Thee stylus tip might not be the only part of a hi-fi system that wears out, but it is definitely the most obvious and often the most expensive. After all, dragging a rock down a plastic ditch is always going to be a high-impact occupation – and given the pressures and prices involved, that impact could well be on your wallet. Factor in the risk of accelerated wear from misalignment or wandering set-up and the very real risk of a catastrophic accident if your friend, pet or cleaner gets a little bit frisky (not to mention the possibility of clumsiness on your part or sheer bad luck) and it rather suggests that you‘d have to be insanely rich or just plane insane to contemplate investing darned nearly five figures on anything as fragile and impermanent as a moving-coil cartridge. Which in turn invites the question, why ARE there so many seriously expensive cartridges to choose from?
Exotic moving-coils are one of the last bastions of hand-built micro manufacturing. Painstakingly constructed in tiny numbers by an even smaller number of skilled artisans, these craftsmen have accumulated the years of experience necessary to produce such exacting work the hard way – glued to the eyepieces of a binocular microscope. But to really understand just how precise this work needs to be, it’s necessary to translate it onto a more appreciable, real-world scale. Consider it thus: a 12” tonearm has an effective length of around 300mm and supports a cartridge whose stylus contact patch with the groove wall should be between 2 and 6 micrometers. Let’s blow that up to 1,000 times the size: now our tonearm is 300 meters long while the cartridge, rather than 25mm long is 2.5 meters in length – the size of a small car. What’s happened to the size of the contact patch between the stylus and the trench it is now running it? It’s 1000 times the size, making it anything up to 6mm long! That’s a 6mm contact patch hanging on the end of a 300meter beam. Suddenly the notion of precision manufacturing takes on a whole new meaning.
The physical results are genuinely exquisite in their delicacy and attention to detail and the musical results are, in many ways, just as magical. It seems bizarre that such nuance and subtlety, colour and power can stem from such a fundamentally crude process, but therein lies the artistry and that’s what justifies the price. There’s an old adage in audio (yes – another one) that says, don’t listen to the next cartridge up the range unless you can afford to buy it. What they don’t tell you is, that the further up the range you get, the truer that is. Once you’ve heard what a really top-flight cartridge brings to a system, it’s hard to go back; and because the cartridge is, quite literally at the very tip of the signal chain, every single component downstream gets the benefit. Flagship cartridges might seem ludicrously expensive, but by the time you’ve invested in a decent turntable and tonearm, their musical impact makes them a borderline no-brainer. It soon ceases to be a question of what’s sensible and rapidly becomes what’s possible…
Even amid the rarified atmosphere at the tip of the high-end MC pile, Clearaudio’s Goldfinger Statement comes with a pretty breath-taking £8,995 price-tag. There ARE more expensive cartridges – but not many! By the time you reach this level, exotic materials and semi-precious stone seem almost de rigeur, but the Goldfinger still manages to cut a swagger. Not content with a body that’s milled from solid gold (helping account for its substantial 17g weight), it even sports a half-carat diamond on its face plate, ostensibly as a guide to accurate cueing but let’s be honest, really just to be bling!
Does the flash Harry exterior hint at unnecessary excess? It’s hard to argue against the notion but Clearaudio struggle manfully to do so. With such rare and specific products, differentiating one model from another is essential to protecting your customers and their investment. Okay, a shard of diamond might be a little OTT, but the point needs to be made in such a way that it’s not easily duplicated – or amended after the fact. More pertinently, the gold bodywork offers its own benefits in terms of resonant behavior – even if its lack of mechanical resilience mandates the use of plastic screws to fasten it to the headshell. Don’t whatever you do, over-tighten the fixings. Even with the plastic bolts you can strip the soft threads of the star-shaped top-plate, rendering the cartridge unusable. Proceed with caution – and then back off the gas!