Analog Corner #84

Sign of the times: My local Compact Disc World store in Paramus, New Jersey, now has a vinyl section—a good one. The LPs are selling well enough that some folks I know shop there often so they don't miss out. Nationwide, compact disc's numbers are declining, but vinyl sales are on the rise. Of course, CD sales still tower over vinyl's, but the trend is in the right direction. Who would have thought?

Even Burger King is in on the action. If the artwork on its new soft-drink cup is any indication, the fast-food franchise has transferred its familiar "Have it your way" slogan from hamburgers to music carriers (see photo).

A few weeks ago, while in Los Angeles, I visited the new Amoeba records on Sunset Boulevard, near Vine. Not since Tower Records in the analog heyday of the late 1970s has the town seen a store like it. The huge space is packed with new and used vinyl, with separate sections for jazz, classical, world music, and rock. Of course, CDs still dominate, but the sheer volume of new vinyl, especially in the alternative rock section, was mind-boggling—thousands of new titles from groups I'd never heard of. These LPs were not aimed at baby boomers.

I bought Giant Sand's cover magazine (Thrill Jockey 104) because I knew the group and appreciated its droll sense of humor. The album has a guest appearance by PJ Harvey and great sound. I took a chance on Spoon's Girls Can Tell (Merge MRG195) because of the spinning-record cover art; on Death Cab for Cutie's The Photo Album (Barsuk Bark 21LP), which turned out to have been cut by Stan Ricker; and Incubus's nicely packaged two-LP set, Morning View (Immortal/Epic E2 85227). Worthwhile chances, as it turned out.

Graham Engineering 2.2 tonearm: the final upgrade?
As reported last October, upgrading to Graham Engineering's new 2.2 bearing cap brings a major improvement to the overall sound of their 2.0 tonearm, but especially in the low frequencies. Bob Graham wanted me to compare an all-new 2.2 with an upgraded 2.0, and once he'd caught up with production, he sent me one. As you can see in the photo, there's been a change to the base plate, from two- to one-piece construction. The internal armwand wiring has also been changed.

Comparing the 2.2 and the upgraded 2.0 was easy: I put the Helikon SL cartridge on the new armwand and listened to assorted reference tracks, then installed the 2.2 and listened again. Aside from the hardware, the only variable was Graham's new blue silicone damping oil. I used Hovland's Music Groove phono cable (Graham also has a new IC-70 cable for the 2.2, which I didn't audition). The phono section was the $29,000 Boulder 2008 (see review elsewhere in this issue).

Some might be skeptical that the change in baseplate yields significant audible differences, thinking that there's no reason for it. However, a spectacularly tiny groove excursion can release an enormous amount of vibrational energy. That's why I think it's critical for a tonearm to be rigidly mounted—the more directly, the better—to its plinth, so that energy can be quickly and effectively evacuated. That's also why the fanatical attention to tight bearing tolerances Rega has paid in their upgraded RB-900 tonearm has paid such obvious sonic dividends—though the arm, for all intents and purposes, looks like any old Rega arm. But more about that in a future review of Rega's upgraded P9 turntable.

The sonic differences between the upgraded 2.0 and the all-new 2.2 arms were easy to hear. The 2.2 had slightly more solidity and weight on bottom, and greater richness and harmonic development in the midrange. The more solid bass was clearly evident on such room-shakers as "Baby You're a Rich Man," from a German pressing of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, and the title track of Davey Spillane's Atlantic Bridge.

Critics of Graham arms point to their "analytical" and underdeveloped midband. That criticism didn't apply to the upgraded 2.0, and even less to the new 2.2. You might not like what either tells you about the record you're playing, but don't blame the messenger.

Should you trade in your old 2.0 for an all-new 2.2, or just upgrade the bearing cap? I'd upgrade; the differences were not major. I think Bob Graham has refined his design about as far as he can, and has kicked the fit'n'finish, already high, up another notch. To surpass what he's accomplished with the 2.2, he'll have to start with a blank piece of paper.

