Koetsu Black Goldline Phono Cartridge Review. Vinyl Magic.
Just over a year ago I decided to give up on vinyl. I just wasn’t getting the sound quality out of my records that I was getting from my digital front end.
After a year without vinyl I was happy with streaming digital music to my system. Streaming brings an ease and hassle free way of enjoying any music you want to listen to. Services like Tidal, Qobuz and Spotify (who will be going high res by end of this year) offer us convenience like we have never had before in the HiFi Realm. It’s also an amazing way of discovering new music. Without streaming services I would have never discovered so many great artists as we get recommendations based on our listening habits and that’s pretty awesome. I have new music every day to check out.
Unlike in the past, today’s digital can sound downright amazing. Big, smooth, rich, fluid and musical. We have so many choices in streamers and DAC’s that we can build a beautiful system just around streaming digital music and we can spend as little or as much as we desire as we move up the sound quality ladder.
I was getting nostalgic.
With all of my albums in storage one day I decided to pull them out and go through them to see what I could possibly sell since I was giving up vinyl playback. As I searched through my collection of 300-400 albums I cam across a few that I have owned since I was 16. Wow. As I stare at the jackets, many show the signs of aging that 35 years of time brings to them. I start to remember specific times that I played each album. Where I lived. What my mood was like. What my life was like.
I was remembering the times in my teen years where all I did was sit and listen to records in my room every school night. Enjoying that rich vinyl sound and enjoying only the MUSIC! Back then I did not worry about what component was in my system and I surely did not have fancy phono stages or cartridges yet I always enjoyed my music. A simpler time indeed and boy how times have changed.
After 25-30 years of owning and testing high end audio equipment I have to say that my tastes have become more refined, Sadly (for my wallet) but good for my ears and well being. As I have stated before, listening to music for me is sort of a therapy. It eliminates stress, worry and anxiety in my life.
a 1984 Sears Stereo similar to the one I had when I was 16.
As I thumbed through the vinyl records I started to get that old itch. “Why sell these when they bring back and hold such wonderful memories” I said. Are my memories worth only $2-$3 per record? I decided to keep them all as I knew I would regret it later if I sold them.
I then had a feeling like I wanted to sit down and play some of these records just as I did oh so long ago but I wanted to enjoy THE MUSIC rather than the SYSTEM. Just like the old days. I then remembered what 2 dealers told me in regards to my unhappiness with my previous vinyl systems over the years.
Here I want to give a shout out to Glen at Arizona HiFi in Phoenix, AZ. He always recommended killer cartridges to me at amazing prices but I had this “thing” about spending over $1k on a cartridge. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Heck, that rack system what I was 16? The “needles” cost me $7 to replace back then!
Glen told me “You need a nice Moving Coil Cartridge to get the sound you are looking for” and then I realized that yes, as we get older and experience “better” then it is tough to go back to what we had before. I am sure if I heard that old system from 1984 today I would not be happy with the sound. Even so I was tired of spending so much on a vinyl playback system only to get sound that was not as good as my digital was. Did not make any sense.
While I sometimes splurged on tables (as I thought that would bring my vinyl to new levels) I never spent too much on the cartridge, which I now have learned is the most important aspect of an analog system. It’s what reads the grooves, what brings the signal to the pre-amp (which is the second most important part of the analog chain) and what delivers most of the “SOUND” to your system.
In the past I just refused to pay thousands for a teeny little fragile cartridge. Little did I know though that is what was holding my analog front end back all of these years as I tried to build a nice “reference” system with analog and digital. Yes, if you are an audiophile or have golden ears or are one who is always trying to get the sound in your head to come through your speakers then assembling a high quality record playback system can be expensive. Very expensive. If you are someone who doesn’t care about the outright best sound reproduction then a $300 table can bring enjoyment with records like you would never believe.
