ONLINE - ISSUE 5
Helikon mono cartridge
as reviewed by George Valley
For the last 3 months it has been my pleasure to have the Helikon Mono Cartridge installed in my system. Those of you without much time may take the following multiple-choice test to see if it's worthwhile to read the whole review.
How many mono records do you own?
Do you enjoy the music of Miles Davis, Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and many other great jazz musicians who recorded between 1949 and about 1960?
Do you enjoy the recordings of Toscanini, Walter, Furtwangler, Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh, and many other great classical artists who recorded between 1949 and 1959?
How many irreplaceable mono records do you have that you really want to listen to but that are so trashed that it just isn't worth it anymore?
How much is it worth per mono record to you to hear it as it never sounded before?
Do you have a Graham or other arm with an easily interchangeable arm wand?
Do you have a second wand for your Graham arm?
Do you have a table that supports two arms?
Do you already have two high quality arms for that table?
Is changing a cartridge on your arm a high risk, time-consuming process that takes days to tweak properly?
I won't score the test for you, but you probably already get the idea. For instance, if you have more than 100 mono records and a Graham arm with two wands, I strongly recommend that you order the Helikon Mono Cartridge as soon as finances permit. By the way, 100 mono records is a pretty small buy-in level. At most large used record stores, you can pick up 100 quality albums (i.e. good performances and decent condition) for about $200 (less than the cost of a second wand for the Graham arm).
If you don't like Miles Davis and the other jazz artists listed above as well as the classical artists, there may still be a role for the Helikon Mono in your system, but I am not the person to advise you. I suggest that you bring your rock mono to a Helikon dealer and see what you think.
Now let's talk about what I did and did not do with the Helikon Mono.
What I did
I mounted it on my spare Graham arm wand (the aluminum one that I upgraded to ceramic a few years ago). I used the Graham jig and position number 1 to align the cartridge and I connected the cartridge as if it were a stereo cartridge (blue to blue, green to green, etc.) as instructed by Helikon. I took the Benz Reference cartridge and ceramic wand off and put the Helikon mono/aluminum wand on my 12-year-old Merrill table and set the tracking force at the upper limit recommended for the Helikon. The output of the Helikon was fed into the stereo input of my CAT SL1 and from there into my Aronov monoblocks to my Swans Cygnus speakers and Audio Physic subwoofer.
Then I proceeded to listen to mono records, and more mono records. I found them everywhere. I started making a pile of the ones that sounded really good to play for others but the pile soon became two piles and then a box. I did make small adjustments to the VTA, but this wasn't really critical. Either the height of the Benz was about right for the Helikon or VTA isn't critical with the Helikon monoor I can't hear the difference!
I listened to the Helikon as if it were a stereo cartridge almost all of the time. I did try it on just one channel with just one side of the system and this was fine, but I liked the image in the center of my two speakers and the whole listening room is optimized for this set up. Those who want to revamp their listening room, to move their speakers, etc. to play pure mono, may do so. I just didn't want to do this.
The CAT preamp has no mono switch, so there will be no comparisons in this review between a good stereo cartridge with a mono switch and the Helikon Mono. I leave that test to someone else though I am skeptical, for reasons given below, that a stereo cartridge can come close to the Helikon on good mono records. There's a good engineering reason for this, of course. The Helikon is optimized to move up and down while a stereo cartridge is optimized to move at any angle between plus and minus 45 degrees.
Unfortunately, I did not have a high quality moving magnet mono cartridge for comparison either. But my strong suspicion is that a moving magnet mono cartridge won't do what the Helikon does, for all the same reasons most stereo moving magnets don't do what stereo moving coils do. Those who prefer the best moving magnet designs over moving coils may disagree. I have been using moving coil cartridges for the last 15 years, so maybe I've just adapted to their rising high end.
What I Heard
Now finally, what did I hear?
The first thing one notices about the Helikon Mono is the dramatically lower noise level. Is this more than the 3 dB one expects from a mono switch? I think so, but I have no measurements. Time and again, records I thought were trashed or nearly un-listenable became enjoyable with the Helikon Mono. The second thing one notices is how many clean mono LPs have no noise whatsoever. The third thing one notices is the incredibly large number of mono LPs that sound really good. After a while you begin to wonder if maybe your mental rating system for good-sounding LPs is weakening. Then you remember that most mono LPs were made with 1 microphone and tube electronics without processing. Maybe most of them should sound good.
