Van den Hul
The Frog MC Phono Cartridge
Smooth and soothing sounds for vinyl
Review By Steven R. Rochlin
here to e-mail reviewer.
Over the past five years i
have been fortunate enough to avoid the digital wars. Let the other
guys deal with DVD-Audio, SACD, HD DVD and Blu-ray as i sit back and enjoy my 8000+ and growing vinyl collection. Almost a year ago my
review of the Oracle Delphi MK V turntable with Oracle-SME 345
tonearm proved that vinyl indeed has much to offer music lovers worldwide.
While attending the recent Munich
High End show, i was chatting with Aalt Jouk van den Hul (A.J.) at
some press event for another manufacturer. Have known A.J. for well over a
decade, as he attends many shows, and we have sat down and enjoyed some
nice conversations about music, audio equipment... whatever.
While we were discussing vinyl at the show i
came to realize that in all these years i have never reviewed one of his
fine cartridges. A.J. at first seemed a bit reluctant, then shared with me
that he personally builds each one. Naturally this takes time from his
extremely busy schedule. More prodding, and perhaps some begging on my
part, and A.J. agreed. When he asked which cartridge, my reply was
whatever he feels like sending and so a few weeks later a Van den Hul The Frog
arrived at my doorstep.
Unlike digital players, where changes
happen so often you need firmware upgrades between the obligatory
bi-yearly equipment upgrades, The Frog has been around for well over a
decade! Ask yourself this my friends, "How many of the same model DAC or
transport are being sold for a decade?" C'mon, don't be
bashful. Speak up and tell me about the decade old DAC in your system.
What was that you said, your DAC and/or transport is really old, as
you bought it three years ago. Uh huh, that's what i thought.
Easy To Please
Over the years i have noted that some cartridges
demand more 'care and feeding' in setup than others. This is not to call
them high maintenance, though it is to say that during initial setup you
can't just plunk it down on a table like a digital disc system and watch
your digital discs disappear in some black hole (drawer) and expect music
to come out the hindquarters. Analog, rightly, deserves a bit more
respect and the good news here is that Van den Hul's The Frog is perhaps one
of the easiest of cartridges to achieve great sound right out of the box.
My review sample came from the recent
Munich High End Society show and began the basic run in to get everything
settled. The Frog asks little, other than a very normal MC load. Due to it
being a fairly strong output MC, i toyed around with MM and MC settings,
finding that i did not need an MC step-up transformer and even tried running it
in MM mode provided there was plenty of gain on the preamplifier side
and/or a very sensitive input on the amplifier.
on a tracking force of 1.6 grams, thanks to my Clearaudio Exact digital
stylus gauge, and 1.5 of anti-skate. Other than that there were only very
small changes to VTA and alignment with the changeover from
Clearaudio's Stradivari to Van del Hul's The Frog. Without a doubt this
was the easiest cartridge change to date, as the Oracle-SME arm was happy to please. Color me a vinyl junkie as during the 2003
High End Society event in Frankfurt i took this photo of Robert
Suchy of Clearaudio (left) and A.J. van den Hul (right). These two are perhaps
the two most respected European cartridge designers in the world. Color me
humbled to be in their presence.
A.J. van den Hul B.V. is based in the Netherlands
and was founded in 1980. A.J.'s needle design is employed within many
cartridges, with literally millions sold to date! As a cartridge designer,
A.J. is legendary! Van den Hul also offers various cables and
accessories. Over the years he has written many papers and after reading
this article you should visit his site, as there is an immense amount of
information that will benefit both newbies and experts alike.
Am not going to write a technical
description, as over the past decade there has been much ink spilled in
this regard. The basics being this hand built moving coil cartridge, by
A.J. himself, has the coil of their more expensive Grasshopper III and the frontpole and suspension of the
Output is a healthy 0.65 mV/channel and expect to use a load impedance of
approximately 500 Ohms. The coils within The Frog are matched crystal copper-wire.
As usual, the personality of a cartridge is
quickly found out by the genre of music that finds its way on the platter
most often. In the case of The Frog it was romantic music. Ye ol' MoFi of
Frank Sinatra Nice 'N' Easy [MFSL1-086] sounded so seductive that
it made me want to cuddle up with the wife and... Eh hem, sorry about
that. Various LPs by Billie Holiday and the like also saw plenty of play
time. From a dead quiet background (thanks Oracle!) came smooth and
detailed music with plenty of groovy schwing. While i would not say The
Frog is the very last word in detail, it does bring forth approximately 95
percent of the good stuff in a way that was never offending to my ears.
Think of it like this, some loudspeakers have tons of detail, yet within
an hour you feel like someone put your head in a vice. The Frog effortlessly
revealed plenty of detail in a way that embraced my heart and soul.
But could it rock? A resounding yes! As i
type this am playing (flame retardant Nomex suit on) Def Leppard's
Pyromania [Mercury 810 308-1] as my wife treated us to a concert featuring
Foreigner, Styx and Def Leopard this past weekend. Ok, so an amplified
concert is no way to compare vinyl, and of course this album is in no way
audiophile, but it doesn't stink either. Even with this inferior,
pressing there was a hard rocking yet pleasant sound. Maybe this cartridge
should be nicknamed 'The Gentleman's Choice'?