Remember, spending big money doesn’t always bring improvements, it just brings “different” and that “different” might even be a disappointment! I remember spending $5k on a VPI Prime and Clearaudio Moving Magnet cartridge. I brought it home and thought it was nice but not as good or as rich or as deep as my digital sounded. I was running it with a $799 Musical Fidelity phono pre amp and yet the sound was kind of dull and lacked life.
What held me back at that point was indeed the cartridge and to some extent the pre amp.
But let’s back up a bit..to find out when I became more aware of AMAZING sound from Vinyl.
I have owned about 15 turntables in my 51 years of life so far. That’s alot. My first 2 or 3 were in those “stack” systems that were so big in the 80’s. You’ve seen them in places like Sears back in the day. They were in a fake wood case/stand and always had cassette, radio and a turntable up top. They were usually 100 Watts of Power which back then sounded unreal to me. See the photo above for an example. These were EVERYWHERE and super popular.
Back then when I was 15 I thought my rack system was pretty awesome. I did not care one bit about the sound quality, as I thought it rocked and I loved it.
It wasn’t until a bit later in life, in my early 20’s, that I heard serious HiFi at an audio shop. They had brands I never heard of and equipment that looked like it cost a mint (and it all did). I remember a salesman giving me a demo of a Linn LP12 and I was flabbergasted. It made my system sound horrible. As good as I thought my old Sears stereo was this was different.
I would visit that shop on occasion just to listen and one day and I always was amazed at the sound of the vinyl. I was shown the table in detail and it has some exotic very expensive cartridge on it. I do not remember what it was but the guy told me “this is what is making that magic”. I remember asking the cost of the setup. Table, arm, cartridge and it was insane to me at the time. Something like $12,000. I gave up on that dream back then, lol.
Later again in life when I bought my first serious turntable that cost me $1500 I was told the more I spend on a cartridge the better the sound. I decided to stay in the $400 range and again, do not remember the cartridge but do know it was a Moving Magnet cartridge at a cost of $399. I bought a $150 phono stage and I was ready to rock and roll.
When I arrived home and hooked it all up my face dropped. It sounded flat, no oomph, was grainy and had no real pizazz nor volume. I called the shop and was told “Give it a hundred hours and it will sound better”. Well, it never did and it was a $2300 mistake.
I never wanted to listen to it because of the subpar sound but even so, I wanted that real vinyl experience and sound (and knew it existed) so it wasn’t long until I started spending more on tables (thinking this is what made the difference), thinking that is where the money should go. After several tables and cartridges under $700 thought many years I never was fully happy with my vinyl. I was told again “Buy a better cartridge, especially if you can swing a low output moving coil”. These moving coil cartridges are different from the moving magnet or moving iron designs. They bring more life, detail, richness and things like bass and body to your music.
Even with all of this being told to me I could not bring myself to splurge on a cartridge! Rather I read audio forms looking to see if there were any giant killers in the cartridge realm.
Eventually I traded up to a $5500 clearaudio table with the tracer arm and a $799 Hannah cart. It sounded GREAT but again, something was missing. It was a bit dull again, and I knew it was the cartridge. As great as the High Output Hannah was it wasn’t thrilling me like my digital was. I decided then to quit vinyl, and I did. Sold the table, cartridge and put all of my vinyl in storage bins.
So quite a bit of time goes by and I get the vinyl itch again but told myself if I go for one more try I must spend on a cartridge this time so I can finally see once and for all if this would be what brings me that analog bliss.
I saw a Dr. Feickert Volare in walnut that I was smitten with and this time a Koetsu Black Cartridge was recommended for it from Dan at Dedicated Audio. This is a $2999 retail cartridge! To me that price sounded insane but these Koetsu cartridges are known for their magic and their mystery as well. They are legendary among some and have cartridges that go up to $15k+.
The $2995 Black is the “Starter” cartridge in the Koetsu family if you can believe that.
