Talk Vinyl: Vintage Cartridge and Preamp Classics
!Addendum (10/28/17): Citation I, Part II and Part III had been published. These record recent, extensive action against other preamps.
Three Vintage MM/MI Cartridges
- Shure M44-7 Along with the Stanton 500, this must be the DJ cartridge of choice, and has been in production for the longest time. Quite the opposite of its stablemate SC35C, it tracks lighter (1.5-3 gm) and has much higher compliance. Mine is a vintage "gull wing" body. I then got an old original Mexican Shure stylus from the 80's and a Pfanstiehl 4759-D7. The output is very high at 9.5 mV, enough to overload some phonostages, so beware. The Shure M44-7 was actually what re-kindled Andy's interest in old MM design, though he now prefers the Pickering 380 (below).
- Pickering/Stanton 380 The history of the Moving Iron Pickering/Stanton 380 is quite complicated, and it has a cult following. Info on the web is quite piecemeal; google and read the Audiokarma and Audioasylum threads for some basic info. Andy generously let me play with one fitted with a red stylus and I tracked it as per Andy at 4 gm. This is a heavy (14 gm) cartridge with a low compliance stylus and so will likely do better in a heavier arm, which I lack. Output is even higher than the M44-7, as high as a whopping 15 mV, so overload is even more of a concern.
- Empire EDR.9 While surfing Ebay for M44-7 needles I came across an immaculate specimen of this (with an extra stylus) and bought it on a whim. Google for a lot of scattered info (start perhaps with the vinylengine and audiogon threads). This MI cartridge was quite expensive in its days but the light body actually looks cheaper than the 2000 series; it looks like plastic but a French post says Carbon-Aluminum. This is a light cartridge which also tracks light (1 gm), and output is 4.5 mV. It can track Quad LPs but I am not into that. The engine is MI, and the LAC (large area contact) stylus is Shibata. The frequency response reaches an amazing 50k Hz.
Citation I (original manual) This has always been regarded as top drawer vintage. No less a figure than Bob Carver used to service/upgrade this (see this very interesting cached link, particularly regarding the MC mod). This is a monster, built like a tank and with a total of 9 tubes (4 x 12AX7; 5 x 12AT7).
Over the years, I had fired up my bone stock unit from time to time. But, for some reason, I have never taken to it and preferred my modern preamps. This time though, things turned out a bit differently. It happened because Andy L wanted a vintage unit that could handle most of the pre-RIAA equalizations, and there are few units better equipped for this task than the Citation I. I fired mine up with CD and LP and was quite taken by the sound it produced in my current horn system. I didn't play with the equalization curves but I was instantly convinced by its rightness, even with the line input. Why the difference between now and then? Read on...
Citation V I bought this together with my I, and I have never regretted it. As a matter of fact, I regard the Citation V as one of my favorite vintage amps. I used the 7581 tubes and got really great sound. No, it did not have the ultimate bass control, nor the subtlety of Western Electric (or Motiograph), BUT it is certainly one of the best and most powerful 6L6 class amps that I have heard. It balances power and refinement, and it is suitable for amps from efficient horns to reasonably efficient modern loudspeakers. It is a little sweeter than its stablemate, the II. This is a sleeper. Go to the Jim McShane Page for more info.
Citation II In HK, in the late 90's, I chanced upon a cosmetically challenged but functionally great unit, which I bought for a song. It is utterly amazing, powerful and quite refined, even with Yugo KT90 tubes (haven't tried the current variants). If you want to use genuine KT88, Jim McShane has an easy resistor mod that will keep your valued tubes running longer. IMHO, this amp is absolutely tops and it is a shame that many boutique/garage operations had pilfered the world class transformers for their own (lesser) amps. Go to the Jim McShane Page for more info.
As an advice, don't buy an extensively modified Citation unit. Judiciously restored, yes; "upgraded", NO.
Analog: Audio-Technica AT-PL120
Preamp: Harman Kardon Citation I
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL 4-way horns
- Shure M44-7 From the word go, my old specimen performed flawlessly. The 80's Mexican stylus sounded just a little better than the generic Pfanstiehl. It is bold and dramatic, yet a little smoother (particularly at the top) than its stablemate SC35C (but with less grunt in the bass). It plays music of all genres equally well, and I cannot think of a modern MM cartridge that can do the same (Ortofon 2M Red and Black sound good, but lack drama). Overall, except for hard rock, I'd give the nod to the M44-7 over the SC35C, but I reserve the right to change my opinion later. It's that close.
- Pickering/Stanton 380 I tracked the red stylus as per Andy at 4 gm. It performed absolutely marvelously in my system. As Andy L had indicated, this is a cartridge that can play everything well. It has a unique smoothness allied to good resolution, certainly more refined than the Shure's, but with less perceived jump factor despite its very high output. The only drawback is a slightly reticent treble, which may actually be the character of the red stylus, as Andy's gold stylus seemed a little more sparkling (see below).
