Analog Corner #61

Joni Mitchell played The Theater at Madison Square Garden recently, supporting her new CD, Both Sides Now. Mitchell with symphony orchestra sounded like a no-brainer, so we got tickets, though by the time my friend was able to get through online to Ticketmaster the best seats were gone. We got second-best accommodations for $75, which seemed reasonable, given the cost of rehearsing an orchestra, then traipsing around the country with it.

The program handed out at the door announced that Herbie Hancock, Mark Isham, Peter Erskine, and a few other luminaries would be joining Mitchell, so we were jazzed ourselves as we took our seats, which were actually pretty good: closer than halfway back and slightly stage left.

The crowd resembled the one at the last Joni Mitchell concert I attended, only 20 years older, and definitely more gay. Though it was a mostly forty/fiftysomething throng, as I surveyed the audience I noticed very little gray hair. I don't think it was dye, either. Must be the vitamins.

Arrayed across the stage was a really large orchestra—well over 100 pieces—featuring a massive string section, and set within that a jazz combo featuring Erskine's drum kit, Hancock's piano, and more than one electric bass. (Mitchell's ex-husband and musical director Larry Klein played along on some tunes with Chuck Berghofer.) Then conductor-arranger Vince Mendoza entered, took his place at the podium, lowered the baton, and the orchestra fired up an overture—a piece by Debussy.

Disgust and disappointment. Not one note—not a single vibration, not a glimmer of sound—was audible from the stage. The mass of musicians might as well have stayed home. Every molecule of sound emanated from a cluster of shitty PA speakers hung almost ceiling-high on either side of the stage. The sound didn't just originate at the speakers, it was pasted to them, localized in a small, bright, edgy, mono spotlight. After all, we weren't seated in the "sweet" spot between the left and right clusters. Wait a minute! Was I in a hi-fi store or a concert hall?

Mitchell entered, and once the sycophants had tired of yelling "We love you, Joni!," she began to sing. Her voice too, of course, spewed forth from the speaker array, overlaid with spitty digital processing. Talk about cognitive dissonance! Over "there" was the live concert I'd bought tickets for. But I was stuck over "here" with a PA system playing what could have been prerecorded music or a remote broadcast from another part of the world, for all it conveyed about the concert I was supposedly attending.

Obviously, whoever sat before the soundboard had never heard of the term "sound reinforcement." Instead, we got his or her electronic mix. Under such conditions, why bother going to see live orchestral music—or any kind of music? To watch more than 100 tuxedoed musicians sawing, plucking, and blowing away on unheard instruments? To see a speck of a beloved artist in the distance and hear her voice pounded into digital mud and pumped through loud but junky speakers? I don't think so.

Anyway, it was a great performance. I think.

Speaking of absurdities: My local Grand Union supermarket now plays better music than any commercial New York City radio station. In fact, the GU gives many college stations a run for their listener-supported money, with an eclectic mix of surprisingly challenging new and old alternative rock. The NJ store's music is far hipper than its customers.

Phono Section Survey
Sorry, but I had exactly one month with the Rockport System III Sirius turntable (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), and I wasn't about to spend even a minute listening to it with anything but the best phono section available to me at that time, which meant the Audio Research Reference and, for a short spell, the Zanden (currently under review). So the survey will have to wait a month—or two.

Even though it's been gone for almost two weeks, I'm still basking in the Rockport's sonic glow, via CD-Rs I burned. I'm sorry I didn't record every record I played—the CD-Rs sound better than the "live" records played on the Simon Yorke, and believe me, the Yorke is no slouch. It's just that the Rockport is so good.

Please don't be annoyed by a review of a $73,750 turntable. What I learned from it was just how much information is locked in those grooves waiting to be coaxed out. Pre-Rockport, I thought I'd come close to getting it all, but I hadn't. Records are a great investment. They sound wonderful on inexpensive 'tables like the Rega Planar 3 and Music Hall MMF 5, but there's seemingly no limit to how good they can sound if you have the time and money to optimize playback. Your records will never be obsolete.

