Lyra Atlas SL and Etna SL phono cartridges

My 0.56mV-output Lyra Atlas moving-coil cartridge ($11,995) has put in four years of heavy-duty use. But not long ago I began to hear some problems with sibilants from records that previously hadn't given me trouble in that department. Lyra's Jonathan Carr and Stig Bjorge suggested I bring my Atlas to the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, held last January in Las Vegas, where they would exchange it for a new one.

I was doubly grateful because, while Lyra's top models are expensive, demand is high and regularly outstrips supply. This is because every Lyra cartridge is handmade by the same man, Yoshinori Mishima, and there's usually a fairly long wait between order and delivery.

But in Las Vegas, along with the replacement Atlas, Carr and Bjorge handed me two new Lyras to review: the Etna SL ($9995) and the Atlas SL ($12,995), both of which also usually require a long wait. Yes, I'm a very lucky audiophile—I don't take it for granted.

In past years, with their most well-received models—including the Helikon and Kleos—Lyra has followed their standard cartridges with low-output versions of same. The lower outputs are produced by winding the coil with fewer turns of wire. This results in lower mass—and, theoretically, lower mass results in better tracking and tracing and faster response times, all of which should produce, among other things, greater detail resolution and speed.

An aside: those who don't "get" vinyl playback consider all of this mechanical talk crazy and stupid. They think we're fetishizing a technology that's not worth salvaging, but that's only because they're 100% clueless. Hardly a day goes by that I don't get an e-mail like this one, which arrived yesterday from a reader in Sweden:

"A week ago I never heard of you, but now I've read dozens of articles and watched many many of your videos. I don't think I've learned so much in such a short time since University.

"I listened to vinyl up to around when the CDs came, then the music interest faded (except for my own playing). The CDs never did it for me and I still don't own very many.

"That said, I never had any great vinyl gear and my records went into storage for twenty years. About a year ago I was offered a Thorens 166 [turntable]. I picked the mothballs from my record collection and I was hooked. Well, I'm sure you've heard the story before, but I really like telling it. :-)"

We are not crazy, and it's not crazy to spend $13,000 on a phono cartridge if you have a big record collection, a system that can do justice to such a sophisticated transducer, and an equally ample bank account (though I know some less-than-well-off vinyl fanatics who do what they have to to own such extravagances).

Back to the Lyra SL cartridges: Fewer coil turns also means lower internal impedance and lower output. The standard Atlas outputs 0.56mV, and has an internal impedance of 4.2 ohms and an inductance of 10.5µH. Its recommended resistive loading is between 104 and 887 ohms. The SL essentially halves the standard version's output, to 0.25mV, and reduces the internal impedance to a superlow 1.52 ohms and the inductance to 1.9µH.

With an output of 0.56mV at 5cm/s, the standard Etna's specs are identical to the standard Atlas's. And there's no difference at all between the rest of the specs of the Etna SL and Atlas SL. (If you're interested, read my reviews of the standard versions of the Atlas and Etna.)

The SL cartridges are electrically close to short circuits. They're ideal for use with phono preamps based on current amplification, such as the B.M.C. MCCI, which I reviewed for Stereophile a few years ago, and the MR Labs Vera 20, which I reviewed on AnalogPlanet.com.

While I also listened to the Lyras through the ModWright Instruments PH 150 phono preamp, I mostly used a phono preamp and step-up transformer more familiar to me: Ypsilon's VPS-100 and MC-16. With both SLs, I found that halving the output of the original didn't produce proportional differences in sound, though both performed at the expected higher levels of resolution of inner detail and, especially, microdynamics, without losing any of the higher-output versions' dynamic slam and overall explosiveness.

Low-level dynamics—the small shifts that make music breathe and come to life—were better from the SL versions, which sounded even less mechanical than the originals. Still, I'm not talking profound differences, and even this level of accomplishment assumes that your phono preamp has enough gain and low enough noise to accommodate the halved output. If not, dynamics will suffer.

The higher-output versions of both cartridges retrieved so much detail, produced such explosive dynamics, and achieved such high levels of tonal neutrality that it was difficult to pick out precisely where the "better" resides—especially with the Atlas, where I felt the improvements, while notable, were not of game-changing scale.

But for whatever reason or reasons—perhaps due to the fact that the original Etna I had for review was one of the very first production units, if not the first—the differences between the sounds of the Etna and Etna SL were far greater than between the two Atlases. Of the original Etna, I wrote in March 2014: "The Etna's macrodynamics were somewhat reduced compared with the Atlas's, its soundstage was somewhat more compact, and its lower octaves weren't as ear-poppingly iron-fisted—but it was close! In fact, in most ways, the Etna was a slightly scaled-down Atlas. But in a few crucial ways, the Etna's sound quality seemed to surpass that of the Atlas, particularly in the midrange, where its transparency, harmonic expression, and ability to make sense of dense thickets of instruments seemed superior."

The Atlas SL still beats the Etna SL in bottom-octave wallop, macrodynamics, overall grip, speed, and plain old ear-popping slam, but the Etna SL's stage was no smaller. In fact, compared to the Atlas SL, the Etna SL was more airy, expansive, and velvety rich, without giving up anything in detail or transparency—both of which usually take a hit to attain a velvety sound.

While I wrote in my review of the original Etna that it "seemed" in some ways superior to the Atlas, there was no doubt about the superiority of the Etna SL to the Atlas SL in the midrange. The Etna SL produced a profound midrange magic the Atlas SL did not.

These are two of the world's great cartridges. Right now, I'm thinking the Etna SL is, overall, the greater, and that it's Jonathan Carr's best work yet.

COMPANY INFO
Lyra, Japan
US distributor: AudioQuest
2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
(949) 585-0111
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COMMENTS
fetuso's picture

I was one of those that didn't "get" vinyl until a little more than a year ago when curiosity got the better of me and I bought an entry level music hall turntable. It was a revelation. I felt like I was finally hearing music the way it was supposed to sound. It's not so much that it sounds better (although it does), it's more that it feels better. The way I like to describe it is that listening to a vinyl record is like taking a warm, slow bubble bath. Digital is like a quick cold shower.

es347's picture

..hey Mike, BMW prick here. I put together a moderately inexpensive analogue front end sporting a $1200 MM cartridge a couple of years ago. I don't own a vast library of LPs...maybe 100 or so, but what I do have are several albums in all four formats: redbook, high res, DSD and vinyl. You will be pleased to know that I am in total agreement with you regarding vinyl being the superior format sonically, notwithstanding the occasional clicks and pops. I've had several fellow audiophiles (who are not BMW pricks) sit in the sweet spot who concur after listening to the 4 formats of the same track. So there you have it. See just because I drive a BMW doesn't necessarily mean I'm one of the "clueless" to which you refer....XOXOX :)

hyfry's picture

considering it's $12k, lasts 4 years, and replacing the entire cartridge is what happens, that's kind of brutal.

Wimbo's picture

traded it in, which would save him some money.
It would also have done a lot of hours and it is relative to his employment.

LFC's picture

Mikey, thank you for your review. You mentioned the BMC due to the specs or also due to sonic characteristics of both the Etna and the BMC? The reason I´m asking is because I currently own a Transfiguration Phoenix S paired with the BMC (the Phoenix replaced a Dynavector XX2) and it might be too much of a good thing (too much resolution, transparency, etc.).

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