“You’re the writer I want to be when I grow up.”
That’s how I introduced myself to Art Dudley when I first met him, in 2005, at Le Festival Son et Image de Montréal.
Art was the best writer in audio. No matter the topic, I enjoyed reading his articles -- he presented fresh, crisp images, and his sentence construction was akin to a bubbly glass of champagne. His writing sparkled on the tongue -- I felt refreshed for reading it. I don’t often read hi-fi magazines, either in print or online, because most of them are all about the gear. Well, duh -- of course an audio review should inform the reader about the component being evaluated. But writers of Art’s caliber can also entertain. His writing transcended the genre.
If I’m searching for a new dishwashing machine, I’ll inform my choice by reading reviews of dishwashers -- but after I’ve bought my new machine, I’ll probably never read another dishwasher review. Had Art written dishwasher reviews, I’d have kept reading them long after my purchase.
Art attended the last several Son et Image shows, and each year I made a point of saying Hi. We exchanged only pleasantries, as Art was all business -- he was there to cover the show, dammit -- but he was always pleasant, with a kind word and a smile.
Kind. Art seemed kind -- calm and peaceful, in an almost Zen-like manner. I’ll greatly miss the few, small interactions I shared with him, and I’ll greatly miss his writing in Stereophile.
What a bitch of a first quarter 2020 has presented. Rush’s Neil Peart left us in January, the plague made a comeback, and the world caught fire. Then, on April 14, Art Dudley died. It’s been a hell of a Vienna.
Vertere Mystic cartridge
I bought my first high-end turntable in or around 1998 -- a used Roksan Xerxes with a Roksan Artemiz tonearm. I mounted in it a second-hand Sumiko Alchemist S cartridge and used that for a while. But the Xerxes suffered from the dreaded Sagging Plinth Syndrome, so I found a parts ’table already fitted with Roksan’s Tabriz tonearm and Shiraz cartridge. I installed the new-old plinth and Shiraz on my original Xerxes, which now sounded glorious. But the Shiraz cartridge was nearing the end of its useful life -- after a few months, it began to sound harsh and brittle. It was baffed.
It was serendipitous, then, that right about that time, at the Festival Son et Image, I met Touraj Moghaddam, cofounder (with Tufan Hashemi) of Roksan. We chatted for a while, and he mentioned that Roksan could rebuild my Shiraz. On my return to Toronto, I mailed off the sick Shiraz, and shortly thereafter got it back, rebuilt. Rinse and repeat twice more -- counting the very first, already nearly smoked, I’m now on the fourth incarnation of that original Shiraz.
But the Xerxes is long gone. Most recently, I’ve been using the Shiraz on my VPI Prime Signature turntable. It’s a great match, and listening to this cartridge is like coming home. I know its sound well: the crisp, well-delineated treble; the rhythmic snap of its dynamics; its tight, controlled bass. It’s a fantastic all-rounder.
I bumped into Moghaddam again at last year’s Audio Video Show, in Warsaw, Poland, where he was hosting the Vertere Limited exhibition. It’s always a pleasure to chat with him. He’s very approachable, and it’s clear that he’s an audio enthusiast first and a businessman second. Add in the loping cadence of his delightful London accent and he’s immediately captivating. His company has been in business for over a decade now, but launched its first turntable just over seven years ago. Since that time Vertere has expanded its product line to include four turntables, three tonearms, and a phono preamp. The news in Warsaw was their new Mystic moving-coil cartridge ($2699 USD) -- it meant that, for the first time, Vertere could offer a complete analog source system. Since then, they’ve also launched the Magneto moving-magnet cartridge.
You could think of the Mystic, at $2699, as somewhat “affordable,” but for me that’s a stretch. Better to say that while it’s not outrageously expensive, it’s still a high-rent MC that outputs a manageable 0.5mV. Its micro-elliptical stylus rides on a tubular cantilever of aluminum, and Vertere recommends a vertical tracking force (VTF) of 2gm.
This review was a race against time. I received the review sample of the Mystic on April 5, and I really wanted to submit this review in time for it to be published June 1. But my sample was basically new -- I had to put some serious hours on it, pronto, to be sure it was fully broken in.
I first mounted the Mystic on the Dr. Feickert Analogue Volare turntable, which meant removing my European Audio Team Jo N°8 cartridge. The Mystic is as easy to install as a cartridge can be. The mounting holes are threaded, the body’s sides are parallel, and the finish is a grippy, pebbled, matte anodizing atop milled aluminum. And there’s a comprehensive stylus guard. To sweeten the deal, Vertere has included a set of mounting bolts with knurled heads, the first such things I’ve seen on a cartridge -- they were a pleasure to use, and I had no problem applying enough torque to firmly set them in place on Origin Live’s Silver tonearm. Unfortunately, the Mystic’s bolts were a touch too short to use in the VPI’s chunky headshell. I resorted to old-fashioned hex-head screws.
The mounting plate on the top of the Mystic’s body has three raised points: two at the rear, one at the front. Three points define a plane, and these made ideally firm contact with the headshells of both the Origin Silver and VPI JMW-10 tonearms. Including alignment -- a snap due to the Mystic’s clear sightlines -- the Vertere was up and running in less than ten minutes. I couldn’t have been happier.
I wish I could say the same about removing my Roksan Shiraz from the VPI. I used only one set of magnifying glasses, so I didn’t notice that I had hold of two tonearm leads, not one. I supported the cartridge end of one lead, and proceeded to rip the clip right off the other flying lead. I had to figure out how to strip the insulation off a 1/3” length of ca. 22-gauge wire so that I could solder the clip back on. Instead, I put the Shiraz back in its box. Later.
