1131 had the added advantage of lowering the inherent noise of the active phono stage. If your phono preamp is at all noisy – as all of them seem to be – then the 1131 Blue might be just the ticket to “blacker backgrounds”. I also tried the 1131 Blue with the Whest Special Edition phono preamplifier and slightly preferred the Whest without the external step up.
The Bob’s Devices CineMag 1131 Blue moving coil step up transformer is a superior component that would fit in a system of any price. Music is always very enjoyable with this device in the system. As with the Levinson phono stage, the 1131 Blue may be the ideal upgrade for your current phono preamplifier. It could save you thousands of dollars by not purchasing a much more expensive phono preamplifier than the one already resident in your system.
Overall Rating: 10 LPs
Link to Manufacturer’s Web site: Bob’s Devices