My last phono-pickup survey (Issue 137) evaluated five cartridges costing $195 to $1500. This time I’ll cover four costing $895 to $3000. I make no apologies for the disparity in pricing. As with speakers, so with cartridges: Once a certain point is reached, price is not necessarily even an approximate indicator of performance. I’m here considering the pickups in pairs because they happen to fall conveniently into Harry Pearson’s continuingly useful yin/yang dichotomy: dark versus light, romantic versus classical, “feminine” versus “masculine.”
All pickups were mounted in Bob Graham’s magnificent new Phantom, maybe the best arm I’ve ever used, which provides for every parameter of adjustment with peerless precision and repeatability. SOTA’s flagship Cosmos is the turntable, its massive tuned-suspension ensuring evaluations uncorrupted by structural-born feedback, its vacuum hold-down rendering warps a non-issue. A Phonomena/BPS phonostage completes the record-playing components. The rest of the reference system includes McIntosh’s C46/MC402 preamp/power amp combination, Quad 2805 and 57 (Wayne Piquet restored) electrostatics, and cabling by Kimber and Siltech. I used a wide variety of familiar LPs, with particular emphasis on classical, traditional jazz, and voice.
All four pickups are low-output, medium-to-low-compliance moving coils (detailed specifications available from manufacturers’ Web sites). All were tracked in the upper-half of the manufacturers’ recommended ranges and appropriately loaded. Running moving coils without adequate loading leaves resonances undamped and frequency-response anomalies unsmoothed. I grant that the so-called extra “air” and “openness” of running unloaded are pleasing artifacts, but artifacts they remain; listen to a mastertape and the charade invariably collapses. Doesn’t loading reduce output? Yes, but surely anyone considering even the least expensive of these pickups already uses electronics with sufficient gain and signal-to-noise ratio to negate that concern.
Ortofon Kontrapunkt C
This is the last and best of Ortofon’s Kontrapunkt series, named after the four letters of Bach’s name. In my previous survey I found the Kontrapunkt B “crystal clear, smooth, elegant,” “naturally detailed, unobtrusively transparent.” (I later gave it a Golden Ear award.) I’d say the same of the C except that it has little of its older brother’s reticence, its personality more forthright, vigorous, and take-charge. First the audience and those storied acoustics, then the drum roll, trumpet, and strings, all where they should be, next the singer, fantastically focused and transparent: I refer to Belafonte at Carnegie Hall [Classic Records]. I needed no more than those few opening seconds to realize that the C images more precisely than any pickup in my experience. In the famous “Matilda” sing-along that ends the show, Belafonte’s off-mike comings and goings are charted with a cartographer’s accuracy. The C exhibits unsurpassed detail, resolution, and clarity. On his recording of Beethoven’s Opus 131 with the Vienna Philharmonic strings [DG]— reproduced beautifully, brilliant yet ripe—Bernstein’s breathing is spookily present, his whispered commands clearly audible. The Sheffield Drum Record reveals stunning grip, control, and articulation with almost tactile realism. If you’ve ever thought percussion instruments lack tone color as such, the C will reveal otherwise. Although its soundstage is both wide and deep, the C is so precise that early stereo recordings are almost too exactly reproduced in all their exaggerated separation (e.g., Kind of Blue). This thing negotiates dynamics at every level like a sports car takes hairpin turns. Properly loaded—no more than 60 ohms, preferably 40— frequency response appears ruler-flat. A very difficult low-end test is Soular Energy [Pure Audiophile], where Ray Brown’s bass too often can emerge bloated, indistinct, merely heavy. The C reproduced it with exact pitch and supreme articulation. Usually pickups this high-resolution tend to trade off bass fullness for definition and detail, yet the C sustains the 32-foot organ pedal point that opens Also Sprach Zarathustra [Mehta/London] solidly and audibly under the orchestral crescendos. The C’s background is almost unbelievably black, music emerging in bas-relief, which may also be a function of how effectively the usual vinyl surface noises are suppressed. By any standards, this is an outstanding cartridge: a scalpel, as analytical as I’ve heard, yet not cold, glassy, thin, or lacking in warmth (though it exhibits absolutely no bogus warmth). Superb tracking.
