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Analog Bliss part II: the Ikeda Sound Lab 9 TS Moving Coil cartridge review

opening pic-2 By Dr. Panagiotis Karavitis As recently as a couple of decades ago, just about everyone involved in the audio biz gave the turntable a farewell salute. Sales dropped rapidly and historic names like Micro Seiki, SAEC and Fidelity Research faded away into oblivion as everyone was worshiping a new, “silver” god. The silver god was to reign for just a few years as the followers of vinyl realized that the new deity’s promises for higher fidelity were false. Soon the cult of vinyl came back and came back so strong that acolytes pretended new turntables, tonearms and cartridges of mechanical and acoustical perfection had never been seen before. A couple of weeks back I wrote a review regarding the excellent Hanss T 30 turntable. While Hanss is a relatively new name in the analog sound, Ikeda carries a pedigree that’s a quarter of a mile long. Mr. Isamu Ikeda founded Fidelity Research Co. and released the FR-1 cartridge back in 1967. In the following years Ikeda-san launched products like the FR 64 tonearm and the legendary FR-7 air core coil for which he also applied for a patent. Ikeda’s clients during those days included nothing less than the Imperial family of Japan.

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Then came the dark days of the CD which brought FR along with the vast majority of the prestige analog companies to their knees. Ikeda san did not give up. A new company carrying his name rose from the ashes of FR and a new generation of products, based on his earlier designs, hit the shelves.

Now I must make a small confession. I own a cartridge handcrafted by Isamu Ikeda, the PMC-1 with matching headshell. I am in love with this little red cherry. It’s a pain in the @** to use, since it has a .17 mV of output that demands a dead quiet phono stage with excellent cables, preferably balanced, in order to keep noise as low as possible. But (there is always a but) the sound is amazing. Having those air core coils, distortion is very low and everything from voices to instruments sounds so damn real.

The current production of Ikeda cartridges is based on the same principles and output remains sub .20mV. To be more precise, the 9TT ouputs 0.16 mV, with a DC resistance of 2 Ohms while the top of the line Kai sports 0.19 mV with 2.5 Ohms. The cantilever is made out of Duralumin while the stylus tip has a line contact profile for the 9TT with a boron-microridge combo used in the pricy Kai. Suggested tracking is 2 gr. give or take for all Ikeda carts.

Only a few weeks ago IT industry Co., current owner of the Ikeda brand launched the 9TS, an all new “entry level” MC cartridge with a somewhat healthier output of 0.35 mV and DC resistance at 6 Ohms. The term “entry level” goes within brackets as the MSRP is 2000 euros in Europe and $2800 in the States.

Spec wise the .35mV/6 Ohm DC resistance implies two things, first that this is a far easier cart to use, let’s call it medium-low output, and second that the internal structure is different from previous models. Coils and/or magnets must be of a slightly lower quality, or else double the output would give double the DC resistance (This is the case of ZYX for example, where buyers can choose between otherwise identical cartridges with high and low output of 0.24 and 0.48mV with corresponding 4 and 8 Ohms resistance).

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The 9TS comes in a white carton box accompanied with 3 pairs of screws in various lengths and a nice carbon fiber short bristle brush for cleaning the stylus tip.

Yes, what about the tip? Ikeda says it’s “Oval-shaped solid Diamond” mounted on double layer duralumin pipe.

The differences between the 2 cartridges do not end here. While the housings look identical at first glance, with closer inspection it is clear that they are not. The ridge in the middle of the lower portion is somewhat higher in the 9TS and the material covering the magnetic poles is a different color. The top plate is also similar but not identical, with the 9TT having a polished finish and 9TS a brushed finish. Even the cartridge case is different, with the pricier models sold in wooden boxes.

External dimensions of the cartridges are identical, so is the weight of both the Ikedas, which tip the scales at 10 gr. By mounting them on matching Ikeda IS-1R headshells with IS L1 6N copper leads, the end result was of 28 grams of gorgeous Japanese artisanry.

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A few words about the system

A phono stage designed for reviewers?

