Every now and then you get a chance to do something really unique and highly enjoyable as a reviewer and the subject of this review is one of those times. I was recently offered a chance to audition two Koetsu stone body platinum cartridges. As an owner of two Koetsu cartridges, a Black (long since gone) and an Urushi Vermillion I could not resist the opportunity to be able to do listening sessions with all three cartridges and compare them side by side. Terrible what we have to endure for the arts but sometimes sacrifices need to be made.
If you are not in the know about Koetsu cartridges, well then, silly you! The brand and the man behind the legend continue to take on an air of mystery some seven years after the passing of founder Yoshiaki Sugano on January 20, 2002 just shy of his 95th birthday. He led a very long and very productive life and left behind an indelible mark on the world of HIFI. A descendant of the notable Japanese artist Honami Koetsu, Sugano was schooled in a great many Japanese arts not the least of which was the tradition of sword making. An oil painter, a formidable boxer in his youth and supposedly undefeated, he turned to the industry of automobile manufacturing in his adulthood and worked for Toyota. Through his years at Toyota he rose to the executive ranks and retired when he reached the age of 60. Clearly not ready for a simple and sedentary retirement life, his most prolific contributions came in his final 35 years.
Long before retirement from the auto industry he had a love for music, a fascination with music reproduction and a special interest in phono cartridges. He started to study and repair broken cartridges as a hobby, and as he retired from the auto industry he decided to form his own company. Thus was born Koetsu moving coil cartridges. The name is clearly homage to his ancestor.
I never had the pleasure or honor of meeting him and I came to learn about his works of art later in my HIFI journey; but once I discovered him and the Koetsu brand I have never looked upon HIFI quite the same. I have long been interested in Japanese culture and art. I have even spent time learning some of the more rudimentary aspects of the language. There is something that speaks to me in the various art forms from Japan. Koetsu cartridges combine fanatical design with material quality and control in the artistic flair of Japanese woodwork, and Urushi lacquer finishes and exotic stone bodies. He was a master craftsman and he created not only phono cartridges with extraordinary sound quality but also very small, visual works of art. To many, Sugano-san raised the art form of the phono cartridge to a degree never seen before.
From what I have been able to study about him, he was also a fastidious teacher and mentor. Always open and willing to share his knowledge and his ideas with others and always encouraging others to test their mettle at the craft. Today, the Koetsu brand is carried on by his son Fumihiko Sugano who was specifically groomed and trained by his father to carry on the legacy. Fortunately for all of us in the world of HIF there continues to be an ongoing supply of Koetsu phono cartridges for the world to enjoy. Peter Ledermann of Soundsmith had also apprenticed with Sugano closely, so he and his work may also be some of the closest things we have to reliving the art and spirit of the Yoshiaki today.
The Koetsu Line
Koetsu cartridges are not known to be absent in their own sonic signature. Quite the opposite actually. In general, they are not the most analytical or tonally accurate cartridges on the market. That distinction might go to Air Tight or perhaps Lyra. What they do possess is a magic that is undeniable. I liken it to the phenomenon of tubes. Measurements say that they should sound awful but your ears tell you a different truth.
The Koetsu line consists of 18 different cartridges divided into four sub categories. The aluminum body Black Goldline at $1800, the Rosewood series starting at $2600 and up to $5900, the Urushi line starting at $4300 to $4900, the Stone Body Platinum series starting at $8000 and rising to a staggering $24,000 for the limited edition Blue Lace Onyx with Diamond cantilever. In this review, we will examine cartridges at the $4700, $10,000 and $13,000 price points. So here is an insight into three distinctly different Koetsu cartridges from an extended usage and familiarity.
