The Darlington Labs MP-7 mm Phono Preamp takes first prize for sound and value!
Playing vinyl records was the format of choice when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s until digital hit the scene. Yes, there were cassette tapes and great players but most people with larger systems still preferred vinyl and mostly used cassettes to make copies for their cars or to save their vinyl for special occasions. Up until I bought my first CD player in the mid-80s we played vinyl. When CD hit the scene the allure of a silent noise floor and the promise of longevity took over. To put the argument to bed before it starts some of these things were true and some were marketing. But one thing remains– even though vinyl playback almost died in the 90s it had its followers and is on a comeback tour right now with many listeners still preferring it to digital.
I happen to be an audiophile that sees the attributes of both formats and vehemently enjoy them both. Digital with its dynamic range (if utilized) and completely silent noise floor and vinyl with its warmth and realistic tone even, even though the latter takes much more work to keep the grooves sounding good. As long as a person realizes that vinyl playback isn’t the set-and-forget format like digital it can offer a great connection to the music.
One of the most important things involved with vinyl playback other than the cartridge itself is the phono preamp. The phono preamp has a very important job. It has to amplify a delicate signal from a millivolt level to the 2-volt line level standard while keeping the noise floor under control and applying the RIAA equalization required to bring the frequency response back to normal. Putting that all together means the phono preamp is just as important as any other part of the chain in a vinyl playback rig. You can put all the money in the world into your turntable and cartridge but if the phono preamp or phono section of your integrated amplifier is not up to the task it won’t sound its best period!
I like companies that specialize in one thing and do it well. In my opinion, when a company makes one type of product it will spend much more of its time perfecting that product since its success hangs totally in the balance.
Darlington Labs is one such company. They don’t build turntables, amplifiers, speakers, or any other audio devices and from what I see they don’t plan to. They make high-quality phono preamplifiers and nothing else. Their direction is intended to be to bring high-end record playback to more people by offering a product that more people can afford. Darlington Labs knows that audiophiles with unlimited budgets can get ultimate performance but for the rest of us with limited resources it becomes a little harder to find ultimate performance.
The Company has spent more than 4 years researching phono preamp design. Not only were they looking to bring something to the table with a top-level performance, but they also wanted to let more people enjoy it by being value conscious compared to others on the market. They studied many designs and looked at many facets of a phono preamp to find out what technologies worked and which ones had limitations. What they found was that most built-in phono preamps used high feedback to counteract the problems of op-amps and design flaws.
Many tube phono preamp designs that were anywhere near affordable had design blemishes that caused issues as well. Darlington labs decided to use a combination of high-quality parts, high-voltage J-Fets, zero feedback, and proprietary circuits as they found a way to make their phono preamp both high-end in sound and affordable to most music lovers.
The internal circuits are of very high quality with NOS J-Fets– being the stars of the show. These high-voltage devices run on a 56-volt internal rail voltage which is much higher than what most products use and in fact, the power supply wall wart is different as well.
Most people associate wall wart power supplies with cheaper gear but that is not the case here. The wall wart on the MP-7 is a high-quality 24-volt unit. Don’t get this confused with the 5-volt units on other products. Darlington uses a separate wall box to keep the step-down transformer away from the circuits to keep noise at bay. They then continue to regulate and isolate the power after it enters the MP-7’s circuits. If fact the IFI Zen Phono that I have been running uses a 5-volt supply. The MP-7 uses high-quality passive RIAA equalization to keep headroom high.
Darlington Labs is a smaller company with a much lower overhead thereby allowing them to be able to produce an American-made product with this kind of quality at the prices they do. This in turn is a great thing as it allows more audiophiles to enjoy Their vinyl at a higher quality. I do like that the units are of smaller size which allows easier integration into a system(I sometimes do not see the need for power amp-sized phono preamps!!).
WHAT’S IN THE BOX?
I received the unit in a well-packed box with a simple yet informative product sheet to get you started. The sheet also has advice for placing the unit to get the best performance and lowest noise. The unit that I received came with upgraded RCA connectors which I recommend if you can afford it. There are options for a mono switch and you can choose the color of your power indicator light to match your other components if you choose to do so. It did not take long at all to switch out my IFI ZEN Phono with the Darlington MP-7 and was up and running. All the connectors are of high quality and allowed for very easy connection. Although the MP-7 is a Moving Magnet-only preamp, Darlington Labs makes a companion SU-7 step-up unit for Moving Coil cartridges so the MP-7 can grow as you grow in with your vinyl rig.
I will be the first to admit that I have not heard many of the phono preamps out there on the market. There seems to be an endless plethora of preamps available that use different technologies and are from a lot of brands that specialize in vinyl playback. However, I have heard enough of them over the years at different price points to learn what spending more will get you normally.
In my review of the IFI Zen Phono I said that it is a great unit for the price, and I was correct in saying so. The IFI has a great frequency balance, very low noise, and great soundstage and imaging for the price. The Darlington MP-7 takes things up several levels regarding layering and soundstage depth. Imaging is more pinpoint and dynamics take a step up as well. The Darlington MP-7 reminds me of some of the more expensive phono preamps I have heard that cost well over $1,000. This is impressive knowing that the MP-7’s starting price is just $469.
THE BASS IS QUITE GOOD!
I have heard phono preamps that are light in the bass, or have a lot of bass but it is slow and sloppy sounding. The MP-7 is neither of those. The MP-7 has a much more dynamic and punchy bass than the IFI Zen Phono. I was very impressed with the bass impact and detail of the MP-7. This detail added to the great layering gives stand-up bass instruments a very real presence.
