New cart for under 1K

I am looking to buy a new cartrdige for my setup. My current system consists of a VPI Scout II with a Black Knight platter and 10.5SE tonearm (the TT Michael Fremer demonstrated a cartridge setup at last years show in NYC), JM Focal 936's, Mac solid state power & pre, and a Dynavector P-75 phono pre-amp. The Focal's are very accurate and tend to be bright in the highs. Brightness is what I am trying to avoid. I've found the highs to be too harsh for my liking, especially with vocals. Sibilance is also an issue and something I have attempted to control with speaker placement, VTA, damping fluid, and the tone controls on my old Mac preamp. My current cart is a Grado Gold. I am hopeful that upgrading to a new cartridge helps eliminate some of the treble harshness and provides a sweeter overall sound. I'm interested in the Dynavector 20x2 so far. Any other suggestions for 1K or under, Benz, Ortofon, Sumiko (Blackbird, a little over 1K, but what the hell)?

Thanks for you assistance!
I recommend a Denon DL-S1 (Under $600 from Comet Supply or $800 from Galen Carol). I use it with a VPI 12.5 JMW and I have Focal Utopia Orca-Designed speakers. My hearing is very sensitive to high frequency sibilance.

Sibilance can come from various sources: TT speed inaccuracy, TT speed fluctuation, the listener's own sensitivity to high fequencies, inaccurate cartridge tracking (set up issues).
I have a 20x2 low. With the correct loading it is far from bright or forward sounding. IMO it has the rare combination of incredible delicacy in the treble range with a slightly laid back presentation. Others have mentioned that it is an excellent match with a P-75.
HI David- I would get the Soundsmith Zephyr in this price range for your setup. It is an exceptional moving iron cartridge with terrific seperation and wonderful sense of timbre.

I think you should hear the Dynavector 17d3.
Thank you all for your responses and recommendations.

Redglobe, I agree with your assessment regarding the causes of sibilance. I have tweaked, and tweaked, and tweaked. One day (it's amazing how the ah ha moment in life can take some time), I threw in a CD in my Arcam CD-player and confirmed that it's not the TT, but it still could be the room, the stuff in the room, the speakers, the pre-amp (old Mac C32), or one of many other factors, but I don't think it's the TT. My dealer and I have an excellent relationship where he will allow me to try a few carts out prior to purchasing. I'm going to take each of your recommendations and try a few. I'll post my decision when it is make. Thank you all again!
Maybe a grand spent on getting the room right might be the way to go. I did not see any mention of room treatments. If you have already addressed this. Disregard my comment and buy the Dynavector, great sounding cartridge. You could also look at a tube preamp some where down the line.
David, Do research the DL-S1 on Audio Asylum, as well as here. This is a very fine cartridge: True sound reproduction that gets the fine texture of instruments, and vocals. I listen primarily to classical music which is much more demanding of a TT than rock music.
I have a P75 and used to have a 20x2. Replaced it with a Denon DL103 and nuded the cartridge (or you can buy from Soundsmith already nuded or Zu in an aluminum housing... all good). If you put the P75 in special mode, it's pretty awesome with a DL103.
You would be astonished at the improvement you would get with a Grado Sonata, and it sounds better on vocals than more expensive cartridges.
If you are looking for a warmer sound, I'd recommend a Benz Wood SL. I'm using a Dynavector XX-2 mk II with my Scoutmaster, and while I agree with others here that it is not bright, it is also not as warm or musical as a wood body Benz. The Dynavector won't help to hide the brightness of your Focal speakers, the Benz will help to do this better.

In pursuit of my own Vinyl Setup (which is no where as being close to your VPI Scout II + Black Knight Platter + JMW Memorial 10.5 Arm...... Mines will be a restored Thorens TD-160 + Jelco SA-750D Arm), I am looking to top mine off with an Ortofon 2M Blue Cartridge (another subject matter entirely).

In the case of your Vinyl Setup, in pursuit of taming the brightness of your Speaker System, I would look at trying either an Ortofon 2M Black, or a Sumiko Blackbird. The Ortofon 2M Black is about $700.00, while the Sumiko Blackbird is a little over $1,000.00. I would also look at one of the Benz Wood Bodied Models as well.

