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Two Moving Magnets and a Moving Iron

Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the proliferation of moving-coil pickups throughout the high-end these last thirty-plus years and counting, during the first two decades of stereophonic reproduction moving-magnet cartridges dominated the market. Most serious audiophiles were classical, jazz, pop, and folk enthusiasts whose sonic references were to music performed on acoustic instruments in real-world venues. The virtues of moving-magnets suited these tastes, which valued low distortion, flat frequency-response, and tonal neutrality or, failing that, musically natural tonal balances. Perhaps best of all from the standpoint of record wear, mm’s were not only superior trackers—surely no distortion associated with vinyl is worse than mistracking—but being low in mass and high in compliance, they could, in suitable arms, track at much lower forces: I tracked virtually anything I threw at my Shure M91E at a gram in an Acoustic Research XA turntable, both acquired in 1969, and records I have from those days are still in excellent condition. (And my alternative record-playing setup these last several years has been the XA with a Shure V15 Type VxMR, a pickup some of us still regret Shure ceased manufacturing—I’m glad I managed to grab one in the nick of time. The reason, by the way, Shure stopped production is that the beryllium used in its shank is carcinogenic; implementing the safeguards necessary to meet OSHA regulations was prohibitively expensive.)

Of course, moving coils existed back then, but most of us regarded them as cult objects. Despite claims of superior transparency, transient response, and detail, they were temperamental little buggers and mediocre trackers at best, requiring relatively high tracking weights—3 grams (occasionally more) versus a Shure’s 0.75–1.5—with frequency response that was far from neutral and sometimes not even particularly musical. The typical mc frequency-profile, exemplified by a cult favorite, the Denon 103D (an iteration of which is still on the market), was depressed throughout the presence region and, owing to high-frequency resonances endemic to the technology, tipped up at the top end. (In fact, it is these two defects—or artifacts, if you prefer—that account in considerable part for mcs’ putative superiority in rendering soundstage depth and recovering fine detail.)

With their high mass and low compliance, mc’s also required high-mass tonearms, which meant they didn’t work particularly well with most arms because those arms catered to mm’s. (Today the situation is of course reversed: The only current arms I’m aware of that are optimized for mm’s are the SME Model M-9-1 [an updated 3009 II] and the Mørch arms with their optional low-mass tubes.) As if all this were not off-putting enough, mc’s were more expensive than mm’s—a gap that has widened almost unimaginably this last decade—and involved additional expenses because of the step-up transformers and head-amps required to boost their low signal-outputs. Another not-so-hidden cost involved stylus replacement: mm’s have user-replaceable stylus assemblies that typically cost a fraction of the pickup itself, while mc’s need to be “re-tipped,” a euphemism for the requirement that you must buy a whole new cartridge (typically at a “reduced” rate of 50–75 percent—e.g., a $4000 mc will set you back $1500–$3000 come stylus-replacement time).


Given this set of chains, how did moving coils become ascendant, then dominant? Well, for one thing, some of them got better: flatter in frequency response, thus more neutral in tonal balance—though a lot more work is required to make them so—and if their tracking forces didn’t get all that much lower, then at least the tracking itself got considerably better. (The first  that really hooked me was David Fletcher’s Talisman Boron, marketed by Sumiko [circa early Eighties], which was nearly ruler flat and at 2.5 grams tracked like crazy, well able to negotiate those ludicrous cannon blasts on the vinyl release of the Telarc 1812 Overture.) These days you can find mc’s to accommodate any number of musical tastes.

For another, electronics got better, so the noise levels we had to put up with got lower or effectively vanished at all but extremely high playback levels. For a third, we became more sophisticated about how to use mc’s, paramountly in eschewing the insanity, propagated by TAS’s own founder, the late Harry Pearson, of running them wide open instead of damping the high-frequency resonances with proper impedance loading (the only way an mc has any hope of having a flat frequency response).

The mention of Harry Pearson brings us to the fourth reason, which I honestly believe cannot be minimized, at least so far as the American audiophile scene goes: namely, the appearance of The Absolute Sound. In the very early issues Harry favored moving magnets, in particular the ADC XLM, which could track at 0.75 grams in an SME 3009 arm (though the notoriously unreliable cantilevers would collapse if you looked at them the wrong way). But soon enough he became enamored of moving coils because he prioritized soundstaging (especially depth), transparency, detail, and “airiness” over tonal neutrality and timbral accuracy as such. Of course some of what Harry liked owed precisely to the mc limitations and defects I’ve already noted, their presence dips exaggerating depth and their undamped high-frequency resonances making for a rising top end that falsely accentuated detail and often gave the impression of an equally bogus “airiness” (it is my personal belief that those undamped resonances can also result in a subjective impression of faster transient response and increased dynamic range, two additional HP priorities). For these reasons and more, even some of Harry’s stable of reviewers questioned the folly of running mc’s unloaded. (“Would you drive a car without shocks?” I heard Dave Wilson ask on more than one occasion.) Regardless, whatever else can be said of Harry’s accomplishments in the history of audio journalism, for better or for worse he almost singlehandedly shifted the paradigm of the way audio reproduction in the home is evaluated, and mc’s were a crucial part of the dialogue.

