Gramophone Dreams #39: JSikora Initial turntable & Grado Aeon3 phono cartridge Page 2

This Grado/J.Sikora/Parasound combo sounded conspicuously unmechanical, unnervingly dark, superquiet, noticeably dynamic, and unbelievably microdetailed. But it also—strangely—sounded like nothing I'd heard before. For more than a week, I could not decide on the something-right-or-something-wrongness of the Aeon3 + Initial's sound.

I invited friends over to make cartridge comparisons, and they also struggled to define the Aeon's "unusual" sound. To ground my auditions and focus more on the sound of the J.Sikora turntable, I exchanged the Aeon3 for the Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum ($7495). The Platinum is my daily-driver, love-it-till-death reference cartridge. On the J.Sikora, the Koetsu developed a greater-than-usual silence and a denser, finer-grained corporeality.

Next, I expanded my studies by playing a select group of high-quality recordings with a total of four cartridges: the Grado Aeon3, the Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum, the My Sonic Labs Ultra Eminent Ex ($6995), and the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue ($5400).

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On the Initial, the Koetsu Platinum sounded like a higher-resolution, higher-jump-factor Rosewood Standard. True to its heritage (footnote 5), the Ultra Eminent Ex sounded super-corporeal, clear, and transparent. On the Initial, the Eminent Ex displayed an extraordinary authority that none of the other cartridges could match. Think solid. On the Initial, the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue sounded more transparent and LSD-shroom-like than the classic vintage Koetsu Rosewood Signature—which, while I was still young, lured me away from my science-nerd obsession with Shure V15s. Now, surprisingly, on the Initial, the Grado Aeon3 was out-Koetsu-ing that psychedelic Rosewood Signature of my youth.

But I was still a little worried. When one component sounds conspicuously different than the other three, it is either doing something seriously wrong (which the others are all doing right), or something unusually right (which the others are not doing at all).

I used four recordings to help clarify my observations: Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's stunning reissue of Miles Davis's In A Silent Way (MFSL 1-377), Evensong for Ascensiontide with George Guest directing The Choir of St. John's College Cambridge (Argo ZRG 511), Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold with Kirsten Flagstad and Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (London OSA 1309), and one of the most perfect recordings ever made, Todd Garfinkle's masterpiece Será una Noche (45 rpm, M•A Recordings M 052A).

After playing all four recordings with all four cartridges on both the J.Sikora Initial and Dr. Feickert's $6995 Blackbird turntable, the only things I knew for sure were: a) the Grado was the quietist, with the blackest, deepest spaces, and b) the Grado's smallest details were smaller than the small details from the other three cartridges. The Grado's elliptical diamond (on a sapphire cantilever) and medium/highish 20µm/mN dynamic compliance seemed to favor the bottommost part of the grooves, where the tiniest notes and most delicate nuances lay.

After all that record-and-cartridge-changing work, it was obvious: The Grado Aeon3 sounded more alive, more brightly lit, and more kickdrum punchy on the Feickert Blackbird. On the J.Sikora Initial, the Aeon sounded darker, richer, more soft-spoken, with a more detailed "inner structure" and deeper, more powerful bass.

But no matter—in the end, it all comes down to: How does the Grado Aeon3 play piano? I let Claudio Arrau, one of the last Romantic pianists, show me if the Aeon3 could properly express the density of wood, the motions of little felt-headed hammers, and the taut metalness of steel strings. I also wondered, could the Aeon3 excavate the embedded pathos of Franz Liszt's Sonata in B minor (Philips LP 6500 043)? The Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum emphasized the overt drama and tonal contrasts of Liszt's 1853 Sonata, and made the Philips recording sound a bit cardboardy. I wondered what the Grado would do.

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On the Feickert Blackbird, the Grado added a very enjoyable growl and thunder in the copper-wound strings of the piano's lower registers, and showed me the nuance in Arrau's pianistic pyrotechnics. The recording seemed more fluid and supple.

In contrast, the Koetsu, on the Feickert, exposed the distinct, slightly muted "ping" of hammers on strings, especially the bare-wire strings in the upper registers. This right-handed hammers-on-strings quality made the Koetsu sound slightly brighter, punchier, and sprightlier—but not more full-power dynamic than the Aeon3, which was, unfortunately, less corporeal than the Koetsu in the upper registers.

