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Product name: Clinamen Audio Step Up and Clamp
Manufacturer: Clinamen Audio - Italy
Cost: 1140 and 290€ depending on options (Currency conversion)
Reviewer: Graeme Budd - TNT
Reviewed: January, 2017
Users of low output moving coil cartridges have long been confronted
with the problems of getting their cartridge's measly output (around
0.5mV) amplified enough to get it on talking terms with an amplifier
that is used to receiving input voltages nearer the 2V mark from a
typical CD player.
This combined with the different loading options required depending on
cartridges can be a real headache when it comes to obtaining your
perfect amplification solution. There are many good (and some very
good) MM preamps on the market and these all come with the de facto
47kohm load and 100-150pf input capacitance that is considered normal
for an MM cartridge.
The catch here is that somehow we need to match a cartridge that gives
out around 0.5mV and expects to see 100 (or other value depending on the
manufacturer) ohms with an input that presents a 47k load and expects
to see 5mV. There are two ways of doing this in my knowledge - the
active gain stage and the step up transformer. Now there are claimed
advantages to both and this is not the place for a battle of the
theories - after all this year's Nobel prize for physics has just been
awarded for some work on donuts so a breakthrough in MC amplification
is going to have to wait until next year.
In the case of the transformer the idea is to use physics intelligently
to obtain what can be described as free gain by swapping voltage for
current to get up to around the 5mV. The transformer can be wound to let the cartridge see what it's expecting
to see and to perform at it's optimum.
So after that very brief explanation as to the whys and wherefores of
Stepup transformers we come to the object of this reveiw. The Clinamen
audio MC Step up.
Clinamen audio products are all hand made in Italy by Steffano
Buttafoco and he can pretty much make you an entire system from a very
turbocharged Denon MC via single ended valve amps to some very high
efficiency speakers. All of which are finished with typical Italian
flair - no black boxes here.
The transformer I have here is Clinamen's base model (I hesitate to use
the word entry level as we're talking about a product that is over 1000
euros). It comprises 2 hand wound transformers with both 12x and 24x
step up options selectable by simple switches - no disassembly
required. You can get a slightly cheaper version without the switchable
gain values that comes in at 950€ - in my case Stefano recommended the 24x and the
sound had noticeably more body with the setting so if you order one
listen to his recommendations.
The model I have is in a rather attractive grey finsh in an aluminium
casing although you can have pretty much any colour you like if
you let him know when ordering. I would however suggest sticking to
colours in the Ferrari paint list. I can't see a genuine Italian being
willing to paint a step up in the same colour as Paris Hilton's's
Continental GT. My only critique with the looks is the gold plated fron
plaque. I think a small plaque with just the Clinamen logo would be
classier with the creators signature on another plate round the back.
This is only my opinion and as an Englishman I'm on very rocky ground
attempting to give style advice to any Italian!
Ordering is an interesting process as you're not buying an off the
shelf product. Stefano asked me for my cartridge make and model along
with it's data sheet plus the expected phono stages so he could make me what he calls a harmonisation
network. This allows him to tailor the transformer to a specific
cartridge and as a consequence optimise its performance.
My understanding is that this is a completely unique feature in
step up transformers and is why the Clinamen products have an extra set of
phono sockets round the back. The networks are built into a pair of
phono plugs allowing you to try the transformer with and without them .
It also means that assuming you don't buy a new cartridge which
requires a different turns ratio Stefano can take into account your new
device and re-optimise the transformer for a very reasonable 70€ for a
new set of plugs. This makes the Clinamen a potential product for life
as it can adapt as your system changes.
The Harmonization network is a combination of passive devices (capacitor, resistors) that improve matching between the
cartridge and the step up. To quote Stefano " It is very important to know the Z
input of the cartridge, because the transformer is like a transmission
of a car: you need to know the horse power of the motor and the type of
the road where the is car running, for the best performance. When the cartridge and the
transformer are a very good coupling, the influence of the
harmonization network is very small. When the cartridge is not the best
coupling for the transformer ( but I recommended always to speak with
me for the best choice of the step up ratio of the transformer) the
harmonization network can help much."
The cores of the transformers are
in "Vacoperm" alloy with very ultra large dimension. The Vacoperm
is a metal alloy with 77% of Nichel, 5% Cu, and 4% Mo. The case of the
transformer is shielded in Mumetal. The windings of the coils is fully
Hooking the transformer up is easy - I ran Audio Origami Super OFC
cable both between the turntable and the transformer and the
transformer and the Phono pre amp. The Clinamen is supplied with a
grounding post so everythng was grounded to the pre amp allowing hum
Stefano advised me not to listen critiaclly for the first 10 hours with
peak performance being acheived at around 25 hours. He's right that the
sound does change during this time which didn't stop me enjoying
records but did have me waiting impatiently to see what the transformer
So what can it do? I ran it with my usual Reson Etile MC into either
CEC PH53 or Graham Slee Accession Pre Amps. This allowed me to compare
the transformer with the active MC stage in the CEC and see what the
only Graham Slee unit could do when fed wih an MC.
