Fuuga Moving-Coil Phono Cartridge
ou might well think that all is well in the world of vinyl, with rising record sales and increasing interest in the turntables with which to play records. Unfortunately, things are never quite that simple, with market pressures creating their own challenges. First, the whole realm of record replay presents a completely different problem to the retailer, demanding a distinct skill set that has largely been lost or neglected. Not only are we short of people who really understand just how much you can get out of a record player, as well as how to actually do it, the audio industry is not helping the situation by dumbing it down, telling people that precision setup doesnt matter. The simple truth is that the more capable the record player (for which you can generally substitute expensive) the more critical setup will be -- and when it comes to setup there is no substitute for experience, especially when it comes to the ultra-exacting task of dialing-in a high-end moving-coil cartridge, quite literally the rock on which the very best analog performance rests.
Which brings us directly to the second threat looming over high-end analogs wellbeing: the continued availability of the exotic and often ruinously expensive cartridges that ultimately bring our records to life. With new turntables and tonearms apparently sprouting like mushrooms on an autumn morning, its hard to keep up with all the new products that are being offered. Against that backdrop, the contrast with the paltry number of new cartridges reaching the market is stark. Indeed, even those seeking the latest models from existing suppliers like Lyra are facing long wait times as manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand.
The problem is simple: just as we have steadily lost the installed base of dealers and end users proficient in the skills necessary to install these fragile, precision devices, so we have also been losing those with the artistry to manufacture them. High-end cartridges are tiny works of art, hand-built by skilled and experienced individuals, an elite group of artisans spread around the world. Its a group thats not getting any bigger and not getting any younger -- with age, infirmity and retirement removing far more members than there are new recruits. Which is why the appearance of two new cartridge brands in Munich last year, both the work of young designer/builders, was both so heartening and worthy of note -- as was the obvious help and support both were receiving from the cartridge-building establishment, in the shape of Jonathan Carr and Stig Bjorge of Lyra. One of those cartridges is the subject of this review, the enigmatically titled but visually striking Fuuga, a cartridge with a sound, a history and a story that are well worth hearing.
One of the oldest and most-respected artisan builders in Japan was Haruo Takeda of Miyabi, a cartridge brand with an almost legendary status and a devoted following. When Takeda retired some years ago, his friend and Japanese distributor Osamu Nagao decided to try to continue the legacy, recruiting a young OEM cartridge designer/builder, Tetsuya Sukehiro, to continue construction of the existing Miyabi models. It was a valiant attempt that was doomed to failure: one reason for Takedas retirement was his inability to source certain key components for his designs.
After several years of trying to re-engineer the existing Miyabi parts, Nagao and Sukehiro were forced to admit defeat. But rather than give up, they decided on a different path to reach the same goal. Using the experience theyd already accumulated with the Miyabi parts, they embarked on a new design that would embody the legacy, sound and sheer musical dynamics of the Miyabi line. Along the way they discarded certain elements theyd thought essential (alnico magnets are just one example) and realize that the relative mass and resonant signature of the parts constituting the cartridge structure were key to its performance.
The end result was a design that embodied not just the sonic and musical legacy of the Miyabi cartridges, but combined with more modern materials and construction, a product that might show a strong regard for the past but isnt afraid to look firmly forward. The Fuuga is one of the most attractive and musically impressive new cartridges Ive heard in a very long time -- and that in a world where the Lyra Etna has just significantly raised the cartridge-performance bar.
Part of the mystique surrounding exotic moving-coil cartridges rests in their appearance, from the crystal- or wooden-bodied Koetsus to the micro-engineered minimalism of the Lyras. Despite many attempts, no one has managed to match the understated elegance of the original Koetsu boxwood packaging -- until now. The Fuuga arrives bolted into a simple aluminum cylinder, its push-fit cap held in place by a recessed O-ring, the only decoration the Japanese characters engraved on the lid. Nestled inside youll discover one of the most beautiful cartridges ever made. Okay, I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there will be those who prefer the appearance of crystal- or exotic-wood-bodied alternatives, but even they cant fail to be impressed by the materials and structural economy of the Fuuga.
The cylindrical body is strongly reminiscent of the Miyabi-manufactured Cello cartridge, but in this instance it is constructed from three different layers, each machined from a different aluminum alloy. The layer nearest the headshell is the hardest (7075), while the lowest section is machined from 6065 alloy. Between the two is a layer of softer 2017 alloy. Combine that with the varying thickness of the layers and you have a structure that should both damp resonance and act as an effective ground path for mechanical energy, leading it away from the generator thats connected directly to the top plate and into the tonearm. The body itself is polished and decorated with the same characters that adorn the lid of the box.
