The vDH Moving Coil Phono Cartridge

vDH Grasshopper III
An Unprotected Species
[by michael gindi (the absolute sound issue 78 - april 1992)]

VAN DEN HUL'S Grasshopper is one of the few cartridges (The Blue Point Special and Ken Chan Koetsus are two others) that, to my knowledge, is sold without protective outer body (exo-skeleton?) and so you must use great care handling it from the beginning. But after wrestling with an Ikeda Kiwame, I found setting up of the two grasshoppers a breeze: 1.5 grams tracking force for the III, 1.25 for the Gold, dead level VTA and average damping. (Please take these tracking force and loading figures as recommended starting points. Nothing more. Remember that the goal is the perfect positioning of the stylus and cantilever assembly, and that when dealing with handmade cartridges, your settings may well vary from mine.) I liked the Grasshoppers best when loaded down to 2 and 3K into the CAT SL-1 Signature preamplifier. Breaking-in time is 20 to 40 hours; until then the cartridge sounds closed down and tight. Interestingly, each time I play either cartridge, even after the break-in period, I find that it takes at least a full album side, or more, before they come into their own. Without this much play time, the cartridge hardens and barks in the upper mid to lower treble during dynamic passages. Why this should be, I haven't a clue.

Given that, I found the Grasshopper I and II too etched and analytic for my taste, I was rather surprised at the sound of these new ones. I wouldn't have been, had I known just how much more care and work has gone into perfecting this design. The magnet material has been changed from Samarium cobalt to neodymium, and the geometry of the pole pieces (now laminated front and back) is changed as well. A.J.van den Hul said that he thinks part of the unique Grasshopper presentation comes from crosstalk cancellation, which is accomplished by exchanging position of some left and right windings. The cartridge also incorporates some very sophisticated eddy current damping. Van den Hul humbly pays homage to Mr. Tominari of Dynavector for some of his ideas, and asked that I give credit where credit is due. The suspension has been changed to a graduated two stage elastomer and the armature material is now proprietary (called "Vandenite"). For our purposes here, what you should know is that the only construction difference between the Grasshopper III and the Grasshopper Gold, is that 22 micron pure silver wire is used on the III, and 18 micron 24-karat gold wire used on the Gold. The Gold is a limited edition. (For real. No hype. I'm told that there's only so much of this gold wire made available.) The windings for both transducers are painstakingly done (by hand) and van den Hul himself makes only one or cartridges a day, listening to each one for several hours upon completion. Both cartridges have a healthy output, about .7mvs, which allows most preamps to loaf along comfortably.

If you were considering applying for a job as link in the music reproduction chain, at least in an analogue-based system, and you read the "job description" of each individual component involved therein, the two positions you'd be likely to apply for are those at either end of the chain. That is, if your career advancement were dependent on performing perfectly. The jobs that phono sections, line stages, wire and amplifiers all must do, are a cakewalk in comparison to what a loudspeaker or a phono cartridge must do. Transduction, changing mechanical energy to electrical energy or vice versa, is where most errors can, and will occur. We are hardly surprised that speakers sound so dramatically different, one from the other, and though we wish it weren't so, we ought not be surprised that cartridges do as well.All this is to tell you that, for the past year, I have gone cartridge crazy. (A shrink goes crazy over cartridges. Is this magnetic depressive or what? It is. Undoubtedly caused by a chemical imbalance of too much Neodymium/Beryllium and not enough Lithium - MMG) The Lyra Parnassus, the Ikeda Kiwame, and the Koetsu Pro IV are all, in my opinion, world class products. Yet each presents music as differently as the several state-of-the-art speakers do. Actually, the cartridges are even more different one from another. The Pro IV has a lush, rich, velvety musical midrange that I find positively enchanting. The Parnassus has a delicate refined top end. The Ikeda kicks butt, shakes the globe right off of Atlas' shoulders, and leaves the winged Mercury sounding sluggish. So what's a feller to do?

