Analog Corner #285: Top Wing Suzaku, HiFiction Thales, Analysis Plus

For a phono cartridge to generate current and voltage, something must move: a coil of wire (as in a moving-coil cartridge), or a magnet (as in a moving-magnet type), or a tiny piece of iron (a moving-iron type). In those rare cartridges that depart from the electricity-generating principle of the ones described above, it can be a displacement-measuring device in which a moving shutter modulates a light source to vary a supplied voltage (as in an optical cartridge), or one in which voltage is modulated when a tiny chip of silicon crystal is squeezed by a moving element, which varies the chip's electrical resistance (as in a strain-gauge cartridge). But regardless of what it is that moves in a cartridge, something has to.

Top Wing Suzaku (Red Sparrow) coreless straight-flux cartridge No.1
The Japanese company Top Wing (footnote 1) has recently created a buzz among vinyl fans with its two cartridges, the Seiryu (Blue Dragon) and Suzaku (Red Sparrow). Top Wing is coy in describing their "coreless straight-flux" technology. In their description of the Blue Dragon, they claim that the system "was conceived by Hiromu Meguro, former design assistant of the Grace F-8 cartridge and principal designer of [the] F-9 cartridge, when he was with Shinagawa Musen Co."

Old-timers like me well remember those cartridges, as well as the products Meguro helped develop during his time at Nakamichi: the TX-1000 and Dragon CT turntables, which featured a unique Center-Search mechanism that compensated for eccentrically pressed records. Everyone is still waiting for the return of that major enhancement of vinyl playback—though it must be accomplished without negatively affecting the rest of the turntable's performance! It was during his time at Nakamichi that Meguro conceived his coreless straight-flux design: "Then, the notion that moving magnet (MM) cartridges were inexpensive and moving coil (MC) cartridges were of higher grade pushed to the back of Mr. Meguro's mind this system's concept, which was categorized as an MM device despite dramatic differences compared with conventional MM cartridges." Pushed to the back of his mind—until recently.

However, the website also states that the Blue Dragon was actually "designed by Yasuhiro Noguchi, president of First Mechanical Design Corp. Now active in laser technology, a field in which ultra-high levels of precision are required, Mr. Noguchi also was involved in the design of the TX-1000 and Dragon CT players when at Nakamichi." They were a team? This gets somewhat confusing!

What, precisely, does "coreless straight-flux" mean? The web pages devoted to the Blue Dragon and Red Sparrow say that the cartridges have no core material, but that their coils are arranged in a V shape directly above the magnet: "With that, the stylus tip picks up fluctuations in magnetic flux produced by the fine sound grooves, transmitting them directly and thus accurately."

Coreless coils—or, at least, coils wound on a nonpermeable former—aren't unusual, and this helps explain the Top Wings' low outputs, but how can the stylus tip "pick up fluctuations in magnetic flux"? As far as I know, it can't. (Of course, there are always translation issues...) Nonetheless, I was intrigued.

The Red Sparrow has a line-contact stylus, outputs a low 0.2mV (at 5cm/s), and has an internal impedance of 12.3 ohms at 1kHz and what's described in the manufacturer's specifications as a "secret" inductance—although, like an MC cartridge, the Red Sparrow is claimed not to be sensitive to capacitive loading. The recommended range of vertical tracking force (VTF) is 1.75–2.0gm. When my review sample arrived, I installed it in my Swedish Analog Technologies CF1-09 tonearm and set it up, wondering what, exactly, was moving at the other end of the cantilever inside the Red Sparrow's body.

I wanted to solve the mystery of how the thing works, so I sought clarification from Joshua Masongsong, of Top Wing's US importer, Believe HiFi. He explained that while the Blue Dragon and Red Sparrow are both actually moving-magnet cartridges, they should be considered hybrid designs because they combine characteristics of MMs and MCs (including low output and extremely low coil impedance for a MM design). Their low impedance means that, unlike a typical MM or MC, the loading won't affect the flatness of their frequency response. Probably the stigma of MM cartridges is what led Top Wing to avoid describing them as such.

