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Titan i Moving Coil Cartridge - Hitting a Grand Slam
as reviewed by Myles B. Astor
Despite being now 25+ years into the zero and ones era, turntable designers are still busy building championship products. Tremendous strides have been made in the design and sound of analog turntables. Today's turntables for instance, are far better protected against the deleterious effects of outside influences. New construction materials and damping methods reduce platter resonances and colorations. Improved speed controls, better isolated motor drive systems and the centrifugal effects of clamping/damping rings, flywheels, etc increase speed stability and reduce noise floors. The best cartridge platforms exhibit essentially a single, lower amplitude, resonant peak. The end result? High-end tables and arms are more neutral, resolving, dynamic and extended at both frequency extremes than ever before.
Things are not quite so rosy on the phono cartridge front. Many years ago, Harry Pearson (this is paraphrased with HP's permission since that issue of TAS lies in storage) astutely observed that if all high-end audio phono cartridges represent the live event, then how come they all sound so different? (Or why do recordings from different labels, recording engineers, halls, etc. sound so alike?)
With age comes wisdom and we've come to realize that a large part of a phono cartridge's character is directly traceable to the mounting platform (and the cartridge/platform interaction). Pearson discovered this when he took delivery of the then SOTA Goldmund Reference table. Here for the first time was according to HP, a turntable whose particular set of colorations were so low that he was for the first time able to clearly identify the character of the cartridges in house (of course we know now that the Goldmund had its own set of issues that revealed themselves over time). Despite undeniable progress, the sonic character of phono cartridges still falls basically into one of two camps: the former being lush, colored and musical; the later being more analytical, resolving and detailed.
To make a long story short, the Lyra Titan i heralds the beginning of an exciting new era in phono cartridge design. With feet firmly placed in both camps, the Titan i is at once both musical and resolving; uncolored without being analytical; realistic without being technicolored; capable of extreme bursts of speed without etching. The Titan i has the ability to break the music down into its individual elements and then reassemble them in a musically coherent pattern. All the pieces to the jig saw puzzle are included—but the listener doesn't have to struggle placing the odd shaped pieces. As we shall see, the Titan i doesn't draw attention to itself or the individual musical elements.
Loosening Up in the On Deck Circle
Of the many cartridges that have resided in my reference system, the new Lyra Titan i stands alone atop the mountain as the most neutral, musical and thoroughly enjoyable phono cartridge. Compared to my previous reference cartridge, Lyra's own Parnassus DCt (left), the Titan i is less technicolored, lower in distortion, more transparent, resolving and dynamic. (One reason that I stuck with the Parnassus instead of the higher output Helikon was the former cartridges more robust upper bass and lower midrange area.). Compared to the Miyabi 47 Labs, the Titan i retrieves tons more low level information and inner detail combined with even more transparency, focus and inner detail (not to mention the Titan i is a thousand times easier to mount than the Miyabi!). Compared to the older Koetsus (I have not listened to the "new" Koestsus), the Titan i is more neutral in the critical midband and in a different dimension when it comes to tracking, reproducing the frequency extremes and recreating the tempo of the music (the older Koetsus always sounded "slow" or sluggish to me).
According to Allen Perkins, Lyra's longtime US distributor (and one of the genuine good guys in the industry!), the only difference between the newest Titan i and the earlier iteration is an internal modification intended to improve the cartridge's tracking ability. (I did note though that the older Titan i tipped the scales at 12 g; the latest version has shed a gram or so and weighs in at a solid 10.5 g. This difference in mass could conceivably affect the arm/cartridge's resonance point – or allows situating the counterweight closer to the tonearm's pivot point.) For those unfamiliar with the original Lyra Titan, the cartridge's body is specially fashioned out of a single piece of low resonance Titanium alloy. This totally nude body is then equipped with a compound solid boron core/diamond and outer reinforcement metal jacket cantilever topped off with a Lyra designed line contact stylus with a 70 x 3 micron radius. As in previous Lyra designs, particular attention was paid to the generator mechanism, specifically focusing on the uniformity of the ultra-powerful neodymium magnet's flux field. This allows for as Lyra describes, "a more accurate conversion of mechanical vibrations into electrical signals". This along with many other improvements addressing minimizing spurious mechanical resonances results in according to Lyra's information sheet "better tracking and detail retrieval."
