Review: Clearaudio Concept MM Cartridge
It is quite hard for me to believe that I purchased my first hi-fi moving magnet phono cartridge forty-four years ago! It indeed was none other than the Shure M3D with its spherical stylus that tracked at two grams or more. My second purchase of this type was the Empire Scientific 808E...my first elliptical!
There were many more to follow. My lovelies included the likes of the Shure V-15 Type II Improved, III and VMR. Everyone owned a Shure M91E back then of course. The original ADC XLM with its gold and black aesthetics could track as low as four tenths of a gram in a propoer Dual 1200 series tonearm. The price of such a gem...a mere twenty six bucks from your favorite hi-fi discounter. In fact...truth be told...the Dual 1218 was the only turntable that I owned that could properly handle such a highly compliant  precision suspension cantilever and stylus.
Now, I had absolutely no intention of purchasing another phono cartridge as I strolled into John Rutan's Audio Connection of Verona, NJ. I njust wanted to say hi to everyone as this establishment is like a vacation home to me...a place I can go to get away from therest of the world for a moment or two. It is there we can discuss audio gear and listen to the sweet sounds of vinyl on a Rega P200 turntable equipped with one of my favorite basic well designed moving magnet cartridges...the Rega Elys or as I know it in its unstamped form...the A-T Red Ed Elliptical. So we listened to the $3 "Band On The Run" LP and it sounded great! Then during our discussion Greg showed me something he had just gotten in...a ClearAudio "Concept" MM cart with the Art No. MM007 and Serial No. 08806 stamped on this nice white box housing a very attractive looking phono cartridge with a price tag of $200. John explained to me that this German manufacturer paid most attention to cartridge cantilever suspension/friction. I fell in love with the transducer and the rest is history.
The Dual 1218 and 1219 were the the first turntables I ever witnessed that when zero balancing the lightweight tonearms...there was no friction to get the arm caught in a downward or upward position before settling in the middle at perfect parallel to the record surface. I had such a new found respect for such high precision West German Black Forest craftmanship. Years later...I was to acquire the PE 3048 also made by Dual during the same era and again...the tonearm was nothing short of superb rendering a firm belief in the German tonearm philosophy that the ideal arm was a straight one...the shortest distance between two points.
Please keep in mind that the "straight" arm of the classic Dual era is not to be confused with the straight tonearm of the disc jockey turntables of modern times. I would never recommend these types anyway as they distort the analog record quite nastily! The straight arms of the various classic Duals became known as J-shaped tonearms as there were the S-shaped types coming out of Japan. Still having owned both types of tonearms back in the day...I found the S-shaped types to be second rate to the West German built Duals. In more recent days...I have discovered that a well built precision S-shaped tonearm can perform just as admirably and just as friction free with low tracking error to boot. The SME 3009 arm comes to mind here.
But my beautifully crafted 1218 with its sexy trim rings on the platter mat and its gorgeous European wood base along with the well iullustrated marketing ads by United Audio and Dual instilled the highest appreciation and respect for German craftmanship in me..
So it just so happens today that yet another German crafter...Clearaudio...is making quite a name for itself with the introduction of some pretty crazy cool moving coil phono cartridges for the high end that blow away the competing Grados, Dynavectors, Ortofons, Denons, Benz-Micros and Koetszus at one thousand dollar and higher price points. So imagine my elation when I recently walked into John Rutan's Audio Connection of Verona and found A Clearaudio Moving Magnet cart for two-hundred bucks! Could it be that finally the similarly priced Sumiko Pearl and Audio-Technica A-T 440MLa have some real
competition? You betcha!
As Dual was concerned with the precision of the tonearm with their dual gimballed suspension…I find it to be quite fitting that Clearaudio is also concerned with the precision of the suspension of the stylus cantilever. It must respond and pivot correctly with no friction. If not…the record reproduction will be less than clear. Therefore…in the complexity of makeup of a sophisticated phono cartridge…the suspension is certainly not to be considered the least of importance.
The ceramic or piezoelectric carts have the highest output with most of the amplifying ocurring at the stylus/needle. These types are generally of the lowest quality and if you play a record with this type…you can actually hear a good amount of noise coming from just the stylus alone. Moving magnets are the next logical step up and cost more with less amplification at the stylus and require a moving magnet phono preamp. Even less stylus amplification is possible in a moving coil cartridge and the most highly modulated record groove will sound absolutely quiet when listened to alone. These highly engineered moving coil types require even more preamplification and generally are the most expensive of the three groups.
Alas…these treasures have their own drawbacks as they are very pricey and can cost up to several thousand dollars each. Unlike their moving magnet brethren…stylus replacement is not an option for the user and the cartridges have to be sent out for “retipping”. Nowadays it is common practice for the moving coil manufacturer to have an exchange policy rather than make their buyer/customer inconveniently wait for his/her cart to be returned.
