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47 Laboratory 4723 MC Bee MC Cartridge & 4718 Shigaraki Phono Stage Review

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47 Lab MC Bee Cartridge

This tale begins late last spring when Constantine let me know the 47 Lab MC Bee cartridge and 4718 Shigaraki phono stage were on the way. Their arrival coincided with problems encountered with my tone arm, a vintage S.M.E. 3009R that had come with my Ariston RD-11 Superieur turntable. After just a few listening sessions, the ground wire on the S.M.E. broke due to the bolts holding the litz wire to the base of the arm coming loose. I managed to tack-solder the wire back together for a short while but the problem re-occurred.

Fortunately, by then I was about to make the trip to Toronto to return the KR Audio VA-340 to its North American distributor, Alfred Kayser. It turned out that Alfred is also a long-time collector of vintage turntables who specializes in re-furbishing Thorens and S.M.E. products. The subject of my tonearm naturally came up and he made me an excellent offer: send him the 3009R and he would replace it with a 3009 Series II Improved with Cardas Gold wiring. That seemed a fair trade. The 3009R is somewhat more desirable than the Series II Improved, but replacing the ancient and original SME with Cardas and the end of the wiring issues more than evened the score. Between the U.S. to Canada postal delays and my health at that time taking a downturn, I finally received the arm in September.

I spent a good deal of time re-acquainting myself with vinyl playback through the new arm before I began to listen to the 47 Labs components. The ‘new’ arm with Cardas wire sounded quite different from the 3009R with its original S.M.E. wiring. My Dynavector 10×5 cartridge now presented a wider, deeper soundstage with better balance from bass to treble. It also became more revealing and caused issues I thought I had with certain recordings to raise doubts in my mind about the mechanical set-up of table, arm and cartridge.

Vinyl playback is all about mechanics; separating the tiny vibrations that the stylus transmits from those generated by the table and arm as well as optimizing the mechanical interface between stylus and record groove.

Over the two years that I have owned my Ariston RD-11S Superieur turntable, I have lavished quite a bit of attention to get its performance back to where it would have been when new in 1987. This mainly comprised replacing the suspension springs and leveling bolts. As Ariston is sadly no more, the new springs were instead sourced from a Linn dealer in the U.K. These are the latest black- colored ones that are an upgrade for all Linn tables and which are said to be slightly stiffer than the originals.

I replaced the leveling bolts with stainless steel ¼-20 ones. The originals were soft steel and the head slots had become worn to the point that a screwdriver slipped all too readily off when turned. The replacement necessitated tapping the bolt holes in the terminal blocks for ¼-20, which was all to the good as the new bolts were a bit longer and turned more freely, enabling a wider as well as finer range of adjustment. Readers who have ever had to level a Linn platter from underneath would be massively envious: The Ariston bolts are accessed from above through slots in the platter.

The rest of the turntable adjustment consisted of simply getting it exactly level on its stand so that the sub-chassis could be accurately leveled, allowing the platter to float freely on its suspension and the tonearm to be neutral in respect to azimuth; i.e., that it doesn’t move left or right on its horizontal axis when at zero balance and floating freely.

This photo shows that I replaced the soft original feet with metal spikes to better transmit vibrations to the light plywood shelf for dissipation instead of storing those vibrations in the table. You also get a glimpse of the Hagerman Cornet Phono Stage in its Padauk wood chassis. The black Ebony knob once allowed switching between sources; but I removed the switch as it introduced hum.

Now it was time to turn my attention to the tone arm and cartridge adjustment.

In the past, I had merely set the Vertical Tracking Force somewhere in the cartridge manufacturers recommended range and made sure the cantilever tube that holds the stylus appeared perpendicular (known as cartridge azimuth) to the record surface. Doing so left me with an annoying distortion in parts of one of my favorite recordings: New Favorite by Allison Krauss and Union Station. Whenever Allison’s voice would crescendo on the higher notes on each chorus in Let Me Touch You For Awhile, it would cause distortion above and beyond any Bluegrass “twang” imaginable. At first I suspected tubes in the phono stage or perhaps the amplifier, wires, my new (to me) Rogue Magnum pre-amp or even the recording. Anything but what it turned out to be: the alignment of the stylus to the record groove.

