Product: Cartridge Retip - Cost 225 pounds
Manufacturer: The Cartridge Man - Britain
Contact: The Cartridge Man... tel/FAX : ++ 44 208 688 6565
Reviewer: Geoff Husband
After a run of cartridge reviews I think it's time I came clean...
I'm a vinyl nut. How did the CD sweep the world when the LP record beat it in sound quality? The icing on the cake is that second hand vinyl is everywhere and cheap as chips (old 386's probably...). But there are certain things that us vinyl addicts don't talk about, admit to CD fans or even think about if I'm being honest. I'm talking economics... We're all very proud of the fact that yer' average CD costs 10 pounds+ and an LP with a lovely gatefold sleeve, and better sound is available for two pounds or less -second hand.
OK so a top turntable/arm/cartridge will be more expensive than all but the most esoteric CD players, but surely the cost of the softwear easily makes up for that? Me? I've about 1500 records, at two pounds a shot that makes 3000 quid. Being generous about CD prices that equates to 15,000 worth of ceedees - no contest...
But.... All those nice cheap discs are played using a scrap of diamond as small as the eye can see. The snag is that that diamond doesn't last for ever. It wears away, or to be more precise the diamond heats up and "microflakes", getting smaller and losing that expensive profile all the time. Run dirty vinyl and you double the speed at which this happens.
The result? I'd guess that the average quality stylus will be loosing its edge on inner groves after 600 hours and be coughing up blood after 1500.
For me the point where cartridges suitable for a top deck begin is around the 300 pounds mark, with the level at which they get seriously special being three times that. So being a comitted audiophile you've bought that 1000 pound arm, the 2000 pound deck and the 1000+ cartridge - "but darling it'll last forever!..." Yea, but a year down the line (two hours a night) it don't sound so good.
That last track - and they're always the best - starts to sound like there's fluff on the needle. So off goes that cartridge on exchange and nearly a 1000 pound poorer bliss returns. Cost? 100 CD's - think about it...
You're a vinyl addict. Over the years you've tuned that vinyl front end to perfection. But hell that cartridge is starting to loose the plot... "What do you mean they don't make the Troika any more!!!"
Cartridges make a fundamental difference to the tonal balance of a system, greater than any other component apart from speakers - so what now? Try to get a dealer to lend you a half dozen cartridges to see which brings back the magic of the original - good luck with that one!
Few - very few dealers will stock more than a couple of high end cartridges at a given price point and they'll have to be a blood relative to let you take them home to play with... So a "blind" cartridge purchase results in changes all down the line as you try to regain that lost balance...
A retip. Get rid of that worn diamond and have a shiny new one for a fraction the cost of a replacement (if available).
Well in my case both scenarios applied. Having to work for a living and buy shoes for three kids I didn't have the money for a new 1000 cartridge every year or so. On top of that I'd built my system around a cartridge that was unavailable. A couple of years ago my Ortofon MC20 supreme began to sound sick.
Cash was a serious problem at the time but a small ad saw me buy a new/boxed Audio Technica AT33e for 120 quid. The nice gent on the end of the phone told me that though this antique cartridge had been unavailable in Britain it remained in production in Japan to satisfy a "cult" following and that he had one for sale.
Being hard up and gullable I bought the thing. Now two years later I wonder how on earth I'm going to replace it's huge soundstage, lightening fast delivery and sheer excitement? On top of that it matched CD as well as any cartridge I'd heard - the alternatives all made the CD sound thin making system matching a nightmare...
Enter one Len Gregory or "Cartridge Man" as he's become known. He took my beloved AT33e and glued one of his own special styluses on to its whisper of boron...
According to Mr Gregory this is a very special stylus indeed.
It's a complex line-contact with the highest contact area in the business. This means it should follow every tiny variation in the groove and at the same time exert less pressure and therefore less wear on the record itself. Alignment is by hand just like a two-grand exotic... Prior to this the cartridge is completely stripped and inspected.
The whole cartridge, not just the tip is checked. If serious damage is found, fatigue in the coil lead out wires for example, the cartridge may be a write-off. It depends on whether a new coil can be bought from the manufacturers - if so the fitting is included.
Ditto a damaged cantilever, though in this case the replacement is normally all includud in the price, something I find surprising considering what\other "retip" companies charge for this. Len told me that as the actual cost of the parts is small and he'd be rebuilding the cartridge anyway, it makes sense to make it all inclusive.
It's worth noting here that there will be cases where the cartridge is just too far gone - though if it works when it leaves you usually all will be well. Other things checked and replaced can include the suspension and small rubber cover around the cantilever found on most cartridges. Once all this is done the cartridge is tested and measured to check everything is spot on.
So a month later my baby returned. I'd always thought of "retips" as being a bit like tyre retreads. Great if you were hard up but don't expect miracles...
Bolting the old girl up (cartridge I mean...) showed I need not have worried. It slotted back into the system as if it had never been away. The balance returned, it had been a bit bass heavy with other cartridges I'd had to hand. A retread? Didn't sound like it, in fact I had no doubt that though my old cartridge was back it had been "turbocharged" in the meantime!
It just sounded so good! Putting it on my test record it became the only cartridge ever to clear ALL the tracking tests on the HFN+RR test record, something I'd previously doubted was possible...
But the memory plays tricks. Then by happy coincidence Steve Davey went to Japan on business and in a back street bucket shop bought a NEW AT33e for 80 pounds!!!! The chance was too good to miss so on my next visit I took my revitalised AT33e for a "show-down".
So new vs old? Steve and I did the swap on his DC powered LP12/ITTOK and Steve's succinct comment sums up the result "well I know what to do with mine when it wears out!".
They were obviously the same basic sound, the light, fast tonal balance remained, but the retipped AT33e just sounded a class better. It made the standard item sound grainy and hard. In no respect did the original match the retip.
In each case the difference was slight, but add up a bit better imaging, detail, tracking, bass etc etc and you get a major upgrade. Very expensive cartridges have a "magic" to their midrange, the standard AT33e hinted at it, the retipped version definitely had it. A retread? I don't think so....
To have Mr Gregory perform his magic costs 225 pounds. With my AT33e, a fine cartridge that happily saw off pretenders up to 500 pounds, it lifted it into the 1000 pound class. I my case I was suffering serious withdrawel symptoms after sending the Dynavector XV-1 back when the AT33 arrived. Only its return made life bearable.
It wasn't better than the XV-1, but its balance in my system was better and it was overall close enough to make me want to play music again - that is a huge compliment. Whether Mr Gregory's stylus and alignment is better than a hand built exotic I can't say. But there's no doubt that the standard AT33e is an excellent cartridge, the retipped version considerably better.
So all you out there - this is my bargain find for the year so far. Got a tired Troika? Been offered a knackered Koetsu for 100 pounds? Get in touch with the "Cartridge Man". Right now I know what I'll do when next my cartridge loses its edge...
© Copyright 2000 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com