My love of monaural recordings began almost eleven years ago, a direct result of buying a Sony SCD777ES SACD player back in 2000. As an early adopter, the pool of SACDs to pick from was small, but there were a good many old jazz classics available. I discovered that a lot of these were mono and they sounded just incredible. My next experience was at Pitch Perfect Audio system in San Francisco, where I listened to a lot of old mono recordings. I had taken my modded 777 with me to compare to the wonderful Shindo vinyl setup. As good as the SACDs were they fell short except the Verve 60th Anniversary special SACD of Ella and Louis which, in my opinion, bettered the vinyl setup. It was the first mono we had played. It was then that Pitch Perfect proprietor Matt Rotundo said, “give me a minute and let’s do that again.” He unscrewed the head shell with the built-in Shindo cartridge and replaced it with an EMT mono cartridge, built into an old time-looking EMT head shell. We did the comparison again and I was so disappointed: my 777 lost again to the vinyl. At that point we quit comparing SACD and vinyl and instead compared the mono and stereo cartridges on a mono LP. All of the things I mentioned below about the sound of real mono cartridges versus the sound of monaural recordings on stereo cartridges was very apparent to both of us.
In my review of the EMT Mono cartridge I asked, “Why would anyone go to the trouble and expense of putting together a mono vinyl setup? The answer is simple. There is a lot of great music out there available only on mono and it sounds so much better on a true-mono cartridge. By a true-mono cartridge I mean a cartridge designed from the ground up to play monaural records.”
The important thing to know is that a true mono cartridge is wired and built only to pickup signals off the record in the horizontal plane. The grove of a monaural recording is modulated only in the horizontal plane, whereas stereo recordings are cut into the vinyl at a forty-five degree angle with a separate channel of information on each of the grove walls, thus requiring the stylus to pick up signals in both the horizontal and vertical plane. Whereas a stereo cartridge sums the channels internally, the cartridge picks up noise from the vertical plane of the record grooves. In contrast, a true mono cartridge is wired and built only to pick up signals in the horizontal plane. Interestingly, in a mono record much of the surface noise is in the vertical plane, so avoiding this plane is of great benefit.
That is why a stereo cartridge wired internally as a mono cartridge does little more than a mono switch on a preamp; even a Y-connector does the same. You might at this point be asking, “who cares?” Well, anyone who owns a lot of great monaural records should care, because most physical damage to records occur in the vertical part of the grove. By not even picking up or amplifying this information you eliminate a lot of the noise from mono records that you hear when played back through a stereo cartridge.
The most important thing you get from a true mono cartridge is a sound that is more substantial and bigger than when the same recording is played back on a stereo cartridge, even one as good as my Shindo SPU. Stereo cartridges have a way of making monaural recordings sound somewhat lighter and wispy.
The Miyajima cartridges came to my attention for the first time at RMAF in 2009. At the show I was told that the mono cartridge was Miyajima-san’s life passion. I was unable to attend in 2010, but I was really excited when our dear editor Constantine returned home with the Miyajima Premium BE mono cartridge to listen to. It was right at home in the RS Labs tonearm I also had on hand. The Premium Mono BE is a low-compliance device that tracks at a recommended 3.5gm. The Miyajima Premium Mono BE is the first cartridge I know of that offers a true mono cartridge with impact, color, and the juice of real life at a fairly reasonable price.
The Miyajima cartridges are named after their inventor, Noriyuki Miyajima. The U.S. distributor is Robin Wyatt, who is well known for his knowledge of analogue playback. Noriyuki Miyajima’s claim to fame is his cross-ring motor. It is different from other cartridge designs in four ways. First, the fulcrum of the cantilever’s movement is at the precise center of the coil; this is claimed to cause every movement of the cantilever to create a precise and instantaneous signal induction. This differs from most every other moving-coil motor design I am familiar with where the fulcrum is slightly in front or behind the coils. Second, the left- and right-channel coils are wound in a pattern of overlapping ellipses very similar to the crossing rings in a gyroscope. Third, the form on which those coils are wound is nonmetallic. Last, the coil form is held into place from behind rather than being pulled into place from behind with a bit of steel wire.
Noriyuki Miyajima recommends using this low-output cartridge with a step-up transformer instead of an active gain stage and I agree. I used it with three different step-up transformers the Audience 23 Homage T1, the Audience 23 made for the Denon 103, and Robin’s own Robyatt Audio AK Mono SUT. It worked best with either of the last two. The wonderful Homage T1 is just too low of an impedance match with this cartridge.
Installation, Use, and Tracking
The Miyajima was a breeze to install. The cartridge pins are sturdy and easy to get to and best of all it has a stylus guard. The sturdy pins looked large, but they were not, the tiny cartridge wires of the RS Labs tonearm went right on and fit nicely. Of course any cartridge used in the RS Labs tonearm is interesting and somewhat nerve wracking, but that’s a function of the arm, not the Premium BE. The Miyajima was the easiest cartridge I have installed in the RS Labs tonearm thus far. The Miyajima is a very good tracker though to be honest, I have found that most mono setups track wonderfully.
The Miyajima consistently had the kind of organic sound I have previously only heard from Ortofon SPU or EMT cartridges. With it in my system, its sound was like beautiful music, full-bodied with great colorful textures. It also had excellent scale, exceptional dynamics, and very quick micro-dynamics.
For me the midrange is where the heart of the music is and any component I use has to get it right. The Miyajima had a wonderful way of bringing the music to life in the midrange. It lets the music just flow into the room. The transients were fast, but at the same time the timber and tone were so very right. With the Mijajima in my system, the midrange was very much alive, big and beautiful, and it brought the vivid colors of live music into my listening room. The great thing is that in addition to all I’ve said about its color, it also gets the tone and timber of music close to perfection.
Voices were lush but not too lush. They just flowed with this cartridge. I think it might be the way it gets the timing and cadence of voices so right that makes them so very convincing. I have never heard male or female voices sound purer, simpler and more lifelike. The cartridge was so organic that voices never sounded detached from the body, instead you would feel like there is a whole person up there singing just for you. Listen to Ella, Louie, or Frank and you will be amazed.
Then there is the bass; it’s full, warm, but in no way fat or boomy. It may not be the last word in speed and slam, but it’s pretty close to the last word in sounding like jazz sounds at Yoshi’s in Oakland. I think this bass especially fits the sound of many of my mono LPs.
This is only the second true mono cartridge I have reviewed or for that matter, had in my system, the other being the EMT TMD 25N mono cartridge. Truth is, I loved them both, and would be happy to live with either as my source for playing mono LPs. The Miyajima is not only a great mono cartridge; it’s a great cartridge period. I would rate it in the top five cartridges I have heard.
I don’t know if you have ever heard of the Rev. William Ralston, but at the time of his death in May of 2003 he had assembled one of the nation’s most comprehensive private collections of classical music. In his will, Father Ralston expressed his desire that a fitting space be created at Sewanee, the University of the South, to house this collection and provide both serious students of music and casual listeners a place to fully appreciate recorded music. When they put together a system to listen to the many great mono LPs in the collection they chose the Miyajima BE Mono. I surely understand that decision, for this cartridge will hold its own against any cartridge at any price. Why? Because it simply sounds like real music.
- (Page 1 of 1)