Hi Scott !
I'd skip the Helikon. I had it for a few years. It is great, don't get me wrong, matches great with your phono stage :), but the Skala just is superior. Adding clarity, transparency and that warmth in right amount. The Helicon was just a little cool for me. The Helikon err's on the cool side just a tad, but wonderful balance, detail, staging.
I have heard the same thing on the Sumiko Celebration. It maybe "the" cartridge in your price range and on your SME table/arm. I have not personally heard it. I suspect a few posters will jump in and comment on it. Ditto stepping up in the Dynavector line.
Honestly, you might be best served keeping your cartridge and stepping up the SME 309 to a SME IV.Vi or SME V. From Stereophile's SME 10 review posted on www.stereophile.com:
"The IV.Vi tonearm raises the Model 10's price to $8250, and it raised the level of performance as well. With the IV.Vi on the 'table, there was a noticeable improvement in low-level resolution, retrieval of inner detail, and, not surprisingly, soundstage depth, with back-of-hall events coming into finer focus. The IV.Vi helped create a bigger, more finely focused, somewhat smoother picture that bettered in every way an already impressive performance. It certainly forced me to reassess my opinion of SME arms in general."
Then getting a Skala, XV-1s, or maybe the Air Tight PC 1 down the road.
Well, since you like your Dynavector, how about going "whole hog" and going with a Dynavector XV-1S, (or even its predeccesor, the XV-1?
Used they can be found within your budgeted amount, usually for as low as $1,900 (which is what I bought mine for, and a month after I bought mine, I saw another for the same amount). Typically this is what one goes for with a couple of hundred hours on it, and since a cartridge like this will last for at least a thousand hours, (and probably double to triple that), that is an incredible deal to get it for less than half its retail price of $4,250. Of course you'll pay a bit more for one that is not even broken in yet. (If you'll check, you'' typically find one or two for sale here on Audiogon, in fact there were two for sale when I looked just now.)
FYI, I owned the XV-1S for several months now, and find it to be an incredble cartridge, and just as impressive as all the reviews has said it is!
It has a very, very low noise floor (which is very important to me), which rivals the best cartridges I have heard, such as the Koetsu, ZYX and Brinkmann (EMT) line of cartridges.
It is incredibly detailed, without being analytical.
It has a great bass response, (it is almost as deep as my previous Shelter 90X, (just a touch less deep actually), but it is tighter and quicker than the Shelter, which makes me enjoy it more.
The treble is smooth, well extended and very detailed, without being bright or glaring.
The mid-range is wonderful, and while it is not as lush as the Koetsu cartridges I have owned (and loved!), in the past, it is, in its own way, just as good, as the neutrality of the mid-range seems to blend better with the well extended treble and bass response. (The Koetsu mid-range was magical, but the treble was ever so slightly rolled off, and the bass response was neither as deep or as tight as either the XV-1S or the Shelter 90X.)
At this point, I think I have found the cartridge I plan on living with for a very long time!
My two cents worth anyway.
Thanks for the sage advice. I have thought about upgrading the tonearm. The upgrade to the tonearm would be easier if I was able to sell the M10 tonearm. However, due to its unique mounting, it would be difficult to use with any other table besides the SME10 and therefore would likely be difficult to sell. The tonearm I have has the optional damping trough. That, the silver cartridge leads and the Cardas tonearm cable may slightly close the gap with the Model IV and V tonearms.
I have purchased virtually my entire audio system off audiogon, but am very reluctant to purchase a cartridge second hand due to uncertainty with how many hours the cartridge has been used, despite the users best guess. Certainly something to think about and it would let me step into something I otherwise couldn't afford (much like the rest of my audio system!).
Yeah, I know what you're saying about buying a used cartridge. I too had those same reservations a while back.
However, I did buy my second Koetsu (A Koetsu Rosewood Signature) used, (and from Ebay - yeah, that was scary!), as well as my Shelter 90X (from an Audiogon member), and I had no problems. I think if you'll actually talk to the seller, and check their background, it will help ease your fears. (I will admit that the XV-1S I bought was from a friend that I met on Audiogon, so I had no fears there. One of the cool things about hanging out here on Audiogon, is making friends, and not having to worry about buying used items from them!)
(FYI: By checking their background, I don't just mean looking at their feedback, as that can be misleading sometimes. I mean check out to see how much they post here (and on Audio Asylum, if possible), so you can see if they are a regular member. (i.e. "Regular", as in one of us nut cases that loves to upgrade, just because we like to!) By talking to them on the phone, you can get a feel as why they are selling. (The best reason is that they are upgrading to a newer, better cartridge. I always like buying from people who "want" to sell, rather than need to "sell", as they tend to be friendly and more helpful.)
