As the 21st Century vinyl LP revival / “craze” seems to continue for as long as it did, does it still really matter what vinyl LP replay cartridge / needle to use?
By: Ringo Bones
It seems like major record labels don’t give a damn about the sound quality of their offerings anymore. I mean the last time I ever saw those “audiophile apps” that supposedly makes your digitally downloaded (legally I hope) compressed music files sound like good old vinyl LP being exhibited to an unsuspecting public was back in 2006. If a typical 21st Century audiophile wants better quality sound from the one offered by the Redbook 16-bit 44.1-KHz sampled CDs, he or she won’t likely to find it on the DVD Audio and SACD discs being stocked on mainstream record stores at the mall because these too are getting scarcer and scarcer since 2009. For a better sounding than CD prerecorded music format – vinyl LPs are still the answer, as used record stores and those weekend vinyl LP and antique stereo swap meets that typically opens after weekend scheduled Airsoft games are getting more popular here in South-East Asia since 2006. Assuming you’re lucky enough to find a treasured vinyl LP or 7-inch single you’ve been seeking since 1987, does it still matter what vinyl replay cartridge to use?
According to seasoned “vinylophiles”, nude vinyl LP replay cartridges offer the sexiest sounds for the money – and not all of them are stratospherically expensive, though the very expensive ones are oft reviewed in leading hi-fi magazines. To the vinyl LP replay novice, a typical nude cartridge’s most striking feature is probably its lack of bodywork. Like no non-resonant aircraft-grade aluminum alloy, titanium, carbon fiber, exotic woods like Mpingo or whatever – just the magnet structure left open to the elements, albeit with a backing of a substantial flat mounting plate that’s either made from transparent acrylic or Lucite – or non-resonant aluminum alloy, titanium, carbon fiber, Mpingo or similar tonewoods or anything that doesn’t resonate or whose resonance is consonant to the music being played.
Probably the most famed nude moving coil cartridge in existence is the van den Hul Grasshopper. At around 5,000 US dollars or so (the last time I checked in Hong Kong back in 2010) the Grasshopper is about the same price as a well-reviewed entry-level 4-door sedan made by a famed South Korean automaker making it out of the price range of most vinyl LP enthusiasts. But to every vinyl enthusiast fortunate enough to see it with their very own eyes, the most amazing part about the van den Hul Grasshopper cartridge is its lead-out wires from the coils, which are exposed to the elements and are so thin that they are very difficult to see with the naked eye to anyone on the wrong side of 40. A jeweler’s loupe didn’t offer much improvement either. How van den Hul managed to solder those wires, I don’t know, it’s simply amazing – with an amazing sound, holographic walk around imaging and soundstaging, to match the looks and the price.
Some very seasoned vinyl enthusiasts argue that the nude construction of the van den Hul Grasshopper is not the very reason or the main factor why it sounds so good. They cite that it was something that Dutchman A.J. van den Hul invented in the late 1970s that makes the Grasshopper cartridge sound as good as it should – i.e. the Type 1S Diamond Stylus. The famed vinyl LP replay stylus is also used in another famed moving coil cartridge by van den Hul that’s only half the price of the Grasshopper – namely the van den Hul Frog. Though the Frog sports a “British racing green” colored non-resonant aluminum bodywork. And there are even some skilled vinyl enthusiasts out there who ditched the Frog’s aluminum bodywork and tweaked it into an ad hoc nude moving coil vinyl replay cartridge that sounds as good as the twice as expensive Grasshopper. I wonder if those very skilled vinyl enthusiasts have dubbed it as the “van den Hul Nude Froghopper”.
Another famed nude moving coil vinyl replay cartridge that can be bought around the same price as the van den Hul Frog is the one by the famed Japanese cartridge maker Dynavector called the Te-Kaitora - named after the Maori phrase for “The Discoverer” because it was designed by Dynavector’s New Zealand branch. As with all nude moving coil cartridges, the magnetic structure of the Dynavector Te-Kaitora is left open to the elements, albeit with a backing of a substantial sized flat non-resonant titanium plate. And as a warning to overly enthusiastic potential customers, the nudity of the Dynavector Te-Kaitora exposes several millimeters of its very fragile – very expensive and almost invisible – boron-rod cantilever with the famed Ogura Pathfinder stylus. The wiring is made of silver and the cartridge features Dynavector’s proprietary magnetic tweaks – i.e. a flux dumper coil on the front and magnetic softening via ferrous metal strips.
And probably the cheapest nude moving coil vinyl replay cartridge out there is probably the Sumiko Blue Point Special at one-twentieth the price of the van den Hul Grasshopper. It is top of the range in Sumiko’s Oyster Series and its “skeletal” construction makes it the most vulnerable of its sibling cartridges. Though the overall structure is sound – complete with a non-resonant aluminum cantilever – and electrical engineering is impressive throughout. And even though it is only one-twentieth the price of the van den Hul Grasshopper, the Sumiko Blue Point Special seems to offer 90% of the Grasshopper’s sound. Though some seasoned vinyl enthusiasts claim that the Sumiko Blue Point is not a true nude moving coil cartridge because of its extra large mounting plate.
Sound quality-wise, nude moving coil vinyl LP replay cartridges are notable for their holographic walk-around soundstage and very dynamic pace, rhythm and timing that’s much closer to what live music actually sounds – rather than a mere electronic reproduction of a recording as portrayed by lesser vinyl replay cartridges. The nude construction undoubtedly contributes to the beguiling transparency and purity of tone right across the broad midband, which can be a delight with well-recorded acoustic instruments.