Stanton 681EE & 681A phono cartridges

Superb tracking ability, very good imaging and extremely smooth frequency response, plus unusual freedom from mounting problems make this one of the best pickups available and, quite possibly, the best all-around performer we have encountered.

Like all Stanton pickups, the 681 sports a small integral, freely pivoted brush to sweep dust out of the grooves ahead of the stylus and also, incidentally, to take some of the normal inward-pulling side thrust away from the stylus. The brush does not appear to have any detrimental effect when reproducing warped discs, and may actually be of some small advantage on eccentric discs.

There are two versions of the Stanton 681: the spherical 681A, which is advertised "for recording channel calibration," and the elliptical 681EE "for critical listening." The cartridge body is identical in both models; the only difference is in the plug-in stylus that is supplied with the pickup, and in the signal outputs. The elliptical puts out 3.5mV at 5cm/s velocity, and the spherical yields 4.5mV. Both are well within the range of modern preamps.

Sound Quality
Sonically, the 681EE has a rather distant sound, as though the whole middle range were slightly depressed, and a high end that sounds subtly tipped up but very smooth and clean. Tracking ability was judged to be virtually identical with either the spherical or elliptical stylus, except on a very few "problem" discs whose apparently misshapen grooves make them untrackable with any spherical pickup. On these, the elliptical was noticeably cleaner than the spherical. Except for certain reservations about the record-wear proclivities of ellipticals (neither proven nor disproven at this juncture), we would recommend the elliptical version for use in situations where the speakers or room acoustics tend toward midrange forwardness and a soft high end. Separation in both pickups was excellent.

The 681A is a more natural-sounding pickup than the 681EE, producing a good semblance of original-tape sound from most discs. String tone is rather more resinous and gutty than from the 681EE, which has a tendency to glorify rather than to reproduce realistically. The 0.7-mil spherical stylus has a recommended maximum tracking force of 3gm, which is well below the point of groove damage for that tip radius, but in one of the two samples we tested, the stylus retracted into the cartridge body after about an hour at that force. Reducing this to 2.5gm eliminated the foldup and did not perceptibly impair tracking. The second sample tested showed no signs of foldup at 3gm, and like the first sample, appeared to do just as well at 2.5gm as it did at 3gm, so we conducted the rest of our tests at 2.5gm.

At that force, the sound was very slightly cleaner than that from our standard pickup, the 4RC, when reproducing most discs. On loudly cut recordings, the 681A was noticeably cleaner than the Decca 4RC and, although perhaps not quite as clean as the Shure V15-II when reproducing the most appallingly overcut discs, was markedly less colored.

Also by way of comparison, the 681A was judged to have considerably more openness and detail than the 4RC, partly because of its subjectively superior separation and partly because of its rather more-extended high-frequency response. Transparency from the 681A was very good—almost as good as that of the 4RC—but the 681EE sounded slightly more veiled.

One note of interest: We have tended to sneer at Stanton's recent advertisements which make the preposterous claim that you can identify the concert hall when you listen to a Stanton pickup. Well, you just might be able to, because for some odd reason there does seem to be more "hall feeling" (when there was actually a hall involved) from the 681A than we are accustomed to hearing, and it does enhance the realism. There is nothing about the measured response that would account for this, so we can only guess that it has something to do with unusually wide separation plus unusually good phase characteristics.

We encountered no problems with inductive or ground-loop hum interference, and the 681's 5.5gm weight is low enough to take advantage of low-mass tonearms, while being heavy enough to fall within the adjustment range of most universal arms. The distance between its mounting centers and stylus tip is a shade more than that of most other pickups, so correct tangency fill demand either that the arm be mounted specifically for it or that it be used in an arm with adjustable tangency.

The Capacitance Issue
One precaution: Like all magnetic pickups, the 681's internal inductance will resonate at some high frequency against the capacitance of the tonearm cables. With most pickups and arms, this resonant response peak occurs well above the audio range where it has little audible effect. The Stanton 681, however, has somewhat higher inductance than usual, and will resonate with many arms well within the audible range, producing a tipped-up, zippy high end and a marked exaggeration of any groove breakup that may be taking place during very loudly recorded passages. If the 681 sounds really cruddy to you, chances are you're tangling with a case of excessive cable capacitance.

The early blurb sheets for the 681—many of which are still in circulation—list the pickup's inductance as 500mH, and recommend a maximum cable capacity (per channel) of 275pF. Later blurb sheets, reflecting a change that was made in the pickup some time ago, cite an inductance of around 800mH, but somehow, someone forgot to change the capacitance recommendation, which still reads "275pF." With a capacitance of 275pF, 800mH would resonate at around 11kHz, which is well within the audible range for most listeners.

We would consider 15kHz to be the lowest frequency at which resonance should be allowed to occur, and thus recommend using the 681 with no more than 150pF of total capacitance across each output. The table shows the measured output capacitances of some currently available tonearms. If you find that your arm has too much capacitance for the 681 you might shorten the cables as much as possible, or replace them entirely with ones having lower capacitance per running foot. Most cable catalogs list this specification for shielded audio cables.

The 681, like all American pickups, has an appreciable amount of stylus damping, which tends to make it less dependent upon tonearm damping but may also make it rather more prone to changes in performance due to long-term stiffening or deformation of the damping material. Damping stability is one thing we cannot evaluate in our tests, but if the 681's damping proves to be stable, and stylus foldup is not a common problem, the 681A will become our new standard pickup with the 681EE running it a close second, at least until something even better comes along.

Table: Tonearm Cable Capacitances
Acoustic Research: 125pF
ADC 40: 300pF
Audio & Design: 150pF
Decca International: 300pF
Ortofon RS212: 140pF
Rabco: 130pF
SME 3009: 130pF
Sony RJA237: 130pF

Stanton Magnetics, Inc.

mikerr's picture

Thanks, loved hearing about this Stanton Cartridge.
I have had a Stanton 881S for years and years and love it and would love to know your findings of this one as-well. I appreciate it !

John Atkinson's picture
mikerr wrote:
I have had a Stanton 881S for years and years and love it and would love to know your findings of this one as-well.

I checked the review index and it appears that Stereophile never reviewed the 881S, just these two versions of the 681.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile