In my earlier review, I wrote about the Vertere MG-1/SG-1 turntable/tonearm combination. Here I’m going to pen about a few other offerings from Vetere (website), companion pieces I received with the ‘table and arm–the Vertere Acoustics Mystic moving-coil cartridge ($2,699) and Phono-1 MK II phono preamplifier ($1,395).
First off, let me say that both these pieces were excellent performers. I was particularly impressed with the Phono-1, which I consider one of the best deals in high-end audio. The Vertere Acoustics Mystic cartridge was undoubtedly NOT an also-ran. Still, there are some excellent offerings around that price, so while exceptional, I think of cartridges as more system dependent. In other words, a Mystic could easily be the missing link in YOUR search for vinyl Nirvana.
Comparison Is The Thief Of Joy
That phrase may be true unless you’re an audiophile, and then it’s called The Hobby. I find comparing components is a lot of fun when I don’t have skin in the game. But if you’re a Libra with ADHD (raises hand), making comparisons to decide on a purchase can be a self-imposed torture chamber. Somebody, please tell me what to get! That’s where us reviewers come in – we’ll drive ourselves crazy and do the dirty work for ya. But wait, you say, it’s my ears and my room, and my system, so I guess I’ll have to do some research and then actually listen to something. You better believe it.
Sometimes it’s best to love what you have and buy some more records. Yeah, that’ll last for a little while before we audiophiles get the itch. I’ll talk about the Vertere Acoustics Mystic cart first, and y’all can let me know if you feel itchy.
Into The Mystic
In Part 1 of my Vertere investigations, I set up quite an itch-inducing comparison. I took four records and recorded the same selections using a Rega P10 with a Charisma Audio Signature One cartridge and a Vertere MG-1 (with SG-1 arm) fitted with Vertere Acoustics Mystic cartridge. I used the Vertere Phono-1 for all combinations. Then I swapped carts and repeated the recording process. In my mastering studio, I compared the level-matched 24bit 96K files by switching a button.
When comparing the two cartridges on the same turntable, a few impressions emerged. Regardless of which turntable I had the Vertere Acoustics Mystic mounted on, the sound produced was a great example of a classy moving coil design. Its sonic signature included an articulate and detailed top end, without any extra edge or tizzy-ness. The mids were clear and rich without conspicuous coloration. The bass was tight and linear without feeling dry or overdamped–in short, neutral but not bland. When I looked at frequency response using the AnalogMagik setup system, the Mystic was razor flat.
The Vertere Acoustics Mystic has what Vertere calls a Micro Elliptical diamond stylus bonded to an aluminum tube cantilever. The cantilever is attached to copper wire cross-coils moving against Samarium-Cobalt magnets to comprise the generator. The top of the solid aluminum body has three little raised points for contact with the headshell. Vertere states this is to offer further resonance control.
I don’t have any information on who manufactures the Mystic for Vertere other than a European origin. I do know that Vertere mastermind Touraj Moghaddam was very involved in the design.
Vertere specifies the output as .5 mV, a recommended loading of 220-470pF, channel balance within 1db, frequency response 10Hz-40Khz, and a recommended tracking force of 2 grams. Maybe the capacitance setting is a misprint because, for a moving coil, resistance is the relevant spec. I used 100ohms in my tests.
I’ve found the recommended tracking force to be the most meaningful spec, with output a close second. Output is a good guide for how much preamp juice you’re gonna need to get the signal up to Nominal Zeppelin Level. In my listening tests using the Vertere Phono-1 or the inboard phono pre on a VAC Master Preamplifier, I had no trouble playing very quietly cut records at loud volumes and with negligible background noise. I’m frequently amazed that well-designed phono stages can amplify those itsy bitsy signals from lower output moving coil carts with so little added noise.
A Brief Side Note
As a side note, pro audio best practices in the area of gain staging tell us that each stage should only amplify by the amount required to hand off to the next stage in a system using multiple stages of gain. So how do we know what’s needed to have everything sit in the sweet spot?
In the case of a system comprised of separate components, the question becomes how much headroom there is. Headroom as a function of the area above the noise but before distortion occurs in our phono preamp. This preamp gain affects the next stage, typically the line stage in a preamplifier or integrated amp. I prefer to run lower gain settings in most outboard phono pres, then set the volume control a little higher on my preamp. I think experimentation can potentially yield better results than automatically setting the gain in a phono stage with optional gain settings to the highest setting, which is usually recommended for low output moving coils like the Vertere Acoustics Mystic.
