Top Wing Suzaku - Red Sparrow MC Phono Cartridge
A few years ago I reviewed the Van Den Hul Crimson Stradivarius phono cartridge. I began that review by expressing my love-hate relationship with phono cartridges. The love stems from my love of music, and the fact that I prefer music reproduced by vinyl, and that the phono cartridge converts vibrational energy from the grooves of the records into an electric signal and then this electrical signal is somehow converted into the music that comes forth from our speakers.
The hate arises not from the fact that a very good phono cartridge can be quite expensive because it is a given that most great high-end audio gear is going to be expensive. But I hate that this expensive phono cartridge comes with a fragile stylus, and the components of this stylus are prone to breakage. Even if they aren't broken by accident, the stylus, and then the cantilever will eventually wear out. And then my only choice will be to return the cartridge to the manufacturer, where they will either replace it or repair it. For a price, of course. Or I can buy another expensive cartridge to replace the expensive broken one.
The Top Wing Suzaku – Red Sparrow, like most every other phono cartridge, is a fragile device. But with experience comes the ability to be able to use a cartridge without destroying it. Still, accidents happen. The trick is to minimize accidents to a level of zero. Despite this, cartridges will eventually wear out. This is unavoidable.
However, the Red Sparrow has a stylus, with its associated tip, cantilever, and magnets, plus coil, damper, and all the other materials that make up the stylus that is made of interchangeable designs. This makes it possible to replace the Red Sparrow's stylus at 1/10th its' original price. The price of the Top Wing Suzaku – Red Sparrow is $16,500. Yes. That price is not a typo. The good news is that the comparatively low price to replace the stylus is only $1650. Which is admittedly not a lot of money for a repair for any high-end phono cartridge, especially a $16,500 phono cartridge. The adage "there is no such thing as a free lunch" quickly comes to mind.
Now I feel the same way when reviewing a component for Enjoy the Music.com that I might not be able to afford. That is unless I take out a second mortgage on my life. Writing high-end audio reviews for over 25 years allows me the privilege of once in a while being assigned reviews of pricey audio components. I also review many high-end audio components that are either affordable or are budget components. This review is not one of those. But I always review equipment in the same way regardless of price – whether or not this audio components can make music. And if it can make music, I'll describe how this component makes music in my system.
There is no denying that I like to read reviews of top-of-the-line high-end audio equipment. I have a feeling that many readers of high-end audio equipment magazines like to read about top-of-the-line high-end audio equipment, too. The Ferraris of audio, in a sense, if you will. The Top Wind Suzaku – Red Sparrow is one of them. I know, it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
In their literature and on-line, Top Wing says that this type of system in the Red Sparrow does not generate any of the issues that are typical of Moving Coil (MC) cartridges, such as an irregularly moving coil output dictated by magnetic flux, which produces distortion and other anomalies. Nor does it act like a Moving Magnet (MM) cartridge, which has a long magnetic path and so its responsiveness deteriorates while on this path.
But the Red Sparrow has the level of maintainability of MM cartridges. That is what I was outlining when explaining how the owner of this cartridge will be able to replace a broken stylus for only a fraction of its original retail price. This coreless straight-flux system is a remarkable design feature that is not only able to retain the advantages of both MC and MM cartridges, but also does away with their disadvantages.
Top Wing's first cartridge, their "Blue Dragon", used a very ridged housing to eliminate any resonances that might interfere with the sound of the cartridge as it was passing over the grooves of a record. This new Red Sparrow cartridge weighs much more than the Blue Dragon, and so it had to be designed with a much lighter housing to deal with this weightier cartridge.
These lighter materials led to the body having resonant points that were audible. And so, Top Wing designed the Red Sparrow using different vibration frequencies to disburse these resonances. The materials used include titanium, dry carbon, and a "high-performance" resin that is in the category of "super-engineering plastics". The use of these materials not only reduced the weight of the cartridge, yet also made it so it was able to be used with a wider range of tonearms.
Top Wing claims that by using the combination of the coreless straight-flux system plus "advanced technologies and innovative materials", the Red Sparrow has a "natural sound unique to analog and soundstage reproduction never before possible". Because of the asking price of the Red Sparrow, the only response to that claim that I could think of is, "It better".
The main reason for attaining the Top Wing Red Sparrow phono cartridge was to have a cartridge that would suit this $15,000 phono preamp. When reading the review, you will realize that the marriage was a perfect one. After the Allnic phono preamplifier was returned to the manufacturer (I cried, but then) I connected the cartridge to the unbalanced inputs of the very capable Pass Laboratories XP-17 phono preamplifier that occupies the third hanging acrylic shelf of an Arcici Suspense equipment rack.
