Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood MM phono cartridge
As far as cartridges are concerned, I doubt you can beat the high resolution, delicacy, and transparency of today's best low-output moving-coil designs, despite their high prices (as well as those of suitably hi-rez, high-gain phono stages). My choice for some time has been the Koetsu Urushi ($4000), which combines Koetsu's musically rich and seductive midrange with extended, tight, and fast articulation at the frequency extremes.
At the opposite end of the price scale, I've been a big fan of the Grado Reference MM cartridges, which have the natural, evenly balanced timbral presentation of my Koetsu Urushi but with much lower levels of detail resolution, transparency, and transient articulation. The Grado Reference Platinum ($300) and Sonata ($500) remain bargains in today's analog marketplace. (See my reviews of both in the June 1998 Stereophile, Vol.21 No.6.)
I was quite smitten by my current reference in affordable moving-magnet cartridges, the Clearaudio Aurum Beta S ($450), which combines levels of detail resolution, articulation, and transparency that approached those of the more expensive moving-coils, as well as the most neutral tonal balance of any cartridge I've heard. (See my reviews in Vol.23 No.4 and Vol.24 No.6.) Furthermore, the Aurum Beta S, with its metal coupling plate (lead in the original, stainless steel in the current model), far exceeded the performance of the original Aurum Beta with plastic coupling plate ($350) in the areas of bass extension, definition, and high-level dynamics.
So when Clearaudio offered their latest moving-magnet cartridge, the $750 Virtuoso Wood, which they claim provides "enhanced performance with added musicality" compared with the Aurum Beta S, I couldn't wait to give it a spin.
Like the Aurum Beta S, the Virtuoso Wood is a moving-magnet cartridge with a fairly long aluminum cantilever. Clearaudio claims that the design highlight of both models is the matching of very strong magnets with the cantilever-stylus assembly. This is intended to reduce the moving mass of the generator in order to optimize phase coherence and transient characteristics. The primary differences between the cartridges are that the Virtuoso uses a coupling plate of Fenambuk wood instead of stainless steel, which significantly reduces the cartridge's mass (from 10 to 6gm); and stricter tolerances for linearity, frequency response, magnet strength, and trackability. The Virtuoso Wood also offers slightly higher output, at 3.6mV.
Although the Virtuoso Wood's stylus can't be replaced by the user, distributor Musical Surroundings offers complete cartridge replacement when the cartridge is worn or damaged, as well as a trade-up program. The Virtuoso was quite easy to mount and fine-tune on my trusty, affordable analog cartridge review rig: a Rega Planar 3 turntable, Syrinx PU-3 tonearm, and Ringmat Developments Ringmat.
I was curious to hear how much Clearaudio might have improved on the Aurum Beta S. Sure, the Aurum didn't have the last layer of resolution, articulation, and transparency of the best low-output MCs, but its flat, extended frequency response was beyond reproach: a dead-neutral midrange, pristine and extended highs, and thunderingly clean and tuneful bass. The Beta S's articulation of transients was flawless, as was its ability to portray the subtle dynamic inflections you hear in live music. For this review, I spent a long time revisiting the Aurum Beta S, then switched to the Virtuoso Wood and played the same recordings.