How to Choose the Best Turntable for Vinyl Record Playback

Discussion in 'CD/DVD/Blu-ray & Misc Hardware' started by gene, Feb 25, 2016.

  1. gene Audioholics Master Chief Administrator

    gene
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    Want to know which turntable to buy? With the current resurgence of vine-yule records, turntables are again a hot item. And while most of the turntables floating around out there are survivors that were manufactured years ago, there are plenty of new ones in all price ranges from a few hundred dollars to “don’t ask”.

    Read the following article to get a handle on what's still good from the past and when to say goodbye to an old friend and get something new.

    [​IMG]

    Read: Turntable Buying Guideline

    Are you spinning vinyl? If so, show us your turntable and record collection in the thread below!
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2016
    gene,
  2. TLS Guy Audioholic Overlord

    TLS Guy
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    [​IMG]

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    Garrard 301, Decca ffss H4E on professional Decca arm. Decca brush, Auriol lift and Cecil E. Watts Dust Bug.

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    Decca ffss Mk II 78 RPM head.

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    Very early Thorens TD 150 purchased in 1966 less plinth and arm. The arm is an SME Series 3 Arm with Shure V15 xmr.

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    Garrard 301 with SME Series II improved arm with Shure V15 xmr.

    Both these Garrard 301s come from a time when these turntables were sold without arm or plinth. The customer was expected to mount the turntable and mount arm and cartridge of choice. There were firms especially Largs of Hoborn who mounted equipment like that shown above in expensive oak cabinets, along with reel to reel tape decks and tube power amp, tuner and preamp of customers choice.

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    Thorens TD 125 Mk II, with SME Series III arm and Decca Gold, Mk IV cartridge. Again Cecil E. Watts Dust Bug in use.

    The above turntable is the only one from eBay. I was the purchaser of the others. This turntable was bought non working, restored and put back to service.

    This was my father's Ortofon SL 15/E moving coil cartridge. Purchased around 1968. It was used with step up transformers.

    [​IMG]

    The Shure cartridges are moving magnet. The Decca cartridges are variable reluctance moving iron. Suspension is naked diamond on nylon thread.

    These are some of the best examples of record playing equipment from a bygone era. They still perform wonderfully with excellent fidelity.

    My LP collection of which some go back to the pre stereo era.

    [​IMG]

    I still have the first LP I purchased in the collection. Here it is!

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    So there you have it Gene. This is I think the most complete Garrard 301 Decca combination you can view on the Net. I also have a Decca ffss arm and Decca lift.

    In 1959 at the start of the stereo era, the Garrard 301, Decca ffss arm with Decca ffss MK I head was the state of the art in LP playback. The SME arms had not appeared on the scene yet.
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2016
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  3. TLS Guy Audioholic Overlord

    TLS Guy
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    Paul, I should have congratulated you on a very well put together article on choosing a turntable.

    I especially liked you comments on compliance and arm mass. This is not understood at all well by owners of turntables and prospective purchasers. It is absolutely crucial however, and has a profound effect on the quality of sound for from your turntable. Too low a resonance and tracking will be unstable. Too high and you will have tremendous bass boom and likely feedback.

    Very, very few turntables are damped, and I am strongly of the view they should be. Since very few records are flat, a shock absorber is essential.

    The only issue I disagree with is that compliance of the cartridge not affecting quality. Low compliance is important and greatly affects the ability to track highly modulated grooves, especially at the end of the disc. I think this trend in turntables that need a mortgage employing low compliance exotic moving coil cartridges and high mass tone arms is dead wrong.

    Personally I have never heard one of these turntables sound better then the vintage turntables shown above. In fact they sound worse. You have poor trackability and high inertia. This is not good engineering.

    For my money the best sound I know comes from a very high compliance cartridge like the Shure V15xMR, in a SME series II improved or SME series III, especially the latter. The SME damping and the cartridge damping have been shown to be synergistic. Couple this with a good turntable like a Thorens TD 125 and you have in my view the best LP reproduction possible.

