Grooviness, Part II

Here is a brief review of the common choices for phono cartridges costing less than $150.00 USD, a quick guide to selecting a new model for your vintage turntable. This list is limited to those models in production at the time of this writing. 

A general caution - generally, avoid conical or spherical styli. They don’t sound as good and increase record wear. 

Ortofon 2M Series - developed in conjunction with the Danish designer Møller Jensen, these visually-strinking cartridges offer some of the finest sound in their price range. Many far higher cost cartridges aren’t as good. The 2M Series excels in every aspect of phono cartridge sound and performance. Even better is the “upgrade path” approach to its styli. When you decide you want better sound, just replace the stylus with a higher-end model. Ortofon has a strong commitment to providing replacement styli for all of their cartridges, even decades after they’re out of production. This makes Ortofon a low risk investment in your sound. The only caveat is their aesthetics - if you want to preserve the “vintage look” you may find the 2M Series sense of style to be too extreme. Hopefully, that’s not an issue for you because passing up sound this good would be a mistake.

Ortofon OM5E and OM 3E, along with other OM and Super OM Series - An evolution of the LM Series introduced in the 1970s, the OM Series gives vintage sound and vintage look at a reasonable price point. Even better is the “upgrade path” approach to its styli. When you decide you want better sound, just replace the stylus with a higher-end model. Ortofon OM series are the OEM cartridge supplied on many quality turntables, such as Dual, Perpetuum-Ebner, Pro-Ject, Music Hall (colored blue and rebranded with their name), and many others. Ortofon has a strong commitment to providing replacement styli for all of their cartridges, even decades after they’re out of production. This makes Ortofon a low risk investment in your sound.

Shure M97xE - the last audiophile quality cartridge being made by Shure, who has gone over to making DJ cartridges. It is, fortunately, excellent overall. The M97xE gives crystal clear vintage sound, combining the effortless midrange and smooth treble of the V-15 Type  III, Type IV and Type V with the strong yet detailed bass of the M95ED. Shure has a weak commitment to providing replacement styli for all of their cartridges once they’re out of production, ceding supply of replacement styli to aftermarket stylus manufacturers. Aftermarket Shure styli vary in quality from awful to better than Shure’s original styli. This makes Shure a medium risk investment in your sound.

Stanton 681EEE Mk. III - Stanton also has gone over to making DJ cartridges, with this one shining exception. The 681EEE has been in production since the 1970s, and features very natural sound, neutral tonal balance and very low distortion. At one time, the 681EEE and its more-expensive stablemate, the 881EEE, were used in the USA as the “quality check cartridges” by record cutters. If you want to hear the record exactly as the engineer who cut the master disk heard it, then this is the cartridge for you. Rumor has it that new production models are inferior to vintage models but this isn’t true. At one time, it was true when Stanton was first bought by Gibson, but those quality issues have been resolved. Stanton’s commitment to providing replacement styli for all of their cartridges once they’re out of production is unknown at this time. You will probably have to rely on aftermarket stylus manufacturers for replacements, a market that constantly changes over time. Aftermarket Stanton styli vary in quality from awful to better than Shure’s original styli. This makes Stanton a significant risk investment in your sound.

Grado Prestige Series - Recently, Grado has become very popular among turntable restorers because of their easy availability in bulk purchases. Grado sound quality varies widely. Tonearm resonance, mass, and electrical wiring scheme cause Grado cartridges to be problematic. Excessive hum cab be an issue with certain turntables. Sound can be detailed and crystal clear, dull and lifeless, or thin and shrill, depending on the phono preamp’s electrical characteristics, the tonearm's wiring, and the tonearm's mechanical properties. So many excellent cartridges exist that, frankly, the Grado Prestige line isn’t worth the hassle and frustration of trying to make it sound good on your turntable. Grado has a strong commitment to providing replacement styli for all of their cartridges, even decades after they’re out of production. The few aftermarket styli are inferior to Grado’s production. This makes Grado a low risk investment in your sound.

AudioTechnica AT3842P, AT90CD,  AT91/BL, AT300P, AT95E/BL, AT311EP and equivalents - often sold relabeled, they are widely available worldwide. Sound quality is inferior overall, but some aftermarket styli can improve AudioTechnica cartridges to the point where they are good sounding. Ensuring a good-sounding AudioTechnica cartridge is uncertain, and is akin to a casino gambling game. AudioTechnica has a strong commitment to providing replacement styli for all of their cartridges, even decades after they’re out of production. A large selection of aftermarket styli exists for AudioTechnica as well. This makes AudioTechnica a low risk investment in your sound. Nevertheless, AudioTechnica should be regarded as a “last resort” purchase to be made when you genuinely cannot afford something better. 

Sumiko Oyster - fitted with a spherical stylus yet expensive, avoid this model in favor of cartridges in the same price range that have an elliptical stylus. 

Sumiko Pearl - Very sound with good clarity and a warm midrange, strong bass but muted treble that retains a high level of detail. The Pearl does a great job of reducing surface noise without sacrificing detail at high frequencies. Improved channel separation creates a wide stereo image. Not recommended as your main cartridge, it is a good choice as a second cartridge to play your more-worn records. This makes Sumiko a medium risk investment in your sound.

