In the hall of fame of audio reproduction, there are few products so successful as to literally have swept all their competition overboard and washed away many contenders at considerably higher price levels as well. In the analog world, the Linn Sondek table and Rega arms have been two such powerful tsunamis. After living with the Cartridge Man's Music Maker II, I'm convinced that this cartridge fully deserves the same exalted status. Why? Because it changes the rules. In so doing, it comes up with something utterly unique - so compelling, so completely authoritative that it threatens to make every other cartridge I've heard sound (dare I say it?) wrong: Washed out, has been.

This is a tricky conclusion to come by. Like many readers of current reviews, I am more than wary of the hyperbolic language that greets many a merely average product. However, with the Music Maker (as indeed with the Scheu Premier), it would simply be travesty to declare it anything but truly exceptional. Mind you, it's not as though here I were sticking my neck out. Roy Gregory, editor of Hifi Plus, and Geoff Husband -- whose reviews for TNT Audio are examplary for how analogue reviews should truly be done -- both have made very serious claims for the virtues of this humble moving magnet. Roy claims that it competes fully with cartridges at three times its £575 price tag. Geoff goes even further.

To be honest, when it arrived, I wasn't impressed at all. I began wondering whether these two seasoned vinyl aficionados hadn't taken leave of their senses. In fact, I was tempted to send it back, thinking there might be something wrong. After playing it for a few hours, it sounded murky and shut in compared to my resident Allaerts MC1S. It took the pleasure out of listening to music so I didn't persist. While building a fancy DIY protractor one day, I discovered that during the last change-over, I'd set the pivot-to-spindle distance of the Schroder arm incorrectly. It was about 3mm out. With the new protractor doing its stuff, it turned out to be a lot easier to get the cartridge set-up really accurate. Lo and behold, the Music Maker II immediately sounded completely different now. Very interesting. After, say another 10 hours of breaking in (for a total of 20) the cartridge was simply unrecognizable. Call it love at second sight.

So be warned. The Music Maker II needs running in. And, setup is absolutely critical. What's more, if you're used to high-end moving coils, it may also take time to acclimate to what it's actually doing. It's a bit like making the transition from a hornspeaker to an electrostat or vice versa. But once through its paces and properly dialed in, there was no question. We were into big smile country.

Now, I'm pretty keen on my Allaerts. Its virtues major on a natural presentation of sound, combined with an uncanny ability to reproduce those infinitesimally minute acoustic cues at the edges of a note. In a good system, this gets you a shimmer on cymbals that sound credibly like not being reproduced at all, but rather as though happening in your own acoustic venue right there in front of you. It does this without any hint of the runaway highs that bedevil certain high-end moving coils. The soundstage is vast but absolutely stable. Put on a Bach organ piece and you don't merely get the idea - you get the whole sixty foot plethora of pipes manifesting, plus the acoustics of the cathedral.

That's why I'd rationalized it was worth its ridiculous sum, for a piece of equipment that wears out pretty soon (mind you, the Gieger stylus is meant to have a longer life than most, but if you use your turntable for anything more than a couple of hours a day, you are still looking at rebuild/replacement every couple of years). The Allaerts has a solid reputation as one of the finest cartridges around. In my case, I have yet to come across another that I'd trade it for - apart from the even more expensive Allaerts of which I've only had tantalizes glimpses. But then, if those become must-haves, we're into even more ruinous rebuild costs.

When I thus unpacked the Music Maker, I didn't give it a fleeting chance of actually competing with the Belgian star. To start with, the build quality slums it. The cheap black plastic housing and badly fitting plastic stylus guard are all that remain of the Grado donor cartridge. The cartridge pins are gold and colour-coded with daubs of paint. What really bothered me? The mounting surface ain't flat. With a cheap housing like this, the surface is inevitably warped. The cartridge comes in a cheap plastic travel case as well. That part's fine by me. Last I heard, even a Louis Vuitton calf leather case doesn't actually affect the sound all that much.

