|The Vinyl Word
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Lyra Lydian Beta Moving-Coil Phono Cartridge
by Kurt Morgan
Digital audio reproduction, of all things, has been on my mind lately. On one hand, there are the debates over which technology will best serve the huge number of "regular" seedees. There are those into 24/96 and upsampling (à la Doug Blackburn), advocates of 16/44 players for 16/44 discs (the anti-DVD guys), and theres even the anti-oversampling guys (à la 47 Labs and Audio Note). As to whether theres any credible difference between upsampling and oversampling, well, lets not go there. With all my pro-analog ranting, youd think I dont own CDs. In fact, a large part of the music I love most is digitally recorded and available only on CD. If you love new jazz, as I do, you really don't have much choice in formats.
Ive also been thinking about SACD. It would seem that every reviewer and chat-room poster who has heard a Sony SACD player with SACD software think its the bees knees. Every, and I mean every, comment Ive read about this technology says that it combines the best attributes of analog with the convenient, noise-free and low-frequency attributes of digital. If SACD should take hold with widespread hardware and software support (as so many audiophiles wish it would), would that be the end of vinyl? Could SACD (or even 24/96) diminish vinyl demand to the point where the businesses that serve new and used vinyl markets are forced to abandon ship?
I think it won't, for various reasons, including the unlikelihood of people replacing recordings again with another format. At the end of day, folks will still collect old vinyl and want newly pressed reissues and new music alike. Good old capitalism, you can be assured, will fill the demand. So, go forth man. Searcheth the bin of vinyl as you seek the black grail. Are you still on the seedee sideline? Then now is the time to ride the groove baby! And if you should need a needle for your record player, read on. The Lydian Beta is one of Lyras cartridges from Scan-Tech of Tokyo. Its their entry-level model, but it isnt dirt cheap at $995.
The first thing I noticed about the Lyra was that it is a nude design -- and its kind of unattractive. With the exposed cantilever sticking out, theres nothing, well, feminine about the thing. I mean, all naked and exposed like that, I was expecting to see a hairy butt! Then theres the "dust cover," which looks like a bit of toilet paper stuck to the underside of the body. In reality, its a special kind of Japanese paper designed to trap dust and dirt and keep it away from the moving-coil mechanism. It must work because it gets dirty with dust particles rather quickly. Lyra recommends that you avoid cleaning the paper. The exposed cantilever does have the benefit of making cueing up any track a very easy task.
The cartridge comes with a protective stylus guard -- a good thing with the open design. There are embedded screw holes for easy mounting, and the cartridge is acceptably packaged with good, clear instructions. The cartridge's weight is 8 grams, and the recommended tracking force is 1.6-1.75 grams. Frequency response is quoted as 10Hz to 50kHz. The output voltage is .5mV, and recommended loading is 100 to 47k ohms.
I use a Nottingham Analogue Mentor turntable/Graham 2.0 tonearm combo with my reference Benz-Micro Ruby 2 cartridge. I also had two fine phono stages in the studio: the Lehmann Black Cube and the Herron VTPH-1MC. The line stage is a highly modified Melos SHA Gold. Amplifiers are either the sexy Art Audio Diavolo (13Wpc SET) or solid-state Marantz monoblocks. The Lydian Beta was tested through the Melos linestage as well as directly to the Marantz amps, which have built-in volume pots. The loudspeakers are Michael Green Design Chameleons. Interconnects were also from Michael Green Design or Nordost. The phono cable and AC cords are from Audio Consultants (UK). The studio is treated with 27 Michael Green Design Pressure Zone Controllers. I also use Michael Green Design Clampracks (modified with thinner, more responsive shelves) and keep a lead-filled Target stand with Seismic Sinks nearby for comparisons.
