For millions of years mankind lived just like the
Cluster One: Clearaudio Insider Gold Cartridge
by Steven Rochlin
Last month I reviewed a killer bang-for-the-buck phono stage. Well this next review is almost totally in the opposite analogue extreme. OK, it is more along the lines of "I hit the lottery and want something totally awesome." For a music lover like me whose lowly, almost-thankless, and always scrutinized job it is to be a reviewer, it's beneficial to hear the best yummies out there. After all, to judge properly how a component reproduces music, you must know what the ultimate stuff can do, in my humble opinion. Knowing how the best components reproduce music gives one a better gauge as to how good lower-priced yummies may be. Ya know, sometimes life brings opportunities your way. Well it just so happens that one of my good friends wants me to re-tweak his system and add a few toys to it. One of these toys was none other then the highly acclaimed Clearaudio Insider Gold cartridge, which will set a dude back about eight big ones. No, not eight hundred. I mean eight BIG ones ($8,000)! WAIT! Please don't leave. Even if you can't afford such a cartridge, don't you owe it to yourself to understand what's possible? Please come with me into never-never land as we learn just how one of the best, if not the best, cartridges in the world reproduces music. Oh yeah, anyone who loves Pink Floyd might also get a kick outta this review too.
Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when
we were young
What makes this cartridge something special? Many, many things. What first usually gets folks' attention are the gold coils used. Most manufacturers use copper, some use silver (like for my Audio Note Io-2 for example). Clearaudio uses extremely fine gold wires which are lightly coated with lacquer! The magnet structure is also unique in that it's very well balanced, not only side to side but also front to rear too. There's a good reason for this: The cartridge totally eliminates the usual cantilever suspension! The gold coils are directly connected to the cantilever which helps to possibly eliminate the reduction in transparency that normal-suspension cartridges can suffer from. Top this all off with the Trygon II needle, whose shape was decided upon after Clearaudio studied many different shapes of the walls of vinyl records. Simple as that may sound, many manufacturers choose other shapes for various reasons. In my humble opinion, it makes sense to use the properly sized "peg" to fit in the correct "hole." Extremely high tolerances are demanded by Clearaudio for the Insider Gold, and this is also called their Tolerance Field Technology (TFT). Lastly, an extremely expensive ($2,000 a pound!) solder made of Idium is used. Because the coils are made of a noble metal (gold), corrosion shouldn't be a problem and Clearaudio feels that under normal usage the owner should receive about ten years with this $7,800 cartridge (with a retipping at about five years, which as of this writing costs $3,800). Each cartridge is tested and measured at the factory, and the findings accompany each cartridge.
Her love rains down on me easy as the breeze.
Initial setup was actually very easy. The included instructions seem to mainly be in German, yet there are quite a few photographs and some informative sections in English. Once you get your nerve up to carefully mount this expensive unit (even my fingers shook from being nervous for a few moments), you simply set the VTA, align the cartridge and set the tracking force. Included in the instructions of the Insider Gold is a suggested tracking force of 2.2 grams. Each cartridge is personally tested (as mentioned above) and Clearaudio supplies you with their humbly recommended tracking force! The U.S. distributor, Joseph DePhillips, also suggests you have the arm a few degrees higher than parallel. These suggestions were absolutely correct in my system! The suggested 2.2 grams tracking force sounded the best to my ears in my music reproduction system, and that's where she stayed during this review.
During the initial break-in, the imaging was wonderfully wide and deep with no squashing towards the rear of the front soundscape. Some lesser cartridges seem to give you a type of cone effectas the stage gets deeper, the rear soundscape width gets narrower. With the Insider Gold this wasn't the case even during break-in. The only thing that irked me was a slight raspiness in the upper midrange. After about eight albums or so this pretty much went away and the music began to sing! So much so that I forgot about how much time passes until my stomach started to grumble. Maybe during this review I shoulda put a snackkie bar in my listening room!
Another aspect of this cartridge is that the music almost felt slower. It wasn't slower. The fact is the space between the notes was more, which brought about this feeling. So what's the skinny here? Well, the inner resolution was higher due to being a faster-responding cartridge than my usually Audio Note Io-2 (which is considered by some to be among the best). Could this be due to the unique construction and lack of conventional suspension with this Clearaudio cartridge? And the music played on.
