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February 2006
Superior Audio Equipment Review
Enjoy the Music.com Special 20/20 Award

Clearaudio Reference Moving Coil Cartridge
Review By Steven R. Rochlin
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Clearaudio Reference Moving Coil Wood Body Cartridge    My love affair with the Clearaudio Insider started about two years ago when a friend of mine in Gainesville Florida asked my to tweak his system. He does not own just any system mind you. We are talking the top-quality single-ended silver wired Audio Note amplifier wielding, absolutely incredible Avantgarde Acoustic horn loudspeaker talkin', Goldmund Reference turntable spinning kinda system. You know the type. The kind of system you always wish you owned... when you hit the lottery. Being his #1 Guru tweakmeister, he wanted to upgrade his analogue to the then (1998) top of the line Clearaudio Insider Gold cartridge.

As I live in the scenic New Hampshire area, this meant breaking in an Insider Gold here in my home before later installing it into his Goldmund Reference with T3F tonearm turntable system. So I removed the highly acclaimed cartridge on my VOYD turntable and nervously mounted the Insider Gold. As many times as I have mounted various cartridges in my system, my hands were literally shaking as I mounted this $8,000 cartridge that I could not afford back then. One wrong move and bye-bye cantilever. YIKES! Well, the mounting went successfully without any problems. One of the great things about Clearaudio is that they supply their cartridges with the specific frequency response, calibrations and tracking force. Unlike other manufactures that do not offer this specific information, Clearaudio obviously cares enough to have top quality test gear and offer their customers all the data of each individual cartridge.

So I followed the exact instructions for tracking force, etc. and I sat back for a listen. WOW! I was stunned... but it got better! After about 100 hours the midrange became cleaner while also coming into a tighter focus. Fact is I was so stunned I wrote a review of it for another 'zine. The then Insider Gold was the most amazing cartridge my ears had ever heard (and I have heard and owned more than my fair share). Sadly, the day came when I had to fly down to Gainesville Florida, mount the cartridge on its rightful owner's turntable rig and say goodbye. The owner was literally in tears of joy. Yes folks, it sounded that good.

So here I am today reviewing their newest version of the Insider called the Insider Reference Wood. So let's get to it already and allow we to inform you what makes this cartridge tick and how does it differ from the metal body version?

 

Duke of the Cat Walk!
First of all, the reason it is called the Insider Gold is because very fine gold coils used in this moving coil cartridge. While some manufacturers may use copper or silver, Clearaudio uses extremely fine gold wires that are lightly coated with lacquer! The magnet structure is unlike any other cartridge in that it is very well balanced in both the side-to-side and front to rear axis. This balancing act allows the total elimination of the usual cantilever suspension! Anyone who has spend major dollars on a cartridge knows that after a few years the cartridge's suspension "wears out" to the point it needs replacing. With the patented balanced Clearaudio design you also never need to worry about the detrimental effects a suspension can have. In cartridge design, as in preamplifier and amplifier design, less equals more. Less parts between the needle and photo stage the better chances the music comes through unscathed.

The gold coils are directly connected to the cantilever. This eliminates the reduction in transparency that normal suspension-assisted cartridge can suffer from. Clearaudio studied many different shapes of the walls of vinyl records and then proceeded to design their own Trygon II needle shape. To top all this exotica off, staggeringly expensive ($2,000 a pound circa 2000!) solder made of Idium is used. Because the coils are made of a noble metal (gold), corrosion should not be of concern and under normal usage the owner should receive approximately ten years with this $10,000 cartridge. Retipping should occur about five years with normal usage and as of this writing costs $3,800. Finally, each cartridge is carefully tested and measured at the factory using world-class measurement gear and the cartridge's measurements are included to their customer. In fact each cartridge also comes with what Clearaudio feels the optimum tracking force. This is my second Clearaudio cartridge and both times the factory recommended tracking force was exactly right to my ears in my system. So how does all this sound? I mean, for $10,000 does it really make that much of a difference?

 

What's the Deal?
I must ask you this, have you ever driven a Ferrari? Seriously, have you ever driven a true sports car where performance came first, and then the retail price was decided upon the factory for sales of their creation? With all due respect to other cars, once you have sat inside a Ferrari and truly experienced on a proper road course race track the sensation of driving it, you then know why they have such a vast and loyal following worldwide. The same high praise can be given to the truly wonderful creations by Porsche. Since Clearaudio cartridges are made in Germany, maybe Porsche is a better analogy? Naaaa! I love the way a Ferrari feels to a truly great extent yet respect the discipline of a Porsche. Maybe this is a good analogy for the difference between the two versions of the Insider! Yeah, that's the ticket! Hmm, saying the word "ticket" and talking about fast cars is not a good idea. Anyway...

