Analog Corner #64

First, let's throw egg on a few faces. Due to a communications screw-up, I passed on to you some wrong and incomplete information about the workings of the Lyra Helikon cartridge in my August 2000 "Analog Corner." Without assessing percentages of blame, let's just say that the three likely suspects (manufacturer Scan-Tech, American importer Immedia, and yours truly) accept full responsibility for the misinformation and miscommunication. I'm being generous here by including myself, but hey, you know me. (Actually, you don't, which is why I can claim to be generous.)

To correct a few errors and add to what I wrote previously: Scan-Tech's design goals for the Helikon were to: 1) maximize cantilever system-mounting rigidity; 2) design a stable, symmetrical, and linear magnetic system; and 3) achieve higher output while surpassing the sonic performance of the model the Helikon replaces, the Clavis D.C.

Like the motors of the Clavis D.C. and Parnassus D.C.t, the Helikon's is integral to its mounting system, which is made from "one of the hardest aircraft-grade alloys available" and finished with clear lacquer. This mounting system ensures maximum rigidity and machining precision. The rear of the cantilever assembly is actually bolted into the cartridge's main structure, which helps dissipate vibrational energy and prevents same from being reflected back to the coils. Most other manufacturers glue or otherwise attach a finished assembly into a prefab housing.

Scan-Tech claims to have gotten closer to Design Goal No.2 than ever before by eliminating as much conductive material as possible from the vicinity of the generator and gap. The Helikon's front piece (it's not really a "pole piece") is made of a non-conductive ceramic material. Scan-Tech claims the primary magnetic field is modulated by core and coil movements, and that variable eddy currents created in any nearby conductive materials will interfere with the primary field.

The magnetic field is created by two equal-diameter disc magnets mounted in front of and behind the coil gap. Scan-Tech claims its disc design "creates a more even distribution of magnetic flux across the entire gap" compared with other ring-magnet designs. This allows them to use smaller-diameter magnets (I'd previously written "large") and a shorter cantilever. The shorter cantilever puts the coil/magnet assembly very close to the record surface, meaning clearance on warped records is pretty minimal. Compared to some other cartridges, the Helikon is a low-rider.

The Medium is the Message
The Helikon's cantilever is of solid boron (not Ceralloy, as I'd reported), with two carefully wound layers of a slightly thinner high-purity copper wire than was used on the Clavis D.C. This dual-layer coil raises the internal impedance to 5.5 ohms from 3 ohms—still low enough to qualify as a low-impedance design—but raises the output to 0.35mV at 3.54cm/s, zero–peak, 45° (Scan-Tech's normal measurement scale)—or 0.5mV at 5cm/s, zero–peak, 45° (a commonly used alternative scale). This medium-compliance, medium-mass, medium-output cartridge was designed to work with medium-mass arms. Of course.

One interesting feature of Lyra cartridges that had never been adequately explained to me—but was, in a "white paper" I was sent—is their use of Japanese washi paper on the underside to protect the damper and coil assemblies from record schmutz and dust. According to Scan-Tech, most other cartridges use an enclosed body or a vinyl covering to protect the damper and coil, but washi paper "breathes." Scan-Tech feels the protective measures used in some other designs can create resonances that block the free flow of air necessary for proper coil movement.

None of this, of course, guarantees great sound, and taste in cartridges varies. But Scan-Tech's Lyra line has been very well received among audiophiles, and the Helikon sounded impressively transparent to me, as I described in the August "Analog Corner."

The $10,000 Race
I'm still trying to get a Clearaudio Insider Reference to audition. In the meantime, I got another $10,000 cartridge to check out: the Audio Note Kondo IO-J/silver. I would have called the IO/silver "The Lone Ranger" for obvious reasons. A few years ago you could buy a condo for 10 grand. This column once mocked the IO-J's promo literature, which still reminds us that "Sometimes we do feel like enjoyning Good sound, Good Music by Analog disqes." It also still features a line-drawing blowup diagram of the cartridge, listing this difficult-to-swallow manufacturing location: "IO is derived from planet Jupiter."

