Cartridge Man MusicMaster Phono Cartridge
I was in my mid-20’s when I began to deeply immerse myself into Western Classical music. By the mid 1970’s, much of the inspiration, fire, and revolution of the 1960’s Music Renaissance had burned itself out, and the slick and faddish emergence of Disco, Punk, and New Wave proved more appalling than enthralling to me. I quit following Rock/Pop music at the time and my Rock LP collection is tellingly barren after the late 70’s.
Frankly I was bored by the repetitive and money-grubbing aspect of the Pop music business and yearned for the deeper artistic expansion that the best of the 60’s Zeitgeist had sparked. Though I came of age listening to Rock, Jazz, Folk, Blues, and the eclectic, musical boundary-free music of the 60’s Music Renaissance, I yearned for new discoveries in my music odyssey. It dawned on me that I had at least a 1,000-year artistic history to explore in Western Art music, and considering its depth of artistic content and performance, surely an inexhaustible one.
Playback of Classical music on audio systems, however, proved a major challenge. What had served adequately and at times superbly for Rock, Jazz, Folk, and Blues was suddenly inadequate for the broad range of acoustic instruments the Classical orchestra utilized. While additive, audio component-caused distortion might escape notice on an already deliberately distorted electric guitar, violins, oboes, clarinets, and the piano showed no such mercy. I realized I had to pursue a higher level of fidelity in order to enter the world of Classical music successfully.
After decades of searching for phono cartridges that did justice to Classical music, it was a great joy when I discovered The Cartridge Man’s products earlier in this millennium. His MusicMaker line of phono cartridges – the MusicMaker III and the MusicMaker Classic have been my unchallenged references for the accurate and convincing reproduction of acoustic instruments and for conveying what they are playing. “MusicMaker” is no hyperbolic marketing title, but a literal description of what Leonard Gregory’s cartridges do.
Leonard Gregory, alias The Cartridge Man, has long been a stalwart of the UK analogue LP world. When my ageing and much used MM III finally needed re-tipping, Gregory’s normal re-building of the cartridge brought it close to the performance of his MM Classic. Gregory continues to evolve and refine his products, unable, it seems, to rest on his laurels. When he mentioned that he was about to launch a new cartridge – the MusicMaster- my aesthetic antenna began to vibrate with intense anticipation. When he offered to let me do the cartridge’s initial print review, I felt both honored and humbled.
The new Master retails at 1750 UK Pounds (or US $2267 as of the exchange rate of 11/14/18.) It uses the Variable Reluctance principle of signal generation (also known in common parlance as Moving Iron and Induced Magnet.) Its 0.4 mV output, 47K Ohm load, and lack of sensitivity to capacitance values makes it a very simple and easy match for high-quality MM phono stages. Probably its most salient feature, compared to the III and the Classic, is the use of a pure sapphire cantilever on which is mounted the exotic, line-contact type stylus. It is designed to track exactly at 1.6 grams, uses minimum anti-skate values, and uses a front cartridge-face at right angles to the record reference for VTA/SRA alignment. Its mounting lugs are not threaded (thus requiring screws and nuts) and it includes a removable stylus guard. The new Master replaces the Classic in The Cartridge Man line, and includes Gregory’s Isolator at no charge. Circa 25 hours of play are recommended to let the cartridge settle in.
Although its price is low enough, compared to the more stratospherically-priced MC’s on the market, to be considered rather a bargain, the Master demands the finest ancillary components to fully reveal its considerable potential. I used the Origin Live Zephyr, Conqueror MKII, and OL’s top arm – the Enterprise- to audition the Master. I found that each improvement in the arms used raised the MusicMaster’s performance to correspondingly higher and higher plateaus, culminating in the rarified and truly transcendent world of its performance with the Enterprise. Here it reached sonic and musical levels unmatched in my 50 year history of analogue LP listening.
The MusicMaster’s demands were similar with phono stages. I finally chose the Graham Slee Accession and the all-tube pure sound P10 phono stages as worthy companions. Turntables included the Origin Live Aurora MKII, Aurora Gold MKI, and the current-spec Resolution MK 4. Yes, the Resolution 4 sounded the best.
I generally rely on tube components for Classical music listening, as their mid-range naturalness, faithful reproduction of acoustic instrument timbre, and superb depiction of hall ambience help create a more convincing illusion of music playing. I used the PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium line stage, 1960 vintage EICO HF89, and PrimaLuna Prologue 5 power amps. Loudspeakers were the Sound Lab Dynastat.