I can't say with absolute authority what is the "best-sounding tonearm in the world," but the Graham 2.2 is among the handful of contenders. Factor in its build quality, ease of setup, versatility, and convenience, and it's hard to beat. And if $3000 is too much for you, you can start with the 2.1 arm ($1995), which is the same basic design fitted with a smaller, lighter bearing cap of aluminum, brass side weights (instead of the 2.2's tungsten), and an aluminum (instead of ceramic) armwand. No setup jig is supplied. You can order a jig at extra cost, or get a WallyTractor (more accurate, but not as convenient). Then, one at a time, you can upgrade the parts until you've got a full-blown 2.2, and you won't have spent any more than if you'd bought an all-new 2.2 to begin with.

Transfiguration Spirit Mk.3 phono cartridge
In my original review of the Transfiguration Spirit in the May 2000 Stereophile (Vol.23 No.5), I referred to the low-output (0.4mV) moving-coil cartridge's top-end performance as "spirited." It wasn't bright or etched, just "spotlit," and loading it down didn't seem to help. Still, given its sharp focus, overall cleanness and clarity, and detailed, tight, fast bottom end, the $1500 Spirit was a nice cartridge when used with warm-sounding electronics or lush speakers. But what could have been one of the most coherent and "together" cartridges at the price—one that shared many of the attributes of the far more expensive and superb-sounding Transfiguration Temper Supreme—still had that one little top-end problem...

I still had the original Spirit on hand when I received the Mk.3 version. (Immutable Music's Transfiguration cartridge line is now imported by Discovery's Joe DePhillips.) I did my comparing using two VPI JMW 12.5 tonearm assemblies on VPI's Aries Extended "hotrod" turntable (reviewed in the March 2002 "Analog Corner"), which permitted almost instantaneous comparisons. I determined that the Mk.3 retained all of the Spirit's best aspects while doing away with what I found somewhat objectionable on top.

Designer Seiji Yoshioka has managed to tame what I now think was some kind of HF resonance—the Mk.3 was neither rolled-off nor softened on top, nor was there less detail or transient snap. But the spotlighting was gone. The Mk.3 more closely resembled the tonality of the far more expensive Transfiguration Temper Supreme, one of the finest cartridges I've ever heard. The Supreme is no razzle-dazzle cartridge, but one of the most neutral, no-nonsense transducers currently available—which is what made the original Spirit's "spirited" top-end performance so surprising.

The Spirit Mk.3 retained the original's clarity, focus, dynamic authority, and superb tracking capabilities (at 2gm) while adding a higher level of frequency neutrality. While it didn't possess the Supreme's harmonic subtlety and inner detail, it did offer top-tier rhythmic organization, musical drive, and coherence. You'll have a difficult time identifying any "character" to its sound, which is as it should be.

With its yokeless dual-ring magnet construction, boron cantilever, PA solid-diamond stylus, and body of milled aluminum with integral threaded mounting holes, the Spirit Mk.3 is a mighty attractive package for $1500, and its ability to organize and present focused images in space is one of its strongest suits. If you prefer clarity, focus, and spatial "neatness," the Spirit Mk.3 should appeal to you.

But if you're willing to give up some of the Spirit Mk.3's rhythmic thrust, impressive clarity, and tonal neutrality, you can get more robust bass, a somewhat richer harmonic palette, and a more relaxed overall presentation from Sumiko's Celebration ($1500). But I don't think you'll get as accurate a picture of what's in the grooves—not that every audiophile wants that!

Dynavector XX-2 phono cartridge
Another cartridge in the same price range as the Spirit Mk.3 is Dynavector's new XX-2 ($1650), which seems to be based on the guts of the XX-1 but boasts a new, semi-open body of cast aluminum instead of some sort of plastic. Highlights of the design include an alnico-5 magnet instead of the usual ferrite or rare earth, a patented Magnetic Flux Damper, a solid-boron cantilever, a Pathfinder line-contact stylus, and PCOCC (Pure Copper Ohno Continuous Casting) coil wire. In other words, the XX-2 is a high-tech piece of machinery.

The XX-2's output voltage is low at 0.23mV, its recommended tracking force is 1.8–2.2gm, and the recommended load is down there at 30 ohms. Weighing 8gm, the XX-2 shaves a third off the XX-1's 12gm, making it more suitable for medium-mass arms. (Although I always check the resonant frequency of any combination of cartridge and tonearm—mostly the Graham 2.2 and Immedia RPM-2 arms—I don't mention the number unless it's out of the ideal range (around 10Hz). I haven't mentioned any numbers in this column in quite some time, so you can assume that they've all been in the ballpark. That includes the XX-2's resonant frequency of about 9Hz in the Immedia arm.)

