Two Views of the Truth
Blair Roger listens to the Benz-Micro L0.4 and Lyra Lydian moving-coil phono cartridges
The Right Stuff
Next up the scale are the Blue Point Specials. Unfortunately, after sixty hours of Bruckner's Symphony No. 4, that sexy, nude Blue Point still has no bass and sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. The cheap and cheery mail order vendor tells you "They all sound that way. Didn't you know?" Thankfully, that man of true integrity, John Hunter of Sumiko, replaces your defective sample with a hand picked one and you find Nirvana. That is, until the day you shear off the cantilever while dusting the shiny, black plinth of your beloved record deck. You feel a touch of tristesse and buy another one, hoping to recapture that elusive something that never quite materializes. Why is Daddy sad?
You suffer a real crise des nerfs, as the French like to call it, and completely stop listening to any music for at least six months. Your soul withers. Your job and marriage are in jeopardy; and then, out of the blue, you hear that a slightly used, mint Lyra Lydian cartridge is available from a complete stranger 3000 miles away. A furtive phone call while the family noshes on dim sum. Assurances are exchanged; a bank draft is sent special delivery and voila, it's yours! The cantilever is perfectly straight, and the body is as magnetically iridescent green as a Japanese June bug. Ain't love grand? It was made, as fate would have it, especially for you by Yoshinori Mishima of Scan Tech, Japan and it's a gem. Your faith in the goodness of humankind is restored. And the music lover and the cartridge lived happily forever and
The Fetish Objects
Now the differences. The Lydian is more sensitive to vertical tracking angle, azimuth and zenith adjustments because it sports a polished Ogura line-contact stylus. Think of it as a wedge in the shape of a baseball diamond viewed from above, with first and third base digging the groove walls. The sharp, narrow ridges at first and third really need to fit the groove walls and conform to the original cutting angle as closely as possible, both vertically and perpendicular to the direction of stylus travel. The result is maximum detail retrieval with minimum record wear. This is a stylus that goes boldly where none has gone before. The L0.4, on the other hand, has a semi-elliptical stylus which is still sensitive to setup adjustments, but not as critical as the line-contact design. The significance of all this is that the Lydian has the theoretical potential for more detailed reproduction of the vinyl groove at the expense of being extremely demanding to align. I have to admit that it took two weeks of tweaking to get the best out of it, but it was well worth the effort. The L0.4 however, sounded competent right out of the box and only required average set-up diligence after the fifty-hour break-in. Adjusting the VTA by dropping the back of the L0.4 about 0.5 mm yielded a worthwhile improvement in soundstaging and upper octave balance. This is exactly what I would expect when comparing a van den Hul type line-contact stylus with the more easy-going elliptical profile. The Lydian sounded best with the top of the cartridge body parallel to the LP surface. Stylus and cantilever alignment was excellent on both samples. Tracking was excellent at 2 grams for the Lydian and 2.2 grams for the L0.4.
The major visible difference between these two rivals is the body. The anodized aluminum shell of the Lydian could be easily removed by undoing two screws. The intrepid among you who opt for that chic nude look in your search for sonic nirvana should be aware that removing the body voids the warranty. In contrast, the L0.4 has a rich looking, non-removable, vented briarwood body that shows off the generator and coils beautifully. Both body shells have sharp right angles, making precise alignment possible.
Before investing in an expensive phono cartridge like the L0.4 or the Lydian, it's certainly worth investigating the manufacturer's re-tipping policy. During the Lydian's unspecified warranty period, a bent cantilever might be repairable through the US distributor, Immedia, who will send the whole cartridge back to Yoshinori-san in Japan and charge you US$300. Thereafter, what Immedia calls re-tipping (for lack of a better term), gets you a brand new cartridge in exchange for your old one and US$600. Buying a re-tip for the L0.4 costs US$500 and you get your original cartridge back with a 1 year warranty after it goes for a spa vacation in Switzerland.
I'd say it makes good economic sense to upgrade from something like the Blue Point Special, in order to get the reassurance that your cartridge is a repairable, renewable asset, instead of a not-so-cheap throwaway.
