Gramophone Dreams #29: Etsuro Urushi & Hana phono cartridges

We were playing some old, cherished black discs when my partner, bb (the 6′-tall Aries artist), declared, “With records you hear touch, and you are not alone.” Long pause. “Just holding the cover brings back memories—that’s their humanity.”

At the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in 2017, I walked into the Believe Fidelity room and, just inside the door, I stopped, closed my eyes, and examined the sound with my mind. What I heard was glowing and tactile—and occupied the room in an attention-grabbing way. I asked Believe HiFi’s principal “believer,” Joshua Masongsong, “What’s going on here?” He started talking about the speakers and amplifiers, but I wasn’t listening: I knew it was something else. So I sat down in the sweet spot and closed my eyes again.

On my way out, I whispered to Joshua, “Remind me, what’s the name of that cartridge?” That was my first encounter with the $5400 Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue moving-coil cartridge.

At RMAF 2018, I walked into Believe HiFi’s room and immediately felt the sound in the air. Once again, I sensed it occupying the room.

The more I listened, the clearer it became: This MC cartridge was doing something quite different than the Koetsus, Lyras, and Ortofons I was familiar with. But I couldn’t find words to describe what I observed. On my way out, I had to ask, “Listen, Joshua, I’m having strong feelings about this cartridge—may I please review it?”

In today’s audio world, an expensive, hand-built Urushi-lacquered phono cartridge packaged in a rice-paper-wrapped wood box is the aesthetic and commercial opposite of a computer-designed, mass-produced, wave-soldered, DAC chip.

That difference is what this story is about.

Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue
Etsuro Urushi’s Cobalt Blue cartridge sports an A7075 duralumin body, coated with cobalt blue Urushi lacquer, and weighs 8.1gm. Protruding from its glossy structure is a 0.4mm-diameter sapphire-pipe cantilever with an 80µm Microline diamond stylus and fine-wire coils of only a few turns. These scantly wound coils generate a low (3 ohms at 1kHz) output impedance and a low output voltage (0.25mV at 1kHz) and are magnetically coupled to a samarium cobalt magnet with soft-iron flux-director bits.

The $5400 Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue is the least expensive of three Etsuro MC cartridges jointly developed by Mr. Masao Okada, CEO/CTO of Excel Sound Co., Ltd. (footnote 1) and Mr. Etsuro Akiyama of Dai-ichi Shoji Co., Ltd. The middle-level Etsuro Urushi Burgundy is priced at $8400, while the Gold is $20,995.

MCs & SUTs
To me, the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue’s low source impedance and low output voltage are an invitation to experiment with high-quality moving-coil step-up transformers (SUTs).

My experience has been that MCs with SUTs deliver a quieter, subtler, more naturally articulated sound than active MC stages or outboard head amps, which can sound overstated, exaggerating the “coil-ness” of moving coils. Therefore . . .

At the beginning of my Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue auditions, I experimented with four moving-coil step-up transformers, each with a 1:10 turns ratio, each connected to the movingmagnet input of my Tavish Design Adagio phono preamplifier ($1790) or, alternatively, the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono stage ($750) with optional Linear Charging Power Supply ($650).

The Adagio has long been the axis mundi of my cartridge comparisons. Why? Because if I connect one record player to its moving-coil input and another to its moving magnet input, I can use a front panel switch to alternate quickly between the two inputs. This is heaven for cartridge comparisons because, for its moving-coil input, the Adagio employs a Jensen JT-44K-DX step-up transformer, which adds 20dB of gain to its 44dB moving-magnet input. As a result, I can choose between two transformer-coupled MCs at the flip of a switch.

There is, however, one problem: Unless I buy the SUTs from the same company that made the cartridge (Ortofon, Dynavector, and Denon, to name just three, make matching SUTs), it can be extremely difficult to choose the right one. On the surface, choosing a transformer seems simple: Choose the one with the turns ratio (1:5, 1:10, 1:20, etc.) required to achieve sufficient system gain. But in addition to gain, the transformer’s turns ratio plays a significant part in determining the load the cartridge sees. The rule states that impedance is the square of the turns ratio. For example, a 1:10 transformer delivers a 1:100 impedance ratio. When it’s fed into a phono stage with a 47k ohm input impedance (typical), that 47k will be divided by the impedance ratio (100) and become 470 ohms— which looks pretty good for a cartridge like the Denon DL-103, with its 40-ohm impedance and 0.3mV output.

But now there is another problem. To get the exact loads some cartridges specify, people often shunt the SUT’s primary or secondary windings with resistors. Unfortunately, this changes the resonant behavior of both the transformer and cartridge. (Remember, the reason we load a moving-coil cartridge is to provide electrical damping for the MC’s natural high-frequency resonance.) I avoid doing this.

Under dynamic conditions, transformers become complex inductive-capacitive beasts. My friend and master-transformer-winder Dave Slagle of EMIA always reminds me, “The transformer is not there to provide a specific load,” and I agree.

That is why I always experiment, listening for an even spectral balance and lack of dullness (loading down) or bright spots (ringing).

When the SUT-MC match is right, the bass is right, the midrange is clear, and, most important, the highs are relaxed and extended—not rolled off.

The first 1:10 SUT I tried was the Denon DL-103-specific version of the Auditorium 23 Standard ($995), a unit I use mainly with my own Zu/Denon and with my EMT TSD 75, with which it works exceedingly well. With both cartridges it generated stunning textures and elegant high frequencies as part of a relaxed but invigorating presentation. Despite my high hopes, though, the Auditorium 23 Standard did not sound quite right with the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue: It played lean and occasionally shrill. It was not properly damping the Cobalt Blue’s high-frequency resonance.

The second SUT I tried was the Bob’s Devices CineMag 1131 ($1195), which offers user-selectable turns ratios (1:10 or 1:20), and which I use mainly with Koetsu cartridges. It is always dead quiet, makes dense images, sings like a nightingale, and dances when the fiddler plays. It makes recordings feel quick and easy-flowing. With the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue, the Bob’s Devices transformer was a giant step up (no pun intended) from the Auditorium 23. The CineMag 1131 delivered a highly textured, detail-rich midrange, extended treble, and a beautiful, relaxed flow. It felt so right I had to force myself to take it out and try another transformer.

Next, I tried the Dynavector SUP200 ($2650), which features a “high permeability” core and was designed to handle source impedances down to 3 ohms. It played the Etsuro Urushi cartridge with extremely fine grain, strong presence, extraordinary transient attack, and nano-level resolution. I especially loved the energy the SUP200 delivered. I used it for days—until I tried the EMIA Phono.

Footnote 1: Excel Sound Corporation has been manufacturing moving-coil cartridges for more than 50 years.

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