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Positive Feedback ISSUE 3
october/november 2002



20X-L MC cartridge

as reviewed by Mike Peshkin

DV 20X cartridge





Infinity P-FRs loudspeakers.

Anthem Pre-1 preamplifier w/ NOS tubes and the Monarchy 100SE amplifiers.

Audio Alchemy CD Pro and a VPI Mk. IV turntable with a JMW10 arm and Dynavector 20XL cartridge.

Interconnects and speaker cables range from home-made "twisties" to MIT and Goertz.

Walker Valid Points, MIT power cord, Monster and Adcom power conditioners, and a VPI record cleaner.


I listen to almost everything. I’ve even, after all these years, conceded that rap has its place, though in all honesty I don’t buy any. I listen mainly to jazz and classical music. I listen to everything from salsa to bop, big band and post bop to modern/modal to Dixieland. I listen to opera and chamber music, full scale orchestral, ancient and modern. I listen to Reggae. I listen to Blues—how can one avoid listening to the depth of feeling that music is filled with? I admit that show tunes are listened to only by the rest of my family when I shower. My point is that being eclectic is very important when evaluating gear. We react to sound in so many ways, and our feelings change with the music we hear. Variations of mood may vary how one feels about a particular piece of gear. If you are as eclectic as I am, a piece of gear shouldn’t sound great with jazz or chamber music and fall apart on Mahler.

I am not of the school of thought that says a system should be built with the type of music one listens to, perhaps because I don’t listen to one type of music. Fifteen-inch woofers for the rocker, smaller woofers for the classical guy—this is trash talk! Berlioz and Holst (for instance) depend on the power of bass to propel the music just like (my age is showing here) Keith Moon’s drums were important to The Who’s sound. A system should do everything well, not just do some things in a spectacular manner, and others... well, it’s like peanut butter. There are people who love chunky and those who’ll only eat smooth. I think that there are basically two types of phono cartridges, and I have only come to that conclusion in the past month or so.

The subject of this review, the Dynavector 20X-L, does nothing in a spectacular manner. If I thought everyone would understand me completely I wouldn’t write another word, but this statement could lend itself to misunderstanding, so I’ll go on. The 20X-L is one hell of a cartridge, but it doesn’t do anything that sets it apart from all the others, and therein lies its strength. Don’t expect micro-details that blow your mind, although the presentation is very detailed and textured. Don’t expect earth-shattering lows or cirrus-cloud highs—they ain’t there, not in the way I’ve heard other cartridges do them. But, the Dynavector is the defensive player that always arrives for practice on time, never gripes about the coach, executes his plays exactly as written in the playbook yet still reacts to what the other team is doing, and makes his tackles with precision without calling attention to himself. I know the difference, because my Glider is an offensive player. I played defensive tackle long ago and far away, so you can guess which sound I like better.

You might say that the Glider (and many other cartridges) is chunky peanut butter. I am sure that there is less and less chunkiness when the transducer costs thousands of dollars rather than hundreds, but all the cartridges that I have heard—and I have heard a couple of the stratospherically-priced ones—do some things incredibly, sometimes shockingly well. Again, the 20X-L does nothing shockingly well, hence it is smooth peanut butter. The Glider presents more three-dimensional images, the soundstage is wider and deeper, and with more layers, but the Dyna isn’t shabby in those respects. If I hadn’t listened to the Glider for the past four years, I’d be impressed as hell by the Dyna, but these are recording/playback artifacts and not music. The Dyna’s sound is not boring. Bass is solid, perhaps as solid as I’ve ever heard. My foot starts tapping with the very first note, my attention grabbed by the music, not by the sound. That is not to say that the Dyna doesn’t deliver audio surprises. There are surprises in music, so a piece of equipment had better convey the shock of, say, going from an extremely soft passage to an explosion of drums. The problem is, there are amps, preamps, CD players, and turntable/arm/cartridge combos that don’t do it!

