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Reviewer: Edward Barker
Turntables: Scheu Premier II, Garrard 301, Garrard 401, Systemdek Transcription, Thorens TD320, Thorens TD160
Arms: Shroeder DPS, Cartridge Man Conductor, Hadcock 242 SE, Ortofon 212, Mission 774, ET2
Cartridges: Allaerts MC2 Finish, Cartridge Man Music Maker 2 & 3, Koetsu Urushi, Madrigal MC1, Empire MC1000, Shure V15
Phono amplification: Tom Evans Groove SRX (in for review), Tron Seven [in for review], DIY Lite Audio, Garrard Missing Link II
Digital: Resolution Audio Opus 21
Tuner: Sansui TU 719, Leak Troughline
Preamp: Kondo M77 with phono
Power amps: Kondo Gakuoh monoblocks with WE300Bs
Speakers: Living Voice OBX-RW, Isophon open baffle project
Ancillaries: Kondo KSL LP and Kondo KSL VZ interconnects; Kondo SPC speaker cable and Kondo KSL ACz power cords; Clearlight Audio NFT cabling; Silver Arrow cabling and mains leads; Audiomagic Mini Stealth conditioner, Incognito wiring on Conductor and Hadcock 242, Living Voice Mystic Matt, Boston Audio Graphite Mat, Cartridge Man Isolators and setup tools, Dr. Feickert protractor. 2 x separate 30 amp mains wiring spurs
Room: 16.40' x 14.75' x 11.12'
Review component retail: £4,500
Allaerts is far from a household name among cartridge makers. This is primarily because there are very few of these cartridges around. Each one is individually hand-made by Jan Allaerts himself and the models from the MC1B up take over forty hours of work to complete. That's a week's work. Most "handmade" cartridges take a few minutes or a couple of hours at most. Allaerts is an obsessive. The degree of precision is difficult to surpass. Allaerts believes that stresses in metal will alter the sound so he individually grinds and mills each terminal from a piece of iron to not stretch or distort the molecules. The terminal pins are milled from 14 carat gold. The gold coils in the Finish are 20 microns thin and hand wound because there is no machine capable of the delicacy needed. Every aspect of the cartridge represents something close to state of the art, from the gold-leafed copper cartridge case (acting as a Faraday cage), to the aged Schor rubber suspension (which will last many decades), the seriously powerful rare earth magnet and the boron cantilever (it may still be possible to request other materials for the cantilever, contact your dealer).
These technical characteristics translate into some fairly unheard-of performance figures. Channel separation runs from 60db at 1k to 70dB at 100Hz and 20kHz. That's right, 70dB. Look at the specs on almost all high-end cartridges. Getting to 35dB is an achievement. 70dB reads like a misprint and along with the Formula One represents the state of the art. Frequency response is flat from 3Hz to 100kHz.
Set up and care
As with all Allaerts cartridges, initial setup is fairly easy though none of them come with stylus guards so the job is best done sober. The cantilever and stylus will be absolutely perpendicular so you can use the case for initial setup of offset and azimuth. For the Finish, Allaerts recommends SRA setting so that the arm rides parallel on a 200gm record. In other words, it will be ca. 1mm up at the rear of the arm from horizontal with most standard 120gm records. With most arms and particularly if you're using a unipivot or a Schroeder 2 or DPS, make sure you recheck the VTF after resetting VTA/SRA. While most cartridges have a relatively wide band of possible VTF settings, the Finish wants 1.8gm with no more than +/- .01 tolerance. It is possible to run it at 1.85 for the first 30 hours to break in without damage. I chose not to however, preferring to just let it settle naturally at 1.8.
Let's make no bones about it: this cartridge is something of a Diva. In all senses. It wants a lot of care. Every setup parameter is critical. On the other hand, this is one of the easiest cartridges I've ever set up because it so easily audible when anything is out. But it will not be treated lightly. Get the azimuth or VTF out by a little and what was an incredibly 'in the room' sound will slip back into the merely mortal or worse. You will need a really good protractor (like the Feickert - or you can download an arced Bearwald from the vinylengine). I confess to being well on the slob side of the slob/anal spectrum. I buy second-hand records, give them a quick wash on my DIY vacuum, often with filtered 2nd use cleaning fluids and as I don't buy into the VTA/SRA religion, I wouldn't in a million years consider changing it from record to record. I want to do the minimum work possible.
