HP's Workshop: The Third Generation of Moving Coils -- Part 2 (TAS 206)

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HP's Workshop: The Third Generation of Moving Coils -- Part 2 (TAS 206)

II: The Cartridges (continued from Part 1)

The Dynavector XV-1T

The Dynavector is, sonically, like a kissing cousin to the My Sonic Labs Eminent. It has the same admixture of sonic strengths and minor shortcomings. (It was, in its earlier version, the XV-1S, used a reference here in Sea Cliff.) And if I had to choose between the two cartridges, I’m not sure which way I’d go. Of course, in an ideal reviewer’s world... And I have not yet heard the Ultra Sonic Labs, which might well tip the scales. As it stands: Both share some not-unlike strengths and both border on the superb.

The first disc we started with were the cuts from the Lt. Kije suite, which begins with an offstage trumpet (representing Kije himself, who is an imaginary soldier (hence the off-stage trumpet). The fictional Kije came about as a result of the Czar’s inspection of the troops, while reading off their names, he sneezed (thus the sound, “kije,” the Russian version of “kerchoo”). Since the Czar’s word, in those days, was thought infallible, something had to be done. And so, the company’s commanding officer breathed (I know, I know) life into an imaginary Lt. Kije, who eventually had to be killed off so the fraud wouldn’t be discovered. Prokofiev’s score was written as background to the long-since forgotten Russian film (which evidently almost no one has ever seen, though the music has enjoyed a long and not entirely imaginative life).

With the Dynavector, and it alone, you can hear the trumpet in a way suggestive of Kije’s unearthly origins—other cartridges usually make the offstage trumpet just sound farther away. The trumpet’s sounding is followed by a snare drum (close to the orchestra’s plaster rear wall, an effect audible here), the drummer’s corps, soon joined by a piccolo (the fife player), and a spread of brass instruments (the troops) against the hall’s rear wall, each of the brass players clearly individualized. (These sounds are usually jammed together. I kept the early Kije off the super disc lists because of what sounded like overload distortion on the tape, which was not the case with the Classic reissue at 45 and a good cartridge.)

In the movie, and in an early recording (by Stokowski), the second movement, Kjie’s courtship, begins with a Russian basso singing a lugubrious song. (This is the love music? Well, it is beautiful melancholia.) In all concert versions, the basso is replaced by a doublebass “singing” solo, and playing off against some of the other solo instruments of the orchestra (the troops), particularly the celesta, the girl. Getting that doublebass, way down the spectrum, to sound like a soloist, complete with the rich harmonic complexities of which that instrument is capable, eluded most of the other cartridges in the test. Some cartridges and systems will wrongly emphasize the midbass of the doublebass and thus rob it of is complexity, and its uniquely basso profundo style. And thus rob the solo of its intended soulfulness, not to mention its intimation of Russian vespers.

In David Crosby’s Laughing we find the Dynavector providing a sense of the snap and pop of the guitars’ transients usually missing from more neutral-sounding units. It also provides a better sense of the ambient depth recorded in this studio session. As many times, for example, as I had heard this cut, I hadn’t till the 1T, heard the soft-spoken high-hat sounds on the right channel, but there they were and without any hyped-up emphasis, nope, just there. Particularly fascinating to hear were Crosby’s high notes so beautifully rendered—the 1T does particularly well by the upper octaves, as for example, when the ladies (including Joni Mitchell) join the male (rock) singers accompanying Crosby. It is at this point there is a wonderful expansion of the dynamic shadings the ladies bring to the music.

And with the Weavers, you can particularly see the singers in a line across the Carnegie stage, with the audience semi-circularly arrayed behind and to the outside of the stage. You can hear actually the curve of the auditorium itself. But this is just a foretaste of how the Goldfinger recreates the Carnegie sound.

The Clearaudio Goldfinger v.2

It is immediately apparent that the Goldfinger stands alone. It is, like the turntable for which it was designed, a statement. It has all the strengths of the best moving coils in this survey and none of the shortcomings. It is both alive and, with the right gear, capable of reproducing a facsimile of the sounds on the best recordings, and something near the truth underlying the classic LPs.

In The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, you can hear not only the shape of the stage (via the three mikes)—a rectangle—but the aforementioned U-shaped curve of the hall itself. But here, the ambient patterns of the hall itself stand out in a way more dramatically (than they do with, say, the Dynavector), all the way from the dress circle up to the top balcony (the least expensive seats).3 When the audience applauds, you can hear the time delay as people in different sections of the halls, including the tiers, respond to whatever is happening on stage. More remarkable, and the closest thing to multichannel sound I’ve heard on LP, is when the audience, arrayed in a deep curve stretching from the right and left of the singers, but in back and well behind, even above them, joins in singing “Mathilda.”

3 Thus the line “I’m gonna take morphine and die” is greeted with dead silence down below, but an audible murmur from the what Belafonte calls “the scholarship students” in the upper balconies.

