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Lyra Dorian phono cartridge

[Lyra Dorian phono cartridge (click for Claudia)]
[Italian version]

Product: Lyra Dorian MC cartridge
Manufacturer: Lyra - Japan
Price: € 800

Reviewer: Werner Ogiers - TNT Belgium
Reviewed: October, 2007

Ever since Ken Kessler's 'Tell Lyra I Love Her' review of the original Lyra Clavis in the April 1991 Hifi News & Record Review did I want to sample something from this manufacturer: such were Kessler's words (*) that I got thoroughly seduced even before I ever met a Lyra in the flesh. Of course, back in those days poor students like me (I was running a Linn Axis with AT OC9 - flat earth disaster area!) could only dream of something like the Euro 1500+ Clavis. Which is what I did, only to forget about it as years went by. During that time I happily moved away from the OC9 to warmer-sounding cartridges (John Michell had introduced me to Koetsu, another unattainable for research assistants): Ortofon MC25FL, Benz Micro MC Scheu, and finally the Jan Allaerts MC1b. But hey, that last one costs well in excess of several current Lyra models, and thus the recent (well...) addition of the most-economic Dorian to the dynasty re-kindled my interest.

Fascinating company, Lyra Audio. Based in Japan, but headed by Norwegian Stig Bjorge and American Jonathan Carr it originally started out as Scan-Tech, trading hifi and making OEM moving coil cartridges for the likes of Audioquest, Spectral, and Linn. In the early nineties Scan-Tech launched its own line of MCs under the Lyra brand name, and somewhat later also got involved in the manufacturing and further development of the legendary, radical, and hyper-expensive Connoisseur Definitions phono preamplifier.

[Lyra Dorian in box (click for even more Claudia)] Today, Lyra Audio is a standalone entity (the trade activities were moved over to another company), making its own and OEM cartridges (all of them hand-built by cartrisan Yoshinori Mishima), the ever-evolving range of Connoisseur Definitions preamps, and the Japan-only Lyra Amphion line of affordable CD-player and amplifiers. Stig handles the business side of things, while Jonathan is responsible for all design work - cartridges and electronics - making him something of a true homo universalis in the audio world. Both nice people, too: I chatted with Stig for, oh, half a day at a Bristol Show, and Jonathan is very accessible through his presence on the web's better DIY audio fora: here we have an real ace designer who is not above liberally sharing his knowledge with the hobbyist community.

In order to give their new entry-level model qualities of their upper tier cartridges at a base price Jonathan Carr had to come up with two firsts for Lyra: contrary to all other pickups the Dorian is not fully built and tuned by Mishima, rather, part of the work is done by one specialised subcontractor. Likewise, the stylus is not the usual Ogura, but an off-the-shelf Namiki fine line, a standard component often used my other cartridge manufacturers under the names 'microline' or 'microridge'.

In addition to these acts of economy Lyra devised a new suspension mounting method that apparently was so successful that it trickled up to the higher models to yield the Argo i and Titan i ('i' for improved), effectively spawning a new technological generation for the brand. Perhaps a bit uncommon for an entry-level product to do so, but there are antecedents: the Tsurugi/Lydian laid the foundations for the Clavis and Parnassus, while the later entry-level Lydian Beta was the development platform for the single-piece skeletal body that would characterise all later Lyras. So it seems that the Dorian is merely continuing a tradition that even predates its mother company!

[Lyra Dorian suffering the Schoen treatment] The Dorian comes in a compact box together with a good stylus brush (similar to the one from Last) and bolts of three different lengths. Apart from the colour the Dorian itself looks exactly like the more expensive Argo: a nude design built for structural rigidity in that it consists of one single piece of machined aluminium. Also a modern design, as unlike most other moving coils there are no pole pieces, and the field is generated by two tiny neodymium disc magnets, one behind the armature, one in front of it, suspended in a plastic front piece: this is about the farthest you can get from the classic SPU architecture while still belonging to the breed of moving coil cartridges! The armature is a square plate of permalloy, and carries three layers of copper coils (other Lyras have one or two layers) wound for a higher than usual output: 0.6mV at 5cm/s, sourced from 10 Ohms impedance. This assures a good signal to noise ratio from most preamplifiers.

