The ClearAudio Virtuoso Mk II Moving Magnet Cartridge
|The ClearAudio Virtuoso Mk II Moving Magnet Cartridge|
Flirtations with the "Dark Side"...
1 August 2001
ClearAudio Virtuoso Mk II cartridge
OK, I admit it! Lately I have been flirting with, and have been somewhat smitten by, the "Dark Side" of our hobby -- the compact disc. Coincident with the arrival of my ModWright Perpetual Technology P-3A, I no longer find in necessary to shut down the digital playback system after only an hour or so and replenish my spent musical spirit with a fix of vinyl playback. However, as a self-respecting, die-hard vinyl advocate, it is my duty to remind you that a good analog front-end still kicks stuffing out of the best digital rigs out there. I’m not trying to pick a fight here, but there really is no debate. When done properly, the LP is musically superior to the CD.
To that end, last fall I sold my Linn LP12 Valhalla only to replace it with an Oracle Delphi Mk III, complete with numerous upgrades. The newer Mk V spring set improves considerably upon the original suspension. The stock, felt-padded feet have given way to the heightened clarity and resolve offered by a troika of McCormack aluminum cones. The hard Goldmund Relief Mat, quite similar to the new Oracle Mk V hard mat, provides a more effective transfer of stylus-induced resonances to the platter. Let me tell you analog fans, this new platform, when mounted with the same cart and arm, was quite an improvement over the venerate Linn. I decided it was time for a new cartridge.
Entering New Territory
For some time now I have lusted after a number of mega buck carts out there like the van den Hul Frog or the ClearAudio Insider. Not having deep enough pockets, I thought it might be appropriate to try a more affordable unit from one of those manufacturers. As chance would have it, a brief but informative meeting with Robert Suchy of ClearAudio at CES 2001 put an end to my quest. "Why not try our new Virtuoso Mk II?" he asked. "It’s the best moving magnet cartridge we make!" With that kind of endorsement, why not indeed?
The family of Moving Magnet cartridges from ClearAudio includes the Alpha, the Beta, the Beta-S and culminates with the Virtuoso Mk II. It is an unusual specimen to my way of thinking as, like all of its lessor and greater siblings, it has a stylus profile of 4 by 40 micrometers. I’m used to the better known and more pronounced elliptical shapes like the Shibata, line-contact, fine-line, van den Hul and hyper-elliptical designs. Most of those styli shapes have profiles of something like 3 or 4 by 65 to 80 micrometers. A little searching revealed that that this shape dates back to a late 1960’s Japanese design purchased by Peter Suchy, Robert’s father, and it is still championed to this day.
The Virtuoso Mk II offers a fairly high output of 3.6 mV, boasts a channel separation of greater than 30 dB and a channel-to-channel balance of less than .3 dB! Since this is a medium compliance cartridge with both a vertical and horizontal compliance of 15 cu, it was a perfect match for my low mass Magnepan Unitrac I, carbon fiber, uni-pivot arm. Since the cartridge’s compliance and the tone arm’s effective mass integrate to form their own resonant system, it is very important to match the cartridge to its host arm quite closely. In this case, the combined mass of my arm (7 grams) and the Virtuoso Mk II (10 grams) yielded a system resonance just below 10 Hz, putting it nearly dead center in the target range of 8-12 Hz.
A couple of other items struck me as fairly unique about the Virtuoso Mk II. For one, its cantilever was fashioned from aluminum. At this price point I would have expected the use of boron, which most cartridge manufacturers accept as a more sonically neutral material for this application. In addition, the recommended tracking force is fairly heavy, suggested as from 2.0 to 2.5 grams. Heavy tracking alone doesn’t bother me, especially since I have the use of a Wally Tractor Alignment Gauge. The Wally Tractor is made specifically for the model of tone arm it is to be used with and is quite simply the most accurate and easy to use overhang gauge ever put on the market. Tracking at too light a weight, especially with a mis-aligned cartridge, can do considerable harm to your precious vinyl.
