Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Tag: Phono Cartridges
Most ideas in audiophile listening do not come over night but rather mature over time, during endless hours of listening. Usually, one thought or experience sparks another, creating a slow but continuous process of evolution. Since most steps are trial and error, victory is never certain, and just when we feel that it all sounds perfect, there is that little nagging voice that claims that we have heard nothing yet. And it is a race against time, of course. With growing experience comes growing age. The race is to hear it all before it all grows numb.
Our first record player after many years of CDs and mp3s was our grandfather’s Philips 212. We found it in the basement with a protective dust cover on top and with the original cartridge stuck in a faulty bracket meant for another record player. It seems the Philips had broken down many years earlier, and attempts of restoring it had failed. By the time we finally salvaged it in 2018, its rubber drive belt had already turned back into thick oil and was sticking dead and gooey to the floor. We ended up buying a second broken Philips 212 to restore our find.
The Philips’s original ‘GP400’ cartridge was not a great one to begin with. Given its own mechanical flaws, paired with the inherent shortcomings of the player, as well as nearly 50 years of material decay, our original impression was not exactly one of audiophile bliss. However, our inquisitive nature could not leave it at that. We first tried to improve the performance by replacing the stylus. But this had little effect, perhaps because NOS (new old stock) actually means that the replacement is also, well, old. It was not until we exchanged the GP400 with a modern Audio Technica VM95E cartridge that the Philips 212 finally came alive. Sonically, it was as if a heavy veil had been lifted. From this, record newbie as I was, I learnt that a decent cartridge will have a huge effect on performance.
Our second record player was a Lenco L75 which was built at around the same time as the Philips. On this, the original cartridge had long since been replaced by a Grado ‘Prestige Blue 2’ cartridge. Grado has a good name for cartridge quality, and the ‘Prestige Blue 2’ has very good specifications. As I later saw, indeed, much higher than the Audio Technica. Yet, somehow, I still preferred the sound of the Philips + Audio Technica to that of the Lenco L75 + Grado, a phenomenon that struck me as odd, as audiophile listeners will usually flock to the latter and disregard the first. I had no answer for this at the time.
Only recently, when moving from our Tannoy DC6T speakers up the model range to the more bass-heavy Tannoy XT8 speakers, I began to understand what it was that had troubled me: the ‘Prestige Blue 2’ on the Lenco was so silent and well-behaved that it somehow sounded dead and uninspiring to my ears. I guess it took the improved dynamics of the larger Tannoy speakers to point this out to me. So I called a friend to lend me a few Lenco-ready cartridges to try out. — Yes, some people have that sort of gear lying around the house, just in case an neighbour drops bye and needs one. LOL. — I consider myself very lucky to have made friends such as these, of course. What a luxury, to be able to try different gear before making a purchase. Thank you to Luigi and Derya for supporting me whenever I’m an audiophile in need.
The cartridges I was handed to try out where: A Satin ‘117 G’ (the white Version with the grey needle holder) and a Shure ‘M75-6S’, all pre-mounted in original Lenco head shells which I just had to fasten to the tonearm. This made changing between the cartridges quick and effortless, a plus when the aim is to compare their sound. As I have always been a fan of laid back and full sounding American gear, I began my journey with the Shure, and I immediately noticed that the M75 plays loud. At 6.2 mV, the Shure has the highest output of the three. I could feel lots of bass punch, perhaps at the expense of control over the lower frequencies. What did I care? While the audiophile in me was a bit confused, my more uncultured side loved the sheer force that was apparent from the moment of putting the needle down. The Shure made my records seem loud and showed audible noise even during silent passages, like someone accidentally brushing over a body microphone during a telco.
The music came across as voluptuous, musical, and warm. It seemed as if the Shure ‘M75-6S’ was eager to tell the whole story of the record and was having trouble taking its time. I found this aspect to be highly entertaining. While I did have to perform some basic realignments of the cartridge and even asked a Luigi to help me with the cleaning of the needle (with FLUX fluid and a special cleaning machine), it turned out that finding the right cartridge position was relatively simple. Either this, or I had been lucky. All in all, the Shure ‘M75-6S’ is an enjoyable and playful musician with lots of bass slam and musical detail at the ready. If your system-speakers-room combination is bass heavy and imprecise to begin with, stay away from the entry level vintage Shure. But if your system is rather academic or even sterile sounding, the Shure’s do-or-die approach just might add the extra excitement you need. If it were mine, I would keep it for Shure.