It’s the most SACD-like effect I’ve heard from two channels. In other words, the Goldfinger’s reproduction of the different kinds of phase information manages to keep these relationships clear and untangled, while not in the least compromising the aliveness of the direct sounds. It is the capturing of the immediacy, the living presence of the best competitors, and its unsurpassed decoding of the soundstage (real or artificial), free of any spatial distortions (like compression of front-to-back depth, or side-to-side stage width), that puts the Goldfinger at the head of the class.

But there is something more, a sweetness of resolution that allows the nuances to stand on an equal footing with the rest of the sound, so that things like David Crosby’s way of producing a tremolo or Ronnie Gilbert’s slight trill while humming in the background acquire full membership in the sonic picture, and this done without highlighting frequencies to accent such details, a common enough trick used by today’s speaker designers. (Wish I knew to which male vocalists their distinctive voices belong. Oh, all right, put more clearly: There is an all-star male sing-along-cast backing Crosby up, whose voices become so uniquely discrete and audible, you’d know who they were if you knew their work, which I don’t. On the other cartridges, the voices harmonize and blend without much individuality.)

Okay, another instance. In the second movement of Lt. Kije, there is a celesta being played (sometimes in a duet with the bass fiddle solo). With the Goldfinger, you can hear each of the celesta’s notes standing alone (rather than as a run), each in its own ambient space. The attack and decay of the celesta’s heavenly timbers (its plucked notes) is less important and noticeable (as it is with the ZYX) than the way those notes excite the Orchestra Hall stage’s ambience. Translate this into the listening experience and you’ll find you can tell, without a score and without playing any of the reed or brass instruments, which instrument is which, particularly delicious in Prokofiev’s scoring, where orchestral instruments often stand in for the military or political people the film depicts, even the evanescent Kije himself, now clearly introduced as if from another, slightly eerie world (that different acoustic, so clear with the Goldfinger, you might imagine the space in which it was recorded).

I think what I am trying to say is that the Goldfinger’s ability to realize another and deeper layer of complex musical material allows you a much greater pleasure in the music itself.

The Benz LP S-MR

Until I heard the LP S-MR, I hadn’t been enthralled by any of the few Benz cartridges I’ve auditioned. But this new addition to the company’s S Class line, strikes me as being formidable competition to the Clearaudio Goldfinger (if not entirely its equal), which I didn’t expect, especially given, at first blush, the relative neutrality of the Benz when pitted against the more spectacular and lush sonics of the Goldfinger.

It is difficult, even after several weeks of living with the Benz (during one of the breaks in the listening sessions), to nail down, with anything like precision, a way to describe the Benz simply by contrasting it with the German-made design. So, just for starters, let’s say the Clearaudio is like the best three-negative Technicolor on film, while the Benz is more like the single-strip color you see on the best modern color stocks. I don’t think we yet have developed the language to capture what the Benz itself does, and, believe me, I have been wrestling, mentally, to find a way to see (hear?) if I can convey a sense of what makes it so special.

The Benz captures every sound, and does so with any particular emphasis on “presence” or aliveness (as we have described those characteristics in this essay). The longer you listen to the cartridge—and the more it warms up—the more revealing it becomes in the sense of warmly inviting you in to listen more deeply to the textures, harmonics, and little subtleties that make up the basic foundations of the music itself.

Everything you hear reproduced by the LP S-MR is translucent. Whatever it is that keeps you, the listener, on the outside looking in, vanishes here, to be replaced by a kind of intimate relation with the music—not “intimate” either in any erotic or gushy sense, but rather the kind of intimacy you might strike up with a vintage wine, perfectly aged.

If it is less “imposing,” it is also rather more naturally comfortable, with all the notes and dynamics (bottom to top and micro to macro) in place, along with as much ambience as was there in the first place. None of this is caught with anything less than a kind of aural acuity, refreshingly free from any identifiable artifacts, veilings, or scrims between you and what the microphones originally caught that made its way onto disc. I do think the Goldfinger is the Benz’s equal and maybe its superior, but, for the nonce, I think the resolving ability of our best gear these days is so advanced in some ways that it will force the development of a new audio vocabulary.

Procedures: Cartridge evaluation

Let me break down the procedures we used in the evaluation of these cartridges.

Recordings:

Over the months of the sessions, we (Joey Weiss and I) cherry-picked favored LPs from the Sea Cliff collection, including selections from Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman, the “Feel Flows” cut from the Beach Boys album Surf’s Up, “Sandman” from the original America album, the Reiner recording of Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches, Bizet’s Carmen (suite), “Un Bal” from the Munch/RCA Symphonie Fantastique, cuts from Casino Royale (you know which ones), and many another.

The ones we chose to use in the final set of sessions?

The first two movements of Reiner’s recording (for RCA) of Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije (suite), as well as the cut “Goodnight Irene” from The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, and “Laughing” from the David Crosby If I Could Only Remember My Name. All of these were 45-rpm recuts made from the originals by Classic Records. These, to my ears, had the greatest density of harmonic information, dynamic contrasts, and the incomparable Carnegie acoustic.