The MusicMaster was developed using the Cartridge Man’s Isolator and his Music Mat replacement platter mat. The Isolator can make an enormous difference in tonearm performance by isolating the cartridge from the tonearm by its damping ‘sandwich.’ Much of the energy that can excite a given tonearm’s fundamental bending modes and resonances never reaches the arm it as it is simply absorbed by the Isolator. Depending on a given tonearm’s inherent ultimate qualities, the effect can be absolutely stunning, the equivalent of doubling the arm’s quality. I’ve found that it has little effect on Origin Live’s superb dual-pivot line of arms, while working wonders on their older or more conventional gimbaled-bearing tonearms and Rega arm modifications.
The only trade-off in using it, shared with the Music Mat, is that they both require raising the tonearm height and may tax a given front-end’s limits of adjustability when used in tandem. This proved to be the case with my set-ups, as I could not use both at the same time. Thus the majority of my auditioning was done sans Mat and Isolator, as the Resolution/Enterprise combination showed little change with their use. I used my reference RingMat LP Support System instead.
The top Origin Live arms are intensely revealing of VTA/SRA changes, and the Ringmat’s system of thin record-sized shims made small changes in arm height relatively painless. Getting arm height correct proved absolutely necessary with the Master (as is true with all cartridges using line-contact styli): slightly too high and the treble became accentuated and began to smear, record noise became more noticeable, and bass dynamics constricted. Too low and the top-end receded, the sound stage became amorphous, and bass lost its control. But get it just right – that Goldilocks Ideal – and the results were astoundingly realistic. In visual terms, it was like a deep depth-of-field precision camera lens snapping into exact focus.
The most obvious result of getting the arm height exactly right was creation of a sound stage that was wider than my listening room by a factor of at least 2. Its walls simply disappeared. The ambience and size of the recording venue was recreated with a literal accuracy that hinted at allowing mapping of the venue to mathematical and architectural precision. Position of instruments within that sound stage was equally precise and orienting. So precise in fact, that the slight physical movement of the performers while playing was perceptible to the point of mimicking sight. Equally important was the Master’s ability to retrieve the instrumental sound as emerging within that acoustic ambience. Live sound does not emerge from a black background; it emerges within its ambient field. The Master was able to re-create the growth and expansion in that ambient field as an instrument’s volume was increased and held. This is rarefied territory in hi-fi terms, and as trustworthy an indicator of ultra resolution as any.
The recreation of an accurate soundstage, the ambiance and ambience of the recording venue, and the positioning of players within it presupposes high accuracy in retrieving low-level detail, and wide bandwidth. The psychoacoustic ‘feel’ of the size of an interior space depends to a large degree on bass response, coupled to an equally crucial depiction of high frequencies – “air”.
Now, accurate and transparent sound stage depiction per se is not ultimately very important in live performance, as it varies according to one’s seat in the concert hall. It is very important, however, when listening to recorded music on audio systems largely because it limits perceptual disorientation, and thus, listening fatigue. The brain doesn’t like confusion and disorientation. We must never forget that we are listening to an illusion of music. The more literal and better the illusion, the less mental energy is expended in trying to form, and, ultimately, to believe that illusion.
The Cartridge Man Music Master proved to be the least fatiguing phono cartridge I’ve ever heard. Not because it was ‘forgiving’, or because it smoothed over rough patches by soft-focus smearing, but because it created so little ambiguity in portraying where the instruments were, what the instruments were, how the instruments were played, and what the musical meaning of it all was.
An immediate and persistent perception of the Master’s performance is exceptional speed and clarity. By this I mean transient speed and control. The psychoacoustic demands of sound perception rely heavily on transient performance: not only to identify where the sound is coming from, but also to identify what is making the sound. For acoustic instruments particularly, there is also an intense demand for the ability to reproduce multiple levels of volume simultaneously, as a given fundamental tone relies on a particular set of overtones of varying and specific volumes to identify the instrument making that tone.
To test this I ran through Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the Seraphim Guide to Instruments of the Orchestra (Boult – Seraphim S60234 Stereo) and The Glory of Cremona, (Ruggiero Ricci Decca Gold Label XSE 7179) wherein Ricci plays 12 different violins from that mecca of violin-making excellence.