Koetsu Urushi Vermillion ($4,700)
First up is the Urushi Vermillion; probably the most common, if that can actually apply to a Koetsu cartridge with wood body and lacquered cartridge in the Urushi line. That line now consists of six different finishes. The Vermillion differentiates itself from the rest of the Urushi line by being the only one in that line using “double coil, silver plated copper” wiring. The rest of the line must make do with straight silver plated copper. It is a rosewood body done in red Urushi lacquer finish. It utilizes Samarium-Cobalt magnets with a Boron cantilever, although I understand for an extra $4000 you can have the diamond cantilever. The stated frequency range is 20 Hz to 100 kHz. Channel separation is 25dB at 1 kHz and a channel balance of 0.5dB at 1 kHz. The inner impedance is 5 ohm and the recommended impedance is 30 ohm. Compliance is 5X10-6cm/dyne at 100 Hz. The output is a very low 0.2 mV. Weight of the cartridge is 9 grams. The Vermillion has the lowest stated output of any cartridge in the Koetsu lineup. Moral of the story? Bring a good phono stage and if you got one: a step-up transformer. This will make things a great deal more fun for sure.
When my Urushi Vermillion arrived, I was a bit disappointed at the wooden box, sans any info at all regarding the cartridge, because I had heard comments about a really cool wooden box. Don’t get your hopes up! Also there was absolutely no serial number sheet, specs, test results, nothing! Zero, zipp, zilch, nada. I expected more than a cartridge in a small wood box; I expected fireworks, dancing girls, circus jugglers. For crying out loud this was a Koetsu. A magical, mystical dragon of a cartridge!
Upon setup and installation I was a bit more disappointed at the restrained and somewhat dry presentation of the music. Not that it sounded bad. Quite the contrary, and while I fully realize that there is always a burn in period for components, I just expected so much more out of the box. Honestly I thought to myself, “This is not even tripping my trigger as much as my Shelter.” I realized that I was expecting magic from a brand new piece that had probably not seen more than a few minutes of test time prior to landing in my hands. “Patience Gary, patience.” I told myself. So I began the process of playing albums in the background for about two weeks before I even considered sitting down and actually listening to the thing. Smart move on my part.
Once I did begin to listen to it, after getting it broke in, I was astonished at exactly how much better it sounded than my Shelter, at how much better it sounded than anything I had ever had in the way of a phono cartridge. Then after a bit more time on the table they showed up. The dancing girls first, then the circus jugglers and finally the massive fireworks. It is easy to make analogies and a lot harder to define and quantify. It is like witnessing the birth of your first child. You can talk about it and talk about it till you are blue in the face trying to convey the feelings to another person. But you can never and I mean never adequately describe such a thing, and since everyone is different, you could never describe how it all would feel to them witnessing their own child being brought into the world. Now of course one of these things is a miracle and the other is the result of fastidious work, planning and execution. I will let you decide which is which. As for me the sensation that I got when the cartridge, turntable, electronics all fell into sync was one of the most memorable audio experiences I have ever had.
There are a few things that I have learned about Koetsu cartridges now that I have owned them. They are highly sensitive to loading. So far, at least in my system the optimal loading I have found is 100 ohms. Add a bit more loading and you can get more defined and sparkling highs but the price is often a grating quality that reduces the joy of the cartridges innate presentation. I have found that the 100 ohm load keeps it all focused and keeps the integrity of the soundstage in place. Drop below that much and there is a loss of control of bottom-end. I have heard of people running them at 50 ohm or so, and for the life of me I cannot imagine how that would benefit the cartridge, something I am not interested in experimenting with.
As for sound, the Urushi certainly has a signature sound. It is not as tight and controlled as my Shelter 90x was in the bass. The Urushi, simply stated, has a bit warmer bass without quite as much punch. That is not the same as saying that it lacks it. The Urushi simply is a tiny bit less in bass slam than some other brands of cartridges seem to be. Shelter, Lyra, Air Tight, ZYX all have a bit more punch there than the Urushi does. However, what bass the Urushi has, it goes low, is controlled and has a good sense of weight and power to it, although just a bit less than the others. I never felt cheated out of bass, plus overall I doubt someone who does not come straight from one of the aforementioned cartridges would take any notice at all. Overall bass is detailed, well integrated and coherent.
