An insanely great phono cartridge for well-heeled audiophiles
The Audiophiliac finds analog bliss with the Koetsu Urushi Sky Blue phono cartridge.
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
How can a phono cartridge's tiny stylus tracing an LP's microscopic grooves make great sounding music? To me it's a magic trick that never gets old with just about any decent cartridge, but with the Koetsu Urushi Sky Blue cartridge it happens on a wildly higher level, so musical epiphanies occur on a regular basis. Koetsu cartridges have been the choice of the audiophile cognoscenti since the 1980s, and when you listen to one you'll know why.
At Koestsu's helm is second generation master cartridge maker Fumihiko Sugano, son of the founder of the company, Yoshiaki Sugano. My review sample's blue Urushi lacquer finish was applied by hand, and once the lacquer cures it hardens around the cartridge's rosewood body, changing its resonant frequency. The Urushi Sky Blue features silver clad, ultra-high purity copper coils, and the diamond stylus is mounted to a boron cantilever. The Urushi Sky Blue sells for $5,995 in the US, and £4,199 in the UK. All Koetsu cartridges are hand-crafted in Japan.
Before we go any further it's a safe bet to assume that most Koetsu buyers own thousands of LPs, collections that cost more than the price of their Koetsu. Those collections in some way justify investing in a Koetsu, because that cartridge will breathe new life into all of the music. It certainly did for the LPs I've bought since I was a teenager. Being an audiophile is, for some, a long journey.
My Koetsu review sample wasn't brand new, it was used by Mofi, Koetsu's US importer at the audio show Axpona, where I heard this Koetsu Urushi Sky Blue for the first time. I liked what I heard, but it's at home where the seduction really began. My Ray Charles "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" LP was pressed when John F. Kennedy was president, and the Urushi Sky Blue brought it all back in ways I've never experienced before. There was a newfound soul to the sound of Ray Charles music with the 'Blue riding the grooves.
I went out of my way to play records of questionable sound quality, a lot of Motown, Stax and very early Rolling Stones LPs that were more than 50 years old, and the 'Blue always made them sound better than I'm used to.
The Urushi Sky Blue also minimized LP surface noise, clicks and pops to a remarkable degree, better than my Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge, which is also pretty darn quiet. There was also a profound difference in the way the music moved me, but as I continued I came to feel the 'Blue was superimposing its own sound on the music. So it's not the most accurate cartridge I've heard, that honor would still go to the Cadenza Black, but the 'Blue somehow touched me more.
In recent times I've lived with two high-end turntables, a VPI Classic and lately a SME Model 15. My long term reference was a Cadenza Black and I also used a Lyra Delos cartridge. The Cadenza was an unfailingly neutral device. The Delos was positively vivid, but too lean for my tastes.
John Lennon's "Imagine" LP has always struck me as a murky, muddy recording, but here with the Urushi Sky Blue the vocals sounded upfront and very much alive. Lennon was such an emotionally naked singer, he fearlessly poured every ounce of his soul into his microphone. And now nearly 50 years later Lennon appeared between my TAD ME-1 speakers! The music of his post Beatles work feels more intimate, that's for sure, but I have to admit the newly remixed Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's" LP left me shaken and stirred for days.
The Kronos Quartet's "Music of Bill Evans" LP never really did that much for me. The string quartet is joined by bassist Eddie Gomez and guitarist Jim Hall, and for whatever reason the music always felt low-energy and uninspired. Now with the Urushi Sky Blue the music moves, it swings, there's life where before the interplay of the musicians seemed stiff and mechanical. The 'Blue made the difference. Of course my better sounding LPs were much improved by the 'Blue, but I expected that.
Yes, the Urushi Sky Blue is extremely expensive, but it's far from the most expensive Koetsu. That one, the Blue Lace runs a cool $14,995/£11,470! Koetsu prices start at $2,495/£1,998 for the Black Goldline.
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