Before I even bring up Ana Mighty Sound (website), let me state that I abhor rebuilt cartridges. They are to me, unholy, defiled, inferior, and more often than not, a far cry from the real thing.
It is like having your Ferrari serviced by the corner garage operation, or your Rolex tempered with by some counterfeit watchmaker, or worse, having an operation performed by an unqualified surgeon. Even when the cartridge comes back looking like it’s good as new, which it seldom does, something always feels off when I play the repaired cartridge, which is why I always put them up for sale upon their return from repair.
If you’ve been playing vinyl long enough, the big “OH SHIT” moment of breaking a cartridge is bound to happen sooner or later. It could be your sweater snagging the cantilever, or your cat jumping onto the platter, or it could be you squishing your cartridge’s suspension by accident. There are no shortages of silly ways of breaking your cartridge.
When François Saint-Gérand, owner of Ana Mighty Sound from France, contacted me at the end of the 2019 Munich Show and handed over four of his rebuilt Ana Mighty Sound TSD-15N cartridges to me for review, I told him right off the bat that I’m the worst candidate because of my innate bias.
“Your fears are well-founded,” said Saint-Gérand. “There are lots of sloppy rebuilders out there, and I will show you how we are different.”
Ana Mighty Sound
Saint-Gérand is a bubbly character— spontaneous, enthusiastic, and fun to be with—so I decided to invite him and his gang out to dinner, and hopefully to learn a few things about cartridge building. We drove 45 minutes to the outskirts of Munich to visit the famed Herrmannsdorfer Landwerkstatten (German organic pig farm), and dined at the Wirtshaus zum Schweinsbrau.
If you’ve ever wanted to attend the Munich High-End audio show, know that your trip is not complete until you have tasted traditional Bavarian pork. The road leading to the Herrmannsdorfer is a windy and pitch dark narrow country road, which requires some skillful maneuvering on stick shift. The drive got more and more remote, and I’m sure it stirred wild imaginations in the mind of my guests, wondering if they were being led to a Hostel-style demise.
But all their doubts were cast aside as soon as they munch on the best Bavarian organic pork, and no, I wasn’t kidding about the live pigs which are literally right outside the restaurant. Over a glass of German Spätlese (pronounced SHPAYT-lay-zuh, a German late harvest white wine), we sampled the finest that Munich had to offer.
Over a period of four days, I got to know Saint-Gérand as a friend. He has a real passion for analog and cartridge building. We shared many ideas on cartridge setup as well as cartridge making in general. He set out to calm my fears of rebuilt cartridges by walking me through the entire cartridge building process at Ana Mighty Sound and introducing me to the cartridge building team.
“Cartridge building is not a black box. I will show you how it is done from start to finish. I will show you some of the horrors we have seen, and the how we are different than other builders,” said Saint-Gérand. He told me exactly what I wanted to hear, as I have very little understanding of the cartridge building process and have only suffered through the hands of sloppy rebuilders.
“I want to see the insides of cartridges, and I want to see everything,” I told Saint-Gérand. “You got it!” he said. And right there in Munich I had my first mini-lesson on cartridge rebuilding.
He showed me hundreds of photos of the inside of cartridges, from nude body skeletons to suspensions, to individual components. I learned a lot of the insider secrets of the cartridge industry. Basically there are only a handful of real manufacturers, and you actually see a lot of common parts and OEM manufacturing behind a lot of big labels.
But of course he also shared with me some examples of poor rebuilding jobs, some of which are similar to the experiences I’ve had in the past. But be warned, what you are about to see are graphic images which may be disturbing to some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised!
The Bloody Koetsu Urushi Red Vermillion
Here we have a Koetsu Red cartridge with a broken cantilever. Straight out of a horror movie, the rebuilder simply added an aluminum tube extension on top of the cantilever shaft and called it a “complete rebuild” to factory spec, which of course it was anything but. Poor workmanship and sloppiness aside, it was definitely not to factory spec.
The proper way would be to disassemble the entire cartridge, with all parts thoroughly cleaned, and inspected, and to rebuild it using original parts as much as possible, and that’s exactly what Ana Mighty Sound did, they basically had to “rebuild the rebuilt” from scratch.