Of course, what the copywriter, whom I suspect was Hiroyasu Kondo himself, meant to say was that the cartridge was named for one of Jupiter moons. The silver model uses an aluminum cantilever and body, whereas the regular model has a titanium cantilever and a heavier, silver-plated brass body. Both IO-J cartridges use a elliptical diamond stylus and "pure silver wire after having let it lie idle on the shelf for 20 years," according to the literature. Mr. Kondo likes silver, which he likens to "a living thing, as if it has a gene, which seems to contain DNA as expressed a natural sound. Also silver has good looks to attract everybody." But you knew that.

The coils are wound with pure silver wire over a gold-plated iron yoke. The motor uses two extra-powerful alnico magnets and outputs 0.05mV or 0.15mV, depending on which piece of literature you choose to believe. The Kondo "Summerized Catalog Edition" lists the latter output, the "derived from planet Jupiter" brochure the former.

Regardless, the output is low; you'll need a step-up transformer or a moving-coil head amp before the moving-magnet phono stage. Internal impedance is 1 ohm, load impedance is 1–3 ohms, claimed frequency response is 10Hz–30kHz, channel separation is 25dB at 1kHz, recommended tracking force is 1.8–2gm, and the compliance is 0.00000013cm/dyne.

Unfortunately, the IO comes hardwired with cartridge-shell leads, making it a good fit for SME arms, most of which are terminated with a set of pins at the headshell, but less than convenient when used with other arms. So importer-distributor Sounds of Silence brought along Kondo silver tonearm wire, fitted at one end with cartridge pins and thin silver Litz wire. After securing your usual tonearm wiring with tape, you wrap the Litz wire around your armtube and dress it away from the pivot. The Litz is hardwired to a length of much heavier silver interconnect terminated with standard RCA plugs.

To keep the heavy section of cable from dropping to the floor and ripping the thin Litz in half while dragging the arm across the platter in a stylus-destroying slide (nice scenario, huh?), I applied a hefty clamping mechanism to the rear of the Vibraplane to secure the Litz/RCA cable termination, thus preventing disaster.

While I experimented with the cartridge directly into the phono sections of the Ayre K-1x and Hovland HP-100 preamplifiers, I mostly used the $5000 Audio Note AN-S6CZ step-up transformer (also supplied by SoS) into the MM input of the Audio Research Reference phono preamp. If you're going for the cartridge, you'll want the transformer. Even if you're not going for the cartridge, this pure-silver coil wire over a 78% nickel Permalloy core is one to seriously consider (if you have $5000 to spend on a transformer). I guess the Audio Note transformer's only competition is the Expressive Technology, which I haven't heard.

Aside from being the best-sounding transformer I've heard, the Audio Note is the most flexible. You can precisely match its input with the internal impedance of the cartridge you're using, and you can even load the output. There's also a switch bypass input with a low 1 ohm internal impedance for use with the IO; the switch lets you adjust for balanced or unbalanced input. But I don't understand this—a cartridge is already inherently a "balanced" device.

This is a review of a $15,000 combo—or more than $20,000 if you include the Audio Research MM preamp stage—that gets you only as far as your line section's front door. It's not in the realm of the real world for most of us, but it sounded real good.

When used with other, more familiar cartridges, the Audio Note AN-S6CZ step-up transformer produced amazing dynamic range, tube-like tonal richness (particularly in the midrange), and an overall purity and freedom from grain and edge that set it apart from any other I've heard. The transformer in the Hovland HP-100 (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), which adds $695 to the price of that preamp, comes impressively close tonally, but can't match the Audio Note's dynamic swagger and fullness. I had an outboard version of the Hovland transformer on hand so I could compare it to the others using the Audio Research's MM section as a reference. (For more on this, see my review of the Hovland.) There's one serious downside to the Audio Note transformer: it can induce unbelievable hum in your preamplifier if you don't position it precisely. But be prepared—the hum-free position might be quite awkward or inconvenient, as it was in my system. (I hear 100,000 readers jeering: "Yeah, right, like I'm buying a $5000 step-up transformer...")

The IO-J/silver into the AN-S6CZ was big, dynamic, rich yet detailed, velvet-smooth, clean, and robust. It was easy to listen to, yet extremely exciting and enveloping. Nothing polite about the Kondo IO! It had tremendous midbass and deep-bass "slam," with superb control and focus. The top and bottom were ever so slightly tipped up, which gave the IO an "excitement" factor—but one so subtle that there was neither edge to the top nor boominess to the bottom. And the midrange was absolutely luscious.

