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Miyabi Standard Cartridge Review

Jack Roberts shares a unique audiophile experience

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Miyabi Standard moving-coil cartridge

Design

Haruo Takeda is the creator of the Miyabi phonograph cartridges. Many of Takeda cartridges were sold under major audiophile brand names, such as Cello, Klipsch, Krell, and Mark Levinson. In the late seventies he began to design a cartridge he would eventually sell under his own brand name, Miyabi.

While there may be no exact English translation for the Japanese word Miyabi, it’s one of the traditional Japanese aesthetic ideals. The concept has to do with the appreciation of transitory and refined beauty as it passes in time. In modern Japanese, the word is usually translated as “elegance,” “refinement,” or “courtliness”. This kind of beauty is said to be the beating heart of the Japanese art culture. I wouldn’t know anything about that, but I surely hear it at the heart of the Miyabi Standard phono cartridges.

Description

Most expensive phono cartridges come in fancy, if not opulent boxes of some sort, so much so that I remember how happy I was with the rather utilitarian box the Benz Ebony TR came in. So I found myself somewhat surprised by how taken I was with the presentation of the Miyabi Standard. It comes in a rather small, ring sized, polished wooden case. I was careful not to let Becky see the box, she would have expected a large-karat and more expensive diamond to be inside such a fine box. There was something very elegant about its simplicity. The minute I opened it and saw the mostly round, black aluminum cartridge I knew it reminded me of some cartridge of my past. Then, as I looked at the Miyabi’s rounded outer shell I remembered Mark Levinson’s Cello phono cartridge. If you are old enough for such memories you might remember both the Cello and the Mark Levinson MLC1. I find the look most satisfying and heck, I don’t even know why I care how It looks.

All the Miyabi cartridges use Alnico magnets with copper coils because Mr. Takeda likes the way they sound and it turns out I do, too. It has a rather low output voltage of only 0.2 mV and the internal impedance is also quite low at only 2 ohms. These low numbers turned out to be good news for me, because it means the Miyabi Standard is an ideal match for the built-in step-p transformer in my Shindo Masseto. The Standard is a low compliance cartridge, but because it weighs a whopping 13.5 grams you can use it with most medium mass tonearms.

Setup & Auditioning

When I unpacked the cartridge and saw it was round, my first thought was “how will I ever set this thing up”. When I took off the rather unique stylus guard and looked at the cartridge closer I could see that the front of the cartridge was wide, flat, and perfectly square. So set up was perfectly straight forward; truth is, it was easier than most.

Like most cartridges the Miyabi Standard needs some time to settle in and stabilize its performance, even though they say it has already been run-in. It sounded very good right out of the box, in fact my first impression was “this thing is going to give my Benz Ebony TR a real run for the money”, and so far nothing else really has. After playing the Miyabi Standard for about 40 hours it seemed just as good as the TR at what the TR does best, such as transparency, speed, micro-dynamics, and sounding startling like live music, and it outperformed the EMT JSD5 at what the EMT does best in terms of power, dynamics, and life; but as usual I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Miyabi Standard is one of those rare pieces of audio gear that defies being broken down into parts. It’s a waste of time to talk about how it sounds in the midrange, bass, or treble. That’s not what you notice at all with this cartridge. I really mean it. Listening to music with the Miyabi Standard is so astonishingly enthralling that I had to make myself think about how it sounded. I was much more likely to want to clap, tap, sing along, or cry than I was to care about the midrange or soundstage. It is also one of those rare pieces of gear that plays the truth. If you’re looking for a cartridge that is forgiving, lush, and liquid then the Miyabi Standard is not your cartridge. It can be lush or liquid sounding, but only if the recording is. Of course this means it can also sound hard or bright, too, if the recording is that way.

