Darlington Labs MP-7 comparative review

Discussion in 'Vinyl Nutjob World: Turntable and Related Gear' started by JayC, Jul 31, 2021.

  1. JayC

    JayC Resident Crash Test Dummy

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    Darlington Labs turned up on my radar earlier this year after a few threads popped up around the internet. I was curious about their products and how they compared to what I had and what I had in mind (MoFi StudioPhono, recommended by @shaizada when I was considering an upgrade in my analog chain and going MC eventually). Talking to @Keith Richardson over emails had me convinced to give them a go, he had an open view of his products and really stood by them and I liked the idea of supporting a smaller business.

    The original intention was the get the MM-6 as an upgrade from my Schiit Mani but also compare to other units that I hear about in and around the price range. Eventually, he let me know that there was a new product in the works (after I noticed that the MM-6 was no longer labeled as their "best" product on the website) so the plan changed to get the MP-7. Fast forward a few months and it finally arrived a couple weeks ago and I've been really enjoying what it brings to the table.

    I posted last week about what I thought of it compared to my Schiit Mani (https://www.superbestaudiofriends.o...n-labs-phono-preamps.10320/page-3#post-353800) and to put things in perspective, I sold my Mani a few days ago because there was no chance I was going back.

    Design/Build:
    It's not a fancy-looking unit by any means, but it definitely feels solid with an all-metal construction with no flex anywhere. The unit I have still came with stickered logos on the front panel but newer units ship with pad printed logos instead, which brings the perceived quality up a few notches. Keith has offered to ship me a new panel eventually, which is really nice.

    I chose the upgraded original CMC805 connectors, which feel really really good. Im not sure if they are worth the $ in terms of performance or longevity since I dont have experience with the regular ones that Darlington uses. There are also options to add a Mono switch and I believe gain can be adjusted anywhere between 32-40dB by changing a resistor internally. Further minor customization is possible with regard to position and color of the LED.

    PSX_20210801_071045.jpg
    PSX_20210801_071106.jpg
    PSX_20210801_071222.jpg

    Sound:
    Being around in the audio world I tend to realize that things arent as big of an upgrade past a point, so I wasnt expecting a massive jump when getting the MP-7. I have to say that I was wrong, which is reflected in my post comparing the Mani. I really enjoy the width and depth of stage that these present; they extend beyond the sides of the speakers by a good amount, and start a bit in front of the middle plane with some extension behind. Mids are wonderful, vocals really feel involving and I feel pulled in to the music. Distorted guitars really surprised me, the texture was amazing on overdrived/distorted guitars.
    Bass is to my ears, neutral with good extension - I dont find myself missing any low notes in the range that I know my speakers can do and whatever comes out has good impact. Treble is detailed with a touch of smoothness, so theres a good balance there and I could imagine it being called a bit tubey.

    I personally really enjoy the unit. The level of involvement I have with the music coming off the rig is massive and I'd say my analog rig easily rivals and perhaps betters my digital in some aspects.
    I wish I had this phono pre when I upgraded my TT because I probably missed enjoying that upgrade to the fullest when I had the Mani. I hear records now that I liked and realize how badly they were pressed/mastered (for vinyl atleast since they were ones that were probably taken from the digital master), which isnt really a good thing but it shows me how much was being masked/what I was missing. I am very curious to see what an upgrade in cart brings along with the setup as it is.

    For the rest of this thread, I thought it would be valuable to add comparisons to other units (I will be trying other units in higher price ranges in the coming weeks) as it seems a little more objective that way. My preferences will vary from yours so saying "I bought this unit and I think its the bomb" doesnt really help in my opinion, but if you have heard or own any of the units I compare it to, that should give you a fair idea of what you can expect to hear differently.

