The Garrott P89 Moving Coil Phono Cartridge

The Garrott P89 Moving Coil Phono Cartridge

Will Goldilocks Find a Cartridge That's "Just Right?"

Paul Szabady

6 August 2002


Output voltage: 0.36 mV @ 5 cm/s
Coil resistance: 6.6 ohms
Recommended load: 100 to 600 ohms
Tracking weight: 1.7 to 2.0 grams
Sapphire cantilever with FGS stylus
Body weight: 9.2 grams.
Price: $6000

Garrott Brothers
155-157 Camberwell Rd
Hawthorn East Victoria
Australia 3123
Phone: +613 9882 0372
Fax: +613 9813 3108

US Distributor and Mail Order:
Jerry Raskin's Needle Doctor
419 14th Avenue SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414
Phone: 800 229 0644

In addition to their excellent moving magnet cartridge line (see my review of the Optim S and FGS) and their cartridge re-tipping and re-building services, Garrott Brothers also offer two moving coil cartridges - the P88 at $3000 and the flagship P89 at $6000. The Garrott P89 moving coil cartridge shares many design features with its less expensive sibling the P88, differing mostly in its sapphire cantilever and Fritz Geiger Signature stylus. 

Like many LP enthusiasts, I've long considered purchasing an ultimate 'perfect' cartridge, and have been frustrated by many of the very expensive moving coil cartridges available. Somehow it is more difficult to tolerate flaws in very expensive products, flaws that in a less rarified price range are less grating and more acceptable. It is naive, I know, to expect that any mechanical device could ever be 'perfect', especially when it is also an electrical transducer and forced to perform in the obscenely difficult physical conditions in which a phono cartridge plies its trade. But I want it all: intense musical communication, extended frequency response, powerful bass and dynamics, rhythmic propulsion, soul-melting timbre, hallucinogenic imaging, flawless tracking... And I want it all for peanuts. I know: "Dreamer!"

The issue of price and its corollary - value - are hard to ignore here. I've long considered economics to be a subset of psychology, both personal and societal. It is also intensely relative: one person's gasp of "A $6000 Needle!?!" is another's "Worth Every Penny!" Given my penchant for championing products that the average-income music lover can afford and my total rejection of the "He who dies with the most expensive toys, wins" mindset -- and the companies that pander to it, one might be surprised to find me open-minded about very expensive cartridges. Given the common high-end audio view that $10,000 loudspeakers are reasonably priced, however, resistance to higher priced analogue front-end components would seem inconsistent, yet one need only to gaze at phono cartridge-packaging's kinship to jewelry packaging and listen to exotic hyperbole that the diamonds are polished by the tresses of Andalusian maidens by the light of the full moon nearest the equinoxes to see the extent of the manufacturers' awareness of the problem.

The high prices stem largely from the fact that exotically priced cartridges are hand-built to painstaking tolerances and that the precision handiwork needed to build them is rare, labor intensive, and largely outside the aid of mass production techniques. The value question is both more difficult and more subjective; not merely because of diminishing returns, but because of the personal importance given to the musical improvement a large increase in price might produce in the context of one's system. If a given expensive component fulfills and completes a system, attains that Goldilockian Ideal of "Just Right" for the listener, then the subjective weighting of value shifts, and the concept 'bargain' might even be muttered without irony. One's larger priorities are allied: if instant and consistent access to great music is held as priceless, details of price recede into the background. Owning a $60,000 SUV might hold zero interest and appear irrational for a given music lover, while a similar financial commitment to the highest quality music playback stands as necessity and simple common sense.

If all this sounds somewhat like an apology, it is. I would much rather the P89 cost $2000, or less, of course, because this is a wonderful cartridge and an absolute joy to listen to.

The long rectangular, gold-colored metal body of the P89 raised concern for headshell compatibility, but I encountered no problems with my two test arms, Origin Live's Silver 250 and their modified RB250. Screw lugs are not threaded and require a nut. The inclusion of a slip-off stylus guard makes installation less anxiety inducing. An alignment line down the front of the cartridge visually aids cueing. I set tracking weight at 1.9 grams and loaded the P89 at 100 ohms for most auditioning, with occasional experimentation at higher settings in the recommended loading range of 100 - 600 ohms, 283 ohms and 400 ohms also being satisfying. Ambient temperatures were stable at 68-70 degrees F and humidity controlled at 50% RH.

