Air Tight ATE2 – a full tubed full function preamplifier

The company:

With the Japanese company Air Tight there is a lot to discover which is completely absent in todays High End scene. Product running times of more than thirty years without any MK II or upgraded version of a given amplifier is something we wont find at any other company today. If a piece of gear is developed, than it IS developed, there is no reason for any change, which says something about the quality of the development. Miura San is one of the last living legends in the audio scene, meanwhile in his mid eighties, he has a lifetime of experience in building tubed audio equipment, a sort of deep understanding seldom found in todays fast changing market were every year new completely unknown people want to tell us, they found a new technology in amplifying an audio signal. With some new technologies, like digital amplifiers, that might be true, but with tube technology???

Miura has a sort of calm style in managing his company and developing audio gear. Things need time, countless listening tests, which was very clearly seen with his Opus 1 cartridge, which Air Tight brought out two  years ago as a cooperation project between Matsudaira San (My Sonic Lab) and Miura San of Air Tight (A&M ltd.) to celebrate the 30. birthday of the company. Miura needed more than 3 years from the first prototype, shown to the press and some “insiders” for listening tests, till the final product entered the market. And between the first prototype and the final candidate, there was much more different, than just the styling of its beautiful appearance. Instead of that Miura changed a lot of details which had a tremendous impact on the sound of the final product. It is astonishing how a man in his mid eighties could achieve such a good hearing as also spending so much attention to the finest details. The fruit of his restless work was once again, as we witnessed it more than 10 years ago with the legendary PC1 Supreme cartridge, a place at the very top of todays cartridge designs. The portfolio of the small company near Osaka, which counts around 6 employees, is dedicated to the analogue music lover. There are no CD players or DA converters in existence, instead of those kind of products, Miura offers a wide range of tube pre, phono and power amplifiers, which use nearly every single famous power tube concept in existence, as the 300B, 211, EL 34, EL84, 6L6 GC and the KT88. The output power varies between 2X 8 Watts of the ATM300 to 2X 110 Watts of the ATM3 EL 34 monoblocks and is finely graduated. Not only this wide variation of power tube concepts reminds me of one of the other legends in the Japanese art of building tube equipment – …Shindo.

An indication of both companies is the fact, that the price of an amplifier has no direct influence on his sound. The smallest amp Air Tight has in their portfolio, the ATM1s is one of the finest EL 34 amplifiers I know.

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The difference in money you have to spent for the power amplifiers has more to do with the size of transformers (and their price tag) and power supplies, because a KT88 in ultra linear operation with its 2X 75 Watts needs more expensive iron, than an EL 34 amplifier, the exception of this rule concerns all single ended amplifiers. What I want to say is – in the Air Tight amplifier lineup there is no such thing as entry level and reference level in their ability to give you a maximum in soundquality! That said, things change quite a bit with the portfolio of preamplifiers – here we face a difference in fittings, be it the existence or absence of a phono sections, or the kind of outlay in which the gear is made. And even if there is a sort of range describing the quality of the different preamplifiers, there might be also some exceptions from that rule. If the little full function preamp ATC1 is mated with the previously mentioned ATM1s, (a pairing which was made for each other and was also developed together), you are in for a treat!!

The lineup includes pure line stages and full function preamplifiers with on board phono sections, as also stand alone phono preamps. The more basic (which does not mean simple or bad sounding) gear share a transistor, diode rectified power supply, as we climb up the range, we get tube rectifiers and full tube stabilisation with some of the most elaborated hybrid power supplies you will find on the market,

The Air Tight ATE2:

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Miura had the Chuzpe as an analogue lover to bring a full function preamplifier to the market, which has a full blown phono section with all bells and whistles – but he equipped the ATE2 just with one single line input. So the ATE2 is not for those audiophiles, who have a tremendous number of gear….just ONE nice FM tuner or CD player, maybe a DAC with switchable inputs (which gains the flexibility if you have more than one digital source) and you are done with the number of line inputs. On the other hand, you will find two MM inputs, switchable from the front plate, and a pair of phono direct outputs, bypassing the whole line stage with all switches, volume control and of course the tubed line gain stage.

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This additional pair of output jacks are very special and offer us different operation modes. You can plug the phono direct outputs into your favourite line stage, as you can feed the Air Tight amplifiers directly, because they all (not the ATM300) have two  switchable pairs of inputs and sensitivity potentiometers, to adjust the volume or gain. The latter will be the most pure signal flow you can achieve. With its 200 Ohm output impedance the ATE2 has no problems to drive nearly every power amplifier on the market directly. If you have a second amplifier setup in your room, those extra pair of direct phono outputs can also be used to feed a different system, while the whole full function preamplifier resides in his setup, it can distribute the phono signal fully processed (RIAA eq and gain) to another device.

The power supply:

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Miura San opted for tube rectifiers and tube stabilisatation in the power supply of the ATE2. Together with the in house produced power tranny with its 8 different outlets, we will find a single 6X4 full wave rectifier tube. Stabilistation is done with a 12BH7 double triode and a EF 86 penthode. The regulation is accomplished fully discrete using the finest components available. Miura replaces electrolytic capacities as fast as possible in favour to high voltage foil caps in the signal chain and supply voltages.  Therefor he uses the excellent  Audience (Auri Caps). Electrolytics will be found just  in the first stage of the power supply and in some regulation circuits, together with ASC paper in oil caps a reminiscence to the golden time of tube technology.

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After careful listening sessions, I opted for a GEC CV 4005 black plates in the rectifier stage, which is a British military version of the 6X4 or EZ90 (the European designation for the same tube). The two stabilisation tubes EF 86 and 12BH7 were selected with RCA 12BH7 black Plates foil d getter from the end of the fifties (last century;-)) and the legendary Telefunken EF 806S, which got this status from its use in the well known Neumann U67 microphone.

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The phonosection:

A novelty in the Air Tight portfolio is the fact, that Miura uses in each of his phono section exactly the same design – what differs is just the expenditure in its layout. The basic design features a 2 stage gain section made with 3X 12AX7 (or ECC83) double triodes. The first gain stage is made with one single 12AX7 which does just gain at this point – subsequently we will find the bass emphasis part of the RIAA curve in the signal flow,

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which is located between the first and the second gain stage to avoid noise. The second gain stage uses just one respective section of the two remaining 12AX7 double triodes, after which the signal passes the treble processing of the RIAA curve.The complete equaliser section is made by using a CR circuit, one of the simplest ways to achieve a highly accurate equalisation with a minimum of fuss and parts.

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To get a preferably low output impedance Miura designed a SRPP circuit in the decoupling stage of the ATE2 using the two remaining section of the 12AX7 (ECC83). So all in all we have 3 12AX7 (ECC83) in the phono section of all Air Tight preamplifiers with exactly the previously explained implementation. What differs is the kind of execution, the quality of the parts and the power supply. The whole amplifier is point to point wired, which also applies also to the phono section. The whole circuit is placed on a smooth copper plate, which is treated with Zappon lacquer to avoid oxidation. This copper plate has two functions, on the one hand it shields the small signals from electromagnetic pollution, on the other hand it acts as a mechanical isolation device.

The line stage:

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In the line stage of the ATE2 Miura choose ECC88 frame grid tubes . Those are naturally superior to any 12AX7 (ECC83) or 12AU7 (ECC82). With the frame grid technology the Philips group found at the pinnacle of the tube age one of the most dramatic progression in the sound quality of electron tubes. If you have the chance to peek into such a construction, you will understand that this technology signified a whole new chapter in tube design – those tubes are made like a piece of mechanical and electro mechanical art! The ATE2 uses a two stage design in their line section implemented with two ECC88 and decouples the signal with a SRPP design we already discussed with the phono section to achieve also 200 Ohm output impedance.

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The volume tracking is accomplished with one of the best possibilities next to a ladder switch, by using the very famous ALPS Japan RK 501 pot….A haptic enjoyment! This thing is extremely transparent and does not ad any coloration to the sound, as it gives you a very precise tool to adjust volume, even in very, very small increments. The stunningly even channel balance of this pot is amazing – even if it does not work in its optimal range – amazing!

Controls:

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Next to the ALPS RK 501 volume potentiometer, we will find a stereo/mono switch on the front plate of the ATE2, as also balance control and two switches for the different sources. The latter is made in a special way – you have a switch which selects line or phono, and an additional one for selecting one of the two phono MM inputs. All switches are easy maintainable if one day they need some cleaning. Both switches  do react without any noise! Last but not least we will find the power button on the right side of the front plate, which is typical for any Air Tight gear. Miura designs every piece of gear with a certain legality, the power supply sections are always at the right side of the gear as it is the power inlet.

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It is very easy to built up an Air Tight system without getting a big mess behind the gear with signal and power cables twisted together – very, well done Mr Miura! The principle of design means also, that we have to place the gear in a certain way – our goal is to get the largest distance between the power supply of our amplifier and the input section of the phono stage – and as the gear is made as it is – it is an easy task.

Tube rolling:

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As I use my beloved Quad ESL 57 with the ATE2 it is not recommended to mess up the incredible resolution and pureness of this preamp. So I opted against some very exciting Mullard long plates (MC1 long plates square getter) – because those type of tubes work perfectly with a speaker like the LS3/5a – but not with the restricted amount of highest treble energy the Quad has to offer. The KEF T50 tweeter in the LS3/5a together with the deviding network means a slight treble rise with a tremendous resolution – the T50 is able to react on frequencies over 40Khz with ease. The Quad is a different breed – the treble starts to roll off at 15Khz – and is nearly absent at 18Khz – a Mullard – as beautiful it might sound, is the last thing we need with this speaker system. One might think an Amperex would be a good choice – and yes, I tried this…. I use Amperex long plates 12Au7 and 12AX7 Foil D Getter in another preamplifier in my Quad room – but in this case, i could detect a pronounced emphasis in the prenence, which is typical for the Amperex long plates and one of the reasons for their amazing 3D abilities…. But with this specific preamplifier it was too much of a good thing…

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With the decision of proper NOS phono tubes, we also decide what kind of performance we will get regarding the noise coming from the record – all this little nasties like clicks and pops could be amplified in a way, that we will get crazy or we have a lucky smile on our face. There are NOS tubes in existence, which set these noisy signals far away from the music – they perform in such a quick way, that a click is just a short signal, with a Mullard (MC1) in a phono stage, such a click will be a real event, something I cannot live with;-))))

That does not mean, this legendary Mullard is a bad tube – far from it – but in a phono stage ist is everything else than a perfect solution!

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As you might guess – I opted for a triplet of equally numbered Telefunken ECC83 smooth plates. A tube which is sooo quiet, one of the most silent ECC83 I know. And the Telefunken can transfer those clicks and pops in something you are able to ignore – a miracle! The ECC83 Telefunken has such a balanced sound, which lets the ESL 57 shine. The bass is tight and well rendered, the mids are outstanding – maybe the reference point in this tube class (read my essay about the Telefunken ECC83 on this blog) – and last but not least we get a high unforced treble resolution, something the Quad needs so urgently! At the whole frequency spectrum the Telefunken is almost neutral – especially in the midband, which is is a MUST, if you listen to a pair of Quad ESL 57 – this little divas are able to show you the slightest amount of coloration.

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With the line tubes it was not such a clear decision, and even today, I can live with more than the single solution I finally choosed. I had some of the finest ECC88 to play with, and every single one of them has such a tremendous sound quality with some special colours, the others miss. My stash included Siemens Halske CCA, Telefunken E88CC, Amperex Bugle Boy 6922 Gold Pins and Valvo Red Label E88CC. The Siemens had the finest resolution and the tightest bass – the air this tube can deliver is outstanding, the whole amplifier starts to breathe – amazing! – But the Siemens has a slight defensive midband section, a little bit of the classic HiFi coloration. That is easy, if you listen to Jazz or Vocals as also Pop music – but if you choose one day a very good classic recording – you will detect what I mean. It is still acceptable if you listen to small orchestra music – but if you choose romantic music, like Mahler or Bruckner – it does not work…..massed strings get a synthetic touch, the overtone spectrum sounds not natural anymore….

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The Amperex has an amazing 3D rendering – it is one of the rare tubes which can tell you something about the third dimension in a given recording – you will get a real nice picture! BUT – the Amperex is also coloured –  here it is the presence area of the spectrum. This makes vocals super sexy – female singers are a sort of an erotic experience – but than you listen to some distorted guitars – and it is all over….;-)))) – The presence emphasis transfers a Metallica record to more or less something we would call noise…..yes I hear you – you think IT IS NOISE – but It is not….The guitar sound produced on this specific album is like jumping in a warm swimming pool…. It is arranged in a style comparable with a church organ – listen carefully, and you might detect this album is far from being just noise – even it is Heavy Metal!!!!!!

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The Valvo Red was amazing – as was the Telefunken E88CC – both are maybe my favourite E88CC in THIS PARTICULAR preamplifier..both share a neutral midband, both have a natural unforced resolution, the Valvo Red being a little bit recessed in rendering the highest frequencies – but not in a way, that I missed something. The Telefunken was more open, and acted quicker at the leading edge. In opposite the Valvo had a slightly more impressive bass…..if I am bored – I can change those two E88CC tubes back and forth – one month is Valvo month – followed by a Telefunken month….I started with the Telefunken E88CC!

The enclosure:

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Miura San built his gear like it was made in the golden age of tube amplifiers. There is no cheap aluminium box screwed together, instead he uses a steel enclosure of 1.3 – 1,6mm thickness welded together! After that procedere the chassis gets some solid layers of automobile paint in a baked finish. The reason for such a tremendous outlay is on one hand the perfect shielding such a faraday cage is able to accomplish, on the other hand we will detect that steel is a fantastic resonance absorber. The aluminium frontplate is just screwed on top of the steel enclosure to get a nice an stylish appearance.

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The bottom of the ATE2 is made of copper – that means that gear which stands underneath the ATE2 cannot radiate electromagnetic pollution into the fragile circuits. The whole preamp enclosure is divided into 3 main sections. One section is reserved for the power supply and separates the top deck of the ATE2 in two section using a massive copper plate.  If we turn the ATE2 over, we will find the bottom main deck, in which the complete line section is located.

The Sound:

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I own from Air Tight also the ATE 2005 stand alone phono stage, which uses the same circuit and layout as the ATE2 in its phono section. They both just differ in their power supply (and a very special MC head amp the ATE2005 features). Were the ATE 2005 uses a transistor power supply and diode rectification, as also full discrete transistor regulation, the ATE2 uses a full tubed power department.

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Both differ also in their gain layout, a consequence of the built in MC head amp in the ATE 2005…(another story…)

The ATE2 features 36db of MM phono gain, the ATE 2005 just 30db. For any comparison I had to adjust the volume accordingly – which I did. The impact of tubes in a well built power supply is clearly detectable – the ATE 2005 has a drier bass response, very tight and limitless, while the ATE2 brings a certain agility on the table with an aesthetic which is completely different from the ATE 2005. On Dancefloor, Electronic and some Pop music pieces I like this tight, deep and impactful behaviour  of the ATE 2005 very much. If we change the music style to Classic or Jazz, the ATE2 sounds more real, the bass ist more articulate, even if it is not as tight. The music beginnst to breathe, there is a sort of beauty in the bass rendering, which the transistor power supply equipped ATE 2005 cannot counter. On the other hand the ATE 2005 has a sort of openess, which the ATE2 can not muster. The Air and resolution is astonishing – while the ATE2 reacts in a smoother warmer style! Both are some of the finest tubed phono stages in existence today – and both are everything else than equal!

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The ATE2 os able to render a jet black background, the micro dynamic abilities are stunning, even the slightest shades of dynamic contrast is presented in all its glory, which is also a form of resolution, nobody speaks about today….but it is a very important type of resolution. Treble and Air resolution, which we get in spades since a couple of yers even if the whole picture drifts into analytic insignificance is one part of the story –  but what makes you sit and listen while forgetting to breathe are the finest differences in dynamic shades…I could (and do) waive the last ounce of treble and air resolution with my choice of speaker (the ESL57) but I cannot live without the finest dynamic shades – which brings – in my opinion – music to life. The ATE2 shows this ability with tremendous realism, and the ESL can transduce the whole picture in all its complexity in a very accurate way.

This preamplifier reacts very, very fast to the leading edge of a sound or instrument, and all the Quad lovers will agree, this is one of the skills were our beloved “vintage” speaker shows to most of all modern designs what attack speed is all about. You can witness the birth of a tone – what could be more beautiful….???