Mounting is a bit sticky as the plastic mounting holes naturally aren't threaded. This usually means taking the supplied non-magnetic screws and putting them in reversed, with the bolts screwing in from the top. On my Schroder 2, you have to use tiny nuts to leave room for cartridge alignment. Same here - the supplied nuts became too thick. Most of the thinner ones I had didn't fit the threading of the supplied bolts. (This will be no problem if you use a threaded mount as supplied with the Hadcock 242). I finally found a set of nuts that fit, courtesy of my lovely Mission 774 arm. If you don't have one of those around, make sure you can get hold of tiny nuts somewhere.

So far, I've only tried the Music Maker with the Schroder 2 and Hadcock 242 arms. Soon I will get it on with an Origin Live Silver as well. Cartridge man Leonard Gregory doesn't consider the Rega arms to be suitable for the Music Maker. In general, I suspect it's happiest with a really good unipivot or even more exotic linear trackers, air bearings and such like. In other words, this is a cartridge designed and built for a top arm. You may well not get it to sing with something merely good. I also started experimenting with different materials on which to mount the arms themselves
-- building a couple of birch ply arm mounts and detaching them from the turntable itself -- with surprisingly promising results.

Phonostages were the variable-gain Missing Link II and Gram Era Gold Mark 5, though soon I'll try the MMII with the Rogue 99 Magnum's valve phono board as well. The Missing Link was the only stage that allowed for direct A/B comparisons, so bear in mind that other phonos preamps would produce different results. If I can get hold of a step-up transformer for the Mark 5, that will make an interesting comparison, too. It goes without saying of course that A/Bs between a top moving-coil and the moving-magnet Music Maker were faintly absurd. But what the hell, 'twas fun.

So, onto the music. When set up properly and run in, some striking qualities of the Music Maker became instantly apparent. The sonic landscape just wasn't the same as with a moving coil. The entire range of lower registers were operating on a different scale. Bass wasn't just fuller, it also grew more articulate. It bled this new-found authority into the harmonic envelope through the lower mids and even up to the crucial vocal midrange. This bass articulation (which bore no relation to overly fat bass) altered not just the presentation of instruments, their apparent weight and their associated harmonic spectrum. It also gave each instrument a greater apparent density and focus within the soundstage. The immediate and most recognizable effect of this was to make each instrument sound more three-dimensional, more rounded. However, this was not achieved at the cost of a crude "color by numbers" starkness. Hence these comely gains didn't come at any significant expense elsewhere. In fact, all the other three moving coils I tried against the Music Maker sounded tinny by comparison. The oddest effect was with the Allaerts. It too suffered from the tinny syndrome - for about 20 seconds. By some sonic trick I still don't understand, it would then fill out, the bass registers appearing as though by magic. Still, the bass never achieved the weight and presence of the Music Maker. However, what did re-appear didn't prompt me to think about malnourished or lightweight. I suspect that there's some ear/brain compensation responsible for this delayed reaction. Or perhaps our hearing mechanism simply needs to tune in to appreciate the different virtues of each cartridge on their own merit?

The A/B experiments were in fact more useful at revealing my own limitations than in giving genuine insights into the nature of the cartridges themselves. On their own, both of these little masterworks were models of good manners. Put them side by side though and they brawled like cats in heat - howling, hissing at each other, arching backs and generally behaving in a disgraceful fashion. The reality? They both are truly excellent cartridges. My surprise came at how different they are, how much they seem to disagree about what a cartridge's job is supposed to be.