Mounting and aligning the cartridge in the VPI JMW-9 arm was a breeze thanks to the Titan i's straight edges, easily visible cantilever and tapped mounting holes. If I may digress for a moment, it doesn't make any difference how good the cartridge sounds if the end user can't accurately set up the geometry—or even securely fasten the cartridge to the arm. (A listen to the cartridge in the newly arrived JMW-9 Signature arm is in the offing once the newly arrived Martin-Logan Summit speakers break-in) Lyra suggests the cartridge's low frequency resonance point fall between 8 to 12 Hz for optimal tracking. Once broken in, the optimal tracking force for the Titan i in the JMW-9 arm was 1.7 gms. Correct stylus azimuth was assured using the long out of production AT Cartridge Analyzer and alignment LP.
While on the topic of break-in, dedicated analog enthusiasts know that many modern cartridges exhibit some sort of quirkiness until they've accumulated 50 to 75 hrs of playing time. Take for instance, the highly regarded 47 Labs Miyabi cartridge. At around 25 hours, the cartridge bottomed out and began LP surfing; a quick and concerned call to the importer revealed that what I was experiencing was normal and the arm needed to be raised so the cartridge cleared the record (the 47 Labs was nonetheless what analog enthusiasts refer to as a "low" rider). A similar situation was experienced with the Clearaudio Discovery cartridge. In the case of the Titan i, the cartridge demonstrated some mis-tracking early on, particularly on jazz LPs with dynamic trumpet solos; that problem vanished after about 50 hours of playing at which point the cartridge tracked like a champion.
Like most modern phono cartridges equipped with exotic styli, the Titan i is VTA sensitive—and consequently cries out for a mate featuring adjustable, not to mention optimally reproducible height adjustments. Unlike cartridges of yore, the Titan i won't rip the paint off the walls when the VTA isn't smack on. It's time well spent, however, obtaining the correct VTA. When it's smack on, recordings have a greater sense of focus, linearity of frequency response, decreased surface noise, and improved transient response.
Stepping Up to the Platter
So what qualities set the Titan i apart from the competition? There's absolutely no doubt that the "i" models improved tracking ability significantly contributes to the overall character of the new Titan cartridge. Tracking ability obviously is not the whole story, however, or else we'd all be using Shure cartridges (and using that leftover cash for record purchases!). No. Where the Titan i breaks new ground is in the area of information retrieval, transient response, sonic consistency across the frequency spectrum and vanishingly low levels of distortion. Never does the Titan i lose its sense of pristineness—whatever the music genre, complexity of orchestration or dynamic demands.
All of these attributes would be for naught, however, if the Titan i didn't bring the listener one step closer to the sound of live music. And that it does. And along the way, the new Titan i really redefines and eliminates any confusion between the terms clarity and transparency (neither of which digital is able to properly do yet). This cartridge's remarkable sense of clarity appears in large part a reflection of its incredible transient attack and decay characteristics. In other words, the Titan doesn't like some other cartridges, give a false sense of warmth and harmonic overtones by hanging onto the signal; at the same time, it doesn't cross the line into the etched world. Clarity with the Titan i is akin to that moment when that light bulb goes off in your head and you instantly understand the solution to the problem. In the case of music and the Titan i, it's the moment that all the lyrics in your favorite song make sense. It means no longer having to pull out the liner notes to check on the lyrics (and there are examples of reviewers having "heard" the wrong words). On The Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall (Vanguard VSD 2150), it's finding yourself singing along with every word sung by Gilbert, Hays, Seeger, Darling and company—and laughing at their ad-libbing.
Transparency on the other hand with the Titan i, is like being outside on a crystal clear night nary a cloud in the sky and a full moon. Or musically speaking, it's that crystal clear feeling inside the great halls like Carnegie or Boston Symphony. Transparency isn't so much about hearing the instrument or singer; it's more about "seeing" the performers just as they would appear live on stage in concert. That means without any sense of murkiness enveloping the performers, whether they be in the front, side or back of the stage. More often than not, transparency is a quality that isn't appreciated until it's bettered by a new component.
Another major contributor to the Titan's phenomenal clarity is the cartridge's low frequency performance. As any veteran audiophile can testify to, bass and mid-bass performance profoundly impacts many areas of sound reproduction. As any veteran audiophile can also attest to, there's no tougher or truer test of a cartridge than a well recorded direct-to-disc LP (and 45 rpm at that!) such as Ed Graham's Hot Stix (Realtime RT-106). Played back using the Titan i, Graham's drums possess a new found sense of weight and palpability along with a greater sense of resonance and air. There's a lack of strain, not unlike that heard on a master tape, despite wide dynamic swings.
