Cartridges are fun and rather remarkable little things. While we know what they do, and can watch as they trace their way along a record’s groove, we can’t really see the stylus at work as it hugs and maneuvers its way through microscopic vinyl trenches. And perhaps in no other component category—outside of loudspeakers—can one find such a wide array of designs, sonic styles, price points, and values. As it is with speakers, a new cartridge can make a huge, sometimes transformative, difference to our systems.
But with Web sites such as Acoustic Sounds, Elusive Disc, and Music Direct listing hundreds of models from under a hundred bucks to well into the multi-thousands—and few dealers with more than a tiny handful available for audition—actually hearing these miniature wonders is another matter.
What follows does not pretend to be either an exhaustive survey or even a definitive account. Instead, it’s a snapshot of what four well-respected models covering a wide range of prices sounded like in my current system, and my impressions of how each performs, with an attempt to explain what you, the potential consumer, might expect as you step up the ladder.
About that system, which was constant throughout these listening sessions, the basics included my reference analog rig—the TW-Acustic Raven One turntable and Tri-Planar Ultimate VII arm (normally accompanied by a Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge)—the Artemis Labs PL-1 phonostage, and the Cary Audio SLP-05 preamp and 211-FE monoblock amplifiers I reviewed in our last issue. Speakers were Magnepan MG 1.7s, with Tara Labs cables throughout (see Associated Equipment list at end of article for a the complete list).
As anyone who has mounted even one cartridge knows, setting up and aligning something as tiny as a stylus, with essentially zero-margin for error, can be an anxiety-inducing task. Risky, too, because all it takes is one slip-up to turn your expensive new toy into a sickeningly bent-cantilevered wreck of a thing. So take it slow, and make your life easier by assembling the best tools you can afford (or find a good dealer to manage this for you). The tools I employed, and most valuable they proved to be, were the Feickert “universal” protractor, AcousTech’s electronic stylus force gauge, the terrific Musical Surroundings/Fosgate Fozgometer azimuth-adjust meter, and Analogue Productions’ Test LP. Without them, I would have surely gone mad before this process was finished.
Although I listened to a good many LPs during my evaluation sessions, in order to simplify and focus my comments I’ve selected just six tracks from four records to illustrate my points: Frank Sinatra, “Blues In The Night” and “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry” from Only The Lonely [Mobile Fidelity/Capitol]; Wilco’s “Hell is Chrome” from A Ghost Is Born [Nonesuch]; Thelonious Monk’s “Abide With Me” and “Well You Needn’t” from Monk’s Music [Analogue Productions/Riverside 45rpm], and the Third Tableau from the Ernest Ansermet/L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande recording of Stravinsky’s Petrushka [Athena/Decca].
For this round-up I was initially to have received the slightly upscale version of Denon’s venerable DL-103 (the “R” version)—favored by none another than Dave Wilson, regardless of price, for its tonal accuracy and overall balance—but instead, perhaps due to a communication mix-up, I ended up with the straight DL-103. Whichever model you consider, at $379 and $229 respectively, this true classic, which has been in production since I got into this hobby in the mid-70s, must be counted among audio’s most remarkable values.
Indeed, I had a distinct feeling of déjà vu as I unpacked the DL-103, because, as it was with so many audiophiles, the original DL-103D was one of the first moving-coils I ever owned. And during my retail years I must have sold dozens of them. The flashbacks continued as I mounted the 103, because it has been ages since I installed a cartridge whose body wasn’t pre-countersunk to directly accept head-shell mounting screws. As in days of yesteryear, you need to affix small nuts to the mounting screws as they protrude through the cartridge’s underbelly—which is definitely harder now than it was when I had a 25-year-old’s eyesight. But, hey, for $229 retail that’s a minor hassle one can overlook.
I hope to get my hands on an R for a follow-up report, because if, for a mere $150 up-tick, it significantly betters the plain DL-103, it should prove to be an item worthy of special notice.
But first let me be clear, as good as it is and as superb a value, the DL-103 is far from perfect. But please, as I list its strengths and weaknesses, keep that recession-busting price point in mind. Also note that, as with all cartridges, the 103 will improve as its cantilever and coils loosen up and settle in.
You’ll notice the 103’s character from the get-go. As Sinatra’s “Blues In The Night” starts up the Denon was immediate sounding and tonally quite neutral. Sinatra’s voice sounded natural, without any harshness or brightness, as were the trumpet, string section, and cymbal. On “Tears Out To Dry,” Sinatra’s phrasing was articulate, and his emotions moving. Bass lines, however, were just a bit slow and a little cardboard-like in texture, and there was a noticeable grain to the strings that persisted to certain degrees across the spectrum. In addition, the 103 is not the most transparent sounding thing out there, because of a thin veiling that overlays the sound.