    For reference, my chain is: Clearaudio Concept w/ Nagaoka MP110 -> Mani/MP-7 -> Schiit Saga -> Schiit Vidar -> Dynaudio Special 40

    vs MoFi StudioPhono:
    I listened to a couple of albums between the two and the long story short is that I preferred the MP-7 based purely on sound. The MoFi unit was no slouch and provides a LOT more flexibility and features though - from adjustable gain and loading via dip switches also allowing you to use MC carts with it, to a subsonic filter, a mono button (also available on the MP-7, at extra cost though).
    Listing the differences I perceived (everything was slight, but added to the overall experience):
    - The staging and separation on the MP-7 was better
    - It felt like the MoFi was less flat across the spectrum. Slightly rolled off on the ends
    - I heard slightly more bass/impact from the MP-7, which I preferred
    - the MP-7 resolved better, mainly in busier passages where it had the same level of clarity and detail. The MoFi seemed to get a bit muddled here.
    - The MP-7 was overall a lot more involving and organic sounding. I could pick the MoFi unit out easily because of the slightly distant and sterile sound it had (in comparison).

    From a design/build perspective the MoFi unit is nicer to look at with the styling but the plastic feel is a negative to me. The connectors are very standard and arent as good in terms of quality to the upgraded ones on the MP-7.

    PSX_20210801_071154.jpg

    All these points are (again) relative to each other. I dont think I would call the MoFi a bad unit, its actually pretty good and a significant upgrade from the Mani but the MP-7 is better to my ears. The MoFi is 329€ versus the MP-7 at 529$ (plus options, shipping, import costs and so on). If you are on a budget and need the flexiibility the MoFi is a very good deal since its got everything in built. If you've got the money I'd spend it on the MP-7.
     
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2021
  2. Gallic Dweller

    Gallic Dweller Acquaintance

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    What rating is the gain resistor and the RIAA resistors, if you can use Z foils you will not believe the clarity possible. Also maybe in the future Darlington will use dip switches which makes trying different values so much easier.

    RCAs try old stock Starline with the POM (plastic) bodies, they weigh 4.5 g and the only metal is in the signal and return - low mass is part of the equation. I/connects - that's another story completely.

    As you live in the Netherlands you will know all about the swingeing costs of importing anything into the EU after July 1st. Make sure the seller has supplied the right Customs paperwork or you will end up paying TVA twice and for Customs inspection as well.
     
  3. Azimuth

    Azimuth FKA rtaylor76, Friend

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    I believe most of the improvements to the MM-6 to the MM-7 is in the power supply - adding further regulation and lowering the overall noise floor even more. In any amp, a good power supply is key, especially when you are dealing with amplifying such a small signal and adding filters. I can only imagine that the MM-7 is yet another step up in performance and dynamics.

    I think DIP switches are just going to make the board bigger. Jumpers are easier to implement and might be another option for a set and forget setting for your particular setup.

    A bigger board, means a bigger case, which means added cost. Same with Z-foils and esoteric RCA jacks. If you want to implement and DIY yourself, go ahead.
     
  4. JayC

    JayC Resident Crash Test Dummy

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    I believe @Keith Richardson can give you resistor values, and it might be worth mentioning that he suggested an update to the RIAA network (via resistor/capacitor values) to further flatten out the response. I'll be getting this done once I have the parts

    Upgraded parts can of course get things to a higher level (if you have the budget) but I believe the performance at its current price is already excellent. I will keep this in mind for the future, and perhaps the guys at Darlington will think about this for the future.

    Indeed, customs costs are an additional factor for a unit like this coming in. I can say that I didnt have any problems with customs when this unit arrived, so I believe that they were able to do things well enough with regard to declaration and so on.. I hope that eventually there is enough interest that allows Darlington to have distributors in the EU or something of that sort.
     
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2021
  5. Gallic Dweller

    Gallic Dweller Acquaintance

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    Esoteric/expensive RCAs are for those with more money than sense, The Starline are around $20 per set and tick all the boxes for sound science. Yes Z foils are expensive but if you havn't tried them then you don't know just what a difference they make. I never comment from theory, only from practice.

    The beauty of the Darlington gear is that they are all through hole and make modding easy. PSU and regulation are indeed key to let a good design shine through.
     
