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Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum & My Sonic Lab Signature Gold Moving-Coil Cartridges

My_Sonic_Labs_Signature_Gold_MC_Cartridge_Angle_Left_Front

Although my wife and I are longtime fans of Japanese cuisine, film, art, and literature, it wasn’t until the spring of 2019 that we made our first, long-overdue journey to that remarkable country. To say that we were unprepared for the impact this trip would have on us is an understatement. 

Never before had we visited a land that was at once so foreign yet so completely comfortable, despite—aside from an arigato here, or an oishi (“delicious”) there—the massive language barrier. This was especially true once we left the sometimes overwhelming craziness of Tokyo for the more manageable confines of Kyoto, and still farther south to a remote onsen (hot spring) rarely visited by Westerners. 

It was on this trip that the Japanese mindset, with its dedication to mastering craft and its obsession with the smallest detail resonated on a physical (as in, yes, now we get it) level. Which naturally brings me around to the pair of exceptional moving-coil cartridges under consideration here. Because in their own ways, they’re the perfect embodiment of the Japanese spirit. Tiny yet expensive objects, meticulously built by hand to exquisite levels of…near perfection. 

Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum

Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum

During my day gig as a wine merchant, it’s not uncommon to have a customer walk into my shop, spot a familiar label on the shelf, and exclaim, “Wow, I remember when that bottle cost only X!”—naming a price from perhaps decades earlier.

Naturally, the wine world isn’t the only one in which today’s prices might cause eyes to spring out, all googly, like those of a character from a vintage Warner Bros. cartoon. But then, what did you pay for your house, car, hell, your cup of coffee, 20 years ago? Um, how about your audio system? 

Take, for example, the first of these cartridges, the Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum moving coil. 

In the late-seventies I was a mere lad of 20 or so, studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, while also working at a high-end-audio retail shop, when I first encountered Koetsu’s original Rosewood cartridge. 

At the time, even the most expensive cartridges—the Supex SD-900, Denon 103-D, and other moving-coils—sold for a few hundred bucks; the famed Shure V-15 III moving-magnet for $75. Grado even had a quite decent little cheapie that went for a now-unthinkable $13, though Grado would also soon release a thousand-dollar Signature model, which was what the Koetsu Rosewood of the day went for. 

This thousand-dollar threshold significantly raised the ceiling, expectations, and competition for the market segment, which would soon be—as it remains today—loaded with plenty of top-drawer, top-dollar models. 

As fine as the upper-end Grado sounded, the Koetsu offered something many of us found more alluringly exotic, starting with its name, which became instantly legendary. Each Koetsu cartridge was built by hand, and those few lucky enough to own one rhapsodized about levels of sonic performance one could only imagine. And for those of us who couldn’t afford to buy one, but whose imaginations were fired by either curiosity or obsession, the chance to audition a Koetsu was a singular experience. Even the Rosewood’s small cedarwood box offered aromatic hints of faraway lands. In short, the tiny Koetsu embodied all that high-end audio was and continues to be about: the stuff that dreams are made of. 

Although Koetsu’s story is well known to many audiophiles, it’s worthy of at least a capsule re-telling here. The company was founded in the 1970s by Kyoto-born Yoshiaki Sugano, who selected the name Koetsu to honor the spirit of his 17th century ancestor, the noted artist and calligrapher Honami Koetsu. 

As his biography attests, Sugano himself was a 20th century renaissance man. Although a large chapter of his life was devoted to his career as an upper-level executive at Toyota—he retired from this job at age 60—Sugano’s lifelong passions encompassed painting, sword-making, metallurgy, and Western classical music. His reverence for the latter would lead Sugano to his second career, crafting meticulously designed and made phonograph cartridges. 

Initially, Sugano tinkered with the inner workings of commercial models, modifying parts to better their performance. And during a stint at the Supex company, Sugano had a hand in developing the 900 model mentioned above, which some view as something of a Koetsu prototype. 