Okay, I’ll stop using the wild metaphors, and go on to the music. I played all kinds of recordings while breaking in the 20X-L, from rock to jazz to classical. Breaking a cartridge in can be a real pain in the rump. I remember having to listen to three Sumiko Blue Point Specials as they broke in. They sounded great out of the box, like Metalmania after five hours, and for the next fifteen... oooh! I loved that! Finally, after twenty hours, I could enjoy the sound. The Dyna ain’t like that, thank God! It sounds reasonably good from the get-go. After about five hours I found out that it was a killer cartridge. It kept improving with every record, until finally, at about 100 hours, I stopped noticing changes. Throughout the break-in, the soundstage widened, the bass got deeper, the highs more... well, I can’t say crystalline, ‘cause they weren’t, but the upper registers sounded good when I first started playing records and they got better and better and better. As for imaging, it never got the three-dimensional thing going like the Glider. For $250 more you get parfait—lots of layers. If that’s really important to you, spend the extra money, but the Dynavector is a music player, not a recording specialist. If you want music, the Dyna is superb.

The first LP to hit the ‘table when I was reasonably sure the cartridge was broken in was a previously-sealed Mozart Concerto in D (Epic LC3163), with Clara Haskil at the piano. Although unplayed, this record, like most Epic LPs, was slightly noisy. I wanted to see what kind of sound the Dynavector could pull off an average record, not a sonic wonder. The Dynavector, hanging off the JMW10 tonearm on my VPI HW19 Mk. IV, is capable of extracting a huge amount of information from a relatively poor piece of vinyl. Helping tremendously are the Walker Valid Points I have underneath the ‘table instead of the original rubber feet, making the VPI a more musical machine than I ever thought possible. With the Valid Points, everything that’s supposed to be quiet becomes more so. Everything that’s loud and dynamic knocks you from your chair! Micro-acoustics, instead of not being there, or worse, intruding upon the music, are part of the whole. Even motor and belt noise, audible when close to the ‘table (not loud, just there) becomes close to, if not completely inaudible. Also, with the Valid Points, the VPI takes on the space-age look of, say, a JA Michell ‘table. Simply put, the Walker Points transformed an already great ‘table into a far greater one, capable of competing with the very best.

Back to Clara and Mozart. This is a most beautiful performance of this piece! With the Dynavector we hear Haskil at what must be her interpretive best, and the Vienna Symphony also seems to be in top form. I’ve listened to this recording a half dozen times now—I’ve been seduced! With the Dynavector, I can fall into this recording and be a very happy man. It has absolutely no problem maneuvering through this old mono. Spurious noise is kept at an absolute minimum, and this is important, as I probably have an equal number of mono and stereo records in my collection. With the 20X-L, the recording made me forget a couple times that I was in my living room and placed me in the rear of the concert hall (this is mono, remember). I felt like I had surreptitiously entered while the orchestra was doing its final rehearsal. I was blown away by those nimble fingers of Ms. Haskil as she traversed the keyboard. What astounded me was how the bass was portrayed—gorgeous and lifelike, and this is a 46-year-old recording!

I played a lot of mono LPs while giving this cartridge its IQ tests. B.B. King’s Twist on Crown made me laugh like I haven’t in a long time! I have to admit that hearing "Come by Here" for the first time made me run for the bathroom because I was laughing too hard. For those who don�t know the record, you�ve heard a far more tasteful version�"Kumbayah." The Dyna allowed me to hear B.B.’s very young voice clearly, without the sonorous tones of later years, but recognizably B.B. As for stereo, well, the ECM recording of Gary Burton’s New Quartet showed me why I love this cartridge so much. If the Dynavector were a woman I’d divorce my wife and marry the 20X-L in a heartbeat! The sound of this recording, like all ECMs, is a bit hot. With my Benz Glider, the sound is very, very good, but a bit too up front for me. The Dyna, a warmer-sounding cartridge, tames some of the brightness and makes the record more enjoyable than I’ve ever heard it, and I listen to this record quite a bit. I’ve bought copies for friends, recommended it to people, and read about it in other reviewers’ listening tests. It is a great record, Burton at his best. Imaging with the Dyna is not as three-dimensional as with the Glider, but believable nonetheless. The stage is wide and deep, though again not as wide as the Glider’s. "Smoothness" is the key word when describing the sound of this cartridge. I don’t mean to say it’s not dynamic, or that it’s sloppy, anything but.

Listening to the reissued Mercury Firebird Suite, I had my eyes closed when the attack of the drum (if memory serves, about eight minutes into side one) made me literally jump out of my chair. It was so loud, so dynamic, and so real that it scared the bejeezus out of me! This cartridge is able to keep up with the big boys in terms of separating orchestral instruments. It amazed me with the Firebird! After being scared witless by the bass drum on the Firebird, I just had to put on the record that I think has the most real-sounding bass that I have ever heard, the mono 1812 Overture. (Did you catch the correlation here? Antal Dorati conducting both pieces, both on Mercury.) The cannon shots in that Merc mono will blow your mind. Forget the Telarc! I have always been shocked at how great the bass is in that recording, but nothing, nothing I’ve ever heard captures it like the Dynavector 20X-L!

