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Lyra Atlas SL 0.25mV moving coil phono cartridge Review

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Lyra builds approximately 400 Etna and Atlas cartridges a year, with all final assembly and voicing done by a single individual; consequently, it is not unusual to wait for several months after placing an order before one’s cartridge is delivered. The cartridge I ordered, the Atlas SL, differs from the normal Lyra Atlas in having fewer coil windings, thus decreasing the moving mass of the system. As a result, the SL has a less robust output (0.25 mv) and lower internal impedance (1.52 ohms) than the standard version. However, in my view, the decrease in moving mass allows for a more natural sound.

Following the arrival of my cartridge, my friend and fellow audiophile Scott Sheaffer was kind enough to drive down from Dallas and install it in my Rockport Sirius turntable. I have reached an age where, between poor eyesight and a certain unsteadiness in my hands, am uncomfortable trying to install cartridges, particularly ones this costly. Scott, as always, was highly professional and very entertaining. In his assessment, between the tangential tonearm of the Rockport and the rather high build standard of the more expensive Lyra cartridges, basic set-up was a snap. We did play extensively with tracking force and ended up at the recommended downforce of 1.72 grams by Joe Harley of Audioquest, Lyra’s American distributor. We also played with varying the mass of the counterweight. The Rockport arm was provided with multiple counterweights, which allows tuning of the arm/cartridge interface for optimal performance.

While Scott and I played a number of records that first evening, the one that made the strongest impression was an early EMI Columbia SAX (blue/silver label) of David Oistrakh playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Scott and I were on the edges of our seats for the entire performance. Even this early into the break-in process, the Atlas SL did an impressive job of communicating the complex tonality and dynamics of the violin in combination with Oistrakh’s technical virtuosity. In previous listens to this recording, I got the sense that the violin was recorded in a manner that minimized the contribution of the orchestra. But with the Atlas SL, these elements seemed more balanced. Even at this early stage in my listening, the Atlas SL was warmer, more harmonically complex and more resolving than my previous reference, the Ortofon A90, and on appropriate material could create a soundstage with impressive width, dimensionality, and layered depth. Subject to the recording, I found it notable how well instruments were precisely located with a sense of occupying three-dimensional space. There was also a striking immediacy to the sound.

On the following evening, my neighbor and audiophile buddy Earl came over to listen. In general, my listening sessions involved one or more of my friends, typically Earl or Paul Jackson, but even when I listened alone and later discussed observations with my friends we tended to be in agreement. One of the many benefits of having Earl over is that he always brings some interesting and sometimes curious records with him. The treasure trove that night included an early stereo pressing of Don Cherry’s “Complete Communion” (Blue Note 84226), an album that we had heard before and were familiar with. Our initial impression was that the Atlas SL was more extended at the top than the Ortofon, but not unnaturally so. The sound was very alive and lively, with trumpet in particular having a very full presence. Earl commented that “as an old trumpet player, there are certain nuances I particularly enjoyed hearing – the micro dynamics within the bell of the horn that tell you there are lips buzzing behind the mouthpiece such that not every note or movement is consistent; there are little splats and cracks and squeezes as the very human sound of the horn is being made. When I can hear these things, every moment becomes expressive.” Drums responded similarly; toms were very clearly in front of us in the sound stage.  It was only a few nights ago that we had listened to this same album through the Ortofon A90. How could it be more engaging tonight?

Then we played an old favorite, a first stereo pressing of John Coltrane’s Impulse recording simply titled Coltrane. Played with the Atlas SL, this was almost like a different record. The bass and drums in the right channel had tended to sound a bit like mush before, which is how I’ve heard this on digital as well as old and new analog in the past. Suddenly, the bass and drums made more sense. The bass was still subtle, sometimes to the point of getting lost, but the drums, especially in their midrange, spoke with greater clarity. Of greater import was Coltrane’s tenor sax. The recording so perfectly captures Coltrane on his way to A Love Supreme. In particular, the tune “Out of this World” seems not big enough to hold what Coltrane wants to say; indeed, the tenor sax itself seems insufficient. Coltrane pushes and pulls, overblows and screeches in an incredible burst of energy to reach for whatever mystery it was that drove him. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard this yearning so fully presented and with such nuance.