Rummaging through my 10' open-reel tape collection, I found two tracks from Marti Jones' excellent Used Guitars album (A&M 5208-2) that mastering engineer Greg Calbi had dubbed for me from the analog master. I cued them up on a just-realigned Otari deck a friend had lent me and compared the tape to the LP and CD. The tape was best, particularly in the midrange; the LP's midrange via the Kondo was surprisingly close, but the tipped-up top and bottom were evident.

I then did an A/B comparison with the $2400 Grado Statement cartridge in the Rega P3 turntable sitting on a 3D Seismic Sink, and guess what—the Grado's tonal balance was closer to the tape! But it lacked the Kondo's ability to mimic the tape's focus without artificial edge, its three-dimensionality and overall "ease"—not to mention the Kondo's dynamic balls. Yikes! Was the Grado blurring the picture? The 'table? Both? Was the tape deck coloring the results? I don't know right now, but I hope to again use the tape as a reference, once I get a handle on the Otari's sound.

The law of diminishing returns applies equally to expensive hi-fi and to writing about expensive hi-fi, especially when it comes to cartridges almost no one can afford. So I'm finished. If you've got the money, you should check out the absolutely thrilling-sounding, "sink into the music" Kondo kombo of the IO and the AN-S6CZ. Me? I was relieved to get it out of my system and return it unbroken. My sample belonged to an SoS customer who'd been generous enough to lend it to me for a few weeks.

Loricraft record-cleaning machine
Speaking of 'bout a $3200 vacuum record-cleaning machine? I've just spent some weeks with the Loricraft, and it's a different kind of cleaning experience. It's basically a Keith Monks machine (you alte kockers will know the name) that uses a vacuum and a thread to clean the record. There's a high-speed acrylic-and-foam platter and a high-torque motor to spin it really fast—close to 80rpm. Through a hole drilled in a tonearm-like device fitted with a Teflon (or Teflon-like) end piece runs a thread of unbleached nylon, which acts as a buffer to keep the arm tip off the record and allows the vacuum to suck without the arm sticking to the record.

The thread (stored on a spool attached to the arm) runs through a pipe attached to the arm, through the hole in the arm tip, through a plastic tube, and into the fluid-collection jar. If you're used to VPI/Nitty Gritty machines, this has got to sound bizarre...but hold on.

To clean a record, you put it on the platter and switch on the motor. You set the arm weight so that the cleaning tip barely contacts the record surface, so you don't worry about record damage. You then apply cleaning fluid to the record and brush it evenly across the surface with the supplied brush (or a brush of your choice). You then move the arm to the end of the record (as shown in the accompanying photo), switch on the vacuum pump and the arm mechanism, and the cleaning process begins.

The first thing I noticed was how quiet the Loricraft was. It barely made a sound. Slowly, the arm moved from inner to outer grooves, sucking fluid up the thread as it went. It took a minute or so to make its way across the record, but as it went, it efficiently vacuumed up all of the fluid. At the end of its travel, the arm rose; as it did, a few millimeters of string were sucked through the line so that the next record would be treated with clean thread.

Think about it: No velvet lips to saturate, no lips for dirt and schmutz to adhere to and foul the next record you clean. Each record cleaned sees nothing but a fresh piece of string. It worked great and left a very clean, dry, sparkling surface. Cleaned records left no gunk on the stylus—the best indication of a truly clean record.

Negatives: Aside from the Loricraft's cost, which is substantial, its fast-spinning platter means that if you overload a record with fluid, the fluid goes flying off, and sometimes under and onto the record's other side. You have to pay much closer attention to the amount of fluid you put on the record than you do with the VPI/Nitty Gritty systems. I also found that, for reasons I haven't yet figured out, fluid was frequently left on an LP's lead-in groove area after cleaning. I got in the habit of drying the outer rims of records with a paper towel. The last thing you want to do is leave any moisture on a record being replaced in a rice-paper sleeve. Also, the platter is kind of cheesy: thin acrylic, and it wobbles.

