Analog Corner #67

Comparing DIN-to-RCA phono cables is a daunting enough task without the distraction of watching a nation unable to figure out who it elected president, partly because it relies on 40-year-old punchcard technology to tally votes. Haven't election officials heard that digital is perfect?

Speaking of chads, Chad Kassem is about to release four direct-to-disc LPs on his Analogue Productions label. I thought they might arrive in time for this deadline, but no such luck. D2D in 2000? Who'd have thought? The artists are pianists Pinetop Perkins (Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, etc.) and Henry Gray (Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rogers, etc.)—both of whom pound a majestic Steinway D (a 9' concert grand)—and blues harp masters Lazy Lester and Wild Child Butler.

All four veteran bluesmen were recorded at Kassem's Blue Heaven Studios, a converted church endowed with a superb natural acoustic. You'd know that if you've heard any of the Analogue Productions LPs or CDs recorded there, or Jerome Harris' Rendezvous, which was engineered and produced by John Atkinson and issued as Stereophile STPH013-2.

I can't wait to hear all four discs, which Kassem told me were recorded with only a few lacquer-destroying glitches. (Once you start cutting a lacquer, there's no stopping without destroying it.) The old guys don't suffer from "mike fright," according to the non-hanging Chad, who says their performances "kicked ass."

The D2Ds were cut on a Neumann VMS 70 lathe fitted with an Ortofon cutter head, using amplifiers installed at the facility by none other than Stan Ricker. It's reassuring to know that, even as Kassem becomes a record producer, studio owner, and erstwhile Moses Asch/Alan Lomax rolled into one, he's sticking to his vinyl roots.

Back to Cables, and a New Cartridge from Sumiko
I spent the better part of a week's listening (after break-in) comparing new phono cables from Coincident Speaker Technology and Hovland. Because Hovland's original Music Groove cable is my reference DIN-to-RCA hookup, the Coincident Technology CST IC cable began the comparison with a serious disadvantage. There's a big difference in price, too: the Music Groove costs $795/1m pair (or up to 1.5m at no additional charge), plus $40 for a right-angled DIN plug; the Coincident sells for $379/1m pair. But I didn't know the prices until I'd finished my evaluations.

I decided to audition these cables against my reference with Sumiko's new Celebration cartridge in the Graham 2.0 tonearm. Why introduce two new variables? I've jabbered on here about the apparent hypocrisy of reviewers who claim big sonic differences among cables, but who then review a product describing the sound almost microscopically, without citing the possible sonic influence of the cable used. I thought it would be interesting to listen to a new cartridge with new cables and, of course, with a known reference.

Sumiko Celebration phono cartridge
With its 0.5mV output, the Celebration joins the Lyra Helikon and a few other cartridges in what seem to be recent attempts by designers to give vinyl lovers MC cartridges with sufficient output to yield great sound when used with less-than-top-shelf moving-coil phono sections. In fact, both the Celebration and Helikon probably have sufficient output to drive many MM phono stages. The point is, why not let the electronics coast, instead of forcing them to operate where noise and outside interference from RFI can seriously degrade the final sound?

I went into the review without knowing the Celebration's price. You won't know it either, unless you already know, or cheat by going to the end. That reminds me—when I was a kid, I bought a Hardy Boys book, Footprints Under the Window. While walking home from the bookstore, I read the final paragraph: "So, dear reader, by now you've probably guessed that the footprints under the window were none other than those of the famous detective Fenton Hardy!" So don't read the price yet.

The buyer gets a nifty-looking cardboard outer package with a wooden inner box containing the cartridge, high-quality installation hardware, and the most complete and well-presented set of instructions I've yet seen for installing a cartridge, including clearly drawn illustrations.

The cartridge itself is an attractive, rectangular design with a pearwood body. It appears to be sourced from a familiar Japanese cartridge manufacturer, but I won't speculate about which one. The plus side of the physical design is that the body's parallel surfaces ease setting of the vertical tracking angle (VTA). The negative is that the stylus is tucked under a good distance from the front of the body, making cleaning and inspection, as well as adjustments of overhang, zenith, and azimuth, somewhat more difficult.