Yet another problem that can occur with the moving coil cart is its associated preamp which in some cases a “pumping” noise can be heard by golden ears. Nowadays…that doesn’t seem to be an issue with some pretty neat well-designed MC preamps. However…it was back in the Seventies and Eighties. As time went on ...the market saw more and more moving coil models with higher output...enough to be driven by a moving magnet preamp. Then there were a few moving magnet types i.e. the Stanton 980HZ that lowered their output to be driven by a moving coil preamp!
But here is one of those rare phono cartridge crafters that not only has conquered the moving coil market but has successfully invaded the moving magnet one and is about to make an even more legendary name for itself with the recent introduction of the affordable “Concept” MM. And that my golden eared friends on a budget…starts right now!
From The Crafter’s Own Mouth:
“To compliment their Concept turntable, Clearaudio has introduced two affordable, high-performance cartridges, the Concept MM (Moving Magnet) and Concept MC (Moving Coil). Due to the unique "frictionless magnetic bearing" design of Concept's Verify tonearm, either cartridge is available factory pre-installed on the Concept turntable at a special package price. Both Clearaudio Concept MM and MC cartridges are also available separately for use on Clearaudio or other brand turntables.
The Concept MM features an aluminum body and is a high output moving magnet cartridge based on Clearaudio's popular Aurum Wood Classic mkII. Its sound is both musical and inviting, with classic moving magnet warmth and body.
The Concept MC features an aluminum-magnesium alloy body and is a low output moving coil that follows in the design footsteps of their popular v2 Gold series. Its sound is both refined and involving, with classic moving coil inner detail and dynamics.”
Mounting the "Concept" MM was about the easiest task of this sort I ever encountered! Although total mounting time clocked in at about an hour...I spent most of that time nervously staring at the cart admiring its first rate construction and presentation. All that time I thought..."Hey...whatsa matter you...you've done this how many times in the past forty plus years?" Still...this was also the most highly crafted transducer of its type I ever owned and did not wish to harm the attractive telescoped aluminum cantilever/stylus during the mount. I didn't want to get it wrong. In the past...I had purchased some pretty highly regarded moving magnet types but never anything as precisioned as this! In fact...the "Concept" MM very much resembles a very high end costly moving coil design. I was excited! I knew I had something special the moment I laid eyes on it in John's shop. Although Mr. Rutan offered to have his top phono guy Greg install it for me...he knew I would have no part of that. What...pass up all that fun? Are U Kiddin' me???
Mucho dinero were my lovelies back in their day as they equalled at least one week's pay...or more in some cases! I purchased and fondly owned more than one each Shure V-15 Type II, III and V and an Ortofon OM 40 Gold [Van Den Hul]. Let's not forget my numerous Stanton Calibration cartridges, Pickering XSVs, ADC XLMs and Supex 909e. I had also spent what I considered back then to be huge bucks on a Signet AM40 [Linear Contact] I had purchased from Verona Audio Connection and a Shure ML-140HE that was purchased from Sound Reproduction.
I was like a kid in a candy shop! I had my new found toy and I was going to embrace every moment with it. Besides...as I am currently nurturing a rather serious left arm injury that ruptured a tendon...I needed some constructive projects to perform so as to not lay totally idle. The mission at hand was set before me and was not only very therapeutic but very rewarding... and extremely successful. This one arm bandit was ready for some fun!
The presentation of the "Concept" MM is wonderful! It arrives in a sizeable square white box with a circular window displaying the lovely transducer in all its glory. The little zip-lock baggie below offers a very nice jeweler's screwdriver and two sets of screws. I chose the shorter white nylon pair as opposed to the longer shiny metal ones as I felt that they would make for easy loosening and tightewning during the alignment process which is where I become as a family member once told me...a fuss budget. My eyes aren't perfect but I like to get it bullseye right. This does not always happen on the first try.
One of the most impressive things I noticed about the ClearAudio "Concept" MM was that there was no need for tiny fussin' nuts in the hardware. This beautifully crafted aluminum cartridge body has its threads bored right into the very cool looking circular crown! Rega owners with fixed headshells take note...this is a most welcome blessing! The cart's rear is also neatly and clearly marked for color coded lead connection. The two "Left" [white & blue] [terminals are indeed actually the unit's left positive and negative. Directly opposite and parallel on the right are the two "Right" gold-plated positive and negative ground [red & green] Thank you, ClearAudio! Yeah...I know...other high end manufacturers have similar designs but try to find one like this in the moving magnet mass market. By comparison...the Shures and Ortofons seem scattery and cluttered. It seems to me that the Ortofon OMs have their pins too close to each other. The cart mounted easily and wonderfully with this arrangement. It was nice to be able to tighten, loosen and retighten without having to use my wounded left hand to hold nuts while doing so.
