Ode to a Moving Magnet Cartridge

Halcro -- Sun, 06/07/2009 - 00:06

I can’t quite recall when it was that I abandoned my favourite Garrott P77 moving magnet cartridge and finally took the plunge into the world of moving coil exotica? Perhaps it was 1993 or early 1994 but it was certainly late (in those times) for an entrenched analogue cognoscente.
I can recall WHY I finally did it for it was not something I had been itching to do.
Having entered the world of Hi-Fi in 1978, I quickly developed an addiction and regularly bought the British magazines ‘What Hi-Fi’ and ‘Hi-Fi Answers’ where I became swept up in the ‘then’ revolutionary concept of ‘garbage in – garbage out’, source (meaning turntable) first and foremost, which was led and promoted by the inimitable Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn Sondek.
Already in Australia before the 80s began, the Linn LP12 with Grace 707 arm and Supex MC cartridge (designed by Sugano and the forerunner of the Koetsus) was the benchmark for analogue front ends. I had a respectable Rega Planar 3 with Hadcock GH228 and Nagaoka MP11 MM cartridge which placed me effectively on the 2nd rung of the audiophile podium.
As the ‘80s progressed however, the tidal wave of moving coil cartridges threatened to sweep the moving magnets, if not from the face of the earth, then at least into the realms of the lowly Mid-Fi to Low-Fi journeymen undeserving of serious consideration from reviewers and ‘real’ audiophiles alike.
By the mid 1980s, I had moved through the Ortofons, the Nagaoka and Stanton 681EEE to finally settle on the wonderful Garrott P77 moving magnet which had my system sounding sweet, detailed, authoritative and quite akin to the sound of live music played in real space.
I had the privilege of meeting John and Brian Garrott on several occasions at their various residences in and around Sydney in the early 1980s.
They took the English A&R P77 cartridge (a good performer in its own right), and hand tweaked it to new levels calling it the Garrott P77 which rightly led to their fame.
Eccentric and passionate, the two reclusive brothers married 2 Phillipino sisters and all four lived together in their various houses with the sisters baking biscuits and fussing over the boys whilst everyone called each other Luvvey. As I recall, John was the voluble protagonist to all who would ring or call by, whilst Brian sat quietly at the workbench, magnifying glass in left eye, painstakingly winding coils and preparing and gluing styli.
They passionately despised the MC cartridges  then making their early claims for audiophile prominence and I vividly recall them sitting me down in front of their extraordinary Hi-Fi system (which consisted of stacked Quads and multiple sub-woofers), and playing a record with the then famous Supex MC cartridge and detaching the headshell to shift in their Garrott P77. Of course the P77 sounded better with none of the irritating and unnatural high frequency exaggeration common to moving coils at that time.
I had them re-tip my P77 at least 3 times during the '80s and, as no cartridge had ever sounded so sweet to me, I bought 2 of them.
I doubt that Brian and John were worried about the CD revolution as they never mentioned it to me, but the discovery that one of them had developed cancer saw the four of them commit ritual suicide in a pact that seemed consistent with their mutual inter-dependence although no note was ever found.
My reluctance to venture into the world of moving coils was induced by 3 factors. Firstly I had never heard a moving coil that sounded sweeter than my P77. Secondly my Electrocompaniet preamplifier at the time had only a moving magnet input and thirdly, I was not convinced that the Hadcock unipivot tonearm could handle the increased energy (I believed), that moving coils transmitted to tonearms.
After changing my preamp to a Kebschull valve unit which had a switchable MM and MC phonostage, the friendly dealer who sold me the Kebscull lent me a Van den Hull Grasshopper (aka Symphonic Line) to try out. This did little for me with a decidedly piercing top end and so a Koetsu Urishi (52nd Anniversary) was also lent.
This was a big disappointment with what sounded to me like a musical presentation on Valium. Sloppy bass and a rolled-off treble was not saved by a supposedly renowned midrange and maybe it was indeed true that the Hadcock unipivot was simply not up to the task of handling moving coils?
The rather newly introduced line of Clearaudio cartridges was next in line when a shiny Concerto was mounted in the Hadcock GH228. Finally a sound resembling my beloved P77 was being produced and so began my journey through the world of high-end MC cartridges and sadly, the complete abandonment of moving magnets.
From the Concerto I moved to the Clearaudio Insider Gold, a decidedly ‘darker’ sound laced with a slight ‘fruitiness’ from the mids to the highs.
The next flavour of the month for the reviewers in Stereophile and TAS was the range of moving coils from Lyra especially the Clavis and Parnassus. I took the plunge with the Lyra Helikon which in my system sounded far better to me than the Insider Gold. After about two years, the new Titan i became the unofficial ‘king’ with the reviewers so in it went.
This cartridge to me, was one of the big disappointments in my audio life. Where the Helikon at least had some warmth in the midrange and a decent bass performance, the Titan i sounded bleached, thin and emotionless. Compounding the faults was a brittle high end and a total ‘disconnect’ from any emotional involvement that left me bereft of joy in the reproduced musical experience.
Little did I realise at this time, but I had unsuspectingly drifted deeply into the mire of moving coil ‘house-sound’ through the pervasive peer pressure of magazines, reviewers, dealers and audiophiles.
