Associated Equipment:
Analog
Front End
Amplification
Loudspeakers
Cabling
 
The Cartridge Man MusicMaker III Phono Cartridge

Simply, A Great Phono Cartridge

Paul Szabady

September 2004

One audio cliché of the late 1990’s had it that we were living through a “Golden Age of Analog”: never had LP playback gear sounded so good. The new century has continued that trend, leading to, I suppose, a new “Platinum Age of Analog.” Certainly the quality of LP players, phono cartridges, tonearms and phono preamplifiers that have passed before my ears during the last few years have never been higher in sonic quality and music making aplomb. I regularly use five turntables with a variety of cartridges and their musical merits are so compelling that it’s hard to choose one as the “best.” The overall quality of LP playback has gotten so good that it’s hard to find any genuine lemons, as long as one avoids the direct-drive dreck of DJ products and the almost congenital inability of many high-end products to dance.

Consistent with this Platinum Age is the continuing arrival of new products into the US market. The Internet has certainly helped reveal the existence of excellent products from around the world. Living in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota or Novosibirsk, Siberia no longer isolates an audio enthusiast from the larger audio world. Smaller manufacturers no longer are limited by the size of their own local market. The world is now their oyster too.

Leonard Gregory, AKA, The Cartridge Man, has a long and illustrious pedigree in the UK LP world. The renowned Hi-Fi News Test Record was his handiwork. He was the UK arm of the Garrott Bros. cartridge line in their previous incarnation, and continues to offer re-tipping services for all variety of phono cartridges. Long experience with all aspects of stylus and cartridge response, coupled to a deep and passionate love of music has resulted in an exceptional balance of technical and aesthetic expertise. The hand-built MusicMaker, now in its III generation, is the result of Gregory’s considerable gifts and is his sole phono cartridge offered for sale. What a cartridge it is!

I’ve always had a deep fondness for hi-fi products that immediately grab me with their music making abilities. Play just one cut, and you know. Products that you have to acclimate to, to learn to appreciate, to work at enjoying, rarely become long-term favorites. At the same time, when working in the critical analytic mode, it is also important to be aware of initial enthusiasm perhaps being the product of an unusually receptive mood and to make sure that love at first sight is indeed permanent.


The first and lasting impression of the MusicMaker, with perhaps excrutiatingly obvious tautology, is how well it makes music. Its ability to retrieve and to communicate the essentials of music making – rhythmic and dynamic flow and articulation, organic and identifiable timbre, and sonic punctuation (phrasing, parsing, point of arrival and expression) - grabs one immediately. So convincing is the music making that one is loath to analyze just how it does it. It almost seems irrelevant to analytically break down its sonic performance; so convincing is its musical gestalt. At a time when many cartridges are named after insects, amphibians, various types of wood and gems, and references to Greek mythology, it’s refreshing to hear a cartridge literally named after what it’s supposed to do.

The ability to produce gestalts is, I’m beginning to believe, the most important determiner of audio gear quality. We all know deep inside that no hi-fi gear literally sounds like live real music. From the inability of the recording microphones to ‘hear’ the way we do, to the phony illusion of stereo in our rooms; from the fact that scrupulously followed models of measurement-based fidelity do not by themselves guarantee musical enchantment to the humbling conundrum that some lo-fi gear often does; music lovers are saved by the happy fact that our minds can form convincing perceptions – gestalts – from what seems the flimsiest of direct stimulus. That we can produce gestalts by a kind of perceptual jumping to conclusion also helps partly explain how we can experience convincing illusions that are often times more affecting than normal reality. I suppose this ability at least partly explains the power of Art. Think of Drama and the illusion of play-acting in the shadow of the proscenium arch. Think of the stage musician. If music is a conversation created through instruments, how much deeper do these conversations seem than our literal talk in the real world?

