On an Overgrown Pathé

[On an Overgrown Pathe]

The Joy of Six

A Review of the Rek-o-Kut Archival Elliptical Stylus Kit for Stanton 500 and Pickering V-15

[Italian version here]

Product name: Rek-o-Kut Archival Stylus Kit
Manufacturer: Esoteric Sound - USA
Cost: $695 (plus $19.95 shipping) (Currency conversion)
Reviewer: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Reviewed: October, 2020

Not long ago, I penned--keyboarded--whatever--a review of LP Gear's “The Vessel” dedicated cartridge for 78 RPM records. Reiterating a theme I'd mentioned before, I noted that while the thing is sold as a specialized 78 RPM cartridge, in fact, “What's necessary for 78s,” rather than a specialized cartridge, “is a different stylus, because vintage 78s have grooves substantially wider than those of their modern LP counterparts.... 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.” [Emphasis added.] OK, let's say you took me at my word and paid the modest tariff for a Vessel, and you've been merrily acquiring and playing 78s ever since. With a cartridge of such value as The Vessel, I'm sure you've been enjoying them! But now you've decided to move from flirtation to serious relationship; to take the next step; to go from “a good one-size solution” to a range of options, still including your trusty Vessel, that will come closer to something more likely to be “ideal for most records.” So now what?

As suggested, you'll need to assemble a collection of styli in differing sizes, custom production rather than a mainstream manufacturer's stock “78 RPM” selection. Although not without exception, usually elliptical profiles will outperform the conical, aka spherical, tips universally supplied in stock assemblies. Probably your “highest quality” option is to buy them as individual diamond settings.[1] The leader in the field is Expert Stylus in England. Expert's tips are in “truncated elliptical” profiles, meaning they are cut off short to avoid the extra noise that would come from contact with the groove bottom, where lurks all manner of the detritus of ages--dirt, metal shavings (remember how early 78s included an abrasive in the record mix to grind the tips of steel needles into conformity with their grooves?), mildew residue, silverfish poo, and who knows what else. Expert can itself supply cantilever assemblies for certain cartridges and even the corresponding cartridge bodies, or, as I have done, you can send your own assemblies for retipping if you prefer to choose a different cartridge model. Indeed, if you have a Vessel and like it for 78s, you could even buy extra stylus assemblies for it from LP Gear and have Expert retip them.

Either way, the process takes time and is not cheap, and, depending on your resources, to start you may well end up buying tips one or two at a time--when I bought my first ones, I splurged and on Expert's recommendation bought one truncated elliptical diamond each in 2.8 mil, 3.5 mil, and 4.0 mil sizes. Later I added another stylus, a large conical sapphire this time, sized for Pathe discs. These tips have served me well. But what if you're starting from scratch and would like to avoid the piecemeal approach, preferably lowering cost at the same time? Enter recognized specialist dealer Esoteric sound, which offers the Rek-o-Kut Archival Elliptical Stylus Kit, a collection of six custom-sized styli mounted and ready to use, for the relatively modest price of $695 plus (for us in the United States, domestic) shipping. Still not exactly what I'd call cheap, perhaps, but definitely an attractive deal: no waiting for fabrication, no dispatching cantilever assemblies for retipping, and almost certainly less costly in aggregate than buying one-off tips.

Mind you, we all know the old saying about how there's no such thing as a free lunch,[2] and, as I'm sure you'd expect, taking this pre-assembled approach does involve tradeoffs. In return for economy and quicker turnaround, here's what you give up: ability to choose your cartridge line; ability to vary the sizes you are buying; ability to choose less than the full battery of sizes, even if you don't need them all; and truncated tips, as the Rek-o-Kut diamonds are in a standard elliptical profile.

[3.0 mil Rek-o-Kut stylus in Pickering cartridge, front view]

That first point calls for a bit of elaboration. The Rek-o-Kut styli are mounted to cantilever blocks sized for Stanton 500 or Pickering V15 cartridges, which were for all practical purposes two names for the same thing, Pickering being a subsidiary line of Stanton. These popular models have an approximately square cross section when viewed from the front. Please be aware that unless modified the Rek-o-Kut styli will not fit higher level Stanton cartridges or Pickering XV15 models, which have a taller rectangular profile from the front. The Rek-o-Kut assemblies are mounted in plastic blocks with little fingers on top that snug against the top of the shorter cartridge bodies but jam against the faces of the taller ones, preventing the assemblies from seating. Thus, in their native form, the Rek-o-Kuts force their user to adopt a cartridge for 78s that, while certainly respectable, wouldn't necessarily be a first choice for LPs. That shortcoming isn't a big problem if you plan to have different cartridges for LP and 78s anyway, but it does preclude the possibility of adopting a single cartridge for both to avoid extra setup (arm balancing, vertical tracking angle, etc.) when switching between speeds. It also hinders the user from choosing to play 78s with a “better” cartridge model for reasons of performance or tonal balance. These restrictions are of particular concern for those whose arms, as so often is the case these days, have fixed headshells.

