If we go back maybe six or eight years I can recall the very first time I met the President and Chief Engineer of Soundsmith, Peter Ledermann. He was the guest of honor at a meeting of the Audiophile Society held at City Island in New York. He was there to present his innovative strain gauge phono preamplifier and his strain gauge cartridge. Can you tell me, dear reader, how many businesses in this U.S. of A. import, modify, re-tip, research design and build new cartridges and amplifiers? Additionally Soundsmith not only designs and builds power amplifiers, phono amplifiers, speakers, and equipment racks they will even repair your vintage audio components. This is a company that bench trains and teaches the skills their employees will need to do this very specialized work.
To me this conceptually takes us back to the beginnings of high quality audio. In years past, a few talented hobbyists' started small cottage companies working from their homes. There was an enthusiasm generated by these people who loved music and who believed they had a better idea. Soundsmith is a different kind of company one that should be a role model. If all audio companies were founded with an understanding of true audiophile interests, we would get along very nicely without the bean counters.
The flow of time has carried me well beyond that Soundsmith Audiophile Society meeting, but I have not completely lost contact. Every now and then at audio shows I stop and chat with Peter Ledermann. The innovations he developed and applied to his Strain Gauge cartridge system makes you wonder why no one thought of these things before? If you are one of those who know why people still play vinyl recordings then go on line and take a look at this company, you will find a kindred spirit. As it happens, I can still find good vinyl recordings for about a dollar and so the time is right for an analogue upgrade.
Wish Is A Dream Your Heart Makes
By now, nearly all of the other really pricey Sound smith stuff has been covered in the audio press. There is little left for me to write about, however I think I have a great idea. What if we compare a stock DL-103 to one of Peters all out modified DL-103 Gold cartridges? The asking price for the wholly hand modified Gold is $1500. And so some days later in a phone conversation with Peter he agrees my idea might be a good way to demonstrate his rebuilding concept. We can make the auditioning process even more comprehensive if we do the comparisons with the Soundsmith Firefly MCP-2 Moving Coil Phono cartridge amplifier. There are three dedicated phono amplifiers offered by the Soundsmith Company. The MCP-2 Firefly at $700 is the top of the line. When you consider that, the MCP-2 incorporates moving coil step up transformers the price seems more than reasonable. Furthermore, it is the only one Soundsmith sells with continuously variable resistive loading. The load settings range from 10 Ohms up to 5 kOhms and that is with 63dB of amplification, the output impedance is 600 Ohms. The MCP-2 in combination with the upgraded DL103 Gold is $2200. The MCP-2 with the stock DL103 is $930.
You should understand at this juncture that two of the settings, cartridge tracking weight and VTA can best be determined by listening. This statement is true for both cartridges but especially true for the more critical nude line contact stylus of the Denon Gold. Test measurements that were supplied for the Gold and the Stock Denon were both taken at a tracking weight of 2.5 grams. However, there is a minimum and a maximum tracking weight range listed. It is 1.7 to 2.5 grams for the Gold and 2.3 up to 2.7 grams for the stock DL-103. I set both cartridges initially at 2.4 grams using my Roksan Digital Electronic Stylus Balance. Additionally turntable speed was set precisely at 33.3 rpm for each cartridge while playing a recording with a Digital Stroboscopic Laser Tachometer Model DT2234A.
Let us start ear tuning with the initial set up adjustments finalized and the top of the cartridge parallel to the record surface. The last adjustment is to lock in the (vertical) alignment of the stylus angle or VTA by adjusting the height of the arm pillar (lateral pivot). The stylus is roughly diamond shaped the pointed sides/shoulders of the stylus must be vertically aligned with the left and right surfaces of the record grooves. Using a familiar recording and then raising and lowering the lateral pivot point of the arm audibly alters the frequency balance. As you drop the arm pillar lower there is usually a decrease of treble information and more bass content. Conversely raising the arm usually has the opposite effect. Understand the range of adjustment is very small; a change in the stylus tracking angle or VTA in the record groove by a few thousands of an inch either way is audible. Ideally as you change the arm pivot height, you should try to equalize the amount of bass and treble that is present. And finally turn your attention to small details in the midrange, when you find that critical midrange setting it will open up a window on the performance.
In a comparison to the CD the stock Denon cartridge opens up the whole performance space, especially the depth dimension. A little slower to key in on it but now I also can get a better sense of sound stage height. The first word that pops into my mind is AIR! So now I am within the center of a distant, darker background with small details that can be heard to start and slowly decay in a more natural way. This natural reverberation better separates everything, the size and positions of individual instruments embedded in the recording. Additionally there are subtle differences of intonation and pitch that can better define and separate vocal tracks.
My bottom line conclusion is that the DL-103 is lucid in the sense that it dramatically opens up the soundstage to reveal many small details, it this is that makes a recording come to life. Now I understand why the DL103 has endured for so many years. You might have to listen to a far more expensive cartridge to detect any relative short comings. Moreover, just as the graph predicted the overall frequency response sounds almost ruler flat.
What you hear is the increased speed and transient response of the MCP-2. It is this which immediately grabs your attention. Very unexpected was the fact that over a span of months the sound of the moving coil amplifier improved. It is a gradual and subtle change, one that imbues the music with a greater sense of, BODY. It is a very difficult quality to describe my sense is that seems to slightly warm transients. It seems a bit more noticeable as you increase the resistive load. The MCP-2 can and does seem to extract more midrange and treble details from a vinyl recording than my ARC SP9. In combination with the DL-103, the Soundsmith Moving Coil Preamplifier does extract more instrumental pitch information from the very same performance. The other side of the coin is some of the natural body (for lack of a better phrase) and more organic warmth that is a hallmark of some close mic'ed acoustic vinyl is not as apparent with the MCP-2. Nothing is actually wrong with either phono preamplifier it all comes down to a matter of taste. What you hear from the MCP-2 is a modern high quality solid-state musical presentation. Ultimately it will come down to those audiophiles who like solid state sound versus the tube loving contingent. When I consider that the tube contingent has an even more specialized faction, the low power SET people, then I don't think this will be their cup of tea. Personally, I would like to combine the best attributes of both phono preamplifiers into one device. Finally, I had fun experimenting with the continuously variable load resistance that let me fine tune the tunes, very nice feature.
Piece de Resistance
In direct comparisons with the stock DL-103, the Gold has far better detail retrieval in every way. Another way to say this is that it has greater power to involve you in the performance. The heart of this recording is of course the sound of Joni Mitchells voice. The Gold revision depicts Ms. Mitchell's voice so that it becomes warmer sounding and far more intimate. Now you can far better relate to her as a human presence seemingly standing in front of you just out of arms reach. (No, I will not use that worn out phrase "Palpable Presence")
The bottom line is the performance and cost of the Denon DL-103 Gold should set a new benchmark for value. This cartridge extracts so much of the music's natural body and air and I could just sit and listen and forget it was there.
As always, Semper Hi-Fi
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