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A new cartridge on the horizon

If I were Croesus, I would certainly still have problems. But one of the problems I wouldn’t have is prioritizing upgrades. This annoying/handy little exercise has led me to believe that the first analog upgrade I could make is pretty simple: a new cartridge.

There’s really nothing wrong with my Sumiko Blackbird. It works. My system’s vinyl playback sounds good. No, it’s not as good as my Dealer Reference system, but then, my gear isn’t up to that level either. My current turntable is a Pro-Ject 9.1, which is a fine table, but I’ve been told that there are improvements to be had from a variety of “upgrades”, including:

  • Platter
  • Motor
  • Drive System

Wayne Donnelly, a reviewer for Enjoy The Music, wrote up a review of the various upgrades that are available for a VPI Aries III turntable. They’re legion, apparently. Which is interesting in and of itself. Wayne is an interesting guy; I had the pleasure of running into him in a crammed elevator at RMAF this year. Anyway, based on this review (pretty much alone) and the fact that the Aries is rather similar to my current turntable, I’ve started looking into upgrading my own. Curiosity, meet cat.

A new turntable would be great, but then, I’d need a new arm and a new cartridge. As to the former, I’ve posted on some of the tables I’m looking at, though honestly, I haven’t spent much time thinking about arms. Another post! But the cartridge selection has been bedeviling me for some time.

Here’s the problem: I have a Joule-Electra phono stage. It got good reviews and endorsements from folks I (for one reason or another) trust, so I felt it was a safe — okay, it was safe and affordable — way to go at that time. The salient characteristics in a phono pre amp, at least for cartridge selection, are gain and loading. On the Joule, I can change the loading via some clever caps that slip into an open set of terminals on the back of the box. As to gain, there are a pair of switches/buttons inside the box that I can use to alter the gain from 36dB to 62dB. My Sumiko Blackbird is a 2.5mV cartridge, so I have the 36dB gain selected currently. The sound is good — but the gain is a bit light. I have to crank the knob an extra 25% to get levels equalized between the CD and DAC inputs — and cranking the knob all the way over on the preamp does not raise the volume to deafening levels (as it should). This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it isn’t ideal either.

So, I can get a higher output cartridge and keep using the 36dB section or I can go to 62dB and move down to a lower output cartridge. I’m going with the latter.

Part two of the problem is this. Most highly reviewed cartridges have outputs that are probably too low for my phonostage, even at 62dB. I say probably, because not being Croesus, I haven’t been able to do much in the way of testing. But I’ve been told that, were I to look for a low-output cartridge, I really ought to look at cartridges in the medium-output range, not low-output. That is, something with more than .3mV of output. Yes, .25mV “will work” with the phono stage, but output volumes may be less than optimal. Kind of like how 2.5mV is less than optimal for the 36dB setting.

There’s a calculator I got referred to, on KAB. Assuming it’s right, 2.5mV needs 42dB of gain for optimal results. So, according to the calculator, I should be okay at 36dB, but I might not be able to crank it. Fits my experiences to a T. So, following Senor Calculator, the ideal output for my phonostage at 62dB is .25mV. This should give me a bit of elbowroom for when I’m looking to shake the room. Now, this runs contrary to what I’ve been told by Jud Barber, the guy who designed and wired up the phonostage. He suggests .4mV and higher. To compound my confusion, the one published professional review that exists of the Joule-Electra OPS-2 actually says that .25mV “might delve into uncomfortable gain territory” as the reviewer had very little success with a .26mV Dynavector cartridge. Was the reviewer’s problem with dynamics a fault of too little gain? Hard to say — while cautioning his readers to stay above the .33mV level, he manages to misquote the output of Jud’s favorite, the Cardas cartridge, as .4mV (it’s .3mV according to Cardas). But Jud did and had great success with it.

I love it when I get conflicting information.

Ideally, I want a reference-level cartridge, but I have (probably much) less than $4k to spend. Something with a medium compliance so as to be more likely compatible with a wider range of tonearms. My current 9″ from Pro-Ject is only 9 grams (light), but the arms I’m looking at are in the 11-14 gram range — so a new cart needs to work with arms 9-14 grams in weight (so no extremes: a compliance of 12-18 and weight, with mounting screws, between 7-12 grams, would probably work well). Assuming that I’m not being led too astray, I need to look for something like the following:

  • Benz Micro Ruby Z (.35mV)
  • Grado Statement1 (.5mV)
  • Lyra Kleos (.5mV)
  • Ortofon Cadenza Black (.3mV)

This collection isn’t by any means exhaustive. Jud recommends the Benz Ruby. A dealer friend of mine say that Benz, as a line, is “all over the place”, implying that some are okay, some are not, and there are no clear “winners” there. That same dealer also dumps all over Lyra as being wonderful for audiophile artifacts but lousy for music. He loves Dynavector, just nothing in my price range, but does admit that he quite likes the cheapest of the bunch, the Ortofon. Michael Fremer loves the Lyra. He also used to love the Grado, but thinks that the state of the art has moved on from there. No one else has a kind word for Grado, it seems, except the rare few that have used it — and apparently, that one cartridge is “different from the other Grados”, whatever that means. I’ve actually heard both the Lyra and the Ortofon at RMAF, but neither of those systems were even slightly familiar to me, so who knows what was the cartridge and what was, say, the speaker. Again, little or no clarity.

More to come on this, for sure.

[edit/add] I don’t know why I’ve overlooked Shelter, but this does happen to be one that my friendly neighborhood dealer carries. I might have to look into the Shelter 9000 or the Harmony to see if I can see if they’ll work out.

About Scot Hull (990 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.