Gramophone Dreams #76: Lounge Silver Copla, Grado Platinum3 High, Benz Gullwing SLR, Shure V-15 Type III Page 2

Fun and danger: The Benz Gullwing SLR arrived in a swanky hardwood box with gold-plated screws securing a clear plexiglass top where, when I looked in, I could see no stylus guard protecting the SLR's exposed cantilever. This didn't scare me; I've installed more than a few cartridges without stylus protection, and I have never broken any. I have of course broken a few cantilevers by dropping tonearms, but those "droppings" happened long ago. My most recent cantilever mishaps resulted from removing recalcitrant stylus guards. I fear stylus guards.

The best thing about the Gullwing's exposed stylus was how easy it made setting overhang and zenith with my Dr. Feickert alignment protractor. Before installing, I examined the SLR's nude line-contact diamond under my USB microscope, where it appeared to be set square with the cantilever. In use, the SLR's exposed cantilever made it easy to set the needle in the exact groove I wanted and alerted me instantly to every lint ball captured by its stylus. When the install was complete, I was 99% sure its 0.28mm diameter solid boron cantilever matched the Löfgren "A" lines on the Feickert's base.

Black discs as entheogens: The best part of reviewing phono cartridges is the possibility of discovering a previously unknown wonder-inducing one like this Benz Micro Gullwing SLR moving coil. It's a fragile little beast that's been around for a while, but it can reproduce recorded textures with an overtly tactile, right-there-in-front-of-me intensity that most other cartridges can't match.

The Gullwing's exceptional tactility was especially noticeable playing an album of medieval town fair music ca 1250–1550CE. These tunes were composed for use in theatrical street performances replete with magicians, stilt walkers, fire breathers, drums, and bagpipes. With the Benz Gullwing, the performances on this crisp, unprocessed studio recording of Al Manere Minstrelsy by the Medieval Players (Plant Life Records LP PLR 052) were presented with a vibrant, you-are-there verity. As the Benz played these minstrel tunes, I saw myself standing in the corner of a large room looking up to where the walls met a high ceiling, my mind admiring how the Gullwing SLR used precisely recovered reverberation data to paint that image in my mind. The Benz specialized in this type of fine-tuned data recovery.

The estampies which open this record are among the oldest surviving purely instrumental music from Western Europe. Played by the Gullwing SLR, these simply miked recordings came across as pure audio vérité: time travel of the most visual, touchable kind.

I made the above observations as I fed the SLR's signal into the Lounge Audio Copla set to maximum loading (approximately 400 ohms), feeding the moving magnet input of SunValley's SV EQ1616D phono equalizer. For the next part of these trials, I experimented with running the 38 ohm SLR directly into the fixed 50 ohm load of SunValley's JFET-powered moving coil input.

With this simple combo, I listened twice to both sides of Alicia de Larrocha plays Isaac Albéniz (Vox Turnabout LP TV 34775). This close-miked demonstration-quality piano recording sounded almost too clear and in-my-face arresting to be true. I was surprised by how good this SunValley–Benz Micro combo sounded, because on paper this essentially 1:1 loading should sound flat and overdamped. But it did not feel overdamped. Both times I played the de Larrocha, I couldn't stop watching how her well-formed notes occupied the space between my speakers.

As I listened to Alicia de Larrocha plays Isaac Albéniz, I thought of how often I comment on how a review component powers the lower or upper octaves of the piano's range. Unusually, this album, played with this cartridge at this "incorrect" loading, directed my admiration toward the meatiness of the middle octaves—just like my friend's mystery cartridge.

That middle-octave meatiness was reduced noticeably when I inserted Lundahl's silver-wired amorphous-cored LL1931 Ag MC step-up transformers between the Benz and the EQ1616D's moving magnet input. With the Lundahl SUTs, the sound became lighter, brighter, faster-paced, and more energy-charged. I might have asked for 6dB more gain than the 17.5dB gain this 1:8 SUT was providing, but the sound was quick, lucid, and evenly balanced across the audio spectrum. What I didn't get was steel-hammer punch in the midbass.

I was feeling bad because I had not yet followed the Gullwing SLR's spec-sheet recommendation to load the Benz with 500 ohms or more. So I pulled out Parasound's JC 3+ transistor phono stage and set the MC input to 550 ohms. First impressions made it clear: With a 550 ohms load, the Benz Micro delivered an exceedingly smooth and precise response that wasn't just pretty and flat; it excelled at presenting the vigorous drive, lifelike tones, and extra-dense, in-my-room presence I crave from the best-engineered 1950s mono discs.

If you don't know what this mono force feels like, you can experience it directly playing Julie London's first recording, Julie Is Her Name, on Liberty Records' 1955 turquoise-label LP (LRP 3006). If you don't understand how much the quality and character of compression, EQ, and reverb affect our enjoyment of recorded music, consider this recording a tutorial in 1950's studio engineering. It was recorded at Liberty's New York studio using what I presume was their own reverb chamber, ribbon microphones, and (most likely) an Altec 436A tube compressor and the famously wonderful Pultec EQP-1 equalizer, with an Ampex 351 recorder and microphone preamps. This combination of gear specialized in creating the illusion of flesh-and-blood humans playing in your room. My record-producer friend Yale says he aspires to this kind of presence in his own (Luaka Bop) records but, echoing Tom Fine, said that "with today's technology, it is nearly impossible to achieve." He added, "This was a period where all the knowledge of how to record things well came to a culmination." The era of vibrant, punchy sound began around 1955 and ended around 1965, when transistors began creeping in.

