WHY did vinyl as a mass-market consumer format eventually “fail”? Some in the hardcore vinyl enthusiast quarter may be irked to even see this question being asked, and point out that the 21st century vinyl revival proves the question itself isn’t even a valid one.
Look, I’m not out to troll anybody as I’m a vinyl aficionado myself, but the simple reality is, even in its heyday, vinyl as a music carrier format saw itself challenged in sales volume by rivals like the eight-track cartridge and the compact cassette (and other formats, too, obviously), and beaten even, in spite of the challengers’ generally inferior sound quality.
Those who lived through that period remember how atrocious the sound quality of pre-recorded cassette offerings were (at least, here in Malaysia), so much so that even pirated cassettes were eminently more listenable, the morality issues aside (do appreciate that copyright laws in the country back then weren’t what it is today). No wonder CDs took over so easily when the prices started to become affordable, back in the late 1980s-early 1990s.
While inconvenience in general may be accepted as the incontrovertible cause, I personally single out the complications surrounding the setting up of the tone-arm/cartridge, in particular, as what sounded the death knell for the dominance of the vinyl LP format.
The general public today, as it was in yesteryears, also cannot be expected to fathom why in the post-CD world of music stored in smartphones and tablet devices, anyone would want to struggle with a pair of tweezers to try to fit four colour-coded head-shell leads with easily broken or deformed connectors, into tiny pins at the back of an expensive cartridge (they’re all expensive … because the competition is free of such need).
Add to that miniature screws and nuts which went out of fashion with Meccano construction kits, which even those with perfect eyesight find challenging to work with, and a stupid bit of cardboard with grid-lines most do not understand how to use properly. And if you get it wrong, the sound of a mis-tracked LP is arguably much worse than internet radio at its most economised bit-rates.
There have been companies which have tried to overcome this issue. The proprietary ones apart (Bang & Olufsen comes to mind), the closest we’ve come to having a convenient and simple “‘plug-in” alternative was when Japanese giant Matsushita (under its Technics brand specifically, I think) introduced the T4P or P-mount system, and tried to make it a universal standard as an alternative to the half-inch mount.
Shove the cartridge into the slot at the end of the tonearm, spin in and tighten one screw and voila!, you’re set to go. Overhang, tracking weight, etc were not a worry as these parameters were standardised. There was some measure of success with this and other manufacturers did adopt the standard, with the venerable Shure V15 Type-V classic even being made available as a T4P cartridge at one time. Adaptors to allow usage in standard mount tonearms were also available for backward compatibility reasons.
There are still manufacturers making cartridges available as P-mounters today, and there does appear to be a significant stockpile of NOS ones, so much so that ordering a P-mount cartridge online should not be much of an issue. But try buying one off the shelf as a walk-in customer, and you will almost certainly be disappointed.
The rant part of the this Rants ‘n Raves done with, I’d like to share observations on three P-mount cartridges I have residing with me – a Shure M92E, Grado Prestige Black and an Ortofon X1-MCP (the first two being moving magnet and moving iron designs respectively, the last a high-output moving coil model). I noticed a dearth of reviews of such cartridges and thought something like this might be useful to some readers, as a full blown review of any of these cartridges wouldn’t fit into the editorial policy of this site. A quick check on the Internet indicates that all three are still available from online retailers, although one of them, the Grado, seems to have been updated. But knowing Grado, radical changes in sound is unlikely to have occurred.
The three cartridges inhabit different price points so this hopefully helps in one’s making of choice as to how much one should spend. Obviously that depends on the turntable that the relevant cartridge is to be used in, as that has the most overall influence on the sonic results, and of course, one should be cognizant of one’s own demands and expectations. I say “turntable” because it is a given that the arm will be an integrated unit. I don’t recall P-mount arms being offered as separate components, although I could be wrong on this.
The test turntable on which all three cartridges were auditioned was a Technics SL-10, a fully enclosed LP-jacket sized unit which is my night-time near-sleep turntable, though I rate its performance highly and would never accuse it of being sleep-inducing. I was informed, but was unable to verify, that the engineers who worked on the Technics SL-10 were also the engineers who drew up the parameters for the T4P mounting system, so what better platform to employ in this case?
The SL-10’s arm is a motorised linear tracking unit and automatically returns to its starting point once the LP ends. Other components used were Rega Fono Mini and Pro-ject Tube Box DS phono stages as well as the internal MC phono stage of an Exposure X integrated amplifier (for the Ortofon only) and the MM input of a vintage Sansui QRX-7001 receiver, these latter two also providing amplification to Triangle Ikoto and some Sony vintage APM square-driver speakers. Stax and Sennheiser headphones were also used for listening.
If you’re relatively new to vinyl and have been listening to music on MP3 and perhaps CD on a multi-tasking DVD player or computer drive, the results with a good piece of well-recorded and pressed vinyl with this cheapie would seem quite a revelation. I did just this to “condition” myself, as to perhaps replicate how such a listener would react, and I have to say the M92E really sounds pretty good for the money.
It seemed to track well (although surface noise of records was not as well handled as with some budget half-inch rivals), was quite smooth with a not-too-extended treble (relative to the other two cartridges), had acceptable bass definition and tunefulness (but noticeably muddier by the standards set by the rest of the group), and conveyed a fairly good sense of dynamic expression and tonal colour.
