Analog Corner #102

Sumiko's Blackbird phono cartridge

Bose ran a full-page ad for its Wave radio a few weeks ago in the New York Times. The headline was "Proof That Great Ideas Get Heard." The company patted itself on the back for winning a technology award for the radio from "Forbes ASAP." The award cites the Wave as being one of 15 "world-changing" technological breakthroughs, on an equal footing with Bell's telephone, Edison's light bulb, and the invention of the CD.

When I read that, my morning coffee went up my nose and back into the cup. I immediately applied for a patent on "The Endless Cup of Coffee"® (Pat. Pend.), then tried to find "Forbes ASAP" online to explain to someone there that, however good it might sound (in my opinion, not that good), the Wave is a f—ing radio and nothing more, that my parent's 1940s-era Stromberg-Carlson console also had an "acoustic labyrinth," and that if anyone deserved an award for inventing the high-performance tabletop radio, it was—all together now—the late genius Henry Kloss.

I don't fault Bose for getting such an award—that's the fault of some knucklehead at "Forbes ASAP," whatever that might be or have been. (The latest—and only—edition of "Forbes ASAP" I could find online was dated "Fall 2002.") But I fault Amar Bose for not being embarrassed by such an absurd accolade, and for having the nerve to trumpet it in the pages of the Times. As Joseph Welch said to Joseph McCarthy on June 9, 1954, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

There. I feel better now.

A Sumiko Cartridge for the Birds
Sumiko established a benchmark phono cartridge with their high-output Blue Point MC cartridge ($250), then stripped it bare and refined it into the Blue Point Special ($349). Now they've gone one step further and designed a cartridge for the tricky $500–$1000 range. When they showed me a prototype at the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show, I suggested naming it the Sumiko Giant Clam, the Oysters Rockefeller, the Sumiko Red Tide, or the Sumiko Slug (the cartridge has no outer shell). Oddly, all of my suggestions were rejected, and eventually Sumiko dropped the mollusk motif altogether and advanced a rung on the evolutionary ladder by calling the new cartridge the Blackbird ($750).

The Blackbird is another "bare" design, lacking a body around the generator. If you're uncomfortable with such a design you'll have to look elsewhere, but you'd be missing an extraordinary bargain. Though it outwardly resembles the Blue Point Special and has the same output of 2.5mV, the Blackbird's performance is in another league entirely.

Like the most expensive cartridges, the Blackbird is said to be hand-calibrated and individually auditioned to ensure unit-to-unit consistency. Its open design saves the cost of an expensively nonresonant body, and is surely superior to a cheap body that vibrates. In addition, the generator system is attached to a vibration-reducing "inertia block." The cantilever is made of long-grain boron, used for its low mass and high rigidity, and the low-mass elliptical stylus is hand-ground (the grinder must have very small hands). Sumiko's rationale for using an elliptical rather than a more severe stylus profile with potentially better tracing ability is that a less finicky elliptical shape should result in higher overall performance in less-than-perfect "real world" setups.

The Blackbird's highish output means that it can be used with a standard moving-magnet (MM) phono preamplifier, thus avoiding extra gain stages, as well as the noise and RFI that can enter when you use anything but the best—and most expensive—phono preamps. Who's going to be using a $750 cartridge with a multi-kilobuck phono preamp? Yet the Blackbird's output—about half that of the typical MM cartridge—is achieved with low enough coil mass that the resolution goes to hell. Weighing 9.6gm and having a compliance of 12cu, the Blackbird, which tracks at between 1.8 and 2.2gm, should mate well with a wide variety of tonearms.

Sumiko's packaging is super-deluxe. When you open the box, you'll get a taste of how the other half lives: a nicely turned outer corrugated box, an inner foam insert cut out to receive a sweet-smelling wooden box in which is stashed the Blackbird itself, and a round metal pillbox containing high-quality hex-head screws for the tapped mounting platform. Nice.

Even nicer are the 26 pages of installation instructions, obviously written by Sumiko's chatty analog guru, Jim Alexander. The instructions define the setup parameters, tell you how to achieve them, then how to listen to your work to ensure that you've done it correctly. There are even drawings. No other cartridge in my experience, regardless of price, comes with such detailed, helpful instructions. Bravo! Way to go, Jim!

