Pairing budget cartridges with

The Wand Plus Tonearm Version 2

Part 2

[The Wand Plus tonearm Version 2]

A really magical record-playing tool

Product name: Wand Plus tonearm v.2
Manufacturer: Design Build Listen - New Zealand
Cost: NZ$ 1,495 for the 9.5", NZ$ 1,695 for the 10.3", NZ$ 1,925 for the 12" inc. GST - (Currency conversion)
Reviewer: Richard Varey - TNT New Zealand
Reviewed: June, 2016

[Back to Part 1]

Comparing cartridges on The Wand Plus

[The Wand Plus tonearm and cartridges]

The Wand Plus with a range of budget cartridges

In Part 2, I listen to more cartridges and draw my conclusions from my extended comparisons. Time to try another cartridge, and I switched to the new Rega Carbon. At NZ$ 70, this is truly a cheap budget cartridge, reviewed very enthusiastically recently by Mike Cox here on TNT-Audio (September 2015). Following that glowing recommendation, I was intrigued to hear it compared with the much higher-priced others. I liked the surprisingly full-bodied character, even if it is somewhat lacking the subtlety and revelatory quality of the Sumiko Pearl. I heard extended bass, whilst the high end was a little constrained, although a subtle difference. It lacked the 3-dimensionality of depth and space in the soundstage, coming across somewhat flatter and narrower than the Sumiko, and less hard-hitting. Detail was surprisingly good, but less musical, with good control of surface noise, however.

How would the Grado Prestige Gold perform in this arm? On switching, this one would have to be mounted with adjustments to height, VTA, balance, and tracking weight, taking about 30 minutes to get back to music. The first record played sounded awful, with almost unbearable surface crackling. I had chosen Boz Scaggs' Middle Man for the full sound of the mix, but what I heard didn't even sound like his voice! It was thin, flat, harsh. Yes, my first impression was harshness, not musical, closed down/constricted/flat, less separated, subdued, and definitely not kind on surface noise. I didn't like it! For years, I've read about the Grado story and reputation and have wondered how this cartridge would sound. I once tried some SR60 headphones and they were truly great, but this cartridge produced what sounded like a recording being reproduced rather than music playing. Sure it was full-bodied and detailed, but a rather 2-dimensional soundstage, and a bit harsh and heavy, even lumpen. This was disappointingly lacking musicality. Convinced that this could not be right, I went back and redid the arm setup. But I couldn't get it to sound spectacularly good like the Sumiko, or even the cheap Rega. In fairness, it seems that the Grado cartridge is well used and may have lost some of its sparkle through ageing.

So how did the Clearaudio Aurum Classics cartridge do on The Wand Plus? It was perhaps more comfortable in The Wand Plus compared with on the Clearaudio Satisfy, but it also sounded a bit tame and dry with a hint of harshness. Again, it sounded too much like a record playing. Next came an Ortofon 2M Red which was more solid, smoother, rounded, with fuller bass, and less revealing of surface noise, but again rather a flat 2-dimensional presentation. At this stage, a few weeks into my experiment, the Sumiko was still my primary preference. The Denon DL103 came next. This much-revered cartridge produced a very full-bodied and detailed as well as big soundstage with depth, making it easy to get lost in the music experience, forgetting that a record was playing. Instruments had distinct identities sitting in a 3-dimensional soundstage, even when there was a lot going on in the recording, with subtlety and delicacy as well as solidity and impact. As with my first encounter with the Sumiko Pearl, I liked it from the first listen, even if it lacked those crisp clear highs I heard with the Pearl.

I also had the unexpected opportunity to audition a used SAE 1000LT line-trace high output moving coil, with Shibata stylus profile. This was made by Coral and has been available from www.thakker.eu as new old stock for Euro 300. The key expectation, I understand, for this cartridge is much detail dug out from deep in the grooves. So how did it sound on The Wand Plus? This one proved to be a problem, I think due to mismatching with my preamplifier, coming across as harsh and oh so unforgiving of surface noise. It was not a pleasant experience and this cartridge was soon removed.

