Review: Rega Carbon MM cartridge

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(Rega Carbon MM conical cartridge; Image from Rega website)

In recent months I’d found our vinyl playback becoming increasingly distorted, especially on sibilants.  It seemed to me that our beloved Denon DL-160 MC cartridge tip has seen better days, and likely needs repair or replacement.  The problem was, with what should we replace it, even only for a short time while it’s away?

I had already kept a backup in our Ortofon DN165 with an OM-5 “generic” stylus which never really seemed to fully “sing” up against the Denon, but a quick swap showed that it was indeed more able to track inner grooves far better and with far less sibilance than the Denon was showing, especially on the recent Pulp “Different Class” 180G reissue which seems to be very densely packed towards the end of side 1.

But – the Ortofon really is no match in terms of tonality on our Dual 505-II compared with what the Denon could do with a new tip.  So, while we started to work out what do with the Denon, I hit up some online forums to see what people think of the cheapest available cartridges.  This narrowed the choice mostly to Audio-Technicas, either the AT-91 or the AT-95E.  Then I came across the Rega Carbon, which was well regarded in these two reviews:

http://audiofi.net/2013/03/rega-carbon-cheerful-cheapie-cartridge/

http://theartofsound.net/forum/showthread.php?21594-Using-a-Rega-Carbon-cartridge

So – for about £27 including delivery, I ordered on Amazon and was surprised to have one delivered to me by Sevenoaks Audio.  I mounted it within minutes of arrival and spun a few discs before leaving for a holiday.

First impressions…

…surprisingly good.  The overall balance was very similar to how I remembered the Denon DL-160 sounded when it was new to us.  Tracking ability of the deck was much improved – and it cleaned up many of the distorted sibilants in our rather well-loved first-run copies of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, and Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat”.

Since our return, I’ve spun another varied and very enjoyable 10-15 discs with it, and am now sat enjoying a lovely rendition of an 80’s repressing of Pink Floyd’s DSOM.   So now I’m collecting some brief thoughts on how it now sounds after some 15-20 hours of playing time.

Longer term impressions…

It’s settled down – a lot.  The initial slightly brash treble presentation has become much more smooth, and surprisingly detailed considering how I’d have expected a conical stylus to sound, based on my limited understanding of the physics involved.  It rarely sounds as if it’s missing any significant high-frequency detail, though it’s fair to say its useful upper-limit in its frequency response is perhaps 1-2KHz lower than the Denon.

Surface noise is much-reduced compared to the tired Denon or mid-life Ortofon.  I’m therefore feeling much more able to just plunk a clean-looking disc down and get the needle stuck-in without spending significant cleaning time.

The overall sound is now much more balanced across the whole playing surface of any disc.  The balance change from “The Great Gig in the Sky” (end of Side 1 DSOM) to “Money” (beginning of Side 2 DSOM) is much less noticeable.  The latter sounds absolutely stunning in its detail, overall balance and sound-staging.  The tightness of the room reverb in the recording studio is now absolutely evident, with the background sounding “darker” than ever before.  The cymbals are absolutely crisp, as are the vocal sibilants.

Again sticking with DSOM as the example, while the apparent width of the soundstage feels narrower with the Carbon than with the Denon DL-160, the apparent depth of the soundstage feels much more accurate. Centre-panned voices seem to stand forward of the rest of the band. Individual instruments take on a definite space and are much more able to be followed than with the Ortofon.  Arguably in this more subjective respect, the cartridge does as good a job as the Denon ever did in our rig.  In some ways, it’s better – fine details seem much more apparent, and solid, than I’ve ever heard on this rig before.

“Us and Them” – the Rega pulls sparkle and space out of a dense mix in an increasingly tricky part of the disc.  It actually makes our rather tired copy sound brand-new. The huge chorus section has always sounded screechy with either of our previous cartridges – but with the Rega it just sounds big, and heavy and much cleaner.  Fine details of Sax placement, piano, organ and guitar riffs, complete with their acoustic space, are still audible even in the really heavy sections.  The synths, guitars and organ in the closing section perhaps have less sparkle than I remember, but their placement in the soundfield is much more assured, and much less distorted.

