HP's Workshop: The Third Generation of Moving Coils -- Part 1 (TAS 206)

Equipment report
HP's Workshop: The Third Generation of Moving Coils -- Part 1 (TAS 206)

I: Eight Moving-Coil Cartridges

It has been many, many a moon since this writer has taken an in-depth look at the ever-expanding field of moving-coil cartridges, now in their third generation, and in the sunset days (so it is said) of the long-playing vinyl-based record. 

The first-generation examples of stereo moving coils were hamstrung by many things. It’s no wonder those antique artifacts are not even collectibles today. The stereo LP itself had much less output than the mono disc it replaced, as well as a much more complex groove geometry. Not only did the cartridges themselves have lower output levels, but the redesign entailed the creating of serious, often severe (and always audible) high-frequency peaks. Making things worse were those early phonostages that, in trying to amplify such low-level information, flirted with disastrously high levels of hiss and hum.

By the time of the second generation, many of the problems with the cutting of stereo LPs had been either greatly reduced or nearly solved, allowing higher output levels, better stereo separation, and greater frequency and dynamic response at both ends of the audio spectrum.

This was the era of better phonostages and, as designers of cartridges became comfortable with stereosonics, colorful-sounding moving coils, beginning with the breakthrough early Koetsus (the Black I still remember for its romantic sound, a tradition that continues today). Even the cantilevers holding the styli become colorful, as it were—I was particularly taken with the sound of one made of ruby. All the sonic flavors of the rainbow, with not one of the designs sounding like another, and all falling degrees short of the real thing—that absolute we call music.

With the third and new generation, the inner workings, the guts, of the designs themselves have gotten more and more abstruse and even exotic, and the prices accordingly have risen to new heights, with a $10,000 Clearaudio (the Goldfinger, featuring lots of gold and a diamond, to boot) being at the top of the scale in this survey. The least expensive here is the Japanese-made Shilabe at $2800, its body made of wood (and to think that I've been calling this one a bargain).1

1 Some may dimly recall memories of the good ole days when Joe Grado broke the sound barrier with his first Signature at $300—and thereafter moved upward ever closer to the ozone layer at $1000—for a high-output moving-iron design. In another survey, yet to come, I shall be taking a close look at today’s high-output models, which I've heard sometimes now equal, maybe even surpass, the fabled strengths of moving coils. Not one is an American design.

What has intrigued me during extended listening sessions over the past nine months is that there is not one “loser” in the assemblage I evaluated. Every cartridge retrieves the essential information—if not all the nuances—on the discs I used as references. So it is those inherent nuances that differentiate the moving coils from each other, and make for fascinating, if difficult to quantify, contrasts.

Every cartridge in this survey does justice to the music itself, an astonishment when you consider how far we’ve come since the first-generation designs.

However, it is within these “nuances” that each high-ender can find his own form of musical truth, that is to say, his preferred form, his preferred “sound” —think of this as if comparing, say, the Leica vs. the Nikon camera. Both get the essentials right, but how does each “see” things?

To me, with an exception or two among the group, these cartridges may be divided into the romantic, vivid, and “living presence” category or into the accuracy über alles category. By “accuracy” I do not intend to suggest the sort of “high-definition” hi-fi sound so prevalent among the more expensive speaker and electronic designs in today’s industry. “Accuracy” in this comparison means the retrieval of harmonic information—the ability to tonally differentiate vocal textures; the shading of small-scale dynamics; and, most importantly of all, the ability to recreate a realistically dimensional soundstage, instead of a compressed one. Unlike the moving coils of the last generation, each and every one of these is refreshingly free from the ubiquitous tonal coloration we call “character,” which puts them all in the same league of honesty and truth when it comes to reproducing music. No “goldens” nor “darks” nor “whites” nor “tans” in this group.

The cartridges are:

Clearaudio Goldfinger v2, which I have been using as a reference and as a standard of performance against which to assess the strengths and/or failings of the other seven—and to see if it has been knocked from its HP-state-of-the-art position. [$10,000]

Dynavector XV-1T, whose sibling, the 1S, I used as a standard before the arrival of the Goldfinger. [$9000]

My Sonic Labs, which, in an unnamed earlier version, captivated the H of P. This version, the Eminent EX is second in the line to the Ultra, which we haven’t heard (or did we?—that early sample had to be returned to the then importer, because, he said, of the specific unit’s rarity and expense. This unit, an Eminent EX, is being imported by A.J. Conti of Basis Audio, who, we learned at press time is now also importing and Ultra Eminent, which is, of course, more expensive. [Price: $6900]

ZYX Omega, another high-high tech design of Japanese origin. It most startling characteristic is a degree of purity unheard of in a moving-coil design. [$6600].

