Well, here it is, the height of summer here in the great Midwest. On this hot afternoon in St Louis, the thermometer is going to hit the century mark with no less than 70 percent humidity. Anyone venturing outside on a day like today is likely playing in the water. For the rest of us not wanting to melt from the sweltering summer heat, we are hiding in the comforts of our air conditioned homes. Me, I've sought the refuge of my man cave and decided to spend the day listening to vinyl and Len Gregory's Music Maker III cartridge.
The Cartridge Man (Len Gregory) should just about be a household name with vinylphiles by now. If not, he should be. Len has been making and rebuilding cartridges for almost 30 years now. Len started out his cartridge life repairing cartridges as a franchisee with the now deceased Garrott Brothers out of Australia. After the tragic passing of the brothers, Len continued on with cartridge repairs. Then in the mid-90's, Len found out that Grado was about to discontinue their old Signature line of cartridges. Len contacted John Grado and worked out the manufacturing rights to that particular design.
Over the years, Len has refined that cartridge design to the way it appears in today's form. Though the Music Maker III (henceforth the MM-III) resembles today's Grado Gold, they couldn't be more different. I liken the comparison to a top fuel funny car. The Grado Gold is a like a stock Ford Mustang with a six cylinder gas burner and an automatic transmission. The Music Maker is like John Force's supercharged, nitromethane-fueled Mustang that is pumping out 8000 BHP at 7000 foot pounds of torque and does the quarter mile in well under 5 seconds. The latter is a fire breathing, asphalt chewing, 2400 pound rocket that produces 6g's of force at take off. But they both look like Mustang's... and that is where the similarity ends.
A couple of interesting notes regarding the MM-III. First, Len makes his own stylus profile which he calls an Extended Line Contact. He claims it has the longest contact area of any stylus. As a result (at least in theory), this relieves the stylus from premature wear due to the lower pressure exerted on the contact surface. In turn this should make your piles of precious vinyl last even longer too. Also, with the longer stylus contact area, we should hear even more detail from this cartridge and get better tracking than the average cartridge too as it holds tighter to the groove walls. According to Len, he uses a proprietary damping scheme within the cartridge to further reduce unwanted resonant frequencies that go typically untreated in other cartridges. Finally, Len manufactures each cartridge by hand in his shop. He hand winds each coil, stuffs each body with dampening, inserts each cantilever and glues and aligns each stylus by hand. Before any cartridge leaves the shop, it is mounted and auditioned to insure its ultimate performance prior to the customer receiving it.
The MM-III is a medium to high compliance cartridge and should work well on any number of medium to high mass arms. As I had been warned prior to receiving this cartridge, getting the VTA set properly is critical to its performance. This is mainly due to the extended stylus profile. Fortunately, with Dynvector 507 MkII mounted to my Opera LP-5, VTA adjustments can (literally) be done while you've got vinyl spinning, providing you have a light touch (I'm a daring sod sometimes). In the MM-III's case, improper VTA really effects the frequency extremes. Too high of VTA and you loose bass, too low and the treble is rolled off. Once you get is properly set, everything comes clearly into tonal balance. I found that the MM-III tends to sound its best with a slightly ‘tail down' approach.
I guess I should first fill you in on my turntable setup. As I mentioned, my main reference table is the Opera LP-5. On it I use the Dynavector DV-507 MkII tonearm. My usual cartridges are either the low output Van den Hul modified Spectral MCR Signature or a Dynavector 20-XH high output MC. Both are marvelous carts with their own strengths and weaknesses. My phono stage is the wonderful Graham Slee Jazz Club. I also use Grahams Elevator step up head amp when I run low output MC's. Needless to say, my table and front end shouldn't have any issues discerning the slightest nuances of the Music Maker. Here is a link to see what my table is hooked to (click here).
Fortunately, cartridge swapping and setup on my table is very easy. The Dynavector 507 MkII has a removable head shell. I've got about five or six different cartridges (of varying qualities) that I listen to. I mounted the MM-III to a high quality head shell, set the stylus distance and alignment, dialed in the tracking weight with the Cartridge Man's Digital Stylus Force Gauge and finished the setup with Len's HiFi News and Record Review Test Record. Front to back, this took about 30 minutes. Not too bad time wise but this is where the Dynavector arm really shines, just make note of the ‘final' settings for a cart and you can pop the head shell out, insert a different one, go back you your recorded settings and you'll be up and running again with a different cartridge in less than three minutes (I timed it). This should make comparisons quite easy.