Soundstage sounded constricted in both the width and depth planes and images seemed smaller somehow, though they didn’t blur at the outlines as badly as some other vintage Shure cartridges I’ve experienced. But it still made music!
Being essentially listenable, the Shure is probably near-perfect for someone who inherited or is resurrecting a collection of LPs which hasd seen better days condition-wise, and likely to be cleaned in a DIY manner rather than through a mad-cap high-dollar vacuum record cleaning machine.
If, on the other hand, you know how much better the sound of a high-end moving coil cartridge from Benz or Koetsu can sound on a commensurate turntable, “bland, uninteresting and withdrawn to a fault” would not be out of place in your description of the M92E. I do rate this Shure well, given its price and intended use, where the relevant turntables it would spend life on would probably benefit from its “safe” approach. And I wouldn’t spend any more than the typical internet price of this cartridge if I was going to play stuff like James Last Non-stop Dancing 19YY and those Anthony Ventura Music for … records which one’s late Grand Uncle used to play while thumbing through the newspapers on a lazy Sunday morning.
Grado Prestige Black
Okay, now we’re more into the kind of sound which makes vinyl such a slippery slope one can easily fall over into a dangerous addiction. This little black lump (the standard as well as P-mount versions are electrically similar) must be the cash cow in the company’s cartridge line by my reckoning. It may be the entry-level model but does such a well balanced job that I never felt there was a need for one to go up to the higher models in the same line when I heard them. And it is claimed to be hand-made at that, a great example of New York City craftsmanship (of the three Grados I have used, a GF3, a GT and this, all have worked well with no complications).
While a little ragged and raw edged in some applications, it produced a fine energetic performance, if a bit richly filled out in the lower mids (I paused and looked down, being reminded of my own belly fat, as I wrote this) especially through the internal phono stage of the Sansui vintage receiver, though I liked it best in use with the tubed-output Pro-Ject phono stage.
The balance helped it convey a good sense of palpable presence, but it didn’t produce the detail and subtleties a good moving coil could (and indeed, more on this when we get to the Ortofon), and thus didn’t quite convey the airiness of the recording space in some of the more expansive sounding recordings played through it. But it does rock well though, and Pat Benatar’s Treat Me Right certainly got the right treatment, as did a track like Bryan Adams Kids Wanna Rock from my old, almost played to death, copy of his Reckless album.
If you’re looking for a low-priced “loudness-balanced” cartridge to plumb the depths of an inherited collection of the likes of Black Sabbath, Rainbow and Zeppelin, I feel the P-mount Black is a good bet for the money. Look elsewhere if the wonderful sheen of Mantovani-conducted strings are more your cup of tea and in line with the collection you have.
Grados have a reputation of being more susceptible to hum though, so this is the main negative I would think may weigh in the mind of someone thinking of pulling the trigger on an internet purchase. From my own experience, there were no hum issues on the Technics SL-10 and SL-7 turntables, if this information should somehow prove useful to you.
This offering from hifi-dom’s Great Dane comes in rather more highly-priced than the two American offerings above. This one took the most re-adjusting to after installation, a fall in output level and rather brighter balance not suiting the Triangle speakers and the less capable Sansui’s retro phono stage.
A switch of speakers to the Sonus Faber Guarneris, driven by the Exposure X with direct connection to its internal phono stage and some acclimatisation time later, the Ortofon didn’t disappoint. Here was a more detailed and finessed result which the other two could not match. String notes which may have sounded “thick” previously now had better definition and exposed the skillful use of vibrato by the player to keep the notes distinct, but yet flowing one into the other. There was a better sense of air as well as light and shade in the tonal colours, making the other two sound relatively monochromatic.
While brighter sounding, the Ortofon also, somewhat paradoxically, sounded smoother than the results from the rest of the group. Its presentation was however less visceral, cooler and perhaps on rock material at least, somewhat timid. But the Ortofon came into its own with jazz and choral music, the better separation and distinctness to voices on tracks from the old Proprius Cantate Domino LP clearly appreciated, as did the fine cymbal work both brushed and struck on several jazz trio LPs tried. Piano right hand nimbleness also seemed better conveyed in both classical and jazz genres.
There was no etch or emphasis that one can sometimes get with budget moving coil cartridges, so there seemed little to complain about. This cartridge, in a turntable like the Technics SL-10, is good enough to fulfill the role of “secondary turntable” to more demanding enthusiasts who don’t have a heavy diet of rock-oriented records. I wasn’t able to use the Pro-Ject phono stage with the Ortofon as I had returned the latter, but the range of adjustments available on that unit, including variable input loading, might’ve helped produce an even better result.
Cartridges are one of the easier components to describe in terms of their sonic signatures as being transducers, there are as much mechanical as there are electrical differences influencing the results, and personal preference and system context play a big part in the acquisition decision.
I hope by giving you what I perceived as the flavour of each of these three P-mount cartridges in the context of my own system, you are able to make a more informed decision… no, make that “guess” (let’s not kid ourselves), as to whether you’re likely to get something suitable to your needs and tastes when taking a punt in ordering any particular P-mount cartridge online. These are not the only available choices out there, of course, so don’t limit yourself unnecessarily.
Good luck with your purchase, and continue spinning the black circle.