I’ve got a little list… there is such a thing as too much choice and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the alternatives. So we did the Kondo thing and asked ‘what sparks joy?’ Components with an identifiable and unique character that can deliver benefits in almost any system are what we all want, so here are our 10 best for 2019.
Back to the beginning – making your records sound better. Your best choices for cartridges and phono stages.
The delivery of the flagship Well Tempered Royale 400 to a client and impending arrival of the new Simplex II turntable has got me thinking about analogue and how it fits in to the modern music listeners life. There is obviously still interest and enthusiasm for vinyl and as well as turntables, we continue to install and send out a steady stream of styli, cartridges and phono stages.
A well set up analogue system is a thing of beauty and will give you many hours of enjoyment and relaxation. Having your turntable sounding great does take a little bit of investment and effort but there are few things in the world of audio that will respond as well to even small improvements.
Let’s investigate several ways we can help you get more out of records – the phono cartridge, phono amplifiers, plugs and cables. And talk alittle bit about record care.
The whole idea of listening to LPs is that it’s going to be better and more rewarding than digital. As digital has improved dramatically since the inception of CD, the competition to an analogue system has got tougher and we expect more. But the good news is that modern analogue is up to this challenge.
In the first instance, the quality of new LPs is the best it has ever been. It may seem counter-intuitive but the rise of digital has made production much easier and lower in cost. What used to only happen in purpose built studios can now be done on a laptop. And within studios technology has also raced forwards so the level of production we’re hearing on most new releases is far better than the days of cassettes and vinyl.
Add to this the greatly improved standard of pressing of records – just about every LP I’ve bought in the last few years has been thick, flat and clean – and you have a recipe for real analogue enjoyment that is a completely modern alternative rather than just some nostalgia trip.
This is not to say there isn’t still a place for preserving, collecting and playing old vinyl – as an archival format goes it still takes some beating. With a new cartridge, phono stage and maybe even turntable, you’ll get far more out of your records than was possible when they were originally pressed.
The stylus and cartridge are very much the business end of any record playing system, being in direct contact with the LP and converting the physical movement of the stylus into the electrical signal which flows through your hifi system. So your choice of phono cartridge will have an immediate and direct bearing on the sound you hear.
And your choice is broad – from the entry and mid level Nagoaka models at around $200, the specialist Well Tempered items, to the state of the art Dynavector Moving Coils, we’ve got the perfect choice for almost every turntable and level of expectation.
Until you have owned a Dynavector Moving coil cartridge it can be a little difficult to explain just how good they sound. Having worked my way through many different cartridges at home and installing even more on clients turntables, it’s the Dynavector that always makes analogue magic. The sound is unfailingly rich and engaging. Read our just-updated page covering the Dynavector range here.
The Well Tempered TLC is based on the Nagaoka MP150 which is a recommendation in itself (and in both directions). This is your best MM option. Well Tempered also make a very special MC cartridge with a a New Zealand connection. – The Kauri.
The Nagaoka MP series are easily the most popular choice for the budget minded – although in similar price territory to the Ortofon range they offer much more – it’s a richer, fuller, more upfront sound yet with less surface noise. It should also be noted the replacement cost of Nagaoka styli is much less than the Ortofons.
With all cartridges and styli there is a working life of between 1000 to 1500 hours – you might be able to squeeze out a bit more but chances are you’ll be doing no favours to your records and the sound will be less than involving – if you haven’t been using your turntable much lately this will be the reason why. While just replacing the stylus is the default option, the best this can do is take you back to where you started. Why not take the opportunity to upgrade by slotting in a more modern and better sounding design?
The next step for vinyl enthusiasts is a phono stage – the importance and performance gains to be had by selecting a better phono stage or amplifier are easy to underestimate. Until you hear them.
Having the personal experience of stepping through a broad range of both cartridges and phono stages it has become obvious that the effect of the latter is at least as much as that of a cartridge. And that the benefit of improving both is cumulative – i.e. you’ll get better value and sound from your turntable system by considering both, either at the same time or by taking a stepped approach.