Dynavector claims that its Magnetic Flux Damper and Softened Magnetism processes and the alnico-5 magnet reject magnetic fluctuations and help create stable output voltages, among other claimed advantages. Every manufacturer's got a story; the real one is what a cartridge delivers from the grooves.

Mounted on the Immedia RPM-2 or the Graham 2.2, the Dynavector proved a superb tracker, yielding the "deep, powerful" bass promised by the instruction sheet. Not a bass line as prodigious as the Celebration's, but a rich and supple one more appropriate to the rest of the picture, and one emphasizing tonality and weight over attack. In fact, the XX-2 seemed to emphasize the aftermath of the musical event—the result of the transient—rather than the event itself. Cartridges that emphasize the transient can sound fast, lean, and exciting—like the van den Hul Black Beauty Colibri, which I reviewed in August 2000. Some people love that sound; others hate it.

Ideally, you'd want something that balanced the event and the musical aftermath, but has any cartridge ever delivered that? All the cartridges I've auditioned have leaned one way or the other to differing degrees. The early Koetsu Rosewood was rich and warm, the old Dynavector Ruby fast and lean. Most of today's cartridges display far less "personality," and that's a good thing. The XX-2 leaned ever so slightly toward "rich," with a strong, lithe bass line and a sweet yet extended top end, but never sounded soft, clogged, or boring.

But if you prefer a really stiff ride in which you feel all the bumps in the musical road, the XX-2 might not be the cartridge for you. That's not to say it made cymbals sound like airbrakes, if you know that sound. There was a nice, crisp ring to cymbals, and snares crackled smartly, but I've heard sharper attacks, and more air and space. If you want to count the rivets in a cymbal, you might look elsewhere—unless your system needs a few notches of taming.

As Dynavector claims, the XX-2's treble was "both clear and lively, possessing none of the hardness found in many moving-coil designs." Slightly edgy recordings really sounded swell through the XX-2, but sweet ones could sound a bit soft and lacking in rhythmic drive. Of course, the opposite is true of cartridges that lean toward the fast and "etchy." They can sound great on lush, liquid recordings, and positively ear-shattering on edgy ones. Count both varieties in your LP collection before you buy any cartridge, but don't think the XX-2 is better for one genre of music than another. The XX-2 could rock with the best of them. It's more a matter of how the music was recorded.

Tonal balance is key to a transducer's personality or (hopefully) lack thereof, and while the XX-2 tilted slightly one way, it was subtly done and didn't interfere with rhythmic thrust, image solidity, or the perception of neutrality. All of that is accomplished in part by the solid, extremely well-controlled bass. An XX-2 with the Celebration's copious bass would be a disaster, given the XX-2's slightly polite top end. But the Celebration adds a bit of sparkle on top to balance its bottom, and that ingredient makes it work.

Overall, the XX-2 is a very sophisticated, full-bodied cartridge that delivered authoritative macrodynamics and excelled at portraying harmonic nuance, especially in the midband. If you prefer the resonant, sonorous, woody call of strings, the reedy element of a saxophone, the piano's sounding board, or a singer's chest cavity, you'll dig the XX-2. If you'd rather the emphasis was on the bow dragging across the strings, the sax's bell, hammers hitting piano strings, or the singer's throat, the XX-2 won't be for you. If you want both, you'll have to fiddle with some other part of your system or play with loading (I tried 100 and 1000 ohms and settled on 1000, though Dynavector suggests 30 ohms). I prefer a bit more spit'n'polish on top than the XX-2 delivered, but that's my taste. I think the XX-2's performance and build quality would have cost you much more just a few years ago.

ZYX R100FS phono cartridge
The ZYX R100FS phono cartridge ($1995) is being touted as a "Helikon killer" by some, including its US distributor. But I'm not swallowing that hype any more than I paid attention to this, from the instructions: "It gives you extremely even sound balance at both channels and extremely symmetrical sound that is just like symmetrical Fuji Mountain." Oh-kay...