The instructions are inadequate, but that's true of too many products. I'm sure the leftover liquid is a fairly common occurrence; there's probably a solution, but none is offered. Also, the counterbalance must be set for the "correct" weight on the arm, but you're not told what that weight is, nor are you told what to look for in finding it. For $3200, I don't want to "experiment." I want to be taken by the hand and led through the process. (By the way: The motor had enough torque to allow me to use the Orbitrac cleaner.)

Overall, the Loricraft is an attractive, viable alternative to "velvet-lip" record cleaners. It's quiet and easy to use. It takes a bit longer to clean a side, but the results are excellent, and there's something "ultra-clean" about having a fresh piece of thread contacting the record instead of a pair of soggy, potentially contaminated velvet lips. I won't be trading in my VPI 17F for a Loricraft, but if I were buying my first machine and my budget permitted, I'd think twice about which to buy.

Two Stylus-Cleaning Fluids Compared!
How to compare stylus-cleaning fluids: Normally, I look at the stylus with a magnifying glass, I clean, I look again. If the stylus is clean, the fluid has worked. For this I get paid the big, big bucks.

Stylus glue and solvents are something else again. I've never had a stylus fall out using any of the commonly available stylus cleaners (LAST, Needle Nectar, StyLast, LP #9, etc.), but various claims are made about dissolving bonding agents. Have you ever had a stylus disappear, leaving a cantilever with a hole in it (and a bankbook with same)? If so, let me know what you were using to clean your stylus at the time.

Then there's the issue of residue contamination. Is any residue left on the stylus to fester there?

Scan-Tech has come out with Lyra SPT (for Stylus Performance Treatment). A 5ml bottle sells for $40 and includes a small, wedge-shaped application brush. The instructions tell you to put a tiny drop of SPT on the protruding edge of the brush, then turn it around and very carefully slide just the surface of the brush along the stylus, in the usual back-to-front motion. You are advised to not brush any area of the cantilever with SPT, and to wait at least 10 seconds after application before playing a record. Scan-Tech claims that, in addition to cleaning your stylus, SPT will improve the sound of your cartridge, even if it's not a Lyra design.

Apparently, SPT is designed to lubricate the stylus, but the amount of lubrication doesn't last more than an LP side. Any SPT left on the stylus will dissolve in the fluid itself when you reapply, so there's never any buildup of old SPT on your stylus. But it's extremely important to be careful when you apply it—if you get fluid on the cantilever, it will probably migrate up the shaft and into the motor assembly, where it can gum up the works. (This is also a problem, and probably to a greater degree, with StyLast.)

SPT is supposed to improve S/N ratio and trackability. After you've used the brush for five applications, you're instructed to clean and rinse it in water and let dry. (Evidently, the fluid is water-soluble.) And because you do leave a residue on the brush, you'd better do as they say and clean it frequently.

I compared SPT to Disc Doctor's Stylus Cleaner ($24.95 for 14ml, including postage and handling), which comes with a stiff brush similar to the one LAST supplies. The stiffy is for just the first cleaning of a stylus. After that, the Disc Doctor, aka H. Duane Goldman, suggests using an artist's brush (synthetic or natural), that's been given a crew cut, or cut down and angled à la the Lyra-supplied brush.

Goldman, a chemist, claims that his Stylus Cleaner, a mixture of micron-filtered water and separately micron-filtered +99.5% 1-propanol alcohol, leaves no residue on the stylus or cantilever. He's not comfortable with those that do, whether accidentally as a result of impurities, or deliberately, like SPT.

Because SPT was formulated by a cartridge manufacturer, I wouldn't be concerned about using it—especially with Lyra cartridges. But be sure to follow the directions, and don't get sloppy.

In an A/B listening comparison of the fluids, I was surprised to hear—after listening to a passage with the SPT-cleaned stylus and repeating with Disc Doctor fluid—a slight bit more sparkle and extension using the latter. But it could have been the power of suggestion. Given the price difference, I don't see how you can go wrong with the Disc Doctor fluid—unless you want the slight lubrication, which might reduce friction and heat and thus prolong stylus and vinyl life. But that's just a maybe.

Dynavector 20X L cartridge
I prefer the reasonably priced ($525) Dynavector 20X L cartridge to the original, far more expensive XX-1L. The premium Dynavector is beautifully built and well-engineered, but it just never came to life for me in any tonearm I tried—too damn polite and laid-back. My recollection of the original budget Dynavector 10X was that it was Bright!!!! and grainy, even after a long break-in. I understand that the current-generation 10X4 (ca $325) is much more smooth and refined.

