Gramophone Dreams #83: Benz Micro Gullwing SLR, Goldring Ethos phono cartridges, Meze 109 Pro headphones

It was almost Christmas, a perfect, chilly, blue-sky day to visit the Met Museum and see the Manet/Degas show before it ended. On my way, walking north on Madison Avenue, I passed the uptown branch of Gagosian Gallery and noticed a brightly lit poster behind thick glass announcing their exhibition of American artist Brice Marden's last paintings. The title of the show was "Let the painting make you," which sounded like an invite and a challenge, so of course I had to go in. I was in the perfect mood to ride in Gagosian's swanky private elevator and see how a famously serious painter with a six-decade career chose to communicate his last thoughts.

Brice Marden died in August 2023, and I had been watching his art evolve since I arrived in New York in 1975. Having seen scores of Marden shows, I was familiar with his creative timeline. But that day, seeing the words "last paintings" on the Gagosian poster struck an "artist at Golgotha" tone that got me psyched to see what kind of energy these things were putting out.

In the main gallery, I found six 72" × 96" paintings, each with its own distinctive palette: pink with powder blue lines; dense red lines on a mottled lead-gray background; rough black and white lines rubbing up against each other on a dark gray background (this is the "black one" mentioned below). Standing close and examining each painting's surfaces was like looking at pond water through a microscope, or at an opera from a balcony, and possibly at the inside of Marden's mind. As I searched for the artist's last thoughts, I felt awe and mystery—as I am sure the artist hoped I would.

I never cry at funerals, not even my mother's, but as I approached the last painting in the main room, the one I'm calling "the black one," I choked up and began sobbing. As I had hoped, Marden's last work did feel like a denouement. As I followed his black and white lines to the lower edge of the unframed, stretched canvas, I saw the artist's entire oeuvre of brush-stroked forms first dancing behind then consolidating into these last ones. The energy in Marden's lines suggested Miles Davis playing a quiet solo in a dark room.

When my mind returned to the gallery, I wiped my eyes and left the building. Moments later, I was at the corner of Madison and 77th Street, walking toward the Met. Then I stopped, turned around, and went back for one more look at that black painting. The moment I spied it, my throat choked up. In less than minute I was sobbing again.

When I left the gallery the second time, I did not have the emotional bandwidth to enjoy the Manet/Degas show, so I stopped in the Gagosian bookstore and bought the "Let the painting make you" show catalog for my partner "bb" as a Christmas gift.

On Christmas morning, after bb opened the Marden book present, we sat next to each other solemnly paging our way through it. Then, unbelievably, the moment she turned to the page with a photo of that black painting,

I choked up. Try to imagine: a two-second look at a tiny photo of a large oil painting made me cry, and I don't know why. Do you?

It seemed to me that Brice Marden fastidiously engineered these last paintings so that his viewers might experience some measure of the awe, fear, and mystery he experienced during the months preceding his death. What else would he have been up to?

I'm now obsessed. I need someone to tell me: What psychoactive forces made that single painting (and later a tiny digital photo of it) so emotionally affecting? Was there something extra-primal or supranatural about its forms? Did Marden's humanity speak extra-strongly through his awkward looking but tenaciously drawn lines? Through the moods emanating from his translucent grounds? I don't know.

What I do know is that everywhere two brush-painted lines crossed, I experienced a riveting narrative of force and material presence that felt balletic, operatic, and timeless (top photo, previous page). The touch and tempo of his hand-drawn forms suggested mind rhythms. In a perfectly abstract manner, the artist appeared to be presenting the rhythms and temper of his last thoughts as directly as possible.

One of the reasons I am telling you this is to illustrate how, in order to be effective, close looking and close listening must be purposefully directed. I might not have experienced the awe and mystery of Marden's last thoughts if I had not walked into Gagosian looking for it.

If I had entered that gallery feeling superior to Marden, fully prepared to judge his work according to what I think it should be—not what the artist created it to be—I would have hated those paintings because I had prejudged them as inferior to my own or someone else's.

For me, studying paintings and listening to recordings are perfectly analogous activities. Both require an innocent mind, some hope for learning, and a plan.

My experience with that black painting in the Brice Marden show forced me to remember David Bowie's last album, Blackstar, released on his birthday two days before his January 10, 2016, death. As the world mourned, I played Blackstar in my room, eyes closed, scanning its vast synth and guitar energies for the rhythms and temper of Bowie's last thoughts, the same way I scanned the washes and lines of Marden's last paintings.

Choking on words
When cheap-suit hucksters tell me, "You can now hear this recording as the artist intended," it makes me nauseous. Wtf? How could they know? Imagine someone saying that after touching up a Picasso painting! (footnote 1) What I know, from my personal life, is that I've choked up many, many times while listening to original pressings of black discs, fewer times listening to reissues, fewer still with silver discs, and only once or possibly twice while streaming. And I don't know why.

The only things these choke-up stories tell me is that I am predisposed to like hand-painted (un-retouched) canvases and first-issue LP pressings. And that I might be more receptive to "artist's intentions" while viewing black paintings or spinning black discs.

And then there's the related fact that I am predisposed towards fiddling with those beastly doodads you call phono cartridges. That I love them for how sci-fi cool they look and their proven ability to draw me in and show me the rhythms and diversities of human thought.

The Benz Micro Gullwing SLR
Last September, in Gramophone Dreams #76, I called the Benz Micro Gullwing SLR moving coil an "entheogen" and described its sound as "moon-luminous." I used those words because the Gullwing SLR played my records with a "burnished glow" I found core-level appealing.