Finally, I was able to audition a couple of the Hana range, starting with the EL which is part of a relatively new range of four models made in Japan by Sibatec. This model is a moving coil with elliptical stylus. The EL designation refers to the low output and stylus profile. The sample was loaned by Design Build Listen as they became the New Zealand importer during my project. Although neither model falls within a strict definition of budget (up to about NZ$ 300 in my terms), as they became available specifically for matching with The Wand Plus, I decided to include them in this comparison. Right from first listening it is evident that not only did this cartridge pull lots of detail from the groove, it also rendered the soundstage with exciting resolution and clarity. I could feel the rejuvenation of my record collection, even with very few hours of run-in use. The musical rendition was solid and deep, yet refined. I'll go as far as saying that this was no doubt the best arm/cartridge combination I have used in recent years, and it may just be the best cartridge I have used in my 40+ years hi-fi playing. I judged it the most pleasurable listening of this bunch and it looks great on The Wand too. It was hard to retain for long the idea that the music was being reproduced from a vinyl disc. Even really old records were rejuvenated and come to life with this combination.

The word hana originally meant brilliant and gorgeous in Japanese, and the name has been chosen to describe the presentation of the cartridge (which is an attractive moss green with the name character printed on the front). With it I heard stuff I have never heard before, but in a musical way rather than an analytical way. This cartridge was much better at resolving distinct instrument parts and layers of the mix that can be followed even when the recording is busy and complicated. Thus, whilst the Denon and Sumiko produce highly pleasing listening, the Hana EL was somehow simultaneously lowering the noise floor and encouraging me to turn the level up. Perhaps this is down to less distortion? Hence, the soundstage was open and expansive, pleasingly solid yet easily presenting delicacy in recordings, creating an extra level of connection with the playing. I'm thinking that this is partly from the polish on the elliptical diamond. I especially noticed that record track fade-outs were audible for longer, evidently not masked by disc noise, then falling into silence.

One of the unfortunate downsides of finding a more revealing cartridge is that the quality of recordings and pressings and the condition of the discs become much more discernible and evident. The great ones sound magical, easily transporting the listener into the land of the musicians' artistic expression, yet the bad ones are disappointingly flat and noisy. They sound just like noisy records being played! Simon Brown also offered to loan the more expensive Hana SL model. The range of quality I had discerned was even more my immediate experience with the SL with its Shibata profile. Records came to life with a big spacious soundstage and excellent bass and treble. There was just a hint of lighter midrange compared to the EL, but the overall balance was very nice. What it delivered is perhaps more subtle and not as weighty as the EL. Some previously disappointing records were presented more realistically than by other cartridges I've used over the years and the music made more sense, with certain details seeming better positioned and balanced within the mix, and so the soundstage was more coherent and just plain more listenable.

As a final test of listenability, or I prefer to say just plain old listening pleasure, I played my new copy of the recently issued Wishbone Ash direct-to-disc limited edition Live at Metropolis Studio album (a birthday present from my long-suffering yet endlessly patient wife). Fabulous engagement with all four players from the get go. This is what I have been seeking from playing vinyl records. I was so engaged with the sound that I also bought Bill Nelson and The Gentlemen Rocketeers Recorded Live at Metropolis Studios. It plays like an intimate live performance!

[The Wand Plus tonearm in place]

The Wand Plus in place

Conclusion

After a listening journey lasting several months, how did I feel about pairing a budget cartridge with The Wand Plus? A reminder here that the purpose of the project was to perform a listening test on a range of cartridges each mounted on The Wand Plus to find out what was accomplishable with a budget cartridge. I am totally convinced that the answer to my question «Can it be true that a budget cartridge will sound great in a well-designed tonearm» is a great big YES. To explain my judgement, I have several concluding observations.

Sophistication in the tonearm design has led to simplicity in installation and set up. I've done a lot of swapping on and off of cartridges in the course of preparing this review. The design makes this a breeze. The Wand Plus kit is far less dauntingly fiddly than with other arms, especially those with fluids and fixed mountings and fragile headshells. It was without doubt most helpful to have the arm and cartridges on extended loan, as listening over a few weeks rather than hours made so much difference to figuring how the products fit within my own listening habits. The patient cooperation of the designer in discussing details was also helpful. And so the winner is [drum roll here . ]

My overall ranking, based on my criteria (budget and listenability, without looking at specifications, apart from cartridge weight and stylus tracking weight, and price):

RANK CARTRIDGE PRICE NZ$ CONDITION TYPE
1 Hana EL 595 new MC
1 Hana SL 985 new MC
3 Sumiko Pearl 220 n/a MM
4 Denon DL103 335 n/a MC
5 Ortofon 2M Red 165 n/a MM
6 Rega Carbon 70 new MM
7 Clearaudio Aurum Classic 300? used about 400 hours MM
8 Grado Prestige Gold 315 n/a MM
9 SAE 1000LT 500 approx. about 25 hours prior use MC high output

