The last time I reviewed a phono cartridge in Enjoy The Music.com was about a year ago, it was then when I made comments regarding my love/hate relationship with high-end phono cartridges. Very briefly, I stated that I love phono cartridges because of the sonic joy they bring me. The music! By translating the grooves on a vinyl record to the wonderful sound that comes forth from my speakers is a pleasure that is one of the greatest there is. But at the same time, I hate them, not only because the very best cost so much, but also because they have a relatively short life expectancy. So, until a phono cartridge manufacturer builds and sells an inexpensive model that sounds as good as the expensive ones, and this inexpensive phono cartridge that sounds as good as the expensive ones also offers to users an inexpensive replacement stylus, I'm afraid my negative feelings in regards to phono cartridges aren't going to change very much.
Regardless, even without the above pipedreams attached, the "love" portion continues to win me over, and this love seems to grow with each passing moment I spend with my analog playback system. This includes the phono cartridge that I'm reviewing here, the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue, which spent the last couple of months mounted on my Basis Debut V turntable's Tri-Planar 6 tonearm, its signal fed to a Pass Laboratories XP-15 phono preamplifier. This is turn was connected to one of the fine preamplifiers I have in-house either as my reference or for review including the 2017 Blue Note Award winning Merrill Audio Christina Signature, and the Mark Levinson No. 523, and the. Nagra Classic Preamp (review forthcoming), The preamp was connected to my reference Pass Labs X350.5 power amplifier, and its speaker cables connected to a pair of Sound Lab Majestic 545 full-range electrostatic speakers, their low end augmented by a pair of 2500-Watt 15" Velodyne subwoofers.
The Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue retails for $5250, which might seem like a lot of money to a sane person, but we're discussing high-end audiophile phono cartridges here. Whether or not an audiophile can be considered sane or not is a conversation for another time. But, for the uninitiated, at this price the Cobalt Blue is considered at the top of what would be considered mid-priced, that is, if there were only three categories: budget, mid, and high priced when considering high-end phono cartridges.
Regardless of this, even on paper, and even when reading what is not the greatest translation from the Japanese to English in their literature, and even though Etsuro Urushi doesn't provide much information regarding the construction and technical information for this cartridge, because of its performance in my system over the last few months, the Cobalt Blue is undeniably deserving of its asking price. Etsuro, in its rather cryptic literature says that its "Microline-Tip" stylus has what they consider the ideal curvature in able to contact the record surface to achieve "superior playback characteristics", especially in the high-frequency range. They go on to say that the cartridge uses "ultra-precise" sapphire pipe material in its cantilever, and they believe that it has a hardness which lowers distortion to transmit the "high-speed vibrations" in order to provide a very "clear sound".
They continue on by saying that the cartridge's magnets use samarium cobalt and soft-iron, which work together to provide the magnetic features that work well with the coil's vibration to achieve "overall balance" and "steady sound. The housing and base of the Cobalt Blue uses Duralumin, which is a hard, light alloy of aluminum, copper and other elements, and is processed using a proprietary method to provide even more strength. The cartridge is handcrafted, using "Japanese traditional craft Urushi lacquering, which Etsuro Urushi says gives the cartridge a "masterly shine", with a texture that is "truly a miniature work of art". Even if all the abstruse hyperbole that is contained in the literature that accompanies this cartridge is discounted, I'll agree that their Cobalt Blue indeed does look like a work of art. It is packed in a wooden box sheathed with a blue paper obi (sash) with silver print with the brand and cartridge name in both Japanese and English.
After removing the paper sash, one can again see the brand and cartridge's name on its cover, this time printed in a darker brown than the balsa box, along with a red stamp with Japanese characters. The cartridge is screwed to an acrylic plate inside the box, a rubber-like mat protecting it from shock.
After the cartridge started breaking in, I adjusted the resistive loading value by ear, ending up with a load of 100 Ohms. My Tri-Planar tonearm is mounted on the heavy armboard of a Basis Debut V turntable, which at just shy of 100 pounds isn't going anywhere, but just to be sure it sits atop an Arcici Suspense equipment rack, which directly under a layer of acrylic, is a 50-pound steel plate that is cushioned by three inflated inner tubes. I can jump as high as I can, landing flat-footed on the floor of my listening room and the stylus of the Cobalt Blue rode the grooves of the record as if nothing at all had happened.
As far as dirty and damaged records are concerned, that isn't much of a problem in my listening room, as I've replaced a good number of the records that were damaged or otherwise misused with newer or simply better sounding copies, and dirty copies are cleaned on a VPI 16.5 wet/vacuum record cleaning machine. Sometimes lowering the noise floor because of the pressing process or damage on a record isn't possible, such as one of my favorite albums on Earth, Pink Floyd's A Saucerful Of Secrets that they released in 1968. Searching for a great copy of this LP has been a sort of sub-hobby of mine, and since I've been doing this for quite a while now, I have at least for now, my personal favorites -- including some pressings from Japan and the UK.
The problem is, the earlier the pressing, the noisier the record's surface. But kudos to the Cobalt Blue for somehow being able to mute the majority of this surface noise. Even though there is still some residual noise, the Cobalt Blue does an excellent job of somehow being able to tell whether of not it is "hearing" music or noise. I believe it does this by being able to perceive groove modulations further into the groove than those cartridges that use a lesser quality stylus. I also have a feeling it is a bit more complicated than this, and so is beyond of my range of expertise. Therefore, the manufacturer's claim that the Cobalt Blue's "Microline-Tip" stylus is not as much of an exaggeration as I thought when first reading their literature. Regardless of which pressing I would play of this album, the Cobalt Blue was able to track these records with excellent results and could demonstrate that the particular pressing had much more to offer than just having a low noise floor. From the Cobalt Blue I heard a combination of proficiency and artistry.
