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Top Wing Seiryu Blue Dragon coreless straight-flux cartridge Review

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Until twelve weeks ago, my reference cartridge for the last three years has been a Lyra Atlas SL with which I have been extremely happy. In fact, I could not have imagined replacing it with anything but another Lyra cartridge; however, fate intervened, perhaps to punish me for my hubris. My Atlas began to mis-track, which essentially became the excuse I had been looking for to exchange it for one of the newer Atlas SL Lambda models. Sounds easy, but there is approximately a four-month wait (perhaps longer) to get a new Lyra Atlas or Etna cartridge. The prospect of being without a cartridge for that length of time was extremely daunting. At this point, fate, in the form of my editor, stepped in with an opportunity for me to review the Top Wing Seiryu Blue Dragon. While the offer was quite generous, my first concern was that the Blue Dragon might not be a good match for my Rockport tangential tracking arm or for my Audio Note M9 SE phono stage, or, more likely, my Audio Note S9 step up transformer. You should never stack the deck against a product to be reviewed. But in a conversation with the importer, I learned that neither of these should be an issue as the Blue Dragon has about the same output and internal impedance as my Lyra Atlas SL and apparently works well in most tangential arms. The icing on the cake was an offer by the importer to make the three-hour trip from Austin to Houston to install the Blue Dragon in my Rockport turntable. Let me only say that he was extremely competent and could not have been friendlier or more knowledgeable.


The Old Nuts and Bolts

At this point I would normally try to explain how the device under review works. Fortunately for those of you reading this review, someone else has already done that. The Blue Dragon shares the exact same internals and stylus/cantilever as the more expensive Top Wing Suzaku Red Sparrow but uses a Duralumin body instead of the more complex multi-material body of the Suzaku. My editor at Dagogo, Constantine Soo, has recently published a review of that cartridge to which you should refer for technical details as well as company history. I would like to emphasize three points mentioned in Constantine’s review about this cartridge: 1) It has an extremely low output voltage (0.20 mv), so will require a phono stage with extremely low noise and extremely high gain; 2) It requires a minimum break-in of 100 hours and continues to improve up to 150 hours (initially, I wondered what I had gotten myself into; straight out of the box with no break in, it had a lush midrange, but little else; however, increasingly after about 50 hours, everything I had thought missing came in with a passion); and 3) Finally, you may ask yourself what happens when the cartridge needs to be re-tipped. While the cartridge must be returned to the manufacturer in Japan, the stylus is easily replaced, quickly and at a fraction of what many other manufacturers charge since the internals do not require replacement.

A few points not covered by Constantine: 1) While most cartridges sound better after they have played a record, the Blue Dragon sounds best after at least an hour of continuous play. Note that it never sounds anything less than good, but after warm up it sounds exceptional. 2) Most line contact styli are very picky about being kept clean of any dust. This is very true of the Lyra Atlas. The Blue Dragon is much less fussy in this regard.


The following notes are arranged chronologically by the title of the recording with overall conclusions at the end. All listening was after 100 hours of break in.

Gato Barbieri, Caliente (A&M SP4597). Definition was excellent with a warm midrange and as much detail as you could ever want. It did have much more leading-edge definition than during break-in and good bass, especially the bass drum, which had good slam; however, there was not as much lower midrange as I had expected.

Frank Martin, Three Dances for Oboe, Harp, String Quintet and String Orchestra (Opus One, Stereo Number 125). Detail retrieval was excellent with a pretty good sense of hall. Strings sounded like a section of strings. Tonality was excellent, not too bright. The delicacy of the harp was gorgeous. Oboe was mostly good except when playing in its higher registers, where it could sound a bit strident (which likely has nothing to do with the cartridge).

Maurice Ravel, Ma Mere l’Oye, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ozawa (DGG 2530 752). Delicacy is the word here. Ozawa’s approach is to emphasize the sensuality and gentleness of the score, with careful control of dynamics and pulse . . . an unusual but very effective restraint. Of course, there is much animation as well ­— it is based on a fairy tale, after all. The imaging is excellent for a DG of this era. In the louder moments, there is a hint of congestion, which is very likely the LP. The Blue Dragon continues to do a really nice job with the strings, as with the Martin, above. They sound like a group of instruments as opposed to one giant violin. There is not an excess of bow sound — nothing harsh or irritating (certainly not on this record). A cartridge that can take an eighties DG and get this much delicacy and musicality out of it has something going for it.

Charles Ives, Calcium Light Night, Gunther Schiller (Columbia MS 7318). This recording was remarkably detailed. The music is in the more chaotic Ives direction, with chamber ensemble, and is good ear-clearing material. I don’t know how the reproduction could have been bettered and I did not realize that there was this much tonal quality in these grooves, frankly.

Berg, Stravinsky, Violin Concertos, Arthur Grumiaux, Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam (Philips SAL 3650, English pressing, plum label). This came across as edgier than I remembered; however, depth of image was very good as was placement of instruments. I expected more mid-range warmth…though I have heard other UK plums that sounded somewhat like it. That having been said, I heard quite a bit of detail — all the many lines in the counterpoint, the warmth of a solo flute against the edge of the solo violin, the tone of which alters (in an expressive way) as the bow glides across the string.

The Intimate Ellington, Duke Ellington (Pablo Records 2310-787, original pressing). The sound is quite clean, with instruments well located in space, relatively close in, except for the drums, which seem somewhat recessed, the ride cymbals reticent. For having been recorded 1969-71, the sound is surprisingly revealing and clear; reminiscent of Verve sound, which is not surprising given Norman Granz’s involvement with both labels. The sound does vary somewhat from cut-to-cut, no doubt due to different settings over those years. My feeling as a listener is that I am getting everything that is in the grooves and that any fault lies squarely with the recording.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Song Book (Verve Stereo MGVS-7000,original pressing, 1959 or thereabouts). Strings sound great and there is good space and atmosphere, although placement of instruments and voice is a little odd sometimes: voice is to the right, strings are all over the place, combo is to the left, brass and winds sometimes to the right, or not, depending. Sometimes the soundstage is gigantic. When an arrangement gets dense, one might fairly say there’s a bit of mud in the effect, though it is elegant, late-fifties Verve mud. Ella’s voice is often not as forward as one might like, although we can hear every bit of her marvelous control and expression. In the end, the overall effect manages to beguile the listener, as one would hope with Ella singing Gershwin arranged by Nelson Riddle. To the extent that the sound is sometimes peculiar, that’s early stereo for you. The Blue Dragon presents it in a fulsome, satisfying way with nothing clinical about it.

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