On another favorite reference album, Music for Percussion, Vol. One. Chavez: Toccata for Percussion Instruments (Gale 76-004A), the Titan i clearly reveals the composer's intent and use of instrumental timbre though his selection of drums. Each instrument occupies for the first time, its own sense of space without any overlap. Try the second cut on the first side for the sheer, unfettered low frequency transient attack and lack of smearing along with dynamic impact and shadings. The Titan's ability to render both ends of the dynamic spectrum for soft to loud is extraordinary. At the other end of the frequency spectrum, chimes and percussion instruments just float above the stage.
Up until now, Lyra cartridges typically had a slightly laid back quality, though an argument could be made that some of that politeness was related to the cartridge's low output. Voltage output is no longer a problem. The rather healthy 0.5 mV output of the Titan makes it a perfect match for a majority of today's high end tube and solid-state phono sections. (Sure some out there with higher gain phono sections are bound to ask what about whether a 0.2 mV version would sound even better.) Nothing shows off the cartridge's dynamic range and contrasts better than Yasukazu Amemiya's Summer Prayer (RCA-RVC2154). This closely miked polyphonic composition is a sheer torture test for any phono cartridge. Using the Titan i, percussion instruments are awash in sound yet not muffled. Percussion instruments demonstrate exceptional dynamic range from the loud to soft end of the musical spectrum. At the same time, chimes and triangles have the proper weight and dimensionality and just float in space. Reed instruments have the right amount of weight without being thick and colored or thinned out like earlier Lyra attempts.
The finest LPs are elevated to new heights—and in my experience there's none better than the near impossible to find album entitled Rashomon (Carlton Records STLPX 5000). No other cartridge in my experience so incredibly captures this early stereo album's sense of eeriness along with the feeling of transparency, depth, soundstage, instrumental focus, walls and space. Drums eerily echo off solid, side walls. The drum's internal volume can literally be calculated down to the last cubic centimeter. Not since the long extinct Monster Cable Alpha 2 has there been a cartridge in my experience that so clearly separates orchestral layers and places each instrument so precisely within the huge soundstage like the Titan i. Wood blocks sound like real hardwood, not a balsam impersonation. The sound of kotos, flutes and percussion float high over the orchestra.
While on the topic of focus and imaging, there's the old audiophile stand by, Gitarr-Kvartetten II (Opus 3 7915). With the Parnassus DCt (and other previous reference cartridges), the four guitarists almost always blended together. For years I attributed this anomaly to the miking; after listening with the Titan i, it's clear that this loss of focus was not the fault of the engineering but the playback system. Now each guitar is clearly delineated and separated from the next. Each guitar occupies its own space and is surrounded by a cushion of air.
Then take for example the simply and wonderfully recorded collection of South American Indian music entitled Picaflor: Latin American Music for Guitar and Mandolin (Titanic Mn-5). Don't let the fact that this recording consists of only a guitar and mandolin fool you into thinking this is an easy recording to correctly reproduce. On the contrary, Picaflor is a terrific test for midrange accuracy, timbre and transient response. Many components make the guitar sound like the mandolin and vice versa. Compared to the DCt, the Titan i is simply worlds faster and more delicate. There's an ebb and flow to the music missing with the DCt. The little things like microdynamics nee dynamic accents are there in greater number. Near the end of the review, VPI's new Super Scoutmaster motor (aka the HRX motor) replaced the Scoutmaster's stock 300 rpm motor. The end result of simply swapping motors was astonishing and greatly potentiated the Titan i's sound. Addition of the HRX motor to the scene lowered the noise floor even more resulting in an even greater sense of instrumental body and low level detail retrieval.
Now if the Titan i has a weak point, it's that the cartridge sometimes leans ever so slightly to the analytical side of neutral. For example, there were times when a slight leanness crept into the sound of Mark Davis' guitar on Picaflor. More often than not, this leanness occurs in the presence of Ag interconnects or speaker cables; on the other hand, the best results with the Titan i was obtained with copper wiring. With Picaflor, however, it appears that the cartridge was actually revealing more about the recording. In this case, it was the microphones or the presence of solid-state electronics in the recording chain, not the cartridge, betraying the sound of the Davis' guitar.
Heading for Home
The Titan i is hands down the best cartridge that I've had the pleasure to audition.
In combination with the other recent additions to my reference system (conrad-johnson Premier 140 amplifier and ACT2 line stage, SRA equipment stand, Martin-Logan Summit speakers), the Titan i really brings out the strengths in the downstream components in the areas of transparency, noise floor, resolution, extension at the frequency extremes and soundstaging. And I'm convinced that that the fat lady hasn't sung yet—at least not until the Titan i has been given a chance to strut its wares in the new VPI JMW-9 Signature arm. Myles B. Astor
Lyra Titan i moving coil cartridge