One advantage of this system, according to Masongsong, is that because all of the wiring is inside the cartridge body and disconnected from the cantilever, the stylus can be easily replaced, at far less cost than with a typical MC, though it still requires a return trip to the factory. According to Masongsong, replacing a Red Sparrow's stylus costs "about 19% of retail," compared to about 50% for a typical MC stylus replacement (which is usually a trade-in for a new one). In the case of the Top Wing Suzaku, that 19% comes to $3135.

Yes. The Red Sparrow retails for $16,500.

Masongsong also wrote that another of the design's advantages is the coil's extreme smallness, comparable to what's found in a typical low-impedance MC, and producing similarly typical—ie, low—inductance and winding capacitances. These, he said, "set the electrical resonance frequency far higher than it would be for other MMs, which should lead to less phase shift. However, it also means that it is not possible to adjust the measured frequency response by altering the phono stage input loading, and for some audiophiles this may be a detriment....Therefore the performance that you get will be highly dependent on your phono stage."

The Red Sparrow weighs less than 9gm; the less costly Blue Dragon ($12,500), made of Ultra Duralumin, weighs 12.3gm. The Blue Dragon uses Duralumin's damping properties to eliminate vibrational resonances, whereas the Red Sparrow disperses resonances through the use of various materials, including "titanium, dry carbon and high-performance resins," which also reduces the cartridge's mass and is claimed to maximize its performance "regardless of the tonearm being used."

But really, does a difference of 3.3gm make any appreciable difference in performance in any of today's high-performance tonearms of high to medium mass? I don't think so. Perhaps the methodology—dispersion vs damping—does. In any case, I went into this review skeptical for a number of reasons: the stylus picking up magnetic flux variations, that secret inductance, etc.

321acorn519.red

The first sample of the Red Sparrow had a stray wire (bottom); the second sample didn't (top).

While setting the Red Sparrow's stylus rake angle (SRA), I saw, through my USB microscope, what appeared to be a wire attached to the top of the familiar-looking aluminum cantilever (see photo) I've seen on a few other, less costly cartridges from Japan. Perhaps the stylus tip did somehow pick up fluctuations in the magnetic flux—but what about the claim that the cartridge's wiring is unattached to the cantilever? Another mystery. I asked Joshua Masongsong: "What is the purpose of that wire?"

While awaiting his reply, I finished the setup, then tried the Red Sparrow with one of the CH Precision P1 phono preamplifier's current inputs. Not surprisingly, it didn't sound very good—no point in describing. Then I figured that, if the loading didn't really matter, I'd use my Ypsilon MC-16L step-up transformer, which provides 24dB of gain, into Ypsilon's VPS-100 phono preamp. Via the MC-16L, the cartridge "sees" 200 ohms. The Red Sparrow sounded dull and recessed, and its output seemed lower than 0.2mV, based on where I had to set the volume control of my darTZeel NHB-18NS Mk.2 preamplifier. Running the Red Sparrow into the CH Precision's voltage-amplification input, even set to a loading of 1k ohm, didn't improve things. Because the sound wasn't what I expected from a $16,500 cartridge, I didn't bother running the CH's setup wizard, which uses a 45rpm test record to determine the flatness of a cartridge's frequency response at various load settings.

Masongsong's reply arrived: "Turns out I can't share that information (wire's purpose), but upon inspection of the picture they noticed that the wire is faulty and the cartridge is defective. Not sure what your impressions have been thus far...but it has not been 100% performing. They are shipping out another one to me this week. According to [the manufacturer] the wire is not supposed to be exposed like that. I am not sure what the detriment is to the sound quality, but I will send the new one to you right away."

Never doubt the value of a microscopic inspection! Had I not looked and noticed the wire, I'd have given this cartridge a negative review.

Top Wing Suzaku (Red Sparrow) coreless straight-flux cartridge No.2
In this new sample the wire was not exposed (see photo), and setup was straightforward. You could ask, why an aluminum cantilever on a $16,500 cartridge, but what matters is the quality of the sound, however it's achieved. This time I began with the CH Precision's voltage input and played the setup-wizard 45 (pink noise between 250Hz and 30kHz), setting the loading parameters between 100 ohms and 1k ohm. As promised, the response remained remarkably flat regardless of load, though it was marginally flattest at 230 ohms, with a slight "swayback" just below 5kHz.

