Listening #1 Page 3

In 1975, I spent $45 bucks on a phono cartridge for my entry-level Thorens turntable. It was an Audio-Technica AT-something. It was purple, and it had a Shibata stylus profile, which impressed me. Using the financial model described above, something of similar quality should cost in the neighborhood of $117 today. But notwithstanding my Lollardy views, there aren't any $117 phono cartridges out there that would satisfy me. I've come to think of almost any phono cartridge that sells for less than $1000 as "affordable"—this from the owner of a rusty Saab with a Greenpeace sticker. God help me.

Today, the $900 van den Hul DDT-II Special is my idea of a great affordable phono cartridge (footnote 1).

First, let's get the model designation out of the way: If it were up to me, I would never name a phono cartridge after an insecticide, let alone one that has been banned in all civilized nations, even the US, for being more or less an everythingcide. Then again, I wouldn't have included "Gritty" in my company name if I sold record cleaners, or the word "broken" in the name of my high-end amplifier company—so perhaps my opinion on the subject carries less weight than I think.

As it turns out, DDT stands for "depth, detail, and timbre"; "II" signifies a revision or refinement; and "Special" means it's, well, special. I've never heard a DDT-I, but I'm here to tell you that the DDT-II is special indeed, and a damn good buy to boot.

This is a medium-output (0.65mV) moving-coil cartridge with silver coils, a boron cantilever, and, of course, the famous van den Hul line-contact stylus profile. The threaded body makes for easy, nutless installation (Naim Aro owners will be pleased to know that the vdH's stylus-to-mounting-hole distance is correct for that arm), and the medium-to-medium/high compliance suggests compatibility with a variety of good tonearms. Its maker, Dutch audio-writer-turned-engineer A.J. van den Hul, says a load impedance ranging between 100 ohms and 47k ohms is okay, 200 ohms being optimal. I use a step-up transformer for phono gain, which changes the game somewhat and results in those numbers being less than directly applicable. In any event, I heard no shortcomings that I would relate to problems of electrical damping or other issues du load.

I heard no real shortcomings at all. The DDT-II is bettered only inasmuch as certain more expensive cartridges can be counted on to provide more music—but that was it. The vdH is richly but realistically textured and colorful, and its stylus is supremely quiet in the groove, even more so than the last vdH cartridge I heard, some four years ago.

The DDT-II is also a very modern-sounding cartridge. There was a time when I might have followed that with "for better and for worse," but lately, and notwithstanding my abiding fondness for the sounds of some old things, modern cartridges mostly just sound better to me. The old Supex 900 Super is a great cartridge, with its warm, textured midrange and enormous bass. But, like most moving-coil cartridges of its time, it also has a treble peak that imbues vocal sibilants and hi-hat cymbals with unnatural tizz—and which stands out from the rest of the range like a sore thumb. Modern MCs, like the vdH DDT-II Special, have much less of a peak, and their overall sound is so open and explicit and clear that top-end peaks, if any, seem less obtrusive.

The vdH surprised me by being wonderfully dynamic. I used to think that the only way to make my records sound dramatic and involving was to use a good old-fashioned low-compliance cartridge in a big, massive tonearm: High-compliance cartridges, I thought, were capable of sounding supple and pretty, but not much else. I now realize that that point of view is similar to that of motoring enthusiasts who think that only a front-engine/rear-wheel-drive car can exhibit the kind of neutral and/or predictable handling that makes for fun driving. Both are opinions that might have had some legitimacy 20 or even 10 years ago, but we've since come further than that. The van den Hul DDT-II Special is like a really good Audi: I can't imagine the person it wouldn't please.

It even makes as much bass as my Supex, albeit with a great deal more in the way of control. On Leonard Cohen's "Who By Fire," for instance (from the lighthearted collection New Skin for the Old Ceremony), the beautifully recorded electric bass has superb attack, followed by a rich sustain and realistic die-away. This is no wimpy cartridge, even if it does track really well!

Yesterday, I used the vdH to listen to: Elgar's In the South, with Barenboim and the LPO (horrid recording, surprisingly good performance); Elgar's Symphony 1, with Barbirolli and the Philharmonia; Elgar's Symphony 2, with Barbirolli and the Hallé; part of Elgar's Symphony 2 with Boult and the LPO; Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, with Schwarzkopf, Szell, and the Berlin RSO; and Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, with John Eliot Gardiner. (It's been raining here—can you tell?) They all sounded so moving and memorable that I'm going to keep the van den Hul DDT-II Special in my system for one more day and play every one of them again this afternoon. I can think of no higher praise for a phono cartridge, especially an "affordable" one such as this.

Footnote 1: Manufactured by A.J. van den Hul B.V., Holland, ; distributed by Stanalog Audio Imports, P.O. Box 671, Hagaman, NY 12086. Tel: (518) 843-3070. Fax: (518) 843 8882. Serial number of unit reviewed: 11826.