The (Phono) Cartridge Chronicles: Part II

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[Adapted from cartridge roundup in Stereophile. March 1989] [Part I, coming soon!]

In this episode we’ll cover two fixed-coil pickups—of the moving-magnet variety—and a single moving-coil, these pickups ranging from $100 to $550 in price.

Fixed-coil pickups have, in general, one distinct advantage over the vast majority of moving-coils require no step-up device beyond the standard phono input. Since good moving-coil stages are generally expensive, especially those which justify the use of a high-priced moving-coil, a significant saving is possible if you don’t already own a preamp with suitable gain. If you’re of the school which believes in using a low-output moving-coil straight into a normal phono input, this may not be a consideration, but low noise is. There is no free lunch. [ Discounting, of course, high-output moving-coils.]

The same associated equipment was used in these evaluations as in the last installment: Well-Tempered Arm on VPI HW-19 Mk.II turntable, Klyne SK-5a preamp (without use of its switch MC high-frequency compensation circuit, PS Audio 200cx power amp, and B&W 801 Matrix loudspeakers. Interconnects were Monster M-1000, speaker cable Monster M-1. All measurements were made at the tape monitor outputs of the Klyne (which means that they include the frequency response of the latter, a minor consideration since it is far flatter than that of any of the cartridges). The arm rest if the WTA, which some have accused of resonating, was removed in all listening evaluations just as a precaution; a soft (dry) sponge under the arm tube in the rest position kept the styli from plopping down onto the turntable sub chassis.

A brief comment on tonearm compatibility:

In general, any of the moving-coils (here or in Part I) should present no difficulties with any typical medium- to medium-high-mass audiophile tonearm. The Ortofon and Shure pick ups are, however, higher in compliance than the moving-coils. Either one, but especially the Ortofon, would be better suited to a lower- mass arm. (The Shure damper slightly lessens its sensitivity to a mismatch.) The ll-Tempered Arm, because of its inherently heavy damping, appeared well matched to all of the pickups, which is why (aside from its fine sonic attributes) it was used in this survey.

In Part I, I commented on the problem of physical clearance between cartridge and disc. I had a serious problem with the van den Hul MC One (its replacement has not yet arrived as of this writing), and minor difficulties with the Monster Genesis 500 and the Krell KG-100. In this installment, only the Ortofon 540 had a clearance so minimal as to discourage VTA experimentation. I have not yet determined if this is a “design trend,” but it could cause difficulties when using such pickups with turn tables lacking any provision for flattening warped recordings. It may not always be useful advice, but, as always, your best protection in insuring compatibility is a dealer you trust.

Ortofon 540: $300

Ortofon wants to be your cartridge company. Or so it seems, given their introduction of a number of totally new models in the last couple of years. They are, it would appear—much like Grado Labs—still heavily dependent upon the phono cartridge for their bottom line, unlike several other major pickup manufacturers who are branching out into things digital and video.

The 540 is Ortofon’s top-of-the-line moving-magnet cartridge. The 500 line consists of three models, different (apparently) only in stylus sophistication. The 520 has an elliptical tip, the 530 a fine line, and the 540 the so-called Fritz Gyger II. The latter appears to be similar in concept, though not identical in shape, to the van den Hul. Fritz Gyger, the designer of the Fritz Gyger II (to state the obvious is apparently also responsible for the design of the so-called Replicant stylus, used in Ortofon’s flagship MC3000. All three of the 500-series pickups are also available for P-mounting, for the information of our two subscribers who are into such bizarre activities.

Output voltage is specified at 3.0mV at 1kHz, 5cm/s lateral velocity, while cartridge mass is a modest 5.0 grams. Optimum downforce is said to be in the 1.25—1.5gm range.

The Sound: One of the problems in a cartridge survey of this nature is that you run the risk of being hypercritical of perfectly good middle-of-the-road cartridges. The 540 is a very respectable performer about which I may be more critical than it deserves. I simply never really warmed up to it. Its measured performance, as we shall see, was impeccable. It did nothing really “wrong” and never offended, but somehow it never really moved me in the ways in which the better moving-coils or, more to the point, the comparably priced Grado MCZ (review to come soon) did.

above: Ortofon 530 cartridge, which shares a common body with the 540

I admit to a certain ambivalence concerning the Ortofon, however. It does have a number of definite strengths. Its high-frequency response was extremely clean and properly balanced. Sibilants were particularly well-controlled. Hard transients—plucked guitar strings, the details lending character to various percussive instruments, and the like—had a natural clarity, neither dulled nor excessively etched or over- bright. In the low end, the 540 had a respect able solidity, although it tended toward leanness and detail at the expense of extension and weight. Mid-bass was neither lean nor under- damped, walking a fine line between the two. Instrumental timbre tended to lack warmth— though not to the extent of drying up the over all balance—but otherwise was difficult to fault.