The second option presented to me was the Satin ‘117 G’, a former entry-level High End gem. A first listen showed great potential in the presentation of voices and the placement of instruments. However, it also revealed some inherent flaws that proved the cartridge to be beyond repair (for me, anyway). Somehow, due to age and decay, the magnetic needle holder had lost its firm grip on the needle, and the needle itself showed signs of corrosion. The combination of which lead to sibilant highs and a more general inaccuracy in the music. In my attempt to rescue the Satin cartridge, I ordered a replacement needle, but this showed similar corrosion. Even the foam around the NOS packing disintegrating upon touch, much as a vampire would when facing sunlight. Sad to have lost all hope of salvaging the cartridge, I sent the replacement needle back to the vendor and put the Satin base back in the box.
Since at this point I had not yet had the chance to experience a range of cartridges in the way I had originally intended and was feeling guilty for returning the Satin needle to the vendor in broken packaging, I decided to order a more elaborate version of the Audio Technica VM95 cartridge from the same vendor instead. This time, not in the version E for Elliptical, as we had for the Philips player, but in the more refined ML version. ML stands for Micro Linear. Two aspects should make the ML stylus superior to the simple ellipses: The nude joining of the needle directly into a hole in the shaft (instead of being soldered on as on the E), and, secondly, the more refined shape and micro-linear cutting of the needle shaft itself. The ML has been designed to pull all available information from the record and has a threefold life expectancy to the elliptical version of up to 1000 listening hours. This did sound promising, indeed. While the VM95 ML is new and will not show signs of ageing, I am aware that the VM95 is an entry level cartridge, and that its specs are not as impressive as those of the Grado, regardless of the needle quality. On the down-side are its poor channel separation of just 23 dB (Grado, 30 dB), as well as limited power generation of just 3.5mV (Shure, 6.2 mV) at peak.
From experience I know that positive technical specifications do not always translate into great musical experience. One would think that the Grado’s top frequency of 50 kHz would produce far superior sound to the Shure’s maximum of just 20 kHz, or that the Grado’s superior channel separation translates into better imaging. Yet, while our eyes are glued to the specs, our ears may come to opposite conclusions and even prefer the lower-rated device.
It was therefore not surprising that our first listening impression of the Audio Technica VM95 ML cartridge was very positive, indeed. While it had the urgency of the Shure and could indeed become loud in dynamic passages, it was very much capable of delivering nuance as well. The audio band seemed to extend further, much like that of the Grado’s, but it did so without seeming hyper-controlled or sterile. The music was full of detail and colorful. The VM95 ML offers more bass contour, showing subtle differences in the playing of bass notes. While the Shure smothered over some musical delicacy with omnipresent bass, the VM95 ML was able to present full and controlled bass, and it was painting beautiful colors at the same time. The information on the record seems to be accurately and sensibly reproduced. From my previous experience with the Audio Technica V95 cartridge on the Philips, I knew that the engine can sound a little crude at times. Perhaps this is due to a design decision and a matter of taste rather than a flaw. Both the Grado and the Shure sounded more relaxed and vinyl-like, while losing some of the joy and musical clarity on the way. I will need to give it some time for me to fully comprehend what the Audio Technica is capable of. But I can already say that even Diana Krall’s “Glad Rag Doll”, perhaps her most difficult album to play well, sounds excellent with it. This settles my decision for now.
The cartridges discussed here are:
Grado Prestige Blue 2
Sound: Ultra silent on the record, precise, academic, warm, controlled bass
4614 7th Avenue
Sound: Noisy on the record, voluptuous, musical, warm, full and sloppy bass
Shure Brothers lncorporated
1501 West Shure Drive
Satin M 117 G
Shure Brothers lncorporated
1501 West Shure Drive