Listening #186: Miyajima Saboten L phono cartridge

In the early 1960s, young people who were anxious see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show had to first sit through a seeming eternity of bad comedians, bad puppet shows, and acrobats spinning dinner plates to the tune of Khachaturian's Sabre Dance. So it is here: Before I can get to the Miyajima Saboten L phono cartridge, I have to report on something I left out of my April 2018 column, which was devoted to Zu Audio's modification of the classic Denon DL-103 cartridge. And since this is information I've been holding on to for almost a year, I suppose I also left it out of my August 2017 column, which was devoted to the MusiKraft Audio's own modification of the Denon DL-103.

Famously, or perhaps infamously, the DL-103 is fitted with a spherical stylus, so named for its round tip and circular footprint in the groove. (Some refer to this stylus profile as conical.) In fact, all styli were spherical until the early 1960s, at which time the phono-cartridge industry introduced a more expensive and ostensibly higher-performance alternative, the elliptical stylus, whose footprint approximates an ellipse, oriented with its smallest-radius points facing the sides of the groove.

The elliptical and other, more radical styli shapes that followed—including the Line Contact, Super Fine Line, Vital, Replicant, Shibata, van den Hul, and Gyger—are all claimed to approximate, more closely than the spherical, the shape of the cutting stylus of a record-mastering lathe. Many phonophiles accept the reasoning that the ideal stylus shape must be closest to that of the mastering deck's cutting stylus—ie, the stylus used to slice away the excess lacquer when making the groove—and, as such, must be considered superior to styli that are less so. That sort of makes sense, and sort of doesn't. On the one hand, a chisel-like cutting stylus can carve a groove with modulations as tiny as its own smallest radius points—presumed to be very small indeed—and a playback stylus that is not similarly tiny will find it difficult if not impossible to faithfully follow those minute bumps and wiggles. Thus, the listener will not hear all of the overtones, ambience, and whatever other high-frequency, low-amplitude information has been cut into the groove. On the other hand, one must consider that a cutting stylus is like a meat cleaver: a fine tool for turning sides of beef into steaks, but not entirely suited to the dinner table.

In any event, disdain for the spherical stylus—often allied with if not fueled by a fear that it wears out grooves faster than do other stylus types—is not uncommon in high-end audio: another life-or-death debate. But for the late John Walton, a longtime employee of the Decca Record Company, Ltd., and a member in good standing of the Audio Engineering Society, the matter was all but settled in 1965, when he presented to the AES a paper titled "Stylus Mass and Elliptical Points" (footnote 1). In it, he concluded: "The fitting of an elliptical stylus to most pick-ups at present will result in more distortion—not less." He added that this is also observable "even where the [groove] modulation is lateral . . . and the pinch distortion is then reproduced by the stereo pick-up." As Yosemite Sam once sagely observed, Them's fightin' words!

Walton's observations were backed by copious data—as the British say, he could do the maths—and had been preceded by his observation, in a 1963 article (footnote 2), that a stylus-tip radius of 0.0005" was "best suited to the majority of average good pick-ups," and by his suggestion that, in the same way that distortion rises when radius size shrinks to 0.0003" and less, so does it begin to rise when the radius size is increased to 0.0006" and more. (Note that the latter dimension equates to about 15 microns (15µm, or 0.000015m)—the literally nominal stylus-tip spec for the EMT TSD 15, which is one of my reference cartridges.)

In fairness, lest one conclude that Walton regarded the elliptical tip—and, by definition, its descendants—as completely lacking in merit, he wrote in his 1965 paper that he believed "there is an optimum relation between stylus radius and stylus mass." He suggested that a smaller-radius stylus could offer low-distortion performance, but only if its tip mass could be reduced below a certain point; data in both papers suggest 1mg as that threshold, but Walton gave no clue as to whether that was an effective (or inertial) tip mass modeled with the addition of other data—including the stiffness coefficient of the sprung cantilever, and perhaps even the mass of the cantilever and/or the metal rondel to which, in those days, a non-nude stylus would have been bonded—or the actual mass of the stylus tip, observed in isolation. (For context: In a recent e-mail exchange, Ortofon CEO Leif Johannsen told me that the actual mass of the stylus tips of current-production SPU cartridges with a nude spherical stylus is a low 0.1mg, and that the stylus-tip mass for some of his high-end cartridge models is a very low 0.04mg!)

