3 Cartridges Reviewed


A recent upgrade of my analogue front end served as the impetus to try out a few different cartridges to see how my ART 9 ($1000/18CU) would perform against two lower compliance contenders that might represent a better match to my new tonearm--the Ortofon Quintet Black ($800/15CU) and the Soundsmith Zephyr MIMC STAR ($2000/10CU). Like many of you, taking the time to compare cartridges in the same system is not easy, so I thought I would pass along my findings. All three cartridges were fed into a Herron VTPH-2. I ran all three cartridges using loading plugs valued at each manufacturer's recommendation but found that they all sounded best without any resistive load (i.e. Herron’s “Infinite Load” setting).

There has been a lot of discussion about the ART 9 here (and elsewhere):

https://forum.audiogon.com/discussions/pani-new-art-9-up-and-running/post?postid=1412181#1412181

I have owned mine for less than a year but feel like I have a pretty good handle on how it performs in my system, both on my current setup as well as on my prior stock VPI Scout with the standard JMW-9 tonearm. The cartridge is relatively easy to set up, though the addition of threaded mounting holes would help. The line contact stylus suggests that you take your time getting the alignment parameters correct and the cartridge rewards those who want to play around with VTA a little. The sound is exceptionally even-handed. Nothing is spotlighted and there are no obvious or subtle shortcomings whatsoever. I would say the ART 9 is one of the most refined sounded cartridges that I have ever heard. It is nimble and dynamic, yet has no rough edges whatsoever. Transients are very natural and the soundstage is stable and expansive. This is easily a cartridge that most of us could live with forever--it is so communicative of the musical flow and passion of the performers, yet does not editorialize or bring attention to itself. I could very easily see the ART 9 fronting an analogue playback system of the highest calibre without the owner feeling any sense of loss or sacrifice.

A loan from a friend allowed me to run the Ortofon Quintet Black (QB) for several weeks, replacing the ART 9. This cartridge was a breeze to set up. It has threaded holes and the body design allows the user to easily achieve proper azimuth and alignment. I’ve rarely encountered a cartridge that was this easy to get right in a very short period of time. Sonically, the QB commits no glaring errors--it is very smooth and even throughout the frequency range. Dynamics are acceptable but the QB it is a little weak in the “boogie factor” department. Overall, I found the QB to be a bit too polite sounding in my system and not as capable as the other cartridges of drawing me into the musical performance. The sound is also a bit too clinical for my tastes and therefore somewhat unengaging. These foibles were sins of omission, as the sound lacked the immediacy, resolution and timing that allow you to become immersed in the music. The QB doesn’t do anything wrong, per se, but I found myself feeling a little unsatiated by LPs that captivate with the ART 9. While the least expensive of the three cartridges I tried, the performance of the QB is probably on par with other cartridges in the sub-$1K range, but does not reach the next level of musical enjoyment like the ART 9, which is only several hundred dollars more.

The last cartridge I ran was the Soundsmith Zephyr MIMC Star, which is a moving iron (or “fixed coil” as the folks at Soundsmith like to say) with an output similar to the other moving coils in this brief survey. I’m not sure if cartridges (or any audio component) should be evaluated on their appearance, but like most men I am pretty visual so looks matter to me. The MIMC Star isn’t going to win any beauty contests. I’m sure there must be a form following function thing going on here since every model in the Soundsmith lineup uses the same body style, but these cartridges look like something you would find on a “close and play” rather than at the working end of a high end tonearm. Also, there isn’t a right angle to be found on the body, with various stepped surfaces, and the front protruding “wings” that flank (and obscure the view of) the cantilever made it difficult to achieve proper alignment. Once set up though the MIMC Star is a stellar performer, every bit as good but with a sound very much in contrast with the ART 9. In my system the MIMC Star produced a voluptuous sound, with tremendous density of color and vibrancy. Leading edge transients were very fast, and dynamic nuances were faithfully reproduced. The MIMC Star is a very musically compelling cartridge, allowing the listener to easily follow the different instrumental lines. It vibrantly conveys the essence of music in terms of timing, tone and interplay and always left me reaching for the next record to play.

