Analog Corner #58

Reviewed in this column: Transfiguration's Spirit phono cartridge

Guaranted, it's no Casino Royale, but with Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Sun Ra, Otis Rush, Johnny Shines, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Freddie King, and Luther Allison among the participants, the 2-LP Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972 isn't half bad. The Atlantic Records original (SD 2-502) was one of my "Records To Die For" a few years ago. Unfortunately, the only copy I've ever seen is mine.

Of course, Classic Records' Mike Hobson had to one-up me: he's seen two copies. Hobson is like that.

Fremer: Hey, did you know that Duke Ellington performed at Clive Davis's son's bar mitzvah in 1972? I heard a bootleg.

Hobson: Yeah, we're gonna release that next month on LP, DVD, Elcaset, and wire recorder.

Fremer: How 'bout Jan Murray Sings Dylan?

Hobson: Next fall.

The guy does it all. By the time you read this, Classic's 180gm reissue of the Ann Arbor set will be out.

Fremer: But Michael Cuscuna, who co-produced the original, told me the tapes got destroyed in the New Jersey fire." [Atlantic stored many of its priceless master tapes in a house on the Jersey shore. It burned down.]

Hobson: No, we got 'em. [smirks]

When you hear the natural sound, big as the great outdoors, you'll know he did. I went to a search engine to see if I could find more details on the fire in a hurry, but all I got was an ad saying "Find books about the 'Atlantic Records Fire' at bn.com." Ain't no such book. I searched for "My butt itches." What came up: "Find books about 'My butt itches,' at bn.com." I love the Internet.

The Ann Arbor set was recorded September 8–10 at Otis Spann Memorial Field in Ann Arbor, and it's the real deal. Want to feel the turmoil in the 1972 air, the edge it put on music and crowd alike? Get this! Howlin' Wolf was 62 and would pass away four years later, and Muddy Waters was past his prime at 57, but both cut enormous presences on the stage, backed by an amazing array of musicians, including Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, and Detroit Junior.

The duo of 23-year-old Bonnie Raitt and her idol, Sippie Wallace, is something you'll enjoy again and again. Raitt's singing and bottleneck playing are years beyond her age. The other players aren't exactly shabby, either. These 19 performances, most of them memorable and all in really great sound, will have you visiting the Nixon era again and again.

(The Festival performances by Miles Davis, Archie Shepp, and Pharaoh Sanders were probably recorded but not issued. The Art Ensemble of Chicago's complete Festival set, Bap-Tizum, originally released on hard-to-find Atlantic LP SD 1639, was recently reissued on Koch HDCD KOC-CD-8500.)

Jimmy Douglass—his credits include Santana, the Rolling Stones, and Roxy Music—engineered and mixed, and he did amazing work for an outdoor live album of that vintage, or of any vintage. It really feels like the outdoors—big, wide open, and natural—yet it's surprisingly dynamic and full on the bottom. It's magical, I promise. It will transport you.

This is the first title I've really bugged Hobson to issue—the full extent of my involvement with Classic Records (knowing Hobson, he wouldn't give me any credit anyway). I never thought he'd do it. If you don't buy it, I'll have zero credibility with him for future titles I might suggest that he might never have thought of on his own. So please: If the lineup is a show you wish you'd attended in 1972, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket now. Could I be more crass and self-serving? Try me.

On to the Nitpicking!
I have been reading Dr. Floyd Toole's copious research into how we listen, and how unreliable and prejudiced we are as listeners even when we know what we're hearing, as prep for my review of the Infinity Prelude speaker you'll find elsewhere in this issue. No sooner had I finished reading Dr. Toole's papers than it was my turn to audition five different DIN-to-RCA cables and tell you in minute detail how each sounds. Also on tap: to discern the effects (if any) of the latest Quantum Life Products power-line conditioner on the sound of my system. You remember the "magic clock"? That's Quantum Life. Tice's followed. Now Quantum packages whatever it is in a conventional chassis. I did the audition with Dr. Toole figuratively looking over my shoulders. That made me very uncomfortable, as I've always had a problem with authority. Easiest of all was auditioning the Nitty Gritty 2.5Fi record-cleaning machine and the Transfiguration Spirit and the Lyra Evolve 99 MC cartridges.

Transfiguration Spirit phono cartridge
While packaged to look like the original $3800 Transfiguration Temper and the recent Temper Supreme (which I drooled all over in February), the Spirit is no Supreme—nor should you expect $3800 performance for $1500. The Spirit does, however, share designer Seiji Yoshioka's yokeless ring-magnet technology and features a Boron cantilever and silver coil wire; it's no low-tech, name-brand–exploiting "budget" model.