But all of these outer trappings would be pointless if this Blackbird didn't sing. I'm not here to tell you this $750 cartridge is as good as the $4500 Lyra Titan—it's not. But the Blackbird is so damn good that, unless you compare it directly with something like the Titan, you might wonder just how much better analog can get. It's that good.

The Blackbird's strongest points are its background quiet and the power, extension, and focus of its bass. I played Classic Records' 200gm Quiex SV-P pressing of Billie Holiday's Songs for Distingué Lovers (Verve/Classic MG VS-6021) with the Blackbird plugged into an under-$1000 MM phono stage (more about that later). The kick drum wowed me big time.

With stereo recordings, the Blackbird threw a big, wide-open, very transparent soundstage, revealing plenty of low-level detail. What separates it from the far more expensive cartridges, and perhaps some similarly priced ones that have different balances of strengths and weaknesses? Spend more money (and then more for a phono preamp) and you can get more supple mids and highs, more delicacy and palpability. I've heard some cartridges at or near the Blackbird's price that can give you a richer midrange, but they can't compete with the Blackbird's bass extension and focus, or with its shimmering, well-balanced top end and clean—but not at all brittle—transients. It gave no hint of brightness or edge. While the Blackbird might look like a Blue Point Special, and as good as that cartridge is for its price, the Blackbird is in a different league. And in the Graham 2.2 tonearm, it was an excellent tracker.

The Sumiko Blackbird is a strong Class B cartridge. I highly recommend it. If you're currently living with a $300–$350 cartridge, move up to this and your world will be rocked—though if you're fixated on midband riches to the exclusion of everything else, you might be happier elsewhere. Even so, I'd confidently put the Blackbird up against some $1000 cartridges. Its sound is as sumptuous as its packaging.

Four More Phono Preamplifiers
Sutherland PhD MC phono preamplifier ($3000): The moving-coil (MC) PhD, available from Chad Kassem's Acoustic Sounds operation, is a monumental achievement that, for me, sets new standards for the cleanness and transparency possible in a phono preamp—and I've had a lot of experience with phono preamps.

The PhD runs on 16 alkaline "D" cells. (I didn't compare the sound of Energizers to the sound of Duracells, but you're welcome to do so and report back.) As we all know, and as Ron Sutherland explains in the instructions, an amplifier doesn't make a signal "bigger," but basically modulates the output of the power supply—if that's not clean and stable, how can the sound be, especially with ultra-low-level signals from typical MC cartridges? Owners of Marcoff PPA-1 head amps, your 1979 purchases has been vindicated!

Sutherland says the batteries should last for more than 800 listening hours. He also claims that, thanks to high-value storage capacitance, low power-supply impedance is maintained as the batteries age, so the PhD's performance won't suffer—at least, not until you're listening in the middle of the night and the red lights come on to tell you the batteries are running low.

But I kid Chad and Ron. You'll be more likely to forget to turn the unit off, thus draining the batteries. So Sutherland has come up with a power-management system that awakens the PhD only when it senses stylus output. The system is so fast that my dropping the stylus in the groove was all it took to get the PhD out of bed every time. However, if you insist on a warmup period (Sutherland says the PhD doesn't need it), just tap the headshell or clean the stylus and the alarm will go off.

Instead of computer-grade DIP switches, the PhD has four unique plug-in circuit boards: two for gain, two for loading. How they're oriented when they are plugged into the mother board determines the setting. The loading choices are 100, 200, 1k and 47k ohms; the choices of gain are 45dB, 50dB, 55dB, and 60dB. Or you can get blank boards and roll your own.

The dual-mono mother board is nicely laid out, and the faceplate of milled aluminum are first-rate. My only gripe is with the 12-gauge steel chassis, a U-shaped design whose cover overlaps its bottom section. The PhD's rubber feet are screwed through holes in the bottom of the outer cover and directly into the main chassis. To slide the chassis out in order to make adjustments, you have to turn the PhD over, unscrew its feet, then turn it right-side up again. It's cumbersome, but unless you constantly play around with loading and gain, the problem is short-lived. Don't let it spook you.

