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LP Gear Deft 2 Phono Cartridge Review

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LPGear Deft2 CartridgeI love bargains, but not at the expense of others. I’ve always had a sick feeling about bankruptcy auctions, estate sales, and foreclosures. I understand that creditors need to get their money, but all I see is Tom Joad’s broken down Model T.

On the other hand, if the seller is willingly giving you a bargain, then I’m all for it. In spades, as audio writers used to say, but I regress…. The idea of a good sounding $100 phono cartridge is preposterous to many. For some, it would be an embarrassment to use anything costing less than $5K. For me, I love to find something affordable that performs better than cartridges 20 to 40 times the price (yes, there are expensive cartridges that suck). Remember this: You aren’t obligated to tell anyone how much you paid. Tell them it’s priceless. Besides, you might make them feel like moronic imbeciles.

So why are there so many expensive phono cartridges? Do you think Jimmy McMillan will add to his platform? “The Rent is Too Damn High, and Needles Too.” There are good reasons for some of them. The Koetsu cartridges are works of art, absolutely looking the part of audio jewelry (the term has been erroneously used to describe wires for some reason). Peter Ledermann’s fine cartridges sport ruby cantilevers and beautiful materials. On the other hand, there are some cartridges that look drab and gray’ 0I’ll let you decide which ones.

No, there are actual reasons for the high prices: fantastic stylus profiles, exotic cantilevers, coils wound with silver, bodies made of jade and coralstone, AlNiCo magnets, permendur, and a laundry list of difficult manufacturing techniques I simply don’t understand. But does that guarantee good results? Hell no, to put it succinctly. Let’s compare two NASA projects to see what I mean.

The Saturn program took us to the moon and back, and did so safely by the end of the decade, fulfilling the challenge of President Kennedy. To this day, the Saturn V remains the most powerful and heaviest rocket, still holding the record for the heaviest launch payload (Skylab I believe). The key to the program was the massive F-1 engine, a technical challenge the Soviets weren’t able to overcome. Each F-1 engine produced 1.5 million pounds of thrust, and since the first stage of the Saturn V used five F-1 rocket engines, it produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust, roughly equivalent to 160 million horsepower at the max speed and thrust of the first stage.

The development of the F-1 rocket engine is fascinating, and worth a study if you are into science. To produce the necessary thrust, each engine was equipped with a gas generator (not gasoline) that drove a turbine, that in turn drove the liquid oxygen and kerosene pumps. The fuel pumps injected 24,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and 15,000 gallons of kerosene per minute. The gas turbine making all this work produced 55,000 brake horsepower, by itself, which gives you an idea of how hard it is to move that much liquid in that short amount of time. The total propellant flow of the five F-1s in the Saturn V was 3,357 gallons per second.

Anyone care for s’mores?

During the Apollo missions, there was never a loss of payload or human life due to a failure of the Saturn rocket program. Although Apollo 6 and Apollo 13 experienced engine failures, the onboard computers were able to compensate by burning the remaining engines longer. It was statistically probable that many of the hundreds of thousands of rivets would be either done incorrectly, or not at all, but the design was so robust that it wouldn’t matter. Many systems were backed up or redundant or so simple that failure was almost impossible. There were 3,000,000 parts in a Saturn V. By contrast, a 747-400 has approximately 6,000,000 parts. In relative terms, the Saturn V was more of a sledge hammer compared to today’s scalpels, civilian aviation airframes.

Fast forward a few years to the Space Shuttle program, officially known as the Space Transportation System, or STS. The “vision” was to quickly turn around the shuttles, launching a mission every few weeks, with only minimal maintenance of the shuttle itself. The idea was a space plane. If every Boeing 737 had to be treated like a space shuttle, the tickets would cost several hundred thousands dollars each, so let’s just say that the idea of a “space plane” was ahead of its time (by almost 40 years). One of the ways of “saving” would be to use solid rocket boosters instead of the huge liquid fueled engines of the Saturn V, which were “expensive.” Not only would this “cheaper” alternative indirectly lead to the death of a crew, it nearly wiped out part of Henderson Nevada.

After all the delays and cost overruns, we wound up with one of the most complex machines ever designed, the shuttle, strapped to what amounted to glorified fireworks, with a huge bottle of liquid accelerant strapped between the three. The shuttles had constant problems with tiles falling off, and each tile was unique. There were other problems. Compared to the Saturn V, the shuttle program had fewer redundant systems and was less robust. Finally after NASA took one too many chances, the glorified fireworks failed, killing a crew. In the end, the costs were thousands of times higher than initially projected, two crews were dead, and the United States was left without a viable system to lift astronauts into orbit.

