Product: Dynavector DRT XV-1t
Manufacturer: Dynavector - Japan
Cost, approx: A very big lot - go ask your dealer (YMMV)
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: July 2010
Forgive me because now we're going to have on of my rambling introductions.
The DRT-1t is Dynavector's new flagship cartridge. Regular readers will know that I've reviewed and been a long term user of it's predecessors (both still in production) the DRT-1 and DRT-1s, each a hideously expensive piece of kit designed to push back the limits of analogue sound. Well the DRT-1t is insanely expensive. I know there are still more expensive cartridges out there, but when I tell you that the beast is more expensive than the Feickert turntable and SME V12 arm that I'm using for the test – combined – you can see what I mean.
This arms race of super cartridges has now reached stratospheric levels and the worst part is that you don't buy a cartridge and forget it – no, if you use it as intended you are merely getting the use of it for maybe a 1000 hours or so before it begins to lose its edge.
This means that such cartridges are not for the sort of audiophile who's prepared to save and save to buy a component at the limit of their budget in order to satisfy their hobby (like me) – no it means that only the wealthy need apply – these cartridges are for the people who go out and spend £100,000 on a turntable, maybe the same of speakers and amps.
So what is the point of putting such a cartridge in my 'little' system?
Curiosity... You see I believe hi-fi is very like tuning a car engine. When you tune an engine you are in essence trying to get as much air/fuel mix into the motor, burn it and then it out of the exhaust. Bigger engines produce more power because they suck and blow bigger volumes of air/fuel. High revving engines produce more power because the suck more air/fuel in faster and blow more exhaust gas out. I've just spent a fortune on my Elise motor having the head flowed so more air/fuel goes in/out and so on. However if at any point that flow is restricted it doesn't matter how good the rest of the flow is, it will lose power because of that bottleneck. So that mighty 500 bhp V8 can be crippled by an air filter too restricted, or by and inlet manifold with sharp curves, or a small exhaust – you get the idea. A 'bottleneck' anywhere will severely restrict the performance of the rest of the engine no matter how good it is.
I consider the art of hi-fi to be similar. Some have argued that the front end of a system is the dominant element 'rubbish in rubbish out', but I beg to differ. In my experience a great front end can be made to sound very ordinary when partnered with limited components elsewhere – a bottleneck anywhere will cripple the sound, my hi-fi adventures have had the advantage of allowing me to try a huge range of components, often well beyond my means and yet the system I now sit in front of is not only supremely satisfying for me, it is also balanced both in sound quality, and almost by coincidence by the price of the components involved. The front end of Dr Feickert Woodpecker/SME V-12 cost much the same as the Ayon Audio Crossfire, and my precious Loth-x Polaris would be in the same ballpark if they were still available.
I suppose you could say that the DRT-1t fits the pattern but for it's life span, but as I've mentioned my system is not it's natural home... What intrigues me is whether the cartridge is a potential bottleneck. As changing a cartridge – especially as I use a Dynavector Karat 17D3 as my regular cartridge – is unlikely to unbalance the system in the way a major change to amp or most frequently speakers can do, I jumped at the opportunity.
So if Dynavector are happy to loan one – why not!?
Dynavector's own phono stages and step-ups are current amplifying, and for the test I used both their own step-up and my own ESE Nibiru stage – again current amplifying and in the past a fine match for the other Dynavectors I've had here – and the best sounding stage I've heard.. The rest of the system I've mentioned. The SME V12 is a perfect match (and even on those £100,000 turntables would be tough to beat) and one of the easiest arms to optimise set-up.
The DRT-1t comes in a very pretty wooden jewel box, and with a solid stylus guard – though as with almost any cartridge I find the time of maximum danger the moment I fit or remove the damn thing – only the simple Shure V15 drop-down guard has proved anything other than liability in this household – indeed the only cartridge I've ever wiped the stylus off was a Dynavector whilst trying to fit the bloody guard!
But with the guard removed and disposed of fitting the cartridge was easy – the body is 'square' at the top for basic alignment, and the threaded body makes things less accident prone. The cantilever is terrifyingly exposed, jutting out nearly a cm from the body, but this also greatly simplifies alignment – hell if you can afford eight grand for a cartridge you can afford the odd mishap :-)
As always set-up is critical and I spend more time than healthy fiddling with alignment and I have to say the DRT-1t didn't seem unduly fussy, my only observation being that it seemed to like more VTF than recommended by Dynavector, and I settled for a quite heavy 2.6 grms in the end.
My hope was that the DRT-1t would be very nice, maybe a tadge better than the DRT-1s but really not a fundamental change from the 17D – a cartridge that always seems to punch over its weight and rarely gets it wrong. Well no... The DRT-1t, stone-cold and shiny new - not broken in - made a crushing statement the second it hit the first bit of vinyl I placed on the platter.
First the surface noise was lower, quite noticeable so – not always what you get with a sophisticated cartridge, sounding much darker with what clicks there were simply not catching your ear and totally disassociated from the music once it started to play.
Running the cartridge in increased its lead, but here's my attempt at describing what I'm hearing.
