Manufacturer: Nagaoka - Japan
Price: from € 60
Reviewer: Werner Ogiers - TNT Belgium
Reviewed: January, 2007
Funny how few vinyl-related manufacturers have disappeared since the advent of CD, not?
True, relative giants like Sony and Yamaha make turntables nor cartridges anymore, and high-enders like Levinson, Krell, and Accuphase also have withdrawn from that market, but most other cartridge builders, bar the odd Highphonic or Kiseki, still haven't bitten the dust.
Imagine my surprise then when I discovered that, after years of invisibility, Nagaoka not only still manufacture styli and cantilever assemblies for audio (alongside precision parts for other industries), but even haven't stopped making their own line of budget and mid-priced moving magnet pick-ups! While once in a while I detected MP-series cartridges on the market, I always assumed these to be New Old Stock. Not so! There's still a whole range, MP10 to MP50, spherical to fine line, aluminium to boron, peanuts to half-a-kilo-dough, standard mount or co-integrated with a headshell: you name it. But one has to look hard for them. Nagaoka never was an outfit big enough to trouble the likes of Ortofon and Audio Technica in their sleep.
The 'net, as always, helps. Googling well you'll see that these products are not unavailable in the UK, the Scandinavian countries, canada, and Germany, apart from Japan, of course.
Enter here the Nagaoka MP11, a virtually unchanged descendant of the eponymous budget-favourite of the early 80s. Pre-dating my own audio conscience this is a regular blast from the past, and a cheap one at that: 60 Euros.
The cartridge comes in a cubic white cardboard box which houses a clear plastic container with the actual payload as well as a tiny screwdriver and mounting hardware. Once liberated from its confines the MP11 proves the same chunky and large design of yore, in a rather drab beige-and-black colour scheme. This MM, or more precisely Moving Iron, with elliptical stylus on alu cantilever is specified for a 5mV output (5cms/s) into 47kOhms parallelled with 100pF (more on that later) and a fairly high compliance of 20*10^-6 cm/dyne static and 8*10^-6 cm/dyne dynamic, frequency not given (more on that later, too). Cartridge mass is 6.8g.
The mounting holes are not threaded (it would be unrealistic to expect this at this price level), but thanks to its square and straight sides and a fine building accuracy (see microscope pictures) aligning the MP11 in the Rega arm was a breeze. I set tracking force in the middle of the suggested 1.8-2.3g range, and VTA with the arm slightly tail down. (I came to the latter analysing the replay of 10kHz tones versus arm height, where a mild optimum was found for maximum output level of the fundamental and lowest distortion). There was just one small snag in that even with antiskate force set to maximum the cantilever still deflected somewhat to the right (seen from the front of the turntable). Strange, and I have no explanation for this. Yet.
Using the Hi-Fi News test record pink noise tracks (the frequency sweeps on that record, and for the matter on the Cardas record, are utterly useless!) I recorded the MP11's frequency response versus load capacitance. The manufacturer claims 20Hz-20kHz, but the measured result had a significant droop already above 1kHz, followed with massive peaking at about 13-14kHz. Such is typical for the MM breed, where the mid/treble losses caused by the mass and inductance of the stylus/cantilever/magnet/coil system have to be helped a hand with an explicit electrical resonance high up in the treble. This resonance is set up with the cartridge's internal series resistance and inductance, and the phono stage's parallel resistance (standardised at 47kOhms) and capacitance. That's why the correct capacitive termination is so important for moving magnets. Fail to do so and a haphazzard treble response is your share.
In the case of this Nagaoka the effects of loading border on the comical. For starters, the manufacturer recommends 100pF. Now, just one hundred picofarads is not a lot: in most cases the tonearm's cabling already will account for that much, leaving you to find a phono stage with zero input capacitance (which doesn't exist). But never mind, Nagaoka's recommendation is way off target anyhow. Have a look at the graphs: green is with a total of 150pF. Drooping midrange and aggressive peaking. Red, 250pF is nearly the same. In both cases is the specified response out to 20kHz not met, with the -3dB point at 18kHz or so. Increasing capacitance to (blue) 520pF flattens the response considerably, at the expense of the -3dB point moving down to a mere 16kHz. Going further to 620pF (yellow) kills the cartridge resonance entirely, the response now wonderfully flat to 13kHz before plummeting.