[3.0 mil Rek-o-Kut stylus in Pickering cartridge--close up]

What if, as I did when I bought my set, you already own a higher-end Stanton or Pickering cartridge?[3] You're not entirely out of luck, but some extra steps and improvisation will be in order. To begin, you'll need to divest each assembly's plastic block of its little mounting fingers. With a bit of experimentation, I found that nail clippers are a good tool for snipping them off. Now the assemblies will seat in your cartridge. Note, however, that while both Shure and Stanton/Pickering assemblies mount by inserting a little pipe into a socket in the face of the cartridge body, Shure's has a diamond cross section whereas Stanton/Pickering's is round. Accordingly, where a Shure stylus block, even without other mechanical assistance, would be essentially fixed in place upon insertion, a Stanton/Pickering is free to rotate. You'll need some ingenuity to lock the assembly square to the cartridge body. My solution was to strap little bits of thin toothpick to either side of the cartridge body with clear shipping tape, the tips extending slightly beyond the face of the cartridge to engage the hollowed out rear of the plastic cantilever block. In appearance, it isn't the most elegant approach, I'll grant, but so far it's worked pretty well in the context of separate cartridge bodies in separate headshells for each tip size. If you plan to swap your styli around in a single cartridge body, however, you'll probably do better just to bite the bullet and get one that fits the styli without modifications, particularly given that snipping bits off the cantilever blocks will preclude your returning your kit for refund if something goes awry. Stanton is largely out of the cartridge business these days, but a current version of the 500 appears to be available at least from some websites, and as long-time popular models, used examples of the Stanton 500 and Pickering V15 are readily available at modest cost on eBay or various hi fi resale sites.

So, with those practical concerns out of the way, what is included in the kit? As noted, it comprises six tips; Esoteric specifies that they track at 2 to 7 grams. Five are elliptical diamonds:

2.0 X .4 mil
2.5 X .5 mil
3.0 X .5 mil
3.5 X .8 mil
4.0 X 1.0 mil

Notwithstanding its name, the set includes one conical tip, an 8.0 mil sapphire for playing Pathe vertical cut discs. Although Esoteric recommends the 3.0 mil elliptical for playing Edison diamond discs, its kit does not include a stylus specifically sized for them. These records call for a 3.5 mil tip but in a conical (spherical) profile.

[3.0 mil Rek-o-Kut stylus in Pickering cartridge]

The stylus assemblies come securely packed, each nested in one socket of a foam insert in a clear plastic box. The cantilever blocks are a uniform green, but each bears a color-coded rectangular spot to differentiate the stylus sizes. That system doubtless works, but one advantage of mounting each assembly in its own cartridge and swapping headshells, as I do, is that you can label the headshells separately for easy identification without reference to a color key. (See photo, left.)

In practice, I can report that the set performs well. I won't attempt to compare the sound quality of these styli against my Expert truncated ellipticals; the latter are old, well worn, and fitted to Shure cartridges, not Pickering. The Esoteric assemblies, however, do track comparably well with appropriate tracking force, and their range of sizes is sufficient to give the user a fighting chance of finding a good fit for most record grooves. To date, I have not found a record for which the 2.0 mil size was useful, but the 2.5 has occasionally given best results, and the 3.0 and 3.5 mil tips are work horses as expected, with the 4.0 being only somewhat less frequently the tip of choice. Having found a size that “works” for a particular record or set, I've been more than satisfied with the resultant sound taken on its own terms, bearing in mind that I generally have a slight preference for the sound of Shure cartridges over that of Stanton/Pickering. It's a matter of taste, however; certainly nothing is objectively “wrong” with the latter.

At this point, I can hear the rumblings among my readers, “So enough with the vague generalities--how do you tell which stylus size is right?” Fair question. Although offering suggestions for which tips are suitable for various types of record--2.0 mil for some worn LPs, 3.0 mil for most 78s of the '30s through the '50s, etc.--Esoteric itself admits they are “starting points,” not definitive: “You should choose the stylus that provides the best overall sound regardless of size.” Let that vendor's admonition be your watchword. All of which begs the question, “What is best?” The answer depends on which of two competing qualities is more important to you, because (here's that free lunch problem again) choice of stylus size usually involves a tradeoff between distortion and surface noise. Bear in mind, in selecting a stylus, particularly for records that have been played with steel needles, your goal isn't perfectly matching whatever size groove was originally cut into the master; rather, you're looking for a stylus that rides above or below the level most damaged by the punishing playback gear available in your record's youth. In my own listening and copying, I always try to minimize distortion, going for the cleanest sound I can get on peaks, even at the cost of significantly elevated noise if it's the price of avoiding any kind of shatter. Others are willing to tolerate a little distortion in the loudest passages in return for significantly quieter playback overall. There's no indisputably right answer here. The good thing about a set of styli like the Rek-o-Kut kit is that it enables you to choose from a range of possibilities and strike the balance according to your own taste. Conclusion

The Rek-o-Kut Archival Elliptical Stylus Kit offers those who collect 78s an easy one-step way to assemble a group of custom-sized styli at a good price. The tip sizes included are sensibly chosen, and the assemblies perform well. The most significant drawback is the choice of cartridge that they fit; while respectable and a longtime fixture among 78 collectors, it is hardly a first choice for those wanting a single cartridge to play both 78s and LPs. Nonetheless, the kit offers good value to the collector, and I recommend it to anyone interested in adding custom tip sizes in an economical package.


[1] - As an aside, why does making a commitment always seems to stick a poor guy with buying a diamond?

[2] - cf. Saki's short story “The Talking-Out of Tarrington”: “My aunt never lunches,” said Clovis; “she belongs to the National Anti-Luncheon League, which is doing quite a lot of good work in a quiet, unobtrusive way. A subscription of half a crown per quarter entitles you to go without ninety-two luncheons.”

[3] - To be brutally honest, by the time I purchased my kit I had six Pickering XV15/625E cartridges: five, plus matching Ortofon headshells, that I'd bought over the course of several months in preparation plus one that I had owned since the 1980s. You can imagine my joy when I found that the Rek-o-Kut cantilever blocks weren't compatible.

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© Copyright 2020 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com