Product: The Vessel A78SP 78 RPM Wide Groove cartridge
Manufacturer: LP Gear - USA
Cost: $89 (Currency conversion)
Reviewer: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Reviewed: June, 2020
I'm about to inflict a long disquisition on you anent a humble phono cartridge. Read on for the details. If you're pressed for time, however (I can't imagine you'd forego the pleasures of my extended eloquence otherwise), I can sum everything up for you by paraphrasing Robert Schumann: “Hats off, gentlemen--a bargain!”
A few months ago, I wrote a basic guide to assembling a system for playing 78s. It was aimed at those who are just starting out from scratch and want to add 78 capability, or create a 78-capable system, without investing too much or getting too elaborate. Much to my surprise, not only did someone actually read it, and in the Italian version yet, he reached out to comment via an antique phonograph forum to which we both subscribe. He had some nice things to say, but having said them he zeroed in on what I knew to be a weakness right up front: my admitted evasiveness on the subject of cartridges.
Now, I had my reasons for getting a little vague. Traditionally, the de facto default cartridge choice for 78 collectors has been Stanton, although Shure certainly had its own devoted following. For the record, I have for years been one of those Shure guys, albeit with some experience of Stanton and Grado. Both Stanton and Shure have exited the business, however, and I have my reasons against recommending Grado (but see below); hence, the market left me with nothing I could recommend from personal experience.
My correspondent stepped into the breach to offer some potentially useful suggestions:
Orotofon has a remarkable line of 78 RPM cartridges, but all of them IMHO fail to reach the needed tracking force (just as Shure did) and are perhaps useful only for late 78 RPMs in pristine conditions. They also offer an aesthetically (and perhaps also technically) marvellous 78-specific cartridge of their SPU line (SPU Mono CG 65 Di MkII), but at $ 800 it's overkilling IMO, and the moving coil design leads to problems both in output level and diamond tip replacement; tracking force (max 5 grams) is adequate though, and it is definitely a charming and handsome product.
AudioTechnica also offers a 78-specific moving coil mono cartridge (AT-MONO3/SP), which again is really overkilling if you ask me; however, while the 2.5 tip is questionable, the 7g max tracking force is instead just perfect for the task. ...
At present time in my opinion the most viable way to play 78 RPMs is to either buy a Grado 78 cartridge (I would especially recommend this solution to those who would like to have a separate specific cartridge for 78 RPMs and/or don't trust used goods and/or will never buy a set of diamonds of different gauge) or buy a used Stanton 500 cartridge and retip it with a LP-GEAR 78 RPM aftermarket stylus (I would especially recommend this solution to... well... all those who don't have issues with used goods, and especially to those who may buy a set of diamonds of different gauges in the future). I have used LP-GEAR styli extensively and cannot say but good things about them, and they have also been inspected by Stylus Expert UK and considered apt/worth being retipped by them.
That last point, about LP Gear styli, proved prescient, because not too long thereafter I discovered that LP Gear sells not only styli but an entire cartridge designated as being for 78 RPM records: the curiously named The Vessel A78SP. I believe I first saw it on Amazon, but a little sleuthing revealed that it can be had a bit more cheaply if ordered directly from LP Gear. Either way, the price is in the vicinity of $90, about the same as that of Grado's least expensive cartridge designated for 78s, which also is fitted with a conical stylus (Grado offers a 78 model with elliptical stylus for about $60 more), making the The Vessel a viable choice for someone assembling a basic 78 system. I found the ordering process to be less than entirely simple; the website offered a discount for orders exceeding a certain price, which mine did (I ordered a 3 mil spherical stylus for my Shure cartridges at the same time--possible fodder for a later article), but the checkout system failed to apply it, and communicating with LP Gear about the problem proved to be a slow process requiring more than one inquiry via the site's message system. That said, once I finally got in touch with the staff, they were friendly and helpful, and eventually they straightened out whatever the glitch had been, whereupon shipping was prompt and without further issues. Mind you, I made my purchase when no one had ever heard of caronavirus and the word “pandemic” probably made many think of an excess of cooking utensils; the ordering experience may be entirely different, in all likelihood not in a good way, under current circumstances.