After my eyes went blurry and my fingers got numb from all the cartridge swapping, I concluded: The Grado Aeon3 is doing something unusually right that the other cartridges are not doing at all. This $6k Grado appears to be uncovering new, previously buried deposits of recorded microdata. That trait alone is making LPs extra-engaging and more pleasurable. Bravo, John Grado! You showed all us moving-coilers what a state-of-the-art moving-iron cartridge can do.

J.Sikora meets Etsuro Urushi
I was using the J.Sikora turntable to compare the Aeon3 moving-iron to the low-output (0.25mV/1kHz), low-impedance (3 ohms/1kHz) Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue moving-coil. But soon the work of comparison became too subtle and boring, and I lost interest. Overall, though, the Grado played bigger and faster, with more jump factor, than the Cobalt Blue.

On the album Résonance by viola da gamba player Nima Ben David (M•A Recordings M088A-V), the Aeon3 gave Ben David's highly sensual playing a more forwardly expressive vigor than the Cobalt Blue. But, but, but! The Cobalt Blue played Le Sieur de Machy's "Suite in G Minor," also from Résonance, with a more serene, dream-like, swans-on-a-pond beauty, a quality I thought characterized the Cobalt Blue's overall sound and better suited Machy's composition.

Analog is sensuous and tactile by nature, as is the character of the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue. Disc after disc, it exhibited a subtle—but overtly sensuous—physicality that expressed a more restrained beauty than the Grado Aeon3. Obviously, every cartridge reveals something different. So . . .

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It's a shame how the only effective way for an audiophile to choose a phono cartridge is by trial and error, which is obviously difficult and expensive. Even I, with friends like Trei, Dudley, and Fremer (and the potential for a multitude of loaners), struggle to answer the question: "Herb, if you could choose only one . . ."

In the end
I believe I discovered that intangible something Michael Trei alluded to when he first told me about J.Sikora turntables. I have not auditioned the Standard or Reference models, but my Initial with the glass mat and two-piece weight delivered a more proactive, emotionally tangible silence than any turntable I have used since the Palmer 2.5 I reviewed in 2017.

The Initial made my 1957 Thorens TD 124 sound like a barrel of bolts rolling down a hill. My 1984 Linn Sondek LP12 (Valhalla) is very silent, but its silence is more cerebral, less physically tangible than the Sikora's. The Dr. Feickert Blackbird is silent, too, but the Blackbird's silence does not noticeably affect the feeling of the music. In contrast, the Initial's silence has a distinct, almost subliminal presence that frames voices and instrumental sounds while exposing micro-textures. And—surprise, surprise!—the J.Sikora's weighty silence was happening despite the not-fancy Jelco knife-bearing tonearm, which I would never describe as superquiet or superprecise. The Jelco KT850M is not an SME V.

When I removed the Initial's crystal glass mat and reset the cartridge's VTF/VTA/SRA, I realized two things: Most of the Initial's silence is a byproduct of this reasonably priced option. Sans glass mat, the Initial's sound is brighter and more conspicuously dynamic—and a lot like the Dr. Feickert Blackbird I've been comparing it to.

And what about the Initial's optional two-part stainless-steel weight? Theoretically, the mass of the record weight lowers the LP's resonant frequencies and stabilizes the disc. The Initial's weight probably helps the disc keep from slipping or hesitating under the drag of the stylus. But I doubt it flattens the record much—or puts it in greater contact with the platter.

But! The slotted, rubber-band–bound weight did seem to affect sound quality. I used it all the time, and besides the comforting feeling of setting it on a record, its use appeared to clear up and tighten up deep bass reproduction—a lot! Midrange focus seemed sharper, also. The top three octaves seemed to get purer, more transparent.

On the mat-less Dr. Feickert Blackbird, when I fingernail-tapped a ruler-flat 180gm M•A Recordings disc without the Feickert clamp, it emitted a noticeable high-pitched plastic- sounding tone. When the clamp was tightened down, the pitch of that tone lowered. On the Initial, with the glass platter mat but no weight, my nail-tapping sounded lower in pitch than the Feickert with its clamp. (I think this is an important observation.) With the weight on the record, the pitch went lower in frequency (but not by much).

