The Marantz CD 94 Part II – the DA converter

This essay is a follow up to the first part The Marantz CD94 – Part1 (the drive mechanism) which described the outstanding quality of the drive mechanism from Philips (CDM1 Pro). In this part (II) I will share some thoughts and tweaks  around the DA converter section of this classic vintage player.

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Modern days

As you might know the CD 94 MK I is fitted with the Philips TDA 1541 A multibit ladder dac. This is a legendary DA converter – it never got any better, just cheaper. The audiophile magazines told us all the past decades, that every new converter generation gained a much better sound quality, than the previous one – which is completely wrong. The truth is, modern bitstream DA chips already imply everything you need to get a decent analogue signal out of your digital source, be it a CD or streamed digital data. There is not much more to do for the manufacturer as to built a proper power supply, often they use two – one for the analogue section and one for the digital stages. They design some nice casework, a good styling and a tremendous accurate clock – in which some of the more serious companies do a real good job. Any manufacturer uses nearly the same stuff. Some differ in doing excessive upsampling, some offer a different clock design, and most of the serious models do a sort of overkill in the power supply department and multiplying the number of converter chips to get a higher accuracy (Accuphase). Only very, very few models are in existence, which do really something innovative, Playbackdesigns with their FPGA DA converter technology comes to mind, Aqua with its modern implementation of the last multibit DA converter generation (already NOS stuff) and maybe those modern interpreatations of the classic TDA 1541 Philips converter, we will discuss here, done by High End manufactures like Zanden or AMR. Some companies think it is a good idea to construct the analogue output stage with designing a tube circuit –  in most of the cases, it is just a buffer stage, which should colour the sound of the player. Serious tube output stages are very, very rare, companies like Acousticplan and Lampizator must be named here.

Some facts

Lets talk about some “digital lies” first…..rubbish that is repeated thousands of times which makes it not more true. Lets start with some facts:

Any conversion process will degrade the digital signal!!!!

That is hard stuff – because what is meant is every change in the source data integrity will degrade the sound. That is a matter of fact for up sampling, down sampling, oversampling (which is NO interpolation!!!!), changes in bit depth were it does not matter if we try to make out of 16 bit 24 or vice versa….EVERY CHANGE messes up the integrity of the original data.

There is no way – even for streaming services, to better the sound of the 1980ties Eurhythmics Album “Sweet Dreams” – other than a new mastering process with the original master tapes. If the original master is digital, which happened throughout the 90ties (last century) with DAT machines, and later hard disc recording workstations, the game is over – because we once converted analogue to digital – and now it is digital – and there is no way – other than converting the files to higher sampling rates and / or bit depth, which seriously degrades the original file in favour of some streaming clients, who think – “ohhhh my…..now my favourite Prince album is available in pure DSD…..It is customer´s fake!!!!

Most of the stuff at streaming platforms produced in the end of the 80ties and through the 90ties have seen a very poor AD conversion, and is just up sampled (converted) – because most of these productions had only a digital master – so there is no other way than a new mix – if the session tapes or data on a hard drive (end of the 90ties) are still available – otherwise a remastering could only deal with what was AD converted in those years – mostly not worth the money and the work!

But why was there such a bad AD conversion quality present in the first yers of the CD era???

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My own story

Let me tell you a story from my own experience….I worked 25 years in the music business as a producer and engineer. One day – it was 1993, I left my studio with an analogue master under my arm to enter my favourite mastering facility in Hamburg. The mastering engineer took my analogue tape, and told me the record company wants to have, both vinyl and a CD – so we started to measure the Studer A80 mastering machine and routed their outputs to the mastering desc a very, very high end analogue piece of audio jewelry.  I took a seat and enjoyed my mixing work – everything sounded familiar to me – a good sign – because nothing is more confusing, as if you cannot detect your own mixing work while sitting in the mastering process. The competent engineer behind the desc started with some tweaks, correcting mistakes in equalisation I did in my mix, we got rid of some emphasis in the lowest midband, gained some nice sparkle on top, so that the cymbals sounds very open and expensive. It sounded fantastic and I got more and more relaxed, because this guy worked miracles on my mixing work – Ekki was very, very happy.  After the whole sound adjustment process we transferred the the signal to the Neumann cutting lathe – and had a very nice result. Lets call it a day….!

But than the whole mess started – because we also had to create a digital master for the pressing plant…..The industry in those days brought out the CD format, an international standard, which is  in existence till the present day. Everything seems to be fine – but it was not! Because as we would witness two decades later  with the development of the SACD the commercial audio industry forgot the professionals – those people who have to create the content, the industry wanted to sell.

Instead of a very elaborated audio workstation, we had the Sony U Matic system – a technology based on a drive, which Sony originally designed to record video data on it, a processor and a pair of lousy AD and DA converters. We connected the Studer master machine to the U Matic AD converter, the signal went trough the processor and error counter (something which is non existent in modern digital days….) – and digitised the formally analogue master. The output of the Sony U Matic DA converter was now routed to the monitors – and I thought I had to kill myself. Gone was the sparkle, gone was the natural midband, gone was the warmth, gone was the recorded space – I witnessed a flat, cold, dead and ugly sound – but that was the modern high end format of those years – stunning!!!!