The Vessel, as can be seen in the adjacent photo, is a chunky little box with substantial black plastic cap, prominently emblazoned with LP Gear's Escheresque logo, holding a gold metal cartridge body. It incorporates standard half-inch-spaced mounting holes; as far as I know it is not available in a version for P mount arms. The straight body sides are helpful in aligning the cartridge, and in total I'd say The Vessel is no more fussy than average to mount in a headshell. Its native stylus is LP Gear's like-named A78SP 3.0 mil conical. While LP Gear doesn't offer specifications on the stylus page, it does indicate the following for the cartridge:
The Vessel A78SP Cartridge Specifications
- Type: Moving Magnet
- Frequency range: 20-20,000 Hz
- Output voltage @ 1kHz: 3.0 mV
- Dynamic compliance (100Hz): 1.5 × 108 cm/dyne
- Tracking ability at 2.0g : 60 µm
- Cantilever: Special type aluminum
- Stylus type: Super conical
- Stylus tip radius: 3 mil
- Tracking force: 4.0 - 6.0 g
- Internal impedance @ 1kHz: 670 ohms
- Internal inductance: 270 mH
- Recommended load resistance: 47 kOhm
- Recommended load capacitance: 100-300pF
- Cartridge color, body/stylus: Black/Gold/Dk grey
- Weight: 6.0 g
- Mounting hardware included: 4 × Screws, 2 × Nuts
- Stylus replacement: A78SP stylus
The proof of a component, of course, is in the playing, not the numbers. Notwithstanding Arthur Salvatore's jaundiced view of reviewers who compare gear under review to “obsolete” or much more expensive components to obfuscate actual performance, I'm taking as my standard of comparison the by now venerable, discontinued, but still highly regarded Shure V15Vx-MR, which even before adding a 78 stylus originally cost about four times the price of The Vessel and continues to do so on the used market. I have a small fleet of them, each in its own headshell and fitted with a different size or geometry of stylus, including custom truncated ellipticals costing maybe again twice what The Vessel will set you back with its stock conical. I'm taking them as my standard not for obfuscation, however, but rather because, first, I've achieved excellent results playing all manner of 78s with the Shure with various styli for years, making them a good yardstick with performance I find predictable and familiar, and, second, because pitting The Vessel against such stiff competition shows just what a great value it offers the audio hobbyist or casual listener seeking an entry point into the world of pre-LP records.
One reason I've stood by my Shure V15Vx-MRs through thick and thin and objectively excessive expense is that even at their light specified tracking force they dependably stay glued to fast-spinning but deformed grooves. If you happen to remember my first article about 78 RPM turntables, I included a short video of a Shure V15Vx-MR tracking a difficult record, one with a washboard warp and eccentric off center groove. Here is the Vessel tracking the same record and holding its own nicely against the Shure:
Since then, as recounted in yet another of my prior articles (isn't it grand how I can reference myself again and again?), I came into a copy of the first approximately complete recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a set of acoustic 78s pressed by US Vocalion under license from German masters. It's a rare set, and I paid a pretty penny for it; unfortunately, the records turned out to be both dished and badly warped, some of them unplayably so. (Fortunately, thanks to the generosity of a collector friend several years earlier, I already had a fragmentary copy of the German set that duplicated the worst-warped of my Vocalions). How, I wondered, would The Vessel deal with this playback torture test, which even the mighty Shures had found too stiff? Well, I was in for a surprise: this inexpensive underdog of a cartridge took everything in stride and tracked my chosen test side, among the worst deformed, with aplomb, whereas the Shure, fitted with one of those expensive custom truncated elliptical styli, audibly bottomed out with each revolution. See and hear for yourself:
The Shure cartridges are relatively neutral and balanced, neither bright nor warm, and they have a nice, open top end. One would not expect a cartridge costing a quarter as much to equal them in that regard, and The Vessel doesn't; by comparison, it veers a little to the warm side, and it feels a little rolled off at the top. What is impressive, however, is how much of the Shure's level of quality The Vessel does achieve despite its modest price. It may not be the “ultimate”, but for those who would be its natural audience--listeners just beginning to play 78s, playing them casually, or by choice or necessity on a tight budget--The Vessel offers a tremendous value. In terms of those “recommended by class” lists popular in some magazines, if for 78 RPM playback the Shure is an A, The Vessel pulls in a good A minus. It's at the very least a superb starter cartridge, and for many it will be all the cartridge they ever need.