Hopefully, one of these fine Cartridges would cure the brightness issue that you are currently having.

Good Luck In Your Search.

Sturgus, Only bachelors are allowed (by themself)to do such things. Don't you know that everything connected with furnishing is the born right of the 'weaker' kind of the human kind? Besides the limit 'under 1 K' may suggest some other rights.
I've owned two of the carts named above, the Ortofon 2M Black and the Soundsmih Zephyr, both on a VPI JMW 10.5 tonearm. IMO the Zephyr is superior in every respect to the 2M Black (sold last year). I recognize that this could be a system issue, YMMV and all that.
Harsh high freqs can result from poorly shielded ICs in a "hot" RF environment (i.e. urban, military, etc.).
I had issues like this in Chicago.
I like my Sumiko Blackbird. No upper end harshness but good detail across the range. Probably not the last word in carts but an all a rounder that is not fussy about VTA. I have an easily adjustable and repeatable VTA adjustable tonearm and the characteristics do not change much as one raises and lowers the VTA. So if you want a set it and forget it cart that does NOTHING wrong, the BB may be for you. Used ones or even new ons are found here often! I also find that exposed cantilever makes setting the alignment just that much easier.
I have also owned a Sumiko Blackbird, and while I do agree with Wntemute2 that the cartridge itself exhibits no upper end harshness, like the Dynavector, the Blackbird will also not mask the brightness that your Focal speakers exhibit. Neither the Blackbird or the Dynavector will roll off the high's to make your Focals easier on the ears. You would be looking for a wood body Benz or a Koetsu to accomplish this task. The Koetsu is probably out of your price range, unless you consider used.
Thank you all for your responses. At this point, I would like to borrow about 10 carts, listen a month to each, and then make a decision. Pursuing such a cause is obviously not practical. I like the idea of a wood body cart, simply common sense tells me that it should be less harsh that plastic or metal.

Dweller, It never dawned on me that living in a highly populated area can cause RF feedback through my cables. Thank you for pointing out that potential issue. I'm using Analysis Plus cables, the inexpensive $100.00 cable as my interconnects as well as my source cables. Since my system has developed from a 5.1 channel to a 2 channel system, I at one time had to purchase many cables which even at $100.00 a pop was expensive.

This hobby is a joy as well as incredibly frustrating. So many choices and getting it "right" seems to cost quote a bit.

Thank you all again for your help. I will post an update once I have my new cartridge.


I have another question: What do you guys think about the Denon 304? I have a friend that works at Denon and can pick up anything Denon or Marantz for half price.

Thanks again!
It surprises me that no one has yet pointed out that Grado cartridges are among the least bright or harsh cartridges in the world. And it's among the sweetest. I would venture to say that almost every alternative cart mentioned thus far has at least the reputation for being brighter than the Grado. If you're having a problem with harshness or brightness, I'd say that the Grado would be the last thing to blame.

Got to say a few things.

There are 2 causes for sibilance, the production or the reproduction of the recording. In the production, closely mike'd vocals and studio compression are the causes of sibilance and cannot be controlled without de-essing in the mix or using a different miking technique. Thousands of recordings are already embedded with it to one degree or another.

Preventing it FURTHER while using vinyl means a stylus profile and high frequency tracking of high order. When set up correctly you will then be in a safe zone where you may notice it on the recording, but without any further emphasis (mistracking). Grado's, unfortunately, are not known for this. This can be realized by simply looking at the numbers - check the high frequency tracking ability, the higher the better.

When it comes to digital, the sibilance on the recording usually reveals itself by instantly jumping forward out of the normal spatial mix perspective. The lengthy explanation for this phenomenom is on the web.

And, of course, make sure your listening environment and equipment are not adding emphasis - speakers that are "bright in the highs" are NOT "very accurate".