Now, if you look at the Cartridge Man's recommended tracking weight, he states that 1.58 grams is critical within 0.05 grams. Well, for many the 1.5 grams is easy but most don't have a digital tracking force gauge that reads (nor is accurate) out to a hundredth of a gram. I asked Len about this and he stated that the point naught eight is ‘theoretically' the absolute proper tracking weight for his cartridge. In real life, if you get 1.6 grams plus or (hopefully) minus a few hundredths, the world won't come to an end so don't sweat it too much.
Starting out with something light side, as I sit here and listen to Waltz for Debbie by the Bill Evans Trio, I can't help but notice how natural and effortless the sound is. The soundstage is wide open and expansive. The low level detail retrieval is excellent. As I listen intently to hear the ambiance and noisy audience from the Village Vanguard, I have no trouble hearing the conversations and clinking plates and glasses in the venue.
Next up were the Shangri-La release for Mark Knopfler and Ginger Bakers drum solo on the Cream Reunion release. The drums come across as being alive, present and full. These are some of the best kick drums I've heard from nearly any cartridge. The definition on heavy bass tracks is quite a treat. Even though I may have described the bass as ‘full', that term can often be a misnomer. In my descriptor, I mean it as being rich, full bodied yet very defined and harmonically balanced. In other words, it sounds (to my ears) closer to the way ‘real' drums sound when you hear it up close and personal.
Moving onto something a bit more raw sounding, I decided to give Neil Young's Greendale a listen. Starting with jed green, the MM-III showed just how great it treats rock and roll. On the bottom of the musical scales there is lots of grunt and impact to the bass. After listening to a couple of sides of Neil Young, I wanted to know just how the MM-III performed with even deeper bass. For this I grabbed a few different albums. First up was Depeche Mode's Violator. Even though this is one of those infamous UK recordings, the quality fairly decent. The MM-III really shows how well suited it is for heavy rock and techo music. The bass regions are full and cleanly reproduced. As I listen I never got the feeling that any of the details are being glossed over for the sake of bold bass reproduction. Though techno music isn't the ideal music to use, I'll know more when I play some more jazz and classical.
Moving on to Depeche Mode's Exciter and the first song on side one, Dream On, there are a couple of spots on this song where the synthed bass dips down into the 20's. On my 15" woofers, the bass stayed tight and firm as the MM-III reached into the depths of the bass nether regions.
Next up is a fresh copy of Massive Attack's triple album Collected, side B1 starts with Angel. If you are familiar with this release, it is some of the grungiest, droning bass you will come across. In turn, the MM-III did a fabulous job recreating it. Just in case you were wondering, this release absolutely sounds better on vinyl than the CD version. It's clean, clear and the bass is far more tuneful, then again maybe its the Music Maker that makes it sounds so much better.
Moving onto side C1, the first song up is "Inertia Creeps". This side brings even more deep grinding bass. The MM-III sails through all of it without breaking a sweat. On the second song, the title track from their second release Protection brings a lovely female voice provided by Tracy Thorn. One might expect that a cartridge that puts out great bass might cover up some of the glorious midrange of a female vocal but the MM-III doesn't. Tracy's voice comes through completely unencumbered.
As I move up the octave scales, I decided to go for something with some swing and we all know nobody does swing better than Count Basie. Chairman of the Board is one of my all time favorite Basie albums. When it comes to the MM-III's tracking ability, one song on this album will show a lesser cartridges inability to properly track. On side A "Her Royal Highness" just at the final bridge before the song ends, the trumpets bring the level up from the saxes, trombones and drums. So many cartridges make this transitional passage sound slow, confused and muddled. I think Giz used the term aural discombobulation, it probably fits better in this case. Here the MM-III cut through this without messing with the timing at all.