If you've been fence-sitting, it's not too late to come over. There's still so much good vinyl out there, new and used. A few weeks ago I hit a record expo at the Raritan Center in New Jersey and saw tens of thousands of great LPs priced cheap. The Internet has really changed the vinyl mix at these events. Few vendors haul the collectibles to shows when they can sell them online to a worldwide market. So the pricey stuff stays home, while the more commonplace but still desirable records go for a ride. I bought a few dozen LPs, most of which cost $5 or less. Last week I went to a garage sale and picked up a stack of much-sought-after Mobile Fidelity and CBS Mastersound half-speeds for $5 apiece, and a long-coveted German Roxy Music 7-LP boxed set in unplayed condition for...$7!

van den Hul Black Beauty Colibri phono cartridge
Audio cynics charge that there are no new circuits under the sun, just old ones repackaged and overpriced. I tested that theory when the Audio Research Reference Two preamp arrived with a noisy FET. Of course, the unit had been burned-in and tested before shipping, but these things happen—and it's not fair to blame the company. AR outsources parts—like FETs—and sometimes they fail.

So while my Ayre K-1 (which has gone through some bad resistors, of all things) was out being updated and the Ref was back being fixed, I borrowed a friend's Audio Research SP-11. The two-box design from the 1980s was considered a "groundbreaker." Brief and to the point: It is nowhere as good as the Reference Two—or, for that matter, the Ayre.

Cartridges, like loudspeakers, would seem to be immune to recycling charges: exotic materials, computer modeling, and computer-controlled machining techniques not available to designers just a generation ago have radically altered the playing field.

Yet here, too, fashion and whimsy play a role. During the '60s and '70s high-compliance cartridges and low-mass tonearms (Grace 707, Infinity Black Widow) were in vogue, for obvious reasons: Track accurately with less downforce and you get better sound, lower distortion, and less record wear. Back in the '60s, Shure's V-15 series of moving-magnet cartridges tracked at 0.75–1.0gm, with outputs measured in whole millivolts. "Progress" has given us low-compliance, ultra-low-output moving-coil cartridges requiring medium- to high-mass arms and up to 2 or 3gm to track effectively. Who would have thought that would happen? Not Shure, Pickering, Stanton, et al!

The last decade has seen cartridge outputs decrease to minuscule levels and tracking forces go as high as 3gm. Folks pay $7500 and $10,000 for that privilege with the Clearaudio Insider and Insider Reference—and all with whom I spoke think they're getting their money's worth.

Cartridge envelopes are being pushed even as the word "analog" has become a pejorative (as in that commercial, "Dad, you're so analog"). The Transfiguration Temper Supreme's output is rated at a minuscule 0.2mV (3.54cm/s, 1kHz—the JVC test standard), while the Lyra Clavis da Capo's is 0.3mV and the Parnassus D.C.t's is up to 0.35mV. These are low-output designs requiring "heavy lifting" from the associated electronics, but all of them offer spectacular performance.

Van den Hul's newest design, the Black Beauty Colibri, reduces mass to an amazing 3gm and output to an ultra-tiny 0.175mV (5cm/s)—which means, by the JVC standard, its output is actually 20% lower, or around 0.13mV or 130µV! The high-compliance design tracks at between 1.25 and 1.45gm, with the lower weight preferred if your arm can do it. Speaking of which, the Colibri needs a low-mass arm in the 6–10gm range. That leaves out some of today's best, and unfortunately renders marginal most of the rest.

A cactus needle would probably sound great attached to the Rockport turntable, so I also auditioned the lightweight, high-performance, $6000 Colibri on the Immedia/Simon Yorke arm/'table combination, where it performed equally well, though of course the results were not quite as impressive as with the Rockport 'table. The only modern arm I can think of that's optimized for such a lightweight, high-compliance cartridge is the M;dorch, which I didn't have on hand (footnote 1). But based on how the Immedia handled the Colibri, I'd say the Graham would be equally viable. Another big hurdle would be preamp gain. The Audio Research Reference was up to the task, offering sufficient low-noise gain to present quiet passages against an ink-black background.

It's scary mounting such a vulnerable design. Stylus guard? Yeah, right. Attached to what? There's almost nothing to it: just a tube containing the cantilever/stylus assembly, coil/former, and ring magnet structure. That last is very small, hence the ultra-low output. The patented 1S stylus assembly with boron cantilever is also used in vdH's Grasshopper, Black Beauty, and Frog cartridges, though a somewhat higher-grade diamond is used here. The 3µm by 8µm stylus is shaped like a "garden spade," according to the American importer, George Stanwick of Stanalog Audio. Its tall profile, coupled with the high compliance, is said to offer superb tracking.

If you don't lock this baby in, forget it. Proper VTA is critical to getting top-end sweetness, and even then, "sweet" would be an overstatement for this cartridge's finest performance. "Sweet" and "lush" are not the Colibri's fort;aes. Speed and detail are—top to bottom. In garden spades! The Colibri isn't the Cadillac of cartridges; it's the Lamborghini.

