The Audio Note Io Gold Moving Coil Phonograph Cartridge

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.

io-gold

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.

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The Woo WA8 Eclipse

I remember standing at a Laundromat several years ago and seeing a picture of the original Woo Audio WA7 on my iPhone. This was just a simple photograph, no explanation of exactly what it might do and no photograph of the original, tubeless linear PSU that, ideally, you kind of hid away so that only the unusually pretty little WA7 would appear. I do recall that it indicated that the sleek aluminum and glass cube with two small vacuum tubes had a 24-bit/192kHz capable USB input, two main outputs, a 1/4” TRS socket for larger headphones and a 3.5mm mini-socket for IEMs with a giant volume control that hypothetically accommodate anything, given the right set of tubes, from a pair of JH Audio JH 13 Pros to a pair of HiFiMan HE6s. In any case, I wrote to Woo Audio and arranged to review one, which I did with great pleasure and eventually bought one of my own to use at the office with an older 17” MacBook Pro with a third-party SSD, and—after experimenting with music processing applications—a combination of iTunes and Audirvana Plus. I actually had done extensive side-by-side comparisons in a much better system and decided that I preferred the sound of Pure Music to either Amarra or Audirvana Plus; plus Amarra had been a nightmare to support even when it still cost $1,000.00 and required that I insert a special key in one of the USB ports to give one the impression of having a “professional” application. Perhaps most significantly, since this was a multipurpose machine and I couldn’t leave the screen saver turned off all the time, Audirvana Plus just worked better than any other application with other applications while still providing better sound than iTunes alone.

Fast forward several years. I have moved on from that job to a contracting position at a big Silicon Valley company that begins with the letter, “G”. I’ve also moved from provincial Menlo Park to a studio apartment in San Francisco proper to be closer to my then girlfriend. Most of my real audio gear was in storage (including a lovely Transrotor Fat Bob S and SME V that, despite many markings to the country, wound up with its box dropped from at least three feet off the ground onto concrete, sideways, making about $15K worth of top-notch analog playback gear into $500.00 worth of scrap metal and spare parts). I needed something to listen with late at night before I fell to sleep, so I got a new 13” MacBook Pro with a Retina display passing the modified 17” MacBook Pro along to a software developer friend of mine and adding the now-available WA7tp “tube power” supply to the WA7 Fireflies and running a three-meter AudioQuest Carbon USB cable from the 13” MacBook Pro to the WA7. I also upgraded the power cable going to the WA7tp to a short Stealth Swift with copper blades and switched from using my Moon Audio Blue Dragon Beyerdynamic T70p headphones with a pair of Audeze LCD-2.2s using the Silver Dragon cable from Moon Audio. Between the tube power supply, which added a substantial amount of “air” and spaciousness to the sound of the WA7 Fireflies, and the planar magnetic headphones, I got much better sound. Sadly, I could not take this fantastic arrangement into the office because of company policies, which is fine, because—as I said—I needed a good “late night listening” rig anyway.

wa8-iin-bedroom

Now I’ll leave out a lot of deeply personal details related to that job, which I greatly enjoyed, and say that I moved just one apartment down the hallways so that I could have my whole stereo and all of my records and CDs, etc. out of storage and available once again to me. Because I was still working at company “G” and had a much better headphone amp (the Woo WA6-SE) in my main system, I opted to sell the WA7tp/WA7 (with the additional linear PSU) and save the cash for some future replacement that might better work at the office. Sadly, I had to terminate my contract at that job rather abruptly because of excruciating knee pain leading to the need for a partial knee replacement. In the greatest of hopes that I would return to work soon, I bought an open box Chord Mojo, which was all the rage, and several short USB cables to drive it from my 128GB iPhone 6S so that I could just carry my music hardware with me, even had an old pair of Ultrasone Edition 8s upgraded to use the latest version of the Moon Audio Silver Dragon cable after experimenting with some less expensive headphones, and really thought I was done. Although my recovery time expanded from about 90 days to ten months during which the girlfriend of five years more or less vaporized and I found another position at big company with an office in the Silicon Valley where they very politely allowed me to use a 13” MacBook Air running Audirvana Plus as a music processing application and library manager (so bye bye iTunes) I had picked up with the recently-released Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse, a Moon Audio Black Dragon USB cable, and my old reliable Blue Dragon Beyerdynamic T70p’s terminated with a Furutech FP-704 (G) 1/4” TRS plug as my “at the office” audio system. I had picked up the very pretty Firestone headphone stand from Massdrop and, because of its battery, a simple walwart-style power supply was all the WA8 needed to keep running 24/7. I found that running all three tubes sounded best, subjectively, with my Blue Dragon T70p’s and that, in many ways, the WA8 sounded much warmer and richer than that WA7 particularly before you add the WA7tp. So that’s when I decided to carefully put away my age old Locus Design Polestar USB cable and drop in the Moon Audio Black Dragon USB Cable. That was also around the Audirvana Plus added TIDAL HI-FI support so I got a constant supply of new CD-resolution music playing through this lovely amalgamation of gear. I still occasionally bought high-resolution downloads, like 24/96 Aqualung by Jethro Tull, to rock up some energy in the afternoon.

I did briefly consider upgrading the headphones to, say, the Audeze LCD-XCs but was assured that they would be too heavy to wear all day, all I really didn’t want to invest in a second pair of Fostex TH900s, so I just stuck with Blue Dragon T70p’s and that was where the idea of trying out the Black Dragon USB cable came from and cost me under $100.00 my relatively short run. Again, I would say that the WA8 Eclipse DAC/amplifier (which does up to DSD128) have an overall richer, rounder sounder to it. Yes, it is more expensive than the the WA7, but it does so much more in such a small box and can run completely off of batteries for five hours or more, making in the perfect match for my 13” MacBook Air (although in practice I leave the the walwart plugged in and let the battery “buffer” the power so to speak). Of the three colors you can get, black, space gray, and gold, I choose space gray because it looked the most neutral and pretty much perfectly matched my MacBook Air. I can’t tell how much joy the WA8 brings me and knowing that I ever needed to work in another office some day, I just use one of the 2-3 Thunderbolt to USB adapters that Apple makes and use my 128GB iPhone 6S to drive the WA8 for a few hours is incredible. I did sell my Mojo to a friend and I picked up an AudioQuest Dragonfly Red to replace it, for use with the Edition 8s, when I really want to be as portable as possible and let the iPhone power both itself and the headphone DAC/headphone amp (the Dragonfly Red). It actually sounds excellent within its limits, but its no WA8 or WA7, nor did I expect it to be. If you have the room, and portability doesn’t matter, I would say the WA7 with the WA7tp will give you the best, most neutral sound for your money; but if you want the most flexible offering Woo Audio has, and you don’t need a pair of 300Bs to drive the mighty Abyss, it’s really hard to go wrong with the WA8 Eclipse. I give it my highest recommendation, and use it almost all workday long, so I do get to hear it a lot, and I know from whence I speak.