The ART 9 and the MIMC Star achieve, to my ears, an exalted sound quality that approaches what I have heard in cost-no-object rigs. Yet, they sound so very different. So let me try to provide some contrasts to close. In terms of presentation, the ART 9 is more midhall to the MIMC Star’s front row perspective. Listening to well recorded vocals, both cartridges provide all the texture, nuance and expressiveness you need to bring the singer into the room. With the MIMC Star, they are on the speaker plane, whereas with the ART 9 the stage appears slightly behind. The MIMC Star has more tonal color and density, while the ART 9 is just as vivid but with less saturation. This is probably a poor metaphor but the MIMC Star is like watching a film in technicolor, whereas the ART 9 is like watching a high resolution black and white film (Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” comes to mind). This is painting too great a contrast--just trying to convey that the MIMC Star might be just a little too rich sounding while the ART 9 could be a tiny bit more colorful sounding by comparison. Another way of framing this is to say that with well recorded guitar and violin, the ART 9 gives you a little more strings while the MIMC Star gives you a little more soundboard. With regarding to dynamics and transient realism, the MIMC Star is very quick, with transient leading edges that can be surprisingly lifelike. The ART 9 is equally fast and nimble, but the leading edges of, say, plucked guitar strings are less forcefully portrayed, with slightly less prominence--perhaps a tiny bit more natural sounding rather than exaggerated? Hard to say. And while both cartridges have exceptional high frequency responses (very extended and airy), the MIMC Star is not quite as good at differentiating between cymbal taps and other types of high frequency percussion sounds. The ART 9 is truly exceptional in this regard, providing all the nuances without any fatiguing artifacts. At the other end of the spectrum the MIMC Star has slightly more slam and a tiny bit better pitch definition in the bass, where the ART 9 is has just a touch less impact and clarity on the bottom end.

Having the opportunity to contrast the ART 9 and the MIMC Star helped me to better understand why some folks mount two arms to their tables. If I had my druthers, I would keep both cartridges and mount the ART 9 to a medium/low mass arm and the MIMC Star to a medium/high mass arm (like mine) that wants to see a slightly lower compliance cartridge. Each is extraordinary in their own way and yet provide a very different sonic palette and presentation that would suit for the broadest possible range of vinyl recordings. If I had $2K to spend and my system leaned toward the lean side of the spectrum, I’d recommend the MIMC Star without reservation. If I wanted to stay around $1K and my system was a shade to the warm side, I’d say go with the ART 9. I could live with either cartridge for the long haul--they are both extremely musical performers. Alas, since the MIMC Star’s lower compliance represents a better match for my current arm and it’s vivid portrayal of the essence of music is completely intoxicating I’m going to hang on to it and let someone else enjoy the ART 9, which is posted on that other site for anyone who is interested.

dodgealum
Well done. thank you for making that effort and taking the time to write it up. Your writing is clear, concise and punchy. Not so easy sometimes.....
Yes well done. Very good comparison between the SS and ART9 and your metaphors are perfect to explain the difference, I like you table and would like to know more, will send a pm.
dodgealum-
Nice insight.This thread speaks to me. My time with the ART9 is nearing the 2.5 year mark. No regrets, but as any true audio geek, curiosity about other possibilities which include the SS MIMC & Aida is always present.

Your review sheds more light on my situation. Going beyond the ART9 with my VPI Classic may not be money well spent, vs. selling it for a used Prime, which you have.I see fantastic deals which would be offset with the sale of my Classic.

On on the other hand, I could just sit back and listen to another record...

Edit-upon close inspection, I see you have a special Scout, not a Prime. I'm sure it delivers the goods.



Wonderful writeup, Dodgealum.  Thanks!

And your characterization of the ART-9 is entirely consistent with my own experience, also using a Herron VTPH-2 and Daedalus speakers (the Ulysses in my case, as you might recall).

I've had my ART-9 for about a year and a half, now, and I couldn't be happier with it.  For the majority of the preceding few decades, btw, I was using various incarnations of the well regarded vintage Grace F-9E and F-9E Ruby moving magnet cartridges, including one that had been re-tipped by SoundSmith. 

Also, I too settled on using the ART-9 with no loading plugs on my VTPH-2, having also tried 47K and 1K loads.

I use the cartridge, btw, on a tonearm having relatively low mass, a vintage Magnepan Unitrac.

