Koetsu Moving Coil Cartridges

Koetsu Moving Coil Cartridges

The name Koetsu has long been held in high regard by audiophiles. Almost mystical attributes have been associated with the name. The buzz surrounding the release of the original Red signaled a new paradigm was available to the audio world. The Red was one of the early examples of a high-performance audio device that had some obvious shortcomings, but presented music in such an involving and inviting way that the positive aspects of the performance far outweighed the negative ones.

Koetsu continues this tradition today, although their later products tend to move away from the expected family signature sound, minimizing but not eliminating the unique character we associate with the name Koetsu. That sound is apparent, though, as we look at various models in the line, with the more modest offerings offering a more historic or traditional sound. Here we will take a look at the Black (~$800), produced for a couple of years about 1988 and now apparently back in the line, Rosewood ($2500), Rosewood Signature ($3500), and Urushi ($4000).

All these cartridges have outputs around 0.6 mv - the Black was spec'd at 0.5 mv - and seem to be most comfortable with a 100 ohm loading. They are all very sensitive to loading, with changes of 5-10 ohms being clearly audible. For example, raising the Urushi’s loading to 150 ohms adds more high frequency sparkle and air, but can often result in a sound that is grating and abrasive over a short listening session. This is exacerbated by less than excellent recordings, as it should be. As we approach the edge of the performance envelope of any device, the tolerance for less that the best performance from every variable is reduced and can push the entire performance to exceed normal operation. Pilots know this. In a maximum bank turn in a normal category airplane, like a typical Cessna, everything is fine until you turn across your own wake. That little extra turbulence can result in momentary loss of control and an unexpected spin. Of course, if you’re out punching holes in the sky with 60+ degree turns, you’ll probably check out a few spins anyway. And maybe a loop or two. Might as well, since you're already wearing a ‘chute, right? But I digress.

Back to loading. Dropping the loading value from 150 to 100 ohms also tends to keep high frequency information centered on the instrument that produced it, instead of possibly moving to other parts of the soundstage. Looked at this way, the extra energy we get with higher loadings is most likely distortion. I’ve corresponded with several Koetsu owners who load their cartridges at 20-50 ohms. As the loading value decreases, a sense of sparkle and air also decreases. Since every system is different, the optimum loading of any cartridge with be the one that just eliminates any sense of harshness or glare. Also be aware that lower values tend to rob the bass of detail, creating a soft and billowing sound. I am experimenting with values below 100 ohms, and there is promise here. 100 ohms, maybe less. YMMV, but it is a good starting point. Everyone seems to have their own procedure for adjusting VTA. I usually look for best center image. With these cartridges, that criteria is met with the rear of the arm slightly lower than horizontal.

Here we will use the Black as a baseline and compare as we move up the line. The Black is a wonderful cartridge and close to the Red in overall performance. Compare it to almost anything – another cartridge, CD, etc. – and you want a treble control to bring up the high frequency range. It is not rolled off, losing more information the higher you go, just seemingly depressed. However, as with some other lower cost gear, information is omitted in the highs. “High resolution”, “unlimited air”, “highs out to infinity” – these are all terms I would not apply to the Black.

The Black’s midrange has the typical Koetsu magic, which treats all voices as coming from living, breathing creatures and not synthesized on some demonic digital creation. There is body, depth, and a wonderful believability to human voices as offered by the Black. Moving down the frequency range, the bass is classic Koetsu bass. Somewhat wooly, indistinct, or loose, but with good low bass extension and adequate power. If your system is able to reproduce deep, tight bass, you won’t be disappointed. “Tight” means being able to clearly hear the vibration of strings from acoustic bass instruments from other sources. In other words, bass reproduction should be a strength of your system for the Black’s bass to be acceptable.