I think anyone spending $16,500 on a cartridge is entitled to know separation and channel-balance specs, not to mention compliance, but Top Wing doesn't provide them. I measured and found at least 26dB separation in both directions, R–L and L–R. (Using a digital oscilloscope undermeasures the separation, but 26dB measured this way is still very good.) The channel balance was good to within 0.5dB. I also measured the Red Sparrow's horizontal and vertical resonant frequencies: 9Hz and 7Hz, respectively, which is where you want them (ideally, between 8 and 12Hz).


Footnote 1: Top Wing Corporation, 1-10-2-1102 Sakae-cho, Higashimurayama, Tokyo 189-0013, Japan. Tel: (81) 42-392-8319. Fax: (81) 42-392-8329. Web: www.topwing.jp. US distributor: Believe HiFi. Web: www.ibelieveinhifi.com.
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
MatthewT's picture

Seems like it.

"Is this story clickbait ?, seems like it."

tonykaz's picture

Does questioning the validity of outrageous prices emotionally enflame you ?

Outrageous pricing is factually outrageous.

unless: You can find a way to defend, I'll listen but if feels like this report is trolling the readership.

Tony in Venice

MatthewT's picture

Seeing you defend calling Mr. Fremer's review "clickbait".

Michael Fremer's picture

Of course this piece first appeared in print so by definition it's not "clickbait". While you are free to declare anything as priced "outrageously", you are not the arbiter of what is and what is not "overpriced". That is the job of "the market". People are free to buy or not buy anything for sale, whether $75,000 sandals (they sold out) or whatever. My job is to report on high performance, often costly audio products. That's what I did.

Charles E Flynn's picture

The story, as reported by the New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/08/style/MSCHF-birkenstocks-birkin-bags-hermes.html

rwwear's picture

My wife and I love Venice. We try and visit a couple of times a year.

Robt.

volvic's picture

When is Mr. Austin going to give this guy a one-month "vacation" from this site. Childish insulting comments that add no value to this conversation.

Jim Austin's picture

I deleted the (first) offending post. I'll leave it at that for now.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

teched58's picture

Just wanted to say that I always enjoy Tonykaz's comments. One of the things I enjoy about Stereophile are the disputative comments and the interesting personalities who engage in banter. From mgmt's perspect (and as an old site runner myself), an interesting back and forth makes for more clicks.

There seems to be a general sensitivity towards comments about high prices. Why is that? If it's embarrassment, that's on Stereophile, not on commenters. If Stereophile believes prices are justified by the value offered, then who cares if one colorful guy down in Florida disagrees? Finally, an argument can be made that sticker shock comments act as a kind of mild pushback on ever upward pricing, and thus benefit Stereophile readers directly in their wallets.

Jim Austin's picture

It's discourtesy, rudeness, the questioning of integrity, of the magazine, its writers, companies aiming to make the best products they can at whatever price.

I welcome discussions about value, but they need not challenge anyone's integrity. That's just rude.

As to the substance of the complaint: A market exists for products in this price range, apparently a healthy one. Most people think the amount I pay for hi-fi is insane; I think they're wrong. Respect requires me to acknowledge that that sentiment is transferrable to those willing to pay more than I do. That doesn't make them morons and it doesn't make Mikey's good-faith analysis clickbait.

If you, or Tony, want to make the case that there's an absolute point beyond which prices should not go--this high but no higher--then fine, make it. Just avoid insulting others along the way.

I know it goes against the Internet grain, but we're going to have civil discourse here.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

teched58's picture

Jim-

My entire comment adhered to the respectful ethos you say you want to foster.

Yet you wrote: "If you, or Tony, want to make the case that there's an absolute point beyond which prices should not go--this high but no higher--then fine, make it. Just avoid insulting others along the way."

I respectfully submit you just did what you accused others of doing. I never insulted anybody.

As importantly, I never criticized high pricing. I was DISCUSSING it. From your past comments, I was certain that you understood the difference. Now I am not so sure.

