Cartridges

REVIEW: The Clearaudio DaVinci MC Cartridge

Forget what you know about Clearaudio cartridges of old.

Since they brought out the new generation Goldfinger, Clearaudio has been going towards a more-balanced sound.   These days, their newfound expertise has trickled down to the $7,500 Titanium and the $5,500 DaVinci.  And like their top two cartridges, the DaVinci also has coils wound from 24kt. gold wire.

After living with the Advance for a few months, I purchased the review sample to round out my own arsenal of cartridges, which includes the Lyra Scale and Dynavector XV-1s. The DaVinci is a special cartridge, offering a high level of detail retrieval without crossing the line and sounding harsh, always a tough proposition.

This review started along with the Clearaudio Innovation turntable, mated with Clearaudio’s TT-2 linear track tone arm.  If you haven’t yet made a turntable choice, I’d highly suggest the whole system; the synergy is fantastic.  The DaVinci worked well on my Raga, SME and Triplanar arms, too, but it was tough to beat the all-Clearaudio system.

The DaVinci is part of Clearaudio’s new V2 series of MC cartridges, with improved magnet and generator assemblies as well as a new stylus profile that Clearaudio claims has one-fifth less mass than their previous design.  In the real world, the DaVinci is an excellent tracker.  One particular torture track that comes to mind is Joni Mitchell’s “Jericho” on the album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.  The last track on the side, we’re already headed for trouble; about half of the cartridges I’ve reviewed won’t get through Joni’s voice without distortion.  But the DaVinci handled it perfectly.

The price of admission

Let’s face it, there are a fair amount of people in the audience who haven’t spent $5,500 bucks on their whole system, so a cartridge at this price level is built for an exclusive clientele.  My main requirement for a cartridge in the $5,000 – $10,000 range is that it has to not only have a unique personality, but it needs to take you somewhere you can’t go with the lesser-priced cartridges.  For five BIG ones, you shouldn’t have to make any excuses, and the DaVinci doesn’t ask you to.

If you have an equally high-achieving turntable and phono stage, you will be rewarded with some of the most exciting analog playback money can buy.  When Musical Surroundings’ Garth Leerer dropped the TT-2 Clearaudio tonearm down on that first record, I was very impressed.  About a hundred hours later after some serious break in, I was blown away.

Opposing views on setup

When used on Clearaudios’ TT-2 linear track arm, you only need to dial in VTA and tracking force beacuse there are no other adjustments. With a linear track arm, there is NO tracking error, so you don’t need to argue with your buddies on the Internet about which set of  null points to use.  Set it and forget it.  As my review of the Innovation said, “The sound is super smooth, like analog tape.”

I also had excellent luck on my other table/tonearm combinations, with the virtues of the DaVinci always coming through.  At 2.8 grams, the DaVinci tracks a bit heavier than you may be accustomed to on some other cartridges.  Using Clearaudios own digital stylus force gauge, I ended up right at 2.8 grams for the best overall balance.
I also made it a point to try the DaVinci with a number of excellent phono preamplifiers,  all with great results.  The Naim Superline/Supercap was on hand, as well as the $20k Montana phono stage, the Manley Steelhead RC and my reference, the Nagra VPS with VFS base.  Final loading ended up between 400 and 500 ohms with all phono stages, and the DaVinci was so revealing, it made it easy to hear the differences between each of the four phono preamplifiers.

Personally, I liked the two tube phono stages the best, as the high resolution of the DaVinci mixed with a touch of tube warmth was a match made in heaven for my system.  While I was never put off by matching the DaVinci with the solid-state phono preamplifiers, there were times where there was so much resolution it was tough to process, but a few of my audiophile buddies were addicted to the extra resolution on tap.

In all but the most forward sounding systems, the DaVinci should be a winner.

Spacious and resolute

Clearaudio claims that their V2 cartridges have a 100db dynamic range that is “better than CD.”  While I don’t have any LP’s with a 100db range with which to verify this, I was immediately attracted to the punchy, fast presentation.  If pace and timing push your hot button, you will be amazed by the speed of the DaVinci. Unlike some so-called “audiophile” products that only shine with your best records, the DaVinci extracts every bit of information from the grooves on whatever records you are playing.  Of course, the flawless first-stamper pressings are going to wow you more, but you will be pleasantly surprised at how much more music you hear on some of your old favorites that you might have thought unworthy of a mega analog setup.  This alone makes the DaVinci worth its price tag.

The only drawback to having extra resolution on tap is that it will reveal the records in your collection that have not been thoroughly cleaned, but the benefit of good vinyl hygiene when using the DaVinci will be an analog presentation that is CD quiet.  It takes a little while to get used to that kind of silence, but once you do, it’s very exciting.  And it’s always fun to listen to your anti-vinyl friends claim “that can’t be a record!”  If you don’t have a good record-cleaning machine, I highly suggest one of the Clearaudio Matrix models that clean in both directions.  Combining clean surfaces with the incredible detail retrieval capabilities of the DaVinci, it just feels like you can hear into the record forever.  Listening to “Between My Head and the Sky” on Yoko Ono’s new Plastic Ono Band album, the cymbals hung in the air, while guitars popped in from all over the mix, with Yoko’s signature trippy, squeaky vocals front and center, and the overdubs of her voice way beyond my speaker boundaries.  When I switched to a few budget cartridges, everything lined up on the same plane.

The DaVinci really excels at front-to-back separation; it always has you wondering if you really do have a secret pair of surround speakers in your listening room.  This record led me to some of my wacky favorites from Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre and Mickey Hart, just to bask in the giant fishbowl of sound I was experiencing.

I always felt like I was watching a Hitchcock movie while listening with the DaVinci.  Hitchcock was a master of having quite a few layers of interest in his shots, with the main action center frame, but equally important things going on way off in the distance or in the lower corners of the frame.  This is the perspective my system takes on with this cartridge; there is something going on all over the soundfield.  It is very engaging  indeed.

Switching back to some straightforward rock, MoFi’s Santana was another incredible experience.  I’ve been listening to this record for about 35 years and it’s never sounded better. On the last track, “Soul Sacrifice,” when the bongos fade up over the drums, they sound somewhat blurry. But now they had their own distinct soundstage in the mix.  I didn’t even hear that while I listened to the master tap at the MoFi studio last year!

Perhaps a bit larger than life

Because the Clearaudio DaVinci reveals so much information, some may perceive it as having a “slightly larger than life” kind of sound, but I found it to be very exciting and I haven’t tired of it in the least.  If you’ve been craving the perfect fusion of dynamics and fine detail, the Clearaudio DaVinci is the cartridge for you.  Just be sure to get those records spotless if you want everything it can deliver.

-Jeff Dorgay

The Clearaudio DaVinci

MSRP:  $5,499

Contact:  www.musicalsurroundings.com

Peripherals

Turntables Clearaudio Innovation w/TT2 arm, Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar arm, TW Acustic Raven Two w/SME iV.Vi arm, Rega P9 w/RB1000 arm

Phono Preamplifiers Montana Olympia PX, Manley Steelhead RC, Naim Superline/Supercap, Nagra VPS/VFS

Preamplifier Burmester 011

Power Amplifier Burmester 911mk. 3, McIntosh MC1.2KW, Moscode 402Au

Speakers Martin Logan CLX w/JL Audio F110 subs, Gamut S-7

Cable Shunyata Aurora Interconnects and Stratos SP Speaker cables

Power Running Springs Dmitri and Jaco power conditioners

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