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In my example above, I did my mixing in the studio fully analogue – so, there would be a good chance,  with better high resolution converters available today to remaster it again to develop a true high bit, high sample rate digital stream – which would not have been possible if I had used a digital 16bit / 44.1 master. You get the point???

Today it is a matter of seconds to convert any digital signal to something which looks impressive – modern computer technology with the world class audio software on them is able to generate out of a 16bit/44.1Khz file a 196khz, 24bit data stream – but you do not gain anything – instead of that you loose quality. Lets introduce the term “BIT TRANSPARENT”. To have a bit transparent signal in terms of its original source data is the best quality you can get!!!!!!

A lot of people wonder, while the old 1988 Prince CD sounds much better than the high resolution file available at several streaming platforms – now you no why that is the case…..

So why do we choose the CD 94???

The Maranz is very well built, it has a good platine layout, a fantastic drive mechanism and a lot of space for all the tweaks we have to do, to make a giant killer out of this audio grandpa. What that means is – that NO old Marantz CD 94 from the past in its original condition used as an integrated CD player will sound very good or reference class like – far from that! – So how can we unleash the whole potential….????

 

The TDA 1541

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The Marantz is equipped with this DA converter legend – as I said above, it does not get any better than this – but first lets talk about the different TDA 1541 versions.

Philips had a grading system with their DA converters – the worst specs got the name TDA 1541 R – and the R stands for relaxed! – This Chipset was normally sold to companies who made very cheap players – so they wanted to have a nicer price tag on the very expensive TDA 1541 chips (which is way, way more expensive than ANY converter made today).

The next quality level is the TDA 1541 A – which was the standard grade chipset, which Marantz choose for the CD 94 MK I. – If we open the hood of our CD 94 MK I we will find exactly this chip which is soldered directly onto the board.

The high end converter types from Philips were the single and even more so, the double crown TDA 1541….called S1 and S2 and featured a stamped crown on their surface (or two). Be careful – today are a lot of single crown and even more so double crown fakes on disposal at ebay and other sellin platforms…as such a single crown TDA 1541 will set you back of around €250,- it is a good idea to know for sure if it is an original version or a nice artwork of some freaks….

Keep in mind, the double crown TDA 1541 is very, very rare. The one and only CD player ever made with 1541 double crown TDA chips was the Marantz CD7 – which is in my opinion one of the best players ever made – but if we are finished with our Marantz CD 94, we are soundwise very close to this audio legend – in some parameters better, in other the CD7 is unbeatable!

What we need is a single crown TDA 1541 converter – and that means also, that we have to unsolder the old A version, and instead of directly resolder the single crown version onto the board, we should opt for an IC socket, were we can plug and unplug the new converter chip if needed.

 

Recapping

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The change from a TDA 1541 A to S1 status is not the most important tweak, we have to deal with….far from that. Starting from here, you are dealing with serious electric circuitry – a basic knowledge of electric engineering is essential, and all of what you do from now on is on your own risk – please read that twice!!!!! – If you never managed to get a proper solder point forget all of the following modifications and buy a good record player!

The Marantz CD 94 is now 30 yers old – most of its time it was stored in a dark cellar because his owner upgraded it with something new (more correctly, the Marantz shares half of its “celler time” with other old digital players, which are all “upgrade victims”…think about how many CD players you owned….;-)))) All caps – and I mean ALL of them will be far away from their original specs. Most of the players which were retired, had problems with reading a CD – the owner thought it is a worn out laser mechanism – but it is not – in 99 from 100 cases, it is the electrical side of the drive mechanism – not the laser itself or the mechanism. So we have to unsolder EVERY cap and  resolder later on the best quality we can get today, which is not such a complicated task, because the quality of modern electrolytics gained immensely in the last decades. To get the work done in a proper fashion. You need the service manual – which you can find on the web (cost free) and you should be able to read a circuit diagram – of course.

I would opt for Panasonic FC caps in the power supply, in all the digital circuits SANYO OSCON is a very good idea – because they behave very stable at different temperature conditions…Be careful – OSCON cpas are widely available in SMD (surface mounted devices) versions – to find the standard mount version is often not an easy task – but they are existent. In the analogue stage I used Rubicon, and Cerafine, as also Elna Silmic caps – if you can find Black Gates – and have the money – feel free to buy them – but they are nearly vanished even on selling platforms like ebay.

PLEASE – do the recap work section by section…and if you are tired – leave the solder iron alone and go to bed – because every electrolytic capacitor is directional, and if you are tired it happens that……;-)))) Do function tests on a regular basis, if you are finished with one section – if there is a mistake, you will have a much better chance to find the problem fast and easy.

If you replace the big power supply caps (5 of them not only the big twin towers) I would opt for slightly larger capacity – and I mean slightly (10 % ) otherwise the original power transformer cannot handle your nice tuning!