Setting the Vertical Tracking Angle, or VTA, with the Virtuoso was a bit maddening at first. Most cartridges offer their best performance when adjusted so the cartridge body is more or less parallel to the record surface. This alignment left me thinking I was still missing some of the Virtuoso Mk II’s performance. Only after remembering that ClearAudio importer Joseph DePhillips had mentioned that the best angle for this stylus profile is a few degrees above parallel was I able to dial it in for the best balance of tonality, space and dynamics. The Virtuoso seemed even more particular to VTA adjustment than any of the other carts I had on hand. A quick email to Michael Fremer verified that he too had found ClearAudio carts to be a tad more VTA sensitive than many other brands.
Moving Magnet Magic
Once mounted and aligned properly, the Virtuoso Mk II was off and running. What a thoroughbred! Right out of the starting gate it was fast, clean, detailed, smooth and superbly balanced. I have yet to hear another cart in my system with the octave-to-octave balance of the Virtuoso. There is a "seamlessness" of timbre that is completely unlike anything I’ve heard from any of the moving coils in my experience. This complete tonal cohesiveness had a magically seductive effect similar to the understanding one has upon first hearing a pair of speakers in which the drivers have been truly seamlessly integrated. There is a pronounced liquidity to the sound. There are no "edges" or boundaries to the different audio bands, no defined bass, midbass, midrange or treble. They ebb and flow effortlessly into each other. There was no excessive bloat in the bass or mid bass, no over emphasis in the midrange, and no stridency in the upper reaches. There were no recesses in the lower treble to emphasize presence and no roll-off in the upper treble to camouflage glare and stridency.
When compared head to head with the four Moving Coil designs I had on hand, the Virtuoso Mk II outshone them all in categories where the MC designs normally have a distinct performance edge; low level detail, micro-dynamics and resolution. Sounds buried way down low in the noise floor were retrieved and served up clean, crisp and clear. The muted timekeeping foot tapping of drummer Chris Layton on the superb Absolute Analog reissue of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Couldn't Stand The Weather (Epic 25940) has never been better resolved. In this track there are several musical pauses where the band repeatedly stops and restarts before cutting loose into the body of the tune. During these pauses, Layton’s ever-so-low-key foot tapping is so readily apparent and clearly outlined in space that you can almost tell what brand of shoe he is wearing.
Micro-dynamic shadings, like those perceived when the explosive breath created when forming words beginning with "P" assault the microphone, literally explode into and briefly pressurize the entire listening room. Listen to the lyrics found just under a minute into "Black & White" from Sarah McLachlin’s Surfacing (Arista/Classic Records RTH-18970) to get a feel for this aptness. Its ability to resolve and articulate the subtlest of queues and nuances is simply the best I’ve heard in my system – by far. In these respects, this cart’s performance reminded me of the sense of ease and effortlessness that had so clearly been recreated by a Delphi/Graham/Frog combination in the Joseph Audio room at the Chicago Stereophile show.
Low bass was a special treat. From the lowest harmonics of the piano through bass guitar runs to bass drum strikes, the Virtuoso Mk II holds on and goes deep. Pitch definition is exceptional, even as it shows its ability to plumb the deepest of depths and offer some serious weight. An excellent example can be heard following John Entwhistle’s bass work on the MCA Heavy Vinyl reissue of Who’s Next(MCA 11164). With the cuts "White Lightning and Wine" and "Sing Child" from the Nautilus release of Heart (NR3), I was treated to the "flavor" of individual drum skin tones. If you’ve ever had the chance to sit in close to a live drum kit when it was being worked over by someone who both knows what they are doing and tunes their kit before doing so, you know just what I mean. Whether playing organ symphonies or classic rock anthems, blues classics or jazz masterpieces, bass definition was accurate, clear and clean.
The Virtuoso Mk II never lets you forget the piano is a percussion instrument. The gentle musings of Ivan Morevec, the idiosyncratic thundering of Glenn Gould, or the virtuosity of Vladimir Horowitz were all accomplished on a heightened emotive level, rendering all the bloom and power of this enormously versatile instrument. The piano nearly comes to life on tracks like the Byron Janis reading of the LisztTodtentanz on the Classics reissue (RCA LSC 2541). Piano keys, whether vigorously struck with explosive attack or ever so lightly brushed into a whisper, were presented with all the emotion and sensuality with which they were conceived.
