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Top Wing Seiryu Blue Dragon coreless straight-flux cartridge Review

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Roy Harris, Symphony No.3, Howard Hanson Symphony No. 4, Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra (American Music Series volume 5, Mercury MG40004). This is a recording from 1952 of one of the better efforts to write an “American” symphony. I get some goose bumps hearing it, even with its age and somewhat constricted mono sound. Knowing that the Blue Dragon seemed to be good at bringing out the music from the vinyl, I gave it a shot and I’m glad I did. The Blue Dragon did not accomplish some kind of miracle of metamorphosis as the recording is of its period, but the music, and the fully committed performance, really came through. The solo instruments were clear and believable. The bass, although slightly boomy, was fully there, as it needs to be to anchor the piece’s mildly adventurous harmonies. The timpani, which at moments gets a good workout, was rock solid, just as were the pizzicato strings toward the end. This particular pressing is remarkable, but still, it’s coming onto 70 years old. The Blue Dragon treated it very nicely. The limited surface noise was never intrusive.

Miles Davis/Gil Evans, Quiet Nights (mono, CL 2106). Miles Davis’s collaborations with Gil Evans are admired by many; they are certainly different than his work with his smaller groups. Gil Evans’s arrangements on this particular release seem too full of “arty” period effects. One might wish that he would just get to the point and let Miles play.

The mono version of the record is quite remarkable on the Blue Dragon and I don’t feel that I’m losing any significant information about the music by reason of it being mono. There is quite a bit of information that Evans wants us to hear, unusual and, well, peculiar combinations of instruments — multiple flutes with muted trumpets and thick groupings of trombones, and the like. I don’t know how often I’ll come back to this as much as I like Miles Davis (who sounds great, by the way, subtly blended with but slightly in front of the band), but the Blue Dragon did its job perfectly well. It told me what was there in a clean yet somewhat flattering way that I appreciate.

Kulu Se Mama, John Coltrane (Impulse Stereo A-9106, Red Impulse), “Vigil” and “Welcome” cuts.

This is late Coltrane. “Vigil” is Coltrane alone with Elvin Jones’s drums. It is a good gauge of the Blue Dragon’s take on the Impulse sound of Elvin Jones’s drums in the studio: very open in space, with splashy cymbals and a punchy bass drum. The cymbals on these Coltrane recordings have never sounded quite real to me, but in context they work. I’m particularly grateful that the Blue Dragon does not overemphasize them. In some systems I’ve heard them assume a prominence that imposes on Coltrane, but here the combination is excellent. Coltrane’s almost frantic yet controlled and hugely powerful effort to express something so much bigger than his saxophone is clearly there at every moment, as is Jones’s intense generation of musical yet powerfully unconventional drumming. His effort to carry Coltrane along is very nearly magical.

This is followed by the gorgeous ballad, “Welcome,” which makes for one of the most perfect LP sides in jazz. Here piano and bass join in and we shift to a yearning, reaching soul of Coltrane in his last years that was so special; no pyrotechnics, just reaching out with music, with melody, and with three utterly sympathetic musicians in support.

Haydn Symphonies No. 53 and No. 69, Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Philips 6514 146). This lovely LP is from Marriner’s days with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. It is the kind of performance where you don’t worry about whether it is “period correct.” Marriner seemed to connect to Haydn really well, and the felicities of tempo, phrasing, and dynamics bring a great deal of pleasure. The same with the sound. The Blue Dragon gets along so well with strings. Perhaps some would wish for more leading edge. That’s not how string sections tend to sound in real life…although some engineers seem to believe otherwise. The timpani exhibits perfectly good edge and punch when it is there. I would wish that I could hear a bit more air in the top range of the recording, but based on having heard this same record on a Linn-based Etna very recently, I’m not sure how much more is there (although there is some).

Tord Gustavsen Trio, The Other Side (ECM 2608. 6758251, 2018). The Blue Dragon cartridge approaches this LP with superb musicality. The soundstage is as wide as I’ve heard it. The interplay of the cymbals is a vital component in this quiet, ballad-oriented music, and hearing the different cymbals and the way they are struck adds enormously to the expressiveness of the music. The Blue Dragon captures the subtle variations with great clarity and musicality. I might want a bit of additional air at the top, but in CD or LP, the recording presents as somewhat dark. The piano placement is excellent, as is its voice. That the piano speaks with fullness and without excess edge is critical on this record because so often Gustavsen plays single note lines in the right hand with little or no accompaniment. Any thinness, grit or edge in tone would defeat the musical atmosphere. The bass is full-bodied and somewhat more forward than I’ve heard elsewhere. I don’t know which is more accurate, but I like having the bottom laid out firmly in such sparseness. I came away from this listen thinking that anyone interested in jazz piano trios needs to rush out and buy this LP. I’d call that a vote of confidence in the Blue Dragon.

