Vintage Whine

50 Ways to Read a Record Part 6

As we know from old issues of Popular Science and similar mags that were full of hovercraft “you can build in your basement!!”—once a technology becomes mature, adventurous experimenters try to side-step that technology completely. Wheels are boring and old hat, so let’s eliminate wheels and try a cushion of air…. We’ll return to that idea in a bit.

Most of us sticks-in-the-mud (stick-in-the-muds??) just try to do the best we can, with what we have. Hi-Fi enthusiasts have always tried to tweak and improve their gear, and manufacturers in all realms do their best to maximize development of their existing designs (Porsche 911, anyone?). And when there are immutable standards to deal with— like the groove size of a record—there’s only so much that can be done.

Among the long-standing brands, Ortofon was (aside from EMT in the mostly-pro world) the keeper of the flame when it came to moving coil technology. Shure, Stanton/Pickering, ADC, Empire—all were variations of moving iron or moving magnet technology, and those were the brands that probably sold 90% of mid-line or upper end cartridges in the US during the 1960s and early to mid-’70s.

The venerable Ortofon moving coil attempted to adapt to the low-mass/high trackability world. Give me one of their earlier ones w/ the built-in transformers, thanks.

But as was mentioned in the last installment, with the growth of The Absolute Sound in the mid-’70s came a whole new world of phono cartridges and other record playback gear….or at least it seemed that way. Undoubtedly, a number of manufacturers had already been hard at work, but TAS brought them exposure outside their home markets. In particular, there seemed to be a big wave of Japanese phono cartridges and tonearms, paralleling the boom in Japanese cars in the US. I’m snobbishly limiting my survey to the upper end of the market, but Pioneer, JVC, Sansui and Sony turntables bought at the PX in Vietnam had already introduced a whole generation of Americans to Japanese phono gear—not to mention the Audio Technica cartridges with which most of those turntables were equipped.

The woody goodness of the Supex 900, ubiquitous in audio salons in the early to mid-’70s.

Last time we mentioned Fidelity Research, Supex, and Stax. The Supex was the first Japanese moving coil cartridge to make a name for itself in the US. As is always the case, once one maker becomes known in a particular product category, enthusiasts will seek out others, hoping for something better, cheaper, or just different. Distributors and retailers, having skin in the game, have a particular interest in finding something they can claim as their own—and perhaps tack on another layer of mark-up.

About the time that audiophiles became acclimated to (or bored with!) the Supex models 900 and 901—say, 1975 or ’76— the Fidelity Research FR-1 became the next big thing in moving coils.  The first time I heard a Supex replaced by an FR; I was shocked. The Supex was (and supposedly still is) a great, highly musical cartridge, but the FR just seemed more 3-D, more real.

Rather nondescript-looking compared to the Supex. Oh, well.

FR also made complete head units, something that never quite gained acceptance amongst American audiophiles. Even today, Ortofon still makes head units—and maybe EMT, as well?

My shaky memory tells me that Mark Levinson—still the man as well as the brand— promoted the FR cartridges in conjunction with the John Curl-designed moving coil preamps, the JC-1, JC-1AC and the battery-burning JC-1DC. I do recall that the units had DIP switches that allowed setting parameters for a variety of cartridges—but the FR-1 was the preferred match. I think. The FR-64 and FR-66 tonearms are still highly sought after today, and provided more suitable support for low-compliance moving coils than the ubiqitous low-mass arms like the SME and Black Widow.

Mainstream phono cartridges stayed with their tried-and-true moving iron/moving magnet technology. The high-end audio world became smitten with moving coils, and there appeared a string of artisan-made cartridges like Koetsu, Miyabi, and a zillion others—most of which, ironically, utilized cantilevers and styli made by just two companies: Namiki and Ogura.

But what about those who were bored by conventional technology? Who were the “hovercraft builders” of the phono playback world?

Let’s start with the aforementioned Stax. Most are familiar with the company for its long history of making extraordinary electrostatic headphones ( I hope new ones are more comfortable than the head-crushers I owned back in the ’80s). However, the company dates back to 1938, according to this historical timeline,  and the first product came out in 1950—not headphones, but “RF modulation type condenser pickup system. Participation to the 1st audio fair in Japan.”

Say what? I can find very little information about the early Stax Condenser pickups, other than the models listed on that timeline: CP-20 and CP-30 from 1950, and CP-15 from 1957—all mono. The first stereo cartridge was apparently the CPS-40 in 1963. The brand had very little presence in the US until 1970, when the headphones, a couple massive Class-A power amps, the UA-7 tonearm and CP-X pickup were all imported by American Audioport, an offshoot of Discwasher.

I’ve never seen or used a Stax cartridge; but then, neither have Michael Fremer or Ken Kessler. I asked them.

The basic principle is rather like that of a condenser microphone: a lightweight, charged grid is moved (in this case, by the stylus/cantilever), and a signal results. There are a few diehard enthusiasts of the CP-x and later CP-y cartridges, and they do a lot to keep their cartridges going after all these years. Take a look at this page on the CP-X, and if you machine-translate this page and this page from Japanese, you’ll learn a lot about how the systems work, how to keep them going, and what they sound like. The cartridges were most often used with a version of the Stax UA-7 (or its longer counterpart, the UA-70) arm with a special arm tube which allowed use of a plug-in head unit.

We’ll be back in the next issue of Copper with more esoteric analog gear, as we watch the state of the art evolve.