In any case, I was able to get a nice price on a combo of the Feickert Table with the Black Cart and it was surely less than I have spent before but I had a feeling this time may be different as it was the first time I splurged on the Cartridge. I also knew I needed a really good phono pre amp as this was a low output cartridge and they require better Pre Amps with step up transformers to sound their best.
When the table, arm and cart arrived I assembled it and set it up which took me about two hours after dialing it all in. I was ready to either be extremely disappointed or extremely happy. I will say that the Feickert Volare in Walnut is indeed the most beautiful table I have owned and I prefer it to any I have had in the past. It’s a work of art and is well worth the $3600 it costs (with origin live arm). It’s gorgeous.
The Koetsu Black
This cartridge has been around a long time. Back in the day many said these cartridges were on the “Romantic” side, which to me actually sounded good. I was tired of vinyl sounding flat and without life. Give me fat musical bliss over detail and analytical reproduction any day of the week. Indeed I was looking forward to hearing a big, fat, detailed room filling experience.
With the Icon PS1 MKII and some Cardas Clear RCA’s in place (from the Icon to the Pre Amp) feeding a set of Pass Labs XA 60.8’s into some Klipsch LaScala AL5’s I was ready to hear the magic.
The needle drops and there it is. The sound I was after for all of these years. A sound that now matches my digital (and in a few cases, depending on the album quality, beats it).
A video look at the Volare with Koetsu Black
After about 100 hours of break in the Koetsu Black Goldlilne opened up more and become more fluid and with more body and sweetness. This was the first time I heard a low output moving coil cartridge and even in my system with the 105 DB efficient LaScala speakers there was no noise, hiss or obnoxious hums. It was silent, sweet and as I switched back and forth between the record and my digital setup I was hearing them as equals (this is with using a $2000 streamer and a $4000 Lampizator DAC). While this particular vinyl setup set me back more than my digital front end by about $2k it was worth spending more on the cartridge and pre amp and less on the table.
Glen from Arizona HiFi was not telling me tales all of these years, he was right. The cartridge is key. I mean, most of you know this but for me it was just a stubborn thing. I did not WANT to spend so much on such a little thing. But when I did, all clicked into place.
This is all I ever wanted. To hear my vinyl with the same life, expansiveness and sweetness as I get from my digital, or even better.
My Digital Front End
Today I have a digital front end I am very happy with. It consists of
- A Lumin U1 Mini (streamer)
- A Chord Qutest DAC
- A Lampizator Amber III Dac (testing now)
- ifi Neo iDSD DAC (testing now)
- Nordost Blue Heaven Cable Loom
- Cardas Clear and Clear Reflection Cable loom (testing now)
The U1 Mini Streamer is solid and a joy to use. It’s also an improvement over the Bluesound Node 2i when used simply as a streamer into a DAC. It brings more life, more detail and more expansiveness. It is clearer and more 3D as well. A logical upgrade for when you want to take a step above from a Node 2i.
The Chord Qutest DAC is in my top tier list of DAC”s that I love. I have owned it for two years and always come back to it, even when testing more pricey DACS. I am now comparing my Qutest to a much more expensive Lampiztor Amber 3 DAC (tube) and this Lampizator is bringing a tough fight to my Qutest. The Lampizator brand is hyped to no end when it comes to their DAC’s that go up to the $30,000 range. While the Amber 3 is a $4000 DAC, double the cost of the Qutest, it delivers a sound from digital like I have never heard before, I will have a full review of this DAC soon but it’s an all new ballgame for me and digital listening.
Seems Like the First Time
With the Koetsu Black I am enjoying my vinyl again, just like I did back when I was 15-16. All of my records sound good and enjoyable. Well really they sound GLORIOUS and have body and analog magic unless I throw on a horrible recording. Even then it still sounds decent.
There is a musical flow to the Koetsu that just sounds like real life. It does amazing things with the full spectrum of sound. Nothing is rolled off yet nothing is hard or bright sounding. There are dynamics as well yet at the same time it has the body and fluidity of what I remember vinyl sounding like. It has details and the imaging and soundstage is just about perfect for my tastes. Natural and REAL vs artificial and hyped.
