Koetsu Urushi MC phono cartridge Robert J. Reina October 2001
Michael Fremer reviewed the Koetsu Urushi in the October 1998 Stereophile (Vol.21 No.10); what follow are my experiences with having the cartridge retipped and rebuilt.
For years I've been a rabid fan of Koetsu phono cartridges, for their seductive midrange and for their record of providing years of trouble-free play with no noticeable degradation in sound. For more than a decade I've owned two samples of the Urushi, including the very last unit Sugano the elder exported to the US. (The original Koetsus were handmade by Sugano-sama.) Of all the Koetsus I've had over the years—including two generations of the Black, an original Rosewood Signature, and a Platinum Pro IV—I prefer the Urushi's overall performance, which combines the magical midrange of the Koetsu line with definition, extension, and transient capabilities at both frequency extremes that are all superior to those of the other models I've owned.
So I was more than a bit miffed when, a few years ago, UPS destroyed my main Urushi—the cantilever was yanked in shipping—and I had to switch to my spare (at the time, I couldn't afford the high cost of retipping). Then, one day last summer, I awoke to find the diamond stylus of Urushi #2 missing from the end of the cantilever! I didn't know if it was a freak adhesive failure or a wayward snag, but I was now faced with the need to repair one or both cartridges.
I decided to ship both cartridges to Expert Stylus Company in England (footnote 1). Expert is the largest manufacturer of diamond styli in the world, and does a fairly high-volume business supplying replacement styli to everyone from the Library of Congress to rabid audiophiles. Their current price list details 176 separate sizes and shapes of styli, and they can get you anything from an authentic replica stylus for an old 78rpm player from the mechanical age to a complete rebuild of an expensive moving-coil cartridge, exactly to the original manufacturer's specifications. Although there are other cartridge companies that will rebuild any cartridge, they may not fit the same stylus size and shape as the original (van den Hul, for example); this, of course, will result in a cartridge different from the original design.
Legend has it that, during the three or four years Koetsu was not in business (about a decade ago), their UK distributor was sending buyers' cartridges to Expert for retipping and rebuilding. The word on the street then was that an Expert rebuild sounded indistinguishable from the original cartridge, and cost a fraction of a genuine Koetsu rebuild.
So I took a gamble and gave Windham Hodgson, Expert's owner and chief cartridge guru, carte blanche to do whatever he felt necessary to both cartridges to bring them back to original factory spec, including a replacement boron cantilever for the one destroyed by UPS. (Though he happily did this, he felt a sapphire cantilever would have sounded better. Expert also offers cantilevers of boron and aluminum.) The only deviation was in the diamond stylus's front radius. For Koetsus, Expert uses a stylus with a front radius of 17µm, a bit smaller than the factory spec. Hodgson claims that this can reduce record wear.
When my Urushis were returned, I stuck the one with the replaced cantilever in my spares drawer, and have spent the last nine months listening to the less damaged one (the one missing its stylus). When I first cranked up the rebuild, I was amazed to note that optimizing the cartridge in my Immedia tonearm required minimal readjustment of overhang, azimuth, tracking force, antiskating, and VTA compared with my original Koetsu setup, which had been installed and fine-tuned by Mikey Fremer with his trunkful of Wally gear (and his dual-mono Bernese hounds). In terms of tonal balance, dynamics, liquidity, and soundstaging, the rebuilt cartridge sounded identical to my memory of the original, with all of that cartridge's liquid, seductive midrange and tight, dynamic, extended frequency extremes intact. The Expert rebuild, however, seemed to extract a bit more inner detail than either of my original samples had—perhaps due to the slightly smaller frontal radius of the Expert stylus. The difference certainly couldn't have been due to lack of wear—the last Urushi I'd listened to had been my spare, which I'd played for less than 200 hours before the stylus disappeared.
I've saved the best for last. I was assured by Hodgson that my fees were the same fees Expert charges everyone; I was not given a reduced rate because I'm a Stereophile reviewer. Expert's rebuild of the cartridge that still had its cantilever entailed repairing the fractured cantilever at the stylus end (which required grinding and diamond lapping), a new stylus, the removal of magnetic-particle buildup from the coil, auditioning, and return shipping from the UK, including insurance. Though the cost will vary with the exchange rate, my bill was $321. (The pound sterling has since weakened by 20% against the dollar.) The second cartridge had all the same work done, plus the new boron cantilever. My bill: $429. Each fee was a fraction of typical factory rebuilds, which, for expensive moving-coils, tend to cost around 50% of the cartridge's original retail price.
I highly recommend the Expert Stylus Company to those who want to retip or rebuild their favorite moving-coil cartridge but can't quite cough up the bucks for a four-figure factory rebuild. Expert's service is cheap enough to allow audiophiles to experiment with various MC cartridges by buying old, worn, or damaged units and sending them to Expert to rebuild—which is exactly what a friend did with my old Koetsu Rosewood Signature.—Robert J. Reina
Footnote 1: Expert Stylus Company, P.O. Box 3, Ashtead, Surrey KT21 2QD, England, UK. Tel: (44) (0)1372-276604. Fax: (44) (0)1372-276147. Web: www.78tours.com/Expert_Stylus_Company.htm (not an offical site).