Jim Austin's picture

I promise you one thing: I will never publish anything that embarrasses me. Seems kind of obvious, but there you go.

By suggesting that I am embarrassed by discussion of the prices of equipment we review--well, that's not exactly courteous, is it? In fact, it's a little bit insulting. If I misunderstood your intent, I apologize.

I want people to understand that they can discuss these things without questioning each other's character or motives.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

JHL's picture

...prices are justified by the value offered, then who cares if one colorful guy down in Florida disagrees?"

The quest to *discuss* prices typically rears its head instead as a de facto barb against the philistine who, failing sufficient discretion, would plunk down thousands on a component, thereby rankling his diligent moral superiors. Think of it akin to virtue signalling: If I can't have such a product nobody shall, my ostensible reasoning being that the tier was full-up at $900, and anything more is impossibly gauche and must be exposed. Ignorant. Uninformed. Saved from the Editor.

Not sure I buy that: Since the Editor only publishes and publishes in a broad category, comment thread wars serve to highlight a price-centric preening that showcases the commenter's putative standing. "Thus benefiting Stereophile readers directly in their wallets", as the rationale goes, the Editor apparently somehow failing to benefit them in their ears or their shopping or their ethics. Or their weak-minded consumer discretion.

It reminds one of the tendency in the world to blame the victim, a tendency also apparent in common deflections where not meekly accepting this public virtue - note the contradiction there - automatically on its face labels one an infidel to a similar cause. How dare he.

Fortunately for do-gooders, we near the phase where it's all outlawed anyway, Harrison Bergeron already behind us.

I think the term may be grandstanding. At any rate it ends up being a little more specious than it is useful, depending on where you're coming from.

Jim Austin's picture

... I'd be happier if the issue of value in hi-fi (and other issues) could be discussed on its merits and not in a way that questions the motives of other folks. Even if it's not always true, it's good to be generous and assume that the other person means well.

I'm convinced that people in this thread mean well; it's just that so many people are out of the habit of courtesy when debating on the Internet. It is so rarely done.

Best Wishes,

Jim

Glotz's picture

I was just thinking about your wonderful story about your son and jazz! Absolutely wonderful. Time is on your side, Volvic! He'll be at jazz shows with you soon enough!

To your point, Tony is trying pretty hard these days! Stereophile loves a good thread!

I try to see it from Tony's point of view- from time to time... lol. (It's beautiful in Florida! Big Picture, man!)

While the entry price to great (and clean) vinyl playback is very high, the returns are wonderful! Absolute envelopment of great music and sound!

I am utterly impressed by the Hana ML, as HR recommended. I often think 'this is an LP??'. Very black backgrounds indeed. (Kudos to MF and KR for the Stellar and HPA4 there too.)

In fact, I was just thinking that my very inexpensive DAC sounds just very mediocre compared to my exponentially more expensive analog chain. Thankfully I didn't spend much and it serves its use in revealing whether I might want to own a given recording as an LP!

Two sides of the investment coin from Tony to Glotz!
Mine is firmly ensconced in Analog!

volvic's picture

I am firmly ensconced in Analog as well, with four turntables and a fifth shortly to be built. I want the boy to ask for one as I want to get the 1200G LOL!!
Thanks for the kind words about the boy; we're trying. As for Tony, he used to make valid arguments, but he has become too acerbic for any proper discourse last few months. I ignore. Some of the people on my Facebook page that I admire and respect rave over the Hana ML; they go so far as to say it is the mega bargain in cartridges. As good as the Koetsus, they say. Pretty impressive praise might have to grab one.
I have been surprised how good computer audio sounds with my setup, even more, impressed with SACD; on a suitable recording, it is pretty amazing. The problem with SACD is the lack of titles, and not all SACDs sound great. With the vinyl I buy from the 50s and 60s, that is never an issue. The next purchase, and I know I've said it on these very pages will be the Sugarcube SC-1.

Glotz's picture

I do agree with your positions here. So jealous of 5 turntables... lol!

I am not going to say the ML is the equivalent of a Koetsu, but reading HR's Umami Red review, they DO punch up to double their price and more!

