Several decades ago before the high end acquired both its name and its status, moving-magnet pickups reigned supreme among audiophiles. They were relatively easy to build, neutral in tonal balance, flat in frequency response, low in distortion, excellent trackers (and at low forces), attractively priced, and very reliable. Moving coils were relatively rare, far from flat (which is to say, neutral), relatively poor trackers (requiring at the same time considerably higher forces), temperamental (a euphemism for unreliable), and costly—not to mention the extra expense of outboard step-up devices necessitated by an mc’s low output. Yet mc’s eventually conquered the high end so thoroughly that in today's market they now far outnumber mm’s both as products and in audiophile homes. How did this happen?
Well, never underestimate the power of a small but dug-in and persistent minority who, despite the drawbacks of mc’s, continued to insist upon their virtues, which include greater dynamic range, finer detail and resolution, a more realistic impression of life and vitality, and, perhaps most important of all, superior transparency, a sense of veils lifted from the presentation.
But I don’t think these in and of themselves would have been sufficient to establish the current hegemony of mc’s. Rather, throughout the decades they continued to be improved in several areas where mm’s were traditionally stronger, notably flatness of frequency response and tracking ability. To take my own experience as an example, while I could always hear the qualities that made some of my audiophile brethren love mc’s so, I did not make the switch until the early eighties when products like the Dynavector Ruby and the late, much lamented Talisman Boron demonstrated that they could have as flat a frequency response (assuming proper loading) and track as well as mm’s. And while mc’s never became as cheap as mm’s, there were and are a number of models that represent good value by any standard, including the two classics just named.
Under review here are three moderately priced mc’s from well-known manufacturers. One of them, the Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, comes from the company that pioneered the moving coil; the other two, the Clearaudio and Benz-Micro, are from relatively newer companies that have proved themselves in the marketplace. As in previous surveys, I offer my conclusions as conditional, not definitive. To invoke the metaphor I’ve used in the past, it’s best to think of a survey like this as a series of snapshots taken of a particular system at a specific point in time under a strictly defined set of conditions. It’s possible—indeed, likely—that somewhat different results will be obtained in other systems. I say, “somewhat,” because, assuming there is not an arm mismatch that excites resonances in the warp region, I’ve rarely found the sound of pickups, their sonic personality in general, their tonal character in particular, to change drastically from one record-playing setup to another. I am confident that the sonic personalities I’ve described here will be apparent in any system with an appropriate tonearm and a tonal balance that does not deviate outrageously from neutral.
And “personality” is very much the operative word, for, as the survey will reveal, each of these pickups has a rather strong and distinctive character, two of them by design and one because its designer seems to have a “house” sound.
Ground Rules and Sources
Pickups were auditioned using a Graham Phantom II Supreme arm on a Hanss T60 turntable (Issue 226) and a Basis Vector IV arm mounted on a Basis 2200 (Issue 180) going into a Zesto Andros PS1 phono preamplifier (Issue 222) and a Zesto Leto linestage (see review in the previous issue), a Quad 909 amplifier, and Quad 2805 electrostatic speakers. (I also briefly used the superlative new Harbeth Monitor 30.1 speakers, reviewed in this issue.) All pickups were loaded at or near the theoretically ideal value of ten times their internal impedance (the Andros provides an adequate range of matching for all of these pickups). Tracking forces were according to manufacturers’ recommendations, typically on the higher side when a range is specified. The precision and speed with which the Graham arm allows for pickup changes and adjustments, including exactly repeatable vertical tracking angle, made short work of comparisons. As wide a variety of source material as I could reasonably manage over the review period was used, though my concentration was on classical, traditional jazz, and vocal music because these furnish the surest means of evaluating tonal accuracy, neutrality, frequency response, timbre, and a reliable equivalent to true dynamic range. All three pickups tracked excellently or better, ditto their suppression of surface noise and other detritus.