I began to read posts in the “Vinyl Asylum” and the “Audio Asylum” “FAQ’s” to see what I could find to illuminate the problem. There was nothing specific there but I kept finding allusions to mis-tracking in concert with cartridge adjustment, and there is a wealth of knowledge in those FAQ’s and archives.

First thing I did was to get the Turntable Basics mirror protractor to work. The problem with all of that type is knowing when the line that is meant to point at the tone arm pivot is really on target. I taped a pencil to that line that extended out past the mirror so that the point just missed touching the pivot. Now, for the first time, I knew the protractor was properly aligned. Any small error at the spindle results in being way off at the arm. That settled, I found that I needed to make a considerable change to pivot/stylus distance. The $9 purchase of a 3X hand-held lighted magnifier was essential to getting this, and other parameters, right.

Next I went after VTA/SRA. Its important to know that setting Vertical Tracking Angle is simply a means of getting Stylus Rake Angle right. Raising or lowering the arm to find the VTA “sweet spot” you read so much about is worthless by itself. You make this adjustment to get the Stylus Rake Angle, SRA, as near the same as was the cutterhead that cut the record. You want the top of the stylus to be a bit farther from the pivot than the tip: 1 or 2 degrees.

I tried a macro photo as above, cropped and enlarged to show the stylus; but it wasn’t resolving enough. The use of the magnifier with its 6X inset was the only way to really see it.

Once I had this done I re-measured the tracking force with the Shure SFG-2 beam balance. Instead of just setting the tracking force to the manufacturer’s recommendation as in the past, this time I listened for a
change in the music, adjusting the weight until I found an improvement. This exercise revealed that incredibly tiny increments made large changes in the sound and revealed what needed to be done with the other set-up parameters. It was the proverbial light bulb!

I also discovered that adjusting the tracking weight in small increments in one direction was slow and inefficient. It’s better to make a larger change, listening after to see if it’s better or worse. If better, you’re closer to the ideal all at once. If worse, you simply go back a bit, again listening, and you’re also closer to getting it right. It’s important to note that I found that increments as small as the thickness of a fingernail made an appreciable difference.

Finding the ‘right’ tracking force led me to adjust the anti-skate in the same way. Interestingly, the tracking force is now somewhat higher than Dynavector’s recommendation and the anti-skate, somewhat less.

I knew from reading the FAQ that changing the tracking force would change the VTA/SRA. Sure enough, I could see with the magnifier that the angle had changed. I lowered the arm a bit to compensate but this time, I knew to listen after the adjustment. Using the same methodology as with tracking weight, I made gross adjustments, reversing somewhat as the listening revealed that the change was worse until I got the best sound, i.e., lowest distortion of the passage possible. That exercise showed me that setting the rake angle by eye merely got me close and that the best sound could only be achieved by listening. DUH!

The last parameter, Azimuth, was the most difficult to set and most important, as well. I don’t care how well you can see, it can’t be done without a magnifier. I began by getting the sides of the cartridge body at 90 degrees to the record. The magnifier then showed that the cantilever was off from perpendicular by quite a bit. I twisted the headshell so the cantilever was as close to perpendicular as I could and then began to listen as before. I found that even smaller increments as with tracking force yielded major differences in sound. The result was that, even though the stylus appeared straight when looking at the cartridge alone, the cartridge top was well off from parallel. Furthermore, the best sound occurred with the cantilever slightly away from perpendicular, as you can see in the photo, but the stylus appears to be at 90 degrees. Even the magnifier leaves some doubt as to the azimuth of the stylus, which makes setting parameters by ear, not by instruments or eye, even more crucial.