But with this cartridge -- or more precisely, with this cartridge/arm combination -- you can't really get away with the changes in VTF that come from the difference between a 180 and 120gm. record. The changes in weight can be quite dramatic and to repeat, the cartridge needs to be 1.80 +/- .1 max. That's pretty precise. Now the DPS has the old "unscrew the grub screw and twist" form of counterweight, which is hell to try to get really really precise. (It's now possible to retrofit a fine VTF adjuster to the DPS. Contact your dealer). So if you want to make your life simpler, I'd usually recommend matching this cartridge with an arm that has precise and repeatable settings like the Schroeder Reference SQ, the Triplaner or say an SME V with Kondo wiring (and bridge removed, obviously). What happens when you get it wrong? Basically, if the VTF is out, it will sound dynamically compressed, a bit colorless, lose the extremes and the purity of note. You lose half the point of the cartridge. So, you do need to get a really accurate scale as well.
And now for a dire word of warning: your phono stage may well be an Allaerts killer. All of them from the MC1B up have incredibly thin coils. If there is any DC kickback in your phono stage or other funny stuff, it will melt the coils and you are looking at a seriously expensive rebuild. Melt the coils? Yes. They are 20 micron thick pure 24 carat gold. I wouldn't even hold them too close to a hot lamp.
The melting coil issue has happened to several owners. It is your responsibility to make sure the phono stage you use is going to leave the cartridge intact (see what I mean about high maintenance?). Now of course I worry about lightning storms. There must be DC kickback there so I unplug from the phono stage. And with the Groove, I turn it on at least 2 hours before connecting up the cartridge leads. So far, fingers crossed, that seems to work. If in doubt, get in contact both with your phonostage designer and with Jan Allaerts to see if there are issues before there are issues. Then there is the phonostage loading issue. Both the Finish and the Formula One are very choosy about phonostages. They want to see an imput load of 845 ohms (pretty exactly) and can be very unhappy if they don't. In fact they can sound thin, compressed and lifeless if not looking at close on the right load. But the gains when getting it right are in the 'promised land' territory. These cartridges have some very serious following. Isenburg in Germany is so obsessed that he built a state of the art (15,000 euro) phonostage specifically for these two cartridges. That's how deep the devotion for these cartridges can go.
Like a racing car, this cartridge will tell you right away if things aren't going right. After about 50 hours, I found distortion becoming audible. Relooking at the measurements, I found the weight had gone up to 1.84. Bit of a mystery, probably to do with the rubber suspension giving a little, but whatever. I reset it up at 1.80 for a few hours and that sounded excellent. The Schroeder DPS may not give much away to the Reference sonically but from a setup convenience perspective, the Ref. is in another class.
The stylus itself appears to be a variant of the Fritz Geiger S known as the High Tech. Looking at it under an 80 x microscope, it is unlike any I've seen before. It looks remarkably similar to the chisel shape of a cutter head, with a flat v side facing the approaching groove,and tapering steeply from all sides. Very interesting.
Allaerts is adamant about how his stylus should be maintained. Normally I use a small stiff cartridge brush on which I spray a solution of 50% distilled water and 50% isopropyl alcohol. This is the Cartridgeman's preferred method, designed for his stylus profile. Leonard Gregory recommends doing so after each side in order to preserve the stylus longevity. I also use a Zerodust on occasion.
Allaerts recommends another system. He suggests a formula of only 10% alcohol and to use a 0 brush (I'm using a small sable artists brush). The idea then is to wet the end of the tip and brush very lightly from back to front. He suggests using the brush sparingly, only when strictly necessary. Don't get the cantilever wet. Remember the stylus is glued to the cantilever and you don't want to be wetting this joint a lot, particularly if you're hoping to have the stylus last up to or even beyond the 10,000 hours which many believe it to be capable of. You can leave the volume on high as that way you can hear the brush contacting. It's a very delicate technique and it will just lift any residue off. Using a jeweller's loupe, one can occasionally see a white crystalline junk coating the edge of the stylus tip. The wet brush just removes this residue. Checking with the microscope, this technique does seem to work far more effectively than hard brushes or the zero dust. The stylus should be cleaned sparingly.
