Listening #185: Audio-Technica & Arché

In an oft-viewed clip on YouTube, recorded at the 2009 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, three world-class guitarists pause during a music workshop to talk about their instruments: Danny Knicely describes his 1939 Martin D-18, Chris Eldridge talks briefly about his own 1937 Martin D-28, and Josh Williams notes that his guitar was made in 2002, by the Kentucky-based luthier Neil Kendrick. Then, with fine comic timing, Knicely remarks, "One of these days, me and Chris will be able to afford a new guitar, too!"

The joke, of course, is that the vintage Martins cost considerably more than the Kendrick—and more than almost any other comparable guitar made today, including most new Martins. That's because the older instruments not only sound appreciably better than today's, they endure in sounding better than even those new instruments whose makers recognize and aspire to re-create the virtues of vintage.

That disparity results from a complex dynamic: Today, properly aged supplies of the species of tonewoods used in those old Martins no longer exist. The formula of lacquer used to finish those instruments is difficult to find, and in any event its use is banned in some parts of the US and all of Europe. Also difficult to obtain is the type of celluloid used to make various sound-influencing trim pieces on those instruments—a material so flammable it can't legally be shipped by air (think: Cinema Paradiso). And today, it's nearly as difficult to find the precise formula of animal-hide glue used in those old instruments as it is to find people who know how to work with the stuff.

Arguably the biggest obstacle of all is that it's difficult, if not impossible, to find trained craftspeople who can do what it takes to build instruments precisely as they were built 80 years ago—and what it takes is a willingness to ignore 80 years of "progress." Make no mistake: most large makers of musical instruments have, in recent years, become more attuned to the demand for vintage sound, and, with varying degrees of success, many have gotten better at satisfying that demand. And most small makers and individual luthiers would have you know that they and they alone make 'em like they used to.

But almost none of them actually do. In almost every case with which I'm familiar, there's always at least one aspect of guitar making—a finish technique here, a carving technique there, a means of clamping or sanding or buffing or tapping—for which the craftsperson of today declares: I know better.

O, mensch!

I'd love nothing more than to draw an accurate parallel between the current state of luthierie and our own little world. After all, the former is something I know reasonably well—and I can think of at least a dozen individual luthiers in the US and Canada whose production is sold out for the next two or three years, two of whom are not at this time accepting new orders. Moreover, at such vintage-savvy small companies as Bourgeois, Collings, and the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, business is booming. And taken all together, C.F. Martin & Company's own vintage-reissue models have sold in the tens of thousands.

But if, say, a major manufacturer of phono cartridges were to launch a reproduction of something they made in the 1950s or '60s that is faithful in every way to the original, how many do you suppose they could hope to sell: a couple hundred? A few dozen? Maybe 10?

Thus does a product like the Siberia-made Tzar Audiology DST phono cartridge, which I wrote about in my January 2016 column, sell for $10,000.

The Tzar DST is a high-quality reimagining of the Neumann DST 62 pickup, which in the early 1960s sold for $79.50—a little under $650 in today's money. The Neumann was the first—and, for decades, the only—moving-coil phono pickup in which groove-induced stylus displacement created an equal amount of signal-generating coil displacement, simply because this pickup's stereo coils were mounted literally next to its stylus. In virtually all other MC cartridges, the stylus and coils are at opposite ends of a cantilever whose fulcrum is far closer to the coils than to the stylus. Imagine a playground teeter-totter that disappoints half of the children who ride it, as one end will never reach the same heights as the other.

The DST 62, which had one foot each in the worlds of professional and domestic audio, was possible because the phono-cartridge market of the 1960s was virtually limitless—at the time, it was likelier than not that tooling-up costs could be recouped, and then some—and because Georg Neumann GmbH, which has been making disc-cutting equipment since the late 1920s and which, beginning in the 1940s, made some of the world's most popular microphones, had the budget and the will to develop such a thing. Those days are forever gone, notwithstanding phonography's present-day renaissance.

Everything New Is Old Again
The most that any vintage-audio nut can expect is for a modern manufacturer to apply the materials at hand, and his or her knowledge and skills, to making things that are intended to reach the same heights as yesterday's best: not so much vintage-reissue products, as great new stuff designed with a mindset that doesn't accept that newer is always better. (I am wearily amused by audio mavens who denigrate such things as idler-wheel turntables and spherical styli as being technologically obsolete. (Were we to accept as superior every new technological development that has come our way, there would not now even be a renaissance in the making of record players and records.)

And so it was with Audio-Technica's AT-ART1000 cartridge ($5000), which Michael Fremer praised in "Analog Corner" in the October 2016 Stereophile (footnote 1). As in the DST 62, the AT-ART1000's moving coils are attached to the stylus end of its cantilever in what the manufacturer describes as a direct power system: although A-T's support literature doesn't mention their cartridge's legendary forebear, there's no doubting the chain of influence.

Nor can one doubt the ingenuity brought by designer Mitsuo Miyata to the AT-ART1000 project. In an apparent effort to bring heretofore-unavailable levels of reliability and consistency to a cartridge of this sort—direct power system seems as good a descriptive as any—Miyata devised a means of winding air-core coils of smaller size and greater precision than was ever achieved by Neumann or the maker of the Tzar DST, for that matter, and of protectively encasing the coils for both channels side by side in a thin, clear, rigid film. This assembly, which looks perfectly flat—each coil comprises only eight turns of exceedingly fine wire—is cemented to the tip of the AT-ART1000's boron cantilever, directly above the stylus. When the cartridge is viewed from below, the coils are perpendicular to the cantilever's axis—in the Neumann and the Tzar, they're parallel to that axis—and when the cantilever is viewed in profile, the coils are perpendicular to the cantilever when the latter is viewed in profile.

