Clearaudio Maestro V2 phono cartridge

Clearaudio began making moving-coil cartridges in the 1970s, and only later got into the moving-magnet business. Moving-magnet cartridge designers must now be mindful that most of today's tonearms are of medium to high mass and that therefore, to be compatible, their MMs must be of low to medium compliance and of higher mass than those of the 1960s and '70s.

At $1200, the Maestro V2 is among the most expensive, if not the most expensive, MM cartridges you can buy today. Like all but one of the four other models in the V2 line, it features a resonance-optimized body of ebony. Clearaudio's specifications for the Maestro V2 are: weight of 8.4gm, output voltage of 3.6mV, channel separation greater than 30dB, channel balance less than or equal to 0.2dB, and coil impedance of 660 ohms (the last three all at 1kHz). That coil impedance of 660 ohms is way higher than the typical MC impedance of 4–8 ohms, the reason for which should by now be obvious: many more coil turns are required to achieve the higher output, with no mechanical price to pay—the coils are fixed.

The Maestro V2's coil inductivity is rated at 429 millihenrys compared to the MC range of 5ÊH–5mH. The nominal loading resistance is the standard 47k ohms (though it's often argued, correctly, that the "nominal" accepted resistive load is a "standard" based more on convenience than on the mathematical necessity dictated by the other numbers that are part of the circuit). Once you've calculated the actual loading for your MM cartridge, you can go into your MM preamp and, if possible, substitute the correct loading resistors for the ones supplied. Most MM owners stick with 47k ohms, though because the resistive load is what damps the system's resonant frequency, it's critical.

The Clearaudio's loading capacitance is specified as 100 picofarads. While loading capacitance is not critical with MCs, it is critical for MMs because the high inductance can lower the system's resonant frequency to well within the audioband. But the relationship between inductance, capacitance, bandwidth, and resonant frequency is complex. (See this page of the Graham Slee website.)

Because the specified capacitance includes the capacitive contribution of the tonearm cable, it's a good idea to know what it is, if possible, before setting the phono preamp's capacitive loading. The capacitance of most tonearm wires plus interconnect is at least 100pF (the longer the cable, the higher the capacitance); so, on average, to achieve a total loading of 100pF, the phono preamp's DIP switches should be set not to 100pF but to 0pF.

The Maestro V2 features a Micro HD stylus attached to a boron cantilever—a combination found only in Clearaudio's most expensive MC cartridges, including the Goldfinger Statement ($15,000). The lesser MMs in the V2 line—the Performer V2 ($400), the Artist V2 ($600), and the Virtuoso V2 ($900)—have aluminum cantilevers and elliptical styli.

The advantage of boron over aluminum is that boron is both far more stiff and lighter. The advantages of a Micro HD over an elliptical stylus are twofold: lower mass and improved traceability. Traceability is a stylus's ability to get into the groove's tightest crevices, nooks, and crannies. (Trackability is its ability to remain in the groove and maintain effective contact with it.) The rounder the stylus's cross section, the less well it can find its way into the groove's tighter corners. The more severe (ie, narrow and tall) the profile, the greater its ability to get all the way into those crevices to deliver all of the detail the recording contains, especially the clean reproduction of high-frequency transients.

A severe stylus profile has another advantage. Think of a sinewave viewed from the side (a hill), negotiated by a round stylus (a disc). The disc moves to the top of the hill on its leading circumferential edge, but instead of immediately starting back down the hill, there's a pause as the front of the disc, which has just negotiated the uphill climb, hands the job off to the disc's rear edge for the ride down the hill's other side. The larger the circle's diameter, the longer it takes for the circle's trailing edge to begin the downward journey. The pauses of the handoffs at each crest of the groove, in both the vertical and horizontal dimensions, produce audible timing errors.

Now imagine squeezing the circular disc into an ellipse, to narrow the distance between the stylus's leading and trailing edges. The advantages of a stylus of such shape, which has a narrower "contact patch" than a spherical stylus, should be obvious. Now imagine a stylus with a severe profile that results in an even smaller contact patch. A stylus of this shape can reach deeply into crevices of the groove while producing an almost instantaneous handoff at the crest of each "hill."