In practice, I’ve found there is typically a gain setting on a phono pre where the music seems to come alive. Too low, and the backgrounds are quiet, but the sound is too dry and tamed. Too much gain, and you get more noise or even distortion or a congested vibe on loud music sections. The sweet spot is usually a click or two shy of where things might get edgy on the loudest dynamics. And then you have some fixed gain phono stages (like my reference VAC), which never falls apart on the loudest passages and is as quiet as the first day of English class when the teacher asks who read the books assigned over the summer.
The Signature One had a bit more midrange presence, image width, depth, and a bump in the low end around the lowest frequencies. (It’s also about $1,000 more, so keep that in mind.) These differences were MORE apparent when using the Rega as the turntable. When comparing carts using the MG-1/RG-1 combo, it was close to being a tossup–almost like the Vertere Acoustics Mystic was designed to work well with the Vertere’s table and arm. Gee, what a surprise – not. I ended up slightly preferring the Charisma cartridge, but it was close.
Would I be disappointed if I only had a Vertere Acoustics Mystic in my setup? Not a chance.
As I stated in part 1, I listened for quite a time to the MG-1/SG-1 with the Vertere Acoustics Mystic and Phono-1 to get a feel for the whole system. This setup sounded terrific and gave me many hours of listening pleasure. When I started taking things apart to get a deeper feel for the individual Vertere pieces, the Phono-1 shone even brighter. During this phase, it became clear to my ears that the Phono-1 is quite extraordinary at any price. The excellent price/performance ratio is icing on the cake.
In addition to all the loading and gain settings you’d ever need to fine-tune any cartridge to your system, I found the sound of the Vertere Phono-1 to be excellent. It also has a cool three-position switch to change the grounding scheme to achieve buzz-free operation in any scenario.
The Vertere Phono-1 presented all of the subtle, slight dynamic contrasts, tonal shadings, and imaging effects in my personal Vinyl Greatest Hits list. Nothing about the sound jumped out and screamed Check Me Out! No, it was similar to the MG-1 in that without thinking about it, I usually found myself immersed in the flow of the music. Neutral and artifact-free, yes. Boring or polite sounding, no.
I’ve listened to many solid-state phono preamps in the under $3,000 or so price level. For me, they usually fall into one of two camps: a nice sense of detail but with some grainy-ness and glare, OR a soft, sweet, rolled-off style of presentation. The Phono-1 was neither.
With the Phono-1 amplifying either the Vertere Acoustics Mystic or my Charisma Audio Signature One cart, there was always plenty of satisfying detail but no edge, glare, or congestion. Bass drums, bass guitars, bass synths, or anything in that neither region always had a satisfying authority and control. It may not have supplied some intangible special sauce at the frequency extremes that I hear from the VAC phono stage, but hey, the Phono-1 is $1,395. Yes, the VAC phono stage presented a more dramatic sense of depth along with a bit more harmonic meat on the bone. When listening to records through the Phono-1, did I ever feel like I was missing something? Nope.
Sound Just Like A Record On The Phonograph
I found out that one of Mr. Moghaddam’s design principles is a conviction that a design is only as strong as the weakest link.
The MG-1/SG-1/Mystic/Phono-1 is a perfect example of that. Furthermore, while each part of this system is excellent on its own, together it truly shines.
For serious vinyl-loving audiophiles that want to up their analog game but might not feel like taking the time to research, demo, and mix and match endless combinations to find their grooved PVC bliss, this is your ticket. No, it’s not the cheapest date, but it is a guaranteed good time with a minimum of fuss. If you MUST tweak, Vertere dealer Doug White of The Voice That Is! has informed me he feels that a good isolation platform can improve the MG-1 performance. Maybe a tonearm wire upgrade with Vertere’s top line wire? Ok, I’ll stop because for most folks, this system as-is will be end-game territory. But don’t let me stop you from considering the individual pieces as a worthy upgrade to an existing analog setup.
The MG-1 table and SG-1 arm sounded fantastic with my Signature One cart – I’m sure many others would be just as good. The Vertere Acoustics Mystic would be a killer upgrade for someone wanting a musical, detailed, yet neutral high-end sound for a lot less than many ultra performers. Finally, the Phono-1 gets you way up the high-end ladder without a price that has you examining your sanity.