Break-in was excruciating as patience is a virtue not inborn for this reviewer and waiting for the P89 to fully flower had me feeling like a voyeur lucky enough to catch Nicole Kidman disrobing. Fortunately the wait was not very long. The P88 and P89 cartridges are extensively tested and played at the factory to ensure performance, and sounded good right out of the box. The P89 bloomed at about 10 hours play, allowing me to make a final set-up of tracking weight, SRA/VTA, overhang, and tangency before listening critically.

The P89's Fritz Geiger Signature stylus demands that it be set up precisely for VTA/SRA. And I mean precisely: "Close enough for rock and roll" just won't do. Too 'positive' a set up (the headshell/tonearm lower than the arm's pivot point) will produce a hot top end, squashed dynamics, diminished bass, and a dwarfing of the stereo image and instrument size. Too 'negative' (the headshell higher than the arm pivot) and the image size becomes elephantine, top end recedes, and the bottom end bloats. Get it just right and you'll immediately know it: the number of "Omigods!" uttered while listening provides a good clue. One excellent test for the correct alignment is an acoustic jazz record: if the cymbals sizzle and spit and turn hard, alignment is too positive. When you can hear wood hitting the cymbal before it explodes into bronzed shimmer and you can hear rhythm and dynamics in the cymbal playing, you've got it right. Bass will also sound harmonically rich and dynamic and tautly controlled. For classical recordings I usually use violins and/or piano for this adjustment: shrieking, metallic violins and clangy, compressed piano are indications of too positive an alignment. When correct, the soundstage also coalesces into clear focus and the full range of dynamics flows naturally.

This demand for super-precise SRA/VTA setting is shared by all top line cartridges that use line-contact styli, and requires a playback system that allows for precise and repeatable arm height adjustment. Too much work? Yes, but would you buy a Ferrari and demand an old Detroit Slushomatic transmission be installed in it? At the level of resolution and performance of which the P89 is capable, it will also demand that arm height be fine-tuned for varying record thickness and for variations in the VTA of the cutter head that cut the record. Ascertaining record thickness is easy enough; determining the cutter's angle is a shot-in-the-dark. I used the Ringmat LP Support System, which along with a antistatic mat, Ringmat, and top-of-the-LP Endcap, includes a series of record-sized shims of varying thickness that allows the most precise and, most importantly, most repeatable, of methods for tuning this crucial adjustment. A pain? Less so than one would expect, especially if it becomes habitual, and one has the foresight to mark each record as to which combination of shims was correct for that record.

I had found Garrott's Optim FGS moving magnet cartridge exalting in its ability to communicate musically. Thankfully, and unlike some premium moving coil cartridges, the P89 builds on that superb musicality and improves upon it dramatically: drive, rhythm, phrasing; dynamic and rhythmic variation within the musical line; the interaction and communication between instruments and their change from lead to accompaniment and back again; emotion, structure and meaning - all are exemplary. Huzzah! I loathe high-end products that do everything but make musical sense!

Coupled with this exalted musical communication was ultra-high resolution and tracking of dynamic swings, taut, thunderous and very low bass response, an overall coherence and balance of frequency response with wonderful edge-free high frequency abilities. The ability to resolve and articulate nuances of playing made forming gestalts evoking actual music extremely easy. The P89 is fast but agile, harmonically rich but transparent, thunderous and subtle, full of power and full of nuance; it can dance, rage, sing, sigh, and cry. It is one of the few products that moves me from my feets to my phallus, through the omphalos to the heart and the mind - all at the same time! I could shift attention to any one of these centers of consciousness at will, without the cartridge imposing its perspective. Unique in my experience and very desirable, allowing me to listen in any mood and with any aim, from comparing Beethoven 5th interpretations, to being a boogie fool.

