Nagaoka MP-500 Cartridge Review
David Price reviews one of the finest moving magnet phono cartridges that money can buy…
MP-500 Moving Magnet Cartridge
If you’re a vinylista like me – someone’s who’s had a deep love affair with microgroove LPs for a great many years – you’ll be all too aware of the quirks of the phono cartridge market. Traditionally, moving magnet cartridges are things that you buy to get on the vinyl ladder – starter products that you upgrade from, rather than aspire to before you buy a decent moving coil. Yet some analogue addicts dissent from this position and argue that on balance some moving magnets are actually better than moving coils.
To that, I’d say “yes and no”. Yes because there’s no reason why MMs can’t sound really good if done properly, but no because MCs are fundamentally more precise measuring instruments, albeit fussier to set up and match. Critically, they’re also burdened with the need for an additional step-up preamplifier or transformer to hike their output up from around 0.4mV to roughly 4mV that MMs put out. In other words, there’s a whole extra world of pain to be avoided, in order for them to work successfully.
While many have gone down the MC route and never looked back, there has always been a need for a really high-quality MM. The reason for this is that some people don’t want to fiddle with extra gain stages in their preamps (don’t forget these can ruin the sound if not done right), and/or they have tonearms that were never optimised for MCs. In order to track a record groove in a stable and planted way – keeping the resonant frequency around the optimum 7Hz to 12Hz – there has to be a mechanical match between the tonearm and cartridge. In the case of moving coils, they need arms of a highish effective mass; moving magnets by contrast work best in low mass tonearms. Thanks to their inherent design, MMs have a more compliant suspension system that lets the cantilever travel more freely; MCs, by contrast, have stiffer, less complaint suspensions and work best in tonearms of higher effective mass.
In practice, this means that MCs prefer ‘battleship’ tonearms like SME Series Vs, Zetas, the Linn Ekos, some Jelcos, Alphasons and Syrinx PU3s, whereas MMs are more comfortable in low to medium mass designs like SME Series IIIs, plus any number of the ‘ultra-low mass’ arms of the nineteen seventies, like those seen in the Dual CS505, for example. The famous Rega RB300 arm and its modern derivatives are medium mass and work well with both; ditto the sort of arms that come with modern turntables such as Projects, and also the Technics SL-1200 family of decks.
Although not hardly mainstream, there is a role for high end moving magnets then – and Nagaoka’s £759 MP-500 that you see here aims foursquare at it. Over the years, I’ve had various favourite high-end MMs. I loved the old, late seventies Rega R100 made by Supex, and the A&R P77 Mg to a lesser extent. I used and adored a Nagaoka MP-11 Boron for a while in the late eighties, and then I got into the Shure V15VxMR with its trick beryllium cantilever. I was also a fan of the Goldring G1042 in the nineties, but still, I always craved more.
However, in my experience, you can put any of the aforementioned against a good mid-priced MC like Audio-technica’s AT-33PTG/II and – provided you have the right tonearm and preamp – it’s hard to see why you’d go for a moving magnet. Except for Nagaoka’s MP-500, that is. At the risk of putting the coach before the horses so to speak, I’m of the opinion that this is one of the best cartridges you can buy at or near its price, full stop.
Nagaoka has been going strong in its native Japan for eighty years now, having started making clock parts in 1940. It really made its mark internationally in the nineteen seventies though, in the heyday of the vinyl LP. The MP-500 is the company’s flagship model and uses phono cartridge best practice to eke out the most from the moving magnet genre.
Most such designs use relatively inexpensive aluminium cantilevers, but this Nagaoka uses a premium quality boron one. As any good student of chemistry will know, the latter is the fifth element in the periodic table, and the former the thirteenth. Because boron is lighter than aluminium, it will trace the groove better – because, in any suspension system, you want the lowest amount of unsprung weight. Boron is also slightly less dense too, making it a little more fragile but also less resonant – which in turn means less colouration to the sound.
The second notable aspect of the MP-500 is its super-fine polished line contact stylus. Vinylistas argue endlessly about which is the best stylus profile – that’s a debate for the forums – suffice to say that this Nagaoka’s tip is of very high quality and traces the groove very closely. This isn’t the only MM to use a fancy stylus tip of course, but not many do and finding one that also has a boron cantilever is a rare thing indeed.
Finally, the MP-500’s gold-painted permalloy body houses a powerful samarium cobalt magnet and reinforced carbon fibre pole shoe. The stylus assembly is user-replaceable, but locked in place by a small Allen bolt which is a fairly unusual sight; the first time I came across this was in the Linn K18, some thirty years ago. It makes complete sense because an interference fit stylus assembly cannot get the same level of rigidity; that means more vibration and a consequent smearing of detail and softening of dynamics. Linn was such a believer in this principle that its cheap Basik moving magnet (a tweaked Audio-technica AT-93) got round the problem by glueing the previously-detachable stylus assembly in place!