So you set the thing up and for some reason, you've got to go out. Now imagine that your cartridge is like your favorite pet, an exotic and prize-winning Siamese cat with a world-class enigmatic character. You go out, do your stuff, come back and turn the turntable on. And you literally pale. Because instead of your favorite cat, you've got a leopard in the house. You have something absolutely amazing. It's huge, fiery eyed but incredibly delicate. In fact it camouflages itself, so at moments it's a jungle leopard and the next instant it's a snow leopard . You can just see its eyes, then in the most split of an instant, it's somewhere else completely but so quietly, you didn't even hear it go. You didn't see it hardly either. You get the idea. The scale of the cartridge is simply cathedral like. Galactic. It has incredible power but that power and resonance and oceanic depth is controlled invisibly, by the lightest of paws. Never has such power been joined at the hip with such speed and finesse. Such blood-rushing beauty. I mean the thing is life changing.
Take Coleman Hawkins' In a Mellow Tone. Suddenly that rhythmic ctchingining I'd been used to turns into an actual instrument, thick bristly brushes fat-slapping a high hat. You can hear individual sets of hairs hissing off the edge of the hat, then off the damped edge, then the un-damped edge. "Ohhh, right.". And with amazing clarity. The piano is no longer that ancient pool room upright but a proper semi grand. The sax is, well, spine-melting. My heart has just joined it, in a little puddle on the floor. Good night! It's so big, so compellingly, so seductively melodious. The shaft of air pulsates and wraps itself like an Aladdin's lamp round the contours of your soul. What is so remarkable is the 'weight' or apparent density of each instrument. There are simply tons more vibrations, so other cartridges in comparison appear grey, bland, soft, saggy, misty and frankly tuneless, useless also rans. Good god.
This is not by nature a lush cartridge. It's weirdly warm and fast but somehow different from the typical scale. If one puts SPUs at the warmer end and the Lyras at the other of the good cartridges made today, the Finish sits in the warm lighting section. In fact it depends on the phono stage. Combine it with a Groove Plus or SRX and the effect is going to major on lightning-fast speed and agility but it will be coolish. Give it to the Tron Seven and tonal color will come across more, as well as a more robust, holographic presentation and you might begin to see a blush of lush. The choice is yours.
It'a not that the Finish is considerably better than the Mk2. It's way better. Way better. Harmonics are room size and flare out like instant Aurora Borealises. I've never experienced anything like this. Before the Allaerts arrived, I'd sort of thought I'd save it for classical and jazz. Pop and rock is so compressed, I figured I'd just be wasting the stylus. But then I listened and from Sinead on down, it just turned the whole experience into something new. The echo on "I do not want what I haven't got" is absolutely cavernous. In fact, the Groove SRX/Finish combination has a lot to say about "neutrality". You thought you had a good idea what a song really sounds like? Take that idea and chuck it out the window. This is a completely different landscape. There is so much more separation and a somehow deeper space between the instruments not just physically but rhythmically and in every other sense, and suddenly everything is different. Really different.
We all know how much harder it gets to improve a system after a certain point. We can spend a lot and get illusory gains or ones we mentally quantify in the 2% or thereabouts. The kind of differences that take time, even weeks to really latch onto. Well, this is not the case with this Allaerts. It has catapulted this system into a different class. The kind of effect on a system is almost priceless but I'm also going to call the Allaerts good value. Why? It's estimated the stylus will last between 7,000-10,000 hours. That is, between 7 and 10 times as long as an ordinary one. If you calculate that out, it makes it on par or cheaper than a Music Maker. There are many fine cartridges available today but if you are a serious vinylista and you've been through a few of the stars, you owe it to yourself to find out what the Finish has to offer. I'm sure you'll also find it an exhilarating and unforgettable experience.