You can lose yourself this night.
I'm Wearing the Inside Out
After all the break-in was over, it was time to sit down and take in all the glory we call music. From all the previous music enjoyed during break-in, I just knew there needed to be something really special to analyze this cartridge. WARNING: Some of the music used to evaluate this cartridge is not currently commercially available. Though if you have the ways and means to purchase this cartridge, odds are you already have, or can purchase, the no-longer-available yet highly praised music to enjoy with it. I did also use commercially available tunes too. Please understand that sometimes in life one can't be bothered with limitations. Hey, if you were in my shoes what would you do?
OK, it was time to break into my secret stash of direct-to-disc recordings. The highly sought-after and well-respected For Duke (M&K RT-101) hit the table as it was time to "Take the 'A' Train." WOW! The band began to rip along nicely. Then when the trombone solo started to play I was in rapture. Very few cartridges get the delicate tonal balance of the trombone really right. Not only was the sound of the initial attack very realistic, the way the horn vibrates as the raspiness of the instrument unfolds was just right in relation to harmonics. If you've ever heard a really good trombonist, you'll realize just how gutsy this instrument can sound! Unfortunately not many reproduction systems get this right (let alone find a trombonist with that great chutzpah). Before I knew it the trumpet solo began and was kinda depressed that the trombone solo ended, yet it was just as joyous to hear the trumpet solo. All the while the band was groovin' and movin', which kept my toes a tappin'. OK, it wasn't just my toes that started moving, but this is a public cyberzine for all ages, so...
When the going got tough, it was easy to hear all the instruments too. The speed and balance of the reproduction were awe-inspiring. Look ma', no flabby bass or screechy highs. The harmonics, oooh the wonderful harmonics as the band went full tilt! Because of the well-balanced frequency response of this cartridge, the natural harmonics sounded wonderful. They actually sounded a bit better than my fave Io-2 cartridge. As for imaging, it was the best I have encountered in any vinyl-based music reproduction system!
On "Satin Doll," it hit me how the humanness of the musicians was, like, there, dude. Because of the speed, balance, clarity, and imaging, the Insider allowed all those subtle human traits to show. Maybe one musician came in just a tad early (or too late) with the rest of the band. One musician might put slightly more effort into one note instead of another. Then there's the flair and flamboyantly robustness a musician may show during his solo. It was all there as I've never heard before. Now, my current reference, the Audio Note Io-2, is no slouch here mind you. Just not quite this good. Details, details, details. The Io-2 gets about 90% or more right, yet when you add that other 10% it's like, well, eargasms! Now for the bad news: Virtually any multi-miking of any kind is also clearly audible. It's a double-edged sword, my friends. The music itself may sound wonderful, though when you know how a jazz band should sound performing in real space any nasty multi-miking and mix-board panning might destroy the reproduction in my humble opinion. Maybe it's time for something more purist like, say, classical music.
Going to an available pressing, it was time for the Classic Records reissue of Hi-Fi A LA Española (SR90144). Here's some wonderful classical music performed with heart and soul. In the beginning of the fist song, "Brazilian Sleigh Bells," it was easy to hear all the various sleigh-bell players enter, and then joined by maracas. The sleigh bells sounded very defined within the left of the front soundscape and also in the bells themselves. In fact there were sleigh bells literally on my front door, and I hear them multiple times a day! With lower-resolution cartridges, the quantity of bells seems to be diminished. The Insider Gold has so far had the highest quality and quantity in reproducing this. On song two of the same side, "Andalucia," the tambourine is so defined I could hear how a few of the metal plates lagged behind the others as the musician played them. This actually allows one to hear the small metal pieces that make up the total sound of the tambourine. Well, I've played the tambourine, so maybe I'm getting a bit too technical here, huh?
Well, let's forget all this soundstage stereo stuff and multi-miking. Time for glorious mono. Yes, mono! Personally there are many highly enjoyable recordings only available in mono. Gimme great mono over botched-up stereo any day of the week. So after putting on the Miles Davis Quintet Cookin' (Analogue Productions, The Great Prestige Years APJ 035) it was time to enjoy my fave, "My Funny Valentine." At first I felt it might be just a tad slow. Like before, I quickly realized that what was happening is that the acoustic bass was so resolved that there was more space between the notes. The music sounded very relaxed and played with an ease that was like my reference Audio Note Io-2 cartridge, just more so. This is when I realized that the lower frequencies reproduced by the Insider Gold were the best I've heard in my system! The inner clarity of the acoustic bass was amazing!