While replacing a cartridge or stylus is usually a ‘must-do’ because of either wear or damage, an old or inbuilt phono stage will slog away forever so can be put on the back burner. Yet it all goes back to our original proposal that the whole idea of listing to records is to enjoy better sound. Even our lowest cost phono stage – the new Cambridge CP-1 – is better than just about any built in unit and from there the performance gains leap away.
The NZ made Pure Audio Vinyl is by far the best we have heard. Everything we love about analogue is there – it’s open and transparent, powerful and dynamic when the music lights up, yet unnervingly quiet so you’ll hear the finest details as tracks fade away. The build quality is luxurious – for any moving coil cartridge owner, the Pure Audio will be a once in a lifetime purchase that maximise the performance of any model and can be customised to suit.
The Dynavector P75MK3 is the most popular phono stage in New Zealand – the obvious first stop for any Dynavector owner. Read more about this here.
The NuPrime HPA-9 is a really interesting option – more than just a phono stage and only $150 more than the Dynavector, it’s a brilliant analogue preamplifier and headphone preamp.
It is at its best with Moving Magnet cartridges and can do things in terms of connection and matching that no other phono stage can come close to. You can connect it directly to any competent power amplifier and even just with digital sources, I’ve heard very few preamplifiers of any breed or cost that compete on sonics and certainly none that do on price. It may take a little while to get your head around the NuPrime HPA-9 but if you have an interest in better sound you most certainly should learn more.
While you might think that Well Tempered products are in the upper realms of cost, the WTL RIAA phono stage at $660 is wee ripper. What makes the Well Tempered phono stage so special is the sound – it’s a wonderfully solid and warm presentation backed by real power and drive. We don’t know the back story behind the design but it’s immediately obvious that this phono stage gives a full scale analogue performance from even modest cartridges. It comprehensively blitzes anything else we’ve tried at this level.
The WT phono stage is easily the biggest and best value upgrade for almost any turntable fitted with a moving magnet cartridge – the logic of placing more resources in the phono stage than cartridge has always been compelling to us – styli and cartridges wear out and need replacement to maintain sound quality, but a good phono stage lasts a lifetime and makes easily affordable cartridges sound far better than they have any right to.
Here’s a great little trick for anyone who is keen on a do-it-yourself upgrade. The new KLEI Harmony RCA plugs from Keith Eichmann do amazing things for sound quality and you’ll just need 2 for a turntable.
When I first tried the original Eichmann Bullet plugs on my own Linn I couldn’t believe how much better they were than the expensive looking metal bodied plugs. The new Harmony plugs are far better again and even the most costly models (the Absolute Harmony Plugs) are just on $100 for a pair. (they come in packs of 4 but if you’re also buying a new cartridge or stylus at the time I can break a pack up).
And of course if the plugs are an ear-opener, the interconnect cables when used either with a turntable with RCA sockets or a phono stage take things a whole lot further again.
Just to re-iterate the most important part of record care – it’s a worn or damaged stylus that damages records first and foremost. After this a lot comes down to handling and the obvious. Don’t pinch the edge of records between your fingers, make sure your hands are clean, keep LPs out of the sun and away from heat.
For really cleaning records, there’s nothing to beat the Nitty Gritty systems – http://www.nittygrittyinc.com/index.html. While costly, they transform even brand new records and really do the business with older discs. The reduction in noise plus the dramatic increase in detail has to be heard to be believed. As a long time owner I’ve never regretted buying one.
As a much lower cost alternative, we also have the Nakaoka 152 Rolling cleaner. With no fluids and a mysteriously sticky roller that can be cleaned and used again and again, this gets all the scunge off your records without any fuss.
There is a new version (the 1000) which is pictured and due to arrive shortly but I do still have a couple ofthe original 152s which are very similar. The results from the Nagaoka are very close to the Nitty Gritty and it’s actually a lot easier to use – highly reccomemnded.
Once clean (or from new) the Nagaoka Anti-static record sleeves are and essential for keeping your LPs pristine – we’ve got plenty of packs (50 in each) for just $65.