van den Hul Black Beauty MC phono cartridge
That's not to say you can't stroll into a vdH dealer and abscond with the goods there and then. You can send the cartridge to the Netherlands and have its suspension tightened up at a later time, if necessary. Should you be able to forgo immediate gratification for long-term pleasure (footnote 1), you can order one through your dealer made to your specifications. Production time for a Black Beauty, described as a "resolution-improved" version of the Grasshopper IV, is about two weeks.
Importer and erudite man about town George Stanwick was quick to point out that van den Hul is one of the few designers who constantly strives to maximize the interface of cartridge and phono preamp. To begin with, there are two available versions of the Black Beauty. The low-output specimen I examined generates 500µV and retails for $4000. The high-output variant boasts a mighty 1mV output and can be had for $5000, its higher cost reflecting the greater number of turns in its "24-karat enamel-insulated matched crystal" gold coils.
If you're running a low-noise solid-state phono preamp with lots of gain, the low-output version will be fine. A hybrid or all-tube phono preamp might be better suited to the high-output version. Then again, 1mV can swamp some MC phono inputs, so the 650µV Grasshopper IV GLA might be more appropriate. "The operating costs are the same in the sense that they both run $500 for a standard repair," George explained. "If you're straddling, the 'Hopper IV might be a safer bet." The IV GLA (gold, low output, AlNiCo magnet) runs $5000 and has been my favored reference cartridge since its debut.
The Black Beauty's body (really, the motor carrier assembly—there is no body as such) is fashioned out of black polycarbonate. The material and shape are said to "dramatically reduce" resonances excited by the motor. The bodiless construction eliminates another chatter-prone design element while keeping the weight down. For the record, the Black Beauty weighs a relatively svelte 8.6gm in its stocking feet.
The armature, around which the coils are wound, is square, which is said to increase output by 25% over a cruciform former. Therefore, phono-preamp gain can be reduced by the same amount, which in turn improves the signal/noise ratio by 25%, or about 2dB in real terms. vdH: "The more iron involved, the higher the output per turn. The resolution of very-low-signal levels is improved because the higher output level allows less masking of the groove information by preamp noise."
The square armature also results in a better contact area with the dampers for "a better grip of the rubber on the modulator." The inner support wire that positions the armature in its gap is selected for low metal-fatigue characteristics. "You will never find a loose coil 'hanging' around; even after a heavy accident, this very rarely occurs," saus vdH. The front and rear pole pieces are a full 2mm thick, reducing crosstalk between channels. A pair of silver eddy-current dampers around the magnet and its rear pole piece further reduce crosstalk.
The new cartridge doesn't use the AlNiCo magnets found in the IV, but a proprietary type said to deliver better channel separation and higher resolution. (Mum's the word chez vdH; I never discovered the material's identity.) The boron cantilever of the BB is shorter than the IV's, so the cartridge rides quite low. That means it's more robust, and "resistance against accidental mechanical overstress is increased." Compensating for its shorter shank, the Black Beauty is tapped with four mounting holes rather than two, ensuring proper overhang adjustment on a wide variety of arms.
The Beauty uses the same 1S variant of van den Hul's patented miter-shaped stylus as the 'Hopper IV and III. (The Grasshopper III is still available with silver or gold coils for between $2700 and $5000, via special order.) The cartridge incorporates a more-or-less standard vertical tracking angle (VTA) of 22°. Like all vdHs in my experience, it liked to run a touch down at the rear for best focus and tonal balance. Interestingly, the recommended load impedance was greater than 200 ohms, which I found to be right on the money.
Over the years, A.J. van den Hul has taken a fair amount of heat for the relatively high compliance of his 'Hopper cartridge line. Importer Stanwick explains it thus: "Some swear by a stiff cantilever, some insist unipivot arms are best, others air-bearing. It's all a matter of balance. Mounting a noncompliant cartridge to a fixed-pivot arm can be a little hard on the vinyl. A stiff cantilever might work well, though, on a more compliant arm. Conversely, a unipivot arm with a very compliant cartridge can prove to be a bit loosey-goosey, if you know what I mean, and that's not too good for the vinyl either.
"But because van den Hul cartridges are compliant, they're kind to the vinyl and address a broader range of approaches to analog playback. Remember, Jonathan, no one person has the single right answer. Higher compliance means our cartridges track better than some more stiffly sprung types. But that also means that arms with high horizontal mass need some stiffening of the suspension, as in your case."
I think my suspension needs a little stiffening too. Ahem. The 'Hopper III and derivative Symphonic-Line RG-8, two earlier, higher-mass designs that I'm familiar with, were a little touchy about the Forsell's undamped air-bearing, linear-tracking arm. The combined mass of the cartridge and arm developed some serious side-thrust as the stylus traced the lead-in groove to the beginning of the information area, and pulled up smartly there to begin playing. I took to lowering both cartridges rather gingerly into the beginning of the information-carrying part of the groove rather than the lead-in to avoid those lateral forces on the suspension. The sound was good enough to make futzing around like that worthwhile, although admittedly the situation wasn't ideal.
The newer, polycarbonate-bodied 'Hopper IV and Black Beauty don't suffer this indignity. Their lighter mass develops less lateral motion, and their suspensions are fully up to the task of taking the load, especially as tweaked for the Forsell. The only downside, if you can call it that, is a longer break-in time—say, about 60 hours rather than the 40 or so it took before. And a tighter suspension doesn't mean the Black Beauty can't be used in a damped pivoted arm like the Spotheim SpJ/La Luce, with which it mated beautifully. But since the cartridge on hand was specifically adjusted for an undamped linear-tracker, I primarily ran it on the Forsell.
The physics behind the armature is quite interesting. (Correct: I have no life.) It's made of what vdH calls "practically Weisz-domain–free iron." He goes on to explain: "Ferromagnetic materials don't change their magnetic polarization per atom, but rather in aggregates or domains. When the size of these domains is decreased, each magnetic field change is responded to by the material's polarization in a higher number of smaller steps. This expresses itself in a reduced-modulation noise level. The modulator's square armature shape is also very helpful here. The result is a signal waveform practically free of steps. The much-reduced noise floor results in an enhanced sense of resolution and spaciousness. This noise floor is the sum of modulation noise plus surface noise. With the strongly reduced modulation noise, only the record-surface noise is left. The extremely-low-level groove information, therefore, is no longer masked, and that means the sense of spaciousness and resolution improves a lot."
That's why Mr. van den Hul has long advised against fluxbusting moving-coil cartridges. He explains that degaussing reduces the number of those pesky "Weisz magnetic complexes" in the magnets. Fluxbusting can help in realigning those complexes that have become disorganized over time, however. On the other hand, the cure may be worse than the disease, as fluxbusting reduces the number of these complexes and realigns the atoms into larger, less refined groupings. As a result, postulates vdH, you'll need to 'bust your cartridge more often, with a gradual loss in resolving power. It may sound better after each degaussing, but the continued reorganization of the "magnetic complexes" becomes more coarse, as does the sound.
I'll take his word for it.
Setting up the Black Beauty was fairly routine. I'm used to handling van den Huls, but just a little care and forethought make them (relatively) easy to mount. The cantilever, slightly less protuberant than the 'Hopper IV's, seemed a tad less inviting of disaster in the form of sticky fingers, pets, and cleaning ladies with strip-mining in their hearts.
Footnote 1: Then you're not an audiophile!