Further disassembly actually revealed a damaged suspension, which had been completely ignored by the first rebuilder. The cartridge would have sagged to the bottom. The coils had to be completely removed and rebuilt from the ground up, with a new suspension, and new cantilever.
Here is what a properly rebuilt Koetsu Urushi Red Vermillion should look like:
The Massacred Ortofon SI-15
The Ortofon SI-15 is the successor to the SPU. This cartridge with a broken cantilever reveals a lot of damage underneath the hood but was covered up by the paper dust protector. Again, the meat was rotten deep within the freezer. Careful examination reveals additional mass had been added to the cartridge to “patch up” broken piano wires.
The cartridge should have been completely disassembled, cleaned, and restored using the proper parts, and that’s exactly what Ana Mighty Sound did.
The Willy Wonkered Koetsu Black
Here we have a Koetsu Black which had been previously rebuilt and closed up. It looked normal from the outside until you examined the cantilever which was reinstalled incorrectly and off-center. A peek under the hood reveals the utter sloppy horror of a half-assed rebuild. The lack of a much needed thorough cleaning aside, the damper of the cartridge had melted and was deformed.
The entire cartridge was saturated with an unknown gooey substance very much like grease or silicone. Not sure what the rebuilder did, but it is not done properly, to say the least. How anyone can charge money for this sacrilege is truly beyond me. The entire cartridge had to be disassembled, cleaned and completely rebuilt.
I saw hundreds and hundreds of photos–it was like a live performance of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “Your fears are not unfounded, but it does not have to be that way. All the horrors you saw will not happen in our hands,” said Saint-Gérand. “We take high resolution photos of all our rebuilds, and customers can see the inside every step of the way. We do things properly all the way.”
“I’ve seen enough, you’ve convinced me,” I told Saint-Gérand, “Now let’s meet your team.”
The Ana Mighty Sound Team
François Saint-Gérand started Ana Mighty Sound in 2012. Three years later, Xavier Delacoux joined the team together with László Szalai, who is now the chief engineer, and László Vencel Szabó, his apprentice. Christian Bianchi (founder of Prisme Audio in the eighties), who develops and builds Ana Mighty Sound’s Le Phono SE phono stage, is also part of the team.
László Szalai has worked in different audio studios (Hungarian Broadcasting Studio, Hungaroton Records, Archive of the Institute for Musicology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Research Center) as an audio and broadcast engineer. He made hundreds of acoustic music recordings and is of course obsessed with sonic reproduction as well as audio in general.
Saint-Gérand explains that rebuilding a cartridge is more difficult than building one from scratch. It involves extensive scientific research and field experience. Each cartridge has to be completely disassembled down to its coils, suspension, and skeleton. In addition, it all has to be performed without a manual or guidance on an object not meant to be disassembled. Very few people have seen the inside of as many cartridges as Ana Mighty Sound has, which gives them an unparalleled advantage in understanding the entire cartridge manufacturing and rebuilding process.
The most common problems encountered are broken stylus tips, snapped cantilevers, or general wear and tear over time. Many cartridge builders will take the short cut and patch up a cartridge using the parts they have on hand, or simply “attach” other parts into the cartridge that are not of the original brand, such as extending cantilevers with aluminum tubes. This produces a much larger effective mass of the moving ensemble, resulting in a lower resonance frequency for the coil mechanism, with negative repercussions in the audible range. The proper way to repair a cantilever should never be extending it, but to replace it altogether.
Saint-Gérand further explains that they have sources for almost all cartridge parts, and they know exactly who is making what for whom. In some cases, they will custom make their own components that exceed the performance of original parts. For example, modern suspensions can be better than 30-year-old components. Original but old rubber dampers are hardened over time and rendered useless. Small variations in parts can have a huge impact on the sound. Sometimes even two new cartridges can have totally different sounds and their goal is to maintain the sonic integrity of the cartridge after repair.
They have used newer parts on many well-known MC cartridges (Ortofon SPU, Denon 103, EMT TSD-15N, Koetsu, etc.) the results obtained (both sonically and on measured specifications) were higher than what expected, which brings us to the subject at hand today, the Ana Mighty TSD15N.