At first, I set the PhD on the top shelf of my Finite Elemente stand with its gain set to 60dB and its loading to 200 ohms. The first LP I played was an original UK Apple pressing of Paul McCartney's first solo album, McCartney. I've heard it a hundred times since it was first issued in 1970, and I was stunned by how it sounded when preamplified and equalized by the PhD. This was easily the most quiet, transparent rendering of McCartney—and the most free of electronic detritus—that I had ever heard. The sense of being in the room where the recording was made was eerie. On "That Would Be Something," McCartney mouths off like a drum kit, and I could hear his mouth rendered more clearly as flesh and blood than I've ever heard it. His rinky-dink little drum kit had never sounded so clean, or so clearly defined against an ink-black backdrop. It was a memorable listening experience.

McCartney was the perfect kind of recording to show off the PhD's strongest suits: luscious, liquid, velvety midband response, and ultra-pure, non–"edge-enhanced" 3D images set against dead-black backgrounds. I have not heard better performance from any phono preamp in those areas.

The PhD had its weaknesses. With its general delicacy and liquidity came a tendency toward soft, somewhat overripe, but nicely extended bass, and an overall rhythmic softness that prevented the PhD from being the ultimate in tunefulness, though it was plenty tuneful. Dynamics were not as extended as with some more expensive phono preamps, but at $3000, the PhD was plenty good even in those areas where it didn't offer the ultimate performance.

As you might expect, the PhD would provide the ideal foil for an etched, hyper-accurate–sounding cartridge. Though I didn't have it on hand, I'd bet the combination of PhD and van den Hul Colibri would be dynamite. The Lyra Titan wasn't the ideal choice, but the slightly leaner, faster Helikon SL surely was.

After a week's worth of listening, I put the PhD on a compact SAP Relaxa 3+ magnetic repulsion isolation stand. The last thing the PhD needed was more relaxation. What I was hoping for was the opposite, and that's what I got. Subtly but obviously, the SAP stand clarified and tightened the PhD's bass. The Finite Elemente stand is quite effective itself, so I imagine using the SAP stand on a less sophisticated support would yield even more significant results.

The Sutherland PhD is one of the best-sounding phono preamplifiers I've heard. It's not perfect, and it has a particular character, though part of that character is simply its unusual purity and delicacy. If you like a tight, snappy sound, the PhD won't be to your liking. But if you like a full, lush presentation, pure as the driven snow and set against ink-black backdrops the likes of which you've never heard, the PhD might be for you. Perhaps in part because of its jet-black backgrounds, its ability to resolve low-level detail with unforced precision was uncanny. The Sutherland PhD will let you play in the majors for a stiff but still minor-league price. If Acoustic Sounds offers a money-back guarantee on the PhD and you're shopping for something around $3000, the PhD should be at the top of your list. It is a unique, unforgettable-sounding phono preamplifier.

Perreaux SXV1 Silhouette MM/MC phono preamplifier ($349): As I did with all of the phono preamps covered here, I broke in the attractively designed Perreaux SXV1 Silhouette with the Thor Phono Burn. Unlike some of the other relatively inexpensive phono preamps, the Perreaux's power supply is built into the unit and not provided as a wall wart; it has a toroidal transformer and 17,600µF of capacitance.

The SXV1 comes with an exceptionally well-thought-out instruction manual, and its rear-panel DIP switches (separate ones for each channel) permit a wide variety of settings for gain and loading, capacitive and resistive. Five DIP switches let you set resistive loading from 9 ohms to 47k ohms, in 32 steps; another four let you to set capacitance from 761pF to 27pF, in 16 steps; and three more let you set gain from 40dB to an impressive 73dB. More impressive is that Perreaux lists the sensitivity, S/N ratio, and THD+noise spec for each setting. For instance, Sumiko suggests using 50dB gain with their Sumiko Blackbird cartridge's 2.5mV output. The Perreaux's S/N ratio with this gain setting is listed as 74.6dB, the THD at 0.022. Once you go above 61dB gain, the distortion increases to 0.122%, which is getting up there, but these days, who needs that much gain? And if you're using a tweaky ultra-low-output cartridge, it's bound to be expensive; you won't be using a budget preamp like this anyway.

For whatever reason, the Perreaux was sensitive to placement and prone to pick up 60Hz AC hum; I had to position it carefully. Once I'd done that, it was very quiet.

