Assessment of performance was done using the very same four records picked for their excellent sound quality, very revealing nature and fact that I love the music. That final factor is critical. How would you ever assess whether the music draws you in more or less if you don't start with music which you love in the first place? I went through all four LPs in one sitting for each cartridge (but obviously on different days for various pickups), took notes and compared those afterwards to compile my write-up. As I said, not perfect but directionally correct.

The first record was Tarentule - Tarentelle by Atrium Musicae de Madrid under Gregorio Paniagua's direction [Harmonia Mundi HM379]. This disc of medieval music is a superb patchwork of instrumental textures with all sorts of acidic strings, dry percussions, great transient sharpness and magnificent staging both laterally and in depth. With the very best cartridges on hand, I could hear overlays of echoes from the recording venues. I could tell the difference between the body resonance of the various string instruments. This recording is particularly revealing of any treble compression and leading-edge emphasis, turning the potentially gorgeous recording into a painful and pale mess. The second record was Stravinsky's Firebird directed by Stravinsky himself. The record itself is an older Columbia original stereo pressing [MS6332] in very decent shape. It helps me assess how cartridges deal with groove noise. More importantly, it helps me get a good read on macrodynamics and compression—or lack thereof—as well as big orchestra tonal colors.

This disc also shows good staging and is one of the most engaging versions of the Firebird I know. Maestro Stravinsky seemed to have no issue taking liberties with the composer's score at times and provides insights into the music that you won't get anywhere else. If you find yourself 'tuning out', you know something is wrong with the replay system because this really is an edge-of-your-seat performance. For male voices and midrange resolution, the trusted Johnny Cash album American VI - ain't no grave gets me every time. It is an album where my emotional response level tells me all I need to know about playback realism. If you can make it through Cash's broken rendition of "Ain't no grave" unscathed, something's likely wrong with you. Female vocals came courtesy of Ella's Clap Hands, Here comes Charlie on Verve [V6-4053], unfortunately not an original pressing. Just so, the 200g Classic Records reissue is excellent and Ella's voice will reveal any harshness, leanness or imbalance in a cartridge's midrange response if any is to be heard.

With the context set, here come the findings. Keep in mind that they are system dependent and that some of the cartridges did not get the benefit of spending any extended period of time in my current system although I did own them in the past. Starting with the high-output $550 Dynavector 10x5 Mk5 which has been my cartridge of choice for the past two years, I had no issue homing in on its attributes. The 10x5 offers big bold macrodynamics, rich tones that are vivid and intense, weighty but not overly tuneful bass and overall is very easy to listen to. It is not the most resolved of the bunch, microdynamics and transients are slightly dulled but on male voices it is captivating thanks to a slightly emphasized upper bass. Surprisingly, it images quite well despite its somewhat lower resolving power, often better than the stock DL103 I felt. It is easy to set up, forget and enjoy. It makes old LPs listenable and does not emphasize groove noise too badly. Owners of this cartridge may feel I am dooming it with faint praise but the reality is that the 10x5 is a very reliable, no fuss high-output cartridge yet has also been increasing in price over the past few years. Although I will recommend it over any Grado alternative and pretty much pick it as my go-to high-output cartridge in the $500 range, the rest of this review will highlight that it may no longer be the automatic no-brainer choice it once was when still $150 cheaper. That said, if your only option is a high-output cartridge that is easy to love, this one is a prime candidate.

All the next cartridges are low-output models that required the addition of the Copla MC step-up amplifier in front of the Lounge LCR to provide enough gain and loading options. More details on both of those components are coming up in a dedicated review.

The Denon-DL103 [upper left] needs no introductions. Its qualities and weaknesses are well documented. Going from the 10x5 to the DL103 was like turning up the light centre stage and dimming the corners. In other words, you keep the superb tonal density of the 10x5 but provide inner illumination that gives more insight and separation in the midrange. The top end and bottom suffer in exchange by being less defined but not necessarily less extended. There is simply less information in that range. The major drawback versus the 10x5 though was the shrunken soundstage and reduced depth of stage. At times, especially on Ella's recording, the well-known upper midrange sheen also raised its head, making this recording a little hotter than it should be. The DL103 should really be loaded at 300Ω or more to give its best. That's the upper limit of where the Copla can go but I don't think it handicapped the DL103's performance. In the end, the L103 is a $200 cartridge with a flimsy highly resonant plastic body that wrecks havoc with the performance of what otherwise is a very mechanically sound cartridge. For a first foray into low-output cartridges and to get a great taste of that 'illumination from within' as the hallmark of MC cartridges, there is no better cheaper option. One should simply know that it is possible to do a lot better; and care should be given to picking a fairly forgiving phono preamp. The less than ruler-flat response curve, great macrodynamics, loose bottom end and amazing tonal colors make it a perfect pickup for modern rock and simple fun listening but not as much for accurate classical music reproduction.