Less equals more. Less lower-frequency response anomalies equal mo' music! Just like with For Duke, the humanness was more there too due to the inner resolution of the Insider Gold. It was easy to follow the subtle yet very important inflections/expressions of the musicians. This also added to the boogie/tap yo' feet/git up 'n dance factor. It was easy to hear Red Garland's tasty piano licks and small syncopated rhythms throughout Cookin'. The cartridge changed my humble opinion of Red from being a very good pianist into considering him among that rare breed of amazing musicians. It's amazing that small inflections and free-flowing rhythmic abilities can make any good musician be considered a great musician.
After a few more records I just wanted to hear this baby jam! Quickly pluckin' down Prodigy's recording Fat of the Land, it was time for slammatocious synthetic rhythms. As the song "Breathe" began to play, my soul forced me into slam dancing using my listening-room walls! Taking a, um, breather during the bass solo it was easy to hear how clean and fast the lower frequencies of the music were reproduced. Ya see, we're talking very fast
synthetic bass lines here. If your system in any way can't keep up all you'll hear is flubaflubaflub instead of buh-buh-buh. Again it was not only cleanly reproducing the individual notes, but also the small volume changes within them. Some cartridges also seem to obscure the much lower-level guitar and effect-laden voice that plays during this passage, but not the Insider Gold. Here's especially where, system-wise, the men are separated from the boys.
The next day I was in a relaxing mood and decided to play something no review (by me) would be complete without. Of course this review couldn't go without a good listen to the girl of my dreams, the one who steals my heart, my soul... my all. The MoFi reissue of Billie Holiday's Body and Soul (MFSL 1-247). In the middle of the title song, I started to cry. When she sounds this good there is just something in my soul that makes me cry. No, no, they can't take this away from me. I'm all for Billie, body and soul. In fact my eyes were a bit blurry from this side and while flipping the record it slipped and crashed down on the turntable's platter (YIKES!). Needless to say I started to cry more. My prized and only copy of this record was irreversibly partly ruined. It's my own fault, yes, but this shows how deeply the music affected me. As soon as I can scratch up some fundage, another copy will be bought (no pun intended as it still hurts to see the large scratch on this album).
Outside the rain fell dark and slow
A Great Day For Freedom
What really sets the Clearaudio Insider Gold cartridge apart from the other cartridges I have on hand (and have heard over the years) is that my music-reproduction system is very, very accurate yet has just the right mix of musicality. Accuracy in and of itself can be good, yet sometimes it seems to be at the expense of the feelings being conveyed within the music. Musicality in and of itself is good, yet sometimes the details within the music get obscured. Cello Music and Film systems, for instance, seem to have high accuracy yet every Cello system I've heard lacks portraying virtually any human emotions, in my humble opinion. Some of that old fave tube gear has musicality to the extreme, yet those inner details may be obscured. Finding a balance within the two extremes has been a lifelong goal for me. As a musician myself, my wishes are to hear all the delicacies within the musical instruments, yet also have the feelings of the musician transported into my humble abode. It's like the difference between musicians who only play the notes and others who play the music. Though I possibly haven't described in enough detail the uppermost frequencies, may I humbly say they are also among the best my ears have heard.
The high resolution of accurately reproducing the timing of the music is also a must. Where would reggae be without that subtle timing guitar upbeat groove? Could funk ever be funky limited to strict timing of the beats? As a drummer myself, it took me years to realize that extremely small differences in not only timing but also in volume levels give the feeling of a groove or playing "in the pocket." This is why electronic drum machines will never totally replace a live musician. Maybe this is also why vinyl seems to command more respect by some. The ear is an amazing device that sends signals to our brain. Scientists still don't know everything there is to know about the entire process. With the ability to enjoy what may be the edge of the art in music-reproduction gear, we may get closer to understanding just how good the human sense of hearing truly is and understanding how it works, too.
