The ceiling remains, but the floor has changed: Benz-Micro continues to offer a selection of rather expensive phono cartridges, including their well-established LP Ebony ($4700) and Ruby 3 ($3000) models. But in recent years, my attention has been drawn by the succession of budget Benzes: first, the Gliders ($795), then the ACEs ($550), and now the MC20E2-L ($199).
Every two or three years my family and I travel to Disney World in Orlando, Florida—one of those places I used to think I'd hate, but which I always enjoy in spite of myself. No such trip would be complete without visiting the Mitsukoshi department store at Epcot Center, which represents the pinnacle of Japanese consumer culture. At the Epcot Mitsukoshi store—the 430-year-old company's only US location—one can buy the finest of everything, including the rarest and most expensive writing papers and inks, the most exquisitely crafted pottery, and the loveliest freshwater pearls on Earth. Young shoppers are accommodated with the latest toys, trends, and technology—but there's nothing frantic or cheap about the manner in which they're offered. The watchword at Mitsukoshi is quality, and the presentation borders on being artistic.
These are great times for analog, and I'm happy to have played a small part in the revival, but recently the demand for some products has outstripped supply; getting review samples has been next to impossible. I've requested an Audio Research PH7 phono preamplifier for literally years now, but ARC can't build them fast enough, so they don't need a review. The more they sell, the greater the buzz, and the greater the buzz, the more e-mails I get from readers asking for a review. It's not nice to not be needed.
Back in 2000, when Lyra introduced the Helikon moving-coil cartridge, which replaced the then six-year-old Clavis D.C., the company inexplicably retained the Clavis D.C.'s retail price of $2000. This was inexplicable because the Helikon's revolutionary design was new from the ground up, and because audiophiles—like most, if not all, consumers—perceive price to be a reflection of quality and performance.
I see a pattern taking shape: Roy Gandy's Rega Research offered their first CD player in 1996, which was 13 years after the medium was introduced to the public. Now, in 2006, some 50 years after Joe Grado designed and sold the first moving-coil phono cartridges, Rega has released one of those. The year 2016 may see the first Rega fluoroscope, or perhaps wire recorder. And it'll be a good one, I'm sure.
There are a thousand different ways to make a loudspeaker. A hundred to make an amplifier. And at least a million to make a piece of wire. But here's the deal with a moving-coil phono cartridge: stylus, cantilever, rubber grommet, tensioning wire, coils, magnet, output pins, and maybe a body. Done.
The observation has been made, often and well, that audio writers are out of touch when it comes to judging value for money. For one thing, we get to live with exotic gear for months at a time, without spending a penny. For another, when we do decide on a more permanent upgrade, we usually get the opportunity to buy at wholesale—at a so-called "industry accommodation price," extended to us because, after all, we are a part of the industry.
My wife and I have this ongoing riff: We try to make each other laugh by sharing examples of words we've looked at too quickly and misread—mistaking offered for overfed, bagel for kegel, that sort of thing. All very subtle and dry and Garrison Keillor. You can hear the belly laughs from there, can't you?
The plumber's here, and he says we need a new hot-water heater because the one we have now isn't maintaining the correct water temperature, and because it's been in use for nine years. "And the thing is, this is a five-year heater." I responded by repeating his last six words, only louder, and with decorations. And I couldn't help thinking: I've had phono cartridges that lasted longer than that. And none of them have attacked me in the shower when my wife flushed the toilet, either.
Even poor people fly. You see them getting on and off planes with their NASCAR hats and their poor friends and their poor relatives waving to them at the gate. Flying is what everybody does nowadays, but it used to be just for the rich. It's hard to remember a time when the phrase jet set was charged with something other than irony.
There is no better time than now to invest in audiophile-quality vinyl playback gear. I'll bet even Mikey Fremer would be surprised at the amount of new vinyl releases and reissues and used vinyl available to music-lovers today. And the choices available to audiophiles seeking turntables, tonearms, phono cartridges, and phono preamps is greater than it's been in a decade.
Ten years ago, I'd probably have got pretty good odds from industry insiders on a bet that Stereophile would still be reviewing phono cartridges into the new millennium. Linn's Arkiv B may not be a brand-new design—I heard my first sample in mid-1997—but phono-cartridge technology is about as stable as anything in hi-fi today. This Stereophile review is long overdue.
A.J. van den Hul calls the Black Beauty a phono cartridge "just for friends." In a way, this Black Beauty was made specially for me—it's been tweaked for an undamped linear-tracking arm. Says so right here on the box: "Forsell Version." But before you explode, know that Mr. van den Hul will be pleased to do the same for you. He'll adjust the suspension of any Black Beauty– or Grasshopper-series cartridge for your arm and 'table. Or, should you specify, for "the preamp and load impedance, a particular brand of records to be played, the type of music generally played (jazz being more dynamic and classical more spacious and detailed), and other personal/sound preferences."
Among the more intriguing audio-related announcements this year was that Koetsu phono cartridges were once again available in the States. In fact, they're being handmade in limited quantities by the sons of founder Yoshiaki Sugano.
What makes a phono cartridge worth $3500 or $4000? Pride of ownership? Snob appeal? Sound? Tracking ability? Exotic materials? Styling? Labor cost for skilled artisans? Special ether? Cool wooden box? All of the above?