I am still amazed by the reactions that I often receive from the uninitiated and audiophiles alike, when I tell them that I continue to collect and play vinyl recordings. One friend told me, thinking that she was bringing me up to speed on the issue, that ’since CDs are now recordable, I could copy all of my records onto CD and get rid of the records, since they take up so much space’. At times such as this, you have to take a moment to decide if you should take the trouble to explain the reasons that the very thought of doing such a thing is at best abhorrent, or, just smile and say ‘I’m just old fashioned and sentimental that way, that’s why I hang on to them’. Once in a while, I will choose the former and explain the reasons that I find the sound of vinyl to be more pleasing than digital.
The first CD demonstration that I heard was back in the early eighties. Being totally under-whelmed by that experience sonically, I forgot about CDs until vinyl virtually disappeared from record store shelves. It was at that point, that I decided to take the plunge, buy a CD player and start collecting CDs. At that time, CDs were selling for around $22 in my area, so I was in no hurry to acquire a large number of titles. I thought of collecting digital recordings as an addition to my existing vinyl collection. I never intended to replace my collection of vinyl (acquired at a cost of of 2 to 7 bucks each) with $22 dollar CDs that I felt were inferior. Even if I wanted to do that, many of the vinyl recordings that I have were never reissued on CD. The one area where I will concede that digital has the advantage is that of convenience. Since it is a one sided medium, you never have to turn the disk over, as with records. Also, there are no cartridges to replace, record sleeves to purchase or turntables to adjust. The need to replace my phono cartridge is what led to my auditioning the Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood, the subject of this review.
The buzz that I had been hearing about Clearaudio’s new Virtuoso Wood cartridge piqued my curiosity to the point that I decided it was a good choice for me to audition. Shortly after several conversations with Sean Lambert and Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings, I had the cartridge in hand and ready to install. I also needed to replace my phono cable since the one that I was using developed a short. So, I agreed to give Clearaudio’s Quint phono cable a try, too.
The cartridge has a metal body attached to a mounting plate made of Fernambuk wood. The designer’s decision to use wood was based upon wood’s inherent resonant properties. Since Clearaudio is based in Germany and Fernambuk wood is only found in the Black Forest of Bavaria, it was the logical choice. It also adds more than a touch of the esoteric to boot. If you’ll notice, the stylus is attached to a very long aluminum cantilever that extends a good distance from under the cartridge body. Therefore, you must be extremely careful while handling this cartridge. It is very easy to bend or otherwise damage the cantilever or stylus.
Included with the cartridge is a metal plate that can be placed between the top of the cartridge body and the tone arm. Since the cartridge only weighs 6 grams, it will be too light to balance on some tone arms. The metal plate is to be used with those arms where the additional weight is required to achieve the correct tracking force. All in all, mounting the cartridge is a pretty straightforward affair. While the instructions included in the package do not give any suggestions as to what the VTA should be, I found that a neutral VTA worked the best in my rig. The folks at Musical Surroundings are expert in all areas of vinyl playback and will gladly provide you with any additional guidance that you might need.
The type of phono cable I needed was the common DIN-to-RCA type. The Clearaudio Quint phono cable is also available with a right angle DIN. According to the manufacturer’s literature, all Clearaudio cables are made with completely non-magnetic connectors. Most connectors are made of gold plated nickel. The problem is that nickel is magnetic. Clearaudio uses a thicker gold plate without any nickel. By so doing, it is claimed that these connectors improve dynamics and clarity. The connectors employ spring tensioning in a design known as Multiple Point Contact. This is done to maximize the contact area of the connectors. The cable also uses a symmetrical design adapted from the professional studio industry. Four inner conductors are respectively divided into two compartments, and then double shielded for a noise-free connection. This is a well-made, robust cable that installed very easily. More about this later.
As I said earlier, the installation of the cartridge is not difficult. However, because of the shape of the cartridge body, it took some effort to align it correctly in the head shell. A little time spent with the DB systems alignment tool was all that was necessary to get it right. I would also have to say that the Clearaudio was not exceptionally fussy about set-up. Given all of the praise that I heard about this cartridge prior to my obtaining one, I was anxious to see if it measured up to the hype.