Next was a selection from a Berlin Philharmonic box of complete Schumann symphonies. The Berlin Philharmonic has recently recorded a number of live performances conducted by Simon Rattle for subsequent issue on their own label in both vinyl and digital formats. The performance was simply miked. Though Rattle’s interpretations have not pleased all listeners, I find them quite enjoyable, not least for the sound quality. The hall in which the live recordings were made is a proscenium style, with listeners behind the orchestra as well as in front and to the sides. This affects the depth of image. One might expect this to be disadvantageous; however, I do not hear it that way. Placement left to right with the Atlas is quite precise, which may have made up for any loss of depth. As is increasingly the case with more recent digital recordings, the strings have an almost analog warmth. The balance between lower and upper strings is exemplary, making the interplay between right and left particularly satisfying.  Dynamic range is clear but not overdone. The synergy between the Atlas SL and this recording is excellent.

We concluded the evening with what has become a perennial favorite, Wayne Shorter’s Atlantis.  In the past on this album (and others), we have sometimes noticed “end of side distortion,” which, with a linear tracking tone arm, one would hope to generally avoid. With other cartridges, this distortion has been particularly noticeable in the children’s voices on side one. Playing the same record with the Atlas SL, no end of side distortion was audible to us. This is something that we began to listen for, and we noticed it with other records too. This, among other things, caused us to conclude that the Atlas has superior tracking ability.

In fact, I want to take a moment to focus on a few consistent areas of excellence that my listener friends and I began to notice with this cartridge. First, as above, the tracking ability of the Atlas seemed superb. One does not know precisely what is happening as the stylus rides the groove, but I can say that we heard – and commented on – a consistently high level of detail with little or no obvious distortion even in places where a stylus can be challenged, such as with busy and heavily transient percussion or with a full section of strings playing double forte. Second, we began to notice rather quickly that few albums sounded lousy, or even particularly annoying – even those that we knew were imperfectly recorded or pressed. With the Atlas SL, it was easier to focus on the strengths of a recording rather than have one’s nose rubbed in its weaknesses.

Over the following weeks, I had a number of very satisfying listening sessions, either by myself or with friends. Rather than trying to list every record, I have instead chosen to focus on a few that highlight a particular aspect of the sound.

On a reissue by Speaker’s Corner of Weather Report’s Mysterious Traveler, detail retrieval was superb, with the sound stage almost wall-to-wall, and pinpoint placement of instruments. In particular, the Atlas SL did a superb job of recreating Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone. The image was tightly focused and stable with excellent tonality and dynamics. The album was very musical throughout and the sound was amazingly lifelike. Listening to Mobile Fidelity’s Ultradisc re-issue of Donald Fagen’s Nightfly for the first time, I could understand every word Fagen and the backup singers enunciate. Nightfly is rich with detail, but always additive, never showboating. The rhythm was propulsive…it certainly passed the foot tapping test.

Two other records were illustrative of where the Atlas SL excels. The first was the Bartok Piano Concerto No. 1 on an early large tulip/red stereo sticker DGG with Geza Anda on piano and Ferenc Fricsay conducting. The recreation of tympani, toms and snare drums on the right side of the stage was simply breathtaking, again showing the strength of the Atlas in the bass. The attack of the drums was by far the best that I have heard on this album and the Atlas SL did a really nice job of capturing the leading edge and dynamics of these instruments.

The second example is the Mobile Fidelity re-issue of the Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach album Painted From Memory. Costello’s voice was warmer than with the Ortofon. These songs are tough to sing and they push Costello’s voice to the point of near-strain. This is less apparent on the LP than on the CD, not because of any lack of detail but because the ear is more drawn to a husky warmth in his singing that is not so apparent on the CD. How does the Atlas SL play into this? One might argue that the warmth is coloration, but based upon other listening, I do not think so. The detail is exemplary, which is something I would not expect from a cartridge with undue warmth. I know the song “The Sweetest Punch” particularly well. With the Atlas, I hear everything I’ve heard on the CD, but I also hear a patina of richness that I’ve never heard from the CD. The same applies to the tune that follows, “What’s Her Name Today?” While some of this is clearly due to the quality of the Mobile Fidelity re-mastering, part is, I believe, attributable to the Atlas.

