I don’t have a story about Hagerman Audio Labs from the old days, other than the fact that they offered a product I found intriguing—an affordable tube phono stage called the Trumpet that sounded really good. There were a few of these inexpensive, minimalist tubed phono preamps bopping around a few years ago, from defunct American brands like Wright Audio and Don Garber’s fi, and a few others that had piqued my interest.
Got a thousand bucks? Looking to bring a little tube-y goodness to your solid-state hi-fi rig? This was always a viable path for me, one that I might have taken under different circumstances. It might still be a viable path for me, something like this current version of the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC.
Hagerman Audio Labs might have been thrown into that same group of amplifier builders, except for one thing. Jim Hagerman is still around, making great tube phono stages that don’t cost a lot of money. He sent me an email a few months ago, out of the blue, and wondered if I wanted to give his latest version of his Trumpet MC phono stage a listen. I immediately said yes because I remembered the Trumpet and I remembered listening to it once somewhere, and I remember the rave reviews it got back in the day from the big guys, and I remember putting it on some kind of short list next to all of the other audiophile short lists I concocted and promptly revised every time the new issue of Stereophile came out.
I also wondered, with just a touch of a mischievous spirit, if the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC could stand up to all these incredible phono stages I have in for review this summer. These phono stages range in cost from $4500 to around $15K, and they come in heavy metal boxes and they sparkle and shine and light up my listening room in all sorts of wonderful colors. Most, but not all, are tube phono preamps with heavy duty power supplies, beautiful case work and lots of cool design features such as multiple inputs, remote control operation and balanced connections.
The Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC doesn’t have fancy casework. In fact, it only weighs three pounds. But lately I’ve found that intriguing, that old audiophile trope of a basic box housing a very special circuit design, and sure we can put it in an expensive solid hunk of aluminum billet and charge you a lot more money but it isn’t going to sound any better than it does right now. There are two sides to that argument, obviously, but one side doesn’t give a damn. Maybe both sides.
My intrigue stems from a small amount of exposure to some Japanese tube kits that deliver incredible performance and yet look very basic and industrial in design, not to mention built to a price point, which is always suspiciously low. (Anyone else thrilled that Herb Reichert is reviewing and digging Sunvalley amps from Japan? I am.) The Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC has that same vibe. It’s just so straightforward, utilitarian, no-nonsense. I’ve said in the past that the physical appearance of high-end audio products is very important—what else are you looking at while you listen to music? But I’ll tell you a little secret about me. I don’t care about the case of a tube amp so much as long as those glowing little light bulbs are sticking out of the top and illuminating the listening room.
That’s the beauty of tubed amplification, right there. Well, that and the sound.
Inside the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC
I’ve already set you up with the expectation that the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC is going to be all about the circuit and the ideas behind the design. Maybe a little about the man behind those ideas, too. So if you want an objective description of the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC, I leave it to Jim Hagerman:
“The circuit remains fully balanced from input to output, including power supply. Equalization is split-passive with no feedback employed anywhere, resulting in a neutral non-fatiguing sonic presentation. Heaters are DC and a highly specialized internal low-noise boost converter generates B+ and B- rails (after a 40-second delay). A novel differential JFET front-end provides variable gain and loading capabilities needed for MC operation. With this flexibility any cartridge can be used, even MM. Premium components are used throughout, such as polypropylene capacitors and metal film resistors.”
He also elaborated on his original decision to go balanced with the Trumpet:
“One key advantage of balanced operation is the reduction in TBD (transient blocking distortion), which is where a high frequency transient overloads the second stage tube, causing a shift in bias as it bumps up against grid current–basically a rectification of DC biasing with an associated recovery time.
“The balanced stages in the Trumpet eliminate this problem, as the grid current rise hits both sides of the long-tailed-pair, being erased due to common mode rejection. To me, this can be heard as better dynamics, less compression. Note, this is only an issue for tube phono stages that do not employ negative feedback correction. You pick your poison.”
Hagerman then goes on to explain that this is the third generation of the Trumpet MC, which makes sense considering the passage of the years, but he also mentions that he “cleverly cut costs through technological advances.” This makes even more sense, since I remember that first generation of Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet going for something like $1800.
That’s a big drop, and worth mentioning because an $1800 phono pre can sound very different from one that costs $1099. That might sound strange, but I find it to be true: many phono preamplifiers are engineered to come in at around $1000 MSRP—it’s a popular price point. Besides, that price gap can be filled with something useful like an external power supply. (The Trumpet comes with just a wall-wart.) That makes the Hagerman Trumpet a very thoughtful and well-designed phono stage for the higher price, and something of a unicorn at the lower price.
Despite its relatively affordable price, the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC isn’t necessarily designed for beginners. First of all, you’ll need to remember that 12AX7s and 12AU7s look almost exactly the same when you don’t read the owner’s manual carefully so you’ll need to look at the instructions, or the print that can be found clearly on the casework at each tube socket opening. Failure to place close attention may cause you to say stupid things like “Hmmm, I detect a slight channel imbalance.”
Speaking of channel imbalance, the owner’s manual recommends swapping around the 12AX7s if you notice something amiss with the amp’s initial sound, which suggests that these tubes are probably not a matched quad set. You probably won’t find that with a lot of $1099 tube amps, anyway. It does, however, suggest something exciting—a phono amplifier that may respond favorably to tube-rolling. Hagerman includes Mullard tubes, uninstalled and in boxes, with your Trumpet MC, but maybe you want to compare an NOS set? I have quite a stash of 12AX7s and 12AU7s and tried a few and yes, it’s a rabbit hole. Something tells me hardcore Hagerman fans are also tube-rollers.