I'm afraid I was a bit disobedient during the brief mounting process. ClearAudio clearly tells you to remove the plastic stylus guard while mounting. No way! I found it much easier and safer to leave it on so as not to harm the delicate precision stylus. Only upon completion of the process did I so remove it in order to make alignment possible.
Incidentally...the owner's manual is well illustrated but a bit remiss. I know that this is a very recent addition to their growing moving magnet line but the extremely brief manual needs to actually include the "Concept" MM rather than assume you're gonna know to reference the "Classics" model. Still...it is very likely that you...the owner...are not a complete newbie to the world of analog turntable phono reproduction and this would not prove to be too confusing. If by some chance this is all new to you...then take note.
At any rate I mounted mine in an aluminum audiophile headshell on my SL-2500 Direct Drive manual turntable. The total weight of cart/headshell is right at the manufacturer's recommended ten gram mark. Because there is no barrel weight on the side of the SL-2500 tonearm for stable lateral movement...the arm tends to swing outwardly during zero balancing. Still it is a very low friction nicely crafted aluminum tonearm designed in the Technics SL-1200 philosophy. To my surprise...zero balancing with the ClearAudio in place was much easier than anticipated as the arm drifted outward only ever so slightly. The SL-2500 arm has a tendency to drift during this process and a lateral balance barrel weight such as the one on the Pioneer PL-518 which I also own would add stability to the procedure. The rear counter balance weight is neatly calibrated in tenths on the SL-2500 arm and the TTF was set to precisely 2.2 grams. I have a Shure SFG-2 stashed away somewhere but did not confirm this figure knowing that from previous experience the tonearm's calibration is right on the mark.
However...the SL-2500's anti-skate dial is only accurate up to about 1.75 grams. A higher tracking high end cart like the "Concept" MM with its very sophistical long footprint stylus requires appreciably more compensation. I discarded this fact at first and proceeded to set anti-skating compensation to the 2.2 gram mark. Later...after realizing my mistake would I then set it to the proper 2.8 gram mark. Rega is a wonderful turntable manufacturer! Having owned an upgraded Rega Planar 2 w/glass platter...I feel comfortable advising Rega owners to set their anti-skate dial to the 2.5 g mark. Technics SL-1200 Series owners should probably set their tonearms to 2.8 grams compensation also. German Dual 1200 Series owners should set theirs to the elliptical scale setting of 2.2 grams. Pioneer PL-518 lovers should also set the anti-skate dial to 2.8 g. Of course Rabco, ClearAudio and other linear tracking owners need not concern themselves with this spec.
I nailed alignment almost immediately partly because of the fact that I know my aluminum headshell/tonearm combo well but more so because of the sure-fire mounting system of the cartridge itself. Not having to repeatedly loosen and retighten screws/nuts simultaneously is a huge plus not to mention the fact that the cart's body lines visually aide the squaring up process to an enormous degree...rendering a most pleasurable experience.
I used three gauges to check overhang...the Shure two-point...the EnjoyTheMusic.Com two-point and the CA-001 mirrored two-point gauge. All three gauges were in agreement. A fourth gauge...the Denessen SoundTracker one-point sits in the rear of my phono cartridge drawer somewhere and I will break it out again someday to see if it too agrees. Rake angle is the cartridge's side-to-side eveness that if not set correctly will render a groove noisy and phase shift effect when not perfectly parallel with the record. A wrong locking-collared headshell design [they are out there in abundance!] is usually the culprit. The lightweight SaveVinyl Audiophile Aluminum Headshell proved to be perfect. VTA [vertical front-to-back tracking angle] was also perfect to the record surface and no shims were necessary nor was tonearm height adjustment. Besides...I'm not sure it's possible anyway on the SL-2500.
Output Voltage @ 1KHz...3.3 mv
Channel Separation @ 1KHz...20dB
Channel Balance...Within 1.5dB
Tracking Ability...80 ,um
VTF...2-2.5 g, 2.2 g recommended
Coil Impedance @ 1KHz...0.66 K/ohms
Coil Inductance...0.42 H
Load Resistance...47 K/ohms
Load Capacitance...100 pF
Stylus...5 Microns x 80 Microns, highly polished diamond gem
Stylus Life...2000 hours/replaceable by dealer only
Weight...10g w/headshell, 6g alone
The Warm Up:
The "Concept" MM's break in period of twenty-five hours went well but I could not resist making some observations although my better judgement told me to wait 'til the process was over before etching them in stone. Speaking of "etching"...man, can this cart accomplish that...even right out of the box!
