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A monophonic experience: Miyajima Zero and Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301

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Recently, I published an article about one man’s quest for the best sound possible in a large room using state of the art gear. Most of that gear was at price points many would not likely consider. Nevertheless, the gentleman’s journey was — to me — a fascinating one. Reader response suggests that I was not alone in my interest. Writing that article required a long flight out, mandatory Covid mask included, a week’s stay, and a long flight back.

I now have a new story to share with you, and, for this one, my journey was a bit less challenging. I simply had to walk down the street. My friend Earl and I have lived within a block of one another for 30+ years, but only figured that out 15 years ago through the good graces of the Houston Audio Society. Such is the nature of our 21stcentury nuclear world.  Audiophile life would be so much easier if we audiophiles lived in designated clusters.

Earl went to music school at the University of North Texas, but migrated to the practice of law after a brief stint of teaching Led Zeppelin tunes to “practice-resistant youngsters” (his words). Many years later, when we met, Earl was in the process of concluding that his ear was notably happier when focusing on vinyl rather than digital; his exposure to my Rockport turntable pushed him over the edge. (Later, as I began exploring EMM digital gear for review, we both modified our views somewhat, but that story is for another day.)

Earl’s musical tastes are quite broad, which I suppose is not surprising for someone who studied composition in music school, played trumpet in his youth, electric guitar during the fusion years, classical guitar thereafter, to be followed by bass in a country swing band for 12 years as a sideline to his legal practice. He also, not surprisingly, developed an acute ear. These things have made for fun and satisfying listening sessions during the time we have known one another.

Earl’s audio journey has, nevertheless, been different from mine. It is in one of the areas of difference that I wish to focus  with this article: One man’s journey into the world of monophonic sound. Earl has been on that journey for several years now and has honed in on some equipment — and LPs —that offer a new and satisfying experience for me. In reporting on Earl’s monophonic journey, I hope I can convey both some of the whys of that journey as well as some of the pitfalls and successes, which may assist others similarly interested.


Why listen to mono?

An obvious question to many of my readers may be, why bother? Isn’t most of what we wish to hear available in more recent and better sounding recordings? And to the extent that we want to listen to older recordings — 50s jazz, for example — aren’t there well-done reissues that obviate the need to delve into this long-obsolete technology? Besides that, don’t mono records play just fine with stereo cartridges in stereo systems?

Those are all fair questions. An easy part of the answer is that, if a listener is on the whole not much interested in the musical world of the late 40s to the early 60s, then I would just stick to what’s available in reissues. However, for those of us with a deep interest in jazz and its history, or classical music, then there are some worthy explorations to be made into that era. And for some among those exploring, curiosity about the “real” mono experience may be unavoidable (as it was with Earl). You read things, you hear things about the mystique of mono: you haven’t heard what mono really sounds like until you’ve heard the real thing; a really good mono record has remarkable presence and warmth; well-reproduced mono has a real soundstage; a true mono stylus and cartridge will pick up much less surface noise; real mono is like a window into the past…it has its own special magic; the musicians are right there in the room with you.

These things I had heard or read over the years. And over time, as my interest in jazz has grown, I have heard some great mono records on my Rockport with its stereo cartridge. At times, I’ve been quite surprised at the quality and truthfulness of the experience, and have written in these pages about the peculiarity of hearing, within the mono space, a degree of soundstage and instrument placement that has surprised me. Yet, the mono set-up that Earl settled on turned out to increase my appreciation for the quality of those older recordings. So, that is why assembling a mono set up is worth doing, for those with the requisite curiosity. That curiosity can indeed be satisfied in a positive and pleasing way.


The system, pre-mono

First, let me give you a brief picture of Earl’s system and listening room.

The listening room is smaller than mine, and pretty typical for the sort of 50s ranch style neighborhood in which we live. It functions as a living room, with picture windows that cover about half of the long wall facing the back yard. The room is shoebox shaped, with the long walls at about 19 feet and the short walls at about 13 feet. The ceiling is 8 feet high. The room has multiple openings. We generally close those off when listening and partially cover the windows. Large thick rugs cover most of the floor, and there are two couches that also help dampen the acoustic.

The system begins with an updated Linn LP-12 or EMM DA-2, as the case may be, and ends with Avalon Eidolon Visions. The Linn, with a Koetsu Rosewood Signature cartridge, goes into an Einstein phono stage, which plugs into a Conrad-Johnson Premier17LS Linestage (based on the ART technology). The Premier 17 feeds a pair of updated Premier 12XS monoblocks (using EL34s), which feed the Eidolons via AudioQuest Oak speaker cables. Earl uses various interconnects and power cords, primarily Cardas Clear Reflection, although the monoblocks are fed by Audio Note Isiscopper interconnects.

