Gramophone Dreams #1 Page 2

I wish you could feel what I felt when I played Little Richard's first 78rpm hit, "Tutti Frutti" (Specialty XSP561) with the Shure M44-78, or listened to my new copy of Andrés Segovia's Recital (US Decca DL 9633) via the Miyajima Spirit. One moment, I witnessed the dawn of rock'n'roll; the next, I was living in Spain and reading in Spanish. On eBay, I bought "100 paper & 100 plastic (3 mil) 45rpm record sleeves"—the new game of old discs was on.

The Spirit Mono ($850) is the lowest-priced cartridge in the distinguished Miyajima family, which includes the Premium Mono, reviewed by Art Dudley in the August 2009 Stereophile; the Shilabe Stereo, reviewed by AD in October 2010; the Premium BE; and the legendary Zero, reviewed by Michael Fremer in March 2013, which, when I heard it at a friend's house, blew my mind and forever changed the way I view high-end audio and record collecting.

1014dreams.cartridge.jpgThe Spirit Mono has a brass body and weighs 10.0gm. Miyajima says that it has an impedance of 6 ohms, outputs 0.9mV, and wears a 0.7mil conical stylus of diamond. All Miyajima stereo cartridges use the company's unique cross-coil configuration, in which the coils are wound around a nonmagnetic core and the coil-cantilever structure is supported at the tip of a solid fulcrum instead of at the end of a tensioned wire, as in a conventional moving-coil cartridge. The effect of these two innovations, Miyajima claims, is to stabilize the coil and unify (and, ultimately, linearize) its motion within the magnetic field. The Spirit Mono's version of this mechanism has just one coil and no vertical compliance, as a mono signal is cut as lateral groove motion only.

The Spirit's cantilever looked extremely durable, and moved only in the horizontal plane. One part of the illustrated owner's manual explains that if the cantilever gets bent to the side—even almost all the way to left or right—just bend it back with your finger. This amazing feat is possible because of Miyajima's patented flexible cantilever. To raise the moving-coil Spirit's output voltage to a usable value and match its impedance to my moving-magnet 47k ohm inputs, I tried a variety of step-up transformers, but settled on a custom 1:10, 80%-nickel-core model called Drug Through the Hudson, designed by Dave Slagle of Intact Audio.

This combination generated robust, sophisticated sound with deep, well-controlled bass and newly satisfying reproduction of every mono recording I played. High frequencies were just as I prefer them—unnoticeable (unless I stopped listening to the music and focused my attention on the tweeters). Transients were precise but, again, not something I noticed while listening to music. The Spirit had a very seductive way of making records sound full-bodied and tangible. Images of musicians were realistically scaled, and there was always a noticeable sense of space.

I have always enjoyed mono and taken its benefits seriously. Back when everyone was buying Living Stereo and Living Presence LPs, I bought their mono counterparts. If you think mono is just an amorphous blob of sound, try playing some Antal Doráti or Fritz Reiner monos with this MC. Stereo tends to confuse my brain, and very often distracts me from the music being played. The Miyajima Spirit made mono recordings feel naturally relaxed—not hyped up or demanding attention, as stereo recordings sometimes do.

The Spirit Mono's suggested range of vertical tracking force is 2.0–4.5gm. I tried both extremes, but settled on about 3.7gm. My SME 3009 II tonearm is probably a bit low-mass for this cartridge, but I experienced no problems of tracking or arm resonance. I suspect, however, that the Spirit Mono's low compliance (8 x 10–6cm/dyne) means that it might play with even greater acuity in a tonearm of medium to high mass.

And then . . .
. . . with quiet elegance, the Sentec EQ11 phono stage and equalizer entered my expanding world of gramophone dreams. The EQ11 ($2500) is a modestly sized, tubed phono stage with the industry-standard RIAA phono equalization and five other EQ curves. These additional curves are for records pressed by companies that did not fully or promptly comply with the new, supposedly global industry standard introduced by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 1954.

Before 1955, every record company chose and applied its own version of recording equalization; there were over 100 combinations of turnover and rolloff frequencies in use, the main ones being Columbia-78, Decca-U.S., European (various), Victor-78 (various), Associated, BBC, NAB, Orthacoustic, World, Columbia LP, Decca ffrr 78 and microgroove, and AES.


