Lyra Dorian Mono Cartridge Reviewed

Published On: January 4, 2009
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Lyra Dorian Mono Cartridge Reviewed

Got mono? Well if you do, this is the cartridge that will reveal more about your mono records than you ever thought possible, with a minimum of extraneous noise that often accompanies mono records played with a stereo cartridge

Lyra Dorian Mono Cartridge Reviewed

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Lyra_Dorian_cartridge.gifCaution dictates that even the most fervent vinyl addict must contain himself when it comes to mono. For many of you, merely the purchase of a cartridge specifically for mono LP playback is about as relevant a move as buying an 8-track player. One fact, though, undermines such wariness: companies like Sundazed and Classic Records are still issuing brand-new mono LPs, so we're not talking solely about old vinyl. And are Classic and Sundazed doing this, beyond addressing the collector's fetish for different mixes? Simple: mono LPs can and do sound incredible...especially when the original was recorded strictly in mono.

Think about it: if the original recordings - say, all but a handful of Buddy Holly's entire output - were recorded in single-channel mode, it stands to reason that playing them back that way would be the sensible move. If you think I'm talking crap, then apply it to a more modern audio experience. What has caused you more dismay in recent years than the multi-channel remastering of releases originally intended for stereo?

Most of us, however, have conventional two-speaker systems, and we're not about to set up single-channel rigs, so we need modern, stereo-compatible mono cartridges, which is what Lyra, Decca, Grado and a few others are producing to satisfy the increasing interest in mono. Jonathan Carr has addressed this concern by designing Lyra's monaural cartridges with two separate mono coils wound on top of each other.

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Of course, the cartridge suspension, cantilever and stylus are identical for the monaural cartridges to their corresponding stereo versions, while Lyra's new proprietary line-contact stylus was developed to track with equal facility on both stereo and mono records. Lyra stresses that their mono cartridges, including the Dorian reviewed here, are 'totally safe to play any microgroove record from 1948 and onwards.' Dorian's stylus size is specified to suit all microgroove records, monaural or stereo.

Like all Lyras, the mono version of the entry-level Dorian is hand-built, then adjusted and tuned by Yoshinori Mishima. It is a low-impedance, low-output, medium compliance moving-coil, presenting absolutely no matching problems with the SME Series V tonearm nor the standard arm on the Trio L-07D, while electronically it caused no issues with a range of phono stages, including the AudioValve Sunilda, the Audio Research PH5 and the m-m stage of the McIntosh C2200 pre-amp with an Ortofon step-up.

Lyra fits its Namiki MicroRidge 2.5x75 micrometer, natural diamond line-contact stylus to a solid boron rod cantilever, the latter mounted directly to internal structure of the cartridge body. Its generator consists of Lyra's proprietary pole-piece-less, dual neodymium discs in a balanced, symmetrical-field magnetic system with a permalloy core and 99.9999 (6N) copper coils. To optimise it for mono, the core and coils are oriented at 90 degrees rather than the 45-degree orientation appropriate for stereo.

There are no surprises when it comes to set-up. Physically, the Dorian is a model of intelligent design, with a broad, flat top, solid and secure bolts hold it in place, and the pins are colour-coded and nicely spaced. Weight is a typical 6.4g and compliance is approximately 12x10-6 cm/dyne at 100Hz, so for most arms balancing doesn't require supplementary counterweights to achieve tracking force of 1.8-2.0g. The only caveat is that the cantilever is out there in the wide-open, so care is needed with handling - but then what cartridge doesn't warrant the hands of a surgeon?

As for the pre-amp settings, the Dorian's internal impedance is 3 ohms, its output voltage is 0.25mV and its frequency range is stated as 10-50kHz. Lyra's recommended load, directly fed into non-inverting RIAA inputs, is 100-47kohms, which you'll acknowledge is kinda broad. Being hardcore audiophiles, Lyra suggests that the user should determine the best impedance value 'by listening.' They also suggest a load via step-up transformer of 2-10 ohms and not more than 10 ohms, but there were LPs that sounded better with 100-200 ohms to my ears.

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This creates a perfect opportunity to provide you with some psychological counselling, so here goes: This is not 1986. Do not be anal about this. Playing with impedances is not going to ruin the cartridge, nor make your dick fall off. Set the load to what sounds best for you. Enjoy.

