Cuttin-Edge, On-the-Spot Reporting

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So, I got a panicked call from my buddy Marc. It was a veritable audio emergency.

I’ve known Marc for about 14 years—he was originally (and still is) my wife’s friend. They’d gone to the same high school in her small town, and were part of the same still-close friend group. Marc works in the movie industry, and for a number of years he stayed at our house during the week to avoid the two-hour commute back home.

While he stayed with us in Toronto, he became enamored of my analog rig. Marc has always been a record collector, but, like most music lovers, his worldview did not encompass the fussy world of audiophilia. We spent many evenings in my basement listening to LP after LP. Marc owned well over 1000 records when we first met, and spent a fair amount of perfectly good money every week on more albums.


He began to lust after a better sound system. I admit, I egged him on a bit. I pointed Marc toward a used Manley Labs Stingray integrated amplifier, furious with tubes. Its steampunk, Metropolis-inspired looks just blew the socks off his art-school, studio-loft aesthetic.

I’ve always given Marc first crack at any gear that I’m selling. While I tend to hold on to audio equipment far longer than many of my peers—I present my 30-year-old Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp as exhibit A—there are times when I just can’t turn down a new piece of gear. Marc has ended up with my Definitive Technology Mythos STS speakers and my Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon turntable, and that’s one killer system he’s got now.


About that emergency call. When last I visited Marc—around Christmas, I think—I’d noticed that his system’s sound quality was getting a bit flattened out. The Shelter 501 cartridge I’d included with the Pro-Ject already had a fair number of miles on it, and now, a couple of years later, I think it was done. But Marc’s call wasn’t just about the cartridge. Turns out his Ray Samuels F117 Nighthawk phono stage was acting up, and likely needed to go in for service. Along with the phono stage issue, Marc was getting nervous about his cartridge.

“Do you think it’s doing any damage?” Marc said. “I can hear how dull the sound is getting, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s screwing up my records.”

“Maybe,” I responded. “It’s certainly not doing them any good. Definitely time for a rebuild, I’d say.”

On his next visit to Toronto, we discussed options. I’d had good luck with Soundsmith’s rebuild service, which I wrote about in my “For the Record” column. When I told him about Soundsmith’s multi-month turnaround for cartridge rebuilds, panic began to set in.

“How . . . how long? I don’t think I can go months,” he sputtered.

I thought about this. I’d recently purchased a Sumiko Reference Celebration 40 cartridge to use as my reference, but I’d also just received a Charisma Audio Signature Two moving-coil cartridge (review forthcoming). So I wouldn’t be able to mount the Sumiko for a while.


“How’s this sound,” I said. “I can lend you a really good cartridge, but there are conditions you need to be aware of.” The loan of a cartridge is a tricky thing. It’s so easy to break these little guys, and at $2799 (all prices in USD), I don’t know who’d be more unhappy if things went sideways—me or Marc.

A burnt-out Celebration 40 is worth 30% on trade-in, so I said to Marc, “Pull $2K out of the bank and put it in an envelope. If you break the cartridge, hand it back to me with the envelope. Sound good?”

We spat on our palms and agreed.

On our next family trip to Marcia’s hometown, I loaded up a shopping bag with all my analog bits and pieces and took a short drive to Marc’s place.

Left wall

About five years ago, Marc totally refinished his basement. Mostly through luck, his listening room ended up a near-as-dammit perfect Golden Ratio cuboid. It’s a good size too. Lined on three sides with racks full—and I mean full—of records, it’s also optimally damped.

Whole room

Marc’s room is a shrine to music. He’s been collecting posters, artwork, records, and memorabilia since his teens, and his dedication shows. Many of his records were purchased new, but he spends an inordinate amount of time scavenging at country flea markets, and has recently discovered a radio station that’s closed down and is quietly selling off its library of LPs and 45s. He won’t tell me where it is.

Left wall

I’d worked on speaker positioning with Marc back when he finished the renos. It’s an amazing-sounding space, and it didn’t take long to tune it all up. The adjustable gain of the Mythos speakers’ powered bass sections made this easy.

The first order of business was to remove the Shelter from the Pro-Ject 10cc tonearm. Easy-peasy—for the most part. I railed against cartridges without stylus guards in my recent editorial over at SoundStage! Ultra, but the Shelter takes things one step further in the fussiness department. The mounting holes aren’t threaded; in fact, they aren’t even closed in, being open C-shaped. It was easy enough removing the Shelter, but the process made me recall how incredibly frustrating the original mounting process was.

Right wall

Next up, cartridge installation and alignment. I turned to Marc and said, “Show me the envelope.” He pulled it out of his back pocket and waved it about. “Would you like me to install your cartridge, Marc?” I asked with formal gravity.

“Yes, Jason. Please proceed,” he responded.

Cartridge alignment

Again, fairly straightforward given the Celebration 40’s threaded holes. Marc kept the Heinekens coming at a measured pace. One every 45 minutes is fine to grease the proceedings, but any more than that ups the risk factor. After I’d aligned it, I unboxed and installed my iFi Audio iPhono3 Black Label phono stage, which I reviewed back in 2021. I just loved this thing, gave it a glowing review, and bought it for my own use as a backup. The plan here was for Marc to use it until he could get his F117 Nighthawk repaired.


The first album we played was Zappa’s Hot Rats. Running at 2.1gm and 100 ohms, the brand-new Sumiko sounded really tipped-up—uncomfortably so. I was expecting this and figured the suspension would loosen up after a couple of album sides. Marc was looking a bit worried though.

Hot Rats

“It sounds kinda bright, don’t you think?”

“There’s a good chance I broke it when I ran the bolts through. I think I overtightened it,” I responded. His eyes went wide, and he looked like he was about to cry.

“Nah, just kidding. Give it a bit—it’ll calm down.”

Sure enough, the change point came at three sides in, and was dramatic. We were listening to For the first time, by Black Country, New Road, a band I’d never heard of before. Marc does that—pulls new music seemingly right out of his ass—and this album was wonderful. It’s klezmerized post-rock that goes all over the place. Just my cup of tea.

Black Country New Road

Suddenly there was a deep richness to Marc’s system that totally wasn’t there before. The DefTech towers had spent a solid three years in my living room before I sold them to Marc, and I’d never heard them sound this good. Superb imaging, a total lack of grain, ass-kicking bass, and a strong transmission of musical intent. This was a really good-sounding system in an excellent room.

I followed up with Marc later in the week. He seemed exceptionally pleased.


A job well done. But does a good deed go unpunished? I probably should have taken that envelope of cash with me for safekeeping. Let’s see if the cartridge survives. My next visit to Smallville will be this summer, and damn straight I’ll be checking in on Marc and my cartridge. Stay tuned for a further installment.

Jason Thorpe
Senior Editor, SoundStage!