My two cents worth anyway!
Again, good luck in your search.
PS If you can, buying locally also helps alleviate your fears, as you can go to their house and get to know them, and with any luck, hear the cartridge for sale on their analog rig, so you can know for a fact that it is in good shape.
I also have the vkp10se superpak but use it with the VPI TNT6 table. I have tried the shelter cartridges and thought they were great. The best for me is the Air Tight. Works well with the sensitivity of the BAT. I also have not had problems with purchasing cartridges from Audiogon. Many fellow Audiogoners swap cartridges to see if it sounds better in their system. As a result, very few hours one added to the cartridge. I for one have two cartridges sitting in storage. I have yet to list them for sale. I bet there are others that have cartridges sitting for months in limbo. At the right price take a chance.
Good Luck Richard
Scott, you are wise to hesitate buying a used cartridge. I've bought many used items on AudiogoN and Ebay, including phono cartridges, until I learned the hard way. Once you're out a couple grand, and find out that the seller was not truthful, well let's just say it makes for an unpleasant experience. It's harder to judge a cartridge's true condition over the internet than it is to judge a phono preamp, or similar larger object.
As for cartridges, if you are happy with your Dynavector 20XL, it would seem the safest move would be up the Dynavector line to the XX-2. Dynavector does make great cartridges, they are my second favorite line behind the ZYX line. In your price range, you may also want to consider the ZYX Airy 3.
BTW, very nice phono stage!
When I check the 2. hand cartridge section here at Audiogon, I would say, there are some terrific offers, no matter what taste one has. Lots of analog lovers have more than 1 Cartridge and are always open to try something new. I bet, there are many in real excellent condition here.
I think too, the Skala is one safe choice, never heard a Dynavector I didn't like but these Airy 3 offers are great cartridges for the money ... or this Magic Diamond for 2.5k ....
Zyx Airy 3 and for a bit more money/performance van den Hul Frog.
Both offer incredible speed and detail; the Frog is a bit more refined than the Airy 3.
Thanks for the responses. If I were to buy a cartridge second hand, I would want to ensure I was purchasing from the original owner. I might lean towards purchasing a Lyra second hand due to the the generous trade-in offer (e.g. $1000 towards a Skala).
As for the Zyz Airy 3- I would not have the opportunity to audition in my system before purchasing. I read the review by Art Dudley in Stereophile- he concludes that he prefers the Ortofon Jubilee or Helikon SL (both on my short list) for a bit less money!
Any comments regarding the Ortofon Jubilee or Sumiko Celebration?
Srdenslow, I think that the review you are referring to was for a ZYX Airy, there is now an Airy 2, and Airy 3. I am not sure of the specific differences but it may be worthwhile to note that the review was of a different incarnation that may or may not be comparable to the ZYX Airy 3. I have seen comments of meaningful differences between Airy 2 and Airy 3.
Scott, I can understand the inability to audition the ZYX. So I assume that this means you will have an opportunity to audition the Dynavector, Lyra, Ortofon and Sumiko in your system. Why not just audition the ones you can and pick the one you like best?
FWIW, I do respect Art Dudley, but I have owned the Lyra Helikon, Koetsu Rosewood Signature, Benz Micro Ruby 2, Cardas Heart, Dynavector XX-2, and several others that escape me. I've also heard the Jubilee, but not the Celebration. All of these cartridges were worthy and had good qualities, though none were on the level of the ZYX Airy 3, IMHO. I have since moved on to the UNIverse.
IMHO, your best bet would be to be patient and save your pennies, and then buy either the ZYX UNIverse or a Dynavector XV-1s as your funds allow. As good as your phono stage is, it really needs a top flight cartridge to shine.
BTW, I still advise against buying used, even from the original owner. There is no way to know how accurate his guesstimate of age/hours is, let alone if the cartridge had been set up and cared for properly. Just my $0.02.
I'll buy most of my gear used, but a phono cartridge is not worth the risk to me.
Update. I have spent more time with my system over the past week. I have had many signficant changes to my analog front end, moving from a Rega P9 to the SME 10, then putting the SME 10 on a Gingko audio platform, and replacing my Dynavector P75 phono stage with the BAT and changing the innerconnects from old Monster Cable to cardas golden reference. I would describe the sound as very pleasing, but overly warm, smooth and laid back/distant. I either need to change something in the set-up, or need to consider a more lively sounding cartridge (perhaps the smoothness and warmth of the dynavector/BAT/cardas/aerial products is too much of a good thing?! Any comments?
