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Reviewer: Edward Barker
Turntables: Kuzma Stabi with power supply and Kondo power cord, Garrard 301, Garrard 401, Systemdek Transcription, Thorens TD320, Thorens TD160
Arms: Cartridge Man Conductor, Hadcock 242 SE, Ortofon 212, Mission 774, ET2, SME V with Kondo Cable
Cartridges: Kondo IO-M, Cartridge Man Music Maker 2 & 3, Koetsu Urushi, Madrigal MC1, Empire MC1000, Shure V15, Cartridge Man Classic
Phono amplification: Kondo M7 phono, Garrard Missing Link II, Gram Era Gold V
Tuner: Sansui TU 719, Leak Troughline, Armstrong AM-FM
Preamp: Kondo M77 with phono
Power amps: Kondo Gakuohs
Speakers: Living Voice OBX-RW, Isophon open baffle project
Ancillaries: Kondo KSL LP and Kondo KSL VZ interconnects; Kondo SPC speaker cable and Kondo KSL ACz power cords; Clearlight Audio NFT cabling; Silver Arrow cabling and mains leads; Audiomagic Mini Stealth conditioner, Incognito wiring on Conductor and Hadcock 242, Living Voice Mystic Matt, Boston Audio Graphite Mat, Cartridge Man Isolators and setup tools, Dr. Feickert protractor. 2 x separate 30 amp mains wiring spurs.
Room: 16.40' x 14.75' x 11.12'
Review component retail: £1,200
The Cartridge Man Leonard Gregory has been making fine cartridges for a very long time now. His Music Maker 2 and 3 have been staples in my audio system for ages and he's recently introduced the rather stunning Conductor linear-bearing tone arm. Each of these products are distinctive and unusual but sonically persuasive. I've had the Conductor tone arm working for more than a year now and can report that I've had no problems with it at all. The only time it skips is when I inadvertently step on the air lead while cleaning records.
The Classic is the latest iteration of the Music Maker 3. This version is not so much a development but major rethink as not only has the resonance damping first introduced with the isolator been completely redesigned and incorporated as a fixed item but crucially, the windings have been changed from copper to silver. Along with a new isolator mechanism now an integral part of the cartridge itself, these changes are likely to have a pretty major impact on sound quality.
I've been a fan of the Music Makers both because their stylus profile means they track superbly but more than that because there's a natural and unforced quality to the sound they produce that allows the music to flow beautifully from the grooves. Proportions and emphasis are just right. These cartridges are difficult to flaw. True, they don't have the fire, bite, snarl, vibrancy and sheer magic of a great moving coil like the Kondo IO-M in a full Kondo system but given a good phono stage, their rendition is such that after a few minutes one gets used to the sound and the Classic will create its own world which is a delight to listen to. This means I could more than happily live with them as sole cartridges if needed.
For a cartridge costing £1,200, the use of a basic Grado donor body is bound to be a bit controversial. The plastic isn't of the highest quality and it's not guaranteed that the top of the cartridge plane will be perfectly flat. The build quality isn't of the highest calibre either and I'd like to see Leonard Gregory design his own body for future developments of the Classic. The generator and moving iron implementation remain the same.
There's a school of thought about music reproduction which suggests that good kit is capable of reproducing complex music far more completely than average kit. I have a lot of sympathy with this notion though it's also true that we as listeners develop our musical tastes over time. It's not just the kit. But take a complex piece like Ralph Towner's Diary [ECM]. Reproduced on a normal hifi, it is in danger of sounding a bit random, a bit coagulated, thick and unsophisticated. Rhythms drive forward in a kind of crude jerky way. The music appears to my ears fundamentally boring. Now put the Classic on and some odd thing happens. What felt wrong suddenly comes into focus. The plasticity of the piece, the musical sense, suddenly appears as if out of nowhere. You start to get the music and it becomes a pleasure.
On the Garrard 301 with a Conductor arm, the Classic's sound is tonally rich, wonderfully fast and full of a quality I can only describe as joy. It's having so much fun making music. Just loves it. There's no pretense, no false underlining of notes, nothing ponderous or show-offy. Given the stellar performance of the MM3, even adding silver windings to my all silver system, I still did not expect a major leap, a whole new level of resolution, detail, timing compared to the MM3. But that is what one gets. Fortunately this is not at the expense of becoming over analytical or losing the basic generosity of proportion and stance towards the music. There are loads of cartridges that do detail extremely well but then somehow over-egg the pudding and end up constraining the music into some kind of interpretative straight jacket where the sounds appear completely regimented by the gear. "You are allowed to sound like this" they say, rather than "let me see if I get you right".