The Sentec EQ11 comes in an attractive steel chassis of hammertone gray with a gold-anodized faceplate and, sticking up through the top plate, pairs of JAN G.E. 5751 (special 12AX7) and JAN Philips 6189W tubes. A single, vintage-style black knob selects among six settings, labeled thusly:

1) NARTB, NAB old
2) 78, Decca ffrr 78
3) CCIR, Decca LP ffrr
4) RIAA, New Ortho
5) Columbia LP
6) AES, Philips, Capitol

These six equalizations reflect most of the major variations found in 78, 45, and 331?3rpm gramophone recordings made between 1920 and 1965. In 1948, in response to the noise and short playing times of shellac 78s, Columbia Records introduced the microgrooved long-playing vinyl 331/3rpm record, in diameters of 10" and 12". Not to be outgunned or outsold, RCA Victor, in 1949, introduced the 7", 45rpm vinyl record. The 7" 45 was not long-playing, but it was small and cheap, and most pop, "hillbilly," "race," and children's records would hereafter be issued in that format, replacing the 10" 78 as the reigning single format. The first stereo vinyl LP appeared around 1958, but stereo records did not become popular or even common until about 1965. Most 45s were pressed in mono until about 1970. At first, stereo recordings appealed mostly to adult listeners, who favored 12" LPs featuring classical, cabaret, and jazz artists.

The 15 years from 1955 to 1970 were a period of intense competition for all European and US record companies. Record stores and radio stations flourished, even in small farm towns. Finding artists, recording hit songs, and grabbing as much of the rapidly evolving market as possible were not easy tasks. Postwar artists such as Charlie Parker and Elvis Presley needed to punch their way into the public consciousness. Each record label began selling its own version of good sound as well as of good music. Good-sounding records got more play on the radio, and thus more attention from listeners. Every record producer and engineer strived to develop his own special technology—a signature sound.

During this period, the RIAA worked hard to enforce its new "universal" standards of equalization for recording and playback, as part of a larger program that included standardizing record size, groove width, and playing times per side. More often than not, the RIAA's newfangled EQ was at odds with the established agendas and sonic identities of record labels and producers. Consequently, almost a decade elapsed before all labels had gotten in line with the new strategy of RIAA pre-emphasis (footnote 1). This period was also a time of great achievement in music. Parker, Presley, James Brown, Artie Shaw, the Carter Family, Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald, Skip James, Edith Piaf, Bill Monroe, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, the Beatles, and a billion other musical geniuses all recorded between 1945 and 1965. The majority of these artists' original recordings were made in mono to recording specifications that did not conform to RIAA standards.

Audiophiles, home-audio DIYers, and record collectors were the first to notice the lack of compatibility of discs and playback gear, and the first to grumble and seek help. Manufacturers of popular ceramic and crystal cartridges were put on notice to tame their rising response curves, while makers of specialty preamps responded with enhanced tone controls and selectable EQ curves corresponding to the various record labels' deviations from the RIAA curve. RCA was the first to actively lobby for the RIAA standard, and the first to comply with them, in 1955.

By 1975, most audiophile amplifiers had banished tone controls, mono switches, and variable EQ selectors, considering them old-fashioned, no-longer-needed "corruptions" of the signal path's "purity." Forty years later, we have an outbreak of high-end manufacturers introducing new mono and 78rpm cartridges, and variable-EQ preamps designed to make the life of the vintage record collector more pleasurable.

I tell you all this because it's important to understand that if you start buying a lot of collectible old records pressed before 1965, you'll certainly notice that the music on some labels sounds a lot better than the music on others. The purpose of the Sentec EQ11 is to make many of those differences go away. The EQ11's selection of EQ curves is similar to those that came standard on many "audiophile" preamps made between 1955 and 1965.

