The iconic audio devices are like iconic musicians. We cherish them for their unique achievements, sound, originality and even one-of-a-kind biographies. Everyone, in one breath, can recall on cue a not inconsiderable list of musicians to whom, if he or she doesn’t even listen, is certainly aware of their iconic status precisely. Such a phenomenon is culturally widespread and by no means exclusive to our time, where the availability of music, and therefore the works of iconic artists, is child’s play. In the early days of music printing, an iconic artist may have been Orlando di Lasso, whose fame reached international status long before it became ubiquitous. The closer we approach our times, the easier it is to find examples. In the XIX century, when Europe shrinking under the wheels of trains, there was a cult following for both Liszt and Paganini, and certainly for Beethoven, whose high lifetime pension from Prince Lobkovitz was to induce him to stay in Vienna and create for the glory of that city. Through the beginnings of phonography Caruso (here opinions are divided, because it was also thanks to the cult of Caruso that the beginnings of phonography took off) or a bit latter opera diva and pop culture icon Maria Callas became iconic. Both Elvis and Davis, on par with Hendrix and Horovitz, were given cult status, although that’s a different musical story. Ever since the four Liverpool fellows became cult icons, the music industry has learned to make big money from the phenomenon.
What is it about the cult that we are able to give it much of our attention, and often devotion? It turns out that the word itself, although its origin dates back to Roman times (from cultus: to care for, work, cultivate) only gained considerable popularity in the 19th century, especially in reference to ancient or primitive belief systems and religious worship. The expanded meaning, „giving attention to a particular person or thing,” dates back to 1829. Since then we have had a rash of figures, by no means exclusively related to music, who have been bestowed with more or less universal adoration and cult. Some researchers, link the increase in devotion to a particular person or thing (read: cult) to the disappearance of the original meaning of religion. This would explain why there is so much involvement and emotion in a cult. It would also explain that the object of cult can become not only the creator, person or group of people, but also the object. Objects that commonly gain cult status often become cars, which not only emphasize our social status, but also appeal to the atavistic nature of freedom. Over the years, cult vehicles have ranged from the Volkswagen Garbus, which, along with the T1, carried the entire sexual revolution of the 1960s on its wheels, to the Citroen DS, which carried presidents, and even the Mercedes Flügeltüren, which carried almost no one because it was so expensive.
But let’s go back to the beginning, because it seems legitimate at this point to ask what the audio has to do with this whole reasoning above. Although it seems that one can talk about cult audio devices, cult in this case, however, means something quite different. And here the distinction between two categories – cult and fashion – comes to the rescue. Fashion is a seasonal, temporary phenomenon. Cult seems to be a fashion that lasts. In order to last, a fashion must meet several criteria, among which it is probably impossible to mention a complete list. Uniqueness, charisma and the aspect of pioneering seem to persist at the forefront here. After all, Elvis was the first white man to sing black music, and he was handsome (until he was). Davis, in addition to also being handsome, was not only a jazz icon, but also an iconic black artist. Hendrix is a charismatic pioneer of electric guitar playing, who not only changed the face of music, but was able to carry an entire generation with him. If I write that the group from Liverpool was the first to record the White Album, I will expose myself to a not inconsiderable group of people, but this provocation is justified insofar as by means of it I want to show certain mechanisms of the cult, which very often have an irrational character.
In audio, things are quite different. It is not so much the pioneering solutions that become cult, but such solutions that are able to stand the test of time and prove themselves in many contexts. It’s not my intention to list them here, but let’s take as an example an iconic device that has made a name for itself as a movie star (it appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s Mechanical Orange, among others), namely the Transcriptors Hydraulic Reference turntable. For anyone interested, here’s a link to read about the audio present in the videos: https://www.whathifi.com/features/21-our-favourite-turntable-cameos-in-films-and-tv-shows. It is hard to compare anything with Transcriptor, but for the sake of argument, let’s mention the BBC LS3/5a loudspeakers from the same land, which are part of the Audio Idiom listening system. The latter, like the main subject of this essay, were designed with a professional purpose, with radio stations in mind. It was there that they were to spend hours listening to and presenting music. It was there, that their above-average capabilities were recognized. It was from there, that their fame began to surround them with the nimbus of cult devices. It was they, who set new standards and in the following years inspired designers, developers of audio devices.
I have to admit, it’s not easy to write about cult devices. And not just because everything has already been measured and told. On the other hand, to keep writing about them is to confirm their cult status. I also admit that it is not easy for me to write about the device about which this text treats, because considering listening to music, I do not find any weaknesses in it, and this always sounds somehow suspicious (supposedly, it can always be better). Giving extreme ratings seems to be more indicative of the writer than the subject or the topic covered. Tough luck. Let it be so this time anyway. It reminds me of the situation in which a musician is at the stage of choosing a bow, which is a kind of mediator between the hand and the instrument. The number of factors to take into account is really quite large. Starting with the weight, center of gravity balance or finish, one should consider the sound, the speed of response, the cantilena (i.e. the singing quality of the bow), how it lies in the hand and how it interacts with it, whether it plays the same throughout the register, how it realizes articulation, etc. On the one hand, this is an extremely personal matter, and on the other hand, a good bow is simply well made, i.e. in accordance with the art of bowing. The latter, is not yet a guarantee of success, but the principle that the better the master, the better the bow, seems to be valid. Finding such a master is crucial for a musician. It is his knowledge, experience and hands that will carve the bow with which the musician’s hand carves the music piece. I have found such a bow for myself. And now, I have also found a turntable cartridge that masterfully combines and balances all the qualities of good sound. But one step at a time.