Soundstaging varied with the quality and production esthetic of the recording, as it should. Stereophony and stereoscopy are subservient to musical communication in my hierarchy of audio values and I would never build a system with imaging as its first priority, especially if the core of music-making is lacking. If you can't fully understand what an instrument is playing and the why behind it, ultra precise delineation of where it is provides no compensation.

The P89 portrayed life-size instruments and players with smaller jazz combos: you could tell that Miles Davis is shorter than John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley for example. Back row instruments in classical recordings, like the final movement of Vaughan Williams 6th Symphony, were as highly resolved in timbre, dynamics, physical placement, and most importantly, musical line as the front of the orchestra, and the delicate and subtle scoring was exquisitely rendered. Image-obsessed audiophiles will rejoice that images could extend beyond the lateral boundaries of the speakers, but why this has become a Holy Grail for some listeners is beyond me.

More important from the musical point of view is the P89's ability to evoke ambiance and signature tonal colors. The Grateful Dead's attempt to mimic a flowing mountain river - high, cool, blue, and lonesome - was immediate and obvious, and you could feel the weight of the tropics and the physical connection to the Earth in Family Man Barrett's bass lines for the Wailers, joyously complementing Bob Marley's child-of-nature Rasta innocence. Paul Desmond's 'dry martini' alto sax was exactly that. Olatunji's polyrhythms and Ron Carter's virtuoistic piccolo bass were simply spellbinding.

All this was without any analytic, clinical, or sterile tendencies, or the kind of "designer"-slush ear candy that dimmed top line cartridges in the past. While the high resolution allows one to hear the limitations and errors of recording techniques - the sound of an instrument "traveling" over in the soundstage as bleed-over into another microphone, mic placement and vagaries of mix and over-dubbing, and the physical "noise" that acoustic instruments make, all this detail was subordinated into the musical context and never spot lit or obtrusive. Yeah, we all know that the phony Wizard of Oz is projecting and manipulating the Grand Illusion of Music, but we want the ability to suspend disbelief and imaginatively enter that world of artistic reality, without cries of "Fake!" continually puncturing the delicate hallucination.

Crying Fake has been a real problem for many high-end components and the US audiophile market's demand for more and more detail and resolution: it is all too easy to puncture whatever believability the recording artifact possesses and to hear only the seams, falseness, and flaws. I've always wondered why certain listeners have lauded components that point out all the flaws in all their recordings. "My system's so good it makes all recordings sound lousy!" Huh?

The P89 irrepressibly manifested its strengths through all the phono stages I auditioned but will shine most brightly by matching it with gear that has rhythmic and dynamic aplomb and compelling music making abilities. The $1200 Phonomenon (with battery power supply) rose even higher in my esteem by its impressive performance with the P89, proof that an ultra expensive phono stage is not necessary to reveal the P89's glories. I actually preferred its musical flow overall to the much more expensive and high-end approved Pass Xono and Plinius M14.

Though my Origin Live dc-motored Linn LP12 bettered the Origin Live Standard Kit table and the Silver 250 outperformed the RB250 arm, all combinations of these four products were highly persuasive and revealing with the P89. Given the number of highly musical affordable turntables and arms, a super-expensive analogue playback chain is not absolutely necessary. Superb tables like the Michell Gyrodec SE, Rega P25, Linn Sondek LP 12, Origin Live Ultra or the Acoustic Signature Final Tool would be fine candidates. It is important however to use a table/arm with strong rhythmic, musical and dynamic skills or the P89 will be squandered. The Ringmat Record Support System makes extracting maximum performance with each record repeatable, very important given the capabilities of this fine cartridge.

The P89 met all my demands for a premium cartridge, and, like Goldilocks evaluating the food and accommodations during her stay at The Three Bears' and finding them "Just Right!" but not exactly chuffed at the size of the bill, I wish that the glories of the P89 could be easily affordable to all who love music. High prices create high expectations and demand high performance, and with the P89, I am firmly in the "Worth every penny" camp. I guess my role as Champ of Cheap (or is it Chump of Cheap?) is jeopardized. But the P89 becomes a new reference for "Just Right"l and for compellingly communicating the glories of the music, and becomes, thus, priceless.

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