The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc PhillipsOK, OK, I apologize for the title. But at least half of the e-mails I get about vinyl pretty much ask me this question. In fact, since I first visited the subject of the turntable-cartridge interface over three years ago (or, to be more emphatic, last century! I average at least one e-mail per day from people wanting to know what cartridge is best for their 'table, or if one cartridge is better than another, or where to find replacement stylii for their ancient analog rigs, or just simply where to buy cartridges at all. When I first started writing this column, I received an "attaboy" maybe once a week. After I capriciously offered my help to anyone confused by the prospect of choosing and even installing those little cubes on the end of their tonearms, the flood gates opened. I had to create a new screenname for my AOL account (email@example.com) just to separate it all from my personal stuff!
Part XXXVII: Dude, Where's My Cartridge?
The other day, after I recommended the Dynavector 10X4 mk.II and the Clearaudio Aurum Beta to about the five-thousandth Vinyl Anachronist, it occured to me that there was basically only so many answers to all of the cartridge questions. I also found that it was getting harder and harder to answer these questions thoughtfully because a) I haven't tried every turntable/cartridge combination in the world, b) if you try hard enough and know what you're doing, you can get most cartridges to work with most turntables, and c) it's all subjective anyway, and what juices my lizard sound-wise might not juice yours. I have owned cartridges from Stanton, Technics, Shure, Audio-Technica, Grado, Ortofon, Rega and Koetsu; I have tried cartridges from Clearaudio, Linn, Dynavector, and Benz-Micro in the comfort of my own home. I'm familar with Wilson-Benesch, Sumiko, Goldring, Shelter, and Audio Note in the hi-fi systems of friends and acquaintances. If you ask me however, which $99 cartridge is best for your vintage Dual 1229, then I'm going to give you a ballpark suggestion at best.
So I've decided to cut out the middleman. I'm going to try to tell you everything I know about recommending cartridges in a single shot. It's not that I don't want the daily e-mails, because frankly they often make my day. But if I have to tell one more person to buy the Dynavector or the Clearaudio, well, just buy them and live happily ever after, OK already?
The most common cartridge-related question I get asked is about cheap cartridges. And I mean cheap. Most people remember the good old days of vinyl when twenty bucks could buy you a decent entry-level cartridge from Shure, Pickering, Stanton, or even Grado. Well, to tell you the truth, you can still get a competent cartridge for not much more than that. The Shure M92E, Stanton 500E, and Grado Prestige Black can still be purchased for about $40, and the Sumiko Oyster for just a few more bucks than that. If you're looking for the analog bliss I keep talking about, you probably won't find it with these cartridges (although I get a quite a few e-mails from people who have very old or very cheap 'tables set up that they think sound much better than their CD players). But if you're trying give new life to that old 'table that's been collecting dust in your attic for the last fifteen years, then this is definitely the way to go. And the Grado Prestige Series in particular, which includes several models priced from $40 to $180, seems to offer excellent performance for the money. Just be warned, as I've mentioned before, that some Grado cartridges create hum with some turntables (especially ARs, but also some Music Halls and Regas).
Next, some people want to reach analog nirvana, but they want to do it as cheaply as possible. And while there are many good-sounding cartridges in the $100-$200 range (the Rega Super Bias, Ortofon X1-MC, Grado Prestige Gold, and the Denon DL-103 are standouts), for some reason, the $350 mark seems to be a magic price point for some really special cartridges. Both the Dynavector and Clearaudio cartridges I keep harping about cost around this much, as do the Grado Platinum, the Audio-Technica OC-9, and the Goldring 1042. Note that the OC-9 is a low-output moving coil, and will not work in every system. But I can't stress enough how good the first two are. Honestly, 99% of you will hear these in your systems and will never worry about buying another cartridge for the rest of your lives. I, unfortunately, fell into the 1% because I kept hearing more and more expensive cartridges and wound up with a $1500 one because I couldn't live without it. But if I had been hamstrung by budget concerns (I had a fat Christmas bonus check in my hand at the time), I would not have hesitated to buy either one of these incredible products. And they'll work in any system because of their high output, and they'll work fine in most 'tables, even the finicky Regas. I've heard a couple of $1000 catridges that didn't move me as much as the Dynavector 10X4 mk.II and the Clearaudio Aurum Beta. And for just another $100, you can own the Clearaudio Aurum Beta S, which has more closely-toleranced parts, and sounds even better!
