Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum moving-coil cartridge

Among the more intriguing audio-related announcements this year was that Koetsu phono cartridges were once again available in the States. In fact, they're being handmade in limited quantities by the sons of founder Yoshiaki Sugano.

There are three new models, each using samarium-cobalt magnets with a healthy 600µV output: the Standard (Red), the Rosewood Signature, and the Urushi—$2500, $3500, and $4000, respectively. The Urushi was reviewed in the October '98 Stereophile by Michael Fremer; its aluminum lacquer-coated shell leaves some enthusiasts drooling on their tonearms. The Rosewood Signature Platinum, the subject of this review, sells for a mighty $5500 but outputs a fairly insignificant 200µV using platinum magnets. Made a killing on Wall St. before the late-August bust? The Onyx Platinum retails for 7500 powerful big ones and envelops the same motor in an elegant onyx enclosure.

Koetsu connoisseurs will be delighted to hear that the retipping and refurbishing of older cartridges is being carried out in Japan. Check with distributor Musical Surroundings for the particulars. I understand they don't just blow on the stylus and send it back; all parts are replaced or upgraded, including the stylus, cantilever, coil, and damper. No replacement magnets or bodies are available, however. Hey, you can't have everything.

Some history, a few details
Yoshiaki Sugano the elder was, it is said, a renowned artist, musician, swordsman, calligrapher, and businessman—"I am but a simple man" just doesn't wash these days. Sugano devoted his life to emulating his hero, a 17th-century Japanese historical figure named Honami Koetsu. As fate would have it, after the war Sugano rose to prominence in one of Japan's largest industrial companies. Nevertheless, he continued pursuing his many passions, which by then included hi-fi.

Come the 1970s, Sugano-San was experimenting with parts substitution in commercially available cartridges. From such devotion was born the Koetsu line. The two Platinum models available today—Rosewood Signature and Onyx—feature silver-clad six-nines copper wiring. (The process involves slowly drawing a silver sheath over the copper conductors.) Square plate formers of ultrapure iron are used for their predictable magnetic characteristics and low oxidation factor. Pre-aged to the perfect consistency, rubber suspension parts are supplied under license from a damper manufacturer. Japanese craftsmen create the rosewood bodies, the lacquer-coated aluminum enclosure of the Urushi, and the beautiful cut-stone body of the Onyx Platinum. Styli are specially designed and precision-ground for Koetsu.

Installation was straightforward on both La Luce's pivoted SpJ arm and the Forsell linear-tracking air-bearing arm. The terminal pins are well marked, but let me crab about yet another expensive cartridge with untapped mounting holes: Borrrrrrrrrrring. I'm reasonably adept and in control of my extremities, but fumbling around with microscopically sized nuts is something best left to Jerry Springer.

Using the Audio-Technica AT6020 Cartridge Analyzer and test LP, I found the best azimuth (lowest crosstalk) was with the cartridge almost perpendicular (as viewed from the front). The cartridge is spec'd at more than 30dB/1kHz of channel separation, which is about what I found with the Analyzer.

I used a VTF of 1.92gm, as set with the precise Winds Arm Load Meter. This gave me a good balance of body, high-frequency extension, tightness in the bass, and enough but not too much midrange madness. I like to start with VTF a little lighter than recommended (in this case, 1.8–2gm) and slowly add weight until everything snaps into focus.

Speaking of focus, the cartridge's beautiful rosewood bod makes seeing the stylus something of a chore (bend way over, hold, two, three, exhale, two, three...), not to mention cleaning the precious thing between records (stroke, two, three, exhale...). The cartridge liked to sit down a touch at the rear for best sound.

Kurosawa's Dreams
I first auditioned the Koetsu in the friendly embrace of La Luce's SpJ arm. It broke in quite naturally over a period of about two weeks, something on the order of 40–60 hours. My high expectations were tempered by memories of a less-than-perfect marriage some years ago between a Koetsu Pro IV and my SME V/Ariston RD-90. After a week, I returned the Pro IV to the fellow who'd sold it to me. The midrange was to die, omigawd, but the tendency toward bloat at the bottom end of the SME exacerbated the cartridge's soft and woolly bass. And the highs were just too wispy for my taste. I'll never forget that midrange, though—it still gives me the bliss shivers.

But these are Modern Times. Today's audiophiles are generally well-informed and much more demanding than ever before. Their expectations are high; they want a lot of performance for their audiophile buck. And it's hardly a pipe dream, as today there are plenty of reasonably priced components that deliver the musical goods. So a wunnerful midrange is simply not enough these days—a component's got to deliver tight, linear, extended bass, open and detailed highs, plus transparency and focus. At $5500, the Rosewood Signature Platinum had better deliver the goods, and I mean by the truckload.

So, does the RSP live up to expectations? Indeed it does. Where else to begin but the midrange? It was superb, incredibly satisfying in a deep, profoundly musical way. Oboe/Flute: Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, Vol.4 (Contemporary C3520) sounded fantastic. I listened to it time and again just for the pleasure of the rich, creamy midband tonalities and utterly buoyant music. I also spent countless hours lingering over my frighteningly huge (and growing) collection of Pablos, their midrangy delights never so seductive and fully available. The Last Concert (Atlantic SD2-909), a two-LP set by the Modern Jazz Quartet, bowled me over with its elegance, restraint, and knowing charm. Milt Jackson never sounded better, his vibraharp alive and shimmering under his masterful mallets. "'Round Midnight," "Night in Tunisia," and "Bag's Groove" left me sated in the Ribbon Chair.