In short, for every one of the 540’s sonic strengths, a counterbalancing weakness detracted from my enjoyment. Some examples may best illustrate what I mean, On Kor the 540 had good detail within the chorus and excel lent differentiation of individual voices, but compared with the best pickups its reproduction of ambience was a bit hard, its layering less dimensional. On Magnum Opus Volume 2, the 540 presented a very detailed sonic picture; the reedy quality of the high pipes was distinctly evident. The Ortofon’s bass on this recording was taut and detailed, with no muddiness whatsoever. Yet its low end was noticeably less deep and unrestricted than that of some of the other pickups in this survey. The 540’s sound-stage was smaller, less open. And although its high end was very detailed, its sense of air and top extension was no better than the other non-moving-coils.

The Ortofon reproduced “Live” Direct-to- Disc Flamenco Fever with obvious detail. The solo voice was well-focused; bass—footwork and drums—was distinctly taut; guitar had a sparkling sound. But the presentation was cool and rather lean, and depth was less pronounced in comparison with the better pickups, with a less spatial audience sound and less clear delineation of movement of performers within the soundstage.

The Measurements: The frequency response of the 540 was extremely flat: ± 1.0dB from 20Hz to 12.5kHz on both channels (the channels weren’t absolutely identical, but the differences were inconsequential—more than 1.0dB at only 1.2dB at 40Hz). The left channel was: —2.3dB at 20kHz, the right —4.0dB at the same frequency. The lower-treble/upper-midrange dip so common in other pickups around 5.0kHz was entirely absent here; the only notable deviation being a slight rise at 8—10kHz (+1.2dB in the worst channel). It must be noted, however, that the 540, like most moving-magnet pickups, is sensitive to load capacitance. The measurements, and much of the listening, were done with a total load capacitance of 218pF(25pF preamp input, 168pF for Im of Monster M- 1000 interconnect, 25pF for the capacitance of the internal wiring of the Well-Tempered Arm). Increase the capacitance beyond that point, and the mild rise at 8—10kHz becomes more pronounced, the drop-off at 20kHz more severe. (An extreme case: with 548pF total load capacitance, the left channel peaked at +3dB at 8kHz and dropped to -8.1dB 20kHz). In my opinion, the 540 should be used into 250pF (or less) load capacitance. If your preamp input has a fairly high input capacitance, you might be able to compensate with a low-capacitance interconnect. Be advised: many audiophile-grade interconnects are fairly high in capacitance. I measured Straight Wire LSI, for example, at 283pF/meter, Cardas Hexlink at 395pF/meter. Obviously, I recommend neither for use with the 540, or with any other pickup sensitive to load capacitance (moving-coils and Grados are not). The modest MAS Musicable, on the other hand, measured 65pF/meter.

The Ortofon 540 tracked well up to 80um. Subjective tracking was comparable with any pickup in the survey, including the most expensive.

Conclusions: The most difficult review to write is of a product which the reviewer feels is good when judged on any objective basis, but which fails to push the right buttons. For me, the 540 is just such a product. If you take my chosen test record as a reference, the Ortofon is inarguably flat. The upper-midrange! lower-treble dip of some cartridges—the Grado family, for example—undoubtedly con tributes to their feeling of depth and their refusal to sound anything but sweet except with the most egregious program material. The Ortofon, with its measured linearity through the midband, is not at all euphonic. But remember my caution concerning test records— they’re all a bit different, And this isn’t Stereo Review; until I can compare it with a Grado MCZ with an identical frequency response (not likely), I’ll have to go with my subjective impressions. In the right system, the Ortofon may well lock in to provide a rewarding match. It certainly does many things well and nothing really poorly. But it was, for me, merely competent; I was not moved to describe it with superlatives in any way.

[2. This information is often unpublished. Check with the manufacturer of your preamp.]

Shure VST III: $100

John has just laid out a fortune for a new amplifier and speakers and he still needs a new cartridge. His old one never was anything special, but lately it’s been sounding more tired than ever. He’d like to buy a vdH or a Krell or a- - - - (fill in the $$$$), but those other purchases have laid him out like a mackerel. . . Dick just had a little “accident” and is now faced with a $600 replacement bill for a busted cantilever on his $1000 cartridge. Something about a party He’ll replace that moving-coil eventually but needs something to tide him over without making a big dent in his “save for a replacement” budget. . .You’re putting together a modest system for Uncle Harry. Harry has a big collection of “classic” MOR music (he’s big on Lester Lanin), but doesn’t have a big budget. Or...

