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Product: XX-2 MKII MC Cartridge
Manufacturer: Dynavector - Japan
Cost: (in UK) £995...
Reviewer: Paul Eros (paul (at) tnt-audio.com)
Reviewed: May, 2007
Regular readers of TNT Audio will be familiar with Geoff Husband's review of the Dynavector XX-2 Moving Coil cartridge. In that review Geoff said "The XX-2 is a stunning cartridge. It's far from a cheap or even mid market cartridge but for 40% of the cost it gives 90% of the fidelity of the DRT and a similar presentation. It'll fit any quality arm and gives a totally unflappable performance."
I never heard the XX-2 Mk I, nor have I had the pleasure of the DRT-1 or 1's but when it came time to find a replacement for my Lyra Helikon I included the XX-2 Mk II on my short list.
The Lyra is a great cartridge and my example had ample life left in it but changes in my system had conspired to highlight a dry presentation that began to limit my enjoyment of the music produced by this, otherwise, excellent cartridge. That and its fussiness about the quality of vinyl passing beneath its stylus tip. As I purchase a significant amount of used vinyl this is an important consideration.
I decided to try the XX-2 MK II in my home system so made a call to Mark Baker at Origin Live and he duly arranged for a cartridge to be shipped to me from the UK importer, Pear Audio.
The cartridge is presented in a neat black box, firmly mounted to a metal sheet and protected by a plastic
"bubble". This arrangement is functional, if a little uninspiring when compared
with other manufacturers who produce lovely wooden presentation cases. At least you
know with the Dynavector that the money was spent on the cartridge and not on
A word of warning: be careful when unpacking the cartridge. Although a stylus guard is included, for some reason it is not fitted to the cartridge for shipping. Rather it comes packed in a small plastic bag, together with a stylus cleaning brush (of the short-stiff bristle variety) mounting screws and cartridge tags. Before demounting the cartridge from the packaging I fitted the stylus guard. This is a rather flimsy affair, nowhere near the standard of stylus cover fitted to Lyra cartridges, but it is functional and provides suitable protection for the cantilever and stylus. Personally I think that a cartridge of this cost and manufactured to such exacting tolerances could be fitted with a more substantial guard. Fitting an expensive cartridge is nerve racking enough in my opinion.
The first thing that you notice about this cartridge is that is bears more of a physical resemblance to the XX-1. Whilst the XX-2 Mk I looked very "esoteric" clothed in its skeletal type, cast aluminium body and with exposed coil assembly, the MkII is altogether more workman like in appearance. The silver body work has been replaced with a more utilitarian looking black body and this gives the cartridge a "bluff" heavy looking appearance. In reality the cartridge is less than 1 gram heavier than its forbear. The body is machined from 7075 aluminium (according to the blurb supplied by Dynavector this is the hardest available) and the whole cartridge weighs in at only 8.9 grams. However, it retains the "open body" style with the coil and magnet assembly exposed when viewed from beneath. Dynavector claim that the new body work imparts greater rigidity to the assembly and benefits the overall presentation of the sound.
The change of body work marks the most significant change over the original. The Mk II retains the "magnetic flux
damper" feature. Masaaki Sasa, Sales and Technical director for Dynavector Japan,
told me the cartridge has been improved over the MKI with a more idealized design
of the magnet circuit. Longer size Alnico magnets are also employed. The front
yoke also receives attention and Masaaki claims that the profile has been improved.
The front yoke, magnet and rear yoke construction being bolted together using a hexagonal headed screw. The solid boron cantilever is fitted with a Pathfinder Line contact stylus and once again PCOCC (pure copper ohno continuous casting process) is used in the coils. Overall output is increased to a slightly higher 0.28mV. These don't seem like significant changes but Dynavector claim that the result is an "advance in sound quality" over the MKI.
Mounting the cartridge into my SME was simplicity itself. The body is threaded for the supplied mounting bolts, which I found to be perfectly serviceable. You also get two small silicon washers which I used to provide some isolation between the head of the mounting bolt and SME IV head shell. Whilst I only mounted the cartridge in my SME I would suggest that the shape of the cartridge, with its straight sided body, would make alignment in arms using slotted head shells relatively easy. That solid black body work also provides something substantial to hold onto whilst manipulating the cartridge.
Tracking weight range is given as 1.8 - 2.2 grams and I initially started with a
down force of 2.0 grams. The only reason for this is that it's smack in the middle
of the recommended range, it seemed as good a place to start as any. After
listening to a few tracks I felt that the sound stage seemed rather "sat on".