It is stunning what Peter Walker designed sixty years ago, which we can enjoy in all its beauty and perfection with todays elaborated moving coil transducers and high resolution (in a good way) electronics.  It reminds me of an old Leica screw mount camera with its famous Elmar 1:3.5 mated with a modern black and white film….The picture (sound picture) is in both examples a long forgotten type of aesthetics, which touches our heart. It is not a photoshopped high resolution digital picture with all its arbitrariness!!

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The ATE2 could be your last preamplifier, if you can live with just one line input, it is THAT GOOD. There might be more resolution, more bass, more treble or more macro dynamic today in the most modern and elaborated designs – but the wholeness, the natural kind of rendering this thing is capable off, differentiate real music played by real human beings from a sort of an effect dilution.

Its comparable to movie films – one needs hundreds of Avid and computer –  rendering effects to get the plot through – the other movie has just a perfect and tasteful camera mated with a fantastic script. If you have really something to say  – you just need a quiet audience…..

Think about that….

Stay tuned

 

E. Strauss

 

Lyra Etna – a pristine beauty

The construction:

If we compare the Lyra Etna SL with its more expensive stablemate, the Atlas SL, we will discover that both cartridges share the same basic technical ingredients. Both feature the same line contact stylus cut, the same diamond coated cantilever as also the same coil technology and stylus material. They even have the exact same technical data except the weight of the whole cartridge. While the Atlas is made from one solid billet of Titanium, the Etna uses just a core structure made from this very rigid material. The side elements are made of special grade aircraft aluminium press fitted with the inner Titanium core structure additionally damped with some bronze inlets, a technology that Lyra started to use in a slightly different way with the Kleos cartridge.

The Sound:

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It is somewhat a once in a lifetime experience to get the chance of comparing the sound difference between two cartridges which differs just in one single construction parameter – the body structure. This is a mindblowing experience, because it is hard to believe that just a body structure could make such a tremendous difference in the sound aesthetic which we will detect comparing the Atlas SL with the Etna SL. While the Atlas stretches the frequency extremes like no other cartridge I know, the Etna features one of the most natural mid band spectrums I am aware off. Do not think the Etna SL is rolled off at the top or has any weakness in showing anything less than the deepest octave of recorded music – far from that. But the Etna SL has such a pure and natural midband performance, that you are more aware of what happens in this frequency section, than listening to the explosive bass or treble performance the Atlas is capable off. The Etna breathes the tone, the Atlas trows it at you – both is an amazing experience. If I listen to Pop music, Electro, even Jazz, the Atlas sucks you into the performance with his sheer heft and tremendous speed and agility. The Etna SL in comparison has more flow, more natural Gestalt and an amazing integrity of the whole frequency spectrum. The dynamic abilities are also outstanding, but the sound does not so much explode in front of you, instead it unfolds a never ending colour scheme of tones and moods. There is a wide and deep stage, a tremendous realistic rendering of the recorded space – and on top of that you get a string tone to die for. The vocal performance is more integrated, than with the Atlas – there is more a human being in front of you – what you loose is the last drop of resolution and a very, very tiny bit of air around the singer. What you get instead is the body of the artist – you get a different kind of resolution – a resolution, were tiny shades of different moods, while the recording session took place, vary the vocals. Every tiny bit of feeling  – or – the soul of the music!

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Lyra does not offer a small Atlas with the introduction of the Etna – Lyra gave us audiophiles a different view of the same picture. You can choose if you want to have the thrilling experience of the Atlas or the richness in midband colours of the Etna. It is unbelievable that just the different body structure could alter the sound of an otherwise identical cartridge. Jonathan Carr showed us, that body material and the structure can “voice” a cart in very different way. I think the monoblock Titanium structure of the Atlas allowed the cartridge motor to get the highest attack precision without any kind of smoothing out those first few milliseconds, while the Aluminium / Titan structure of the Etna emphases the resolution in the mid band – and rounds even so slightly the the leading edge.

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Mating the Etna SL with a phono stage – tubed or transistor, as well as finding the right step up transformer might be challenging. If a cart has such a fantastic mid band purity, the last thing we would want is any colouration in this very important range. I opted for a tubed phono stage, and with this decision, you start to think about the right tubes to choose in this regard. Mullard and Amperex are well known for their low midband emphasis (Mullard MC1 Long Plates) and a certain offensive character in the presence department of the sound  spectrum(Amperex Foil D Getter Long Plates). To find really uncoloured tubes of the ECC family lets you think about Telefunken and very old Valvo ECC83 (M1 or MC2). Both tubes can give you an uncoloured midband performance while also having a tight grip on the bass and a sweet unforced treble aesthetic. With a tubes phono stage there is in most cases the need for a step up transformer – the Etna SL has a very low inner resistance and give us just 0,25mV, which calls for a 1:20 or 1:30 step up device depending on the gain of your phono mm section.

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That brings me to one still relatively unknown transformer made here in Berlin by Michael Ulbrich and his company Consolidated Audio. At the beginning of 2019 I got my copper wound nano 1:20 transformer – and the pairing with the Lyra Etna SL is nothing short of spectacular. Michael succeeded in designing a SUT which is very, very transparent to the source. All starts with a speed this device is capable off, so that you get the last ounce of the leading edge – and – very important, the clicks and crackles are just very, very short signals – there is no tendency to lengthen those on the time axis. A short click is, what it is – there is no rounding, no smoothing and no side effects. This ultra fast reaction lets us “hear trough” all the clicks an crackles on our beloved vinyl. As I also work on vinyl restoration, I did some tests and comparisons regarding this aspect with other well regarded step up devices. If you transcribe the vinyl record to a digital workstation, you can measure the attack performance versus the timeline. What I found out is, that most of the SUT I had in for comparison do a more or less rounding on the leading edge of a click or the signal. With the Consolidated Audio SUT all those little nasties are clearly differentiable from the music – they get out of our musical awareness – awesome!

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The “Monster Can” is shielded very well against electromagnetic interference – you can place it wherever you want – even near a power transformer there is no hum. All the typical High End rituals, like dressing the cables, finding the right position in your rack (most often the hum is gone if you hold the SUT in your hand, were no rack shelf is in existence;-)) are forgotten…Just find a place were you have enough height in your audio furniture, because the thing is big – really big!

With the “Monster Can” Michael Ulbrich also gave us the possibility to terminate our cartridge with resistor plugs. Between the input and output section you will find one extra RCA terminal per channel to plug in those resistor equipped RCA connectors. The built quality is outstanding – and the attention to detail second to none. The “Monser Can” comes with very smooth rubber feet – so any isolation platform is obsolete – and those feet hold the heavy thing securely in its place. All terminals are of the finest quality as is the built finish of the whole enclosure.

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Sound-wise this thing is close to a wire with gain – do not expect an overly warm and coloured SUT sound – the Consolidated Audio device is very, very transparent – maybe the most spectacular aspect is the pureness of the mid frequencies as well as the unlimited bass fundament which it is able to produce. There is a complete absence of any harshness or artefacts – just music. Well done Micha Ulbrich, WELL DONE!!

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If you pair the “Monster Can” with a low capacitance cable between the SUT and the input of your phono MM section, you are in for a treat. The Lyra Phonopipe does an impressive job in this regard, and the Etna SL begins to breathe. The string tone is spookily realistic, creating a 3D impression of the musical performance. Listen to a well recorded piano and you might think the damn thing is standing in your room – amazing!  If someone would have told us 15 years ago, that such mega performing carts, step up devices and tonearms would be available…..

It is very interesting what a huge step some of the cartridge manufacturers are meanwhile able to muster. The biggest downside is a very steep price tag such beauties have in our days – the race towards the € 20.000 is on – and we will see if this limit will be reached this or the next year. That is one of the biggest problems in the serious music reproduction industry – because young people, listening to music via their mobile phone and a docking station will be shocked if they enter a HiFi shop today and become aware of the sometimes completely over the top price tags. Lyra created one big exception from this course – they brought the Delos onto the market, the fist cart in the line up with the new specific damper technology. The Delos is also not cheap, but what J. Carr developed for €1300 is amazing! – In other words – it needs a very, very fine record player and tonearm to unleash what the Delos has to offer. And the price tag – a hint for all the crazy “what´s best” guys….the price tag says nothing about the quality of this awesome cart. If J. Carr would double the price – it would still punch above his weight.

Happy listening

 

E Strauss

 

 

Lyra Atlas SL – the Shaolin fighter

If there is anything I would call the best phonographic cartridge…..

it would be the Lyra Atlas SL!

Normally it is very difficult to speak about “the best” in terms of audio equipment – because “the best” is most often system dependent and also personal preferences are a big deal in ranking such devices. But nevertheless, in this special case I would establish “the best” and here are the reasons why:

Construction:

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Jonathan Carr of Lyra is one of those rare cartridge developers, who raised the bar with every new generation of high end pick up systems his company brought to the High End market. May it be the legendary Lyra Parnassus, the Lyra Titan i or today the Atlas, all these cartridges refined the performance of analogue sound reproduction tremendously. Jonathan seems to be one of those exeptional people in the audio industry, who are not satisfied with what is possible today and he is also able to think in a more radical way than others in terms of technological development. The new Lyra Atlas SL has a bunch of technical specials which are not seen in any other cartridge.

Lets start with the enclosure Carr designed for the Atlas – he used a single billet of titanium and milled it in a way, that there will be no parallel or symmetric surfaces or structures anymore. The reason for this radical design approach is to reduce any resonances a cartridge body is prone to. Think about the fact, that just a very small percentage of mechanical energy a cartridge tracks, is converted into electrical energy which we can use with our phono stages and step up transformers. A cartridge is a very inefficient transducer. The major part of the sampled energy a cart gets from the record grooves is mechanical energy which resonates in the cartridge body itself and has to be directed in the most immediate way away from the stylus tip. If that is not implemented in the construction, those energy portions will interact with the tracking process itself, and we will hear a smeared sound, a sound with phase anomalies and distortion. Carr addressed both problems in his Atlas cartridge – he constructed the cartridge body in the bespoke new unsymmetric way, to avoid standing waves and resonances, and he developed a very efficient path to enable the implied mechanical energy to travel directly into the tonearm tube. To reach the latter, he uses a knife edge system in which the whole motor assembly is press fitted to the cartridge body, and to make the energy path even more efficient he constructed the most rigid contact principle in which a cart can be mounted to a headshell system of our tonearms. The Atlas SL gets in contact with the latter with a small surface area at the top of the cart, which is milled out of the solid titan billet used for the cart’s body. So the specific surface pressure is raised by a large margin with a given torque applied to the mounting bolds. Think of putting your hand under your girlfriends or wife’s feet, if she wears sneakers as opposed to high heels….it would make a tremendous difference…..you get it now ;-)))

The material titan is also part of the whole idea behind this cartridge, because titan is a lightweight but ultra dense and hard material. It is very capable of transmitting energy, and if it is used as Carr did with his Atlas cartridge – just one piece with all complex structures and form factors implied – you will get the most rigid construction with an amazing firmness to weight ratio.

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But Carr does not stop here….he implied a unique damper technology into the new generation of Lyra cartridges. The idea behind this unsymmetric damper technology is based on the precise observation of the coil placement in the magnetic field if we put vertical tracking force on the cartridge. Normally the coils will be deflected with vertical tracking force applied to the cartridge – so the angle between the coils and the magnet structure is not 0° anymore – we will loose efficiency and will gain phase anomalies. This is one of the reasons why cartridge manufacturers give us a certain maximum amount of VTF (vertical tracking force) – because of exactly this deflection angle.  In a traditional constructed cartridge we have to find the best compromise between tracking performance and vertical needle deflection – read magnet to coil angle. With the unsymmetrical damper the angle between the coils and the magnet structure is widened if the cart is lifted above the record – it looks weird if you see such a design for the fist time, because the needle looks in a way broken…..but it is not of course. If you put the needle slowly onto the record surface and observe this action with a magnifier you will realise that the needle together with the coils will be placed perfectly aligned if the correct amount of VTF is applied. Therefor the VTF “window” Lyra recommends is extremely narrow – so a good digital stylus gauge is a must have. And please measure the VTF at exactly the same height as the record surface will be. Dependent of the arm construction, you might face a huge difference if you put the stylus gauge just on top of your platter – or level it precisely beneath the platter at the exact same height as the record surface would be. As Lyra states in their technical specs of the Atlas, a VTF range of 1,65 – 1,75g with an optimum of 1,72g VTF  is recommended  –  you get an idea of the kind of precision we have to gain here! As the cartridge’s resolution is so unbelievably high, you will detect sound differences of every 0,2g more or less – so take your time and you will be rewarded with a perfect tracking performance and an amazingly balanced sound reproduction.

The  electrical “motor” of this high tech figment is also worth being explained, which brings me to the special magnet technology Jonathan Carr uses in the Lyra range since the Helikon / Titan I generation. In a more traditional cartridge we will find a magnet bar with a yoke system to distribute the magnetic field close to the coils. With this technology there is a certain amount of magnetic energy lost, because the magnetism must be transported via a yoke system. Lyra does that in a radically different way – they use ring magnets, which are positioned directly in front and at the back of the coils – it is a complete yokeless construction with a dramatical increase of efficiency. And of course the used magnets are the strongest neodynium types available today. Carr also modified the coil structure of the Atlas and also the Etna cartridge. Instead of a square piece of core which the coils are wound upon (soft iron), he uses a cross structure core. With the cross structure he gains channel separation better known as crosstalk between the two stereo channels. Carr uses 6n pure copper for the coils – as far as I know Lyra never chose silver – neither in their highly recommended cables (Lyra Phonopipe) nor in their cartridge designs. This fits my needs perfectly, because my amplifiers, preamps, phono stages and step up transformers are also built with highly pure copper implied, and I am not a big fan of mixing up different materials with electrical conductors trough out my system.

The needle Carr uses with the construction of the Lyra Atlas is made to his specific specs by the Japanese manufacturer Ogura. The term specific means a boron cantilever is coated with a very, very thin diamond surface. With this technology Carr achieves a material which is nearly as hard as a solid diamond needle that for example Koetsu offers to their customers as a special upgrade. But in comparison to a solid diamond cantilever the composite material chosen by Lyra offers less mass and a minimum of elasticity which reduces the danger of breaking the expensive thing. The cut of the stylus is a refined version of the line contact stylus shape, which is modified in a way that it builds a “long foot” shape which offers an exceptionally quiet tracking performance and a fantastic contact to the grooves – in other words, the Atlas tracks like very few other cartridges do, and it does it very, very quietly. Last but not least Jonathan Carr avoids any conductive material near the coil assembly to avoid stray fields and electrical interaction between his magnet / coils structure and parts that are not involved in the process of transferring mechanical into electrical energy. This is the reason why you will see a lot of specially made non conductive plastic materials used in the whole construction. It all starts with the green enclosure, in which the front ring magnet is housed and ends with the mounting plate, in which the rhodium plated contact pins are fitted.

Entering the SL….

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The standard Atlas version has an electrical output of 0,56mV combined with an internal impedance of 4.3Ohm. Since recently you can also order the Atlas in a special SL version – that stands for single layer, which addresses the amount of windings used on the coils of the cart. The Atlas standard has a dual layer coil structure were the SL uses just one layer of copper windings. This results in a serious reduction of electrical output (0,25mV) together with 1,52 Ohm internal impedance – and of course in a halved moved mass figure. Other than a standard Atlas cartridge which can be used with nearly any active phono stage, the SL version needs a very very quiet specimen – which is not easily achievable with a tubed RIAA stage – and also not an easy task if transistor technology is implied. So the Atlas SL is predestined to be used with a step up device in front of a high performance moving magnet phono stage. And as you can see in the technical specs I described above – we can use the same SUT, which fits an Ortofon SPU…..opposingly a standard Atlas likes to be mated with a 1:15 or maximum 1:20 step up transformer. A different, more exotic way to amplify such an ultra low output cart with its extremely low internal resistance is a phono stage that does not amplify voltage, instead the unit works as a current amplifier. Such devices work extremely well with low impedance carts, because Ohm’s law will tell you, that such cartridges are bad voltage suppliers – but good ones, if current is needed. My Air Tight ATE 2005 phono stage uses a current amplifier made with a Class A transistor topology as a head amp in front of the full tubed moving magnet RIAA stage – so I have two variants of amplification principles at my disposal.

