Analog Corner #316: Analog Relax EX1000 phono cartridge, Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk.II phono preamplifier, WallyTools cartridge inspection service?

So glad to be back in business with superclean electricity! Especially having spent the last few weeks listening to the remarkably pure-sounding Analog Relax EX1000 cartridge ($16,000).

The brochure asks, "Have you heard of YAKUSUGI Cedar?" No. I had never heard of Analog Relax, either. If you have heard of it, you're at least one step ahead of me.

Analog Relax, the brochure says, is produced by ZOOT Communication (footnote 1). On the company's website I learned that in Japanese "zoot" means "always." ZOOT Communication President Yasushi Yurugi is also a big Zoot Sims fan. He started the world's only Zoot Sims fan club.

The EX1000 is the company's top-of-the-line cartridge. According to the emailed brochure, the body is carved from a rare piece of Yakusugi cedar that's more than 2000 years old. Every component has been "tuned to perfection." The cartridge has "an organic and sensual sound the like of which has never been seen." Say, what?

Yakusugi cedar has a fascinating back story that seeks to explain its effect on the sound—as do all cartridge wood varieties from snakewood in the Miyajima Labs Madake special edition to cocobolo in Grado's Epoch 3. The more exotic the name, the better! I'll let you read all about the Yakusugi cedar on the Analog Relax website, but in a nutshell (or tree trunk): Difficult, unusual growing conditions produce 1–2mm-wide tree rings, resulting in strong, rigid wood. Growing in a wet environment, the trees have evolved a specialized resin that keeps the wood from rotting. The trees are protected by law, and only trees that are already felled can be sold, so the wood's scarcity will increase. You hear the picture.

Beyond the body (which looks as stunning as advertised, and like shiny supermarket fruit is coated with bee's wax), the motor consists of "high purity" copper coils, neodymium magnets, and an unusually smaller-diameter-than-is-usually-seen ruby cantilever, which terminates in a "Super Curve Line Contact (version 2)" stylus. Output is "over" 0.5mV, internal impedance is 15 ohms, and suggested tracking force for the 9gm cartridge is 2gm.

The impedance and relatively high output indicate more wire turns, higher impedance, and higher moving mass than what's found on most of the lower output, lower impedance cartridges. What I expected, then—regardless of timbral vivaciousness—was for moderate, not exceptional, detail resolution.

I'm going to quote the website now, because this cartridge sounds precisely as described in its literature. But first, a short stylus profile description: "Ver. 2 is an upgraded version of this needle." (Not to "needle" the manufacturer, but please change "needle" to "stylus.") "It retains the advantages of the original, which has a line contact shape, with only the leading edge of the needle tip having a curvature close to that of a round needle, with additional design to pick up all of the information on the record using multiple-angle cutting." The italic emphasis that follows is mine: "It is particularly good at reproducing live instruments and human voices, creating a kind of sensual sound. Another great feature is that you will not feel any inner-groove distortion."

The EX1000 perfectly tracked the Ortofon Test Record's lateral 80Êm peak track and produced a barely audible "buzz" on the 90µm track, which reveals the cartridge as a superb tracker—among the best, if not the best, MC cartridge that I can recall measuring.

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The few friends for whom I've played this cartridge exclaim out loud what I think to myself every evening I listen to the Analog Relax EX1000: "The voices!" This cartridge's vocal presentation is definitely a "kind of sensual sound." "Velvet Fog" Mel Tormé has never been better served on record than through the EX1000.

Mel's voice goes velvet just behind his throat, extending down into his chest cavity. The sonically sensual vocal presentation oozes "velvet" without sounding at all soft, warm, or muffled, nor does it sacrifice transient articulation. This cartridge gets more of that correct than any other cartridge I've heard. It just sounded more believable.

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I had a Mel meltdown the other night, chain-playing Mel Tormé and Friends (Finesse Records W2X 37484), Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley (Verve MG VS-6146), and Mel Tormé Sings Sunday in New York (Atlantic SD 8091), which was recorded by engineering legend Bill Putnam. The EX1000 doesn't turn every vocalist into the Velvet Fog, nor does it noticeably add chesty colorations or texturally thicken female vocalists. Listen, for example, to the "must have" Joni Mitchell: The Reprise Albums (1968–1971) (Rhino RI 653984). The AnalogPlanet review is reprinted on Joni Mitchell's website.

Whatever it is about this cartridge that is responsible for making the timbral and textural presentation so correct, it's so skillfully drawn that it doesn't call attention to itself as a coloration. It's more of a subtle, top-to-bottom reality enhancement.

Because the electrical upgrade elevated everything, I made sure to play assorted tracks using the Haniwa, and later the Lyra Atlas Lambda SL, for comparison. Both did Mel (and everything else) greater justice than they did before the upgrade—I still exit the room every night reeling—but something about the Analog Relax EX1000's presentation was extra-velvety on Mel's vocals, though not to the point where it was at all cloying or became annoying.

Sensuous and caressing but never soft or blobby, the cartridge did special justice to double bass and massed strings. Double bass dynamic pluck followed by woody sustain produced rhythmic power and precisely the "sensuous sound" that website blurb promised.

The Grado Epoch3 exhibits similar qualities, but because of somewhat soft highs and less-than-sharply-enunciated transients, it is less satisfying on rock and electronic music and more appropriate on classical and some kinds of jazz. The Analog Relax EX1000 worked well with every musical genre I threw at it.