The Music Maker's bass articulation is a true strength. Another is the line contact stylus. It lays claim to having the longest area of groove contact in the stylus world. What this means is not just incredible tracking abilities but also an infilling of the smallest dynamic and rhythmic cues, a stable and vast soundstage (equal to that of the Allaerts) and the ability to render the really tough instruments -- female vocal, piano, cymbals -- deftly and with silken authority. In particular, the female 'sssh' sibilants came across more realistically (yet without annoyance) than I'd ever heard them before. The Music Maker is a big devotee of the female voice. That's lucky because so am I. Take Tracy Chapman. Her voice projected across my room with an incredibly smooth richness, yet with all her urgency and anger intact. These were female vocals as good as I'd ever heard them, certainly as far as the musician's intentions went. Not that this cartridge flattered. But it could make many others sound a mite brittle - almost raspy.

Ben Webster's live At the Renaissance album (with mine the Contemporary Records C-7646 version) is a pure time capsule. It transports us back to that relaxed but vibrant energy-charged moment when Jazz reached yet another pinnacle at the onset of the sixties. The session was impromptu, with Howard Holtzer setting up his mixing console three feet behind the musicians - so close in fact that he couldn't hear the mix through his earphones. This version has been transferred to digital (BBE) and was remastered in 1989. It's an oddity, with the mono sound appearing out of both speakers trying to reproduce some kind of spurious stereo effect. What's spectacular is how immediate, direct and energetic it sounds though - like sitting too close to the instruments, or listening raw through the mixing headphones.

It was as good as being there, Webster at his most fluid. You needn't hear more than "Georgia on my Mind" to know what he must have been like as a man. The Music Maker just loved Webster. It turned conduit for the raw essence of his music. This is an easy thing for a reviewer to say, a kind of cop-out - but in this case, the Music Maker really did live up to its high-brow name. What I got wasn't just a function of the way detail became organized into coherence, the way dynamics blended with rhythm and timing. It was also about the way the body of each note, and the way the note emanated in space, rendering a piano that wasn't mere instrument but became actual part or extension of the musician's physicality. The bass muttered away to itself. Then during Red Mitchell's solo, I observed how the notes reverberated within the bass chamber's cavity. What about the tenor sax? It was pure, silken, reedy, powerful, vibrant, dense, with nuance and as expressive as this instrument can be. A tour-de-force. When the applause came, I found myself absent-mindedly applauding as well. It was that good.

On Mozart's "Quartet No 1 in D - K285" from the Melos Ensemble's Flute Quartets [Enigma K23535], I felt greeted by a truly remarkable performance. I'm not a particular Mozart fan, but here the interplay between violin, viola and cello and flute really did achieve a musical peak that's difficult to rival. I was deep to my neck into purity of timbre, which only the finest cartridges can achieve yet the Music Maker was clearly every bit the equal to my beloved Allaerts. Astonishing. Apparently the viola was Mozart's favourite instrument, what he played at chamber music evenings. We have Kelly describing one of these evenings: "The players were tolerable, not one of them excelled on the instrument he played; but there was a little science among them, which I dare say will be acknowledged when I name them - the First Violin, Haydn; the Second Violin, Dittersdorf; The Violoncello, Vanhall; the Viola, Mozart." Now that would have been an evening to savour - the founders of the orchestral symphony galumphing their way through some sublime compositions. Mind you, if any of them could play an instrument the way the Music Maker could reproduce one? The results would'nt have prompted critical commentary but been bona fide legendary.

I still can't bring myself to admit that the Music Maker completely outclasses the Allaerts. It is different. Many aspects of its performance are obviously superior. Where it doesn't quite reach the Belgian's standards is in the area of acoustic cues in the high frequencies. There the Allaerts still reigns supreme. But in totality, I think that at some point, I'm going to have to confess that I can completely sympathize with people who have owned an Allaerts or equally fine moving coil and find the Music Maker's magic too compelling to ignore. Add to its virtues that a rebuild will only set you back £250. What you have here then is an affordable way to get into the very best of analogue reproduction for an unusually low price. I know that I can't bear the idea of living without one now. Incidentally, cost of admission for our friends in the US colonies is $995, or $450 for retipping. US contact is AudioRevelation [2630 Pirineos Way #24, Carlsbad, CA92009] at 760.944.0444.

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