The stylus is a tiny, fine-line hybrid parabolic mounted on a tapered-tube aluminum cantilever, while the magnetic assembly is based on modern neodymium magnets. The output is quoted as 0.35mV (5cm/s) with cartridge mass a reasonably hefty 15 grams mated to a very low compliance of 7cu, making medium to heavy tonearms very much the order of the day -- no bad thing given the current mass-movement toward 12" (and longer) effective lengths. I bolted this one onto the business end of the Kuzma 4Point, mounted on the Stabi M, and it has stayed there ever since, mechanically and sonically a perfect fit.
Getting the alignment spot on was another matter, the stylus tip being tucked well in behind the front edge of the cartridge, making the job of viewing the cantilever and stylus extremely difficult, even on the reflective surface of the SMARTractor with its built-in magnifier. Patience and perseverance are the order of the day. The tracking force is, as expected given the compliance, a fairly high 2.1 grams ± 0.1 gram, and the Fuuga certainly repaid microscopic adjustment of the VTF value -- the sort of adjustment you cant really measure and can barely even apply, but which in this case you can hear all too clearly.
VTA/SRA on the other hand proved less critical than with the Etna or super-fussy Titan i, although record-by-record adjustment will still be necessary if you want to get the best out of the system on every disc. You just have the benefit of a wider window to aim for. There are no stylus guard or paperwork and no extras -- just a beautifully crafted cartridge in its elegantly simple cylindrical box. The Fuuga continues tradition in more ways than one.
ith high-end prices rising so rapidly, a cartridge like the Fuuga, which costs $8975 (7000 plus VAT), seems almost like a bargain. Indeed, like the Lyra Titan i before it and the Etna alongside it, this is a cartridge that lines up shoulder to shoulder with some of the most costly pickups on the planet, while costing a fraction of their asking price. Indeed, its a peculiarity of the cartridge market that price owes more to factors such as availability, distribution arrangements (how many hands a given product passes through) and what can only be described as status than it does with absolute quality -- partly because when it comes to transducers, quality is such a variable commodity. Whether you want to talk about speakers, cartridges or even CD players, electromechanical transducers are amongst the least linear and evenly balanced elements in any audio system. Which is another way of saying that they tend to have a more obvious character, more apparent strengths and weaknesses, than the likes of amplification. It also creates a situation in which almost every cartridge has its one great strength -- that thing that it does, that thing that it does better than anything else, but also better than any of the competition. For the Lyras in general its their linearity; for the Titan i it's the astonishing microdynamic resolution. For the Clearaudios its their sheer dynamic slam. For the Koetsus it's their presence, weight and dimensionality.
So what is the Fuugas "one great strength"? Well, thats an interesting question because the answer is far from straightforward. Its not that its hard to hear what makes this cartridge special; its that its hard to describe -- at least without leading readers to jump to the wrong conclusions, simply because so many cartridges that have come before the Fuuga have laid claim to the descriptive vocabulary. A term like body seems indivisible from the Koetsu cartridges, while drive calls Supex to mind (as does momentum), and dynamic impact is very much the realm of Clearaudio. Yet the Fuuga possesses a motive quality, a sense of forward progression, substance, purpose and intent that deserves all of these adjectives -- and more. Those descriptors might also seem familiar to anybody who has lived with those legendary Miyabi designs, and that is no accident. If Nagao and Sukehiro set out to create an homage to the Miyabi sound, then its a target that they havent just achieved but, to my ears at least, have handily exceeded. The Fuuga does indeed embody the spirit of Miyabi, but it alloys it with more modern levels of resolution and linearity to create something that is just as musically compelling, less characterful and altogether more accomplished than its inspiration.
