This review is of the medium output – 1 mv – version. This wonderful cartridge has been hanging at the end of a Well Tempered Reference Arm, on a Well Tempered Reference Table, for about 2 years. I think it is fully broken in. But before I tell you about the sound, I’d like to go back to the first year and a half of using this “nude” cartridge.
The first 18 months were intermittently frustrating. I was using the passive preamp that worked very well with a variety of associated equipment. The rest of the system was AtmaSphere M60 mk. II OTL mono amplifiers, which continue to delight, Merlin VSM-SE’s – ditto, and a REL Stratus III sub. Interconnects were by Harmonic Technology and speaker cabling by Analysis Plus. An Onkyo T-9 tuner is there for causal listening. The phono stage during this period was the AHT P-Dual Mono, a $3500 device whose $5750 big brother, the Non-Signature, had received excellent reviews. The Non-Sig and the P-DM shared the same massive power supply, but the Non-Sig used a different circuit board material and a few upgraded parts. In either version, one could change cartridge loading (and gain) by replacing plug in resistors. So I went to my local Radio Shack.com store and purchased 2-each of about 30 values of metal film resistors from 50 ohms to 47k ohms to use for experimentation. I had a plan: when I found the right value, I would call Texas Components Corporation (800-222-3882), and order a pair of Vishay S102K 0.05% resistors in that value. So began an interesting journey.
Van den Hul recommends 47k ohm loading for this model. After about 50 hours, or 150 record sides, of break-in, I started to get down to the business of finding that “magical” resistor value. I tried all the values: the higher numbers offered excellent bass, but made the treble sound coarse and bright. Conversely, lower values muddied up the bass and restricted dynamics, but tamed the nasty high end. I’m sure you’re getting the picture that the ideal value would be the best compromise in good bass definition, dynamics, and clear and detailed, but not overbearing, high frequencies.
The search went on for about 6 months, when I finally settled on a value of 500 ohms and placed the order for the Vishays. And so l enjoyed this cartridge, which was an obvious improvement from my previous Benz Ruby and Koetsu Urushi. The van den Hul has the magic midrange of the Urushi, but thoroughly stomps it in the definition and depth of the bass, and the extension and clarity in the treble. The Black Beauty is in an entirely different league from the Ruby from 10 Hz to dog whistle!
At the 18-month point, I decided to upgrade my phono stage. AHT discontinued their phono products, and you know what that does to resale value. I’ll save you the transition story for now, but the replacement for the AHT ended up being a new CAT Ultimate. This preamp with phono was noticeably better than the AHT literally right out of the box. Note: While the CAT’s phono stage was definitely an across-the-board improvement over the AHT, but the line stage was not better than my old passive. Small differences were apparent in the two line stages’ presentations, but the overall level of sound quality was very similar.
The CAT also uses plug in resistors to change cartridge loading. These are soldered into RCA plugs and inserted into jacks on the rear panel. So, it was back to the drawing board to find the correct value to use for loading. I started with 500 ohms, went up and down, but nothing really locked in and sounded right. The Black Beauty now had about 150 hours on it.
After about three months of this, I removed the loading plugs altogether, and just listened at 47k ohms. I sat there, slack jawed, open stare, in total disbelief at how clear, clean, dynamic, and pure this cartridge was putting out the good mo jo. Unbelievable! The bass was literally as tight as a drum, or string or whatever low note came along, the dynamics were thunderous, and the highs were of an order of transparency and micro-resolution that I had longed for in reproduced music, but thought was restricted to “live”. The midrange was as compelling as that of the Urushi, which is giving the Black Beauty quite a compliment, but with extension at both extremes that the Koetsu could only wish for. The loading plugs went back in and out a couple of times just to make sure my reaction was consistent. It was.
So, is this a case of cartridge break-in, correct loading, or using an adequate phono preamplifier? My opinion is that the cartridge itself needed 100-200 hours to break in properly, and when it did, the need for a better phono stage was noticed. You know how that works. For a long time the system sounds grand, and then this little “thing” happens somewhere between your, uh, feet and your brain that says, “I wonder if I just…” and the search begins.
Negatives? One. Mounting is not as scary as one might think, given the Black Beauty’s bodyless design. However, the mounting screws screw into plastic treads in the top of the body. For a cartridge of this caliber, threaded brass (or other non-magnetic metal) inserts would be more appropriate to be able to tighten the mounting screws without worrying about stripping the threads.
At this rate, it will take me several more years to wear out the stylus, but it is nice to know that retipping is a very reasonable $500. The bottom line here, folks, is this is a wonderful cartridge. If you are looking for a cartridge that tells you what is in the grooves, does it in a way that is very musical, dimensional, and dynamic, and with a level of transparency that communicates the essence of the music, the van den Hul Black Beauty is most assuredly one that is worthy of your consideration.
Overall Rating: 9 LPs