The biggest improvement

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After the recapping is done you have the rare opportunity to listen to a Marantz CD 94 in quasi new condition – and you will be impressed – there are more CD players in existence today which sound much, much worse than that old machine. But until you tweak the player any further there is no chance to play in the same league were the best players are at home….

The Marantz CD 94 – as most of the other TDA 1541 players have one serious problem in common, and this is the power supply regulators – or better, the amount of them. One regulator in the original design handles nearly all digital stages – and here is our biggest problem. The TDA 1541 needs a daughter chip which is called 7220 – and this thing pollutes a lot of digital rubbish in our rail which supplies also the DA converter, the clock and digital periphery. So we have to take care of that. As you might noticed, every Philips design in this period of time had those cooling fins at the back of the players. In the original design there are 3 discrete power regulators attached to those cooling fins – and we have to double that! Our goal is to give the TDA 1541 a separate rail – without any influence of the “dirty” 7220 – and we will do the same with the 7220 itself und the clock.

So we have to design 3 new power regulators (discrete) and connect them with the corresponding parts on our circuit board bypassing the original power traces, so that all 3 devices (TDA 1541, 7220 and clock) are directly fed with their supply voltages. We are must mount the hot transistors of our discrete regulators to the same cooling device as the already existent three original regulators. To distribute the clean supply voltage, use good quality solid core copper cables, and twist them tightly to gain some shielding.

Now we have reached a lot more sound quality – the truth is – you wont think it is still the same player….it is that impressive!

Further improvements

If you like, you can install now  a new high end clock – there are different manufacturers in existence, I would opt for a Tental Labs solution…which fits perfectly into the CD94. They supply their clock with a good manual and it is an easy task, if you already managed our journey to this point.

The analogue output stage

Now things become very interesting again…You can decide if you want to get rid of the whole de emphasis circuit, because (I bet??) you will have not a single CD in you collection, which is coded with emphasis (which was a very old technology in the first years of CD production to gain SR ratio).

What you seriously have to do, is get rid of the 4 poor op amps soldered directly onto the board. To do so, buy some very good quality IC sockets – because (I know you very well) you want to experiment with different OP amp designs. Keep in mind – just pulling out one Op amp and replace it by another one is not the way that game works, because EVERY high bandwith OP amp today needs its proper implementation – so read the papers….and do your homework!

A good choice will be the Burr Brown OPA 627 single (all 4 OP amps are single types). You can also go full throttle and buy some discrete OP amps from companies like Burson Audio – and if that is not enough, you can use Daniel Weiss devices from Switzerland – they are very, very good, but also very expensive – and they need proper implementation, which means a complete redesign of the IV stage and filter design!!!! – Which is a lot of work and needs serious know how.

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I opted for Burson Audio, which are way better than any integrated OP in this player (not always the case) and not even in the same galaxy, than what was used in the original design of the CD94!

All Philips TDA 1541 implementations (there are two exceptions) have a DC offset at the analogue output section of the IV stage – which we have to get rid of. The way to do so ist a coupling capacitor directly in front of our output sockets. Here you have to calculate the capacity of the cap – which determine the lowest frequency your player will be able to produce…a figure around 22mF would be perfect. You can search for some really good caps in the high end accessory market. Keep in mind, that you need for the best of them (and the most expensive ones) a lot of space, which you don´t have. And – if you use a big, big silver foil mega hyper cap – you will have very long connection legs, which is not a good thing! I used Mundorf tin foil caps, which are not so big – and fits very nicely into the player – but there are much more options on the market – do not go mad here – it is just one single detail!

Next step would be to get rid of the RCA terminals Marantz used in this player – do not ask me why – but that is the cheapest rubbish you ever have seen. Buy some good tellur copper RCA sockets and solder the output coupling caps directly to the sockets – and you are done! Further improvements can be achived if you change the diodes in the rectifier section of the player. It is also a good idea to deactivate the headphone amplifier of the CD94.

One last word……as all these modifications means a lot of work that has to be done, do yourself a favour and buy only good original parts, leave out ebay and any cheap offerings, their might be a good chance to get copies of the original stuff…..

The Sound

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Now you experienced what it means to implement a TDA 1541 near to perfection – there are way more tweaks you can do – but what I explained here are the most important ones – to go any further is another story maybe for part III???.

I had the chance to compare the Marantz CD 94 to the lates Naim triple 5 streaming DAC (also a ladder dac design!!!), as also the smaller Aqua DAC and the second best Plaback Designs CD player – and guess what – our old Marantz machine is in the same league. It does not sound equal – of course not – but it is the same level of quality. What we always have, if we implement a TDA 1541 near perfection, is a once in a lifetime digital treble experience. The TDA sounds creamy, smooth and has a tremendous resolution. This resolution has nothing to do, with a tilted up, analytic top end –  this treble is natural, real, and relaxed. I am not a big fan to modify the Marantz CD94 with a tubed output stage, because this modification makes things too soft, too polite – and as I use a full tubed amplifier system behind the player, it would be too much of a good thing. What you also will detect is a tremendous bass performance. The bass gestalt is powerful and deep – really deep, as also tight and very agile – it is one of the most impressive bass performances of any DA converter which is in existence till now. This bass gives your analogue rig a good workout, only the best cartridges (also very expensive) can muster the bass quality of this vintage (modified) CD player. In the midrange we will miss some of the 3D magic our analogue front end is capable of – but that is often a matter of the different mastering techniques used with the media CD – because it has to be very loud (loudness war – another story, I will write about in the future) – so you will face a completely compressed sound on the CD, which is not so much existent on the vinyl mastering of the same production, because such loud and compressed signals are not easy to cut into vinyl. What you also miss is the attack accuracy a Lyra cartridge can give you – but there is a tweak for that at the end of this essay. To make a long story short, the Marantz CD 94 in its modified incarnation sounds close to an EMT TSD 15 cart – BOOOOOM!

