Wow. Can you believe it? It has been almost five years since I last penned a Joe Audiophile article. I have been a very, very bad Audiophile. I've not been turning in my assignments... but it is not my fault, honest! I swear, the dog kept eating my articles, that or there was a flood or two (maybe even three). Then there was the fire, followed by a tornado. And just when I thought it was over, a meteor crashed into my house wiping out everything I owned. Oh, I'm so ashamed of myself.
Although I haven't been using by pseudonym, I have kept reasonably busy writing under my real name (Scott Faller) in the time that's past. Speaking of which, it's been quite an adventure over the past half decade playing the knight-errant. My system has made some very nice strides forward. And yes, now that you ask, my core system has stayed essentially the same. I'm still one of the hardcore fringe doing Single Ended Triodes and open baffle speakers (Lowthers of my own design) augmented by big friggin' 15-inch Altec 416's to fill in the bass. And no, now that you asked, my system is not hideously overpriced (providing you pull the cost of my vinyl rig out of the equation). My ability to DIY has saved me countless thousands of dollars. In turn, I've been able to build a system that competes with the most expensive systems on the planet (and I've heard quite a number of them). All in (less my vinyl rig) we are talking a fair amount less that the cost of a base model Kia Spectra. Not bad at all considering. Now, my vinyl rig unfortunately just about doubles the ante but that is a different story completely.
So, enough of my aggrandizing, let us talk vinyl, one of my favorite subjects. Before you digital guys tune out thinking I'm just another vinylphool, let me say clearly, my digital rig can easily compete with my vinyl rig depending on the source material. Not to mention it is less than 1/10th my vinyl rigs cost and WAY more convenient using the Havana USB DAC and Foobar. Digital can be extremely good... then again, I grew up with vinyl and don't mind the fuss (cleaning, flipping sides, storage, etc) at all. Besides, hunting for vinyl in flea markets, antique stores and thrift shops is half the fun of collecting. Honestly, I haven't counted my collection in recent memory but I've got to be topping 3500 albums. My Ikea Expedit shelving is bursting at the seams. I may actually need to get another section or two...really soon.
Retipping And Rebuilds
My Enjoy the Music.com cohort Nels Ferre and I are good friends. We've been working together as writers since the turn of the century. In turn, we talk on the phone continually about audio gear and life in general. A while back Nels mentioned that his Dynavector 20XH had seen about as many hours as it could and was about to give up the ghost. He mentioned sending it off to Peter at Soundsmith to have it retipped. That sounded like a great idea considering all of the good press Soundsmith received. Not having heard a Soundsmith retip, I was really curious to hear Nels impressions.
So Nels sends his cart off and has Peter perform his magic on it. After a short period of time, Nels gets his newly retipped Dynavector 20XH back and proceeds to put a fair number of hours on it. Then out of nowhere it develops a hum. Nels calls Soundsmith who promptly tells him to send it back and they will “take care of it”. Peter looks at it and come to find out one of the ground wires has let loose due to fatigue. But while he was in there, Peter apparently performs a little more surgery….lets call it a coil-ectomy, or coilposuction if you prefer. When Nels gets it back, rather than the Dynavector putting out 2.8mV, she is only putting out about 0.8mV. Apparently while Peter was in the cartridge, he had to replace the inner workings of the Dynavector with a donor set of motors making it a low output moving coil. According to Peter, the coils and inner windings couldn't be salvaged; they were just too far gone. All of this is just fine with Nels as he has wanted to play around with a low output cart for a while. And of course this was all done with his knowledge and consent. After Nels gets the cartridge back he tells me how much he enjoys the sound of his newly rebuilt cart. I think to myself cool, if ever I need a cart retipped, Peter will be the first person I call.