Saucerful Of Secrets is an album made by a band in transition, as their original guitarist and de facto leader Syd Barrett is only on about half of it, their new guitarist David Gilmour on the other half. I've been listening to this album for so long that the most popular tracks on the album are not the tracks I listen to most often these days, just to keep things fresh, I suppose. Still, as far as I'm concerned, there's not a bad song on the album. "Remember A Day", the second track on Saucerful Of Secrets was an excellent way to sonically illustrate the Cobalt Blue's competence, "Remember A Day" is a song written and sung by Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright, who besides singing the lead vocals, plays piano and Farfisa organ. Roger Waters plays bass, and the notorious Syd Barrett, who would soon leave the group, plays steel-string acoustic and slide guitar.
The drums, unbeknownst to me until very recently, weren't played by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, but played by producer Norman Smith, because Nick was frustrated by not being able to come up with a drum part that matched the song. But the drums sure do sound like Nick Mason plays them, as Mr. Smith nails Nick style of drumming by focusing on the drum kits toms, which not only drives the tune forward, but adds to sound quality that the Cobalt Blue promotes. This song itself is certainly not the best on the album, as the lyrics aren't that deep at all, the melody is a simple one, and considering that much of the album's lyrics lean towards having a much more psychedelic vibe, it sounds a bit out of place. But in regards to a song that brings out the best in the Cobalt Blue, it is nearly a perfect track. When playing it the Cobalt Blue was able to act as window into the recording session.
Yes, I realize that this was probably recorded on a four-track multi-track reel-to-reel, but the suit and tie wearing engineers at De Lane Lea Studios in London were well equipped to handle the job of recording a four-piece rock band, with only a few overdubs added later on. The Cobalt Blue has a very, very transparent sound, it enabled me hear "into" the recording, so much that I could imagine I was present when they played back the tapes in the studio's control room. I ended up spinning three versions of the song, two of them pressed in Japan, a very early pressing from 1968, with the back cover of the album entirely taken up by album information in Japanese, the other a pressing from the mid-1970s. The other was a pressing from later in the 1970s pressed in the UK.
All three obviously contained the same material but of them brought out different aspects of the recording. The earliest Japanese pressing isn't in prefect condition, but the Cobalt Blue seemed to either suppress the record's surface noise, or at least ride deep enough in the record's grooves to make the music and vocals much louder than the noise. The newer Japanese pressing sounded marvelous. The surface is dead silent. The toms on the drum kit I spoke of were separated from the rest of the instruments to let me hear a good amount of air around them. The vocals, too, even though placed relatively far back into the mix were easy to hear and make me wonder why Rich Wright wasn't featured as a lead vocalist in Pink Floyd more often.
As I often do, I got a hankering for some Mahler, so I spun a few sides of the set of Mahler's Fifth Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Solti on Decca Records. This two-record set has been in my collection for quite some time. When I lived in Washington DC I found this mint-condition set at an estate sale along with some other classical records. As a vinyl lover these estate sales were incredible, as the surrounding suburbs are rather upscale and transient, and finding amazing record collections that were no longer wanted was rather common, especially near the end of the last century.
The Cobalt Blue seemed to be made to play this record. As soon as the needle hit the grooves and I heard the horn intro, I know I was going to be in for a glorious 70-minute ride. This "taut and lean" symphony is from his middle period, as Mahler's symphonies numbered 5, 6, and 7 are purely instrumental works with a huge orchestra. In addition to the requisite strings and a wind section, there is a harp and a loaded horn section that includes a bass tuba. There is a battery of percussion used in this masterpiece, including timpani, snare and bass drum, cymbals, triangle, a whip, and glockenspiel. I've heard this symphony performed a number of times in Washington DC's Kennedy Center, and in New York at Avery Fisher (now David Geffen) Hall, and Carnegie Hall, and each time it seemed as if there were over 100 musicians on the crowded stage.
Granted, some of Mahler's symphonies also include a chorus or two, and perhaps a few solo vocalists, so everything is relative when discussing how many people a Mahler symphony orchestra might employ. Nevertheless, I said that the Cobalt Blue was meant to play this work. Of course, it helps that I used a reference system in this review that could reproduce this symphony in a somewhat realistic manner. But if it isn't fed a good signal from the LP, what's the use? The Cobalt Blue managed to separate the instruments and the instrument sections into discrete living organisms, which lived and breathed in my listening room. I've long ago realized that my system is not going to fool me into thinking that I'm listening to a symphony orchestra playing in an empty 50,000 square foot concert hall with a 50-foot proscenium.
That's not the point. The point is, that if I could hear a realistic reproduction of all the goings on that have been so excellently recorded by the Decca recording team, expertly pressed into the record imported from the UK so long ago, I've at least partially reached my goal. That's why listening to this work, reproduced by the Cobalt Blue MC phono cartridge, was a thrill. As I mentioned each instrument and section in its portion of the soundstage, as they were separated by a distance that seemed like meters, spreading beyond the borders of my large speakers, giving the impression I was sonically viewing the orchestra in miniature, although height often replaced depth if when mapping out the orchestra in my head. The sound of the double basses and tympanis were heavy as can be, their bass frequencies rattling the window frames in my listening room, as George Solti is one of the most aggressive conductors when it comes to Mahler as I've ever heard on record.
When the tympani was struck near the end of the second movement, I could imagine the timpanist hitting the drum so hard his feet would leave the floor. Even though this was during a climax near the end of the movement, and nearly every other instrument in the orchestra seemed to be playing in triple forte, the tympani separated itself from the din, and I could hear three distinct sounds from the instrument – the initial hit of the skin with the mallet, the resonance created in the belly of the large drum, and then the sound of the tympani resounding through that portion of the hall, igniting the air around it.
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