Not all LPs sounded good. In fact, just as with good stereo cartridges, a high quality mono cartridge seems to expand the differences between good and bad LPs, and I found some real stinkers. Also, most of the LPs sourced from 78s didn't benefit that much from the Helikon. Of course, a lot of the noise on these LPs is really part of the recording. For instance, I have several copies of the 1937 "Sing, Sing, Sing" with Benny Goodman. The best is the 1950 box with Columbia pastel green label. The red six-eye is much cleaner but much less dynamic. Anyway, the Helikon mono didn't do much to the noise level of the green label version, which suggests to me that the noise is in the source and to take it out you have to process the music.
Finally, I selected a small number of really good sounding mono LPs: Miles Davis, Round About Midnight on a Columbia red six eye CL 949, David Oistrakh, Khatchaturian Violin Concerto on an English Angel red label 35244, Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherezade conducted by Antal Dorati on Mercury Olympia MG 50009, Ella Fitzgerald, Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie! Verve V-4053 (mono, black and silver label), Jascha Heifetz, Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Sarasate Zigeunerweisen on 10" brown RCA LRM-7055 and the Schneider Quartet, Haydn Quartets Opus 76 Nos. 1 and 2 on a Haydn Society thick vinyl blue label, HSQ-34. Then I invited long-time reviewer Dave Glackin over for a run through.
First we played the lot with the Benz reference cartridge. Well, with the exception of the Ella Fitzgerald and the Miles Davis records, they were noisy. The rest of them didn't sound very good, eitherespecially the Scheherezade, the Khachaturian, and the Haydn Quartet. This was definitely not a noise issue. They were flat, lifeless, dull and ready to be put in the garage (an interim step before taking them to a record store that will remain nameless or a Goodwill thrift shop).
Then we put the other arm wand with the Helikon cartridge on the Merrill table. This takes 5-10 minutesmostly to adjust the tracking force.
It is hard to overstate the difference that the Helikon made on these records. The good ones became superb. But the three that sounded bad took on life, richness, image, detailwhatever descriptors you want to use for really enjoyable recorded music. The Haydn quartets sounded vibrant and dynamic; they sounded like a real string quartet instead of a poor AM radio version of a quartet. The Dorati Scheherezade, which sounded really poor with the Benzso poor that Glackin asked me if the Benz cartridge was set up rightwas lively and dynamic with more bass, and an image (presumably a psychological effect due to the greatly improved detail). In fact, Glackin kept trying to figure out why the violins sounded like they were on the left and the lower strings on the right.
Finally, I played 6 new mono Blue Notes just reissued by Classic Records (Miles Davis Young man with a horn 5013, Johnny Griffin Chicago Calling 1533, J. R. Monterose, BN 1536, Miles Davis Vol. 3 BN 5040, Hank Mobley BN 1568, and Lee Morgan Candy BN 1590). The music on these records is timeless jazz of the highest quality. No one with a significant interest in jazz should be without them. They sound just fine with a stereo cartridge, the pressings are immaculate, and unlike some of the classical reissues from Classic, where you had a fighting chance of finding an untrashed original for less than the price of the reissue, your chances of finding a clean Blue Note original of these records under $300 (and maybe over) are zero. These days I rarely see a clean Blue Note original of anything. Furthermore, the Classic jackets are high resolution, glossy copies of the original jackets (not blurred like some reissue jackets), the vinyl is 200 gram Quiex SV-P and the inner sleeves are high quality. I hope I have convinced you to buy these records!
Now if you really want to hear what these records have to offer, take them to a Helikon dealer and listen for yourself. I can't really describe the difference to you other than copying the usual hackneyed descriptions of awesome records that you can find in 3 decades worth of Stereophile or The Absolute Sound. They really are wonderful records. Try the Miles Davis 10" records first. If you're unconvinced, I give up.
Is it worthwhile to purchase the Helikon Mono just to hear these 6 records? I suggest you go back and take the quiz again. The records and the cartridge are that good!
To sum up, the Helikon Mono Cartridge is a must-have product for the record collector with more than a couple of dozen monos LPs.
Are there any down sides?
Well, there's the obvious: you have to swap cartridges on your table, or you have buy a table that takes two arms, or you have to have two tables. I think this covers the alternatives.
Another downside is that you start thinking about equalization. Many of the early monos were not equalized with the standard RIAA curve. Does anyone make a preamp with multiple equalization settings?
Another interesting observation: the Helikon mono picks up dirt. Even if you clean a record just before playing, the Helikon is likely to come off the record with a little fiber or two hanging down. So heed the instructions and clean it frequently. I have my turntable at chest height and inspect the cartridge with a jeweler's double magnifying glass after each playing.
And, for the curiousyes, I did purchase the review sample!