The last tweak

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Everyone is talking about Non Over Sampling (NOS) today – it is the newest fashion to get rid of oversampling artefacts, which degrade the pure digital signal (time domain). Oversampling was at the very beginning of the CD era a trick from Philips, as they had just a 14 bit DA converter to offer, while Sony could develop a true 16 bit chip. This is the reason why Philips introduced oversampling – to get 16 bit resolution out of a native 14 bit DAC – and they succeeded. Later on, the situation was comparable to the run for the highest megapixel camera. People do not understand digital technology, they have no knowledge about pixel pitch and all the problems a higher number of megapixel will bring to the game – more is always better – and so we will face in the next years 48mp digital cameras – and nobody knows why a 24mp file looks much better.

The same was going on in the late 80ties and beginning of the 90ties – as multibit DAC technology was the latest fashion. We witnessed the oversampling race…

It starts with 4 times and ends with 16 times oversampling processes…what the people did not realise: With every increase of the oversampling factor, the industry had to work seriously on the speed and accuracy of the clock. DSP technology was not developed in those yers, so instead of that the industry used quarz PLL clock systems. The sound of these  player generation got worse – because of clocking inaccuracy (jitter) – but the consumer had his higher oversampling rate – GREAT!

We can modify the Marantz CD 94 / TDA 1541 to be converted into a NOS DAC without any digital filtering – it is an easy modification, and many, many websites describe, how that modification is done. What you gain is more timing accuracy – because every steep filter (digital or analogue) will deliver a sort of pre ringing (and ripple). You get 3 cycles (worst) in front of the natural leading edge of a tone.  Once you compared the same player with and without oversampling, you will be stunned. Interestingly enough the US company Wadia discovered exactly those phenomena already a long time ago….

But nothing is gained without something we loose –  the frequency linearity of our player will suffer after we converted the CD94 to NOS – which means we get a drop in treble energy around 3db at 20Khz with a soft roll off. So you have to choose, accuracy in the time domain versus frequency linearity in the treble section. I opted for the timing accuracy and did everything I could do, to get the last drop of openes out of the player, which is also the reason, why I did not imply a tubed output stage at this point. Finally you get a very, very serious CD machine with all the above discussed tweaks and modifications. If there is no vinyl available, you can easily buy the CD and enjoy it immensely….and that is, why I did all that work….

Happy listening

 

E. Strauss

 

The Koetsu story – Japanese art Part I

 

There is something special about Japan, tradition and modern high tech are often separated with only a very small distance from each other. The attention to even the smallest detail in some of the best products coming from the land of the rising sun is outstanding – and on the other hand you have mass market products, ugly and very cheaply made. A land full of extremes and contrasts, stuffed cities and beautiful zen gardens amidst them, meditation and extremely noisy gaming rooms, young girls dressed with school uniforms to animate…. and buddhist monks, shinto shrines and fast food…..you get the picture.

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In the past the Japanese industry copied the stuff from the western world – the camera industry comes to mind – and especially German Leica, Rolleiflex and Contax models. But once they got the idea behind a construction, the Japanese engineers had the ability to increase the amount of features as well as the quality and they achieved a better result than the formerly copied product. At that moment there was no German camera industry anymore (Leica survived almost…) and Nikon with their legendary F and F2 models took over the complete professional camera market. If those people do something really seriously, they are able to achieve superlative product qualities.

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Imagine – at the end of the 70ties (last century) Sugano San (the father) came up with something like a Koetsu Red (read Rosewood Signature) cartridge – it was nearly comparable with the presence of the space shuttle in the 19th century….

A line contact stylus, boron cantilever, smarium cobalt magnets, 5 ohm DC resistance and healthy 0.4mV output voltage, bodies made from rosewood, lacquered with Urushi, or even milled out of  solid stone…imagine that at the end of the 70ties…..it was THE ULTIMATE CARTRIDGE!

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If we google Koetsu cartridges today, we will find a lot of forum entries, mostly comprised with misinformation, or completely wrong statements. It is a good source of amusement for the analogue lover….. If wie google Koetsu Black, we will find statements like -“great for voices – rolled off at the top and muddy bass” – than we see a picture of such a Koetsu Black mounted in a Rega RB 300 at the same thread…….on another forum a respected guy is telling us, that the golden flakes dressed upon the Urushi lacquer will result in a much heavier cartridge housing….bullshit!!!!

