The Cartridge Man MusicMaker Classic Phono Cartridge

 

                          

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Timbral naturalness extended throughout the string family: violins, violas, cellos and double bass equally clear and unmistakable, maintaining their clarity even when playing in their over-lapping ranges. This was true for non-orchestral music as well. Ron Carter’s use of the piccolo bass on the live Piccolo album was clearly differentiated from Buster Williams’ double bass. It was also clear that Carter’s instrument was not a cello, that its timbre and tonal color lie somewhere between the two.

Rock electric guitar was equally clearly rendered: the differences among Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, the Les Paul guitars and the Gretsch Country Gentleman, and the amps and effects pedals used with them, were instantly identifiable. The specific acoustic guitar that Bruce Cockburn uses on Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws, an instrument whose live sound I know very well, sounded identical on the recording.

Human voice was unimpeachable, as were the principle instrumental Jazz voices – the saxophones. Reveling in some of my favorite vocalists - Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Joe Cocker and Steve Winwood – was as easy as Being; the hard reeds John Coltrane used during a certain period in his playing were obvious, I could almost hear the olive in Paul Desmond’s ‘dry martini’ alto sax sonority.

The entire drum family, from kettledrum to drum kit to tabla, and the various means by which they were struck, were equally clear. Percussion instruments of all kinds were reproduced with such a clarity and revelation of tonal color, the telling result of the cartridge’s superb high-frequency resolution and delicacy, that moving-coil devotees will have to abandon their assumption that only moving coil cartridges are worth considering. The Classic’s ability to convey multiple percussion devices yet still maintain individual focus was exceptional.

Especially worth noting is the Classic’s remarkable ability to portray tonal color, a standard device of the composer’s art. Moreover, the Classic was able to portray this delicate synesthetic effect even through solid-state amplification, thus obviating the absolute need to use tube electronics to render timbre, sonic signature, and tonal color completely and naturally. The texture of a piece of music – its weaving of timbre and tonal color – was immediately understandable.

Although the five-point formula allows one to analyze individual aspects of audio reproduction, it separates elements that are, as psycho-acoustic phenomena and as technical audio electronic principles, inter-related. Thus, while we can mentally separate Which instrument is playing from Where it is playing, in the mechanics of psycho-acoustic perception, the Where is ascertained first, followed so immediately in time by perception of pitch and the instrument making the musical sound that the whole aural phenomenon seems to arise instantaneously. This transient envelope of the note (and its mechanical/electrical correlatives of rise time, slew rate, lack of overshoot and transient ringing, time/phase distortion, amplitude/dynamic tracking, and harmonic and intermodulation distortions) determines both our identification of the instrument and its placement in space. Given the MusicMaker Classic’s superior recreation of the timbre, sonic signature, and tonal color of instruments, it’s not surprising that the Classic’s soundstage reproduction is equally superior.

Compared to the MusicMaker III, the Classic presents a wider soundstage with greater distance between instruments placed within that stage. The individual focus on the instrument is more precise and the instrument more highly defined, as is the space surrounding the instrument. The soundstage is equally well constructed in all its dimensions, with all parts of it in focus. This roughly correlates to orchestral sound perceived from the first five rows of a hall compared to that of, say, the 25th row or the 1st row of the first balcony. Since one of the prime boons of audio listening is that everyone can have a private performance and sit front and center, the Classic’s perspective is welcome. This correlation is only rough, however, as recording microphones do not exactly duplicate the live front row perspective.

The Classic fully captures the ambiance of the performance hall: the ambient ‘sound’ of the hall, even when no sound is being struck, has a tangible presence that closely captures live experience. Sounds emerge effortlessly and naturally from the acoustic of the room and then fade back into its ambience. (You can insert your own rant here about how “Sounds Emerging from a Black Background” is actually a gross distortion.) Very quiet sounds energize only a small portion of air; swelling sounds swell and expand that volume; full fortes naturally fill it. The speed and ease of how an instrument bursts into sound resembles more the natural than the artificially constructed. The decay of notes and the reverberations of that decay in the venue’s acoustic are impressively life-like. The ambience of the acoustic leaps into perception as the stylus finishes the lead-in groove and then abruptly collapses when the track is finished.

The musical value of the Classic’s superb and life-like rendering of timbre, stereophony, and the ambiance of the recording venue is that the mind wastes no energy on basic perceptual orientation or identification, and can therefore fully focus its attention to the music.

It is also clear that the canvas upon which the Classic paints is larger than that of the LP. The Classic has no problem differentiating groove rumble from extra-musical sounds of the recording venue, and separating both from nearly sub voce double bass notes. Similarly, variations in recording quality, album pressing, and the amount of wear on a used LP are open to perception. The difference that The Disc Doctor Record Cleaner and Stylus Cleaner make on the rendition of fine detail is fully apparent. Most importantly, the Classic resolves these aspects without being sterilely clinical or puncturing the illusion of the recording.