For twenty-plus years Sugano built Koetsus, adding new models as well as luster to the company’s reputation. But, as it will, age caught up with him. In the early 1990s, then in his eighties, Sugano handed over the job of assembling Koetsus to his son and apprentice, Fumihiko, who carries on to this day.

As has been noted in previous Koetsu reviews, although many models have been developed over the years (the current lineup offers 14, from the $2995 Black Goldline to the $15,995 Blue Lace Onyx Platinum), the basics remain largely unchanged, though, of course, the body materials and working parts vary across the range. Aluminum, wood, and various semiprecious stone bodies, all of the same shoebox shape, define the Koetsu profile, while line-contact styli and boron cantilevers are found throughout. 

Rather than run through each model’s design details, I’ll focus here on what differentiates the three Rosewood-bodied versions (for information on the rest of the line visit the Koetsu U.S. website). 

The current edition of the Rosewood ($3995) features a natural (unvarnished) rosewood body, copper coil wiring, and samarium-cobalt magnets. The Rosewood Signature ($5495), so thoroughly reviewed by my colleague Dick Olsher in Issue 295, also sports the same housing and copper wiring, but the magnets are permendur, another type of cobalt-iron alloy. According to Koetsu’s American website, “the Rosewood Signature uses the most tightly matched coil and core sets, offering more precise focus and a larger soundstage than the Rosewood Standard.” 

The Rosewood Signature Platinum reviewed here ($8495) offers a stiffer body composed of lacquered, aged rosewood, plus the rare platinum magnets and silver-plated 6N-copper coils normally reserved for Koetsu’s stone-body cartridges. Again, quoting the website: “It’s the perfect choice for those who lust after a stone model but require a cartridge with less mass or simply prefer the look of rosewood.”

As those familiar with Koetsu know, these are, first and foremost, beautiful-sounding transducers that lean towards the warmer—sometimes kaleidoscopic—side of the sonic spectrum. I can’t think of a Koetsu model that I’ve either lived with or auditioned that doesn’t have a midrange to die for. 

Let’s start with the glowing richness of the small, huffing brass choir heard on the spiritual “Abide with Me,” which opens Analogue Productions’ superb 45rpm reissue of Riverside’s 1957 release, Monk’s Music. The Rosewood Platinum gorgeously arrays the players (Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxes; Ray Copeland, trumpet; and Gigi Gryce, alto sax) in a convincingly realistic, life-sized array whose sound washes over the listener with a breathtakingly golden and comforting warmth, in which you can practically feel the air emanating from the horns, before the entire band launches into an absolutely smoking “Well, You Needn’t.” Here, the cartridge recreates an exceptional sense of air, space, and depth around the players, as well as a seductively rich palette of instrumental colors and textures in that “reach out and touch it” way. And when the time comes for Art Blakey’s two-fisted drum solo, the Rosewood Platinum shows that it’s not only capable of creating beauty; it can also bring some brawn to the table, with plenty of percussive wallop.

Perhaps triggered by Igor Levit’s outstanding recent cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas, I’ve been recently re-exploring various players’ takes on these deeply rewarding masterpieces. Especially the late sonatas, of which the final No. 32 Opus 111 has me particularly entranced. If you aren’t familiar with it, I urge you to check out another Russian’s take on this work,    Evgeny Kissin’s 2017 DG release, containing this and a range of other Beethoven piano compositions, all recorded live at various venues across the globe. 

Kissin’s is one of the most beautifully played and moving performances of the No. 32 I know. After his commanding take on the first movement, he weaves into the second movement’s jazz-like middle section, which proceeds to slowly unspool to its mesmerizing conclusion. The effect left me feeling as if I’d awakened from a trance-like peace. The recording well captures the sense of a live hall, with a terrific balance between the venue’s ambience and the instrument itself, which the Koetsu renders with utmost delicacy as well as richness and power where needed, with gorgeous harmonic overtones, decay, and realistic dynamic shading. 