After burn in, to say that I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. Every so often, I come across a product that virtually hits the ground running, so to speak. Right out of the box, it performs exceptionally well. The Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge is definitely in this category. While the recommended break-in period is approximately one hundred hours, from the start, this cartridge was a stellar performer and the performance continued to improve with use.
I have several very good vinyl reissues. Someday my Prince will Come, by Miles Davis is one of the best of them [C.B.S\Sony 23AP 2558]. This is a very high quality, Japanese pressing that makes me wish I had many more recordings of this caliber in my collection. Listening to this disk with the Clearaudio, I was presented with the best sound that I have ever heard from this record. On track two, Old Folks, the sound was clear yet natural. As for detail, it easily passed the ‘creak test’. This is where Miles shifts his weight causing the wooden stool that he is seated upon to creak. While this is clearly audible and, I would add, musically insignificant, the Clearaudio reproduced this detail in what I feel is proper perspective. That is, just enough to be audible but not so much as to draw undue attention to it. Because this kind of detail isn’t musically significant, I don’t obsess over it. What I was more impressed with on the subject of detail, were the instrumental textures that were revealed. The breathiness and bite that Miles often uses, while subtle, is clearly revealed with this cartridge. The same can be said for the saxes and the bass. The Clearaudio lent the sense that you could hear the string of the upright bass vibrating more clearly as well as the body of the instrument. Any harshness or other unpleasant artifacts never accompanied the level of detail revealed.
Keith Jarrett’s Standards Live [ECM 1317], is a recording of a live performance in Paris. The Clearaudio allowed the lyricism of Keith’s piano playing to come through unimpeded. The shimmer and decay of the piano notes were very impressive. The reproduction of the sound of the piano was well balanced but without the glare that comes along with a hard or too bright midrange. The treble was extended but also quite smooth. This extension was achieved without the brightness that often passes for treble extension. Jack DeJohnette’s distinctive cymbal work was clear and tonally rich but again, never hard or harsh. I could clearly hear the stroke of the brush as it struck the cymbal, the mini rhythms and the different timbres that he uses in his playing. None of these effects stood out as statements independent of the total performance; rather they were well incorporated into the overall presentation.
The female voice was another treat for the ears. Betty Carter’s vocal colorations and her unique delivery have made her a legendary jazz musician. The Virtuoso Wood was very well suited to reproduce the wide range of tonal shadings that Ms. Carter uses throughout her recording, Look What I Got [Verve 835-661-1]. The immediacy of her performance is striking. I find listening to the various vocal timbers she employs as her voice swoops and soars riveting. Because of her unique musical abilities, Betty Carter is one of my favorite performers.
I found the imaging to be on the natural side. That is, the cartridge imaged well, it wasn’t excessive in any one area. Instruments were well placed. I didn’t experience the super fine edged ‘cut-out’ type of imaging that some people prefer. While some audiophiles will consider this kind of imaging soft, I definitely prefer it this way. The width of the stage did extend beyond the outer edges of the speakers but this was dependent upon the recording. On the whole, the way this cartridge handles imaging is much closer to what I hear when listening to live music. Tonally, the Virtuoso Wood sounds rich and full, displaying very good tonal density and weight. Perhaps this is where the Fernambuk wood is making its contribution. The cartridge produces this rich tonality while steering clear of being in any way euphonic. The sound is quick and agile. It doesn’t have the transient speed or transparency of many of the far more expensive moving coils, but it also avoids what I consider to be some of their shortcomings, namely a zippy top and a hard treble.
The Virtuoso Wood is equally adept at reproducing the sound of large-scale jazz orchestras. I was presented with the full width and breadth of the Count Basie orchestra from the opening note. The Count’s On the Road album [Pablo D-23-2112] is very well recorded and exceptionally dynamic. The bass is perhaps a bit over done on some of the cuts, but one exception is Keter Betts’ bass solo on John the lll. Here the bass is full, rich and tight. There was always a good sense of tonal weight and bloom. On cut one, Wind machine, check out the fiery drum solo by none other than Mickey Roker. With this recording, the imaging was better defined than with many other recordings I listened to. Here was one case where the stage extended well beyond the speakers. The various sections of the orchestra were presented quite naturally in the lateral plane. Depth was good if not exceptional. Given the limitations of my room, I couldn’t complain. The Virtuoso Wood never mis-tracked or was in any way unable to handle this very dynamic recording.