At first, I was somewhat disappointed with the Perreaux's sound. It was slightly opaque, and made the Blackbird sound more wiry than I'd been used to hearing with other phono preamps. Detail was pretty good, though, and it was rhythmically taut and had crisp transient response, if a bit sharp. But when I played Billie Holiday's Songs for Distingué Lovers there was a bit of hardness and a lack of warmth, and while bass transients were well-executed, there wasn't enough post-event harmonic development for me. It sounded a bit gray. But what the SXV1 lacked in warmth it made up for in detail and transient snap.

I was listening under a false assumption. I hadn't checked the Perreaux's price before listening to it, and given the SXV1's high-quality parts, attractive looks, enormous available gain, and wide-ranging configurability, I'd thought I was auditioning something that cost between $500 and $1000. But the SVX1 sells for an incredibly low $349. I went back for another listen.

Compared to the other boxes I've heard for around $350, the Perreaux SXV1 Silhouette is an excellent value and a reasonably good performer. I never liked Musical Surroundings' Phonomena for $600—but had it cost $349, it would have been a different story. The SXV1 easily competes with the Phonomena, and costs just a bit more than half as much. Mated with a warmish cartridge such as the $300 Grado Platinum, I figure the Perreaux would make an ideal entry-level phono preamp. Don't expect miracles for $349, but this level of quality, configurability, and reasonably good performance is impressive for the price. Just be sure to pick a smoothy of a cartridge.

Musical Fidelity X-LPSv3 MM/MC phono preamplifier ($395): Musical Fidelity has abandoned its cylindrical "can" chassis—people didn't like it. Instead, the X-LPSv3 is housed in a nicely finished, more traditional-looking rectangular box with a brushed-aluminum faceplate and extruded finned casing, but with a wall-wart power supply. The X-LPSv3 offers zero configurability, save for a pushbutton switch that lets you choose between moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges—each gets its own input. The MM input gives you 350mV output for 3mV input at 1kHz at 47k ohms, with !x.01% THD, and S/N ratios of >83dB A-weighted, >75dB unweighted. The MC input delivers the same 350mV output for a 350µV input. The MC input impedance is fixed at 100 ohms with a S/N of >65dB unweighted, >74dB A-weighted.

The X-LPSv3 reaffirmed something I've believed for some time: When building a budget-priced item, don't try to offer too much. The X-LPSv3 doesn't come close to offering the configurability and gain of the Perreaux SXV1, but it sounded far more rich, warm, and pleasing. It was less opaque, less brittle, and had more complete harmonic development. I could "see" farther into the soundstage. It also sounded a bit softer, but at this price I think "soft and round" are better than "detailed and brittle."

I listened to the Billie Holiday LP, as well as Speakers Corner's excellent new reissue of Oliver Nelson's classic The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse! A-5), featuring such minor-leaguers as Paul Chambers, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, and Freddie Hubbard. It's an outstanding-sounding reissue, if a bit softer and warmer than the original—just as the X-LPSv3 sounded a bit more soft and warm than the Perreaux SXV1.

The Musical Fidelity XLPSv3 is a serviceable budget component. It neither wowed nor annoyed, but made music sound rich and relaxing, with reasonably good detail. What's great, though, is that, with the Perreaux SXV1, here are two fine, well-made, but very different-sounding phono preamps not built into plastic project boxes, each costing less than $400.

Gram Slee GSP Audio Era Gold Mk.V MM/MC phono preamplifier ($759.95): I don't know Gram Slee from Gram Parsons, or which House he was in at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School, but let me tell you: If you'd just been listening to a bunch of budget phono preamps, as I had, then came upon the GSP Audio Era Gold Mk.V, you'd think someone had switched out not just the phono preamp but your entire system. You might think you were listening to a different pressing or a different cartridge. How can this be?

The GSP Audio Era Gold Mk.V is about twice as expensive as the Perreaux SXV1 and the Musical Fidelity XLPSv3, but it sounded at least 10 times better. It was amazingly dynamic, quiet, full-bodied, harmonically complete, supple, sensuous, and spectacular. It had nearly full dynamic expression at both ends of the scale, and absolutely astonishing bass performance. It made music sound almost as real as the really expensive stuff does, and it carried a 1000-lb tune with ease.

