Listening #128 Page 2

In our efforts to describe the musical worth of a hi-fi product, reviewers often try a little too hard to select recordings that might impress the reader with their rarity, their obscurity, or their sheer coolosity. I've been guilty of that myself, but over time I've made an effort to resist temptation and either surrender to the musical—rather than the sonic—whim of the moment, or else to reach, blindly, for whatever my fingers find on the shelf: If it's in my collection, it must be worth hearing at least once, right? (footnote 3)

So it was during the Ikeda's time in my home, during which I simply grabbed record after record, and during which experience the IT-407 maintained a level of musical performance that sounded consistently right.

Most notably, the Ikeda allowed music to sound larger than usual for a given volume setting: something that was true with stereo and mono recordings alike. The Electric Recording Company's reissues of Johanna Martzy's recordings of J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, which I described in last month's column and which continue to enchant everyone who has heard them through my system, sounded especially commanding with this arm in place. Another great mono example came courtesy of reader John Connolly—who, noting that I'd never heard a mono Parlophone copy of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night (Parlophone), remedied the situation by loaning me his own first-pressing copy of same, along with a seventh-pressing stereo copy (Parlophone) for the sheer fun of it. (Thanks, John!) Again, the Ikeda conferred on both records an impressive sense of scale. And the sounds of voices and instruments on both LPs—especially the stereo edition, which was surprisingly enjoyable—were substantive and realistically thick, with excellent spatial presence.

Given that used vinyl of unknown provenance accounts for so much of my record-buying these days, there is no shortage of LPs in my home that are quite worn; happily, the Ikeda excelled at minimizing the unpleasant sonic effects of ticks, pops, and steady-state groove grunge. Especially when used with my Miyabi 47 stereo cartridge, the Ikeda also proved good at tracking densely modulated grooves, a quality that many of us associate only with very low-mass arms—thanks, no doubt, to years of being conditioned by advertising from the consumer-audio market of the 1970s, and by the editorial content of Stereo Review. Like there's a difference.

Where the Ikeda fell a little short of the ideal was in its ability to communicate force, especially those sonic cues at the subtler end of the dynamic spectrum: gently plucked strings, gently tapped drums—even the initial attack components of notes in the woodwind family. I noticed it first, and most, in the sounds of the tabla in the Improvisations album by Ravi Shankar and friends, of which my stereo copy really is less desirable than the mono (EMI). The Ikeda tonearm allowed through just enough of the attack components of those sounds, but I would have liked more; then again, given the arm's other fine and even unique characteristics, I was satisfied.

"Things tend to sound like whatever it is they're made of." So said my friend, the artist and erstwhile audio writer Herb Reichert. Regarded in a similar vein, I suppose it's no surprise that the big and somewhat rounded Ikeda IT-407 sounds . . . well, big and somewhat rounded. Those qualities, along with the Ikeda's freedom from harshness and its overall sonic poise and imperturbability, served every record I grabbed. I endure in preferring my EMT 997 ($5995), for its more tactile, forceful way with the attack components of notes and other sounds. Yet one can imagine without effort those phonophiles who would prefer the Ikeda: The Japanese arm sounded every bit as beautiful as it looks.

For some, the fact that record players are still being made at all is cause for celebration. My own happiness bar is higher—but give me something like this every few years and I'll remain a jolly journeyer.

Sad news out of Germany: Phonograph specialists EMT (which stands for Elektro-Mess-Technik or Electrical Measuring Technology), a company whose core mission has survived since 1940, recently announced the end of their OFD line of pickup heads, precipitated by accidental damage to the mold used to make a key part. I asked EMT's importer, Tone Imports' Jonathan Halpern, precisely which part that was, and he confessed that he hasn't been told: It seems that EMT is so keen to talk about their newer lines—quite rightly so—that they're given to discouraging the press from being overly attentive to The Old Stuff, to the point of ignoring questions from . . . well, from me.

In any event, it appears that the cost of replacing said mold is sufficiently high—compared with the amount of money that EMT stood to make on future sales of the OFD line to audio consumers who dwell aboveground—that the company has decided to pull the plug on OFD pickups: big, heavy, bulky, low-compliance, high-output, and unrepentantly monophonic devices that, in 1959, began their reign in Bakelite housings, and ended it in EMT's standard alloy shell, to which ballast was usually added to suit the compliance of the cartridge used.

Despite slow sales, EMT continued in recent years to offer a laudable number of variations on the basic OFD, with different stylus sizes to fit different LP and 78rpm grooves (25µm and 65µm, respectively, were standard, but others were available), different collet-to-stylus lengths, different output-pin patterns, and even a quaintly enduring choice between diamond and sapphire stylus tips—all of which, of course, were spherical in profile.

In the September 2008 issue I described the OFD 25 as "by far the most vividly colorful and exciting mono cartridge I've ever heard. Switching to my OFD 25 after a few sides with any other cartridge or pickup head is always like inviting the Wild Man of Borneo to an Amish funeral: unsubtle, unforgettable, and the sort of experience that only a certain few will wish to repeat." Five years later, my feelings on the matter are a little stronger.

EMT, a company blessed with a loyal staff of skilled cartridge makers, stresses that they will continue to offer service for all existing OFD pickup heads: not only retipping, but full-bore reconditioning and rebuilding. One final, small shipment of OFD pickups is on its way to the US from Germany as I write this. One of them—I would like to think it's the very last one—is an OFD 15 with my name on it.

Finally, a few words of thanks to the many readers who wrote in response to my column about buying a nearly 50-year-old pair of Altec Valencia loudspeakers. As of today I've received over 30 letters about that column, only one of which—from a 78-year-old male whose observation didn't rise above the level of personal insult (see "Letters," July, p.11)—was negative. All the rest expressed varying degrees of thanks and encouragement, and many offered helpful suggestions and stories of personal experiences, mostly regarding the taming of resonances in the Valencias' cast-aluminum horns. Thank you!

More than one correspondent added concern for the health of my Valencias' pristine woofers, seeing as how I'd removed the speakers' gaudy grillework. Last week I took their advice and reinstalled the grilles—both of which, happily, were still in one piece, having suffered only minor chipping during the removal of those blasted finishing nails.

In the weeks and months ahead I'll raise the cabinets about 3" more above the floor, and, perhaps more interesting, I'll experiment with a pair of exotic aftermarket crossovers, designed and built specifically for Altec Valencias and Flamencos.

Footnote 3: Besides, in this issue's column I've saved my showing-off for the end.

corrective_unconscious's picture

There went several centuries of writers kvetching about how hard writing is. I always suspected they were exaggerating.

Of course, you still have those writers whose work sounds labored, whether the sentences pour forth easily or do not.