The physical differences and distances may be microscopic, but the sonic consequences are enormous. However, to get the full benefits of a severe stylus profile, you must take greater care in setting the overhang, zenith angle (groove tangency), and, especially, the stylus rake angle (SRA). If the stylus's vertical ridge inaccurately traces the groove's vertical modulations by banging against them instead of sliding smoothly up and down them, it will produce large amounts of audible intermodulation distortion (IM). Therefore, while severe stylus profiles—eg, the Micro HD, Geiger, Replicant, and Shibata—have obvious advantages, unless all of these parameters are properly set, the disadvantages can outweigh the advantages—whether in an MC or an MM.

Other ways in which the Maestro V2 resembles an MC cartridge: Its stylus can't be replaced by the owner, and it tracks at a relatively heavy 1.8–2.6gm (2.2gm optimal). And like Clearaudio's MCs, the Maestro V2 unprotected cantilever protrudes from the front of its ebony body, with zero margin of error for an errant finger swipe. I hear you loud and clear: "Why should I buy a $1200 Maestro V2 moving-magnet cartridge when I can buy a $1200 moving-coil with many of the same advantages and disadvantages?"

Well, if you have an MM phono stage that you really love, you're ready to go—instead of having to replace it or add a costly step-up transformer or head amp. Moving to a costly MC cartridge by adding a budget-priced step-up transformer or head amp usually produces a sideways move in sound quality. If the Maestro V2's sonic characteristics are MC-like, you can both step up the quality and save yourself some money.

MC Sound from an MM?
I ran the Maestro V2 through the MM input of the Ypsilon VPS-100 phono preamplifier ($26,000). But to keep things in the real world, I did most of my listening through the Graham Slee Era Gold Mk.V phono preamplifier ($999).

The Maestro V2 didn't have the speed or high-frequency extension of a good moving-coil, but it had other equally attractive—some might say more attractive—qualities, and in some ways its sound did resemble that of an MC.

If you like a combination of midband richness, openness, and detail, the Maestro V2 delivered. In a single listening session, I sat through all six LPs of Oscar Peterson's Exclusively for My Friends (MPS 0209478MSW) and suffered neither fatigue nor boredom as the Maestro V2 reproduced the piano's rich, woody tonality without exaggerating or greatly softening transients. Yes, some far more expensive MCs can enhance transients and better capture the woody sustain, as well as give you longer decays and thus a greater sense of space. But this set was recorded in Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer's "private studio"—his living room, I think. There isn't much space to lose.

Not as well resolved was the cymbal shimmer produced by Peterson's various drummers (Louis Hayes, Ed Thigpen, Bobby Durham), which sounded somewhat closed-in compared to the far more expensive and expansive MCs I compared the Maestro V2 to—but initial transients were fast and clean, more like an MC than an MM. The Maestro V2's ability to reproduce fast transients sets it apart from most, if not all, MM cartridges I've heard.

I then played a superb reissue, on 200gm vinyl, of a 1978 recording of Mahler's Symphony 3 by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, recorded in UCLA's Royce Hall by James Lock and Simon Eadon, and mastered from the original master tape by Willem Makkee (2 LPs, Analogue Productions LAP0117). It made a good case for why all audiophiles might consider adding a great MM cartridge to their arsenals, if swapping out is practical.

The tonal balance was more middle-to-rear-of-hall, but the richness and fullness of the brass and strings were to die for: well burnished, and the Maestro's ability to reproduce orchestral weight surpassed that of many MCs of any price. The horns and violins induced chills; the piccolo, clarinet, and tambourine were somewhat less impressive, but overall, the Maestro V2's speed far surpassed my expectations of MM cartridges, and made up for the loss of top-end air and extension.

Measured with a digital oscilloscope, the Maestro V2's channel separation of 27dB, L–R, and 28.5dB, R–L, were close to the specified 30dB; it produced a wide stage. Like Shure's V-15xMR, the Maestro V2 tracked and traced well everything I threw at it—but the Clearaudio had greater weight, depth and . . . majesty.

The Maestro V2 reproduced male voices particularly well: Its overall warmth was accompanied by the speed necessary to prevent its sound from deteriorating into baritone mud. Even Capitol's great series of recordings by guitarist Laurindo Almeida fared well—with these LPs, MCs usually have it all over MMs. Yes, Almeida's pluckings of his instrument's strings sound faster and more precise through MCs, but the Maestro V2 reproduced the body of his guitar well—again, more of a trade-off than an outright stomping.

