Making Friends With A Permalloy Stranger
Review by Noam Bronstein
I love that moment of anticipation I feel, the first time I lower the stylus of a new phono cartridge into a familiar record groove. Like speakers, these transducers we call cartridges tend to have a marked influence on the sonics of our systems. Sometimes you smile as you hear the first few notes; sometimes you grin from ear to ear.
And, as with the process of befriending a stranger, some review experiences are a lesson in patience. When I first set up Nagaoka’s top-of-the-line MP-500 in my system, my thoughts were along the lines of, “This is….nice. A bit soft for my taste, but good.” It didn’t exactly sound veiled, or imprecise. I just didn’t hear much in terms of bite, or dynamics. Not a whole lot of excitement. Now, I’d like to think that I’m a pretty good friend; but upon meeting me for the first time, I doubt that anyone would call it an exciting experience. So, I thought, nothing here being offensive in any way, let’s just give this some unrushed time, and see what happens. In any case, the distributor recommended 20-30 hours before critical listening.
Nagaoka is a relatively small, Japanese firm, whose fortunes (small f) are still being made and lost in the analog world. Their cartridges are high-output, made with moving-permalloy motors – and all models have replaceable stylus assemblies, just like moving-magnet designs. Given the output, you’ll be connecting your tonearm cable to the “MM”, or low-gain, input on your preamp.
Comparing the MP-500 with the model it replaced, the MP-50, there isn’t much to tell them apart. Same specs, same boron cantilever and superfine line-contact stylus. The one notable change is a set-screw system that holds the stylus assembly more firmly in the cartridge body. This is a very nice touch, and addresses a common gripe leveled at MM-type cartridges. It befits a high-end model like the MP-500.
So after at least fifteen hours of playing sides and leaving the room, or just listening in the background, I started to evaluate the Naga more intently. I used several preamps for this review, including my reference Musical Paradise MP-P1 and Lounge Audio LCR MkIII, the Audio Exklusiv P0.2, and Aric Audio’s MM Phono. The Nagaoka was a very happy partner with Jelco’s SA750D tonearm, using the standard counterweight. I experimented a little with tracking forces, and settled on 1.65 grams in my setup. I also played with VTA/SRA, and I’d strongly suggest to users of this cartridge – or any other with a fine-line stylus – do experiment with the angle adjustment, it can really bring out the best in its performance.
My prior experience with Naga’s was limited to the lowly MP-11 (now the MP-110). An enjoyable enough bargain cartridge, that sold for around 100 bucks. I think mine was $20 more and had a boron cantilever. I remember it had pretty impressive bass weight too. It’s been too long to say if there’s a family sound that I can identify between the MP-11 and MP-500. What I did notice with the MP-500 is how fleshed out it became over time: initially sounding a bit “lightweight”, it eventually bloomed into a rich-sounding, authoritative music maker.
It’s hard to recall a time when I was more slowly, but firmly seduced by the charms of a piece that initially seemed to be somewhat plain or unremarkable. It’s not that I ever disliked the MP-500. I thought all along, this is a very competent, balanced performer. It just didn’t “grab me”, until….well, until at some point, it did. A month or more into using it, and I really don’t know exactly when, I started to notice that I was relaxed and smiling while listening to my records with this cartridge. That got my attention, and I started listening more closely, and to a wider selection of musical styles.
As I did so, I found the MP-500 to be a more and more satisfying companion. It never surprised me, or should I say, it never “jolted” me, but consistently delivered a very high level of musical truth. Again, that word honesty comes up. After enough time, I did actually become surprised at how good it was. Is there such a thing as a “slow surprise”? Let me put it this way – I grew more and more fond of the Nagaoka’s presentation, as time went by. To borrow a guy analogy: if an actress like Margot Robbie represents “the hottest” or most exciting woman you could have, and, say, a Reese Witherspoon or Carey Mulligan is a woman you’d really enjoy waking up and talking with every morning, then the Nagaoka MP-500 is definitely a Carey. It’s just more real, natural, and authentic. It’s not makeup and glitz here, but more like the proverbial onion, with many layers of enjoyment to be slowly unraveled.
Not having spent any length of time waking up beside one of these actresses, I’d still like to offer a strong recommendation for the Nagaoka.
In fact, if you’re primarily keen on acoustic music – jazz, folk, classical, etc. – this is a cartridge that I think will have few, if any peers in its price range. It gets the tonal colour of instruments and voices very right, and should give years of listening pleasure. If you need a “hotter” cartridge, for heavily produced music like rock and rap, you’ll likely want to compare it if you can, with a similar offering from Grado, Ortofon and the other usual suspects.
Lastly I want to touch on value. The MP-500 retails for $699 US ($899 in Canada). The replacement stylus is $515 Cdn. ($400 US,). Given that this cartridge comes in at 75% of my reference Charisma Audio MC-1, I have to say I consider it to be a superb value. Still, it’s on the high end of the price scale for a high-output cartridge. And note that the cost of the replacement stylus isn’t trivial either – it’s more than you’ll pay to retip many MC’s with Soundsmith, although it’s considerably less than Ortofon’s high-end 2M Black, for example. On the other hand, street prices should be considerably lower, depending on variables like currency exchange. There is also some disparity of information when it comes to stylus life expectancy: but the best word I have is that 800-1000 hours is likely to be achieved, with proper care and cleaning.
I also want to thank Peter Scharman (PSE Audio Products), the Canadian Nagaoka/Jelco/Neotech distributor, for the review loan. This is an excellent cartridge that I feel is very deserving of our Gold Star Award for performance, and value. Very highly recommended.
Nagaoka MP-500 Moving Permalloy Phono Cartridge, $899.95 Canadian Dollars
Distributed in Canada by PSE Audio Products (Kitchener, ON)
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