In 1965, the German company Elektromesstechnik developed the TSD 15 moving coil phono cartridge with radio stations in mind, and this is just one of the brand’s epoch-making achievements. You can read about a whole range of turntables and studio equipment on the Internet. All of them, without exception, enjoy the status of reference/cult devices. And although it is not the TSD 15 that is the main subject of this discussion, it is the one that, along with the aforementioned LS3/5, at one time belonged to the corps of reference equipment of radio stations. It was its sound model that shaped the benchmark of good sound for successive generations of FM standard users in Europe and beyond. In the meantime, EMT changed ownership several times until its insert manufacturing division moved to Winterthur, Switzerland, and it was there that the next incarnation of the TSD 15, the HSD 006, was established. It was the HSD 006 that became the pretext for writing this text, because it was the one that hung on tonearm of my turntable and from it my reflections began. Compared to the TSD, the body of the cartridge has been changed, which is now cast in red anodized aluminum. For technical descriptions, I refer you to the manufacturer’s website: https://www.emt-tontechnik.ch/cartridges/emt-hifi/hsd-006, meanwhile, below I will describe my listening impressions, and these, as I already announced, are unequivocal.
This is the first cartridge in my audio biography that lacks nothing. Its sound picture is complete and exceptionally balanced. The qualities so desirable in music and at the same time extremely rare in audio are complemented here. If the reference remains the acoustics of instruments, rooms and human voices HSD has everything you would expect from a perfectly balanced system. That is: the adequacy of the size and timbre of the instruments in their nature. The presence of the body of the instrument, not just its color. The musicality and vividness of the transmission. Spatiality and multidimensionality (the acoustics of the room in which the music was recorded). Proximity and tangibility of instruments (related to the practice of placing microphones during recordings). Adequate macro and micro dynamics. Resolution, where the essence of the detail complements the image of the whole and contributes to the vividness of the message (the brush ducts in an oil painting would be a good example, where their presence adds expression but does not constitute content).Extensive, yet artificial-free holographicity and three-dimensionality of the soundstage. Density and tangibility of sound. Saturation and clear rhythmic contour. Moreover, add to that its rich, dense, velvety sound and perfect balance of detail, transparency, texture and drama, it even phenomenally captures the emotions contained in the music being played.
But let’s listen to the EMT and tell by example how it handles music. First of all, this cartridge is absolutely engaging and convincing. It conveys emotions in an uncompromising way, but by no means focused solely on them. With each successive listening, it proves its professionalism and reliability in its approach to replicating the most demanding music. While MC cartridges, especially the more advanced ones, do quite well in terms of sonic detail, they are somewhat lacking in correct energy transfer. EMT can find the true essence hidden in the groove of a vinyl record. These emotions by no means blind her. It’s part of her musical integrity and maturity. This was clearly audible in the presentation of vocals. The human voice is not only timbre, but (who knows if not above all) the drama of the message, the transfer of emotions, but also the tangible body. Let Gregory Porter’s album Liquid Spirit serve as an example. Porter not only sounded phenomenal – he just appeared in the room. The HSD 006 also showed brilliantly the dryness of the recording studio acoustics and exposed the amount of treatment from track to track in the recording mix. The oft-listened-to Louis Sclavis quartet in the ECM-released Characters on the Wall also benefited from this transfer of energy. This music, so to speak, focused on the precision of performance, gained a slightly more human face thanks to EMT, and the musicians stepped out from behind the veil of beautiful sound toward musical emotion. If you would like to invite a symphony orchestra to your own home (assuming you have such venue conditions), the EMT insert is here to help. was first hosted by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Francois-Xavier Roth. Moreover, Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto was performed for me by Renaud Capucon. Let’s remind ourselves, concertare means to compete, to contrast. The mass of the orchestra vs the sound of the solo instrument. Proficiency of soloist vs proficiency of group, etc. This is often not an easy task, and not only for audio equipment, but also for those realizing the recording. Unfortunately, EMT exposed the weaknesses of this realization (the 2017 Erato release), which focused on the role of the soloist, treating the orchestra as a single sonic mass. Thankfully, one of my reference symphonic recordings is Vinyl Passion’s release of Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa (DMM Cutting). Concerto for two violins, prepared piano and chamber orchestra from 1977 (1995 recording) is a realization and release masterpiece. Here, the Swiss offer us to listen to everything from the perspective of the conductor’s pulpit, and the fidelity of the message and emotion is almost palpable. Perfect balancing of the near and far planes, without any loss of focus. Such examples can be multiplied. However, EMT does not make recordings or releases sound better. Not at all. EMT shows with Swiss precision what and how it was played, recorded, mixed and released.
To conclude. If you are looking for music in audio, you need look no further. Reliability, no compromise and total musicality. From the lips of audio devotees may come the accusation that the HSD 006 is not the hi-end. That may be true. The question is, are you looking for hi-end or for music? If the first one, keep looking. Anyway, EMT gives great scope in this regard, and I assume that if their cheapest device plays so well, I dread to think how the others play. If, on the other hand, you are looking for music, you will quickly find that anything above that is audio hedonism! For me, this is the audio discovery of recent years!!! SIGNED AUDIO IDIOM.