No matter -- the subject of this review is the Vertere Mystic.
It was a ton of fun to compare the Mystic ($2699) with the Jo N°8 ($2495). These similarly priced cartridges couldn’t have sounded more different, though their sounds shared the core elements that make an outstanding MC. Both retrieved detail in a smooth, distinguished manner, had excellent dynamics, and delivered music in a refined, easeful way. I’ll get to their differences in a bit, but first . . .
The Vertere Mystic reminded me of my Roksan Shiraz. Yes, the Shiraz’s sound is refined, but it can also boogie, and so could the Mystic. Notes fairly leapt off the LPs I played. I fired up Miles Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL1-440), and it didn’t take more than the first bar to get my foot tapping. “Right Off” is driven by Billy Cobham’s crisp, consistent drumbeat -- his drums propel this track, and via the Mystic I could feel the beat as it throbbed through my room. It’s crazy what Cobham gets away with here. He plays the same beat right through the entire album side -- it’s 26:54 long -- and the Mystic nailed it, revealing just the right amount of snap in the snare, and shimmer in the ride cymbal.
Open, crisp, resolving -- those were my initial reactions to the Mystic. Not crisp in an abrasive sense, but crisp as in dynamics a-plenty, from the upper bass right through the upper treble. It felt -- and sounded -- as if the Mystic lacked any lag whatsoever. When Davis’s trumpet boils in after a minute or two of Cobham, electric guitarist John McLaughlin, and bass guitarist Mike Henderson beating each other up, the Mystic accelerated from 0 to 100.
How, I thought, can there be this much information in an LP groove? It felt as if, inside the Mystic’s chunky aluminum body, there was an unbelievably light coil -- as if the cartridge were responding to the groove with lightning speed.
A race against time. I’m sheltering in place, as there’s a plague across the land. You’d think it would be the ideal time to review audio gear, but it’s not that easy. Marcia and little Toni are home all day, all night, every day, and the nine-year-old needs help with her schoolwork. Also, I got outvoted and we bought a dog. Now all the speakers are wound around with plastic food wrap, and I’m constantly shooing the damn thing away from my power conditioner and its high-voltage cords. Maybe I should just let the rat bastard learn the hard way . . . ?
So, for the first week and a half, I listened when I could, and in those rare, precious sessions just kept shoveling sides across the VPI. After the Mystic had had some time to loosen up, I began to pay close attention again. The basic balance of the cartridge’s sound hadn’t changed. Throwing Jack Johnson back on, I was pleased to hear the same snappy, quick, responsive dynamics. The adjective crisp still applied, but the upper midrange and lower treble now had more subtlety, providing more evidence of the Mystic’s micro-elliptical stylus’s ability to hug the groove walls. That stylus was really quiet in the groove -- surface noise was definitely lower than from the Shiraz’s Gyger II stylus.
This was evident with every record I played, from my pristine pressing of Jack Johnson through my crusty old copy of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s performance of Shubert’s Piano Sonata in G, D.894 (London CS 6820). The latter, a garage-sale acquisition, got a bit mangled when the dog knocked over a pile of records, and further scraped as I tried to pull him away. But, beat up as it now is, I could still enjoy it through the Mystic, and the contrast between the frenetic Jack Johnson and the Schubert’s long, calming first movement, Fantasie -- Molto moderato e cantabile, put me in a better frame of mind. This is a wonderful movement -- ponderous, gravid with meaning -- with no discernible rhythm to which the Mystic can attach itself. It was easy to get an idea of the Mystic’s bass capabilities from the complete absence of overhang I was hearing. Sure enough, its sound was rich and full down low, but not to the point of absurdity. Rather, it had depth and extension, but with excellent control -- as was easy to hear in the lowest notes.
Aural images were good and tight, as evidenced by my all-time favorite thinkin’ album: Duke Ellington’s Indigos (Columbia CS 8053 / Impex IMP6010). This entire album is incredibly sparse for a big-band recording, with plenty of space in which to hear the huge acoustic responding to the sound of Ellington’s piano. The Mystic faithfully related the reverberations off the studio’s back wall, and the decays of the brass as they cut off their short blats. The lead trumpet in “Where or When” was as crisply reproduced as I’ve heard it.
I hinted earlier that the E.A.T. Jo N°8 and the Mystic sounded very different. The Mystic was all about rhythmic bounce and notes in motion. The Jo N°8 hangs its hat on the big picture, the music as a whole. The E.A.T. Jo N°8 threw up more of a wall of sound -- a richer, denser soundstage -- but couldn’t quite match the Mystic’s precise anchoring of images in space. Likewise, in the bass, the Jo N°8 presented a slightly richer, more textural foundation, compared to the Mystic’s whip-crack speed.
I sit firmly on the fence: These two cartridges presented music in different but equally valid ways. Ideally, I’d have two identical turntables set up side by side, so that I could listen to whichever cartridge took my fancy. You can’t go wrong with either.
The Vertere Mystic offers so much quality of sound that it makes the mid-$2000s a sweet spot in the curve of price vs. performance. A few months ago, I returned to Top Wing the review sample of their Blue Dragon, a cartridge I absolutely raved. At $12,500, the Blue Dragon damn well better be good, and it was. But sitting here today, listening to the Vertere Mystic, I don’t feel that I’m missing anything. And I’m in no rush to rewire and reinstall my twice-the-price Shiraz, either.
. . . Jason Thorpe
Vertere Mystic Moving-Coil Cartridge
Price: $2699 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
5 Oliver Business Park Oliver Road
London NW10 7JB
Phone: +44 (0)203-176-4888