Maybe a upper model Grado would be an option? Eventually my plan is to purchase a tube preamp, I really like the Mac 2300 since it has tone controls. I realize that tone adjustments introduce an additional path for the music to travel through and takes away from the purity of the sound. However, due to my setup, I like having that ability. The Mac also has a passive out which will allow a 5.1 decoder should I ever get back into the movie thing. It's expensive at 6K so that's a future purchase.

Thanks Storyboy, I agree that the recording plays a large part in what we hear. As I type this, I'm listening to The Doors, Live In New York - Felt Forum and Morrison's vocals present an immense amount of sibilance in his "S's" and it's driving me close to insanity!

I find your statement regarding the speakers brightness not being attributed to accuracy. When I do purchase another pair of speakers, I will never buy anything that has titanium tweeters. I've heard a bunch of different brands of speakers and love the Harbeth's. I can say that I used to have my Focal's angled in, they are now dead on straight. The soundstage improved greatly and has controlled the sibilance to some degree on different recordings. The only reason I even own the Focal's is I bought them for half price.

I truly think I need to revamp a number of items in my system but a new cartridge with my current budget seems like the best place to start.

David, ** I am hopeful that upgrading to a new cartridge helps eliminate some of the treble harshness and provides a sweeter overall sound.**

It might not be in your current budget, but it would be much better if you could replace the speakers first. If you have a $1K budget for a cart and put that toward new speakers plus whatever you can get for the Focals, you might not be far off? If you buy a cart now, voiced for your bright system, it might not sound that great with sweeter speakers. If your current cart is still functioning, you should hold off IMO and put the money where it will do the most good.
I am not a great believer in changing components to correct problems in other areas. If you get a cartridge that rolls off the highs to sound better with your too bright speakers, then you are stuck with a cartridge that rolls off the highs. Better to upgrade by trying to move closer to neutral, so that every component change gets you closer to where you want to be. Once neutral, you can change one component if you want extra warmth, treble, bass detail or whatever. Having one component roll off the highs, while another boosts the highs is just looking for aggravation down the road.
Davidlillis - "When I do purchase another pair of speakers, I will never buy anything that has titanium tweeters. I've heard a bunch of different brands of speakers and love the Harbeth's"

I think you answered your own question here. I would sell the Focal speakers and buy Harbeth Compact 7 or Monitor 30. You should be able to get one of those used for $1,000 plus the proceeds from your Focal speakers.

Alternatively, there is also a pair of Proac Response 2.5 being auctioned on Ebay right now (no relationship with seller). I own Proac 2.5 speakers, think they sound great, and they also have soft dome tweeters.
The Analisys Plus cables are the most colored cables Ive ever heard ,next to Cardas, I cant stand them. Go for a Morrow Audio Cable, or Kimber,or Nordost.Cables are tone controls. The MAC preamp is nice but you can get the same sound or better without all the bells and whistles.I like MAC I use a MC352 Amp....with a Primaluna Tube Preamp.I am getting tierd of shelling out big bucks for equipment. I saved a ton of $ not buying a Mac preamp and I dont miss it at all.

I have Analysis Plus Copper Oval Micro interconnects as well as their Pro Power Oval power cord. They are not colored, far from it. Of course it probably helps that both have been burned in on the Audiodharma cable cooker as well as Cryo'd.
Hi David , I think you should try a subwoofer. Most people do not call the Grado bright, Focals can light up a room, but for many adding lows can fill out the sound. Testing a cart at home with out buying is not easy these days Almost every town has a Best Buys or simular store . Go buy a sub you can afford and try it , they will gladly take it back if it doesent help. Maybe they will not have the best but most stores will have something worthwile owneing. David
I too recommend the Denon DL-S1; it is a wonderful cartridge. Because of its extremely low output you have to have a really fine phono stage.
David, I shared your feeling that a wood-clad cart would sound better BECAUSE of the wood. For a while, everyone was doing this to Denon 103 carts and so did I, putting a neat-looking Panzerholz "pod" on mine after removing the plastic body. Others reported liking this change a lot. I thought it simply veiled and dulled the sound and ended up back with the original plastic, selling the pod. At least two other folks had the same reaction, so I'm not totally alone :-)
Thank you all for the continued responses. My phono preamp is a Dynavector P-75. I'm close to making a decision and think I'm going to borrow a Dynavector 20X2 and see how I like the way it sounds. I figure if I can get a hold of one to try for free, I've got nothing to lose. I do like the idea of selling my speakers and purchasing something not as bright as the Focal's but one thing at a time. Since I have access to the Dynavector, I'll see how it does with my current setup.