Oh, and one other thing: if your pre-amp has a mono button, use it. Don't know why, but even with true mono cartridges, you hear a difference, especially in terms of image solidity, while there's a seeming reduction in the nature of surface noise, too - a boon if you buy lots of used vinyl.

With the aforementioned components, plus SME 30 turntable, Wilson WATT Puppy System 7 speakers, McIntosh 2102 power amp and assorted Transparent cables, the Dorian worked its magic immediately. Note that the only modern mono cartridge I have is a Decca Maroon, which costs around half that of the 549 Dorian. The Decca is, for some, an acquired taste, but once you've savoured its immediacy, just about everything else sounds lifeless. What a Decca never sounds like is a moving-coil. Which is where the Dorian comes in.

While the Decca does all I could want of a mono cartridge, I will acknowledge that there are some who insist that Deccas are flawed - bright, noisy, fragile, able to chew your LPs with the facility of a tobacco masticator. Which is a bit like saying that a 1958 Morgan is crude compared to a new Lexus: kinda obvious. But not mutually exclusive, eh? It gets down to what you can handle, and some of you simply aren't men enough for Deccas. In which case, along comes the Dorian, and, oh, is it a Lexus amongst Morgans. And not just because of the Japanese/English element of the analogy.

For openers, it's smoother and sweeter than the Decca, and - surprisingly - only slightly less bold and forward. Deccas are known for turning every musical event into a breathtaking toboggan ride. The Dorian cossets you, while robbing the experience of only a little excitement. If I could describe the Dorian's sound with an utterly non-conventional term (as far as audio jargon goes), I would say it's 'shiny' and in a wholly positive way. Whether using brand-new vinyl pressings like the mono Dylans from Sundazed or slightly worn 1950s mono LPs which are rendered listenable when the new stylus tracks the unworn portions of the groove, the sound is bold and vivid - precisely what every mono-maniac cites as a reason not to abandon the single-channel LP.

It's tough to explain unless you use mono LP-via-mono cartridge versus a mono LP-via-stereo cartridge. This is about the mono vs stereo debate, and I'm not suggesting for a moment that we lobby for mono releases of records issued originally in stereo. So, no, I didn't compare mono Dylan with stereo Dylan. This is about preserving everything from a few decades' worth of classical masterpieces to career highlights from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, post-war soundtracks and stage musicals, all 45rpm singles prior to the late 1960s and much, much more. There's no denying the more solid central image, the creation of - uncannily - a sense of front to back depth, of remarkable transient speed, and of the absence of a whole slew of problems that stereo suffers inherently and that mono avoids completely.

What a relief it is not to have to worry about stage width.

Mono isn't coming back the way its adherents would like. It's a cult within a cult, but important nonetheless when you consider that it accounts for nearly everything Buddy Holly recorded, the first classic works from Chuck Berry, dozens of releases from the Rat Pack and other early Las Vegas headliners, original cast recordings from Broadway before the Dark Years of Andrew Lloyd Webber, countless historically important spoken word and comedy LPs and - most importantly for some - completely different mixes of records more familiar to us in stereo.

What the Dorian does is close the gap between revivified mono cartridges of the past and the new generation of mono cartridges, some of which suffer wholly obscene pricing. Aside from lunatic collectors, I can't think of anyone prepared to spend 3000 on a mono cartridge. But 549? Once you've heard what this cartridge can do to Louis Prima's or any Mickey Katz LP, you'll understand why Phil Spector was right.

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Lyra's Stig Bjorge explains that converting an existing stereo cartridge to mono operation requires a concern for the differing natures of the two formats played back through a two-channel system. 'There is one monaural coil for two channels. The coil former in a stereo cartridge is angled at 45 degrees and the coils are wound at 90 degrees in relation to each groove side. In a monaural cartridge, the coil former is parallel (or vertical depending how you see it) with the record because there is movement only in one direction. The reason Lyra has wound two separate mono coils onto the former is in recognition of the fact that most mono cartridges still will be played on a stereo system. So the two separate, identical coils will simply produce identical signals to each of the two stereo channels, hence producing a stable mono centre image.'

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