Miles Davis Kind of Blue is a great album overall. But the stand-up bass in this album is a good test of bass detail and soundstage depth. The IFI Zen Phono has decent bass detail but layering and depth are limited. The Darlington MP-7 takes the detail up a few notches and allows you to sense where the bass player is on the soundstage. The layers allow you to get a sense of where the bass player is concerning the other musicians.
The midrange performance of the MP-7 shows itself to display really fine depth and small details, which will be as good as the cartridge you are using allows it to. The better you move up the cartridge line the better it will be. This is one area where the Darlington stomped all over the IFI and kept pounding. The midrange has body and weight that shows what a great design can deliver.
The Sword Aprocryphon 10th Aniversary Edition Vinyl is a great test of the midrange of the MP-7. This album is the poster child for doom rock and is very good at showing a system’s ability to exhibit midrange depth and clarity. For most of the songs, the right guitar player has a louder sound level than the left. This is apparent with the MP-7 which stands out easily in the mix much more than other phono preamps I have heard including the IFI ZEN Phono.
The lead singer’s voice is very detailed and imaged directly at center stage with very good detail and air. There was no sense of glair or harshness in any of the songs I played off this album which goes to show the smoothness the MP-7 possesses.
Treble response is something with vinyl playback that I have seen change a lot between different turntables, cartridges, and phono preamps. Having listened to many that seem to smooth over treble intricacies, some people like that and say it makes the music more listenable for long periods, but I am not that person. I believe that there can exist a balance between treble detail and smooth listenability. The MP-7 delivers as much treble detail that the cartridge and table will allow all while keeping things nicely smooth and listenable.
Fleetwood Mac Rumours is such an album where certain songs can sound overly strident in the treble with the wrong setup. Now I do not have an original copy of this album and anyone in the vinyl world will tell you that every reissue can sound different. Dreams are probably my favorite song on the album but can also sound bright during the cymbal crashes. In fact, with the IFI Zen, it could be a bit much during louder listening sessions. The Darlington MP-7 seems to allow this detail to come through but keeps things smoother and more ear-pleasing. The cymbals have more body and realistic sound and I believe that is why they do not sound as grating. Any way you look at it is a great showing for just about any phono preamp.
I know that I have already alluded to the IFI ZEN Phono a few times in this review I will continue by saying that the IFI is a great starter phono preamp that will embarrass most inboard phono preamps and many stand-alone units. The Darlington Labs MP-7 takes all that is good with the IFI ZEN and brings it up to another level. The sound character offers much more realism, soundstage depth, and image sharpness. Detail seems to come out of thin air and adds to this experience. The bass on the MP-7 is much more impactful and seems to have an effortless amount of headroom available that the IFI simply cannot match. I think this is due to the elements of the design of the MP-7, using high voltage J-FET devices and a no-feedback in the circuits.
Acknowledging the many vinyl rigs I have heard in my life, lots of phono preamps cost a hell of a lot more than the asking price for the Darlington Labs MP-7. Is the MP-7 the best? Well, without hearing them in your system there is no surefire way to tell. But I will say this: The MP-7 takes my vinyl playback to the next level in all the important areas and increases my enjoyment of my vinyl setup by several notches; this holds true particularly for someone just getting into vinyl or has a beginner audio system.
The IFI ZEN is still a recommendation of mine. Even so, for enthusiasts with upper-level systems who want a phono preamp that delivers realism, body, and smoothness with detail, and upgradability to serve moving-coil cartridges later on while also allowing their turntable and cartridge to perform to their full potential, I wholeheartedly recommend the Darlington labs MP-7!!!
Stay tuned for the follow-up review of the SU-7 step-up unit for moving-coil cartridges from Darlington Labs!!!!!
Pricing starts at $469.00
Darlington Labs LLC
Boston, MA 02131
Gain: +40dB at 1kHz, appropriate for all Moving Magnet cartridges and High-Output-Moving-Coils down to 1.6mV. Use the MP-7 with an external Step-Up-Transformer or Active MC gain stage (such as our SU-7) for LOMC carts. Package pricing is available.
Freq. Resp.: +/- 0.2dB 20Hz to 20kHz RIAA. THD: <0.08% at 1kHz into 10K load at 500mV out. <0.01% 3rd harmonic and higher. Input loading: 47K + 100pF. Custom loading is available. S/N: >78dB A-wtd re: 5mV @ 1kHz. Input Overload: 140mV at 1kHz. Maximum output >27dBu or 17V RMS (49V pk-pk) into 10K. Bandwidth: -1dB points of 12Hz and 70kHz. Internal voltage rail: 56VDC with < -130dBu noise and ripple and < 0.01-ohm impedance across the audio band. Size: 7” D x 5 1/8” W x 1 9/16” H. Weight: 2.3 lbs. Packed weight: 3.4 lbs.
External Power Supply Cube: 24VAC 500mA, available in US 120V or EU 230V AC input.
Review System: Speakers: Spatial Audio M3 Turbo S open baffle./ REL T9x subwoofer/ Digital: Denafrips Venus II, / Modified PC-based Music server/streamer. Analog: Vintage Hitachi PS-17 Turntable, Darlington labs MP-7 and SU-7 phono preamp, Audio Technica VM95SH cartridge Amplification: Hegel P20 preamp. Pass Labs X150.5 power amp. Conditioner: PS Audio Quintet. Cables: Iconoclast SPTPC speaker cables, Mogami RCA interconnects, Mogami XLR interconnects, Iconoclast BAV REL subwoofer cable
WHERE the MUSIC BEAT meets the AUDIOPHILE ELITE !
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