A key part of the vinyl renaissance over the past decade or so has been a renewed appreciation for the merits of mono LPs. Stereo, after all, was something of a Johnny-come-lately in the history of recordings, and when it did arrive, it wasn’t always embraced, at least not passionately. The Beatles, for example, recorded most of their albums in mono, then mixed them to stereo later. Some of the best Rolling Stones albums can also be found in mono, and a number of recent reissues of the Beatles have made a point of providing mono versions. The cold, hard truth is that almost invariably LPs originally recorded in mono sound more compelling than their stereo versions. The advantage of using a mono cartridge as opposed to a stereo one is pretty basic: Tracking a mono record requires the stylus to move only in the horizontal plane in stark contrast to stereo, which also demands that a cartridge reproduce information in the vertical plane. Noise goes way down when using a true mono cartridge. So, for anyone who wants to hear these LPs in their full glory a mono setup isn’t an option; it’s a must.
It was thus with delight that I learned that Miyajima Labs, which is based in Japan, has now released a new top-drawer mono cartridge called the Infinity that outputs 0.4mV. It has a headshell made out of African blackwood and a single-coil generator. Its tracking force is recommended at a hefty 3.5 grams. Miyajima mono cartridges come in two versions, one with an 0.7-mil stylus, best-suited to play both original monos and reissues, and a 1.0-mil stylus, optimized for LPs from the 1950s. Over the past several years I have flirted with, and even ogled, other mono cartridges, but I always came back to the Miyajima Zero with an 0.7-mil stylus, which remains in production. Now Miyajima has considerably upped the ante with the $3350 Infinity.
If size matters, the Infinity has it all over the Zero. This bruiser measures in at 14.8 grams and its sheer weight seems to supply it with an imperturbability as it sails through the grooves. Miyajima itself declares, “It is a size outside all commonsense.” But oh, the sound. Right from the first groove it was clear that the Infinity is operating in another realm from its predecessor, the Zero. Here was a limpidity, a graciousness, and an inviting top end that were hinted at but never achieved by the Zero. The Infinity may not quite soar into infinity, but it comes darned close.
Initially, I listened to the Infinity on the Continuum Caliburn turntable on a Cobra tonearm before switching to the new Air Force Zero ’table, which, like the Miyajima, hails from Japan. The Cobra is a pretty forgiving tonearm and seemed to mate well with both the Zero and the Infinity. Right away, on this rig, I heard its superior qualities on a Jimmy Smith Blue Note 4050 called Home Cookin’. It was just that the instruments were each laid out in their own space—strange as it may sound, there is a lot of ambience on mono LPs, at least if you’re using two loudspeakers to reproduce them rather than parking yourself before one loudspeaker, which I occasionally like to do—but that there was also a smooth creaminess to the enterprise that I simply hadn’t been able to detect previously. Kenny Burrell’s phenomenal guitar work on “Motorin’ Along” had a propulsive quality to it, aided by the fact that Infinity never stalled. Instead it revved up and rendered each pluck with superb transient fidelity. Another of my favorite Blue Notes is Swing and Soul featuring the inimitable Lou Donaldson. On “Herman’s Mambo,” the conga drummer Ray Barretto comes through vividly right at the outset, his slaps echoing through the hall before the theme is introduced by pianist Herman Foster. It’s a happy song but I find something a little melancholy about Donaldson’s alto sax on it; the Infinity reproduced his plaintive tone with excellent definition.
After I had the Air Force Zero in situ, I mounted the Infinity onto a Graham Phantom Elite 12" tonearm and ran it through a Boulder 508 phonostage. I was able to hear even more distinctly the attributes of the Infinity. Quite frankly I was gobsmacked by the level of finesse the cartridge transmitted through the Air Force Zero. Continuing my foray through old jazz LPs, I plopped on a Columbia six-eye pressing Masterpieces by Ellington that was recorded in December, 1950. The sound was equal if not superior to big band recordings made today. On songs like “The Tattooed Bride” and “Solitude” I reveled in the relaxed and natural timbres of the saxophones, trombones, and trumpets. The robust blat of the trombone on “Solitude” was simply mesmerizing. Another oldie but goodie that I pulled down from my shelves was a Vanguard recording featuring the trumpets of Buck Clayton and Ruby Braff called Buck Meets Ruby. As a child, I was pretty wowed by Braff, and it was a treat to be able to hear a young Braff on this album. One of the impressive aspects of the Infinity was its ability to provide a clear window into the recording. The instruments were never blurred or smeared. Instead, they came through with excellent fidelity, particularly the drumming of Bobby Donaldson. To be able to hear the drums so lucidly reproduced as Benny Morton soloed on trombone on the song “Kandee” was a real treat.
What about rock? A 45-rpm mono from Japan of A Hard Day’s Night seemed like just the ticket to further explore the Infinity’s capabilities. Dynamics were excellent, but what was most impressive was that they never seemed overbearing or aggressive. Instead on “I Should Have Known Better” and “And I Love Her” the voices of the Beatles were warm and rich, with transients out of this world. Ringo’s use of bongos and claves on “And I Love Her” came through with remarkable timbral accuracy, as did George Harrison’s use of a classical guitar. Truly stellar.
So far, I have shied away from discussing classical records which can be something of a mixed bag in mono. In my experience, mono orchestral performances can be somewhat challenging for modern ears, while smaller ensembles come across well. When it comes to orchestras, I guess I’m just a sucker for the lateral spread that stereo offers. For voice and piano, however, I have found that mono LPs often surpass stereo productions. In addition, as in the case of Ruby Braff, the monos offer a chance to hear performers in their youth. A good case in point: I have a number of LPs by the legendary German tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau of Schubert and Schumann song cycles. To test the Infinity, I played an early Dieskau and Gerald Moore mono of Schubert songs [Angel]. It was a gripping experience. To hear not only the youthfulness of Dieskau’s voice but also his masterful interpretation was riveting. The Infinity extracted, or appeared to extract, every last shading of his voice on songs like Goethe’s poem “Restless Love” with its plangent lines about “happiness without peace—this, O love, is you!”
Fortunately, the Miyajima is a cartridge that you can most emphatically fall in love with to your heart’s content. It brings happiness with peace, a blissful sense that a summit has been arrived at in mono reproduction that will provide seemingly endless hours of joy. There was a subtlety, a naturalness to the proceedings that I don’t think modern digital recordings can match. This cartridge builds on the strengths of the Zero, no slouch itself, to revivify the experience of listening to mono records. It’s an exceptional performer that should satisfy and beguile the most ardent monomaniac.
Specs & Pricing
Tracking force range: 3–4g (3.5g recommended)
Compliance: 8x10-6 cm/dyne
Stylus: Nude conical, 0.7 mil or 1.0 mil
Robyattaudio (U.S. Distributor)