Koetsu Urushi Black Cartridge Reviewed

Koetsu Urushi Black Cartridge Reviewed

Ken Kessler examines the mystical and uniquely wonderful qualities that make a Koetsu Urushi Black among a handful of truly great phono cartridges. Finished with the same lacquer used on Loiminchay fountain pens, this cartridge is a work of art.

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Would you believe it was years ago when I reviewed the original Koetsu Urushi? Now, on the Bar Mitzvah of that review, I'm trying its latest descendent. With one difference: Sugano-San is no longer with us. Sugano believed then that the original Urushi was the finest cartridge he was capable of producing. Just shows that Koetsus are like Ferraris, and will never agree on 'What was the best ever?'

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All of which presents a problem for me, because the Urushi Black is neither the most exotic nor the costliest Koetsu in the current range (at a 'mere' £2799), and yet it strikes me as one of the most musical and 'right' cartridges I've ever used. Even without having run it in, and using a strange LP and a new phono stage, I knew that this cartridge would rank with the greats. It deserves mentioning that the original Urushi cost £2390 back in 1990. So whatever anyone says about the high-end, here's one piece which fought inflation.

Before dealing with Urushi, or - for that matter - Koetsu minutiae, note that the review model is fitted with copper coils. Absolute Sounds feels that the differences in Urushis, especially using gold or silver or platinum for the coils, cost so little in real terms that the company is charging £2799 regardless of the model. I'm using copper because I've always preferred it to silver. Sonic differences? The Vermilion with platinum parts has lower output and a rounder sound, the Black with copper wiring is more dynamic, while the Gold with gold and silver parts is leaner, less voluptuous but especially detailed. Your Koetsu dealer or Absolute Sounds will help you match your system to the right Koetsu. Oh, and any can be upgraded, if that's the right word, to platinum.

Like the original, the Urushi Black's body is a slab-sided alloy block covered in hand-applied lacquer made from the sap of the urushi tree. This finish is hard to describe, as it looks - even when brand new - 'distressed', as if created to look vintage from the outset. Unlike the original, which was finished in red and gold splashes, the Black's composition is its eponymous colour plus gold flecks, and I heartily recommend that you look at it in the sunlight before forever committing it to a life indoors. It's only then that you can appreciate the artistry, this lacquer also used on the very rare Loiminchay fountain pens. I also wrote in the original review that, '...urushi lacquer had a function other than aesthetic. With time, the lacquer would harden even further, enhancing the strength of the already-rigid body, eliminating whatever vestiges of resonance might remain.'

Read more about the Black Cartridge on Page 2.

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While the first Urusuhi held a platinum-core magnet, this uses samarium cobalt. The specs remain classically 'Koetsu', with a 5 ohm impedance and a high-ish output of 0.4mV. I fed it into a prototype phono stage that I'm 'beta-testing'*, the forthcoming Quad valve unit designed by Tim DeParavicini. The specs are still being finalised; suffice it to say that the Koetsu yielded plenty of signal into the Quad, even with its gain setting in the lowest position. It also likes the EAR 834P, and even works with some 47k Ohm m-m stages.

With a cartridge shape that's a breeze to align, the only set-up problem is its weight, around 12g I believe. This might force you to position the counterweight on some arms near the very back of the end-piece. Like the original, the new version features a boron cantilever, but the fine-line stylus has been replaced with a new shape described as 'quadrilateral'; it's a profile which features a complex array of facets frighteningly reminiscent of a cutting head. Recommended tracking force is 1.8g, and best VTA/SRA finds the top of the cartridge absolutely parallel to the platter/LP, in the SME Series V on the SME 10.

What so moved me to consider this as good as any cartridge available in the new millennium? The bass was as rich-yet-tight as its grandaddy's, the midband as lifelike as any cartridge I've heard that didn't say 'Decca' (or 'London') on the box. Tracking and detail? Ain't no Shure V15, but I found no discs to upset it, and the listening included every LP in this month's review section. But what rocked me more than usual were its consistency, its deathly silent backgrounds - even through a hastily-put-together prototype valve phono amp - and a shimmer in the treble which I found spine-tinglingly charming. But its real magic is in the vocals.

Play some Hendrix, some Otis, some Orbison, some Fogerty via Creedence - all different textures and ranges. This cartridge will let you hear the very nuances that separate real from recorded, why Michael Hobson of Classic Records is right to fight for 200g vinyl and no GrooveGuard, why mono - let alone stereo - isn't dead. As I wrote 13 years ago, 'the best CD sound is so far behind the Urushi that it would be comical if the Urushi were affordable.' Looks like some things don't change.

Additional Resources
• Read more source component reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find a receiver to pair with this source.
• See more about the audiophile world at AudiophileReview.com.
• Discuss all kinds of gear at hometheaterequipment.com.

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