Still ...on the negative side...and I'm being most picky here...on Joan Baez's "Any Day Now" LP on Vanguard at the very end of Side 1 there was the slightest hint of sibilance mistracking but only in the right channel. But remember...this occurred during the first hour of break-in! I hadn't even set the anti-skate bias properly at this point. It was set at the equal amount of VTF which was two point two grams. I then remembered that most s-shaped tonearms from Technics and others made overseas require a bit more compensation than say a Rega or classic Dual might. It is also quite common with high end moving coil cartridges or even moving magnet carts similarly built to have a slightly higher anti-skate figure than the cart's vertical tracking force. Once I set the figure correctly for the "Concept" MM...all was well on that track but after the fifty hour break-in.
The very first album played with the ClearAudio was The Who's original two-record set of the rock opera "Tommy". It sent chills down my spine! Here is Analog's best argument against the compact disc as vinyl is so vastly superior to its CD counterpart! The same can be said of the Cat Stevens "Tea For The Tillerman" album...no comparison! Side 1 ends with one of my all-time favorites..."Eyesight To The Blind" which represents one of the most demanding inner groove situations ever. The "Concept" MM not only aced it with extremely clean reproduction...but retrieved far more inner detail and depth than anything I had ever used to play it past or present!
Okay...let's get all of the bad stuff out of the way here first. It is extremely difficult for me to find fault with this cartridge but here goes......................................................................................................................................................................................................... Sorry...but I really had to pause and think about this. The "Concept" MM could not completely tame my ultimate sibilance torture test Loggins And Messina's "Danny's Song" where the s-sss-sss are splattered because the engineer got careless. It is the only cart to clean it up in the left channel but was noticeably off on the right. Audiophile LPs do not have this problem...only stupidly mass produced stuff!
It is also a bit fussy about its anti-skate compensation. It could not completely restore or retrieve the information on the inner most groove of the poorly pressed [I've owned more than one copy over the years] Fogelberg/Weissberg "Twin Sons" LP. To my knowledge ...no other cart can. Maybe the most expensive multi-thousand dollar record playing systems can. I don't know that for sure but at least this model sounded cleaner and far more detailed than anything else I ever used.. The user replaceable stylus is not really user replaceable. It must be returned to the shop. It doesn't add any character to the music. Hey wait a minute...that's not a weakness but a strength...isn't it? It cannot hold the groove on my worst torture test record that sports a deep scratch like my M97xE. It does not sport a fancy wooden or aluminum case with a supplied protractor.
It's not the best warp tracker. So what? It did a decent job on some mildly warped records but was flung from the groove on the worst ones. First of all...if you are buying this cartridge...you are a serious lover of the vinyl LP and shouldn't play these records anyway. Dedicated audiophile listeners like flat even LPs and are sometimes willing to invest in a record clamp. That's it. I have no more negative words for this product as I had to really dig deep to come up with these pitiful trifles.
Aside from the previously mentioned ultimate sibilance test... the ClearAudio was superb on my Fleetwood Mac Mirage LP. This album contains many cuts that challenge a phono cartridge's ability to track over modulated sibilance. Those nail on a chalkboard horrifying "S" sounds are in abundance and the "Concept" MM breezed through them all except for a split second on "Gypsy". My favorites..."Hold Me" and "Can't Go Back" are really bad but not according to the "Concept" MM. It is a champion in this respect. The detailed tight bass reproduction on "Empire State" is impressive. On the Steeleye Span Story double Chrysalis LP..."One Misty Moisty Morning" will test sibilant sounds to the max also. No problem here as Maddy Prior's lips sound so sweet and moisty!
On the Professor Johnson's Astounding Sound Show RR-7 which represents my main test record as opposed to the phono cartridge manufacturers test LPs that feature unrealistic test tones that blew out a tweeter on my Allison CD-6 Oak cubes years ago because somebody [probably me...not the kids] accidentally turned the volume up on the amp...the Concept MM not only aced everything but did it better! Now I've used the tracks on Side One over and over again to test at least twenty-five different cartridges and was now not only hearing no signs of mistracking on bells, cymbals and congas...but subtle nuances were being perceived by yours truly for the very first time! The ability of this cart to reproduce the striking of a triangle or bell is breathtaking! Separation and channel balance are top notch and the 3.3 mv output is more than adequate for driving the PYP-1X preamp [3mv input sensitivity] without causing overload or clipping. The capacitance and load figures match the preamp/turntable/cartridge's perfectly rendering a well balanced sound quality that is both warm and sweet while not favoring any one part of the audio spectrum. This is a superbly balanced transducer!