Thank you all again, I will update this post when I obtain the Dynavector and let you all know what I think.
Or you could jump on the $700 XX-2 for sale used here right now. A killer cart.

No affiliation with seller.

Thanks man! I think I'm going to jump on the XX-2! I'm assuming that it'll be a fine match with my Dynavector P-75, are there any reasons why I should think otherwise? Also, do you know why the cart would get 8 out 10?

Thanks again, I think this may be a rare opportunity.
I am very much hoping the XX-2 controls some of the harshness in the highs and the sibilance. Post cart, speakers are an absolute next purchase!
I received a response from a seller that stated with my phono pre P-75 the Transfiguration Temper Supreme would be an amazing match. He's selling it for $1,300.00 which is above my price range, but is a consideration. I know nothing about this cartridge and was wondering if anyone here could explain the differences between the XX-2 and Transfiguration. The problem with having too many choices is one can never make a choice! Ahh this hobby....
If you feel you must change cartridges, the Dynavector cartridge will be a great match with your Dynavector phono preamp. Save the money for your speaker upgrade. 1300-700=500 towards speaker upgrade.

I am sticking by my earlier post, which is move to a speaker you really like, then align the rest of your system around the speaker.
I have no experience with the Transfiguration, but I really liked the XX-2 (Soundsmith rebuild) with the P75. A low impedance cart like the XX-2 is ideal for the PE mode of the P75.

And I'd be sure that you have an idea of the seller's listening preferences as well. Does the seller listen to similar genres? Does the seller prioritize the same sonic characteristics as you do? This of course also applies to anyone giving a recommendation.

Anyway, I am not meaning to suggest that the seller's advice isn't good advice (again, no experience with that cart), but be sure to calibrate a purchase to your preferences not anyone else's. Including mine.
I have owned the Dynavector XV-1s, XX-2 mk II, and 10X5, I have also listened extensively to the Transfiguration Phoenix and Orpheus L. Both will work well with the right equipment, but sonically, they are quite different.

The Transfiguration cartridges are very relaxed and natural sounding, and work extremely well with Jazz, Blues, Female vocals and small, intimate band/club environments.
The Dynavector cartridges are more dynamic and powerful sounding, and work extremely well with rock and large scale orchestral recordings, in large halls or arenas. Which you would prefer would depend on the gear you already have, and what type of music you like to listen to.

I'm currently running a Dynavector XX-2 mk II, but I was looking for a Phoenix -S at a good price. I finally gave up and 'settled' on the XX-2 mk II, but I have to admit that I am enjoying it quite a bit. Is your system a bit warm and you're looking for a bit of zing? Get the Dynavector. If your system is a tad bright and you are looking for something to tame it a bit, go for the Transfiguration.
I had the Dyna 20x2 low output on my Classic 3, and went to the XX2 Mk II and the difference was pronounced, dynamic range, bass emphasis was enhanced, if you can swing it the XX2 MK II continually impresses me. I absolutely really like it for 70s rock. It also seems to me extraordinarily quiet in the grooves with that micro line stylus. Also set up seems less critical than some other cartridges I have owned. My son has the Ortofon Black on the VPI traveler and that is also one heck of a cartridge. If I were looking for a MM cartridge in the $600 range I would put it on my short list. It is really good. If you want MC and can handle the 0.28 MV output of the XX2 MKII my recommendation would be try and swing it, instead of the 20x2.
Jperry, Roscoeiii, Jmcgrogan2, Jmcgrogan2,

Thank you for providing your input, your advice is incredibly insightful and helpful in making this decision.