Aja, Steely Dan (CISCO Music CLP-1006). This has long has been an audiophile’s reference; however, I have not pulled it out in some time. Sure, this is a 40+ year old pop recording, but it shows you what perfectionism — and analog — can do. The soundstage is wall-to-wall. The mid-range to upper (cymbal) detail is marvelous, although I can’t say that the Blue Dragon is telling me much I hadn’t heard before…but how many set-ups have I heard it on over the decades? And yet the presentation is its own: The Blue Dragon is less in-your-face than I’ve heard before. Relaxed, not tiresome or, worse, exhausting. A hard rocker might want the famous Steve Gadd solo break in the title cut to leap out at him with greater leading edge. The Blue Dragon won’t do that; it’s a hair laid-back. In my case, that will leave me wanting to hear the other side.

Antal Dorati, London Symphony Orchestra, Stravinsky, The Firebird (Mercury SR90226 FR1/3). That Dorati’s 2nd Firebird for Mercury (complete, with the London Symphony Orchestra) is, as it should be, on the TAS list is made clear by the Blue Dragon’s presentation of this superb recording. As usual, the soundstage is quite wide, but that is not the key here. While the Blue Dragon tends to place the listener in the middle of the concert hall, it only does so in a general sense. When the recording is as up-front as this one, it lets us know. We are almost in the conductor’s seat here, and the instruments are wonderfully — and almost magically — palpable. Indeed, it is hard to write while listening, so few recordings capture this perspective without being harsh or bright. Mercurys can sound harsh and bright in the wrong set-up and they can be somewhat flat in terms of front-back soundstage, yet that is not the case here. You can “look” back into the orchestra and get very good instrument placement, not like some of the best of the older EMI’s, but everything else is so good it doesn’t matter.

This experience with the Firebird in particular, like some of my others with this cartridge, leads me to think that the cartridge is going to be a particularly good fit for classical and jazz listeners.


Comparisons and Conclusions

Comparing the Blue Dragon to my reference Lyra Atlas SL, both provide a fully satisfying musical experience; however, they do not sound the same. The Atlas SL has a better-defined leading edge and somewhat more resolution. The Blue Dragon is a bit softer, with a bit less impact on transients. It can at times sound as if the higher frequencies are somewhat attenuated. On a really well recorded classical record, say an early pressing of a Decca 2000 series or an early EMI Columbia SAX, the imaging of the Atlas SL is pinpoint with sharply defined image edges. The Blue Dragon creates dense, stable images but with less purely pinpoint imaging; yet the Blue Dragon still has palpability. The instruments generally sound full and rich…but further away. I think how you react to either cartridge will be a function of where you like to sit in the hall with the Atlas being Row J and the Blue Dragon being front of the Grand Tier. Neither is right or wrong, just different. As mentioned above, the Blue Dragon has a certain magic with massed violins and with stringed instruments in general as well as with the human voice.

After that, the differences become harder to define. The Blue Dragon is enveloping. At its best, it is as if there is no LP, just the music. This illusion is well-supported by the way that the Blue Dragon seems to minimize surface noise. How? I do not know. I just notice the noise less than I usually would. I don’t mean by this to say that the Atlas is, by comparison, clinical or bright, just very resolving and not very forgiving, while the Blue Dragon is somewhat euphonic. I perceive the Atlas SL as being more accurate. In some ways, I prefer that, but I also like getting pulled into the world of the Blue Dragon with its ability to make even average recordings musically compelling.

In short, the Blue Dragon is a cartridge ideally suited for the playback of classical music, which also works pretty well for jazz, but is a bit soft for punchier material. It does have a way of making most things sound good and of minimizing surface noise. And if you are a classical listener, you really need to hear the way string sections sound through the Blue Dragon. Well recorded strings will give you goose bumps.


Copy editor: Dan Rubin


Review system:

PS Audio DirectStream Power Plant 20 AC regenerator

Acoustic Sciences Corporation TubeTraps
Audio Reference Technology Analysts EVO interconnects, power cable
Audio Reference Technology Analysts SE interconnects, power cables
Audio Reference Technology Super SE interconnects, power cables

Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable system with SmartPower 24V battery power supply
AMG 12J2 tonearm
Stealth Audio Cables Helios phono cable

47 Laboratory 4741 Izumi CD player
Bricasti M21 dual-mono DAC
Esoteric K-01XD SACD player/USB DAC
Esoteric G-01 rubidium clock

Pass Laboratories Xs Phono

Pass Laboratories Xs Preamp
Pass Laboratories XA200.8 pure class A monoblocks
Bricasti Design M28 class AB monoblocks
Margules Audio u-280SC Black ultralinear tube monoblocks
Sound Lab Majestic 645 electrostatic panels


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