So time rolls on and Nels system and musical tastes begin to shift. Gawd I hate when that happens as it has always cost me tons of money when it happens to me. Fast forward about a year or so, Nels and I are talking on the phone again and he mentions that he is thinking about a new cart. He starts describing a sound that he wants from his vinyl rig and I start developing an idea on what might suit his needs. He mentions that he is looking for something just a bit less detailed in the highs yet still holds plenty of detail in the mids and has a fair amount of slam. See, Nels (like me) is a Classic Rock fan. Knowing the Soundsmith retip uses a Line Contact stylus profile which digs every detail out of a groove, I start to think about something with either a spherical or elliptical stylus profile. I'm not sure about you but when I think of those stylus profiles, I immediately think of the Denon 103 or a Shure. The thought of using a Shure vanished and I zoomed in on the Denon.
Though I've not been a big fan of the stock Denon 103, I've
recently been in touch with the folks at Zu regarding their Home Party Tour for
our local Gateway Audiophile Society in
So after all that typing I'd bet you had no idea where I was going, did you?
After living with the Soundsmith modified Dynavector for some time now I can't help but write about how much I really enjoy this cartridge. First and foremost, it uses my favorite stylus profile, the Line Contact (or the Contact Line as Peter calls it). That profile digs more detail out of the grooves than any other I've played with over the years.
As I listen and compare this hybrid Soundsmith cartridge to my Yamamoto and Van den Hul and take mental notes there are a few things that come to mind. First is that this cartridge rides dead quiet in the grooves. If you have quality vinyl and a good phono stage, the surface noise almost completely is inaudible even at high volume levels on the band between songs.
As I compare the sonics, the bass is quite good. She reaches plenty deep and a quite solid never hinting at being bloated or worse yet, too lean. The midrange is extremely inviting and harmonically rich. Vocals or anything else in the midbands are creamy and textured without signs of veiling. Though not quite as detailed in the mids as my Yamamoto, it comes really close. The highs are quite good though a fair amount different than the Yamamoto. If you remember the Yamamoto YC-03s article, I mentioned the highs on the YC-03s are forward and on certain types of music it can be almost a bit too much, namely Rock and Roll.
As we all know too well, Rock gets slammed regularly for having crappy mastering and mixing. After playing around with the Soundsmith for more album sides than I can remember I think I can say that this hybrid cartridge is extremely well suited for Rock. With the typically harsh and splashy highs of Rock music, the Soundsmith evens out the sound so that it doesn't rip your head off. Now, that is not to say that it is veiled because it isn't. I'm not sure if it's attributable to my selection of cartridge loading at 100 ohms that has tamed the highs but I think this cart may be one of my favorites for Rock.
Don't get me wrong, it does a damned fine job on Jazz and Classical too. It's just on those two genres I prefer to hear a little deeper into the musical detail on the top end and the Yamamoto does that for me. Then again, something like this may be exactly what you are looking for out of a cartridge. You know, that is the great thing about my vinyl rig, actually my arm. The Dynavector 507 MkII and its bayonet mount lets me swap cartridges out in less than three minutes and in the case of the Soundsmith, it weighs (with the headshell) the same as the Yamamoto. That means I can swap it out in under a minute.
Bottom line... if you are considering buying a new cartridge because yours is at its end of line, think long and hard about giving Peter Ledermann a call at Soundsmith. He offers a simple upgrade to a diamond Contact Line stylus and solid ruby cantilever starting at $250. His next level of detail retrieval is only another $100 at $350. Of course Soundsmith also offers a full line of premium cartridges and the ultra-cool Strain Gauge system. Oh and if you are looking for a great sounding amp and speakers, Soundsmith offers there own line of those too.
Me, I'm extremely happy to add the Soundsmith rebuilt Dynavector to my ever growing stable of cartridges. She continues to get tons of time in the groove. Variety is truly the spice of life.
Slee Elevator And Reflex Era Gold
For years I've been using a step up transformer when I wanted to listen to my low output MC cartridges. I've got an old Signet which was made by Audio Technica back in the late 60's or early 70's. The AT equivalent of the Signet is the AT-650. As I've read somewhere, the Signet has Tamura iron in it which to some vinyl freaks is like the Holy Grail of iron. It's a nice little step up that has a few values for variable cartridge loading. For the most part it gets out of the way of the music and does a good job... or so I thought.