All forum “informations” have in common that a Koetsu is soft at the treble, has a muddy soft bass and great mid frequency response with a strong emphasis in that section, while it is a bad tracker, which is not able to track the 70 mü torture track on a test record… and is extremely sensitive to VTA adjustment. Some say these cartridges have a ridiculous stiff suspension others claim exactly the opposite, and some others think the VTA must be up at the back of the tonearm – and the majority claims down at the back may be the only way to get a proper sound. Not to mention the different suggestions regarding the termination of the carts – the range goes from 30 Ohm – 1 Kohm or completely open, which means normally 47 Kohm…..Maybe it is time to explain some things???

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The Differences

Lets start with some information regarding the different models…. All Koetsu carts have something in common….They all share 5 Ohm DC resistance, and they all share the same diamond cut, a custom made variation of a line contact stylus,  made to Sugano Sans specification by the Japanese specialist Ogura (which is also used by Lyra with a different profile leaving out the Lyra Delos which uses a Namiki needle). They all use a classic magnetic circuit wich includes a traditional yoke construction.

Here is, in what they differ:

Koetsu Black Goldline

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The only Koetsu with an aluminium body structure today (the original Urushi carts made by Sugano San the father were also based on an aluminium enclosure…) which has also a different form factor compared with the more expensive models. The body is somewhat smaller and has a different gestalt at the front of the enclosure – here we will find a angled cut, which makes us able to observe the cantilever very easy, something which can not be said about the classic Koetsu body shape of the bigger models. The Black has 0.4mV output and 5 Ohm DC resistance, which is achieved with 6n pure copper windings on their coils, and a smarium cobalt magnet. The suspension is somewhat different than the more expensive models – it has a compliance of around 13cu, which makes it compatible to lightweight tonearms, which is also addressed by the aluminium enclosure wich is more heavy than the Rosewood Standrad. The Body has no threaded mounting holes – so you have to deal with tiny screws and even smaller nuts. The cartridge features now silver cartridge pins – older models have golden ones. The modern Black (Goldline) has nicely chamfered golden lines at the edges of the body, which is represented in its name. The bottom of the cart is sealed with the classic thin sheet metal strip with the famous Japanese writing engraved.

The Koetsu Rosewood Standard

The Standard has the same body form factor as the black – we do not get at this point the longer body with the nearly straight edges, which describes a traditional Koetsu model (leaving out the first longbody Koetsu carts) ….but in this case the body is made of rosewood which gives the cartridge its name. The Standard has already the suspension, we will find on the “bigger” Koetsu carts – so it is much stiffer that that of the Black Goldline – between 8 and 9cu….which means, we need a heavier arm! That is very important, because the whole cart is lighter than the Black – so the body structure does not help us with the need of a proper tonearm mass which should reach around 18g (effective mass)! Here we have the first of a long row of common mistakes – a Koetsu Rosewood Standard is not a good match with a SME Series IV or V nor is it in any way compatible to a Rega or a Linn…..if you match the cart with such tonearms – please read the forum entries about rolled off treble and muddy bass…..;-)))) The Rosewood Standard has no threaded mounting holes  either – so you deal again with tiny screws and even tinier nuts….All of its ingredients are equal to the Black Goldline – except for the suspension and the body material.

The Koetsu Rosewood Signature

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With the Signature version of the Rosewood model we get now the traditional Koetsu body shape – gone is the lifted section at the bottom of  cartridge front – but,  be aware – the body is not a straight rectangle construction – the form of the underside is not  parallel to the top of the cart. Again we will get 6n pure copper coils, the stiffer classic Koetsu suspension, 5 Ohm DC resistance and 0.4mV output and again no threaded mounting holes. But Koetsu put on underneath a better quality control and uses more pure materials with the Signature version. What we can see as a costumer is just the traditional body structure which has now the very famous scoop at the bottom plate which protects the enclosure from dust.

In my book the Koetsu Rosewood Signature is the first true Koetsu in the line up – the Standard and even more so the Black Goldline gives you a taste of what you can expect using the Signature. This statement is true for such people, who have a heavier tonearm, for installations which uses an 8 – 12g arm, the Black Goldline would be a much better choice. The bad thing about the Rosewood Signature is its price tag – if I claim that at this point the famous Koetsu sound starts in its purest fashion – it is a very expensive entry level – which it is.

