Darlington Labs Phono Preamps

Discussion in 'Vinyl Nutjob World: Turntable and Related Gear' started by rtaylor76, Dec 18, 2020.

  1. rtaylor76

    rtaylor76 Can't wipe his tag

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    So I was on eBay shopping around for phono preamps and stumbled across something that looked like another Chi-Fi box. Upon further inspection, it appears to be made in Massachussetts by hand.

    https://www.darlingtonlabs.com/

    There are three models right now, the
    • MM-3 - $119 (currently listed at $99 right now on sale)
    • MM-5 - $199 (currently listed at $179 right now on sale)
    • MM-6 - $329
    Now all of them are 40 db of gain for moving magnet carts for 47K + 100pF loading, however 150pF, 220pF , or 330pF available upon request.Not much change between specs, although slightly lower THD, lower noise, and closer to RIAA spec. All run on a 24V AC adapter/step down transformer.

    All hand matched discrete parts. Says using NOS JFET's, although does not say what exact ones (ie, 2SK170), and if is not that, I am sure it is something similar.

    It also looks like they have more products coming in 2021 - "Moving Coil Step-Up stages, Headphone Amplifiers, and DAC Analog Output Electronics."
     
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  2. rtaylor76

    rtaylor76 Can't wipe his tag

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    MM-5 Review

    So I ordered the MM-5. I was curious to see what this was all about. It was intriguing to me because here is another US builder and it is all discrete. Nothing against op amp designs like the Schiit Mani or the iFi Zen Phono or even the iFi Phono or countless others, I knew there had to be a discrete phono preamp design out there. Also, last year I recapped and fixed the light in my friends Jasmine LP2.0 and I have not been able to get that sound out of my head. And used ones of those are scarce and not very budget friendly...but let's talk about the MM-5.

    Equiptment:
    Technics SL-1200 M3D
    Ortofon 2M Blue
    Shure M97Xe
    Schiit Mani (v 1.0 for comparison)


    Build Quality

    I did not have to open the box and see what is inside, because there are pictures clearly on the website. No hiding what is inside, parts used, etc. All discrete transistor design, very clean board, WIMA's, Nichicon, a couple of trim pots...however, note that this does not have a off the shelf regulator. A bold choice. Yes, all through hole with a very clean build and clean layout. Reminds me of the early Shiit builds of that early Asgard.

    Quality box, quality gold plated connectors, a real plus. Of course power is an 24V AC wall wart. No issues here, just a step down transformer. About the only thing is that the screw for the ground is maybe a hair too short. Be careful not to unscrew too much here, but otherwise just fine. And lastly just a switch on the back and a blue light confirmation LED on the front.

    Sound quality
    Switching from the Mani to the MM-5 was slightly quieter (42db gain setting on the Mani, vs 40db on the MM-5), but not that much. Immediately you can tell there was a richness in the quality of sound. Dare I say more organic? Things were just smoother and just more space and definition in the instruments. It was not like the Doobie Brothers were playing right in front of me, it was just there was more width and depth to the overall soundscape. The definition in the low end and bass guitar is what really grabbed me at first.

    It is certainly a warm amp and the top end is not super bright or fatiguing in any way, ah-tough I would not call it "dark" sounding. The Jasmine SE LP2.0 was darker and more syrupy. A very natural sound. Going back to the Mani sounded somewhat muted, like I was missing that extra stuff in there, and also sounded more flat soundstage wise, and overall more aggressive. The MM-5 certainly had that laid back relaxing quality you would expect out of a tube amp. It just begged you to turn up and up the volume it sounded so good.

    Mostly the Mani started to sound cut off on the lows and highs and switching to the MM-5 opened up both ends of the spectrum. Although "laid back" is an overused term and one more associated with Burr Brown op-amps, there was still a quickness to the sound that really brought out both the best in the 2M Blue and the M97Xe. The sound was just more "rich" if that makes any sense. I still got plenty more details that the Mani could bring, (reverb trails, etc.) and remember, I have only had this thing a few days and consider me impressed. I thought my 2M Blue was looking life, but I was very wrong.

    Conclusion
    It really reminded me of a mini-Jasmine, but with more detail and less warm tilt with tighter bass and cleaner mid-range. Billy Joel's voice does not get lost in the shuffle. It had that same familiar tube like sound though and that non-congested and effortless to the sound. Very clean sound, like I was listening right from a console feed from the mix console. It makes me wonder what the MM-6 is going to bring.