Given its midrange magic, vocals, too, are masterfully served by the Rosewood Signature Platinum. From the recent, wonderful Ella Fitzgerald release, The Lost Berlin Tapes—what a treasure this is!—to the 50th anniversary Abbey Road, to the soloists and large chorus on Mahler’s Symphony No 2 (Bernstein, New York Phil). Be vocalists singing as one, in small groups, or en masse, the Rosewood Signature’s sound was always natural, detailed, pure, lacking clutter, and wonderfully complete, with a richly layered textural impression that was simply irresistible. 

That last word is the perfect summation of what the Rosewood Signature Platinum is about. It’s not only a technically marvelous music-reproducing device; it’s also one that seduces our ears, brains, and beings with notable beauty and intellectual and emotional pleasure. 

How very Japanese. 

My Sonic Lab Signature Gold 

Unlike my long history with Koetsu, my experience with My Sonic Lab cartridges has until now been relatively fleeting. Oh, I’d read about them. And I know that AJ Conti, the late designer of my Basis 2200 Signature turntable and Vector 4 arm, was not only a huge fan, but for a time My Sonic’s U.S. distributor. So, when the opportunity to review the company’s Signature Gold presented itself, I jumped at the chance.

As it turns out, My Sonic Lab is a branch of Koetsu’s family tree. The company was founded in 2004 by Yoshio Matsudaira, a onetime colleague of Sugano’s at Supex as well as a former Koetsu employee, who is said to have helped Sugano develop the original Koetsu Onyx. 

During his Supex years, Matsudaira also designed cartridges for Luxman and Air Tight. By the time he founded My Sonic Lab, he had clocked some three decades engineering designs for every major Japanese cartridge-maker. Without naming names, the company’s literature states that Matsudaira “still does OEM/ODM for many of Japan’s top brands.”

For his My Sonic Lab models, Matsudaira solved a cartridge-design challenge he’d been grappling with for ages: How to increase a moving-coil’s output signal without also increasing the number of coil-turns, which would result in a loss of detail and frequency response and also compromise phase accuracy, raising the probability of distortion/ringing.

Although the details are a bit sketchy, the company website states that, through a “fateful occurrence,” Matsudaira met a lab researcher whose job was focused on developing magnetic materials. This would lead to the discovery of a new core material, dubbed SH-μX, that “allowed Matsudaira to replace the commonly used iron alloys and create his dream moving coil, with the lowest amount of signal loss combined with the highest relative output.”

Each of the five cartridges in the current My Sonic Lab lineup—from the $3995 Eminent EX to the $10,995 Platinum Signature—“utilize Matsudaira’s unique SH-μX magnetic core, a special material with higher permeability and flux density than the typical iron-core material used in mc cartridges. It also allows My Sonic Lab to use fewer coil windings than other mc cartridges, minimizing music-robbing distortions and maximizing signal output. This high-efficiency approach translates into wide dynamic range, fast transient response, low distortion, and a high signal-to-noise ratio.”

Relative to the models beneath it, the $8995 Signature Gold features a two-piece extra-super-duralumin-alloy body, a super-duralumin cantilever, improved wiring, and a 10% larger SH-μX core. By contrast, the next-step-up, top-of-the-line Platinum Signature sports a lower resonance black-ion-hardened titanium body, and “is only the second model in the My Sonic Lab line to use a boron pipe, which is lighter, more rigid, and faster than the aluminum cantilevers.” 

While researching the history of My Sonic Lab, I came upon TAS founder Harry Pearson’s 2010 review of the company’s Eminent cartridge: “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.”

I quote HP because reading his intro reflects my own first moments with the Signature Gold, which provides a study in contrasts with the Koetsu.

While it lacks the Rosewood Platinum’s enveloping warmth on an LP Pearson himself used as a longtime reference, the famous RCA Royal Ballet set (here, the Classic Records reissue), the My Sonic is interestingly both more vibrant and more delicate, albeit with no lack of tonal richness or textural detail, as heard with the famous string sections of The Nutcracker Suite. The LP’s famously impressive soundstage, too, became that much more realistically wider and deeper, while the flutes and other treble-range instruments showed more top-end sparkle and air, overall tighter focus, and greater dynamic pop.