First off it's not possible to isolate one attribute. The immediate impact is of a bigger more open soundstage and an utter lack of any hint of grain. The openness was a clear step ahead of its predecessors even on some very old vinyl I dug out. Right now I've some Wishbone Ash on the platter, a disc I bought 30 years ago and the Dynavector is making it sound new. With 1500 records here – most of them past their prime this is a precious attribute. I saw the band live in 1979 and I'm in danger of a case of tearful nostalgia so I'd better move on...
'Nothing is perfect' I hear you cry, but honest guys (and gals if there are any) what do you say when something is so seamless and integrated from top to bottom. It's just so incredibly musical – if anything you could think it was slightly sugared, and then you'll put of some Kurt Cobain and it shreds the air like a knife. When I tested the DRT-1s I wondered if it was possible to drag anything else from the vynil groove - now I'm asking that question again.
I suppose the easiest thing is to say what it isn't... It isn't a cartridge that searches out detail and pushes it at you. I compared it to several cartridges in the £500 - £1500 range and the DRT-1t didn't miss anything that they produced – even the detail hound that is the Music Maker, but everything was presented in a delightfully integrated way. If you like that leading edge/hyper info sound then there are cheaper cartridges that will fit the bill – Audio Technicas at a fraction the price for one, and in the Dynavector stable the 17D misses very little. But the DRT-1t pulls at least as much detail, and presents it in the the context of a musical event placing these small details in their own particular space rather than, for example, hearing a 'ting' from the left hand tweeter. The control of detail in the soundstage is rock solid and continues regardless of the complexity, or the level of the track – perhaps it's this absolute, unwavering solidity of the music presented in front of you in a realistic 3d soundstage that is the most outstanding characteristic, and the one that makes the 'suspension of belief' necessary to forget that you are listening to a recording so much easier to maintain, it's also the thing most difficult to describe in a review. Oh how much easier to whitter on about the resin on the bowsstring of Yehudi Menuhin's Stradivarious and how it was obvious the recording was done in a more humid room than normal because of the tambre of the tympany - all that stuff relies on the fertile imagination of reviewers and systems that will pick out particular details. The DRT-1t isn't like this, it produces an orchestra, not the clatter of a clarinettist's keys...
Just a couple of examples...
One of my favourite test LP's is an old copy of the 2001 soundtrack – the first track being of course 'Also Sprach Zarathustra '. performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The opening is a hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment as the drone of a long organ pipe fills the room and rattles the window (forgive my ignorance on which it is, but I suspect 16 foot which is 32 Hz, but possibly lower). Few systems do this properly, frequently degenerating into a throbbing mess or just ignoring the fundamentals altogether (which is preferable!). The slowly swelling brass which comes from this foundation rises to an ear splitting crescendo and needs to have real bite and edge to work well. This very demanding cut usually result in the soundstage narrowing towards the centre as the level rises, lesser cartridges collapsing into Mono – Until now I suspected that part of this was down to the limitations of vinyl – I was wrong...
Then last night I sat captivated as Joni Mitchel sang 'Blue', the slight 'popping' of the mike, the octave jumps, the huge range from little girl to baritone, it's an evil track, cut at the centre of the disk and my copy is well used over the last 25 years – flawless.
And so it continues – I tried record after record and each just seemed to give their all, but with an uncanny realism, even Polly Styrene singing 'Bondage Up Yours!' seemed to have some hi-fi attributes to go with the manic energy. I could go on about all the discs I've listened to over the last month, but simply put, none have ever sounded as good, and never did the cartridge put a foot wrong, some disks really surprising me with what could be dragged from their surface. No cartridge has ever made such utterly natural music in my home. Believe me, I've tried very, very hard to trip the thing up, but I've failed.
You get the idea.
The DRT-1t isn't a revolutionary design, it's a refinement of the original DRT-1 with the devil being in the detail, and there's no question that it took the strengths of that design and built on them. The idea that the cartridge can be a bottleneck even in my lower high-end system (whatever that means) is something I had suspected, but I'd not expected it to be quite such an improvement. I'll say it again – this cartridge is both insanely expensive and as with all cartridges will have a limited life span, but in my system the difference it made over a fine £1000 cartridge was of the order of swapping a good £2000 amp for an £8000 single-ended amp. For those lucky audiophiles who can afford £100,000+ systems the difference may well be far more significant, that bottleneck all the more evident, and to buy something less exotic would be seling that investment short. But value judgements are irrelevant here, simply because if you need to consider value then you can't afford it. Some people will tell you that it's all a con, that much cheaper cartridges are at least as good, but that's not my experience. If cartridges lasted forever I could easily justify it's cost in a system like mine, but the on-going servicing costs (even with the exchange system offered by Dynavector) preclude all but the seriously wealthy, or seriously obsessed from applying; after all if you are willing to invest this sort of money into a vinyl system then it's going to get used a lot.
Pierre Lurne once said to me once that a normal transistor radio will give you 90% of available fidelity. You'll hear the lyrics, the tune, follow a bass line and have fun – it's something we forget too easily. Hi-fi is left fighting over the last 10%, the extreme high-end is left with the last 1 or 2%, how on earth can such slicing of the difference between the recording and reality be so important? I just don't know...
© Copyright 2010 Geoff Husband - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com