Gramophone Dreams #76: Lounge Silver Copla, Grado Platinum3 High, Benz Gullwing SLR, Shure V-15 Type III

I'm going to tell a story about blind listening, because it illustrates what I consider the most important issue in today's audiophile environment. I'm going to skip the names of the participants because you probably know them. And I'm not going to name the components, because their role in this story is merely as symbols of their type. Here is what I'll reveal: We were playing LPs through an expertly curated, six-figure–priced sound system in a largish room that suited the large speakers perfectly.

The occasion was a "listening party" at a friend's apartment. The guest list included me and four of the most experienced listeners I know. The plan was for everyone to nosh lightly, drink good wine, and weigh in on a new, unnamed, not-free low-output MC phono cartridge, only available on a limited, made-to-order basis.

We all knew our host's system well because we watched him build it and have spent many nights enjoying it.

After only a few tracks, everyone agreed: The cartridge sounded meaty and enticing but maybe a little midrange-centric—exaggerating tone and texture, maybe vague at the frequency extremes. As wine glasses were refilled, our host began playing a variety of recordings but didn't tell us he was swapping out the phono stage.

Eventually, our host 'fessed up and explained that he needed more help. He asked us to say which of the two phono stages was the best match for the mystery cartridge. One of the records we used to compare phono preamps was Schubert, with soprano Elly Ameling and pianist Dalton Baldwin playing Schubert lieder. It was an original Dutch pressing from 1974 (Phillips LP 6500 704).

Our host knew how much I and one other listener loved this album. A few moments after he lowered the needle, I started to choke up. In 30 seconds, my throat was closing, and there were tears in the corners of my eyes. I noticed my host looking at me and smiling, relishing the fact that the record was affecting me emotionally. I was surprised by how quickly my feelings came and how strong they were.

When he switched to the alternate phono stage, the change in character was obvious: Involuntarily, my mind began assessing the quality of the sound and ignoring the musical program almost completely. I noted how clear and well-formed the sound seemed. At one point, I realized that I could not remember who was singing or what record we were listening to. I thought, "hmmm ... this comparison reminds me of looking at a photo of the moon on my computer compared to observing the moon outdoors in its full luminosity."

When the comparison ended, all of us agreed that one phono stage pulled out our feelings and directed our attention to the art being performed, the other didn't. The other lent itself to logical analysis—and by that standard did very well.

Just then, the highest-ranking listener on the guest list arrived, late because of a haircut appointment. The host served him a can of Fresca and a glass with ice, and everyone stopped talking while we repeated the blind comparison.

As I listened, sitting behind him, I had that same real-moon vs moon-photo response I experienced during the first comparison. When the demo ended, our esteemed listener offered this insight: "One preamp plays to my right brain, the other plays to my left."

The facts of these observations force me to ask an important question: From an engineering standpoint, what made one cartridge/preamp combination so much more affecting—so effective at connecting listeners to emotive content—than the other?

Apparently, for a cartridge to trigger a listener's feelings, a perfect combination of loading, gain, circuit type, and parts quality is needed. But, while it's probably true, it's not a very useful answer. I know this for a fact: With the cartridge our host normally uses, a top-level Dynavector, we all preferred the "left brain" preamp. Obviously then, you can't effectively evaluate a cartridge using only one phono stage.

That listening party was a strong reminder of how phono cartridges are beastly little devices that require a large number of electromechanical variables to fall into place if they are to behave enticingly. Which reminded me how difficult it is to compare the sound character of one beastly device to another, in an Herb-curated record-playing system that likely bears no resemblance to yours. That's okay; it won't keep me from telling you about my latest analog explorations with the hope we'll both discover something we didn't already know, and it won't keep me from enjoying the experience.

Since PTP's Solid9 turntable arrived, I've been foot-tapping happily with idler drive and, more than ever, digging those black grooves with a stock Denon DL-103 moving coil attached to my Sorane SA1.2 tonearm. This humble combination is doing what our favorite preamp at that listening party did: letting recordings affect me emotionally. This $349 DL-103 cartridge is driving Lounge Audio's $525 "silver-wire" Copla "transimpedance" headamp, which in turn is delivering its signal into Sun Valley's $985 EQ1616D phono equalizer kit (footnote 1). This component grouping is unusually quiet and steady going with a pacey, coercive nature. Every time I choose a record, this system makes me glad I chose it.

The Silver Copla
After my re-review of the Lounge Copla transimpedance headamp, in Gramophone Dreams #70, Lounge Audio founder and chief engineer Robert Morin sent me the slightly ($130) more expensive "Silver Wire" version, so that I could experience the "ultimate Copla." It looks exactly like the regular Copla, except on the bottom of the chassis, where Morin has tagged and signed it (footnote 2).

Lounge Audio's Copla is the only MC headamp I know that has a variable active input impedance tied to a loading control knob on its front panel. The Copla employs some intriguing phono circuit concepts that work astonishingly well in everyday use. I'll spare you a tedious comparison of standard to silver versions, but suffice it to say the Silver Wire Copla intensifies energy delivery (ie, makes the moon reproduction more luminous and vibrant) and texturizes harmonics to a degree that makes the extra $140 seem trivial. Coupled with a Denon DL-103, this is the highest-value phonography I know of.

The virtues of the Silver Wire Copla were dramatically evident as I enjoyed the old-school presence and dynamics of a gold-lettered, blue-labeled Supraphon recording (SUA 19041) of Musica Antiqua Bohemica playing Leopold Antonín Kozeluch's String Quartet in B Major, Op.32 No.1. This heavy vinyl disc is beautiful to the eye. With the DL-103/Copla combo, it presented its music with a vitality and dense presence that reminded me of direct-to-disc records.