While the metal body Insider is truly amazing like the Porsche 911 four wheel drive Turbo with it's acceleration from 0-100 km/h in just 4.4 seconds and stop in just 2.6 seconds, the Insider Reference Wood is like the new Ferrari 360 Modena with it's electro-hydraulic actuator F1 paddle shifting gearbox system and incredible 400 bhp naturally aspirated engine. The innards of the Insider Gold and Insider Reference Wood are exactly the same according to Clearaudio’s United States circa 2000 distributor. The only difference is the body material and mass. While the Insider Gold uses a wood body, it has a slightly warmer sound and less mass (approx 5.5grams less than its metal counterpart).  The metal body delivers a slightly different sound and some claim it works a little better with tubes and for those tonearms need the added mass (approx 11 grams).

Forget what anyone else says, I use tubes and my tonearm is generally happier with a heavier mass cartridge. So throwing caution to the wind I mounted the Insider Reference Wood to my Audio Note AN-2/s-V silver wired tone arm, put the awesome Myles Davis vinyl on my VOYD turntable and let the music play. Without any breaking in the cartridge did sound a bit fuller in the lower midrange to midbass area yet also seemed to have slightly less break-in grain than the metal-bodied unit previous to it. The break in was, expectedly, about the same with the wood body version as was with the metal-bodied counterpart. Most of the changes ended after about 150 hours of usage.

Hearing the Insider Reference Wood cartridge in my system was like enjoyed the live stringed quartet inside this small Venice Italy church a few months ago. To try to fully describe the incredibly richness and detail of sound, from the strings to the instrument's body and concert hall's sound, would be an exercise in futility. It was one of those lifetime experiences where full aural ecstasy was achieved.  Of course you want a more broken down description of it reproduces music so...

Using the previously mentioned 180 gram vinyl five LP box set Miles Davis Quintet The Great Prestige Years (Analogue Productions (AAPJ 035) put the Insider Reference Wood though the paces. First up was Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet. From the very first key played on the piano by Red Garland, it is obvious how fast and detailed the music can be using this cartridge. Then comes in Miles and his trumpet has a more organic sound with the wood cartridge than I recall with the metal-bodied version. It is hard to say which is rendition, or portrayal as it were is "right" and which is wrong, as the wood-bodied unit seems to give more depth to the stringed bass and piano. Not depth as in a physical measurement of distance, but as in solidity and macrobiotic feeling. It is as if the piano and stringed bass have been aged many years; as that of a Stradivarius whose tone and texture from many years of use give the instrument a further emotion-provoking harmonic texture.

Another quickly noticeable achievement with both Insider's is how even the most subtle timing cues are more accurately portrayed than any other cartridges my ears have heard. Since my background is that of a drummer, I am always aware of the beat and timing cues thereof. It is the difference between playing the 4/4 beat and as us musician's say playing "in the pocket". Playing in the pocket means those very small differences in not just timing, but also in a drummer's dynamics within each drum stroke, which help fill out the groove or swing of a beat. These small details greatly affect the whole. Since music is simply a type of musical pyramid which each expression build upon the next. A diminishing of the accurate portrayal within the music's foundation usually leaves the climax less satisfying. Needless to say my comments apply to the entire box set, which truly is a spectacular musical achievement. Highly recommended to all vinyl junkies.

 

Uptown Groovers
My next record is one that is not audiophile in nature. It is more than that. Pink Floyd's recording of Division Bell (Columbia C64200) can be a true challenge in and of itself! The CD is horribly done and so bright you can use your tweeter's output to sandpaper your wood flooring. On the good side, the CD does make for a good drink coaster. The vinyl, on the other hand, is a genuine piece of pure unadulterated audio ecstasy oozing with glorious soundscapes that can actually cause psychosis (or the feeling of being, eh hem, stoned). What? You don't believe me? Well read on...

Division Bell seems to have many euphoric-inducing tones within the lower and upper midrange that brings about a harmonic combination. This combination can lull a person into an altered state (I am not crazy). Uh oh, you are beginning to think I am crazy, well... The first thing needed is a cartridge that can precisely play all the small and intricate tones. My feelings is that the Insider Reference Wood gets the nod over its metal-bodied counterpart here. This album also seems to enjoy a slightly higher VTA than normal so play around with the VTA. You know you have it correct when the beginning piano notes within the first few minutes on side one has a euphorically extended midrange harmonic structure without the upper frequencies becoming dominated. As Obi Wan says, "Trust your feelings."