The room measures approximately 19'L x 13'W with 16' ceilings and no parallel walls. It is a dedicated music studio. Dedicated 20- and 30-amp lines serve the room. It would take another review to fully describe the sound of my system, so I will only briefly say that I like a sound that breathes life into the music. I am not overly concerned with the soundstaging and imaging capabilities of a system. I do like to hear the detail, especially on close-miked studio records -- I like high resolution. As a musician, I know the level of detail you can hear in a good studio recording. For instance, the gauge of the guitar strings and whether theyre flat or round wound, the thickness of the players pick, and even when he last cut his fingernails will create distinct sounds. How those sounds interact with the other fundamentals and overtones of all the instruments is an essential part of the musical message in modern studio recordings, and I want to hear that. Of course, when youre not dealing with close-miked recordings (as with large-scale classical music), you wont hear that kind of detail. Nor will you hear it in the middle of the concert hall. Above all, the music must live.
So what does the Lydian Beta sound like?
Once the cartridge was broken in and precisely set up, I spun everything from superb recordings to lousy pressings from the '80s. One of my most treasured records is the original UK pressing of The Rolling Stones' Let it Bleed in mono ["unboxed" Decca LK 5025]. Though far from an audiophile recording, its perhaps my favorite rock album. When listening to the classic "You Cant Always Get What You Want" with the Lyra, Micks maracas took on a major role in rhythmically driving the song. Its a subtle aspect of the song that doesnt come through as well through the stereo version. The Lyra captured it dead on. Whatever your feelings about the importance of pace and timing, the Lyra does them very well.
Overall, the sound of the Lydian Beta is one of great balance. While it may not produce the resolution of superior cartridges, it doesn't highlight one aspect of the music to the detriment of another. The all-important midrange is certainly not lean. Its full and rounded, as with live music, and is quite pleasing. It is not, however, bloated, even with a single-ended triode driving the speakers. Again, this cartridge is very well balanced. The bass is very full with decent impact. It goes plenty low enough, but it was not as defined or tight as with other cartridges Ive heard, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It only means that if youre looking for tighter bass in your system, you might want to look elsewhere. If the low frequencies in your system are currently in balance and focused, the Lyra Lydian Beta should not disappoint.
More music. You might remember Time/Life putting out the Great Men of Music series of classical box sets back in the '70s. Each box presents a compilation of various orchestras, conductors and soloist, which are most certainly not taken from the original master tapes. To offset the mediocre sound, you get a nice way of discovering the important works of most of the major composers with wonderfully done biographic booklets. The discs are also cheap. I often see them at record shows for $10 a box. In listening to the "Clair de lune" (Suite Bergamasque, No. 3, Van Cliburn, pianist) from the Claude Debussy boxed set [Time Life Records STL 548], I was able to feel the improvisational nature of the compositions. I felt the frustration Debussy felt at the limitations of his instrument and the rejection of his peers. While Van Cliburn should be complemented for understanding this piece of music, the Lyra did a fantastic job of giving me the insight into the meaning behind the music. That is something not many audio components can do, especially with a rather crappy recording.
Another example of how the Lydian Beta captured the spirit of the music was heard on Patricia Barbers Companion [Premonition Records 90747]. I was at the Green Mill in Chicago the night the recording took place. Listening to the record late a night with my eyes closed and my mind focused, I was transported back in time to that barstool. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the interplay between the musicians, just as I had on that night. Do I need to mention that the vinyl simply blows the CD out of the water? Unfortunately, you pay three times the price, but to me, its worth it.
Barbers previous studio effort, Modern Cool [Premonition 741-1], is also a first-class recording, except for a slightly overblown bottom end. Its up in the high frequencies, however, that this record will show off what your cartridge can do. I'm happy to report that the Lydian Beta retrieved the sound of Mark Walkers Zildjian cymbals without making them sound like white noise. While I didnt hear a pristine shimmer that more expensive cartridges can give you, I did hear a realistic sound that didnt distract from the music. The sound of cymbals, bells and other metals are something I am particularly smitten with. When a system does not get those instruments right, I know immediately its not for me.