    [​IMG]

    The other issue, is that good idler wheel turntables like the Garrard 301 and 401 and the Thorens TD 124 did not rumble.

    My idler driven 301s do not rumble, even when playing back through my TL speaker system with response below 20 Hz. The bass drivers are rock steady.

    You can find out all about them on the Loricraft site.

    They make an updated version of these long running Garrard turntables, the 501.

    [​IMG]

    Yes, this is an idler driven turntable still in production today!
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  4. Paul Scarpelli Audio Pragmatist

    Paul Scarpelli
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    Astute comments, as usual. I owned a TD-125 mk II with an ADC toneram and a Grace F9 Ruby, and the setup was superb. I replaced it with an Oracle Delphi mk II with a Signet MK50 arm and various MM cartridges. The overall improvement in sound was marginal at best.
  5. Paul Scarpelli Audio Pragmatist

    Paul Scarpelli
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    I damped many of my turntables with Mortite or even glazer's putty. The Oracle didn't need it. I heard more benefit from a well-damped cartridge and arm. Again, thanks for your observations.
  6. TLS Guy Audioholic Overlord

    TLS Guy
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    Yes, the Shure cartridges have a viscous damper. The SME arms have a paddle that goes into a silicone fluid bath. There are different paddles for different cartridges.

    Shure dynamic stabilizer.

    [​IMG]

    SME silicone fluid bath and damper.

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    By the way the white unit with the black knob at the back is a vintage Garrard stylus pressure gauge.

    I believe proper damping, especially the silicone fluid bath to be very important.

    SME also provide an isolating putty to go between the cartridge and shell, to decouple the cartridge and arm from vibration. They provide nylon mounting hardware.
  7. balticvid Audiophyte

    balticvid
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    I have a Thorens TD130 in perfect working order. Fifteen pound turntable.
    Complicated looking arm and cartridge. Hasn't been used in 30 or 40 years.
    Marantz 10B tuner. Pre amp. All mounted in a cabinet.
  8. TLS Guy Audioholic Overlord

    TLS Guy
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    I have never heard of a Thorens TD 130. Can you please elaborate and send pictures.

    These are the turntables from Thorens in the 1960s. The TD 150 appeared in 1965.

    [​IMG]
    There is no 130, so I suspect it is a very rare 135.

    Your Marantz tuner is an old tube unit that dates from 1964. If in good shape it is worth about $2,500.

    Where are you located? We really would like to see pictures of the whole set up and complete details of the whole system.
  9. mardukes Enthusiast

    mardukes
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    JVC QL-F320.JPG

    JVC QL-F320 probably from the late 70's. Dual servo direct drive. I just changed it to an Ortofon 2M Red which is listed as 7.2 grams. The information on Vinylengine says it's good for 4.5 to 8 grams of cartridge but I had to add a goodly amount to the counter weight to get it to balance. A week or so a ago I did an A-B test between Ronnie Laws' "Goodtime Ride" (Friends and Strangers) vinyl vs an mp3 file that found it's way onto my computer. I don't get how people can listen to that stuff.
  10. Floyd Toole Acoustician and Wine Connoisseur