So, in the end, simplicity usually trumps complexity. Complex systems usually fail catastrophically when they fail (see submarines for more examples). Complex systems are more expensive to produce, more difficult to assemble correctly, more difficult to calibrate and adjust, and more likely to fall out of adjustment. That’s not to say trying, and failing, doesn’t have value. In the process, many things are learned. Nobody imagined a hunk of ice destroying a space shuttle, but it did. All those lessons can be used to perfect the complex, and instruct future designs.

So, what does this have to do with cartridges? The basic facts are that a complex design, with many parts made of expensive materials, hand assembled by Master Jedi cartridge makers, will not guarantee good performance. A more robust design, making clever use of fewer parts, has a higher chance of succeeding, not a lower chance. For instance, good channel separation is just as easily achieved with a cheap cartridge as an expensive one. It’s all a matter of geometry and proper placement of the various parts.

Superficially, the specs are not dissimilar to my favorite cartridge bullshit detector, the Shure V15III, and tonearm bullshit detector, the SME V. Hey, what’s with the Roman numeral V? Do I have a fixation on that, or what? The BS detectors are there as references. If something proclaims itself to be “the best blah-blah in the cosmos, even God agrees”, then we’ll see if it can beat a 30 year old Shure or SME. If not, then maybe it’s not so great. I’m not saying that either are the best available, but they do serve as a baseline for comparison.

Though the specs don’t say so, the “thin-wall tube” is aluminum, or at least looks like aluminum. I wound up setting the tracking force higher than recommended, at 2.2grams, which I will get to in a second. Setting up with a simple paper protractor was super easy. The long parallel lines of the cartridge body make it easy to square up with the lines on the protractor. I wound up with the rear of the cartridge body a tiny bit lower than the front, which is a very scientific approach (I used analog calipers to set the VTA using the line along the side of the SME V as a reference, and then later lowered it a tiny bit more). In the end, the stylus looked like it had the correct rake angle. It took several albums to get it right. The cartridge was unusually sensitive to antiskate adjustment, with a noticeable imbalance with antiskate turned off. For once, the antiskate adjustment scale on my SME V roughly corresponded to the tracking force. There is a break-in period, though not a long one. After about 10 hours of listening, the sound smoothed out.

Mounting a $100 cartridge on a couple thousand dollar tonearm is a mismatch, so to make things more relevant, I used a recently modified (by me) Rek-O-Kut phono stage, Creek passive volume control (a potentiometer), and either totally rebuilt Dynaco Mk IV’s or a GAS Grandson (in need of a total rebuild). There isn’t a stereotypical stereo any more. Perhaps in the ‘70s you could depend on an AR-XA turntable, AR speaker, and Dynaco electronics to be omnipresent, but most audiophiles today have a mix of old and new, budget and pricey.

First Impressions and Adjustments

Subconsciously, the price of the Deft 2 influenced my choice of what to play first, an ‘80s Quiex II pressing of The Who, It’s Hard, and specifically “Eminence Front”:

The sun shines
And people forget
The spray flies as the speedboat glides
And people forget
Forget they’re hiding
The girls smile
And people forget
The snow packs as the skier tracks
And people forget
Forget they’re hiding.

The drinks flow
People forget
That big wheel spins, the hair thins
People forget
Forget they’re hiding
The news slows
People forget
The shares crash, hopes are dashed
People forget
Forget they’re hiding.

Behind an eminence front
Eminence front – It’s a put on.

Yuck. It wasn’t good. The sound of the record is slightly bright and edgy, and the cartridge magnified the shortcomings. That’s when I started experimenting with tracking force and VTA, slightly lowering the back from what I believed to be a neutral setting (without an optical comparator, you are only making an approximation). The VTA was set at 2 grams initially, but I eventually raised it to 2.2 grams. That’s not a big deal though. It’s not going to destroy the cartridge or the records. Hey, if it doesn’t sound good, you aren’t going to listen, so make it sound good. It’s also possible that the suspension of this sample was a bit stiffer than normal and will gradually relax. Don’t take my 2.2 grams as gospel. Listen for yourself and adjust accordingly.