Hi Scott, I misread your original post a little. I now see why a cartridge is the top of your list (I thought you had the xx2 already). And given your new post, a Lyra Helicon maybe a VERY synergistic fit. That coolness I commented about might be a good fit for your system. In the end, it's the sum of the parts that is most important!
Also, might look at changing the loading on your phonostage, that can open up the top end a touch, or maybe other settings related to the arm and cartrige. Do you have the damping trough on your arm? If so, maybe try taking the needle screw thing all the way out of the fluid. (zero damping) I like this setting best on my SME 20/IV.Vi.
Are your Cardas cables brand new? If so, they need to break in, might take a few weeks here, possible culprit. Speaker placement also might be something to tweek. Seems like every big system change I make, I move speakers around slightly.
I have some other ideas, but maybe this is a start...
Thanks for the post. My previous post is a bit of an exaggeration to make a point. I think a cartridge that tends towards the smooth or warm side may push the system too far in that direction. I do have the damping trough- I will experiment with taking the screw all the way out. The system is very satisfying- the complete antithesis of a fatiguing system. I think a slightly more lively or "cool" cartridge would be a synergistic fit. I am getting incredible soundstaging and imaging, a significant improvement in separation of voices and instrumental lines, and a more believable tonality with the new phonostage. Using the step-up transformer at the 12dB gain setting, I am getting excellent dynamics and very deep bass response. I have made some minor adjustments in speaker placement that have smoothed out the bass response further.
Scott, I do agree with John that playing around with the cartridge loading may help with your warmth issues. You may also want to adjust the VTA to help with the high's. If none of this helps, you may want to go with a Lyra cartridge, either Helikon or Skala, as both are very fast and very clean. A bit too thin for my rig now, but the Helikon served me well with warmer tables before, like the VPI.
One other suggestion would be to change from the Cardas GR cable, which is very warm by itself. Maybe look for some cabling from Nordost or Stealth.
Have fun, and remember, the journey IS the trip.
I had the opportunity to purchase the Lyra Skala at a great price. I should be receiving the cartridge next week. I will post listening impressions after I have had it installed in my system for a while. Thanks to all who posted above. Jfrech, any tips on installation or settings with the BAT?
See my email I just sent. However I forgot to say sit down, enjoy a nice beverage and listen ! You've assembled quite system, congratulations !
I'll be curious at your thoughts vs the Dynavector. I know the two cartridges are in two very diffent price ranges...
I received the cartridge (Lyra Skala) yesterday and was up until 2:00AM installing it. I know, probably not advisable, but I didn't manage to break anything! After 2 hours of listening, initial impressions: a lighter, airier sound. There seems to be better delineation in the high frequency range (such as cymbals), more air around instruments, a more three dimensional image to individual instruments, and a better sense of depth. The cartridge (at least the way I have it set up right now and without break-in) seems to be somewhat leaner than the dynavector. This seems to be just what I am looking for... initial impressions very favorable!
I would say that your listening impressions resemble my own listening to a Lyra vs. a Dynavector. I am a bit curious though how this is just what you are looking for.
In your original post you said " My listening priorities are a very dynamic, full range sound with extended, well-controlled bass, wide soundstage, and likely err on the side of a touch of warmth. I want to avoid forward sounding highs and am very sensitive to excessive sibilance."
From that original description, I would not have guessed that the faster, leaner sound of the Lyra was what you were looking for. I hope you enjoy it though.
Please see my post on 7-3-08. I found my system overly smooth, distant and warm once I had a chance to listen to it after having made all of the changes to my front end (turntable, phonostage, interconnects). My goals for my system as a whole are "dynamic, full range, extended, well-controlled bass, wide sound stage, and likely err on the side of a touch of warmth..." The faster, leaner sound of the Lyra seems to have balanced out the overly smooth, warm character I noted earlier. I now have a more detailed sound, but no sense of excessive sibilance or piercing/overly bright/fatiguing highs. I am hoping the bass fills in a little as the cartridge breaks in. I had a chance to purchase the Skala new at the price of the other cartridges I was considering and decided to take the plunge...so far, so good...
Ahhhh....now that seems to make more sense.
Hi Scott, glad to hear that on your new Lyra ! I think it will open up a little more and everything should have a better ease and flow with a little time on it. It just get's better...