Listening #176: MusiKraft Cartridge Bodies & EMIA Phono Transformer Page 2

Similarly, with my EMT cartridge, "Just Like You," from Roxy Music's Stranded (Japanese Polydor MPF 1142), was as captivating as could be. With the MusiKraft, it was perhaps 75% as captivating—again, not bad for less than half the price. With the MusiKraft, drummer Paul Thompson's floor toms weren't as deep or resonant, Bryan Ferry's electronically treated piano not as crisp and colorful and deliberate, the sound of his voice not as meaty and present, Eddie Jobson's violin Mellotron not as hypnotic—but it was still pretty damn good, and ultimately very charming and very involving.

Pianist Magda Tagliaferro's recital of Spanish music, D'ombre et de lumière . . . (EMI/Electric Recording Company 350 C 001), surely one of the most beautiful records ever made, sounded amazing under the MusiKraft Denon's spherical stylus. Tagliaferro's left and right hands were in perfect balance, with no notes or ranges of notes given greater or lesser prominence, and the instrument's timbre was perfect, as was the natural room sound. The force behind her loudest notes was conveyed well, and the stereo recording's spatial qualities—mono-like in their chunkiness—were preserved: the instrument came across with substance and generous size. Only a (pleasantly and still realistically) more generous bottom end distinguished the more expensive EMT TSD 15 from the MusiKraft Denon—that and, with the latter cartridge, a slight coarsening of the sound of the most forcefully struck, treble-range chords in Granados's Andaluza – Danse espagnole No.5.

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Cut first, measure last
I found myself having such a good time with the MusiKraft Denon as delivered that I nearly forget to try tuning it by fiddling with the three setscrews. I decided that no review would be complete without some description of the effect, so I gave it a whirl and tightened all three very slightly. I replayed that Granados cut, and was shocked to hear that a great portion of the recording's musical charm—the excitement in the faster runs, the flow and momentum of the melodies, the humanness of the playing, the believability of the note decays—had disappeared. What I heard after even that minute degree of tightening was standard-issue audiophile sound, devoid of both distortion and color, of both errant tracking and feeling. I re-loosened the setscrews after only four minutes of that torture: The music was restored, as generous as ever, and I vowed never again to do such a thing. But I won't discourage interested parties from trying this perfectly easy, perfectly reversible tweak—perhaps with a different tonearm, a different system, and/or a different listener, the results, too, would be different.

Then I thought of something else: I'd better measure the pairing of the MusiKraft Denon cartridge and EMT 997 tonearm, to make sure I wasn't too terribly wrong to like what I was hearing. Out came my trusty copy of Hi-Fi News & Record Review's seductively titled Test Record (Hi-Fi News HFN 001), which helped me discover that that combination's resonant frequencies were 9Hz in the lateral plane and 10Hz in the vertical plane, both made manifest by extremely obvious jittering at those frequencies and no others, both within a range most phonophiles would consider ideal. Vindication, assuming I ever needed it, was mine.

All in all, I was very impressed with the MusiKraft S-AlLi103-PO body, for the comprehensiveness of its design, the quality of its execution—simply feeling the sturdily precise and very smooth fit between its threaded holes and mounting bolts gave me a nerdy thrill—and the sureness of its sonic and musical accomplishments. Both in terms of being superbly well made and offering good musical bang for the buck, I think it's a fine value, an opinion that gains strength when I consider that, when the user's DL-103 wears out (or, in my case, gets broken), a fresh cartridge can be fitted with ease. (With other third-party shells, the cartridge is glued in place, requiring the user to either have the worn stylus replaced—typically for a price approaching that of an entire new DL-103—or to discard both cartridge and body and start over.) By and by, I hope to try MusiKraft's entry-level aluminum shell and determine whether it's in the same ballpark as the aluminum-lithium model—which, in any event, is very strongly recommended.