I acknowledge that the Hana EL is barely budget on price, and the SL is definitely not in the same range as the others, and that I just couldn't decide between the EL and SL, although they sound different. If I hadn't come to know about the Hana range, I would have bought the Sumiko Pearl, for sure, followed by the Denon DL103. Perhaps no surprises there, except the price of my preferred budget option! I note that apart from the Sumiko Pearl, my preferences were definitely with moving coil cartridges. Yet, the Pearl succeeds with the moving coil models to extract musical detail, timbre, dynamics, and spatiality. And the Pearl is way cheaper than the others. These cartridges mounted on The Wand Plus pull detail from the grooves that I didn't know I had. For example, my several ELP albums that have always previously sounded flat now have much life and depth, and now I understand them as aural sculpture presentations.

One effect of the right cartridgearm combination is that record sides seem to play through extra-soon as the listening is so absorbing of my attention. I just don't experience a record playing, so sometimes having to jump up and lift the cartridge and turn the record over comes as a bit of a surprise when I'm in the groove. A bane of my audiophile muso life has been disc surface crackling, yet surface noise is almost nonexistent, and I hear silence between tracks, and on run-in and run-out sections what I hear is black. I am no longer apprehensive about and resigned to inner groove inferiority in smoothness and clarity, as I have been with previous arm/cartridge setups. My difficult records are played very musically. They sound less harsh and there is way less background noise.

Fascinating, isn't it?, this music experience the Grado brand has been on my list of products to hear for years, yet I get to play a $ 300 plus cartridge and don't like it, favouring instead $ 70 and $ 220 options. To check that I wasn't just confused, I went back to the Sumiko, and yes, indeed, it does sound livelier, bigger, more upfront, and more musical. There is simply more excitement from the record. I don't know if the Sumiko plucks more detail from the grooves, but I am convinced that it presents what it finds very realistically and believably - I have previously used a Sumiko Bluepoint 2 on a Linn Sondek with Linn Basik tonearm. The Clearaudio Emotion and Satisfy replaced that, yet I am certain that The Wand Plus and Pearl partnership is a definite further substantial enhancement, and the Pearl is less than half the price of a Bluepoint 2, whilst the The Wand Plus costs 20% less than the Satisfy.

In the end, though, the Hana models proved even more satisfying, albeit at a higher price and not really budget. I conclude that it is true to say that record playback has reclaimed primary place for my musical experience as The Wand Plus and Hana EL pairing transforms my turntable into a musical appliance with changed-for-the-better character. Music is present, not like playing a record, exhibiting detail, depth, delicacy, distinction, dynamic range, dimensionality, distance, and delineation, all derived by digging deep in the grooves. The effect is revelatory, and my record playing over recent months may well be my most satisfying equipment change in my more than 40 years as a hi-fi dabbler devotee.

Finally, one practical matter needs mentioning. You would need to find a smaller-diameter clamp than the 82 mm Clever Clamp supplied with the Emotion turntable. The bigger diameter arm tube (22 mm) rubs at the end of groove run-out on some records, when cartridges that have extra-wide bodies are fitted.

Postscript

Fabled entrepreneur (at least in marketing circles) Viktor Kiam liked the shave of Gillette razors so much he bought the company. In my much more modest circumstances, at the end of several months of listening, I decided to keep The Wand Plus tonearm and the Hana EL cartridge. Yes, I like that combination that much to buy it. I must say that I am mightily impressed by the rendering of music by certain budget cartridges mounted on The Wand Plus, as well as the simplicity of setup of the arm. So much so, that when I heard the Hana EL, I decided to buy it. I had already decided to buy The Wand Plus early in the project (and I understand from Simon Brown that other reviewers have kept their samples too!). Simon Brown's design values are simplicity and sophistication, and I was hooked soon into first playings of my go-to records. The Wand really is a magical record-playing tool.

Details of The Wand Plus, the Hana models, and various analogue and tonearm accessories available from Design Build Listen can be found at www.designbuildlisten.com. I owe a vote of thanks to Simon Brown for his considerable cooperation and the loan of tonearm and cartridges, and for widening my vinyl horizon, and to Graham Manning for the loan of the SAE cartridge.

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© Copyright 2016 Richard Varey - richard@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com