Thursday, 23 April 2015

Nagaoka U-Turn

A while back I wrote about my experiences with the Nagaoka MP11 cartridge. Perhaps my review was a tad premature. I should know from experience that I need to live with a new addition to my hi-fi set-up for some time before declaring my undying love. I've always been the same with women; there have been plenty of girlfriends in the past who, after a couple of dates, I convinced myself I could happily marry. As it happens, I've hardly married any of them. With something as important as a phonograph cartridge I ought to have known better than to rush to any conclusions.

I'm not one of those audiophiles who uses an oscilloscope, a spectrum analyzer and a bunch of graphs to determine the quality of my hi-fi. No, I prefer to use my ears, a stack of lovely vinyl and the hairs on the back of my neck. The only thing a graph will tell you is that you are badly dressed and will never have a girlfriend.

In short, my ears demanded that the Nagaoka be returned to its box, retired, put out to pasture. The more records I listened to with the MP11, the less I enjoyed the experience; the less I recognised it from all those glowing online reviews. To extend the girlfriend metaphor, it's like dating an attractive woman with whom, after a couple of dates, you realise you have no chemistry. There's no spark, no connection. The more you look for it, the more its absence jars and you wonder why your friends who fixed you up on the date were so enthusiastic about her. Actually, that analogy doesn't work, because there is nothing attractive about the boxy, beige Nagaoka, but it's true that I did find myself on edge waiting for that spark, for something about its performance to grab me. It seemed to suck the life out of every recording that it came into contact with; so keen not to colour the sound with added sparkle or warmth that it ambled through the record grooves announcing its dullness at every opportunity. What at first seemed like audiophile neutrality soon became the aural equivalent of damp creeping into a box of fireworks.

However I tweaked its set-up, the MP11 always seemed to have difficulty locating the groove at the start of a record, creating a rotation's-worth of anxious noise before stumbling into the run-in with a disconcertingly loud pop. And, in playback, when the end of a side approached, there would be just enough of a drop in sound quality to leave me in no doubt that we were headed towards those inner grooves. It's entirely possible that I never quite got the Nagaoka optimally set up, but I'm not convinced that a relatively low-cost cartridge should display such high-end fickleness if that's the case. You don't buy a Toyota and expect it to be as temperamental and high maintenance as a Lamborghini.

I have a new cartridge in my life now, but I've learned my lesson: although the early signs are that we may live happily ever after, I'll hold off saying more until I've got over that first-date infatuation. Watch this space.