A few words are in order about stylus performance. Again, one would expect a custom-ground truncated elliptical stylus to outperform a stock conical handily, but such is not always the case. Usually, the expectation holds true: the conical distorts at least a bit on peaks that a properly chosen elliptical renders cleanly, or at least more nearly so. I've experimented with some records, however, for which The Vessel has clearly been the cartridge/stylus combination of choice, offering clean, attractive sound not matched by its more expensive counterparts in any iteration I can put together. As I have said on various occasions before (which, doubtless to your relief, I'm not going to link!), when playing 78s, what actually works, even if unexpected or implausible, wins out over the theoretical solution every time. Sometimes, what actually works is a modest $90 cartridge with a spherical stylus. Those choosing The Vessel as their sole resource for playing 78s need not feel concern that they will always be hearing “second best.” Those who have more “exalted” gear but buy The Vessel as a supplement will find it a useful extra tool in their audio toolboxes.
Hearing is Believing
To let you judge for yourself, here are some brief audio examples. I auditioned The Vessel with a variety of records, both acoustic (horn-and-diaphragm) and electric (microphone). Neither space nor, probably, my readers' patience allow for detailed comments about each, but the following are some representative samples, broken into two groups. In the first group, each sample offers you the opportunity to compare The Vessel with a Shure V15Vx-MR in two guises, one with a spherical stylus and one with one of those expensive custom truncated ellipticals. I've normalized the files to bring relative volume into rough parity (The Vessel has somewhat lower output than the Shure). To the acoustic recordings I lightly applied a third-octave equalizer to compensate for the most obvious artifacts of horn-based recording, generally involving a cut of around 2 dB where resonances were evident, a like boost at the top where the acoustic cutters began to roll off, and rolloff of very low bass where the records had no useable signal but only rumble; having set the adjustments for a given record, I applied them uniformly across all auditions with the two cartridge types. Otherwise I have not manipulated the audio in any way--no noise reduction, identical preamp playback equalization for each. Similarly, the cartridges were all mounted in the same model headshell, fitted to the same turntable, played through the same electronics, monitored over the same speakers, and recorded via the same interface to the same computer running the same software for all instances of the same selection. Conversion to .mp3 format, required for posting to the Web, was by the same software in all instances and was done at the highest possible bitrate. For particulars, see the equipment list at the end of the article.
The first example is an acoustic recording, the closing of the “Habanera” from Bizet's Carmen as recorded for Columbia by Jeanne Gordon sometime in the period 1920 to 1924. The first take is with The Vessel; the second, to show how a stock Shure configuration would compare with the Vessel, is of the Shure with the Shure stock spherical 78 RPM stylus assembly (the N78S); and the third is with the Shure fitted with a 2.8 mil truncated elliptical stylus. I think you'll find The Vessel and the first Shure very close, with just a little margin of extra “air” and maybe a touch less distortion in favor of the Shure--impressive performance by The Vessel in light of the pronounced price difference, and probably insignificant for most or nearly all listeners. The results of either would be fine for someone just starting with 78s, interested in them casually, or for whatever reason striving to keep costs to a minimum. For those sufficiently dedicated to spend the big bucks, the last shows what improvement those big bucks will buy: both cartridges with the spherical styli shatter a bit on some peaks and pronouncedly on the big closing high note, which is deep in the heart of “inner groove distortion” territory, whereas the custom truncated elliptical stylus is mostly clean with just a bit of breakup on that final peak. The usual tradeoff applies here, however: in return for significantly decreased distortion, the listener must deal with noticeably more surface noise and the hassle of experimenting with various stylus sizes to find the one that works best, a lot of fuss for those who simply want to sit back for an evening and enjoy their old 78s. The Vessel is more than good enough to satisfy that craving.
