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Audio Note IQ-2 Phono Cartridge
Let's face it -- moving-magnet cartridges have always been the Rodney Dangerfields of high-end analog playback. They get no respect. Moving coils have always gotten most of the attention from both reviewers and listeners. Over the years there have been exceptions to the rule. Pickups like the Shure V15, the Promethean Green (really a tricked-up Grado) some of the Grados (technically, moving-iron designs), Audio-Technica ML170 and the Linn K9 are some magnets that have garnered praise and wide use
Things have changed in recent years. Moving-magnet cartridges have benefited from improvements in stylus technology and coil design. In fact, many now rival most moving coils at the same price point in terms of sonic and tracking performance. Moving-magnet cartridges have always tended to have the advantage in terms of arm and phono-stage compatibility as well as ease of use. While moving-coil design and pricing have tended to head off to lofty heights, moving-magnet design has almost seen a reverse trickle-down effect. In fact, there are some MM cartridges in the $250-$500 price range these days that kick some serious booty in terms of bang-for-buck performance.
One recent entry into the cartridge fray in this price range is the $295 Audio Note AN IQ-2 moving-magnet cartridge. The IQ-2 is a collaboration between two renowned names in high-end audio, Audio Note UK and Goldring. Audio Note UK is known for their full line of single-ended tube amps, DACs, CD players along with speakers and cable. What many folks may not know is that Audio Note is a strong advocate of analog playback and produce the upscale IO series of moving-coil cartridges. They also have the rights to manufacture the legendary Voyd turntables and offer versions of the Rega tonearms rewired with silver or high-purity copper Audio Note wire.
The IQ-2 is sourced from Goldring, a UK firm that has been manufacturing cartridges under their own moniker as well as for other companies for over 50 years. In fact, the IQ line consists of two moving-magnet cartridges, including the IQ-2's less expensive sibling the IQ-1 ($195). We'll be strictly dealing with IQ-2 during this reviewing soiree, friends. The IQ-2 is based loosely on the Goldring 1022. It is built to spec for Audio Note, but US distributor Herb Reichert pointed out to me that there are some crucial differences. He felt it was important for folks to know that IQ-series cartridges aren't merely rebadge jobs.
For instance, the IQ-2 uses Audio Note-specified copper coil windings. Another distinctive feature is that the IQ-2 has threaded top-mount taps that use hex bolts and make mounting a piece of cake. This means no funky little nuts to mess with when mounting the IQ-2. Hooray! The mounting hardware is of good quality, and AN even supplies you with a nice Allen wrench to get the job done properly. The IQ-2 uses the Gyger 1 stylus-tip profile, which is similar to that of the van den Hul II. The cantilever is aluminum and the stylus is replaceable, as with most moving-magnets. A stiffened-up suspension makes for better tracking. Output is stated as 5.5mv, and loading is the standard 47k ohms. Tracking range is specified at between 1.5g to 2.5g, but I kept the cartridge at 1.75g which AN describes as the most optimal setting. This playing weight seemed to sound the best in my system, so that's where the tracking stayed during the review period.
I listened to the IQ-2 on both my Linn LP12/Valhalla/Cirkus/Ittok II combo as well as on a Pink Triangle Tarantella/Rega RB250 set up. These both rode on a Sound Organization wall shelf feeding into a Exposure 17/18 Super preamp/power amp rig that fed Spendor 2/3 speakers. The cartridge was aligned using the ubiquitous but ever-handy MoFi Geodisc. Again, I will reiterate that installing the IQ-2 was a breeze thanks to the threaded top-mount taps and hex bolts. What can I say? This made me very happy.
When I initially talked to Reichert about the IQ-2, he told me that this cartridge took about 100 hours to completely break in. That's a long time, folks. When I got around to listening, I understood what he meant. The first week or so of listening was pretty unpromising and not so enjoyable. It wasn't that the cartridge was bad, it was just that things sort of laid there in musical and sonic terms. But I persevered, playing through quite a few LPs over the course of a couple weeks. After about 40 hours, I threw on a bunch of LPs and began the serious work of listening (serious fun, that is).
First up was Classics excellent reissue of Bruno Walter conducting Brahms Fourth Symphony [MS6113]. The first thing that struck me was the tracking ability of the IQ-2. Record noise was dead silent, and in fact I would say this cartridge betters some Ive heard at four times the price. Classical vinyl ,especially symphonic music, is a very good indicator of a cartridges tracking prowess. The wide dynamic swings and quiet passages
separate the wheat from the chaff of the cartridge world. Musically I could also tell that things were starting to happen.