  6. Gallic Dweller

    Gallic Dweller Acquaintance

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    Many companies are now importing in bulk into the EU the obvious advantages are they are taxed at the production cost, not the retail cost and using shipping not hugely expensive airmail the outrageous taxing on 'shipping' is mitigated. What are the values of caps in the signal path, I ask because there may well be Russian mil. spec K73-16 caps of the right values and these caps are still unbelievably cheap. I place these alongside Z foils as being transparent. Details which are missing with other resistors magically appear, there's real air and space in soundstaging, same goes for the K73-16 caps.

    You have to buy the Russian caps in quantities, 10 or 20 at a time, let me know by PM and if I have the values required you can have some for the price of postage. There's a huge thread, closed for some time now on diyaudio on the Russian caps, well worth looking at. I'm using a lot in the externalised x/overs of my Heybrook Sextets which I am about to put back together.
     
  7. Keith Richardson

    Keith Richardson MOT: Darlington Labs

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    The interstage coupling network is notably more advanced in the MP-7 as compared to the MM-6 and MM-5.
    Agree that DIP switches would consume valuable space.
     
  8. Gallic Dweller

    Gallic Dweller Acquaintance

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    Yes but if someone uses more than one cartridge which is easy with detachable headshells which I do - AT 33 EV (soon to be an AT 33Sa) and a Pickering XLZ 7500s then it just isn't practical.
     
  9. Keith Richardson

    Keith Richardson MOT: Darlington Labs

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    We've sold well over 99% of our units fixed at 47K and 100pF. Most users are very satisfied. To install DIP switches in the current chassis would mean we need to degrade other parts of the circuitry or the components used.
     
  10. Gallic Dweller

    Gallic Dweller Acquaintance

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    So MC users are not a part of your target market. Just an observation but your phono stages are'nt expensive and many members of this forum have lots of different h/phones, most, more than one h/amp etc. which suggests they have plenty of disposable income.

    One of the many incredible plusses of the i/net is that for the first time in history any individual or company, large or small can conduct surveys for just a little time and energy to 'test the wind' and find out what people want or would like to see without having to produce actual test models.

    If you did such a survey on this forum and others, you might get an idea if enough people would want you to create a phono stage with dip switches etc. etc. in a larger case including other innovations. Only then would you have to decide if it was worth you costing and creating a test unit which could form part of your loner programme. I would have thought this was basic logic for any company, large or small which wanted to enhance it's future profit profile - just a thought.
     
  11. Cspirou

    Cspirou They call me Sparky

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  12. shotgunshane

    shotgunshane Floridian Falcon

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    I understand the desire for adjustable capacitance. Once you’ve used it and heard the differences, it’s impossible to look the other way.

    Under 100pF, closer to 0, is preferable for modern day MM carts, as you’re typically adding ~100 to 150pF after the phono stage with cables. Total 200+pF and you’re tipping treble up on many modern carts. But older, classic MM carts were made to sound best with sometimes 300 to 400+ pF. Sure it’s easier to add than take away capacitance but that’s a serious hassle; and front facing knobs, switches or buttons make life nice when you have several removable headshells loaded with carts. I’m hoping Darlington Labs will consider functionality like this for a future MM offering.

    Regarding MC, it looks like Darlington Labs has a couple of active headamp coming out soon, to mate with their (or other) MM stages.
     
  13. Keith Richardson

    Keith Richardson MOT: Darlington Labs

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    Incorrect.

    SU users are ABSOLUTELY a part of our target market.
    Yesterday we just sent off what hopefully will be the production-ready SU-7 and SU-6 PCBs.

    Front panel adjustable loading on the SU-7, 4 different loads, all available while you listen. Adjust for each record if needed.
     
  14. Keith Richardson

    Keith Richardson MOT: Darlington Labs

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    To your point about our phono stages being quite inexpensive especially for the sound quality offered, as well as the fact that many members here have multiples of Headphone Amps, Phono Preamps, etc...