Turning to Wilco’s “Hell Is Chrome,” the palette of tone colors lacked the richness one hears with the more exotic contenders, and the DL-103 was also less extended at both frequency extremes, evident with bass lines as well as when Jeff Tweedy rips loose with his electric guitar solo, which was also a touch ragged around the edges. Still, the dynamic range was quite good, and the song’s delivery exciting.
Playing the Monk tunes, the 103 brought an added earthiness to already earthy tracks. The throaty voicing of the horn quartet on “Abide With Me”—Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins on tenors, Gigi Gryce on alto, and Ray Copeland on tenor—sounded uncannily like four vintage instruments; to the point where you could almost see the tarnished brass and road-earned dings. And though the dynamics and bass were a tad subdued as “Well You Needn’t” kicked in, the plink and plonk of Monk’s off-kilter piano were well served, and the naturalness of ’Trane’s tenor seemed to zero-in on the Denon’s sweet middle zone. Interestingly, turning the volume up to almost life-like levels here seemed to open the cartridge up, as if it was waiting for a more challenging workout.
The DL-103’s neutral nature was again on display during Petrushka. Flute, cymbals, pizzicato upper- and growling lower-strings, and bass drum all displayed a natural weight and texture. And though the air around the instruments was not as, er, airy as with pricier models, depth was very good and the performance was again captivating and exciting.
Please make note that I’m in no way trying to damn such a fine product for what it doesn’t—nor should it be expected to—do. Consider, as well, the system context—mine is a far costlier and more revealing one than the 103 is likely to see action in. I’m simply calling it as I heard it.
Is the DL-103 flawed? Sure, what isn’t? But even though its shortcomings are readily heard through higher-resolution systems, it nevertheless impressed this listener by displaying excellent musical strengths at a price anyone interested in a decent analog rig can afford. Which is pretty darn impressive—especially for such an old-geezer of a design.
Ortofon MC Rondo Red
The $550 Rondo Red is the entry-level “Rondo” model in this venerable Danish company’s extensive range of cartridges (37 tiny trackers appear on Ortofon’s Web site). According to Ortofon, the injection-molded body is made in Japan utilizing a new material comprising fifty-five-percent wood pulp in a resin matrix. The shell is then finished in a decorative lacquer, the color of which gives the model its name (other Rondo cartridges are the $800 Blue and $1050 Bronze).
The Rondo Red’s sonic signature is smooth and warm, somewhat restrained, and never flashy. The Sinatra tracks displayed good focus, and decent, if not knock-your-socks-off depth. The overall balance is very pleasant, and sure to please those who find moving-coils to be overly bright sounding. The Rondo Red excels at moments such as the acoustic guitar intro to “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry,” where the rendering of the instrument’s body and strings was impressively realistic. Pace and timing were also very good, as was the feeling of Sinatra and the orchestra interacting with one another. This was certainly aided by the Ortofon’s refined dynamic shading, which brought a nice sense of lilt to the song, as well as the air (bloom) heard around Old Blue Eyes’ voice.
Turning to Monk, the Ortofon displayed a richer range of tone colors than the Denon, but its top-end smoothness came across as soft or rolled-off. That said, Monk’s piano, the horn section, and Art Blakey’s kit came across very well, life-sized, and with a good, if not superior sensation of “looking” into the recording space (which this LP has in spades). When Blakey’s turn to solo came, his drums were dynamic, but lacked ultimate explosiveness.
On Wilco’s “Hell Is Chrome,” the Rondo Red continued to lack upper-frequency extension but once again it excelled in the midrange. And while Jeff Tweedy’s vocal was easy and natural, and the rhythm guitars and piano quite good, the guitar solo was too restrained, leading me to conclude that, if rock is your thing, the Rondo Red probably won’t be.
On the other hand, Petrushka allowed the Rondo Red to display a more than satisfactory bottom-end weight with percussion and lower strings, and upper-end air with cymbal and winds. As this recording’s remarkable three-dimensional soundstage unfolds with the “Ballerina’s Dance,” the Rondo Red was quite good, if not as dramatically stunning as is possible with our final pair in this survey. Yet again, though, it was most gratifying to hear how good a $550 cartridge can sound in much costlier surroundings.
The new $1500 Delos cartridge from Lyra aims—and claims—to solve an issue critical to optimizing a moving-coil’s performance: the proper orientation of the cartridge’s magnetic circuits, signal coils, and core.
As Stirling Trayle of U.S. importer Immedia explained it, “MC cartridge performance is optimal when the angles are all aligned. Any significant difference in those angles will cause the formation of a strong and directional flux that will flow constantly from the magnetic circuit into the signal core. This directional magnetic flux will orient the core toward a specific direction and make it impossible for the core to move with equal ease in all directions, which is necessary for proper cartridge performance. Think of it as a kind of electromagnetic damping that hinders the free movement of the stylus in the groove.”
