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the audio analyst
Flirtations with the "Dark Side"
Okay, I admit it! Lately I have been flirting with, and have been somewhat smitten by, the "Dark Side" of our hobbythe compact disc. With the arrival of my ModWright Perpetual Technology P-3A, I no longer find it necessary to shut down the digital playback system after only an hour or so and replenish my spent musical spirit with a vinyl fix. However, as a self-respecting, die-hard vinyl advocate, it is my duty to remind you that a good analog front end still kicks the stuffing out of the best digital rigs out there. Im not trying to pick a fight here, but there really is no debate. When done properly, the LP is musically superior to the CD.
I recently sold my Linn LP12 Valhalla and replaced it with an Oracle Delphi Mk III, complete with numerous upgrades. The newer Mk V spring set improves considerably upon the original suspension. The stock, felt-padded feet have given way to the heightened clarity and resolve offered by a troika of McCormack aluminum cones. A hard Goldmund Relief Mat, quite similar to the new Oracle Mk V hard mat, provides a more effective transfer of stylus-induced resonances to the platter. Let me tell you, analog fans, this new rig quite handsomely bests the venerable Linn. In the furor of wondering what this new table was really capable of, I decided it was time for a new cartridge.
Entering New Territory: The ClearAudio Virtuoso Mk II Moving Magnet Cartridge
Having for some time lusted after a number of mega-buck carts like the van den Hul Frog or the ClearAudio Insider, but not having deep enough pockets, I thought it might be appropriate to try a more affordable unit from one of those manufacturers. As chance would have it, a brief but informative meeting with Robert Suchy of ClearAudio at CES 2001 put an end to my quest. "Why not try our new Virtuoso Mk II?" he asked. "Its the best moving magnet cartridge we make!" With that kind of endorsement, why not, indeed?
The family of moving magnet cartridges from ClearAudio includes the Alpha, the Beta ($350), the Beta-S ($450) and culminates with the Virtuoso Mk II ($850). It is an unusual specimen to my way of thinking as, like all of its lesser and greater siblings, it has a stylus profile of 4 by 40 micrometers. Im used to the better-known and more pronounced elliptical shapes of the Shibata, line-contact, fine-line, van den Hul, and hyper-elliptical designs. Most of those stylus shapes have profiles of something like 3 or 4 by 65 to 80 micrometers. A little searching revealed that that Clearaudios stylus shape dates back to a late-1960s Japanese design purchased by Peter Suchy, Roberts father, and still championed to this day.
The Virtuoso Mk II offers a fairly high output of 3.6 mV, and boasts a channel separation of greater than 30dB and a channel-to-channel balance of less than .3dB! Since this is a medium-compliance cartridge with both a vertical and horizontal compliance of 15 cu, it was a perfect match for my low-mass Magnepan Unitrac I, a carbon fiber unipivot arm. Since the cartridges compliance and the tonearms effective mass integrate to form their own resonant system, it is very important to match the cartridge to its host arm quite closely. In this case, the combined mass of my arm (7 grams) and the Virtuoso Mk II (10 grams) yielded a system resonance just below 10 Hz, putting it nearly dead center in the target range of 8-12 Hz.
A couple of other things struck me as fairly unique about the Virtuoso Mk II. For one, its cantilever is fashioned from aluminum. At this price point I would have expected the use of boron, which most cartridge manufacturers accept as a more sonically neutral material. In addition, the recommended tracking force is fairly heavy, suggested as from 2.0 to 2.5 grams. Heavy tracking alone doesnt bother me, especially since I have the use of a Wally Tractor Alignment Gauge. The Wally Tractor is made specifically for the model of tonearm it is to be used with, and is quite simply the most accurate and easy-to-use overhang gauge ever put on the market. Tracking at too light a weight, especially with a misaligned cartridge, can do considerable harm to your precious vinyl.