Earl tells me that his interest in listening to mono records with a mono cartridge and phonostage dates back to the 1990s, when he was able to listen to a 1920s version of a high end player — fully acoustic — playing some acoustically recorded 78s of Frederick Stock conducting the Chicago Symphony. He told me, “I’d heard transfers of 78s before, of course, but hearing the real thing on a player designed specifically to play them was altogether ear-opening. The sound of the 78s made sense to my ears in a way that most transfers did not. There were still limitations, of course, but nevertheless, it was as if I could ‘see’ the musicians through a window in time more clearly than I could in the transfers. This led to a curiosity about the sound of records played on the playback gear for which they were specifically designed: 78s on a 78 machine, mono on mono, etc. For that matter, it made me curious about reel-to-reel tapes as well, but that’s another story.

Time, economics and space issues prevented Earl from delving further into the world of 78s. Fast-forward 30 years and we find Earl focusing on music and record collecting again, and approaching retirement. A dealer in the UK encouraged Earl to experiment with Decca mono LPs from the 50s — the LXT series. He liked what he heard. He also liked 50s Bethlehem mono recordings of Mel Torme and Chris Connor. Other jazz classics were not far behind. And when he could find the original 50s LPs, as opposed to the re-issues, he couldn’t help but notice that the originals often sounded fuller and more immediate, even though played back using a stereo cartridge.


Mono versus stereo —a word about technology

The great miracle of vinyl records, to my mind anyway, is that they work at all. When I was young, I once made a cone out of paper, pushed a sewing pin through the narrow end, and played a record with it. I’ve never forgotten that experience. I can describe what I saw and heard, but I find it difficult to conceptualize what was and is actually happening at the microscopic level in the groove when a record is being played. So, I do not intend for this couple of paragraphs to fully explain mono versus stereo. I hope to just hit a few high points.

Stereo records produce two (effectively) separate channels, which reside on separate sides of the 45-degree angles of the groove. In order to reproduce the two channels of signal in the groove properly, a stereo stylus has to track both horizontally and vertically. The movement of the stylus in the groove in turn moves magnets attached to the other end of the cantilever, which induces an electrical signal in coils mounted diagonally opposite the sides of the groove they reproduce.

A mono stylus/cartridge operates differently, it needs only to move horizontally. Similarly, there need only be a single coil. Mono styli have, in the past, been larger than the typical elliptical styli used for stereo. Older stereo record jackets contained warnings about mono styli being potentially damaging to stereo records. That was largely because the compliance of the mono stylus would resist the vertical movement. The stylus size was apparently also considered an issue. I should add at this point that, when researching mono versus stereo on the internet, information was not always clear, and some that I found on blogs was disputed. I am summing up what seems to be a somewhat arcane area as best I can.

Various types of mono cartridges still exist for purchase for those intrepid collectors that are interested. They vary in the degree to which they are fully in sync with the mono cartridges of the past. Some are effectively stereo cartridges wired for mono. Some have both vertical and horizontal compliance. Others are said to be “true mono.”


Working toward a mono cartridge

As Earl began researching a potential investment in the mono direction, he noticed particularly good reviews of various Miyajima moving coil mono cartridges. The reviewers’ enthusiasm for the mono experience via the Miyajima made the whole prospect of trying a mono cartridge increasingly irresistible. However, a stumbling block was that his Linn Ittok (later Ekos) arm did not have a removable headshell. Eventually, chance put him in possession of asecond Linn table. But there remained another problem.

Swissonor Historic 8910 mono phonostage

The Miyajima cartridges require high compliance arms. The combination of a Miyajima cartridge with theIttok/Ekos tonearm on the Linn turntable was unworkable. Consequently, he acquired a Soundsmith mono cartridge and, through Phillip Holmes of Mockingbird Audio, was led to purchase a Swissonor Historic 8910 mono phonostage. For a surprisingly reasonable price, the Swissonor allowed access to various EQs required for proper playback of (primarily) pre-1955 mono records.

This set-up achieved mono playback, but the dream of working with one of the legendary Miyajima mono cartridges remained lodged in Earl’s brain. The Miyajimas come with large styli. They track only horizontally, meaning there is no vertical compliance. They are of single coil design. Earl’s interest was understandable (from my perspective). The problem at this point was finding a turntable/tonearm combination that would work ideally with the Miyajima.

One Response to A monophonic experience: Miyajima Zero and Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301

  1. rl1856 says:

    I use an Ortofon DG25DI MKIII mono cartridge. This model is an update of the original Ortofon mono moving coil (single) design introduced in 1947. It has a 1 mil conical stylus, and negligable vertical compliance. I use this cartride to play mono LPs pressed before 1960. My experience is that well recorded mono can sound shockingly real. Singers, solo instruments, small scale groups etc sound holographic, as you noticed. In many cases, recordings were made live with everyone in the same room. Thus there would be distance between musicians, and space to be picked up from the room. ALL can be heard. I hear depth, layering, instrument placement, albiat in a narrowly confined center area. I recall a mono Ella Verve lp having a soundstage that was so deep it seemed to go to the horizon. And mono lps generally cost less than stereo ! There are exceptions, vintage jazz and certain classical. But mono remains under rated, and under appreciated.

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