Listening #72

I'm old enough to remember when "Made in Japan" was an insult. As a child, I saw that phrase on only the cheapest or craziest toys—some stamped out of tin and cupped together by a tab with a fiendish edge, some molded from a distinctively smooth, brittle plastic. The latter included a wind-up bunny on wheels that my father brought home one day: my favorite toy, ever. (It came with a double-barreled dart gun that I seldom used, partly because I loved the bunny too much to shoot it, and partly because the suction-cup darts didn't stick to that kind of plastic in the first place.)

Things changed. By the time I was in sixth grade, my friends and I had transistor radios, all made in Japan. They looked gaudy and cheap, but worked beautifully well. In the daytime, after school, they picked up the New York City AM stations we longed to hear (I can still remember how the Cyrkle's "Red Rubber Ball" sounded on mine), and at night they pulled in music from as far away as Detroit. It was a magical time, now lost to us forever, having been flushed down the toilets of talk and technology.

Things changed again. By the time I graduated from high school, we all wanted amplifiers from Pioneer or Sansui, just as we all wanted to drive Datsuns or Toyotas.

Such were the growing pains and pleasures of Japan's postwar industrial economy, the so-called "Japanese miracle" of the 1960s. What we didn't know—we, in this instance, being the myopic consumers of the no less miraculous West—was the nearly inestimable importance of craftsmanship within Japan's 16,000-year-old homogeneous culture: No one on Earth understands and appreciates sheer quality more than the Japanese. And for as long as I've been alive, Japanese artisans have created goods that stand alongside, if not above, the things made anywhere else in the world.

But the key word is artisan. Think high price, limited production, less-than-universal appeal. Think handmade knives and saws, handwoven fabrics, hand-cut papers, hand-painted stoneware and ceramics.

Think mono phono cartridges!

Between formats
Mono was the only game in town during most of the history of recorded sound, from Emil Berliner's commercial discs of 1894 to the first stereo discs of 1958. But most of the recordings made during that time exist only as 78rpm shellac records: Microgroove mono LPs didn't come around until 1948. Thus, given both a very long life and a willingness to buy into every new analog format as it was introduced, your collection of flat, grooved records would represent 54 years of 78s and 50 years of stereo LPs—but only 10, possibly 20 years of mono LPs.

The point being: Despite the sheer, undeniable brilliance of the music recorded during that period of time—historic recordings by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Walter Gieseking, Fritz Kreisler, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Josh White, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and more—and despite what I or a handful of other mono enthusiasts might tell you about the wonders of well-reproduced mono sound, the market for mono cartridges is and always will be limited. To put it mildly.

That's fine with Haruo Takeda, the former Audio-Technica employee who went on to design and build phono cartridges for Krell, Mark Levinson, and Cello, and who even lent his talents to Koetsu in that company's early days. Approximately 30 years ago, Takeda-san began making his own artisanal phono cartridges, which he sold under the trade name Miyabi—a word that can be traced to a Heian emperor's court, and describes a subtle, refined, "toned-down" aesthetic infused with sparkle and grace.

In recent years, Haruo Takeda has made Miyabi cartridges specifically for the Japanese audio company 47 Laboratory and its American distributor, Sakura Systems (footnote 1)—an arrangement that resulted in the enduringly well-received Miyabi 47 ($4400), a low-output moving-coil cartridge that's among my own references. Now Sakura Systems has begun shipping Takeda-san's first new-production cartridge in years, the Miyabi Mono ($2800).

Although the Miyabi Mono is outwardly identical to the Miyabi 47, it's a different animal underneath, with higher output (0.7 vs 0.3mV) and higher DC resistance (3.4 vs 2 ohms). The new cartridge has the same aluminum-alloy cantilever and line-contact stylus of the Miyabi 47, but Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems says the Miyabi Mono was designed specifically and exclusively for mono playback. In particular, according to Segoshi, the Mono's cantilever suspension is intended not to move in the vertical plane at all, so that its motor will respond exclusively to mono (horizontal) groove modulations. Thus the new Miyabi should never be used to play stereo records, he says, lest its suspension be damaged by the steady tattoo of vertical bumps (footnote 2).

Segoshi sent me a review sample of the Miyabi Mono a few months ago that I've now used in two different tonearms: the Naim Aro and, by means of the Yamamoto HS-1A ebony headshell, the EMT 997. I've also played the Mono through a number of different step-up devices: active preamp boards for DNM 3D Primus and 3D Six preamplifiers, plus step-up transformers from Lundahl, EAR, Auditorium 23, and Koetsu. With regard to passive gain devices, the new Miyabi resembles the old in its preference for the lowest-impedance primary coils. The recommended downforce is 2gm, and the distance between its stylus tip and the cartridge mounting bolts is such that the Miyabi Mono exhibited nearly perfect van Baerwald overhang in the Naim Aro's fixed headshell.

I started, as I often do, with good keyboard recordings: the above-mentioned Walter Gieseking, along with Wanda Landowska's very deliberate traversal of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (RCA Victor LM-1080). In particular, the former's wicked-fast performance of Beethoven's Sonata 21, "Waldstein" (Angel 35024), had sonic presence and musical flow in abundance. The Miyabi played Gieseking so well that I could relax and enjoy the humor he found in the piece—as well as the humor he found in much of Debussy's Children's Corner suite (Angel 35067). In both cases, the Miyabi Mono gave an explicit account of Gieseking's pedal technique during his clear, uncluttered legato phrases. Landowska's Goldbergs were tidy and compelling, but my worn copy of that record showed the Miyabi to be more easily perturbed by surface noise than the Lyra Helikon Mono—although whether that had to do with the former's motor or stylus tip, I can't even guess.



Footnote 1: Sakura Systems, 2 Rocky Mt. Rd., Jefferson, MA 01522. Tel/Fax: (508) 829-3426. Web: www.sakurasystems.com/intro.html.

Footnote 2: For that reason, out of respect to manufacturer and distributor, I decided against performing the "test" I usually apply to mono pickups: that of playing the vertical-only (left-minus-right) track on the Hi-Fi News Test Record and listening for rejection of the 300Hz tone.

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