Audio, Etc. (Mar. 1981)

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Against a snag, no modern cartridge is proof .... One touch of knitted wool and the snag would be complete.

I've had my fingers into my hi-fi system again, to hook up and de-hook still more LP disc playback equipment--it's hard to keep up these days.

Some people have objected that I condemn the LP by touting the day when a true all-digital disc, or several, will take over the field. Wrong! Wrong if they read me carefully. I have lived with LP for its whole life and I respect it, past, present and future--whatever this last may bring. That future has certainly NOT stopped unfolding, as anybody can plainly see and hear. So now for Installment Two, after a fashion, following my account in January of Sony's PS-X75 "biotracer" turntable.

Yes, human fingers are a lot better than remote control buttons when it comes to landing an LP stylus precisely on the quiet grooves between LP bands.

But in other respects our thankless digitals are being asked to do a great deal in a negative way by the competing inter national manufacturers. Namely, to keep out of trouble. The damage that even a slightly unwary finger, or thumb, or even a human arm or sleeve can do today is appalling. I should know. Are your fingers bulkier and clumsier each year? That's the way it feels. I get the shaking palsy just looking at a new cartridge--me, I'm supposed to install THAT? And I can't even see the point, with 20-20 vision.

As far as I can tell, my professional colleagues on this magazine, bless them, seem never to make finger-faux-pas the way I do. Not if you read them, anyhow. I've figured out how they do it.

Specially designed mechanical fingers, controlled by micro-circuits. What else? You put them on like surgical gloves.

These fingers, I postulate, must be of spring steel, delicately tuned to a micrometer's breadth, tipped with iridium curved to a Shibata, with fingernails of nude diamond, the better to grasp. You don't make ANY mistakes with that kind of finger. Joints of sputtered silver, babbitted and lubed with silicon, powered by tendons of braided niobium sheathed in Teflon for precision movement. Some fingers! Maybe I'd do better if I had a pair. As it is, if I ever wrote an Equipment Profile, it might go like this, in excerpt:

"... On the left, the bias is controlled by a three-position toggle switch--oh--oh, there it goes. Fell right off in my hand. Must have tweaked it too hard." Or: "The cartridge was lowered care fully to the record surface and EEEK--a one-inch scratch was seen to appear across the grooves at an angle of 93 degrees. This produced a peak reading of +87 dB at a frequency of 33.33 occurrences per minute, +1 percent,- 1/2 percent." Or even: "The phono stylus of stressed nubidium alloy was examined closely for tolerances. Oddly, two-thirds of the stylus bar was unaccounted for.

However, the segment which proved visible easily exceeded manufacturer's specs." No, only the people whose ordinary digits are no more precise than Neanderthal's could expect to run into that sort of testing trouble. Me.

So--to business, and all praise to my colleagues who do not write as per above. Today's account is of a quite fabulous new cartridge, as maybe you could begin to guess. I particularly had asked to try it because it is different in rather fundamental respects. The unit arrived just as I came down with digitalis (see February), followed, alas, by pericarditis, which is no fun at all. So I tossed the little package quickly to my intelligent neighbor along with another brand-new table. I can't use more than one table at a time, after all, and these two would match, both of them state of today's art. Within a day, this guy called me back in distress. "Hey," said he, "why does this new cartridge skip grooves all over the place? My old one didn't." "WHAT," said I, "impossible! That thing should track anything, including a quarter-inch vertical warp." "Well," he said, "I put it right into my old table and--." "YOUR table! You mean that thing you've had for 22 years already?" "It works," he said. "So why not? Your new cartridge is just lousy, that's all. It won't track. Even at 2 1/2 grams." "Good Lord, man," I shouted, as my fever went up two degrees. "Please," I said, "the NEW table. And two and a half grams--get that thing out of there and put it in the new table or I'm ruined! Repeat, the NEW table. And let's hope there's no damage. New cartridge, new table. They match. Get it? You CANNOT use a new high-quality cartridge in a table as old as that one, with its big, fat heavyweight arm and semi-rigid bearings. This thing is delicate, man! You've set up hideous strains on it, you've got horrible resonances. That is, as the cartridge sees them. If you want a cartridge for that table, I've got a batch of them in my museum and any one will do a fine job, an optimum job. But lube things up a bit, first, will ya? That arm of yours sticks." For once, this man was meek. Brains, yes, but no experience, like entirely too many of our consumers today. He'll learn. So the new cartridge and the new table were returned to me, each re packed circumspectly in its own box. No apparent damage, and I breathed the well-known sigh of relief. I tend to be reckless on that score.

When I got back home from a rest cure, my friend came right over, all apologies.

Could he help me install the new cartridge? COULD he! I gave what passed for a faint whoop of joy. His fingers are big but he has patience. I just get exasperated. In short order, I was listening to the finest cartridge sound I have yet experienced. I was quite sure the sound was, indeed, in the cartridge, because with some foresight I had put away that other new table (later, later) and inserted the thing into my Sony, the PS-X75, al ready familiar to me. One variable at a time, please. No change in my entire set up except the change of cartridge.

My state of bliss lasted several days, and you have been reading this for any number of pages. So I will now name names. The Micro-Acoustics System II is the cartridge and it is remarkable, perhaps unique, on a number of scores--most immediately, that it is not a magnetic. Neither moving coil, moving iron, variable R, or any other. It works by direct-coupled electrets, and it includes in side the ultra-light body of the cartridge a tiny micro-circuit adapter--no more extra black boxes, transformers, etc.--which automatically matches the unit to any combination of cable capacitance and preamp phono input, within one-half a percent. Moreover, it claims to be "the lightest, fastest cartridge ever," with the smallest stylus ever seen and a jewel point that is virtually invisible.