Back to the Spirit. For less money than the Temper Supreme, you get more gain: 400µV vs 230µV. That makes the Spirit far more user-friendly. With that much gain, you can expect better dynamics and improved signal/noise ratio with a wider variety of phono stages.

Unfortunately, while the Spirit shared the Temper Supreme's unusual purity and lack of grain and edge, it lacked the Temper's uncanny neutrality; the Spirit was somewhat brighter, and slightly astringent in character.

Even after a lengthy break-in, and loaded down to 100 ohms, the Spirit's top-end performance was, um, spirited. I don't mean to imply that it sounded aggressive, or bright and etched like some very inexpensive MCs; just that there was a spotlight on cymbals, brass, and other instruments whose sounds are loaded with high-frequency energy. If you like lots of air and detail, the Spirit should give it to you. And despite the high-frequency spotlighting, I still preferred the cartridge's lively performance when operated wide open at 47k ohms.

While the sound was never grainy or offensively bright, the emphasis did create a slight discontinuity between the top, mid, and bottom of the cartridge's response. While the midrange was anything but threadbare, the top-end emphasis had the effect of recessing the midrange, which put the top and bottom in greater relief.

Fortunately, the Spirit's top end was very, very clean and detailed, the bottom tight and fast. In other words, the Spirit, which tracks effectively at 2gm (the suggested range is 1.7–2.2gm) would work well with warm-sounding electronics or lush loudspeakers, adding some detail and high-frequency energy possibly lacking in the rest of the system. When you're on a budget and limited to gear that might have some colorations, how you mix and match can spell the difference between ending up with a system that sounds much better than the dollar amount would indicate, or much worse.

So if you're considering spending $1500 on a low- to medium-output moving-coil cartridge (you can get the Spirit for $1250 by trading in any old cartridge, or for $1000 by trading in any cartridge distributed by Musical Surroundings) and you like sharp focus, crystalline purity, lots of detail, snappy transients, a big curtain of sound, and very respectable bass performance, the Spirit is well worth considering. You can't have it all for $1500 (I know how ridiculous that sounds when most people don't spend that much on a complete audio or A/V system), but the Spirit offers plenty for the money.

Lyra Evolve 99 cartridge (continued)
I mentioned this cartridge in my CES report in the April column. Though produced in a limited edition of only 1000—I incorrectly said 100 in April—and representing interim technology as Scan-Tech tools up for a new generation of cartridges and a new system of hand-tuning (the latter actually in place for about six months now), the $2000 Evolve 99 continues to amaze me.

The importer, Immedia, tells me that current Parnassus D.C.ts are built using the same new tuning technique to produce a sonic balance similar to that of the Evolve 99, but I can't vouch for that from personal experience.

The Evolve 99 offered the neutral tonal balance of the Temper Supreme, along with a greater degree of transparency and sonic ease. Its ability to naturally and cleanly resolve and reproduce sibilants and other fast transients was unprecedented—I heard it immediately on my first encounter with it. Beyond that, the Evolve's rendering of solo and massed strings was extraordinary—more like the real thing than any cartridge I've heard. Images were full-bodied and three-dimensional, timbres were fully fleshed-out, and the sense of physical touch was eerily real. The bad rap on Scan-Tech designs is that they're dry and analytical. Not the Evolve 99.

To get this kind of performance required extremely careful setup and scrupulously clean records. Like the Parnassus D.C.t, the Evolve's tiny stylus attracts dirt like Idaho does white supremacists. With its 300µV output, the $2000 Evolve can drive most MC phono sections to produce quiet backgrounds and wide dynamic range. For $2000 you get limited availability, possible collectibility—and outrageous performance.

I think the Evolve 99 is the best-sounding cartridge Scan-Tech has ever built. It is, for now, my favorite cartridge overall. Other cartridges might outscore it in certain respects, but the Evolve's overall performance is simply unmatched by any other cartridge I've heard. I can get more thrills from the Parnassus D.C.t, the EMT TU3 Geyger, and the Temper Supreme, but for sheer musical pleasure, the Evolve 99 is the one.

Let's spend days listening to DIN-to-RCA phono cables!
Don't think switching cables can transform the performance of a mediocre cartridge into something great. The sonic differences among phono cartridges are much greater than the differences among any phono cables I've heard. If money is tight, I'd stick with generic cable—whatever was supplied with the tonearm or turntable—and put all my money into the cartridge.

I used the Transfiguration Spirit and Evolve 99 cartridges for these listening sessions. While all of the cables auditioned changed the sound, the differences, while important, were not profound. I've blown the differences up here out of proportion for the sake of illustration.