EMIA Phono step-up transformer
Almost 10 years ago, in the October 2007 "Listening," I commented on the apparent increase in interest in the use of step-up transformers instead of all-active gain stages in the phono-preamplification chain, musing that many of us tube-amp lovers are responsive to "the poetic symmetry of a system in which a transducer is connected to a transformer at both ends." That trend endures, and recently I had the pleasure of sampling the work of New Yorker Dave Slagle, known among tube and vinyl aficionados as an advanced student of the science and art of audio-transformer design. (Herb Reichert and I both have fond memories of hearing, at last year's Capital Audiofest, Slagle's extensively rebuilt Quad ESL loudspeakers, in which he realized the elusive goal of making the loudspeaker's input transformer and the driving amplifier's output transformer one and the same (footnote 3). I would have described Slagle, simply, as an audio-transformer expert, but I know he's far too humble to withstand such a label, his humility motivated as much by respect for other designers as by his own distaste for negativity.

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Which is not to say that Dave Slagle lacks a point of view. Through his company, EMIA—a partnership with Jeffrey Jackson (footnote 4), whose expertise in the design of tubed circuits and horn-loaded loudspeakers is also well known (footnote 5)—Slagle makes bespoke phono step-up transformers, the designs of which take into account not only the customer's specific moving-coil cartridge but also the input impedance of his or her phono preamplifier: "I do not size the turns ratio of my transformer to suit a [presumed] 47k ohm load," said Slagle. He builds his own phono preamp with a much higher load—typically almost 300k ohms—and, when it's reasonable to do so, suggests modifying the customer's phono stage with load resistors of higher values. "The 47k ohm resistor is there for moving-magnet cartridges," he said, suggesting that, because the first popular accessory MC transformers were designed with that load in mind, others needlessly followed the same performance-constricting formula. Thus every phono transformer Slagle designs begins with a conversation with the user.

Slagle also believes in using a fairly large transformer core, and his experiences have led him to use a core that's about 80% nickel. "I also try to keep a lot of air around the transformer: you want a little space in there," he said. Consequently, Slagle doesn't pot his transformers—"they sound better without it"—and while he acknowledges the need for potting in high-voltage transformers, he wonders if manufacturers of yore got in the habit of potting low-voltage transformers simply to protect the surface layers of the windings and their fragile organic coatings.

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The product of these and other design considerations, the EMIA Phono step-up transformer ($2400 with copper wire, $4200 with silver wire), is supplied in a steel box finished in black textured paint and sandwiched between top and bottom plates of solid walnut, the whole thing measuring 5.25" wide by 4.5" high by 5.25" deep. On its rear panel are two pairs of RCA jacks for signal input and output, and a third pair whose contacts are wired in parallel with the transformers' primary windings, and that can be fitted with resistor-loaded plugs (supplied) for cartridge loading, if needed. (The plugs on the silver-wire version are silver-plated.) A ground lug of the usual sort is also provided. Inside, between the transformers and the steel box, are a layer of copper referenced to ground and a layer of mu-metal; thus, the windings are triple-shielded. In spite of Slagle's observations that "we want the aesthetic to disappear" and "we put the bling on the inside," I found my review loaners—one each, copper and silver—serenely beautiful.

At my request, Slagle sent me transformers wound with a ratio of 15:1, to suit my EMT TSD 15 cartridge (1.05mV output, 48 ohms impedance). Both proved to be reliably and at times intensely musical, but in the long run I actually preferred the sound of the copper version, the very relaxed glow of whose timbral reproduction best suited the rest of my system.

Before installing the EMIA, I turned to a recently discovered record, Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra's recording of Bruckner's Symphony 2 (Philips 802 912 LY), and gave it a listen with my EMT TSD 15 and my reference transformer, the Hommage T2 ($4995). The combination had an immense sense of drive, albeit one of its own making—the music leaned forward, but not in quite the same way as a good Ortofon SPU with a sympathetic transformer. It also had texture and tone in spades. In buckets. In tanker holds. On that Bruckner, the soft kettledrum taps in the otherwise silent passage between the first movement's first and second themes had subtle force. Densely scored passages in the first movement's third theme were poised and nongrainy, though in some of those passages the bassoon wasn't always obviously a bassoon.

Through the EMIA Phono, the EMT didn't serve up quite as much dramatic tension, but the bassoon was more bassoon-like in the first movement, and EMIA reproduced massed strings with a combination of bite and appealing cream that was no less realistic than the Hommage's—maybe a little less bite on attacks and a little more cream in sustains. Note decays were tighter with the EMIA, realistically so.