    Floyd Toole
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    Thanks for the interesting article Paul. I haven't played an LP for almost 30 years, but it brought back memories of decades of doing battle with the many demons of that medium. My first turntable was a Thorens TD124 that dented my then small budget (ca. 1965), fitted with a 12 inch SME tone arm. According to its already fantastic reputation it should have been a remarkable experience - but no. Incredibly, it rumbled: thumpity, thumpity . . . I was fortunate (?) to have loudspeakers capable of real bass. The reason was quickly determined. It was a "professional" broadcast turntable, with "instant start" capability for timely segues, and multiple speeds to play many versions of discs. That meant an idler wheel and puck, and it was the puck driving the inside rim of the turntable that generated the rumble (no different from the much-despised changers :). I contacted the distributor who manfully provided me with a selection of new pucks. They all rumbled, but generated different patterns of "thumpity, thump". I had constructed a nice custom cabinet for it, so it was easy to get my money back in a trade in for a simple massive belt drive Empire Troubador turntable that was superbly quiet. A legend, yes. A great turntable, no. Later models were greatly improved for consumer use and I owned one (TD-125?). I ended up my tenure with LPs using two Professional Technics SL-1000 turntables (allowing for perfect segues during listening sessions with friends - we used to take turns playing disc jockey exercising my large LP collection while enjoying good Scotch). They were as flawless as anything I encountered, needing only some mechanical isolation from very low frequency building vibrations.

    A puzzle: why did the audio press get so wound up about some downright crummy turntable designs? One still talked about was simply a slab of MDF board sitting on hard rubber feet, with the turntable bearing and tone arm rigidly attached, and the belt-drive motor somewhat isolated. It didn't rumble inordinately, but it suffered from horrendous acoustical feedback. Even the dust cover was attached to the MDF board! It was a microphone. A test: place the stylus on a stationary record, and play some music from another source into the room. Turn up the volume and record the output from the cartridge. You will hear a bass-heavy version of the music, and whatever you hear is error - it should not be there. In some of these dreadful machines it was possible to record dictation while talking to the disc, especially a low mass disc. This is another case where clamping the disc to the mat improves things. In the extreme there could be low-frequency feedback howl - "tight" bass was impossible. I remember being at Harry Pearson's "reference" room, in which the bass had to be turned down when he played LPs on his multi-kilobuck turntable - a giant floor-standing visual work of art, but . . . The solution: put the turntable in the next room.

    When I began to investigate tone arms, I set up an arrangement of one tone arm suspended precisely above the one playing the record. The lower arm was balanced to neutral, no tracking force at all. The upper arm provided the tracking force through its stylus that was placed on the top of the lower headshell. So, one could listen to the lower cartridge playing the record, or to the upper cartridge "playing" the vibrations in the headshell that held the lower, main, cartridge. Now, in a perfect system there would be no vibrations in the headshell because any movement at audio frequencies is an error. Believe me, the error was huge. Very distorted versions of the music came through clearly. The most egregious offenders, not surprisingly, were the then fashionable "low-mass" tone arms, especially the unipivots - they exhibited measurable and audible arm resonances, including torsional modes because they could twist on the pivot. Likewise perforated headshells, intended to reduce mass, also reduced stiffness - and they bent. And finally, low-compliance cartridges, then mostly moving coil, generated more force on the headshell than did high-compliance cartridges, thereby generating more errors. All this was unreported in the enthusiast press that lacked the capability or interest in doing measurements, or even asking the right questions. But they heard things and the reasons were always kind of mysterious.

    The perfect headshell, therefore, is a "brick". But that requires perfectly flat records, and they don't exist. So we must use the sturdiest, most massive arm/headshell combo that can play the records you have. and seek out high-mass, typically flatter, discs. This is assisted by those few turntables that clamped the LP to a sculptured mat. Flat mats are a waste of time, including the occasionally praised felt. The label area and perimeter are thicker which lifts the groove area away from the mat. The groove area needs to be in contact with the mat to damp vibrations, and vibrations are what the stylus picks up.

    The final breakthrough innovation was the "stabilizer", introduced, I think, by Shure in the V-15. It allowed the use of a relatively massive, sturdy headshell while still tracking warped records. But some purists found a reason to not like it, and other manufacturers were annoyed because they hadn't thought of it, and were then prevented from using it because of patents. Meanwhile, many of us simply got on with enjoying more records in a superior fashion, without the headshell wobbling all over the place, generating low-frequency rubbish and pushing the transducer into non-linear regions generating all manner of distortions.

    All of these adventures with playback apparatus were documented, with measurements, in articles I wrote for now defunct Canadian audio magazines. They are still relevant.

