Gramophone Dreams #21: EMT, Koetsu, Miyajima

I spent a snowy New York City evening at Rhapsody Music & Cinema, talking with the proprietor, Bob Visintainer, and watching my friend Michael Trei install a Lyra Etna SL moving-coil cartridge in a Graham Engineering Phantom III tonearm mounted on a TechDAS Air Force 3 turntable tethered to a Zesto Tessera phono stage. Every wall was lined with big, floorstanding speakers, all of them expensive. On the main stage that day were Alta Audio's Hestia Titaniums ($32,000/pair).

Installation complete, Michael put on an original pressing of Duke Ellington's Blues in Orbit (LP, Columbia CS 8241). The soundstage was wide, extending past the speakers' outer side panels, and reaching high toward the ceiling in front of me. The just-installed Lyra placed the musicians on that stage with uncanny precision: some were 6' tall and standing conspicuously in front of the speakers. I could sense the walls of Columbia's famous 30th Street Studios. (Except for their woofers, the Alta Hestias are open-baffled dipoles, which undoubtedly contributed to the spectacular soundstage.) The sound was not only supersized, it was moving, exciting, and alive.

As I listened, I silently speculated: What does it take to make a system image like this? Then my friend Sphere whispered in my ear, "The sound is frickin' amazing!" Moments later, he whispered again: "But the system sounds cool—right?"

"Compared to what?" I whispered back.

"To your Koetsu!" He was referring to Koetsu's Rosewood Standard MC cartridge.

As we trudged through slush to the subway, Sphere explained how, in audio, there is a spectrum of audio colorations, with Lyra cartridges on the cool, analytical side, and Koetsus on the warm, romantic side. He finished his spiel with "Neutrality is somewhere in the middle."

I told Sphere I understood what he was saying, but I rejected that type of comparison. "Of course Lyras and Koetsus sound different—all cartridges sound different!" As he rolled his eyes, I continued: "But that's no reason to suggest that either of these exotic cartridges is not as neutral as some boring middle-of-the-road cartridge. If what you say is true, then name a cartridge in the middle."

He couldn't.

On the subway, I said to Sphere, "If forced to distinguish between what Lyra and Koetsu bring to any music-listening party, I would say that the Lyra Etna SL is more spatially descriptive, but less accurately toned, than the Koetsu Rosewood Standard presently in my system."

In my mind, neither cartridge sounds warm, cool, romantic, or analytical. Both deliver copious amounts of pleasure and insight. The Lyra Etna SL delivers these estimable qualities with overtly sculpted forms, precise spatial coordinates, and understated color—I call this sort of sound linear, masculine, designo. In my system, the Koetsu Rosewood Standard delivered pleasure and insight via supple drawing, highly textured forms, palpable atmosphere, and a more saturated tonal palette—a sound I shorthand as painterly, feminine, colorito.

I returned home, inspired, and began writing this account of three extraordinary moving-coil cartridges, each with a unique sound: the EMT TSD 75 SFL ($1990), the Miyajima Laboratory Saboten ($2475), and the Koetsu Rosewood Standard ($3495). Each, in its own way, delivered a majority of the pleasure and insight of the best cartridges at any price.

I listened to each MC on both the AMG Giro G9 record player and on my Linn Sondek LP12 turntable with SME M2-9 tonearm, and took considerable care in getting their styli seated comfortably and effectively in the slots of black discs. I adjusted their vertical tracking angles (VTAs) and stylus rake angles (SRAs) to where I felt each cartridge come into focus and locked in at a point of apparent lowest distortion. Correct azimuth was dialed in with a Musical Surroundings Fozgometer.

Antiskating bias was set so that the tonearm would progress slowly toward the label of a blank—ie, grooveless—LP. I then subtly tweaked that bias until all three cartridges did equally good jobs of tracking the heavily modulated inner and outer "Tracking Ability" bands of Hi-Fi News's Analogue Test LP (HFN 002), the 2002 reissue of that magazine's original Test Record. I don't usually optimize antiskating for the navigation of highly modulated grooves—I believe it leads to over-biasing, causes uneven wear of the stylus; but for the sake of this column, I wanted to feel confident that inconsistent tracking would not prejudice my comparisons.

All three cartridges were connected to Tavish Design's Adagio tubed phono stage, with the necessary additional gain provided by an appropriate step-up transformer. The latter included the EMT-specific version of the Auditorium 23, the Bob's Devices CineMag 1131, Dynavector's SUP-200, and my old workhorse, an EMIA Phono transformer wound with a 1:10 ratio and supplied in its pre-weathered "Drug-Through-the-Hudson" casework—as well as the Adagio's internal Jensen JT-44K-DX MC step-up transformer. The rest of the system consisted of the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium preamplifier feeding a Pass Laboratories XA25 stereo amplifier driving the Harbeth Monitor 30.2 speakers reviewed elsewhere in this issue.

EMT TSD 75 SFL
Elektro-Mess-Technik (EMT) was founded in Germany in 1940, to manufacture test instruments. The name alone tells you more than I could ever explain about the engineering and manufacturing prowess of this maker of turntables, tonearms, and phono cartridges. For 30 years I've pined and whined for the coolest turntable on the planet, the EMT 927. Unfortunately, Santa never brought me one.

418dreams.emt.jpg

But I'm happy now, listening to LPs whose grooves are being measured by EMT's 75th-anniversary MC cartridge, the TSD 75 SFL ($2150).