So far we've tallied depressed treble and cotton bass. Am I saying to skip this cartridge and look at another alternative? Well, not only “no”, but emphatically “NO”. The Black makes great music. It works very well with well-recorded live acoustic music, like classical, highly processed modern studio tracks, and in-between. In fact, it is an excellent rock/pop/top-40 cartridge because it treats the studio post-recording processing with a kind touch. Think of early transistor gear vs. tube. Now imagine that your commercial disc has been made with that solid-state gear, and you play it back through the sweet sound of early tubes. A filter? Sure, but one that brings out the soul in almost any recording that has it already. Dynamics are very good, so modern music is a lot of fun. Cymbals display good initial attack but not extensive decay. There is enough there to let you easily hear what is happening, though.

There have been many allusions lately to the break-in requirement of various components being partially attributable to the listener acclimating to the new component. In other words, while the new component is breaking-in, the listener is, too. We adapt our hearing to our environment, just as our eyes adjust the “white balance” to automatically compensate for late-afternoon sun (red) or for fluorescent lights (green). I am a strong believer in the need for components to break-in for best performance. Listening to the Black as my main cartridge for two months, I have also come to believe that there is a break-in period that we as listeners experience when we install a component that is different from our recent fare. Even though a direct comparison may highlight the Black's weaknesses, longer involvement will certainly improve your opinion. 

Moving up the line to the Rosewood, there are definite improvements. The bass tightens up a bit, but not enough to eliminate the need for your system to “do” bass very well. The high frequency depression noted above for the Black is greatly reduced, although the Rosewood is still – relatively speaking - on the dark side. This is mostly attributable to the still-apparent omission of detail and resolution, although significantly reduced from the Black’s offering. Dynamics are similar overall, although the improvement is most noticeable in the bass, with greater contrasts apparent that helps with bass definition and detail. The midrange offers better focus which gives the source of sounds more apparent depth. This is not rear of the hall depth for soundstaging, but the impression that a human head, for example, has more proper size and shape so the voice is not simply emanating from a point in undefined space.

The Rosewood Signature offers incremental improvement over the Rosewood, as one would expect from the $1,000 price increase. It leaves out less than the Rosewood does, making it more refined, higher resolution, and slightly more dynamic. Imaging depth is improved to an unexpected degree, given that modest price increase over the Rosewood. Bass detail and weight is also a bit better. While I often felt that the Rosewood left out a bit too much information, the Signature version offered longer-term satisfaction. In fact, when the Urushi arrived and it was time to uninstall the Rosewood Signature, I felt as if I was saying “so-long” to a friend. That feeling was not observed when the Signature replaced the standard Rosewood. This is a highly subjective and personal criteria: what is just passably good enough for me will most probably differ from your personal estimation of “good enough”. And of course, “good enough” is a moving target as our systems and tastes improve over time. But I digress…again.

The above experiences with the Black, Rosewood, and Rosewood Signature were from one sample of each. I had two samples of the Urushi: a very late model Sugano, Sr. Urushi and a current production (late 2001) Urushi. Most of my comments apply to the current production Urushi, which I have adopted as my long-term reference. For now. There is one very welcome physical difference between old and new production Urushis: the new ones have tapped mounting threads. Thank you, Koetsu! There are a few different finishes for the Urushi: the one pictured at right is a Tsugaru. It is a real work of art and simply beautiful!

How does it sound? Let’s start with the bass. Well, folks, it is still Koetsu-style bass. There is no mistaking it for van den Hul Black Beauty/Hopper bass or Shelter 901 bass. “No way, no how” as the wizard of the Emerald City said to Dorothy. But in a system that meets the criteria above for bass being a system strength, the Urushi has very good, acceptable bass. It is more powerful and dynamic, and extends deeper than the other models. The entire bass range is also much more delineated and detailed, which makes the integration with the upper-bass more coherent and believable, since the upper-bass and midrange are excellent in the area of inner detail and definition.

The midrange is where, after listening and living with the other models, the feeling that “you are there” is clear. There is the visual sensation that bodies are complete and 3-dimensional, with a full head, and even occasionally some hair, although that last comment was from a red-wine night. Seriously, the Urushi midrange is really magic, presenting completely believable soundscapes and very focused images whenever good recordings are played. The relative improvement over the Rosewood Signature is significant, but quantitatively, not very large. It is as if the color setting on a good TV (like the Sony 32XBR450 in my HT system) was moved from below the proper setting to just the right setting, giving the picture much more realism and believability. Sure, you could watch it with the setting reduced, but only if you never tried the “right” setting. And you would always suspect that it could be better.

