Is the high-performance audio industry stagnating? Are designers simply repackaging the past? Cynics claim so, but to me it seems that making that case gets harder by the day, as a parade of veterans continue to produce their best work.
Koetsu. Kiseki. Keebler. Products from all of these firms are shrouded in at least a bit of mystery. Do I believe that Koetsu cartridges are hand-built by an octogenarian samurai swordsmith, or that Kisekis are imported from the planet Vulcan, or that Keebler's cookies are baked by elves? Not really. But it does help to liven up the domestic audio scene.
"Look, sonsee what Scottie just beamed down."
"Gee, Dad, it's big and blue with a gold spot on the front, and it kind of looks like a cartridge."
"Nice guess, son. No ordinary cartridge, this one. Let me tell you about the Vulcan analog freak in Hong Kong..."
At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, I spoke with Lyra's Jonathan Carr about the Atlas. He told me that, rather than having started as a blank sheet of paper, the Atlas is an outgrowth of the Kleos ($2995), which I reviewed in January 2011, when I thought it Carr's best balanced design yet, even if it didn't have quite the resolution of the Titan i. Like the lower-priced Delos ($1650, reviewed in August 2010), the Kleos included Carr's New Angle technology, which mechanically aligns the coils to be perfectly positioned relative to the front and rear magnets when the stylus is in the groove.
It was around 7pm on Tuesday evening when I bumped into Nicole and Ms. Little on Newark Avenue, in downtown Jersey City. The girls were on their way to Kristen's shop, Kanibal Home, for their weekly book-club meeting. (Or was it Writing Club? Knitting? Screen printing? Butterfly pinning? I can never keep track.) I was on my way home, not to read, write, or listen to music, but . . .
"Hi, honey," Ms. Little said. "Going home to play with your cartridge?"
I made a face, nodded, sighed. Sensing some sharp-witted remark forming in Nicole's filthy mind, I beat her to the punch: "Yup, that's what I call it."
London phono cartridges still carry the famous Decca name (even if only in parentheses), but they are now produced by John Wright, a precision engineer and ex-Decca employee. Wright (not to be confused with his IMF and more recent TDL loudspeaker-designer namesake) was assigned the rights in 1989 by Decca's Special Products division (footnote 1), when the company's new owner, Racal, decided that they didn't want to be involved in the manufacture of audio equipment. Wright worked for 20 years in Decca's phono-cartridge division, where he gained a wealth of experience. As well as manufacturing the current range of London cartridges, he is also responsible for servicing and overhauling older Decca models.
Phono cartridgesalong with mothballs, hobnails, laundry bluing, hot-water bottles, lighter fluid, fur coats, and typewritersare among the most outdated of consumer goods: To most people who make their living in the world of consumer electronics, every new cartridge that hits the shelves is little more than a coughing spasm from the death-room down the hall. You can imagine, then, the welcome accorded new samples of the even more anachronistic pickup head, which combines phono cartridge, headshell, and barbell into a product one seldom sees outside the school librarian's junk drawer. New pickup heads, which tend to look the same as old pickup heads, are manufactured in pessimistically small quantities, and seldom get much attention.
I set out on a fishing trip but returned less than an hour later, empty-handed. You asked me, reasonably enough, "What happened?"
"I spent a half-hour digging in the garden for worms, but couldn't find any."
"You could have driven to Mr. Zetterstrum's farm, knocked on his door, asked his permission, and spent a few hours overturning the cowflops in his pasture. I'm sure you would have found one or two worms that way."
"You're right. I guess I didn't want to go fishing that badly."
The Brinkmann Pi cartridge's Benz-Micro heritage was obvious from the get-go. The motor is built to Brinkmann's specifications by Benz-Micro and includes a Micro-Ridge stylus. The cantilever material is not specified. The Pi's output is approximately 0.25mV, and its compliance is moderate at 15µm/mN. Recommended are a tracking force of 1.82gm, a VTA of 23°, and a resistive load of 600 ohms.
Helmut Brinkmann says he tweaked the Pi's design for a year and a half before he achieved the results he desired, including making the tiny set screws out of various materials. The Pi, with a body of machined aluminum designed to control the dissipation of resonant energy, weighs a hefty 14gm. Brinkmann supplies aluminum screws and titanium washers, which, he claims, in combination with special damping between the cartridge body and headshell, have been "sonically tuned to create a unique musical instrument."
Strain-gauge phono cartridges are rarely made and seldom heard; for most vinyl fans, they are more myth than fact. Panasonic once made one, as did Sao Win, but those were decades ago. I've heard about those two models for years but have never seen, much less heard one.
As if he's not got enough to do building his extensive lines of moving-iron cartridges, preamplifiers, amplifiers, and speakers, Soundsmith's Peter Ledermann also makes a full line of strain-gauge cartridge systems available with a choice of six user-replaceable stylus profiles. I believe the Soundsmith is the only strain-gauge cartridge currently made anywhere in the world. Ledermann says it takes him a full day to build one.
The unusual Miyajima Shilabe moving-coil cartridge ($2800) came to my attention through a friend, and I obtained one from the importer, Robin Wyatt of Robyatt Audio, a music lover and dedicated audiophile who imports gear as a sideline, and who lives nearby in New Jersey.
Although the idea of a $1000 moving-coil cartridge no longer shocks audiophiles, it is still not exactly what I'd call "Mainstream Hi-Fi." Audio magazine's 1984 Equipment Directorythe most complete such compendium published in the USlists only 10 models in this price range, not counting the Kiseki Lapis Lazuli at a whopping three-and-a-half grand! I have not tested most of these, nor have I tried any of the current models from the Japanese Koetsu firm, which was first with the gall to put a $1000 price tag on a cartridge. But I have tested a couple of one-granders during the past few years, and was sufficiently unimpressed to be hesitant about testing any more samples of what were beginning to look like nothing more than monumental ripoffs. So when Ortofon sent us the MC-2000, I was naturally less than enthusiastic about trying it.
If you asked me to name a single specific high-end audio component that could make or break a system, I'd name the Linn LP12 turntable. Of all the thousands of hi-fi products I've heard over the years, not a one of 'emnot a speaker, amplifier, or digital processorhas been able to draw me into the music, no matter what the associated componentry, like the LP12. I've heard the most highly regarded speakers/amps/processors fall flat in certain situations due to a lack of synergy with their surrounding systems, but I've never heard an LP12-based system that didn't put a smile on my face and make me green with envy.
In the early to mid-1980s, I read every high-end hi-fi magazine I could get my hands on. Among the consequences was my discovery that the Grado Signature Seven phono cartridgewhich was better and cheaper than the Signatures One through Sixwas the cartridge that God wanted me to have. So I cut back on all manner of luxuries, saved every dollar I could save, and a few months later brought a walletful of cash to Harvey Sound in midtown Manhattan, where an unpleasant man with a bad comb-over handed me a little pill bottle of a plastic tube.
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 toyssome 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.)