Kubotech Haniwa—also from Japan and designed by a man (Dr. Kubo) whose passion for analog LPs and for stereo recordings made with two-mikes, is exceeded only by his adoration of the human voice, preferably operatic diva. Unlike his competition, Kubo also designs horn speakers, linestages, and mono tube amps. [$5000]

Ortofon A-90. Like the Benz (see below) and Clearaudio, the product of a European company whose moving-coil designs stretch back to the earliest days of the stereo LP. It managed to survive the early problems afflicting moving coils—problems ranging from nasty high-frequency peaks to troublesomely low outputs. [$4200]

Miyajima Shilabe. After seven years of work, the designer (Noriyuki Miyajima) of this cartridge is seeking a patent on what he calls the “cross-ring” method. Bear with me, and in a moment, I'll try to give you the jist of his idea. But bear in mind that I, like many another, am somewhat at sea when it comes to grasping the configurations of magnets, suspensions, fulcrums, cross-damping, and on and on (all of which are at the heart of what the third-generation designers are after). [$2800]

Benz LP S-MR. Benz has been in the art of cartridge design for as long as this magazine has been in the high-end business. This, its latest assault on the state of the art, represents a sonic break with its past (from the things that didn’t quite jell) and a refinement of its very best work. The results took me by surprise. [$5000]

II: The Cartridges

The ZYX Omega

The first thing, and I mean first in the sense of immediate, you’ll notice about this cartridge is how very different it sounds from all the other cartridges on the market (and in this survey). It has to be carefully installed in the pickup arm (and that means it has to be just so). Then you’ll hear how precisely rendered are any of the sounds it decodes; this it does with a purity and low distortion that elude everyone else’s designs, and that means virtually all of the competition.

In a way, it eludes even the cartridge I’d rather live with over the long run, particularly in “purity.” It has the widest soundstage of all the cartridges we evaluated, and, thus, the very best separation figures (and even makes sonic “sense” of that wide separation). And because of its crazy-glue-like way of sticking to a groove, it has the lowest audible distortion, thus the purity and the sense of sparkle aplenty. In fact, it is so smooth that you find yourself wanting to play it louder. And that you will. [Though we didn’t include Dusty’s rendition of “The Look of Love” in the last run of tests, we did listen to hear what happened and maybe to appreciate just how delicate some of her vocal shadings are (call out the goosebumps), so beautifully rendered was her voice here.]

So what are we missing? For one thing, an extended sense of front-to-back depth on the soundstage—stretching the sound wide has foreshortened three-dimensional space. The perspective is up close, thus the sense of aliveness. Needless to say, the depth—the placement of instruments on its reproduced stage—is quite specific and focused. Reproduction of the Weaver’s voices is well nigh impeccable, as is the transient pop of their acoustic instruments, sometimes subdued by some of the other cartridges.

And things sure do sound alive with the ZYX. So what is it about this high-tech design that I just can’t wrap my ears around (even as I well know it will be the cartridge of choice for the high-resolution folks)? Could it behind there is a soullessness behind all this “perfection”? Is there such a thing as “purer than life” (in art that is, certainly not politics)?

The Ortofon A90

I shall neither linger long nor tarry here. The A90 has its ardent fans, including our pickup arm’s designer, Bob Graham. I can see what he likes about it, given the “sound” of his somewhat sterile-sounding pre-Phantom arms: It is flat in response, and, as one audio maven said, perhaps in warning, perhaps in praise: “It’s very literal.”

And it is also very bland, and not a little dull especially toward the upper octave, and especially when it comes to reproducing loud harmonic complexities. It may be literal, but it isn’t consistent in the top octaves—the off-stage trumpet that opens the Kije suite is muted, while the piccolo, conversely, sounds pitched too high.

Yes, there is nice depth there, particularly on a real stage (Orchestra Hall in Chicago) and while the sound is quite clear, its lacks the quality of translucency that lets you hear into the music more deeply. Oh yes, it is also excellent on voices, as the Weaver disc well illustrates, but only okay on the acoustic instruments playing along. Oh yes, it is better off reproducing close-up sounds, though it does not distort soundstage depth.

Me? I couldn’t wait to move along to the next cartridge in any of our sessions with the Ortofon. It was, I almost forgot to mention, the poorest tracking cartridge in the survey—it simply cannot handle massed brass and other instruments play at top volume (vide, the horns and trumpets on the Kije.) Even the less-expensive Ortofon Windfeld tracks better, wish I had kept one on hand for this survey.

The Kubotech Haniwa

To me, the Haniwa seems to be a work of art in progress. It doesn’t do anything wrong, and, in several respects, it ranks among the best, leaving me wishing for a Super Haniwa that realized the design’s full potential. Its author Dr. Tetsuo Kubo passionately loves the sound of the human voice, particularly those of the divas, so that opera ranks among his favorite forms of musical expression. He is also something of a romantic, and that way leans his taste in classical music. Those who know this that can rightly expect to hear the voices of David Crosby and, more particularly, that of Ronnie Gilbert near optimally. (Gilbert, the big-voiced gal who is a key player among the Weavers, is now in her 80s, lives in New York City, and is still a highly committed liberal. Advocate of some lost causes.)

