andreweast

REAL REVIEW: Longdog Audio MCJ3 Hybrid Valve Phono Stage

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The Longdog MCJ3 is a dedicated MC phono stage based on a sophisticated hybrid of jfets with valve technology. The valve component is a modest single ECC82 along with a pair of E88CCs, but it is quite clear from the first listening that this unit possesses what is typically thought of as the magic of valve technology, without what are falsely thought of as its limits. Clear, dynamic, expansive, and tonally pure: this is a combination of virtues I have often heard in hybrid amplifiers, and I have often wondered why there are not more hybrid phono stage designs. Like many designers of hybrid amps, Nick Gorham comes from a background of highly acclaimed valve designs, but his recent products are more focused on the innovative use of power supplies. The MCJ3 uses a power supply developed from his high-end designs, along with carefully chosen parts, including Clarity and Mundorf capacitors. It retails for £1400.

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This is a purist design, dedicated to its singular task; amplifying MC cartridges with 64dB of gain. It offers no MM option, and no alternative gain settings. The five settings for resistive loading are wisely positioned across the range of the vast amount of MC cartridges, between 50 and 470 Ohms, and usefully controlled by an accessible dial on the back. I used two cartridges for the review: the Miyajima Takumi and the more modest Audio Technica AT33EV. With the Takumi, 150 Ohms gave greater mid-range focus and intimacy, whilst 250 Ohms gave a greater sense of air and scale. In this case the ideal might be in between, but the cartridge was nevertheless superb on either setting. The AT33EV worked perfectly at 100 Ohms, and its 0.3mV output of the AT33EV was ideally matched for the Longdog’s 64dB gain. This is, of course, system dependent, since pre-amp gain should always be taken into account. The combination with my 0.2mV Takumi was excellent, but for systems with low gain preamps I would recommend the MCJ3 for carts of 0.3mV or higher.

The MCJ3’s relative lack of flexibility may be a result of very shrewd choices by Nick Gorham. Many other stages will give more features and options, but in focusing on what matters most he has managed to produce something quite exceptional. At the risk of revealing my conclusions before I start, I have not heard a phono stage under at least the £2000 mark that can rival the exceptional clarity and tonal fidelity of this stage. But the Longdog possesses something that is not reducible to price brackets: it has a perfect balance of qualities: resolution, tonal naturalism, dynamic authority, and the ability to evoke a realistic acoustic space. It is this equality of virtues, more than anything, that made this a very long reviewing process, not because its qualities were not immediately apparent, but because I was so reluctant to face the idea of giving it back.

For my first month with the Longdog I listened solely with the Miyajima Takumi. If I was pressed to identify the cartridge’s tendencies, I would say that this is most suited to lovers of delicate insight and tonal naturalism, but it is in no sense lacking in dynamic impact. These qualities were very clear at the beginning of the review process, when I listened to one of the most exquisite pieces of jazz impressionism from the 1960s, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage (Music Matters 33RPM). The recording has an extraordinary combination of spacious soundscape and rich tonal colour. The challenge is to maintain the piercing energy of Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet and the richness of Wayne Shorter’s horn, against the expansive and leisured backdrop created by the percussion and piano. Listening through the MCJ3, I hear what the impressionists called a harmony of colours; the plashing cymbals suggest the light on the ocean, whilst Hancock produces dense chords and flashes of colour from the piano.

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The Longdog’s capacity to convey a vividly coloured acoustic space was equally apparent on modern recordings with subtle and complex layering of instruments. Soon after the arrival of the MCJ3, I received the first vinyl pressing of David Sylvian’s 'Dead Bees on a Cake'. Although a long term Sylvian fan, I have always considered this his weakest album, but the new release allowed for a reassessment. ‘Midnight Sun’ is the most intricately layered recording on the LP, and the MCJ3 let me hear it with a new clarity. Sylvian’s voice has a rich texture and a large scale, providing the typical intimacy of the crooner. A delicate horn arrangement by Ryuichi Sakamoto hovers in the background, whilst Marc Ribot’s gothic blues guitar is precisely imaged, so that we can almost imagine a dusty porch at night. Everything is in its right place. The same virtues are even more apparent on the 45RPM half speed mastering reissue of Japan’s 'Tin Drum', particularly on ‘Ghosts’, where the richness of Sylvian’s voice emerges from a palpable sense of haunted space.

What I noticed from the beginning is that in spite of its precise spatial sense, the Longdog doesn’t fetishize soundstage by creating an exaggerated sense of space or a false separation of instruments. The scale is always just right, and one of its consistent qualities was the ability to create the right depth to the acoustic space. This means that we hear into the recording, without the artificial sense that the instruments are stretched out flat over a canvas. Acoustic space is dimensional and organic.

This convincing sense of depth served mono recordings very well, making a separate mono switch unnecessary. To clarify this effect I listened to John Coltrane’s 'Both Directions at Once', the recently discovered mono recording of his great quartet, using two cartridges and two phono stages. I compared the Longdog to my Edwards MC3, which does have a mono switch, using both the Takumi and the AT33EV. When I listened through the Longdog, I was amazed at how vivid Coltrane’s tenor sounded with the relatively humble AT33EV. To some extent this upset my sense of system hierarchy, since in this instance I preferred the combination of AT and Longdog to the Miyajima with the Edwards. Using the mono button on the Edwards helped to restore the stages closer to parity, but the Longdog always had the edge, both in representing the liveness of the horn and in conveying the sense of a coherent ensemble. This was reaffirmed when listening to Coltrane in stereo; my Japanese reissue of 'A Love Supreme' has never sounded so good, both with the Takumi and the AT33EV.

