Embry-Monic Journey : Music, Money & The Mono Muse

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Some of you may know by now that in the past year I undertook a bit of an experiment investing about $250 in a Denon DL-102 Monophonic phono cartridge.  

AR-DenonMonoCart225.jpgI did this after being urged by numerous friends on Facebook who noticed that I was posting pics of many old Monaural jazz and rock LPs I own from the 1950s -- they assured me that I would be surprised how great old non-stereo albums could sound when played with a cartridge that was designed specifically for their playback. 

I approached one of my audiophile journalist friends from the consumer electronics industry for some guidance: Michael Trei.   Also renown for his expertise in setting up audiophile turntables and related high end sound systems, Michael pointed me toward the Denon cartridge for its design and balance of performance specs for the price. The next option for me would have been an Ortofon cartridge at twice the price, an investment I wasn't quite ready to make at this (if you will) embryonic stage.  

Or would that be embry-monic...

Bad puns aside, I went for the Denon. And I'll skip cumbersome details of the technical hurdles I had to clear to make it work for my turntable set up (such as the weight of the cartridge requiring me to jerry-rig additional counterbalance weights to use this model... apparently, a common practice/occurrence). Thankfully, Michael helped me set up the cartridge properly on one of his visits to the West Coast so its working just ducky now (note: Michael also helped me with some fact checking on this article so much kudos go out to him for clarifying certain technical details).

Anyhow, while participating in a number of these Facebook record collecting and audiophile oriented groups (again, where participants post pictures of albums being played, cool rarities, nifty gear and such... its a total audio geek fest!), numerous people have asked me to write about my experience with the Mono cartridge. 

I've been grappling with this for months since trying to figure out a useful angle for the story.

I mean... on one hand it might be enough to just say: 'Hey kids, your mono records from the 1950s and early 1960s will sound their best via a dedicated Mono cartridge!'  

But I suspect that wouldn't be very compelling or interesting for most people...

Perhaps then I could go into more detail technically as to WHY it sounds better. There are a several reasons actually...  one has to do with the Monaural cartridge tracking only lateral information in the grooves, thus ignoring the other information that might be picked up by a stereo cartridge (ie. scuffs, scratches, etc.). As Michael explained it :  "In a stereo record, the left and right grooves are in opposite phase. So mono information results in lateral stylus motion. It's the in phase stuff that results in stereo, so if you ignore that, it cancels."

AR-DenonMonoCloseUp225.jpgThe other reason has to do with the physical groove width of early Monaural LP records -- even though they are technically called "microgroove," some are a bit wider than the later albums made in the late 1950s and beyond (when they started using stereo cutter heads). Thus, the somewhat wider stylus on a dedicated Mono cartridge rides more in the center of the groove, avoiding information stuck in the bottom of the groove -- which, in old records can contain a combination of residual dirt/gunk as well as groove damage from being played on old, poorly aligned record players with super heavy tone arms and/or with old damaged "needles." Depending on the thickness of your stylus, there is the possibility for it to dig down into the bottom of the groove, thus possibly picking up that noisy information along the way. 

You can see, however, that this sort of deeper technical discussion quickly gets confusing for those of us who have limited technical comprehension. Heck, even my brain and eyes start to glaze over as I'm trying to proof read this article!

Then I realized that there is another more basic, practical rationale for investing in a Monaural phono cartridge for your high fidelity, audiophile-quality Monophonic listening needs.

The reason: saving money and perhaps getting a little more bang for your music buck... 

Consider first: the cost of buying brand new reissues of old Mono albums. Those things can be pretty expensive, especially if you a going for the fancy 200-gram limited editions. And if you are like me, an insatiable consumer of all sorts of music, spending $25 - $50 a pop for an album reissue can add up quickly. 

Consider second: the cost of buying old original pressings that are in really good condition. Its not easy finding some of these records even in the collectors shops and when you do they can be as pricey as that new reissue or -- in the case of some early 1950s albums that are super rare -- much more expensive.  

So, with that in mind, consider (thirdly) the prospect of being able to pick up far less expensive -- but sometimes no less rare -- copies of old albums that are, frankly, kinda beat up or simply just not looking pristine.  What if you could play them and experience the joy of Mono for, essentially, a fraction of the cost?  

You can! I've been doing it...


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