As my low output cartridge collection continues to grow in size, I decided to ring up Graham Slee again. Having listened to phono pre's that have switchable gain to handle low output carts, I was curious to give Graham's Elevator EXP a listen. If you aren't familiar with the Elevator, it is what most people refer to as a ‘head amp'. Rather than using a step up transformer to increase the gain from a LOMC cartridge, it is essentially a small amplifier that has about 22db of gain. For the curious, here are the specifications:
Input Range: 0.15mV to 0.8mV
As you can see, the Elevator EXP provides a goodly amount of adjustment for cartridge loading. This is absolutely critical for tailoring your LOMC to your system. When you visit the Slee website, you can see that Graham has designed the EXP to a truly wide bandwidth amplifier. It is nearly flat out to 1Mhz in both frequency response and phase.
In my many conversations with Graham over the years, Graham has never been a fan of transformers. I've not had much of an opinion until now. I've never had the reason to directly compare transformer to a head amp. I always thought my Signet step up did a nice job. I can say one thing with complete certainty, I was wrong. Even after trying one of the better step-up kits, the K&K with Lundahl transformers as an additional comparison, I can say that the Elevator EXP is considerably more transparent and articulate.
For a couple of years now, I've been using the Slee Elevator ESP and the Slee Era Gold phono stage. This combination, simply put, is the best phono stage I've heard to date. The combination is not only extremely quiet, which is profoundly important because of my high efficiency speakers, but it's also completely transparent. It gets out of the way of the music. So many phono stages I've heard before can't seem to muster that illusive ‘live acoustic event' phenomenon most of us all strive for from our systems but the Slee Elevator and Reflex do.
When the combination showed up some time ago, rather than placing them in my system I set them up in my shop and began the burn in process. I use an old Walkman CD player with a pair of external pots so I can adjust the output of the CD player down to a point where I won't overload the EXP or the phonostage. In turn I took my meter and set the output levels of the burn in sweep noises to about .2mV. In turn, on the output jacks of the Reflex I installed a bleeder resistor to emulate the input impedance of a preamp. This allowed me to burn in the head amp and phonostage as a whole without wearing out an expensive LOMC cartridge. I let this setup run for about two weeks straight before I put it in my system. As I learned, this wasn't enough time. Even though that is the best part of 300 hours, that still wasn't enough. The reason I say that is when I installed it in the system and gave it a listen, there was a distinct midrange bite. Then thinking about the design and the low level signals that are being passed, I knew this burn in was going to play out more like a DAC chip rather than a typical OpAmp which only needs a hundred hours or so to settle down. So back on the bench for another couple hundred hours she went.
As I sit here listening to the Slee Elevator, I've got the opportunity to compare it to not only my old Signet step up transformer but also one of the Premium K&K step ups that uses the widely acclaimed Lundahl transformers. For this occasion I'm using my Yamamoto YC-03s as the cartridge as it is truly the most revealing and musical cartridge I've experienced in my system. For this experiment I'm using a rather unusual test record, Jackson Browne's Running on Empty. One track in particular gives the opportunity to pick up tons of low level detail, “Nothing But Time”. This track was cut while the band was literally on the road in their Continental Silver Eagle tour bus. It is a simple two track recoding on a reel to reel with a stereo mic. If you listen closely you can hear the roar of the bus and its engine as it motors on down the road changing gears. Next is the fact that the drummer (Russ Kunkel) is using a cardboard box as a kick drum. Then during an instrumental interlude mid-song, you can hear Jackson and one of the girls having a conversation back away from the mic. If you can pick up the gist of that conversation, you've got a pretty revealing vinyl rig.