The demand exacted by female vocals and piano works tend to expose the most strategically concealed weaknesses in any cartridge. In this endeavor the Virtuoso Mk II continued its A-plus performance. Patricia Barber or Julie London, Sarah McLachlin or Ricki Lee Jones, Tori Amos or Ann Wilson, the Virtuoso Mk II captured and regenerated each artists unique voice in all her individuality. It has an uncanny ability to render the detail behind the nuance. It almost permits you to "see" the subtle breaths taken, moistening of lips, or tongue pressed against teeth for enunciation: seemingly every inflection was unearthed.
The male voice is presented wonderfully as well. Listen to cuts like "Daylight Again" from the 1977 release Crosby, Stills & Nash (Atlantic SD 19104). The three distinct voices of David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash were reproduced with chilling body and power adding that much more to the valuation of their superb harmonies. The robust, charismatic voice of Stevie Ray Vaughan, all too often overlooked in favor of his obvious guitar mastery, is astonishingly emotive on cuts like "Tin Pan Alley" and "The Things (That) I Used To Do," again from the Absolute Analog Couldn't Stand The Weather.
That delicious bronzy flavor of well-recorded cymbals was recreated without getting spitty or "white." Delicate cymbal brushings, triangle strikes and upper register harmonics from strings and brass were detailed, clear and solid without getting aggressive, unless that was an attribute of the recording. This ability to delicately unravel inner detail in the upper frequency limits is easily appreciated on the 1977 Steely Dan masterwork Aja (MFSL 1-033). This attribute also contributed significantly to the cart’s ability to accurately render images in both their proper size and specific location as well as to portray a realistic feel of the space of the soundstage.
Returning to the 1977 release Crosby, Stills & Nash, the foreground of the soundstage in the cut "Fair Game" is sprinkled with a myriad of percussion instruments like maracas. These instruments each take on a definite "place" throughout the soundstage and then never budge from the location they initially occupy. With the 1972 Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (MFSL 2-516), the Virtuoso Mk II offered the most articulate and deepest sense of layering I’ve ever experienced from this record. It has an uncanny ability to present a realistic sense of the liveness of the room as vocals and instruments decay.
In the opening of Rush's "Witch Hunt" from Moving Pictures(Mercury/PolyGram SMR 1-4013), numerous varieties of subtle sounds populate the soundstage. Nothing here was misplaced, nothing wandered and nothing was slighted. The opening tom roll was breathtaking, revealing not only left to right positioning but front to back queues as well. In this respect, the Virtuoso Mk II is second to none in my experience.
Whether tracing torturously complex passages like the opening from Prokofiev's Sythian Suite (Mercury SR 90006), or resolving delicacies like massed strings, it was wonderfully competent at unraveling the dense and often overwhelming layers of material. It had little trouble placing those layers in near vise-like precision throughout the soundstage and was hard pressed to offer even the slightest hint of congestion or indistinctness. Only occasionally, under extreme dynamic taxation, did the upper registers suggest just the slightest hint of hardness and loss of image location lock. This is a common stumbling block for many fine cartridges. This, along with a slight but perceptible reduction of large-scale (macro) dynamics, were the only shortcomings I was able to unearth in my time with the Virtuoso Mk II.
The ClearAudio Virtuoso Mk II is very neutral and extremely musical. It offers a degree of inner detail and micro dynamic shading I’ve only found previously from moving coil designs. It is both engaging and truthful, not necessarily a forgone conclusion with a pricey cartridge. It is articulate and resolute without being clinical or etched. It offers remarkable extension at both frequency extremes and superb control over them both. It is neither particularly forward nor recessed in its presentation. Most importantly, it offers a mastery of tonal balance unlike anything I’ve ever before experienced under the $2,500 mark. In short, the ClearAudio Virtuoso Mk II is one of the finest sounding cartridges I’ve had the pleasure to hear, regardless of design or price. Highly recommended.
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