Mounting and compatibility:

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A cartridge which is cultured around the idea of the fastest and most rigid mechanical energy transfer needs a tonearm that can handle all of this. At this point the tonearm – market is divided in different classes. We will find tonearms like the famous SME V, that represent a category in which the manufacturer uses an arm tube of a very rigid construction (one piece magnesium tube), but with less ability to absorb energy – instead the initiated energy will be reflected – something which counters the design principles of Lyra’s Jonathan Carr, who did everything to avoid exactly this scenario. The SME series V needs a cartridge mounted under its headshell system, which does help the arm with energy absorption – a Shelter Accord comes to mind, which uses 5 layers of carbon for the contact area between cartridge and the headshell system.  The SME V combined with a transducer like the Lyra Atlas will sound smeared with a treble section that is overly analytic, abrassive and nervous – the bass performance seems to be impressive at first glance – but if you analyse it more carefully, you will detect a lot of coloration and also some amount of distortion. This very famous tonearm was designed at the end of the eighties, it was designed with completely different cartridges in mind than a Lyra moving coil will represent now – so use these arms with what they are designed for. A SME series V combined with a Van den Hul Frog is a good match – to name just one example…..

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Another tonearm class might be able to handle the tremendous mechanical energy the Atlas cartridge sends into the armtube – but the bearings are not up to that task. Every little bearing shatter will now face a rigid transmission line to the needle (no armtube can dampen such a kind of energy) – and also vice versa. You will hear a thin, harsh and overly nervous sound reproduction.

You already got it – the kind of Formula 1 cart the Atlas is will expect a tonearm, which is constructed around Lyra’s core design principles. And as you also might expect – there are some designers on the market, who use Lyra carts to construct their equipment (amongst others), Alan Perkins of Spiral Groove / Immedia comes to mind, Frank Schröder, Bob Graham and Willi Bauer of Bauer Audio to name just a few! As you already know – I am a big fan of the Frank Schröder designs – and the Lyra Atlas allows me to explain one more time why this is the case…

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Frank uses special treated wooden armtubes – natural wood is a chaotic structured material which is nearly impossible to recreate using synthetic materials. God “constructed” wood with such a complex structure, from the molecular composition to its macro formation formed over millions of years, it is  a hard to beat material in terms of damping and energy absorption. But it has also a lot of disadvantages a designer must address. Wood reacts to climate changes, humid conditions, and wood has in its natural form a specific sound. Frank Schröder is surely the father of wooden tonearms which are prepared in such a way, that external conditions do not affect the material itself anymore – and at least as important – those armtubes lost their specific sound completely.  A very time and labour intensive treatment with different liquids like solvent, oils and coatings are used to fill up the kapillar structure of the wood. The different wood types Frank offers to his customers are justified to reach a specific effective mass. They are not meant to be musical instruments or tone controls, but the choice of certain wood types will let him build a tonearm with a specific effective mass without changing the basic material and its fantastic attributes. And of course – there is also the option, if more than one type of wood will fit the needs, that a customer can also change the look of his tonearm, which gives these arms a huge variation of different appearances. As every single arm is completely handmade by Frank himself and his trained hands – you will get a unique product. Frank’s legendary magnetic bearing tonearm will also imply other design aspects, which are very important if you think about a cartridge design like the Lyra carts. The magnetic bearing is completely free of any stiction, shatter and resistance – it is a bearing which is ingenious in its simplicity and execution. As Frank will offset the two magnets implied in this construction, there will be the possibility to dampen the  arm with the implementation of eddy current. The amount of damping can be widely adjusted by changing the size of the gap between those two magnets, which gives the user a tremendous flexibility, regarding the precise match of the tonearm, and a specific cartridge in terms of damping mechanical energy. In simpler words – these Schröder tonearms are a match made in heaven with the Lyra cartridge construction described above. Recently Frank has developed a new type of headshell plate that is made of a certain aluminium “foam”, which works as an energy barrier without applying any energy reflection. These headshell plates can increase the ability of his tonearms to deal with even more implied mechanical energy.

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To give you an idea about perfect energy transmission of a certain vinyl system – shut down your amplifier – put the needle down on the record surface and reduce the distance between the toneram and your ears….. do you hear some music??? We call that phenomen “needle talk” – an unmistakeable sign of energy which excites the tonearm and its mounting surface by the needle tracking the groove. The lower this “needle talk” phenomenon is, the better the amplified performance will be. If you get excited about what you will hear without any amplification and your toe is tapping with the groove of the unamplified music –  you should seriously rethink your cartridge – tonearm combination….

Adjustments:

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Such precise and in a certain form unforgiving carts like the Atlas SL need a lot of attention to detail while mounting and adjusting them into the tonearm. As the Atlas features a very sharp stylus cut – it tolerates no mistakes regarding proper geometrical allignment. A good template must be used, extra diligence will be necessary in adjusting the zenith of the geometry – small mistakes are not accepted by the stylus cut Lyra uses in its top class of cartridges. If you will detect, after some hours of playing time, that your brand new Atlas cartridge will collect a strange geryish dust around the cantilever and the white Japanese Washi paper which protects the whole motor assembly, you should re-check your alignment, because the dirt is vinyl dust – and you start to degenerate the quality of your records – as well as the cart itself.

The VTF was set at 1,74g, wich gave me the best tracking performance with a profund bass, with no compromised performance in the treble and air spectrum and also the micro dynamic skills the cart has to offer. The VTA was set level to the record surface with a 180g pressing, and was adjusted accordingly, if thinner records were used – normally I am not a VTA maniac – but the Atlas reacts very sensitive to this parameter. The Cartridge was mounted in my Schröder Reference SQ and also in the Schröder CB tonearm with usage of the standard Certal headshell plate and the newly developed aluminium “foam” plate. For amplification I used the Air Tight ATC1 HQ full function preamp with a MM gain of 43db and an Air Tight ATH2A step up transformer, which was set to its 1:30 ratio with results in 29db of gain, while the cartridge “sees” 52Ohm. The ATH2A uses Hashimoto HRX step up devices internally, which were a fantastic match with the Atlas SL cartridge. To compare the performance with and without a step up transformer, I also used my Air Tight ATE 2005 phono stage, with its current amplifying class A transistor head amp, that offered me 30db of tubed mm gain and 34db from the head amp system itself!

The SUT installation gave me a total gain of 72db while the active MC preamp of the ATE 2005 phono stage offered a total amount of 63db gain, which is on the low side of the scale, if a cartridge of less than 0,3mV is used. As the ATE 2005 is a very, very silent hybrid design, it was nevertheless a fantastic performance, that was slightly different than the sound of the SUT – MM combination.

The use of the new aluminium “foam” headshell plate of the Schröder tonearms raised the total performance in terms of stability of the reproduced stage and created a top end completely free of any grain or harsh artifacts – amazing!

If you use such a headshell plate together with Frank’s magnet bearing tonearms, you are able to raise the gap between the magnets a little bit more – without any sign of underdamping – which results in a more open performance with a tremendous quality of transient reproduction and tonal pureness!

The Sound:

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What struck me most in the first instance was the quietness in which the Lyra Atlas SL tracks the grooves. There is – a clean record provided – nearly no noise from the tracking process itself – the only thing you will hear is the tape hiss of strictly analogue recorded music without any noise reduction system like Dolby A or SR (recordings made before the mid seventies). The next thing that blows your mind is the tremendous, really shocking ability of this cart to start and stop with the flow of the music. This thing is so amazingly fast that my brain was often too slow ;-))) – It is as if someone connects you directly to the musical performance – a sort of direct to brain technology. And this is exactly what we will have if we listen to live music. There is no delay in reaction if you do not sit miles away from the sound source – the Atlas SL will place you in the first to third row of a concert hall. The rhythmic precision makes me speechless. drum attacks, piano, orchestra percussion, bass attacks and slaps – ohhhh….it is so unbelievably real, that it feels spooky in a certain way. The difference between the SL and normal carts from Lyra is profound. A standard Lyra lets the attack explode in front of you and is always better at the rendition of the leading edge than it is with the sustain of a tone – it excites you with a pure and tremendously precise rhythmical Gestalt of the music, but it suffers a little bit in showing the beauty of the tone itself. The SL version can deliver both – transients do not explode in such a dramatic and of course also very exciting way – they will be delivered softer in a very special manner. To understand that – let me give you an example. Imagine you are trying to cut your finger with a scalpel – you have to use a certain amount of pressure to make the blade split up your skin. The sharper the knive is – the less pressure is needed. Now lets change a very sharp scalpel to a device the biologist uses for microscopic preparation – a special tool called “Ultra Microtom” – this thing is able to split a sleeve of paper into 400 slices…..!!!! – And in such an “Ultra Microtome” way the Atlas SL shows us the attack – there is no pressure needed anymore – the performance comes as natural as breathing. It is so fast – even faster than the standard Atlas – that our ear does not get a form of energy conglomeration while reproducing an attack – there is no further energy needed – so the explosive character changes. And with that the balance of the reproduced sound changes too – because now attack and release have a tremendously natural relationship. The excitement while listening to such a very, very rare sort of performance with a cartridge results from the comparison to the real thing:

Our memory tells us what is real and what is a reproduction of reality – it does this with pictures, and also with sound. With the Atlas SL your special excitement comes from the fact that your memory is so loaded with all the extremely complex information collected during your whole life on how reality sounds in comparison to a reproduction, that your brain cannot devide between those memories and what you are hearing here and now.

I mean – this is really a glaring finding. A cartridge which is able  to fool our memory full of experiences of the real thing in terms of reproduction of attack and release of recorded tones, so much so that we cannot differentiate anymore – wether we are hearing a real performance or a recorded one (a good recording is of course mandatory) – this is a gift we have to send a BIG THANK YOU to Jonathan Carr and the whole Lyra team!!!

The Atlas SL does not stop to impress me with its performance of attack and release or sustain of music – there is much more – MUCH MORE!!!!

The cartridge gives us a sort of unforced resolution that is astonishing. You can differentiate the violins from the violas and those are perfectly seperated from the celli – a sort of phenomenon you can only have in very good concert halls like the Berliner Philharmonie, if you sit close to the sweet spot of the orchestra. You can follow the musical performance with the score placed on your knees and listen while reading the accolades, enjoying a spectacular ride through the micro-structures of a composition. But you can also relax, sit back and listen to the whole beauty of the music – the cart enables you to zoom in and out whenever you like – an educated way of listening is not necessary – it can be done by everyone! It is a sort of resolution that frees up our brains while listening – less work has to be done by your brain to correct things you hear, which do not fit in your tonal memory. The space around the different instruments and instrument sections, the kind of resolution between a note and silence is spooky. You can get deep enjoyment while listening to the most complex music – because it is not a dense wall of sound anymore, it is an organised and perfectly arranged composition – there is not the slightest sign of compression or stress in such passages – the Atlas SL sails through the most demanding passages with an ease and gracefulness it is hard to describe. The pin point accuracy is even more spectacular – the instruments of an orchestra, the vocalist and even synthetic instruments are placed, if the sound engineer does not change his panorama position, as if they are nailed on their position. The phase coherency is outstanding, which makes the whole Gestalt of the music so real and great!

To give you a picture for a better understanding – which brings me to the title of this essay – the Lyra Atlas SL behaves like a Shaolin fighter. Complete mental strength, absolute precision and discipline together with a tremendous speed of motion and power our eyes (read ears) can hardly follow – combined with a graceful Gestalt – that is what the Atlas SL is all about. The cart sacrifices its character to support what it is made for – to bring music to life! This is an exceptional gesture which divides the absolute top class of cartridges from the lesser ones – and the Atlas SL stands out even at the zenith of what is possible with a needle tracking a record groove today!

It is obvious that the Lyra has a very balanced performance in terms of frequency reproduction. The very, very important mid band is as liquid and neutral as it can be. There is not the slightest coloration detectable – well done!!!!

The bass performance waived every little touch of being more impressive than it is captured in the microgrooves of our records. No slight low mid or upper bass bump, no deep bass augmentation – nothing. Instead of this, the extension in the bass spectrum is without any limits – the bass itself is ultra fast and articulated – the tonal substance is frightening and – yes I know it is boring – it sounds sooooo REAL!

Presence and treble both need some explanation – gone are the times were a Lyra top performance cart was a little bit over the top in the higher and highest frequency range – now we face a neutral tuning of the presence and treble region, which is not muted or damped or rolled off. The modern Lyra carts get their treble excitement from dynamic resolution and the ability to render a tonal substance even at those frequency-extremes. A cymbal is never an acoustic event like white noise, instead of that you get a very, very fine detailed picture of what and how the drummer is playing on his ride cymbal – frighteningly REAL.

Step up transformer or active gain stage??

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With the use of a step up transformer the Atlas SL gains a little bit more a holistic expression, the treble and air range is more integrated as is the midrange, which is also perfectly linked up to the presence and treble section of the spectrum. The whole picture is a tiny, tiny little bit warmed up. The ability to render recorded space is astonishing and there is not much on the market that could do this better – than a good transformer combined with an Atlas SL. The expanded rendering of the acoustics of an orchestra hall is done in a style that you close your eyes – and there seem to be no walls in your room anymore. Sometimes little details come from angles were no speaker is placed, and you get goosebumps…. It is also possible, that you think someone entered your room or flat – more than once I dropped the volume and asked my wife if she is back from work – but there was no answer – and I was alone with my Lyra Atlas and my record… Small details are rendered in such a realistic way that your brain is often not able to realize if it is coming from your record or if it is generated in your room by someone else – spooky – but GREAT!

When I use the active head amp of my ATE 2005 phono stage the picture gets a little bit different. Now the Atlas SL shows a more neutral character with some more sparkle on top and maybe also a little bit better dynamic range, especially in the deepest bass regions – but less good micro dynamic Gestalt. The big swings are reproduced in a more spectacular way, just like the pinpoint accuracy and the space between the instruments. But the ATE 2005 lacks slightly the holistic performance of the step up transformer. The performance is more savoured in an intellectual way, while the step up transformer will give you a little bit more the heart and soul of the musical performance.
With Singer Songwriter and Classical music – as also Jazz I would prefer the combination with a step up transformer – if you listen to Electro, like Kraftwerk, Trentemöller or James Blake, the ATE 2005 will be my phono preamp of choice, the more accurate and slightly shinier performance fits the needs of such music perfectly as does the spectacular bass performance.

Some people could miss the analogue warmth in the presentation of the Lyra Atlas – its neutral Gestalt and the ability to disappear as a transducer might not fit the bill off everyone. It is not the analogue sound you might know or adore, it is something new, something really outstanding, that we have to get used to. The Atlas SL is not fighting against other cartridges anymore – it defines a new chapter in analogue reproduction, which can compete with any new media, be it high resolution digital streaming machines or the last development in sound reproduction technology itself. It is not about being the best cartridge in the world it is about making a statement in terms of music reproduction in general. It is as close to the mastertape as I have ever heard it from a cartridge!

If you want to have more analogue Gestalt, more sexy midband performance, maybe more texture in this frequency region, and if you miss some of the so exciting punchy bass hits – than Lyra has also something for you. No – I do not mean the Lyra Olympos, which starts a whole new chapter with Lyra transducers, and is for a large group of Lyra fans the best cart they ever brought to the market till today (if you could get your hands on a donor Parnassus and its platinum magnets). Jonathan Carr realised the euphoric reaction to the Olympos – and he apparently knows how to dial in some different sound aesthetics in his products (an ability I admire!!!) – so he finished his 5th Generation of Lyra transducers with the successor of the famous Lyra Titan, which is named after the legendary Sicilian volcano Etna! – I think you already got it….I mean if Carr is using this name for a cartridge – it might give us an idea, what he had in mind….and the best news for us Lyra devotees – also the Etna is brought out in a single layer version – the Etna SL.

But that is another story for another day…..

 

Stay tuned

 

E. Strauss

 

 

 

The Marantz CD94 – Part1 (the drive mechanism)

A musical digital player??

If we look at the CD player situation today, there is not much to write home about…. Today we have to accept, that nearly no company is manufacturing dedicated CD transports anymore. The last decade was full of CD machines which used transports originally deigned for computers or car stereo systems – the decade of really high quality dedicated CD drive mechanisms ended around the the year 2000. Since than we got a lot less for a lot more money. Any DA converter needs a proper source, and if  we skip for a moment the whole streaming possibilities, the source for a DA converter is a sort of physical media – normally a CD or a SACD. Both optical media needs a damn good drive mechanism for reading the implemented digital data – hopefully with near to no loss, low jitter, fast and secure action, isolated from vibration implemented by the player itself or from the outer world.

Maybe you asked yourself while reading CD player offerings at the used market – why in nearly every advert you will see, there is some information written about new laser mechanisms or a brad new complete CD drive which was implied in a 4 year old machine??

Now lets jump directly to the years from 1985 – 93….the time, were you sold your record player and dived into the modern digital world. You bought your first CD player – and you had during its time in your HiFi system never any problems with the CD drive mechanism – maybe the unit needed at some stage a new driving belt for the CD drawer – but changing laser mechanisms or whole drives was not a task you had to deal with – right????