But lets start with what the Fuuga doesnt do. Thats easy: this cartridge doesnt deliver the levels of ultra resolution and surface texture that a Lyra Atlas achieves. Theres nothing stark or etched, pared away or lean about the pictures painted by the Fuuga. It does not trade in the high-definition, super-transparent, resolution über alles world that has come to typify so much of the high end, where if you can hear more it must be better -- a direct equivalent of the digital numbers game that infected CD and reemerged with file replay, and which is just as meaningless. Detail in and of itself is useless. Just like the letters of the alphabet, it needs to be assembled into words and sentences, punctuated and turned into phrases and paragraphs. Its not the letters that make a poem but the meter: its not the notes that make the music, but their shape and pattern -- and thats just where the Fuuga excels, in part precisely because it doesnt over-define or dismantle the performance as a whole. All too often, when you hear a sound or note thats fixed in space, its also static, isolated from the natural flow and forward progression of the music, introducing a hesitation or halt that shouldnt be there, just like a poorly spaced or slipped letter in a word, a flaw that disturbs your reading. With the Fuuga, its not that things arent separated; on the contrary, separation (tonally and spatially) is one of this cartridges great strengths -- but that it is never divorced from the musical and acoustic context.
So much of defining a products sound is about finding the right musical examples to encapsulate or demonstrate what it is you are trying to describe. Sometimes its a quest that can lead you into strange and unforeseen places. Years ago, before I first left audio retail, I swore to myself (entirely in the spirit of self-preservation) that Id never listen to Dire Straits Love Over Gold [Vertigo 6359 109] ever again. But listening to the Fuuga, I discovered a faint yearning to play the old saw once more, a nagging little voice in the back of my head that slowly became louder and more persistent as time went by, until, eventually, I surrendered. Listening to the oh, so familiar opening montage of "Telegraph Road" for the first time in something like thirty years, it instantly became obvious why this record had been calling from my audio subconscious: here was the perfect gallery in which to display and discuss the Fuugas capabilities.
The first and most obvious thing was the huge acoustic space created, but what set it apart was not simply a case of dimensions (although both height and depth were particularly impressive), but the overall coherence of the acoustic that was created. It didnt just expand out beyond the speakers and drift off into infinity. This was a distinct and separate space, with its own character and nature, existing in its own right rather than superimposed on the listening room. Yes, I know thats how its supposed to be, but in this case it is extraordinarily explicit and convincing -- the latter a word I might well be returning to again, and again when it comes to discussing this cartridge.
Within that space, each of the interwoven sounds that dovetail to create the sonic collage and establish the mood of the song was tonally distinct, with its own harmonics and character, substance and presence. This wasnt about padding or weight, a presentation that relies on a pear-shaped tonal balance with a dropped center of gravity to give notes body. This was about getting the notes precisely in place, hitting the center of each one and focusing the musical energy around that point. Thats what gives the Fuugas presentation its incredible solidity and its sense of musical purpose. So that once that carefully stepped arrangement starts, it builds naturally and progressively, the acoustic-guitar entry and its chorus passage with the piano quietly insistent but never forced. The two instruments are distinct and separate, spaced laterally and in terms of tonality, scale and nature. The two never become confused or clash and the piano never overrides the guitar. But it was in the presentation of the guitar that we can hear further clues to the Fuugas uncanny grasp of musical momentum and density. This was a whole instrument, with strings and body, volume and decay. In comparison, playing the same track on the Etna, I heard a greater sense of the guitars attitude within the stage, its angle to the microphone and the distinction between the neck and the body, but here I was more aware of the individual strings and the face of the instrument. Its an almost ghostly presence, both in the detail of its shape and placement, but also in terms of the slight loss of substance.
Which is correct? Which more accurately reflects the recording? I have no way of being certain, but Im guessing that all of the information is in there and that these two cartridges, both exceptional in their own ways, are separated by what they deliver -- and what they dont. In fact, what I found most interesting of all was that for a cartridge that sounds so powerful and has such a clearly defined sense of musical motion and direction, the Fuugas delivery was not built on dynamics and bottom-end drive. In fact, the Etna delivers quicker and wider dynamics and has a deeper and more powerful bottom end, both immediately apparent once "Telegraph Road" reaches the main guitar entry, with its drummed reinforcement. The Fuugas power lies in its coherence: the concentration with which it delivers musical energy, its natural tonality and harmonics, its incredible sense of poise and balance. What makes the Fuuga work is that everythings in its place and that theres room and a place for everything -- not just spatially but in the temporal domain as well. Its this sense of effortless organization and clarity of pattern that makes this cartridge so special, so engaging, so satisfying and -- that word again -- ultimately so convincing.
