|The Vinyl Word
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May 2005Cardas Audio Myrtle Silver Heart Phono Cartridge
by Andrew Chasin
Will we ever get to the point where significant technical improvements in analog playback are limited by the resolution of the LP? How much musical data exists in the grooves of an LP anyway?
While Im no expert in information theory, personal experience tells me that a vinyl record contains significantly more information than it's given credit for by purveyors of digital music storage, and we have not even come close to exhausting its potential. In fact, each time I think Ive heard all that my favorite LPs have to give, along comes yet another superb analog replay component, like the Cardas Myrtle Silver Heart cartridge, to shatter that notion.
The $2775 USD Cardas Myrtle Silver Heart moving-coil cartridge is based on the Benz-Micro Ruby platform, but, in place of the Rubys standard body, Cardas uses a body made from vented Myrtle wood, a rare hardwood that the Oregon-based Cardas is able to source locally. According to Cardas, this body material and vented design were chosen because of their efficacy at damping resonances excited during the cartridges traversal of the record groove.
The Myrtle Silver Hearts cantilever is made from a solid boron rod and its stylus is a line-contact type. The coil of the Myrtle Silver Hearts generator system is composed of a square Ruby jewel plate wound with silver wire. The cartridges output is a lowish .26mV, but well within the range of most modern high-gain phono stages (the moving-coil stage of my Hovland HP-100 preamp, for example, had no problem dealing with the Myrtles relatively tiny signal). A slightly higher-output (0.3mV) version, the Myrtle Heart (also $2775), is available and utilizes copper wire rather than silver. Given the small difference in output and identical price, why would someone choose one model over the other? According to Cardas, simply for the sonic differences. The Myrtle Silver Heart is said to be a little more extended in the highs, while the Myrtle Heart sounds a little warmer.
The Myrtle Silver Heart is packaged in a protective wooden box with a Plexiglas cover that anyone who has owned a Benz-Micro cartridge will immediately recognize. Included with the cartridge is a stylus brush and a small screwdriver for use when affixing the cartridge to a tonearm headshell. Cardas provides no setup instructions with the Myrtle Silver Heart so, if youre not well versed in cartridge installation, youll either have to opt for dealer setup or perform the installation yourself with the help of Internet-based resources.
In order to get a true sense for the Myrtle Silver Hearts abilities, I used the cartridge with two different turntable/tonearm combinations. The first was my long-term reference, the VPI Aries (with the Mk V platter and bearing) driven by VPIs Synchronous Drive System, and a Graham 2.0 tonearm. The second was the Basis 2500 Signature turntable and Vector M3 tonearm. Ill have more to offer about the Basis 2500 Signature/Vector combo in a future review. Both the Graham 2.0 and the Vector were wired to the moving-coil phono stage of a Hovland HP-100 preamplifier -- the Graham with the Hovland Music Groove-2 cable, the Vector with its own integrated tonearm cable.
The HP-100 was tethered to a Simaudio Moon W-5 power amplifier via a set of Harmonic Technology Pro Silway Mk II or Shunyata Research Aries interconnects. The Moon W-5 drove a pair of Magnepan MG1.6/QR loudspeakers via a set of Harmonic Technology Pro-9 Plus or Shunyata Research Phoenix loudspeaker cables. All power cables were Harmonic Technology Pro-AC 11s, and all components (except the Simaudio W-5) were plugged into a Richard Grays Power Company 400S Mk II power conditioner. A Finite Elemente Pagode Master Reference equipment rack housed all electronic and source components.
Setting up of the Myrtle Silver Heart with both the Graham 2.0 and Basis Vector tonearms was relatively straightforward. Attaching the cartridge to the headshell of either tonearm was a snap thanks to the tapped mounting holes in the cartridges body. A word of caution: When installing a cartridge like the Myrtle Silver Heart with tapped mounting holes, be careful not to over-tighten the mounting screws or youll risk cracking the cartridge body. The Myrtles large wooden body and short cantilever made alignment with the Vector tonearm a bit of a challenge, but the mirrored, one-point alignment gauge supplied with the Basis tonearm proved adequate.