You changed in that period of time maybe the player – maybe more than once, because the big HiFi magazines told you that every new generation of CD players surpasses the actual generation – so an upgrade was mandatory….  The same story is also told to us till the CD as a mass media lost its importance agains streaming solutions. But was it really true, what was proclaimed???

Philips changed the design of their CD 0 drive to the CD 1 and later on they brought out the CD9 and all these steps were not made to design something better – it was made, because they wanted to make the things cheaper. The same can be said also about the ladder multibit DAC – in Part II of this article I will come back to that story.

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Believe it or not – one of the best transports ever made was the Philips CDM 1 pro drive used in the end of the 80ties, last century – and even the first CD transport ever manufactured, the CDM 0 was a legend, regarding data integrity and fast operation. Those CDM1 pro drive mechanisms were used in the CD check machines the mastering studios used to check the digital quality of the media (digital errors). They were so good, that it was the reference, were everything else was measured against it. And of course they were expensive – made from metal cast, supplied with a sub chassis mechanism, a Rodenstock glass lens system (no plastic optics) and the speed of tracking though the index of any given CD was miles ahead of nearly anything which came later to this party. In one word – it was maybe the epitome of a CD drive mechanism – but it was too expensive to achieve a complete player, which could compete with the price of a cheap coffe – machine at the point of sale – electronic super markets…. From that time on, things got not better regarding the CD drive quality – it got worse – and today we have to accept, that in most modern CD players we will find just crap, which has to do the sensitive job of reading data from a digital media!

What really changed during all this years is maybe the quality of the DA converters – in the 80ties more that 16 bit resolution was seldom seen – and at the end of the ladder DAC period, 20bit performance was the best we could achieve with this technology. However – if we do not get the data from the media with the highest possible integrity and precision – if our source is not of the highest quality – all which comes in the signal chain after that stage is more or less questionable.

Restauration of a masterpiece:

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The CDM 1 Pro drive used in one of the most well regarded CD players during those years, the Marantz CD94 (and also the MK II version of this player) will have some problems because of its long period of usage, we have to care about. Most of the units which are offered as defective, do not have any trouble with the laser diode – they all share one design problem, which we have to deal with. This design “problem” addresses the bearing of the rotary CD platter. This bearing is constructed as a plain bearing – a spindle is placed on a special plastic disc – the plastic is of such a kind, that the spindle do not need any excessive lubrication. Over the years this spindle works now its way into the plastic platter – there will be at any CDM1 pro a more or less deep groove in this plastic platter of the main drive bearing.

If the groove is cut very deeply, the distance between the CD surface and the movable laser diode is at some point too large – so the laser unit can not precisely focus anymore. The player will give us some error message – and most of the users think – the laser diode is worn out – but in most of the cases it is just a mechanical bearing problem . To solve that, we have to adjust the platter hight to a point were we compensate for the groove. This is manageable with a little bit of technical skills and a service manual developed for the specific player and its Philips drive mechanism. If we adjust the spindle height to a level, were the two axis element of our laser mechanism is positioned in its neutral level again – we are done. Of course one day the plastic disc of the bearing will be completely worn out – and there is no chance to get a replacement part as far as I know – but I can assure you – the mechanism will work for another 15 years from now on – if we do not use the player as a burn in device – playing in continuously repeat mode for weeks or months;:)) In the service manual we will find a certain voltage and the points were we can measure it to adjust the platter hight – for that procedure a perfectly flat CD has to be used with some test signals on it (CD/R made by yourself). All in all, if you know how the procedere works, it is a job done in 20minutes. If you do a good cleaning (highly recommended), the whole work will need a little bit longer.

Recap:

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Another thing we have to deal with are all the electrolytics used in the player – not only in the drive compartment – I mean all the electrolytics, this is a job done with a lot of care and some patience. Today we have some great opportunities with modern designed caps. The SANYO OSCON electrolytics have a very temperature independent behaviour which is a very good thing with all the digital circuits and the drive mechanism. At other stages we can decide to use caps which we like because we think they give the unit a specific sound (Black Gates, Elna…) – and of  course we have the amazing Panasonic FC cabs, which is a strong recommendation for the power supply decoupling.

Sound experience:

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After the complete recap, we will be stunned, how such an old device will sound. The Marantz CD94 has maybe one of the smoothest treble performances of all CD players I know of – it is the opposite of what we will find in most modern players – the treble has a sort of creamy gestalt! This could be a good thing – because of 100 CD´s 98 are mastered with a very hot or aggressive treble – a circumstance which seems to characterise the digital sound, but which is more or less also a problem of the software itself. To explain this more in depth, I have to dig a little bit deeper – we have to talk about production techniques in the recording stage, mixing and mastering process. If you compare a modern digital workstation as AVID Pro Tool against a 24  Track 2″ tape recorder there is a huge difference – not only in the native sound of both units – more so in the style you are able to use them. With an analog recorder we have a certain limit with the frequency extremes. We cannot put the same amount of level on the tape in the extreme bass region as also in the treble region compared to the whole midband. If we do so – the tape machine has a surprise for us – or better two of them – noise or distortion. Lets say for a moment we want to produce a Hi Hat – and we want to have a sound with the highest amount of shimmer we can afford, there is a special technique to reach that. If we would put some EQ on the Hi Hat off the tape – after we already recorded that signal, we will boost tape hiss…. – if we put all the EQ to the Hi Hat before we record it – we will be punished with less gain possible to put on the tape – otherwise the signal will be distorted – and the result will be distortion or again tape hiss. So a mixture of both techniques is the goal – a little bit emphasis befor the signal hits the tape – and a little bit in the mix, were the signal comes off the tape. The keyword here is LITTLE!. In the digital world there is not such a limit…I am technically able to put 12db boost on a Hi Hat at about 12Khz – and there is no other punishment as my bleeding ears. Which brings me to the essence of that little example….if we engineers have no technical limits, it is up to us to decide what sounds good and what sounds bad. And with too much freedom, we will face a great risk to overdue it….In other words the analogue tape recorder is one of the biggest teachers for us recording engineers in the control room. Their limits give us a sort of certainty, which we all lost with the digital age! If you are sitting 10 hours or more behind the console, you loose the ability to judge the sound – but in the analogue domain we had some security implemented into the whole system, with digital everything is possible. And this is in my opinion one of the reasons, why with the upcoming digital technologie, we miss more and more a sort of natural sound – because all is possible and often some more treble in the mix seems to be more exciting….

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Now lets talk about the relationship between the producer, the artist and the recording engineer. It is a customer relationship – the producer wants a sound which competes with an international standard, the band wants a sound which is impressive and supports the idea of the song. Later on the mixing engineer will do the final work on a multi track session, often with more than 80 audio tracks implemented into the mix. Again the band and the producer wants to have the nearly finished product to be better than the reference recordings played back and forth during the mixing process. It has to be loud, powerful and impressive. So the mixing engineer will put a good amount of compression to the mix, as also a lot of EQ to make 80 tracks compatible to work with the basic idea of the song (a disaster!!!). Later on in the production process, the song hits a mastering studio – and again we have a customer relationship – the mastering engineer must bring the mix to a higher level – it is not “en vogue” to master the stuff in a natural way – it has to be louder than other comparable productions, it has to compete with the loudest tracks broadcasted at the radio. If the mastering engineer switches the mix file against the mastered version, all listeners in the mastering studio wanted to have this magic thrill – “Oh my gosh…..this sounds sooooo impressive”.

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At the end of that story we will have some music mastered on the CD which has at best 8db dynamic and we will face a frequency spectrum which boosts the extremes – a lot of shimmer, plenty of bass and a down shaped mid frequency spectrum – some tricks at the Flatcher/Munson frequencies and finished is another song which works perfectly in a car stereo system while driving on a highway at high speed – but listened to a good High End stereo system, we get bleeding ears – the music is boring – because no dynamic shades are anymore detectable – and we think – “Fuck digital”….but it is not the digital technology itself – it is the way we work with all the possibilities. If you have a chance to listen to Radiohead “In Rainbows” (for example) on CD, you will hear that it is possible to achieve something great, something outstanding even pressed on a CD, there is nearly no difference between the vinyl edition and the CD – and yes this album was recorded with an analogue tape machine…

Using the CD 94 as a dedicated drive:

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Coming back to the drive mechanism of the Marantz CD94 it is obvious, that this old machine will be a very good CD drive, maybe one of the best regardless of its price. If you want to skip the legendary DA converter implemented in this player – developed around one, if not the best 16bit ladder DAC the Philips TDA 1541chip set – you are in for a big surprise. But before “happy listening” we have to deal with the digital SPDIF (Sony – Philips – Digital – InterFace) interface which the engineers at Marantz implemented in this player to be able to communicate with external DA converters. You will detect a RCA jack at the back of the player – a thing, which most of the CD players have in common, regarding a SPDIF digital output. But this “standard” is wrong – completely wrong – because the SPDIF technology wants to “see” a proper 75 Ohm wave impedance. No RCA jack can deliver the proper specs implied in that technical standard – so we have to change the RCA connection to a proper BNC socket. And if we do that, we have to dig a little bit deeper. The Marantz CD 94 in it´s standard original configuration, gets its SPDIF signal from the Philips SAA 7220 digital Filter chip. The SPDIF signal is carried with the corresponding conductor path on the right hand side (mounted at the side of the chassis) daughter board and is further distributed by some connectors and cheap cabeling. So it is a good idea to grab the signal directly from the 7220 and use a dedicated 75 Ohm data-path together with a small circuit board, which brings the signal to the correct SPDIF specs – +/-0,5V and 75 Ohm wave impedance. Finally we feed the signal in our BNC connector and achieved a perfect SPDIF interface.

More modding:

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If you have tasted some blood now – there is even more, you can modify to reach the best performance – even if you just use the Marantz 94 as a dedicated CD drive. The Philips SAA 7220 is the biggest problem in the whole surrounding of the TDA 1541 DA converter and its signal flow. The reason for this is the HF dirt this chip delivers into the circuits of the whole player – this is more important if you use the player as a full function CD player – but also of some interests if you use just the drive mechanism. The Marantz CD94 was built at a much bigger budget, than one might think – but at some stage Philips/Marantz hat to cut down costs, because they wanted te player to be placed at the lower end of the High End player segment. At some parts of the player Marantz decided to drop the best solutions which were technical possible. One of this cut down areas is the power supply as also the delivery of the voltages to the different sections of that player.

First of all, the Marantz has just one power supply implemented – there is no seperation between digital circuits and analogue sections, as we will find them in Accuphase CD players of the same aera  (they were of course much more expensive). Accuphase used from the beginning of their CD player development on, always two separated power supplies, which facilitates them to isolate the digital path completely from the analogue path. Marantz opted for just one power tranformer / power supply. Why do we not modify an Accuphase player than??? – Because Accuphase used a Sony drive mechanism in those years and there is no hope to get any spare part for them anymore – and if we want to buy another player as a donor – the whole story would be very expensive – and last but not least – as good as the Sony drive mechanisms were, they found their master in the Philips CDM1 pro.

So we have to deal with the power distribution inside the Marantz CD 94. Our goal is to isolate as much as possible the SAA7220 from the rest of the player – to achieve that, we have to construct a dedicated rail only used by this chip. And if you are dealing with such an idea – built more than that single voltage regulator – because I know, that after reading Part II of this article, were I will dig deeper into the DA converter of this machine, you will use the Marantz not only as a very, very good CD drive…..;-)))

The original voltage regulators are placed at the heatsink, you will find on any TDA 1541 player, be it a Marantz, a Philips, Rotel, Naim and so on…. Now you know, why these players all share the same strange heat sink at the rear side of their chassis. The original player uses 3 regulators with this heat sink together – and we put another three into this machine. This gives us enough flexibility to modify also the analogue section of this player – but more important to give the SAA7229 beast its own rail with discrete voltage regulation.

The marriage with a high performance DA converter:

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If you use the Marantz CD 94 drive with an outboard DA converter using our modified SPDIF interface, you also have to get a proper SPDIF cable. It is not recommended to use a normal NF cable, which you normally use between your preamplifier and power amplifier – because a dedicated SPDIF cable has to be made with the 75 Ohm standard in mind. A very, very good choice is one of Chris Somovigos digital cables, he developed exactly for that purpose. In other words – this is one of the best options I know of. Be it a Stereovox, Stereolab or Black Cat 75 Ohm SPDIF cable – all are super performers – and you do not have to spent more money to achieve a better quality – these cables are of the highest class!

Now you have the choice to choose a DA converter you may have on top of your wish list. You can buy the newest and hottest stuff available to get the best of two worlds – the best drive mechanism ever made AND a ultra modern High End DA converter. One of the most exciting combinations will be a DCS Paganini if your speakers and the whole system is very neutral and not overly analytic. This combination is soooo good, that you will forget to play vinyl records for a long period of time. The combination is much better, than the integrated DCS Puccini CD/SACD player. The Marantz – do not ask me why, has a certain smooth sound, even if you use just the drive mechanism of the complete player. The sound of the drive is so grain free and elaborated at the treble spectrum – it is amazing – together with a very, very high resolution converter as the DCS Paganini is, you will get something which is hard to describe. If I have to characterise this specific digital sound to a moving coil cartridge, I would choose the Lyra Etna SL as an analogue opponent. A frightening resolution paired with a smoothness (used in a proper tonearm with a high quality SUT) and velvety gesture is apparent, a pinpoint accuracy which let you breathe the atmosphere of the recording event – fantastic!

If you use a pair of the legendary BBC LS3/5a monitors, the combination of the Marantz CD 94 drive with a DCS Paganini is not the best option. The LS3/5a has a slight treble rise – it is in that discipline the opposite to a well placed and integrated Quad ESL 57, which acts a little bit defensive at the highest frequency spectrum.  With the use of the BBC monitors a non oversampling tube DAC would be my first choice. And one of the finest options with a lot less money to spent as with the super expensive DCS stuff, will be the German manufacturer Acousticplan. The Digi Master  Tube DA – converter is a hell of a machine!!! If i should compare this combination with the analogue world of cartridges and turntables – I would go for the gestalt of a very nice Koetsu Rosewood Signature cart. A slightly recessed treble paired with a good punchy bass and the ability to layer the recorded space in a more integrated style. This combination is not analytic, it is about the tone, the beauty of the midband and the wholeness of the musical performance.

Stay tuned – part II of the Marantz CD 94 will come soon.

E. Strauss

The famous 6L6 GC Powertube

The forgotten tube

If we analyse the HiFi market today, searching for an amplifier witch is constructed around the 6L6 GC penthode, we have to face the fact that there is near to nothing on offer. In the opinion of many HiFi and High End enthusiasts this tube is made for musicians and their guitar amplifiers – not good enough for serious listening purposes.

This is completely wrong!

Some of the most respected Mcintosh tube amplifiers used the 6L6 GC, the amazing Mc30 monoblocks come to mind or the Mc240 stereo amplifier. The 6L6 GC has one great advantage compared to KT66 or KT88 as also EL 34, you can get new old stock quality without searching for months and spending crazy sums. The supply will vanish in the next couple of years but here and now there is still a great chance to get a matched quad of nice vintage 6L6 GC tubes.

The 6L6 has a very long history till it reached its last incarnation the GC variant, which is the most powerful example of them all. The tube was originally made for military applications and for that reason it is a very robust kind of a tube, the construction had to withstand a lot more when used in applications of the US Air Force, as we would ever could think of in our music reproduction systems. There is a good chance that a vintage set of well matched 6L6 GC (NOS) will work for many, many years of regular use in your power amplifier without the need to be replaced.
Something modern tubes from China or Russia can only dream of.

The Air Tight ATM4:

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But all that is worthless if you won´t find a good amplifier to put the fine glass into it. One of the rare examples of exceptional modern built tube amplifiers constructed arround the famous 6L6 GC or one of their equivalent the 5881 will be the Air Tight ATM4 manufactured by the small Japanese company A&M Ltd. The founder of this company Atsushi Miura was born into the audio industry, because his father, who begun to wound transformers for the Japanese audio industry back in the 30ties of the last century, became the head of the Luxman Cooperation, a brand name well respected in the history of HiFi or High End. Under his fathers guidance, Miura made his way through the company and ended up as an audio designer, who was responsible for some of the most famous tube amps this company had to offer. Miura learned the “art of audio” from the ground up, and took over the reins at Luxman. In the 80ties the company was sold to the Alpine cooperation with now biasing towards the more commercial aspects of that industry, something which Miura san was not intended to tolerate, so he left Luxman and founded his own brand, A&M LTD, with the brand Air Tight and Acoustic Masterpiece.

