The Garrott Brothers OPTIM S and OPTIM FGS Phono Cartridges
|The Garrott Brothers
OPTIM S and OPTIM FGS Phono Cartridges
A Fabled Name From The Past Returns
14 August 2002
"Dynamic Coil" moving magnet phono cartridges
Output: 4.0 mV at 5 cm/sec
Loading: 47 K ohms
Tracking Force: S -1.5 to 1.8 g
FGS - 1.7 to 2.0 g
S = Shibata stylus
FGS = Fritz Geiger Signature stylus
User Replaceable Stylus
Price: Optim S: $700/Optim FGS $1600.
US Distributor and Mail Order:
Jerry Raskin's Needle Doctor
419 14th Avenue SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414
Phone: 800 229 0644
155-157 Camderwell Rd
Hawthorn East Victoria
Phone: +613 9882 0372
Fax: +613 9813 3108
LP enthusiasts with long memories, especially those attuned to the UK audio market, will fondly recall the Garrott Brothers and their excellent line of phono cartridges. The Australian firm met a sudden end with the sad death of its two principals, but has reorganized under the leadership of Philippe Luder and is back. It's cheering to see the company return and heartening to see their phono cartridges available again.
The new Garrott Brothers also offer extensive cartridge re-tipping services: good news to those enthusiasts with drawers full of old, suspect, or damaged cartridges, those obsolete orphaned favorites whose companies have disappeared. Re-tipping options are extensive, allowing cantilever material choice and stylus shape options. Having recently joined the legions of Blue Point Special owners who have lunched the stylus of the BPS, I sent mine to Garrott for a new stylus and to try a more exotic stylus shape than the stock elliptical. I'll be reporting on the results soon.
The current Garrott phono cartridge line is broad: two moving coil cartridges top the line at $6,000 (review to come) and $3,000, along with 6 "dynamic coil" moving magnet cartridges ranging from the spherical tipped K1 at $200 to the Fritz Geiger Stylus-equipped Optim FGS at $1600.
The dynamic coil cartridges are unprepossessing in physical appearance: the cartridge bodies are plastic and feature user-replaceable styli with slip off stylus guards. They use open-ear mounting lugs, making installation slightly more fiddly than threaded lugs.
Although Garrott's term "dynamic coil" might lead one to suppose that the cartridges are some form of moving coil design, they are indeed moving magnet designs. The term "dynamic coil" refers to the damping and balancing of the entire signal generating mechanism, including the coils. Garrott feels strongly that single-minded, incorrect application of damping can corrupt the dynamic flow of the signal, leading to a dead and lifeless sound. The replaceable stylus is held in by friction. This is in contrast to the growing trend of other moving magnet cartridges to fix the stylus ala moving coils and to preclude user replacement.
The Garrott Optims are thus slightly eccentric in the world of high performance cartridges. Their output, at 4.0 mV, is generous and does not require a high gain phono section. This is a definite plus as there are many excellent and affordable moving magnet phono preamps available. Tube preamp owners will be comforted by the higher signal/noise ratio the high output allows.
Set-up was slightly fiddly: more care than usual was needed to keep the cartridge from sliding around within the open-eared lugs when the cartridge screws were snugged up. The plastic body requires some foresight so as not to crunch it with over-zealous tightening, though this would be hard to do with the supplied cartridge screws. No instructions for optimum VTA were included, but the clearance of the slide-in stylus block at the bottom of the cartridge enforces an alignment that keeps the stylus body from dragging on the record.
The Optims were temperature sensitive and preferred room temperature, tracking and sonics were compromised at temperatures below 64 degrees F, though I suppose only a resident of The Great Frozen North would notice this. Break-in was achieved in about 40 hours. The Shibata stylus of the Optim S is the granddaddy of exotically shaped stylus profiles, developed originally to decode the information contained in the ultra high frequency carrier of the early 70's CD4 discrete 4-channel LP format. That format never caught on, but its need for ultra high frequency response was a strong impetus for developing styli of lower mass, wider bandwidth, and of more a precise groove footprint. The cantilevers are aluminum. Overall the cartridges are decidedly non-trendy and unflashy in appearance and packaging.
The dominant impression of the Optim S was of wonderfully strong music-making. Music simply made sense: musical lines saidsomething; rhythms drove, pulsed, and intertwined. Phrasing, instrumental interchanges, and the emotive force behind the playing came through strikingly. The Optim S allowed a series of notes to be heard as music, ineffably and inevitably linked. This excellent musical communication manifested itself through well-balanced and full-bodied sonics. The harmonic structure of instruments was richly preserved, bass and upper bass were fast, tight, dynamic and propulsive, the high frequencies delicate, detailed and non-shrill. Sound was wonderfully free of edge, glare and harshness. Achieving this balance of music-making abilities and a full sonic palette is rare and easy to love. Clinical, anorexic tonality is very hard to tolerate long term, as is amusical sonic ear candy.
