The Entry Level #23
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."
"A lot of strange things went through my head," Nicole admitted, "but I'll keep them to myself."
"I'm a lady."
Ms. Little laughed. Nicole and I spontaneously broke into a song-and-dance routine of the Tom Jones classic: She's a lady! Whoa-oh-oh, she's a lady! People on Newark Avenue paid no attention. But not even Tom Jones could hide my frustration.
"Seriously, what's wrong?" Nicole asked.
I explained that I'd been working on a review of a phono cartridge"the little thing on a record player that holds the needle"and it had been giving me headaches. "I can't figure out how to get it properly mounted."
Nicole giggled. "But you had no problem setting up Natalie or Kristen's turntables."
"Natalie and Kristen both use the Music Hall USB-1. That turntable includes its own special cartridge. All you have to do is screw it in."
"You're making this difficult for me, Stephen."
"I'm not playing around, Nicole. It's really hard."
"I give up."
"I'm about to give up, too."
How I got into this mess
About a year ago, Art Dudley surprised me with the gift of a gently used Dynavector DV 10X5 high-output moving-coil cartridge. AD had reviewed the Dynavector in our October 2003 issue. At the time, it sold for $360; the price has since risen to $450. Art told our readers, "This colorful, well-balanced, chunky-sounding cartridge played music extremely well, with a bonus of very fine stereo imaging. In other words, it's a great all-arounder. More money can buy more drama, impact, scale, and transparency . . . but the Dynavector DV 10X5 should give you most of what I think you need at a bargain price. Wildly, highly recommended."
With me, Art was less restrained and far more succinct: "This cartridge will change your life."
Change my life? How was I supposed to feel about that? I was intrigued and excited, but also scared. Change is messy and loud; it disrupts my sense of order, my illusion of control, my peace and quiet. But it can also be invigorating, rejuvenating, essential for growth. Recalling the advice of a close audiophile friend (Don't be afraid of the hi-fi!), I opened the Dynavector's tempting gold box, admired the brilliant red cartridge inside, and let my mind wander. I saw wild colors shooting from my loudspeakers. I saw three-dimensional images dancing in my listening room. I heard the irreparable tearing of tonearm leads, the sudden snap of a delicate cantilever, the death rattle of dropped headshell screws. I closed the terrible gold box, set it atop my LP shelves, and told myself that I would get to itin time. There was no need to rush.
The box stayed shut until this past April, when John Atkinson and I decided that I should review the new VPI Traveler turntable, which had made such a great impression at the New York Audio and AV Show. At $1300, the Traveler would be too expensive for inclusion in "The Entry Level," but it would make the perfect subject for my first full-length equipment report. When I realized that the Traveler doesn't come equipped with a phono cartridge, I thought of Art's Dynavector.
"The Traveler works great with the Dynavector!" VPI's Mathew Weisfeld told me.
That settled that. But installing the damn thing wasn't so easy.
Before I could use the Dynavector DV 10X5 on the VPI Traveler, I would have to become familiar with its sound on my Rega Research P3-24 turntablea fact that I found appealing for a few reasons: First and most important, there'd be no way to responsibly and confidently judge the Traveler's sound without first being able to characterize the Dynavector's sound. In an attempt to evaluate a specific component, that component should be the only variable introduced to the review system. Second, because my audiophile friends say that moving-coil cartridges are simply cooler than their moving-magnet counterparts, I've often wondered how my Rega would respond to an MC design like the Dynavector. And third, it had come to my attention, through several uncomfortable interactions not only with those same friends but also with disinterested hi-fi dealers, Stereophile readers, and anonymous forum posters, that my Rega's Elys MM cartridge is, to put it nicely, sorta lame. (Womp womp.)
"But waithow so?"
"It just kinda sucks, man."
Come to think of it, in the many times I've encountered various iterations of Rega's famed Planar 3, either at a show or at a shop, the turntable was never equipped with Rega's own Elys. The cartridge that most often accompanied the turntable was, in fact, the Dynavector DV 10X5. You'd think that would have been motivation enough, but I was still scared.
The task of reviewing the VPI Traveler was the push I needed to finally face my fears and make the change.
It was time to play with my cartridge.
My initial attempt at installing the DV 10X5 on my Rega P3-24 was entirely unsuccessful. When I opened the gold box and closely inspected the contents, I found, in addition to the cartridge itself, only a single mounting screwno other hardware whatsoever. What was I supposed to do with a single screw? In search of clues, I returned to Art's original review.
Turned out that Art had had two main complaints about the DV 10X5: First, the mounting holes weren't threaded, which made installation slightly more difficult than usual; and second, the Dynavector's shape and size mandated the use of the included cheap, shallow-headed mounting screws. And then I read, "With few exceptions, the first thing I do when I get a new cartridge is to gleefully throw away the mounting hardware supplied with it."
So I had a tantalizingly pretty, potentially life-changing Dynavector DV 10X5, but no way of attaching it to my Rega P3-24. It was the perfect opportunity to request a new sample and learn more about the DV 10X5. I contacted Dynavector USA's Mike Pranka, who informed me that the latest iteration of the cartridge has one very useful improvement: threaded mounting holes.
A shiny, new DV 10X5 was in my hands in no time. It came in a nice black box with all the necessary hardware.
The necessary hardware
What's the big deal about moving-coil cartridges? What makes them cooler than the moving-magnet variety? In our 2005 Buyer's Guide, Wes Phillips broke it down simply. In MM cartridges, a tiny magnet is attached to the cantilever at the end opposite the stylus. As the stylus traces an LP's groove, its side-to-side and up-and-down motions drive the magnets through small coils of wire, creating electrical signals that are then passed on to the phono preamplifier. In MC cartridges, the wire coils are attached to the cantilever and the coils move in front of fixed magnets. The coils are generally lighter than the magnets, making MC cartridges more responsive to the microscopic motions of the stylus in the groove. Improved response equals better sound: in general, more inner detail, greater drama, scale, and grace.
On the other hand, because the wire coils of an MC cartridge must be extremely small and the wire itself extremely fine, MC cartridges are usually more expensive than MM cartridges. Additionally, those light coils generate weaker signals than MM designs, requiring additional amplification in the phono preamplifier or by an outboard step-up transformerclearly a daunting proposition for the budget-minded audiophile.
The beauty of a high-output cartridge like the Dynavector DV 10X5 is that you get the benefits of an MC design without needing the extra gain. The cartridge, therefore, places less responsibility on the preampan especially attractive attribute, considering that high-quality (ie, high-output, low-noise) phono preamps are neither cheap nor easy to manufacture. But to achieve its higher output, the cartridge must use coils of higher mass, which, if not properly implemented, can minimize the benefits of the moving-coil design. To solve this problem, Dynavector employs a proprietary coil-winding machinea tool that no doubt contributes to the DV 10X5's attractive price. According to Mike Pranka, Dynavector "has been perfecting the art of coil-winding for decades." The company uses coils of exceptionally low mass for their given output: 2.5mV, in the case of the DV 10X5.