Another great MM cartridge is Ortofon's 2M Black ($755), but the Maestro beat it in terms of dynamics and, especially, weight and slam—as well it should, for $445 more. However, neither MM can match the dynamic majesty of the great—and far more expensive—MCs.

Summing Up
In the months I spent listening to Clearaudio's Maestro V2, I never felt I was missing anything. Instead, I was given an entirely different perspective on some very familiar recordings. Can a greater compliment be paid a $1200 moving-magnet cartridge?

Clearaudio Electronic GmbH
US distributor: Musical Surroundings
5662 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, CA 94609
(510) 547-5006

Venere 2's picture

Michael, thanks for the well written and thought out review (as usual). I do wonder if you ever feel that reviewing a 1200$ cartridge in 2015 is a service?

It's not the dollar amount in itself that is pejorative; but rather the amount compared to alternatives in the non analog realm.

For the longest time I defended turntables as the best sounding front end. For the longest time, I spent my money on an analog front end, and the vinyl LPs to play on it. As recently as a few months ago, I still did.

Then after much denial and lost time, I admitted to myself that digital was no longer the awful sounding crap it once was. I did not want to believe it. I certainly did not want to make the change, much less embrace it; but I did. I traded my turntable for a high quality DAC. I couldn't be happier!

When I see people getting into vinyl; buying a turntable and start building a vinyl record collection now in 2015, I feel bad for them. They remind me of the people who invest in a stock when everyone is talking about it… Those people buy the stock at the wrong time (too late), and lose.

Now music is so much more than dollars and cents, and the enjoyment of music has no price. But, for the guy buying a 5000$ turntable NOW and building up a multi thousand dollar vinyl collection, that he will sell for pennies on the dollar in 2-3 years, I feel it's a disservice to push analog right now.

Mark this post if you wish, and gloat in 2 years if I am wrong. But, I have seen these kinds of trends and waves before. The vinyl bubble will burst, sooner than later. I don't wish it. But it will happen. Turntables improve, but at a slow rate. Digital improves much faster, and it keeps getting faster.

Gorm's picture

Venere: please don't feel sorry for me. I never sold my treasured albums (had a lot of duds too thought) and I own an expensive EMM Labs XDs1 for SACD and HiDef downloads. I still buy good albums and I also pay for good downloads. They can all be great, or not - depending mostly on the Musicians and engineers. The sad thing is that on HD Tracks downloads I get no information, and therefore all the players, engineers and those responsible for the final product are ignored.
I can say (having invested equally in both formats) that everything being equal - the analogue gives more pleasure. But I am happy for both. So don't patronize me please and save the tears for those whose entire collection on digital could suddenly disappear one day.

geekonstereo's picture

In a comparison of various cartridges on Analog Planet, you wrote:
"...after you’ve become used to hearing this track on the other cartridges hearing it for the first time via the 2M Black is startling. You’ll hear heretofore buried parts and “see” the singers with an ease most of the other cartridges can’t come close to reproducing...
Plus the Black’s rhythmic drive takes the track to another level of sonic and musical intensity. But the Black’s most salient quality is its utter transparency. It sounds less like a recording and more like “live.”"
I agreed with this after listening to the various test files on that comparison.
My question is whether you think the Clearaudio Maestro beats the Black in terms of making the listener 'see' performers and give a sense of hearing music 'live' with better rhythmic drive.
As such, would the Maestro also 'startle' listeners?
I realise that it's difficult to make a comparison because the set-ups may have been very different, but I wanted your opinion?
And while we are at it, your take on the Black or Meastro versus the Dynavector 10x5?
I am planning to buy a VPI Traveler and am hunting for a suitable MM or high-output MC cartridge for it.
Thank you.

davezepeda's picture

I too would love an answer and really don't care about the sponsors.
those are all totally good carts in there own right. I am in the exact same situation and would love to know what you did along with an opinion since I am sure this is right in your wheelhouse.

Audiolad's picture

Obviously Mr Fremer knows more about the quality of phono cartridges than me, but at $1200 I always ask the question: Is this the best $1200 cartridge you can buy?