The 1.2mm gold-plated cartridge pins are nothing to throw a party for: their diameter is noticeably smaller than those on most other cartridges I've auditioned, though the specification page lists it as being the EIA "standard." Whatever the standard, the Graham's clips wobbled on the pins—not a good thing for maximum low-level signal transfer. If you decide to buy this cartridge and have the same problem, be sure to carefully squeeze your clips together a bit, using the end of a toothpick as a template to prevent oversqueezing. That's it for the negatives about this cartridge.

The generator features an alnico magnet against which is mounted a high-pressure-fit front yoke. Sumiko claims that this construction creates a linear magnetic field around the coil assembly so that all points of the coil see the same magnetic density. The cantilever is of stiff, long-grain boron, for which is claimed "excellent energy transfer." The suspension is synthetic rubber, which, Sumiko claims, can be more tightly controlled in the manufacturing process than the usual butyl. An additional benefit claimed by Sumiko is a longer time during which the cartridge will remain within its design tolerances. No mention is made of the coil wire used, but it sure sounds like...well, no point in giving the sound away here.

The stylus is an elliptically ground, low-mass PH stylus, which Sumiko claims is the most expensive available. Elliptical was chosen over "specialty grinds" (we talkin' cartridges or coffee here?) such as Microridge and van den Hul because Sumiko felt that, while those designs offer theoretical benefits, in the real world only a small percentage of buyers have the experience and know-how to set them up well enough to gain the benefits. Sumiko feels the Celebration will offer plenty of detail and "an intensely musical experience," even if it's not adjusted to "within a gnat's whisker of perfection."

These are hand-built and -calibrated cartridges, each individually auditioned using test records (and, I assume, music, though the instruction manual mentions only test LPs) before being boxed and shipped from Japan. When I read that, my estimation of the cartridge's price began to inflate.

The Celebration sounded best at its recommended tracking force of 2gm. I used the Graham 2.0 fitted with a ceramic armwand. Sumiko claims the anti-skating should be set at two-thirds the tracking force. I used Wally Malewicz's anti-skating adjustment device, which is based on work done by Ortofon and others in the 1960s. Sumiko's numbers are based on the lower compliances of more modern cartridges: The lower the compliance, it's argued, the less the skating effect. I'm not sure I entirely agree, but I ended up setting anti-skating where I felt the sound was best, and where I thought I could see the cantilever not being deflected one way or the other across the record. That setting turned out to be very close to the recommended setting.

The manual gives some good advice for setting VTA: Start with the tonearm lower than you think necessary (about 2° below parallel) and work upward. When I was finished with my adjustments, I broke the Celebration in by playing about 30 hours' worth of records while writing an equipment review in another room. I listened carefully again, and slightly readjusted VTA and VTF (vertical tracking force).

Sound: I began with the original Hovland Music Groove cable into the Hovland HP-100 preamplifier's transformer MC phono section. First up was side two of DCC's outstanding edition of Rod Stewart's Never a Dull Moment (LPZ-2010)—the beginning of "Angel" features a couple of glockenspiel strokes that should sound quite pure.

That first sound of the needle hitting the groove can tell you a great deal. What I heard was a big, rich, well-controlled bubble of an impulse with a pronounced but clean bass component. Then the music began.

Wow. The Celebration hit a bullseye. The glockenspiel notes emerged from a velvet-black background sounding rich and three-dimensional, with convincing percussive impact and a pure bell-like tone, all rendered with in-the-room transparency. When Rod and the rest of the group came in, it was immediately apparent that this was one musical (as opposed to analytical), vivid-sounding cartridge that would be enjoyable to audition no matter what chinks I found in its armor. A voice in my head chimed: "$2k?"

The bass on "Angel" was full, deep, and very well-controlled, while the snare and cymbals had plenty of presence and detail. The kit had a pleasing believability, and the acoustic space behind it was rendered convincingly. Stewart's voice appeared three-dimensionally in front of the drums in its own space, presenting a nicely developed sense of the singer's head and body.

All of this set me off on a DCC jag. I pulled out Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark (LPZ-2044), Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's Jazz Samba (LPZ-2011), and, on vinyl, Queen's A Night at the Opera (LPZ-2072). If you're a fan of that last title, or only of "Bohemian Rhapsody," the album is worth having, even if the vinyl is noisier than the usual RTI press. Then I went with an original British Track pressing of the "Overture" from Tommy, followed by Classic Records' 45rpm reissue of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.

