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Audiolics Anonymous Chapter 14
High-End Phono Cartridges
Article by Bill Gaw

 

  Hello fellow Audiolics, welcome to another meeting of Audiolics Anonymous... our support group for the insatiably TWEAKED. Last month we began our discussion of phono systems, ending with the review of  a couple of phono stages. This month I decided to complete the cycle by evaluating three top notch phono cartridges;

1. Crown Jewel Special Edition

2. Lyra Helikon

3. Clearaudio Insider

 

I can see now why cartridge reviews have always been few and far between. This has got to be the most difficult and time consuming evaluation that I have done. If you have ever set up a cartridge, you should be able to imagine what itís like to have to optimally set up three, and do it multiple times. Iím not sure whether this is Tweaker's Heaven or Hell. And I donít think Iíll do it again. But it was extremely informative, gave me a chance to evaluate probably the three best cartridges on the market today without having to shell out big bucks for each, and has allowed me to find the ideal cartridge for my system and tastes. This is the important point you should take from this review. Each is the best of the best, and which would be the best for you will depend on your equipment, how and what you listen to, and how much you are willing to spend.

Phono cartridges, like loudspeakers, are transducers. That is, they change one form of energy into another. And, as with all transducers, there is more chance for error changing from one to another, rather than just boosting or equalizing the energy, which is essentially what every other piece of equipment in a stereo system does. The cartridge is an AC  generator, changing the mechanical energy of the motion of the stylus, which flows though the cantilever to the motor assembly into electrical energy, and the loudspeakers are a motor, changing the electrical energy back into the motional energy of the driver. As all motors and generators are imperfect at their tasks, changes in the flow of the energy do occur, which are called distortions. Thankfully, most high end cartridges and loudspeakers of today, are very good at what they do.

All cartridges work on the same principal, i.e., as an electrical generator. If you can remember back to high school physics, a generator consists of  an armature,  which when made to move in a magnetic field, changes the energy of that motion to electron motion. There are several ways of building that generator.

 

1. The armature can be made of a bar of iron, with the magnets and electric coils surrounding it- Moving Iron type. This has the advantage that a large coil can be built which produces more energy for the same amount of movement of the armature, thus giving a higher voltage output, usually in the 2-5 mV range. Disadvantage is that the iron armature is relatively heavy, and therefore itís inertia makes for some distortion of the signal.

2. The armature can be made of a magnetic material, with the coils surrounding it-Moving Magnet type. Again it has the advantage of a possibly very large coil giving a large signal per unit of motion, but the  disadvantage of  high inertia.

3. The armature can contain the coils, surrounded by the magnets- Moving Coil type. Advantage- the coils are relatively light compared to the above two, and therefore there should be relatively less inertia, giving a faster and less distorted signal. Disadvantage- the larger the gauge of the wire, and the fewer the number of turns of wire, the less signal gain is obtained, and therefore the greater the gain that must be produced by the amplification equipment, with its inherent distortions. They are also more difficult to build, and therefore more expensive, and the combination of this cost and the increased amplification cost makes for a more expensive system.

 

There are other types, and each of the above has various methods of construction, and distortions, which are tuned by their builders to match the sound qualities that they find important. Each group has many wonderful sounding individuals, but over the years, having heard perhaps 100, and having owned about 10 of the various types, I have come to the conclusion that the Moving Coil types hold the magic of live sound. The Decca, Garrot, Shure, Ortofon and Grado that I still own, once in a while do get put on my tonearm and used, but I always revert back to the moving coils. Which finally brings me to the three I wish to evaluate today, all moving coils, each with its own character, cost and qualities.

 

Crown Jewel Special Edition
This is an aluminum bodied moving coil cartridge made by Shelter, of Japan and sold by Steve Klein, the owner of Sounds of Silence in Nashua, NH. Recommended stylus force of 1.8 grams, compliance of 8uM/mN, and channel separation of >30dB. Output voltage is 0.5 mv., with a recommended load of 47k ohms. The stylus tip is a 0.07x0.55 mm nude diamond attached to a boron bar/ aluminum pipe cantilever. Screw holes are standard, and the rectangular body makes for easy mounting. List price is $2,695, and they can be purchased directly from Steve.

I have owned three  of these over the past five years, and until now it has been my reference cartridge. The first one was the original Crown Jewel, which was replaced two years ago by a special edition. Through sheer stupidity, I dropped this one two weeks after receiving it, and broke the stylus off, and within a week, Steve had replaced it with a new one at dealer cost. Thatís the sign of a great dealer. This one has been in my system since, and has given many happy and trouble free hours of listening. My cartridge is happiest at 1.9 grams tracking force, with the VTA set with the bottom of the cartridge down about 1 to 2 degrees to the back, with 1000 ohms loading. Probably due to the shape of the tip, VTA is not very critical with this cartridge, and the needle doesn't tend to gum up with dust until a fairly large clump of junk is attached.

