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With the trumpet you can hear the squeal, the staggering tremolo without strain on this or any powerful brass figures. It’s a sit-up-in-your-seat ‘wow’ performance. The only way I can think of how to discover any shortcomings in the performance is to compare it to something else. Otherwise I certainly can’t hear any. This is thrilling. We listen to the Fitzwilliam play Schostakovich String Quartet Number 2 in an equally thrilled and undistracted frame of mind. We move from this recorded ensemble performance to Funky Porcini’s Fast Asleep [ZEN S7 Ninja Tune], a sampled studio-constructed piece where the subtle details of the venue's room acoustics will be absent or unimportant to the experience. Caramba! Now it feels like the opposite of a sensory deprivation chamber and more like a sensory enhancement chamber. We are enveloped not in a wall of sound but its womb. Overwhelming. Frankly this is a performance level I’ve certainly never experienced or expected from a cartridge of this price level. The Transfiguration Axia is a marvelous beast but just doesn’t do this level of subterranean bass. Nor does it have this finesse. What we’ve got here is an experience so transporting it’s almost scary.

The tremolo and decay on even electronic sounds is so palpable that it feels like we’re listening with our nerves. Mind you, if you play it at 1.55 grams or even 1.5 and with a hint too much bias, it won’t sound this coordinated. I was amazed at the subtle but hugely enjoyable improvements to the sound world that were wrought by the finest of adjustments Kevin made - particularly to bias. The down-force kept coming down and down with no loss of security or colour, in fact quite the opposite. I think we ended up at a shade under 1.3 grams of down-force and the back of the arm a hint above parallel. The sound was instantaneous and hypnotic. I’d say the most obvious characteristic of this cartridge is its freedom and expansiveness. I'm going to call this instantaniosity and a super rich palette.

I’m not much of a soundstage freak but one has to be impressed by how the proportions and depth of the panorama are so huge. It seems unbelievable, too good to be true. Yet the longer you listen to it, the more you realize it’s actually and truly happening. The journey we’re taken through is spot on, our attention is guided in precisely the right way without us noticing it. The bass is deep and articulate, poised and supple whilst the midrange unfolds its magic. This is a disk that in the wrong hands can sound an artless mess but here it sounds like something you would want to hear as you took off in a space rocket. I just don’t know what to say. I’m gobsmacked.

John Surman’s The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon  [ECM 1193] is up next. We just can’t get enough of this cartridge so we go on with 'just one more record' before we change to the Frog Gold. I know this record well, having listened to it many times at home. I would say without hesitation that this time was the best I’ve experienced it. You get pulled into the music. The performance is breathtaking. To criticize means being petty. You’d need to get a new life. The music is so compelling that any flaws in the hifi sound—if there are any—would be irrelevant. It’s ridiculous to look for them. One’s senses come alive, the richness of sound is astounding, the presence and scale of the thing are IMAX like yet never at the expense of the music. If a music lover and hifi enthusiast were sitting side by side, both would be completely captivated, amazed, maybe talking different languages but responding to the same essence.

This John Surman album has dueting bass and alto clarinets caught in some kind of celestial dogfight. Then the cymbals, high hats, tremolo of drum stick, jabbing insistent cries of the clarinet like some maddened sparrow hawk lost in the woods produce curlicue waves of rising chaotic jabber. Then more cries like some kind of vast but delicate animal giving birth in Cornwall. It’s a peculiarly English sound world and evidence if we need of how broad the church of Jazz is. Bebop and Hard-bop it ain't. After this I’ve had such an intense experience, I’m worried I’ve been wrung dry and won’t be able to focus on the next course. We should have been disciplined and moved to the Frog Gold three LPs ago. So Kevin installs the Gold. Given that this is the cartridge actually under review, I had high expectations after the preamble with the MC One Special.