When I'd finished listening, I repeated some tracks using the Lyra Helikon/Immedia RPM2 arm combo. By now it was 2am, but I had my finger on the pulse of this cartridge, and I wasn't letting go until I'd played a known reference. While the Immedia and Graham arms don't sound identical, the differences between the transducers is far greater.

The Celebration proved to be an extremely well-balanced, rich-sounding, reasonably detailed cartridge. Its pronounced but not excessive bass response helped create big but well-controlled sonic pictures, the midrange was on the warm yet slightly dry side, and the top was extended but certainly not up there with faster, airier, ultra-detailed (and, some would say, bright) cartridges like the van den Hul Colibri, which I reviewed last August.

The tonal picture had more of a golden glow than a crystalline clarity, but Sumiko's John Hunter and Stirling Trayle, who helped voice the Celebration, struck a really smart balance that prevented the sound from getting too warm or mushy. This was no "boring" cartridge! There was plenty of drama and sufficient transient speed to get my feet tapping and my brain excited.

When I went back to the Helikon, I was at first surprised by how drab and colorless it sounded, but that was before my ears had adjusted. It was similar to what happens when you turn the treble all the way up (if you have such flexibility), then turn it back to flat: until your ears adjust, what was once right now sounds dull and lifeless.

The Helikon is not a drab or colorless cartridge. Rather, the Celebration, like the EMT TU-3 Geyger I reviewed last February, sounded rich and vivid, with a slight but cannily drawn bass bump, a golden midrange glow, and a crisp, grain-free, but not hyper-extended top end. As with the TU-3, the balance is key, and the Celebration's balancing act was a real winner. However, if your system is already on the rich side, the Celebration could tip it over into overload, depending on your tastes, 'table, and arm.

The Celebration was a music-lover's cartridge—one for those who value harmonic richness over ultra-low-level detail, transparency, and spatial resolution (though it's not bad in those departments either). Once my ears were accustomed to the Helikon's more laid-back neutral balance, the differences in soundstage presentation became clear. The Celebration sounded much more spatially upfront, creating big, vibrant pictures, while the Helikon tended to push things back, presenting smaller, more pristine images with greater detail, air, and spatial resolve resolution. The Celebration's macrodynamic delivery was outstanding, but the Helikon won hands down in low-level microdynamics.

Conclusions: The 0.5mV–output Sumiko Celebration was remarkably well-balanced and easy to listen to. With its rich harmonic presentation, its fine transient response, its robust bass, and its bold imaging, it should easily win over many analog lovers looking to spend...$2500? No. $2000? No. $1500?

Yes. Now that's something to celebrate. Oh, and I bet the coil wire is copper.

Phono Cables
All the while I was doing the cartridge thing, I switched among three DIN-to-RCA cables: the Hovland Music Groove (my reference), the new Music Groove 2, and the Coincident CST IC. The Music Groove 2 is even thinner and more flexible than the original, which is already thinner and more flexible than any other low-level interconnect I've auditioned.

According to Hovland, "each channel is four bundles of fine-strand silver-plated copper wire with an overall outer braided shield. Channels are physically tied together along with a Teflon-insulated silver-plated ground wire." Hovland claims the cable is "precisely scaled" to the "nonlinear, microvolt level coming from a phono cartridge." They believe that a line-level interconnect has "no business" being used as a phono cable.

Hovland also firmly believes in low-mass RCA plugs, and the Music Groove 2 uses the same cheap-looking plugs as are used on the original Music Groove, which I once said looked as if they'd been filched from my parents' old Stromberg-Carlson console.

Well, Hovland had the last laugh—these folks are on to something. After I reviewed Hovland's HP-100 preamplifier for the November 2000 Stereophile, I sent it back so they could install the final version of the MC transformer. The review sample had the same transformer, but it was "hot-wired" in, not installed in the same way as in the production units. (The original plan was for an outboard transformer option, but that was changed soon after the review was underway.) When I got the HP-100 back, everything I'd raved about in the review came pouring from my system once again. It's a fabulous-sounding product.

I played some tunes using the original Music Groove cable and asked myself, "How much better can it get?" I put in the Music Groove 2 and had the answer: not much better, but even more relaxed in the midrange, more detailed, more harmonically complete—more of everything. I don't know how these guys do it. I'm sorry the Music Groove 2 costs $800, but if you've invested $3k in a Graham 2.0, you owe it to yourself to try this cable. See if you can get a money-back guaranty, but don't expect to ever ask for your cash—this cable will stay put. And its low weight and flexibility make it especially good with sprung 'tables: most Linns, VPIs, SOTAs, and Oracles.