The Spanky And Our Gang Mercury LP..."Anything You Choose b/w Without Rhyme Or Reason" includes a fun track entitled "Leopard Skin Phones" that comically celebrates the "Stereo" LP with clever harmonizing and placement of left and right channel sounds. "Bass on the left channel...drums on the right...the singers somewhere in the middle" they tell us. I use this record to check proper cartridge channel orientation and phasing. Everything was perfectly focussed with the ClearAudio and this turned out to be the most pleasurable listening experience ever with the LP and I was compelled to hear the album in its entirety. The album also contains a Jazz number..."Mecca Flat Blues" that features not only Spanky at her best but some pretty cool string bass and horn playing. The "Concept" MM gave the most convincing well-focussed presentation ever experienced with this favorite of mine.
My present humble system consists of the GLI SL-2500 Professional Direct Drive Turntable w/Clearaudio "Concept" MM moving magnet phono cartridge, KnuKonceptz Kharma Kable RCA interconnects, a Pyle Pro PYP-1X Professional Studio Stereo Control Preamplifier, a Phoenix Gold Amp 100 and Boston Acoustics A-70T Loudspeakers on Basic Foundations 16 inch high black Pedestals. The speakers were pulled out about two feet from the corners of the listening room and tilted slightly backward while towed inward.
Right off the bat I am going to tell you that the incredible amount of depth this cartridge presents is breathtaking! It is so good at retrieving groove information while maintaining a wide glorious soundstage that I must take issue with ClearAudio's 20dB stereo separation spec. It is way too conservative to my golden ears. Where did the ClearAudio engineering team make such an inadequate measurement...at the very last groove??? Competitors claiming 28dB or higher pale and fail by comparison.
Frequerncy Response is a spec that seems always to be open to interpretation and Clearaudio's 20Hz-20KHz appears very conservative too but at least it is more realistic as the co. only seems to concern itself with what is audible. The spec could easily be 20Hz-20KHz plus or minus 0.5dB. This is an extremely flat true calibration cartridge! Bass, mids and highs are all reproduced in exemplary manner.
It's really cool the way the high end treats its phono cartridges with names instead of model numbers. Blue Point, Rosewood, Maestro, Virtuoso, Ruby, Premier, Minstrel, Alpha, Beta...and then there is Concept. ClearAudio's concept is easy to understand once the listener has experienced both turntable and cartridge. The concept is to reproduce the music the way it was recorded by the simplest of means yet with great precision. This is a full-bodied cart that does not bump up the midrange like the Shure M97xE nor does it add brilliance to the highs like the Sumikos, Stantons, Pickerings, Signets, Ortofon OMs or Audio-Technicas. It does not omit any portion of the audio spectrum and bass goes really deep and tight without being overdone in any way. Highs shimmer only when called upon. They are indeed sweet but not overdone. Transient attack is the best ala Ivan Rebroff At Carnegie Hall "Woina" on CBS Masterworks and Duane Eddy's "The Feud" on RCA! This cartridge is really fast!
Two other Masterworks albums "The Sound Of Music" & "My Fair Lady" sound absolutely delightful with much emotion spewing forth from the singers. Polydor's On Your Toes 1983 Original Broadway Cast LP always struck me as a bit too bright and bass shy. Not so here with the "Concept" MM! The brilliance is preserved but with no phony added sheen that other models want to protray. Even more surprising is the fact that now the bass sounds full-bodied and solid while the tap dancing is even more evident. There are no sins of omission with this cartridge.
I can never recall hearing another phono cartridge of either persuasion that could treat each genre of music with such equal integrity! Whether your particular fascination with recorded music lays with Classical, R&B, Rock, Metal, Pop, Country, Folk, Broadway, Opera or my latest interest...Jazz...they all receive equal commitment to the emotion of a given performance. Soloists are well interpreted as are massive choral works such as the "Carmina". The cartridge never gets lost or muddied on complex loud music passages that tax other competitors. An old RCA Red Seal 1812 w/chorus comes to mind here that this cart really cleans up.
Carmina Burana by Carl Orff is one of those classic massive and majestic choral works that can truly test and challenge not only the conductor, orchestra and chorus but the recording industry to the Nth degree! The Telarc vinyl recording of this work featuring Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Atlanta Boys Choir is a demanding LP that dares the given phono cartridge to behave as well on quiet passages as it does on the loudest portions. It is a real test of phono cartridge integrity. Most high end carts can manage to track the dynamics well but are challenged on the too numerous very soft passages that tend to hide deep within the groove walls. Only the best of the best can reproduce these subtle moments faithfully. The Concept MM isn't phased by all of this in the least and presents the performance with all its majesty and grandeur without leaving the soft overtones behind. It tracks all passages on this LP flawlessly.