The words “warm” and “rich” have come up multiple times in this review, and I want to emphasize that their presence is not meant to imply any kind of excess coloration. Poorly recorded LPs do not magically morph into heavenly Hi-Fi here. However, well-recorded LPs are presented the way I think most of us want to hear them: warm and natural when made that way; cool and even edgy if their makers so intended.


Final Thoughts

The Lyra Atlas SL is a cartridge that does not sacrifice midrange beauty and instrumental harmonics for detail and clarity, yet transparency and resolution are probably its greatest strengths. It is accurate in recreating what lies buried in the grooves but is never edgy, cold or mechanical. It gives you every pluck of the guitar’s strings with amazing precision and clarity. Particularly on early Decca, RCA and Mercury recordings, images are placed precisely on a stage that has both great width and great depth and, in many cases, those images have considerable body and weight. It excels at capturing the leading edge while at the same time giving equal weight to preserving the reverberant tail of transients. The Atlas SL does a phenomenal job of capturing the crash and decay of percussion instruments, the gut-wrenching shudder of the larger drums, and their unrestrained dynamics. Cymbals shimmer and decay naturally. The Atlas also has stunning dynamics, both micro and macro.

At the time of purchase I questioned whether the performance would justify the difference in price between the Atlas SL and any number of other cartridges that sell for roughly half the price. While I am not sure I can answer that particular question, not having had many of those other cartridges in my system, I can say that the Atlas SL is a rather significant improvement over my prior cartridge and, for that matter, over earlier Lyra cartridges I have owned, including the Helikon and the Titan i.  For me, the Atlas SL establishes a new benchmark for performance.

Highly recommended.


Review system:

Rockport Sirius turntable
Pierre Lurne record clamp
Ypsilon phono stage and transformer
Audio Note M10 Signature line stage
Audio Note Kegon Balanced 300B monoblocks
EMM Labs MTRX monoblocks
Acapella Triolon Excalibur speaker system
Nordost Odin 2 (TT to phono)
Jorma Prime (remainder of interconnects)
Jorma Prime Tri-wire speaker cables
Stage III Minotaur and Zyklops Kraken power cords
HD Marble PowerSlave distributor


Copy editor: Dan Rubin


Comment by Joe Harley, Director or Marketing, Audioquest (U.S. Distributor):

Hi Constantine,

Thanks so much for the review. Fred did a magnificent job in conveying the unparalleled sonic qualities of the Atlas SL.

Just two things I would add:

  1. Lyra actually produces between 400-500 cartridges (including Delos, Kleos, Etna and Atlas every year. The assembly continues to be the work of one man, Yoshinori Mishima in Japan. On the Delos models only, Mr. Mishima is assisted by two female assistants.
  2. It’s very important to point out that the Lyra SL models are only suitable for phono preamp/preamp combination featuring a combination of VERY high gain and VERY low noise. The large majority of Lyra customers are better served by using the standard output Lyra models.

Again, special thanks to Fred and to you for this superb review!

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3 Responses to Lyra Atlas SL 0.25mV moving coil phono cartridge Review

  1. Brian Walsh says:

    Well done, Fred. I hope you get the opportunity to visit our showroom the next time you’re up this way. We have the Etna and the Atlas set up on turntables in our sound rooms which I manage, along with a host of other sonic treats. I’ve performed thorough setup on all cartridges here, similar to what I did at Encinitas Jim’s home, which you have heard. Please extend my kind regards to him.

    Brian Walsh
    Music Direct

  2. Rick Brown says:

    Thank you for the illuminating review Fred.

    As a Lyra retailer, one of my clients chose to mount an Atlas SL and Etna SL on the same Helix 1 TT with identical Schröder CB tonearms and cables into the same phono stage. After break-in, the results were clear and unambiguous in his system.

    Atlas SL is clearly preferred by the client, me and the US importer of the TT. A faster transient response, better bass control and articulation and more dynamic (Micro and Marco). There is a slight trade-off in body/warmth. The overall excellence of the Atlas SL and in particular detail retrieval and tracking (same is true of the Etna SL) places the Lyra pair in the absolute top echelon of moving coil cartridges IMO.

  3. Blake Kersey says:

    Now do a review of the Delos.

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