The Koetsu Urushi

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There is no sich thing as THE URUSHI – because Koetsu delivers different models – leaving out the Koetsu Urushi Vermilion, which I will talk about in a minute. All of the other Urushi cartridges are technical equal – what differs is the amazing lacquer artwork in the traditional Japanese Urushi fashion. Some of the models are made with very old techniques, and they are named after the Japanese cities in which these techniques were invented – examples are the Wajima and the Tsugaru. Others use a more modern twist to the old traditional techniques, the Sky Blue comes to mind. Urushi lacquer is a natural product which is won out of tree resin. It needs a long, long time to get fully dry and as it gets dry it gets harder and harder. Underneath the Urushi lacquer – you might guess it already, we will find – a rosewood body….so the Urushi carts use the same material and body form factor as the Rosewood Signature – the difference is the lacquer technique which gives the body a different behaviour regarding mechanical energy transmission and resonances! Technically there is also something new to discover….we still have a 6n pure copper coil but in this case it is caldded with silver. The cladding process could be explained if you imagine your girlfriend or wife putting on her sexy nylon stockings….. So the silver is not melted upon the copper nor is it a hybrid material mixture – it is still pure copper with a very thin cladded silver layer on top. The magnets circuit uses still smarium cobalt material as we get it also from the entry level Black Goldline, but – SURPRISE!!!! we will have now treaded mounting holes – THANK YOU KOETSU!!!!!

The Koetsu Urushi Vermilion

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The only Urushi which differs completely from all the other beautiful carts in this range is the Vermilion….It is easy to detect – because it is the one and only Urushi which is made out of the special red Urushi lacquer which we will also find in traditional Japanese tea equipment, tablets or old jewelry boxes. It has also a slightly different form factor around the engraved section were the mounting bolts are located – the Rosewood Signature as also the other Urushi carts have a straight half tubed engraving  – the Vermilion has a sort of triangular cut out at this section of the body. Technically the Vermilion is a total different beast, than all the other Koetsu carts we already discussed. The DC resistance is still 5 Ohm – but the output drops down to very low 0,2mV – which is caused by a single layer 6n copper coil (no silver cladding is used), were the other Koetsu carts use a double layer coil construction. In addition to that Sugano San opted for a different magnet material – the Vermilion uses an alnico magnet circuit, wich raises the weight of the cart noticeably, compared to the other wood body models. The little red beauty is the Koetsu with the lowest output voltage – so make sure, that your phono stage can handle that thing. If you think about using it with a tubed phono stage together with a step up transformer – you need a high gain phono stage with around 45db of clean gain!

The Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum

With the Rosewood Signature Platinum (RSP) we face a completely new technical chapter in the Koetsu line up because the cartridge uses platinum magnets…Those magnet material has a legendary reputation as all Lyra aficinoados will confirm. Think about the original Lyra Parnassus – and more so the Olympos which used the magnets of the Parnassus and is till the present day a true legend in the world of cost no object cartridges!

Based on this point every Koetsu cart uses this magnet construction. The choose of platinum magnets causes a drop in the output voltage from 0,4mV to 0,3mV, while still having 5 Ohm DC resistance. The housing of the RSP is again Rosewood as the Standard and the Signature uses it either – but in this case Koetsu chooses very old wood qualities. The RSP is the most “cost effective” way to get a platinum magnet Koetsu….which tells you something about the other platinum carts in the portfolio…..

The Stone Body Koetsu

Now we climbed up the ladder to the top, which includes also a price tag, were people, who are not involved in High End audio will buy a nice little car for the same money we have to spent at this point. If you tell your family members, that you bought a Koetsu Blue Lace Diamond Platinum for € 15 000,- there is a good chance, that your wife will incapacitate you….a white jacket and a nice soft cell included….

The complete motor system is equal to the Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum, which we already discussed above – the big difference is the material of the enclosure. Koetsu uses semiprecious stone. The price range differs with the rareness of the material and the expenditure to mould a cartridge enclosure out of the stone. We will find at the “bottom” of the stone body range the Onyx – and at the absolute top we have the legendary Blue Lace and the Coral Stone – the letter is so beautiful, that I cannot avert my eyes if I have the chance to look at such a damn sexy thing!!!!

The Diamond Cantilever

The Koetsu customer can order a diamond cantilever as an upgrade with every Koetsu model – while such an option will cost around €4000,- it makes no sense to think about it until you reached the stone body range – and even there it is a tough decision…..I mean 4000,- …..there are people who buy a complete HiFi system with far less, than we have to spent for this diamond cantilever!

Mono

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Another option is the opportunity to order every Koetsu cartridge as a mono version – in such a case the output voltage will be halved, which might be a serious problem with the Urushi Vermilion model (0,1mV). Koetsu uses the same construction with the mono models as with the stereo carts, but there are naturally only 2 coils in the horizontal plane. So it is not a fully dedicated mono cart regarding the sensitivity of the cantilever, which is able to move also in the vertical plane.

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If you read all the differences till that point you might think – there are only 4 different models in existence – the Black Goldline with its softer suspension, the wood bodies including the Urushi models, the Vermilion with its single layer coil structure and the platinum magnet types. And yes if you do not look close enough at the tiny differences that might be true. At the end Koetsu offers us a very, very scaled product portfolio.

If you read my article about the Lyra Etna, one thing is more than obvious:

Koetsu detected as one of the first cartridge designers the influence of different body materials. And Koetsu was also one of the first designers who found different possibilities in voicing a cartridge with coil materials and different magnet structures. A direct comparison of the various models to detect the influence of the body material or finish (read lacquer) is not possible  – because Koetsu changed also other parameters. The Rosewood Signature has a pure copper coil while the Urushi models use a silver cladded coil structure, and the Vermilion features a single layer coil as also different magnet materials.