The upper frequency range is where the Urushi leaves the past behind. There is never the suspicion that the Urushi is leaving anything out of the presentation; no omissions. The difference in high frequency presentation is quite startling in the context of the other cartridges here. There is almost a night-and-day difference in the upper frequency presentation of the Urushi. While I would not characterize the upper treble as having unlimited air and extension, that almost whispy or feathery impression, the level of detail and high-resolution harmonic content is very satisfying.

Raising the loading value to 150 ohms adds a bit of that ephemeral “air” quality, and this value works well, but only on the very best recordings, preferably those recorded direct-to-disc with purist techniques. With standard, commercial fare, that “early solid-state-ness” is apparent to one degree or another, so back to 100 ohms, and happily, too.

Without the presence of both vintages of the Urushi to directly compare, I can only suggest that the latest version of the Urushi was more resolved in the high frequencies that the earlier one, with a bit less of the early Koetsu family sound. However, this opinion is suspect due to the time interval between hearing the earlier production cartridge and the current version. If someone will be kind enough to send me a Sugano, Sr. Urushi for a couple of months, I will be happy to be more definitive. But I digress…again.

Except for a few instruments that actually produce fundamentals in the upper treble range, most of the content we hear “up there” is harmonic information from lower frequency fundamentals. And this, folks, is one of the really special strengths of the Urushi, one which I call “coherence”. The Urushi “keeps it all together”. From the mid-bass to the highest audible frequencies, the terms “focus”, “control”, and “proportion” describe the Urushi’s sound. Especially “proportion”, not only in image size and placement, but in the handling of each individual note, where the harmonic content is in the proper proportion to the note’s fundamental tone or sound. This lack of coherence is often observed as either an upper midrange harshness or glare, or the wandering of an instrument’s image as it offers higher frequency content. Many components of all types lose their composure in this area. The Urushi most emphatically does not, and I suggest that this is the real key to this cartridge’s ability to offer long-term satisfaction.

There is one other characteristic of the Urushi that I must mention. When everything is right – you, the music, your system/room, the planets, everything – this cartridge has the ability slow down time. Before you think I’ve lost it completely, let me explain, because it is simple, really. A bad day at the office seems to last far longer than eight hours. A great evening with friends seems to fly by in no time at all; all too soon it is time to leave. After a great album side with the Urushi, it seems as though time has been suspended for twenty minutes or so, and while twenty minutes passed “outside”, the record was over in seconds. The music was so captivating and involving that time became irrelevant and the music was everything. A twenty minute record side seemed to last for much longer, or shorter, it was impossible to focus on other things, and often ended with a sensation similar to waking up in a strange bed: “where am I?”. If you’ve experienced this sensation, you get it. For everyone else, listen to this cartridge and you will.

In summary, there are undoubtedly better cartridges available than the Urushi, and I’ll get to hear many of them in due course. I enjoyed my time with the Black, which I used continuously for two months. The Black is my back-up MC cartridge. The Rosewood and Rosewood Signature are clearly better and worth their asking prices for their higher level of performance and ability to make wonderful music. But with the Urushi, the feeling of arriving at a plateau of satisfaction is clear. While there may be higher performance available in other cartridges, the pursuit of that idea, here and now, is an intellectual exercise only because the Urushi satisfies all of this writer’s requirements for music.

Overall Ratings:
Urushi: 9.5 LPs
Rosewood Signature: 9 LPs
Black & Rosewood: 8.5 LPs

Please remember that the rating on the LP scale is not directly connected to absolute performance compared to other components in a particular category. The LP rating system is about enjoyment and connection to the music. Any of the cartridges is this review can take you "there". With careful system matching, using a Black in one system could be quite as satisfactory as using an Urushi in another system.