Please let us know what you think of the Sugarcube SC series! The SC-2 is out now as well at $3k; it brings more functionality for archival needs.

volvic's picture

I was looking more at the SC-1 than the SC-2 as I really have no time or desire to start archiving but it was something that got me thinking so one never knows. The reason I want the SC-1 is that I bought a sealed Schubert box set, and this is not the first time that I open the box, and disintegrated foam spills everywhere. After many cleans, I got the vinyl dead quiet but there is one area on side 2 that has caked itself into the grooves I have done Yeomans work getting most of it out and I believe in these instances the SC-1 might help. That and a cavitational record cleaner LOL!! It never ends does it.

volvic's picture

Maybe I am late to the party but someone last night from my LP12 Facebook page posted this and was astonished and the depth of this person interviewed and the video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNrcb-9Gi8c&fbclid=IwAR0xOdNMRZlamg0ArjdrHSZGmwBHSqgXCrm2LZKVsXjtncfQLFZKp3kg0-k

georgehifi's picture

It's all about the mass, I believe Stax had the lowest back in the 70's with the Stax CPY/ECP-1 Electrostatic Cartridge.
It was mounted on a Infinity Black Widow arm on a Linn Sondek.
The sound was the most amazing thing I've heard from vinyl. Trouble was it had a power supply for it that had to be tuned with a scope, this took a good 1/2hr, and usually stayed in tune or 1 or 2 albums then had to be re-tuned.

https://www.vinylengine.com/turntable_forum/gallery/image/11682/source

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2165/2359405547_1ce31696ca_o.jpg

Cheers George

Glotz's picture

IMO, the Hana ML at $1200 is exponentially more revealing than the still-great Soundsmith Carmen at $800-$1000. The Hana weighs a lot more than the Soundsmith.

I find superiority is largely due to the stylus profile, with the ML extracting 30% more information.

There are more than a few ways to skin a cat though, I do still find Mr. Ledermann's philosophies strong on a number of levels.

Mass does matter, but it's not the sole arbiter by far.

JRT's picture

Mikey, you should have included some mention of the ELP-LT series of laser turntables.

https://www.elpj.com/

The disk spins, and the laser pickup moves radially above the surface of the disk, so there is movement, but in its movement there is no stylus in contact with the groove, and it does not generate sinusoidal electrical signal current in the same manner as other conventional phono cartridges. In reading the analog data from the groove it does not change orientation to the groove, does not generate sound within the medium, does not generate any wear in the groove, does not pickup any static charge, etc., so it seems likely that it also does not sound similar to conventional playback schema. I do not know what it sounds like, as I have never heard one of these ELP-LT series laser turntables in use.

Mikey, also, I expect that you are likely aware of these, and would not be at all surprised if you have experience in using one, rather just thought that the subject would be of interest.

Michael Fremer's picture

I have reviewed the ELP turntable. Keep in mind the laser does not distinguish a dustball from a groove modulation. It requires scrupulously clean records for it to work correctly. I reviewed it before the advent of cavitation-based record cleaning.

JRT's picture

MAF mentioned that he "...reviewed it before the advent of cavitation-based record cleaning."

That seems like a good enough reason to revist the product, with another review using records well cleaned with the best modern methods.

jimtavegia's picture

I have been following Michael's discoveries of 'defective", or "way less than perfect" construction of expensive cartridges. If anything Michael is a brave soul to talk about this in light of his preference for vinyl.

To me this does not bode well for an industry that wants $thousands for a cartridge because of its better design, tracing ability and improve sound quality over a AT VM95E. We all have to have a level of trust that what we buy is made properly and performs as the advertising and marketing say it will.

I do understand and appreciate the delicate and difficult job it is to make the finest cartridges, but someone must catch the shell game in progress. To me this only proves that Stereophile DOES provide a valuable testing services, and now an inspection service.

Gear is shipped all over the world and parts come lose resulting in a design change. A $5K CD does not perform properly only to find out that some part failed, but the player still played, but did not meet is specifications. What customer would know?