About the same time the Miyabi was really coming into its own, I found a mint original copy of the Bee Gees’ 1969 cult classic Odessa mastered by AcousTech. I couldn’t believe the way the music came alive in my room. The drum beat that was driving the music came alive right at me; it was big, powerful, yet with as much transparency and nimbleness as the Benz Ebony TR. The timbre of the instruments just seemed so real; but most of all I felt like it was 1970 all over again and I was in high school with my buds just rocking out. It was so great that I went upstairs and dragged my 25 year-old-son and his wife downstairs to hear this great album.

Layers upon layers of texture is one of the things you can get from your system with a great tube preamp especially combined with a world-class moving-coil cartridge. The Miyabi Standard really lets you hear deep into these layers of textures. The texture of bowed strings and the speed, attack, and decay of plucked strings was just so much fun to listen to. This cartridge does something really remarkable: it lets the music have the “WOW factor” instead of the artificiality of a system. It allows you to follow the interplay easily between jazz musicians, or voices in an acapella ensemble.

Speaking of the “WOW factor”, the sound is so dynamic that the music literally explodes out of the speakers, and with the right recordings it can literally fill a room with a three-dimensional sound. Like a great sports car the Miyabi Standard is amazing in its ability to accelerate. It can go from completely quiet to full tilt in an instant and it achieves this in such a completely effortless manner that you don’t think about dynamics, but about “man can they play.” Speaking of completely quiet, I think part of what makes the Miyabi sound so explosive is how quiet it is. I have never heard a source that produces as quiet a background as the Miyabi Standard combined with the Shindo Masseto preamp.

Another thing that makes the Miyabi Standard sound so much like real music is the way it handles space. As my regular readers know I don’t make the typical audiophile soundstage a high priority. Instead, I want to hear a coherent, whole soundstage. One of the things that I really enjoyed about this cartridge was its ability to give me the best of both worlds. The Miyabi went beyond reproducing the width, depth, and the height of the soundstage. It was consistently able to reproduce a coherent soundstage full of air, space, ambience, and energy, but never sounding as if instruments and bodies were floating in empty space. The Miyabi simply produced the widest, deepest, tallest, and most lifelike scale I have heard from my system.

Well, all of you who read my reviews regularly know that I couldn’t write a review and not talk about voices. When I go over to our editor’s house to listen to music, he plays recording after recordings of symphonies, and classical piano works. After a while I just have to ask, “don’t you have anything with voices?” Of course he does and he’s nice enough to play it. For me it’s ultimately how any component reproduces the human voice that makes it or breaks it for me. Again this cartridge caught me off guard though, I can’t say that I often thought about the voices when listening to music played by the Miyabi Standard. That’s not to say that it doesn’t play voices as good as any source I have heard, because it does. No, it’s because it does that magical trick I mentioned earlier of wowing you with the performance, not the sonics. So I was much more likely to think, “I didn’t remember she sang that good” or “man he was in a groove when that was recorded.”

The Miyabi Standard’s Most Beguiling Quality

Without a doubt the most beguiling quality of the Miyabi Standard is also the one I understand the least. It has the ability to make very different sounding albums more musically satisfying and enjoyable than they had been before; I find this really fascinating. For example, before hearing them on the Miyabi Standard, I had found the Madeline Peyroux albums just plain boring. This would also be true of all but two sides of the new Thorens 125th Anniversary album, but when played with the Miyabi they are incredibly involving. I don’t notice anything that sounds particularly different about them, just that the performance is more emotionally involving. This isn’t only true on boring albums, there are other albums that I always thought were too dull, or had some other problem, that when played with the Miyabi I find myself so caught up in the performance that I am much less likely to care about these problems. Don’t get me wrong, the cartridge can’t make a bad performance good, but if the performance is good it allows me to make an emotion connection that transcends the recording process.

Comparison

My favorite cartridge so far has been the EMT TMD 25 Mono cartridge. My five favorite stereo cartridges are the Benz Ebony TR, EMT JSD5, London Decca Reference, Miyabi Standard and Soundsmith The Voice. The two EMTs need to be loaded into the Auditorium 23 SUT to sound their best, the Decca sounds best straight into the moving-magnet inputs on my Shindo Masseto, while The Voice needed an all-together different load that I could not achieve easily with my Masseto. So, I decided the only fair comparison was between the Benz Ebony TR and the Miyabi Standard. They both work wonderfully straight into the Masseto’s built-in SUT, and are my favorite of the stereo cartridges.