Cardas specifies the Myrtle Silver Hearts optimum tracking weight as 1.8-2.0 grams. Because Benz-Micro cartridges arent renowned for their tracking abilities, I started at the high end of the range before attempting to work my way down. As for loading, Cardas specifies a wide range of acceptable values from 500 ohms up to 47k ohms. Because the Hovland HP-100 was the only full-function preamplifier I had on hand, I was locked into the 530-ohm load of its MC phono stage.
With the Graham 2.0 (which had the recommended amount of damping fluid in the bearing well), the Myrtle Silver Heart was only an average tracker at 2.0 grams. This was borne out by playing test records and listening to music. In particular, the trumpet solo on "A Touch of Trash" from Patricia Barbers Modern Cool [Premonition Records, PREM-741-1] caused audible mistracking at 2.0 grams. Order was restored once I goosed the tracking weight to 2.2 grams. The superb Basis Vector, with its unique stabilizing bearing, was a better partner for the Myrtle Silver Heart, which tracked like a champ in the Vector at 1.9-2.0 grams no matter how demanding the source material. In fact, Ive never seen anything quite like the Vectors tracking ability -- the Myrtle Silver Heart/Vector at 2.0 grams sailed through all but the last tracking test on the controversial Hi-Fi News & Record Review test record without any untoward buzzes or other audible glitches, and almost made it all the way through that torture track, too.
Theres been a lot of controversy about the audibility of vertical tracking angle (VTA). While I wouldnt say that the Myrtle Silver Heart was grossly affected by small VTA adjustments, it did sound its best when running slightly tail down. Therefore, a tonearm like the Graham 2.0 or the Basis Vector that allows for a range of height adjustments is recommended in order to get the most out the Myrtle Silver Heart (and almost every other moving-coil cartridge of which I know).
Despite its lack of user-adjustable loading, the Hovland preamps MC phono stage worked very well with the Myrtle Silver Heart at 530 ohms (to be accurate, the load of the Hovlands phono stage can be modified, but only to values lower than 530 ohms). If you own a phono stage that offers a wider range of loading options, you will want to experiment to find a setting that matches your listening preferences.
Cardas states that the Myrtle Silver Heart requires about 40 hours of break-in before it will begin to give its best. While the sound of the Myrtle Silver Heart did seem to improve over the first couple of weeks (the treble smoothed out, the bass tightened up and dynamics improved), it sounded fine right out of the box and didnt undergo any truly dramatic changes.
Ive had the pleasure of listening to a variety of Benz-Micro wood-bodied cartridges in my system, and all of them shared some family traits -- namely, an evenhanded, if slightly warm, sound, good detail retrieval, and nice extension at the frequency extremes. They were not the ultimate in neutrality or resolute sharpness, perhaps, but rather excellent all-around performers with a high level of musicality. Given its lineage, it wasnt surprising to find that the Cardas Myrtle Silver Heart was cut from a similar sonic cloth.
One of the first things that struck me about the Myrtle Silver Heart was its ability to resolve a considerable amount of recorded information without sounding hyper-detailed. I liked that I could relax and enjoy some newfound music in my favorite LPs without detail being heaved upon me in an unnatural way. Listening to "Paranoid Android" from Radioheads OK Computer [Parlophone 7243-8-5529-1-8], I was taken aback by how easy it was to distinguish all of the other-worldly guitar and synth sounds in the densely woven mix. Ditto the subtle, synthesized soundscape swirling around Tom Yorkes head towards the end of "Exit Music for a Film" from the same album. On Charles Minguss "Boogie Stop Shuffle" from Mingus Ah Um [Columbia CS-8171], it was possible for the first time to hear all of the low-level inflections the bassist uses to great effect, despite the cacophony of the accompanying big band.
While the Myrtle Silver Hearts ability to reveal heretofore unheard recorded detail was readily apparent, it sounded like a far more refined and expensive cartridge when paired with the Basis 2500 Signature/Vector combo than with the VPI turntable and Graham tonearm. The 2500 Signatures fluid-damped suspension, in concert with the Vectors superbly engineered stabilizing bearing, allowed more of the music, and fewer artifacts of the playback process, to be heard. The noise floor of the Myrtle Silver Heart/Vector combo, in particular, was the lowest Ive heard. On all but the most trashed records, there was simply no audible evidence of stylus in groove, even between bands where the noise had nowhere to hide.