Setting VTA with the Virtuoso was a bit maddening at first. Most cartridges offer their best performance when adjusted so that the cartridge body is more or less parallel to the record. This alignment left me thinking I was still missing some of the Virtuoso Mk IIs performance. Only after remembering that ClearAudio importer Joseph DePhillips had mentioned that the best angle for this stylus profile is a few degrees above parallel was I able to dial it in for the best balance of tonality, space, and dynamics. The Virtuoso seemed even more particular about VTA adjustment than any of the other carts I had on hand. A quick email to Michael Fremer verified that he, too, had found ClearAudio carts to be a tad more VTA-sensitive than many other brands.
Moving Magnet Magic
Once mounted and aligned properly, the Virtuoso Mk II was off and running. What a thoroughbred! Right out of the starting gate it was fast, clean, detailed, smooth, and superbly balanced. I have yet to hear another cart in my system with the octave-to-octave balance of the Virtuoso. The seamlessness of timbre is completely unlike anything Ive heard from moving coils. This complete tonal cohesiveness had a magically seductive effect, similar to that felt on first hearing a pair of speakers in which the drivers have been seamlessly integrated. There is almost liquidity to the sound. There are no boundaries, no defined bass, midbass, midrange, or treble. They ebb and flow seamlessly into each other. There was no excessive bloat in the bass or mid bass, no overemphasis in the midrange, and no stridency in the upper reaches. There were no recesses in the lower treble to emphasize presence and no rolloff in the upper treble to camouflage glare and stridency.
When compared head-to-head with the four moving coil designs I had on hand, the Virtuoso Mk II outshone them all in categories where the MC designs normally have a distinct performance edge: low-level detail, microdynamics, and resolution. Sounds buried way down in the noise floor were retrieved and served up clean, crisp, and clear. The muted timekeeping foot tapping of drummer Chris Layton on the superb Absolute Analog reissue of Couldn't Stand The Weather (Epic 25940) has never been better resolved. In the title track, the band repeatedly stops and restarts several times before cutting loose into the body of the tune. During these pauses, Laytons ever-so-low-key foot tapping is so readily apparent and clearly outlined in space that you can almost tell what brand of shoes he is wearing.
Microdynamic shadings, like those perceived when the explosive breath created forming words beginning with "P" assault the microphone, literally explode into and briefly pressurize the entire listening room. Listen to the lyrics found just under a minute into "Black & White" from Sarah McLachlins Surfacing (Arista/Classic Records RTH-18970) to get a feel for this. The Virtuosos ability to resolve and articulate the subtlest of queues and nuances is simply the best Ive heard in my system, by far. In these respects, this carts performance reminds me of the sense of ease and effortlessness so clearly recreated by a Delphi/Graham/Frog combination in the Joseph Audio room at the Chicago Stereophile Show.
Low bass was a special treat. From the lowest harmonics of the piano to bass guitar runs to bass drum strikes, the Virtuoso Mk II holds on and goes deep. Pitch definition is exceptional, even as it shows its ability to plumb the deepest of depths and offer serious weight. An excellent example can be heard following John Entwhistles bass work on the MCA Heavy Vinyl reissue of Whos Next (MCA 11164). With the cuts "White Lightning and Wine" and "Sing Child" from the Nautilus release of Heart (NR3), I was treated to the "flavor" of individual drum skin tones. If youve ever had the chance to sit close to a live drum kit when it was being worked over by someone who both knows what they are doing and tunes their kit before doing it, you know just what I mean. Whether playing organ symphonies or classic rock anthems, blues classics or jazz masterpieces, bass definition was accurate, clear and clean.