On the Initial, without the glass mat, that difference in weight/no-weight tapping pitch was much greater. I imagine these changes in the vinyl's resonant frequency are also detectable by a cartridge's stylus-cantilever assembly. And I'm pretty sure some portion of what I have just described as the Initial turntable's sound character results from the glass mat and record weight options.

Unquestionably: the J.Sikora's magic is in the details of its design.

But then...
My $699 Pioneer PLX-1000 turntable with a rubber mat and a $475 Hana EL MC cartridge delivers excellent pitch, fine detail, natural textures, some boogie factor, and plenty of pleasure. But only modest magic. That Pioneer-Hana combo can only hint at the transparency, weight, silent spaces, rhythmic force, or overall sonic intensity of record players at the Initial's elevated level of price and engineering sophistication. During my auditions, J.Sikora's Initial gave me what I consider to be a majority portion of what the Porsche-Maserati turntables do at a Cadillac-Oldsmobile price.


Footnote 5: Previous to founding My Sonic Lab, Y. Matsudaira worked with Yoshiaki Sugano and played a major part in developing the original Koetsu Onyx and Supex 900 cartridges.

COMMENTS
dworkman's picture

Herb, this is opening paragraph of yours is one of the greatest things that I have read in recent memory. You have such a beautiful way with words! Please keep doing what you do, you are fantastic!

"My most cherished intangibles—love, beauty, glimpses of higher realms—enter my awareness only after I prepare my psyche to receive them. Extended bathing, lighting candles, making tea, and preparing food are ritual work forms that prepare my senses to accept both pleasure and illumination. In like manner, collecting LPs and storing them properly, setting up turntables, aligning cartridges, and cleaning styli are ritual actions that prepare me for the high moments of focused musical pleasure only a black disc can provide."

Bogolu Haranath's picture

No 'lava lamps'? ...... Just kidding :-) .......

Herb Reichert's picture

for your kind words. I am grateful for your attentions and the opportunity to present thoughts like those in public. But!!!!!!

do you know how badly I want to change: "...aligning cartridges, and cleaning styli are " to "cleansing styli" ?????

Its driving me crazy.

thank you again

herb

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Is HR gonna buy direct-to-disc Bruckner#7 for $221? ...... See, AnalogPlanet :-) ........

Jim Austin's picture

I would not mind spending $221 for a record. Bruckner, on the other hand. ...

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Bruckner 9 symphonies Karajan Berlin Philharmonic, 9 CDs/Blu-ray, $54, available at Amazon :-) ........

davip's picture

I'll sound like a cracked record (sorry, "black disc") here, but I'll say it again -- if only because I know that the author of this piece agrees: Let's have standardised accelerometer traces taken on the plinth of every turntable reviewed (Stereophile can afford 200 bucks, right?). Screw speed-stability, 'exotic' plinth materials and cut-outs -- a record player is a mechanical device whose sound quality derives Entirely from resisting (and preferably blocking outright) vibration, external AND internal, from reaching the platter, tonearm, and transducer.

To that effect, what is the motor -- the principal source of vibration in Every turntable -- doing ON the plinth in this $10K design?? The Sondek is 'quiet' for a reason -- because it isolates arm and cartridge from its own intrinsic motor noise by a suspended chassis, unlike 99.9% of TTs on the market today (indeed, Linn, SOTA, and Michell is it, no?). There's an equally obvious reason that those 99.9% don't -- because it's easier and cheaper to not bother engineering what you design anymore and simply bolt a motor to a piece of MDF for five-grand (or aluminium for ten).

I'd be willing to bet that such traces would reveal the totality of perceived (subjective) sound-quality differences in audiophile TTs to lie in the degree of isolation (or otherwise) from motor noise. In so measuring, your magazine could steal the same march here that it has in its combined subjective-objective assessment of electronics and loudspeakers...

That "...the sound of the Initial's high-torque motor was nearly inaudible" is manifestly not good enough in an ostensibly high-fidelity mechanical device that asks for $10k. Your stethoscoping is to be lauded Herb, but if 'nearly inaudible' is what this qualitative test reveals (at the high-end, no less) then whoever's-God only knows what an accelerometer will reveal quantitatively.

Oh, and for my money the Sikora is fugly -- I've worked on prettier oil-rigs...

dial's picture

Of course this was what I needed : from cartridges to turntables to racks, everything to the soundlab ! And pronto ! Also pictures of carts on tonearms are missing.

davip's picture

This is an Audiophile magazine -- Bose exists for those who don't really care about sound-quality (and if you don't, why are you here?)

tonykaz's picture

I was a Turntable Specialist importing every Brand Europe made. ( 1980s , I came from GM Corp. research & engineering )

Turntables are unstable, arms are unstable and Phono Cartridges are unstable.