To clarify, my speakers are JM Focal 936 Elektra's and IMO they are on the bright side and sibilance is an issue on many of the vinyl recordings I own. I'm also finding that separation can be skewed resulting in music simply not being all that engaging. I believe the issues are threefold since I have built my system over many years based on good deals and not matching the components:

1. My amp is a McIntosh 7205 connected to a McIntosh C32 preamp. The preamp definitely needs to be replaced but I'd like to retain tone controls as well as a passive output so I can have the best of both worlds with 2-channel vinyl and 5.1 channel movies for that rare occasion. The McIntosh C2300 has it all and is tube which is the direction I'd like to go in (open to suggestions here as well).

2. I picked up my speakers brand new for 1/2 price 7 years ago when my old JBL L100T's baffles finally blew out. It was a poor decision, but filled a need and when a dealer calls you up and says I've got a pair of 6K speakers for 3K because of a scratch on the back on one, it's hard to resist.

3. At this point in time, my budget is around 1K which directly points at a new cartridge. The speakers and amp combo are more than likely going to run around 8K and I think replacing the speakers after the cartridge is a must (I can sell my Focal's for around 2K so that offsets some of the cost).

Long story short, I am 100% positive that the new speakers I choose will be on the warm side, I am staying away form titanium tweeters no matter what. I really like the sound of Harbeth's as well as Dynaudio's (also open to suggestions here).

I listen to Indie rock, classic rock, jazz, bluegrass and some chamber music. The only music I don't listen to is pop, rap, and very very little classical. I realize how difficult it is to match a system based on the fact that I listen to a wide variety of music.

The bottom line: I would like to pick up a cart for around 1K that does well in the areas of the music I listen to. It doesn't have to be perfect, just better. And the main immediate goal is to control the brightness and sibilance but also keeping mind that within the next year I'll be replacing the speakers and probably the pre-amp. This simply may not be possible, but I'd like to think I can get close or at least improve my current situation. I am leaning towards the XX-2 from what I've read and from the incredible feedback I've received here.

Thanks again guys, this is truly a remarkable repository for research and advice from folks involved in a hobby that really bites back when you make a poor decision since everything is expensive!


David, as much as I am enjoying my Dynavector XX-2 mk II cartridge, I don't think that it will help to hide your JM speakers brightness. The Dynavector itself is not bright, but it is not rolled off either, if used with bright gear, the brightness will come shining through. I have long been a fan of soft dome speakers, Dynaudio, Verity, ProAc, etc. I learned to avoid metal dome tweeters over 20 years ago.

If I were you, I would change speakers first. If you cannot change speakers, I would advise against getting a Dynavector cartridge. To control brightness, you would be better off with a Transfiguration, Koetsu, or wood-bodied Benz cartridge, IMHO.
I do not know which Harbeth speaker you are considering, but if you sell your Focals for $2,000 and spend another $1,000 you can buy a used pair of Harbeth compact 7 es3, or Proac 2.5 for even less.
"The Focal's are very accurate and tend to be bright in the highs. Brightness is what I am trying to avoid. I've found the highs to be too harsh for my liking, especially with vocals."

I see why you're immediately targeting the cartridge given your budget, but look at what Jperry said above as you could potentially fix the real source of the problem with little/no additional net $$$ outlay. I think you're making a big mistake trying to fix this through the cartridge. By definition you'll have to buy something that's rolled off in the highs, and since you're planning on upgrading your speakers in a year you'll very likely be shopping for another cartridge again in a year (at additional expense). Plus, I don't see anything else in your system that points to brightness -- quite the contrary (including the Grado) -- although I didn't catch what you're using for cables/interconnects that may also be contributing here.

Sounds like you arrived at this issue by buying on price and expedience rather than focusing primarily on sound and, just as importantly, system synergy. Time to stop that. Don't polish the turd here -- SOLVE THE PROBLEM and be done with it. You may well find with the right speakers you may not feel the need to upgrade anything else, at least for a while. Something from Joseph Audio (there's a nice pair of RM25XLs for sale right now that wouldn't cost much more than what you could sell your Focals for),PMC (nice pair of twenty.23s up for sale too), or Nola are a few that jump to mind that are probably more refined in the frequency range causing your problem. At least find a way to audition something like these in your system before throwing money at other components.