How is the midrange? Well now that is a cartridge of a different lacquer! The marriage between the very upper bass and midrange is where the vast majority of information lives, and this is where the Koetsu Urushi starts to leave others in the rosewood sawdust! Compared to many other cartridges the sense of that “you are there” feeling just latches on to your inner musician and has its way with you. The music takes on a three-dimensionality that I have not sensed with any other cartridge that I have spent extended time with. The Urushi midrange is absolute magic. Creating completely believable soundstages and focused images, dependent of course on the source material.
In the upper registers there is that air of sparkle with just the slightest roll off, just enough to remove any hint of glare or edge without taking away the shimmer. Cymbals are always a telling instrument. Not just in the sparkle or shimmer inherent in the cymbal but also in the decay. I use this one feature time and time again when doing critical listening sessions. If the cartridge can pick it up, the system should be able to reproduce it. This is one of the strengths of the Urushi Vermillion. Sizzle without the fizzle. Nice steady decay that is a dentist’s dream. The sense of coherency is some of the best I have heard in any cartridge. I have heard more than one person talk about the Urushi’s ability to alter time. This cartridge will draw you in and leave you with no listening fatigue at all. In that sense it does what any great piece of audio gear should do and that is to make the listening experience so inviting and captivating that you sit down to listen for a few moments and before you know it three hours have passed. In this respect it truly is a time machine.
The Urushi line of cartridges come in many different finishes and although this is not the most stellar, it is attractive and certainly not ugly by any stretch. Simplistic beauty is a more apt description. If you want sheer beauty out of the wood series try the Tsugaru or Wajima. Both are Urushi Lacquered but they both have black base color with variegated gold leafing and speckles. The Tsugaru is the most captivating of the line, at least from an aesthetic perspective of the two.
Koetsu Azule Platinum ($10,000)
Next up on my listening radar was a brand spanking new stone bodied Azule Platinum. This is the newest addition to the stone body line of Koetsu cartridges. It is a very attractive stone with speckles of black, faint grey and swirls of varying shades of blue throughout. It is actually made from a stone called Dumortierite, in essence a blue colored form of quartz. While it is not as flashy as some of the stone bodies it is striking in a more subtle way. If you favor blue as I do then you will definitely like the way it looks. It looks best when hit by a direct light source. Of course that is not the reason to buy a cartridge but at these prices you should definitely get something pleasant to look at. To this day the Jade is still the best looking stone bodied cartridge available, at least to my eyes but this one represents itself very well. Oddly enough, the only stated difference in specs of the various Koetsu cartridges is magnet structure, wire composition and weight. All the other specs are stated as the same. This is quirkiness that can be attributed directly to Fumihiko Sugano.
As for sound the Azule does everything the Urushi does and does it better. It too requires some patience during break in as it is likely to sound shrill or even harsh with some music for the first 30 or so hours. This seems to hold true for the Koetsus that I have been exposed to. Once it begins to settle in and loosen up a bit you will clearly notice the speed and attack of leading edge transients and its stunning ability to deliver a focused yet balanced sense of the music throughout the entire frequency range. The Azule has less of a sonic signature of its own and more neutrality. The high frequencies are just a bit more dynamic with a touch more air around them. Some cartridges get bass done really well, but as a trade off, lack the real sparkle and speed in the highs. The Azule maintains a degree of impartialness by not favoring any one area at the expense of the others.
In Martin Tillman’s “Odessa”, you not only get the soul wrenching clarity of the individual notes of the cello but you can actually feel the texture of the hairs on the bow as they glide over the strings. The ability to deliver that experience comes from a balanced combination of exceptionally high resolution, incredibly low noise floor and stellar dynamics. Comparatively speaking the Azule, as well as the Platinum series in general, is extremely fast and natural in timbre.
