It is difficult to make a convincing argument that the upper echelon of the analogue cartridge world is represented by anything outside moving coil design. If you have plans to take a scenic drive through the gated, ritzy neighborhoods of phono-ville and have the capital to spend more than a few thousand dollars on phono cartridge your options for the most part are going to be comparing different manufacturers and models of moving coil cartridges. It is not until you start to approach less heady price points that a cadre of moving magnet cartridge designs break into the picture and start to carve out some space under the higher priced tier of MCs jockeying for your attention. Clearaudio’s Moving Magnet Maestro V2 is once such MM cartridge that confidently enters the phono cartridge conversation at a listing price of £830, which is a relatively high price for a MM. Clearaudio’s Maestro positions itself as an intentional disruption to shake most shoppers from lurching around with ‘MC tunnel vision’ and have them stop for a moment to consider what a carefully crafted moving magnet product can bring to the table. Clearaudio’s Maestro has no intention of playing second fiddle to the MC crowd, from the first look and touch of the cartridge the Maestro is effectively drawing a line in the sand saying “I dare you to find a better value at my price point, MM, MC, or Moving Iron... bring ‘em all on!”
Even at its ‘healthy’ price point the Maestro sits just about in the middle of the price (and presumably) performance lineup of cartridge models in Clearaudio’s V2 series. The new V2 cartridge line (which for the record has replaced the recent Aurum line) casts a wide net. In the V2 series there is a niche for just about every budget an analogue loving enthusiast can piece together. With sometimes less than a hundred pounds separating the models in the V2 series, this multi-optioned price declination means in practicality that you get exactly what you pay for in the V2 line. As my late grandfather was fond of saying, “First class always costs just a little bit more” and that statement perfectly suits the layout of the V2 line. For every few hundred pounds you can add to your stack, you can bite off one or two more improvements in the V2 line.
The most significant price pivot that separates the Maestro from the V2 herd is a solid boron cantilever. Surprisingly enough, boron was not selected by Clearaudio because it’s easy to find front and centre row position on the periodic table of elements. Boron was carefully tested and selected by Clearaudio’s engineers to substantially increase the cantilever’s rigidity while staying lean, mean, and low mass. The Maestro is adorned with an attractive, resonance damping, ebony wood housing, and a micro HD stylus. This stylus is notable for its particularly lengthy shape, which is also intended to decrease mass while offering the advantage of superior groove tracking in your beloved records. The Maestro cartridge is one of the heavier cartridges Clearaudio currently offers, weighing in at 8.5 grams and provides a 3.6mV output voltage that is consistent with most cartridges below the Maestro’s price point in the V2 line. While there is reference on Clearaudio’s website to the Maestro’s upgraded output voltage I could not find any indication there was a substantial improvement in the 3.6mV output listed. One drawback of the design that I found to be particular hard to let go of (mentally anyway) is the frontward oriented exposed and unprotected cantilever. Even through Clearaudio includes a very solid and easily used stylus guard, the unprotected cantilever I anticipate will remind many listeners that they are always just a mere fat-fingered mistake away from dropping to their knees wondering why they chose to invest so much in something so fragile. Please be cognisant of this design detail if you have little one’s prying fingers about or a rough housecleaner.
After several rounds of fastidiously calibrating, and re‑calibrating the Maestro for my sensitive VPI Prime reference table I first chose to audition Roy Ayers’ always seemingly fresh take on Stevie Wonder’s classic ‘Don’t You Worry ‘bout A Thing’ from his criminally under-rated and under-appreciated Change up the Groove album [Polydor]. For those who might be curious my reference system starts with Shelter’s 501 Mk III MC cartridge, the VPI Prime, Precision Transducer Engineering’s MM/MC phono stage, Arcam’s rHead headphone amplifier, and the belle of the ball for this cartridges’ audition: the Focal Elear headphones. At the £800+ price point, the Maestro purportedly seemed to be a natural fit into the other equipment in my reference system so I was looking forward to a well balanced audition. Back to Mr. Ayers who has been patiently awaiting our attention; the intent behind this audition selection was to jump into the water head first and get some first impressions on just how much an MM cartridge can intrude onto a moving coil’s holy ground sound signature, the treble. Let me tell you when Roy’s vibraphone hits that high register as it does quite frequently in this track the clarity and depth of the notes coming through the Maestro is unmistakably impressive. The Maestro mirrors a quality MC sound in that there is no stretch or reach to produce the sweet highs and breathtakingly long decay of the vibraphone, an instrument I find to be a particularly revealing in regards to treble. The Maestro allows Ayers’ overlapping and rapid vibraphone strikes to take flight and hover in the aether with enough space and time to take them all in individually, examine them, and let them float away back into a spaciously dark background.
An excellent go-to record for a taste of the bass is the astonishingly well recorded first track ‘Wake Up’ on Mad Season’s 1995 one and done album Above [Columbia]. The achingly slow ethereal bass that quietly opens this track is one of the best demonstrators I have heard to show how subtly different analogue components can treat pure uncut electric bass guitar. Starting my analogue signal from the Maestro the bass extension was one the lowest I have heard come through my system to date pulling me down to a place that left me gasping for air. Not only was the bass diving me lower than I had been prepared to expect, but the Maestro opened up the texture on the bass as well revealing quivers and shimmers of low frequency sound that simply were not there before hooking up the Maestro.
I will note that my perception of the Maestro’s sound depth was very much front row and centre of aisle in its musical presentation. I have always enjoyed being up close and personal with my music and the Maestro pushed me right up into the act and let me feel like I was holding the bands’ microphones and amps. If you desire a laid back vibe the Maestro most likely will not fit your tastes, but for those of us who like to be able to read the time off of our artists’ wristwatch as they play you will find the Maestro right up your alley. The Maestro added an immediacy to the music that I found contagious, and most effectively nuanced with slightly negative VTA adjustment. By comparison to my reference 501 Mk III which is a tremendously detailed and lushly smooth sounding cartridge in its own right I noted a small step down when listening to the Maestro in the precision detail department. The 501 Mk III can certainly hold its own in more than a few areas sonically and feels very similar to the Maestro in the strengths of mid range presentation. While treading upon similar ground in the mid range I found that I yearned for the the slam and heft of Maestro’s fast attack. I needed the controlled power the Maestro was able to deliver to Rock and Funk music I love so dearly that I just couldn’t find with the 501 Mk III. While the Maestro excels with driving, pumping music like MM cartridges are reputed to do, I found that the real strength of the Maestro cartridge is the ability to control its power and still achieve a neutral canvas for the other aspects of my music regardless of genre. The product has an uncanny ability to sense the desired feel and interject a level of intelligence into your LP playback. The Maestro is one of those special cartridges that is smart enough to do it all and makes you want to go buy more LPs instead of more equipment. Very highly recommended!
Type: Moving Magnet phono cartridge
Stylus/Cantilever: Boron, Micro HD Shape
Tracking Force: 2.0 - 2.5 g, optimal: 2.2 g
Load: 47 KOhm
Compliance: Not specified.
Output (@ 1 kHz, 5 cm/s): ~ 3.6 mV
Manufactured by: Clearaudio
Distributed in the UK by: Sound Fowndations
Tel: +44(0)118 981 4238