A living legend:

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Miura san is one of the last living legends in the famous Japanese tube scene today, which had to suffer so many losses in the last couple of years, the passing of Kondo San as also Shindo San comes to mind. Very sad news for those of us, who want to enjoy a classic tube amplifier with that typical Japanese attention to detail and therefor a sound characteristic, which is hard to describe. Those amplifiers are maybe not the last word in neutral music reproduction, but they can deliver a sound which becomes a sort of hyper realistic picture of real music played by real musicians. Very often you can forget with these amplifiers from Kondo, Shindo or Miura San (Air Tight), that you are listening to your HiFi setup, and not to a real performance. They share all in a different way the same goal – you should relax and you should be able to take the musical performance reproduced from a vinyl record or CD for something real. To reach such a goal, there are some tricks, these old Japanese masters put into their “music machines”.
It could be a very common practice, that such an amplifier will bei the last one in your live – forgotten is all the technical stuff, all the technical reference data delivered by the most famous High End companies today – instead you get something very seldom found in the enthusiastic HiFi scene – you get satisfaction.
No “upgraditis” anymore – you relax and you start to enjoy music – instead of that typical self-questioning – is there maybe too less air around the cymbals ? – could the singer maybe need some more sparcle at the top end? – is the bass dry enough – and is it deep an powerful enough?….all that comes to a sudden end and you will listen to music.

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The ATM4 form Air Tight will remind you from its outward look to some designs made in the 60ties (last century), the Marantz 9 monoblocks comes to mind. It is an amplifier with no exposed tupes, which could be a good thing if you have pets or little children…..

A very classic no nonsense design which takes his beauty out of a puristic “form follows function” appearance.
The front plate is dominated by a round bias meter (a quote from the Marantz 9), which shows the bias (DC) balance between the two pairs of output tubes. Under a screwed-in plate you will find the corresponding bias – balance potentiometers. In normal use this potentiometers are covered by the bespoke aluminium plate with the engraved manufacturers name. Left of this plate we will find an input switch, the ATM4 comes as most of the Air Tight amplifiers with two sets of line input terminals. If you just want to use two sources with these amplifiers, they could be used as a very puristic integrated amplifier. On the right hand side of this input switch we will detect two input gain potentiometers. Use them to adjust the power amplifier in terms of gain, to match the characteristic of your preamplifier – and you are also able to use this feature to match the whole amplification system to a cartridge with very high output (EMT JSD series) or just the opposite – a cart with extremely low output (AN IO for example).
The potentiometers are hand selected Alps Japan Blue Valvet potis, which are high quality parts – so there is no need to get rid of them, they are acoustically invisible, a precise gain matching feature ist worth to keep them in the signal flow!!! The second pair of input jacks could be also used together with a CD player or DA converter with adjustable volume on board. In such a case, you can skip the line preamplifier and connect the digital device directly to the power amplifier.

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On the right side of the amplifier we will find the bias switch, which is used to select the two pairs of tubes displayed on the bias meter. And of course there is also an on and off switch.
The rear panel is fitted with 2 pairs of RCA input jacks, and 2 speaker terminals with the possibility to configure two impedance settings. The factory standard is a 4 and 8 Ohm tap, which could be also configured internal to 8 and 16 Ohm. Last but not least we will find the IEC power socket for a dedicated power outlet cable.

Tube rolling:

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If we unscrew the top cover of that amplifier, we will see a special feature – the Air Tight ATM4 is able to be comfigured as a monoblock amp (we will need two of them in this case) or in stereo operation mode. For the Mono conversion we have a toggle switch together with a switching knob both lettered with Mono or Stereo – keep in mind – usage of these switches wil presume to shut down the amplifier first.

In Mono operation mode the output power is doubled, so the ATM4 is able to handle even more complex loads.
The tubes implied under the top cover are:
4X 6L6 GC or 5881
2X 6CG7
1X 12AT7 /ECC81

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It is a classic Mullard design layout were the splitter tubes (6CG7) are also used in the driver stage.
The one and only line level gain stage is accomplished by a single 12AT7 double triode, which gives us an input sensitivity of 1,5V, that means you need 1,5V to modulate the amp to its maximum output power, which reaches its maximum at 2X 24W in Stereo Mode or 2X 48W in Mono operation.
If we compare this figure with the famous Mcintosh MC40 amplifier, we have to consider, that the MAC has a maximum output power of nearly 2X 40 watts with the same output tube compartment.
Miura San opted with his design for a higher damping factor to handle more complex loads, for that purpose he used no global feedback but a good amount of local feedback implied into the ATM4 amplifier which results in  a very good “drivability”.
In other words – the ATM4 ist designed with electrostatic speakers in mind, like the Quad ESL 57 or the ESL 63 for example.
The ESL 57 needs just around 15 – 20 Watts to reach its maximum sound-pressure level – but it is everything else than an easy load.
Please read my article about the Quad ESL 57 Quad ESL57, for the closest approach to the original sound. Part 1 you will get much more information about that topic.
One of the most asked questions regarding the famous british electrostatics would be the question, “which amp is able to drive them whith ease an precision?” – the ATM4 will be one possible answer to that question.
And it is a much, much better choice as the original Quad II monoblocks designed together with the ESL 57.

Signal flow and design:

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With the 6L6 GC we will face two very famous specimen of this famous output tube, the RCA 6L6 GC Black Plates and the General Electric 6L6 GC Grey Plates, double side getter.
Both are very good choices to get one of the finest 6L6GC ever made.
If we listen to the basic sound of the Air Tight, which is very, very transparent and open, I would give the General Electric 6L6 a slight advantage in terms of smoothness and a grain free treble.
The RCA variant is much more “zippy” on top, which does not correspond as good as the GE6L6 to the basic sound of the ATM4.
One of the reasons for that openess and transparency might be the legendary output transformers from the Japanese manufacturer Tamura.
Those output trannies are one of the finest options available today – and are broadly used in the Air Tight portfolio. Another amazing power tube option could  be also  the Tung Sol 5881 – the tube might look small from its appearance – but the sound is  big and bolt with a smooth sparkle on top, which Tung Sol also implied in its very famous 6550 black plates.
With the splitter /driver stage, we have to find a tube, which has an equally good performance in both stages.
There are two very good options for this tube position – one option will be the RCA 6CG7 clear top, and the other one is the Sylvania 6CG7 metal shield grey plates. The RCA clear top gives us a more sophisticated treble, there is more resolution in this frequency range and a very good ability to render recorded space. If you choose the GE 6L6 GC output tubes this will be a fantastic match. If you choose the RCA Black Plates 6L6 GC the Sylvania 6CG7 might be the better option.
The last tube we haven´t spoken about till now is the 12AT7, which represents the input gain section. This is not such an easy task as it seems to be. To get the most out of this tube position, I have to give some more detailed descriptions about this tube and the problem to find one, which fits our needs in this amplifier.

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If you think about the 12AT7 you can basically divide the whole bunch of them in two sections. One category is more suitable if the 12AT7 will be used as a driver stage, such design we will find in new Mcintosh amplifiers like the MC 275 MK IV – VI.
Mcintosh skipped the utilisation of the 12BH7 which was originally used in the old vintage MC 275 as a driver tube for the KT88 and replaced it with 12AT7 in this stage.
12AT7 tubes which are very good at this specific task are the US made types such as RCA 12AT7 black plates, Sylvania gold brand black blates or Tung Sol 12AT7 black plates.
If you use one of them in an input stage of your amplifier or preamplifier, you are in for a big surprise – gone is the ability to render a wide soundstage or the ability to place sound sources in front of the speakers or behind them. The whole spatial performance will be negatively affected.
Also the treble performance and the resoulution are very restricted – in one word – it sounds bad – really bad! – But if you use one of those famous US tubes in a driver stage, it is an amzingly good choice – maybe one of the best you can get. This is one good example for the importance to know which job in a given circuit a specific tube has to do and  why the opinions about the quality of such a tube differ so much.
One person tells you a black plates RCA 12AT7 is heaven on earth – and the next calls it crap…..
This makes us aware, that we alway have to tell the people in which part of the signal chain in an amplifier we listen to a specific tube – because the conditions in different stages of an amplifier are very specific – and the same tube could be bad in one stage and shines in another.
With the Air Tight ATM4 we can nearly skip any US 12AT7 the only exception is the Sylvania gold brand, black plates 12AT7 which is a good performer.
If we dig deeper, we face now the whole European ECC81 elite at our disposal.
But it is also not an easy task to get the right tone out of these ECC81 –  at the end it is one of the most complicated tubes to roll.

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Mullard had just one very good ECC81 it is portfolio –  the very old dark grey (nearly black) plates design with 3 round side holes (plate construction) made between 1955 – 1958 – and those are rarely seen today in the used market. And this Mullard ECC81 might be very good – but its sound is too polite in the treble area to work well in our Air Tight ATM4.
The exact opposite direction will be adopted by the Siemens Halske E81CC double getter support, triple mica – this is one of the most analytic ECC81 and also one of the most dynamic tubes in its class….
But – you guess it already – it is too much for what an Air Tight ATM4 might need!
There are some rare variants which can sound outstanding but in spite of hunderets of different well made ECC81 just a few options are really outstanding with this amplifier.Lets start with the cream of the crop….this might be an expensive option, and it is also a very, very rare tube – but the Valvo Hamburg made 6201 blue print, gold pin, pinch waist is a hell of an ECC81 tube!!!
Maybe this is the best or one of the best ECC81 I ever listened in an input or gain stage of an amplifier or preamplifier.
It has it all – resolution, dynamic, deeb and articulated bass, a very sophisticated treble without being too analytic, an amazing spatial sound and more so – unique qualities in the department of rendering micro dynamics and inner detail which is hard to beat!
But this little “super hero” is sooooo rare and sooo expensive – that I will give you also more common alternatives – but if you want the best – the Valvo will be my first choice!
The second best is also not very common – it is the same Valvo described above but without the pinch waist glass structure.
Beneath these exotic tubes it is also a fantastic idea to use a Telefunken ECC81.
If you can find the first series with the slanted O getter, it will be a very good choice, as it will be the Amperex Bugle Boy /Philips ECC81 with the large O getter.

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Coming back to another output tube option – the tung Sol 5881 will be a very good alternative to the 6L6 GC from General Electric. The Tung Sol will deliver a warmer tone with a unique character in the upper midrange – I would call this characteristic somewhat a creamy presence with a colourful and complex sound character. The Tung Sol 5881 might be not as common as the 6L6 GC – but it is worth to search for it. Do not be surprised, if the appearance of this tube might differ somewhat from the picture above, this tube came with a large variation of base colours, and also the mica clips at the side changed over the years.

How does it sound??

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The Air Tight ATM4 will give you with the following tube setting a sound quality, which is completely amazing:
4X General Electric 6L6 GC double side getter, grey plates
2X RCA 6CG7 clear top
1X Valvo 6201 blue print, gold pins (pinch waist) or Telefunken ECC81 slanted O getter.

It will perform in such a powerful way in spite of its apparent restricted output power of “just” 24 watts per channel, that you will be stunned.
Be it the Quad ESL 57, a pair of BBC LS3/5a or some 12 or 15″ classic Tannoy with Alnico drivers, the ATM4 will handle them all with great easy and with a sound quality normally not associated with the 6L6 GC power tube!
The sound is very controlled, slightly on the analytical side of neutral, you will never think of an overly warm and rose tinted tube amp – instead you get tremendous speed and accuracy.
The bass is immensely fast and articulated, and without the slightest emphasis on the upper bass region so many tube amplifiers could be characterised of . It is a bass performance a lot of very sophisticated transistor designs would be proud of.
In the midband there is this difficult to describe miracle happening, a kind of “being there” – sound, a floating midband, which is as natural as breathing. The treble has some seldom heard three dimensional characteristics with a very rich palette of different colours.
The resolution is mind blowing and to all that the ATM4 adds the ability to render recorded space in such a realistic way – that you might forget the existence of the walls in your listening room.

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The treble performance is one of the reasons, why this amplifier is a great match with the somewhat dfensive treble performance of the Quad ESL 57.
Those stats do not like overly warm amplifiers – to get a realistic top end, you have to match the ESL 57 with an emplifier, which sounds very open and uncompressed in that area.
But if there will be the slightest glare in the high frequency spectrum, you will detect that in less than a second with these legendary speakers.
There are so many transistor amplifiers, which seem to have a tremendous resolution in the treble – but they sound harsh and awkward. The ATM4 ist one of the very rare examples, which can easily compete with the treble performance of the best class A transistor designs at the very low impedance settings the ESL 57 brings along – but shines without any hint of grain or synthetic treble performance.
In other words the Air Tight ATM4 is one of the best amplifiers I have heard till now teamed up with the Quad ESL 57 or the BBC LS3/5a!!!

Classic design:

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The ATM4 is made in a very high quality fashion.
The whole casework is made out of welded steel.
The bottom of the amplifier is constructed with a thick sheet of copper – the whole enclosure is able to shield the electronic parts inside of the amplifier – the copper bottom plate has also the function to isolate the amplifier from vibrations.
The casework is extremely sophisticated – all tubes are located on top of the  main case, the whole electronic is located inside of this case, the power transformer, an EI core type, is shielded and placed beneath the output trannies on the right hand side of the tube compartment.
The whole circuit is made without any use of printed boards!!!
If you open the electronic section of the amlifier you will detect top class components selected with a certain sound in mind. The whole construction is made by hand and the quality and craftsmanship is of the highest standard – those amplifiers are not cheap, but there is a great chance, that you can pass them on to your children – a timeless piece of audio gear!

Some Tips:

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Air Tight amplifiers do not like to be treated in the newest fashion of upgrades achieved with “High End” gadgets and accessories the HiFi industry has on offer.
These amplifiers do not like any isolation base or replacement of their original feet with spikes or other constructions. Put them on a stable wooden piece (solid wood is preferable) of audio furniture as companies like Box Furniture in the US or LignoLab  from Germany offer to you – and they will perform perfectly.
Miura San made the amplifiers and preamplifiers in a very special way, they bring their own damping devices with them – the heavy welded steel chassis and the special applied copper bottom plate is everything these type of gear needs.
The same could be said about the usage of tube accessories like tube dampers –  spend your money elsewhere!!
Any damping gear like HRS isolation devices for example will make the sound slow and overly ripe, the leading edge sounds compressed and the whole sound looses focus and speed.

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The usage of heavily screened power cables, more so with some magical boxes in between the cable structure is a also not recommended with these classic amplifiers. Use unscreened power cables or – my tip – the traditional Belden power cords and you will receive the best performance.
Keep in mind that Miura San designs his gear with pure copper only – so keep it that way – in my experience a mixture with copper and silver as a conductor will result in  a strange behaviour of upper frequencies,  which is seldom predictable. So there might be a great chance, that the newest fashion in silver cable development will end up at selling platforms like ebay.
Keep it simple – use Belden interconnects made with pure copper, or if you want to have something special, which I highly recommend, try to get some Chris Somovigo designed cables made with a copper tube inside. Chris made in the last couple of years a confusing amount of cables branded under different names like “Stereovox”, “Stereolab” or “Black Cat”.
Not all of his designs are worth to be tested – but those with the copper tubes inside are one of the best matches, you will find for your Air Tight gear.
Beside Belden and Somovigo designs, there is also the German company Auditorium 23, which developed a range of interconnects and speaker cables, which will also sound excellent!

To make a long story short – skip power conditioners, exotic power cables, silver wired interconnects or speaker cables, forget about all the expensive and exotic damping devices and platforms – my strongest advice is: Let this type of gear as it is!
It is fully developed and it does not need any help from any HiFi accessory company!
To prove that: In the Air Tight stable there is no latest fashion. It might be no surprise, that some designs Miura developed 30 years ago, are still unchanged in the companies portfolio – something which is quite unique in the audio industry!

All classic Air Tight amplifiers are made with the 600 Ohm standard in mind. So any of these classic power-amplifiers will have an input impedance of 100 Kohm and needed to be paired with a preamplifier with 600 Ohm output impedance or less  – to get the full frequency range this gear is capable off.
For example the very, very good Hovland HP 100 preamplifier with its unusual high output impedance will be not a good match with Air Tight power amplifiers, you will get a rolled off bass performance.
A logic step would be to mate these amplifiers with their stablemates  – the also amazing Air Tight preamplifiers – but that is another story for another day….

Stay tuned

E. Strauss

 

High End 2018

Impressions

Sometimes one could ask if an Ultra High End System is really made for the music lover – or if it is something like a Bugatti Veyron, a car with can deliver over 1000 PS (hp), wich needs an air break to reduce its speed within an acceptable distance and it is not able to be used in a fashion it was originally designed for – because the people who have such a thing normally do not own their own race track.