In Alex Halberstadt's Brilliant Corners #4 column, mastering engineer and Stereophile contributor Tom Fine explained that the "vigorous drive and dense presence" Alex observed coming from his favorite old mono records is the result of the studio gear and knowhow of the people who made those records. "Sometimes when you listen to those old records, the music just comes out of the speakers into the room and punches you in the face and sounds so incredibly human. I think of it as a kind of force," he told Alex.

When Alex asked Fine what might cause this "force," Tom speculated, "What I think you're responding to is the sound of the old tape machines, the Scully/Westrex lathes, and the tube electronics that a lot of the original LPs were mastered on. These days, most engineers use modern mastering equipment, which opens up the sound of recordings and reveals more detail, but in the process, some of that force probably gets dissipated. I don't think it's possible to make records that sound like the old ones today."

What I want to do now is introduce you to a few moderately priced phono cartridges that reproduce that mono-era force with varying degrees of beauty and intensity.

Grado Labs Platinum3 High
When I reviewed Grado Labs' $400 Timbre Series Platinum3 low-output (1.0mV) moving iron cartridge in Gramophone Dreams #67, I called it a poor person's Koetsu because it produced so much "lush, spacious, color-saturated sound." I wondered if I'd lose any of that beauty or lushness using the 4mV high-output version (footnote 3).

Changing from the plastic-bodied Denon DL-103 to Grado's bulky jarrah wood Platinum3, it was immediately apparent that the high-output moving iron Grado was a quieter, more transparent transducer. Switching from the Denon's conical stylus to the Platinum3's elliptical diamond reduced physicality noticeably but exposed previously hidden layers of atmospheric data and nuanced tonal shadings that were missing with the DL-103. The Platinum3's presentation was less direct and sturdy than the 103's but more relaxed, colorful, subtly detailed, spacious, and see-into-the-recording vivid.

The Platinum3 made all forms of orchestral music seem splendorous and showcased the 21st century virtues of remastered, reissued LPs. In contrast, the DL-103 specialized in tone and immediacy. It excelled playing roots rock and jazz, especially pressings from the 1955–1965 era.

Benz Gullwing SLR
I'm always saying, for an upgrade to be worthwhile, the change in the sound of your system should be radical enough that it's obvious every time you listen, all the way through every recording. The upgrade should pay for itself in new, better formed, more complete audio excitements. Switching from Grado's $400 Platinum3 moving iron to the 10×-more-expensive ($3500) Benz Micro Gullwing SLR moving coil accomplished those upgrade requirements in a dramatic fashion (footnote 4).

I've never owned a Benz Micro cartridge, but I remember founder/engineer Ernst Benz in the 1970s making styli for diverse cartridge manufacturers, then again in the 1980s when he began making complete cartridges that audio folks said were highly musical. In 1994, Albert Lukaschek took over Benz Micro and announced that their focus would be on upper-end handmade phono cartridges like their popular Glider and Ruby models, and the Gullwing SLR I'm auditioning for this report.

The made-in-Switzerland Gullwing SLR's specifications describe its minimalist body as "Brass, open, free-floating." I see it as an upgraded Benz Glider and a stripped-down (no ebony housing) version of Benz's flagship cartridge, the $5000 LP-S, with which, according to the distributor's website, it shares "many of the same internal components." Except for the LP-S's greater weight (16.4gm vs 12.2gm), the specifications are identical: 0.34mV output, 5×120µm line-contact stylus, 15µm/mN compliance, 38 ohm impedance, and a recommended load of no less than 400 ohms.

Footnote 1: SunValley's SV EQ1616D phono equalizer kit sells for $985, or $1585 assembled in Japan by SunValley (both prices are without tubes).

Footnote 2: Lounge Audio, 13691 Gavina Ave. #383, Sylmar, CA 91342. Tel: (818) 332-3346. Web:

Footnote 3: Grado Labs, 4614 Seventh Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11220. Tel: (718) 435-5340. Web:

Footnote 4: Benz Micro, Importer/distributor: Sierra Sound. Web:


donnedonne's picture

"When the comparison ended, all of us agreed that one phono stage pulled out our feelings and directed our attention to the art being performed, the other didn't. The other lent itself to logical analysis—and by that standard did very well."

What's interesting is that this reaction seemed to be unanimous, among the group. In my experience, I have found that one person's "analytical" is another person's "analog / musical". My first "big boy" system consisted of speakers that I am guessing were built by your host, and fueled by gear distributed/dealt by others in the circle of trust, but it didn't quite do it for me. Which is fine! It's only audio, and there are a lot of choices out there.

Anton's picture

It's a crime to not tell us which wines!

Big Mike and I call these magical products of fermentation 'system enhancing solution.'

So, spill the wines!

Herb Reichert's picture

I didn't notice the wines.

I drank Fresca too.


Glotz's picture

I loved Fresca in the 70's while visiting my barber George for a trim and watching Merv Griffin. I can still hear my mother nudging him loudly to hack more off the sides...

Thanks for these reviews, Herb. My buddy who owned the Grado Gold made the plunge on the Platinum3 after your review published this month.

Your words on the Benz also were incisive and very communicative. You rule!

slhale's picture

Half of the tracks on Beverly Kenney's "Born to Be Blue" are orchestrated by Hal Mooney; half are by Charles Albertine. "I Walk a Little Faster" is one of Albertine's. Both arrangers are quite good. But Albertine never seems to earn the merit he deserves, hence my comment.

Ortofan's picture

... "vintage" phono cartridges, then he ought to include both the Stanton 881S Mk II and the Audio Technica AT-ML170.
Doug Sax said that reproduction of LPs via the 881S Mk II was closest to the sound quality of the master tape - more so than with any moving-coil cartridge - while the AT-ML170 was a favorite of Kavi Alexander.