The overall impression is that this cartridge is a stunner – and it simply delivers *music* at whatever pace was intended. It delivers space and detail enough to communicate the message, if not always to convince you that the band is playing live right in front of you. And it does all of this without any apparent resonant tradeoff, nor any significant omission in any other area.

So – maybe I had a duff DL-160, and maybe our Ortofon had seen better days.  Maybe the DL-160 was perhaps a less-than-ideal match for our deck. But whatever the reasons for the differences I’m hearing, this cartridge absolutely *sings*, and it does so with a poise and fun-factor that I’d always heard vinyl was supposed to offer.   The Denon got us there for a good year or more, and I when I add up its total known playing-time in our care it’s really about time it was repaired or replaced.

Then I consider the price-tag, and I can only conclude that regardless of its peers, the Rega Carbon is an absolute gem and works incredibly well with our Dual 505-II, with its ultra-light original tonearm and (admittedly) customised heavy non-suspension base.

I’d tell any vinyl lover to just buy one to try for novelty-value, regardless of whatever other “prestige” cartridges you might also have. You might be surprised at how well it actually compares.  It’s always good to have a more-than-passable backup to a much better cartridge – but in our case, I’m suddenly in much less of a hurry to re-tip or replace our beloved Denon. I now have the time to get it right.

Oh, and if you need more evidence to commend this little gem – I can tell you one more thing:

Any good hifi component, or system, should make you want to listen to your music more.  Judging by the pile of played discs building up on my desk that need putting back onto the shelves, I can tell you that this has certainly got us listening to a *lot* more music, in a phase of live when I can tell you we’ve had the least actual *time* to listen to it.

More thoughts on our Dual 505-2 with Denon DL-160

A few months ago I think I wrote here that I was struggling with vinyl sibilance and inner-groove distortion with our Dual 505-2, then fitted with its original MM Ortofon cartridge and DN-165E stylus. A partial solution was found with the upgrade to the significantly better Denon DL-160 MC cartridge.

We’ve moved house and played a lot of the black stuff since then, and some of it has been found to sound rather tired after a heavy life with previous owners. The result was that for some of our older discs, the inner-groove distortion and vocal sibilance caused by previous wear was getting me down.

Last night and this morning before work I spent some time with the deck in its new home, with the aim to get things set up as well as is possible.

Step 1: Align the cartridge

The first step in this journey was to find a suitable downloadable protractor to check that the cartridge was properly aligned – it’s so easy to get this wrong and somewhere in the move I’d lost my previous unit. So, off I went to Google and found this printable example, which printed exactly to the right scale on our printer the very first time.

I followed the instructions on the template, only after cutting the bottom strip (with the alignment markings) off so as to prevent the paper scuffing the arm and stylus.

The result was immediately obvious – much more detail, a little less distortion in the inner groove of older records like our copy of Marillion’s “Misplaced Childhood”. The soundstage is a little wider and set further around the speakers, both in front and behind. Centred vocals and instruments are really marked as dead-centre now.

Step 2: Check tracking weight and antiskate

Rather dangerously, this was done by ear, on the basis that I’m listening for increases or decreases in distortion in known tricky passages.  Queen’s “You Take My Breath Away” from their “Day At the Races” album was chosen for this – our first-run copy has significant problems on the left channel with sibilants blatantly distorting.

It turned out that I had to track much heavier than the Denon’s recommended 1.5g – actually I had to double that to 3g in order to take some control of the distortion. With other discs this rewards me with more detail and deeper soundstage, with better perceived stability.  My best guess at this point is that the cartridge is either a little stiff for this rig, or that the weight calibration of the tonearm has crept out of tolerance.

As for the anti-skate, the best overall sound (least background noise and lowest distortion on tricky discs) was found to be with 2.5g set in the Spherical range according to the dial on the deck – this gives a much more consistent sound across all discs tried so far.

Step 3 – Experiment with running with or without the sub-chassis suspension

Our new abode has victorian wooden floorboards on flexible joists, which happen to excite a resonance in the spring-suspended sub-chassis of this deck, particularly noticeable when someone walks across the room, or puts the washing machine on.

It turns out that turning the transport screws fully-anticlockwise to bolt the sub-chassis down cures this problem, and I’ve yet to hear any adverse affects of doing so except perhaps a very slight increase in the perception of motor rumble when listening at high volume levels on headphones. I don’t listen like that very often, so I think we can live with that.