One of my coolest recent finds is Wayne Shorters 1969 album Super Nova [Blue Note BST 84332]. Taking most of Miles Davis band at the time and adding Sonny Sharock on guitar along with John McLaughlin, Shorter led a session that has quickly become one of my favorite records. My original promo does not offer the warmth of earlier Blue Notes (solid-state recording equipment perhaps?), but it does demonstrate a well-recorded soprano saxophone, which the Lyra cartridge captures with all the beauty and power of the instrument. Hearing a sax close up can be an overwhelming experience. At appropriate (and safe) volume levels, the Lydian Beta will startle the hell out of you.
A few comparisons
I first compared the Lydian Beta to another Japanese cartridge, the now-discontinued Audio-Technica AT160ML ($400). It did not take long to realize that the Lyra Lydian Beta is in a completely different class than the Audio-Technica cartridge. I spun five or six records before getting frustrated at what I knew I was missing. With the Lyra cartridge back in the system, I remember actually drawing a sigh of relief the moment it dropped into the groove.
What the Lydian Beta didnt sound like was my reference $3000 Benz-Micro Ruby 2. Is it fair to compare the Lyra cartridge with another costing three times as much? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it's no surprise that I found the Ruby 2 to be the superior cartridge in just about every way, but a few aspects in particular stand out and help to describe better the character of the Lydian Beta. Tracking is never an issue with the Benz-Micro. The cartridge simply never skips on my records. I discovered two skips with the Lydian Beta that were just not there with the Ruby 2. However, what is more important than handling defects in vinyl is a cartridges ability to stay cool under complex musical passages. The Lyra proved to be very good and very nearly on par with the Ruby 2 under test-record situations as well as with large-scale music.
In terms of sound, the Ruby 2 has greater finesse. The Benz-Micro cartridge sounded more nimble and flexible -- quicker. In comparison, the Lydian Beta sounded very slightly sluggish. Both cartridges soundstage well, but the Ruby 2 offers a larger sonic area. Back to Wayne Shorters soprano sax on Super Nova, the Benz-Micro cartridge did a better job of extracting the subtle pitch variations inherent in Shorter's horn. Creating a precise, sustained pitch with a soprano sax is extremely difficult. That instability becomes an essential part of what the musician is trying to communicate. I simply heard more of the message with the Ruby 2. Both cartridges demonstrated excellent bass response and slam, but it was the shimmer of a small cymbal or the upper registers of a violin that most noticeably set them apart. The Lydian Beta was not able to reproduce high-frequency overtones and air with the same quality as the Ruby 2.
The majority of the time I spent with the Lyra cartridge, I used the Lehmann Black Cube phono stage. Although an extremely musical preamp, it will not have the resolution or be able to produce the frequency extremes in a huge soundstage like a few superior phono stages, like the Art Audio Vinyl One, which I have reviewed previously. I regretfully had to return the Vinyl One to its rightful owner, but I was lucky enough to experience the Lydian Beta and Ruby 2 with the Herron VTPH-1MC, also a world-class phonostage. Both cartridges sounded better in every respect through the Herron phono stage. However, the Herron unit also served to further differentiate the cartridges by more thoroughly exposing the superiority of the Ruby 2. This was particularly true with regard to reproducing the high frequencies.
Lets wrap this up
Lyras Lydian Beta is a very satisfying cartridge that made music enjoyable in my system. I had no trouble losing myself in the music, which to me is the main point of this obsession with audio toys. I would absolutely recommend the Lydian Beta to someone in the market for a moving-coil cartridge whose budget is no more than $995. However, in my experience, you do get increasingly superior performance with high-end cartridges the more you spend, particularly with moving-coils. This is certainly not the case with all audiophile equipment. Ive heard some mega-priced amps, for instance, sonically blown away by simple and relatively inexpensive designs. With analog playback, I advocate allocating resources toward the equipment closest to the vinyl. Translation: Put as much as you can into the cartridge and make sure the rest of the system is balanced enough to properly present what your needle has extracted from the groove.
Lyras entry-level cartridge is musical, engaging and damn fun to listen to. If you never hear an ultra-high-end cartridge, you wont know what youre missing, and I suspect the Lydian Beta will sing beautifully in many, if not most, systems, owing to its superb balance. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Lyra Lydian Beta.
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