You get the picture. I’ll venture that most of our readers are looking for something a bit more upper-end than a “lowly” $100 moving- magnet cartridge. You probably think that such a cartridge has to sound impossibly ratty For hoi polloi, lumpenproles, and their ilk.

If that be true, then the ilk are in on a well-kept secret. Shure’s VST III is certainly no substitute for the best high-end pickups, but it won’t make you reach for TV Guide, either. Even in a high-end system. I say that because my first reaction after installing the Shure in the WTA and putting on a favored recording was one of disbelief. Perhaps I was expecting what most audiophiles instinctively expect from (relatively) cheap pickups—not much. What I heard was a decent soundstage, a clean, non- irritating high end, very good tracking (that was no surprise), and, overall, a very satisfactory performance overall.

But a performance, it must be said, which is unlikely to satisfy the very critical listener over the long haul. The positive traits I have listed were quite apparent. If your expectations are modest, you might be tempted into a long-term relationship with the VST III. It is certainly inoffensive, its failures subtractive rather than additive. Critical audiophiles, unfortunately, have a tendency to either praise to the skies or condemn unmercifully. On that basis, the Shure remains earthbound. Its uppermost highs were subdued, shaving off critical bits of information: ambience was dulled, the sense of openness and HF extension limited, and the overall effect noticeably “closed-in.” Midrange was a bit forward, but at the same time lacked fully developed “life” or presence. Bass was strong and well-extended but softened, as were dynamics. Soundstage, as noted, was effective, but depth only moderately well-developed. And surface noise, paradoxically considering the VST’s balance, was more prominent than on cartridges with more fully developed detail.

Let’s be fair, however. I’m comparing the VST III with the sound of top-quality pickups eight to ten times its modest cost. If small details on, for example, Ojebokoren — Cyndee Peters (Opus 3 77-04) were less than arresting—the curtailing of the airy, ambient environment surrounding the performers and the openness of Cyndee Peter’s voice soaring gently above the chorus; the sense, in short, of ‘being there” — you don’t really expect them at this price. If the VST III fails to totally involve the listener, it also fails to distract from the essential enjoyment of the listening experience. Remember, my first reaction—before getting analytical, as critics are prone to do—was favorable. Inner clarity and detail may not have been totally convincing, but the Shure does not sound dull. Veiled, yes—reminiscent of a thin gauze curtain between the listener and the performers—but a curtain light enough to leave the musical fabric essentially intact. Depth was foreshortened, but not lost. Bass may not challenge the ultimate definition of your subwoofers, but it will give them something to think about.

above: Shure VST III cartridge

A word on the Shure damper brush. For the neophytes in the group, the VST III incorporates the damper adapted from its more expensive pickups—a small brush with a damped hinge attached to the pickup body. It is designed to ride on the record during play, not only cleaning the disc, but providing damping which effectively minimizes the amplitude of the low-frequency arm/cartridge resonance. In contrast to the experiences of others in the audiophile press, I found that the use of this damper actually improved the overall sound, increasing HF clarity and detail. In any event, it won’t cost you anything to experiment. I suspect that the effectiveness of the brush is arm- dependent.

Measurements: Loaded with a total of just under 300pF load capacitance, the general response trend of the VST III was smooth, but tapered off at the top end. It was up very slightly at the low end (+0.1 to +0.8dB from 20Hz to 1kHz left channel, flatter on the right), then dropped to between —0.8 and —1.5dB (left channel, —2.1dB right) from 1kHz to 12.5kHz. The trend at HF was down: —2.5dB at 16kHz, —5.3dB at 20kHz (for left channel; —3.7dB and —7.4dB respectively for the right). The measurements above were taken (and all listening tests were conducted) with this loading. The effect of changes in the load capacitance were less pronounced than with the Ortofon 540. Increasing it increased the rolloff at 20kHz, reducing it to about 225pF slightly reduced the HF rolloff (to —2.5dB at 16kHz, —4.2dB at 20kHz, left channel) but also reduced the out put from 8kHz to 12.5kHz by about 0.5dB. Tracking was good up to 80 with excellent subjective tracking on a wide range of recordings.

Output is the same as the Ortofon at 3.0mV (1kHz, 5cm/s), while cartridge mass is a little higher at 6.6gm. Maximum downforce is specified at 1.2 5gm, the brush requiring another 0.5gm.