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The vivid presence of Coltrane’s tenor is just one example of the starling naturalism of vocal and instrumental texture I heard from the MCJ3. The peerless Hoffman and Grey remastering of Joni Mitchell’s 'Blue' (US Rhino) has never sounded more intimate and alive. Listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 'Push the Sky Away', I’m amazed by the scale and richness of Cave’s voice. Every tonal aspect is revealed in direct connection to the body; from the chest, to the back of the neck, to the intricate tonguing of consonants. I have rarely heard Cave’s voice sound better than with the combination of Miyajima and Longdog.

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What I have described so far exemplifies what might stereotypically be thought of as the virtues of valve equipment: tonal naturalism, the palpable sense of space, intimacy and insight. But the MCJ3 equally excels in conveying live dynamics. In fact, the balance between tonal and dynamic naturalism may be the key to its success. It means that when we listen to a great drummer, the force and impact are at one with our sense of wood on skin. This is equally true for drummers as diverse as Tony Williams, John Bonham, or George Hurley.

George Hurley’s name is not mentioned enough in the pantheon or great drummers, but his impact, speed, and subtlety are at the heart of The Minutemen’s great album, 'Double Nickels on a Dime'. If so far in this review I’ve focused on the more exquisite aspects of musical tone and colour, hearing this album again shows that the MCJ3 has guts. Listening to The Minutemen, Mike Watt’s bass is the palpable rhythmic centre around which D. Boon’s guitar and George Hurley’s drums weave. The centrality of the bass gives the trio a sinuous kind of unity. The performance is organic, but not in a folky way; it shows exceptionally fluid musicianship, but it's also apotheosis of the punk DIY ethos. The Longdog captures this liveness, showing that its refinement is always in service of the dynamic musical event.

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The more I experienced a variety of recordings through the MCJ3, the more I appreciated a rare balance between pleasure and knowledge in my listening. The MCJ3 show the intricacies of the recording process, but it is never overly analytic. I am always suspicious when a review describes a component as ‘ruthlessly revealing’ of poor recordings, because what I want from hi-fi is to hear the best in all recordings. The crucial thing is that we can appreciate the true value of the greatest recordings. The MCJ3 is revealing in such a way. This was demonstrated towards the end of the review process, when I received an exceptional reissue of Wayne Shorter’s 'Etcetera'; the first of Blue Note’s new ‘Tone Poet’ series. It was because of the Longdog that I was able to hear the truth and beauty of this release, both on a musical level and as a reissue. One of Kevin Grey’s finest pieces of mastering, this has a degree of clarity, intimacy and dynamic naturalism that exceeds even the Music Matters 33RPM series. Joe Chambers’ drumming is a revelation, and the reproduction of Shorter’s tenor has greater intimacy than on any of his earlier recordings. On the quietest track, ‘Penelope’, the beauty of Shorter’s tone is simply staggering.

I spent some time listening to this LP on several different combinations of phono stage and cartridge, so as to establish their precise roles in this magical effect. Without the MCJ3, not even the Miyajima could provide the open window onto Shorter’s music that I craved. And whilst the AT33EV always shone with the Longdog, it could not do full justice to the intimacy, clarity, and dynamic ease of this recording. It was only when I paired the Miyajima with the MCJ3 that I could fully appreciate its quality. With a mastering and pressing of this refinement, heard through the MCJ3 and a high quality cartridge, we have the sense of being as close as possible to the most intimate performance.

What continued to impress me about the MCJ3 is how it equally served both music of great intimacy and music of great dynamic scale. I could appreciate the huge canvas of a Mahler Symphony or the grace and drama of a Mozart piano concerto as much as a close-mic’d saxophone or voice. With this capaciousness in mind, I should move towards conclusion with an admission of failure. The reviewer’s function may be to identify the essential tendencies of a component, but all the qualities I have mentioned so far; tonal and dynamic naturalism, convincing depth, a vivid acoustic space; these are simply the qualities of vinyl reproduction at its best. It is difficult to identify any tendency in the MCJ3 other than fidelity to the qualities of the record in question.

This level of neutrality, combined with tonal richness, dynamic authority, and the ability to evoke a convincing acoustic space, offers a rare gift for the listener. I can give no higher recommendation for what Nick Gorham has achieved in the MCJ3. I have listened to many phono stages in my system recently, partly for comparative interest, and partly in a search to do justice to the qualities of the Miyajima. The ones that stood out were not always the most expensive; the Rega Aria, for instance, demonstrated a rare tonal purity for its modest price point. At a far higher price point, the Audio Research PH8, another hybrid design, has an ability to project a vast soundstage, typical of the American high end, but with ease and grace. The Trilogy 907, which I owned for some time, has a combination of dynamic and tonal naturalism rare in solid state designs. Pairing a Croft 25R with a Hashimoto SUT produced extraordinary richness and insight. For me, though, the MCJ3 has perhaps the finest balance of qualities for its price; it has negative capability, meaning that the equality of its virtues makes it difficult to identify its particular perspective, leaving us with an open window. This will give it staying power in a system; and for the listener, a new sense of analogue magic.

Andrew Eastham, April 2019.

 

Edited by andreweast
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