Shed the weight, cast off the resonating body, and you end up with a cartridge with incredible resolution and superb transient performance. My friend Frank Doris once wrote of counting the rivets on a cymbal, and with this cartridge I know what he means. It's a drum kit's best friend, able to distinguish and communicate the tonal and textural character of cymbals better than any other cartridge I've heard, and equally adept at conveying their metallic solidity. Mere "speed" can't do that. And it does so without adding brightness or sheen.

The Colibri is equally adept on the bottom, offering impressive, overhang-free extension, explosive bass transients and dynamics, and superb control and solidity. Walloping kick drums, weighty toms, snappy snares, chiming, ringing splash cymbals, "cushy" rides—the Colibri delivers a drum kit any rock or jazz fan will melt hearing. As I write this I'm listening to Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne," from Royal Scam, and the profusion of colors from the drum kit alone is amazing.

The Colibri delivers the transient goods without spotlighting, and without adding grain or sibilant edge. In fact, vocal sibilants—t, s, and f—are downright delicate and refined. Upper-octave clarity, definition, and detail are delivered with smooth assurance. The cartridge's handling of the guiro (a ribbed gourd rubbed with a stick) on David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" regularly dropped jaws when I played it for friends who thought they knew the track. And the Colibri's portrayal of the mixed-in-the-background drum kit was equally amazing and impressive.

Plucked and strummed transients like guitar strings were also well served by the Colibri. Its performance on the 45rpm 12" of Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane's string-drenched masterpiece "Street in the City" was positively awe-inspiring. PS Audio's Paul McGowan was down delivering a Power Plant 300. I played that track for him and the audio veteran was visibly moved, remarking that the midrange was really "happening."

While the Colibri exhibited a host of strengths, the other area in which it truly excelled was soundstaging. The extra detail it brought forth was placed in three-dimensional space in an impressively orderly fashion. When you hear an event you didn't know was there, placed so clearly and so startlingly defined in space, you just have to sit there and shake your head. A few days with the Colibri and I had a headache from all the shaking. Its total freedom from congestion, even when a host of events occurred in the same narrow upper-frequency band, was mighty impressive.

I could go on about the Colibri's spectacular performance, but you get the picture. It's fast and detailed without being edgy and bright. It can sound aggressive and a bit tizzy right at the top if you don't have the VTA and VTF precisely dialed in, but even then it will never sound coarse or harsh in overall character. And most important, it does not emphasize or spotlight record noise.

First-rate dynamics, a neutral, open midband, superb top and bottom extension and control, and seat-of-the-pants drive and focus help make the Colibri an amazing performer. For $6000, it damn well better be! After reading about Frogs and Grasshoppers for years, the Colibri is the first van den Hul I've had in my system. Now I know why guys like J-10 have been raving.

But remember, it's not for lovers of warm and lush. And to shine, it requires a low-mass arm (though one of moderate to medium mass will work), careful attention to setup, and a high-gain, low-noise phono section. And because it uses a shorter cantilever than some earlier van den Huls, it's a low-rider with very tight record clearance.

Lyra Helikon phono cartridge
It takes a great cartridge to survive such a breathless rave as the foregoing with its stylus intact, and the Helikon is just such a transducer. It fulfills the promise of the Lyra Evolve 99, which, until the Helikon, was my favorite Scan-Tech design, even with its "low" price of $1999. Unfortunately, only 100 were made and they're all gone. Don't worry: the Helikon is even better, and, at $2495, still affordable. In fact, it's a downright steal.

The aluminum-chassis Helikon is an open, "nude" design, though not quite as naked as the Colibri. It's said to offer the resonance-reducing advantages of open architecture while still allowing for the convenience of a stylus guard—a large, clear plastic device that covers everything.

The earlier Lyra Evolve had as much of the Helikon's technology as would fit, but because it was a closed-body design, it could not accommodate the Helikon's large ring magnets both fore and aft of the coils, which are six-nines (99.9999% pure) copper over a five-nines iron former. The Helikon uses a smaller-diameter wire, which allows for more turns in the same space. Thus, even though there is only a single wrap of wire, and thanks in part to the larger magnet, the output is higher: 0.4mV (3.54cm/s, 1kHz—the JVC test standard), or 0.56mV using the CBS standard. That's more than three times the Colibri's output.

Like the Colibri, the Helikon features a short cantilever—record clearance is so tight that at first I thought the review sample was defective. If you play dirty records (promise me you don't), the dust will form a "skirt" and ride the space between the record surface and cartridge structure. Warped records and those with bubble-like vertical defects might also cause problems.