The clashing of cymbals is quite dynamic without the sandpapery effect of others. With the "Concept" MM they are reproduced realistically and naturally with an effortless quality while not sounding overly bright. There were no signs of distress or mistracking even though others had failed from time to time since I purchased the recording in the early Eighties.
The Sunken Cathedral by Debussy recorded by American Gramaphone in 1978 and performed by pianist Jackson Berkey is a lovely LP whereas the piano is front and center stage. The ClearAudio reproduced this piano with much more dynamicism than I ever experienced with any other phono cartridge. I never realized the deep bass tones of the pedals before...until now. The piano is given proper weight also. You can actually feel Berkey's fingers touch the keys! Each note starts and stops just as quickly indicating superior timing, buildup and decay. Nothing was added to the sound and nothing was omitted. The stereo effect is awesome! I had found this album to be somewhat blah sounding in the past. Thanks to the "Concept" MM..it presently is most endearing and will be played quite often.
This phono cartridge brings music to life without imparting any of its own idiosynchrosies on the recording. Album after album of great musical performances of all music genres were played in the hours to come and the Clearaudio brought everyone of them to new heights! It's been like rediscovering my entire vinyl collection.. Jimmy McGriff and Groove Holmes were really in the groove! Wilson Picket's Don't Knock My Love Atlantic LP suddenly has life and is clean. Baez and Collins sounded as female voices should without any external character. The lack of hash and grit displayed by others is most welcome at this price point. The ClearAudio's resistance to groove chatter is impressive!
On Chuck Mangione's Concert/Land Of Make Believe Mercury LP [Circa 1973]...the album ends with the title track...a lengthy very coomplex and demanding massive work that features soloist Esther Satterfield, Chuck as guest conductor and trumpeteer/flugalhornast, his band, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and twenty-four members of the Horseheads Chambers Singers. The soft parts are pretty sexy with Esther's beautiful voice singing amidst strings and some very subtle percussion work by Joe La Barbera. The loud parts are emotional but demanding in the sense that Joe's brushed cymbals and snares tend to be lost or drowned out by Maestro Chuck's horn, the orchestra and chorus. Part of the problem with this recording I think is the compression used by the engineer during the mix/down mastering process that tends to hold back the dynamicism a bit burying the proper timbre of Joe's percussion. A cheapy cartridge will make him sound sandpapery at best while the best carts will be greatly challenged. Here is where the Stanton L847S and Pickering XSV carts were able to add some brilliance in order to make the percussionist heard somewhat properly amongst the hash The ERA V series by Shure did very well to reproduce this subtlety. The others are so-so. The Concept MM performs decently but not to perfection here. Darn near it though! Again...I'm being very picky and I am sure a remastered recording would improve this matter.
Linda Ronstadt's What's New LP is a wonderful dynamic audiophile pressing by Mobile Fidelity Labs featuring Linda singing Jazz numbers along with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Holy smokes! The Concept MM easily gave the best portrayal ever of this very familiar album of mine and all the dynamicism of the cart shined through in a most memorable fashion that actually shook my floor and rattled my windows! Her voice...and the depth of the soundstage...OH!!
Wanna really experience something spercial with this cart? Listen to Side Two Track Two of Vangelis's RCA LP Heaven And Hell. The clanging of the tubular bells and whatever electronic gadgets he is playing from channel to channel is awesome! Then go check Sonata Arctica's Metal double LP Unia featuring the final cut "Out In The Fields". You metal lovers never heard it so good! Don't forget the Vince Guaraldi Trio's LPs on the Fantasy label or Pepper's Pow Wow by Jim Pepper on Embryo/Cotillion either, my Jazz compadres. The natives are restless and the war dances are spinetingling as is the great full version of "WITCHITAI-TO" Speaking of natives...I've never heard the African Congolese Les Troubadours Missa Luba electronically restored stereo.Philips LP sound more sweetfully wondrous or Annie Haslam's "Huinioco" from her Sire LP Annie In Wonderland sound so clear and glorious amongst the massive complexity of the passage.
Unlike the Grado "Prestige" series of phono cartridges...there is no breakdown of the stereo image as the tonearm moves inward. This was never more apparent than when playing the Wings LP Band On The Run whereas the very popular mass produced LP on EMI has the final track "Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five" placed way too close to the label causing some pretty mean IGD blues for most cartridges. The Concept MM breezed through the business like no problem. On my copy...the label is not centered and actually touches the leadout groove! Not to worry...the ClearAudio survived that okay.
