AOM Logo March 1998

Two Views of the Truth
Blair Roger listens to the Benz-Micro L0.4 and Lyra Lydian moving-coil phono cartridges

Blair Roger

The Initiation
The prospect of mounting an expensive phono cartridge is about as appealing to me as disarming a miniature explosive device. One slip and your steel jeweler's screwdriver is slapped onto the place formerly occupied by that precious cantilever. The next thing you know, the kids are running upstairs and asking, "Mommy, why is Daddy sad?". Meanwhile, you're left to deal with that peculiar feeling in your gut usually associated with traffic violations and blown tweeters. Enough pessimism. Analog addicts are a hardy lot, so welcome to the club. It only gets better from here. Much better.

The Right Stuff
I've had my share of fun with cheap cartridges. And basically, that's what they give you: cheap thrills. But they do serve a purpose. I like to call the Grado 8MXs and the famous Blue Points "trainers". How else are we going to teach ourselves the arcane and soon to be forgotten art of mounting and aligning cartridges, so that we can pass this vital skill on to our offspring? I've had my share of trainers and so have you, I'll wager. The Grados are an excellent example of rugged value for money. They will withstand the most horrendous abuse and bounce back in one piece.

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…

Reality Bites
When Associate Editor, Anthony Kershaw, showed me the Benz Micro L0.4 I couldn't refuse to review it. It was a perfect compliment to the Lydian: similar price range, similar output, fabled reputation and oh, that Bruyere wood body that spoke of gun stocks, golf clubs and Grandfather's pipe. So I bravely suffered through the angst of installation and the outright boredom of break-in to satisfy my own curiosity about this Swiss wig-wag of a different sort.

The Fetish Objects
The Benz-Micro L0.4 and Lyra Lydian moving coil cartridges are physically alike in many ways. They are both low-compliance designs with solid Boron cantilevers requiring medium mass tonearms. Frequency response is claimed to be from 10 Hz to over 40kHz, and both manufacturers recommend 47 kOhm loading. Thankfully, both have threaded mounting holes, making installation a mere three-handed job. I wish the L0.4 had a stylus guard. Naked cantilevers make me very nervous.

Lyra Lydian Phono Cartridge 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.

Benz-Micro L0.4 Phono Cartridge 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.

Le System

Since my last entry in this journal, my amplifier and speakers have been seriously upgraded to the brilliant YBA 3 Alpha and the classic Quad ESL-63 USA Monitors. I will be reviewing both in the near future. All I can say for now is that the near-zero negative feedback of the Cartier-like, dual power supply, French 50 Watter may be responsible for some of the purest, most detailed and musical sound I have ever heard. It is a superb match with the ESL-63s, as it allows them to play very loudly when required, without arousing the compression of the power limiting circuit. Together they are fleet, transparent and sing like angels. And those electrostatic angels have a bottom end too: one that comes into play in the airiest, most open fashion, unique to dipolar bass. The trick? Just give them room to breathe, that's all.

So now, after more than ten years of searching (and knowing but not wanting to commit), I've finally settled down and no longer feel that crawling compulsion to creep around to audio salons searching for "some speakers" or "a different kind of amp". So this isit (at least for now), along with my trusty Well-Tempered Turntable and Audio Research SP-9 Mk II.

-- Blair Roger

The Sound
My immediate impression on hearing both the Lydian and the L0.4 was the significant refinement in their ability to portray recorded sound. When you graduate to this rank of transducer you gain a smoothness of frequency response and sonic texture, particularly in voices, that is undeniable. Coupled with this are very significant improvements in stage width and stereo separation, depth and ambiance retrieval. Part of this, of course, comes with the greatly improved reproduction of minute details of the percussive and dynamic nature. The other part of the improvement one slowly becomes aware of is the relaxed, non-fatiguing, non-mechanical nature of these cartridges of a better sort. Dynamics, lesser and greater, are reproduced more clearly and with far less strain. There is a lack of aggression in the treble presentation which is most welcome. Certain bands of the midrange are no longer emphasized at the expense of supporting harmonics. The music is sweetly crafted from a single cloth, just as in life. One becomes more aware of hall reverberations and the vital differences between engineering techniques and microphones from one LP to the next. In short, one can become blissfully lost in the music for its own sake. And isn't that what this is really all about?

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.

Suffice it to say that the Benz-Micro L0.4 and Lyra Lydian are two very different cartridges. Both of them will lift your system well clear of the Grado/Blue Point Special level of performance. In comparison, the old Grado Signature 8 series sounds mellow and soft, and the Blue Point Special sounds aggressive in the treble and uneven throughout the midrange. At their price-point the Grados and Sumikos represent good value, but I think you will find their shortcomings increasingly evident as time passes.

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.

Benz-Micro L0.4 moving-coil phono cartridge

U.S. Distributor:
Musical Surroundings

5856 College Ave., Suite 146, Oakland ,CA 94618
Phone (510) 420-0379 Fax (510) 420-0392

Canadian Distributor:

Tri-Cell Enterprises
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
Lyra Lydian moving-coil phono cartridge

U.S. Distributor:
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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