Reprinted from Fi Magazine
Tracking is the hobgoblin of small minds.
Yes, considering that a needle and a record pretty much have to touch each other if music is what you have in mind, its best to keel the two in mutual contact, come what may and all other things being equal. And as it turns out, most of hi-fi historys tracking champs have been flat, textureless, uninvolving things. As phono cartridges go.
Why do I bring this up? Because, nostalgic fool that I am, Ive been thinking back to the early 80s, when high-enders rolled around in exotic new cartridges like pigs in shaving cream. And what a time it was: we had pickups carved from old lawn furniture, pickups carved from old meerschaum pipes, pickups carved from old hunks of onyx and ivory and lapis lazuli all made by taciturn old men who might otherwise have spent their lives making swords or doing the chant thing.
Those were the products that showed us how much texture and detail and presence and musical whoomp really lived in our record grooves. And aint none of em tracked worth a damn. And no one I know really cared.
But in the same sense that yuppies-for-Reagan saw no end to the list of retirement funds they could loot, so too did analogers assume that tomorrow would bring nothing but more and more exotic phono cartridges to set us humming. What we got instead were fewer choices, more expensive choices, and the big daddy of em all, more modern choices.
That last one is where the controversy lives: no doubt about it, the $800 moving coil cartridge of today can track a record better than the $800 moving-coil cartridge of fifteen years ago. But-and Im willing to attribute some of this to nostalgia- I still havent heard anything for under $3500 that supplants (my memory of) the Goldbug Briar or the Myabi Ivory or even the great Kiseki Purpleheart Sapphire, which I bought and then sold to a friend, a dumb stunt for which Id kick my own ass every morning if it didnt aggrieve my back so.
To me, the Audio Note IO-Iv is a blast from the past, and I mean that in all the best possible ways. For the first time in a while, here is a moving-coil cartridge that dares to be different for its technology, different for the way it plays music.
First, the where-its-made part. The IO-Iv (just say "eye-oh one" and forget the little v) isnt like those other contemporary cartridges that all seem to come from the same moving-coil puppy mills. Its lineage is in fact the opposite of what youd expect: the basic IO design originated with Hiroyasu Kondo in Japan some number of years ago, and the cartridge itself is now assembled at Audio Notes factory in, of all places, England.
Then theres the technical side. Since it come from Audio Note (they of Ongaku fame) youll be surprised to know that the coils of all three IO series cartridges ( the I, the II, and the Ltd.) are wound with 99.99 percent pure silver wire. And because its from England (okay, so this is a stretch), youll be unsurprised to know that its mounting-hole-to-stylus-tip distance is a very precise 7mm - a fact with special significance for owners of the Naim Aro tonearm, who will find that any IO mounted in their favorite arms slotless headshell will come out dead-on correct in the overhang and lateral tracing angle departments. (Interestingly, this and other Ios have a total of six unthreaded mounting holes-the extras of which seem intended for additional mounting hardware, for nth-degree rigidity.)
But everyone who hasnt been Rip Van Winkling for the past fifteen years will be surprised by the weight of most IO cartridges. The IO-II, for example, tips the scales at a big 18 grams and plays Delta Burke to its anorexic, seven-and eight-gram sisters in the modern analog world. (You go, girl!) By comparison, the IO-Iv under review here is a svelte 11 grams, according to my metric postage scale (Im turning into a regular Julian Hirsch, I yam).
The Audio Note IO-Iv also features a powerful Alnico magnet; a van den Hul Type One stylus; and a longish cantilever made from titanium, a material once thought to be the exclusive province of , ahem, certain journalists ears. The list of Unusual Things is rounded off by the fact that the IO-Ivs output is in fact wildly low: a mere .05 mV at the frequency and amplitude at which these things are usually measured.
With regard to that last spec-a consequence of using only a very few turns of wire, in the interest of signal purity and low moving mass-Audio Note recommends that all IO cartridges be used with a step-up transformer instead of an active pre-preamp. Why? Hum, for one. With a design like this, the subtlest signals can fade into electrical insignificance when surrounded by too much noise. Besides, the recommended load for this cartridge is a mere 3 to 4 ohms, a trick which a small, simple transformer can pull off "naturally," without the need for added resistors in parallel. (And here I gladly note that opinions about cartridge loading are like ill-fitting shirts, inasmuch as every audiophile has at least one.)
So I used my review sample of the IO-Iv with Audio Note AN-S3 and AN-S1 transformers, among other things-said other things including Creek OBH-9 and Main Prefix phono preamps. And of course, since transformers dont provide RIAA equalization for phono signals, all transformer outputs were sent to the phono section of either a Fi preamp [ not affiliated with this magazine-WG] or Audio Notes own M1. The arm was in fact a Naim Aro, and the tracking force well, lets come back to that in a minute.