    Follow-up
    I contacted Keith Richardson, the owner of Darlington Labs. It looks like I am going to be upgrading to the MM-6 and he is giving me full credit on the MM-5 to count towards and MM-6 upgrade since I have only had the MM-5 for a week. I also invited him over here to be an MOT as well and hopefully have a loner or two if there is interest. I honestly think some of you vinyl guys need to check out at least the MM-5. A darn good value. I am sure the MM-3 has even more value potential in that $99 category.
     
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2020
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  3. mitochondrium

    mitochondrium Friend

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    Interesting, the topology sounds familiar. I am not familiar with circuit design, in Germany there is someone making a tiny Phono Pre using an Aikido topology. It uses JFETS, is dual mono, no negative feedback, class A with passive RIAA. I do not want hijack this thread I am just curious wether they might be quite similar products. The Aikido Phono 1 is considered a bargain at its price, might be an alternative for European friends.
     
  4. rtaylor76

    rtaylor76 Can't wipe his tag

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    The Aikido Phono 1 appears to be a similar product and does specifically specifically 2SK170 transistors, or at least two of them at least. Also sporting 40 db of gain and passive RIAA. It does run on a standard off the shelf 48V DC power supply. From what I found, the build quality on the inside of the original Aikido's does not look as well built. It looks like he was pretty active on the DIY forums and also built a tube pre, so it sounds like someone picked up his design.

    However looking at both boards, it seems like the MM-5 at least has much more built on. There are many transistor phono preamps and designs using 2SK170. Even the original Gilmore Dynalo amps called for matching 2SK170/2SJ74's for the front end. Very classic Toshiba JFET's.
     
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  5. mitochondrium

    mitochondrium Friend

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    Thanks for the clarification. I agree with you Darlington’s interior build quality seems to be significantly better.
     
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  6. Keith Richardson

    Keith Richardson MOT: Darlington Labs

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    Ryan,

    This is Keith Richardson, owner of Darlington Labs (LLC) the manufacturer of the MM-5 that you purchased. Thank you for the detailed review.

    The Mani was one of our core benchmarked products, and the Ortofon 2M Blue was a primary reference for one of the key members of our design team.

    We do *not* use 2SK170s. The K170, and similar, are long-channel devices with relatively low gate breakdown voltages kneepoints, lower voltage noise and generally higher distortion. We use a short channel device, selected by lot and production process line and vendor, then individually graded and matched. These have high breakdown voltage and minimum gate leakage at our bias point, and perform optimally with MM cartridges.

    The 2SK170 and similar devices have higher input capacitance and shine with MCs. (We are taking a different approach to our upcoming MC step up stage). Note that we have procured a very substantial quantity of our NOS high-voltage J-FETs so a multi-decade supply is anticipated, as well as long-term support--in the rare event servicing is needed.

    Our units are *not* based on the Aikido topology. There are some very basic similarities, such as a lack of source bypass caps (what would be a cathode bypass cap in a tube unit).. Our PCBs, which are designed in-house, are laid out with symmetry and space between channels, however, the discrete power supply regulator (of our own design) is shared between the channels.

    We found that one very-high-performance discrete regulator actually proved superior to two merely-good discrete (and therefore dual-mono) regulators and since the power supply rectification, filtering and regulation already consumes nearly 50% of the PCB real estate, we don't advertise dual-mono.

    We will be lengthening the threaded ground screw on future production. If current owners contact us, we'll update them at no cost.

    I hope this helps provide useful background. We appreciate your interest and look forward to answering any questions that readers or members may have.

    Sincerely,
    Keith Richardson
    Director of Engineering
    Darlington Labs LLC
    www.darlingtonlabs.com
     
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  7. rtaylor76

    rtaylor76 Can't wipe his tag

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    Thank you @Keith Richardson for clarifying. That is excellent info! And looking forward to this MC step-up device as well. I can't use it in my system right now, but sounds interesting.

    I really don't care what is in it as long as it sounds good and it really does. The build quality is superb and can't wait for the MM-6.

    One of the Mods grant Keith MOT status please. Calling @purr1n, @zerodeefex , or @jexby. I don't know what the process here is.
     
  8. Inoculator

    Inoculator Friend

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    Thanks @rtaylor76 for introducing this product to the forum with some detailed impressions, and thanks @Keith Richardson for coming to engage in some discussion about your products! Always exciting to see some quality, affordable, US-made phono gear come to market. I am especially excited to learn more about the MC step-up as that continues to develop. Just got my Denon 103r modified by Zu, plan on eventually snagging some sort of MC step-up so I can try it out with a variety of different phono stages, not just those that have some sort of built-in MC solution.
     
