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:
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.
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….
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:
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…..
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…
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.
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….
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!
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??
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…..