    And then came (uncompressed) digital . . . phew!

    Again, thanks for the reminder of things past.

    Floyd
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2016
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  11. Mikado463 Junior Audioholic

    Mikado463
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    Great info here !

    My current black pizza spinner …….. VPI Aries III, super platter, perf ring, SDS. Current cartridge - Benz Micro 'Glider'

    OJ2E8016.JPG
  12. TLS Guy Audioholic Overlord

    TLS Guy
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    Thanks for adding to this thread Floyd!

    I come form a UK perspective. Back in the day things were more primitive in the US.

    I have never had a Thorens TD 124 through my hands.

    All I can say is that the Garrard 301 and 401s do not go thumpity, thump. If they did I would hear it on my speakers.

    Have you ever heard dbx encoded LPs.

    Right now I'm playing one. You absolutely would not know it from CD. No background or pops at all.

    I have been checking things out today, as I have someone busting a gut to come and hear some of this vintage audio, and the TL speakers.

    [​IMG]

    They are dual TLs, like John Wrights last effort before his untimely death. Like his the lines are tuned half an octave apart. These are an active triamp design though.

    I have to say all these vintage turntables sound very good, even the Decca ffss rig, but for that it is best to avoid the heavily modulated stuff.
  13. BRIAN_PDX Audiophyte

    BRIAN_PDX
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    Nicely done article. Is there a formula for the percentage of budget for arm, cartridge and table? Obviously you don't put a $2,000 cartridge on a $200 table or arm but what would be a reasonable guideline? I had a Thorens TD165C table with a Stanton 681EEE cartridge later upgraded to an Ortofon MM but would like to go with a MC like the Koetsu Black. What tables and arms would be a match? Thank you, great information.
  14. Paul Scarpelli Audio Pragmatist

    Paul Scarpelli
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    Much thanks to Dr. Floyd Toole for his great insight. We worked at Harman together, and (obviously) I didn't get to spend enough time with him. BTW, go to Amazon and order his "Sound Reproduction, Loudspeakers and Rooms." You need this book, trust me. Floyd is a treasure of practical audio knowledge.

    Within the confines of a sub-2,000 word format, I couldn't really get into detail, such as cartridge loading, record eccentricities and their detrimental effects, record weights (never!) and clamps, cartridge and tonearm resonance, different types of stylii, etc. I felt the most ignored area when selecting a turntable has always been the tonearm/cartridge interface. I've seen low-compliance moving coil cartridges mounted in ultra-low-mass arms, such as the famous and infamous Infinity Black Widow; a tonearm that had the effective mass of a swizzle stick, only with a bit more rigidity. During loud bass passages, rather than the cantilever tracking the undulations, the almost-massless tonearm would shudder when used with a low-compliance cartridge. As my friend Floyd and TLS Guy have pointed out, there are many variables that must be addressed, but mating the wrong cartridge to the arm is an avoidable mistake.
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  15. TLS Guy Audioholic Overlord

    TLS Guy
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    [​IMG]

    By far the weakest feature, in fact the only weakness is the pickup arms.

    I would not put an MC cartridge on that arm. To be honest I'm not a lover of MC cartridges. I think the MM actually sound better, and above all play more records without complaint. In my view the MC cartridges have always been over hyped.

    You can modify those turntables to take SME arms, and many have. That would be a big upgrade.

    Don't forget some lower priced MM are very good. In fact the Shure 97XE at under $100 is very hard to beat.

    [​IMG]

    To best it you have to go to something like the Ortofon Black.

    I think the Shure V 15 xMR is the best cartridge ever made. It is the least fussy and most musical. It is well worth the high prices now paid for them on eBay. Make sure you get an original stylus. Mew old stock comes up now and again.

    These cartridges provide damping. Damping is seldom done, but absolutely should be and is in my view an essential part of LP play back. This damper is synergistic with the SME silicone bath damper.