Second, there are knobs on the front of the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC that allow you to adjust load and gain. That’s my preferred way to do it, with knobs on the front panel, except maybe the ability to do it via remote would be even cooler—again, not a common feature at $1100. But at least we’re not poking at dip switches on the back or popping the hood and swapping clips. I just had to do that for an expensive phono pre, and it was slightly annoying.
The markings for load and gain, however, are minimalist, just five dots in an arc around the knob. Jim Hagerman’s instructions are simple and direct: “best operation is to run LOADING as high as possible (clockwise) and GAIN as low as possible (counter-clockwise).” I know, it sounds easy, but I had to keep going back and forth between this completely economical and correct statement and what was going on with the front panel. But enough about me.
If you’re setting it and forgetting it with one cartridge (the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC only has one set of RCA inputs anyways), you can just tell yourself that things work best with the dials set to Dot One and Dot Three. But if you’re swapping out MM and MC cartridges, as well as step-up transformers, you might occasionally come up with that awful combo where everything sounds like distortion. I got use to the dot system after a few swaps and a few angry blasts of sound. Be the dot, Danny. Be the dot.
Again, these are not complaints, but concessions made to minimalism—something I usually champion. But I can see novices struggling to hook things up right the first time.
By the way, the five dots on LOAD represent 47, 100, 220, 470, 1K and 47K ohms, and the five dots on GAIN represent 45, 55, 60, 64 and 68 dB. That’s more than enough flexibility to handle all of the cartridges I have in right now: the ZYX Ultimate Airy X, Allnic Audio Amber, Sumiko Amethyst and Celebration 40, Koetsu Urushi Black with and without Koetsu SUT and the Hana Umami Red. All, of course, were mounted onto the Technics SL-1200G turntable using a variety of headshells from Technics, DS Audio, Nasotec and Acoustical Systems.
Listening to the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet
My initial impression of the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC was—and please forgive me for falling back on this high-end trope—it had a very classic tube-like sound. That, of course, is relative to those other five-figure phono stages I have in the house. None of those sound particularly tube-y, even with tubes sticking out all over. Jim Hagerman has a differing opinion, however:
“The Trumpet was not the ‘classic’ type tube circuit (as are the others mentioned), but rather quite advanced for its day, being entirely balanced. I broke a lot of new ground back then. My Cornet series was the classic type, comparable to what Tavish and others are still doing today.”
Okay, we all know sort of what “classic” means when it comes to tubes. On one hand, we’re talking about that classic tube sound that we all crave from a nostalgic standpoint, that warmth, that luscious midrange, that faint sound of palm frond swaying in a fresh evening ocean breeze—which might be the noise floor, of course. On the other hand, most of the killer tube amplification out there today, as I mentioned more than once, is far more linear and far less evocative of another time and place. It might sound more like a solid-state phono stage, albeit one that errs just slightly on the warm side. (Like my reference Pureaudio Vinyl, which runs in pure Class A solid state.)
Yes, the Hagerman Audio Labs did sound a bit soft compared to those more expensive tube phono stages I’ve heard in the last year. It wasn’t so much as a shortage of detail, which I heard consistently, but rather a slight subtraction of particular moments when you can hear those subtle movements of the performers, the way they play off each other, the way their bodies influence each individual note.
Outside of that small yet precise observation on the difference between the Trumpet and something far more expensive, I found that the overall balance of the Hagerman to be truthful and direct and honest with the listener. Low frequencies, in particular, were tight and deep and well-defined, something that doesn’t really fit in with the classic tube sound” moniker. I heard lots of decay and bloom in the deep bass, that feeling of the tide flowing toward you from the floor in front of the speakers and welling up at the last possible moment.
The Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC was also astonishingly quiet for an allegedly stripped-down, old-fashioned tube phono pre. As you might have read, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year concentrating on lowering the noise floor, grounding my components properly, and paying attention to my power management. The Hagerman preserved those deep silences, the proverbial blackness. Back in the old days, maybe back in the years when the first Hagerman appeared, I experienced a couple of all-tube phono pres that actually added noise and distortion to the signal—somehow the increase in midrange purity was worth that sacrifice to one designer or another.
But the Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC was quiet. As far as I know, there’s no new space-age polymer applied to critical junctures to tame resonances, or cryogenically treated wiring harnesses or software algorithms that trick your brain into hearing things that aren’t there. This is an honest, reliable circuit design that has stood the test of time.
The life of a high-end audio review seems really glamorous, all this wonderful and rare and expensive gear to play with, but there’s an idea that lurks in the shadows of my listening room, a simple but somewhat deceptive idea that there’s a gap between what we reviewers recommend, and what we would actually own if we didn’t have this reviewing gig.
Here’s the reality. The Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC is something I’d seriously audition if I was some other vinyl lover, still me, living a pretty normal life audiophile-wise. A simple tube phono preamplifier that gets the basic job done and adds just enough of the tubey goodness that I can say yes, I have tube amps in my system and I like them, and all for just $1099? Sign me up.
The Trumpet MC is something you might have heard about before, a tubed phono stage that is purist in its approach, the perfect foil for an all solid-state system that needs a little swagger and perhaps one more drink to loosen up and have fun.