Ana Mighty Rebuilt EMT TSD15N
“The TDS15N line of cartridges is a testament to our quality standard and our ability to rebuild cartridges which can hold their own against the original, and the best high-end cartridges of the world,” said Saint-Gérand. “They are built using the EMT TNT15 Skeleton, but everything else has been replaced with our parts. That is to say, they are new cartridges with an old EMT skeleton, rebuild with parts which we believe are superior than the original.
“We inserted our proprietary, newly designed frictionless dual double donut damper suspension system. We employed a new boron cantilever with Nude Microridge S Tip Diamond, which is the smallest diamond tip available. The rebuilding cost €1,800, but the cartridge has been so well received we decided to sell it as a standard line, with a retail price of €3,500.00.”
Saint-Gérand provided me with four different renditions of the same cartridge. They differ only in the coil material (copper vs silver), and the size of the coil. The more windings there are, the higher the output. The output wasn’t specified, but a careful comparison with the cartridges I have on hand suggests they range between 0.1 to 0.25 mV.
The arrival of the Ana Mighty Sound cartridges coincides with the time when I was reviewing the My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum cartridge. I was doing extensive comparisons between the Lyra Olympos, the Kondo IO-M, the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, the ZYX Universe Optimum 1 ohm, as well as my reference cartridge, the My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent BC (now called the EX).
I can’t help but to throw the four TSD-15Ns into the mix, using four identical UWE Gabon Ebony headshells. I did extensive comparisons between all of these cartridges using the same turntable (Micro Seiki RS5000), and the same tonearm (Glanz MS-124H Premium Tonearm).
The fact that the four Ana Mighty cartridges can be compared with the rest of the cartridges costing many times over, is in itself a miracle. All of the cartridges carry a price tag of at least two to three times the Ana Mighty Sound, and they represent the pinnacle of modern-day cartridge technology—the very best of the very best.
The four Ana Mighty Sound cartridges differ mainly in tonality and details, and their difference is not one of quality but of different shades of the same color. Yet the difference is not subtle. The best of the four will be one which suits your taste as well as synergy with the rest of your system; they are not better or worse than each other.
For my CH Precision P1/X1 phono stage with “Current Amplification” circuitry, it is more suited for cartridges with lower impedances which will result in higher output as well as more transient attacks as well as minute details. The obvious choice would be the Yellow Dot 6.5 ohm with the copper coil and the Blue Dot 5 ohm with the silver coil, and indeed these two delivered higher output as well as better dynamics so the other two were quickly eliminated from my system. For those with traditional voltage amplification circuits, the reverse may be true and may benefit from the higher output (higher impedance) cartridges.
The choice between the copper versus the silver version was also not difficult, as they carry substantial differences in tonality. The choice became obvious to me as soon as I played Tom Jones’s “What Good Am I?” on the Praise & Blame album, as well as Emmy Lou Harris’ “If I Needed You” on the Cimarron album. The copper version presented voices in a manner which sounds more natural, with more body and substance. The silver version carried more frequency extension and ambiance, but there is a noticeable recessed mid-range as well as low-frequency weight. As to which of the two is closer to the original, I do not know, but I preferred the sound of the copper cartridge so I quickly eliminated 3 of the 4 cartridges and focused on the 6.5 ohm copper coiled TDS-15N.
The copper coiled Ana Mighty Sound TDS-15N carries all the traits which are found in ultra high-end top shelve cartridges, namely minute details, frequency extension, dynamic contrast as well as an ultra-quiet background. Right off the bat, TSD-15N carries a lower noise floor compared with my Lyra Olympos as well as my Kondo IO-M. A lower noise floor goes beyond the obvious absence of “snap, pop and crackle”, which is a given. It translates into a higher contrast in instruments that would otherwise not stand out against a backdrop of pitch-black quietness.
This is very noticeable in the opening segment of Ravel’s Bolero (EMI, Andre Previn directing the LSO) with the light timpani which gradually rises in crescendos, the same with the faint timpany in the opening segment of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D (Philips, Szeryng, and Haitink directing the Amsterdam Concertgebouw), the Ana Mighty Sound cartridge was able to deliver contrast in the midst of quietness that rivals that of the My Sonic Lab BC as well as the Signature Platinum. It is not quite there, but definitely almost.