If you’re like me, and love the way that Ella plays with her voice and does what I call her "little girl thing," you may think, as I did when listening to LP after LP, that you’ve never heard her correctly until you’ve heard her through the Dynavector. On Ella and Louis, Armstrong’s voice was captured in all its gruff glory. Listening to Exodus (Island DLPS9498) with the Dynavector seemed to propel the music forward. By that I mean that there was a sense of the urgency that is very apparent in live music, but rarely heard in recordings. I was tapping my feet excitedly through the entire record! The soundstage was well defined, with Marley forward in the mix and somewhat three-dimensional but by no means visually life-like. (I am able to "see" performers with the Benz Glider.) The Dyna seems to give the Henry Higgins treatment to singers. I understood every utterance Marley made. There was a nice amount of air around him as he sang, with the chorus’ voices also well defined and set well back to the right of the stage. Keyboard work, as heard on "The Heathen," was clear beyond words. I was swaying, butt wigglin,’ and toe-tappin’. I even got the lard up and was dancing at one point! That too, is a testament to the Dyna’s sound.

I opened a sealed copy of the Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Cello (Philips PHS2-920) with Richter and Rostopovitch. When the lousy Philips vinyl wasn’t trying to tear the stylus clear of the cantilever (and this was a sealed copy!), the Dyna showed me how great Richter was. If he were a gymnast, he would have been an Olympic gold medal winner. The Dyna performed well enough that I didn’t want to remove the LP, despite the terrible vinyl, because I enjoyed the performance so much. The Dyna was able to keep each note separate, not easy with Richter’s speed and agility. On this record, and I attribute this to the vinyl, there was no depth to the low notes, no beyond-the-clouds highs, but the sound was still quite good. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’d like to hear what a lesser cartridge would have sounded like!

Playing the reissue of Mingus’ Tijuana Moods (RCA LSP2533) I felt like throwing my listening notes out of the window. The soundstage was almost unrealistically wide, with the instruments separated, in my small room, by feet, not inches. Knepper’s trombone was so realistically spitty that I kept ducking my head to keep from being rained upon. Clarence Shaw was so far back in the left corner, I thought he’d decided to play outside instead of joining the rest of the group, and the realness of Mingus’ bass was astounding. The piano, at dead center, had an almost surreal believability, the box of the instrument reverberating as if I was seven feet away from it rather than my speakers. In "Isabel’s Dance," the castanets sounded so real I thought my wife was playing her set. What a recording!

I know I seem to have reversed what I originally said about this cartridge—that it did nothing spectacularly well. Perhaps it was the wide variety of recordings I chose, perhaps it was that 100 hours of break-in time. Again, though, the imaging was not equal to the best I’ve heard, not the Glider’s, and surely not the Clearaudio Insider—that is a benchmark! Neither am I talking about the cutout dolls of the original Blue Point, by any stretch of the imagination. The imaging was just not state of the art, and at the price of this cartridge you’d be foolish to expect that. Yet the Dynavector is nearly equal to any cartridge I’ve heard in terms of negotiating tricky passages. It never gets into trouble on loud, complex passages.

The final record I want to tell you about is Blues Hoot, with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (DCC Compact Classics LPZ-2007). With the Dynavector, it has a nice, warm, you-are-there sound. I can’t remember any cartridge presenting acoustic guitar as beautifully as the Dyna. I could hear fingers tracing the strings, fretwork, the soundboard and box of the guitar, the strings’ reverb. Damn! The players were spread from corner to corner in the living room. They kept changing positions on every other song, or the engineer was drunk, or maybe I was. The music sounded good enough for my oldest son to exclaim, "That may be the best blues record I’ve ever heard." Well, at 22 he hasn’t heard that many, but the Dynavector can create some excitement!

I haven’t bothered to put the Glider back on the ‘table. In fact, I love the sound of the 20X-L so much I had to keep it, and let me tell you, I don’t like spending money during the summer. Substitute teachers don’t get paid for not teaching! But I wanted that music. The idea of going back to listening to soundstage and imaging with the Glider instead of music with the Dynavector was not to my liking. Mike Peshkin




Retail $525

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