The demands exacted by female vocals and piano works tend to expose the most strategically-concealed weaknesses in any cartridge, but with both, the Virtuoso Mk II continued its A+ performance. It never lets you forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. The gentle musings of Ivan Morevec, the idiosyncratic thundering of Glenn Gould, or the virtuosity of Vladimir Horowitz were all accomplished on a heightened emotive level, rendering all the bloom and power of this enormously versatile instrument. The piano nearly comes to life on tracks like the Byron Janis reading of the Liszt Todtentanz on the Classic Records reissue (RCA LSC 2541). Piano keys, whether vigorously struck with explosive attack or ever so lightly brushed into a whisper, were presented with all the emotion and sensuality with which they were conceived. As for female vocals, with Patricia Barber or Julie London, Sarah McLachlin or Ricki Lee Jones, Tori Amos or Ann Wilson, the Virtuoso bore the artists unique voice in all her individuality. It has an uncanny ability to render the detail behind the nuance. It almost permits you to "see" subtle breaths taken, lips moistened, or tongues pressed against teeth for enunciation; every inflection was seemingly unearthed.
The male voice is presented wonderfully as well. Listen to cuts like "Daylight Again" from the 1977 release by Crosby, Stills & Nash (Atlantic SD 19104). The three distinct voices were reproduced with chilling body and power, adding that much more to their superb harmonies. The robust, charismatic voice of Stevie Ray Vaughan, all too often overlooked in favor of his obvious guitar mastery, is astonishingly emotive on cuts like "Tin Pan Alley" and "The Things (That) I Used To Do," again from the Absolute Analog Couldn't Stand The Weather.
The delicious bronzy flavor of well-recorded cymbals was recreated without getting spitty or "white." Delicate cymbal brushings, triangle strikes, and upper-register harmonics from strings and brass were detailed, clear, and solid without getting aggressive, unless that was an attribute of the recording. This ability to delicately unravel inner detail in the upper frequency limits is easily appreciated on the 1977 Steely Dan masterwork Aja (MFSL 1-033). It also contributed significantly to the carts ability to accurately render images in both size and location, as well as to portray realistic space. Returning to the 1977 release Crosby, Stills & Nash, the foreground of the soundstage in the cut "Fair Game" is sprinkled with a myriad of percussion instruments like maracas. These instruments each take a definite place within the soundstage, and never budge. With the 1972 Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Beethovens Symphony No. 9 (MFSL 2-516), the Virtuoso Mk II offered the most articulate and deepest sense of layering Ive ever experienced from this record. It has an uncanny ability to present a realistic sense of the liveness of the room as vocals and instruments decay. In the opening of Rush's "Witch Hunt" from Moving Pictures (Mercury/PolyGram SMR 1-4013), numerous subtle sounds populate the soundstage. Nothing here was misplaced, nothing wandered, and nothing was slighted. The opening tom roll was breathtaking, revealing not only left-to-right positioning but front-to-back queues as well. In this respect, the Virtuoso Mk II is second to none in my experience.
Whether recreating torturously complex passages like the opening from Prokofiev's Scythian Suite (Mercury SR 90006), or resolving delicacies like massed strings, it was wonderfully competent at unraveling dense and often overwhelming layers of material. It had little trouble placing those layers in near vise-like precision throughout the soundstage, and was hard pressed to offer even the slightest hint of congestion or indistinctness. Only occasionally, under extreme dynamic taxation, did the upper registers suggest just the slightest hint of hardness and loss of image-location lock. This is a common stumbling block for many fine cartridges. This, along with a slight but perceptible reduction of large-scale (macro) dynamics, were the only shortcomings I was able to unearth in my time with the Virtuoso Mk II.
The ClearAudio Virtuoso Mk II is very neutral and extremely musical. It offers a degree of inner detail and microdynamic shading Ive only found previously from moving coil designs. It is both engaging and truthful, not necessarily a forgone conclusion with a pricey cartridge. It is articulate and resolute without being clinical or etched. It offers remarkable extension at both frequency extremes and superb control over both. It is neither particularly forward nor recessed in its presentation. Most importantly, it offers a mastery of tonal balance unlike anything Ive ever before experienced under $2500. In short, the ClearAudio Virtuoso Mk II is one of the finest sounding cartridges Ive had the pleasure to hear, regardless of design or price. Highly recommended.
ClearAudio Virtuoso Mk II cartridge
Clearaudio Electronic GmH