The 20X L features a nude elliptical diamond on a 6mm hard aluminum pipe, weighs 8.6gm, has medium compliance (0.00000012cm/dyne) so it should mate well with most current popular arms, and outputs 0.25mV at 1kHz, 5cm/s. (A high-output version, not auditioned, does 10 times the output: 2.5mV.) The 20X L includes "Flux Damping" and "Softened Magnetism," which Dynavector claims eliminate distortions caused by excess magnetic flux created by the high-energy magnets used in modern moving-coil cartridges.

This well-made, well-engineered, medium-priced cartridge sounds really good. The 20X L had no serious sonic bunions, and it did a few things very well. Tonally it was very smooth overall; it had more bite up top than the XX-1L, but it didn't bite my head off like the original 10X. The overall presentation was a bit dry; the bass was nicely extended, but wasn't as lush or as tactile as a premium cartridge can deliver; and control on bottom was somewhat hollow as opposed to rock-solid. But it wasn't blubbery down there, and the extension was very good. In the upper octaves, the 20X fused details that more accomplished and expensive cartridges deliver as separate events. Dynamics were very good, though it couldn't reach the full-glory dynamic extension of the ultra-premium variety. Not a problem—it'll probably be used in turntables that can't deliver the goods there either.

What impressed me most about the 20X L, given its price, was its overall balance, its musical excitement without brightness, and its lack of any strong negative sonic quality. The build quality seems high, especially the rigidity of the aluminum body, though it's not tapped and threaded. You'll have to fuss with tiny nuts.

I was pleased with the amount of detail the 20X L delivered when I compared three different pressings of Led Zeppelin: a mint original American Atlantic (1841 Broadway label) mastered by George Piros, a second or third UK pressing, and Classic's new 180gm reissue, mastered by Bernie Grundman. The 20X L told me that the original had the greatest spaciousness, instrumental focus, and layering, the tightest bass, and the fullest palette or instrumental colors. Okay, it's Led Zep—but the acoustic guitars and the snare and cymbals were most convincing. Classic's reissue has great dynamics, but for some reason more of the music is stuffed into the center compared to the original and British pressings, and the overall sound is darker, with a bit less shimmer and more grain to cymbals and acoustic guitars. The focus is not quite as good either, nor is instrumental layering.

I heard all of this with the Kondo IO-J/silver, but the 20X L told me what was going on with equal authority—a nice surprise at $525. Some budget-conscious classical-music lovers might prefer something with greater liquidity and lushness, but if your musical tastes are varied, the Dynavector 20X L should suit all kinds of music.

nagysaudio's picture

I heard the new Lyra Atlas, I dunno, it's kinda verging on too bright.

Michael Fremer's picture
The Atlas SL is more relaxed sounding while maintaining the original’s grip and dynamic slam.....
dazeofheaven's picture

Real world story just to exemplify the "different strokes" principle in high end audio. I replaced an old GOLDRING Excel MC - installed by the great Gene Rubin btw - in my NAIM ARO/LP 12 combo with a recommended LYRA DELOS and while I was impressed by the clarity and the silence of the LYRA in the grooves (practically inaudible zero needle chatter) I was dismayed by the thin sound and lack of body and bass. I played w loading etc. and ultimately concluded that it was just a thin sounding cartridge. When the recording was extra rich it maybe started sounding "normal." Sold the LYRA and switched to the DYNAVECTOR XX-2MKII and it was a revelation. Rich bass, impact and warm clear vocals and electric guitars that sounded like music. MF didn't like the DV but my source components will never be in the class of MF's and I've never heard the better LYRAs...but for this listener, it's no comparison and I've never regretted the decision. If anything, it's made me want to save for the top of the line DYNAVECTOR to see what I'm missing. Maybe it's a tube vs. ss thing...

vitaly deuterium's picture

I stupidly cleaned my Audio Technica OC10 a few years ago with Disc Doctor (diluted). It did remove the rock from the twig. Be warned. Do not use it as a stylus cleaning agent. Rinse your records thoroughly with distilled water as per the instructions if you use DD. Never had any issues since. I plan to have the OC10 retipped in the future (facepalm)