Final Analysis And Comparison:
This is the perfect phono cartridge for the person with golden ears but without the golden wallet to match! Yeah...that's me. ClearAudio insists this phono cartridge is worth two hundred dollars at the time of this writing so don't expect much of a price break from your dealer unless you buy other gear at the moment of purchase. Still...regardless...it certainly is a bargain.
Did you know that the Shure V-15 Type V MR or V MxR were not Shure's best most expensive cartridges ever? No, as great as these top-of-the-line street carts were...they could not quite equal Shure's exclusive versions set aside for a few select high end dealers in the mid to late Eighties. Three models were crafted in extremely limited production for the high end ranging in cost of four hundred to one thousand dollars! The four hundred dollar model was a high end version of their ML-140He while the two top ones were even better higher performing versions of the V. High frequencing tracing and overall trackability were remarkable on these cartridges surpassing the already fantastic trackability mark  of the VMR!
However...it must be said that although these cartridges all sported a very rare expensive lightweight Beryllium cantilever...they had two serious drawbacks. One was that on certain very dynamic audiophile pressings such as the Telarc "Carmina Burana" Shaw/Atlanta Symphony Orch....the tiny stylus would tend to occasionally sound cloudy on very soft almost quiet passages. As the tonearm moved to the innermost groove...it was very likely to happen. Removing dust from the Dynamic Stabilizer or lifting it completely up and out of the way sometimes helped to alleviate the problem at the expense of losing bass stability and warp tracking.
I witnessed this with my V-15 VMR mounted in a nicely designed low mass low friction Sony PSLX straight [j-type] tonearm. It would also occur with a Dual 1200 Series arm where the arm's anti-skate became too much for the tiny delicate compliant cantilever to handle when moving inward close to the record label. Nowadays...most serous pressings like those of Mobile Fidelity Labs have the inner grooves placed safely away from the record label. It did not seem to be a problem with the Rega RB-232 tonearm so maybe this situation was only unique to these two arm/cartridge combos. Aside from that...over a relatively short period of time the Microwall Be cantilever would become brittle and if there was a sudden power outage amidst record play...your turntable platter would abruptly stop and back up a hair causing the brittle cantilever to snap. This condition poses no threat whatsoever to the "Concept" MM.
I'm not joking here! Watch your turntable when stopped abruptly and see if it doesn't backcue on its own by just a hair. Most do whether belt driven or direct drive. I only state this here because this cartridge will have none of that snapped cantilever stuff. Its ability to withstand a certain amount of torture is first rate as is its ability to sound utterly clear and dimensional on the quietest of passages. My audiophile pressing of "The Sunken Cathedral" comes to mind here. Don't get me wrong. You are not going to want to drive a sledge hammer to it but it is durable enough given the state-of-the-art delicate construction. Incidentally, although I am a Dee Jay too...I am still an audiophile and wouldn't even think of backcuing with this cartridge. Still...I have started and stopped with the stylus on a record and it can handle it just fine.
By comparison...and only by the most critical of judgement I could possibly pass on these wonderful glorious transducers...all of the aforementioned phono cartridges in this report now sound second rate to me. The best Pickering and Stanton Stereohedron models although champions on sibilance, cymbal clashings and dynamics...sound too bright. The OM 40 is a bit too gritty...the V-15s too laidback...the Micro Acoustics 2002E and 3002E too groove noisy...the Empires too chattery...the Sumiko Blue Points too bright...the XLMs too compliant and unstable...the Denon DLs too chippery...the Benz-Micro lower priced MCs too inadequate..the A-T 440 ML & MLa too bright and midrangey.
I hate to say it...but even the most endearing personal favorite Signet Analog Master AM40 had the latter characteristic. Even my favorite poor man's champion Shure M97xE aside from being just a tad groove noisy on a few LPs and suffering from lack of highs at times cannot touch the ClearAudio "Concept" MM's performance. It doesn't leave you craving for it to open up...even during the break-in period. The budget entry level Ortofon OM5e and Omega along with the Rega Elys and Bias and entire Grado Prestige Series only give you a taste of the high end and in no way resemble this highly crafted German made phono cartridge's unique ability to extract every subtle detail embedded deep within the vinyl record's groove walls. The Grados and Regas suffer dreadfully by comparison on inner groove retrieval.
Perhaps the Sumiko Pearl will give it some competition but that model is now becoming scarcer and there is an issue with its supplied hardware being inadequate anyway. The "Concept" MM solves the latter problem with its pre-bored threads and two types of screws enabling total tonearm compatibility with just about any halfway decent arm out there...past or present. No...you will not want to mount the cartridge in that old Garrard or BSR/MacDonald changer you are restoring. That would be silly but the Benjamin 810 model would probably do very well with this little upgrade!