Once you get a handle on what it is that the Fuuga does, its both instantly recognizable and just as quickly forgotten on all types of music. Because thats the beauty of this cartridge: not just what it does, but that by its very nature you really dont notice it doing it. Ive always liked Maazels Sibelius 2 (with the Vienna Philharmonic [Decca SXL 6125]) but ultimately preferred both Barbirolli and Berglund. Listening with the Fuuga may not cause me to reassess that ranking, but it did reveal aspects in the Decca that Id not previously noted, making more of the way the disc (and Maazels direction) captures both the quality and character of the violas and the power and control of the VPO brass, each crucial to this work. I half expected the Fuugas forward momentum to hasten Maazels steady tempi and smooth the way through some of his more emphatic but less articulate transitions, but if anything the reverse was true, the substance and poise brought to the performance making it sound more stately than ponderous, more measured and studied than hesitant. Sure, Maazel never matches the sweeping majesty and epic flow of Barbirolli or the fire and drama of Berglund, but his reading makes a lot more sense to me now.
Talking of brass and the projection of controlled energy, listening to Archie Shepps sax on Goin Home [Steeple Chase SCS-1079] it was impossible to miss the sheer substance, control and body the Fuuga brought to the instrument, the utterly natural ebb and flow it allowed, the beautifully measured pacing of the elongated and sculpted lines, so perfectly balanced against Horace Parlans understated piano. But if you really want to hear the Fuuga unravel and lay out a recording in front of you, look no further than a decent opera. I could choose any one of the many I listened to while reviewing the Fuuga, its spectacular success with the genre encouraging extended forays into the collection, but Ill settle for the recent Speakers Corner reissue of the Bernstein Carmen [Deutsche Grammophon/Speakers Corner 2709 043], partly because of its unusual use of extensive spoken passages to bridge the libretto, but more because of its overt theatricality. The Fuuga carried the action through the spoken passages more convincingly and with less disturbance to the flow of the piece than any other cartridge Ive used, its sure-footed sense of pace and timing never letting the action slow or stall, while the three-dimensionality and vivid positional clarity brought a real sense of presence and performance to the production. This ability to create that sense of staging rather than recital is precisely where so many opera recordings fall down, but with the Fuugas ability to conjure a palpable acoustic space and place the performers and performance within it, that issue recedes, the sense of drama and action taking over -- just as they should.
Of course, no review would be complete without the obligatory reference to female vocals. I could point to the excellent job this cartridge does with Marilyn Hornes Carmen, making the most of her voice (and characterization) rather than highlighting its weaknesses, but thats not what the audiophile community craves, so where better to start than that great exponent of girl and guitar (with attitude), Shawn Colvin? Or Michelle Shocked? Or Nanci Griffith? They all sounded brilliant, the sheer substance and presence they projected, the articulation and intelligibility making up in intimacy what might be missing in terms of sheer immediacy.
Those familiar discs took on an impressive new and newly convincing sense of life and presence, but in some ways it was what the Fuuga did with unfamiliar material that was even more impressive. The Other Side of Desire [Thirty Tigers TOSOD] is a welcome and long overdue return to form for Rickie Lee Jones. Just how successful a return I might well have missed without the musical accessibility and directness of communication that comes with the Fuuga. Just as it has sent me on long, excavationary journeys back through the further reaches of my collection and listening history, it has served up new finds and new favorites too. Regardless of its sonic attributes, or any perceived strengths or weaknesses, that really is the bottom line. You cant (or shouldnt) ask more than that. That ability to reveal the performance and the music, to fasten on the message and deliver it with such a convincing voice is what makes this cartridge so special -- and it is very special indeed.
ome reviews take longer than they should and there are nearly always reasons for it. Sometimes it has to do with schedules, sometimes it is caused by reliability issues (not necessarily related to the product under review). Sometimes it has to do with products jumping the queue and sometimes it is caused by external demands. In this case I could blame a travel schedule that makes me feel like a tour guide and leaves me more familiar with the inside of my luggage than inside of my front door.
But thats far from the whole story. The real reason that this review has taken so long to write is the ease with which the Fuuga has insinuated itself into my system and become part of the landscape. Rather than reviewing or assessing, analyzing or dissecting its performance, I was simply enjoying it, using it as part of the musical framework against which other products were placed. Its difficult to think of higher praise or a more emphatic recommendation than that. This is simply the most engaging and satisfying cartridge Ive come across in years: a future classic -- now. Its not perfect and there are qualities that exist in other cartridges I have in house that are just as indispensable -- especially with reviewing in mind. But I enjoyed the Fuuga from the first moment its stylus tip touched down -- and its just gotten better and better since then.
There are products you cant wait to see the back of. There are products you miss as soon as they leave. Then there are the rarest products of all -- those for which leaving simply isnt an option. This ones a keeper. The Fuuga stays.
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