What took me so long to join EMT's phonography party was my longstanding love/hate, yes/no relationship with conical styli, which I ignorantly assumed all EMT cartridges possessed. But I've studied EMT's entire line of products, and now I know better. They still make the coolest-looking, most serious, professional-style tonearms and phono stages, plus massive amounts of diverse, exotic MC cartridges—only a few of which have conical styli. They even make a CD player—but, sadly, no more turntables.

The TSD 75 weighs 12gm, is of high compliance (12x6–6cm/dyne), has an output impedance of 24 ohms, and generates 1mV output. I've been loading it almost exclusively with Auditorium 23's SUT.

Antony and the Johnsons' I Am a Bird Now (LP, Secretly Canadian SC 105) is as tonally complex and informationally dense as any recording I know, presenting itself as a finely articulated vibrating wavefront of poetic human expression. Cartridges that generalize, blur, or overstate this album's densely encoded data erase the entire point of its deeply felt ballads. To its extreme credit, the TSD 75 SFL recovered every tiny, bending, quivering tone and every subtle inflection of Anohni's (aka Antony) voice, which is sometimes double- or even triple-tracked. When Anohni changed rhythms on her piano, the TSD 75 SFL revealed each shift as a distinct, observable bending of momentum and shift in musical intent. The TSD 75 SFL reproduced I Am a Bird with what seemed a unique ability to reveal not only minuscule sounds and rhythm changes and microscopic textures, but also how the recording was conceived and executed.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
supamark's picture

I always knew them for their plate reverb units, didn't know they also made phono gear.

Also, Herb - so what sort of stylus does the EMT cart have? I don't think you said but I'm going to assume not a cone.

Ortofan's picture

... the stylus type is a Super Fine Line.

tonykaz's picture

Watch packaging for a $1,000 Automatic is gorgeous.

A $5,000 Rolex gets a Vault Box and much better for the pricier pieces.

Geez, I was owning and selling Brief Cases of Koetsu in Black, Rosewood and Onyx Versions. All came in a crappy Wood box about as nice as an expensive Cigar box.

Back then Koetsu Black was $500, RoseWood would Retail at $750ish, Onyx would be in the $1,250 range.

Where are those older Koetsu Carts? why isn't someone at Grado refreshing our Vintage Greats?

Tony in Michigan

ps. Koetsu were always the Carts creating Love affairs with owners.

grantray's picture

You can expect to pay roughly the same as you go up the ladder in quality, with the same attention to crafted perfection in the instrument, and an elegantly austere wooden box, like a Koetsu. Ditto with quality ceramics from respected houses. As Hon'ami Koetsu was born into a family devoted to the blade, the homage is fitting. More to your point though, high end audio in general is pretty terrible at the art of packaging. Pretty lame, actually.

Metalhead's picture

Really enjoyed the article Herb. I want all 3!!!!!!!!!

Heard a EMT years ago and it was a sheer pleasure. Never heard Koetsu but their reputation precedes them and a rosewood just has to be killer.

Thank God for Soundsmith and Mr. Ledermann keeps my old and well loved Fidelity Research cartridges earning their keep. I will never give up my 201!!!!!!!!

Ortofan's picture

... from one another, doesn't that suggest that at least two of them (and maybe all three) are wrong? Shouldn't the reproduction from analog disc be as close as possible to the sound from the master tape? With the volume of LPs currently being made, is it not possible to get a copy of a master tape to use as a reference when evaluating phono cartridges? Surely MF must have some connections that would make this possible.

Herb Reichert's picture

People say "master tape" like there is only one "real" and sacred document of the recording.

Don't laugh, but during the 1990s I collected Ampex recorders and "master tapes" many of which came directly from the arcives at RCA. What I discovered was that RCA made a 'CD master', a "cassette master" and an "LP master." Naturally, I compared my tapes to the CD and the LP. Surprise! The Lp master sounded like the LP and likewise, the CD master sounded a lot like a CD. I did not have cassettes, but I suspect the reselts would have been similar. Even a dub from a master tape is EQed during the transfer.

What's more, I just received Todd Garfinkle's (MA Recording) latest LP "Nima Ben David - Resonance" it was mastered by Burnie Grundman using a Schiit Yggdrasil DAC and I swear I can 'sense' the sound of the Yggy. It is a truly spectacular LP! What master?

They way I see it, the first commercial release (LP or CD) is the "master" - everything else is an interpratation herb

eskisi's picture

Many turntables (and tape recorders) from the 50s and early 60s feature idler drives but almost none do therafter. I am curious how or why idler drives came about? Was it because belts were difficult to perfect at the time?

Point is, idler drives have — at least — two fatal flaws. One, because the hard-ish rubber idler wheel presses against a small diameter motor shaft, even when stopped, it sooner or later forms a dent which leads to speed constancy problems (that is, assuming, it was ground to perfection in the first place). Two, because the idler wheel, as already mentioned, is relatively hard, it transmits motor vibrations to the platter.

In such a tape deck — of which I have a few — vibration is less noticeable but the wow certainly is. I can only imagine how much worse it must be on a turntable.

Cemil's picture

"I immediately realized that this cartridge is my ex-lover—the one I should never have left, and now, maybe, the one I can't live without."

Totally. Bought my first Koetsu, a Black, in 1982 in never looked back.I had a brief dalliance with a Dyna but went back to the Koetsu. Still own 2 Blacks (now with the gold line), a Rosewood which I upgraded to Platinum and a Coralstone Platinum.

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