Conclusion: The VST III was not shamed in use through a high-end system. If it failed to remind me of its more pricey competitors, it did remind me of something else. In the immortal words of the bard, “Déjà vu all over again”; the Shure is reminiscent of the best moving-magnet cartridges of the mid- ‘70s, but with better tracking. Those pickups generally sold for under $100 in that deflated era; we’ve come a long way since then, but for a price. The Shure is unlikely to satisfy the serious audiophile for critical listening, but it might make for an affordable, very listenable cartridge for non critical sessions—those occasions when you want to enjoy those less-than-striking— sounding recordings for their musical merit. If you have the capability to make quick cartridge changes, the Shure would provide a yeoman back-up capability and spare wear and tear on the family jewel. Especially if the system is used by others. For full-time use, how ever, Tom and Dick will likely replace it at the first opportunity. And Uncle Harry? Those Lester Lanin recordings never sounded better. All a matter of your expectations.

Audioquest 404i-L: $550

Audioquest is perhaps best known for their LiveWire connecting cable and their audio accessories. But they have been marketing cartridges almost from their inception. The 404i L moving-coil is an updated version of the earlier 404, first made available in 1982. The L indicates the standard low output version (0.5mV, 1kHz, 5cm/s lateral velocity); a 404i-MH (for mid-high) is also available with an output high enough to drive a standard phono stage (1.4mV). The 404i-L incorporates a hollow boron cantilever with a line-contact stylus mounted in a rigid, cast-metal body. The overall mass was unspecified, but I estimated it to be around 8gm.

The Sound: The Audioquest 404i-L wasn’t auditioned until the very end of this survey. Nothing personal, it just worked out that way. I wish it hadn’t, because the 404i-L was one of those pleasant surprises that every reviewer hopes for but doesn’t really expect. Briefly stated, the 404i-L was a delight, in many ways the “find” of the survey. By that I don’t mean that it was the best sounding cartridge of the seven reviewed (including those in Part I). but it provided a strong taste of the best qualities of the better $1000 pickups (at least those that I have auditioned) at half the price.

Before this turns into a love-fest, let me briefly point out the areas where I felt the 404i-L came up a bit short. While it was respectable in three-dimensionality and depth, the latter was somewhat truncated. Overall, the sonic perspective was a bit forward, especially through the upper midrange and lower treble. A hint of hardness was sometimes evident, although it was not consistent. And the Audioquest’s low-frequency response was tight but lacked the last word in potency and extension.

But the 404i-L’s positive qualities were immediately apparent. It was open, clear, transparent, and, yes, “airy” in a way which the non—moving-coils surveyed could not match. Although, as I have stated, it lacked the last word in depth, it was not flat or two- dimensional. Its overall soundstage was good, with notably tight focus. That elusive ‘jump factor” was present; the 404i-L is a “fast” cartridge. But this quality didn’t appear to come from any exaggeration of the high frequency response. There was excellent inner detail, yet never an etched or clinical quality. The HF qualities varied with the program material—a good sign, indicating that the cartridge did not dominate the program material with its own colorations. Bright, hard transients were fast and open— the snap of a closely miked guitar string, the sparkle of a brushed cymbal (with the right combination of sizzle and silkiness). But that character was properly tamed when a softer touch was called for. On Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (Wilson Audio W-8722), for example, the violin was sweet and warm, with the sound of the rosin on the bow audible but not obtrusive. The sound here was naturally detailed, but in no way bright or edgy. And sibilants were particularly well-controlled, clear yet never spitty or sandpapery—the latter a sure sign of either a tipped-up high-frequency response or poor tracking. The 404i-L showed no sign of either problem.

Compared with an early version of the Grado TLZ—a cartridge directly competitive in price— the Audioquest was leaner and more detailed. Low-frequency response was less extended, but tauter through the 404i-L; highs were more detailed, but less sweet. The Grado had the more three-dimensional image and more expansive soundstage, the Audioquest had more “life” and drive. The TLZ was more laid-back, the 404i-L more up-front and punchy They sound quite different, and if pressed I’d have to call the Audioquest the more neutral of the two. But the Grado is extremely listenable, and requires no step-up device.

(The Audioquest has the highest output of all the moving-coils surveyed. That means you might be able to get away with using it with out a step-up device, depending on your system’s gain and noise level. I tried this briefly. The Klyne had a bit too much hiss for this to be totally successful, and I’m still not convinced that 47k ohms is a suitable load for a moving-coil. I used the 80-ohm setting of the Klyne pre-preamp for most of my auditioning. I have not auditioned the MH version of the Audioquest, which has a specified output virtually the same as that of the Grados.)