Over the past few months I've listened casually to three Kimber TAK cables, Silver Audio's Silver Breeze, and the Hovland cable, which has been my reference DIN/RCA cable. All had sufficient use to be considered broken-in, as did the stock SME DIN/RCA cable supplied with the SME tonearms I had on hand for the SME 10 review. The quality of the termination workmanship on all of these cables was impressive.

When it came time for serious comparisons, I chose program material and put the cables in an audition order that went first to last, then last to first. I did this twice: once with the Infinity Prelude loudspeakers in the system, once with the Sonus Faber Amati Homages.

I left the volume control untouched and used the Mute button when switching cables, so level was consistent throughout. As you can see from the photo of my forearm, reaching the tight space behind the Audio Research Reference phono stage in order to change out cables roughly 100 times resulted in arm abrasions.

I used Janis Ian's Breaking Silence, the title track of a British RCA reissue of David Bowie's The Man Who Sold the World (which proved useful in my original Hovland write-up, in Vol.21 No.2), Classic Records' 45rpm version of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, and the Heifetz/Reiner performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto (RCA original and Classic reissues), and a few other selections. Yes, I played the same LP tracks over and over, sacrificing my vinyl just for you.

Kimber offers three variants of its TAK phono cables: copper (TAK Cu), a copper-silver hybrid (TAK H), and silver (TAK Ag); $200, $350, and $550, respectively, for 1m DIN/RCA or DIN/XLR sets. Add or subtract $50, $125, and $200 per 0.5m, respectively, for longer or shorter lengths. According to Kimber, "OGQ/2 (Orthogonal GyroQuadratic/2 channel) braiding virtually eliminates electromagnetic interference, radio-frequency interference, and crosstalk. Proprietary shielding material drastically reduces low-frequency hum."

Kimber's TAK cables use a straight gold-plated DIN plug and the company's Ultraplate gold-plated RCA plugs. Each package lists complete electrical specifications: parallel and series resistance, capacitance (both at 20kHz), DC resistance, inductance, total reactance, and frequency response. You can also find this information at www.kimberkable.com. The cosmetics are sexy: sparkly copper and black mesh outer jackets, and all variants come with a "flying" ground wire terminated with a small $wU-shaped lug. The three TAK cables look identical save for the writing on the shrinktubing where the left and right wires diverge. I covered all three with electrical tape and labeled them "1," "2," and "3" so I couldn't identify which was which.

Silver Audio's (www.silveraudio.com) Silver Breeze uses very thin solid-core silver Litz wire with an air gap between shield and inner core and a "proprietary shielding method to shunt electromagnetic field interference (EMI) as well as capacitively coupled noise; ie, RFI and ESI." Cost is $400 per 1.2m cable with straight gold-plated DIN plug and Topline WBT RCA plugs. RCA-to-RCA adds $75, and a right-angle Cardas DIN plug adds $30. Silver Audio specifies shunt capacitance (35–65pF) and series inductance (!x175nH) at 1kHz. Cosmetics are wide black mesh outer jacket and silver/blue inners with a long silver "flying" ground wire terminated with an alligator clip.

Hovland's Dedicated Tonearm-to-Preamp Cable costs $795 for any length up to 1.5m with either RCA/RCA or straight DIN/RCA connectors, with "flying" ground leads terminated with U-shaped lugs. Right-angle Cardas DIN plug adds $40, Neutrik XLRs $40. Hovland uses parallel wire construction and "vintage" phenolic RCA plugs, which, they claim, offer the best sonics. Cosmetics: plain black.

Compared to any of these premium cables, the standard SME cable sounded hard and bright, with a noticeable ledge at the border of the upper mids and lower high frequencies. After my auditions, I put the SME cable back in as a palate cleanser and promptly I forgot I'd done so. When I sat down for some recreational listening later that evening, I found myself complaining about that ledge, totally unaware of which cable was in the system.

That experience only confirmed my conclusions. As many reviewers have noted, EMI, RFI, and other forms of sound pollution often don't reveal themselves as noise per se, but as grain, edge, or brightness. Because of their superior noise rejection, or for some other reason, all of the premium cables reviewed sounded noticeably more smooth and liquid, and less grainy, than the stock SME cable. I could discern no serious differences among the cables in terms of bass response, dynamics, or control. Most of the differences were in the midrange and up.