And Now For Something Really Important

True to its name, the MusicMaker Classic excels at making music, organizing sounds into musically meaningful and communicative patterns, revealing all the devices of the music-making art. Its ability to organize time is first-rate: tempo, pulse, rhythm and meter are laid out precisely and with free-flowing clarity: rigid and monotone-like if the music demands it, swinging and free-hipped if the music demands that. It can articulate all the rhythms in polyrhythmic West African music, clearly distinguish the complex pattern of repeating rhythmic motifs in Near Eastern and Indian Classical music, nail the Second Line rhythms of New Orleans, reveal the subtleties of “in the pocket” drumming, spotlight the virtuosity of Jazz master drummers, let you smell The Funk, and capture the idiomatic lope of Reggae rhythms. The sense of the instruments playing together, their sense of flow, and their entrance at precisely the right time is similarly excellent. Particularly striking is the Classic’s ability to track even the slowest of tempos and still maintain the flow of the musical progress. Slow movements in symphonies benefit enormously. It doesn’t matter what manner of physical manifestation the rhythmic aspects of the music inspire: from internal cerebral marking of time, to the classic Linn foot-tapping, to advanced leg/knee bouncing, to full-out head-bopping, arm-flailing, backbone-flipping, hip-shaking exuberance. The Classic handles them all. This cartridge can dance.

Its eloquence and diction allows the flow of melody to unfold coherently, accentuating the right notes, punctuating and accenting phrases, grouping phrases into larger statements and clearly revealing the harmonies used. The structures of classical musical forms are clearly laid out to the understanding. Comprehension of lyrics is also first-rate.

The cartridge’s dynamic prowess is also outstanding, clearly revealing the exact amplitude of each note in each musical line, and the variations in the volume of those notes. Large amplitude dynamics are quick and powerful: the Classic has the rare ability to track the low-level signal concealed within every loud sonic event and its way of extracting full dynamic nuance in piano and pianissimo playing is revelatory. Moreover the cartridge can track the exact volume of each instrument playing in an ensemble simultaneously, leading to an extreme clarity of intent of the musical ensemble.

Roy Gandy of Rega once stated that the prime determiner of the difference between good LP playback and the so-so is the ability to portray subtlety. By this criterion, the Classic ranks as great: its low-level resolution, its ‘footroom,’ delicacy, nuance, and ability to portray the most subtle of musical information is simply stellar. The last movement of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony (which on the Boult performance begins Side Two and leads into The Lark Ascending) is a masterpiece of delicate scoring whose quality and meaning is often lost by mediocre playback. Set in the slowest of tempos and never rising above piano in volume, it trades delicate melodic themes to a variety of close-sounding instruments in the woodwind family, along with delicate strings and occasional fragments from the double bass, intertwining and unfolding, building its tension with the gentlest of volume changes and modal harmonies. The Classic unraveled this movement more completely and more accurately than any other cartridge I have played it on in 26 years of listening to it. It clarified every detail and nuance of the composition and performance: I listened transfixed, almost forgetting to breathe.

James Joyce, in Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, describes the aesthetic experience as similarly transfixing: “The mind is arrested.” This arresting, transfixing effect on the mind leads to a kind of trance in which one is wholly lost in the music, following its every turn and change; seeming at times, to be creating it oneself. This aesthetic arresting of the consciousness occurred consistently when listening to the Classic; the cartridge is truly spell-binding. Along with the physical manifestations of its superior rhythmic abilities and the sheer expressiveness of its music making, its spell-casting abilities resulted in those shivers up and down the spine and neck that writers and poets have described as the true sign of poetry, being in presence of the Muse, or the physical symptom of the experience of the Sublime. These deep and intense aesthetic experiences occurred consistently with the Classic. Moreover they occurred with all kinds and genres of music. This is by far the Classic’s greatest achievement and an extremely rare achievement for any audio component: direct access to the aesthetic experience of music.

Getting This Bird To Sing

Compared to its affable, more Golden Retriever-like older brother, the MusicMaker Classic is a bit higher-strung, more persnickety, and more demanding of its ancillary equipment. Obviously, it demands high-resolution, full bandwidth, rhythmically adept, and musically expressive partnering gear. Its footroom and low-level detail capabilities positively bloom when the entire system is isolated by the finest isolation devices. I used the Townshend Seismic Sinks under the turntables and the Stillpoints Universal Resonance Dampers under the electronics and speakers.