The choice is yours. If you have a preamp with adaptive loading you can use it here almost as a tone control. If you haven't: tough. I did my listening with the Dino, which netted about 220pF, cable included. (The graphs were made with a homebrew configurable preamp, followed with digital-domain filtering for RIAA and for de-pinking the tracks; this is not a set-up I can listen to in the lounge, hence my limitation to 220pF.)
The next graph is crosstalk. Nagaoka specifies 23dB and this spec is met indeed, with left-to-right clocking in at 22dB, and right-to-left with an astonishing 40dB. This asymmetry is not to worry about, at least not in a cheap cartridge. (Note: the spikes in all of the graphs find their origin in the test record used, they are not related to cartridge or arm resonances.)
The MP11 has a seemingly-supple suspension, the quoted static compliance being 20*10^-6 cm/dyne, and the dynamic one 8*10^-6 cm/dyne. In real life the 6.8g mass combined with the modified Rega arm resulted in a measured resonance at 7.5Hz. Calculating backwards this would imply a dynamic compliance of 20*10^-6 cm/dyne, and an even higher static one! Either the specifications are wrong, or there is something fishy going on with the manufacturing tolerances. Let's be lenient and assume the former, meaning that ideally a lighter tonearm should be used. However, the resonance is fairly well damped and the MP11 proved to be quite easy-going in use. It was certainly more stable and less jittery than could be expected, contrary to under-damped designs like some Grados.
Tracking then. This was outright impressive. The +12, +14, and +16dB tracks of the HFN record were played without any problem, with only mild buzzing on the +18dB torture track. So apart from the curious frequency response this Nagaoka is a very fine performer in the lab. Hats off.
The MP11 had the dubious honour to be the first cartridge to perform on my QX5 computer microscope's stage. The results are below and you can click any picture for an enlargement.
The photographs show a diamond of ordinary quality mounted on an aluminium cantilever with fine alignment accuracy. Likewise, the cantilever sits straight in its holder and suffers no visible azimuth error. This is all seemingly fine, but two things bothered me in use:
Firstly, when running in a groove the cantilever would flex to the right (as seen from the front of the tonearm), and only increasing anti-skate force to the maximum the arm could support brought it back the its center position.
Secondly, the high static compliance allowed the cartridge to sink deep down upon touching the record, the bottom of the stylus holder riding less than one mm above the LP's surface (at 2g tracking force). Not only can this make tracking warped records a hit-or-miss affair, it also made me worry deeply about the vertical orientation of the stylus in the groove, which, eyeballing it, just seemed wrong (but do keep in mind that my measurements did indicate a VTA optimum, so presumably all was well enough.) I would recommend handy owners of this cartridge to carefully sand away the lower part of the stylus holder to give it a little bit more clearance.
I can be short in this: this is a fine sounding cheap cartridge. It presented a wide soundstage with some depth, married to somewhat diffuse positioning and a sweet and laidback tonal balance. There was a certain lack of presence, remember that droop over 1kHz, but the sound never turned dull thanks to that peak at 13kHz. True, the latter led to a somewhat whitewashed and sizzly treble, but never really annoyingly so.
Bass initially seemed somewhat subdued, but prolonged listening revealed it to be of a quite detailed and controlled nature, reaching down deeper and clearer than expected. This is possibly the beneficial effect of that very low resonance frequency due to the excessive compliance, combined with a good internal damping.
Voices were portrayed in a friendly way, with some huskyness, never turning rough. Overall there were some papery colourations, and s-sounds lacked somewhat in control.
As many moving magnets this cartridhe has a high internal impedance (4900 Ohms is quoted for the resistive part) and thus the susceptibility to interference is higher than with moving coils. I experienced the odd bang or tick through my system, probably induced by the house's central heating system switching on or off. Good shielding and earthing seem to be mandatory to counter this.
The Nagaoka MP11 is an economic MM cartridge with fair-to-good measured performance, non-problematic handling (except for the low riding height) and an uncritical and friendly sound quality.
© Copyright 2007 Werner Ogiers - www.tnt-audio.com