I went to the early press introduction for this cartridge last summer and was immediately impressed by these and a wealth of other quite astonishing innovations, even though at that point there wasn't much of anything in the way of sound. Some knowing readers will al ready surmise that this is the latest product of one of our most inventive minds, Arnold Schwartz, whose Micro-Point cut ting styli are used everywhere in the business. "Arnie," as he is informally known, was once at CBS Labs, where I met him way back. I still have a quadruple array of his loudspeakers, one of the earliest units to cope with the problems of forward-beaming highs and the cavity resonances set up by drivers mounted inside cutout boards, as the old ones mostly were. We have many innovators in our business but only a few, like Arnold Schwartz (like Edgar Villchur, like Ray Dolby, like S. Marantz), are the sort whose products work, reliably, predict ably, uneccentridally, practically, for all their differences. My strong feeling was that any new cartridge from A. Schwartz should be worth a try, no matter how zany.

This System II from Micro-Acoustics (there are three in the line, from fancy to ultra-fancy) is no less than bewildering in the extent of its innovations. It has no business working at all, with so many "departures" from the delicately tuned experience of years in this touchy design art! And yet-. For instance, a lightweight body made of carbon--yes, carbon. Carbon fiber, to be exact. An entirely new coupling system, direct from stylus bar to the pair of electrets via a twin-pivot dual-bearing "resolver"--new word to me--and a whole galaxy of new dampers, iridium-platinum axial, dynamic feedback, and more. Not like anything you've seen, even if you know cartridges. And that stylus bar, made of rigid beryllium and said to be 60 percent lower in mass than "conventional aluminum stylus bars"-- take your choice. I believe that. As I say, I have seen that stylus bar, though barely. You have to catch it with the light just right.

I'll stop with the quoted technicalities since this is not an engineering report.

Frankly, I was a bit unsure whether I could plunge right back into my record reviewing with this unusual cartridge, just playing music as I had been doing with its worthy predecessors. Thanks, I do not want trouble. No eccentricities. I have work enough to do, just listening. I forget the cartridge--it's the sonic product that matters.

Unless you are an inveterate testing--testing type, whose life moves from one comparison to another, you would eventually feel the same way. Let's go! Let's play music.

And so I did. Not only was I instantly impressed by a kind of liquid, velvety smoothness of sound but it happened (it usually does with me) that the first record I put on the Sony table was warped. An up-bulge on one side, maybe a quarter inch off the rubber mat. At one-half gram the new cartridge, even so, played most of the music, skipping lightly into the air (the Sony is a good arm, definitely) for part of each turn. At one gram all but the outer inch of the record played without blemish. At 1 1/4 grams even the outer edge tracked, without distortion or skip ping.

Now that is impressive! And a hasty trial of some other warped monstrosities (I have a few) only proved the point. The tiny beryllium stylus just gracefully bends up and down, the ultra-light cartridge body easily displaces itself and, you might say, the ultra-modern Sony arm (you do need that) is happily surprised and cooperates perfectly.

Not only good sound but, to my growing surprise, a sort of background silence that had me baffled. The "surface noise" seemed lower, disc for disc, than I would ever have expected, knowing these records pretty well. In fact, after awhile, I put aside my usual surface-noise ratings until I could probe this welcome change. I really didn't know how to rate. When I later phoned Arnold Schwartz I mentioned this; silence from him. He may also have been surprised but more likely he meant, whaddya expect? Of course! Being modest, he let silence tell its own story.

The denouement was simple enough.

I've set the background and you may guess what happened. On the third day, I finished up one last record review, playing the music as I wrote about it (my usual procedure) and then allowed the Sony to put the stylus to bed via its automatic shut off. Arm goes up, linear motor moves arm over to rest. Arm sinks to rest.

Next day I had other business, now being on the road to recovery, and on the fifth day got back to my typewriter, turned on my system and put another record under the plastic cover and onto the Sony table. After a few seconds a skittery noise came forth, shreds of faint music as the arm skated over the surface. Zero point pressure? Remember, this is adjustable in the new tables by an outside knob, even while the record is playing. I checked--it was set at one gram. With foreboding, I took the arm's headshell off and looked. Then just to be sure, I pulled out the removable stylus assembly.

Yes, a segment of beryllium bar was left, about one-half. It had snapped cleanly, right in the middle. The half with the diamond had, of course, vanished.

Now that stylus system had been tested by a drop of several inches without damage. It simply bows, bends compliantly into the housing--as it had with the warped record. Did this one break off, then, of its own accord due to some internal defect or stress? Possible. Improbable.

MUCH more likely is what Arnold Schwartz calls a snag. Against a snag, no modern stylus is proof and especially this ultra-tiny one. Snag? Well, the Sony armrest is near its turntable and the arm sits on it like a feather. True, the Sony's mechanism ingeniously prevents the stylus from ever touching the rubber mat or the "floor" below. But what about a human arm, with a wool sweater and cuff, inserted under the dust cover to place a record on the table? One .tiny touch of that knitted wool and the snag would be complete. I would never even feel it. That's my theory, anyhow, and I cannot blame Micro-Acoustics or Sony.

So it goes today. We must live with our new and perhaps delicate technology, not only fingers but human arms and even sleeves. One wrong move and disaster. And don't think your cartridge is immune, whatever the brand.

They're sending me a new stylus assembly and I have every intention of using the Micro-Acoustics System II once more, with absolutely enormous caution.

Meanwhile, if you run into an equipment report on this cartridge, look to see whether the testing engineer ran into any snags. He might have, at that. Though he should know better.

by Edward Tatnall Canby (adapted from Audio magazine, Mar. 1981)

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