19th April 2024

Yes, this box looks like a hip flask but don’t pour your Jack Daniels on this one or it will make a mess of the floor as Paul Rigby checks out this wee Step-Up Transformer

The AFE-12 is a dinky little gizmo step-up transformer, which sounds a little like a school electronics project doesn’t it but no, it serves a purpose. It serves your moving magnet phono amplifier and it serves vinyl in your HiFi system.

So what exactly is this thing, what does it do and why do you need it in your life?


…and ‘short’ is where I’m staying in this particular review because if I explain all the background tech then this review will span thousands of words – a step-up transformer plugs into a moving magnet phono amplifier to allow you to hook a moving coil cartridge to your turntable. 

You need this little box because the output from a moving coil cartridge can be very low indeed and a moving magnet phono amplifier on its own will not be able to handle the job. So the Step-Up unit works on the tiny, tiny moving coil signal, then the moving magnet bit takes over from there and then that final signal is passed onto your amplifier. 

What I’m looking at here is a simple little box from Aurorasound called the AFE-12. 


Neat, dinky and stylish, this is a passive box, an aluminium box actually whose cavities, and there are a few inside the outer shell, are intriguingly filled with cotton to reduce vibration. Interesting, eh? 

As I say, this is a passive box, there is no electrical current running through this one which bodes well for low noise operation. It features transformers from the Swedish outfit, Lundahl. There’s also not much to it. Besides the inputs and outputs there is a single toggle switch that allows you to change the input impedance to match different cartridges. There are three levels: low (0.7–10 Ohms), medium (11–30 Ohms) and high (31–100 Ohms).


Spanning a meagre 70 x 95 x 30mm and weighing just under 250g, the idea is that you hook your turntable to the AFE-12’s inputs then you run a cable from the outputs of the AFE-12 to your moving magnet phono amplifier. 

As this is an Aurorasound product and as I’ve recently reviewed the Aurorsaound HFSA-01 integrated amplifier and as that unit sports an internal moving magnet phono amplifier and that kind of set up is probably the biggest sonic test a step-up transformer can have, then I decided to hook up the AFE-12 to that. More than that, however, because the HFSA-01’s phono amplifier is an internal model, it will be harder to get a decent sound output from the AFE-012 because inside any amplifier box well, it’s hell in there, vibrations, microphony…all of that and more doesn’t help. 

So this test set up will be a challenge. 


Even so, the question that springs to my mind is this. Should you? That is, should you bother? Is it wise to connect a moving magnet phono amplifier that’s stuffed inside an integrated amp with this external step-up transformer or would it be better to just add an external phono amplifier to probably lower noise still further? That’s always been my philosophy, after all to seperate and isolate components. That is, should you just grab an external phono amplifier and be done with it?


That’s the big question, I feel. So to test that, I dragged in a similarly priced, external Trichord Dino phono amplifier, which I highly recommend incidentally, that also supports moving coil cartridges, to compare.

Thing is, there’s a confusing amount of caveats here, swings and roundabouts you might say, between the two tech types.

Where do I even start? Stick with me on this and we’ll go through them.


Firstly, comparing the AFE-12 with the Trichord is slightly off because the AFE-12 is an isolated and specialist and relatively expensive moving coil section all on its own. The Trichord contains both a moving coil and a moving magnet unit – so the build budget is spread over two modules. 

So the specialist AFE-12 should offer a better spec and possibly performance.


Next? The moving coil section of the Trichord sits alongside the moving magnet section in the same Trichord chassis. That can be a little noisy. On the other hand, the AFE-12 sits alone, isolated. On its own. With a low noise floor.

On the other, other hand, all of the Trichord phono amplifier is external from the integrated amplifier. The moving magnet bit of my Aurorasound set up here is stuck inside the large integrated’s chassis where all the horrible vibration and microphony and migrating electrical noise lives. The AFE-12 is being plugged, connected to all of that. 

Thus, the Trichord, being external and being away from all that sonic horror, should enjoy a lower noise floor on that score. 

You can see, there’s a big list of pros and cons all over the place. 

Of that lot, which of those pros and cons will have the largest say, which product will win out? Let’s see. 