After a month reviewing DACs, I was jonesing for some of that "burnished glow," so I reinstalled Benz's Gullwing SLR, connecting it to the tube input of PrimaLuna's all-tube EVO 100 phono stage, its load resistance set at 500 ohms. Now it's winter, and that same cartridge sounds bigger, meatier, and more tactile than I thought it did last summer. Next, I connected the SLR to MoFi's MasterPhono phono stage set at the same 500 ohms. With that preamp, the Gullwing came across as leaner and fitter, also punchier and more full-throttle dynamics-wise than it did with the PrimaLuna EVO 100. Neither preamp cast the Benz as warm, soft, or overly romantic, but both preamps highlighted its burnished glow.

I gave the Gullwing a second listen because when I reviewed it, I thought its sound really suited my personal taste, and I wanted to see if it would please me as much now as it did last summer. During these second auditions, I noticed that the Gullwing's sound has a lot of "early-Koetsu" savoir-faire. Like the very first Koetsus, its sound is confident and crammed with myriad intangibles that combine to fashion a very eager, earthy presentation.

Remembering that '70s-era Koetsu while playing the Benz Micro Gullwing SLR put me in the mood for more new cartridge adventures. The Goldring Ethos moving coil ($1599) just happened to be sitting on my desk, waiting patiently for its turn.

The Goldring Ethos
Inside the attractive paper box that held the Goldring Ethos moving coil cartridge (footnote 2), I found a glossy-paper booklet titled Goldring: A Visual History. Underneath the title, it says, "Established 1906." Inside, it devotes two pages to each historical decade, from the "1910s" to the "2010s." On the 1960s pages, there's a photo of a Lenco GL 75 turntable, which is the "sold in Great Britain" version of the Swiss-manufactured L-75 that I use. On the page opposite the GL 75 photo, there's another showing three models from Goldring's G800 series, which competed directly with Shure's American-made SC35C, which I reviewed in GD #3.

For those too young to remember, broadcast-quality phono cartridges from the 1960s were engineered for tone-truthfulness—paramount for radio play—and robustness, necessary to push the beat of new records over the airwaves and into the homes and cars of potential consumers.

I talk to Spin Doctor Michael Trei a lot. I bug him constantly with "dumb Herb questions" about what makes all those analog bits sound the way they do. For this Goldring Ethos report, I asked him questions such as "How would you characterize the sound of neodymium magnets?" And "Is a 25mm/N static and 15mm/N dynamic compliance high enough to be considered high?" Or "How long do I really need to break in a cartridge I'm reviewing?" I asked that last question because right out of its smart-looking paper box, the Goldring Ethos sounded extraordinarily vivid, focused, and dynamically charged.

The first disc I played with the Ethos was a red-label Bethlehem disc, Nina Simone's Little Girl Blue (Bethlehem LP BCP-6028). The first thing I noticed was how the Ethos operated at a nice, brisk energy level, with sparkle in its clarity. So right away I'm puzzled: How can this moderately priced Goldring be making some of the most vivid sound I've heard from a recording I've known my whole life? (Thinking that thought, I texted Trei asking "Do cartridges ever sound worse after break-in?" To which he replied "I don't think so.")

The second disc I tried was a first pressing of David Bowie's Blackstar (Columbia LP 88875173871). The Ethos tracked this difficult-to-track disc with Steadicam ease. When Blackstar is not played extra-cleanly, it sounds messy and fatiguing. The Ethos put Blackstar's dense, reverberant synth work into well-sorted order, permitting me to see how it was built and search for clues about Bowie's last thoughts.

"On the day of execution, on the day of execution
Only women kneel and smile, ah ah, ah ah"

The historical, religious, and exploratory aspects of the album's title song came through well enough for me to grasp the strangeness and mysteriousness I am certain Bowie intended. Like Marden's black painting, Bowie's Blackstar beckons his creative past to come forward and show itself, pulsing faintly in the background.

Footnote 1: ... although the argument could be made that remastering a recording is, or at least can be, similar to cleaning an older canvas.

Footnote 2: Goldring, Armour Home Electronics Woodside, 2 Dunmow Road, Bishop's Stortford, Herts CM23 5RG, UK. Tel: +44 1279 501111. Web: US distributor: Fidelity Imports, 7 Crown Ct, Manalapan Township, NJ 07726. Tel: (609) 369-9240. Web:


supamark's picture

I don't know if you've been, but it's very much in the vein of the exhibition you saw - if you haven't and you're ever in Houston, TX you should visit (and the Menil Collection nearby, my personal favorite art museum). I visited as a teenager in the 1980's, and even at that young age it was profound.

Mark Phillips

Herb Reichert's picture

I grew up looking at photos of the Rothko Chapel and the Menil Collection but so far I have not seen them in person.But I have spent 60 years looking at Rothko paintings and only now do I feel like I am starting to pick up on the higher levels of his vibe.


JRT's picture

Herb, in this article you mentioned attending the CanJam NYC 2023 event (February 25-26), and I am curious if you also attended the CanJam NYC 2024 event (March 09-10). And if so, are you going to report on it? Or maybe it was just a missed opportunity.

Herb Reichert's picture

Was fantastic.

All the cool young folks were hanging there and where else could they hear the best audio sound its best? As always it was a meeting of the tribe.

I am sure I will discuss it somewhere but I can't say when or where. Sorry.


Lars Bo's picture

Thank you very much, Herb.

Last fall, my son and I visited Florence. On a fine day, standing in line to the Santa Maria del Fiore, we were chatting away about the cathedral's exterior, its grandeur and harmony. Then, the very moment we entered the majestic church, we literally froze in awe.

Minutes passed, and we looked at each other, both misty-eyed, struck with profound wonder and amazement. Simultaneously, we managed to utter a single word. My son said "Heaven"; I said "Shoebox". Right away we exclaimed to one another: "Exactly!".