The fact that the precision stylus is not user replaceable would have bothered me in the past. I now find it to be a positive and not a negative in the sense that this German crafter has invested greatly and most wisely in the idea that the phono cartridge body and cantilever/stylus must be treated as one while being precision locked into place for perfect alignment and transmission/recovery of groove information. The benefits of this philosophy are fully realized by the listener from the first moment the "Concept" makes contact with a record groove. Still, it is only after extended listening that one can fully appreciate its musically emotional involving non-fatiguing sound reproduction. Except for an ocassional tick or pop...you never feel like you are listening to a record...but simply the musical performance itself. All instruments are clearly defined and located exactly as the recording engineer intended!
When considering that the total retail value of the GLI SL-2500 Direct Drive Turntable with upgraded aluminum headshell and KnuKonceptz Kharma Kable interconnects clocks in at $550 w/ClearAudio "Concept" MM phono cartridge...the $200 price tag of the unit's most critical component...the phono cartridge itself seems to me not only very reasonable...but most worthy. The total street price for such is actually $350 making the entire investment a great entry into the world of high end audio. If you choose the "Concept" turntable by ClearAudio...you receive a hundred dollar price break on both table and cart combo.
The ClearAudio "Concept" MM phono cartridge imparts no sonic characteristic of its own on the recorded material and that my friend is the highest praise I could give to any phono cartridge of any design! Its ability to present a generously wide and deep soundstage while maintaining absolute stability and neutrality even unto the innermost grooves is exemplary! Its musicality is so great that it need not apologize for anything.
For years now I have been searching for a moving magnet cartridge that would track at two grams or higher like a high end moving coil model. I do not buy into the philosphy of the moving magnet world that a 1.25 gram tracking force is ideal as it has many drawbacks. Low record wear is not determined exclusively by a lower VTF or excuisite stylus shape. If the cartridge/stylus mistracks...it leaves behind a nasty little reminder that it did so. A two gram VTF has a better feel but all too many moving magnet carts that track at this force are lower priced cheaper quality ones that fall way short of the mark. The Concept MM with its very sophisticated stylus at two point two grams VTF nails it for me! Finally!!! The compliance rating of fifteen is also just right.
For me personally the ClearAudio "Concept" MM is the benchmark for all future phono cartridge test reports. I realize that this model is considered entry level in the high end community but I must tell you that even with all the years experience I've had of hearing equipment at all price points...I cannot possibly imagine what this company's top phono cartridge can do in the right turntable! At the time of this writing...I cannot even fathom replacing the ClearAudio with anything else in mine...at any price point!
I once stated several years ago that one would have to spend upwards of $300 to significantly better the Shure M97xE phono cartridge. That no longer holds true with the introduction of the ClearAudio "Concept" MM model. The M97xE is still the poor audiophile's king in the under $100 market but at its asking price of $200 the ClearAudio is a "clear" winner and one would now have to spend more than $600 to significantly improve sound quality...if that is even possible. The company's motto of "Loving Music" is so apparent with this budget-minded contender. The really cool-looking logo in the upper right hand corner of the square white box that sports a gold seal over the lower left flap only adds to the well thought out presentation that in turn provides both product attractiveness and ease of mind for the perspective buyer.
ClearAudio's current line of moving magnet cartridges includes the "Classics", "Alpha", "Beta", "Beta-S", "Virtuoso" and "Maestro" at increasingly higher prices. I would offer that even if you are considering taking out a mortgage for your new turntable system...to purchase the "Concept" MM first before deciding on a particular top model just to get an idea of where this company's line of first rate phono cartridges...both moving magnet and moving coil are going. Besides...in the final analysis...it is always good to have a spare.
As in the past with this company...I expect a plethora of accolades to follow in the days ahead for this model. The ClearAudio "Concept" MM is the most exciting new high end offering since the introduction of the mind-blowing Vandersteen Model 7 loudspeaker system and easily gets my vote for best new product. It is designed for compatibility with a wide range of tonearms. Aside from price...this will only add to its popularity. It is destined to play an important role in the resurgence of the vinyl LP worldwide. Masters take note! At its asking price...it simply is the most significant audio "steal" in recent times that can only be likened to the legendary Dynaco A-25 or the Boston Acoustics A-70 loudspeakers of yesteryear. The co. claims that this model is "inviting". It certainly is but it's so much more than that. It is most involving! Happy listening to all and enjoy the music the way it was meant to be heard...on vinyl!...PJSII
SL-2500 Direct Drive Turntable
Pyle Pro PYP-1X Control Preamplifier
Audiosource AMP 100
Boston Acoustics A-70T Loudspeakers
Sanus BF-16B Pedestals
Shure V-15 VMR
Signet AM 40
Ortofon OM40 Gold