Break-in took about 40 to 50 hours, with the cartridge sounding at first dark, and gradually opening up to its final sound, which has remained the same since. The three adjectives I would use for the sound are open, gorgeous, and romantic. The bass is deep, but a smidgen loose. The midrange is lush sounding, on the romantic side of neutral. The highs are smooth, lacking the rising high end that most moving coils have. I think this is why it sounds slightly dark compared to the Lyra and Clearaudio, just the opposite of CDís brightness.  Again, these are very slight variances from neutrality.

It mated beautifully to the Camelot phono stage I reviewed last month. The soundstage was full of information, extended out into my room beyond the speakers, and on some recordings, to either side of them. Iím not sure whether this information is actually in the recording, or added by the cartridge, but the effect is marvelous. You are there with the musicians. This is a great cartridge for strings and woodwinds, with orchestral recordings, especially shaded dog RCAs, sounding almost live.

 

Lyra Helikon
The Helikon is a an aluminum bodied cartridge made by Scan-tech Co, Ltd of Japan, and sold through Immedia, of Berkeley, Ca. It weighs 8.0 grams, has a recommended stylus force of 1.6 to 1.75 grams, compliance of 12x10-6 cm/dyne and 35 dB of channel separation. Output voltage is 0.35 mv, with a recommended load of 100-47Kohms. There are built in screw holes of standard size and distance, which make mounting a snap. Because of its very narrow lower body, its weight and its shape, it is very easy to set up for azimuth, tracking force and approximate VTA, and in my system tracked beautifully at 1.6 grams, with the VTA set so that the bottom of the cartridge was parallel to the record surface. It worked best at a 47Kohm load, giving a somewhat more open and spacious sound compared to lower loads. List price is $2,495, with a guaranteed $500 deduction if you trade in a previous Lyra cartridge. There are about 40 dealers, and the cartridge is fairly new so they should be available for several years.

Unlike most moving coils, the Helikon uses ring magnets on both sides of the pivot point, which I believe probably is one of the reasons the cartridge sounds so good, as they control the movement of the system more than the normally used bar magnets, i.e., more linear. The cantilever is made of  an aluminum impregnated carbon fiber material, and very short, again giving tight control with lowered distortion. The stylus is of the line contact type, which is great at getting at the low level information, but notorious for picking up dirt. This one was no exception. The stylus picked up any grunge on the record, and in a short period of time the sound took on a tizziness. Therefore, it was very important to do a thorough record cleaning before listening. Also, the Lyra people sent along their newest stylus cleaning fluid, their SPT, which I will discuss at the end, and I used this before playing a new record side with each of the cartridges.

Break-in was a snap. This cartridge sounded great out of the box, and, unlike me, improved with age. There was a very slight tizziness at the beginning, almost what one would hear if the stylus force were set too low, but after about 10 hours this suddenly disappeared from one record to the next. From then on, the sound was some of the best Iíve heard. The three adjectives I would use are crisp, clean and clear. Where the Crown Jewel was on the romantic tube side of neutral, this one was on the transparent solid state side. The soundstage was the most open of the three, with each instrument standing out in relief to the others. Bass was explosive, tight and clean. The mids were clear and open, with possibly a slight rise in the upper mids adding to the sense of openness. The highs were clear, without the feeling of added highs that most moving coils impart to the music.

This is a great cartridge for jazz, brass and percussion. And it is also no slouch at orchestral. I used it with both my Wright tube phono stage and the Camelot  Technology Lancelot Pro, and while  sounding great with both, it mated better with the tubes, each ameliorating the others weaknesses and adding to the strengths. Did I say weaknesses? This is one of the most neutral cartridges Iíve had, and a true value at the price.

 

Clearaudio Insider Gold
The Insider is a gold plated lead alloy bodied moving coil cartridge with a boron cantilever made by Clearaudio Electronics, GmbH, of Erlangen, Germany and distributed in the USA by Joe DePhillips, of Discovery Cables, Stuart, Fl. It weighs 10.5 grams, has a recommended stylus force of 1.8 to 2.6 grams, compliance of 15 u/mN, and channel separation of >45dB. Output voltage is 0.7 mv., with a recommended load of 47Kohms. Unlike the other two, there are only two screw holes through the top of the cartridge, so supplied nuts and bolts have to be used, which makes mounting of the cartridge to the tonearm somewhat more difficult than the other two, especially when one thinks of the expense of replacement if the stylus should be damaged.

VTA and azimuth are a snap to set as the cartridge has white lines on the front and side of the cartridge base which when perpendicular to the record surface, brings you very close. Mine is working well at 2.2 grams, and 47K, again giving the most open and spacious sounds. Price? If you have to ask, forget it. $7,500. Is it worth it? In a word, YES. Can  you afford it? Maybe. Will you be able to sneak it into the house without your wife noticing it? Yes. Will it stay a secret for long? Not if she sees the bill, or can hear the system.