It never occurred to me at this stage (or at any stage really), to jump off the wagon (or bullet-train) and re-fit one of my ‘sleeping’ P77s.
Why could I not sit back objectively and assess whether I was listening more and enjoying it less? What happens to us audiophiles when we move up the ‘high-end’ chain that somehow prevents us stepping down again? Fear? Fear of derision or loss of respect amongst our audiophile compatriots?
I know of and personally know, committed audiophiles who rabidly acquire and replace equipment until they have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their systems and then suddenly sell it all to never be seen again or else begin anew with a modest ‘mid-fi’ set-up. Do they suddenly have an epiphany? Do they finally realise that they have moved at such a rapid pace to arrive at a place that gives them little musical joy?
Disappointed with the sound of the Lyra Titan i in my system, I stumbled across the web site of Arthur Salvatore named Audio Critique (not to be confused with The Audio Critic), where his reference cartridge (the ZYX Universe LOMC) was extensively reviewed and praised. Without the opportunity to hear one, I risked all and ordered one from Mehran at SORAsound.
As soon as the Universe had played its first notes I knew that this was the finest moving coil cartridge I had ever heard……and the low mass Hadcock unipivot was easily able to display its virtues. Some time passed and I swapped the Rega 3 and Hadcock for a Raven AC-3 with Continuum Copperhead and DaVinci 12” Ref Grandezza tonearms. The Universe sounded just as wonderful in the DaVinci and I then purchased a Dynavector DV1s (another LOMC cartridge) to mount in the Copperhead. Whist not quite up to the ethereal presentation of the Universe, the DV1s was a good performer with no readily obvious faults.
It was only when (after 2 years of magical use) the ZYX Universe died, that I decided to try again, one of my Garrott P77s. I had been reading on Audiogon a thread by Raul Iruegas, where he championed the humble moving magnet cartridge and with literally dozens of them mounted at various times in his 3 multi-armed turntables, he appeared worth listening to.
When I mounted one of my two Garrott P77 cartridges into the DaVinci Ref 12” Grandezza tonearm, I did not really know what to expect? It had been fifteen years after all, since I’d last heard a MM cartridge.
After a longer than expected run-in period, I was surprised to hear a sound quite different to that to which I had become accustomed with the moving coils. It was a sound that seemed to have ‘air’ within it, not dissimilar to the ‘air’ one hears with fine valve amplification though not exactly the same. It was not an ’air’ of ‘spaciousness’ or ‘depth’ which one can obtain with valves…….it was an ‘air’ of……well…..air. The air which surrounds us and through which real sound travels. And it was not an ‘air’ that embraced the higher frequencies or the midrange. It was a pervasive ‘air’ which stretched from the deepest lows to the upper highs. It was a ‘relaxed’ air. It was an ‘air’ which made the music sound ‘real’ and the whole sound spectrum believable and convincing, but it was the ‘relaxation’ more than anything else which convinces one that this is a presentation more akin to live music in real spaces than that of the moving coils.
This in no way is to suggest that MCs don’t do some things better than MMs…..primarily the already mentioned detail in the higher frequencies. The MCs really do dig out the enth degree of ‘shimmer’, ‘tingle’, ‘splash’, and ‘tizz’ that are buried in those vinyl grooves. It’s not so much that MMs don’t produce those higher frequencies….. I’ve checked carefully on a variety of musical genres from harpsichord, violin, guitar, cymbals, triangles, piano drums….. it’s more that MCs produce a louder initial fundamental than the MMs and then continue with the upper harmonics of those fundamentals perhaps even to the sixth harmonic?
The Garrott P77 produces the same fundamental as the MCs but does not seem to extend into the harmonics as far nor as loudly so it appears on first listening, that one is hearing more ‘deeply’ into the recorded music with the moving coils.
Secondly the bass of the best MCs are generally more controlled, tighter and more 3-dimensional than that of the P77. Most people believe that this is not the case, with the bass of the MMs developing the reputation for being superior to that of the MCs. On first listen, one can form that impression because there appears to be ‘more of it’ but that ‘more’, on closer listening, is the ‘ringing’ or ‘overhang’, both of the fundamental and the harmonics. It is not dissimilar to the differences in the bass reproduction between ‘ported’ bass woofers and ‘sealed-box’ bass woofers. The ‘ported’ woofers appear to produce more bass than the ‘sealed-box’ but it is a ‘loose’ kind of bass, heavy in overtones and imprecision whilst the ‘sealed-box’ is tight with a quick start-stop ability and a 3-dimensional depth which seems to allude the ‘ported’ ones.
Thirdly the best MCs are able, at times, to cast a wider soundstage than the P77 with also a smidgen more depth and transparency possibly because of their greater harmonics ability.
So which do I prefer if I can’t have the attributes of both types in the single cartridge?
The Garrott P77 is 20 years old, cost me $300 and can be re-tipped for another $300. As soon as you hear the music it produces, your body relaxes and the blood flows freely through your veins. You find your head swaying and your feet tapping and you breathe deeply…..and suddenly you realise a joy you have not experienced in music listening for a long time.

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