Fair enough, it's not as accurate or assured as is technically possible. It plays a little bit fast and loose but you might only notice that if you'd lived with the absolutely finest cartridges at length. The energy of the Garrard comes right through. Holy Bamaco! Listen to how fast that Benson plays his guitar. There's a fabulous vibrancy to it all and tonal color is rich and palpable. Okay, on a loud chord passage the exceedingly pure sound will saturate and edge towards the mechanical. The overall presentation is lighter and less resolved in the air around the highs than one gets in superlative cartridges like the Allaerts MC2 Finish or the Swiss Magic Diamond. The voices won't have that seductive smooth velvety feeling and you could accuse it of sounding a bit on the forward and bright side. Compared to the Magic Diamond, it doesn't quite reach the Swiss star's fullness of body or the wealth of overtones. This isn't necessarily immediately apparent but listen for instance to Towner's solo piano on his Solstice [ECM 1060 ST] and it soon appears that there is a layer of overtonal and timbric information which the Magic Diamond brings out that the Classic is missing. So the Classic on really well recorded piano sounds a touch thin and not quite as lustrous by comparison. But notice that I'm comparing it to some of the finest and most expensive moving coils available today. So it might not quite compete but remember that the comparison isn't fair to start with and that this cartridge is more than worthy of being comparing to them. Which is something to think about.
But comparisons only make sense at the moments when we are deciding to buy. After that, we simply listen to our systems. It's then that the Classic comes into its own. If you live with it over time, one of the characteristics I most enjoy is that it's a superlative dancer, a Fred Astaire of musical timing, of gait, balance and poise. Plus, it's incredibly involving. Yes it has got tons of audiophile-approved things going for it but more important, that love of music the MM3 had has somehow gotten better and better. You just can't help move your body to anything with rhythm.
Playing Shankar at volume, this combination of Garrard 301/Conductor/MMClassic into the Kondo M7 phono stage easily cruises into one of the memorable analog systems I've been lucky enough to hear. Put your ear to the cartridge at no volume and there is very little spurious sound coming out of it, a testament to how well it matches the Conductor arm. This is certainly as low as I've come across.
Whether played on the Conductor, the Schroeder DPS or Kondo-wired SME V, the Classic completely lives up to its name. It has tons more richness of tone and depth of color than the MM3. It has wonderful vibrancy, speed and snap. It can do fire and it can caress. This is a seriously good cartridge that can and does play with the big boys. No, in absolute terms it can't keep up with the Kondo IO-M but remember that we also have to make allowances for the fact that the Kondo is playing in an all-Kondo system with all the synergies this implies.
What's amazing is that from an interpretative point of view, it very much holds its own. I'd certainly recommend this cartridge as a contender for very serious record players and arms. As far as value goes, any reasonable reader would not be rushing to me for an opinion on bargains - but I can only look at my thought process. If you listen to a lot of vinyl, you want a cartridge you can play a lot. That is the role of the MM3 in my system. I only want to be playing the Kondo I0-m when I want the full-blown high volume total immersion experience, given the cost per hour of running one. But there are hours in the day when I just want to listen to music fairly quietly and the MM3 and Classic are a joy in these circumstances. But needle wear does become an issue for me. The Cartridge Man quotes around 1000 hours for his styli (having said that, I've put more than that on my MM2 and its still works fine), while Allaerts suggests something closer to 7000 for his MC1B. The Allaerts is an MC and a delicate one at that so obviously one needs to factor in the price of an MC phono stage. But given it's only £300 more, I'd look closely at that one as well. Yes the MC1B is very delicate like all Allaerts kit. On the other hand, I don't believe the Zyxs or EMT JSDs quote any more hours on their styli than the Classic does. In the end, the Classic does the most important thing: delivering music rather than audio to be profoundly satisfying over the long term. I wouldn't be at all surprised if a considerable number of seasoned audiophiles will choose to go Classic. For me it's a cartridge I'd find difficult to live without.
|Quality of packing: Small off-the-shelf jewel/ring case.
Reusability of packing: Excellent.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Very easy.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Completeness of delivery: Excellent
Website comments: A bit sparse but sufficient.
Warranty: The guarantee is for twelve months with normal exclusions for misuse or abuse but the Cartridge Man is sympathetic to fellow music lovers if they suffer an 'unfortunate' event with their cartridges.
Human interactions: Dealing with Leonard Gregory is always a pleasure.
Pricing: Among the more expensive moving magnets (or moving iron to be correct) but performance is more than commensurate with the price.
Final comments & suggestions: The Classic is subject to the Cartridge Man’s new-for-old policy when rebuild time comes around. For 50% and the old cartridge, they give you a brand new one. While the Classic is an excellent tracker, care needs to be taken with setup to achieve full performance potential.