In the end, achieving zero-distortion on the test track proved impossible. (That came about with replacing the worn-out RCA 45 tubes in my amplifier with New Old Stock National Union 45’s) The improvement, however, was not small and resulted in all my albums sounding absolutely wonderful. For the first time, I knew what Linnies were talking about when they described their tables, once properly adjusted, as having PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) and conveying the reality of a performance beyond the ability of other tables to match.

Now that I had the mechanical aspects of turntable adjustment in hand and the new-old tubes in my amplifier, I could turn to hearing the MC Bee Cartridge and 4718 Phono Stage.

As I’ve written before, my main impression of a component comes from those first few seconds of listening. Regardless of how much “break-in” a component requires to sound its best, its overall character won’t change but the way your brain relates the sound to the familiar will. When the MC Bee first touched the grooves, I was immediately aware of an entirely new soundstage that was entirely detached from the speakers but still spread from wall-to-wall. How is that possible with speakers that occupy 25% of the width of that wall? And the front of the stage appears to be in line with the fronts of the speakers? Well, I don’t know. But on every recording, with every instrument, even though some sounds came from directly across the fronts, I just had the feeling that the giant, $50k XLH 1812 horn speakers had done the hackneyed ‘disappearance’ of song and legend. The soundstage also had depth beyond the confines of the front wall. Dare I say ‘holographic’?

How much time and money are spent on achieving this type of imaging by substituting one set of speakers for another? We always think in terms of speakers in relation to soundstage first even while giving attention to the source components. But a change of this magnitude from a mere cartridge? I never would have thought it possible.

This imaging also conveys the sense that there is no playback chain reproducing the music. I don’t wish to indulge in hyperbole. I do get to Severance Hall from time-to-time as well as other live venues. The MC Bee/4718 will never replace a live performance. The combination does have a complete lack of tonal color, however. That’s the only way I can put into words what I didn’t hear from them. Their sound isn’t recessed, forward, laid-back, aggressive, colored or neutral. It’s just there. And there’s a lot of there, there!

The Dynavector 10×5 needs its own headshell due to its large top plate, so it was easy to switch back and forth between it and the MC Bee . Every time I came back to the latter, that same sense of thereness was the reward.

Just before I was able to bring myself to part with the pair of review samples, I came into possession of a used Clearaudio Aurum Beta S. It’s a very good transducer and shares some of the attributes of the MC Bee in terms of imaging when used with the Cornet; but doesn’t have the almost mystical sense of there being music without electronics. It’s more of a rival to the Dynavector than contender to the MC Bee. But it did give me another frame of reference.

So far I have ignored the 4718 Phono Stage and for good reason. It doesn’t do anything! At least not with the MC Bee. It just lets itself get on with its work. Even though the 4718 has 60 decibels of gain, I tried it with the 2.5 mVolt Dynavector. I preferred the Cornet. Perhaps that was just the amplification mismatch; but the Dynavector/4718 combination recalled the sound of the solid-state, op-amp powered Hagerman Bugle I formerly used. Very clear and nicely detailed but nothing special. I also reversed the chain, using the 44 decibel Cornet. This was a mostly foolish exercise but I wanted to know what part the 4718 played in the MC Bee’s sound. The imaging excellence was there but none of the magic. Another reviewer with access to other high quality moving coil phono stages will have to explore that. For my part, I feel that perhaps the MC Bee and 4718 should be marketed as a single component. Total retail is about $2500. Still a good value in comparison to similarly priced cartridges alone. The flip side to that is that the 4718 may not be the best value around taken by itself. But that may not be fair, as I didn’t have a low output moving coil to try with it.

Anyone debating whether spending a little more than twice the price of the “popularly priced” cartridges in the $300 to $500 range should be gratified to know that the expenditure has commensurate rewards in this case. And those of you who, like me, are 70 Miles From Nowhere without a way to audition (don’t most of us buy cartridges without audition?), may confidently step up to the MC Bee, and especially the MC Bee/4718 combination.

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