In fact, their performance is in a constant 'drift'.

We listeners will unknowingly 're-tune' our synapsis to maintain a stable performance until the darn system goes so far out of tune that it needs another rework. Turntables are pretty much like Ferrari 12 Cylinder Cars that go Off-tune and run horribly.

Of course, when a Turntable in On-Song it's performance can be thrilling.

This transducer device 'reads' like it's one of the tweaky ones that benefit from constant fiddling. The good old Linn LP12 and early VPI tables were among the most stable.

Good Grief, I'd hate to have to 'support' owners of this outfits products.

Tony in Venice

ps. still, tweaky gear is part of what being an audiophile is all about, isn't it? and, where was the Cramolin treatment for the electrical connections??

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The new Technics limited edition SL-1210GAE is less expensive ....... See, AnalogPlanet :-) ........

Mars2k's picture

Did the chopstick come with the table?

AaronGarrett's picture

I haven't read a review in a long time that I enjoyed as much as this one. And I neither have a turntable nor plan on buying one. But "should I buy this or not?" is not the sole reason to read a great review

michaelavorgna's picture

"...with a more serene, dream-like, swans-on-a-pond beauty"

Swans on a pond beauty is some seriously beautiful imagery.

Thanks Herb.

Anton's picture

After reading this review, I would not shop upstream in this line. I'd stop right here!

These are all above my budget, but if I were able to participate at that level, Herb would have just saved me a lot of money, so to speak.

Also fascinating how we see different tables perform with such an array of different platter materials.

Glass is back, baby!

I have an Oswald Mills slate turntable mat that I love, it would be fun to find a nice aftermarket glass platter to compare now!

_

Side note: We miss you, man. I hope all is well.

Sad note: I lost my damned Hi Fi Vitruvian Man. :-(

michaelavorgna's picture

I hope all is well with you & yours.

Send me an email with your address - I think I have a replacement for your lost print.

Cheers

Bogolu Haranath's picture

There seems to be a job vacancy at AudioStream ...... May be Mr.ML could be interested? :-) .......

mghcanuck's picture

Hello Michael,

Nice to see you posting here at times recently. I miss your contributions to the art of audio. Hope you and yours are as well as can be.

Regards,

Max

michaelavorgna's picture

Thanks for the kind words.

Cheers,
Michael

PECwines's picture

I know this will sound like complaining, but it’s not, I promise. As a music lover and “audiophile” (whatever that seems to mean) I both love and hate reading reviews like this, for gear that is unobtanium in light of my budget. My humble setup is not perfect (though I work on tweaking it with every ounce of my being) but I DO love reading reviews, nae essays, whose prose inspire me to keep reaching, while simply enjoying what I have. Wonderful recordings, even on a more modest system, are a pleasure and joy that many have not experienced.

Thank you, Herb.

oregontreat's picture

As a NYC kind of guy, is Herb even aware that Oldsmobile no longer exists?

mghcanuck's picture

Dear Herb,

I say/write this with the greatest of respect for the dearly departed Art, whose writing was a pleasure, in its humour, breadth of knowledge and experience, curiosity and appropriate seriousness of intent, to read. Your writing is as much a pleasure to read, largely for similar reasons. I found myself chuckling aloud a few times reading this piece, a boon in these highly challenging times. So, I simply want to thank you for what you do.

Kind regards,

Max
Ottawa, Canada

Glotz's picture

Such a great review... Obviously brilliant writing. Involving your Michael was a nice touch and approach to the review. Nailed the review as well.

Fine words Max.. Art brought a tear to my eye more than once this week.

RIP Art. Play a duet with God for me, man.

volvic's picture

So enjoy these cartridge swapping/tonearm musical chairs that is so fun when someone else is doing and not me. I would need hours to get it done right. This brings me to my question and I do hope Mr. Reichert reads this. Herb! Whatever happened to the Denon Zu DL-103 you used to use in your reviews early on? It suddenly occurred to me that you no longer use it when assessing equipment. As you would say peace and rat rods and thanks for writing and reviewing.

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