After playing with a number of different loading resistors, I settled on no resistor at all as it offered the most open and extended sound of them all. As an overall statement the K&K is quite easy to listen to. The midrange quite nice and coupled with its high frequency characteristics, I can see why so many people enjoy this setup so much. That said, the soundstage width and depth aren't quite as wide as with the Slee Elevator. Also, the leading edges seem to be a bit muted as well as the dynamics. The highs are nice but are a little rolled compared to the Slee Elevator.
With my old Signet, I played with the cartridge loading and settled on 30 ohms as the best sounding match to the Yamamoto. The old signet actually hangs pretty well with the sound of the Slee Elevator. She's not painting quite as wide of picture nor as deep but tonally and detail are reasonably close to the Slee. The leading edges and dynamics are still a bit muted but I think that is due to the active gain stage as opposed to the transfer of energy inherent in a transformer. One item of note, I do get a bit more hum from the Signet. The Slee, on the other hand, is dead quiet.
To encapsulate what I'm hearing from the Slee Elevator paired with the Reflex compared to a couple of really nice sounding step up transformers is this; the Slee provides better and more natural dynamics. The leading edges of notes are sharper, crisper and more ‘real'. The next item is the Slee provides better focus along with a deeper and wider soundstage. Though some may say the sound is more ‘clinical' than a step up, I'd term it as more transparent. On the best recordings, you really do get the sense of ‘being there'. Once you experience this sense, it is unmistakable and something that follows you around to every system you will ever experience.
Now, these findings aren't really findings. They are just my opinion based upon my bias for vinyl reproduction. As I've mentioned before, I've come to prefer a more exacting sound, that includes from my vinyl rig. I want all the detail where many prefer a more romantic portrayal of music and that is absolutely fine. All I am trying to do with this mini comparison is let you know the differences I hear, so you can (hopefully) better informed decision if your path leads you this direction.
Moving on to the Graham Slee Reflex, after visiting the website and talking to Graham, I see the Reflex has gone though a couple of changes since I started using mine. According to Graham the changes over the years have been relatively minor (sonically speaking). Rather than resting on his laurels and continuing to manufacture a product that is “good enough”, Graham continues to push the engineering envelope for all of his products continuing to refine all of his current design. Whether its tweaks to his grounding scheme or thinking outside of the accepted ‘norm' of parts and IC's typically used for audio gear, Graham continues to make strides forward to improve the bandwidth, transparency and musicality of his products. Knowing well the sound and build quality of all Graham's gear, if you are in the market for a new phonostage, his gear should make it to the top of your short list.
Feickert Universal Protractor
For years I've been aligning my cartridges with these. I implemented my alignment guides a little different than most. I printed all of mine on a clear transparency. Then I used an old Laser Disc (remember those?) to place it on so I could get at least a little bit of a reflection so I could see the underside of the cartridges. It worked fairly well but it was always a PITA. Then came time for overhang. Unfortunately, I did it the hardest way possible because I didn't have a good tool. Yep, that means I tried to measure it from the center of the spindle. Geez, I hated setting up new cartridges. I bet I was lucky to get within a couple of millimeters when I'd set the overhang.
Then about five years ago came my Dynavector 507 MkII. The arm came with its own overhang gauge. Halleluiah and praise the Lord! My life got tons easier. Now I was only left to do alignment which is fairly simple in the grand scheme of things. As my turntable journey continues, I'm in the midst of fabricating a couple of new arm boards out of different materials to see how they sound compared to the stock milled aluminum arm board of the Opera LP-5. I'm thinking a cool hardwood like Bloodwood should sound pretty good. Plus I want to add another arm on the Opera.
All of these thought experiments lead me to the same place, I really didn't want to go through all of the BS to set up arms, overhangs and alignments without simplifying my life somehow and also get a tool that does everything rather than my haphazard method of turntable setup. Enter the discussion forums. I read about the Dr. Feickert on one of the boards, I forget which. So I decided to give the United States distributor Chad Kassem at Acoustic Sounds a call and get one.