Thanks again!  Best regards,
-- Al
 


@dodgealum
ART 9 ($1000/18CU) would perform against two lower compliance contenders that might represent a better match to my new tonearm--the Ortofon Quintet Black ($800/15CU) and the Soundsmith Zephyr MIMC STAR ($2000/10CU).


Let me correct you in one important thing:

Dynamic compliacne of the japanese ART-9 is much higher that you expected, you are quoting 18cu, but this is 18cu @ 100Hz!

You have to multiply it on 1,7 to convert japanese system to american/european. Because the compliance of the american and european cartridges measured @ 10 Hz (not at 100 Hz) !

You know the difference?

In fact the real dynamic compliance of the ART-9 is about 30cu and if you’re using fairly low 10cu compliance (SoundSmith) cartridge with 30cu (Audio-Technica) cartridge on the same tonearm then most likely you have total mismatch with one of them. Not sure what’s the effective mass of your tonearm, but the high mass tonearm is not ideal for ART9.

Nice to hear that you are more impressed with the low output Moving Iron cartridge, but maybe it was just the wrong tonearm for ART-9 (at least not ideal). 
Thanks, Chakster. I am not familiar with the discrepancies between the American/Euro and Japanese compliance scales. I do know that Audio Technica website specs for the ART 9 indicate a "Dynamic" compliance of 18CU and a "Static" compliance of 35CU, which is near the 30CU figure you cite. I don't have the specs related to the effective mass of my arm but it is certainly higher than the one it replaced, which partly explains my desire to try out a few cartridges with lower compliance to see whether they would offer a better match. While I don't think the ART 9 was completely mismatched to my arm (which is probably in the medium/high range of effective mass) you are probably correct in stating that better results might have been obtained in a medium/low mass arm, which somewhat clouds my comparative analysis. That said, the ART 9 still put in an exemplary performance that would, I suspect, only get better on an arm with a somewhat lower effective mass.
The key is what you see after CU digits, all Japanese cartridge compliance measured at 100Hz (and that’s clearly stated in the manual), i’m talking about Dynamic compliance (forget about static compliance). Japanese manufacturers measured dynamic compliance at 100Hz. But ALL American and European manufacturers measure dynamic compliance at 10 Hz.

So you’re comparing apples to oranges. First you have to convert compliance at 100Hz to compliance at 10Hz. That’s the basics.

ART9 dynamic compliance us 18 cu @ 100Hz

18 x 1,7 = 30,6 cu @ 10 Hz - this is the real dynamic compliance. This calculation is correct ONLY for japanese cartridges.

You can not use 100 Hz figure when you trying to match the tonearm effective mass and your cartridge compliance on paper in theory (without test records).

10 Hz is the key (not 100 Hz) and the problem is only japanese carts, all others are already measured at 10Hz (no problem with them). 




nice thorough review, thank you.  before I bought the ART9 I had both the Quintet Black and the MIMIC Star on my short list.  Although the '9 is not perfect for me, based on what you write about the others I made the right call.  
My main issues with the '9 are that it is a little thick and polite sounding.  If the QB is more polite it would have been a disaster.  And if the MIMIC star sounds more rich and less defined in the treble, it too would have been a bad direction. 
Ideally I would want a cart that is a shade warmer than the Ortofon 2M black yet a shade more neutral then the '9.  You have removed the QB and MIMIC star from the new list- still looking I guess.....
Avanti....glad my write up was helpful. To try and clarify, I guess some might consider the ART 9 a tad "polite" but my read is more "refined". It lays back just a touch but at the same time is very quick, detailed and dynamic. To me it just lacks the high frequency aberrations that some might characterize as being opposite of "polite". And in my system it did not sound "thick" in any way whatsoever. In fact, just the opposite. It was noticeably clear across the spectrum in my system. Of the two cartridges, the MIMC Star was the one I would call "thicker" though I would use a different adjective...."chunky", and I mean that in a good way. The MIMC Star just has great body and fluidity. There is definitely more "flesh on the bone" with the MIMC Star than the ART 9. But not in a way that presents as congestion--the MIMC Star is VERY quick with lots of detail. It just has a fuller sound to the ART 9's ever so slightly more austere presentation. Hope this helps.
ok thanks, the art 9 is definitely refined and clean sounding.  on my table it has a peak at a certain low bass frequency that thickens the sound a little.  gives it a warm presence.  
you also have me wondering about the MIMC star again.  lots of competition at that price.  
Hi all,
I now have about 125 hours on my ART9, Sometimes it will be days between uses. This is when it really impresses. Spun several records today, a couple of common pressings and the new Tangerine Dream "Quantum Gate" LP. The TD record is just "wet your pants good. To confirm it was the ART9 causing the yellow spots, I took it upstairs to the Dual with a Jico SAS and while the bottom end was real good with the JICO , it was not even close to the ART9 across the freq spectrum. I wish I could hear this cart with one of the new MO-FI one step records. It is still getting noticeably better at each listening session. Very happy with my purchase.