I found this a thoroughly thought-through design, not just for performance but also for alignment (which puts an upper limit to performance) and daily handling. The threaded holes and the wide upper part of the body, with plenty of straight sides, make mounting it a breeze, while the front allows my trusted Schon method of visually-assisted alignment. This is a far cry from other 'nude' designs such as the Benz Glider. Heck, even my Allaerts, a traditional boxed design, is more difficult to use! The Dorian's rhodium-plated cartridge pins are long and slightly pointed, assuring a good mating with the most reluctant of arm clips. Finally the stylus protector is a wonder, as long as you sit in front of the cartridge while slipping it on. This truly is, in all respects, a cartridge for the twentyfirst century, which is probably why Lyra also market a mono version of the Dorian. This Dorian mono shares the body, colour, and stylus with its stereo sibling, but has a different coil, resulting in a lower output and thus presumably also in a somewhat different character in sound!

Talking Measures

Most cartridges rely on a resonance in the treble region to compensate for a mechanical rolloff with increasing frequency. With moving magnets this is an electrical resonance, defined by the cartridge's self inductance and the cable and preamplifier input capacitance. With moving coils this resonance is mechanical in nature, i.e. largely independent of electrical loading. Some manufacturers try, and succeed, in putting this resonance in the ultrasonic region. Examples are Benz and Allaerts. Such cartridges have a frequency response that slowly droops towards 15-20kHz, perhaps rising slightly after that.

Other cartridges put their main resonance firmly between 10 and 20kHz. This then results in a response that peaks significantly in the musical treble. In the past I've always found this a questionable practice, preferring cartridges with a flat (rare!) or slightly rolled-off response. Only lately I've revisited my opinion, taking into account the numerous losses that the treble signal incurs in its path from cutting to pressing to playing LP records. A rising cartridge response may not be entirely faithful to the Book of High Fidelity, but it does make listening to old or bad pressings more interesting!

Lyra Dorian frequency response

Lyra have always belonged to the camp of peaky cartridges, and so then does the Dorian. I recorded the Hifi News test record noise tracks to a Tascam DV-RA1000 (96kHz sampling rate), and after compensation for the -3dB/octave slope of pink noise a 8192-point FFT gave the above frequency response: the for MCs typical slight suck-out at 4kHz, and then a big peak of +7dB around 17kHz. (The steep roll-off above 20kHz is on the record; the plateau around 200Hz probably as well: it pops up with all cartridges I try to measure.)

Lyra Dorian infra-sonic response

After downsampling to 6kHz the same pink noise track allows a 8192-point FFT to zoom in on the infra-sonic region of the spectrum (lateral modulation, mono). Here we see a marked cartridge-arm resonance at 10Hz, peaking to a rather high +10dB relative to 100Hz. The latter seems to be inconsequential as in practice the cartridge sat firmly in the groove and handled very well in my Rega tonearm.

Lyra Dorian channel separation

Using similar methods, on different tracks, gives us crosstalk versus frequency. The Dorian proved to be a champion in this discipline, bettering even the Jan Allaerts MC1b with not just more than 36dB of channel separation at 1kHz, but with nearly the same high separation right up to 8kHz: the best I've ever seen. This, together with the left and right channel residues being virtually identical, indicates that the total effective azimuth (mounting, arm, and cartridge build accuracy) were nearly spot-on. This is all very encouraging and, sadly, a sight not often seen with hand-made cartridges.

Lyra Dorian tracking

Tracking performance was a mildly curious affair. The +12dB, +14dB, and +16dB tracks fared very very well, without the slightest trace of buzz audible, but the +18dB torture track almost spat out the needle. You can see this in above picture which combines two 300Hz cycles of each of the tracks.

Lyra Dorian distortion

This fine playback of all but the most severe modulations is also reflected in the distortion measurement (see figure). The second harmonic for 300Hz at +14dB is 40dB down, or 1%: a fine result. For +12dB is it a little bit better, for +16dB a little bit worse. This cartridge will coolly replay anything you throw at it!

Listening to the Lyra Dorian

[Lyra Dorian phono cartridge finally in action] Allow me to be short: this cartridge is very very good indeed. Yes, the rising response in the treble is audible, but rather than sticking out, this just serves to shine a light on the lower and mid regions, which are exceptionally clean and clear. The treble itself is never harsh or aggressive, and in fact its relative abundance helps injecting some life in the many dull eighties pressings I have, while it never takes good pressings over the edge.

The overall tonal balance is lighter and leaner than anything I've had here since the original AT OC-9. This is understandable: hating bright and thin sounds I only ever seek out neutral-to-warm cartridges. However, while no-one would ever call the Dorian 'warm', I still liked its tonal balance. The reason is that the bass is remarkably powerful and agile, and while the midrange lacks some of the body and lushness of my Allaerts, it sounds very solid and substantial, and vocals are rendered in a very nice and realistic manner. So it may be a bit lean, it definitely is not anorexic or bleached-out.