There is enough to worry about with mounting, aligning, trying to meet VTA and SRA to some standard, and then find out the stylus assembly is way off and defective? A hobby without headaches this is not.

mememe2's picture

Let's talk about value. At the price that is asked for the Red Sparrow you would think that the manufacturer of this cartridge would understand the meaning, and importance, of quality control. Especially one sent out for review! Apparently not, since it was noted that "The first sample of the Red Sparrow had a stray wire".

Michael Fremer's picture

Is that over time, having now looked at many stylus/cantilever assemblies under the microscope, I worry that what I thought was a "wire" was simply an odd reflection. The importer responded in a way that suggested it was a wire, but honestly now I'm not so sure...

Jim Austin's picture

I later got a note from the importer suggesting that it was indeed a reflection.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

dial's picture

Excellent review as usual. We learn all we need.The measurements don't tell if the cartridge is worth the extra money, you've to listen to it and I don't think I'll get that possibilty.

mememe2's picture

Fist Michael says "The importer responded in a way that suggested it was a wire". Then Jim says "I later got a note from the importer suggesting that it was indeed a reflection". Can I make a suggestion to Top Wing - it can't both be a reflection and a wire. It's one or the other. They should get their story straight before expressing (suggesting) two alternative scenarios. The price of this cartridge has nothing to do with this post.

Jim Austin's picture

When the importer wrote to me, he had the cartridge in his possession, so it was possible to inspect it carefully.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

eatapc's picture

The likelihood of the wirelike thing wrapped around the stylus being merely an artifact of the photo -- a reflection -- is unlikely. But this raises the question, if the photo was defective rather than the cartridge, why did the cartridge sound defective? What was the importer's final explanation for the bad sound?

RK-JP's picture

Last Summer I decided to upgrade my cartridge – An MC that represents an excellent cost performance ratio in the thousand dollar category. It was time to move on.
Based on plenty of research and several listening experiences I decided to take the plunge and settle for no “half way house”. Instead, the Red Sparrow it would be. I took a deep breath and looked to my wife, sweetly telling her the cost...

To say I was smitten would be an understatement. Since installing Red Sparrow our music consumption has increased to three to four albums a night and shows no signs of slowing down.

The 4K UHD concerts and films purchased since remain sealed, sitting on the shelf. New digital downloads no longer find their way into the library. But my vinyl collection has rocketed and all I can say is Red Sparrow gives me what I have always expected from the best in digital – Consistency and wide band width. But instead of a darkened, repressed and somewhat confined sound digital sound so often delivers to my ears, music is released into the room. It expands into the room, flowing in a delightful and simply captivating fashion record after record. There are no drawbacks, no down sides. Just music. Red Sparrow represents The best thing (audio or not) I have purchased in many years.

Robert in Japan.

PS – A year earlier I had the pleasure of a home audition of the ELP analog laser turntable. This machine is an engineering marvel to say the least. I believe it represents exceptional value for money from an engineering point alone. A super cool “playboy” must have too! It is perhaps one of audio’s most research and development costliest ventures ever. Along with RCAs CED video disc perhaps... But one thing I did notice is while a record was playing, with the system volume down I could still hear a tiny, tizzy music sound emanating out of the player.

Anton's picture

Thank you for your post, I am curious...

1) What break in period did you notice?

2) How many hours does the company project before stylus or cartridge replacement? I am not a big believer in the thousand hour rule so wanted to see what they might have said or what your impressions were.

Ortofan's picture

... using the Red Sparrow cartridge and to what digital equipment have you compared it?

Glotz's picture

And an excellent testimony to the Red Sparrow!

I also applaud Stereophile in being as truthful and transparent as they possibly can!

Case in point above why we should all warrant trust to these writers and editors.

RK-JP's picture

Red Sparrow sounded fantastic from the moment "the needle dropped". But like a good wine it opens up after some time. I guess about 50 (LPs) get you there.

I never followed up on stylus replacement time. But I suppose accuracy of set-up and the condition of the Lps will play a role. I guess I am pretty close to 1000 hours by now if you add in the time when I have fallen asleep in front of a spinning vinyl... No detectable deterioration to date.

JRT's picture

I am not discounting reviewers' subjective opinions, but including objective measurements could provide useful illucidation.

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