This cartridge offers excellent performance with very good pressings, but it also performs well with dodgy surfaces, too. The Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet’s Back to The City, on the Contemporary label [C140-20], is a case in point. Here we have excellent music on a mediocre pressing. This is a recording of a 1986 performance at the Village Vanguard in NYC. Fortunately, despite the poor quality of the pressing, it all comes together, resulting in a very enjoyable musical experience. As far as imaging is concerned, anyone who has actually been to the Village Vanguard knows better than to expect much in the way of depth from any performance that was recorded there. Some lateral imaging, perhaps, but not too much. What most impressed me with this recording was the tonal richness. Art Farmer’s flugelhorn was so smooth and rich; very enjoyable, and listened to many times. Perhaps my favorite selection is From Dream to Dream. This is a tender ballad where the really rich timbres of each instrument can be clearly heard. This is an area where this cartridge really excels. All in all, the Virtuoso Wood gave a very honest portrayal here.
I noticed that this cartridge was very quiet and free of grain. I believe that the Quint cable played a large role in this regard. Many phono cables tend to be very susceptible to R.F. It doesn’t take much to raise the noise floor and impose a layer of grain on the music. Clearaudio has paid a great deal of attention to detail with the creation of this cable. It isn’t surprising to find that the Virtuoso Wood and the Quint cable form a synergistic match.
As I said earlier, I would characterize the overall sound of this cartridge as warm and full bodied (I will spare you the comparison to red wine). It showed excellent balance from top to bottom with good extension at both extremes. All of this is accomplished without any false “hyper” detail, edginess, brightness or other undue “hi-fi effects”. Since this cartridge has taken up residence in my system, I have been pulling out disk after disk, re-acquainting myself with my vinyl collection. This is one instance where I can characterize the Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood as being an all too rare, audiophile bargain. In the universe of phono cartridges, there are many that cost seven or eight times as much as the Virtuoso Wood. Given this, I have to consider this cartridge relatively inexpensive. If you are looking for a cartridge in the three to five hundred dollar range, you have to check this cartridge out. Similarly, if you are looking in the one to two thousand dollar range, the same applies. The Virtuoso Wood leaves me wanting for nothing. Total musicality at a more than reasonable price, this is a definite keeper.
Moving-magnet wood bodied phono cartridge.
Frequency Range: 20-Hz - 20-Khz
Channel separation: >30db @ 1Khz
Channel balance: <0.2db @ 1Khz
Output Voltage: (1Khz, 5cm/sec): 3.6mV
Recommended Tracking Force: 2.0 to 2.5gm.
Load Resistance 47 K ohms
Load Capacitance 100 pf
Weight: 6.0 gm.
Analog Front End: VPI HW-19 turntable Grado Signature Arm and 8MR cartridge
Digital Front End: Sonic Frontiers SFT-1 Transport, E A D T1000 transport, ART DIO DAC Lehman DAC+
Amplification: Linn Karin Line Stage VAC Standard L.E. pre-amp Bel Canto EVo 200.2 power amps, bridged Loudspeakers: Thiel 1.0, Dynaudio 3.3
Cabling: Audience Maestro Interconnects and Speaker Cable, Cardas loudspeaker cable, Acoustic Zen and Straightwire Interconnects
Accessories: P.S. Audio Power Plant P-300 DH Labs Isolation devices Rosinante isolation platform
The Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood MM Phono Cartridge
Manufactured by Clearaudio
Distributor: Musical Surroundings
2625 Alcatraz Avenue, Suite 501, Berkley, Ca 94705
Tel.: 510.420.0379 Fax: 510.420.0392
The Clearaudio Quint Phono Cable
Manufactured by Clearaudio
Price: $300.00 per meter
Source of review samples: US Distributor