Not that everyone went along with the shift. The late J. Gordon Holt, the father of subjective audio reviewing, was never convinced by mc’s, preferring mm’s, notably the Shure V15 Type IV, his long review of which, from 1979, is still a relevant argument as to the respective merits of mm’s versus mc’s (https://www.stereophile.com/content/shure-v15-iv-phono-cartridge). He was far from alone. Our own Robert E. Greene will use only moving magnets and moving irons; less doctrinaire, Neil Gader uses both mm’s and mc’s; Michael Fremer has never stopped writing about mm’s; and VPI’s Harry Weisfield is forthright in his preference for moving magnets. Most authoritative of all are the number of recording and disc-mastering professionals who are adamantine in their preference for mm’s. Stan Ricker, who has mastered countless audiophile LPs, said that it is virtually impossible to tell the mastertapes from the disc-lacquers he made from them when played back with a Shure V15 Type IV. Kavi Alexander, whose Water Lily Acoustics is responsible for some of the finest-sounding recordings ever made, has said that both the Technics EPC 100 Mk IV and the Audio-Technica ATML-170 reproduced his test pressings “very close to the actual sound of the [master] tape” and that “virtually no moving coil does so well; most have serious colorations” (quoted in an article by REG in TAS 94, 1994, available on his website [http://www.regonaudio.com/Stanton881AudioTechnicaATML70.html], a very detailed and wide-ranging discussion of mm’s versus mc’s that, like Holt’s, is still valid despite its age). And the late, legendary Doug Sax, of The Mastering Lab and Sheffield Lab, flatly declared that his Stanton 881 Mk II (retail price at the time, i.e., early Nineties, $180) in nothing more pretentious, I believe, than a Technics turntable (possibly the original 1200), was nearly indistinguishable from the direct mike-feed or the mastertape. It was on the basis of his long experience here that led Sax to make one of my favorite snarky comments in the history of audio: “I like moving coils . . . in other people’s systems.”

These thoughts and this review are prompted by a reader’s question several issues ago as to why we don’t review more moving-magnet pickups. So when Robert Harley asked me if I’d like to review some, I jumped at the opportunity. I should begin by saying that while the three pickups under consideration here are not expensive, and at least two of them are what many, perhaps most audiophiles and reviewers would relegate to the sub-economy category, I am nevertheless evaluating them by the same standards I would use if they were substantially more expensive. While I realize there is nothing to be done about the perfectly human tendency to believe that something that costs more money than something else must also be better, when it comes to mm’s versus mc’s, the better part of discretion calls for judgmental prudence: mc’s are intrinsically more expensive to make than mm’s. This is simply a fact of mc technology, but in and of itself not a fact that allows for any presumptions as to their superiority to less costly technologies. Nonetheless, once mc’s took over, audio reviewers, blissfully ignoring the engineers like Sax, Alexander, Ricker, et. al. who actually make their living mastering many of the recordings we use as references, soon consigned mm’s to the bargain bins, suitable for budget and entry-level systems but not something that any “real” audiophile would use in a “serious” system. 

I must further add that if you’re the kind of person for whom price always determines quality, you can probably stop reading now because it’s actually very difficult to find a really expensive moving-magnet pickup—expensive, that is, in the inflated terms of high-end audio—which I believe is more market driven than anything else. Why would a manufacturer want to go all out on a moving magnet that he could sell for a grand or two at most when there is a market full of consumers perfectly willing to spend several thousands for a moving coil? Yet, thankfully, a few do, the two manufacturers under consideration here being exhibits A and B. Audio-Technica, which has been manufacturing pickups since 1962, offers a range of mm and mc cartridges priced from $50 to $5000. Grado, a family-owned firm that has been in the phono pickup business since 1953, and manufactures moving irons from $75 to a staggering $12,000.