The ASR Basis Exclusive is reputed to be among the quietest (and best sounding) phono stages in the market. I am pretty sure that most of you are familiar with this phono stage, for those who are not, let me do a quick overview. This phono was designed by German engineer Friedrich Schaefer and he seems to have had reviewers in mind. Inside the main chassis lays a huge PCB with two complete and identical phono stages. Each of the four mono channels is adjustable for load (5 to 1K Ohm for MCs), gain (up to 70dB), subsonic filter and capacitance making it among the most versatile phono preamps available. The Basis also has single end and balanced connections with the second option being of great importance if you wish to play around with sub 0.25mV LOMC cartridges as it lowers significantly the noise floor and RMI. As mentioned the Basis exclusive is also dead quiet thanks to the use of batteries and a mind-boggling 1.200.000 μF of filtering capacitance.

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The ASR Basis is the perfect tool for A-B comparisons between cartridges. It will handle all carts, including the nasty ones in my collection (Denon 103R (0.25mV), ZYX 1000 airy 3 (0.24mV), FR PMC-1 (0.17mV)).

As for the turntables, I could not resist using the beautiful Hanss T-30 I had in-house at the time. I did many of my listening sessions with the Hanss. My resident table is a Garrard 401.

The main mechanism was NOS, so no heavy maintenance was necessary. The modular design of the tonearm plates allows me to swap them with ease. Usually I mount a SAEC 308 L with stabilizing weight and a classic SME 3009 series II improved with detachable headshell. The SME is definitely not the latest in terms of technical specifications (mine is moded with a longer bias rod and heavier counterweight in order to support higher VTFs and heavier carts) and will not shine against the best of today’s production but defines what classic table-tonearm combo is in terms of aesthetics and history. Just check what Robin Williams was using for spinning records in “Good Morning Vietnam”.

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Enough with my washing machine, lets listen to some music

From the first album of Bristol group Massive Attack (Blue Lines, Virgin) the song “Unfinished Sympathy” hit hearts and minds of an entire generation making it all the way to the top of charts around the world. Trip hop melodie, vibrating bass and a joyful character emerged from my system. Interestingly enough, I always found this pressing to have a slight sibilance during vocals and the 9TS did an amazing job in smoothening those “s’s”. Is Ikeda (an old dog) learning new tricks?

Then it was time for Billie Holiday to make her entrance on the scene, dressed in satin (Lady in Satin, Columbia CS 8048). By 1958 she was not in her youth but she was about to sing the most heartrending tune of an entire carrier: “I’m a Fool to Want You”. I’ve been listening to some of the younger generation of female voices and when I shifted over to Billie found myself thinking of an oil canvas and not an aquarelle. Yes ,we all like a water painting but Billie’s voice has the depth, detail and texture of an old master of painting using his oil colors. The new Ikeda was presenting all this with a certain musicality while at the same time maintaining the drama.

Both the 9TT and TS sport the same double layer duralumin cantilever and while the intrinsic mass of such designs is higher than that of the more prestigious boron cantilevers, speed and treble did not seem to be affected in any particular way while listening to Koopman’s “World of the Harpsichord” (Philips 9500989). During the various dances under the form of Gallardas and Sarabandes, the 9TS left a beautiful coda in the lower octaves that blended exquisitely with the vibrant notes of the clavecin’s strings as they were plucked by the plectrums under Koopmans hands.

This made me think that the 9TS should excel in the piano reproduction. Reason behind this is the longer than usual coda that reverberates, thus creating a larger than life image of the Steinways and the Bosendorfers. I invite you to listen to Chopin as performed by Maurizio Pollini’s on DGG. Maestro Pollini won the International Chopin competition in Warsaw in 1960, with nothing less than Anton Rubinstein leading the jury, and this led him to record many of the Polish composers works (DGG 2530: 291/550/659). My impression of a longer coda was correct, the piano revealed itself in romantic way with a tad of excess in ambience resulting in mellow sound.

Instead of concluding with the classic symphonic piece, I opted for one of the most underrated pieces of classic music. Carl Orff is famous for his “Carmina Burana” but his second cantata, the “Catulli Carmina” is the true masterpiece. An ancient “choros” with bursts of energy, enormous variations of rhythm, a percussion only orchestration (including various cymbals, tambourines, xylophones and several pianos) and amazing, explicit lyrics in Latin! In Jochum’s direction (DGG 2530074) and under the needle of the 9TS crash cymbals lost a bit of their edge but bass drums and tambourines sounded bold and full-bodied providing the necessary background for Arleen Auger (sopran) and Wieslaw Ochman (tenor) to sing their love.

Swapping between the TS and the TT after a while became a fun game instead of a review. As the weight and dimensions are identical and having the ASR basis all I had to do was to move the tonearm cable from phono A to B.

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What do you get from the pricier 9TT? A slightly more sensual representation in Billie’s voice. The Penguin Jazz Guide described the song as “a voyeuristic look at a beaten woman.” It is exactly this “beaten” character that I appreciate so much in her voice. Not the voice of a twenty year old, beautiful to look at but washed out like an aquarelle under the rain. It’s the voice of a mature woman who went through a lot in her life and understood the meaning of love, an oil canvas of emotions. The 9TT managed to get me there and perceive all of this in a more convincing way, made me travel to a smoky down town bar of New York and almost feel her pain.

The Zyx 1000 is a completely different animal. I would dare to call it a far more modern design than the Ikedas. Channel separation, imaging and tremendous control over the lower frequencies make it an exceptional cartridge for big orchestral and symphonic works. Top extension is also worth of mention and in the “Catulli Carmina” projects a spooky, unreal orgy of sounds with more detail, drama and air between voices. Yet on the piano notes many will prefer the melodic way of the Ikeda carts, which might not be as clean and precise but will result being more gentle to the ear.

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Back in the days of vinyl glory Ikeda and Fidelity Research built reputations for low distortion, natural sounding cartridges. The humble PMC-1 did not make a bad impression playing next to the 9TT and the 9TS and made me realize why so many vinyl enthusiasts go after the more sophisticated FR-7 series. There is a house sound in the Ikeda brand, one with melody preferred over absolute precision and timbre cherished over control. It might sound trite but your entry ticket to the Ikeda sound just got slightly more affordable with the 9TS.

Ikeda 9 TS specifications

  • Type: Moving Coil cartridge
  • Output Voltage: 0.35mVrms (35.4mm/sec., at 45°peak)
  • Coil Impedance: 6.0 ohms (1kHz) (Loaded at 65 Ohms)
  • Appropriate Stylus Force: 2.0 grams ±0.2 grams
  • Frequency Response: 10Hz ~ 45kHz
  • Channel Separation: over 27dB (1kHz)
  • Channel Balance: within 1.0dB (1kHz)
  • Compliance: 7 x 10-6cm/dyne
  • Stylus Chip: Oval-shaped solid Diamond
  • Cantilever: Double layered duralumin pipe
  • Headshell: Ikeda IS-1R with IS L1 6N copper leads
  • Weight: 10 grams (28 including headshell)

Review cartridge provided by Greek Distributor: Aurion Image and Sound

US Distributor: Beauty of Sound

Associated equipment for this review

  • Garrard 401 turntable/ SAEC 308 L tonearm/ SME 3009 series 2 improved tonearm
  • Hanss T-30 turntable/ Hanss UNV-2 tonearm/ Hanss tonearm cable
  • Ikeda 9 TT moving coil cartridge mounted on Ikeda IS-1R headshell with IS-L1 6N copper leads (Loaded at 22 Ohms)
  • Fidelity Research PMC-1 moving coil cartridge/ FR RS-10 headshell/ FR copper leads (Loaded at 155 Ohms)
  • ZYX 1000 airy3 X (copper coils, 0.24 mV output) moving coil cartridge/ SAEC ULS-2 headshell (Loaded at 100 Ohms)
  • ATC SCM 40 speakers
  • ASR Emitter I HD amplifier with external Akku
  • ASR Basis HD phono stage with external Akku
  • Van Damme speaker cables, Nordost Spellbinder IC , Jelco 506 balanced tonearm cable

About the Author

Born and raised in Athens, Dr. Panagiotis Karavitis is an ex-radio DJ turned pediatric ophthalmologist, and has a self-described healthy appetite for vinyl.

You can read more about Dr. Karavitis over on our Contributors page, and find him on Facebook.

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About Panagiotis Karavitis (179 Articles)

Doctor and Editor @ Part-Time Audiophile
Publisher @ Audiohub.gr

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