So once again, if you e-mail me and tell me you want to spend no more than $200 or $250, please reconsider. It's only $100. Sure, most people would balk at spending $100 total on a "needle" for their "record player." But I recently read an excellent article from Stereophile writer and erstwhile Listener editor Art Dudley that lamented the fact that the average person is less inclined to spend $1000 on a home hi-fi now than they were a decade or two ago. Back in the '70's it was cool for a guy to spend a few thou on a bitchin' home stereo, but now it seems frivolous to a lot of consumers to do that, even though $1000 buys a pretty mediocre rack system from Circuit City these days (check out my article Everything Old Is New Again for the antidote). It's music, folks, and it makes your life better, and you shouldn't skimp. I am happy as hell to have a decent hi-fi in my house, and that my children have a decent working approximation of what musical instruments actually sound like.
Next, I do get people e-mailing me who get the whole analog thing, and are hopelessly hooked. They want it all, and are willing to pay for it. It almost kills me when I have a guy e-mailing me for advice, and he has a better turntable than I do. It actually happens once in a while, and I have to fight the urge to say, "Hey, maybe I should be asking you for advice!" And once you get past that magic $350 mark, it gets harder to make recommendations, because you're no longer dealing with outrageous-bargains-for-the-money. By the time you reach such cartridges as the $750 Dynavector 17D2 mk.II or the $800 Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood, you're dealing with someone's careful and educated ideas about cartridge design, and you stop talking about shortcomings and flaws. Once past $1000, it all becomes personal preferences, and I probably can't help you decide between an Ortofon Jubilee or a Transfiguration Spirit or a Lyra Helikon. At these price points, you really should be carefully auditioning these cartridges in your own home BEFORE buying. And if anyone ever e-mails me asking if I think the $10,600 Clearaudio Insider Wood is worth an extra $3K over the Koetsu Onyx Platinum because they can't decide, then they're just going to have to adopt me first.
I will give a nice little audio tip for those of you who appreciate the finer things in life, but you'll have to promise not to tell anyone. Shelter, a Japanese company which makes cartridges for other companies, which are then resold at an incredibly marked-up price, just started marketing two cartridges under their own name. The Shelter 501 (about $650) and the Shelter 701 (about $1350) are among the finest cartridges in the world, yet cost a fraction of what the big boys do. In fact, the 501 was sold a few years ago as the Crown Jewel by the distributor Sounds of Silence for $2650! The only problem is that getting one may be tricky, because up until recently they could only be bought on the grey market, directly from Shelter in Japan. I've heard that Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio (maker of some fine tube amplifiers) started officially distributing them in the US, at slightly increased prices, but the links are no longer on his website (at www.wavelengthaudio.com). Information is spotty right now, and you may have to beat your search engine like a dog in order to come up with the correct info. I've also heard that a company named Axiss Distributing may be handling the line right now, but the don't have a website, just an e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org). Of course, auditioning before you buy in a situation like this will be extremely difficult to arrange (my experience with the Shelter 701 comes from hearing one in a friend's system, but it did sound phenomenal). In addition, these are low-output moving coils, and unless you have a preamp or phono preamp that will accomodate such cartridges, never mind. But if you're the adventurous type, it may be worth the risk.
Speaking of phono preamps, I get a lot of e-mails asking if a certain cartridge will work with a certain amp or receiver. Once in a while I even get e-mails from people who have purchased new turntables and immediately complain that something is wrong, because it sounds horrible, all tinny and harsh with absolutely no bass. And in every case, they merely plugged the 'table into an auxiliary input in the back of their amps, instead of one marked "phono." One of the very unfortunate side effects of the Digital Age is the gradual elimination of phono sections from amplifiers. According to many amp manufacturers, everyone threw their turntables and LP's into their garbage compactors around 1990, so why charge for a feature no one will ever, ever use again?
