It was another warm Thursday afternoon where I found myself heading up to Newhall, CA to test out another round of gear at Schiit Audio’s retail establishment appropriately called the SchiitR. The subject of today’s scrutiny was a bit of twist however, as the budget-friendly audio company is in preparation for the launch of their first turntable called the Sol.
The long-anticipated turntable will not ship with a stylus/cartridge, so the team of all things Schiit reasonably predicated that it would be a cool experience to put some options back-to-back though a full loom of their own gear – starting with Sol and ending with a pair of Magnepan 1.7i ($2k) loudspeakers. Once again, thanks to the help of the staff we were able to do the comparisons blind. A little more blind perhaps than our 4 pre-amp shootout, as this time around only one person at the event even knew the models of each cartridge (with the needle switcher in the dark as well). The carts were pre-assembled to matching arms ahead of time, so the wait between listens was as speedy as possible given the circumstances. All-in-all it was a fairly well executed showdown. From my listening position, I was unable to see any visual differences as we listened, although the resulting acoustic throughput did not appear exactly the same from any of the options.
Back to back comparisons of five different cartridges
In terms of the over all experiment, I was most surprised that the pre-amp showdown proved to have a greater order of magnitude in overall sonic impact than the needles generally did. That is not to say that changes were not noticeable, or even dramatic for that matter, just not as great of swing compared to what I heard from comparing the new Schiit Freya S/+ Vs. Saga S/+. That being said, it was still an ear-opening experiment. No one was really aware of which model was which, and most importantly – no one was made aware of cost. The critical listening session consisted of set of 5 cartridges, starting with the Grado Black 2 ($75), a Nagaoka MP110 ($120), a Micro-Acoustics 2002e ($200), a Decca Mk. V Maroon ($950) and a Dynavector 10×5 ($750).
Grado Black 2
While the first cart out of the gate had a bit of a tougher time in the first rotation, overall the playback from the audiophile favorite Hotel California acoustic from the Eagles Hell Freezes Over still rang through with a solid fidelity and fun, mid-centric texture. Comparisons to the Nagaoka left a little bit of an unusual translation in the treble for the Grado, but still a solid option considering the relative cost.
Jeff Buckley’s Lover You Should Have Come Over from the popular Grace album felt more intimate in the smooth singing of Jeff’s vocals, but slightly more laid back in sum. The texture-rich translation offered up less high end peak than the Dynavector, but some tracks still felt a little brighter than some stops on the 5 point sonic road trip as it progressed.
Still clinging to the amazing combination of instrument and vocals of LYSHCO, surprisingly the Micro-Acoustics translation felt more alluring around Jeff’s guitar than the Nagaoka, but to a lesser degree for his voice. My notes reflect an initial knee jerk reaction of “more natural” but this starting punch evolved over time. There did seem to be slightly less treble response than the Grado or Nagaoka, but spacing and image placement was on point for most of the show.
Decca Mk. V Maroon
If the Micro-Acoustics started out as more natural, the Decca kicked off with “more lively”. Given a choice between the two, I would usually side with the latter. On the frequency scale it felt as if the Maroon offered up more high end response than the rest of the list. Perhaps in conjunction with that response, percussion felt a little more extended along with more air up top all around. Babe I’m Going To Leave You by Led Zeppelin tends to break up a bit in the busiest parts of the raging song. Of all the products on display that day, the Decca appeared to provide the most clarity out of the messy passages. Jimmy Page’s guitar work was projected in a full and dynamic fashion, with vocals just a hair less rich than the Micro-Acoustics.
Jeff Buckley’s voice didn’t have as much tenderness in it as the Decca, but the delivery was still delicate and robust. The Dynavector had the lowest output of all 5 of the carts, and by a wide margin. Once things were leveled off the final product was entertaining, if not a little thinner than the some of the other options.
Adele’s pop hit Rolling In The Deep was also auditioned but was met with some hard criticism from the more seasoned production people in the listening group. It became clear as we continued to listen to other recordings that even the vinyl issue of “21” still contained remnants of heavily compressed vocals, which left playback with tinny or shouty overtones – no doubt a victim of the loudness wars that plague some popular mainstream recordings.
So what’s the best cartridge for your turntable?
A clear winner was much harder to call than it was for the pre amp shootout. In truth, five components was a bit much to draw from, three being better, but even just a straight A/B makes things easier for more conclusive observations. Still, many voices raised for the Decca Mk. V Maroon as a preference, with some parade for both the Micro-Acoustics and Dynavector as options. Some variations were found between the three but for most part they all performed admirably in this execution. Output levels did vary some from box to box, making quick changes even a little more elongated than usual while amplifier or gain settings were properly adjusted.
The general help tip here is to try to arrange some type of personal test for yourself, if possible. Some of these units can be found on the used market, but if you find yourself in possession of a rig full of Schiit gear and a Sol table then maybe you want to drop something in the $100-$200 range on the stylus given the projected $700-$900 cost of the table. Take that as a very general observation however, budgets and preferences might chart a different course for your setup. Given that the cartridge is an essential element of the source here, that signal when it most precious can aggregate to noticeable changes in playback. That in mind, there was an fundmental nature to the Sol to scale with each cart – so bigger budgets might not hit a ceiling at that preconceived $200 mark. The differences can be unearthed though the light cover of detail, and as some may tell you, hifi is all about the little details.