Otherwise excellent phono stages that worked superbly with other cartridges, including the MusicMaker III, revealed their limitations when faced with the Classic’s higher resolution, delicacy of high frequency information, greater dynamic swing and enormous increase in low-level detail. For one example, the Graham Slee Era V Gold did not fully reveal all the differences between the III and the Classic. Fortunately, its $300 more expensive new brother, the $1260 Reflex, had no problems. The Reflex was one of the phono stages that Leonard Gregory used in the development of the Classic: it is a superb match. The Acoustic Signature Tango, at $600, revealed its status as a high-resolution budget champion. The phono stages of the Meitner PA6i PLUS+, Hegeman HAPI One, and the antique 1960 all-tube EICO ST84 preamps were fully able to reveal the Classic’s magic.

Interconnects suffered the same fate. The $140/meter budget king, the DNM/Reson Solid Core, glossed over some of the Classic’s resolution and detail. Again fortunately, the Origin Live Reference interconnect, at $250/meter, revealed it completely.

Tonearm choice is a bit more complicated, as Mr. Gregory’s Isolator, which de-couples the cartridge from the arm by means of a “sandwich” whose innards consist of a state-of-the-art damping material, has forced a paradigm shift in the way tonearms are evaluated. Simplified, The Isolator, at the very least, doubles the quality of any given tonearm. “At the very least” because The Isolator’s ability to eliminate the subtle mechanical signature of LP playback, rendering the sound more like Open Reel than LP, is attained by few tonearms at any price. Assuming competent and non-corrupting bearing design and construction, the difference in tonearm quality is largely the way the arm handles the extra-musical mechanical resonances that accompany the movement of the stylus in the groove. Since The Isolator prevents these unwanted resonances from entering the arm tube in the first place, and prevents other resonances transmitted from the table, environment, or placement from entering the cartridge down through the tonearm, much of the additional price, complication, and difficulty of producing a truly neutral arm is obviated and made redundant.

The Classic was developed largely with The Cartridge Man’s new air-bearing, linear-tracking Conductor tonearm. Only my lack of a suitable test turntable, lack of logistics in hiding the air pump, and some intimidation of setting up a frictionless arm kept me from trying The Conductor with the Classic. The Hadcock GH 242 Cryo uni-pivot arm, to which Leonard Gregory had considerable design input, was a wonderful match: one of the reference standards for the playback of classical music. Origin Live’s modification of the Rega RB 250 and RB300 arms, by far the most musically communicative and adroit of all the Rega arm modifications, captured quite a bit of the Classic’s magic when used with The Isolator, especially its superb drive, dynamics and rhythmic clarity. Spending an additional $235, however, over the price of a new modified Origin Live OL1 gets one the Origin Live Silver tonearm, now entering its Mark II incarnation. Even in its now obsolete Silver 250 configuration this arm was a terrific match with the Classic. The new $935 Silver MkII is even better. I consider the Origin Live Silver to be the least expensive arm that does full justice to the Classic. My comments in this review are based on the performance of the Classic mounted with The Isolator in the Origin Live Silver and Conqueror tonearms.

The Isolator requires roughly a quarter-inch increase in arm height to compensate for it when setting the VTA/SRA. Very stiff cartridge tag arm wire must be dressed carefully so that the wire doesn’t torque or lever the cartridge away from The Isolator’s adhesive. The cartridge’s superior focus is immediately obvious when its VTA/SRA is correct. Equally obvious is the change when LP thickness changes correct alignment. The Ringmat LP Support System made compensating for VTA changes easy. Because The Isolator makes such an enormous contribution to the naturalness and organic unity of the Classic’s performance, it’s best to consider the two as one unit.

The MusicMaker Classic is the exemplar for communication of the artistic intent, musical expressiveness, and true-to-life sonic reproduction of musical performances. As such, its value is priceless. Its $1750 price, allied to the fact that ancillary components of roughly similar price will reveal its stupendous abilities, means that true music lovers will actually be able to own and experience it without the irrational “Soak the Rich” perversities of The High End. Congratulations, and deep thanks, to Leonard Gregory for so fully opening the doors to all music: the MusicMaker Classic is a true masterpiece. It is a privilege to introduce this wonderful cartridge to all music lovers. It is a classic in all senses of the word.

Paul Szabady

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Specifications:
Variable-reluctance stereo phono cartridge with line-contact stylus and silver coils.
Output: 4.0 mV output
Loading: 47K ohms (not capacitance sensitive.)
Tracking Force: 1.6 grams.
VTA/SRA Alignment: Front face of cartridge perpendicular to record surface (viewed from the side.)

Price: $1750 (price includes The Isolator)

Address:
The Cartridge Man
88, Southbridge Road,
Croydon, Surrey.
CRO 1AF, England. UK.
Tel/Fax: +44 (0)208 688 6565
E-mail: the cartridgeman@btinternet.com
Website: http://www.thecartridgeman.com

US Distribution:
Bill Feil
AudioFeil International
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716-400-6177
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