If you want to drive from A to B you will get into big trouble with such a “Super Car” – you cannot park the damn thing because you have an extremely compromised round visibility, the clutch is like a digital converter – on or off – and nothing in between – and if you have the typical stop and go situation, very common with todays traffic, it will over heat.

It is the epitome of idiocy! – But all your “friends” will be jealous because they think, that you could only take up the “super sexy” blonde sitting on the passenger seat with their impressive silicone artwork under her shirt, her sprayed lips as well as the nice Botox expression  on her face with such a monster car.

But be aware – great lovers do not need big cars…..

I listened to nearly every Ultra High End (read Bugatti Veyron) installation at this Munich High End show, and to tell you the truth, it was mostly disgusting, you had to leave the room just after a minute of listening, because the played music was extremely disfigured, the whole demonstration was not longer sustainable.

It is strange, that you have to spent several € 100 000,- to be rewarded with something, which can be so bad and ugly, that you will maybe shock your neighbour or some of you best HiFi friends with just the size and weight of such systems – but you can never  show them how your super expensive purchase will sound, which is in my book the purpose of such an Ultra High End Audio System….If you do so, playing some well known tunes with those monsterous Installations, you have a good chance to be capacitated by your family, friends and maybe by yourself….

I know, that a HiFi show is never a good place to judge the sound of a component or a loudspeaker, but I can differentiate what will be a problem caused by the given room acoustic and what a completely imbalanced sound reproduction in the whole midband will sound like. I do not judge the ability to show recorded space, nor the resolution a system is capable of – and of course below 80hz there is in most cases a more or less disastrous boomy reproduction common practice. But what I judge is the frequency spectrum from 150 – 5Khz – which is not so much affected by the room acoustics – it should be a very easy task to get a balanced midband reproduction in a price range of € 100 000,- but it is far from that!

It is interesting, that the real highlights of this years Munich High End show was none of the bespoke Ultra HiFi installations, you had to dig much deeper, and the findings were mostly very small companies, or not even that – sometimes it is just ONE developer with ONE product. The scene changed in the last decade dramatically, today real development (I mean development and not bigger, heavier, more expensive) occurs not necessarily in connection with big companies, or big money, more and more a different view at the topic is originated by “underground” developers.

Sometimes I thought that I was part of a TV – show like “The Hidden Camera” and in the next second someone would tell me, “hey this was just a prank” but the bitter truth is, there was no “Prank Patrol” (kids TV show), it was damn serious.

Maybe some rare examples of “Think Different” presented by independent, little manufacturers could give us back some faith in an industry which completely missed the warning shot.

Some of my personal highlights:

One of the best Step Up Transformer of the whole show was this thing here…. from Michael Ulbrich. The name “Monster Can” is chosen a little bit bold, but if you hear the performance, you will forget about the funny naming….

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One of the most impressive turntables was  the L´Art du Son Transcription Reference from Martina Schöner. This machine showed most of the other installations, which often looked like the space ship of the “Borg” from Star Trek (Brakemeier Apolyt), how awesome pitch accuracy, weight and speed as also agility and neutrality will sound like! A dream! And yes, it is very expensive, but it was in my book the only very expensive deck, which had something like a realistic price performance ratio.

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One gets confused, when a broadband loudspeaker chassis from the 30ties last century was one of the highlights of the whole show – in this case the legendary (rightly so) WE 755. Truly amazing!!!

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Another great example of a very good turntable setup was the Thomas Schick 12″ tonearm combined with a Garrard 301 and a Vinylista plinth.

Something most people are not aware of – the Schick 12″ with the Grafite headshell can handle a very wide range of cartridges – and not just an Ortofon SPU or DL 103 – in this case, the arm is fitted with a Van den Hul Colibri. A cartridge which is not an easy task for a tonearm, often this little “bird” can sound very forward in the treble section. With the Schick 12″ arm the sound was very balanced!

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Frank Schröder showed his latest tonearm creation the “Broadcast Arm”. It is a stabilized uni pivot design with a variable effective mass (13 – 23g). Frank mated the “BA” arm with a Miyajima cartridge, and the sound was sublime. An outstanding combination!

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The turntable Frank used, was a fully restored and modified Gray Research HF 500. The sound was very detailed and natural with a bold colourful midrange and a fantastic drawing up of speed accuracy and an agile renedering of the leading edge as also a superb sense of three dimensionality.

In combination with the BC arm one of the very rare decks which could deliver a sound reproduction, which was amazingly real!

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The chance to listen to an original Western Electric London Horn was assuredly one of the highlights in Munich. The whole system had a slight colouration in the range of around 580 – 800hz, it was a touch too forward in this frequency spectrum, but if you once got used to it, you were in for a real treat in the dynamic compartment. Maria Callas with one of their amazing arias from Giuseppe Verdi was so intense, so real and so emotionally touching, something at this sensual level you would hardly find with any other installation at this audio fair!

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It was completely amazing, to realise that in the 30ties last century the audio industry was able to create a kind of sound, which  reproduceed music in such a realistic and touching way.

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Sometimes I think it can´t be tue, that with all the computer power, the modern techniques and all the “high tech” we have available today , everything we can do is delivering some real torture, we could find in most of the so called “Ultra High End” rooms.

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A side aspect of such an audio fair is also the product design we have to face today – form follows function is not modern anymore – today the designers have no more ideas, and therefor we have a lot of products, which could be probs of “Star Wars” or”Alien”.  Sometimes it is embrassing and sometimes you have to lough, it is probably the same situation which we can see within the car industries design departments – I mean – do you think a Toyota Prius is really beautiful and an example of outstanding design??

This I would call a classic design…..

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Silbatone amplifiers are maybe one of the best money can buy. They are manufactured with special in house wound silver foil transformers and are designed with very special and distinguished circuit principles. They use throughout the finest NOS tubes of the audio history as also very good components from suppliers like Silvercore or Dave Slagle (Intact Audio) to name just a view.

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The amazing WE London Horn System…..

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A very discrete “branding”….;-))) seldom seen at this show.

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Stay tuned

E. Strauss

What a feeling…..Part II Ortofon SPU Royal N

Introduction

In Part I of the SPU story I gave you an overview about the history of the Ortofon SPU and the technical aspects to use one of these classics within your stereo system. In this episode, I want to give you a specific view of one of the many different types Ortofon has to offer, the SPU Royal (N).

A kind of blue

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The SPU Royal N differs in some specific design aspects from the SPU Classic and its stablemate the Classic – E (elliptical stylus). First of all, Ortofon uses with the Royal version a special stylus, which they call Replicant 100, a derivate of the common line contact stylus shape. With the implementation of such a “modern” shape Ortofon managed to reduced the moved mass of the stylus tip, because the Replicant stylus carries nearly 50% reduced mass, than its opponent used in a SPU Classic. Reducing the mass within the moving parts of a cartridge results in betters tracking performance as also the ability to follow the music in a more immediate way. The leading edge will be rendered in a much more accurate way as it will be also the case with the presentation of micro dynamic shades of our most demanding vinyl records.With reducing the moved mass of the Royal (N), Ortofon  was able to design a slightly different suspension system, wich results in a decrease of the recommended vertical tracking force from 4 – 5g to “just” 3g. The coils of this cartridge were also modified, a hybrid construction made from gold plated silver wire is used, and therefor the internal resistance of the SPU Royal changed from the 1,5 – 3 Ohm resistance of the traditional SPUs to 6 Ohm in the Royal (N). With a 6 Ohm internal resistance we do not gain any increase in output level, the Royal produces the same 0,2mV as the Classic or Classic – E would do.

Consequences

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The impedance change up to 6 Ohm has some consequences in considering the use of a step up transformer (SUT). With the traditional SPU cartridges we use a 30:1 SUT  and will get, around 29db gain with such a device. The 30:1 SUT is virtually made for the Ortofon SPU range of cartridges – but those traditional SPU carts share a very low impedance of at most 3 Ohm – and only with this impedance value our SUT will deliver those 29db of gain.With the 6 Ohm Royal (N) cartridge we will face a lower gain value, because of the doubled internal resistance – the 30:1 SUT will deliver under this circumstances something about 27db (impedance mismatch) which results in a serious drop of gain. And to make the things more complicated, Ortofon recommends with the Royal (N) a load impedance of 100 Ohm instead of 50, the latter will be the optimum load for a SPU Classic.

A 30:1 SUT is not the best match with the Royal (N). If we look at the technical specs of a 20:1 SUT, we realise, that such a SUT will be a much better partner for this modernised version of an old classic. The 20:1 SUT gives us 26db and the cartridge will “see” 117 ohm load impedance which is exactly, what we need. In terms of gain, and load impedance. We achieved now a perfect match but we have to face the fact, that we still deal with a 0,2mV cartridge which will be decreased in gain about 3db in comparison with a 30:1 SUT and the SPU Classic series of cartridges.

Lets calculate that:

Example 1: SPU Classic, 2 Ohm, 0.2mV, recommended load impedance 50 Ohm 30:1 Step Up Transformer

Input:         0.2mV

Gain:           29db

Output:       5,64mV

Example 2: SPU Royal, 6 Ohm, 0.2mV, recommended load impedance 100 Ohm

20:1 Step Up Transformer

Input:         0.2mV

Gain:           26db

Output:       3.99mV

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This little gain calculation clarifies different technical requirements for both types of SPU cartridges , if we want to use a cartridge like the SPU Royal N, we must have a phonostage which is able to compensate for the lower gain values we will get with a 20:1 SUT. As most of the SPU aficionados will use a tubed phono stage, you will have to verify the technical specs of such a device – everything less than 43db is not suitable for the SPU Royal (N).

Lets do some math again:

Example 1: SPU Classic, 2 Ohm, 0.2mV, recommended load impedance 50 Ohm

Output:       5,64mV

Input:         0.2mV

Gain:           29db

Output:       5,64mV

MM Gain:  43db

Total gain: 72db

Total output level:ca. 0,8 V

Example 2: SPU Royal, 6 Ohm, 0.2mV, recommended load impedance 100 Ohm

20:1 Step Up TRansformer

Input:         0.2mV

Gain:           26db

Output:       3.99mV

MM Gain:  43db

Total gain: 69db

Total output level:ca. 0,5 V

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Both values are under 1V, which would be the gain level of a FM tuner, in comparison a CD player will deliver an output level of 2V if it is made with the Sony/Philips specs once adopted.

And in case of the Royal (N) we will get only 0,5V which is half of the output level a FM – tuner is able to deliver. Now you will understand, why a line preamplifier is indispensable teamed up with a very low output phono cartridge.

Lets assume our tube power amplifier will handle 1V at its input for delivering its maximum output power (a very common value), than the signal we will feed in our line stage is not high enough in both calculations shown above to reach the headroom of our power amplifier, the line stage has to provide additional gain to reach a value of 1V.

With todays CD players, which often produce an output level of more than 3 or 4V, our line preamplifier is degraded to be a very expensive attenuator (In a later article I will describe that subject in depth)! But everyone should understand now, what the purpose of an active line stage originally was – this thing had to give us additional gain, as it was also designed to bring input and output impedances to common values, compatible with our source devices as also our power amplifiers!

And the sound??

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As we realised with using the Ortofon SPU Royal (N ) we have to meet some requirements prior of use – a 20:1 SUT and a phono stage capable of delivering a minimum of 43db of noise free gain in a moving magnet configuration.

If both requirements are met, we will get something very special….this is not only the traditional SPU sound, there is a lot more to discover. The Royal (N) will bring to the table an increased resolution as also a refined tracking performance. It has still the bolt and holistic sound we adore so much, but the cartridge is able to show you a lot more resolution as also a better understanding of the micro dynamics of the recordings. The resolution is on par with a lot of super modern constructions but lacks to end in itself. The resolution is given to you in a very charming and smooth way, there is no shining light on this aspect of the sound reproduction,

The tracking performance is superb – the most demanding cuts are played with no hint of a grain or the slightest roughness, Ella Fitzgeralds most frightened vocal performances are shown in such a relaxed way, that you will be stunned. The ability to show us more pin point accuracy in terms of reproduction of recorded space is on par with some very good high tech carts out there. The Royal (N) is something like “Two Face” in the famous Bat Man comics. There is the classic SPU sound in its full glory, but on top of that you get a higher level of performance, and sophistication normally associated with modern high end cartridges. The Royal (N) is maybe the squareness of the circle, on one hand there is the smooth and holistic gestalt of the classic SPU, and on the other hand, their is a good portion of modern aspects which are not a betrayal of the original sound.

A great opportunity to dive into the culture of the oldest of all moving coil cartridges, a true classic slightly modernised – a masterpiece – thank you Ortofon!

Stay tuned

E. Strauss

Jan Allaerts MC1 Boron

Belgian chocolate candy

Jan Allaerts is a cartridge master builder from Belgium.

A Legend in the history of High End audio!

As Belgian chocolate candy and other world famous sweets from this little European country, the Allaerts cartridge is wrapped in a very noble golden outfit, packed in a sort of chocolate or jewelry box. The beautiful appearance is just the foretaste of what you can expect sound wise….

To listen to such a rare audio exotic is for most of the audiophile world something which is seldom possible, because Jan has a very limited production output (he builds every cartridge by hand), and therefore those cartridges are not widely spread in the market. If you once listened to a cartridge like the MC1 Boron or even a higher classed moving coil out of his workshop, you will never forget that experience – and you won´t sleep till you have one for yourself…

Looking closer

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The technical data Jan publishes on his webpage is in some aspects hard to believe. You will find informations about the tracking ability of the MC1 Boron which tells you, that 200 mü/mm will be possible and also the channel separation of 50db at 1 Khz is a figure seldom seen in this context. These superlatives would not mean, that such a cart would sound exceptional, but I have found nothing comparable with any other cartridge manufacturer – and if you talk to Jan, he is rooted in the soil and not one of these braggarts with are not so rare in the audio scene, instead you have a very modest person in front of you.

Jan Allaerts MC1 Boron MkII Cartridge

The MC1 Boron has a motor unit which is based on an EMT developement – Jan modifies this classic in every aspect except the internal resistance of around 20 Ohm per channel (the original EMT has 20 Ohm, Jans self wound coils have 22 Ohm internal resistance). The cartridge uses a boron cantilever which is equipped with a Geyger special polished diamond tip. The coils are hand wound using incredible fine wire on a 2mm x  2mm soft iron square. The basic housing is made of solid brass wich is completed with a 0,3mm thin brass cover coated with a 24ct gold foil. The latter acts like a Faraday cage! In opposite of what some very “experienced” high end freaks will tell you – let the case were it belongs and do not strip the cartridge down – I know something naked has its charms – but not in this case….;-)) Jan uses 14kt massive gold connection pins – which is as far as I know unique in that area and guarantees a perfect contact between your tonearm – wire – plugs and the cart itself.

Jan Allaerts did a lot of research in the field of the molekular structure of different materials and found out that material wich is not stressed during its manufacturing process makes it a better electrical conductor. The pole shoes of the magnetic circuit are handmade to avoid any changes in their molecular structure and Jan uses rare earth magnets (Alnico) which are rechargeable if after a long time of use, they once loose their magnetic energy.

As you might guess the attention to every single detail is unbelievable – Jan must be a perfectionist in its purest form!

Matching with a tonearm

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The cartridge has a compliance of 12cu, which means that you need an arm in the so called medium heavy class – which meets the specs of most of what is on the market today. That does not mean that every tonearm in the medium heavy class is appropriate to get the full performance which this cart is capable of  – far from that. If you google Jan Allaerts cartridges you will see a lot of illustrations showing an Allaerts matched with a tonearm from Simon Yorke or Frank Schröder.

As I own a Schröder Reference it was a logical consequence to pair this arm with the MC1 Boron – actually the presence of the Reference arm was my inducement to get such a cart….. My Reference arm has a effective mass of 13g with the usage of the “Certal” (special aluminium) headshell plate which is in terms of the effective mass a perfect match…

I think Jan uses beside Simon Yorke tonearms also the SME Series V to develop his cartridges, so this tonearm will be also a great opportunity to listen what an Allaerts cart has to offer.

The MC1 Boron needs a very precise VTF (Vertical Tracking Force) adjustment – Jan pretends you just a range of +/- 0,1g – which makes the usage of a digital gauge and some endurance indispensable! The VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle) should be set at the beginning in a way that the top of the cartridge will be set parallel to the record surface – from that point on there might be small – or better –  very small corrections necessary – the MC1 Boron reacts very sensitive in that regard!

If the sound tends to become some glare, you have to adjust the tail of the tonearm slightly down – if there is too much “bloom” in the upper bass and midrange, the armwand must be slightly raised.