Furthermore it was a little too "phat" for my liking and a sure sign that tracking weight is set too high. I began reducing down force by 0.05 gram increments and eventually settled on 1.85 grams. This gave the best balance between bass weight and a smooth extended treble.
The included fact sheet recommends a load impedance of 30 ohms. My Trichord Delphini phono stage offers a choice of impedance settings with the closest to the recommended setting being 33 ohms. So that's where I set it.
With everything set up I sat back to do some listening.
Hmmmm….......this was, to say the least, a little disappointing. The Lyra Helikon always excelled at imaging, with instruments and performers "locked" into an acoustic space. It also dredged up high levels of both macro and micro dynamic detail. With the XX-2 in place of the Lyra I wasn't getting anywhere close to the imaging I had become accustomed to.
There was also an apparent lack of air and extension at the top end, whilst the bass, though deep and extended, was not as controlled as the Lyra. Don't get me wrong, the sound it made was pleasant enough, it just wasn't doing what I expected of a cartridge costing £5 short of a grand. This certainly wasn't the cartridge that Geoff Husband had waxed so lyrical about. Time to rethink the set up....
By optimizing the load impedance settings on the Delphini I had managed to balance the sound of the Helikon.
In general the higher load impedance settings gave a
more airy and involving sound, with a well extended top end. Going too high, however, could
add edge to the mid band frequencies. Female voices in particular could suffer from
excessive sibilance. I found that 100 ohm loading of the Helikon provided the best balance
of virtues. Could a similar effect be produced with the XX-2 Mk II I wondered?
Interestingly, whilst the technical sheet that comes with the cartridge recommends a 30 ohm loading, the Dynavector web site recommends load impedance of >30 ohms. The Delphini offers load impedance settings of 33, 100, 1k or 47k ohms. I found that I could detect differences with all load settings used with the XX-2, suggesting that the cartridge is sensitive to this aspect of set up. This is an important point and anyone investing in this cartridge should pair it with a phono stage that provides this option. Personally I preferred the 1k ohm setting. At this level the sound snapped into focus and exhibited good balance. The bass retained weight and extension but was now more controlled, without becoming overly "dry" in character. In fact it now provided a firm foundation for the rest of the frequency range. Now the high frequencies were well extended, without any of the "shrillness" that can often accompany other designs that major on detail retrieval whilst the bass and mid band provided excellent proportion to the sound.
I found that the cartridge improved over time. Whilst imaging wasn't at it's best straight "out of the box" it did improve markedly after about 12-15 hours use. The high frequencies also open up, the mid band shows marked improvement and vocals move well forward from the plane of the speakers. Once the cartridge had been used for 20 hours it really started to cut loose and boogie and does this baby boogie!!
So suitably set up with a tracking weight of 1.85 grams, load impedance of 1k ohms, VTA adjusted and 20+ hours of vinyl under the stylus I sat down to do some serious listening.
The MKII is a smooth performer which exhibits excellent bass extension.
Whilst detailing isn't of the starkly etched variety you lose nothing to the markedly more analytical designs out there. It presents music naturally and in an unforced manner. So good is it in this respect that it's a very difficult cartridge to review.
It drew me into the music so easily and I just kept feeding it vinyl, forgetting to make notes in the process. Many hours later, I'd certainly enjoyed my listening session but I had a blank pad in front of me. And that strikes me as just about the best compliment one can pay any audio component. That sense that time has moved on and you haven't noticed.
The MKII plays music that is totally involving and a pleasure to listen to. When you drop this baby into the groove just make sure you have nothing else to do for a few hours!
But you want to know what it sounds like so I forced myself to sit down again and listen to some of my favorite tracks - this reviewing lark can be so difficult!!.
For the purpose of this review I will refer to two albums. First up is Talk-Talk and "The colour of Spring". This album is, as far as I'm concerned, a masterpiece and I have played it regularly since it's release on the EMI label in 1986. It is characterized by powerful, rhythmic bass lines that provide a firm foundation for the rest of the frequency range. Track 1,side 1 , "Happiness is easy", opens up with synth drums, sticks and various pieces of percussion placed at different points across the sound stage. Each has it's own place and time in the mix but they gel together to produce a utterly mesmerizing intro. With other cartridges those synthesized drum machines can sound like sticks hitting real skins. With the Dynavector there is no mistaking their origin. You don't get the same shape, texture and decay as that produced by real drum kit.