Playing Julie, the Gullwing SLR reminded me how well mono recordings can project classic 1950s singers like Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Julie London forward, causing them to stand out in holographic 3D against a pulsing aura of reverberant energy. I asked John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity why this Julie record had so much air and presence. He replied, "When you're playing mono recordings, the conversation between the stylus and the groove is more focused. The effect of this mechanical simplicity is to throw a spotlight on the singer with no right-left placement distractions."

Playing the Julie record with the Gullwing SLR elevated my opinion of Parasound's venerable JC 3+ phono stage. I often think how the JC 3+ makes every cartridge sound smooth and precise, possibly to a fault, but oh my lord, with the Benz Gullwing, Julie London's overtly seductive voice, Barney Kessel's creamy guitar, and Ray Leatherwood's carefully measured bass beats came out of the diminutive Falcons not just smooth, precise, and tone-perfect but with most of the sonic weight they had coming out of my Altec 604Bs way back in the '70s, when I first discovered this disc.

Another record that was fierce beyond belief: René Saorgin playing six toccatas from Georg Muffat's Apparatus Musico-Organisticus (Harmonia Mundi LP HMU 966/967). Before the Gullwing, I never imagined the Falcon Gold Badges could reach so deep or so smoothly into the 35Hz–70Hz octave or play wide-range organ harmonics with this level of detail, heft, and dynamic authority.

Up to this point, the Parasound JC 3+ was the phono stage that presented the Gullwing SLR with the most effective loading and gain. With this pairing, I felt I was getting the most complete, most tone-and-transient–truthful rendition of what this cartridge was capable of. To my gleeful surprise, the Benz cartridge made the Parasound preamp sound more vibrant than it ever had before, which made me curious how the Benz MC would fare with my daily-driver tube reference, the Tavish Design Adagio phono stage.

I ran the Gullwing into Adagio's Jensen JT-44K-DX 1:10 MC step-up transformer and was immediately revved by how effectively this combo reproduced all three discs of what I consider the most spellbinding recordings I know: Astor Piazzolla: The American Clavé Recordings (Nonesuch LP 075597915297). The Benz Gullwing sounded so tone-truthful, so Leica-focused, and so pristinely organized that I now felt 100% certain that it was aligned perfectly during installation. The balance between reverb (which seemed neither exaggerated nor suppressed) and the apparent distance between microphones and performers seemed impeccably rendered with the Benz-Tavish combo. With the Gullwing SLR, these newly remastered recordings breathed and danced as one entity, as did Astor and his sublime quintet. To my taste, these three discs hold the most radically fantastic, poetically and formally sophisticated music I've ever encountered, especially "La Camorra." The entire universe is described in "La Camorra."

This album's super-creative producer, Kip Hanrahan, who founded American Clavé, explained the once-in-a-generation brilliance of Piazzolla, Argentine composer and "nuevo tango" progenitor. "When I listen to Astor, I'm not really listening to the tango reimagined and saved by a brilliant composer. I'm listening to the music of a turbulent, complex, restless, brilliant man rearranging the vocabulary of his father's dreams." If I could only own one album, it would be this powerful, mind-expanding box set.

I have never been completely satisfied by the Jensen JT-44K-DX transformer on the Adagio's moving coil input, usually opting for one of the fancier SUTs in my collection. But today, playing those Piazzolla LPs set at 400 ohms, it displayed free-swinging vigor, just-right damping, and natural transparency—a perfect match for the Gullwing SLR.

More than any other cartridge I've used, the Gullwing SLR made my three favorite recordings, two of my reference phono stages, and my Falcon Gold Badge speakers sound more exciting than I ever thought they could. That makes it a cartridge I could live happily with forever after.

Shure V-15 Type III
While writing this report, just for fun, I installed the first cartridge I can remember buying, the made-in-Chicago Shure V-15 Type III moving magnet, now equipped with a fresh Jico VN-35HE elliptical replacement stylus.

I did not remember its body being so plasticky and faux-chrome fancy. Materials and construction-wise, it did not feel or look like any of the solidly crafted Japanese cartridges I've been using since I replaced the Type III with a Supex SD 900 moving coil in the late 1970s.

As soon as I set the III's stylus on a record, the 1970s flashed before my eyes. I remembered all my loft parties and saw Soul Train on TV. I remembered how Lou Reed, Bob Marley, and George Jones sounded with that cartridge on my Technics SL-1200 turntable. The V-15 Type III has a unique, easy-to-identify tone and temper. Its smooth, super-tracker manner makes it feel correct and accurate, which in some ways it might be. But compared to the supercharged Supex, it is a yawner. It is PRaT and "chi" challenged. It is less high-torque than the Denon DL-103 and less moon-luminous than this Benz Micro Gullwing SLR.

Nevertheless, Shure's V-15 Type III plays clear, quiet, and truthy, like those R-2R DACs I've praised. I find comfort in the smooth, truthy part of its presentation. But its engagement factor is lower than any modern cartridge I've used since becoming a reviewer, MC or MM. Dynamics and excitement-wise, the $69 Audio Technica AT-VM95E pounds the V-15 III to the floor and jumps all over it. But the Shure sounds much more controlled, which I attribute to its superb tracking and the quality of its magnetic circuit.

I sometimes think, subjectively, that high-compliance cartridges have less boogie and PRaT, and that low-compliance cartridges compress the signal from the grooves ever so slightly, the effect of which is to emphasize the beat.

But I might be dreaming.

Footnote 5: See Gramophone Dreams #67.


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.