The Van den Hul Frog Gold.
0.375 grams on the counterweight. 0.6 grams on the bias. £2,450 on the wallet. We’re not sure if this one is fully run in as it has only done 50 hours as the bare minimum for a VdH. As it warms up it certainly doesn’t perform in that constricted way one would expect. This Frog Gold is a new version with a double magnet and gold coils which give it a more lustrous colourful sound. And do I mean colour. Think Technicolor. This is also a cartridge which knows fun. It brings out the wit and humor in the performances. It makes you realize how matter of fact a lot of other cartridges sound - sepia toned and chromatically suppressed.

So on the Duke and Sachmo LP. What we get is bigger, fuller and richer. There is more colour saturation and density of tone. It appears to go deeper into the song, deeper into the music and yet when you wrench yourself away from the compelling musical narrative you realize it doesn’t have any more bandwidth or dynamic range. What it does have more of is weight, radiance on the keys, sunlight. Is there a trade-off? It’s perfectly well timed but at first the clarinet isn’t quite as soaring and free. The trumpet however has that fantastic sunburst see-through quality that is so true to nature. I’ve only ever heard this done on great vinyl setups and this one communicates everything about the real sound of live music. The clarinet is beautiful. There’s a more glamorous sound, a 1920’s sound, a touch of the Great Gatsby. As the cartridge starts to wake up and warm up, the space between instruments grows and yet each takes up more space. Weird. The scat blabbing of Sachmo is therapy for the soul. The insouciance of "Do nothing ‘til you hear from me" is theatrically funny. It’s like I have never heard this song properly before. This is a cartridge that knows how to charm. There seems to be more feeling wrung from each performance. The MC One S was neither cold nor unemotional but it had an objective and factual outlook that was visceral and exciting. The Frog Gold is not without these qualities but has a more subjective, emotional and Romantic disposition. I don’t mean that it 'romanticizes' the music but that it gets to the emotional centre of a piece and views the musical world from that standpoint. I found this brought rich rewards in emotionally expressive music I thought I knew well.

I don’t think I’ve heard vinyl this good. I’m not alone wondering what kind of pixie dust Kevin Scott dispenses through the ventilation pipes. At this point the cartridge improves by the minute, growing in immediacy, power, scale and immensity. The instruments’ shape, body and weight become so much more resolved in colour, twice the colour. You’d think it would be too much but it isn’t. It just gets better and much better, way more assured and cohesive, particularly the density of vibrations and tone. If we were to retrace our footsteps, now we’d think the MC One S was a grey monochrome which is ridiculous because it delivered a transcendent musical experience just an hour ago. Frankly I was amongst those who thought VdHs a bit washed out, lacking in scale, beauty and the human touch. How wrong can one be? Maybe I never heard one set up with this care and precision before. Looking back I don’t think that the MC One S cartridge is lacking in any way but the Frog Gold is able to resolve the most minute level changes with freedom, perfect poise and timing while larger modulations of dynamic range are simply to die for. And all in natural full colour.

My next sessions with the Frog Gold take place at home. The system is identical but I start with a touch more down force (1.4 grams) and start to feel my way around VTF loadings to learn more about it. From the very first notes it’s obvious that the Frog Gold has that rich pert lustrous multi-chrome colour thing going again as something I’ve not heard in my system before. On Macqualero’s Bande A Part [ECM 131]—a great record in itself—Nils Petter Molvær does things with his trumpet that take even the best audio systems to their limits. It's a good one for cartridge setup. We can now tell how sensitive the cartridge is to VTF and that when set up cold, it will want a touch of down force taken off when warmed up. One can play around here because more than most it’s sensitive to humidity, atmospheric pressure and temperature. And its seems that part of the tuning is most easily heard in rim shots, struck glass, timpani and other percussive sounds that have a particularly abrupt initial transient. There are physically shocking sounds like Molvær’s trumpet which if the cartridge is set up right hit you with the impact of an elephant  trumpeting right beside your ears. It can throw you from your seat it’s so shocking. The insistent menace of the bass, the snap of percussion in the right hands (and these most certainly are) is a genuinely terrifying experience. At the end of this record I recognize I’m really going to struggle to live without experiences like this. I’ve got to get this Frog into my life.