Dynavector Karat 17D3
This is the third generation of a twenty-year-old design that I have always regarded as one of the best. I wrote five years ago that the 17D2 “has a luscious, gorgeous midrange, superb dynamics, and overall neutrality from the midbass through the highs that translates into...high accuracy and glorious musicality.” This essentially holds except that the 17D2 rolls off a little above 10kHz and below 100Hz, and its bass, while excellent, is sometimes plummy, the combined effect being to make the whole subtly midrange-dominant. This is not true of the 17D3, which sounds ruler-flat top to bottom and which thus makes the midrange less luscious as such. Those who love the 17D2 for its special qualities won’t get an identical sound with the new one. That said, they’ll still get all the life and liveliness of past Karats, the transparency, the superb tracking, the crackling musicality. Only by direct comparison to the Ortofon—which costs almost twice as much—does it yield a little in the way of ultimate control, resolution, and imaging precision. While it doesn’t excavate all the inner detail that the Ortofon does in the last act of the Bernstein Carmen [DG], it throws a sensationally wide and deep soundstage—with very persuasive layering—that transported me to the scene of this red-blooded opera. Like the Ortofon, the 17D3 is very much a Yang cartridge, brilliance and clarity abounding, and it has no peers in the price/performance sweepstakes. But be warned that, also like the Ortofon, it will sound edgy if any part of your system tends that way. The 17D3’s performance is so disproportionate to its relatively low price that it deserves the best associated equipment you can afford.
Micro Benz Ebony L
The L is the embodiment of Yin; less than a minute’s listening was required to identify the familiar Benz broad, shallow presence trough that extends from about 1kHz–10kHz, a BBC “Gundry Dip” stretched wide. Depending on how you hear it, this is allied to or accentuates one of the loveliest midranges I’ve heard: fat, lush, fabulously rich, reminding me of the first time I fell in love with classic tube gear. Is it accurate? No, but it sure is musical and it sure is beautiful. Going immediately to favorite vocal recordings, I soon gave up taking notes, the sound was so warm, luxuriant, and involving. The same goes for acoustical instruments. In the opening of Act II of Carmen, there’s a piquant little dance of woodwinds preceding the Chauson that the Benz presents with melting beauty, rounded and three-dimensional. Typically components this romantic don’t do dynamics all that well, but the Chauson becomes very rhythmic with a huge orchestral eruption that the L renders quite thrillingly, even if the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s brass lack the bite and snarl I know they have in this performance. Although the L doesn’t scale dynamics as well as the Ortofon or Dynavector, it never left me unsatisfied. The low end is quite ample but far from the last word in articulation and pitch; Soular Energy was particularly woolly, especially coming on the heels of the Ortofon. Up top there is some loss of air and ambience, while triangles, cymbals, and other high-lying percussion don’t tickle the ear as scintillatingly as I know they can. Strings, however, are sweet and silken. Soundstaging is wide; depth is excellent, albeit slightly foreshortened but with seamless layering. Apparently incapable of reproducing an unpleasant sound, this is plainly a pickup that casts a Lotus-like spell: You can forget yourself for hours in its seductive embrace. Good tracking.
I put this pickup in the Yin category because, unlike the Ortofon and Dynavector, it has no discernible tendency toward edginess, nor is it conspicuously brilliant or analytical. For sheer listenability with voices and acoustic instruments, there’s barely a tissue’s worth of difference between it and the Ebony L, yet the Clearaudio is wholly without that presence trough, so it is more accurate. It does a splendid job retrieving air and ambience. The bass end doesn’t have quite that last degree of articulation of the Ortofon, but comes so close as not to matter, while having a satisfying warmth and fullness all its own. When it comes to inner details, it lacks the Ortofon’s X-ray vision, yet every detail appears naturally present. The Stradivari’s presentation has more body and roundedness; the Ortofon’s is more etched and defined. Or think perspective: The Ortofon puts you front-row; the Clearaudio places you a bit further back, say, G or F. Clearaudio makes some pretty big claims for dynamic range— 90dB—which I have no way of verifying; but M&K’s For Duke is projected with hair-raising size, impact, and tactile immediacy. The Stradivari surpasses the Kontrapunkt for sheer scale in all dimensions: The finale of Carmen is overwhelming in its drive, force, and power, climaxes opening out as with no other in the survey (almost none in my experience). I noticed only one tonal anomaly, a slight extroversion, let’s say, in the range where cymbals, triangles, and other high-lying percussion generate a lot of their energy. But it doesn’t seem adversely to affect reproduction of strings, which are beautifully natural, brilliant or warm as called for; nor does it otherwise tilt the tonal balance. There is an overall rightness, an organic coherence, about this pickup that is difficult to define but instantly evident in the listening. Superb tracking and suppression of surface noise.
Ruthlessly accurate and analytical, Ortofon’s Kontrapunkt C is unsurpassed for control, speed, and detail, with Dynavector’s 17D3 close at just more than half the price. Benz’s Ebony L is irresistibly warm and romantic, albeit at some sacrifice in neutrality. That leaves Clearaudio’s Stradivari, which I crown with the “Golden Mean” award, because it ideally mediates warmth and detail, control and relaxation, liveliness and listenability, at virtually no sacrifice to tonal neutrality. TAS