On the very next track, "Segue in C", this is a perfect test for soundstaging. Here we have trombonist Al Grey and trumpeter Thad Jones sounding as if they are playing four or feet outside and behind my speakers. The MM-III nailed it as well as any cart that I've had in my system. Next up is Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes and Dave Holland on the fantastic Pure Audiophile release Like Minds [PA-003]. Here we have a recording that if your system is up to the resolution, you can literally follow Gary up and down the scales of his vibes with near pinpoint accuracy. Several cartridges I've played with in the past have a difficult time in separating those minute position changes as he strikes the bars of his vibe. The MM-III does a fabulous job of separation and ultimately location the performers on our virtual soundstage.
On the upper end of the scale, the reproduction of Roy's cymbals is extremely good. There is no hint of harshness in the treble reproduction. The gentle taps on the ride cymbal come across as smooth, clear and articulate. The MM-III does a wonderful job of digging that last little bit of detail from your treasured vinyl collection. When it comes to dynamics, the MM-III does an extraordinary job as well. Granted, your phono stage has as much to do with this aspect as the cartridge but it the cartridge performs poorly, those micro and macro dynamics will be muted. Here, I used Like Minds again. If you've ever heard someone play the vibes up close and personal, you don't soon forget how the sound leaps out at you. From the leading edge of the struck bar to the gentle decay of each note, the music jumps from my speakers with this cartridge.
Now for the ultimate test. I grabbed my pristine copy of Yes' Relayer. "Gates of Delirium" is torturous to an average turntable and cartridge. The rhythm and pace of this song are brutal. With lesser cartridges and table turn this song into an incoherent mass of noise. On the opposite hand, a really good cartridge allows this nearly 22 minute composition to shine though in all its manic glory. As I listen intently as I enter Yes' interpretation of Delirium, trying not to be distracted by the music, I can clearly discern the densely orchestrated instruments, layer upon layer of instruments that so many other cartridges simply turn into rhythmic noise. Simply put, this is the best I've ever heard this album sound with any cartridge. The tonal balance from top to bottom is outstanding and the detail retrieval easily rivals (if not exceeds) that of my Van den Hul modified Spectral low output MC except, the Music Maker does real justice to the bass.
Calming things down a bit, I decided to see how the MM-III faired on massed strings. Mendelssohn's 3rd Symphony by the New Philharmonic under the conduction of Wolfgang Sawallish on the Philips label. The piece was bold and dynamic. As I listened, the massed string sections never came across as strident. Staying on the Philips label, I decided to spin up one of my favorites, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the opening moments, out of the left channel comes a contra-bassoon. As many times as I've heard this in digital format, you would thing I would have expected it, but this time it literally took me by surprise. It's deep, rich harmonic structure shown though on the MM-III as if the player was literally sitting right in front of me... quite remarkable. Even the lowest levels of details, from the plucked violin strings to uppermost harmonics of the triangles, were reproduced with the greatest of ease. The music simply flowed from my speakers, never sounding constrained much less forced.
Oh, before I forget, surface noise. This is absolutely critical to good cartridge design. When you get into the price range of this type of cartridge, you expect, no demand, quiet as it navigates itself through the grooves. Well I'm happy to report that the MM-III is extremely quiet. You might think that with the Extended Line Contact stylus that it might dig too deep, but it doesn't. Maybe I should restate that. The MM-III digs deep enough to capture all of the information within the groove but not so deep that it drags the bottom of the groove revealing dirt and noise... that was better.
Well, I think I've described the sound of the MM-III pretty well but those of you that yearn for even more info, let me give you some direct comparisons to a couple of carts I have in hand. The carts I'll be using are the Dynavector 20XH and a Van den Hul rebuilt Spectral MCR Signature. The latter being slightly obscure but rest assured, this cart holds true to all the virtues of a true high end, low output MC cartridge. The head amp chosen for the VDH is the Graham Slee Elevator.
Though I listened to many cuts, I chose just one album side for the bulk of my direct comparisons, Pat Metheny's Still Life Talking, side one. Pat Metheny being one of my favorite musicians, I am completely intimate with this album and in particular, this side. As a side note, I talked to Pat in an interview a couple of years ago. I asked Pat directly if he would consider putting out his new releases on vinyl. His response was this "No, I think the that the market for our particular thing would be in the lower three digits in terms of the amount of people that would buy them and that's just not enough to really justify it." Interesting. I guess that means we won't be seeing any new Metheny releases on vinyl anytime soon.