Really sorry if I'm sounding preachy here, but this strikes me as a situation where taking the quick, easy bandaid approach would be a mistake when there are options to do it right the first time. Best of luck, and please keep us posted on whatever you decide.
Let's simplify if possible. Do you have any other sources. If so and they are also "harsh" in the highs than it is somewhere else in your system and I agree with those that you need to change out something other than your cartridge. (Probably your speakers as beryllium tweeters can be an "in your face" presentation). OTOH if other sources are merely "bright" and not "harsh" than the problem is the character of the highs not the quantity. (Probably the cartridge, Grado's are not known to be aggressive in the highs but IMO they do not have any delicacy or sweetness to the highs).

Bottom line, more input is needed.

I agree with both of you, I've had difficulty coming to the conclusion that it's my speakers, but I think you are correct. The rest of my system is a McIntosh 7205 5-channel amp that I'm only using 2 channels presently. I have two pre's, a Meridian 565 which I am not using and a McIntosh C32 which is old and should be replaced. I don't think it's the Mac gear that's causing the harshness. I really think it's the speakers. The Focal's do not have beryllium, those were the BE models and were 2K additional. I have the titanium tweeter model. My old JBL's had titanium tweeters as well. I am sure of one thing, I am never buying speakers with metal tweeters again!
Most dome tweeters have the same problem in that the top of the dome resonates at the upper end of the audio band that can add an edginess or sizzlly quality to the highs. You will notice that your tweeters have a lens covering the dome of the tweet. Usually these lens's are put in place to block as much of this extra resonate energy as possible.

If you want to try an experiment you should pick up some felt dots that are sticky on one side and try putting them on the tweeter lens. Start with one about the same size as the lens and work up from there. The idea is to increase the effectiveness of the lens without negatively affecting the tonal balance. The dots are easily removable if you do not like the effect or when you are ready to sell the speakers.

BTW you did not mention what other sources sound like? Do you have a CD or DVD hooked up to the system?

I love that idea! I know exactly the dots you are speaking of. I have tested the harshness in the highs with my Arcam CD-Player as well as my iPod with identical albums and the highs are as harsh. Two years ago when I got back into my vinyl collection I performed this test. This is also why I'm sure the issue resides in my speakers. I have a pair of Wharfedale 10.2's in my office. I may bring them home for a simple test. I'm going to head to my dealer to start listening to speakers so I can start narrowing down speaker selection (which is a whole other realm of exploration).
In Tone Audio's Issue 15, publisher Jeff Dorgay reviews the Zu/DL-103 and concludes that it hits a sonic and musical sweet spot with Dynavector P-75. At the time of writing it was his absolute favorite cart and phono stage at that price. Back then (2008) Zu offered only one version of the Zu-103. Now they have various select models at higher price points. The basic Zu-103 is still only $439.
Dome tweeters aren't inherently bright and harsh, but many have a resonant peak that's tied to the material used for the dome. Silk and other fabric domes are pretty gentle up there; aluminum ones have a spike at around 30 Khz, which is usually not too noticeable. Some metal domes have damping, such as the cloth-damped Mirage titanium domes.

However, the JM Focal 936 that you have is evidently pretty bright and detailed, for whatever reasons, as dealt with in this Positive Feedback Online review. It's so bright and cutting, the reviewer warns not to toe the speakers in "unless you want a haircut."

Although I mentioned pairing the Zu-103 cart with your Dynavector P-75, the real problem with your tonal balance is your speakers. I've auditioned the mid-line Focals a few times at a local dealer and I always find them too bright and analytical. Maybe you should check around some more forums or talk to a speaker technician to see if there's a good replacement tweeter to calm things down. It might also be helped with a well-placed capacitor or resistor in the crossover to roll off the highs a bit. From your and Positive Feedback's descriptions this sounds more like a wider rising response in the high treble than an out-of-band resonance spike.

Spitty sibilants are the first sign the treble isn't right. In addition to an emphasis at that frequency range, it could also be tweeter overshoot or ringing.