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A friend says he's never heard Lou Reed sound more "Lou-ish" on Transformer (LSP-4807 OP). (Don't bother with the recent Speakers Corner reissue; it's dull and lifeless.) With the EX1000, the cowbell and guitar stings on "Vicious" had all the snap and metallic clarity you could want and—it's true—Lou's voice sounded "more Lou-ish." The doubled acoustic and electric bass on "Walk on the Wild Side" had transient-pluck precision and weight with no hint of bloat or excess. The EX1000's rendering of the vocal harmonies on the recent Chris Bellman remaster of CSN&Y's Déjà vu (Rhino/Atlantic R2 625238) gave each voice its harmonic and textural due as I've never experienced on this record.

Brass, reeds, and strings sing through this cartridge, with smooth sustain and generous, floating, mood-elevating decay. A recent Electric Recording Company reissue of David Oistrakh's Encores (ERC 070/UK Columbia SAX 2253), accompanied on piano by Vladimir Yampolsky, took flight: silky-smooth strings and ideal keyboard attack and sounding-board sustain presented in generous 3D space. I like when a cartridge puts Lou Reed and David Oistrakh on a level sonic playing field!

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Yes, it's corny fluff, but Chester & Lester (RCA APL1-1167) from 1976, with Chet Atkins and Les Paul, is a great deal of fun, two guitar masters working through old standards. It's a lot like Neck and Neck, the album Atkins did with Mark Knopfler, which is equally great and well recorded. On Chester & Lester, Paul's guitar sound is warm, soft, and bathed in reverb, while Atkins's is brighter and pluckier. This cartridge nailed it, presenting the duo in an enormous sonic bubble that extended practically into my lap. On side one's last track, "Out of Nowhere," the two have a short conversation. They were talking in my room. Somehow, this cartridge does as well with Led Zeppelin as it does with Bruckner.

I don't know why the Analog Relax EX1000 has to cost $16,000, but it does—and the importer claims the margin isn't all that high. If someone can make one that sounds like this for a few thousand, I'd like to hear it! I hope you get to hear the Analog Relax EX1000 at a show or dealer showroom. If you do, I'm certain you'll hear precisely what I've described.

If you can afford one, get it. If you can't, don't bitch and moan. So now I must pack it up and return it to the importer. Damn shame.

The Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk.II MC phono preamplifier
Luminous Audio (footnote 2) previewed the original Arion, which was designed by Mike Bettinger (late of VPI), at the 2013 Capital Audio Fest. I reviewed it on AnalogPlanet in 2015, calling it "remarkable," which it was, for its sweet, smooth, detailed sound and black backgrounds. The cost then for the solidly constructed, made-in-US Arion was $6395.

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The $8000 Arion Mk.II's specifications are identical to the original's—you can find them in that AnalogPlanet review—except the Mk.II eliminates the original's MM input. The important things to know are that gain is user-adjustable (47, 52, 57, 62, or 67dB) and so is loading. Changing them isn't easy, though: In keeping with the "purist" design aesthetic, you must open the chassis and insert resistors into sockets. The factory settings are 62dB gain, 10 ohm loading.

Like the original, the Arion Mk.II incorporates a cascaded, discrete JFET input stage followed by a differential-cascaded JFET servo-controlled second stage. A combination passive/active RIAA network provides equalization. The output stage is class-A biased. The designer paid particularly close attention to power supply and the grounding scheme, which is further refined in the Mk.II version.

The Mk.II also features higher–voltage–rated dual-toroidal transformers that are said to produce less vibration and hum while improving dynamics. Also upgraded is the MC input stage, which includes upgraded components, refined biasing, and changes to the power supply regulation and the mute circuit. As with the Audio Relax cartridge, Luminous's sonic description matches what I heard: "a sense of purity and low-level detail resolution that is highly dynamic and musically involving." The company claims the upgraded power supply provides "speed and integrity to the low-end and an absence of texture most noticeable on vocals and on passages with complex stringed instruments."

That pretty much sums up the sound of the $8000 Arion Mk.II, although at first I felt the top end somewhat soft and not as fully extended or detailed as I'd like. The manufacturer suggested increasing the loading to 1k ohm, which designer Bettinger said was appropriate. I also postponed the review until my electrical-system upgrade.

It was the right call. The improved electrical service delivered the Arion's overall transparency and transient delicacy, and in my system at least, demonstrated that 100 ohm loading was right for the Lyra Atlas Lambda SL and the Ortofon Anna D.

The Arion Mk.II's low-level detail resolution and delivery of the subtlest microdynamic shifts, combined with the absolute "absence of (electronic) texture most noticeably on vocals and on passages with complex stringed instruments," made me feel I was listening to modified Quad ESL-57s driven by the best tube amps, so pure, delicate, and well-resolved was the midrange, so free of electronic texture was the reproduction of massed strings.

Large-scale dynamic swings were not as fully expressed as through the far more costly CH Precision P1/X1, nor were the bottom octaves as punchy and resolute, but adding those virtues to the Arion's graceful, singular presentation probably would have hurt more than helped.


Footnote 1: Analog Relax, 1-1-2-717 Funabori Edogawa-ku, Tokyo, Japan 134-0091. Tel: +81-3-3675-6649. Email: analogrelax@gmail.com. Web: analogrelax.com. US distributor: American Sound, 12261 Yonge St., Richmond Hill, Ontario L4E 3M7, Canada. US representative: Randy Forman breezehall@yahoo.com. Tel: (905) 773-7810. Web: americansound.com

Footnote 2: Luminous Audio Technology, 1312 N Parham Rd., Richmond, VA 23229. Tel: (804) 741-5826. Email: tim@luminousaudio.com. Web: luminousaudio.com

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