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  9. ogodei

    ogodei Headphone Heaven Gatekeeper

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    The write up above sounds interesting enough for me bite, I placed an MM6 order via the Darlington Labs site.

    And this is amusing enough to invite the dislikes: I'm order #00003 ! I presume most business is coming on through eBay.

    Looking forward to hearing this
     
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  10. Pars

    Pars Rando

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    Very interesting products and company! I wish I would have known about these before building a Muffsy phono preamp for my son (or the Salas njfet phono preamp for myself, even though I like it a lot). I think I might sell the Muffsy and pick one of these up!
     
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  11. lm4der

    lm4der A very good sport - Friend

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    Definitely would like to hear more impressions.
     
  12. Gallic Dweller

    Gallic Dweller Acquaintance

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  13. Gallic Dweller

    Gallic Dweller Acquaintance

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    Hi Keith,
    I have 2 phono preamps a WAD Pre 2, a valve design, a 3 box affair - PSU/Pre and phono stage, and a Kevin Edwards/Talk Electronics MC3. Your design looks very interesting, would it compromise your design to include internal jumpers for load and gain as does the MC3 and a separate highly regulated PSU and mono switching.

    It really helps to have lots of options with optimising any cartridge and this is easy with the MC3, unscrew the back plate and slide out the board and move the jumpers to whatever load and gain I want to try. At the moment I run an AT33EV, looking seriously at the 33SA and I shall try an NOS Pickering 7500S a LOMM that I bought years ago.

    There are many opinions (aren't there always) about load and gain for the Pickering which is where it's an advantage to have plenty of options.

    Yes a dedicated highly regulated PSU ups the price as would easily changed load and gain functions but I think this would appeal to a lot of prospective buyers. Let me know what you think.
     
  14. rtaylor76

    rtaylor76 Can't wipe his tag

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    The Darlington Labs phono preamps already have a highly regulated PSU.

    Different loading for different carts is a good idea and not what one expects on preamp in this category. Even much more expensive preamp don't have such options.These are also the first generation. Give him a chance to establish his brand.

    And you always free to email him directly or send a PM.
     
  15. rtaylor76

    rtaylor76 Can't wipe his tag

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    MM-6 arrived and just a quick A/B comparison:

    MM-6 is certainly an improvement in clarity, although the differences are not as big as Mani vs MM-5. MM-6 is just cleaner and resolves to a more polished sound. I think the better power supply here is helping out quite a bit. Both the MM-5 and MM-5 get my toes tapping. However, the MM-6 is just more wider/deeper/cleaner. The low end is even more detailed and everything is even more effortless. It kind of made MM-5 feel like there was a slight veil...like looking through a screen, but just barely - more like a slightly dirty window vs one that was just cleaned.

    The MM-6 still has plenty of low end energy, but it is very smooth - not super punchy. Some may say the low end is a bit loose, but I only found this when listening on headphones. The top end is more "airy" as well. It is not bright at all and still very neutral. This is the most tube like SS phono preamp I have heard.

    So I think you can really get the "in-house" sound of these preamps with the MM-5, but the MM-6 is just that much more magic and it is totally worth it.
     
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  16. Paul Clay

    Paul Clay Rando

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    I'm so glad I ran into the Darlington products on Ebay before I ordered a Mani. I had been debating between the IFI zen phono and Mani for days but after reading the technical info and user review the MM-5 sounds like the preamp for me
     
  17. scblock

    scblock Friend

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    Hi Paul Clay, welcome. Please do take time to read the rules and introduce yourself in the linked threads (and as noted on the top banner of the site) to help get off to a good start and help us get to know you. Also please note this forum tries hard to keep signal to noise high, and posts like the above don't add a whole lot to the thread.

    If you do buy one of these phono preamps we would certainly appreciate listening impressions after you've had some time with it.
     
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  18. Paul Clay

    Paul Clay Rando

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    Thanks, will do
     
  19. Gallic Dweller

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    It doesn't have a highly regulated PSU - just a wall wart nothing more. Especially with phono stages the supply must be first class, this determines how quiet or noisy the output will be, simple as that.
     
  20. ogodei

    ogodei Headphone Heaven Gatekeeper

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    The form factor, wall wart or brick or internal, doesn't mean much. Here its an external LPS. One can debate its quality but as @rtaylor76 states the entire product price point is very relevant here.
     
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2021 at 6:35 AM
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