Analog Corner #296: Grado Epoch3, Lyra Atlas Lambda SL, Ortofon MC A Mono phono cartridges

We're 30 years into a cartridge design revolution, particularly at the top end of the market, where manufacturers charge upward of $10,000 for their best efforts: prices that well-off consumers have amply proved they are willing to pay. There doesn't seem to be an innovation end in sight.

When you consider the fragility of phono cartridges—how easily they can be broken and how surely they wear out over time and must be replaced at great expense—you wonder why anyone would pay so much for them. At least until you've listened. Fortunately, some of these innovations eventually make their way to the more affordable end of the phono cartridge market.

Here's a quick-and-dirty rundown of the most important developments over the last 30 years, sticking with traditional generator-type cartridges and ignoring unconventional strain gauge and optical designs, such as those from Soundsmith and DS Audio—products that require dedicated preamp/equalizers. I'm not attempting a complete history here, or even an accurate timeline.

Over the past 30 years, there have been a few breakthrough designs, starting with Jonathan Carr's Lyra Clavis Da Capo, which eliminated pole pieces altogether and instead used disc magnets, the space between the magnets defining the gap. (Transfiguration—RIP—did this too, as did others; I'm not sure who did it first.) The advantages of doing this are best explained in a separate column.

Of equal significance in the design of the Clavis Da Capo: It departed radically from the standard operating procedure of gluing or affixing a finished "motor" into a body and instead, using precision machining, integrated the cantilever assembly directly into the body to produce a more rigid design. When you hear them, the benefits of this added rigidity are obvious. Lyra was the first manufacturer to do this and, according to them at least, remains the only one doing it.

It should also be noted that the Clavis Da Capo used, with permission, an innovative damper suspension first used on the Ortofon MC 20: just one of the breakthrough concepts for which the Danish company can take credit.

In 2009, designer Per Windfeld's successor at Ortofon, Leif Johannsen, introduced the truly radical A90, which used selective laser melting (SLM) to 3D-print, with stainless steel, a self-damping body, the shape of which would be impossible to machine.

Bodies of SLM titanium followed on the MC Anna and A95 cartridges. The limited-edition MC Century and, more recently, the MC Anna Diamond combined SLM titanium bodies and diamond cantilevers, among other innovations. Years earlier, Lyra had introduced the Titan and Titan i, which featured super-rigid diamond-coated solid boron cantilevers. In 2012, Lyra introduced the top-of-the-line Atlas and, later, the lower-output SL version; the latter featured a single coil layer instead of two, as did a similarly configured (and less costly) Lyra Etna.

These cartridges also feature titanium bodies and far more efficient motors. The original Atlas reduced by 22% the amount of coil wire (and thus moving mass) while increasing voltage output by 12%. The Atlas also used tuned, asymmetrically positioned resonators as "resonance killers," inserted into a body without parallel surfaces or dimensions that are even multiples of each other. The Etna shares the shape but not the resonators.

Other cartridge innovators, such as Soundsmith's Peter Ledermann, Grado Labs' John Grado, and Miyajima Labs' Noriyuki Miyajima, brought to market new, superstiff cantilevers of natural materials—notably cactus needles and bamboo—and, in some instances, bodies of various woods designed to resonate and "tune" the sound rather than to be nonresonant.

Dr. Tetsuo Kubo of Haniwa designed an ultralow–internal impedance cartridge, built to spec by My Sonic Lab's Yoshio Matsudaira, which is ideal for current amplification-based phono preamps, currently (haw!) in favor. And of course there is the costly Top Wing Suzaku (Red Sparrow) I reviewed earlier last year: a new variant of the moving-magnet concept.

These are just some of the advances produced by major-name designers as they continue to push the innovation, energy, and competitiveness at the upper end of the market. And remember: all of this is supposed to have been long dead.

Perhaps it's just a fantasy, but my observation is that all of these guys are taking note of and listening to each other's latest achievements and attempting to "one up" their own designs, if not those of their competitors. (Cynics would say, "Sure they are doing that—with pricing!")

420apl.atlas

Lyra Atlas λ Lambda SL
Lyra's Atlas and Etna were major achievements, technologically and sonically. Both cartridges produced levels of detail retrieval and dynamic authority that broke new ground. I remember visiting VPI back then: Harry Weisfeld did a quick A/B between an Atlas and another highly regarded, expensive cartridge that had previously been his reference. There was no contest. The Atlas was a true breakthrough (footnote 1).

The Atlas had "slam" and low-level resolution the other cartridge couldn't approach. It effortlessly transmitted and released energy, much like the Ortofon A90—not surprising, since both were designed to damp and/or dissipate resonances, in contrast to "tuned" wood- or stone-bodied cartridges—not that there's anything wrong with that approach. As Jonathan Carr told me around the time of the Atlas's launch, when I asked him why people use wood, "Probably because they like the resonant character that wood imparts. If they enjoy it, great for them. Whatever makes them happy." He wasn't speaking dismissively.

Not everyone liked the original Atlas's top end, which, regardless of loading, some found had a pronounced, bright, hi-fi–ish edge. The original Etna ameliorated that upper octave issue, producing a richer, fuller, more liquid sound, though one that was somewhat more congealed in the mids.

Recently, I set up for a friend an original Etna and Atlas on a pair of Graham Phantom Elite arms, mounted on a TechDAS Air Force One Premium. Which cartridge he preferred was recording-dependent, but it was easy to hear both cartridges' positive qualities along with the Atlas's bit of edge and the Etna's less dynamic and revealing, though sweet-sounding, midrange. I concluded that, with a tube phono stage following, my friend would likely favor the Atlas.

Lyra just introduced new "λ" versions of the Atlas and Etna, and of the SL and Mono versions of both cartridges. The original models (and the original Lyra Delos and Kleos, as well) featured what Lyra called "New Angle" designs that used tapered dampers, then newly developed, to "preload" the cantilever downward in its rest position. (You can see this in the close-up cartridge photos that show the cantilever just about touching the bottom of the opening it protrudes from.) When you play a record, vertical tracking force brings the coil angle into alignment with the magnets and "unloads" the downward damper bias.

On the new versions (footnote 2), the tapered dampers of the original cartridges are separated into flat, elastomer damping discs, while an additional support "pillow" has been added to serve as the cantilever preload element. Lyra claims that this "division of labor" allows the use of specialized materials better suited to each task, resulting in more stability and "significantly improved sonic performance."

"Significantly improved sonic performance" doesn't begin to describe the differences between the Atlas SL and the Atlas SL λ, which I have now used in my system, nor do the specifications and measurements (which are identical to those of the previous version). The Atlas SL λ sounds like an entirely new cartridge. Actually, it sounds in some ways as though a tiny, low-noise, low-distortion, super-linear vacuum tube has been inserted into the already-great Atlas.


Footnote 1: Lyra Co., Ltd., Tokyo, Japan. Web: lyraaudio.com. US distributor: AudioQuest, 2621 White Rd. Irvine, CA 92614. Tel: (949) 790-6000. Web: audioquest.com.

Footnote 2: For more details, click here.

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COMMENTS
InaudibleSolo's picture

This provides some perspective for my own modest mono adventure.

Michael Fremer's picture

It's so rare that I get anything but bricks thrown at me under whatever I write that's published online here that I really do thank you!

dial's picture

I like your posts & articles too.

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