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That last detail in particular requires careful alignment during assembly: the coils are held within a magnetic gap of 0.6mm, and must be kept parallel to the walls of that gap while the cartridge is in playing position, with vertical tracking force (VTF) applied and the stylus in contact with a record groove—too much or too little VTF could bring the coil assembly too close to one or the other wall of the magnetic gap. So Audio-Technica aims for a VTF range of 2.0–2.5gm, then tests each finished AT-ART1000 and recommends for that cartridge its own individual VTF, to be hand-written on a card supplied with that unit. (The card accompanying the review sample sent to me by A-T at the end of 2017, serial no. PP21, was marked "2.0gm.") Because these tolerances are so tight and so critical, when a stylus of an AT-ART1000 is replaced, all of the cartridge's moving parts must also be replaced, including the cantilever, its suspension, and the encased coils and their lead wires.

A few miscellaneous specs: The AT-ART1000's base is machined from titanium and the rest of its body from aluminum, topped with a plastic piece claimed to confer a degree of damping. Despite having coils that lack iron cores, the A-T's output is a low but not crazy-low 0.2mV. Its coil resistance is 3 ohms, its compliance a lowish 12x10–6 cm/dyne, and its stylus is ground with a line-contact profile. Its well-designed clear-plastic stylus guard protects all of the cartridge's fragile moving parts, yet can remain snugly in place as you install or undo the cartridge-mounting bolts. The distance between the stylus tip and the line intersecting the cartridge's mounting bolts is 9.5mm, which was once nearly a standard spec.

Listening: When the AT-ART1000 first arrived, I mounted it in the headshell supplied with my review sample of the Audio-Creative GrooveMaster II tonearm. I fitted it to that arm and to my own EMT 997 tonearm (footnote 2), and did most of my listening with the latter.

I began by listening to my original (ie, non-reissue) copy of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet as performed by members of the Vienna Octet (Decca SXL 2297), which earlier that day I'd played with my Shindo SPU pickup head (spherical stylus, lower compliance, virtually identical output and coil impedance). It was, at first, almost like listening to a different recording, so changed was the sound. Timbres were lighter—less thick, but without sounding cooler per se, and certainly not harsher: If anything, string and reed textures were silkier with the Audio-Technica. In this new presentation, each instrument was also surrounded with a great deal more air, and their positions were now clearer, on a now-wider stage. Physicality—flesh and blood—was down a notch from the SPU.



Footnote 1: Inasmuch as Mikey visited the Audio-Technica factory and watched a set of AT-ART1000 coils being wound, his write-up on this cartridge is not to be missed.

Footnote 2: I wrote about the EMT 997 in July 2008, September 2008, and July 2015.

COMMENTS
TC's picture

Mr. Dudley, thank you for your outstanding review. Based on the Stereophile Recommended Conponents list and the fine work by you and your colleagues at Stereophile, I purchased an ART1000 cartridge and a VPI Classic 4 turntable recently, and am delighted with the result. I have found the information in these pages to be invaluable from a technical standpoint, but also entertaining.
I’m curious which SUT you chose for use with this cartridge, and if you found any substantial differences between the Audio-Creative and EMT tonearms.

eskisi's picture

You will protest but I am at a loss why one would ever want to use idler wheels. The beauty of a turntable is that a heavy platter keeps speed more or less constant, with just a small, gradual loss due to friction, air resistance, etc. A belt makes up for that loss beautifully, without interfering with anything else. An idler wheel, by contrast, provides a near rigid connection to the motor, certainly adding some noise. Furthermore unless the idler rubber is made to surgical accuracy, there will always be some wow introduced. Even then, a few days of non-use and the rubber will develop a flat spot, just like a rarely driven car’s wheels do. (Direct drive has similar issues but at least not the flat spot problems.)

I know this first hand as I restore old reel-to-reels and many 1950s US models have idler wheel driven capstans. Getting them to sound “just OK” is a major chore. In some the flat spot has turned into a half moon from years of pressing against the motor shaft.

Few weeks ago, at an audio meet, the maker of an — unnamed but major — turntable brand said to me, idler wheels provide “better dynamics,” especially for classical music but that belt drive maybe better for jazz and rock. I barely suppressed a chuckle — how does the turning method affect whatever dynamics the record has or the cartridge can generate? But unlike Galileo I know when to remain silent.

DaveThreshold's picture

That was a very enjoyable review Art! I strongly suggest that any audiophile buy a dual head stethoscope. The membrane head, or that side, is INSANELY sensitive. When I was refurbishing turntables, I would listen to the plinth/frame area with that. The results are an abject lesson in what is a good design, or a poor design.
Sadly, the idler wheel turntables sounded like the German Tank in Saving Private Ryan. They were extremely loud with that scope, almost to the point of pain. The belt drives were far better, but even my Pro-Ject RM-9 had a bit of rumble do to the SILLY inverted bearing that many manufacturers like to use.
I have a Technics SL-1210 M5G, which was second to the lowest, before the KAB mods removed the power supply from it. What I heard was the 60 HZ MECHANICAL hum of the transformer in that unit. After the KAB mod removed it, it was as dead as a doornail.
The quietest, stock, TT that I ever tested with the scope was the Sony TTS-3000!! I even disconnected the belt and spun it up to about 200 RPM, manually, and it was still decibel DEATH.
I can not recommend a cheap, dual head stethoscope enough to any audiophile.

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