All three pickups were mounted in a Basis Vector IV tonearm on a Basis 2200 turntable feeding the moving-magnet phonostage of my McIntosh C52 preamplifier. The two mm’s were terminated with capacitance values recommended by the manufacturer (something the C52 allows with ease); I used the HiFi News and Record Review Test Record to ensure that arm/pickup resonances fell within the desired 8–12Hz range; all were tracked at the manufacturers’ recommended forces (if a range is specified, I went for the higher weight on the principle of better a half a gram too heavy than a quarter gram too light). As the Basis setup is far more expensive than would normally be used with pickups in this price range, I also checked them out on a $1999 Acoustic Signature Primus integrated turntable (see sidebar).

In view of the pricing of these three pickups I shouldn’t complain about the lack of tapped threaded holes in the cartridge bodies, but I sure wish they had them. It’s so long since I’ve had a pickup without them that I’d all but forgotten how time-consuming those infernal nuts and slotted (as opposed to Allen) screws make the installation and alignment process.

 

Grado Prestige Black2
Throughout the Seventies into the Eighties the go-to phono pickup for impecunious audiophiles was Grado’s FTE+1, which sold for the princely sum of $13. John Grado determined that adjusted for today’s economy this comes to $88, whereupon he knocked the price down to $75 so he could declare the Black2 an even greater bargain than its fondly recalled predecessor. The first thing I played was the old Jacqueline du Pré-Daniel Barenboim set of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas (EMI/Angel) and was glad of it. While I never heard du Pré live and the Gramophone says this recording doesn’t quite do justice to the fullness of her tone, it was certainly full, rich, warm, and vibrant as essayed by the Black2. This isn’t a state-of-the-art recording but its live-music vitality sometimes makes the more carefully coiffed studio products sound a bit synthetic, e.g., no attempt was made to separate the pair into opposite channels, so they’re clustered together in the middle as they were on stage. I so enjoyed what I was listening to that I went on to other cello recordings, then to singers, the cello being the instrument that most evokes the human voice.

Sinatra’s baritone sounded fabulous, as did Ella or Doris Day or Jacintha, and for good reason. Vocals all across the spectrum are where Grados traditionally shine: right in the midrange, the lower midrange, and the whole bottom end, so ample is their tone in this region. It should come as no surprise that orchestral recordings are likewise in this pickup’s wheelhouse. The second side of the Stokowski Rhapsodies album [RCA], with pieces by Liszt and Ionesco, begins with lower strings that are thrust forward, well defined, and very powerful, and so they sound. Moving on to even bigger stuff, my trusty Bernstein Carmen [DG, original pressing] brings colorful textures, solid images, and persuasive dynamic swings. The comings and goings of the children’s chorus are delineated with assurance in a generous soundstage. Missing, however, is the top-end brashness that is endemic to this recording, triangles losing some of their (slightly excessive) sparkle, cymbal clashes a little dim. Some might argue the Grado makes this recording sound more natural than the recording itself actually is: probably true, but still, I miss some of the atmospheric air and openness that I know are there. The music here is also complex texturally and often thickly scored, which the Black2 handles well, albeit without quite the inner clarity and delineation that I hear from my reference setup or the other two pickups under review.

Next up was Sheffield’s The Name Is Makowicz, with those lovely bells at the beginning. Here’s where the Black2’s top-end reticence becomes more problematic, losing the magical, shimmering clarity and definition that more neutral and extended pickups reveal. Still, the album as a whole was made for pleasurable listening, and when Phil Woods’ tenor sax comes in on cut two he’s almost aggressively present, as called for. The same is true of Sonny Rollins on the Way Out West LP [Acoustic Sounds]. Indeed, there’s almost nothing to complain about except that the whole top range of the upper percussion instruments lacks some of the metallic character they intrinsically have.

On Paul Simon’s Graceland [Sony Legacy audiophile edition], no surprise the Black2 acquitted itself superbly on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s a capella appearance, but when it came to the hard-driving material elsewhere I was never as engaged as I’m used to being, nor did it retrieve all the artificial reverb added to the electronic percussion effects or keep the many strands and lines clear in cuts like “The Boy in the Bubble” and “You Can Call Me Al.” My regular readers will know that I take no end of pleasure in ribbing our British brethren for the way they go on about “toe-tapping paciness.” But they occasionally have a point: I would not recommend this Grado to anyone who listens mostly to hard rock or any other hard-driving material. It’s not a pickup anyone is likely to describe as “fast.”