The end of the myths

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Lets talk about some facts and get rid of the myths, presumptions and special stories…..

Effective Mass

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A lot of people who own a Linn, Rega or SME tonearm to name just a few – claim that it is not worth to buy anything better in the Koetsu lineup than the Black Goldline – which might be true from their personal perspective – because they do not own a tonearm which is able to function flawless with the other models in the lineup. If you pair a 9g effective mass arm with a Koetsu Urushi than you will detect, that the treble is rolled off and the bass is muddy and does not reach out to the deepest octave. The cartridge with its suspension reacts with the effective mass of the tonearm as a dog and its its tail….if the dog is too lightweight and the tail is heavy the dog is not anymore moving his tail – the tail is also moving the dog….you get it???? – So if we use a cart with a 9cu compliance with a 9g tonearm ist is not only the resonance frequency which gets now up to around 13hz – which might not be the biggest problem – more important is how the mechanical energy which is send from the cart into the tonearm is handled. The wood body carts help us there, because the rosewood damps a good portion of the implied energy – but if the body structure gets harder – read more direct coupling, the things get worse. A stone body Koetsu does not damp any serious amount of mechanical energy with its body structure – it acts in this parameter nearly as a Lyra cart. The Urushi carts are in between the rosewood and the stone bodies – if the body is old and the lacquer did harden over the years you have a glas like coating above your cart. Sugano San the elder used a Fidelity Research FR64S Tonearm with his creations, this beast has an effective mass of over 35g….!!!! – Todays Koetsus are not anymore as demanding in this regard – but from the Rosewood Standard on – it is not a good idea to use a Tonearm with 9 – 11g – ist is recommended to push that figure up to around 18g – and gone is the muddy bass, and the rolled off treble!!!!! The dynamic abilities gain even a greater amount of quality, and the whole thing tracks very, very good. I never got any mis – tracking from a Koetsu cartridge dropped on everything else than a test record. even the most demanding soprano voices are rendered without any harshness or stress!

Termination

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A lot of people use 1Kohm and even 47 Kohm for the Koetsu carts – in most of the cases to compensate for the soft treble gestalt (incompatible tonearms)….What you will get now is a human voice were the body has a certain natural distance to your listening position, but whenever the vocalist sings some treble implemented syllables, like S or SCH or T – than you have a miraculous beaming of the whole performance towards you – the singer is moving front to back dependant from the frequency….this is not anywhere near the real thing – nor is it nice to get such isolated, synthetic treble energy. In my book a Koetsu needs something around 100 Ohm – by the way –  the cart reacts immensely on proper termination. Do not concentrate just on the treble excitement – the bass is also heavily affected – with 1 Kohm it sounds mostly uncontrolled and muddy – so you get both horror stories with just one parameter – in your face sibiliants and a muddy uncontrolled bass….Please keep in mind – if a tonearm is not compatible with its effective mass and energy distribution, there is NOTHING you can gain – it es if you put a very big Garrett turbocharger in your 1,5 l Diesel….and wonder why there is this ugly black smoke coming out of your exhaust…. If the basic things are not addressed you can stop your attempt to get a proper sound out of your Koetsu – look elsewhere.

The critical VTA

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Yes it is true a Koetsu reacts in a distinct way if you change the VTA – but it is also true for every other cart which uses such a sharp cut….so the Koetsu is nothing special here!. Put a record on your table, it should be music with a voice in the mono centre of the soundstage and some naturally recorded instruments, which reaches out to the far right and left of the panorama. Now listen….with the tonearm leveled parallel to the record surface.

What you will hear is:

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The Bass is on the lightweight side of neutral – less impact, soft tone and very difficult to follow.

The upper mids and lower presence is rendered in a unnatural forward sounding way, the singer stands directly in front of you – it is very very up front – a thing – some people like…

The treble and air is nearly completely masked with the lower presence around 4Khz – so there is no real sparkle and no air….

What we normally would do is to rise the tail of the arm to get more treble – but raising the arm gives us no real treble and no air – it gives us more presence – first it starts with the lower presence and as much we raise the tail of the arm we gain more higher presence – we can tune the presence section of the spectrum – but we cannot gain real treble – nor air!!!!! – As we do so, the soundstage suffers seriously – we have no real width anymore leaving alone some pin point accuracy at the extreme edges of the stage. And the bass will suffer – it is now woody and not deep anymore…..

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So – raising the VTA is not the right direction – lets try it the other way round….and BOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!! – There it is – a slightly tilted down rear end of the tonearm and the sound becomes wide, and the bass shows now heft and structure, the emphasis in the presence  is now much more domesticated – and we are able to detect a good amount of natural treble and air, as also a dramatical improvement in resolution. Now you have to find the sweet spot which depends on speaker position, your room acoustic (hard but true – we spent so much money on carts and phono stages – but the real deal is the room acoustic) – their will be a point were you get the widest stage AND a clear center focus – no high mid and lower presence emphasis and a full bodied bass with a nice tonal structure. The sound is now very, very natural and realistic, and in a special way seductive and immensely beautiful. And yes a Koetsu is not a Lyra or a Transfiguration – it is something else, which is in itself fascinating, delicious and very, unique – this carts could generate a drug like sound. Nothing sounds as a Koetsu – and I mean NOTHING!!!!