Results

I’ve listened this evening to Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene” and Enya’s “Watermark” LP’s and am enjoying new levels of soundstaging and detail retrieval. Maybe once I’ve done some study this evening I’ll let loose with some more challenging material to see what happens. The signs are good, with hopefully little further damaging to our aging collection.

 

First impressions of Denon DL-160 fitted to Dual 505-2

Our much-anticipated Denon DL-160 MC cartridge was delivered this week, and I finally found a moment to get it installed in place of the ULM65/DL-165e the deck was originally supplied with.  Having confirmed everything was lined up, we’ve had a quick listen to the results:

  • The first note played with the new cartridge told me that the new cartridge is really giving a very different presentation to the original.
  • Much better handling of sibilants, especially appreciated in rock/pop recordings.
  • Wider and deeper soundstage.
  • More detail exposed.
  • More attack on percussion instruments.
  • Much-reduced surface noise – including pops and ticks.
  • Slightly reduced “bloom” around 130-200Hz, compared with the Dual ULM65/DN165e combination the deck was originally supplied with.
  • Lower, cleaner bass below 120Hz.
  • Massive increase in playback quality of extremely worn/damaged LP’s.

In my wife’s words: “Everything just seems to sound like it should”.  And I have to agree.  The vinyl warmth, dynamics and musicality are much in evidence, but with a consistency and tonal accuracy more commonly associated with digital playback.

I think it fair to say that the purchase was a resounding success – the cartridge clearly is working very well in our setup, better in fact than many who know our deck might think it worth spending money to achieve.  More detailed findings to follow…

Dual 505-2: Taming vinyl sibilance

I’ve been really happy with our record deck since we inherited it a few months ago, but one common problem has been playing back 70’s and 80’s pop/rock LP’s that have been, shall we say, well loved.  I had an idea while last re-aligning the cartridge/stylus that part of the treble reproduction issue I’ve been experiencing with these discs was that the cartridge was slightly vertically offset in comparison to the vertical alignment of the groove – almost as if the cartridge mounting is somehow twisted slightly on the arm.

The Dual 505-2 has no azimuth adjustment to speak of, but the cartridge is held in with a pair of bolts, and so the azimuth could easily be corrected by inserting a washer or some other small object to act as a shim.   I didn’t have any washers to hand that were less than 1mm thick (way too thick for this project), so for the sake of experimentation I’ve experimented with a piece of copper tape retrieved from a no-longer-working hard drive enclosure.  It’s less than 0.25mm thick, and easy to cut and fold to the right height.

To get a rough measurement of what was required, I chose an older duplicate disc and set it playing, and observed the end of the cartridge right above the needle riding the groove.  I estimated that the left side of the cartridge (as it faced me) was about 0.5mm too high compared with the level of the LP spinning underneath it, so I cut a small piece of the copper, folded it to get the approximate thickness required and cut a bolt-hole through it, before inserting it between the cartridge and its mount.

After doing up the bolts and re-checking the overall alignment, I started the same disc playing and listened.  Much of the treble harshness had gone, and vocal sibilant distortion was down around 50% – much more listenable for some of the older discs in our collection.  What’s more, newer/cleaner discs are sounding much more dynamic, and their overall soundstage much more focussed – much more digital, one might say.  Bryan Ferry’s “Boys and Girls” was a particularly problematic recording, but was much improved in this evening’s round of listening tests. The same improvement was noted on playing a slightly ratty copy of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” LP.  We’re closer to hearing the music, and further away from hearing the equipment playing it.  That’s a good thing in my book.

Next on my list is to trim the copper shim to make the installation invisible, but it certainly proved my little theory and proves a nice illustration for anyone else wanting to try the same thing.

Mini-Review: Eric Clapton – “Slowhand”

After more restoration work on our turntable yesterday, we decided to turn our last Christmas voucher into some new pristine vinyl – and had a rather tortuous experience with various HMV stores in Central London to find some worth the stylus time.  In the end we settled on “Slowhand” by Eric Clapton – a “Back to Black” remaster pressing on 180g virgin vinyl.  The disc is spinning as I write and it’s a mindblowing experience.  There have been many of these over the last few weeks we’ve been dipping our toes in the sea of black stuff, but this has just become my reference disc for what analogue playback is capable of – it might yet be digitally recorded for me (while it’s still clean) to use for PA system setups when 88.2KHz 24-bit digital playback is possible, either from my Mac laptop directly or via my EMU 0202USB.