The Cartridge Man MusicMaker III and Classic had long set the standard for accurately portraying the timbre of orchestral instruments and I was surprised at how much better the Master was in this acid test. Instrument identification was instantaneous, and completely unambiguous. Particularly notable was the Master’s ability to differentiate the various Amatis, Stradivariuses, and other violins on the Ricci LP. It nailed their sonic signatures with an extraordinary ease that was almost upsettingly enlightening: I’ve never heard it done better.
Compared to its predecessor, the Classic, the new Music Master revealed much improved clarity, detail, and transparency in all aspects of performance. It is clear that it passes much more, and much more precise, information from the record grooves. I surmise that this gain in information is at least partly due to its stiff and rigid sapphire cantilever which greatly reduces ‘cantilever haze.’ The Master extracts an enormous amount of information from the record grooves. What makes it a truly great cartridge is how well it organizes that information into musical meaning. For example, the Master’s high frequency reproduction allows complete depiction of cymbal work, but it also clarifies the rhythm of those cymbal strikes.
The Master is also truly great at differentiating varying and subtle volume changes in a given instrumental line. This ability translates into an exceptionally clear depiction of the line’s expressive qualities. Equally stirring is its depiction of timing and rhythm, coupled to superb punctuation. “Punctuation” is perhaps an inadequate description as it implies written prose. The Master’s punctuation is truly more akin to artistically recited poetry. Think Dylan Thomas or Richard Burton.
Moreover it is able to maintain this superb ability to follow individual music lines regardless of how many instruments are playing and what their individual volume levels are. The lines are all in focus, allowing equal perception of the forest and the trees. Mated to its unequalled reproduction of instrument timbre and its unambiguous recreation of the recording venue, it is clear that the MusicMaster resides at the highest levels of phono cartridge performance.
I’ve focused on the Master’s performance with Western Art music because it is more demanding of the highest fidelity and because there is a live performance reference to compare to. It is important to emphasize that all music relies on common basic techniques and principles that are indeed universal. I routinely use over 40 different recordings when reviewing, chosen for their content to test for certain playback qualities and difficulties. These recordings cover a wide gamut of musical styles and types including Classical, Jazz, Rock, Folk, and World music. I usually refrain from detailed descriptions of individual records because I consider it a flaw of far too many casual reviews. Who cares if the maracas on Mr. Rogers Sings Bo Diddley are too bright with Component X?
The MusicMaster excelled with every genre of music, as one would expect given its ultra performance with unamplified acoustic instruments. It revealed the sonic signatures of Stratocaster, Les Paul, and Country Gentleman electric guitars as easily as it did the violins of Cremona. The Master will not limit one’s range of music types when listening. This universality is crucial for me as listening sessions could follow my particular mood and whim.
After critical listening and testing is over, I just play records at will. I noticed that the Master clearly reveals differences in recording techniques, LP pressing quality, and record wear. It does this without being hyper-analytical and sterile. One somewhat misguided audiophile once boasted to me that his super-‘accurate’ system was so high resolution that NO records sounded good on it. The Master is not for him. Though perhaps it is: then he could boast how GREAT his records sound.
The prime purpose of a hi-fi system for me is to serve as access to Art. The MusicMaster is the most transparent opening into this world that I have encountered. It easily revealed the Art of the most difficult of compositions and the rigors of the most profound virtuoso playing. The Master never got confused. In fact the more difficult and profound the Art, the better the Master performed. Stymied by Beethoven’s Last Quartets and some of Coltrane’s Impulse! label recordings? Confused by Olatunji’s polyrhythms or The Meters’ second-line/funk timing? Love Miles Davis but cringe at the way most cartridges reproduce the trumpet? The Master can truly serve a soteriological function.
In my review of The Cartridge Man MusicMaker Classic a dozen years ago, I concluded that it was a masterpiece of phono cartridge design. Considering the improvement the new MusicMaster delivers over the classic Classic, perhaps Gregory should be more correctly called a Grand Master. Certainly his cartridges reveal the hand of an artist over that of a craftsman/technician. Since all The Cartridge Man phono cartridges are hand-built, older MusicMakers can be re-built and brought up to MusicMaster spec. Purchasing a new MusicMaster off the shelf might require a slight wait, as demand has been very high.
The Cartridge Man MusicMaster is a true “ultra” cartridge in every sense of the word. As a tool for unleashing the art in all great music I find it unequalled. I would like to publicly thank Leonard Gregory for his magnificent service to all music lovers. I can only give it the ultimate recommendation.
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