The second example is a more severe test. In this electric recording from 1939, legendary jazz/stride/boogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson got together to play “Boogie Woogie Prayer” on three pianos. My copy is on Vocalion, part 1 on the first side and part 2 on the second, although the beginning collector is more likely to encounter it in a reissue on red-label Columbia. I should add that although the label is Vocalion, it is not from the same company that issued the Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the video above. That Vocalion was the record label of the Aeolian Piano Company; by the time this disk was recorded, the label name had passed through three or four other owners. The recording is terrifically dynamic, putting heavy demands on the tracing ability of any cartridge applied to it. (Tracking is not an issue with this copy, which is in pretty decent shape with no warps or other such challenges.) This time the spherical stylus fitted to the Shure is an aftermarket 3.0 mil sold by LP Gear, presumably comparable to that coming with The Vessel as standard equipment and therefore minimizing any differences not inherent in the cartridge designs themselves. The demands of this bold, dynamic recording are more than either spherical stylus can fully meet, and neither plays cleanly. It's in this context that the custom truncated elliptical, again 2.8 mil, really proves its worth, offering a clean traversal of the music, albeit, as before, at the cost of some additional surface noise and the fuss of experimenting to find the right size choice. For example, when setting this record up I tried a 4.0 mil truncated elliptical with results not entirely better than those offered by the spherical styli.
The buttons below are labeled with the cartridge and stylus choices; click a button to hear the audio extract and click the “stop” button at any time to turn off the audio then playing.
The second group contains two more selections that illustrate relative performance of the cartridges in recordings of European vs. US provenance. Both play well enough with spherical styli that I felt no need to add a truncated elliptical to the mix. To keep things as closely comparable as possible, the Shure cartridge in both cases is fitted with the 3.0 mil LP Gear stylus. The first is extracted from a September 25, 1941 Columbia recording of Haydn's Symphony no. 103 (“Drumroll”) by Leslie Heward leading the Halle Orchestra. Like most English recordings of the period, its tonal balance skews toward the bass with little or no boost to the treble. The Vessel acquits itself well here, and one having nothing else with which to play the record could easily live with the results quite happily, but in direct comparison with the Shure it sounds just a trifle dull. The Shure is a little clearer, and its generally brighter character offsets the recording's weakish top end. The second recording is from Copland's Appalachian Spring, an RCA Victor set recorded by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky on October 31, 1945. This music, which opens the second side of the set, contrasts with the English recording in being rolled off in the bass, boosted in treble, and heavily modulated--Victor caught some critical flack over the years for attempts to capture what we today would call a wider dynamic range than did its European counterparts, with the consequence that its records sometimes demanded more than the pickups of the day were capable of giving. Here the results are a bit more mixed than with the Haydn. On the one hand, the Vessel's warmer bias helps to tame this record's aggressive top end. On the other, the Shure's slightly greater clarity works to the benefit of the record's sharp transients, adding “punch” to the music that is less pronounced in the Vessel's presentation. I think either cartridge would be satisfying to the listener who chose it, but I'll confess I'm inclined more toward the Shure, possibly through familiarity with its sound over the course of years.