After 15 tables and cartridge variations this is the best I have had in my space, without question. It’s not even close. This combo of Dr. Feikert Volare with the Koetsu Black Goldline Cartridge is fantastic with the Icon Audio PS1 MKII phono pre-amp (which is the nicest phono stage I have ever owned and is perfect for this cartridge) and now allows me to hear my vinyl again with the enjoyment I had as a kid.
Vinyl is certainly not as convenient as digital is these days. It’s different and it’s beautiful. It’s awesome for so many reasons. It’s a ritualistic experience and can be very calming.
We have to keep the records clean. We have to flip them when one side is done. We are forced to listen to the entire album as we do not control it with a phone app. It’s a needle on a groove. It’s physical and tangible and real. We can see it happening in front of our eyes.
We get to go to find used record deals for $1 or $3 and we can find some gems that are not even available these days on digital. There are millions of records out there waiting to be nabbed and that is one aspect of owning a vinyl setup that makes it fun.
What I have learned with quality vinyl playback is that each item in the chain is important. The table IMO is the least important but a nice and decent table is a good idea. It’s why I bought the starter table in the Feickert Range but something like THIS would also be a VERY nice table to build a higher end system with. I used to own one and it was good table. You do not have to spend $3500 on a table and arm, nor do you have to spend $20k but as you go up the ladder in cartridges and pre amps you will get improvements across the board when it comes to the refinement and sound of the music.
The Cartridge, in my experience, is what made all the difference for me. It took me a decade to finally cave in and spend more on this important part of the system but now that I have, I realize that I could have saved so much money over the years if I would have just bought a nice cartridge up front.
While I love the Koetsu I do know it can get better (or different) by moving up the ladder or trying other just as wonderful cartridges from other brands. I am happy with what I am getting from this combo and have no desire to even try anything else when it comes to my vinyl. I listen to records only once per week these days so I still place more importance on my digital front en but the Koetsu for me was worth the legendary status.
The Koetsu Black Goldine is a cartridge that does it all and delivers beautiful music that breathes life and emotion into your speakers. It’s not cheap but I can argue that maybe it is. If you are like me and have spent so much on lesser carts while being unhappy that is when you lose money and it can get costly. Buying what you know you want up front, even if it costs more can be cheaper in the long run. A friend once told me “Buy what you want the first time and do it once, even if it costs more as it will be cheaper in the long run”. This is so true.
While I can not say if you would enjoy this cartridge like me I can tell you it is balanced, lacks in no area and brings a gorgeous midrange with detail and beautiful imaging. There is nothing flat sounding or dull about this cartridge and yet it does lean a little warm so it will not hurt your ears with brightness or a thin sound. It has body and fantastic bass performance as well. At $2999 it’s not cheap but it delivers the goods. You may even find one for less if you search around, or even buy used.
It’s the best cartridge I have ever heard though I have little experience with high end low output cartridges. I can say that I have never heard a moving magnet cartridge sound like this and I have heard a lot of those ; )
I bought my Koetsu and Turntable from Dedicated Audio in Scottsdale AZ. A shop I highly recommend as its run by great people who have been selling quality audio for a long long time.
I give a huge thumbs up to the Koetsu Black. If you want to step up your turntable game or are just not satisfied with the sound of your records I suggest reading up on and exploring the world of Koetsu Cartridges. The starter Black Goldline is indeed gorgeous and for the first time in 20 years I have no regrets on spending money on a higher end analog setup. This time it clicked.
I also absolutely adore the Icon Audio all tube PS1 MKII. It’s not something IU would recommended to all as it is very limited in its loading and settings but the stars must have aligned for me as the moving coil settings on the PS1 MKII are exactly what the Koetsu Black needed. Synergy is real. : )