Let me start by saying that if I could afford the Miyabi Standard and one more tonearm, I would own both of these fabulous cartridges. If I could afford another tonearm though I would get a twelve-inch higher mass arm, and then I would want to try whole new group of cartridges that can’t be use in my current setup, so there’s no point going there. So how do these two very low output, low impedance cartridges compare? The Miyabi Standard has an output voltage of 0.2mV and an internal impedance of 2.0 ohms while the Benz Ebony TR has an even lower output voltage of only 0.1mV and an internal impedance of 1.0 ohms. These are a couple of cartridges that were designed to be used with SUTs.

They sound more alike than they do different. They are both incredibly organic, alive, and natural sounding. The Miyabi Standard sounds, bigger, bolder, and more dynamic. You would think from that description that it sounds more like a real performance and would have the warmer tonal balance, but you would not be necessarily right. The Benz Ebony TR sounds slightly more refined, may have better micro-dynamics, is a little more delicate, relaxed, and is more forgiving of recordings that have an edgy sound, or a little more glare. Then, the Miyabi Standard is more forgiving of remastered records that have a tendency to sound a little dull and laid back. Now, remember I said they sound more alike than different. This brings us back to the question of which sounds more like real music? Well, I have to be honest with you that completely depends on the recording you are listening to.

One last observation I would like to share about these two cartridges. All the differences I have mentioned could easily be masked if you don’t take the time to get the setup just right; that’s how much they sound like each other. Truth is, when I put the TR back in the system I was able to achieve an even closer sound by playing with the VTA and VTF just a little bit. I was even able to get the Thorens 125th Anniversary album to sound almost as involving with the TR as with the Miyabi.

Conclusion

By naming this cartridge the Miyabi Standard there could be some misunderstanding about how this cartridge relates to their other cartridges. While it is a little less expensive than the Miyabi/47, it is more of an alternative than their entry-level moving coil. I think a better way to understand the name is to realize that Mr. Takeda saw this as the standard for a phono cartridge that he was willing to put his name on. Let me end by simply saying that the Miyabi Standard brought beautiful, refined, and great music into my home, and it was great fun.

As I reread this review I fear that I may not have conveyed what is so special about this cartridge and it is truly special. So, I’m going to try one more illustration of how it sounds. One of the things I love most about Shindo preamps and Wavac amps is the way the midrange just comes to life.

Some call this midrange bloom, but I have heard it from so few products that I fear bloom is a description that is overused. This sound of the midrange coming to life is also what sets the Miyabi Standard apart from other great phono cartridges. The years are catching up with Mr. Takeda and I don’t know how much longer this work of art will continue to be available, and this is one phono cartridge I can’t imagine living without. There, I’ve said it, I like the Miyabi Standard very, very much and I think you will also.

Miyabi U.S. Importer’s Comment:

Thank you very much for the beautiful review of Miyabi Standard. What you say in the review exactly hits the bull’s eye. I never heard the designer, Haruo Takeda, talking about highs, mids and lows. He does talk about dynamics and transient speed though, and mostly, he talks about music.

These days, I travel to Japan very often and see Haruo every time I’m there. We always go to a free market together for vinyl hunting. He’s about 75 (nearly 20 years older than me) but insists to walk to the market which takes almost 30 minutes by foot from the train station. Usually we find several LPs worth taking, but the last time, we found a vendor with boxes and boxes of LPs and we each ended up buying over 30 LPs. AND HE STILL INSISTED TO WALK BACK TO THE STATION!! Well, I couldn’t take it, so called a cab. Next time I see him, it’ll be August, and will be terribly hot. I’m going to rent a car and go pick him up at his house to avoid the walk!!

Yoshi Segoshi/SAKURA SYSTEMS

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