The problem, according to Lyra and Immedia, with “conventional” moving-coil designs is that optimal alignment occurs only with the cartridge at rest, i.e., not playing. As soon as a record hits the groove, and its tracking force is applied, that delicate balance is thrown off, compromising resolution, tracking ability, and dynamic range.
To solve this issue, Lyra designed the body of the Delos—as well as that of the upcoming Kleos ($2750)—to have an unusually shallow angle, as well as asymmetrically cut dampers on the cartridge’s suspension system. “With the cartridge at rest and no tracking force applied, the shape of the asymmetrical dampers puts the signal coils and core into a more upright angle than the magnetic circuit,” Trayle continued. “When the proper tracking force is applied, however, the force of the stylus pushing on the LP causes the asymmetrical dampers to become symmetrical in shape.”
The resulting uniformity of operation during playback is said to not only improve dynamics, tracking ability, and resolution, but also to remove much of the guesswork, such as proper VTF and VTA, from the set-up process. As Stirling instructed, “If you find you end up using a tracking force below 1.7 or above 1.8, something is wrong. The Delos is dialed-in by the builder, Yoshinori Mishima, to center the coil in the flux field and provide the correct VTA for a level arm at 1.75 grams. For some reason I found 1.77 grams nailed it for this sample.” The way I would know if this was correct with my setup, Trayle told me, was that, when everything was just-so, the record would sound quieter and the music louder.
Minimal tuning, and a bit of deliberate off-tuning, confirmed his prediction. An exceptionally quite background is indeed the most immediately striking aspect of this design. It is also very well balanced and notably coherent across the spectrum, tonally natural, texturally rich, and very quick of response.
Sinatra’s “Blues In The Night” opened with excellent focus, a firmly rooted bass line with well-defined pluck, and a fine sense of the Capitol recording studio’s ambience and the reverb employed. The Delos also has a lovely dynamic ebb and flow, which highlights Sinatra’s unparalleled way with a lyric phrase, especially evident on the lovesick, “Tears Out To Dry.”
“Hell Is Chrome” displayed a fine feeling of instrumental complexity and warmth with the thickly textured electric guitars and keyboards, as well as outstanding pace and timing. Drummer Glenn Kotche’s cymbals and snare were very natural, and I was again struck by the Delos’ silent background, which revealed Tweedy’s vocal articulation, while the harmonic layering of the electric guitar break, with its peeling highs, never turned harsh.
The 19th century hymn “Abide With Me” kicks off Monk’s Music as a brief horns-only intro, and the Delos shows its ability to portray the richness, body, and individual beauty of each instrument. With “Well You Needn’t,” the Delos was very transparent, portraying a life-size soundstage and oodles of air in the recording and also around the instruments. Monk’s piano seems as nimble as a cat leaping a fence, and when Coltrane is awakened from his slumber with shouts of “Coltrane! Coltrane!” his solo unleashed his gorgeous palette of tonal possibilities. Ray Copeland’s trumpet was taut and focused, naturally drier tonally, and his solo shows the Delos’ upper registers to be both bright and sweet (meaning, true to the instrument), while Art Blakey and bassist Wilbur Ware’s break was a model of clarity, precision timing, and musicality. And during Blakey’s solo, the Delos filled the wall of my listening room with such a strong presence of his kit that it rivaled that audiophile warhorse, the Sheffield Drum Record.
Stravinsky’s Petrushka only confirmed what the rest of my listening had told me. The Delos displays a wonderfully lively dynamic response, sounds consistently fast and responsive, with a rich thicket of tones and textures. From bass drum wallops to light cymbal pats, growling bowed strings, and moments of dynamic hush to explosive outbursts, the Delos also conjured an impressive illusion of three-dimensionality.
While I won’t claim to have heard every contender in this price range, it seems to me that Lyra’s design work with the Delos has yielded something quite special: a beautiful performer that sets a new standard in its class.
Benz-Micro SLR Gullwing
The new SLR Gullwing ($3000) from Albert Lukaschek of Benz Micro’s and Musical Surroundings’ Garth Leerer is a stunning-sounding moving-coil cartridge.
Part of this Swiss firm’s new “S Class” of hand-made moving coils—which ranges from the $700 SH L, M, and H (low-, medium-, high-output) to the $5000 LP S—the new series is intended to improve performance and value through upgraded body designs, core materials, and styli. And though, yes, it is the most expensive model of this group, I believe that the SLR (“L” for low-output, “R” for ruby) again illustrates that we are currently witnessing a leap forward for cartridge performance at all price points (there is also an “H,” high-output Gullwing at the same price).