The Sentec EQ11 preamp-equalizer and the Miyajima Spirit Mono cartridge) are luxury products designed for the collector of vintage vinyl who wants to hear his or her valued records sound as close to, and maybe even substantially better than, what he or she remembers from the old days. This combination of pure mono cartridge and selectable-EQ preamp can show you a lot of what you still haven't heard from your old records. This combo, and perhaps others like it, not only makes the records of the past sound good, it makes them sound the way your brain knows they're supposed to sound—the way your heart remembers them sounding.

Any time you play a record and your brain jumps up to announce, That's it, buddy! That's the way this record is supposed to sound!, that's the surest sign that you're cooking on good audio gas. This feeling is also exactly what is missing from the experience of most recordings remastered, re-equalized, and reissued on 180gm vinyl pressings.

I have this totally magic album, Dinu Lipatti Plays Bach and Mozart (Columbia Masterworks ML 4633). I often play the Bach side for my guests, just to show them what quiet authority and expressive understatement sound like. But it always sounds kind of hard and bright, a little cool and thin. Some guests blame it on my amp or speakers. When I first installed the Sentec EQ11, I thought, Okay, let me try that Dinu! When I switched from the Sentec's RIAA curve to its Columbia LP curve, I smiled and nodded my thanks. The sound wasn't radically different—just enough to make every note more relaxed, open, and distinctly colorful. Weight and body appeared as if from nowhere. The piano became a tangible, vibrating object. The effect was like the complete and sudden vanishing of a nagging low-grade headache. With each old record I tried, the result of switching EQs ranged from unnoticeable to Oh my god, I am so happy to have this thing!

A final thought
Right now, my iPhone is worth more than my entire collection of LPs. My turntable, tonearm, and cartridges are worth more than all of my furniture. The Miyajima Spirit Mono and Sentec EQ11 are worth more than the combined value of my car, my film cameras, and my two computers. Don't you think I need more records?

Footnote 1: See Keith Howard's comprehensive discussion of the RIAA curve here.—Ed.

doak's picture

Passion is nearly always a very good thing.

Thanks Herb.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...does it take most of us SO many years to filter out the BS, fashionable trends, tribal pressure and upgradeitis. If I knew at 16...well, you know the rest. In Japanese art it is better to do a small thing well than a big thing poorly. I think mono vinyl is just that. Lately, I too have begun to find many stereo recordings distracting. The less spread and hard channel panning, the more I can focus on the music. Oddly, changing my listening position to VERY near field with a wide speaker angle has helped create a more stable and focused audio image. The near field position also limits room/speaker interactions and gets me closer to the studio microphones.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

As an experiment, I dropped into our local music store and listened to several active studio monitors. Despite one of them being pro grade and popular among producers, I was surprised at it's high value to price ratio, compared to home audio gear. Clearly one step much closer to the studio microphone. And, it was not overly analytical, as so many claim studio monitors are. It was very neutral and easy to listen to. It allowed me to hear very deep into the recording. Is it time for Stereophile to be reviewing such equipment as an alternative option in the service of getting us all closer to the music at a more reasonable cost? I know that Audiostream reviews high end desktop monitors, but here I'm talking about full sized, active, stand mounts which replace a lot of boxes connected by wires.

nanana's picture

seven inches and a great big hole, satisfaction guaranteed...

IgAK's picture

Hi, Herb,

We actually met a long time ago, when you, Komura, Slagle, Blackie, Morrison, and other of our ilk were to be seen in the same places. The story of your journey from and to vinyl is amusing to me as one who has watched this happen to others as well. Lucky me, I never gave up my modest but carefully chosen collection despite all the other formats I have at hand. Instead, I've done odd things like mod all my turntables and arms to arrive at my present motorized and remote controlled VTA setting arm that lets me set VTA correct to a fraction of a thousandth in moments for every record to notations on a tiny post-it on the inner sleeve, there from the first time that record got played since the system went in. Like that, just to get the general flavor across.

Anyway, I have also acquired along the way a few more records in much the same sort of way you describe. Among them are a fair number of classical mono pressings that I rarely listen to if ever, being a fan of a 3D soundstage that is the province of stereo. Contact me, they could use a home where they are more appreciated, and the vacated space put to other use.


LucretiaAsh's picture

Thank you for sharing this page of his biography.I am currently working on one interesting music project for and would be grateful if you could share any other related articles so I can use them for my research.