With the EMIA, Artur Rubinstein and the Guarneri String Quartet's recording of Brahms's Piano Quintet (RCA Living Stereo LSC-2971) sounded nearly as appealingly raw-boned as through the Hommage T2. That's a heck of a thing: Products that allow half-century-old classical recordings to sound as exciting as they're supposed to are thin on the ground, and while other transformers have approached or even surpassed the Hommage in other respects, the EMIA was the first I've heard that had a similar ability to make the music sound wildly alive. (Some effort at volume matching was required for a fair comparison; the Hommage T2 endows the EMT with audibly more gain than did the EMIA.) All in all, the Brahms was no less spellbinding through the EMIA, which I actually came to prefer for being slightly better at maintaining composure in heavily modulated passages: no grain or glare, no spatial distortion.

Before filing away the Rubinstein-Guarneri Brahms, I decided to swap the EMT for my stock Denon DL-103, and was not disappointed by the pairing with the EMIA. Although the Denon isn't as refined a cartridge as the EMT, and its bass is slightly rubbery rather than consistently taut, this combo delivered all the tension and anguish that I assume Brahms had in mind. In terms of the sheer force of sound of Rubinstein's piano, the Denon served up less pound through the EMIA than the EMT, but when things got loud, the sound never got raucous: the EMIA had poise and pound—and the natural textures of the viola and cello were to die for.

For a change of scenery, I tried Roxy Music's live EP The High Road (EG/Warner Bros. 23808-1B) and was, from that point forward, thoroughly won over by the combination of Denon cartridge and EMIA transformer. With the latter in the system, bassist Alan Spenner and drummer Andy Newmark were in perfect lockstep with one another in "Like a Hurricane," Spenner's instrument coming across with very satisfying depth, power, and certainty of pitch, Newmark's snare sounding wonderfully punchy and consistently so: it never got mushy or grainy at high volumes. In the opening moments in particular, Phil Manzanera's guitar flourishes were vivid, as was Andy Mackay's sax solo later in the song. More important, the music had as much drive as I've ever heard from this record—and the final number, a cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," packed enormous emotional punch, bringing me back to 1983, when I saw the band perform it at Radio City Music Hall. (The audience was so moved, we stood for the entire song.)

Miscellany: For whatever reason, when the EMIA was in my system, I achieved the lowest level of hum with a ground wire running straight from my tonearm to the transformer's ground lug; with the Hommage, I bypass the transformer's ground altogether and connect the tonearm ground straight to my preamp. And although I tried a few of the EMIA's loading resistors—I came to regard the transformer's loading jacks as somewhat akin to an injection inlet on an IV drip—I always preferred the sound without them. Perhaps my EMT is especially well behaved?

With record after record, I loved every minute the EMIA Phono transformer was in my system: It sounded clean, clear, rich, detailed, and, above all, musically exciting—all for approximately half the price of the deservedly well-regarded Hommage T2. This is a product that I could not only live with—I would be excited to come home to it every time. The fact that each EMIA is a one-of-a-kind, artisanal product only adds to that glow. In a word: wow.



Footnote 3: See here and here.

Footnote 4: EMIA. Web: www.myemia.com. E-mail: Dslagle@earthlink.net, Experiencemusic@hotmail.com.

Footnote 5: The name EMIA derives from the names of Jackson's company Experience Music and Slagle's Intact Audio.

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COMMENTS
Anton's picture

It is "audio jewelry" in a good way. The fit and finish seems impeccable.

If you get to hang onto it for a while, it begs comparison at that price with the Hana cartridges.

I think this is a potentially ripe niche in the hobby.

I also didn't know this product existed, so thank you for that, as well!

Back in the day of detachable headshells, I greatly enjoyed comparing different headshells, as well.

rockdc's picture

Art, pulling the shell off the DL-103 is not very difficult. It does involve cutting through a small bit of glue using a razor or exacto knife. I'm really happy with my now aluminum bodied Denon, which I installed in a shell I bought a few years back from a vendor on the Lenco Heaven forum.

By the way, why not send off your damaged DL-103 for a re-tip or cantilever replacement/upgrade at Soundsmith; that would make for a good review.

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