Likewise, when it comes to resolution: I personally find it more than adequate for detail retrieval, but it’s unlikely to appeal to any fan of mc’s. For example, at normal to loud levels it misses some of the piano chords that bleed through Jacintha’s headphones during the vocal-only introduction to “Moon River” on Autumn Leaves [Groove Note] (though it brought more of them out when I raised the level much louder than normal). Does this matter? Here’s what my wife said when I asked her how many she had spotted: “None. I was listening to her.” (Ah, if only criticism this sensible could find its way into audio discourse, including my own!) I must add that missing bleed-throughs or no, the Grado set Jacintha’s voice into relief with a tactile presence that would shock those snobs who insist that only mc’s are capable of true transparency.

Except for my usual torture tests—e.g., the high trebles in Kings College Choir’s recording of A Festival of Lessons and Carols [Argo]—the Black2 is a fine tracker. This pickup is easy to recommend to anyone who listens mostly to vocal and instrumental music of a traditional kind whether classical, pop, jazz, or folk. If it were a lot more expensive, it has the kind of sound around which cults readily develop.

Audio-Technica VM540ML
Audio-Technica VM760SLC

Audio-Technica’s VM line consists in five moving-magnet models of which the 540 is the middle, the 760 the flagship. I am treating them together because their sound is so similar that most of what I have to say about the one can be applied to the other without much qualification (though I’ll have more to say about their differences later on).

To all of you who doubt that when it comes to tonal balance the primary determinant of the sound of a phono system is the cartridge, I wish you could have been with me when I went from Grado’s Prestige Black2 to either of these two A-Ts. Suddenly the entire top end of the spectrum was back and then some. Those last three words are double-edged, but let that pass for a moment. Beginning with the du Pré-Barenboim Beethoven, it was instantly easier to hear what that Gramophone reviewer was talking about: coming right after the Grado, du Pré ’s cello sounded less rich, full, and projected yet surely truer to what was actually recorded. Without doubt this is because throughout the listening sessions the A-Ts’ top-to-bottom frequency response(s) struck me as more balanced, neutral, and even-handed, with little that really stuck out or called attention to itself. In direct comparison to the Grado, the two A-Ts are also airier and lighter on their feet, entirely predictable in view of the Black2’s prominence from the midrange on down.

There was also an improvement in resolution, the A-Ts catching every one of the piano chords behind Jacintha in “Moon River,” and in pretty much the same balance as I hear from the $4000 Ortofon Windfeld that is my reference, a pickup famous for its neutrality and resolution. And something else about the presentation of the voice: The way Groove Note mikes Jacintha, she is front and center always, unrealistically no doubt yet with tremendous presence, though not so much as from the Grado. With the A-Ts, her voice is still forward but in better balance with whatever instruments are accompanying her.

Switching to “Something’s Got to Give” (on the same album) brought a welcome rhythmic drive and involvement that were a big improvement over the Grado in these areas. The A-Ts were also remarkably unflappable on anything that was strong and driving, e.g., Ed Graham’s spectacular drum set on the M&K direct-to-disc Hot Stix—dynamic, powerful, with excellent definition, clarity, and control (it’s hard to imagine any Brit’s toes not tapping to the beat of these pickups). Owing to its bottom-end prominence, the Grado also handled this engagingly but without the A-Ts’ grab-you-by-the-lapels vigor. Ditto Graceland, which the A-Ts reproduced with great clarity, unobtrusive detail, and powerful dynamic range.

 

The A-Ts brought out all the Bernstein Carmen’s wonderfully exciting life and vitality, and with the full measure of the highs restored the brashness was back too, yet also the brilliance, air, and ambience that help make this performance so spectacular. One of my notes reads, “Really nice brass fanfare against the male chorus with plenty of atmosphere.” Nor is there any deficiency in weight and power (indeed, the bottom is probably a tad better defined). The soundstage is as wide as it should be, and the rendition of depth unexaggerated.

Both A-T models came close to essentially perfect neutrality save only the one tonal anomaly I hinted at with that “and then some”: a rising top end. After I had completed almost all the listening, I asked Audio-Technica if response graphs were available, and a company spokesperson graciously supplied them. (My request for graphs from Grado was denied.) I was unsurprised by what they showed: both pickups were impressively flat to 5kHz, then began a gradual, virtually identical rise to 10–11kHz of 4–5dB before more or less flattening out to 15kHz, after which there is a sharp slope downward. I don’t know why Audio-Technica didn’t iron this anomaly out, especially inasmuch as the company once manufactured the ATML-170, not only an REG reference but a pickup Hirsch-Houck Labs reported as yielding “one of the flattest frequency responses we have seen” at +/-0.5dB 40Hz–20kHz (!). (Subjective reviewers often questioned the validity of Julian Hirsch’s measurements but rarely their accuracy.)