A good sign that you nailed the sweet spot is a wet, smooth and extremely detailed treble performance with the absence of any harsh sound artifacts a pinpoint accuracy in rendering recorded space as also a very, very natural reproduction of the human voice.

The cartridge should be used with 100 Ohm termination with an active phono stage and is also a fantastic match to a 15:1 step up transformer. Both possibilities sound somewhat different, with the usage of an active phono stage you will get a more spacious and open sound with tremendous dynamic abilities together with a bass punch which is terrific. As the output of the MC1B gives you a very healthy signal of 0,5mV the usage of a step up transformer is not essential – you will gain with a step up transformer a better wholeness of the music, but you will loose some of the dynamic abilities and also the delicate openess will be restricted.

As I am a big fan of using step up transformers together with moving coil cartridges to maintain enough noise free gain, I would give preference in this case to a full active phono stage. In my setup I use an Air Tight ATE 2005, which offers on one of its three phono inputs a Class A transistor headamplifier, which is fed into a full tubed MM stage, a very nice combination!

Azimuth

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As the Frank Schröder Reference tonearm has not a fixed headshell / azimuth as an SME series V, you have to dial in the correct azimuth whenever you change a cartridge. To explain the adjustment of this very, very important parameter we will use a record with a vocal performance placed in the mono center of the stage. A good help will be strong produced sibiliants on that record.  A perfect aligned speaker system and good roomacoustics is a must in this case, also you should place yourself exactly in the sweetspot of your speakers. Start the adjustemt using a gauge, which is normally a plexiglass block with engraved parallel lines on it – place the block in front of your cartridge and drop the needle on the naked platter or the record surface. If your platter has a slight bowl shape – this method has to be refined – in this case you need a piece of thin glass (the makeup mirror of your girlfriend or wife comes on handy…..;-))) which reaches nearly from the center of the platter to its outer section.

Now use a good magnifying glass (I use one which is made for watch makers) and get a fix on the horizontal planes of your cartridge. If that is not precise enough, use a pencil mine, which you have to place on top of a horizontal aligned part of your cart – look again through your magnifier – every little variation is now easy detectable!

Adjust your azimuth accordingly!

If you finished this basic adjustment you ave achieved an azimuth of 0° – if the stylus is perfectly aligned you are finished know – if there is a slight offset implemented with your cart, you have to listen carefully… A wrong azimuth adjustement is clearly detectable – you get sibiliances of the human voice wich are not anymore placed in the mono center, they will move very, very fast between the channels – reverbs, which are isolated (last snare drum on a ballad for example) do not vanish symmetrically – and the whole sound is comparable to an out of focus camera lens . A good sign, that the azimuth is not correctly adjusted is also the achievable quietness of the cartridge tracking the grooves. If you will detect an abnormal raise in the noisefloor, it will be a good sign that your azimuth adjustment is not spot on. Adjustemts have to be made in tiny steps – so, please be patient – azimuth adjustments needs a lot of time, and some experience.

Another possibility is to measure the correct azimuth – for that you need an Oszilloscope in X/Y depiction and a very, very good produced test record (Ortofon 001).

I am not a big fan of software based systems – because these have to deal with the sound card of your computer – if you do not spent serious money to get something professional, you have a measurement system equipped with minijacks and computer based AD converters.

If you spend serious money and you have a good sound card which is calibrated, you could use a professional Hard Desc Recording software as Avid Pro Tools – with the software package comes a bunch of measurement tools, which are able to detect the phase relationship between both stereo channels.

But at the end a pair of good ears is never a wrong way;-)))

With the MC1 Boron I was finished with adjusting the cart at 0° azimuth offset – this thing is perfectly build!

 

The sound experience

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Put a vinyl record on your platter with some natural instruments recorded in a real space like classical music or Jazz. Drop the needle into the groove and you will get a soundstage,  a size of the reproduced music, you will never forget. If I had to crown the king of sound stage reproduction – it would be a Jan Allaerts cartridge! It is not just the width of the virtual stage – there an Ortofon SPU performs also in a very special way, it is the space which will be reproduced in all three dimensions. The ability to show the depth of a concert hall is so special, that you will listening to well recorded classic for the next months!

Every instrument seems to be not a point on the stage instead you will hear a three dimensional event, if you close your eyes there is  no localisation of your (well placed) speakers possible anymore  – a miracle. But there is more….

The Allaerts cart has the ability to reproduce the dynamic swings of the music in a way, which is not far away from  legendary DECCA London cartridge (another story….), it can produce the finest dynamic shades as it can deliver the big picture in a enormous way. The MC1 Boron can be brutish as well as smooth and tender in a fraction of a second, it can reproduce the dynamic shades in an instant, the speed of that little golden HiFi candy is outstanding.

But if you think now – ok, that  sounds as if an Allaerts cart will be an anlytical and ultra precise piece of equipment – you are not totally right – because the MC1 Boron has a type of a velvety performance which is hard to describe. The basic gesture of this cart is neutral – very neutral – but there is a oh so slightly smoothing at the top end and there is a very, very little emphasis in the midband which is a tiny portion of 1 db in terms of gain – but the Q of it is very broad – you will not face a shining light at a small portion of the midband – it is the whole midband which is affected in a very sensitive way. The Bass performance is also one of the best I have ever heard – it is not the heavy hit, you get with a My Sonic Lab cartridge nor is it the punchy style of an EMT JSD5, it is all together dressed in a fine Giorgio Aramni suit.

The three dimensionality  of the MC1 Boron is sometimes spooky, it has the ability to display sound sources far away from the point were your speakers are located, this ist true for the width of the stage as also the depth. If you listen with your eyes closed, there might be a good chance, that you sometimes think something or someone is with you in your listening room. The palette of shades the Allaerts MC cart can produce is so colourful and saturated, that, your brain does not have to abstract from the instruments or vocals to accept the reproduced sound as something real.

If there is one section were we can find a small foult it will be the quiet ride in the groove – the Allaerts is not the pinnacle of what is possible in this regard, it shows you clearly the state of your vinyl collection, so a proper vinyl cleaning machine is welcome. For such a highly detailed cartridge this small restriction must be accepted.

Is there something comparable to a Jan Allaerts cartridge?? – I am afraid it is not….It is no surprise that these little gems gain a legendary status in the ultra High End scene – it is one of the best MC – cartridges, money can buy!

As Jan Allaerts rebuilds used cartridges to their original specs, which means retipping, a new cantilever and also recharging of the Anlico magnets – your journey to an Allaerts cart could start with buying one in the used market, but be sure it is in its original state, because Jan denies any inquiry if the cart is modified in any way, which is something I can perfectly understand! If you want to have ONE super cartridge, a Jan Allaerts could be the end of your search, it does not have any favourite discipline, it can rock, swing, and boogie it will give you some unforgettable moments with classical music or Jazz as it can give you goose bumps while listening to a well recorded vocal!

Stay tuned

E. Strauss

 

Mono

Listening to a monophonic record

A lot of great music was delivered before the year 1958 were the first stereo recordings appeared on the market.

Most of the great Beatles songs were mixed in Mono – and the Mono mix – sessions were the really important ones in those days – the artists and the producer took great care to deliver the finest sound they could achieve, the later made “pseudo” stereo mixes were not so inportant, and often done without the artists or the producer witnessed that procedere.

If you ever compared John Coltranes amazing  „Blue Train“ (Blue Note 1577) in the original Mono pressing with their Stereo counterpart on a proper built monophonic sound system, you will be shocked how much better the mono pressing will be!
Some of the most respected Jazz recording catalogs at this time, like  “Blue Note“, “Prestige” or “Impulse“ to name just a few, originally were produced in Mono!
Some of the most beautiful recordings of Maria Callas were – you guessed it – also done in Mono.
And if you ever want to discover amazing music the great Toscanini conducted long time bevor Stereo was invented, which set the standards not only in its days – you will face a Mono vinyl record.
A list of all the fantastic music captured in Mono could be endless, and I can promise you, there is a lot of amazing stuff to discover, you are in for a real treat!

So a dedicated Mono system is not something for completely outdated, crazy freaks, to have the possibility to listen to a mono record in a technically correct way has something to do with loving music, overcoming the ignorance that there was a world of fantastic recorded music in existence before Stereo was invented.

A Mono Setup

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As the Quad ESL 57 was originally designed to listen to Mono recordings, because Stereo wasn´t invented in those days, also later on it was not very spread at first, it will be a great opportunity to built an outstanding mono system with this first commercially made electrostatic speaker.

if you use monoblock amplifiers,the modifications, which have to be made are very simple  – put one amplifier on the side, as you have to do so with one of the speakers – and you are done.
If you use a stereo tube amplifier, things are not as simple, because tube amps do not like to be operated without any load at their speaker terminals existent, which will be the case if you use just one channel. There will be a great chance to destroy the output transformer of the bespoke channel.
The solution is the usage of a dummy load, which is implemented by a resistor of 4 – 16 Ohm capable to withstand enough wattage, which simulates to the amplifier the load of the missing second speaker in our Mono set up.
Some stereo tube amplifiers can be swithed to mono operation, normally used to get more power from them – so great care has to be taken not to overload our electrostatics (keep in mind – 33v is the absolute maximum these construction can handle) but such a mono cunfigured amplifier will make things very comfortable and easy.
Place the ESL exactly in the center of your speaker base in your room with the same distance to the rear wall, and a symmetrically position to the side walls, you have found to work at great effect with your stereo setup and you are able to enjoy amazing monophonic recorded music reproduction.
If your your preamplifier has a Mono switch – and you are not willing to do all these modifications to your stereo set up, even if it is not the most puristic way, you can let your normal setup untouched – and listen to a monophonic source with two speakers.

However – one thing is essential, no matter which monophonic configuration I described you choose – and this is the presence of a dedicated Mono cartridge!

A dedicated Mono cartridge

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Now things get again a bit more complicated, because the stylus of a real Mono cartridge is only sensitive to movements in the horizontal plane, as Mono records are not being cut using  the 45° technique invented with the Stereo process to encode the two channels.
Any cartridge, which is in effect a Stereo cart modified by the manufacturer with a kind of Y connection at their output contact pins, will deliver a noisy, smeared sound, used with monophonic vinyl which gave Mono records its bad reputation.
A true Mono cartridge has a dedicated suspension optimised for monophonic records and is not simply a modified stereo cart – so most of the “so called” Mono carts are not what they pretend to be, because the manufacturer has to invent a complete redesign of their suspension system, which is a much too expensive development for most of the participants of that industry, as the expected sales will be much lower as with a normal Stereo cart.
One of the truly outstanding manufacturers for a real Mono cartridge is Miyajima Labs  from Japan.
Beside their amazing Stereo cartridges these manufacturer has developed a range of real monophonic pic up systems, which are top notch.
The pinnacle of the range represents the Miyajima Zero – a cartridge which has a real monophonic suspension system and is created with the usage of African blackwood on its body. This exotic hardwood gives the construction a very good energy absorption capability, helping our tonearms to deal with the mechanical energy sent from the cart into the armwand.

A word of warning must be mentioned here: Keep in mind, that a monophonic cartridge used with a Stereo record will destroy the latter, because the suspension is not able to follow the stereo – cut!

Electrical connections

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The Miyajima Zero is equipped with 4 contact pins at its back, which makes the installation in a normal Stereo tonearm very easy – no cables have to be dropped or taped together to avoid hum or, much worse – get in contact with the record surface.
The cartridge has 6 Ohms of internal resistance and an output of 0.4mV both figures are not exotic and compatible with a wide range of phono stages.
The use of a step up transformer is very much appreciated, it gives the sound a certain wholeness and a very nice sparkle at the top end of the audio spectrum, as also a fantastic bass performance.
A good SUT will be a 1:20 type which will produce enough gain for the following moving magnet phono stage.

If you want to touch the 100% mark – do yourself a favour and use a tube driven phonostage – the possible sound quality will be amazing and also the historically correct way to listen to our favourite monophonic vinyl records.

Mechanical basics

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 The Miyajima Zero has a compliance which is comparable with an Ortofon SPU – so a heavy tonearm is essential.
The starting point will be something around 20g eff mass – and as it is the case with the Ortofon SPU, the best performance will be reached around 22 – 24g!
If the tonearm is too lightweight the sound will become nervous and thin, the stage will be smeared and the impact in the bass frequencies is compromised.
With nearly all my vinyl – rig setups I made the experience, that  if the resonance frequency of the mounted cartridge would fall into the range of around 9hz, a good mechanical isolation of your turntable provided, you will get a very balanced overall performance.
The tonearm which guides the Miyajima through the grooves should bring along a very good ability to deal with mechanical energy wich the cart sends into the armwand – even if the wooden body helps here, the Miyajima is not an easy cartridge in this area.
Undamped steel armtubes, which we can find in the legendary first series of the SME 3012 are not a good choice in this case, the sound will be harsh and abrasive, a good damping is essentially with the complete range of MIyajima carts, will it be a Mono, or the very special built Stereo models.
I use my Zero cartridge with a Frank Schröder DPS custom made tonearm which implies a snakewood armtube (22g eff mass), that shows an outstanding performance with this cart.
The reason for the great compatibility is Franks patented magnet bearing which has the ability to dampen the cartridge with a fine adjustable induction of Eddy current at its bearing.
A Thoms Schick 12“ or 9.6“ together with the new Schick graphite headshell, Thomas recently invented, will be also a fantastic setup!
Both tonearms can handle the Miyajima carts in an outstanding way – one could think they are made for each other!

 

Adjustments

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 The VTF must be set at a frightening 3.5g – but stay cool – your mono records will appreciate it and in contrast to some high end rumours, these vinyl records will outlive you and your children!
The VTA should be adjusted in a way ,that the top of the cartridge body flush with the record surface, from that point on, some experimentation is necessary.
Listen to the human voice and the presence of it. If the treble reception (S, T, SCH) will be slightly localized in front of deeper frequencies, you are done, if the presence will be at the same position as the deeper frequencies, the VTA must be adjusted, so that the back of the arm has to be raised slightly. The goal is, to reach a natural reproduction of the human voice, in wich treble, presence and the deeper midband are balanced.
You will incedently know if the things begin to lock into place – some effort at this point will be the ticket to a completely satisfying listening experience!
Antiskating should be adjusted in a way, that the cart cued up in between the groove at the end of the record, will slide gently towards the label with the same speed as the groove.
It might be a slight under – compensation, but that will be much more appreciated than the opposite.
The Zero is capable of such an outstanding performance, that if you are not satisfied, the reason must be searched somewhere else in your setup – some minor adjustments will have a great effect – so be patient!
The Miyajima Zero has the ability to give you such a high performance in every aspect of the typical audiophile parameters, that listening to Mono pressings will be a thrill!
The punch and impact those records will have is amazing, and the presence of the sound is something you have to hear yourself to believe it! Mono is not for people, who cannot afford stereo, Mono is something very special most of us have long forgotten!

 

The needle – make your choice

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Miyajima Labs gives you the opportunity to choose between three different stylus tip constructions.
There is the 0,7mil sized tip, which is the optimal choice for those of us, mostly listening to Mono reissues.
Than there is the ability to use a 1mil tip, which is the way to go, if you have a great collection of antique monophonic records from the 50ties.
And for all 78rpm lovers Miyajime offers a 3.0mil Shellac compatible cartridge – but keep in mind, that vintage original pressings (33.3 and 78 rpm) are normally not cut with the RIAA curve implemented (a technical standard later was invented) – so you need a special phono preamplifier with the opportunity to chosse different deemphasis curves!
One of this rare units is the Sentec phono EQ unit made in Sweden – with this device you have the chance to dial in nearly every deemphasis curve the different record company used in those days. The specific deemphasis curves of the different record companies used in the “pre RIAA” era is a story, I will write about in the near future – so, stay tuned…..
If you want to have the things more comfortable – use the modern reissues – and enjoy some great music.