The most convincing illusions are those that seem the most organic, that reveal little of the artifice of their construction, that gives no hint of The Man Behind The Curtain. We see only the Great Oz. The great strength of the MusicMaker cartridge is how well it keeps its organic illusion intact and in the foreground. The most remarkable thing about its sound is how unremarkable it is. No aspect of it sticks out to shatter the illusion. We know quite a bit about how we perceive sound: we know that transient response is extremely important; we know that coherent timing of the initial transient energy will both place an instrument in a physical position and will allow correct identification of that instrument. We know that the flow of sound through time needs to broken down just right for the sound to begin to speak. We know that variation of the loudness of the sound will reveal emphasis. We know that sound can be modeled as pressure waves of varying frequency and that the different notes of music are determined by the number of their vibrations.

Yet in listening to the MusicMaker, one does not remark “Excellent transient response!” One simply locates and identifies the instrument. One does not remark “Excellent high frequency response!” One simply understands the playing of cymbals and other percussion instruments directly. One doesn’t remark that the chocolate-y midrange identifies the violin as a Stradivarius, and a late one at that. One follows what the violin is saying. The sonic attributes of the MusicMaker III are always subservient to the demands and needs of music. This is a music lover’s cartridge.

Listening to the MusicMaker was a continual joy of both aesthetic satisfaction and delight in discovering new perception of musical nuance and detail. It was as if one had just inadvertantly overlooked some newly revealed aspect of performance, rather than the cartridge shouting that one pay attention to its sonic skills. No single aspect of its sonic performance stuck out. It didn’t sound bright and lean, nor mellow and muffled. It didn’t sound fast or slow. It didn’t shriek or mumble. It didn’t favor rock or classical. It just sounded like music. This is a rare and considerable achievement in audio and one that places the MusicMaker III into the category of great cartridges.

The MusicMaker allows one to understand and appreciate the quality of the musical performance rather than distracting one to the sonic artifacts of its reproduction. Appreciating the difference in performance of various recordings of, say Beethoven’s late quartets was instantly grasped. Yet this was done without a tendency to be analytic and cerebral in presentation. The full impact of the music’s message was delivered in a highly involving and compelling way: I wore out myriads of air guitars, drums, basses and violins while listening to the MusicMaker, the hair rising up on my neck. The MusicMaker is equally adept at revealing the music’s power as its grace, subtlety and delicacy.

Leonard Gregory bases the MusicMaker III on a Grado Signature cartridge body, utilizing its generating principle of variable reluctance. Unlike the moving magnet, with which it is often erroneously lumped, the variable reluctance design does not vary its high frequency response with capacitive loading. Its 4 mV output makes it an easy load for moving-magnet phono preamps. The cartridge is hand-built with state-of-the-art attention to damping and resonance control; its proprietary line-contact stylus is not user-replaceable. Unlike Grado designs, it does not hum with unshielded AC motor turntables. Mounting lugs, stylus guard, tracking weight and VTA/SRA are stock Grado. The MusicMaker sounded good right out of the box, improving slightly through the first 10 hours of play. The line-contact stylus alignment was decidedly un-neurotic and did not enforce agonizing shimming with the Ringmat Record Support System to lock in its performance. All in all, the cartridge was easy to set up and easy to live with and use. Users of turntables of Rega P2 quality and up will grasp what the MusicMaker can do. I used 4 tables in my auditions and even the most humble of them, my antique Connoisseur BD2a, danced and sang.

The highest of recommendations is warranted for this wonderfully musical product, one of the handfull of great phono cartridges.




Specifications:
Variable-reluctance Phono Cartridge
Output voltage: 4mV
Frequency response: 10Hz - 50KHz
Stereo separation: >25dB across 10Hz to 30KHz range
Loading requirement: 47K Ohm (standard moving magnet)
Cartridge weight: 6.2g
Stylus type: proprietary extended contact area diamond
Tracking force: 1.58g +/- 0.05g (critical)
Arm requirement: medium to low mass (13g or less)
Bias (anti-skate) requirements: minimal.

Price: $995

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 of AudioFeil.
AudioFeil International
9405 Meriul Lane
Clarence Center
New York
14032
716-400-6177
audiofeil@cs.com


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cartridge Man MusicMaker III Phono Cartridge