Some good discussions here, keep it up. I am still learning.
___________
Dan
Thought I'd stop back and provide a quick update. I tweaked the set up a tiny bit on the MIMC Star and the cartridge now has broken in a bit more--I only had 10 hours or so on it when I wrote the review. I don't have any major changes to report however I would say that the MIMC Star sounds more similar to the ART 9. The MIMC Star has retained that density of color and texture but now is a bit more refined sounding. The presentation is also a tiny bit less forward and more three dimensional (in terms of depth--width of stage was always fantastic). I would also say the high frequency response is slightly cleaner and more natural sounding, with leading edge transients more convincingly portrayed. Overall, my appreciation for this cartridge has grown over time. I love the color and texture it provides and it sounds more seamless than it did when I first mounted it several weeks back. In my system, which leans a little to the warm side, I still think I prefer the ART 9 by a very small margin. But the MIMC Star is a better match for my new arm and sounds every bit as good in nearly all respects. The ART 9 is now on its way to a new home where I am sure it will be greatly enjoyed. I'll miss it for sure but am extremely happy with the performance I am getting from the MIMC Star. Both cartridges are fantastic performers and for the money the ART 9 is likely very hard to beat.
Great job on the review. One of the best really.

I'm still enjoying my ART-9. It completely disappears and never calls attention to itself. At this point, the only other cartridge I'd consider would be a giant upgrade to the ART-1000. Five grand for a cartridge at this point is a little too steep for me though. If needed, I'd go with another ART-9. 

Frank
OK, last update now that the MIMC Star is fully broken in--I've got at least 50 hours on it now. In addition to all the positive characteristics I pointed out in the initial review and subsequent update, one thing I have noticed as the cartridge has broken in is it's speed and inner detail. I am hearing more nuance in difficult passages (acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano) than I heard with the ART 9, which is very quick in its own right. The result is greater inner detail and more realistic dynamics--both superior to the ART 9 in my recollection. I'm also hearing an increased coherence--the cartridge speaking with one voice and getting out of the way--that is a trademark attribute of the ART 9. All in all, very happy with the MIMC Star and would recommend it highly to anyone shopping at this price point who needs a lower compliance cartridge.  
Could you please give us a list of main recordings you used on your test ?
Dodgealum - great write up. I'm a little late to the party here... but did you already sell your ART-9?
@dodgealum are you still enjoying your MIMC Star?  I'm contemplating upgrading from a re-tipped Denon 103r, but not sure if it's a true upgrade or just tone preference...
Hey Garth—I’ve sold my VPI along with the MIMC Star and do not have much direct experience with the 103. I understand the stock 103 is quite good and the modded versions move the bar up further but I’m sure you have read the same online. Looking back, though I enjoyed the rich tonality of the MIMC Star, it did not have the same thoroughly engaging musical flow as the ART 9 it replaced. I’m now using a Charisma Audio Signature One (on a different table/arm) and it checks all the boxes—particularly in the ability to sort out musical lines to convey the dynamic flow of the music. In talking to Bernard Li of Charisma, he feels very passionate about the MC-2 in his lineup. If it is anything like the Signature One I would suggest you explore as an alternative to the SS. At $1500 it is in the same price range and may be better than either the MIMC Star or the ART 9. Bernard also provides excellent support and rebuilds or retips when the time comes at a reasonable cost, like SS and unlike AT. Good luck!