The Feickert Universal Alignment Protractor is set up to handle arms that range from 8.6 to 17.7 inches in length. Needless to say, that should cover just about everything. The gauge is manufactured from aluminum. This is the device sitting on top of the thick white plastic disc with the graduated scales. Each scale is calibrated to the differing effective tonearm lengths. On one side you have scales calibrated to Baerwald geometry and on the other the scales are calibrated to Lofgren geometry. On the corresponding sides you have the respective alignment grids.
As you look at the device the layout and use is deceptively simple to use. Basically, you place the scale on the platter then place the gauge over the spindle and into the hole that corresponds with your effective arm length. Then across the top of the gauge is a beam which has a scale graduated in one millimeter increments that is adjustable and can be locked in with a knurled setscrew as seen in the picture. At the far end of the beam is a pin that comes to a point on the end. It is also adjustable via a knurled setscrew. To set the arm distance from the spindle, you simply move the beam out to the proper arm length that you have and lock down the setscrew. Then you lower the pin down to where it almost touches the pivot of your tonearm and lock it down with the setscrew. You then adjust as need to the point where the exact center of your picot point is dead center of the sharpened point of the centering pin. Then, lock the arm into place by whatever means your arm has. This first step is pretty simple.
Then you want to set your overhang. Simply reset the gauge to the indirect overhang hole and re-center the centering pin over your pivot point. Now take some foam or cardboard and wedge it under your platter to keep it from spinning as it will try to move on you. Make sure your cartridge is loosely mounted and take your arm and move it across the indirect overhang scale. Now simply read the X and Y axis of the scale to set your overhang based on the effective length of your arm. Tighten your cartridge a bit and next you are of to set your alignment.
Remove the gauge and spin the scale to get at the null points of your favorite geometry, Baerwald or Lofgren. Next line up the cantilever on your cartridge with the grid on the scale of the first null point. Then move the arm to the next null point after spinning the scale slightly to insure that you still have a good alignment. If all looks well, tighten down the screws and you are almost ready to spin some tunes.
After this, you will need to set your tracking force. In my case I use the Cartridge Man's precision scale. For the Yamamoto we used 1.60 grams as the tracking force.
Then you need to set VTA to get the stylus rake angle correct. Then you will need to address the azimuth if needed. Both of these are manual settings as the Dr Feickert Protractor doesn't address those two items but his Adjust Plus software can precisely help you set the azimuth.
As you can see from the pictures I used, I helped a friend of mine (Mark) set up his upgraded Mitchell Gyrodek. Once you have your arm set, things are a snap. Depending on the cartridge, some may take a bit longer than others. We set up two different carts on his arm. The first was the Yamamoto YC-03s and the other was the Clearaudio Virtuoso. The Virtuoso was a snap to install and get aligned simply due to the cantilever hanging out past the end of the cartridge. The Yamamoto was a different story. The cantilever is hidden under the wooden body which made it a bit more difficult to see the grids on the indirect overhang and alignment scales. We got ‘er done anyway.
Though this tool may be a bit much for the casual or even average vinyl enthusiast, I see the hardcore vinylphile (like myself) needing one of these. As often as we switch cartridges and arms, we need a solid tool that does a better job than the typical downloaded alignment protractors and plastic metric scales. At $250 from Acoustic Sounds, though not inexpensive, for me it is an indispensable tool. If ever you have worked on cars in the past you'll be able to relate to this analogy; when you do a tune up on a car, you can get it running reasonably well by setting the points with a matchbook then dialing in the timing by ear and test driving listening to how the engine sounds under load. But to get the motor to run at its optimum you really need a set feeler gauges (or dwell meter in GM's case) and a timing light. That is the only way you are going to get the best performance and gas mileage out of your vehicle. The same goes for a turntable; you need the right tools for the job. Using the former will get you from point A to point B without failing but the ride might get a bit jerky at times. The latter you can rest assured it will be smooth sailing all the time.
Well, that does it for this, the latest edition of Joe Audiophile. I promise, I won't wait so long to right the next one.