Instrumental timbres seemed natural, and space as well as silence were deftly portrayed, which helped make the ebb and flow of Brahms convincing not just to my ear but to my soul as well. I guess you could say listening was a pleasure. I played both sides without hesitation, and for me thats always a good sign .
I wanted to get the skinny on how the IQ grooved (no pun), so I went to the vinyl cupboard and pulled out Toots Hibberts Toots in Memphis album [Mango MLPS9318]. The first track, "I Cant Stand the Rain," kicked off with a nice feel, and the bass was solid if somewhat on the dry side. Instrumental timbres had a natural quality that I came to appreciate as everything seemed balanced. The IQ doesnt hype things up in attempt to be sonically impressive. This was true of spatial qualities as well. Imaging was very good, and if its in the recording, the IQ gives it to you to a pretty fair degree. Undoubtedly most high-priced cartridges will give you a more vivid picture, but thats why you pay for the expensive spread. Like my grandfather used to say; " Dont buy a Chevy Impala and then complain cause it dont ride like a Porsche."
Overall, the IQ seemed to epitomize its fine British origins. Everything was balanced with a sense of control and restraint. Maybe this seems like an odd way to describe a cartridge, but I feel this is a fitting analogy. The IQ-2 handled every LP I threw at it with an admirable sense of workmanlike duty in its ability to extract the music embedded in the vinyl. The only downside was that at times I wished for a tad more passion -- an even closer relationship to the music. Yet my rational side keep telling me this is one damn fine sub-$300 cartridge. Compounding the problem is also the fact that I got to spend time recently with a suave $1200 moving-coil. Heres another analogy for you: Its harder to pay attention to that cute girl/guy next door after hanging with supermodels. Ill stop with the analogies and get back to reality.
Earlier in this review I mentioned that I also listened to the IQ-2 on the Pink Triangle Tarantella/ Rega RB250 table and arm combo. This is important because it reaffirmed the importance of synergy and balance in hi-fi systems for me. When I threw on my copy of Tom Pettys Full Moon Fever [MCA 6348] it really hit home. I have to say that this album had never been a big fave of mine in Pettys catalog. But this combination really caused me to reevaluate this record, and I found myself enjoying it in a new way. All the trumpeting of spatial and timbral factors aside, my feeling is that this quality is one that special combinations of components can bring to the game. My general impression here is that the IQ was designed with the Rega arms in mind. In fact, Id bet good money on this.
It wasnt so much that the PT/Rega/Audio Note combo was better than the Linn/Audio Note set up in the obvious hi-fi sense. The former combination just synergized to make for a more enjoyable listening experience to my way of hearing. In laymens terms, I would say it locked in and swung baby! My impression was the same with Miles Daviss Some Day My Prince Will Come LP [CBS PC8456]. I had listened to this album on both setups, and in the context of the PT/Rega, the IQ-2 seemed to present things in a more musical way even though on the Linn table the presentation was more detailed. All of which confirms the old saying "its not how much you spend but how you spend it." Some of you will ask if the Audio Note IQ-2 just didnt work on the Linn table. It worked fine, but Im talking context here. Setting my inner audioweenie aside, (which we all have to do for our own good at times), I had to admit that as a system the PT/Rega/IQ-2 was more enjoyable and musical even though I prefer the LP12 overall. Honesty is the best policy for audio reviewers and politicians alike.
In its place
Where does this place the IQ-2 in the pantheon of analog pickup devices? Im not being evasive when I say in all honesty that I tend to dislike rating and ranking things . Besides, my giant-killer may be your ho-hum. This is audio, dear friends, lest we forget all things are relative and system dependent. Ill keep saying it till you turn bluer in the face than I do. But if I have to rank this one, then lets place it in the high-value-for-the-dollar column. The IQ-2 does a fine job of portraying the music in the vinyl groove, and its tracking ability is exemplary. Those of you using Rega arms will especially benefit from a synergistic match with the Audio Note cartridge from my experience. I also have a feeling that the IQ-2 would really strut its stuff in an all-Audio Note system. Any of you vinyl addicts shopping for a fine cartridge should give it a hearing. My feeling is that it will earn your respect.
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