The cartridge is built like no other. First, the windings are made of fine gold wire, not copper or silver, and separated into two coils that are at either side of the pivot point, thus balanced. Then each has its own magnetic field made up of two magnets each, and each of these  is balanced in Teslas. The coils are then electrically matched for impedance and voltage output. The assembly is then matched to the cartridge body so that as little air space as possible is left inside, cutting down on vibrations. They therefore claim perfect balancing mechanically, magnetically and electrically.

Breakin' was a real P.I.T.A! Over the first ten hours, it sounded no better than some inexpensive units , with a tizzy top, and lumpy bass. At about ten hours this started improving, but then the cartridge developed a 1 dB imbalance to the right, which cleared over the next few hours. By about 20 hours, it began to sound like a high end moving coil, and everything went uphill from there. I donít know why, but towards the end of the review it seemed to have about another 1dB to 2dB of gain, something I have never seen before in a cartridge. I have about 100 hours on it now, and my three word description for this on is wunderbar, wunderbar, wunderbar. This is the best phono reproducer I have ever had the privilege of hearing, and brings my record reproduction about as close to first generation analog tapes as I can imagine.

The soundspace is alive. Hall sounds extend back beyond the listener. With judicious fill-in by my surround system, one is in the hall. This is about as close as I have come to the surround effect of discrete 4 channel reproduction without the weaknesses of the original analog and AC-3, DTS digital systems.

Strings, especially violins, take on a sheen that I have only heard live and with the best analog tapes. All other cartridge I have heard or owned impart a slight brightness to them that to me sounds unnatural, but not this one. At the 2.2 grams, tracking is impeccable, with it even able to reproduce the Telarc drum thwacks without noticeable distortion. Brass have the appropriate bite, and woodwinds the woodiness. Images of individual instruments are rock solid, tight and properly in place on the sound stage. One can make out the small movements that the singerís head make in relation to the microphone, which can be distracting, but true to life. This is 1080P high definition audio.

 

Summary
Here you have the three best of the best moving coil cartridges. At $2695 for the Crown Jewel, and $2495 for the Lyra, they are well matched both in price and quality, with the Crown Jewel being the more romantic, sensual Greta Garbo, and the Lyra being the more alive, vavoom  Mae West. The Clearaudio Insider at $7,500, is that perfect woman of our dreams, who we wish we could afford, and are willing to sign a pact with the devil to obtain. Maybe placing the other two in with the Clearaudio in this review is unfair, since the latter costs 3 times as much, and maybe it would have been more appropriate to review their Accurate, which costs about the same, but I have to tell you, I could be happy with any one, and I am sure that in various systems, each one could be the best. Is the Clearaudio worth the tremendously higher price? Only you and your piggy bank will be able to answer that question.

Which one am I using? I already owned the Crown Jewel, have gotten several years of love and loyalty from it, and am keeping it as my backup, and for those times when a little romance is needed. Up until this review, I would have been more than happy with the Lyra, and would have purchased it willingly at its asking price. This would have been my cartridge of choice. BUT, I am now doomed both in life and death. My wife listened, agreed on the sound, then found my checkbook, and has threatened divorce unless I buy her a new car. I am doomed in the hereafter for obvious reason. My signature is in THAT book, and, at least until death do us part, The Clearaudio is mine.

 

Lyra STP
(Stylus Performance Treatment)
With their cartridge, Immedia very graciously sent a 5 ml. bottle of their stylus cleaning and lubrication fluid, the STP. Made by Scan Tech, the same producer of the Lyra, it is formulated to clean the stylus without doing damage to the mechanism. Until this point, I had been using  LP #9 Stylus Cleaner from Record Research Lab, and the comparison was very informative. Using a 30x microscope, I alternated cleaning the stylus with the two fluids, looking with the scope, then playing a side of the record. While I couldnít hear any difference, the microscope did show that the STP removed a layer of haze that the LP#9 did not. Whether this will make any difference in the short or long term, I  have no idea, but I think cleaner is better if damage isnít being done. At $45 a bottle, it ain't cheap, but well worth the cost if, as claimed, it will add hours to the stylus useful life.

 

Manufacture Information
Crown Jewel Special Edition, www.soundsofsilence.com
Lyra Helikon, www.immediasound.com
Clearaudio Insider, www.discoverycable.com

 

Manufacturer Comments
Allen Perkins of Immedia Audio on Lyra Helikon,

   Thank you for the clear and informative review. Please tell us what your wife is driving.

Answer: Sheís still looking. But whatever it is, Iíll probably be discussing cheap homemade tweaks for a while.

   

Till next time, Auf Wiedersehen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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