The result is a beautifully designed and engineered cartridge, packed with expensive bits – that just happens to be a moving magnet. The MP-500 tracks between 1.3 and 1.8g – I settled on the latter – and body weight is 8g so it should balance out in most tonearms without a problem. Quoted dynamic compliance is moderate to high at 21cu, so it should work in a wide range of tonearms. Its boxy oblong body made it very easy to align in my tonearm’s headshell. It puts out a claimed 3mV, which is on the lower side for a cartridge of this type, yet this shouldn’t be an issue for any standard MM phono input, and loading is a standard 47k ohms. Nagaoka claims the MP-500’s frequency response is 20-25,000Hz. My review system comprised Michell GyroDec/TecnoArm and JBE Series III/SME Series III turntables, going into a Sony TAE-86B/TAN-86B pre/power amplifier and Yamaha NS-1000M loudspeakers.
How to characterise the sound of a moving magnet cartridge? Well of course they all have different personalities; Audio-technicas tend to sound dry, tight and detailed, Grados are punchy yet tonally fuller, Ortofons are often crisp, clean and neutral, and so on. Yet you can safely generalise by saying they’re usually more diffuse and opaque than a good moving coil, lacking that last few percent of insight that makes all the difference to vinyl playback, and misses some of its magic. But hang on, the Nagaoka has this as well!
Indeed, it’s actually a very moving coil-like moving magnet, yet still has the directness and ease of the latter – it’s a jack of all trades, and master of some. The MP-500 is a very clean and open sounding device then and has a wonderful delicacy too – a kind of translucence that’s completely untypical for a cartridge of this type. It homes right in on the recording, telling you how good or bad it is without so much as a moment’s thought – yet is never overly analytical. It’s tight, punchy, fast and insightful, yet tonally smooth with a touch of sweetness up top. In other words, it resembles a really good MC in many respects – without the need for a step-up amplifier or transformer.
This is never more obvious than when you play a dry early eighties digital recording like Madonna’s Holiday, and then switch over to a wonderfully sumptuous early seventies track like Isaac Hayes’ Cafe Regios. These two tracks sound so different that they could have been recorded in different centuries, let alone decades – yet far too many moving magnets are unable to tell you this, such is their baked-in colouration. The Nagaoka MP-500 however, acts more like an open window on the recording, giving a profound contrast between the two – it’s kind of like the step up from CD to a good 24-bit, 192kHz hi-res digital file; there’s just a lot more details and atmosphere there. And it’s all done so effortlessly.
Tonally it’s very neutral, but with just a touch of ye olde analogue bloom at either frequency extreme for good measure. My well-worn pressing of Someone, Somewhere, in Summertime by Simple Minds showed me its basic evenness across the midband, with a fairly lean and taut upper bass that had just a touch of extra heft low down, plus a deliciously delicate but subtly silky treble that made the hi-hat cymbal work a delight to listen to. There’s something special about analogue up top when it’s done right, as the Nagaoka MP-500 showed.
It’s also great at another of vinyl’s great strengths – soundstaging. Indeed, I found this cartridge to be a really immersive listen, the Simple Minds track sitting there before me on a vast scale. Having heard it a lot via hi-res digital of late, I couldn’t help but be amazed by all the extra presence that this cartridge brought to the recording; it was as if it was living and breathing in front of me, with subtle spatial effects that made the spine tingle. Depth perspective was also excellent, this cartridge sounding far more three dimensional that – for example – a Grado Prestige Gold or Ortofon 2M Black. These are both about thirty percent cheaper admittedly, but the gulf in performance was still wider than the pricing would suggest. The MP-500 conjures up a lovely stereo soundstage then, showing the benefits of what a seriously capable pickup cartridge can do, moving magnet or moving coil.
It’s also a propulsive and engaging listen in rhythmic terms; it can think fast on its feet, so to speak. My well-used copy of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic) was a joy. Aside from the quieter-than-expected surface noise – this being down to me having played my copy so much since the late nineteen eighties – I was struck by its rhythmic flow. The first movement seemed to have the wind in its sails, a great sense of purpose that made things romp along. Some moving magnets I’ve played over the years can strip all the vim and vigour out of this recording, yet the Nagaoka made it sound thrilling. Again I found myself remarking on how good classical music can sound on vinyl; with a great cartridge it’s like a veil has been lifted from in front of the musicians, and things suddenly seem so authentic.
This cartridge is also an excellent tracker; I experienced no mistracking or any other such vinyl-related nasties. Instead, the MP-500 hung on like a limpet and never drew attention to the physical process of a tiny piece of diamond bumping around in a plastic groove. Even the crescendo of Supertramp’s School, which is pretty heavily modulated, was a mere trifle for this cartridge; it might as well have been playing some quiet cocktail jazz. At the same time, I was struck by the expressiveness of those lead vocals, the physical punch of the drum work and the powerful, thumping bassline – all perfectly kept in check by this superhero of a phono cartridge.
The only thing not to like about Nagaoka's MP-500 is its price, but as we know all too well in the world of analogue addiction, you get what you pay for. There’s no wonder chip or new format that’s going to come along and give you more bang for your buck – as sometimes happens in the digital world. Rather, it’s good old fashioned high-end materials use and engineering that you’re buying – and it shows.
Thumbs firmly aloft then, for this excellent pick-up cartridge; it’s surely the best of its type around – and certainly the finest moving magnet that I have heard. If you’re not a fan of moving coils, and/or don’t want to rejig your system to accommodate them, then this is surely as good as it gets. It’s expensive, but don’t forget that you’ll not need to replace your MM phono stage or swap your tonearm in order to use it – which effectively makes it better value, all things considered. So even if you’re in the market for something approaching a top-flight moving coil, hear this if you can.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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