    All those shiny over engineered turntables at the high end dealers lack essential equipment.

    Turntable arm and cartridge are all of equal importance and have to be carefully matched.
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  16. Paul Scarpelli Audio Pragmatist

    Paul Scarpelli
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    Thanks for the kind comments.

    There is no formula for distributing funds for an arm, turntable, and cartridge. I have heard some very inexpensive Grado cartridges that performed far beyond their cost. But upon viewing the stylus under a microscope, it looked like an abrasive moon rock. The moderately-cheap Audio Technica cartridges seemed to have had the best low-cost nude-mounted gems I had seen in my eleven years of checking customers' cartridges under a microscope. But the most important aspects are covered in the article; matching the cartridge to the arm and proper setup and cartridge alignment.

    The Koetsu Black has very low compliance (between 10-12 c.u.) and would require a moderately-high mass tonearm, and loading at 100 ohms. I posted a link in the article that should help determine what the appropriate effective mass should be. I will never own another moving coil cartridge despite their exquisite highs because of the tracking issues, low output and need for a step-up device, and the higher noise due to an additional gain stage. That said, my old friend Jim Fosgate uses a Koetsu in his million-buck system, and it sounds stunning.

    For the record (yeah, that was a pun), I play records, but not often. I have a really good digital setup, and digital done right is damn good. In a few past articles, I have covered what makes records sound different than CDs, and it's a longer list than you might think. As a recording drummer in a past life, I can tell you that the mastering is probably the biggest difference. A Windham Hill recording sounds almost the same on a CD as it does on vinyl, because they do it right. OTOH, while the record of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" is superb, the CD (even the audiophile versions) is an unmitigated horror show, and unlistenable.
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  17. flamingeye Junior Audioholic

    flamingeye
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    I'd like to hear your thought's on linear tracking tables, I have an old Technics SL-10 with ortofon X1-MCP MC cart that I still use and enjoy. do you think using MM cart would give me better quality of sound then a MC cart would given there in the same price point
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2016
  18. Floyd Toole Acoustician and Wine Connoisseur

    Floyd Toole
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    TLS Guy. You could say that I too came from a UK background in the sense that I spent almost 5 years in London attending Imperial College, where I got my PhD. While there I went to the hi-fi shows at the Russell Hotel, ending up purchasing my first loudspeakers (KEF) from the factory, and my first tone arm (SME) also from the factory, making good friends with the owners at the time. Back home in Canada I completed the system with the TD-124, Dynaco electronics (made from kits of course), and a Shure cartridge.

    All my early loudspeaker research relied on LPs for music, and it quickly became obvious that there were problems. Being me, and being at a superbly equipped research lab (the National Research Council of Canada) it could dig into what was going on. Among other things I started to measure phono cartridges. At the time the best test records were from CBS. Bruel and Kjaer came along later with an alternative. Because in testing a cartridge one is testing the entire chain: cutting, mastering, pressing, I collaborated with an audio magazine to create our own test record, with some signals for measuring and some musical excerpts to test various aspects of performance. It all starts with a master tape, of course, which we created with some help from the recording engineers at McGill University's tonmeister program. We knew exactly what went into the master tape. The problem was that it was impossible to get the same program out of an LP. When you have the master tape and can switch instantly to the LP playback it is not difficult to hear the differences. We used a highly regarded mastering lab; the same one that did the CBS test records.

    All of the known problems were there and audible: tracing distortion (the playback stylus does not follow the same course as the chisel shaped cutter), modulation limiting (the cutter itself cannot render short recorded wavelengths), mistracking (the moving mass of the stylus cannot stay in contact with the groove walls during loud passages, especially near the center of the disc, where wavelengths are short. Then there was the inevitable mono bass, necessary to keep the stylus from being thrown out of the groove, the dynamic range compression, necessary to avoid the worst distortions in the inner grooves, and the high-frequency rolloff to minimize tracing distortion, again in the inner grooves. All of these manipulations were done during mastering and are part of the considerable skill of a good mastering engineer. However, it all means that what comes out of an LP is not what was on the master tape.