Moving on to Abbey Road, “Come Together” again displayed a jaw-droppingly open stage, with that much more detail and string/body texture to Paul’s bass, crack to Ringo’s snare, and revealing slides and finger work on the group’s guitars. The Signature Gold clearly rocked a bit harder than the Koetsu, and snapped the music to vivid, three-dimensional life. 

Listening to the original pressing of Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo Plays King Oliver reminded me that this recording is famous for a good reason. Recorded in 1960 utilizing then-new Telefunken “MS” microphones—paired in the same housing at right angles to each other (much like our ears)—it presents one of the most lifelike, fixed-in-space stereo playback experiences you’ll hear. And the My Sonic knocked this one out of the park, with an extraordinary soundstage, precise instrumental placement, plenty of ambient air, as well as space around voices and instruments and absolutely killer dynamics.

Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball is a longtime favorite recording, but be it on CD or the more recent LP edition, this Daniel Lanois-produced set has vexed many a piece of playback gear over the years because of its heavily atmospheric, rather “swimmy” mix and layering. Somehow the Signature Gold’s combination of stellar tracking, spot-on focus, lack of smear, and exemplary resolution brought a newfound sense of clarity and balance to tunes such as “Every Grain of Sand” and “Sweet Old World.” The resulting effect was aurally astonishing, while also delivering much emotional punch.

Finally, circling back to Monks Music, the horns on “Abide with Me” breathed with newly heard richness, brassy textures, and physical presence. During “Well You Needn’t,” Coltrane’s solo burst out of my Magnepans with incredible energy, presence, and tonal complexity, while the drum break was more explosively like the real thing, with a visual sense of Blakey working his way around the kit. There was an overall sense of air and space that virtually transported me to the New York studio where it was recorded. 

My listening notes go on and on but, well, I needn’t. You get the idea. These are both exceptional music-reproducing devices that beautifully represent Japan’s proud and lengthy history of advancing the art of phono cartridge design. As with all such things, one’s personal biases and the system they’re part of will also play a significant role in one’s preference. After all, I love both a rare, well-marbled steak and fresh, briny oysters; paintings by Caravaggio as well as Cy Twombly; movies from Pulp Fiction to Les Enfants du Paradis; and Pinot Noirs from France as well as from California. 

So, indeed, comparing the Koetsu Rosewood Platinum Signature and My Sonic Lab Signature Gold is a study in contrasts. To say one is “better” than the other isn’t really the point, it’s so very personal. That said, in this instance, and in my system, as much as I love the Koetsu I’m going to give the nod to the My Sonic Lab Gold Signature. If at all possible, should you be in the market, I urge you to find a way to hear both. 

Specs & Pricing

Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum
Type: Moving-coil
Nominal output: 0.3mV
Body: Lacquered aged rosewood
Coil: Silver-plated copper
Magnet type: Platinum
Cantilever: Boron
Weight: 9g
Recommended tracking force: 1.8–2.0g
Recommended loading: 80–1000 ohms
Price: $8495

My Sonic Lab Signature Gold
Type: Moving-coil
Nominal output: 0.5mV
Body: Extra-super duralumin
Coil: Silver-plated copper
Magnet type: Neodymium #50
Cantilever: Super duralumin
Weight:10g
Recommended tracking force: 1.9–2.2g
Recommended loading: 80–1000 ohms
Weight: 10g
Price: $8995

MOFI DISTRIBUTION
1811 W Bryn Mawr Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60660
(312) 738-5025
mofidistribution.com
koetsuaudio.com
mysoniclab.com

Tags: ANALOG CARTRIDGE KOETSU MY SONIC LAB

By Wayne Garcia

Although I’ve been a wine merchant for the past decade, my career in audio was triggered at age 12 when I heard the Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! blasting from my future brother-in-law’s giant home-built horn speakers. The sound certainly wasn’t sophisticated, but, man, it sure was exciting.

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