Moving to audiophile favorites, the
must-have and incredible Cisco Music 180 gram release of Greig's Music
From Peer Gynt [LSC-2125] will easily show off what a system is
capable of! With Suites Nos. 1 and 2, plus Lyric Suite Op.54 for good
measure, here we have Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra.
This Living Stereo release showed just how good The Frog can sing, from
the very quiet and alluring moments to full-on orchestra, it is all there
to be enjoyed. With such a great performance it demands a great system,
and the Oracle/Frog combination does not disappoint. This record is simply
one of those must-have items. Harmonics had a sensational balance without
being overly warm. Perhaps a small touch warm, yet never veiled by the
proverbial rosy-color glasses.
Everything from the subtle changes as the
triangle is struck to the plucking of the stringed instruments, The Frog
simply dances and sings along. Section (stringed, brass, etc.) are reproduced with great clarity,
while the ebb and flow of dynamic shading are easily discernable. Bass
instruments are appropriately full and tight, with the hall sound filling things
out not just around and behind my loudspeaker, but well into my listening
Soundscape junkies take note, as Van den
Hul's The Frog will immerse you in room filling sound. This is perhaps the
deepest front soundstage my vinyl rig has reproduced, while width was
properly large. This enabled musical instruments/grouping to be
placed within their proper location with ease. Expansion into the room was
also of reference quality, so lovers of Q-sound Roger Waters Amused To
Death [Sony Music 468761 0] will be in heaven! Classical music lovers will
enjoy hearing various groupings of stringed section come alive from their
proper space, with a layer of horn instruments next and eventually the
percussion section at the rearmost of the stage. If you use this cartridge
and have a soundscape problem you had better look elsewhere in your
PRAT lovers take note as The Frog, in
combination with the Oracle Delphi MK V turntable with Oracle-SME 345
tonearm, balances perfectly between boogie and playing 'on the fours'. On Analogue Productions' Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section [APJ010],
his saxophone is right there as Philly Joe Joes' drumming sets the back
beat. Meanwhile Paul Chambers' bass walks the beat. Of course i
have to mention how Red Garland's piano playing dances all around the
beat, playing with those ever-important small cues of timing that makes
him a legend.
Major gripes? Well, none really. Minor ones
would be that the
uppermost range could use a touch more extension while inner
resolution falls a tiny touch short. Other than that, i'd leave everything else
as is and bask in the glory of an ease, smoothness, and excellent harmonic
balance. Of course this is why Van den Hul offers upper end
cartridges (at higher prices naturally). Yet for a cartridge that began at
$2500 a decade ago and now retails at $2895, if you do the math of
inflation and the continuing downslide of the dollar versus Euro/Pound,
the price today in comparison is downright reasonable.
Old? New? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a...
So why would anyone review a cartridge that
has been reviewed many times before and now stands at over a decade old?
Easy, because newer is not always better. Sometimes we audiophiles
get so swept away with the promise of new technology that the past is,
sadly, forgotten about. A.J. van den Hul's The Frog is perhaps one of the
perfect examples of a nearly legendary design still in production today
and easily holds its own. While it may not be the very last word for upper
end extension and innermost resolution, and there are upper line models to
fill that gap, this is one cartridge i could easily live with for many
years to come. There is so much right that the very small errors of
omission could easily be forgotten about.
Without a doubt this is also one of the
least fussy cartridges, so setup is easy while small fine-tuning is
rewarded. We must keep in mind we are
discussing a cartridge design that is well over a decade old! It saddens
me to be critical of this turntable/arm/cartridge setup, as it is so
wonderfully enjoyable that it makes me sit back and want to enjoy the music for
the next decade... and beyond. And, my friends, that is precisely
what it is all about.
Enjoy the Music,
Steven R. Rochlin
Type: Moving coil phono cartridge
Frequency Range 5 Hz to 55 kHz
Stylus Shape: VDH - IS
Stylus Radii: 2 x 85 Micron
Tracking Force: 1.2 to 1.6 grams
Static Compliance: 35 Micron / mN
Tracking Ability: at 15 mN at 315 Hz 70 - 80 Micron
Output Voltage: at 1 kHz at 5.7 cm/s eff. 0.65 mV RMS
Channel Unbalance: < 0.3 dB
Channel Separation: at 1 kHz/10 kHz >35 / >30 dB
Equivalent Stylus Tip Mass: 0.32 Milligram
Vertical Tracking Angle: 22 Degrees
Optimum Load Capacitance: non-critical
Recommended Load Impedance: 500 (> 200) Ohm
Recommended Eff. Tone arm Mass: 6 - 10 Gram
Moving Coil Resistance (per channel): 21 Ohm
System Weight: 8.2 Grams
Van den Hul
North American Distributor
Bluebird Music Ltd.
310 Rosewell Avenue
M4R 2B2 Toronto – Ontario
Voice: (416) 638- 8207
Fax: (416) 638 - 8115