Once all is set you sit back and enjoy the ride. This Insider Reference Wood seems to yet again bring a more organic feeling of wholeness to the music. It retains all the amazing speed, agility and inner resolution of the metal-bodied version, but also seems to reproduce more natural beauty. This is not to say using the Insider Reference Wood it is like wearing rose-colored glasses. Far from it! Both the wood and metal Insiders are among the truly rare breed of incredible mind boggling, utterly transparent and accurate cartridges on the face of this earth. Anyhow, back to the music.

As the piano begins during the song "Cluster One", you have this immediate heightening of your room. Meanwhile the piano notes gracefully dance within the room and have an amazingly delicate decay. The upper register notes, especially, exhibit this fragile falling away reverberation. This is what slowly lulls you into a trance. Do not worry if your system can not pull this off. My guess is that only about 1% of the "audiophile" music reproduction systems around the world can pull this trick off. In fact even if you have the right system, you need to insure the VTA is just right as mentioned earlier.

As the first song ends and "What Do You Want From Me" begins, the guitar's echo effects come into play. Also noteworthy is that the ride cymbal sounds incredibly realistic. In fact the lyrics from this song remind me of the quest for top-notch music reproduction. It is as though my system is saying to me "You're so hard to please. What do you want from me?" Ah, some days it pays to be an audiophile… and I am hard to please. In fact I have had others come hear the system and they confirm that there is something happening that is not fully describable other than to say it is mind altering. Ok, I better get back to more "proper" reviewing music.

Changing gears to the excellent Classic Records reissue of Brahms Violin Concerto-Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (LSC 1903) is most definitely worthy of review material. Ok, let us get one thing straight here. Strings instruments like violin and cello sound so good with either version of the Insider that any attempt by me to tell you how the wood version is slightly better is like having a Ferrari (Insider Reference Wood) and Porsche C4 turbo (Insider metal-body) and saying which vehicle is better. Some things do come down to personal preferences. The performance within the grooves takes on newfound life compared to other cartridges I have heard.

Do I need to rant on about the imaging (awesome), soundscape depth (warn the neighbors the orchestra percussion section is moving in) or how the hall's acoustics envelope you (eat your heart out lovers of surround sound)? Of course I don't! Dare I tell you that I bought the review sample? Of course not.

 

You Got It
Ok, so you are now thinking the cartridge is perfect. The best thing ever made since sliced bread. Well, I love the Insider Reference Wood for wood instruments whereas for, say, trumpet and techno/house/trance I'd prefer the metal-body version. Are we talking very small differences? Most certainly! If I only heard one of the two I would proclaim it to be an achievement along the lines of the Ferrari Enzo or McLaren F1. Either of these cartridges, like either of the aforementioned vehicles, is like those rare instruments from the likes of Stradivarius or Guarneri. To choose one over the other can be a matter of personal preference yet each is remarkable in it's own way. In the end what really matters is that you...

Enjoy the Music (Pink Floyd "Take it Back" right now on vinyl),

Steven R. Rochlin

 

"Her love rains down on me easy as the breeze 
I listen to her breathing it sounds like the waves on the sea 
I was thinking all about her, burning with rage and desire 
We were spinning into darkness; the earth was on fire ..."

 

Specifications
Type: Moving coil cartridge with wood body

Total Mass: 5.5 grams

Stylus: TRIGON PII, diamond oriented tip radius 5/40mm

Cantilever: Clearaudio Boron

Coil Array: Symmetrical to the pivot point

Compliance horizontal/vertical: 15/15 m/mN

Recommended Tracking Force: 2.2 grams

Channel Separation: > 45dB

Channel Balance: non measurable

Output Voltage: 0.7 mV (at 5 cm/sec peak)

System Impedance: 50 Ohm at 1,000Hz

Recommended Break In Time: 50 hours and more

Price: $10,000

 

Company Information
Clearaudio electronic GmbH
Spardorfer Straße 150 
91054 Erlangen
Germany

Voice:: +49 (0) 9131 - 59 59 5
Fax: +49 (0) 9131 - 51 68 3
Website: www.clearaudio.de
E-mail: info@clearaudio.de

 

US Importer/Distributor
Musical Surroundings
2625 Alcatraz Avenue, Suite 501
Berkeley, CA 94705

Voice: (510) 420-0379
E-mail: info@musicalsurroundings.com
Website: www.musicalsurroundings.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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