The full spectrum sounds as a whole: detailed, without artifice, and also without bloom or overhang. This brings a remarkable clarity to the sound, and the overall effect is akin to digital. Digital-done-right, I mean. Musical climaxes are handled in the cleanest way, explosive and without any congestion. Compared to this my Benz MC Scheu (of similar price, but admittedly mine is now nearing 6 years of age!) sounds polite and confused.

I already mentioned the really powerful, extended and well-defined bass, but in general dynamics were very good, too. This is a lively cartridge that makes music sound like, well ..., like something performed by living beings busy doing something they love to do. I think this 'life' is more relevant to our perception of recorded music than tonal balance, so if there is a key to the Dorian's performance then it probably is this.

Stereo images were somewhat compact, both in width and in depth. Placement in that space was excellent, and once in a while the Lyra sounded truly big, but my own JA MC1b never sounds less than grand, in a cinemascopic kind of way. Mind, that MC1b also costs three times grander than a Dorian, so ...

Tracking was wholy unproblematic, and the Dorian suited the Rega RB-300 arm well: the stylus never felt less than totally secure in the groove, and there was no urge to move over to the SME IV arm. Blemishes on damaged records were handled with a lightning-like speed, emerging like bright but short 'tic's and not like drawn-out over-hung 'clank's.

Overall I found this Lyra a very musical and inviting performer that tonally suited my system very well. I was very impressed with its common-sense approach to all things cartridge. Sonically the Lyra's performance is very good for the asking price. I found it significantly bettered my Benz Micro MC Scheu (old model, 1.6mV), and if you allow my aural memory to speak, then it'd say that the Dorian would do the same to the Shelter 501 MkII I tested and liked a couple of years ago.

In the press ...

The Dorian was reviewed in the Hi-Fi World September 07 issue. David Price used a Note Products PhoNote tube phonostage and (probably) Michell GyroDec and SME 10 turntables, and awarded the Lyra a top score of five globes, praising its detail and incisiveness, but explicitly warning about its 'not harsh but ... strongly lit' treble. He found mounting 'scary business' , and on older and worn records that 'it shouts out snap, crackles and pops from the rooftops', but named it a 'giant killer' nevertheless. The measurements are in line with mine: peaky treble, excellent channel separation, low distortion. Incidentally, the same issue features a very positive review of a tricked-out Technics SL-1200 on which the Dorian serves in an Audio Origami RB-250 arm. (But why am I typing this? As fate wants it the Dorian review presently is downloadable on Hi-Fi World's preview site: Dorian, Technics page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4.)

In Hi-Fi+ issue 39 Richard Foster has a look at both the stereo and mono Dorians. Foster is a Lyra regular as he has owned through the past decade a Clavis, Parnassus dc/t, Helikon SL, and Titan. With this background he is 'quite shocked at how awfully good they (both Dorians) are'. He likes the good separation of instruments, lack of congestion, musical integrity, and fine depth. Foster also remarks they are 'a little up-front sounding' and 'open and airy while offering lightning-fast transients and a sound that's a little on the cool side', using a Herron VTPH-1 tube phonostage, at 47 kOhms, and (I think) a big VPI. He concludes by calling both cartridges major bargains.


Of all the cartridges I've met so far this one made one of the very best impressions, and not just because of its quality of sound, which is truly brilliant. There are also the excellent lab results, indicating a near-perfect precision of assembly, and the smart design of body and stylus protector, making alignment easy and handling safe. The Dorian may be a bit wild, but it is certainly not gray: this is a wonderful cartridge in all respects!

(* KK is no Einstein or Edison, but he sure is the audio press's equivalent of Ovidius. It took me almost two decades to see how much more we need this than yet another labcoat reviewer like me.)

This boy's listening toys

  • turntable: Michell Gyro SE with subchassis-mounted Maxon DC motor
  • tonearm: Rega RB-300 with Incognito wiring and Michell Tecnoweight
  • phono preamps: AQVOX Phono 2 Ci MkI, Trichord Delphini MkII
  • line preamp: DIY (Panasonic pot with 2SK389 FET buffer, shunt-regulated)
  • power amp: LFD PA0
  • loudspeakers: Quad ESL-63 on stands
  • furniture: Tabula Rasa Basis 600 and Basis Custom
  • cables: red interconnects, transparent speaker wires, DIY shielded mains cables

© Copyright 2007 Werner Ogiers - www.tnt-audio.com

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