- Empire EDR.9 This is a completely different beast from the two cartridges above. Although it retains the Empire smoothness (a la 2000 series), its sound is amazingly modern, closer to MC's. BUT beware, This cartridge is VERY sensitive to VTA. At first I got a very lean sound, but proper adjustment proved rewarding. Another Empire winner.
- Harman Kardon Citation I In contrast to my previous attempts, this time around this preamp sounded very fine in my horn system, partnered the above cartridges flawlessly, and revealed their different characters. This is what I call transparency. Its performance with digital is also beyond reproach. Why the difference this time? Read on.
With Citation I We swapped in the Citation I and I was dumbfounded by the change. Whatever bothered me before with certain music just completely vanished. Not only did all the pop and jazz LP's retained their flavor, we even started playing one classical LP after another, and all were well rendered. My clarinet player friend Paul was mightily smitten by Richard Stoltzman's Tashi performances, now sadly neglected. The Stravinsky was my favorite, with bite and pizzaz. Hey, with one component change, this is no longer just an "easy listening" setup, but one capable of rivaling the "Upstairs System" (see link above) in classicals! I also felt Andy's 380 (with gold stylus) is a little more agile in the leading edge (than the red stylus in my setup), but this could also be a factor of his superior TT/arm (my Audio-Technica is not ideal, as detailed above). However, let it be known, with extrapolation, the difference is not that great and the red stylus is still a great one.
Thoughts on the Horn System with Altec 515 I confess to never liking the Altec 515. It does not go deep enough, but Andy ameliorates it with a subwoofer, which is exactly what I'd do, but that is what many "purists" would refuse to do. Despite its nominal efficiency, I have actually never heard it sound proper with a SET amp. Rather, the two previous setups which sounded better to me both employed higher powered amps: a full Altec system driven by a push-pull amp (McIntosh); and a rare successful 3-way electronic crossover, employing also massive PP amp for it. Andy's system (with the Citation I) is so far the only one I have heard that has the system driven well by a low-powered SET amp. Importantly, I think Andy's system taught me something about this famous/infamous driver. I think, what I have always disliked about this driver boils down to its cabinet coloration (I personally don't think the original A5/A7 cabinets are for home use; not much one can do short of draconian measures) and coupling with the midrange driver. The Citation I is obviously a great deal cleaner (less colored) in this critical crossover range than the massively capacitor coupled CJ.
Thoughts on Conrad Johnson I really cannot say much. I am going to do an Overview one day. I just think they are now on the wrong track. The Premier 2 is one of their older products, but I personally prefer their simpler and earlier PV series. Adding massive capacitors is not a solution (though one taken shared by other manufacturers, like BAT).
- HiFi Basics IV - Revisit the Past Again and again, my re-visits to things I had once left behind taught me a lot. Don't over-interpret this. By leaving behind, I mostly mean putting aside - if it is really crap, I'd have sold it, not put it aside. This is much like life. Whether wisely or not, we take detours, and we learn from our meanderings. Fortunately, with hifi, we can easily "make up the lost years", whereas with real life, one more often than not cannot do that: there are loved ones who we only later realized we had under-appreciated; there were opportunities we missed that would never come back. We play the same piece of music or watch the same movie, or re-read the same book, over and over, and each time we learn something new - this is because we have matured and progressed. As some sage said, time is wasted on the youth. But I say, we are never old enough, or not given the chance to be. No matter how smart you are, the world is not really "at your fingertips", and we all make mistakes, even simple ones! So, while it is essential that we hone our ability to judge, we must also reflect back on the correctness of the judgements we had made in the past or in haste. I have seen a lot of audiophiles who have never kept a single extraneous component, because they are so sure of their A/B judgement, but who ultimately had to completely upend themselves. There is really not much progress and no single piece of gear is omnipotent, and some take time to reveal their secrets. I shall write much more on this in my HIFi Basics series. Watch this space.
- Vintage Preamp - A Reflection It is important to clarify what I mean by vintage preamp. The Citation I is actually a latter-day "vintage" that straddles the transition from tube to solid state. Perhaps for this reason, it has a neutrality that appeals to me now, particularly with my horn system. Citation I - My Feelings Now and Then So, why has my perception of Citation I changed? I mulled over this, and I can only come up with this: My previous use of the Citation I were with conventional, less efficient loudspeakers, not with horns. My super efficient horns brought out the best in the Citation I (and vice versa). I cannot remember clearly, but I know I never like to suffer slow vintage equipment. My YL horns are super-fast, and don't suffer from this. Vintage preamps are perhaps only for very efficient loudspeakers of their days, not for modern loudspeakers, which make them sound slow (they are).