Are Lyras Bright Cartridges?

Galibier Design - Lyra CartridgeI wrote a response in a forum to a fellow who was having trouble with his Lyra Delos cartridge.  The conversation naturally shifted to “Lyras are clinical” and such.  Nothing can be further from the truth with recent generations of Lyras. 

This commentary has relevance to cartridge selection in general (by no means limited to Lyra).  My post follows.

In general, I try to stay out of these “which is best” conversations. If reason prevails, this ends up being a “horses for courses” sort of discussion, and peoples’ cartridge selection will naturally be scattered all all over the spectrum.

Cartridges and speakers are the biggest challenge to the audio engineer. Both are electro-mechanical devices, with two key challenges being the design of a linear motor, and moving parts with minimal resonance.

The crafty designer will balance out the errors he can’t correct, resulting in a product that reproduces a coherent musical whole – “hiding” the errors where they are most consonant. This is as much art as science and hence the variability in what you hear, and the broad range of preferences.

I encourage my customers to voice the tonality of their analog front end to be similar to their digital rig.  For all of the pros & cons of analog vs. digital, the basic tonality of these two playback mediums should be similar.

In other words, if your system is too hot (both analog and digital), you’d be well advised to fix the brightness somewhere other than at your cartridge. You want to enjoy all of your recordings after all, and if you compensate too heavily on dialing in your analog front end (at the expense of your digital), you may never listen to your digital.

Now, not everyone can fix all elements of their system at once, and if you think of a cartridge as a “consumable”, then an alternate strategy might be (for example) to tune an aggressively bright system with a slightly rolled off cartridge, or possibly one with a bit of bass emphasis. 

As long as you’re aware of what you’re doing, you’ll keep track of this and return to address it later, as time and budget permit.

With respect to Lyra, if a customer doesn’t have a bias against silver cabling, they’re a good bet to like a Lyra.  Their system very likely has a well-behaved upper frequency response.  All too frequently, the messenger (silver, Lyra) is blamed for problems elsewhere.

One warning sign for me is the customer who considers his analog front end to have great PRaT. I’ve observed that many of these systems are similar to systems people claim to be imaging champs – having an emphasis in the presence zone (2-4K) which renders the leading edge of notes unnaturally (harsh).

Pairing one of these turntables/tonearms with a cartridge with extended upper frequencies is a recipe for misery. Not all turntables which convey rhythm skew the frequency response. I’d like to think that our Galibier turntables are both balanced and have good PRaT.

There was a time when I was of the opinion that Lyras were bright cartridges. More accurately stated, I felt them to be slightly deficient in the mid and upper bass. This “brightness” many reported in earlier generations was more of a perception thing (perception counts, of course) in the sense that a slight deficiency in the bass registers draws the listener’s attention to the upper frequencies in the same way that a mini-monitor does.

I call this shift in attention, a shift in the “sonic center of gravity”. Around the introduction of the Titan cartridges, this changed and Lyra began to compliment what I always considered the best top end in the business with superb balance in the lower frequencies.

Contrast this with another very fine brand – Dynavector – which has a characteristic mid to upper bass bump that lends a bit of power and impact – a Technicolor or “va-va-voom” sort of listening experience. It’s a bit of a hyper-real effect but Dynavectors still have an uncanny way of paying respect to the nuances in the recording.

This mid/upper bass emphasis (Dynavector) shifts the sonic center of gravity downward, and the fellow with a bright system (who doesn’t want to address it elsewhere) would be advised toward this sort of cartridge, or possibly to cartridges having varying degrees of upper frequency roll-off (Koetsu, Benz, and possibly Ortofon).

The obvious can’t be overstated: setup counts. I can’t tell you how many substandard setups I’ve encountered where the owner blamed his cartridge, tonearm, or turntable, which is one reason I started my traveling setup road show.

In that Audiogon post, user @lewm wrote:

My neighbor, who sold the Benz LPS in order originally to buy ZYX UNIverse(s) (he had 3 in rapid succession), now has a Lyra Etna. I must go listen to it, not that I would ever spend that much.

I wrote him back: 

@lewm – you need to hear your neighbor’s rig. I set up his Etna SL last month. I’m sorry I missed you, but it was a quick visit.

We were listening to Keith Jarret’s Koln concert and at the end of the first side, we looked at each other with tears in our eyes. There’s no more of that analytical presentation people talk about when they reference Lyras – yet further proof (to me) that the musicality vs. accuracy argument is a fallacious one.

BTW, the Delos is a big slice of the Etna – much more than I would have expected. Of course, the Kelos and Etna are more refined, but you get much more than a taste of Lyra in the “lowly” Delos.

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