About the disc itself:

Universal / Back To Black / RSO 0042281718816

Track listing:

  1. Cocaine
  2. Wonderful Tonight
  3. Lay Down Sally
  4. Next Time You See Her
  5. We’re All the Way
  6. The Core
  7. May You Never
  8. Mean Old Frisco
  9. Peaches and Diesel

The first three tracks are well-known Clapton pieces, and I’ve heard all of them performed live.  This recording really shines – and brings those songs to life in a way I’ve never heard before.  Throughout the disc the soundstaging is pin-sharp – vocals are delivered in the centre of the room when needed, and the rhythm section both fills the room and underpins the mix without dominating.  The guitar work is exquisite.  I’m not really able to deliver much of a musical review as that’s beyond my expertise, but from a technical perspective this work really is beyond anything else I’ve heard in a good long time.  I’d buy the remastering engineer(s) a drink if ever I get the chance to meet them.

A special mention should be made here of those first three well-known tracks, which I’ve known well from an early CD pressing of “Time Pieces”.  Actually I should say I *thought* I knew them well.  There’s so much more detail on offer here than on the compilation CD.  “Wonderful Tonight” I shouldn’t say it, but really does live up to its name.  The sound is warm, lush and highly musical – so much more than the bland compressed middle-of-the-road song we all know and think we love, even if we don’t admit to it.  “Peaches and Diesel” is one of the few blues-rock instrumentals I can listen to – and I can get lost in it, there’s so much space and atmosphere on offer.  I feel like I could get up from my chair and walk around the instruments as they’re presented in front of me.  No mean feat in a very distracted listening environment with noisy neighbours, passing traffic and a busy dance recording studio in operation nearby.

From the perspective of a newly converted vinyl lover trying to justify what is about to become an expensive new habit – this disc really does bring out the best the format has to offer.  Wide soundstaging, pin-sharp vocals that never creep into sibilance.  It also says something of the restoration works done to our Dual 505-2 that the recordings are played without audible tracking distortion, rumble or other nasties wherever they happen to reside on the disc.  Usually the last track on a side tends towards sibilant distortion due to mistracking of the current or previous equipment being used to play it – there’s no sign of this here.

I’ll be interested to try playing the free MP3’s of the album that were offered along with the purchase of the vinyl – I’m sure I’ll be able to better those by recording myself, which could be an interesting experiement sometime in the future.

Meanwhile I can sit back with a delicious beverage of choice and relax with this set, knowing that both the music and the equipment relaying it are top-notch.

Dual 505-2: Oiling experiment…

While checking the tracking weight of the deck earlier this week I had the nagging feeling that the tonearm was not pivoting across the platter as easily as perhaps it could.  Moving when cueing felt stiff, whether the cue control was lifted or not.  I wondered if this was contributing to some of the sibilant distortion I’ve been hearing lately.

So I took the deck apart a second time today, to have a look at re-greasing the internal mechanisms with Lithium white grease as an experiment to see whether freeing up the mechanisms might help tame the subtle distortions I’ve been hearing.  I also noted that the platter spindle didn’t want to continue spinning freely in its socket even when the drive belt was removed, so for good measure I removed the spindle and greased its socket.

After putting everything back together I rechecked the cartridge/stylus alignment and tracking weight.  The latter was much easier to set, and confirmed that the arm moves much more freely on its pivot than it did.  So as a test I’ve started playing the first side of Mike Oldfield’s “Five Miles Out”.  It’s a very treble-heavy recording, but it is now much less distorted and demonstrates much more extension beyond 10KHz.  It’s also worth noting too that I’m hearing a lot less rumble in quieter moments on the disc – so it seems that greasing the spindle bearing/socket too was a success.

Interestingly low end rumble from the LP itself is much more obvious – different tones coming from different sides of the disc would indicate mastering or manufacturing issue rather than motor bearing noise being passed through.

