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.
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."
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.
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mothballs, hobnails, laundry bluing, hot-water bottles, lighter fluid, fur coats, and typewritersare among the most outdated of consumer goods: To most people who make their living in the world of consumer electronics, every new cartridge that hits the shelves is little more than a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.
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.)
The audio industry may have lost a legend and a prolific innovator in Henry Kloss a few years back, but it still has another affable, creative eccentric in Peter Ledermann. In the mid-1970s, Ledermann was director of engineering at Bozak, where, with Rudy Bozak, he helped develop a miniature bookshelf speaker and a miniature powered subwoofer. Before that, Ledermann was a design engineer at RAM Audio Systems, working with Richard Majestic on the designs of everything from high-power, minimal-feedback power amplifiers and preamplifiers to phono cartridge systems. He was also an award-winning senior research engineer at IBM, and the primary inventor of 11 IBM patents.
In 1962, when tennis rackets were made of wood, newspeople were known for challenging the government, and the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks was in its second year (the show closed in 2002), Nippon Columbia's Denki Onkyo (or Den-On) division introduced to the professional audio world a brand-new moving-coil phono cartridge. Developed in cooperation with the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, the DL-103 was one of the first attempts at making a truly wide-bandwidth stereo cartridge that nonetheless could withstand the rigors of back-cueing. The DL-103 was a nearly instant success with broadcasters, and its popularity spilled over into the world of domestic audio.