The Gold Mk.V requires a long burn-in period, but your patience will be rewarded. It's designed for high-output MCs or MMs of 2–10mV, and had plenty of gain (41.5dB) for the 2.5mV Sumiko Blackbird. It has no lights, no bells, no whistles, and a big regulated wall-wart. And unlike the budget Slee that I wrote about in June 2002, the Gold Mk.V has a nicely made aluminum case.

But you won't buy this one for its looks. Given its price and its miraculous—and this agnostic means miraculous—performance, I recommend the GSP Audio Era Gold Mk.V as enthusiastically, if not more so, as I've recommended any product I've reviewed and recommended in all the years I've been doing this. Instead of dropping $1500 on a new cartridge to use with your less-than-outstanding phono stage, spend your $1500 on a Sumiko Blackbird and a Gram Slee GSP Audio Era Gold Mk.V, and you could live happily ever after in analog land. I think I could, and I've been playing with ridiculously expensive stuff for years. This is one budget piece Bob Reina has to hear.


Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Miles Davis, The Complete Blackhawk Sessions, Mosaic 180gm LPs (6)
2) AC/DC, Box Set, 180gm LPs (17)
3) Peggy Lee, Latin à la Lee!, S&P 180gm LP
4) The Meters, Zony Mash, Sundazed 180gm LP
5) Oliver Nelson, The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Impulse!/Speakers Corner 180gm LP
6) The Strokes, Room On Fire, RCA LP
7) The Who, A Quick One, Polydor/Universal 180gm LP
8) Peter Gabriel, 4, Classic 200gm Quiex SV-P LP
9) Jefferson Airplane, After Bathing at Baxter's, RCA CD
10) Eddie Gale, Ghetto Music, 4 Men With Beards 180gm LP

COMMENTS
eflatminor's picture

Is the write up of the Sutherland PhD not word for word from a 2004 Stereophile review? Not that there's anything wrong with a 15 year old phono stage, but this makes it appear as though it's a recent experience for you Michael. Has this been reissued? If so, I don't see it on Sutherland's website, nor Acoustic Sounds. What am I missing?

Tom L's picture

...someone has been fooled into thinking this is a new piece. It dates from January 1, 2004.

Michael enjoys putting the original date in small print at the top just so some people will miss it...

eflatminor's picture

What's the point in posting a 15 year old review for a product that is no longer available?

Michael Fremer's picture
My Analog Corner columns published in Stereophile have never before been posted online. That's a total of 280 columns. Slowly these columns are being posted on AnalogPlanet. Sometimes the columns include reviews of no long available products.
Michael Fremer's picture
My pleasure does not come from fooling people about original review dates! The site is beyond my control and what you see is what the site puts there!
Tom L's picture

...but I obviously had no way of knowing that you do not control the release of your old articles on this site. That seems wrong.
Also, my comment was intended to be lighthearted, which evidently didn't come across.

John Atkinson's picture
Tom L wrote:
I obviously had no way of knowing that you do not control the release of your old articles on this site. That seems wrong.

I am responsible for posting Michael's Stereophile Analog Corner columns to this site. I try to post one each week and with this one we are now up to the January 2004 column, number 102. As Michael said, his current column is number 280, so it will be a while before I catch up with the calendar.

I believe Michael was referring to the design of the site, which puts the original publication date below the heading photo next to the posting date. This is a consistent design feature on www.stereophile.com and its three sister sites and can't easily be changed.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Tom L's picture

Now we know!
Coincidentally, I just subscribed to Stereophile for the first time in many years. I had been limiting myself to one A/V mag for a while, but Sound & Vision has betrayed me by cutting out ALL lab tests of audio equipment. No measurements, no graphs, just opinions. Opinions are good, but actual measurements are required to back them up.

Ortofan's picture

... Sumiko Blackbird and the Graham Slee Era Gold V continues to be available - although the total price has increased to about $2250 - perhaps MF could review current production samples of these relatively budget-priced components to determine if they still might allow one to "live happily ever after in analog land."

malosuerte's picture

This was timely as I am thinking about replacing my aged Blackbird with a Starling. Any thoughts?

mschlack's picture

Was interested in your comments on the Sumiko Blackbird. It sounds like it is in the same bracket as my Benz Micro Glider. I happen to have the L version (0.4 mV) but the H version is the same output as the Blackbird. Are you familiar enough with that sound to compare the two?

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