Q I read your column about turntables and the relative insignificance of cartridges when purchasing a new turntable. I find it interesting that magazines such as Stereophile, which you referenced, seem to find cartridges to be of utmost importance, and they glorify high-end cartridges that sell in the thousands of dollars. Of course, they spend nearly as much ink on the virtues of turntables and tonearms selling for unattainable prices. But, I've seldom read in those magazines that cartridges are only the third, nearly insignificant, item in a trio of components.
You did say that one's first, cheap, cartridge can be improved upon in the future. How soon should that be? Most of the written concern about inexpensive cartridges is in their stylus wear, thus destroying those microscopic elements in vinyl grooves after hours of use, and in the vast musical improvement that cartridge replacement can accomplish. Is the sound improvement as vast as they say?
Thanks very much for your articles. They often seem to be contrary to suggestions that you have to spend a fortune to get good sound.
-- S.H., Lake Elmo, Minnesota
A I like Stereophile and other high-end audio magazines and use them as a reference, but you need to look at the whole picture and respond accordingly. A lot of high-end audio is scams and silliness. For example, cables, speaker wire and power cords. It has been proven 100 percent of the time -- 100 percent of the time, in every scientifically controlled test, done over decades -- that differences do not exist between wires, so long as they are not defective or mismatched for the task. Yet these magazines still write about these items like they have magical properties! Power cords are silliest of all. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles of wire between the power plant and the wall socket. How in the world is changing the last 3 feet between the wall and the component with a $1,000 power cord going to make a difference?
As you said, a lot of the gear in magazines is unattainable in terms of price. Most people are shocked to find out you can spend $100,000 on a turntable or amplifier. It's like car magazines reviewing Ferraris. Few readers can afford them, but they love to see and read about them.
As for your questions about record playing gear, I think the reason you do not read about the turntable being most important in the hierarchy is because it is accepted fact among audiophiles by now. You would not see expensive turntables for sale otherwise. People would just buy a $1,000 turntable and put a $5,000 cartridge on it, rather than the other way around. I think cartridges that expensive are a waste in almost all cases. You hit diminishing returns pretty fast well before that, and a lot of expensive gear from small companies is outperformed by more modestly priced equipment produced by larger companies with bigger R&D and quality control budgets. I'll be writing more about this in the near future.
As for record wear, even a $49 Audio-Technica AT-95e has an elliptical stylus that will be kind to your records when properly installed and tracking at 1.5 grams or so. I can't imagine anyone with a decent turntable using any less than that.
Contact Don Lindich at www.soundadviceblog.com and use the "submit question" link on that site.