I have owned many fine phonograph cartridges over the years. My first real audiophile cartridge was an ADC XLM that I was lucky enough to have in high school and, back then, it was a big deal (at least for me) that it used a moving magnet that allowed for RIAA equalization rather than a piezoelectric element that put out an unequalized line-level signal.
As an adult, my first audiophile turntable was an original Rega Planar 2 with a Linn K9 cartridge although I also had a Grace F9E cartridge, which I think actually sounded more like music; but there was something about the rhythm and drive of the K9 that made it my cartridge of preference until I upgraded to a Linn Sondek LP-12 Valhalla, at which point I got a Spectral MCR-IIb (made by Scan-Tech, i.e., Lyra) although I didn’t realize the full potential of the MCR-IIb until I took a tiny little Phillips head screwdriver and removed the plastic body, which put the Spectral/Scan-Tech/Lyra cartridge in a whole new league.
Fast forward several years and I have missed out on the heavenly Linn Troika and Transfiguration AF-1, taken a wrong path to the Transfiguration Temper, and gone through a Lyra Parnassus DCt, a Lyra Titan [i], and a Dynavector DRT XV-1S. I also have a Transrotor Rossini turntable with a Jelco tonearm and I am using a lovely red Audio Note Io 1 extremely low output MC cartridge going into Audio Note’s top of the line AN-S9 all-silver-wired MC stepup transformer in turn going into the phono section of my Audio Note Oto Phono SE Signature integrated amplifier (which actually sounds better than the physically larger and much more costly Audio Note Meishu Phono Silver even with Western Electric 300Bs and numerous NOS tubes plus Black Gate capacitors).
I have no complaints, but I get an opportunity to jump the ladder several rungs and try Audio Note’s second to the top-of-the-line cartridge, the Io Gold. I figure why not. So my favorite audio consultant comes over and carefully uninstalls the Io 1, putting the Io Gold in its place, aligning the tonearm and setting the tracking force and all that sort of thing, and we put on a record. In a sense, silence fills the room, because we all go breathless and awestruck as music simply emanates from the system. Sure, there’s more high-frequency detail, there’s better imaging and soundstaging, there’s less surface noise, there’s more bass, but mostly there’s more music and we are more caught up in the emotion of the music.
The Linn Troika had a level of detail that I’ll never forget particularly on massed strings but kept the whole ensemble together as if in a live performance. The Koetsu Rosewood Signature (at least the original one) had an engaging quality of warmth that did not spill over so excessively that one could call it euphonic. The Lyra Titan, and especially the Titan i, could track almost anything and is probably the most accurate of the three cartridges I have mentioned, but could sound a little sharp or analytical (no offense intended to the folks at Lyra). The Io Gold does all of those things and more. It is, without question, the single most musical cartridge I have ever heard in any system and it, too, tracks flawlessly. Also, the Io Gold conveys the emotive characteristics of a performance with greater truth and force than I have previously heard on anything besides two-track, 15 ips reel to reel tape. Also, after I replaced the Stealth Swift power cable going from my wall socket to my PS Audio Power Plant 10 AC regenerator with its big brother, the Stealth Straight (both using pure silver connectors on both ends), any sense of the music feeling “grounded” to the floor disappeared and it seemed as it the performance just lifted off of the vinyl record and mystically floated across time and space to my ears, even though I knew intellectually that the sound had to be coming from my speakers (Audio Note AN-E SEC Silvers in a piano lacquer Makassar wood finish with hemp woofers, silver-wired tweeters, and Murata super-tweeters). In the past, I’ve only experienced that with my original SME Model 30 in a very different system to a much lesser extent.
Although I find that I enjoy more of my records than I ever have with any other cartridge (which was technically true of the Io 1 as well), one LP that evokes particularly strong emotions for me is the CBS Half-Speed Mastered edition of Stardust by Willy Nelson. It’s a lovely sounding album from the beginning, but with the Io Gold, Willy’s voice kind of emanates out of nowhere in a soft, sweet way. I have never seen him perform live, and I only have a hint of his style from listening to some CDs like Teatro, but I feel very certain that I know what it would sound like, and what it would feel like, to have him drop by my place and start an impromptu concert. I don’t think you can ask for more from any analog front end or from any cartridge, regardless of its color or price.