The Tri-Planar tonearm in which the Red Sparrow is coupled to a Basis Audio Debut V. The turntable came from the factory as a model Debut Gold, but was later modified by the late Basis Audio owner A.J. Conti. The ‘table's plinth and other mechanisms had to be re-machined for it to accept an AC synchronous motor. Now that this Debut turntable had an AC motor, I was able to connect the turntable's AC cord to an outboard speed controller and an AC regenerator used as a speed controller. Not only did it provide the turntable's motor with a perfect AC sine wave, the frequency of this sine wave could be changed, which in turn changes the speed of its motor, and thus its platter. 60Hz spins the platter a 33.3 rpm, 81 Hz spins it at 45 rpm.
The Allnic phono preamplifier or the Pass Labs phono preamp was connected to a vacuum tube-powered Nagra Audio Classic Preamplifier, and the preamp to my reference solid-state Pass Laboratories X250.8 power amplifier. This combination of solid-state power amplifier and the tubed preamplifier is a set-up that I've been using for many years. The power amplifier was connected via 12' of speaker cable to a pair of full-range electrostatic speakers, the Sound Lab Majestic 545. Despite the manufacturer's claim of these large electrostatic speakers being full-range, their published specs rate them down to 32Hz. This is a decent specification, but for as long as I had them, I've augmented their bass frequencies with a pair of subwoofers. I currently use two SVSound SB16-Ultra subwoofers which have a frequency response in the bass down to 16Hz.
The in interconnects, speaker, and power cable in the review system was made by Kimber Kable, which I reviewed at the end of last year, their Carbon 8 interconnects, Carbon 18 XL speaker cables, and Ascent power cables.
The system is I auditioned the Red Sparrow in is a dedicated listening room. It is provided with two power lines that are fed directly from the circuit box in our basement. The wall receptacles were made by Virtual Dynamics. Even though there was decent power supplied to the listening room, the majority of the equipment was connected to Goal Zero battery power supplies. The front-end was powered by a Goal Zero Yeti 400, and the Pass Laboratories power amp had its' own power supply, the Goal Zero Yeti 1000. At night I often plugged the Pass Labs 250-Watt power amp directly into the wall, and all the other equipment, including the subwoofers and the speakers' AC was connected to a Chang Lightspeed ISO 9300 power conditioner. The listening room has acoustic treatment panels, and the superfluous sound is absorbed somewhat by shelves filled with LPs lining most of the walls.
I loath to apologize for using so much space describing the system in which I auditioned the Top Wing Red Sparrow. My excuse is that this cartridge will likely sound different in the system in which it is used, more than most others, especially those not in the class of this small, but very important component. I feel that my turntable/tonearm system is certainly more than good enough to be able to hear any sonic nuance that this cartridge possesses. My analog front-end might not be a super-premium esoteric design, but there was no time during the review period that I didn't think that I was getting the most out of this cartridge.
I could easily hear changes in the sound after making very small changes in the setup, and I mean the setup of the cartridge on the turntable, and any small changes such as VTF, the loading settings on the preamplifier, as well as changes in the system. During the tail end of my audition of the Red Sparrow I was loaned a pair of Raidho Acoustics TD4.2 (review forthcoming), which replaced the Sound Lab Majestic 545 speakers in my system. This should remove anyone's doubts, especially those familiar with these large speakers, whether the review system was "good enough" to hear all of the Red Sparrow's traits.
I listened to countless vinyl record LPs, singles, and EPs of many different genres and sub-genres during the time this cartridge was in my system. I had a tough time writing this review because I didn't know which record to choose to discuss to describe what I was hearing and to describe the differences between this cartridge and the previous transducers that have been mounted on my tonearm throughout the last few years. This cartridge is so much better its not a fair fight, as it trounces any that's come before it. The sound it produced was determined by what was pressed into the grooves of the record, not by the phono cartridge. The cartridge simply translated these grooves into electrical signals better than any cartridge that has come before it.
And so, I could discuss any trait that analog-loving audiophiles might be looking for in a cartridge and write about how it excelled in this area. Its frequency extension, dynamics, inner resolution, the soundstage, imaging and even the way it looked in its red and black body with the Japanese characters on the front, which is the first thing one sees when facing the turntable, excelled in all areas.
I suppose there might be differences in sound between the Red Sparrow, and let's say, the Clearaudio Goldfinger, the Air Tight Opus-1, or a Koetsu Tiger Eye. I doubt I'll even be able to acquire any of these other circa $15,000 phono cartridges to perform a direct comparison. But I suspect the differences between them will be mostly nuance because any deviation from what I'm hearing with the Top Wing Red Sparrow will be a deviation from absolute perfection when it comes to any of the features I listed in the above paragraph.
After that is done, if the owner of this cartridge is only half as happy as I've been during this audition period, that should be more than satisfactory, and this cartridge will likely end up being the last cartridge they will ever need. And likely one of the best they've ever heard. This is a damn good phono cartridge.