The Optim FGS features a premium Fritz Geiger Signature stylus. Although well aware what a premium stylus profile like the Fritz Geiger can deliver and having reached the point where common elliptical styli no longer pass muster, I was still not completely prepared for the amount of improvement that the Optim FGS gave over the Optim S. I was quite taken aback: everything improved -- resolution, bass pitch, speed, and dynamics, focus, timbre, and, mirabile dictu, an equal improvement in music-making. Improved bass pitch clarity on classical recordings allowed deeper insight into the composer's and performer's intentions and also greatly aided recreating the feeling and demarcation of the sonic space of the recording venue. The meaning and impact of bass playing on rock and jazz recordings was far clearer, more dynamic and propulsive. The overall gain in resolution also helped eliminate the dreaded "drummer with the 8-foot arms" syndrome on jazz and pop recordings, focusing the drum kit into a believable space. I could clearly hear hands hitting the drums on hand drums and the wooden sound of drumsticks initiating the sound of cymbals.
The harmonic pallette was richer and more accurately and subtly painted, resulting in clarity of timbre that allowed unambiguous identification of instruments. Allied with the increase in the coherence of the placement of the instruments in the sound space, the differences in timbre between violins and violas, English horns and oboes, cello and double bass, and alto and tenor saxophones were clearly differentiated. And much more importantly, what and howthey were playing was transparent and immediately accessible.
Significant also was a reduction in LP artifacts: groove noise and damage were greatly reduced, though the Optim S was no slouch here either. This is a common effect of sophisticated line contact stylus profiles. And while the enhanced detail of the FGS allowed more non-musical side effects within the recording to be heard, they were always integrated into the musical context. The physical noise of jazz horn playing, for example, was not spotlighted, but subordinated into the musical and emotional value of the note. I find this a very welcome achievement
Listening to music with the Garrott Optim FGS was deeply moving and emotionally intense, among the best that I have ever experienced. The building of tension in classical music had me unconsciously holding my breath the way I respond at live performances. The feeling of exaltation when the tension was released was equally stirring. I found it impossible to listen to music casually and had to choose music of lighter emotional demands when doing the more mechanical reviewing listening chores. The Optim FGS is NOT a muzak-type, sonic wallpaper performer. Listening to a great piece of music stirred me emotionally and aesthetically, and left me sated the way live performances do. The Optim FGS is a true upgrade over the Optim S - an across the board sonic improvement with a concomitant increase in musical communication. Bravo!
Both cartridges were transparent to the difference in turntables and tonearms, the Optim FGs, because of its higher resolution, more so. The differences, for example, between my stock-motored Linn LP12 and my Origin Live DC-motored LP12 were strikingly differentiated, as were the abilities of the Origin Live Silver 250 compared to their RB 250 and 300. The same was true with the 5 phono preamps auditioned. Particularly striking was the synergistic match between the Optims and the 2 tube preamps I used. The high output of the Optims put no strain on the phono sections and the rich tonality and dynamics of the cartridges were fully exploited by tube amplification. The Fritz Geiger stylus of the FGS was not neurotic and agonizing to set up and live with, especially compared to my Fritz Geiger-stylused Goldring Eroica LX.
I found the claims made by Garrott in articulating the benefits of their dynamic coil technology to be realized. Strong dynamic performance in the upper bass and lower midrange IS essential to communicate the drive and meaning of music, and both Optims delivered.
As excellent and enjoyable as the Optim S is, I simply found the Optim FGS exceptional in its ability to communicate the heart and meaning of music. For me, it joins the ranks of the great cartridges that are so deeply involving and musically communicative that they make it nearly impossible to focus merely on sonics. The music and the sound were so tightly interwoven that any sonic limitations were irrelevent. The music was there!
While the Optims do not attain the ultra transparency of the finest moving coil cartridges (like the superb Garrott P89 for example), their balance and believability did not leave me hungering for more. While I might have been intellectually curious to what an Optim FGS might sound like with a non-user replaceable sapphire stylus, I am also keenly aware that the best products are a result of careful balancing and optimization of variables working in harmony within the context of the design. Theoretical advantages, like the use of a stylus cantilever material with less "haze" than aluminum for instance, are only desirable if they can be integrated into the whole and not capsize it.
So, two high recommendations for the Optims, with a particularly high one for the Optim FGS, which becomes a new reference for musical communication for me and one of the most deeply satisfying cartridges I've yet to hear.
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