The two combinations are quite different bit both equally appealing.
Running the CEC and comparing Transformer to active stage there is an
obvious sweetening of vocals and decrease in harshness on drum sounds.
This combined with a reduction in grain but the basic characteristic of the CEC remains intact with great pace and
it's inherent fun quality.that makes it a pleasure to listen to and
gets your feet tapping.
When running with the Graham Slee comparisons are a bit harder as it's
not possible to do back to back active vs transformer tests. What I
will say is the level of clarity over the entire audio band that this
combination produced was quite a revelation. I recently bought Michael
Jackson's "Off the wall" on vinyl and in respecting my own hi fi for
beginners article from last year when a mate came round and wanted a
listen I played him "Don't stop till you get enough" .To be honest I
think he'd still be siting listening to this combo if he hadn't had to
Stereo imaging is wide but precise with instruments clearly placed in
space. Bass goes down low with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers "If you have
to ask" having speed and weight. Complex mixes such as U2's "Until the
end of the world" are no longer a mess of sound but guitars with
distinct delays which are obviously treated to give almost a hooded
quality to the repeats. I'd always thought my vinyl pressing of
"Achtung baby" to be sorely lacking in dynamics and detail but the
Clinamen/Slee combination proved me wrong on both accounts.
Running with and without the Harmonisation network brought small but
worthwhile changes removing some grain from the sound. I would guess my
cartridge is well matched to the transformer as the improvement was
Were there any downsides to this set up? The only one I found was that the amplifying
combination showed up any faults in my deck (Linn Axis) and I'm sure a
deck with better resolution would have provided even more information
allowing more obvious differences between active and passive
Those of you who carefully read the title will notice Clinamen also
supplied me with their Harmonic Woods clamp so let's see what it can do
Keeping with the Slee/Clinamen combo I dug out Steve Vai's "Passion and
Warfare" and played the track "Sisters". This is the calmest track on the
album and whilst it's probably not that easy to play it features none
of the usual fireworks, distortion and associated histrionics.
Firstly I played the track using the Michell Clamp supplied with my LV Mystic
Mat. I really enjoyed the clarity and imaging of this combination - the
drums are clearly placed in space with cymbal strikes high in the
soundstage. Steve's guitar is as usual at a high level in the mix and
projects in the centre of the soundstage.
I then dug out the Harmonic Woods
clamp. This is a fairly large piece of
wood that is beautifully machined and into which has been set a brass
insert. The machining continues on the very pretty Clinamen logo to
give an attractive item that would not look out of place on any
traditional taurntable in the supplied brown colour. The only issue I
had was the height of the clamp required the lid to be open when
playing records. Not a big issue - you just have to be careful!
Anyway what does it do to the sound? To me it brings out the character
and texture of the instruments. All of a sudden I was playing less attention to the
pace of the music and finding myself interested in the sound of the
guitar or the additional weight and warmth of the drums. All this
without any noticeable killing of the speed or detail.
also tried Neil Young's "Silver and Gold" album. Similarly the Harmonic
Woods clamp kept the pace and musicality of the tracks but made Neil
Young's vocals easier to follow and improved the drum sounds. There was
an improved sense of flow to the music - all in all a very pleasant
There's no doubt this is a quality set of products and both do what
they are intended to. Should you go out and buy them? I think in the
case of the step up you need to have a better front end than I do for
the investment to be really worthwhile. I would suggest you need to be
looking at the level of a Michell Gyrodec or similar (there are plenty of turntables out
there many of which have featured on this site) which would fully allow
you to appreciate the quality. It works very well with both phono
stages I have, is very quiet and has the avantage of being
reconfigurable for a small charge to your next cartridge. If you have
the necessary turntable and a good MM phono stage (the two stages
I have definitely qualify) then the Clinamen makes a good case for
As for the clamp - whilst this could be considered an afterthought
I'm not sure there are many 290€ upgrades once you have a quality deck
that will bring this type of improvement. Of course you need to check
there are no bearing issues due to extra weight and anyone with a fully
suspended deck is going to have a lot more mass to bounce so resetting
the suspension will be essential. Subject to those compatibility issues I like it a
lot, it's well priced bearing in mind the level of craftsmanship
involved and if you want to get more involved n the character and instrumental timbre of the
music it could just be what the doctor ordered.
© Copyright 2016 Graeme Budd - firstname.lastname@example.org
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