I’ve also found that tracking with 2g force rather than the recommended 1.5g seems to get more control over the treble, and seems to improve overall dynamics, giving drums more immediacy and impact without dominating or smearing the mix.

Maybe in time I’ll do a complete stripdown for a proper cleanup and to get the old grease out before applying new.  At least at this point in time I’ve confirmed the theory of what I wanted to achieve – for which I’m rather happy!

Replacement Stylus for Dual 505-2

Had some fun earlier this evening with a new stylus on our record deck. Apparently the DN165-E it came with has only had around 50 hours playing time on it, but it seemed to be sounding a little scratchy and I wondered whether it had been damaged either in transit or during the initial setup and testing phases since getting the deck home.

The replacement stylus is unfortunately not a branded ‘original’ part – I guess the old adage of ‘you get what you pay for’ applies here, but it would have been nice if the online store had set expectations more plainly.

Nevertheless I thought to try the new unit to see what we get from it. First the bad news: it wasn’t a ‘night and day’ difference in the way I had expected.

The good news is that the new stylus does sound better than the old. It’s tracking female vocals much more effectively and has turned my rather worn copy of Suzanne Vega’s “Solitude Standing” into a very entertaining experience. Her solo delivery of “Tom’s Diner” showed a much-reduced tendency to sibilant distortion while revealing much more detail than I’ve previously heard in either CD or LP recordings. The sound is more immediate, more involving and more believable. Further, there was now a defined ‘sweet spot’ between the speakers that I’ve not noticed before.

Other recordings showed similar improvements in detail retrieval and control of sibilants. All except what appears to be a badly mastered/manufactured copy of Bryan Ferry’s “Boys and Girls”, whose treble seems way too hot on the disc, resulting in distortion of sibilants and even cymbals.

Another problem disc in my collection was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. The sibilant delivery of vocals in “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” are now much improved, while the surrounding synths and drums have much better definition and impact.

Generally drums and other acoustic instruments sound cleaner, vocals are presented more realistically, and synth instruments take on more timbre and impact. The soundstage of all recordings I tried is more defined and reveals yet more space.

So all in all I’m very pleased with the new stylus, and will keep the old one ready for backup, or for playing the *really* worn or dusty LP’s where cleaning has not made any appreciable difference to their condition. I would have preferred knowing from the start that I was buying a generic unit, but the results speak for themselves so it’s hard to be at all disappointed.

Dual 505-2: Mini-restoration and first impressions

 

Those who have read my little review of the Tannoy Mercury M20 Golds might be aware I’ve inherited some other items that they were originally purchased with sometime in 1985, we think. In this little article I’ll be explaining a little about our (immediately) beloved turntable – the Dual 505-2. By modern standards, if purchased new I would guess this record deck would compare with the likes of the Project Debut Essential package or similar. Our example appears to still be fitted with its original Dual ULM165E cartridge and DN165E stylus. We have no idea what playing time the stylus has seen, nor whether it is indeed the original stylus or an after-market replacement.

Fault-finding and repair

Upon arrival the platter would not spin, and I had been warned of the need for replacement drive and pitch-adjustment belts. After some Google abuse in an attempt to find a service or owners’ manual for this unit, I found my way to the Vinyl Engine which had an English owner’s manual available.

Dual 505-2 disassembly/reassembly

After downloading and reading the owners’ manual, I then attempted to take the inner plinth out of the wooden frame. This isn’t as easy as it looks; so having armed yourself with a Leatherman, Dutch courage and a glance at the owner’s manual, it goes something like:

  1. Lock the tonearm in place.
  2. Remove the stylus and put it somewhere safe to save it getting damaged.
  3. Remove the rubber turntable mat, and the platter.
  4. Remove the plastic lid.
  5. Ensure the transit screws are in the “playing” position, to give the suspension mounts full movement.
  6. Turn the whole deck on its back (so it rests with the hinges against your work surface).
  7. Slide the suspension spring bases out of their homes in the plastic base plate. The whole plinth assembly can then separate from the base. Note that the captive mains, signal and ground cables prevent the plinth separating completely from the base, without further work to release the cable entry glands.
  8. Breathe. Carefully.
  9. Reassembly is essentially a reversal of steps 1>8.