Early on, there was a treble graininess that gradually subsided, but is still there on some hot cuts. After playing with a number of cartridges, I believe the edginess is the cantilever, which is resonating in the audible range. That’s why high price cartridges use boron and ruby, among other materials, instead of aluminum. The higher the moving mass, the lower the resonance frequency, and aluminum tends to resonate in the audible range. The edge was mostly obliterated by changing from a solid state amp, an ancient GAS Grandson, to an even more ancient, but totally rebuilt, pair of Dynaco Mk IV mono blocks. The resulting sound had almost none of the edge, so the Deft II definitely benefits from system matching.

I recently started listening to Serge Gainsbourg, more infamous than famous, outside of France. His 1964 LP, Percussions, was a French version of Paul Simon’s Graceland, 20 years earlier. The mix of Latin, African, French, jazz and pop sounds is very entertaining. The constantly changing recording techniques should be very audible, and they were easily heard with the Deft II. On one cut, the Deft II managed to throw an image aurther outside my speakers than anything I’ve heard, so the channel separation is “good enough.”

There is some midbass resonance, a plump quality, probably due to the body material. It’s relatively benign, unless it coincides with a resonance already on the record, or in your system. With the SME V, a quiet tonearm, the extra midbass juice actually made for more stereotypical vinyl playback. The V tonearm can sound overly dead with some cartridges, due to the magnesium arm tube and low mass. It was a good match for the Deft II.

The best attributes of this cartridge, once I had adjusted it to my system, and after it had broken in, was the pleasing tonal balance and sense of space. Cheap classical records, like London Phase 4, and ‘70s DG titles, were enjoyable. The shortcomings of the disks were still audible, but not so obtrusive that you couldn’t get an idea of the acoustic spaces, microphone technique, and musical content. Many moving coils are unlistenable on these records. Which is more truthful: the version that’s listenable, or the one that isn’t? It doesn’t matter that much. If a cartridge allows you to enjoy a record that is otherwise bound for the garbage, it’s doing a good job.

On some really hot tracks, and especially on inner grooves, the cartridges looses a little composure. It comes down to the mass of the cantilever, or so I suspect. It’s nowhere as coarse as a stock DL103 or anything else sporting a spherical tip. It tracks better than a Decca. Tracking ability was slightly better than most Grados, if that helps, but not quite as good as a Shure with HE or line contact stylus.

In many systems, the Deft II will have a slightly husky quality, and perhaps a bit of brashness at the top. It’s not a lightning fast cartridge, but it didn’t sound slow either. Floor toms and bass drums weren’t fast, but had the correct weight. Channel separation was good, though it did require tweaking to get it there. Unusual, in my experience, for a cartridge at this price, careful setup and tweaking will pay dividends. Detail is good, but not exceptional; body and cantilever resonances covering up detail, to a degree. It can track complex tracks well enough that you don’t consciously limit your musical selections.

At times bass was first rate, as good as any high output cartridge I’ve heard. After I increased the tracking force, it did lose some bass impact and depth. It’s possible that in a few more hours of play, I will be able to decrease tracking force to get some of the bass depth back. Since this is a budget cartridge, I would expect more sample-to-sample variation than a more expensive cartridge. It’s likely there is an example that would track at 1.8 grams and have spectacular bass. That’s the biggest problem of reviewing cartridges. All cartridges are hand assembled, and the tiniest difference in dimension or thickness can make a big difference.

Lead Out

If you have only one cartridge, especially an expensive one, you should have a cartridge like this on hand when you need to have your reference replaced or rebuilt. But don’t be surprised if you wind up enjoying your record collection just as much with the Deft II.

I suppose the best thing I can say about the Deft II is that it is enjoyable. It engages me. I like listening with it. I can’t say that about a number of more expensive cartridges that did a terrific job on paper, but not on the end of a tonearm. Finally, it will take its place alongside my Shure V15iii as an alternative cartridge BS detector. I can’t imagine better sound at the price.

Manufacturer’s Comment:

LP GEAR® and I thank Phillip Holmes for taking the time to review the LP GEAR® Deft 2 phono cartridge with dexterity and honesty. We also thank Constantine Soo and Dagogo for providing their publication to showcase our product and for the opportunity to comment.

One of the hardest things to do is to offer a musically talented phono cartridge at a very affordable price. We believe the Deft 2 and its less expensive sibling, the Deft 1, offer the parsimonious music lover phono cartridges of musical excellence even when compared with others four or five times their price.

We believe this is the surprise that unfolds with the Deft 2, especially with its superb tracing ability and we hope Dogogo readers will enjoy its endearing eloquence.

With best personal regards.

Sincerely,

Rome Castellanes
LP GEAR

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