I hadn't heard of ZYX, but when I asked around, a number of people suggested the company had supplied Monster with its Alpha Genesis cartridge, though the R100FS looks nothing like that veteran transducer. However, I found a model RS-10-H on a German website that did resemble the Alphas.

Whatever the source, its body of transparent plastic makes the R100FS a unique-looking cartridge. It's a featherweight 4.2gm—when I ran it with the Immedia RPM-2 tonearm, I had to add a blob of Blu-Tack to the headshell to track at the recommended 2gm (1.7–2.5gm is the range suggested). With the Graham arm, I merely had to remove the extra counterweight. Mounting the R100FS was a pain in the old-fashioned way: it requires nuts to be slipped into cramped spaces under U-flanges on either side of the body. A minor annoyance in the big picture, but you've been warned. Once you've gotten used to the convenience of threaded holes, it's hard to go back. The R100FS's output is 0.24mV; the recommended loading is 100 ohms or less.

The designer calls his generator system "Real Stereo," and claims that it's the only one that pays attention to 15 vital points necessary to address in order to eliminate "time distortion." I wish I had the space here to deal with all of his interesting and provocative claims. A particularly intriguing one had to do with mechanical vs electrical symmetry and different ways of winding coils.

The "FS" model uses American-made five-nines silver wire; the standard R-100 uses six-nines copper. Both versions incorporate a Microridge stylus with a 3µm by 6µm contact area, the edges of the diamond shank set parallel to the cantilever's sides. This is claimed to make the hardest axis of the crystal the point of groove contact, and to result in "stable and smooth tracing and...a very refined sound."

I found that sonic claim to be 100% true. The R100FS had a relaxed feel about its sound that was "smooth as water flowing." On one level, the R100FS delivered the least mechanical sound I've heard from a cartridge—absent was any sense of a stylus coursing through a vinyl groove. Part of that impression was due to the almost magical background silence. For reasons I don't understand, the R100FS seemed to make pops, clicks, and other extraneous groove noises disappear. Yet its high-frequency performance was extended and revealing. Perhaps it had something to do with the contact profile, with the stylus touching only unworn parts of the groove. Whatever it was, the ZYX R100FS was more tolerant of chewed-up LPs than any stereo cartridge I've ever auditioned, and was one of the quietest.

So much for what wasn't there. What was was very well-balanced, and as far on the lean side of neutral as the Dynavector XX-2 was on the rich. In some ways, the R100FS matched the "feel" of open-reel tape, minus the hiss, which is about as great a compliment as one can pay a cartridge. It had an open, extended, and smooth overall sound that masked any apparent tonal coloration over the short haul, though it presented a forward soundstage that was almost in my lap, and its harmonic development was somewhat stunted.

Over the long haul, however, I found the R100FS's sound curiously bland, and lacking in excitement and involvement. The ZYX excelled at delivering the event (though transients were somewhat smoothed-over even as the picture was somewhat forward), but it fell short on the follow-through. It tended to dry up ambience and flatten both image and soundstage depth. To save space this month, I've avoided specific musical references, but here's an example of what I noticed.

I played Ian and Sylvia's dramatic and romantic Northern Journey (Vanguard VSD 79154, black Stereolab label) through the R100FS and the Dynavector XX-2. (I listen to this duo and wonder how they could possibly have broken up the act or their marriage.) On most tracks, only a modest amount of reverb with a very fast decay time has been added behind the instruments and vocals. Through the XX-2 this translated into image roundness, stage depth, and a slight bit of warmth, but all of this was barely discernible through the R100FS, which pushed the images forward and flattened them, resulting in a less than appealing picture.

After my first extended listening period, which went on for a number of weeks, I took a break and then came back to the ZYX. All of its appealing qualities were immediately apparent, but so was its dryness and its less than complex delivery of harmonics. Switching back to the XX-2 was almost like adding color and dynamic shading to a two-dimensional black-and-white picture, though I exaggerate for the sake of illumination. I hesitate to open the "copper vs silver wiring" debate, but damn if, in hindsight, that's just what I'm describing. Silver naysayers claim "bright but overly smoothed-over transients," and that's what I heard.