    May we suggest a potential solution to those few cartridges that really need a higher capacitance load (like the 1973 to 1977 Shure V-15-III, which really needs 300-400pF or it sounds rather dull):

    One Darlington Labs MM-5 per rare older cartridge, completely customized at the factory for the particular loading characteristics needed for your setup? Only USD $179 per extra unit, and probably the best that said cartridge has ever sounded. You probably should have a turntable dedicated to each cartridge.

    One of our development team has six, count 'em, Six, turntables, most with detachable headshells. He also uses 6 x Shure V-15 Type V-MR (and a lifetime supply of those stylii). He prefers the results from his Darlington Labs unit with 47K and 100pF loading (plus associated lead-in capacitance) over all of his other adjustable-loading phono preamps.
     
  15. Zimmer266

    Zimmer266 Facebook Friend

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    Interesting set of pages here on the Darlington Labs products. I’ve ordered an MP-7 based upon reading SBAF, the Darlington website, and the discrete circuitry.

    That and a mischievous desire to see how it fares against my current phono stages. I have only MM and HOMC for cartridges.
     
  16. recstar24

    recstar24 Friend

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    I tried to filter through the other thread but wasn’t able to find too much info on how the MP-7 improves on the MP-6. I think I saw better power supply, but if anyone can comment that would be great. Basically I need justification to just open the wallet and go for the top.
     
  17. Keith Richardson

    Keith Richardson MOT: Darlington Labs

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    From the recently revised FAQ, about 1/3 of the way down. This refers to MP-7 and MM-6 units currently shipping.

    The biggest differences between the MM-6 and the MP-7 are in the following areas:

    1. Power Supply – The 7 has the most capacitance of all of our models, about 30 to 50% more depending on area

    2. Local Decoupling – the 7 has twice the electrolytic local decoupling and three times the pure polypropylene foil decoupling

    3. Interstage Coupling – the 7 has a six-part network vs. the 6’s 2 part network, and the frequency response of the 7’s interstage coupling extends an octave lower in frequency

    4. Current Sources in the first and second stages – the 7 has twice the sophistication in the current sources which buffer the main RIAA network as well as provide low-impedance interfacing with the output
    A non-audiophile might say that they hear “more notes” in the music. We believe the MP-7 competes with, or betters, the +40dB setting of units in the US $1800+ class.

    A common theme from MP-7 clients is roughly equivalent to:

    “It’s so good that I think I’m done upgrading my phono preamp ever again, regardless of price considerations.”
     
  18. recstar24

    recstar24 Friend

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    Thanks Keith! I think I had read at one point the newer MM-6s in production featured many of the same upgrades as the MP-7. The MM-6 I snagged from a local guy would have been one of the first ones ever built (I think he said this is the 3rd one off the line) - do you offer the option of being able to send it in to have it updated?
     
  19. Keith Richardson

    Keith Richardson MOT: Darlington Labs

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    Hi recstar, great questions.
    We have made a number of continuous improvements to the MM-5 and MM-6 since they were introduced one year ago. We have also made a few improvements to the MP-7. (Most published reviews of the MM-5 and MM-6 were of early models and they were well-received as they were).

    It is not accurate, though, to say that the newest MM-6 has most of the enhancements of the MP-7. The pictures on the website are actually rather out of date. We've had numerous internal small and moderate revisions of the PCBs.

    As we have improved all of the models, the introduction of the MP-7 and then its enhancement has taken us where we didn't fully expect to go in this form factor. Hopefully the imminent introduction of the SU-7 will continue that tradition for LOMC people.

    *However*, we have what is called the "Pre-Owned Recertification” Program. Details are in our website FAQ. Depending on how old the MM-6 is, for $150 we can bring it fully up to date with a currently shipping MM-6. (In fact, at our option, we may actually replace the whole internal PCB). We would be willing to do the Low-Frequency EQ adjustment for free (waviing our normal labor fee) and well as replace the stickered front panel with a Pad-Printed one at no cost.

    Please feel free to contact us to discuss the serial number of the unit, as well as provide a photo of the interior.
    We may also be willing to take it in as trade-in against a brand-new MP-7. We are normally pretty generous in that regard, and therefore that might be your best bet in terms of sound quality per dollar.
     
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2021

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