A super cartridge for the rest of us? Paul Rigby reviews the Koetsu Black
Koetsu cartridges are often the sort of things that most people read about but never buy because they can be very, very, expensive. Some Koetsus are even crafted from precious materials. In fact, I’m sure that there are audiophiles out there who buy these rather lovely, hand-made objects, place them on a small stand and gaze upon them from outside a glass cabinet, using them as a topic of conversation at refined dinner parties.
Many audiophiles believe that a Koetsu is the best branded cartridge in the world. They were, at least, the first hand-made cartridges to make a splash in the audio world.
The 9gm Black moving coil is the company’s ‘entry-level’ model and arrives as an oblong block of Rosewood with Urushi lacquer with integral, unthreaded holes for the mounting bolts. Anodised gold protects the motor and wiring and a snug-fitting nylon stylus guard is supplied.
The Black uses a samarium cobalt magnet with pre-aged suspension elastomers and a cantilever of a solid boron rod plus a diamond stylus shank surrounded with a small alloy plate. Read that paragraph again. It wreaks of careful planning and choice design decisions.
Coming from world of the Benz Gullwing, it was no great surprise to see that the Black demands a downforce of 1.8-2gm. This low figure is light but offers the best results.
I started my listening tests with the 1974 album, Ella Fitzgerald’s Take It Easy and the the title track. This song is stripped of just about all production because the only instrument accompanying her is Joe Pass on a lazy, easy going acoustic guitar. Perfect for examining detail and, above all, silence.
This cartridge might be the cheapest Koetsu on the block but it’s still a relatively expensive unit and so needs to perform well in this crowded sector of the market.
The one thing I thought of when listening to this cartridge, even after around three seconds of play, was clarity. The Fitzgerald song is famous for featuring a veiling around the upper mid area for the majority of cartridges. Even at this early stage in the review, I can answer the question of why, if you own a mid-priced MC cartridge, would you even want to upgrade to the heady heights of a Black?
Let’s take my Benz Glider SL, priced at a relatively low cost £700, as a prime example for this point. On this Fitzgerald track, there is a thin veil or curtain over the upper mids that adds an unhealthy bloom to the upper mid frequencies. This is relative to the Koetsu, of course.
What the Koetsu Black does here is lift that veil entirely giving Fitzgerald a focus that allows her to convert her emotions and her fragility. This is a slightly aged Fitzgerald which is betrayed by the slightly uncontrolled vibrato. The Koetsu tracked this area well in addition to her softer, breathier words, as she softened her delivery. For many audiophiles, this one difference is justification enough to reach for the wallet. The search for musical insight, purity and truth.
That’s not all, though, the Black performs well amongst its simiarly priced contemporaries. Where some cartridges, even in this price band, can blot the vocal, adding unnecessary weight to the voice, the Koetsu applied focus that tightened up the vocal immeasurably while retaining a fleet of foot that allowed Fitzgerald to bounce and hop from line to line, even though this was a balladic track.
Pass, meanwhile, also benefitted from the focus. His work was pushed back in the mix but the Koetsu managed to reach in and apply an enhanced transparency to his finger picking. To such an extent, actually, that you could better hear the front of each note. That is, the motion of Pass actually plucking the string had a visibility that made his guitar tonally more correct.
Moving onto a higher tempo track, David Bowie’s album, Low, and the track, Always Crashing in the Same Car. The sound quality from this album was, frankly, delicious. What impressed me most were two things. Firstly, the soundstage was large. Very large. Larger than I’ve ever heard from a cartridge on this track. The area around the stereo image was very deep while the soundstage roamed far left and right. What this meant was, moving onto point two, the instrumental separation was spacious and airy which not only gave the performers a relaxed feel, making them sound like they were really enjoying themselves but detail had plenty of time and pace to reach your ears.
This song is complex. In fact, it’s complexity can take you by surprise. A lesser cartridge turns the production into a mush, a tuneful mush but a mush, nevertheless. What the Koetsu does is tease the elements apart so that your senses are everywhere, all at once, busily spotting Brian Eno’s synth noises at the ends of the soundstage, picking up quiet guitar rhythms under the Bowie vocal and revealing a very shy piano which lesser cartridges miss entirely.
What also impressed me was its balanced presentation. This is a neutral cartridge. On the song, Sound And Vision, I sensed no bass lift at all. Both percussion and bass guitar were easily followed, tight, punchy and very much present but the bass was part of the mix, it didn’t hit you in the face which was as it should be. That pleased me. I, after all, want to hear the music, not the cartridge.
Taking a left-field movement, I then moved onto the 1970 LP from Ananda Shanker (Ravi’s son) and the Rolling Stones cover of Jumpin’ Jack Flash. This sitar-lead track is prone to blurring and bloom with strident guitars. The Koetsu managed to generally tame the bad elements while taking the unruly harmonic female backing singers and fixing them to the stereo image: they can sometimes run amok around the soundstage to the detriment of the music.
The sitar itself was rhythmically glistening and dynamically interesting as the resonances were controlled and funnelled into making music rather than slurring. Bass guitar was deep, strong and potentially powerful. A tough act to pull off. To relay the potential of music requires a lot of subtlety which the Koetsu, for the price, provided in abundance.
Offering a low noise performance and producing a performance of sparkling clarity, the Koetsu Black is tonally fascinating. The fact that it stretched the boundaries of the soundstage and allowed each instrument to flourish also means that you will be finding new details in even the most familiar of music.
KOETSU BLACK MOVING COIL CARTRIDGE
Tel: 020 89713909
GOOD: deep and wide soundstage, clarity, dynamically sparkling midrange
BAD: nothing at the price