You see, a phono input on an amp is different from the ones just marked "CD" or "Tuner" or "Huge, unneccessarily confusing multi-channel surround audio/video mystery box." Without getting too technical, the signal from a cartridge has to be equalized differently in order to sound right to compensate for the mechanical/electrical interface of the cartridge itself. This is called RIAA equalization. You need this equalization to play LP's. If you own an amp built before 1990 or so, you have nothing to worry about. But if you've bought something called a line-level preamplifier (which is short for 'nope, no turntables here!'), or if your mid-fi receiver does not have the word "PHONO" written somewhere on the faceplate, then you're SOL. You need to buy a separate phono preamp, which is usually just a simple box that links the "AUX" input to your turntable. And while cheap ones can be had, the decent ones cost at least $300, and the good ones about $700 and up (Boulder sells one for just $29,000).
And of course, this segues neatly into low-output v. high output cartridges. I've already covered this in Careful With That Cartridge, Eugene, so suffice it to say that this may be one more obstacle to owning the cartridge of your dreams. If you want a low-output, moving-coil cartridge (most of the world's finest cartridge are LOMCs), either your phono preamp has to have enough gumption to power them, or you have to buy a step-up transformer, or at least a new, more versatile phono section? Confusing? You betcha. Which leads to...
...having a reputable dealer help you with your turntable/cartridge/phono preamp decisions IN PERSON! (Another great segue!) I've had enough disappointed li'l anachronists e-mail me to tell me how poorly their turntables sound to know that buying these rigs by mail-order is not in your best interest. Find a local dealer if you can. I've received some flak from the techno-geeks saying that I should be teaching y'all how to install cartridges instead of recommending the dealer do the work. You know, the teach-a-man-to-fish argument. Well, forget that. Kick back and demand a little customer service, and let an expert do it (in most cases for absolutely free). Swapping cartridges, as I've said before, is a very precise and exact procedure, and analog bliss is at stake. If you miss perfect alignment by just a hair (literally!), it will affect the sound. If you know how to do it already, fine. If you want to learn, fine. If you just want to take it out of the box, plug it in, and listen to music, then let the dealer do the work. They're supposed to. In many cases they've been trained by the manufacturer to do so.
So then what's wrong with mail-order? Well, personally I feel a little paranoid about doing all these precise, minute adjustments, packing the whole thing carefully in a box, and then letting the U.S. Postal Service have it for the next few thousand miles. For example, I've been receiving quite a few complaints about the sound quality of Music Hall turntables lately which really bummed me out considering that I've picked at least one of their models "Turntable of the Year," and I picked owner Roy Hall as one of my "Heroes of the Analog Revolution." Turns out, every one of these sub-par players was bought via mail order. Also, I've heard stories that quality control slipped for a while at Music Hall because demand was too great, and they were really cranking them out (kinda reminds me of Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory). The point is, if you had dealt with a dealer in person, and you had auditioned the 'table in person before buying, and you had the dealer do all the work, you wouldn't be running back and forth to the UPS center every couple of weeks.
Finally, a lot of people e-mail me for replacement stylii for their ancient Pickerings, Shures, Stantons, and Audio-Technicas. First of all, this is tough, because many of these cartridges have been discontinued for decades, and the last replacement stylus left the shelf sometime in 1980. In addition, cartridges aren't like vintage amps and turntables, because they do deteriorate over time. The cartridge body cracks, or the suspension loses elasticity, things completely unrelated to the needle itself. So I often tell people to just buck up and buy a new cartridge altogether. If they're stubborn, however, or if I feel that this may be the difference between getting them back into vinyl or them deciding it's too much trouble, then I'll refer them to Needle Doctor (at www.needledoctor.com). These guys use to have some serious competition in the past, but lately they seem to be the only game in town when it comes to tracking down old stylii. And if you want any sort of confirmation that the Vinyl Renaissance is still in full swing, then check out their two-page ads which appear monthly in Stereophile. Frankly, these ads have become one of my favorite parts of the magazine! The latest ad features 66 separate cartridges not only listed, but pictured! And if you check out their website, that number increases almost exponentially (I'm not even going to talk about all the turntables, tonearms, phono preamps, record cleaning machines, and accessories). I recommend Needle Doctor about as often as I recommend the Dynavector 10X4 mk.II and the Clearaudio Aurum Beta.
Well, hopefully that will answer most of your cartridge questions. If not, don't hesitate e-mailing me about anything (except for if you think I'm full of crap). And remember that the turntable, the tonearm, and the cartridge are all very important, individually and in concert with each other. Take this stuff seriously, and show the powers that be that the CD didn't kill off your love for music like they thought it would!
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