Further adjustments

As with every sharp stylus cut the Koetsu reacts very  sensitive about all the typical parameters. So take your time to adjust the cart in a proper way. That is more easy said than done, because you cannot see the damn cantilever. Use a good protractor and different magnifying glasses to get the geometry spot on. Do not use the body with its straight lines – the cantilever is the only thing that counts!!!! With the azimuth use as a starting point a pencil mine which you should place on top of the headshell and not on top of the body – it might work with the Black Goldline and also the Stone bodies and the Rosewood models – but with the Urushi carts, there is a great chance, that the lacquer is much too uneven to get a proper result. After you have adjusted the azimuth basically, put on a mono record on your turntable – switch the cartridge connection cables of one channel and swith your preamplifier to mono…..Now you should here nearly nothing – because the two channels should be 180° out of phase and canceling out any sound coming from the two channels. You will here some treble signals coming through – that is normal and nothing to worry about. But if you detect some serious signals in the mid spectrum or more problematic the bass, you have to dial in the azimuth in a way, that you get the maximum of cancelation between both channels. As you see, you do not need a Fozgometer or a measuring computer….you can do it with just a mono recording. And you know now, why a mono switch wich your preamp is hopefully equipped with is something very, very useful. After you are finished with your azimuth adjustment – do not forget to reconnect the tonearm cables in the proper way….;-))))

 The little details:

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Please do not use any aluminium cartridge screws as also no Delrin or heavy dampening plastic stuff – a good idea is brass, copper (even better) or – the screws Lyra sells – which are amazingly good. Please avoid also nuts made out of aluminium, which is important if you use Koetsu carts with no threaded mounting holes.

If you mount the cart – please do not overtighten the mounting bolts – you can deform the body structure and it is seldom conductive soundwise to use brutish force!

If you use a step up transformer  a 1:20 might be the best choice – if you already bought the Urushi Vermilion – make sure, that your tubes phono MM stage can handle the small amount of output this specific carts has to offer. Talking about SUT´s – the Michael Ulbrich “Monster Can” (see my Lyra Etna SL essay) will be an amazing performer – I must confess, that I never had a SUT which mated so well with any of the Koetsu cartridges – it is amazing – in particular the bass performance is astonishing! – THANK YOU MICHAEL – WELL DONE!!!!

Use a cable with a very low capacity from the SUT to your phono stage  – which is also important for your tonearm cable (in one future essay I will come bak to that…)!

One last word

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Maybe you observed on the used market some very nice Koetsu carts – mostly the mega expensive stone body carts are on offer for a big, big discount. You start reading the description of the used cart (hopefully given in a truthful way)…. “Koetsu Burma Jade – only played 100 hours, retipped by VdH – better than new…..”

Please be aware that no retipped Koetsu will sound like the original one – not a remake from Benz Micro nor one from VdH. I do not say that this carts are bad or worthless – but it is not anymore what it was. There is just one retipping company which is able to get as close to the original as possible, that is Ana Mighty Sound from France! But why should I use a retipping service if Sugano San is still alive and happy to take your order for a complete overhaul of you beloved Koetsu??? – Koetsu does not do any retippings – they do a complete remake – which is a fine thing – because you get after the procedere a brad new cart with a new unused suspension, new cantilever, new stylus – everything is brad new – they just leave your body like it is (which is also a good thing….). And they have a fair price politic for such a complete remake – and it does not need a year – it is done in 2 or 3 months. If I have spent €10 000,- on a stone body, I would not hesitate to give the cart to those, who once built it. That is the only chance to get back, what you have payed for – because – once again – no different stylus shape, no different cantilever material, length and shape and no variation in coil material and thickness will recreate what the cart once was. You get something which might plays music – but it is not anymore a Koetsu!

Which brings us to a different kind of online offerings…..an original Koetsu Urushi made by Sugano the father from 1984 in brad new condition – never played – and the price is…….ta ta ta taaa €6000,-!!!! Why would I buy a cart from 1984 – if we all know that a suspension will harden over the time – even if the cart was never used (which is a very common term today – may it a description which says  ” never played” or “not even burnt in” – or “150 hours but 5 years old” because the owner has several carts….and so on….) keep in mind every cartridge changes its technical parameters in the suspension over the time. Such an old Urushi might have a compliance of 5cu – and can hardly track any piano tone…..

There is no other cartridge type were we can observe so much bullshit as with the famous Japanese Koetsu!

If you want to have one – wait until you have the funds to buy a new one. In most of the cases it turns out as a much cheaper solution and it is even more delightful to start your journey with an original and masterfully build gem!

At the end it is one of the very rare true classic carts which offers a one of a kind sound aesthetic and is unmatched till today, because no other manufacturer comes even close to that particular sound experience.

…..happy listening

E. Strauss

Air Tight ATE 2 – 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