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Posted by aaron at 06:02PM, Thursday, December 01st, 2005

The 4723 MC Bee Phono Cartridge from 47 Labs

Or, a little hand-built stereo cartridge from Japan that my friend Erik says looks like a dragon licking up delicious vinyl grooves. Especially those scrumptious jazz ones.

Up until last month, one of the problems I noticed with my existing analog replay system (Linn Sondek LP12 turntable with Linn Ittok tonearm, new home-built 500VA transformer-based power supply, Shure V15VMR cartridge, and Naim NAC72/HiCap as phono stage) was that, while it seemed moderately detailed at the top end, there was a sort of grayness through the lower midrange and the bass. I thought it was pacey enough, and my recent adventures in building my own turntable power-supply seemed to have given me some remarkable clarity to listen into orchestra recordings, and be able to hear subtler details of counterpoint and passagework -- but it wasn't totally fulfilling, and CD still had some advantages.

So I borrowed a new moving coil cartridge from Yoshi Segoshi, who imports the strange and fascinating 47 Labs equipment from Japan into the States. The cartridge is the 47 Labs Phono Bee. I stuck it into my setup. This cartridge is pretty easy to align using the laser-etched WallyTractor alignment-protractor -- the cantilever is really easy to see. (The packaging for the cart is also ultra-sexy, and the mounting seems pretty solid.)

The only problem I ran into was that I couldn't balance the cart on my Ittok arm using the counterweight alone: I had to use a combination of the counterweight and some spring-loaded downforce to get the total downforce in the 1.8-1.9 gram range. This is one low-mass cartridge.

The Naim moving magnet phono boards I'd been using previously with the Shure weren't going to work for a moving coil cartridge like the Bee, which has an output level of .3mV (versus about 10 times that with the Shure), so I switched to the Naim "N" style MC cards. My first impression was that the cartridge was incomparably detailed through the lower midrange -- there was a good amount of bass weight, and a lot of subtlety and complexity in there, which had been masked before. However, everything sounded a little sort of papery and strange. VTA changes had enormous effects, though I couldn't get a pleasing treble sound by changing that alone.

The next thing I tried was pulling out my old Linn Majik integrated amp, which has a pretty nice phono stage built-in. I set it to MC, and plugged the Bee into that. The sound was very different: now, rather than warm and papery, it was cold and a little thin, though the sound didn't change wildly as it went up the frequency spectrum any more. I listened to it like this for a few days. What I found was that the system tracked spectacularly, but everything seemed a little cold and un-engaging -- unless I put a clean funk record or some jazz on. This thing loves horns and bass-lines.

Finally, Yoshi arranged for us to try the 47 Labs Shigaraki series phono preamp. I plugged that in while our friend Chris was over, and the sound through that preamp, cold from Yoshis' car, was spectacular. It was wide-bandwidth, well-integrated, and engaging, and wasn't particular picky about album condition or genres any more. It was also pretty spectacularly detailed, and brought a lot more oomph to the bass. With this, the sound I'm getting off vinyl is something I think could live with for quite a while.

Then something really bizarre and fascinating happened. Yoshi had to take the phono stage back for a few weeks, and I switched back to my Majik. Only now, the Majik sounded just fine -- not much different from the Shigaraki, though a little leaner in the bass. It was just as engaging, and only a little less detailed and clean, but vastly better than it had been initially. I can't explain what was going on. Maybe the phono stage in the Majik was cold. Maybe I had a loose connection somewhere. When the Shigaraki came back, once again it sounded much nicer in the bass, and there was more information overall, but it still wasn't the night-and-day difference the Majik-to-Shigaraki switch was the first time around.

After listening for a couple weeks, I feel like what's coming out of my speakers now on vinyl is a very detailed sound that's not bright or harsh or tiring, and is also much less particular about record condition -- wear and groove damage, as well as dust and scratches -- than anything I've listened to before. The sound is fast, not in a PRAT "everything sounds faster" way, but in a recovery way: the stylus doesn't seem to hang around after getting deflected by any foreign matter in the groove; it gets right back to where it was before. Similarly, the electronics don't seem to be ringing, setting up oscillations or harmonics from quick signal-changes in the cartridge; instead, they track the source signal cleanly and quickly. This is a sound I've been working hard to get to, and there are a few things I've done recently to help it along: my new preamp was a huge step; getting the Numerik DAC for CDs was another huge step, as was the power supply for the record player.

