Lyra Skala moving-coil phono cartridge Page 2

The recommended range of vertical tracking force (VTF) is 1.65–1.75gm; Lyra suggests the lowest force "that still allows good tracking of normal music LPs." In other words, don't obsess about getting your Skala to track ludicrously overmodulated test grooves. Instead—unless you actually prefer listening to test records—concentrate on the music. (And as long as I'm on my audiophile soapbox: Don't "experiment" with high tracking forces that exceed the manufacturer's recommendations but are sometimes suggested by misguided online tweakers or, worse, professional reviewers.)

A cartridge suspension's springiness is usually the result of a carefully tensioned length of thin wire. Excessive VTF can deform the wire and move the system's compliance out of spec or, worse, ruin the suspension. It can move the coil outside the generator system's sweet spot, causing nonlinear electrical performance, and it will most certainly change the stylus rake angle (SRA) and vertical tracking angle (VTA). The cartridge's pivot point is far closer to the stylus than it is to the tonearm's: small deflections caused by changes in VTF can have a major effect on SRA and VTA.

For a typical medium-compliance MC cartridge equipped with a cantilever of average length, a 1gm increase in VTF is equivalent to moving the arm pillar a not-insignificant 4mm. So when a tweaky reviewer or online "expert" who says he can hear infinitesimal changes in VTA tells you to add a gram to a cartridge's maximum recommended VTF, but fails to tell you to raise the tonearm by 4mm to compensate for the change in SRA and VTA caused by his brilliant tweak, don't do it.

With their carved-out bodies, exposed cantilevers, and transparent stylus guards, Lyra cartridges have all the advantages of nude cartridges and none of the disadvantages. Rather than building in sympathetic resonances from wood or other body materials or damping them out, Lyra eliminates most of the cartridge body while retaining an easy-to-use stylus guard to protect the protruding cantilever during setup and, if you feel it necessary, whenever you're not playing records. The protruding cantilever facilitates setup and makes it easier to clean the stylus.

Great care must be taken when installing the Skala. Its polymer base is designed to compress somewhat as the screws are tightened, but overtightening can deform the polymer base material and potentially damage the serrated threaded inserts. Failure to tighten the screws slowly and evenly can even result in uneven compression of the base, which could unintentionally change azimuth. So exercise care, and don't be a gorilla.

Once I was satisfied with the overhang and zenith angle—using the Feickert protractor and confirming the results with a Wally Tracktor—I wasn't shy about applying sufficient torque to the screws, but I made sure to do this slowly, tightening each screw in turn until I was satisfied that cartridge and tonearm were on intimate terms. A tracking force of 1.65gm proved ideal in both the Graham Phantom and Continuum Audio Labs Cobra tonearms.

Even Lyra critics agree that the line's strongest suit is timbral neutrality. If you're looking for warmth, romance, a golden glow, or a "fat" bottom, look elsewhere. Like ruthlessly revealing studio monitors, Lyra cartridges tend to give you all the news, good and bad, and in great detail. As you move up the line, the more the cartridges reveal about inner detail, harmonic structure, and space. When you get to the Titan i, you also get a well-controlled lushness, particularly in the lower octaves, that the less expensive Lyras lack. You also get unrivaled micro- and macrodynamic expression.

Of all the cartridges I've reviewed, the Lyra Titan i carves out three-dimensional space more effectively than any other, delivering lush, velvety, nonsyrupy textures without edge enhancement or etch. Some other designs, such as the Dynavector XV-1s and the Clearaudio Goldfinger, have a greater sense of musical flow and suppleness, coupled with an addictively weighty physicality particularly suited to acoustic jazz and classical.

Lyra's Helikon delivers excellent transient detail because it effectively reproduces a note's initial attack. It does less well with the note's sustain, which can give it a somewhat astringent overall character that won't be what you're looking for if your system already sounds lean. So, depending on the rest of the system, the Helikon can sometimes sound skeletal and overly analytical.