The Helikon's cantilever is of Ceralloy, the same material (aluminum impregnated with ceramic "whiskers") used on the Evolve and the now-discontinued Clavis da Capo. Like those designs, the Helikon also uses the Ogura line-contact stylus, which attracts dirt and needs to be cleaned after every play. Scan-Tech now makes a very good and very expensive ($40 a bottle) stylus cleaner, Lyra SPT (for Stylus Performance Treatment).

The new cartridge also features rhodium-plated connectors and a ceramic "pole-piece." There's no real pole-piece because of the ring magnets, but the structure is there. All Scan-Tech Lyra cartridges are hand-built and tuned by Yoshinori Mishima, who has come up with a new tuning method used for all of his cartridges, including the Helikon and Parnassus D.C.t.

For whatever reasons, the Helikon is everything the Evolve is and more. Much more. Which means it has an absolutely addictive, plush, creamy midband with a total freedom from edge, grain, and "mechanicalness." Its senses of real physical presence and palpability are unrivaled in my listening experience. You "see" way into the stage in a natural, convincing, live-in-front-of-you way. The Helikon is not as fast and exciting as the Colibri, and doesn't deliver high-frequency transients with the same speed and detail, but in the real world of microphone peaks and mixing geeks, it will give you greater satisfaction from more records. For many listeners and in many systems, it, not the Colibri, will sound more like live music and less like a hyped-up recording.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that the Helikon is anything but fast, detailed, and articulate—it is all of those things. It does an outstanding job on percussion, too, but doesn't deliver the Colibri's crystalline purity in that department, or its enormous soundstaging potential.

The Helikon's strongest attribute is its overall presentation, which is seamless from top to bottom. It gives up some of the Colibri's speed and detail for a more voluptuous, "jelled" overall picture, yet it too presents an amazing amount of event and spatial detail. I'll take its presentation of John Hiatt's "Lipstick Sunset" (from Bring the Family) over the Colibri's, even as I preferred the Colibri's "Kid Charlemagne." Remember, we're talking about cartridges costing $2495 and $6000 competing on a level playing field. And of course, the Helikon will work on most current tonearms, and, with its much higher output, with a wider variety of phono stages.

Moving-coil detractors will seize on the Colibri's strengths and hear them as weaknesses (not me!), but Grado lovers will hear the Helikon and discover a cartridge with the luscious Grado midrange combined with greater bass control, more overall detail, and heightened transient purity.

Like the Lyra Evolve, which quickly caused a buzz among analog fans, the Helikon is quickly gaining adherents—or so I've heard through the vinyl grapevine. Perhaps it's fashion, or a relief from the overly analytical nature of some cartridges. Whatever the reason, some hard-to-please writers—lovers of classical music—have given up far more expensive cartridges in favor of Helikons.

Given its reasonable price, high build quality and output, its detailed presentation, and especially its top-to-bottom seamlessness and rich midrange. the Lyra Helikon is an impressive achievement—Scan-Tech's best-balanced design yet. I can't wait to hear the replacement for the still-current Parnassus D.C.t.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Mott the Hoople: Mott, Absolute Analogue LP, 180gm reissue
2) Longineu Parsons: Spaced: Collected Works, 1980–1999, Ubiquity LPs (2)
3) John Coltrane: Blue Train, Classic LP, 180gm reissue
4) Clifford Brown: Clifford Brown All Stars, Speakers Corner LP, 180gm reissue
5) Alexander "Skip" Spence: Oar, Sundazed LP, 180gm reissue
6) Glazunov: Violin Concerto, Jascha Heifetz, Classic LP, 180gm reissue
7) Free: Free, Simply Vinyl LP, 180gm reissue
8) The Jayhawks: Smile, Columbia CD
9) David Murray Octet: Plays Trane, Justin Time CD
10) Jeff Buckley: Mystery White Boy, Columbia CD

Footnote 1: J-10 hears Judy Spotheim of La Luce/SpJ fame is getting fabulous sound out of a Colibri, special arm weights to suit.

Chemguy's picture

Did you mean "gray"?

Michael Fremer's picture
This is an old column that someone on staff "transcribed" for use on the web and that might be a typo. But in the next sentence I say the audience mostly had dark hair. So I may have written "gay", which I think is okay to write. If you ask "how would you know?" While it's true you can't necessarily tell someone's sexual orientation by their looks, but in New York City, gay guys and gals are often not difficult to tell.........maybe that's not P.C. but it's true...