One of the things I've started noticing, after years of listening to a bunch of different audio, is that the stuff that does it best for me often has this sort of quality, where you can hear spectacular detail, combined with a quickness in those details. It's tough to describe, but some systems, when there's a huge dynamic change in the music -- a snare drum that comes out of nowhere, for example -- will sort of seem shocked by it: there will be this split second afterward where you don't hear all the other sounds that were going on before, as though the electronics or the source or the speaker drivers are all so busy doing one thing, even when that one thing's over, that they can't get back to doing the other, quieter stuff. On vinyl that's in bad condition, this gives you the effect of a spec of dust sounding like a rock, rather than a tiny click; or of groove damage sounding really pretty horrible and clouding the original signal, rather than sounding like this noticeable, but sort of separate, layer on top of the signal -- being noticable, but separate from the signal proper, and letting you hear through to the good signal beneath, without too much trouble.

It's funny because, in contrast to what a lot of audiophiles claim, systems that sound to me as though they track source signals well, in this fast and clean way, end up sounding much more pleasant as they get more revealing. They're not picky about the recordings they let you enjoy -- good music on crappy records sounds better, not worse, which is absolutely the way it should be. To me, it seems conceptually similar to what I noticed when I first got the Numerik: it actually sounded like there was less going on on the CD at first, until I realized that, without the Numerik, I'd been hearing a lot of introduced noise that wasn't supposed to be in the signal, and the amps and speakers had been busy replaying that, rather than the newly-revealed detail on the CD. The bonus with this was that a lot of previously-nasty-sounding CDs suddenly sounded much much better, since a lot of the nastiness just... went away. I could hear more detail in the CD, and also a lot more "room" where there was noise before.

With the Bee, there is mistracking occasionally (though seemingly quite a bit less than with my old Shure -- there are definitely records that were sketchy with that that sound just fine now), but even when that happens, it ends up sounding much less objectionable; it's not magnified as it seems to be with most other cartridges I've heard.

I'm pretty damn impressed with the cartridge. It's not cheap, but it appears really quite well-made, and it sounds fantastic. It's not the most overtly emotional setup I've ever heard, but it's capable of giving me goosebumps. It's dynamic and open in a way I've never really heard from vinyl before, including from some really high-end stuff in shops. It's quite a bit better than my CD rig now. There's still a tiny bit of thinness in the midbass sometimes, even with the Shigaraki stage, but I'm starting to think this may be as much as issue with my speakers' crossover settings as anything else. Hell, the Bee is making me pay attention to stereo imaging for the first time ever. And have I mentioned that, on my LP12, this thing gets pretty hot and bothered over jazz and funk? It loves old Mingus, or Wilson Pickett, or Ella, or Stevie Wonder, or Earth, Wind, and Fire. But it also loves a lot of grungy old classical that I've never been able to stand on vinyl: Cage and Ginastera percussion music, and all that George Crumb night-music with its delicate filigree sounds that can be wiped out by over-emphasized dust or mistracking. It loves Elgar string quartets and old Dolly Parton records, too.

I checked out what one of the local high end shops had to compete with it, and they offered a similarly-priced Benz Micro cartridge. Their shop setup, with an LP12, sounded okay -- but it failed to do anything at all for me on a Shostakovich symphony I'd brought along after sitting breathless through a side of it with the Bee. Then I stuck on some Buffy Sainte-Marie, which was just dull. It had been spectacular on the Bee. I think I'm buying this thing.

Also, I want to give a big thank you to Yoshi, who's been unbelievably helpful and accomodating. He seems like a great guy, with a lot of passion for hi-fi; it's no wonder there seems to be such a 47 Labs cult taking off lately.
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