 

Listen to some music

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One of the best addresses for amazing good mono cuts is the US American company Acoustic Sounds, Chet Kassem (the owner of Acoustic Sounds) is doing a fantastic job in remastering those  old recordings with the assistance of some of the best mastering engineers in the world.
The pressings are very quiet, you can count the ticks and crackles on each sind with the fingers of one of your hands – truly outstanding.
Chet did in the last years a lot of remastering work with some of the legendary Mono cuts from the famous „Prestige“ catalog – so you are able to listen in 2018 to a cut originally made in the 50ties showing the early work of Miles Davis or Eric Dolphy!
The Miyajima Zero is riding the grooves of this fantastic made Mono reissues in a way that is jaw dropping. Out of a jet black backgound you will get an amazing amount of macro and micro dynamics which could be frightening, this little gem produces a sense of presencem which makes the whole performance sounding real and authentic. And you wont believe it – there is a sort of space and a three dimensionality in those recordings, which is technically not possible, but it is there.
The bass section is so bold and tight, with so much articulation in the deep spectrum, that you will jump out of your chair – the realistic representation of the music is so touching, that you wont miss the huge stage a Stereo record is capable of.
Mono can be an eyeopening experience!
The musical performance is presented in such a pure and immediate way, that you will be really touched, it moves you in a very special way.
If Maria Callas is performing one of her famous pieces from the Aida opera recorded in 1951, it might be impossible to hide the tears in your eyes!
Much fun with MONO
yours
E. Strauss

What a feeling…..the Ortofon SPU

Some thoughts

During the period of 1957 – 1959 Robert Gudmandsen invented the legendary SPU (Stereo Pick Up) moving coil cartridge for the Danish company Ortofon. The typical customer of that day was not the HiFi enthusiast, it was the professional broadcast industry which used this cartridge for their on air music program.

In 2018 you can still buy this cartridge – 61 years is close to an eternity in the entertainment electronics industry. And in spite of all the inclinations, it is not a dead product for some wise, grey, old men with their vintage gramophones – generation after generation there is a still growing number of audiophiles, who will sooner or later discover the sound of an Ortofon SPU.

Old versus new

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There must be a certain fascination listening to your record collection using this legendary vintage design, otherwise this long lasting popularity can´t be explained. Today a growing market is the Far East – and to tell you the truth, the Japanese audio enthusiasts were always ahead of their time, otherwise it can not be explained why the Japanese High End scene was the first to rediscover the Single Ended Triode amplifiers or Western Electric horn loaded speaker systems, which the American scene thought were a load of scrap metal in those years. And even we German enthusiasts discovered the fine quality of professional broadcast equipment, like the EMT 927 and 930 as well as Studer CD players to name just a few, long after they were hip in the Japanese scene. With South Korea it is now the same story – or do you remember any better sound demonstration at the last couple of audio fairs in Munich, than those carried out by Silbatone together with their huge Western Electric installations?

By the time we muzzy European audiophiles got it, the prices had gone up to stratospheric regions or the cool stuff had vanished from the market and was in solid collectors hands! Indeed most of the “scene” here believes, that newer is always better, and more expensive is a guarantee to get the best sound – so they will never realise that in some areas of our beloved hobby, the peak performance was already reached a long time ago.

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How else can we explain the intoxicating sound of an original Wesetern Electric 300b engraved base – a tube which is today not rare, it has vanished completely from any circulation on selling platforms – and you might guess who on this planet has a stash full of them???

Until today it seems to be impossible to build something that equals the sound of this tube legend. And the younger audiophiles among us, just as the modern tube industry, who both eventually never had a chance to listen to the original WE 300b engraved base, won´t get tired of telling us that a modern 300b of the brand “xyz” can match the sound quality of the old American tube… Friends – that is a fairy tale until today!

So, it is not a bad idea to look at Japan or South Korea and also China, if we want to get an idea of the latest fashion in High End audio! That makes us vinyl junkies who were yesterday old fashioned and behind the moon, today, the latest fashion. We are now hipsters!!

Apparently those people in the Far East have a better understanding of sound and the beauty of it, and they might have a better understanding of traditional and modern culture and how to bring both things together??

Maybe there is a reason, why the legendary Ortofon SPU is so popular in the Far East and maybe we should get in touch with this all time classic!

Restoration job

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I discovered the Ortofon SPU 20 years ago, having a job project were vinyl restoration was implied. I had an assignment to digitise (oh yes, I know that is hard stuff…)  1200 vinyl records for a German archive. The records were all together in a mediocre shape – after endless cleaning processes with professional record cleaning machines, I found out that a modern high end cartridge with a compliance of around 12cu or more, will lengthen a scratch on the vinyl surface on the time domain. The scratch is not anymore as long as it is, there is so much energy traveling up the needle and tonearm, that the scratch has nearly doubled its length on the timeline. This means that later applied interpolation algorythms of my Sonic Solution workstation had to do a much tougher job to get rid of the scratch and bring on the original modulation at the given timecode address.

What to do….??

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One day – when I was close to a nervous breakdown, I discovered the history of the moving coil pic up – it was a sort of skipped action, because I had no further idea how to bring a proper signal to my DCS AD Converters to get the most out of the scratched vinyl surface. And as you already know – I stumbled upon the Ortofon SPU…

20 years ago you were a nutcase if you entered a HiFi shop asking for an Ortofon SPU – and so I had a long discussion with the gentleman behind the counter, who wanted me to buy a Van den Hul DDT instead of a SPU cartridge. But I was steadfast and ordered an Ortofon SPU A with an elliptical stylus.

Weeks later I got the vintage cartridge and mounted it on my EMT 997 tonearm. And guess what – the beast sounded wonderful – and it made out of a scratch what a scratch really is – a short spike and not a huge monster! After the job was done, I had heard 1200 records with this thing – I mean for a very long time I had listened to nothing else than an Ortofon SPU. As I was finished and felt some passion to listen to my own records at home again, I was not prepared for a huge surprise – a sort of cultural shock.

My cartridge at this time was a a Dynavector Karat, which I loved very much. The Dynavector had so much more surface noise and told me about every scratch on the vinyl surface as a racing car would do with the given road conditions. But that was not everything, there was a cut in the midband of this cartridge, a treble rise and a thin bass. From that moment on, there was a SPU in my home at anytime!

The Tonearm

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To dive into the world of an Ortofon SPU there are a lot of requirements necessary to bring out the full potential of such a cartridge. The first thing is a proper heavy tonearm. That might be one of the biggest challenges, because in our modern HiFi market such tonearms are nearly forgotten. If you do not want to use a 12″ arm, the problem to get an arm with a high effective mass is even more difficult. The candidates are mostly vintage examples, which we can get in the used market with some luck. Think of an Ortofon 309, Fidelity Research FR64S or 66S (12″), or the SME classics 309 or 3012 – both of the latter have to be the first generation of this classic. But if you discover these vintage warhorses,  there are some problems you will find, which nobody is talking about.

The FR64 and 66S – both are among the best tonearms ever made using steel for their armtube – do not sound especially good with such an SPU cartridge – do not ask me why, such FR arms matched with a Koetsu cartridge or on Ikeda 9 would be audio nirvana, with the SPU both sounded ok – but not extraordinary.

The SME 3009 and 3012 at their age today often have problems with their knife edge bearings – and, they are both not compatible with the G shell geometry of our SPU cartridges – so you have to deal with a compromise in adjusting the cart in a geometrically correct way.

The vintage Ortofon tonearms are one of the best possibilities, but you have to restore them, overhaul the bearings – also a new tonearm cable would be a good idea.

A great opportunity would be a Shindo tonearm, which is a variation of the old Ortofon tonearm, but these things are very, very rare.

The EMT 997 is also a good possibility, and they are available again brand new at Audiotorium 23 in Germany or Tone Imports in the USA.

Maybe the Thomas Schick tonearm, which you can buy brand new, has the best price to performance ratio of them all. This thing is an amazing opportunity to use an Ortofon SPU to its full potential.

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Thomas offers a long version which is 12″ long, and a shorter version which has the size of 9.6″. The latter can be a direct replacement on most EMT turntables with their 9.6 EMT tonearms (which are not the wisdoms last conclusion to say the least….). A Schick tonearm and an Ortofon SPU is a match made in heaven – and if you now think, ok, some day I want to be able to change the cartridge – do I need another arm then??? I can reassure you – a Schick tonearm will also sound amazing with a Lyra cart, a DL 103, a Benz Micro and whatever you like, it is one of the most versatile tonearms on the market and one of the very rare “best buys” in the audio business.

I went into a slightly different direction, which has something to do with my turntable, which does not accept a 12″ armlength (Grrrrrrr!!!!). One day I contacted Frank Schröder, the famous German tonearm designer – because he uses different woods achieving different effective masses on his famous tonearms. Frank doesn´t use different kinds of wood, because they might sound different, as it will be the case with the construction of wooden instruments – far away from that. Frank uses a lot of different tinctures, oil and God knows what, to get rid of any sound variation of the different wood types. In the end you choose one specific sort of wood, because you want a specific effective mass at a given armlength.

So my approach was to get around 22g eff mass with a 9,5″ tonearm – something you cannot buy off the shelf. Frank listened carefully to my wish list, made some notes on a piece of paper and told me I have to wait nearly a year, because he had so many orders….. One year – that is hard stuff – but I knew in this moment that it will be well worth the wait, because this arm would be my second Frank Schröder designed – so I had a good idea what kind of outstanding performance was at stake!

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Finally after 8 months (faster than promised!!!) I got my brand new Schröder DPS tonearm made out of snakewood, which is one of the  hardest woods on planet earth. The arm has 22g eff mass with an aluminium headshell plate and can reach 27g with a plate made out of brass – Bingo!!!! – that was my SPU tonearm.

And to tell you the truth – it is not used only for the classical Danish cartridge, I use it also together with a Miyajima Zero mono cart (in my book THE mono cartridge at the moment – but that´s another story), an Ikeda 9, and also with different Koetsu moving coil carts.

The Step Up Transformer

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Next thing in our SPU requirement list is the amplification of this classic cart…..this old lady wants to see a step up transformer performing at its best. Such a transformer should have a turn ratio of 30:1 or even 40:1, depending on the achievable gain level of your moving magnet phono stage.

The Ortofon SPU Classic has an electrical output of just 0.2mV and an internal resistance of 2.5 – 3 Ohms depending which classic SPU you own. That is a tough task for nearly every phono stage – 0.2mV is half of what you get with a Koetsu Rosewood – so the decision to use a step up device is not a bad idea, if you want to have a jet black background while listening to your favourite records. But things are not as easy at it seems – because the higher the turn ratio of a step up device (more gain), the more degradation we can expect soundwise – so it is much more complicated and expensive to make a fantastic sounding 30:1 step up transformer, than to build one with a 10:1 turn ratio….

Finding a proper Step Up Transformer

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There are some very, very good candidates on the market – mostly relatively unknown, because such devices are not made anymore by the large, well known audio companies. But there is a small hardcore scene, which delivers outstanding products.

What do we have??

Here are my top five:

1. The Hasimoto HMX and HM7 – both are 30:1 trannies and their sound is astonishing.

2. Auditorium 23 T1 step up transformer – there is no technical data available, but this step up device is specially made for the Ortofon SPU and sounds amazing.

3. Michael Ulbrich – these are huge trannies, bigger than CocaCola cans – but if you ask me, this is the best of the best at the moment! They look strange at first site – but the sound is audio nirvana! My number 1!

4. Mitch Cotter MK II L – an old classic, but a great step up transformer, you will get this unit only on the used market. It is not made anymore – and it is not a cheap affair – but really great!

5. Kondo Audio Note Japan S6 and also KSL – both are extremely expensive, the S6 is only available on the used market, the KSL could be bought new, even though there is a newer model coming up – some High End dealers will have the old KSL still in their shops. But take a deep breath – these units are ultra expensive – and they are good – but in my book way too expensive – Michael Ulbrich can do it much better for far, far less!

The cable between the step up transformer and your phono stage

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The last difficult chapter is the cabling. If we use a step up transformer the cable between this unit and our MM (moving magnet) phonostage input is as important as the tonearm cable itself – both are the most important cables in the whole audio chain!

What the heck is so special about theses connections? The tonearm cable distributes the tiny voltage our SPU is able to deliver – that is 0.2mV – which means milli Volts – and milli means millionth Volts!!!!! This cable is connected to the input of our step up device – this unit is completely passive – so no power cable or power supply is necessary. To put it simple – our step up device is changing current into Volt – with a given turn ratio. The cable that distributes this signal to our phono stage has to be a cable with an extremely low capacity. Because the given capacity increases exponentially depending on our turn ratio! So you have to get the lowest capacity in a fully shielded cable you can get.

One of the best possibilities off the shelf is the Lyra Phono Pipe – maybe there are also DIY solutions I am not aware of – but the Phono Pipe is a very, very good cable for that purpose. It is perfectly shielded – which is important, because the signal coming out of our step up transformer is not a line signal – it is a high Z signal, which is prone to picking up noise, hum and EMI. The Phono Pipe has the lowest capacity at the moment of all cables I am aware of on the market, and it is beautifully made – and of course it is anything but cheap. But the sound and the ability to solve so many problems regarding that specific connection between step up device and phono stage makes it a very good solution.

What we get

 

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The SPU mounted in the headshell of a top flight heavy arm, amplified with a very good step up transformer driving a tubed MM phono stage can deliver a sound you will never forget. The bass ist tight and full bodied – it doesn´t reach down to the absolut deepest regions, but what the cartridge delivers in this frequency band is the DEFINITION of punch!

The midband is warm, natural and beautiful – there is nothing distracting in it, no harshness, no glare, no roughness, it is a smooth, almost uncoloured midband. The treble is very special – it sounds wet as well as light and sweet. It is not the last word in resolution, but it has enough of it, if the music calls for it. The treble is never fatiguing – a SPU has the ability to project the treble in a three dimensional way – it is not just a sort of white noise we will detect on a lot of other cartridges, even in price regions in which normal people would buy a small car. This treble has gestalt and flow and a very high ability to follow even the biggest dynamic swings.
The dynamic abilities of a SPU are also very special – this thing can start and stop with a tremendous speed – it is anything but a slow performer, if the tonearm has the correct effective mass. The projection of space is one of its strongest sides. If you have never listened to an Ortofon SPU tracking some well recorded classical music – then you are in for a big surprise. These cartridges have the ability to show the stage in a manner I would call cinemascope style! In that very wide stage the SPU is able to render, you will have a slightly up front picture of the monophonic center stage. A vocal will come out of your speakers and is placed a good margin in front of the speaker base! A SPU is able to be big and bold, just as it can be intimate and fragile at the same time – that is something very, very special!

In the end it will give you the music as a whole experience, it is this holism, which makes it a perfect cartridge to discover music. It is all about the composition, the emotion and the feeling – not so much about every single detail and nuance a recording will show. It is also not a technical sounding cartridge – it shows music in its whole beauty – even if the tracks are not so well recorded or mixed and mastered – it is the perfect tool for a music lover!

Many variations on one theme

 

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If you look at the Ortofon webpage, you will be surprised how many different SPU cartridges are on offer…..it will be too much for this article to describe every single SPU cartridge (in depth discussion of that will follow) – so I have to choose my favourites…

First of all – if you don´t have a tonearm with a SME bayonet connector to use the traditional G shell cartridges, you have to choose the 1/4″ mounting version, which is called Ortofon SPU N.

As I am using a Frank Schröder tonearm, it is not possible for me to use the G shell SPU cartridges – so I am limited to the N style SPU carts. Many SPU hardcore freaks claim that the N style SPUs are not real SPUs because the shell is missing – and I will tell you that is true – and a good thing – because the naked SPU doesn´t have the shell in which it resonates. If you don´t mind – call the N style carts more neutral.

If you are a novice my advice would be: buy the cheapest and most original one, the Classic SPU with a conical needle. In 2018, this is the closest thing to the original cart from the 50ties you can get – and it is maybe the best entry into the SPU-game!

If you want to have a little bit better tracking quality and some more resolution, then you pick up the Classic SPU with an elliptical stylus – it has a slightly modernised sound but dosn´t miss the traditional tone of these legends. A true classic with some upgrades in different sound categories – but it is as close to the classic sound as it can be.

The SPU Royal N or Royal GME (with the G shell) is something different – it is also a SPU but with a more modern sound character – the differences are the coils, the mass of the needle tip, and the stylus shape. Here, Ortofon uses a line contact derivate which they call Replicant 100. This SPU is a perfect starting point if you want to have a great portion of the classic SPU tone, garnished with some modern sound reproduction aspects – one of them is a much better resolution as the Classic SPUs will have. It is also the quietest SPU you will get regarding vinyl surface noise.

And last but not least, my personal favourite SPU – the Meister Silver….in the 1.5 Ohm version! This cartridge is placed soundwise between the Classic SPU with an elliptical stylus and the Royal N – it is not modernised as much as the Royal N – but it has more resolution than both Classic SPUs. It has maybe the best integration of the classic SPU tone with some very distinctive implemented modern aspects – a dream to listen to!

No matter what you choose – you will hear a high portion of realism in yor music, which is presented tremendously un-technically, fluid and emotionally touching – one of the all time classics.

If you are more a music lover and not so much an audiophile, then this cartride is for you!

Stay tuned.

 

E. Strauss