Review: Arcam rPhono, Part I
NY Diary (20-5): Goldbug Medusa, Clement II, Denon DL-103, DL-103R
After I got my 12" Thomas Schick tonearm (critically the interchangeable headshell) back in action on my Thorens TD-124 (here), I have been rotating my cartridges, including the Denon DL-103 and a DL-103R which I recently found in the pile (I forgot I brought it over from HK), and doing a lot of evaluations and comparisons (here and here.) This article is a continuation.
In terms of finance, having some time on hand just before the Holidays was not a good thing. I perused several second-hand marketplaces and really for no good reason bought the items under review. That they turned out to be rather interesting is my luck.
Click pics to enlarge. Goldbug Medusa on Thomas Schick/Thorens TD-124. Arcam rPhono out of focus behind.
While there is not that much information on Goldbug in English, there is just enough. It is best to start with the man behind it:
Sugano San Goldbug is said to be "designed" by Okihiko (aka Okie) Sugano. He is a famous Japanese figure in Audio, a most influential critic. Hong Kong audiophiles will know him by his name in Chinese characters, 菅野沖彦, for the longest time the anchor/bedrock of the Stereo Sound magazine, which is also published in Chinese translation and devoured by many (I actually think it is a lousy commercial magazine that praises everything; I rarely read it, except when it has a vintage special, which is usually infomative, if expensive). For those who want to read a very lengthy article on this multi-faceted man, read this article in positive-feedback; it is of Polish origin, and sometimes something is lost in translation (another short link is Roger Russell McIntosh Site.) For the rest of you, I shall have a brief summary in the next section. Note: Before I leave this section, I'd like to shed some light on what were mentioned in that article. Western readers should know: 1) Asian Culture is very hierarchal and deferential - great respect must be paid to "elders", including in audio. Lest you think Sugano san is something like HP of TAS, banish the thought; he is like HP, Gordon Holt, John Atkinson, 陳瑛光, whoever have you, combined, and then some, a veritable Godfather. A gathering is not just like, hey, let's get together and have some beer and music! No, you must defer to the elders and "respected" figures. Japan must be even more extreme, but I have seen this too often in HK, where people make me cringe by addressing certain elders as "sifu" (Master) 師傅前師傅後，很是肉麻; Truth is, from my perspective, the sound offered by many of these "elders" were, more often than not, oddly off-kilter, veering too far from neutral and usually emphasizing certain things at the expense of others, rarely balanced, but maybe that's their "selling point" (there are of course rare exceptions); 2) Japan Audiophiles actually pay great respect to those (usually older) "Golden Ears" who facilitate "Live-like" replay (whether real or not) and regard them as Artists. As an art lover, I have problem with this - perhaps this world has too many artists...
Manufacturer: Mark Corps The reason why I questioned the "designer" laurel of Okie Sugano is that Goldbug cartridges were all made by his friend Imamura at Mark Corps. Sugano surely must have had input but it was the Imamura's who made the cartridges and remained mostly unsung. Here is a short blip from Audio Asylum thread:
The Clement II technical specification are : Generator Type : Moving Coil. Mount : Standard. Frequency response : 20Hz~35KHz. Output @ 5cm/s : 0,25mV @ 1KHz. Internal impedance : 14 Ohms. Recommended load : 40 Ohms or more. Compliance : 17 x 10-6cm/dyne. Tracking force : 1,2 to 1,4 grams. Weight : 5,8 grams. (My original manual said Weight 5.6 gm)
The Medusa technical specification are : Generator Type : Moving Coil. Mount : Standard. Frequency response : 20Hz~20KHz. Output @ 5cm/s : 0,2mV @ 1KHz. Impedance : 13 Ohms. Compliance : 9 x 10-6cm/dyne. Tracking force : 1,8 to 2 grams..." (My xeroxed copy of the original spec sheet said Impedance 12 ohms and Weight 5.8 gm).
Their Cantilevers/Styli The same spec's are largely quoted by various forum people and sellers. But when it comes to Cantilever/Stylus there were great variations. Medusa An Ebay seller stated "Aluminium apered hollow"; an Asylum inmate stated "special (super?) oval" (which is for sure special/super elliptical); and an Audiogoner stated "thosand needle .3x.7". My copy of original spec sheet says stylus tip is "Pure Oval" and makes no mention of cantilever material. My best guess would be the Medusa has an Aluminum Cantilever with a (?Special/Super) Elliptical Stylus. Clement II An Audiogoner stated "Special Elliptical boro(n)" and a Russian seller stated "Beryllium". While these 2 elements (neighbor on the periodic table) are both stiff, they are not the same thing and certainly would affect sound in different ways. In the November '85 HiFi News Review of the original Well-Tempered Tonearm by the usually reliable veteran Chris Breunig, he wrote: "...lt has ousted the Zeta from my system, as a perfect carrier for the Garrott-Deccas, and with moving-coils such as the Empire MC1000 and the altogether delightful Goldbug Clement II, soundstaging and tracking performance have been exemplary. Those MCs are, incidentally, boron cantilever cartridges of high compliance..." But my original manual made specific mention of Beryllium ("Pipe", which I take to mean hollowed) as Cantilever and the stylus is listed as "Pure Oval", same as Medusa. So I am sure the Clement II has a Beryllium Cantilever with a (?Special/Super) Elliptical Stylus. This makes sense as these are largely the same cartridge with the more expensive Clement II having a more expensive cantilever, the added stiffness of which was utilized to make it track at a lighter weight that is no doubt popular at that time (Think Shure V15). Readers should know that for this article I actually googled quite a bit for various Japanese sites (like Hifido, AudioUnion and Yahoo auctions), and sometimes used Google Translate, but I was not able to get more useful info. If any reader knows better, please comment or contact me.
I didn't learn of this item from the magazines, rather during browsing encountered it on sale, new units at substantial discounts. Being a fan of the industrial design and and functionalities of Arcam's lifestyle r-series (I had used their first-gen rDAC, here), I already knew I wanted it. Then I did some research and found out that it had been very well received. The best and most detailed review was by veteran Alan Sircom (HiFi+), much better than the brief one by Fremer in analogplanet which, though positive, was obviously a hurried job that missed much of the sound and capability of this device. The strangest thing about the rPhono is that it was discontinued after only a year or so, unusually short. Perhaps they are going to release a Mk II, perhaps with remote loading (so far only featured in the highest end)? That would not be surprising, as my old rDAC had evolved into the remote-controlled irDAC before the current irDAC-II, meanwhile getting bigger with each generation.
- Built I was surprised when I received the rPhono, quite a bit larger than I expected. It is very well built and beautiful to look at. The inside looks equally well built. Even the wall wart power supply is larger and than usual.
- Features and Ergonomics As you can see from the spec's and the busy back panel (pic below), this is an eminently adjustable device! As with many phonoamps, even more expensive ones (like my AQVOX), partly to keep signal path as short as possible, all the adjustment are crowded into the back (in the case of MoFi Studiophono, on the bottom). This is still more user-friendly than having them inside so that one needs to remove the cover for adjustment (like my Nagra PL-P/BPS and BAT P5). One unusual thing is that the switches are not the usual dip-switches, but are more like mini rocker-switches - a first encounter for me; even more than the former I worry about long-term use for someone who changes cartridges all the time (like me, now that I have a turntable with interchangeable headshells right in front of me.) And for MC Loading, see below.
- Gain The rPhono has plenty of Gain. The Gain specified next to the switches are MM gains, and the MC gain over that is +30 db. So, lowest and highest gain for MC are 60 db and 82 db, respectively.