The Coincident CST IC cable is stiffer and much heavier than the Hovlands. In fact, it's the heaviest, stiffest phono cable I know of. The RCA plug area is so stiff, due in part to a long run of shrink-tubing, that you have to insert both plugs at the same time. If you try just one plug, the second cable will be too stiff to bend into place. This makes no difference in the big picture unless you use a sprung turntable, in which case I wouldn't recommend the Coincident cable even if you like the sound.

According to the information sheet accompanying the CST IC, the design is "Dual-balanced frequency-optimized [with] differing conductor widths and geometry to optimize the transfer of all frequencies symmetrically—a single large-diameter solid-core conductor, six medium-sized solid-core conductors, and a bunch of precisely wound fine-stranded conductors [of] 6Ns copper." This sounds like a line-level interconnect terminated at one end with a DIN plug. Most cable designers with whom I've spoken don't recommend solid, large-diameter wire for low-level signal transfer.

If you need to be convinced that cables have unique sounds of their own, then compare low-level signal cables: the differences between them are profound. Granted, the Hovland is a tough act to follow, but I found the Coincident to sound dryer and somewhat darker on top, leaner on bottom, and not nearly as relaxed in the midrange. The Hovland had a coherent, "together" quality; the Coincident did not.

Had this been my reference cable while reviewing the Sumiko Celebration cartridge, I would not have changed the thrust of the review, but I probably would have "noticed" a slight veiling on top and a lack of full high-frequency expression. The Celebration is not the airiest or most extended cartridge in the first place; add a cable that itself is not airy or extended, and you have a compounded negative that isn't entirely the fault of the cartridge.

After I'd done my listening and concluded that the Coincident CST IC DIN-to-RCA cable was not in the same league as the Hovland—and, in my system at least, not particularly appealing—I asked about the price: $379/1m. So I compared it to Kimber's $350 TAK H silver-copper hybrid, which sounds more open, coherent, and relaxed, especially on top. As I wrote in my original review last May, the Kimber TAK H hybrid has "a bit more of a sunset-like golden glow from the midrange up (easily heard on horns and voices) and a bit more transient traction and solidity" compared to the more expensive silver Kimber. It sounded closer to the Hovland than to the similarly priced Coincident.

I received a Rega RB300 tonearm wired with the Incognito Cardas cable mod, but ran out of time for this column. I'll talk about it next month, as well as review a unique B&K MM/MC phono preamp that includes an A/D converter option for CD-R/MiniDisc recording.

I had a great time speaking to the New York Audiophile Society last November. I brought along the SME 10 turntable with the Parnassus D.C.t cartridge and the Audio Research Reference phono section, and inserted them in a system comprising a Krell CD player, Pass Labs preamp and amp, and B&W 802 speakers. It sounded mighty fine.

We spun tunes and compared Patricia Barber's Café Blue on LP and CD. The turntable was working at a serious disadvantage: It sat on a humungous B&W subwoofer. Although the sub wasn't connected, you can bet it was resonating like crazy; I could hear it seriously compromising the bottom-end performance of a tight-sounding turntable. Nonetheless, I still thought the Barber sounded more real on vinyl. Not everyone agreed, but it was fun listening in a crowd and getting immediate feedback.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Eric Bibb and Needed Time, Good Stuff, Opus3 45rpm LPs (2)
2) Pat Metheny Trio, Live, Warner Bros. CDs (2)
3) Spirit, Now or Anywhere, Sundazed 180gm LP
4) Built to Spill, Live, Up LPs (2)
5) The Only Ones, Even Serpents Shine, UK CBS LP (issued 1979)
6) Robin and the 7 Hoods, Original Soundtrack, DCC Compact Classics gold CD
7) Booker T. and the MG's, Christmas Spirit, Sundazed 180gm LP
8) The Everly Brothers, Best, DCC Compact Classics gold CD
9) Doug MacLeod, Whose Truth, Whose Lies?, AudioQuest CD
10) Coldplay, Parachutes, Nettwork America CD/UK Parlophone LP