The Playback System:

In the early sessions, all of the recordings (above) were played back through the Veloce battery-powered line- and phonostages, the Viva Fono stage, the McIntosh 2301 300-watt monoblock power amplifiers for the Scaena midrange and tweeter panels, the Nordost Odin interconnects, the Burmester 911 solid-state stereo amp (for the subwoofers), the Graham Phantom II pickup arm (and three additional arm wands for the cartridges), the Clearaudio Statement magnetic-drive turntable, the Audience AR-12T power conditioner, Nordost Quantum sound purifiers, and the VPI Typhoon Record Cleaning Machine.

The new elements in the system used for the final listening sessions (the deciding ones) included the conrad-johnson tubed electronics (the GAT linestage, the TEA-1 phonostage, the ART III 275-watt monoblock amplifiers) and the new Arcici equipment rack (for the c-j electronics). And last, but hardly least, a new phono cable from the Graham to the phonostages, named the Tyr by Nodost. Obviously, the system evolved (as things are wont to when one is chasing the rainbow of the absolute).

The Mechanics:

To insure a level playing field, my assistant (the aforementioned Mr. Weiss) ran through these checkpoints:

Turntable leveling: a stable platter a necessity with the Statement “for its superior isolation and balance.”

Azimuth alignment: for this Mr. W used the recently invented (by Jim Fosgate) Fozgometer. (Explanation in the sidebar below.) One thing HP can tell you is that all of the cartridges achieved an audible level of superiority when this was used in the final two week sessions.

Vertical Tracking Angle adjustment: an HP specialty. Too much height, too much highs at the expense of bottom bass and mistracking-like sounds. Too low? Muddy bass, muted top octave.

Break-in time: All cartridges were broken in during repeated listening sessions. We have found, however, that all cartridges, even broken in, must play for 15 minutes or so, to sound their best.

Cleaning records: To minimize wear and tear and audible degradation of the grooves, we let the discs rest between each three-record session with each cartridge, cleaning before and after with Harry Weisfeld’s Typhoon machine (and at least two different cleaning fluids).

From this list, I have omitted tiny items, styli cleaning brushes, cable contact clearers, and probably more I can’t think of, given the unprecedented heat wave of June/July. Also, omitted are the tracking forces we used for each cartridge. We tended to use the highest recommended weights, after checking the cartridge’s trackability on a high-level trackability LP, making sure every cartridge could track the 5th low bass transient.

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Sidebar: The Azimuth Insider

My adjusting the azimuth for each cartridge had been a laborious job—done by eye and with a steady hand—to make sure that every cartridge was correctly aligned in the record groove. The Fosgate Fozgometer then arrived (at the last minute of the tests). It is a simple, straightforward, battery-operated azimuth reading meter (designed by the legendary Jim Fosgate) that you can use to read the output of each groove wall, and thus establish the correct channel balance in playback

Azimuth is the actual left-to-right tilt of the cartridge body as it sits in the record groove. If the azimuth of a cartridge is slightly off, you will have unbalanced stereo separation. Adjusting the azimuth by sight alone has always been somewhat tricky, since the goal is to correctly set the stylus in relationship to the information inside the groove of the record, not the platter itself.

With a test record, (we chose The Ultimate Analogue Test LP by Analogue Productions) the Fozgometer can be easily used to accurately adjust the tilt of your cartridge. (It is important to set your cartridge overhang, weight, and VTA before you begin adjusting the azimuth to get exactly the right results.) The sturdiness of the Fozgometer allows you to set it down next to the turntable. This gives you the ability, operating with both hands free, to make the small adjustments required. The three LED’s let you know where the signal is coming from (left, right, or center). The VU meter reads out the output signal from each groove wall.

Using the Fozgometer is simplicity itself.

First, connect the output of your phonostage to the left and right inputs on the Fozgometer (which has the input sensitivity to allow direct connection to a cartridge, but I have found the readings most efficient through a preamp).

Next, send a 1kHz test signal to each channel separately (side 1, tracks 2 and 3 from The Ultimate Analogue Test LP) and read the outputs measured with the VU meter. If the cartridge is not perfectly centered in the groove, leaning to the left or the right, the signals won’t be equal, as will likely be the case.

You will want to adjust the azimuth accordingly so that the meter level reads the same for both channels.

The basic adjustment for the cartridge azimuth is to rotate the cartridge so that the stylus goes either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Fortunately for me the Graham Phantom II arm uses a patented Magneglide stabilizer with a dedicated knob to adjust azimuth. Other arms also provide dedicated azimuth adjustments, and it is vitally important that you use them. If your arm does not have a dedicated azimuth adjustment, it is still possible to adjust the cartridge using extra washers. Once both channels are aligned equally, the crosstalk (the ability to resolve the left and right channels separately) will be at its lowest and the azimuth will be accurately set. Incorrect azimuth will result in poor stereo separation and affect the overall sound of a cartridge. Every cartridge here in Sea Cliff has been set up using the Fozgometer since it arrived. It is my indispensable tool for proper cartridge alignment.

The Fozometer is distributed by Musical Surroundings and costs $250. It works well with The Ultimate Analogue Test LP by Analogue Productions ($39). –Joey Weiss