The Measurements: The 404i-L didn’t sound as if it had a high-frequency peak, nor did it measure that way Above 1kHz the response was —1.5dB left channel, —1.7dB to —2.0dB right channel, from 4kHz to 12.5kHz. At 20kHz, the left channel was —0.4dB, the right —2.5dB. Below 1kHz there was little worth commenting on—a gradual rise to +0.9dB in the 20—40Hz region (left), +1.1dB at 20Hz (right).

[4. After these comparisons had been concluded, Joe Grado informed Stereophile that the MCZ and TLZ auditioned were not representative of current production. I will be reviewing the current versions of these promising contenders within the next two or three issues of the magazine.]

The Audioquest’s measured tracking ability was its only real problem area. At the recommended 1.8gm (used in most of the listening tests) it was only able to track 6 Increasing the downforce to 2.1gm allowed it to just manage 70um; 2.3gm gave marginal results at 80um. Increasing the force to 2.1gm did seem to reduce the touch of hardness which was sometimes noted in the listening tests. Aside from that, however, the subjective tracking ability of the Audioquest, as I have already noted, never gave any cause for concern. (Keep in mind that the measurements only show the tracking in the upper bass—300Hz.) It should be said, however, that in my experience the Well-Tempered Arm has managed to extract good tracking from pickups which had caused problems in more conventional arms.

Conclusion: The Audioquest has a lot going for it. Because of an impending deadline, I wasn’t able to spend as much time with it as with the other cartridges, but I have no problem whatsoever in giving it a strong recommendation.

Overall Conclusions

It should be obvious that I found the best of the moving-coils to be superior to the best of the fixed-coils. The latter couldn’t match the tight focus and “air” of the former, yet the fixed-coil manufacturers have argued that there is no inherent reason why this should be so. They have a point. But when they sometimes argue that moving-coils are inherently inferior, I have to point out that record cutting heads are all, to my knowledge, moving-coils. That isn’t an argument for the superiority of the moving coil, just an observation that every recording you hear has already passed through one such device on its way to the lacquer. The argument is also made that the distinctive, lively quality of moving-coils is due to “ringing,” to which they are said tube prone. Perhaps. But it’s a fact that all physical systems ring or resonate in some fashion in response to an excitation; you can damp such ringing either by the selection of the material used in construction or by later application of well-chosen damping materials, The history of audio transducer design is a history of attempts to control ringing and resonance by placing them out of the audible band or by applying appropriate damping, without throwing the baby Out with the bathwater by deadening the transient response. Compromises are inevitable.


5. The infamous Dynavector 17D had tracked poorly in a Premier FT-3, but was surefooted in the WTA.

6. A distinction must be made here between damping of the actual transducer system, be it pickup or loudspeaker driver (or driver/enclosure system), and damping of the system supporting structures: cartridge body or loudspeaker cabinet structure (a contrasted to the interior airspace/port), The damping of the former must be carefully balanced. The damping of the latter, in my opinion, cannot be overdone (within practical physical limitations).


Also, to repeat an important point, there it the question of frequency response. The measured response of these pickups does relate, in a fashion, to their sonic character. But recall again that, until there is agreement on a test record which is an absolute reference (and, in the wake of the digital juggernaut, don’t hold your breath), test-record results must remain useful but relative guides, not holy writ. One observation must be made concerning the CBS CTC 330 test record used here. On a significant number of the measurements made in this survey, the right-channel frequency response measured down by an average of about —2.5dB at 20kHz and —1.2dB at 16k1-lz. Though this may not be statistically conclusive, I am inclined to discount any channel mismatch of that degree as an aberration of the test record.

In truth, none of the pickups evaluated here is likely to seriously disappoint, in the right system, but my top choices are very definitely the van den Hul MC One, the Krell KC- 100, and the Audioquest 404i-L. I confess to a slight over all preference for the Krell; it simply locked into my system better than the others. But I could live quite happily with either of the other two; I don’t see how you could go wrong with any of them.

[Adapted from Stereophile article, March 1989, by Thomas J. Norton. In the first part of this survey (Stereophile Vol.12 No.2, February 1989), I looked at four moving- coil pickups. They weren’t the most expensive on the market by a long shot, but you aren’t likely to find any of them in your local Circuit City, either.]

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Updated: Wednesday, 2015-05-13 16:06 PST