The Myrtle Silver Heart had a rich tonality, with a smooth, delicate top end and a full-bodied midrange that reminded me of what I hear in the concert hall. Instead of trying to "wow" the listener with a bright, forward sound (which is almost never heard in a live, unamplified performance) the Myrtle Silver Heart chose the path of long-term listener satisfaction, and got a lot closer to the sound of the absolute as well.
Thats not to say that the Myrtle Silver Heart sounded rolled-off or dull -- it didnt. One listen to the bell-like cymbal that opens "Lotus Blossom" from Kenny Dorhams Quiet Kenny [Alto Edition AE007] or the snare-drum whacks heard in the drum solo that closes the track, will tell you that the Myrtle Silver Hearts treble is nicely open and extended, without ever becoming overcooked.
Voices through the Myrtle Silver Heart sounded more tubey than solid-state-like -- that is, buttery smooth and sumptuous, yet never lacking in detail. I loved the way the Myrtle Silver Heart accurately captured both the quirky nasality of Aimee Manns lower range and the airy softness of her upper register on the title track of Lost in Space [SuperEgo/Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-278], one of my favorite LP releases from last year. While its hard to make Ella Fitzgerald sound bad, her voice on "Little White Lies" from Ella Swings Lightly [Verve MG-VS 6019] displayed a startling purity of tone that Ive rarely, if ever, experienced from vinyl playback.
Could the Myrtle Silver Heart rock? You bet. While the Myrtle Silver Hearts overall refinement and superb rendering of the midband and treble made it an excellent choice for jazz, classical, folk and pop music, it had enough dynamic oomph and low-bass prowess to propel amplified rock music to dizzying heights. The Myrtle Silver Heart had no problem communicating the wall of acerbic, grungy guitar and pounding drums on "Planet Telex" from Radioheads The Bends [Parlophone 7243-8-29626-1-8] or Mark Knoplers raw power chords on the now-classic "Money for Nothing" from Dire Straitss Brothers in Arms [Vertigo VOG1-3357]. Depth and definition of both acoustic and electric bass were also commensurately excellent. Unlike the performance of some cartridges, whose sound is optimized for a narrow range of musical genres, the Myrtle Silver Hearts ability to do Norah Jones as comfortably as Nirvana will be appreciated by those with eclectic musical tastes.
Unfortunately, I didnt have a Benz-Micro Ruby on hand for comparison, as I would have liked to hear what, if any, sonic differences could be attributed to the modifications performed by Cardas Audio. Is the Myrtle-wood body really a more effective resonance damper and, if so, are its effects audible? I cant say for sure. What I can say, however, is that the Myrtle Silver Heart got out of its own way and left more of the music behind than most of the moving-coil cartridges Ive heard, and most certainly raised the bar in terms of background quiet in my system.
Not surprisingly, the Myrtle Silver Heart was clearly the superior of somewhat lower-priced moving coils, such as Benz-Micros own L0.4 ($1295) and the Transfiguration Spirit ($1500). The less expensive Transfiguration Spirit, for example, sounded a bit rough around the edges, and couldnt match the Myrtle Silver Hearts treble refinement and natural smoothness through the midband. While the Spirits upper-octave sparkle impressed during the initial comparison, I quickly came to embrace the Myrtle Silver Hearts neutrality, which resulted in long, unfatiguing listening sessions. While both of the contenders represent excellent value, the increase in the cost of the Myrtle Silver Heart is easily justifiable in terms of its superior detail retrieval, addictive low noise floor and overall musicality.
I havent spent a lot of time with the offerings from Lyra or van den Hul at a similar price point, but initial impressions tell me that the Myrtle Silver Heart has a somewhat rounder, more laid-back sound that will be better suited to some systems than others. The Myrtle Silver Heart certainly leans more toward the Koetsu than Clearaudio end of the spectrum than do these other cartridges.
Analog continues to roll on, blissfully ignorant of its own supposed demise. Fuelling the vinyl fires are superb products like the Cardas Myrtle Silver Heart that offer high performance at less-than-stratospheric prices. Built on the Benz-Micro Ruby platform, the Myrtle Silver Heart is a mature product with a proven track record of high performance and reliability. To that, Cardas has added a few twists that have resulted in a truly superb transducer that, when coupled to a top-notch tonearm like the Basis Vector, simply gets out of the way and lets the music flow. I can think of no higher praise than that.
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