Anyway, as I played with the various cartridges I have at my disposal, I found the differences interesting. As it is in all of high end audio, there is no winner, just (sometimes slight) differences in presentation. Starting with the very nice sounding yet very affordable Dynavector 20XH, the first thing that I noticed was the MM-III's presentation of bass. The MM-III had more of it, though not necessarily firmer, it was definitely more pronounced and defined than the DV. With the extended line contact stylus profile I could easily hear more detail being retrieved from the grooves. With that detail came slightly cleaner highs. Additionally the soundstage opened up a bit wider and deeper with the images having a slightly tighter focus. The microdynamics were slightly better and there was a bit more leading edge to the notes.
As I moved up the line to the far more expensive Van den Hul, you can easily hear the lineage that this high output moving coil drew from. Though the bass of the VDH was slightly less pronounced, the definition remained. The MM-III had a very similar presentation of sound stage. Both the VDH and MM-III presented wide, deep and open stage but I found the MM-III to be a bit wider and deeper. I did find the midrange of the VDH a bit more emotional as well but again, the differences were relatively minor.
After listening to all three cartridges back to back to back, though the differences are quite plain, the distinctions between them are relatively minor (bass as an aside) in the grand scheme of our audio reality. All three performed more than admirably. It really boils down to how you want your music presented. Each of the carts had its own strengths and weakness. Though the DV20XH would seem to be at the lower end of the list, it is still a very good sounding cartridge that is ultimately affordable.
In The End
As I wrap this one up listening to Pure Audiophiles release of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers Keystone 3 on ultra cool red vinyl, I am reminded of how good this cartridge is. The Music Maker III is clean and extended on the top end. The midrange is harmonically rich yet very defined yet never coming across as dull or veiled. The bass digs extremely deep and is very tuneful. While the MM-III performs extremely well on Rock and Roll, it is just as at home with Jazz and Classical. She images like a champ giving extremely good definition to all of the performers and instruments on the virtual soundstage. Her sound is wonderfully open and spacious without being exaggerated. Best part is she has soul and is enormously involving to listen to. After all, isn't that what we are in this hobby for... emotional involvement?
The great part about this high output moving coil is that you get 90-95% of the low output moving coil concept wrapped up in a package that can be played on any moving magnet phono stage. No longer do you need head amps or step up transformers much less the (sometimes) nightmarish transformer matching to your uber-expensive low output MC. Let us not forget about the whole expense involved in a setup like that. That is not to say that low output MC's don't sound fabulous because some do but honestly when you get to that level of performance, the differences often boil down to how you would rather have your music presented rather than apparent detail retrieval. There we are, back to personal preference and system synergy again.
If ever you have the opportunity to talk to Len, you will find a guy that is wholly passionate about all things analog, not just vinyl. He takes his cartridge design quite seriously. His approach favors common sense rather than placating to those who only wish to acquire highly expensive audio jewelry. As a result, we have a very affordable cartridge that delivers true high fidelity sound by the truckload. In short, he's my kinda guy.
Overall, the Music Maker III is a damned fine sounding cartridge. I have no doubts that depending on your personal tastes in sound, you might find something slightly more refined or maybe a bit more laid back, but in this price range (and then some), the Music Maker III won't be bettered by many, .if any. If you have the opportunity, be sure to give the Cartridge Man's baby an audition. You won't be disappointed. It is quite the cartridge.
My RatingsPlease keep in mind this rating system is used to compare the Cartridge Mans Music Maker III against absolute perfection, or a money no object high output moving coil cartridge. If you see what you think may be a low(ish) score, it's because there are cartridges that are even more refined but consequently cost considerably more. To top that off, if I assign 5's across the board, I've just painted myself into a corner leaving no room for that ‘ultimate' cartridge. You won't see me handing out many 5's. In turn, I feel I need to leave room in the ratings system to accommodate those speakers.
Type: Moving Magnet (MM) cartridge
Output voltage: 4mV
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 50kHz
Stereo Separation: >25dB across 10Hz to 30kHz
Loading Requirement: 47K Ohm (standard moving magnet)
Cartridge Weight: 6.2g
Stylus Type: proprietary extended contact area diamond
Tracking Force: 1.58g +/- 0.05g (critical)
Arm Requirement: medium to low mass (13g or less)
Bias (Anti-Skate) Requirements: minimal
The Cartridge Man
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