Sluggish- or warm-sounding systems will probably benefit from the ZYX R100FS, but I don't recommend it for systems that tend toward the opposite end of the sonic spectrum. Still, the R100FS had many appealing qualities, and, as always, your mileage may vary. I look forward to hate mail from fans of this cartridge.

To my ears, the best-balanced of these three cartridges and the most organized, soundstage-wise, was the Transfiguration Spirit Mk.3. It exhibited a clarity, transparency, tonal neutrality, and soundstage focus that were enticing and compelling. However, for overall musical richness and stunning, forceful, extremely well-controlled bass, you can't go wrong with the Dynavector XX-2, which also excelled at providing musical nuances you expect to get only from far more expensive cartridges. As for the ZYX R100FS, its overall quiet, its groove-friendly rejection of noise and wear, and its tape-like smoothness were high points. The less appealing aspects of its sound could be system-dependent, so if what stuck in my craw was exactly what your system needs, further inquiries are in order. Who sez I'm not diplomatic?

I used the battery-powered Aesthetix Benz MC Demagnetizer throughout these listening sessions. Like other well-designed demagnetizing devices, the MC ramps up, holds, and then ramps down a low-distortion, high-frequency sinewave. It costs a very reasonable $199 and seems to work as well as more expensive models.

Coming Attractions In the works are reviews of the Groove and Lamm LP-2 phono stages, the Audio-Technica AT-OC9ML/II and Grado Statement Reference cartridges, the Sutherland 12dAX7 USB-based D/A converter, and Acoustic Energy's AEGO2 5.1-channel surround-sound loudspeaker system. I leave you with part of a phone conversation between U2's Bono and Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet), which appeared in the April 2002 issue of Mojo:

Captain Beefheart: Can I play you a tune?

Bono: That would be a treat.

Beefheart: Allow me to turn this on. [plays Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" and Sonny Boy Williamson II's "I Don't Know"]

Bono: Wow, who was that?

Beefheart: That was Sonny Boy.

Bono: Oh my God, it sounds so fresh, like the paint isn't overworked. That's an original recording, right?

Beefheart: He plays horrible harp. Uh-huh!

Bono: Yeah, extraordinary. Did you play that on CD or vinyl?

Beefheart: Vinyl.

Bono: Even across the phone, you can kind of feel the groove of it. Are you suspicious of all the digitalizing of everything?

Beefheart: I hate it, you hear me. Goddamn sons of bitches.

Bono: I know. There's something about the physical thing of the needle in the groove, it's like sex and it's a contact sport.

Beefheart: Right. [laughing]

Bono: I think the digital recordings have a personality but it's the personality of Formica. Some music can sound good on it, some hip hop, because they've got lower end; but I agree with you, vinyl is a solution...

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) The Byrds, Sanctuary IV (Sweetheart of the Rodeo sessions), Sundazed 180gm LP
2) Mott the Hoople, All the Young Dudes, Absolute Analogue 180gm LP
3) Eddie Harris, The Electrifying Eddie Harris, 4 Men With Beards 180gm LP
4) Booker T. & the MG's, Green Onions, Sundazed 180gm LP
5) Spoon, Girls Can Tell, Merge LP
6) Giant Sand, cover magazine, Thrill Jockey LP
7) Incubus, Morning View, Epic LPs (2)
8) Death Cab for Cutie, The Photo Album, Barsuk LP
9) The Holy Modal Rounders, Moray Eels Eat..., Sundazed 180gm LP
10) Creedence Clearwater Revival, Green River, Analogue Productions 180gm LP

Jack Gilvey's picture

Started reading before seeing the date and thought Compact Disc World in Paramus was still open somehow. Used to frequent the one on 46 in Totowa, cool vinyl and stuff there. The dry cleaners in its spot is considerably less interesting.

rtrt's picture

Almost certainly that telephone call was digital and something like 8 bits & 8Khz...

Michael Fremer's picture
The essence comes through anyway, if not the fullness of the actual event. One night a few months after I met my soon to be wife I was staying in her apartment and we had WNEW-FM on her boombox. The set was long but in the middle of it "BOOM" there was a track that stood out. I said to her "I bet that one was from vinyl". I called the station and they confirmed it. Just that one track. And it sounded best so....