- MC Loading This is MOST unusual in having (tiny) continuous trim pots for loading adjustment between 50 (7 o'clock) and 550 ohms (5 o'clock)! In the above pic, they are the tiny blue pots flanking the MC input. Assuming the trim pots are accurate, the middle position (12 o'clock) is 300 ohms. Elsewhere on the dial, well, it will be an approximation. Assuming the pots track the same way, one can dial both channels to roughly the same load. This is simultaneously a great feature and baggage for those compulsive about loading (I have to say I am not), who will love and hate it at the same time, because it offers the possibility of any loading value, but also the nightmare of worrying how accurate the dial-in is.
In Use/Sonic Impressions
As in the last round, setup is very simple. The Cartridges are mounted on interchangeable headshells on the Schick 12" arm on the Thorens TD-124, which is fed into the Arcam rPhono, which goes into the Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL 2.0 amp driving the YL horns. Without running in, the rPhono immediately impressed by its pristine sound.
- Gain There is plenty of gain. With my 104 db horns, even with my low output MC cartridges I could comfortably use the 30 db position (=60 db gain for MC), suggesting very conservative spec's (unlike many phonoamps which inflate the gain figure). After going back and forth I finally settled on 40 db (=70 db for MC) for its punchier presentation, without loss of refinement. I doubt I shall ever use the 50/52 db (=80/82 db for MC) position, as it was way too loud.
- MC Loading For this round, I empirically had my loading midway between 50 and 300, that is roughly 175 ohm. Given that the Goldbug's have impedance of 12 and 14 gm, and the Denon DL-103R about the same, that should be alright. The regular DL-103 has a higher impedance of 40 gm, but I did not bother adjusting the loading.
- Denon DL-103 vs DL-103R I had been comparing these siblings before the Arcam's arrival, using the current mode amplification AQVOX 2CI Mk II (see here, except that I switched to a regular DL-103 in lieu of the Midas one). I switched to the Arcam rPhono and was surprised that: 1) the sound was just as good, perhaps an even better match; 2) the Arcam seemed just as quiet. Call me impressed! With both phonoamps, the results with the Denon pair was the same: while the DL-103R had perhaps a little more resolution, it was also a little grainier than the DL-103 at the top, and the DL-103 had the better midrange and was more emotive. Many people confuse these two siblings, but they are not the same. I remain loyal to the DL-103, while others (including David Wilson) champion the DL-103R; YMMV.
- Goldbug Medusa As soon as I lowered the needle, it was obvious I was in a different world than the Denon siblings. The soundstage was deeper, the top more sparkling and the bass more agile. True to its claim, there was no MC peak (which the DL-103R and even DL-103 have a little). Strings were realistic, with a sheen of rosin; and piano was resonant. I basically subjected it to all my recent test records. Yes, it passed my litmus test of the Johann Strauss Waltz LP (here,) the slight hesitations and emphasis turned to perfection. And misirlou on Persuasive Percussion (here) was well-nigh irresistible, just as when it played with the Koetsu Black. Clement II After playing many more records, delighted, I turned to the Clement II. Basically, it is very similar to the Medusa, but with a slightly leaner balance and slightly faster transient (bass is even more tactile). This cartridge is an anomaly among the MC's, as it tracks incredibly light at 1.3 gm, a historical relic of sort, but I am impressed. I am VERY happy with both cartridges.
- ? Goldbug vs Koetsu Black No, I didn't do a direct comparison; that will have to wait till Part II, when I move the Goldbug's to Station II, where the phonoamps are also different. But, from my recollection and juxtaposition, I am confident the Goldbug's are right up there with the Koestu Black. They share the virtues of excellence in microdynamics and musical values, but the Koetsu is most likely warmer, with the Goldbug's even more tactile. We shall see.
- Arcam rPhono So, how good is the Arcam? It is damn good. Don't forget the Arcam came right after the AQVOX 2CI Mk II and Parasound JC3, and performed just as well in this setup! I am pretty certain it is quite a bit better than my other budget phonoamps, like the MoFi StudioPhono, the iFi iPhono and the Micromega MyGroov. As a matter of fact, sooner or later, I will likely move it to Station III as reference. More than most, this one deserves a Linear Power Supply. If I have time, I shall move it to Station II to test it out against the Aurorasound. Maybe.