In the L0.4 and the Lydian, we have the expression of two very different sonic worldviews. The Lydian will reveal itself to be exquisitely detailed to those willing to spend the time to set it up properly. It is, above all, neutral and even-handed in its treatment of the full frequency spectrum. It is capable of superb articulation and tonal beauty: some would say, the more realistic of the two; to say nothing of the stupendous bass for those with capable systems like the Waveform Mach 17s we had in-house all too briefly.
On the Classic Records reissue of the Royal Ballet Gala (LDS 6065) the Lydian makes solo instruments in the Nutcracker Suite float on a cushion of air without sounding etched. The Blueback reissue of Iberia (CS 6013) with the OSR (surprisingly under Argenta), presents luscious string sound with excellent depth. The oval label Argo pressing of Rossini String Sonatas 2 & 4 (ZRG 603) is sweet and detailed, with a lovely string sound. Holst's The Planets, with the LSO conducted by Previn (ASD 3002), is recorded with a slightly distant perspective. Thunderous bass and biting brass lead up to the whooping crescendi that herald the inexorable pessimism of the final chords of Mars, the Bringer of War.
The Benz Micro L0.4 is arguably just as detailed but richer in the lower midrange and bass. I could see where this might be a bit much in certain systems (unless of course, you love that sort of thing). This cartridge is capable of astounding dynamics, likely due to its relatively high .6mV output (for serial numbers greater than 6000). This is almost double the output of the Lydian. I would also characterize the sound to be slightly more forward in the midrange, almost 'hi-fi' if the VTA is carelessly set. When the VTA is right on, surface noise is low and, on the Rossini mentioned above, the soundstage is very wide and detailed, violins exhibiting a brilliant, silvery sheen. On Bach/Kreisler/Ysaye, a collection of solo violin pieces played by Arturo Delmoni on a J. B. Guadagnini violin of 1780 and dedicated to his teacher, Joseph Gingold (Water Lily Acoustics WLA-WS-07), his sense of pitch is flawlessly portrayed, as he modulates from one chord to another in the darkness. We can hear the bridge and body of the venerable instrument resonate as horsehair brings gut to life. Pizzicato notes hang in the air as the natural hall decay is coaxed into play. By comparison, the same cartridge reveals Ruggiero Ricci to have an entirely different, singing tone as he plays Three Paganini Caprices on his 1734 Guarnerius del Gesu violin accompanied by Brooks Smith, piano (Water Lily Acoustics WLA-WS-06). Heartfelt performances that will outlive these days of weary cynicism.
The Lydian and L0.4 are in another league altogether. In both cases, the first and strongest sonic impression is refinement of tonality, articulation and imaging. From there, the cartridges diverge in ways almost predictable from their appearance. The emerald green, aluminum bodied Lydian is detailed, transparent and neutral, neutral, neutral. If you have the patience to tweak it just so, it will reward you with exquisite and powerful sound for years to come. Look back in the archives of Audiophilia at my review of the Waveform Mach 17 loudspeakers and just remember that the Lydian was at the front end for that bone-crushing, holographic system.
The sumptuously packaged, briarwood-bodied Benz Micro L0.4 has a fuller, richer lower midrange; and, possibly because of its higher output, more apparent dynamics. It's also less demanding to set up. The Benz is just as detailed and natural as the Lyra, but ultimately somewhat colored in the lower reaches in a direct comparison.
In the end of course, the choice is yours. Evaluate your system, your listening biases, your taste in music and your record collection. Then choose one.
L0.4 moving-coil phono cartridge
5856 College Ave., Suite 146, Oakland ,CA 94618
Phone (510) 420-0379 Fax (510) 420-0392
4 Newlove Ct.
Rexdale, Ontario, Canada M9W 5X5
Phone: (416) 748-8300, Fax: (416) 748-6937
Price: US$ 1200
Source of review sample: Canadian distributor loan
Lydian moving-coil phono cartridge
2629 Mabel Street, Berkely, CA 94702
Phone: (510) 893-2573, Fax: (510) 893-2579
Price: US$ 995
Source of review sample: Reviewer purchase
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