With its “open-air” body, the Gullwing bears a strong visual similarity to Benz’s popular Glider model, but is actually a descendent of the Ruby as well as the new, top-of-the-line LP S. Like that model, the Gullwing (but no other “S Class”) has a frame machined from solid brass, which makes its 12.2-grams weight nearly double that of the 6.8-grams Glider, and more rigid and less prone to vibration. The Gullwing’s generator uses a similar ruby plate and large neodymium magnet to those found in the Ruby and LP S, and incorporates the Benz Dynascan S stylus, which is side-bonded to a solid boron cantilever.
As I said a moment ago, this is one sweet cartridge, as you’ll hear from the moment it touches down into your favorite grooves. One area is transparency. There is simply a lessened sensation of something—meaning layers of electro-mechanical fingerprints—between you and the music than you get from even excellent if somewhat less transparent models. So when Sinatra and company hit the downbeat, it’s as if the music somehow magically materializes out of the air in your room, as opposed to the air generated by all the gear sitting in it. That may be a long-winded of saying that it sounds immediate, more real, and more produced than reproduced, but I want to stress that somehow the air also feels different in the way it is charged—as if suddenly lighter, cleaner, and less thick; Pacific Ocean air as opposed to East Coast summer air. On “Blues In The Night,” you’ll hear this in the way the muted trumpet appears to sound free-floating, more airy, and extended. Or during “Tears Out To Dry,” when Sinatra’s reverberant voice, his subtle volume changes, and inflections suddenly become that much more musically clear—as in the way he rhymes words such as “handsome” and “ransom,” without making it seem obvious or contrived.
On Petrushka, the Gullwing delivered a remarkable facsimile of the orchestra itself, which seemingly occupied a larger, wider, and more three-dimensional soundstage than I’ve previously heard. Once again, the sensation of the room’s ambience, and also of the air surrounding and separating the instruments, the way they were situated, and their physical relationships to one another, was a wondrous thing, as if each player suddenly had more elbowroom to perform in. And this recording’s very wide dynamic swings, and lightning transient bursts made listening to the Gullwing a thrilling musical experience. Focus is likewise first-rate, as, for instance, with the flute and snare drum passage that morphs into a puppet’s woozy dance tune.
Outside of my time making music with an alto sax-playing friend, I’m not sure if I’ve ever experienced the feeling of pressure from horns the way I did with “Abide With Me.” That sensation of air being blown through reverberating brass, with ribbons of creamy tone colors, made the players sound “right there.” And unsurprisingly by this point, “Well You Needn’t” was an effortless romp across an acoustic space that seemed to have boundaries well beyond the walls of my small listening room. Monk’s piano was solid, out-of-tuneful, and focused, the rhythm section driving him on to greater intensity. Ray Copeland’s trumpet was more complex, airier, and extended. Not hi-fi bright but bright in the way trumpets are in life. And the bass and drum break really cooks, with Blakey’s kit delivering the kind of almost-scary physical force drums have when you’re in the same room with them.
Wilco’s “Hell Is Chrome” came across as both super-solid and easy, with airy cymbals, and rich yet crystalline guitars, organ, and piano. Jeff Tweedy’s voice was layered with surprising overtones given his limited vocal range, and his guitar solo, too, erupted with layers of feedback-laced harmonics. And yes, sometimes the little things are what make listening to music over a great system that much more rewarding, as here when after each of Glenn Kotche’s snare taps you hear the air respond with a slight after-bounce. That may sound nerdy, but when combined with each of these examples it adds up to something that helps bring us that much closer to the real deal.
I got so caught up with the Gullwing—and on a tighter than usual deadline—that I nearly forgot something importer Garth Leerer suggested: that the transformer-coupled Artemis phonostage might not be an ideal match with the cartridge’s ruby (no-iron) generator. You mean it might just sound better than what I’ve already heard? If so, and if my editors agree, I will happily submit to test this baby with other phonostages, and will report back.
SPECS & PRICING
Output voltage: 0.3mV
Recommended tracking force: 2.5 grams
Output voltage: 0.6mV
Recommended tracking force: 1.7–1.8 grams
Ortofon MC Rondo Red
Output voltage: 0.5mV
Recommended tracking force: 2.3 grams
Benz-Micro Gullwing SLR
Output voltage: 0.35mV
Recommended tracking force: 1.8–2.0 grams
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TW-Acustic Raven One turntable; Tri-Planar Ultimate VII arm; Transfiguration Phoenix moving-coil cartridge; Artemis Labs PL-1 phonostage; Cary Audio SLP-05 preamp & 211-FE monoblock amplifiers; Magnepan MG 1.7 loudspeakers; Tara Labs Zero interconnects, Omega speaker cables, The One power cords, and BP-10B Power Screen; Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks; Feickert universal protractor; AcousTech electronic stylus force gauge; Musical Surroundings/Fosgate Fozgometer azimuth adjust meter; Analogue Productions Test LP