The Insider Gold has allowed me to hear more music, not just in resolution but also the emotions within the grooves as well. When the music is this good I can't help but ignore many of my other daily chores and bask in the glory. Sadly the Insider Gold now resides in my friend's system thousands of miles away, and this has caused a bit of emptiness in my soul. Until the gods foresee handing me down their fruits in life, this emptiness will probably remain for quite some time. With deep gratitude, it was kind of my friend to allow me the opportunity of enjoying his cartridge. For this I will always be grateful. Sometimes in life there just aren't enough hours in the day to enjoy the gifts music brings me. Savoring the colossal and joyous days, the musically fulfilled yet sleepless nights...
From morning to night I stayed out of sight.
Take It Back
Alas, all the fun ended when it was time to take this cartridge to its rightful owner. He's a friend of mine whose system consists of the highly praised yet no longer made Goldmund Reference Turntable with T3F tonearm (a setup which used will set cha back over $20,000). Setup was easy (once you know all the idiosyncrasies of the T3F arm) and right off the bat the owner was very pleased. A few tweaks and adjustment late that night by me while the owner slept brought even more performance in his system. Let's just say all the good stuff that was reproduced in my system was happening in his. Putting on big orchestral music had him bobbing in his seat, great jazz music had his toes a-tappin', and in the end let's just say when he put on an Ella Fitzgerald recording the music was so good he began to cry. Now all that's left for me now are great memories of beautiful music. One day she will be mine. Oh yes, one day she'll be mine!
took a heavenly ride
An Interview With Robert Suchy
Steven Rochlin: Robert, the Insider Gold was the best cartridge Ive heard in my system. What makes the Clearaudio Insider Gold so special?
Robert Suchy: Simply answered, precision.
SR: In what aspect?
RS: You can compare it like a Patek-Phillip. All the fine movement pieces on a handmade level. This is the same with the Insider. You know it takes five days to build an Insider, so you have the reasons for the high cost.
SR: One of the things I immediately noticed is that the inner transparency was amazing.
RS: This is also very simple. Because of our patented moving-coil system. Usually you have the coils sitting on one point, left and right on the cantilever. Our coils are symmetrically mounted on the cantilever. You have one coil in the front and one in the back. So geometrically the coils are further away from each other than other moving-coil cartridges. The key point is that the coils are arranged so that the coils are sitting balanced on the cantilever. Due to this reason, the magnets are also further away from the normal moving coil. Technically this, of course, leads to better channel separation and a much higher efficiency. There are also many smaller things which are also of influence. We use a special magnet material which will not lose its magnetic power for a minimum of 80 years, even when heated. Usually magnets lose their strength when heated. With our standards of precision, which is like the coils are sitting as precise as possible in the magnetic field, youre getting the highest technical and musical results.
SR: Yes, the channel separation was also the best Ive heard too. How did Clearaudio come up with this unique design in the beginning?
RS: It was about 22 years ago, and it all started with Peter, my father, who worked together with Dr. Weinz. They developed the Paroc stylus together. Peter saw me playing on the playground enjoying the teeter-totter. That night he woke up with the idea of the fully balanced moving-coil cartridge.
SR: And how did this design develop and improve over the years?
RS: Oh, the biggest improvements are that the materials are getting more precise. Also, we changed the stylus tip to the Trygon P2 because this needle is twice polished. Hence the P2. By the way, nobody else polishes their needles twice. So these are some of the steps in which the results bring you big improvements.
SR: How is such precision of winding the coils achieved?
RS: This is also a special territory. In the beginning we bought a special coil-winding machine from Switzerland, which was about $250,00DM, though it wasnt precise enough, so we decided to build our own. This machine is more mechanic in production and more efficient in precision as well. Right now were at the stage that we are winding the smallest 24-carat pure gold coils on this planet! We are also building coils for Seimens for hearing aids too! Seimens had troubles on their own and came to us because of our highest-quality coils. With hearing aids you also need high precision, depending on the size, windingsand of course the resistance must always exactly be the same just like with the Insider Gold cartridge.
SR: Since this interview is during the CES, I wont take up any more of your valued time. Thanks for sharing you time with me and the SoundStage! readers.
RS: Dont worry. Thank you very much for making time for me. Hope to see you again!
Copyright © 1998 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved