Welcome to something new we’re going to try here on PTA thanks to our friend Wynn Wong of Wynn Audio in Richmond Hill, Ontario. I’m going to be curating a new list every month featuring different categories of gear that I think you – our readers – have to hear under any circumstances you can arrange: beg, borrow, steal, drive for hours, hop a train, take a plane… you get what I’m saying. Price will not be a factor, with individual pieces on each list reflecting a spectrum of what I feel is the best. This new feature will be called… The List, and it will be my attempt to share some of the gear opinions I’ve managed to accrue spending as much time as I do (apologies to my family, and friends) with high fidelity equipment. Items featured will include at least one piece of gear that I’ve personally spent time with, so it’s not some random list put together without context. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy putting them together.
–Rafe Arnott, Instagram: @audiophile.gentleman
Further to the outrage that my list of CD players caused, and building on the outright hatred that my list of turntables elicited from a number of readers, I’m back with this month’s The List whereupon I jump into the spiral grooves which are the domain of that highly-fetishized Objet D’art: The pickup cartridge. Again, I look forward to reading the comments from the erudite Internet users who may find appreciation for my choices of Five of The Best cartridges (not The Best, mind you… much of my most ardent fan mail centres around my perceived stupidity at making the choices I do as The Best, not Five of The Best). Again, as I wrote previously, there will be many of you who question my choices, and wonder aloud at what I didn’t choose, but please bear in mind this is a list with room for five choices, so it’s inherently designed to thrill some, and disappoint many.
Many of those who read this post will be intimate with the machinations of a phonograph, or record player, and how the pick up cartridge slots into the mechanical-playback chain of analog vinyl recordings. But for those less inclined to the idiosyncrasies, or magic that comprises the act of making music from rotating black plastic discs, I will delve into the details a bit to give a more fleshed-out presentation of these facts. Early, commercially available phonographic pickup cartridges came out in the 1920s, and were comprised of oversized magnets shaped like horseshoes, and employed disposal steel needles which had been in use since the end of the 19th Century, so they only shared a passing resemblance to modern cartridges: Praise be technology.
A pickup cartridge is made of several parts; stylus, cantilever, a magnet-motor assembly (either Moving Magnet, Moving Coil or the lesser-known Moving Iron – I’m not getting into London Decca, sorry), an enclosure or chassis, and mounting hardware of some type to attach the assembly to the tonearm which allows the cartridge to consistently, and effectively track a record’s grooves. The stylus – or needle as it is sometimes referred to – is the only part of the entire assembly that makes physical contact with a record’s groove. These days it is usually made of diamond or sapphire, and is either attached to a long aluminum, titanium, boron, or even diamond or sapphire rod/shank or cantilever with glue, or a bushing. Or in the case of nude styli, the stylus is fitted into a hole or slot in the shank. When the stylus is lowered on to a rotating LP its movement of tracking the groove walls, and floor (side-to-side, up-and-down) is translated via the cantilever to a permanent magnet (mounted on the cantilever in the case of Moving-Magnet cartridges) which excites the magnetic fields of a set of electromagnetic coils surrounding the shank-mounted magnet within the chassis housing. In the case of a Moving-Coil cartridge this delicate dance of invisible forces has the positioning of the magnet/coils reversed. The Moving Iron version uses a piece of iron attached to the shank to enable electromagnetic field generation excitement of a permanent magnet/coil assembly within the chassis.
Clawing recorded analog data from the micro-grooves of an LP at velocities reaching upwards of 45 inches/second, and generating a force on groove walls of almost 35,000 pounds/square-inch is a tortuous proposition for a stylus, and cantilever. The temperature where the stylus contacts the groove can reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit. For comparison, these conditions do a good job of mimicking the forces generated inside a gun chamber during firing. This is why most cartridges have a lifespan of between 500-3,500 hours of playback (much of which is dependent on the quality of the diamond used, and the condition of the records being played back, cleaning of the stylus, etc. Basically – you gets what you pays for).
All of this generates a hyper-delicate electro-acoustical signal that is sent on via your phono interconnects to be amplified by – you guessed it – a preamplifier/amplifier which in turn passes this amplified signal to your transducers or loudspeakers. Since the number of windings used in the coil assembly must be lower in a Moving-Coil (MC) design vs. a Moving-Magnet (MM) one because of the mass involved on the shank, the corresponding output strength of the MC electro-acoustical signal is much lower than MM. This is why MC cartridges require additional assistance in Stepping Up their signal to line-level strength over MM designs. But getting into the complexities of various methods of achieving this is for another post. I know that not including even one MM cartridge on this list will guarantee hate mail, but I couldn’t leave off a single one of these MC carts just to satisfy those legions of Moving Magnet fans, but I will say that if I had included one it would have been the Ortofon 2M Black.
Now, hopefully that shone a reasonable amount of light into the darkness of the technical aspects of the different cartridge designs. All the approaches to translating the wiggles in an LP groove to sound have merit, but in my experience (and humble opinion) it is the MC variety which is the most sonically capable/pleasing overall of passing on the infinite analog complexities of these recorded events to one’s ears. Let us continue to my choices – in no particular order – for this The List.
To me, this is probably the most classic, and time-tested design of stereo pickup (SPU) cartridges going today. Danish manufacturer Ortofon have been in business since Axel Petersen, and Arnold Poulsen decided to make a go of film sound technology back in 1918. After a short time the pair refocused on gramophone recording, analog record cutting, and playback equipment. They are considered to be the trailblazers of moving-coil design, and in 1945 developed the first record cutting head based on it. In 1959 the original SPU was designed, and produced for broadcast application, and brought to market. It has been in production ever since with improvements made over time as technology evolved, to the point of it’s current heralded guise as the SPU Classic GME MK II. It features a large ground wood, and resin-composite body, an aluminum cantilever, elliptical stylus profile (lots of groove contact for maximum data extraction), a frequency response of 20Hz ~ 20 KHz (+3/- 2 dB), prefers more than 3.5 grams of tracking weight, outputs .2mV, and likes to be loaded in the 100+ Ohm range (as always load to personal taste). This is a big, meaty-sounding cartridge with beautiful colour, tone, detail, defined bass, and plenty of air up top (I’ve heard this cart in Jeff Day’s Tannoy Westminster system, and it literally blew my mind (as did the Mono version). This is not a cartridge for EDM, or electronica per se, but if you’re into jazz, blues, quintets, vocal, folk, acoustic, or more classic recordings of the ’50s, and ’60s – and have refined your musical tastes more around character than ultimate accuracy (and really what is accuracy anyway?) then the SPU just might be the most fun, musical cartridge you’ll ever hear. MSRP $1,280 CAN/$999 USD.
The Transfiguration Proteus is a cartridge that is about sonic refinement the way that a fine tailor is about bespoke suits. I’ve heard this pickup in a number of systems over the past 18 months or so, and the one that stands out consistently is Doug White’s setups at the last few trade shows I’ve attended. Transfiguration is basically the design work of one man: Seiji Yoshioka. He’s been designing, and building Moving Coil cartridges under the name Immutable Music Corporation since the 1990s. His work features a ring-magnet structure in the magnet-motor assembly, five-nines silver coils, an aluminum body, a one-Ohm internal impedance, and 2mV output. Constantly refining his creations, Yoshioka’s latest iteration of the Proteus features a Boron cantilever, and a solid-diamond stylus. With a frequency response of 10Hz ~ 20kHz (+1.5dB) 20kHz ~ 40kHz (+2dB) this is a cart for every type of music you can throw at it. It’s all about timbral realism, rock-solid bass, deeply-textured midrange (especially in wood-bodied instruments, strings, and drums), and musical coherence across the entire dynamic range. With its ability to present each recording unique to its own mastering, this an incredibly revealing cart in the sense of the ability to organically communicate what every artist is distinctly trying to convey. MSRP $7,550 CAN/$5,999 USD.
Elektro Mess-Technik JSD VM (Variable Mass)
I’ve been a huge fan of EMT cartridge designs for a number of years now. It started with their TSD 15N – another veteran cartridge of broadcast use, since 1965 – and has since evolved in the last few years to include the newest JSD (Jubilee) series of pickups. The JSD series were designed to celebrate the company’s 66th anniversary (Elektro Mess-Technik has been around in a couple guises since 1940 in Berlin), and like the TSD 15N that made me smitten with their sound, the Jubilee series (the JSD 6 in particular) translate music with immediacy, incredible bass weight, a magical midrange full of tactile, organic timbral colour, and a liquidity in the upper registers that (in my experience) never turns dry, or etched. Introduced this spring in Munich at High End the EMT JSD VM (Variable Mass) pickup is in honour of EMT’s 77th anniversary. The VM’s unique approach to fine-tuning the cartridge’s sonics is built around small cylinder rods made of differing high, and low-mass materials that can be inserted into the pickup chassis to adjust the cart’s weight between 10 ~ 13 grams. Specified at 20Hz ~ 30KHz, a tracking force of 2.3 ~ 2.4 grams, with an oriented nude diamond stylus on a white sapphire shank, the VM sounded forceful, weighty, and incredibly extended in both the lowest, and highest registers right out of the box. With about 20 hours burn-in it proceeded to open up even further, fleshing out instruments, and voices with rich texture. Adding the gold VM insert brought everything *snapping into focus – including the sound stage, which changed from recording to recording. Used in conjunction with the EMT Auditorium 23 SUT (Step-Up Transformer) this is a cartridge that had me pulling dozens of LPs off their shelves as I sought to hear ever further into recordings. MSRP $6,280 CAN/$4,995 USD.
Koetsu Onyx Platinum
In my small corner of the analog audiophile universe, there are some manufacturers products that have become points in the heavens from which I’m able to navigate a course through the vast emptiness between the high-fidelity stars. Koetsu is one such brand. Built by hand by the same family since the late ’60s when company founder Yoshiaki Sugano – a renaissance man of sorts being an artist, sword maker, and boxer – retired from his day job in the automotive executive business, and got into the hand-made Moving Coil cartridge business. The company takes its name from the 14th/15th Century Japanese artist Hon’ami Kōetsu (B. 1558 D. 1637), and has been slowly expanding their line of cartridges from two pickups when Sugano-san first started (only the Rosewood, and Onyx cartridges up until 1980) to 15 separate models today. Focusing on the highest-purity materials, and utilizing carefully-aged wood for bodies, six-nines copper coils, rare platinum iron magnets, and also exotic stone bodies, Sugano’s son Fumihiko is now the master cartridge maker of record at Koetsu since his father’s death in 2002. The Onyx Platinum’s body is cut, and polished by hand from a solid block of stone. It contains six-nines copper coils sheathed in silver, with a platinum magnet, boron cantilever, nude diamond stylus, a .3mV output, and likes external loading of anywhere from 50 ~ 1,000 Ohms. I’ve spent serious time with a number of Koetsu cartridges in the last few years – Koetsu Rosewood, Rosewood Signature Platinum, and Onyx Platinum– and all of them delivered a sublime, and supremely musical experience. It is the Onyx that is more akin to going to church though than simply passively sitting (I haven’t been for years, but I remember many Sundays from my childhood), and letting the music hit you during listening sessions. If you, like me, value true-tone, rich timbral colour from brass, and horns, exquisite/delicate texture on stringed, and wood-bodied instruments, shimmer, bloom, and spectral decay off drums, and piano, and a living flesh & blood presence to vocals from your pickup than the Onyx Platinum could be an end-of-line cartridge for you. MSRP $12,565 CAN/$9,995 USD.
Punching above it’s weight class. Giant killer. Dragon slayer. This is some of the more common hyperbole used to described the Denon DL-103 which was introduced in 1962 – again, another long-lived MC design that was originally intended for the professional broadcast market – and currently retails for less than $300 USD. Featuring a round aluminum shank, independent moving-coil magnet-motor assemblies for each channel, a conical stylus profile, and the unusual combination of low output (.3mV) and high impedance (40 Ohms), the 103 likes to be loaded around 100 Ohms, and prefers 2.4 ~ 2.7 grams of tracking force. That it has attained a cult following over the decades is for good reason: It sounds brilliant. Never mind the ridiculously low cost, or that it’s straightforward to mount, and can be easily stripped of its plastic body, and swapped into too numerous aftermarket chassis materials to name, the fact is, sonically it is in league with pickups 10 times its price. With an incredibly linear frequency response, deep multi-note bass performance, extended (if slightly rounded-off treble), a generous, jammy midrange with true tone reproduction, and smooth, coherent musicality, the 103 excels at every part of the sonic spectrum. Does it do all these things with the same nuance, delicacy, confidence, and aplomb as the Transfiguration Proteus or JSD VM? No, it doesn’t, and in most respects it’s not fair to compare it to those high-priced pickups, but again, it costs roughly 1/18th the price. Paired with the Auditorium 23 Denon SUT (Step-Up Transformer – I’ve tried it with several other SUTs over the years, the A23 is the one to use) it becomes positively bestial in the lower registers, and opens up considerably in the top end with even more refinement in the middle. If you’re looking for an entré into the world of MC pickups on a budget, and using a cartridge that I could happily live with for a very long time (with the A23 SUT), then order one like, now. MSRP $375 CAN/$299 USD.