    It is a sad fact, as I was told by Phil Ramone - a renowned engineer - that it one of the great crimes of the audio industry that the music archives are full of LP cutting-master tapes not the original master tapes. So for a lot of our historical music we have lost the art that was created, and are left with manipulated, in effect predistorted, master tapes intended to be used to drive cutter heads on lathes making LPs. When CDs came along there were technical problems in the early days, but hidden, unmentioned, is the reality that a lot of the archival music that was put on CDs was inappropriate for CD playback - it could not sound as good as the original master tape because that was long gone. When one compares a master tape with what comes out of a modern CD player, or any of the wider bandwidth options, it is a struggle to hear any difference at all.

    For me this meant that testing loudspeakers from that point on meant using one-from-master analog tape, and, later, digital recordings. LPs contained a lot of good music, but they were, and still are, incapable of delivering the art as it was created. Much enjoyment is still possible, which is the good thing. But now in terms of accuracy, we can do much better. We still find things to complain about, but now we don't have to wonder what to blame - the medium is not likely to be the issue.

    Cheers,

    Floyd
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  19. Floyd Toole Acoustician and Wine Connoisseur

    Floyd Toole
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    I have never owned a dbx encoded LP but have heard them. It was an improvement, but no longer necessary.

    My last cartridge was the latest version of the Shure V-15, I forget the number.

    At one point in my cartridge investigations, a magazine challenged me to set up a proper comparison of some then state-of-the-art cartridges. I had a turntable fitted with three identical arms, installed two moving coil cartridges, an Ortofon MC-30, a Denon DL103D and a moving magnet Shure V15-IV, priced then at about $1000, $500 and $200. In a questionnaire before the tests, our audiophile listeners were asked to express their views on some cartridges, including the test objects. The moving coils both got high ratings, and the moving magnet ratings covered the full range from "poor" to "state-of-the-art".

    All three were precisely set up to manufacturer's specs, and cued up in a manner that allowed the listener to switch at will among them. There was no time limit. The test was blind - nobody knew what they were listening to. Sixteen listeners, all serous audiophiles, devoted about 40 man-hours spread over seven sessions, listening, actually enjoying themselves at times, and documenting their opinions. Once listeners realized that their personal reputations were not on the line, it was really quite an interesting exercise, and something not likely to be repeated. Some of them seriously got "into" the test, returning several times on their own. The tests are fully documented in AudioScene Canada, Aug. 1980.

    The result? A statistical tie. The scores and ratings listeners came up with could have been created by
    chance. One of the moving coil units exhibited a noticeable high-frequency boost (the stylus/groove resonance), although it was not sufficient to significantly affect the ratings. But to finesse the test I then added some minor equalization to make the high frequency responses almost identical. The new result was still a statistical tie, but with reduced scatter - they were very difficult to tell apart.

    So, the premium-priced moving coils demonstrated that they are just another way to make cartridges, and the excellence in sound is measurable. A lot of the listeners went home with modified opinions.

    Sadly, nowadays I know of nobody doing objective testing of these devices. The market is so small that it is difficult, and a simple change of the color and model number of the cartridge makes comparisons impossible. It is a mature technology; there is no magic to it, but the advertising claims have not diminished in almost 40 years. That's audio :)

    Cheers,

    Floyd
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  20. Mikado463 Junior Audioholic

    Mikado463
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    Paul, I disagree with regard to your general statement about MC cartridges. Like all things in this crazy hobby synergy is key, as you've pointed out with respect to tone arm mass and cart compliance. I've been using Benz Micro for fifteen years and they track superbly. As for my phono pre I use one of Jim Fosgate's tube pieces and couldn't be happier.

    I must admit though that back in the day my Grace F9e was my favorite MM, it like the Shure has a certain cult status IMO

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