Frequency extension of the Ana Mighty Sound TSD-15N approaches the range of the Lyra Olympos as well as the Clearaudio Titanium or Goldfinger Statement, and definitely comparable to cartridges in the same price range such as the Lyra Kelos or the slightly more expensive Dynavector XV-1T. If there was ever a time when I’m guilty of using music to listen to a piece of equipment, I’m guilty as charged for playing Swan Lake on the famous The Royal Ballet Gala Performances album (Ernest Ansermet directing the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, RCA Living Stereo Analogue Productions). The airiness of the plucking of the strings of the harp cadenza, followed by minute details rendered by the violin solo, the Ana Mighty Sound completely passed the test and firmly placed itself in the realm of the best cartridges. I am certain the micro ridge diamond utilized probably played a major role in its ability to render fine details.
Dynamic contrast and the weight of instruments that hangs in the holographic sound stage did not quite reach the levels of the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, the V2, or the My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum. This is easily demonstrated by Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra (Concert Arts Symphony Orchestra, CISCO reissue). The weight of the individual orchestral instruments showed less weight versus the aforementioned cartridges, but very few cartridges on earth can rival them. Even if it is not quite there, I do not fault it as the Ana Mighty Sound costs less than half its price.
The overall tonality of the Ana Mighty Sound TSD-15N Copper cartridge is slightly warmer than neutral, whereas the silver coiled versions are slightly cooler and more analytical than neutral. The copper version on which I focused leans slightly towards the direction of the Kondo IO-M and with traces of the Koetsu’s voluptuous sound, with emphasis on the world “slightly” and “direction,” it is likely more colorful and more detailed than the original EMT TSD-15N although I do not have them side by side and is only drawing this comparison by memory. It is not as warm as the Dynavector XV-1S and is closer to the XV-1T. The silver version goes in the opposite direction versus the copper version, and it reminds me of the sound of the ZYX Air3 with Silver coils. I imagine the silver coiled version would do remarkably well on warmer-sounding tables such as the Linn LP12 or the Nottingham 294.
My exercise with the Four Ana Mighty Sound TSD-15N cartridges has changed my critical and negative bias stance rebuilt cartridges, that is to say, if I have a cartridge that needed repair, there is no other shop that gives me as much confidence as I have with François Saint-Gérand and the team at Ana Mighty Sound.
Will I ever buy a rebuilt cartridge off the internet? Probably not, unless if they’re rebuilt by Ana Mighty Sound. But at the end of my exercise I did purchase the Ana Mighty TSD-15N Yellow Dot, copper coiled 6.5ohm cartridge. The value for money is simply too good to be true, and I am literally getting ultra-high-end sound at a fraction of the price. If you are looking for a cartridge, the Ana Mighty Sound TDS-15N is a strong contender.
François Saint-Gérand and Ana Mighty Sound plan to release their own brand of cartridges in the coming year, and I have already raised my hand for a review sample. Meanwhile, if you are ever in need of cartridge service, I wholeheartedly recommend Ana Mighty Sound and they will not disappoint.
Turntables: TW Raven AC, JC Verdier La Platine Vintage x 2, Micro Seiki RS-5000
Tonearms: Glanz MH-124S Premium Version, Acoustical System Axiom Anniversary Limited Edition, Schroer Reference 12” Ebony, Da Vinci Grandezza, Da Vinci Master Reference Virtu, Primary Control
Cartridges used for comparison: My Sonic Lab Ultra BC, Signature Platinum, Clearaudio Goldfinger, Lyra Olympos, Dynavector XV-1T, Dynavector XV-1S, Lyra Kleos, ZYX Airy 3 Silver Coiled .24 mV
Phono Stages: CH Precision P1 x 4, X1 x 2. Tenor Phono 1, Kondo M7 and Sfz.
Preamp: McIntosh C1000
Power Amp: McIntosh MC3500x4
Speakers: Peak Consult Dragon Legend Mk II