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Youssef Lateef’s Eastern Sounds [Prestige OJC-612] is another favorite LP this winter and the Frog Gold’s rendition is again astounding. The luscious languor of the sax reads deep into the saxophonist’s character where one phrase is a meditation on the sublime, the next a crisp yet subtly relaxed arabesque matched by a similar curlicue on snares while all along the key melodies haunt. I’ve heard this record quite a lot and previously never really loved it for one reason or another. The Frog Gold’s got it absolutely nailed as the masterpiece it is. Without a doubt this is the best sound I’ve had at home, which means I’m afraid that my beloved Kondo Io-M has been shown a clean pair of heels. Oh dear. Maybe it needs a service?

One thing that’s becoming clear is that the sheer speed of the Frog Gold means it’s communicating more of the percussive pressure of a transient. Tones have a more vivid and joyful quality, which makes it come across as more expressive than the Io-M which by comparison is slightly more polite, well behaved and emotionally less expressive. That is something of a shock because this is in a full Kondo system where you’d expect the Io-M to have the home advantage. Does that mean we should dump the Io? There will be those who will prefer the Io-M overall - people who are happy to trade that last bit of air, detail and speed for a more stately presentation. On the other hand, for me in this system the Frog Gold is winning in so many different ways that it’s clear I’m going to have to return the Io-M to Japan for a full check-up to see if it isn’t at the end of its stylus or something.

Overall the Frog Gold has recalibrated a number of my musical expectations. It’s easily my new favorite cartridge and I’m going to have to figure a way of getting one into my system permanently. Having lived with one there’s no going back. It would be too hard to give up its astonishing qualities. The musical insight alone is remarkable and worth the price of admission. If you are a music lover who has forgotten about the Van den Hul range as I had, do look afresh. The fact is I’m a bit unsettled by what I have been missing – and this isn’t even the top of the range. I’ll be exploring more of these extraordinary Van den Huls in the near future but for now I’m not looking for anything beyond digging deeper into the delights of this amazing contraption.

Brief interview with Mr. Van den Hul: Am I right in thinking you are no longer suggesting people return the cartridges after 100 hours but that you now design them so they will really sound as intended after 100 hours of  run in?

All models up to the Frog are pretuned for an optimized response after running in. From the Frog upwards models can be returned after a run-in time of around 200 hours to fine-tune to the required performance. This fine-tuning has to do with minor changes which take place during the run-in time like minor misalignments of the magnetic modulator creating imbalance in the crosstalk measurements. Mostly this causes differences in the frequency response and tracking abilities.

Have any of your views on cartridge design evolved recently?

The only changes made recently are the application of Platinum coil wire, use of thinner suspension wire and special selected wood for the bodies.

What are the abiding core/sacrosanct principles of your cartridge design or are you completely fluid and open-minded about everything? 

Essential is always the quality of reproduction. Whatever improves that is welcomed. Over the years I have developed my own ideas and practical solutions. Here the Colibri series is the ultimate in sound quality. But this quality can only be revealed when the phono stage is of the utmost quality. For this purpose we have our own The Grail series in our catalogue.

What is going on with electrons? Do you think their action within cable and phono cartridges is well understood? In particular I'd love to find out more about the relationship between the electron drift within the cable, the electron signal path, the magnetic wave outside the boundary of the cable and electrostatic influences.

Many years ago when I was a student  at the Delft Technical University, we got discourses in metals and related subjects like metal compositions. These presentations by Prof. P. Jongenburger were extremely useful many years later when I designed conductors. Also very helpful was my work at the same university with a proton accelerator, a minor version of the actual unit explored by CERN in Geneva. Both experiences were and are fundamental to the actual knowledge in our conductor technology. Therefore we have taken different routes like Carbon technology, Fusion technology, Tunnel technology and last but not least our latest and best, 3T.

You have been using carbon for cables. Do you see any promise in graphene or other nanocarbons?

I see great advantages in both nanocarbons (as we already use in some of our products) and graphene. Our first high conductive carbon products originate from 1989. At that time we were the first worldwide to use this high conductive carbon (our own innovation in 1989) in our The First, The First metal Screen, The Second and The Third. We still sell substantial lengths of these innovative pure carbon products.

You have considerable experience with test equipment including building and selling your own. To what extent are we able to correlate test results with sound and musical performance today?

Many years ago (13 to be precise) I was a hifi equipment reviewer whose focus were measurements because during my work at the proton accelerator, I was  involved in measurements like finding the precise position of the proton bundle. Based on multiple measurements, the findings in them are an approach of what you actually hear in real life. The art is to design products with sound qualities very close to life sound. In the 3T project and products based on this technology, we ignored measurements and used pure theoretical knowledge. The first test was not any measurement but listening. And still we evaluate 3T products by listening. It has been proven that this evaluation method works very well. For the final and last touch listening is best. For general production control, measurements as we always perform them are a good method to establish consistent manufacturing quality. To design excellent sounding products is the art of clean, pure and very accurate listening combined with a high technical standard about what makes or breaks the product. Therefore I am convinced that consumer cables for example can hardly ever have authentic sound quality when they are produced in endless runs in big factories where the price per kilometre is the only consideration.

What is going on electrically and mechanically that changes over time during run in?

Your question can relate to both cartridges and electrical conductors. With cartridges it is mainly the flexibility of the suspension rubber, the flexibility of the suspension wire and the final polish of the stylus. The properties of the electrical conductor are mainly based on manufacturing this flimsy thin wire (15 – 20 microns). Running in means a higher flexibility of the suspension rubber. This has some effect on tracking ability but mainly on the reproduction of the midrange and the smoothness of the top range. Especially detail and resolution improve. Regular run-in time for cartridges is between 50 – 100 hours. There are two ways to construct and tune a cartridge. Either the tuning is such that the first 50 – 100 hours sound correct and afterwards it gets more aggressive; or the tuning is fundamentally under-tuned and good after 100 hours. This is what we mainly do with the higher priced cartridges.

With cables we also know run-in time. This has to do with the bridging between elements in the conductor. After break-in these conductive bridges can break as soon as you move the cable. This happens very regularly when equipment is moved or the room is vacuumed. Cables which don’t move regularly sound better. That is the main reason why loudspeaker cables on special (mostly also expensive) lifts sound better. Movement despite vacuum cleaning is less. Cables suffer from mechanical defects thanks to careless high-speed production, chemical actions and metal fatigue. The last happens with the coil lead-out wires in cartridges especially where these wires are very tightly fixed to the magnet or other supporting internal parts. Some manufacturers do this on purpose to limit life expectancy. The main target of the 3T project was to avoid run-in time and
any aging.

How can a customer identify when a cartridge is nearing the end of its useful life and will need servicing?

Most cartridges start to sound unbelievably good just before they give up their ghost assuming we talk natural death and not accident by the cleaning lady. The regular defect is a stylus wear creating more vinyl dust on the cartridge. The suspension rubber too is subject to problems. When the composition is wrong, it hardens and flexibility dramatically reduces. This creates higher forces between stylus and groove to again cause accelerated stylus wear. Reduced tracking ability always generates distortion at higher modulations and higher frequencies. A standard stylus is good for about 1000 hours. The VDH #1 can play for around 3500 hours due to its special diamond grinding technology. And the good news is that stylus replacement with Van den Huls costs a fraction compared to what having to replace a complete cartridge costs as is common for several manufacturers who offer no retipping services.  

Van den Hul website
Definitive Audio website