Faced with a choice of that or a soft attack followed by a lusher sustain, I'll trade the boredom of the latter for the Helikon's more exciting picture (though its edgy vocal sibilants can sometimes grate). That's what I found in the equally neutral but overly smooth ZYX I reviewed a few years ago. By contrast, the Skala combined the tonal neutrality, musical flow, and smoothness of the ZYX (and of some of the other cartridges I found too smooth for my tastes) with the Helikon's tonal neutrality and transient precision. That is, it correctly reproduced both the attack and the sustain, for a velvety-smooth presentation that had teeth when appropriate.

A real-time comparison clearly revealed that while Helikon sometimes produced slightly raspy-sounding sibilant edges (and not as a result of tracking error), the Skala delivered silky-smooth ones without softening the attack or masking the texture. Playing a test pressing of a superb-sounding reissue of Joni Mitchell's Blue on 180gm Reprise vinyl, the Helikon produced a somewhat threadbare Mitchell with a bit of rasp to her sibilants, and ideally rendered the plucked strings of her guitar while somewhat shortchanging its woody resonance. The Skala handled those same sibilants precisely yet smoothly, added fleshy components to Mitchell's vocals, and got the plucks' transient attacks intact, with more of the guitar's body.

Analogue Productions' recent and superb-sounding edition of The Guitar Artistry of Charlie Byrd (two 45rpm LPs, AJAZ 9451) presents the late guitarist's spotlit, gut-strung Spanish guitar with a clarity, dimensionality, and harmonic completeness the original doesn't come close to delivering. The rhythm section is bassist Keter Betts and drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt, both of whom later backed Byrd and Stan Getz on the seminal bossa nova album Jazz Samba (Verve V6-8432). The Helikon exhibited all of its strengths on the Byrd recording, producing a three-dimensional guitar with pristine plucks; behind it were grain-free, shimmering, crystalline percussion, and lithe, nicely textured, very-well-controlled bass—all in all, a well-balanced, believable, three-dimensional picture that confirmed the competence of the cartridge and its (relative) bargain price. Yet switching to the Skala improved that picture, particularly in the rendering of Byrd's guitar—some of the plucked strings' sparkle yielded to a harmonically complex event that maintained the transient attack while revealing greater harmonic nuance, and added up to a more believable gut- or nylon-strung guitar free of metallic residue.

The Internet buzz about the Lyra Skala has some claiming it superior or at least equal to Lyra's top-of-the-line Titan i, which costs $4500. A direct comparison demonstrated that that wasn't quite the case—the Titan i scaled greater dynamic heights, produced even greater textural suppleness, and revealed even more detail and spatial glory. However, it's easy to understand why some might say the Skala rivals the Titan i. In terms of tone and, especially, texture and harmonics, the Skala has more in common with the Titan i than with the Helikon—and it's better than the Helikon in every way, particularly in the midrange, where it fully fleshes out richness and color that the Helikon only suggests.

Like other Lyras I've reviewed, the Skala is an outstanding tracker, and its generous 0.5mV output will drive almost all low-output MC phono preamplifiers with ease. All Lyra cartridges are built by Yoshinori Mishima to an outstanding level of quality, and the Skala is no exception.

Designer Jonathan Carr's evolutionary approach to his revolutionary, still-in-production, fourth-generation Helikon has resulted in an exceptionally fine cartridge in the Skala, that adds a plush, enriching, velvety smoothness to the Helikon's presentation without diminishing in any way its speedy transient attack, finely detailed textures, three-dimensional spatial presentation, and tonal neutrality.

And for that Helikon owner who wrote to me about moving up to a $3000 cartridge: If you move up to the $3200 Lyra Skala, this time your extra grand will get you not merely a cartridge that sounds different, but one that sounds considerably better.

Lyra Co. Ltd.
US distributor: Immedia
1101 Eighth Street, Suite 210
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 559-2050

RPeck's picture

I am in the process of looking for a replacement cartridge for my Lyra Helikon. I am thinking about either the Kleos or the Skala. I was wondering if anyone has heard the new Kleos and when will there be a review, Mr. Fremer?