What interests me about the cartridge and Dr. Tetsuo Kubo’s thoughts on audio is his convention that the greatest realism is to be found in the quieter passages of music (particularly works for the voice) and at tracking forces so light as to make a cartridge seem as if it were floating on air (He wanted a VTF of .8 grams here. From me, he got 1.4, otherwise the high-frequency distortion on the big moments did me in.) At 1.8 though, the Haniwa is impressive. It captures a wide sonic stage, but at the price of the higher frequencies (the brass and piccolo on the Reiner Kije sound either a bit thin or a bit anemic), not so farther down the spectrum into the range of the human voice and below (perhaps things would have sounded different had we used the tubed phonostage of his design, but for the test, we chose the one we thought best and stuck with it). As odd as this may sound, on the vast majority of the material we heard (and more than the three select records, where in the vocalizing was rendered magically), the Haniwa struck us as almost being among the best, meaning: While I was listening to it on musical material, I found moments of almost exquisite pleasure, and just wished there were more.

The My Sonic Labs Eminent

If Mercury Records had designed a cartridge that captured the Living Presence sound, it would have been the My Sonic Labs. From the moment the needle hits the groove, things sound “alive!” Not only does this playback device have more zap and dynamics, it also has a more liquid sound, and is so genuinely seductive you might well buy it on first listen.

And it will let you hear some things you haven’t heard before. For instance, if you have the original cover of The Weavers at Carnegie Hall you’ll see Ronnie Gilbert and Pete Seeger situated at the center stage mike. Hadn’t paid any attention to the photo until I heard the Eminent, which makes it clear (somehow) that both are sharing that mike, an effect I hadn’t heard on any other unit in this test. Back to Chicago for a sec—not only is the timbral definition of the orchestral choirs rendered with greater harmonic complexity, but also that symphonic bass drum cuts through the fortes, a wowser (!) of a sound.

Listen on a bit and you’ll begin to notice things, such as the woodwinds sounding more forward here than elsewhere (an accent mike?), but then you’ll note there is less front-to-back depth than there should be, even on Chicago’s concavely shaped stage. And the solo sax sounds further downstage (toward the audience) than it should. And in Carnegie, we hear the dynamic shadings of Ronnie’s voice and get a rather exact idea of her un-sylph-like chest size—a big voice capable of the big moments, but a perfect, so perfect and gradated, one, capable of great delicacy. It is the kind of delicacy that can be heard when she is singing backup in the “big” moments, it doesn’t get lost in a larger ensemble.

I had hoped to make an earlier version of the My Sonic Labs a reference standard, so struck was I by its immediacy, presence, and the kind of ineffable “thereness” that music has. The Eminent EX sounds less like the unit I had on a very short-term loan. I wonder if the forthcoming Ultra version of the cartridge might not, in fact, be the one I heard then, or maybe even the ultimate moving coil.

The Miyajima Shilabe

You have to be quite careful with this cartridge. Perhaps it is the price you pay for a bargain or perhaps it’s the patented technology—the “cross-ring” method makes it perilously fussy when it comes to setup and installation. I say this because our results, in four separate listening sessions, were anything but consistent.

And so, assuming the best results are not impossible to achieve, the Noriyuki Miyajima”s Shilabe reveals itself as an unusually accurate depicter of orchestral images and their placement and focus, particularly those toward the back of the soundfield playing softly. There is, however, a kind of compression of dynamics, particularly evident on the brass, and in the Lt. Kjie on the celesta. And there is a slight bump in the midbass—say 60 to 80Hz or so. Its output, even for these cartridges, is unusually low (.23mV), not unusual for unconventional and out-of-the mainstream designers seeking nuance and greater realism. But the price you pay is a slightly recessed midrange. This is not one of the cartridges that emphasizes the foreground and a front-row perspective. The foreshortening of depth in this case is downstage, with the depth getting greater as the sounds get softer and farther from the microphones. And in its range, it does many things right, from vocal harmonies (the Weavers) to string sound. However, I find, among the notes I wrote to myself, “I wish I could get excited about it.”2

2 Oh yes, I promised to take a swing at the Miyajima’s cross-ring theory. This is what he says about it: “It merges the center point of the coil of the right and left by letting the coils of right and left cross. The ability to regenerate [the sound of?) the LP [was] improved drastically by making the center point of the fulcrum.” Get it? I did not, and there were no further comments from the designer.

You can read Part Two of Harry Pearson's review here.