Overall, the Azule does the midrange with exceptional naturalness, especially with the human voice. Like the Urushi this is an area of exceptional strength but again, not at the expense of any other areas of the frequency spectrum. Where the midrange has always been strength of the Koetsu cartridges it really becomes magical when listening to the female voice. Christy Baron’s recording of “Columbus” is just one track where the beauty is most prominent. This is a bit slower and slightly darker version of the song than David Crosby’s, and Christy’s voice is strong yet delicate, much in the way a spider’s web is. There is a sense of deliberate restrain that comes through on the Azule that I had not picked up on before. You can actual sense her vocal chords tighten up slightly. On Eva Cassidy’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, a perennial favorite of mine, the transition from Eva’s soft, almost whisper like vocal levels to the immediate build up of hurricane force delivery towards the end of the song is handled so smoothly by the Azule that it just rips your guts out before you have a chance to even react.
What did catch me off guard was the delivery of lower frequencies. This Azule does bass on the same level as the Shelter 90x. Plenty of it, tight, controlled and with slam! This is where the real noticeable difference to the Urushi wood body cartridges with their samarium / cobalt magnets stood out the most. I cannot say I have heard any cartridge truly outperform the Azule in the bass other than perhaps the Koetsu Coralstone which seems to defy logic, as well it should for $15K.
Koetsu Tiger Eye ($13,000)
That leaves me with the Koetsu Tiger Eye. I remember when I first heard about the release of the Tiger Eye. The only thing more astonishing about the sound it produced was its price. $13,000! For years I had heard about how incredible it sounded. I thought, “For $13k it better produce the artist live, in the flesh in my living room.” Furthermore, I did not find it to be a very attractive looking cartridge especially when measured against the Onyx and or the Jade. For a long time it was hard for me to swallow that kind of coin for a cartridge. The only thing that ever made me stop questioning the cost was the introduction of the $15,000 Coralstone and the $20,000 Blue Lace Koetsus. Suddenly the Tiger Eye was sounding like a reasonable cost cartridge and the other stone bodies like the Jade and Onyx at $8000 were bargain basement units.
I would like to say I was jaded on the stone bodies but that would be such a lame and inexcusable pun. I was just really jaded by the price of these cartridges. Yes, I know I should have more self control over the use of such juvenile puns. Then one day about six months ago I found myself in possession of a Koetsu Tiger Eye. Again from an aesthetic perspective I was never interested in the Tiger Eye; I am just not into brown and gold color schemes. I figured for that kind of coin it should be cut from a solid diamond, preferably a blue diamond like the Hope Diamond… Well, I was somewhat wrong in my assessment of the appearance. The cartridge absolutely shimmers and has a beauty that made me begin to think differently about earth tones.
How does it sound? Let me make this as painless as possible: It did not sound 30 percent better than the Azule. Honestly it only sounded marginally better than the Azule and I suspect that was more akin to break in than to any real, measureable sonic improvement by design. As I become more and more knowledgeable about the Koetsu line, hear more of the cartridges, and understand gemology a bit more, I have learned that the stone bodies all have slightly differing sounds as a result of the specific make up of the stone. I imagine it has something to do with the specific gravity and density of the particular stone. Of course from what I have personally experienced the differences are so subtle, with the exception of the Coralstone, that it may well come down to whatever the stone body cartridges one buys as a matter of the visual preference of one stone over the other.
As an example, the Jade has a translucence that is just stunning and you can see it from across the room. It just jumps out at you in a way that catches people’s attention. Since it is pretty universally understood that the Koetsu stone body cartridges are some of the finest on the planet, why not make the final choice based on the visual enjoyment one stone brings over another. That is not to say that the Tiger Eye is not worth the extra coin. That is up to the consumer to decide. I was giving a great deal of thought to buying the Tiger Eye until it had a bit of an accident that damaged the cantilever. I thank God that I was not the one to injure the poor thing. That was left to another person who will forever remain nameless. I am sure it is back with Sugano-san for loving repairs.
As for me I am sold on Koetsu as my reference cartridge and now the stone body platinum is replacing my Urushi. I will probably keep the Urushi and just suffer through having to own two Koetsu cartridges. Now let’s see do I want blue or green stone…………
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