I'll reiterate what I wrote in my earlier “how to build a system” article: although The Vessel is sold as a “78 RPM cartridge,” 78s do not require a special type of cartridge, and I'd be a little surprised if LP Gear's “78 RPM” The Vessel differed substantially in construction from the version LP Gear offers for, well, LPs. What's necessary for 78s is a different stylus, because vintage 78s have grooves substantially wider than those of their modern LP counterparts, and in this regard The Vessel is well suited for its designated task, being equipped with a 3.0 mil conical, a good compromise size: about right for most electrically recorded records, especially those from the mid-'30s on; not too much undersized for most very early acoustics; and reasonable for later ones. It probably is a better choice of size than the 2.5 to 2.8 mil most commonly offered by other makers. The 4 to 6 gram tracking force also is a design choice appropriate to the intended purpose, much better than the very light figures specified for “78 styli” that are simply larger sized diamonds mounted on LP cantilevers, a type all too common among aftermarket offerings for other cartridges. The Vessel/stock stylus combination, then, although not likely to be ideal for most records--you'll need a set of custom styli, usually elliptical rather than conical, to achieve that result--is a good one-size solution for those beginning with 78s or playing them casually.
All that said, playing 78s with a mono cartridge might yield salutary results. The Vessel, however, is not a mono cartridge. Accordingly, for 78s you will need a mono phono preamp or a phono preamp or phono preamp section with a mono setting. I have seen Grado's like-priced dedicated 78 RPM model described by various online merchants as a “mono cartridge,” but Grado itself does not so describe it on its website, and Grado does expressly designate some of its LP cartridges as being mono. If considering one of the Grado “78” cartridges, I'd take any such claims by resellers with a grain of salt until confirmed with the manufacturer. Note that most “mono” cartridges are not truly mono designs but rather are stereo cartridges strapped, internally or externally, to yield a mono output, effectively the same as passing stereo output through a preamp set to mono. Shure took that approach with its now discontinued M78S cartridge. Whether Grado does the same I don't know. LP Gear does not with the Vessel, leaving the output as stereo. I'd caution you, however, that even though its output is stereo, because of its large stylus size The Vessel is not appropriate for playing recent issue Rivermont stereo 78s. For those, which despite their high rotational speed have the same microgrooves as LPs, you will need a conventional LP cartridge and stylus.
The defection of Shure and Stanton from the cartridge market deprived 78 collectors, especially those starting a journey into vintage audio, of what for decades had been standard cartridge choices. LP Gear now has moved to fill that void with a most appealing product. The Vessel A78SP cartridge is more than just a stopgap; it's a highly satisfactory performer at an appealingly modest price. It is at least as--er--s(h)ure footed as a cartridge line fabled for its “trackability,” and it is supplied with a stylus choice that may not be ideal for all records but that certainly strikes a reasonable average, particularly for the records that are likely to turn up in estate sales, thrift stores, flea markets, and other venues that frequently are starting points for beginners (and favorite haunts of veterans, too, for that matter). Similarly, The Vessel's sonic signature is not the last word in clarity or definition, but it is more than good enough to give musical pleasure from a wide array of pre-LP records. In short, this cartridge “works”--and in the world of 78 RPM playback, if something works, it's a “keeper.” Nor are its virtues applicable only to beginners; considering its modest price, I'd suggest it is worth adding to the arsenal of even the most seasoned collector, if only as a tool for records too warped for other cartridges to play. The Vessel A78SP is that rare quantity in audio gear: a true bargain that delivers the goods without breaking the bank. A “giant killer”? No. Rather, it's a small giant in its own right. Enthusiastically recommended.
For acoustic recordings:
For electric recordings:
For both systems:
Recordings excerpted, in order of appearance:
 - My apologies to the trumpeter for showcasing a fluff in the interests of a good audio sample. Readers should be aware that in those days before mastering on tape, every Victor recording was made by what we today call the “direct to disk” process, and the only way to correct an error was to rerecord an entire four- to four-and-a-half-minute record side. I would guess our poor trumpeter was unfortunate enough to have his fluff in a take otherwise more perfect than any others for that side. Note that the music, today an orchestral staple, was very new and probably not familiar to the players at the time, as on the day of the recording session the underlying ballet had received its first performance exactly a year and a day earlier and the orchestral suite extracted from it had been complete for only about six months.
© Copyright 2020 David Hoehl - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com