Switching channels, as it were, Vol.13 of the Beaux Arts Trio's traversal of the Haydn Piano Trios (Philips 9500 657) was melodious and thought-provoking, the music's utter civility embedding itself in my mind. The RSP was mighty communicative. In fact, these Philips pressings sound a bit thin, and the RSP didn't hide that fact. While I'd hardly call the RSP "analytical," it's a sophisticated device that clearly defined an LP's groove.

Wanting to probe the RSP's depth of neutrality and ability to reveal small differences, I spun all three versions of Ellington's Jazz Party (Columbia CS 8127). While the blue-and-white–label Special Products pressing is a good place to start, it was outclassed by Classic Records' reissue—and the original six-eye ate it for breakfast. I thoroughly enjoyed the sweeter but noisier early release, as well as Classic's pressing, which was more transparent but somewhat harder in the highs. Yet the Classic was more visceral, with better bass and bags more air. I could easily discern the slightly different equalizations employed, and adjusted VTA to suit with a few small tweaks. The micro- and macrodynamics on both records were spectacular. The cartridge laid out a soundstage that seemed as large as life, disappearing the Utopias into the recorded ambience.

Loading the cartridge down to 85 ohms by pairing it with the Expressive transformer was interesting. Even with its low output, the Expressive provided bags of clean, airy gain, all of it silent as the grave. But it also took something of the sparkle off the very top in exchange for a more linear presentation, with superb focus and tighter bass. Nevertheless, listening to Jimmy Rushing belt out "Hey Little Girl," I became aware of something unique. In the years I'd been listening to this record, I'd never before had the sense so strongly that I was actually hearing the mike feed. It was truly amazing; I felt like I was right there.

Using the Nagra PL-P's internal transformers (thus eliminating a pair of cables from the equation), the dynamic bloom, the sparkle and illumination in the highs, returned to boggle mind and senses. What a combo—the Koetsu and the Nagra were made for each other. Fast, Incisive, and Exciting meet Drop-Dead Gorgeous. Their children are spectacular. I'm convinced the shadow in the highs and the slight damper on dynamics I heard with the Expressive were the effects of loading. I'd suggest laying it on lightly with the RSP with respect to loading: one thing the Expressive transformer is not is rolled-off in the highs.

The RSP was less transparent than some other high-priced cartridges, but, as I kvelled to one disc after another, just ask me if I cared. Listening to Skye Edwards, Morcheeba's lead singer on their new release, Big Calm (Indochina ZEN017LP), I found myself following the lyrics with easy concentration, nodding my head to the beat. The sense of closeness was spooky, the humidity of Edwards' breath seemed to hang in the air between the Utopias. The float, the beauty, the almost single-ended quality of female vocals was exquisite.

And it wasn't just the ladies that got me off. The palp factor was so high on "Moon Maiden," from The Intimate Ellington (Pablo 2310-787), that when it was over, I felt like asking the Duke what he thought of the sound.

A word or two about the bass: All right, so maybe the RSP doesn't have the tightest bass in the world. So what? It bonged along beautifully to the big boogie bass line on Big Calm—powerful and commanding, no hesitation, no wilt. On Dead Can Dance's Spiritchaser (4AD DAD 6008), the deep stuff shuddering out from the Utopias was taut, awesome, and riveting. It thudded into my chest with authority, and still I enjoyed every tremolo of Lisa Gerrard's marvelous voice as the extraordinary midrange qualities of the recording pulled me in and punched my ticket!

It occurred to me that I usually associate palpability with a fast and immediate presentation. But the RSP was every bit as real as I've ever heard, but without the fast, breathtaking immediacy of a van den Hul 'Hopper. It's the gestalt that counts; considering its overall balance, the Koetsu comes up trumps.

Yo, Jimbo!
The Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum does a remarkable job of melding traditional values of lushness, harmonic fullness, sweetness, and musicality with today's requirements for linearity, extension, air, focus, palpability, and openness. If nothing else, I predict that female vocals will never be the same after exposure to this cartridge. The RSP honors founder Sugano with its balance, refinement, and overall superb level of performance. In my experience it's not enough to merely recall the past—one must remake it into today. That's exactly what the sons of the late Sugano-San have done.

I preferred the RSP a tad more on the La Luce 'table and SpJ arm. As the Forsell is so musical and bloomy itself, the combo proved, in the end, a bit too much of a good thing. The cartridge sounded more transparent, snappy, and linear on La Luce, where the micrometer-operated adjusters allowed the Koetsu to be dialed in with the precision necessary to plumb its considerable depth. While the cartridge leans more toward the relaxed and fulsome, it did just fine in the pace and timing department, even down in the nether regions.

Highly recommended for those who can pay the considerable tariff.

Distributor: Musical Surroundings
5856 College Avenue, Suite 146
Oakland, CA 94618
(510) 420-0379