The bass line, when it kicks in is huge. It provides all the foundation for the rest of the track to hang from. I love the bass of this track and know it well. What I wasn't expecting though was how tuneful the notes were.I recall, many years ago, sitting in a Linn dealers show room, listening to this track. The dealer told me to listen to the bass playing tunes rather than a one note thud.It was a convincing demonstration. Now let me tell you that with the XX-2 MKII bass will astound you! It is remarkably powerful and tuneful, with real texture and micro dynamic detail.The sound of fretwork and of fingers on strings is presented with staggering clarity. This cartridge must have been designed by a bass guitarist. But if music was all about bass then what a very uninteresting world we would live in. On this track the vocals of Mark Hollis are an acquired taste. If they are your taste then this track shows them in their best light. They soar above the pumping bass lines and are hauntingly life like. Amid all of this the other thing that strikes you is how dynamic the sound is. With the pumping bass lines and soaring vocals you might think that all of the subtle details would be lost. Don't you believe it....all of the "tinkly" bits are there as well. It's a measure of real high end that all of this detail is not masked by the more powerful notes and in this respect the XX-2 MKII is real high-end steal.
The XX-2 MKII also produces some of the sweetest mid band and upper registers that I've heard in my home system. This aspect of performance, as well as the ability of this cartridge to track exceptionally well, was demonstrated by the track "Nancy" from the album "Wholly Humble Heart" by Martin Stephenson and the Dainties (Kitchenware Records). This track tells of lost love and a broken heart.Stephenson's vocals, complete with Geordie accent, are clearly tinged with the sadness and anger that comes with failed love.When he sings "lord I wish I'd never been born", you know he means it. What the MKII does differently to other cartridges I've had, is give Stephensons performance a space of its own. His vocals are placed centre stage and you just know that the singer is the same person playing acoustic guitar. This coherence of performance is quiet exceptional and something that I noticed that this cartridge does very well.
This track has also long been a test of the tracking ability of cartridges, many have stumbled over a chord change around two thirds of the way through the track. This co-insides with Stephenson "crying" out the name "Nancy" . The dynamics recorded in the record groove at this point provide the cartridge with a very hard time. The Helikon was unable to hang on at this point and produced a "skip" as it wrestled to keep the stylus in contact with the groove wall. I have to say, in defence of the Helikon, that it isn't alone here. My Linn Troika and Ortofon Kontra B also failed to hold on here. In fact I had long thought it to be a pressing fault. That is until I played the track with the XX-2. As I sat on the edge of my seat awaiting the skip I was caught by surprise when it didn't happen. No skip, no jump, no drama, just Stephesons haunting vocal......wow. Now that is tracking ability.
Listening to this cartridge, nothing appears out of proportion. It handles all styles of music with aplomb. It's equally at home with rock as it is with modern pop, jazz and classic. It produces great slabs of bass (if it's on your records) and has plenty of life and air. One area that I would, however, recommend caution is in the choice of partnering electronics. To hear it at it's best I would recommend partnering it with the very best, neutral sounding electronics that you can afford. In this respect my Music First/ Bel Canto amplifier pairing was an excellent match. With rich sounding electronics I suspect that the bass could lend itself to excess warmth. At the other end I don't think that the upper registers would every become shrill but you do need well extended amplifiers at the top end to allow the shimmer and sweetness to come through.
Properly set up and with the right electronics this is a wonderfully rewarding cartridge. I imagine that it would be hard to beat at the critical £1000 price point. This is certainly a lot of money to spend on something that , after all, wears out and for most of us it's the upper limit of what we are prepared to spend on a cartridge. A £1000 cartridge has to deliver more than a passing glimpse of what higher end designs are capable of. The XX-2 MKII, in my system at least, has it just about right. Sure better performance is to be had, at significantly higher prices it must be said, from within the Dynavector stable, as well as from other manufacturers, but the XX-2 gives you a good dollop of that performance.
It's more even handed in my system than the Lyra Helikon, which seemed happier with the Pathos amplification that I used previously. And at this point I'm reminded once again of the importance of system matching. For now the Dynavector has ousted the Lyra from its place in my system. I bought the review model and am very happy.....for the time being at least!
If you're in the market for a cartridge in this price range then you have a lot of choice. For what it's worth my recommendation would be to put the Dynavector XX-2 MKII on your short list...I'm sure that you won't be disappointed
© Copyright 2007 Paul Eros - paul (at) tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com