A review by Jon Eben Field
A sonnet is a beautiful and strict poetic structure (14 lines long) developed in Italy in the 13th century. The form moved through Europe and arrived in England where Petrarch and Shakespeare famously advanced and perfected the form. The word sonnet is derived from the Italian word for song. In this sense, the UK-based company Sonneteer has positioned itself as a company that creates beautiful music via its equipment. I will always remember the period during which the Sedley sat on my audio shelf and transformed the grooves on my records into such exquisite soundwaves. Perhaps like Shakespeare in Sonnet 122, I would say, “Thy gift, thy tables are within my brain / Fully charactered with lasting memory, / Which shall above that idle rank remain / Beyond all date, even to eternity.”
The Sedley is available in a sleek black (like I had) or silver chassis that bears its name on the front in a nice label. When the Sedley is turned on, there is a bright blue light that glows on the front of the chassis. On the rear, there are two RCA inputs and outputs, a phono ground, a USB slot, and a set of dipswitches to control resistive load, capacitance load, RIAA or IEC warp filter, and MM or MC gain. I will talk more about the dipswitches later. The Sedley is quite heavy for a phono stage and is relatively large (i.e., it took up a whole rack on my audio shelf). In other words, it is not a phono stage that you can slot in next to another device. The USB slot on the back of the Sedley is to allow users to make digital recordings of their vinyl (the Sedley comes with a CD containing a variety of digital recording software to help facilitate this process).
Now, on to the dipswitches. Having these switches located on the back of the device meant that every time I wanted to make an adjustment, I had to unhook my interconnects, pull the unit out of the rack, make the adjustment, and then hook things up again. Not a big concern for consumers, but as a reviewer who did this more than a couple times trying to discover the best loading for multiple cartridges resulted in a bit of frustration. That said, although the mirrored dipswitches (i.e., the left side must mirror the right) were initially confusing to me, once I wrapped my head around things and got the unit set up properly, I was deeply impressed. I used both Zu Denon 103 and Shelter 501 mk ii cartridges for this review. I tried both cartridges using the MC gain, RIAA, and various capacitance and resistive loading settings. I also used the cartridges using the MM gain and my Altec 4722 step-up transformer. I slightly preferred the sound of my step-up with the MM settings. This might come down to personal preference, but I think it has to do with the symbiotic relationship between the Altec SUT and the Zu Denon 103 cartridge signature, especially.
The Sedley has an immediate musicality that rendered recordings remarkably present in my room. One thing I noticed right away was a clear delineation of the decay on cymbals. As I settled into listening, I also noticed the effortlessness that the Sedley brought to musical reproduction. There was a simple clarity in what was coming from my speakers that was worth paying attention to, but I was also simply forgetting myself and enjoying the music more and more.
I listened to a lot of music through the Sedley and I can say that it is one of the better phono stages I have heard. Listening to music and attempting to review equipment is a comparative effort where we try, more or less, to create a framework within which to understand and articulate how and why we hear what we do sitting in our rooms. The comparisons are always based on what we have heard in the past (other set-ups, other listening sessions), so the focus on present listening is always coloured by a veneer of the past. What I loved about the Sedley is how its creation of a vibrant soundstage, articulated sense of instrumentation, and attentiveness to the vocal midrange allowed me to just groove to the music; when something like this happens, reviewing really becomes fun. From treble through midrange to bass, the Sedley simply maintains the flexibility to assist your system in synergistically retrieving an enormous amount of detail from your records.
On Dire Straits Communique, I was fully immersed in this recording that was mixed at Muscle Shoals Sound and bears the sonic depth of that process. The drum shots that begin this album were clear and resonant in my room. What I truly loved throughout listening to the Sedley was how Mark Knopfler’s guitar stood front and centre and effortlessly glided across the soundstage. By the time I reached the last track on the album, the moody Follow Me Home, I was entranced by the slow burn of the fade-in that seems to haunt as the sound of waves washing on the shore is gradually filled by subtle drums and rhythm guitar. With the Sedley on playback duty, I felt like I could dip my toes in the water. When the track slowly, but steadily faded out, I felt like I could drift on and on with the Sedley singing quietly into the night.
On the truly wonderful Soul Brothers, that has Ray Charles and Milt Jackson teaming up for some blues and soul influenced jazz styling, the Sedley brought the quintet into incredibly detailed focus. I was especially amazed at the sound of Jackson’s vibraphone presence in the recordings. But I focused on “How Long Blues” because I heard something that I had missed on previous listening sessions with the album. After the introduction of the song’s theme by Charles and Jackson, Skeeter Best plays a short solo on guitar. When I listened with the Sedley, I heard that Best actually starts his solo with his guitar gain turned down far too low, then he replays the first four notes again after adjusting the gain. It is the type of small detail that makes the session feel alive and real in playback. I don’t know if it was that I have never paid close enough attention before to hear the small mistake or simply that the Sedley was able to clearly point out the details that require hearing, but I was transfixed by this device’s ability to playback music.
Finally, on Junior Wells’ famously good Hoodoo Man Blues, I spent much of my time marveling at how the Sedley was able to accurately render the tone and guttural flavor of Wells’ harmonica playing. I was also amazed at how Buddy Guy’s guitar perched on the right side of the soundstage, clearly plucking out the plaintive songs of the blues. I was most deeply impressed on the moody “In the Wee Wee Hours” with how the Sedley was able to take the track and render its atmosphere so spookily beautiful. Wells’ harmonica is a tour de force of breath, while his singing is a subtle use of dynamic range that has few parallels and the Sedley was there for every breath, every blow, every note.
If you are interested in using the USB function on the Sedley, it is a relatively easy endeavor. I used a MacBook Pro and the supplied software from Audacity, but there were several other programs on the CD for use with PCs. For the most part, the process of recording from USB is plug and play, although I did have to manually select the USB port as the audio input on my Mac through system preferences. Otherwise, it was an easy and effortless process. On playback, the Sedley’s recording sounded very good to me, but I didn’t expend the energy to do a comparative analysis of two different vinyl rips (i.e., using different phono stages).
So I can’t keep the Sedley forever, even though I would like to, so I will add another few lines from Shakespeare’s sonnet to sing the Sedley’s praise. The Sedley’s music will be with me, if not eternally (who can keep a piece of equipment forever): “Or at the least so long as brain and heart / Have faculty by nature to subsist, / Till each to razed oblivion yield his part / Of thee, thy record never can be missed.” The Sedley is a great phono stage that added musicality and depth to my system that will be missed now that it has departed, but its sound will stay with me echoing for a long, long time. With vast functionality and adjustability for loading for different cartridges (both MM and MC), the Sedley is a versatile unit that is well worth its asking price. If I had more discretionary funds at the time of this review, it would not have left my abode. Let it be said of the Sedley, “thy record never can be missed.”
Sonneteer Sedley MSRP (no USB): $1249
Sonneteer Sedley MSRP (USB): $1349
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