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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.