Checking the tonearm, motor and microswitch interaction

Another thing I learned during my Google session to find the manual was that one of the most common faults with these decks is that the microswitch seizes up if the deck has not been used for a while.This is the switch that starts the motor spinning when the tonearm is moved into the playing position. The cure recommended on most online forum posts I found on the issue was to simply use a screwdriver to operate the switch enough times until it starts working again. If I recall correctly, the switch is on the underside of the plinth next to the motor, and has either a yellow or blue plastic cap that connects to the tonearm assembly, via a system of levers that I could not easily work out. Within about 10 pushes the switch mechanism freed itself and the motor started spinning. With hindsight it was risky leaving the mains plugged in while I took everything apart, but it paid off and as it turns out there were no exposed terminals that a stray finger or screwdriver could have found. Phew.

Drivebelt check

As mentioned earlier, I had been warned of the need for a new drivebelt. It turned out that the belt itself was fine, but it needed a little gentle persuasion to realign it so it ran inside the speed selection mechanism. I tested the speed selector a couple of times to check that the belt stayed in the correct position, which it did. While I had the deck apart I also discovered that the toothed pitch adjustment belt had somehow snapped, so without any spare parts to hand I simply removed it and hoped for the best.

Function test, and adjust pitch

Having reassembled the deck I plunked down Suzanne Vega’s debut LP, and found both platter and cue mechanisms to work as designed. The result was quite stunning – the aged stylus and cartridge combination was working well enough with the photo stage of my NAD 302 amplifier to extract a remarkably pleasant sound from the disc, albeit at a slightly higher pitch than normal.

So, off came the platter and out came the Leatherman to attempt a quick-and-dirty adjustment of the pitch control pulley. Having worked out that the belt links the surface-mounted pitch control knob to the control pulley on the motor assembly, I could reason as to which way to turn the pulley to make the required adjustment. Using the narrow flat-blade screwdriver on the Leatherman, I turned the pulley through 90 degrees anti-clockwise by locking the blade in the teeth of the pulley and pushing gently in the right direction.

Trying the test LP again showed I’d adjusted too much – the song was now playing slightly slower than normal, so I went back and halved the difference. The LP now played what I considered to be ‘normal speed’ (turns out I do have an intuitive sense of ‘perfect pitch’, though it helped to have a CD of the same album to compare, which did indeed synchronise perfectly both in terms of track length and perceived pitch/tempo.

First impressions of sound quality

This is a subject for another post of its own, I’m sure. What immediately strikes is that the sound quality on offer is surprisingly good, but there are no good words or phrases I can think of to describe how it differs to the same material played from CD or other known digital sources in my system. When the disc is clean and in good playing condition, and has itself been mastered and manufactured well, the soundstage is noticeably wider and deeper than my digital sources, and the overall presentation is simply more musical. It’s not that the vinyl source is ‘warmer’ or more detailed as has become the stereotypical wording used by audiophiles writing in print or online when selling the plus-points of vinyl – just that the overall result is simply more pleasing to me. My wife confirmed this, noting that the vinyl feels more ‘real’, more as if the musicians are being presented in a space around and in front of us, compared with the digital sources forcing the soundstage to be artificially contained within our room.

Stay tuned for more on what work we carry put on this deck, and for some more in-depth reviews of what it enables us to enjoy!

Update @23:42
Put picture back into the post as originally designed, correct spelling/typo’s, add the following list:

Things still to do:

  • Install a replacement stylus in case I broke anything in transport or handling. Turns out the current one (and its cartridge) are replacements with only 50hours playing time on them, but I’ve already ordered a Dual DN-165E replacement stylus from Stylus Plus, so at least I’ll have a spare.
  • Replace the pitch control belt – not because it’s needed in normal operation, but I feel it’s only fitting to bring this one back “to spec”.
  • Check alignment of the cartridge. When I first started using the deck, I noticed a significant amount of sibilant distortion when nearing the end of a side. This isn’t uncommon, but a quick alignment according to the “Stevenson Method” has made things noticeably better at the expense of slightly increased sibilant distortion at the beginning of each side.
  • Clean all our LP’s and replace inner sleeves.
  • Try the phono stage of our inherited NAD 3020B in place of the current NAD 302.