Oh and before we do that? Plugging the Trichord Dino into the rear of the HFSA-01 I noticed one immediate downside of using a wholly external phono amplifier to this integrated amp and it’s this, you are taking up one of only three available input pairs on the rear of the HFSA-01. Which won’t be an issue for many but it may very well be for others so that’s an issue right there, to bear in mind. 

Underneath the chassis

With the Step-Up transformer, of course, you are connecting that box to the internal moving magnet phono amplifier. So all three integrated amplifier input pairs remain free to use. So in connectivity terms, the AFE-12 is more efficient and user friendly. 


In terms of sound sources, I began with Julie London and a wonderfully smoky ballad version of Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey from the 1966 album, For the Night People. This track is a nothing more than a laid-back vocal and an acoustic guitar. 

Speaking of noise, one reason I chose this track on this LP for testing is because this particular recording is relatively noisy. There is some inherent hiss present on the master while extra noise at higher volumes seems to layer on at the slightest opportunity. It’s as if the recording levels where either set a little too high in the studio or were adjusted too high after the recording. Hence, there’s a wobbly sensitivity here which is ideal to test phono amplifiers. 


So how did this step-up transformer sound? In conjunction with the HFSA-01’s moving magnet phono amplifier, it sounded seriously impressive, that’s how it sounded. I was taken a-back to be honest because that noise floor dropped. And dropped a lot. So there was a new sense of clarity here that allowed shy details to come through. Little frailties in the vocal delivery for example that just added to the emotion of the piece. 

Another element that hit me was bass. That’s right, on a vocal and acoustic guitar piece, bass impressed me. It was the low-frequency strings on that guitar actually. There was suddenly a bass twang appearing from nowhere. A bass infusion that added a slight swing to this smoky-voiced ballad that only added to the overall appeal.

The upper frequency strings were also now precise and exact which gave the ballad an extra soulful groove.

Allied to that precision, the vocal also enjoyed a new focus, which added extra pace to the delivery but also improved our Julie’s diction. Words started and ended with purpose now. 


In short, with the Step-Up transformer in place the music was, well, transformed!


I moved – rather awkwardly – from Julie London to punk. Which I don’t recommend but hey, this can be a dirty job. I played the title track from the high energy LP The Revolution Starts at Closing Time from the group, Serious Drinking. Why? I wanted to push this Step Up out of its comfort zone to see how it coped.

Again, I was impressed, corralling the diverse frequency mess from this LP was a tough ask but the AFE-12 did this with some ease I have to say, even revealing space between instruments and vocals. I don’t use the word punk music and clarity the same sentence very often, at least in HiFi reviews, but I’m happy to do that here. Individual instruments could be identified and followed with some ease while the shouting chorus really did sound like a group of individual voices instead of a muddy mess. 


When I started this review I really wasn’t expecting much. Hooking the AFE-12 up to an internally fitted moving magnet phono amp? Even though the one inside the HFSA-01 is pretty darned good? Well, I didn’t think it would perform that well, in moving coil terms. 


But I have to say, I was seriously impressed with the AFE-12. In fact, I much preferred it to the Trichord Dino, a wholly external phono amplifier. 

From what I hear though, of the two technologies per se, the moving coil bit of a phono amp is much noisier than the moving magnet bit so isolating that moving coil section? Maybe that’s the priority of the exercise as a whole. Maybe that’s the true target here. It’s certainly seems that way, listening to the AFE-12. 

Bottom line? I loved the AFE-12, especially for the price. It’s a stunning performer. 


Price: £779.95

Contact: [email protected] or buy via phone on 07551 955775

GOOD: small footprint, build, simple to use, general sound quality 

BAD: nothing


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Origin Live Sovereign turntable

Origin Live Enterprise 12″ arm

Icon PS3 phono amplifier

Audiolab 6000CDT CD Transport

Benchmark DAC2 HGC

Aesthetix Calypso pre-amp

Icon Audio MB845 Mk.II Monoblock Amplifiers

Tellurium Q Statement cables

Blue Horizon Professional Rack System

Harmonic Resolution Systems Noise Reduction Components

CAD GC1 Ground Controls

Air Audio AC-2K Balanced Transformer

All vinyl was cleaned via a Degritter Mk.II