For sheer, almost "electrostatic" purity, the clear winner was the aptly named Silver Audio Silver Breeze, which imparted or (as SA would no doubt prefer) "revealed" a gossamer-like quality to the music. Edge- and grain-free, the sound was impressively liquid, with perhaps a touch of upper-midrange emphasis that gave it a mildly cool tinge. Backgrounds were pitch-black, and the resolution of low-level detail was particularly impressive. Stoneagers might be reminded of the sound of the Kiseki Blue cartridge. When I had the Infinity Preludes in the system, the Silver Breeze was my clear favorite. When I went back to the Sonus Faber Amatis, I found the combination a bit too relaxed and liquid. Without finding fault with either component: which is easier to change out, the Amatis or the Silver Breeze? You got it.

The TAK Ag was very similar in tonality and texture to the Silver Breeze, with an overall sound that was smooth, detailed, and slightly cool. Both of these silver cables passed along the leading edges of transients with unsurpassed natural clarity and freedom from edge. But in some very smooth-sounding systems this performance might sound too liquid, and three-dimensionality and image solidity might suffer slightly.

In that case, Kimber's TAK H might be the way to go. It's similar to TAK Ag, but with a bit more of a sunset-like golden glow from the midrange up (easily heard on horns and voices), and a bit more transient traction and solidity. Kimber's TAK Cu had even more of that golden glow, but none of the smooth "running-water" qualities the silver cable had, which some listeners may find more pleasing.

All three Kimber cables resolved low-level detail equally well, and all presented music against a pitch-black background. You'll pay more money for the silver version, but you won't get more information per se—just a somewhat different tonal and textural presentation.

Finally, the Hovland, which has been my reference on the Graham 2.0 arm. I don't know what kind of metal its wire is made of. While I received many letters and e-mails from owners affirming my description of the Hovland's sound, I also got a few negative comments claiming that the cable "smoothed over" details and rolled off the top end.

I described the Hovland as having (with the Graham 2.0) a "relaxed, warm, more physical feel—yet all of the detail, depth, dynamic authority, and three-dimensionality remained." That's what I still hear. I don't hear the Hovland as being rolled-off, unless your ears have become accustomed to "bright."

All of these cables sounded closer to one another—ie, more relaxed and warm—than to the stock SME or the stock Graham, yet there were differences: the silver cables were purer, more smooth and liquid. Those qualities will be appreciated in many systems and with many cartridges, but not all. When the Amatis went back into my system, I preferred the Hovland or the Kimber H to either silver cable (though the Hovland may well be silver too).

While both the Silver Audio and Kimber Ag cables delivered outstanding low-level detail, they were a bit too smooth on the The Man Who Sold the World's cymbals, which were mixed way in the background through the Amatis. Through the Infinitys, I preferred both silver cables. The Hovland will remain my reference for the Amatis, with the Silver Audio Silver Breeze and Kimber Ag close behind.

Still, looking back at the entire listening experience, there was something very special about the Silver Breeze that sticks in my mind. Whether the cable's distinct sonic imprint was a particular coloration or indicative of extraordinary neutrality is something I can't answer.

Are you now more confused than when we began? Sorry. My advice is to buy any expensive phono cable (at $200, even the least expensive here is expensive) with a money-back guaranty. That might not make the cable manufacturer or retailer happy, but it should make you feel more confident about laying out big bucks for some wire.

Now look what I've done: run out of room for the Nitty Gritty and Quantum coverage. They'll have to wait until next time.

P.S. As I was about to file this column with Stereophile, I received an e-mail from Hovland's Alex Crespi informing me that the Hovland Dedicated Tonearm-to-Preamp Cable, like the Kimber H, is made of silver-plated copper. That's reassuring.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972, Classic Records LPs (test pressing)
2) Mark Elf, Over the Airways, CD
3) Honeyboy Edwards, Shake 'Em On Down, Analogue Productions LP
4) Jay McShann, What a Wonderful World, Groove Note LP
5) Rachel's, Selenography, 1/4 Stick LP
6) Steve Lacy, Monk's Dream, Verve CD
7) Dave Douglas, Soul On Soul, RCA Victor CD
8) Beethoven, Violin Concerto (Heifetz/BSO), Classic Records LP
9) June of '44, Four Great Points, 1/4 Stick LP
3 10) Ben Webster Quintet, Soulville, Speaker's Corner LP 

COMMENTS
jstrube's picture

I went to seek out the Ann Arbor record and only found a Test Press... ANy link to buy one? I did find a 2000 Classic Records 180gm, same item?

Michael Fremer's picture
This is a column reprint from 2000!
garybx's picture

I've got the original Ann Arbor album. I'll be interested to compare it to the reissue.

Michael Fremer's picture
This is a column reprint for 2000!
Ortofan's picture
swimming1's picture

I've got an original copy AND a program from the event. Yup,cool!

susannelson's picture

I totally understand what you are writing about and I appreciate it.* Gmail login

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