With vocalists it’s fascinating to compare the effects of this rise to the Grado’s prominence from the midrange on down. Using visual metaphors, the Grado makes vocalists sound fleshier, as if they had put on several pounds; the A-Ts make them sound as if they’ve shed those pounds. The Grado enhances Frank’s baritone and Ella’s alto, the A-Ts render them essentially as they are. To my ears, there’s no question the A-Ts are the more accurate. On violins, all three pickups are very smooth, but the Grado deprives violins of some of their natural brilliance and sheen while the A-Ts mildly accentuate those very qualities yet in a way that’s not only not unpleasant but in some respects rather appealing, as if you were to move from, say, mid-hall to the first few rows (I was in fact reminded of an occasion when I heard the violinist Andrew Manze give a recital before a small audience in a large living room where I was sitting about five feet from the soloist).


I was also surprised that I never found the A-Ts’ rise in the least obnoxious during the evaluations, nothing even close to nasty, harsh, or edgy. I believe there are two reasons for this. One is that the rise is so smooth and gradual that in many systems it might go unnoticed as such. The other is that both pairs of my reference loudspeakers, Harbeth’s Monitor 40.2 and Quad’s 2805, are balanced to suggest some of the upper-two-octaves’ roll-offs that naturally occur in all concert venues, so no doubt some happy synergies are almost certainly taking effect here. Moreover, a fortuitous aspect to the A-Ts’ particular response anomaly is that consumers in the market for pickups this relatively inexpensive will probably already have preamps and integrated amps that are also at the moderate to low end of the price scale—in other words, precisely those electronics that actually have tone controls. A judicious cut, say, to eleven-o’-clock, from any competently designed treble-control is all you need to bring the A-Ts’ top end to flat. In fact, I employed a similar cut using the 10kHz control on my McIntosh C52’s built-in equalizer to entirely salutary effect.

Are there any differences between these two A-Ts worth noting? Most apparently in the tracking: both are excellent trackers, superior to the Grado, the 760 better still with my most difficult LPs, like the Kings College Christmas festival, where the most treacherous high-flying passages with the boys are more cleanly negotiated than with the other two pickups (though the 540 is superior to the Grado). And really concentrated critical listening suggests a difficult-to-define impression of greater authority in favor of the 760. For instance, it reproduced the Bernstein Carmen with slightly bolder swaths of color and swaggering rhythms, a tad more authentic ring to the triangles, fractionally more air and atmosphere around the whole soundstage, and a more open and expansive dynamic range. At the other end of the scale, play something like Jacintha’s luminous “Autumn Leaves” or her almost tragic rendering of “The Days of Wine and Roses” and the 760 disarms criticism by how beautifully it renders her exquisite phrasings and inflections, the depth of feeling she finds in the lyrics, all with just that little extra trace of nuance, refinement, and delicacy in the textures and the details.

I said I’d evaluate all these pickups without regard for pricing and I have. Yet taking price into consideration, I’d have to call both the 760 and the 540 real giant-slayers: spend little, get lots, and I mean lots, in return.

Conclusion
Despite whatever incidental criticisms I’ve made of these three pickups and despite the manifest colorations of the Grado, I was frankly astonished by the performance of which they are capable, and my astonishment is most emphatically not to my credit. Like far too many audiophiles and audio critics of my generation, I climbed aboard the moving-coil train decades ago and rarely looked any direction but straight ahead. My bad. While none of these pickups is going to displace the Windfeld as my reference, the Audio-Technica VM760SLC now easily joins it as an alternative due its remarkable flatness from the bottom all the way through the lower highs and its extraordinary composure with demanding sources. Meanwhile, this assignment has been truly ear-opening. With our editor’s permission, I hope to build upon it by investigating more models from other manufacturers. However they get there and despite the often-enormous differences in pricing, it’s obvious that moving-magnet and moving-iron pickups can bring listeners as close as their moving-coil competitors to the absolute sound of music.

Specs & Pricing

Grado Prestige Black2:
Type: Moving iron; elliptical
Recommended tracking: 1.5 gram
Output: 5mV
Price: $75

Audio-Technica VM540ML:
Type: Moving magnet; microline
Capacitance loading: 100-200pF
Recommended tracking: 1.8-2.2 gram
Output: 4mV
Price: $249

Audio-Technica VM760SLC:
Type: Moving magnet; line contact
Capacitance loading: 100-200pF
Recommended tracking: 1.8-2.2 gram
Output: 4mV
Price: $649

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