Sumiko Black Pearl  - The Black Pearl is the only cartridge made that has a 0.5 mil conical stylus. The exception to the rule about avoiding conical styli, the Black Pearl is ideal for rare narrow-groove records such as Flexi-Discs, EvaTone Sound Sheets, 45 rpm discs with more than 7 minutes per side, 16-2/3 rpm AudioBook and Seeburg Music Library records; and the soft plastic records made on SoundScriber and Gray Audograph dictation machines. Not everybody needs a stylus for playing this kind of material. Its tone balance leans toward thin bass and reduced treble, creating a midrange-heavy tone, but for ultra-narrow-groove records, this is perfect. A good choice for serious record collectors who have a wide variety of formats. Replacement styli are available only from Sumiko, but Sumiko has a good history of providing replacement styli. Occasionally, aftermarket styli are available but usually they are inferior. This makes Sumiko a medium risk investment in your sound.

Music Hall Magic II - Presently, the Music Hall Magic II cartridge is a rebadged Ortofon OM Series, selected to be at the top 20% of the range of tolerance. You pay more for the Music Hall name, so even though they’re excellent cartridges, buy an Ortofon instead.

Numark - all Numark cartridges are either AudioTechnica or Ortofon models rebadged, and manufactured to lower quality standards than the original manufacturer. Avoid. 

Mullard Preamplifier Project

This article was published by Mullard, a major vacuum tube manufacturer, describing a high-quality preamplifier. I’ve included it in this blog because it is so versatile. You can easily adapt to become a superb studio microphone preamplifier for classic ribbon microphones. Enjoy!

Mullard Preamplifier

Small Label, Big Label, We're Both Able.

Okay, so why do I try to run an indie record label? It’s for the art. It’s sure not for the quick money! Is this face-saving malarkey to cover up an inability to succeed?

No.

Consider: The music business still lives in the myth of the overnight success and even stories like those of MySpace creating an overnight success seems to further that myth. Packed gigs and high visibility on social media won’t bring success either, apart from a few “Likes” and empty huzzahs. It takes a lot of long term, skilled, persistent coordinated effort to make records succeed. A good small indie label has two things: abilities the artist doesn’t have and the humility to admit or recognize what they don’t know, then go get the needed expertise from other experts. I feel humbled that, because of my membership in the Recording Academy, I have the talent and insight gained from ear of superb A&R guys – something the cut rate studios and their pretend record labels lack. A “holiday special” and an “artists package” of CDs, download cards and tee-shirts splattered on a web page isn’t a record label. It’s just another small commercial recording studio hungry to make a few extra bucks by flattering the artists why separating them from their hard-earned gig money.
The collapse of live music gigs in the USA over the past 40 years has killed the quality of most new music because live gigs are where you learn to be great performers and build fan-bases that aren't dependent on advertising-supported media for expansion. Live gigs are where you discover what you can do that is unique without losing your audience.

Consider: Indie labels are the future of the recording industry. The few smaller record labels who are true fans of music and push to develop artists and refine them until they are economically viable is absolutely essential. That’s what’s behind my label: love and passion for music, to the point I do not want to compromise. Okay, some think I go too far, not keeping a studio always set up, then building it only once I have a project. Laziness? No. Wackiness? Yeah, maybe, but I have always believed only custom audio is the best audio. That goes for studios too – custom made for the ultimate realization of each artist’s projects. Sure, pre-built standardized studios are more efficient, and a few have been so well crafted that they have achieved sonic perfection. But they’re the exception, not the rule.

Consider: The major labels’ biggest failings are their unwillingness to take risks. If they’re not convinced every album can go gold, they’re not interested. Go away, kid; you bother me. True, it's unfortunately too risky and too speculative for large record corporations to develop up-and-coming or new artists when they are operating in an environment where they must look for a good Return-On-Investment to show in the next quarterly earnings report. Music is a street-oriented, bottom-up business. Attempting to "manage" it from the top like big labels do has always been a case of herding cats and it is often a complete train wreck. CEOs, stock analysts and investors don't want to hear this.

Consider: Some big labels have awakened and become aware of the time it takes to bring a product to market in their specific industry and have that time frame and process written into their business plans. That’s where indie labels come in: our job is to be the booster stage for the band’s rocket to stardom. Develop, boost sales to the point that the band is about to become economically viable, then partner with the big labels for the final stage: unambiguous success.

Consider: Dismayingly, the creators of the work are almost always the last ones to see the benefit. With the advent of 360 deals, it's hard to see how that is going to change much. But a small label who has marketing muscle from a major once it's needed is good for the artist. That’s why I partner with big labels once the artists are ready for the big time. Until then, I’ll take the risks and weather short term-losses on faith in the artists. I’ll go the extra miles to create the finest sound technologically possible, then get any artistic help needed from among the music industry’s best. Hey, I don’t know it all, and I admit it. But, at least I know what I do not know and I know those who do know what I don’t.

Consider: I’m interested in artist development that happens over a period of years, as opposed to "if your first album sales are low, off our label you go." But that’s also why I’ve decided to become quite particular who I’ll put myself out for.

Consider: As far as I’m concerned, if it's a major corporation like LiveNation that is only looking at its shareholders’ earnings reports when it determines who to promote and market, then I think an artist would be well advised to run screaming for the hills.

Finally, consider: The music business still relies on people who are passionate about music, just people wanting to get rich. That's still the way it works.