Make of this what you will. I came away feeling, if not thoroughly vindicated in my preference for the characteristic sound of the spherical stylus, then at least more comfortable with that preference. My spirits were further bolstered when I read this in Walton's 1963 paper: "Our pickup production test records are within 1dB after 20,000 playings." Judging from Walton's comments, it seems that most, if not all, of the cartridges used in those tests had spherical styli.

Record lovers who enjoy the extra shimmer, sparkle, detail, and air brought to the listening experience by elliptical or more radical stylus profiles have nothing to be ashamed of: those choices are sonically and musically valid. But I continue to prefer the spherical experience—to me, it emphasizes musical content over air, allowing instruments and voices to sound more substantial, and music to sound, overall, less fussy than with other tip types. And I'll continue to point to the superb sound of the thousands of records in my collection that I bought used, and that were made before the invention of the elliptical tip, as ample evidence that spherical styli are not ravaging my records.

Food for thought, no matter what side of the fence you're on.

From the prairie-o to your stereo
There are some manufacturers whose gear almost always makes me smile, mostly because their products excel in the performance areas that are most important to me, but also because their stuff looks right, feels right, and is fairly priced. Sometimes I just plain like the people who make it, too.

Having favorites is very human, the only problem being that, for a critic, being human and being fair don't always mix. To put it another way: All too often, having favorites turns into playing favorites—and even when it doesn't, readers perceive it as such. So I try to restrain myself from writing too often about those manufacturers whose products almost always push my buttons in a good way.

Fortunately, when distributor Robin Wyatt, of Robyatt Audio, offered to loan me a sample of Miyajima Laboratory's new Saboten L phono cartridge ($4875), it came at a time when I hadn't spilled ink on the company in over two years. So I have no hesitation in telling you that this is something you ought to hear before spending one thin dime on another cartridge of similar or higher price.

618listen.cart2.jpg

The Saboten L is a low-compliance version of the Saboten cartridge that Herb Reichert wrote about in the April 2018 Stereophile. It's a low-output moving-coil (MC) design that uses Miyajima Lab's unique Cross Ring motor, whose fulcrum of movement is at the precise center of its coil former—an arrangement said to do a better job of preserving dynamic contrasts, compared to traditional motor designs in which the fulcrum point is both vague and comparatively distant from the coils. The Cross Ring motor also lacks the taut suspension wire found in almost all MC designs, and that some think resonates in ways unkind to the output signal.

The Saboten L is built into a prettily rounded body machined from a thick chunk of Cameroonian ebony. (On the company's website (footnote 3), designer Noriyuki Miyajima suggests that this wood sometimes includes white spots, though my sample did not.) As with most other Miyajima cartridges, longer-than-average mounting bolts are required and included. More exotic still is the cartridge's calling card: its cactus-spine cantilever. (Saboten is the Japanese word for cactus.) A line-contact stylus is fixed to a short, tubular endpiece of aluminum, itself cemented to the end of the cactus spine. As Noriyuki Miyajima explained with diagrams forwarded to me via e-mail, this endpiece is angled to perfectly align the contact point of stylus tip and record groove with the axial center of the cantilever and coil former: mechanical linearity taken to a laudable extreme.



Footnote 1: Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Vol.14 No.3 (July 1966), p.266. The original paper was brought to my attention by John Atkinson, who remembers seeing John Walton on the BBC-TV Tomorrow's World program in the 1970s —although, by that time, John Walton had undergone gender reassignment and was living as Jean Walton.

Footnote 2: "Stylus Mass and Reproduction Distortion," Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Vol.11 No.2 (April 1963), p.104.

Footnote 3: Miyajima Laboratory, Japan. US distributor: Robyatt Audio, Web: www.robyattaudio.com.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

I am familiar with the Audio Technica ART 1000 that you reviewed recently. Any recollections of how it would compare with this cartridge's sonic footprint?

I just so happen to be in shopping mode. ;-D

Also - a fellow happy Kallax owner here!

nomaslarge's picture

Your system sounded that much worse moving from your fancyshmancy rack to an Ikea Kallax? Like intolerably worse? I just... define exactly how much worse. Or don't, whatever. I mean, I know everything matters etc. but you also once wrote that if you went from your A23 speaker cables to some Radio Shack 12 gauge you'd be fine. Is this worse than that?

Pryso's picture

Art, I subscribed to Stereophile initially in 1971 when a certain reviewer named J Gordon Holt was doing nearly all the writing. At one point during that decade I recall him recommending a Shure V-15 (Roman Something) with the conical stylus over the more common elliptical. To his ear it was more musically realistic and satisfying. And with his live music recording experience he did have a decent reputation for sonic discrimination. ;^)

X