To me, the foremost requirement of ant hi-fi thing is that it communicates not just good sound but actual music. And to that end, it must impart (maybe I should say " allow") some sense of musical flow-of music more than just a linear series of impressive notes, but rather, something with an origin, a destination, a purpose, and a precise sense of timing. The Audi Note cartridge does all this, handily.
But keep in mind that seemingly all components that make it this far do so on their own terms-and so is goes here. The Audio Note does indeed play music; with it, you can enjoy recorded sound as an essay of ideas, rather than one static cross-section at a time, like a CAT-scan. But here, the sense of flow has a distinct temporal quality-that of leaning into the music. The IO doesnt sound so rushed, per se, but it does sound pleasantly taut.
And while this cartridge makes music in a way thats so decidedly un-flabby, neither does it sound at all lean. In fact Im amazed at how much (realistic) bass content the IO reveals. The first thing I really noticed upon substituting the Audi Note for my Lyra Lydian was a considerable increase in bass weight and depth.
Sure, you gotta be careful saying a thing like that when comparing cartridges of different masses in the same arm-even when its just the difference between the 10.5-gram Lyra and the 11-gram Audio Note; the overall resonant frequency for the combined arm/cartridge will change, and that will have sonic and musical consequences. But as I think I was saying, given the tightness, the tautness, the undeniably non-turgid, and eminently musical quality of the bass via this cartridge, Im convinced that most if not all of the changes here are down to the IOs own inherent goodness, not a byproduct of synergy gone with bad or very good.
With the IO in my Aro Ive enjoyed a great many sonic and musical treats-like the most gorgeous string tone Ive ever heard from a 60s-era Columbia (Bernsteins Mahler Third, especially noted for the uneclipsed beauty of his hyperemotional final movement) and a wonderfully punchy, feel-it-in-your-throat ride tom sound on even overcompressed rock like the Kinks Arthur. As for the latter-and notwithstanding the wonderful, tactile sound-the real star of the show remains the IOs musical effectiveness: With the Audio Note cartridge, the song "Shangri-La" -a sharp but sympathetic look at middle-class aspirations-was more moving, emotionally effective than I think Ive ever heard before. And in my experience, that sort of thing happens when your brain is relieved from having to work so hard to tease real musical flow out of a bunch of hardware.
Yup, Audio Notes made a great rock cartridge, whether they set out to or not. And the IO succeeds here for a number of reasons- like its taut way with a musical line and, again, with that big, sexy bottom. Consider also how well it communicates sheer force, as on the Stones "Gimme Shelter"- wherein you can easily tell the difference between Charlie Watts holding back in the early bars and Charlie Watts giving it hell throughout the rest of the number .and, of course, the difference has to do with more than just loudness.
But the Stones disc and a few others (like some from the hallowed Culshaw/Solti Ring series; hey, is this a London thing, or what?) also expose the IOs weakest area, which a level of tracking ability that never goes beyond "okay." Oh, its not terrible, and it certainly doesnt jump the groove or anything. But a Lydian or for that matter a Benz Glider will do certain moments of Wagnerian excess (vocal exclamations, anvils, that sort of thing) with less rasp.
And this is at the IOs optimum tracking force, which in my arm proved to be a chunky but not excessive (given the clever vdH stylus profile- which spreads the force over a larger portion of the vinyl valley) 2.6 grams. How much force does Audio Note recommend? A range of 1.5 to 3.5 grams. Apart from confirming my worst fears about declining education standards ("in todays Whole Language world there are no wrong answers- just children who are empowered to find the answer thats right for them!"), so vague a recommendation troubles me, especially since some users might not know the how or the why to achieve a single, optimum downforce. (The why, of course, is to position the coils for optimum "focus" in the magnetic field; the how is usually to ensure that, when lowered onto the record, the cantilever sits in the middle of its range of movement.) Dont be bashful, Peter [Qvourtrop, head of Audio Note U.K.-WG]- go ahead and tell us what to do.
But back to where we started. Given a reliably good stylus like the vdH and a great safe arm like the Naim, occasional mistracking bothers me about as much as Watergate bothered the barefoot crackers in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Whick, is to say, not at all, really. I never heard anything that made me wince or cry out or fear for the health of my records.
What I did hear was a lot of good music-making, and a lot of that rich, tactile, and realistically warm sound that leads me, and lots of other folks to equate moving-coil with magical. And for that, Audio Note has my undying thanks. The IO-Iv is the kind of thing that pulled me into this hobby in the first place. And knowing I can buy a brand-new one today- and not for the not-outrageous sum of $1895- gladdens me in a way that little else in hi-fi does.
This page was updated on: 06 Aug 1998
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