What this feller did was start to change cartridges every two or three days. After listening to the Pro IV for that time period, I missed top and bottom extension, as well as transient speed. With the Parnassus, I missed a solid foundation, [But the Avalon Ascents have no bottom octave (20-40 Hz). Compared with live music, the Parnassus is accurate, the Grasshoppers over-etched, and older Koetsus bloated in the midbass and soft-to-nonexistent on the bottom.] dynamic punch, and a rich midrange. With the Ikeda, well, you get the point.

I was hoping upon hope that at least one of the Grasshoppers would allow me to surrender this obsession, and listen to music without a pair of needle nose pliers in my back pocket.

Both Grasshoppers have family characteristics, the major difference between the III and the Gold that I hear is in low-level detail resolution and subtle refinement of spatial presentation and neutrality. According to van den Hul (who has, until now, been one of the main proponents of silver wire) this is as it should be. It is a extremely low levels, he claims, that the gold wire, when wound, will better transmit information than the silver.

What will immediately strike you about either of the Grasshoppers, is the top to bottom frequency coherency. If, again, we were to compare cartridges to speakers, then we might say that the Parnassus has a stunning detailed and delicate tweeter, seamlessly crossed into a fast but slightly thin midrange driver, poorly crossed into an under powered less detailed woofer, without enough punch. The Pro IV has the tweeter level-control turned down too low, and an underdamped, spongy servo-woofer. The Grasshoppers, by way of contrast, sound more like a full range 20 to 20k crossoverless electrostatic panel. This is most true of the Gold. As you allow your ear to wander up and down the frequency range, it is all of one transparent cloth. This is more the kind of presentation you would hear with a superb tape transport reproducing a master. I believe that errors in coherency, which create frequency stripes or patches of varying color, have been one of the major failings in phono transducers, no matter how good they were, until now. The Grasshoppers allow the listener to forget about the cartridge, and permit you to focus on the source material, in the same way that better speakers "disappear" from your listening room.

I recently found that Ikeda Kiwame cartridge to be the "Slam Dance King," but surprisingly, both Grasshoppers can give it a run for the money in that department. In fact, the second strongest suit of these cartridges is their dynamics, macro and micro. They make the Parnassus sound laid back and "polite" by comparison. Perhaps this is due to the far lower out put of the Parnassus, which may tax many preamps - including mine - to the limit. Like the Ikeda, the Grasshoppers are not cartridges for the demure or faint of heart. Should you play Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man [Turnabout TV-34169] at high volume, the opening brass, cymbal crashes and drums, will snap your head back and startle you, just as they should. The cymbals, horns, and tympani, could rouse the dead. Though the Ikeda did quite as well in terms of sheer impact, it did so without much finesse. Decay times, for example, are shorter and less textured than they are on the van den Huls, where you will hear the sound drift to a hushed silence, momentarily lulling you into a false relaxation, only to pin you back in your chair with the next brass and percussion barrage. By direct comparison, the Parnassus and the Koetsu Pro IV gave the impression that this potent piece might have been commissioned for a genteel lawn party.

The Grasshoppers can whisper quite as well as they can breathe fire. HP noted the remarkable low-level resolution on his sample and I concur completely. The Gold adds another additional step in this direction. On Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall [Columbia 8845] on the "Flint Hill Special" cut, which is interrupted two thirds of the way through by audience applause, the Parnassus gives you the same height, width, and air of the hall, but it takes some of the life out of the Country-style howling, hooting, and yahooing going on in the audience. You also hear people's voices - shouting requests and talking - as inaudible blurred whispers. Stepping up to the Grasshopper III, you immediately realize that half the audience sounds looped on moonshine - screaming out of control to the point of hoarseness - while you still distinctly make out the voices making requests. With the Gold, you can make out exactly what these voices are asking for, amidst all that cowbell and whistling hee-haw din.

From the upper bass down, the Grasshoppers again can give a well set-up Ikeda Kiwame cause for concern. In fact, I'd have to rate the van den Huls as "best in the business" in this department. They have all the speed and cannon shot slam of the Ikeda, with additional levels of detail resolution. String bass on good jazz recordings, like Night in Tunisia [Phillips RJD-4], For Duke [M&K RT-101] or Jim Hall-Jazz Impressions of Japan [A&M/Horizon GXU-1] are rendered more like real life than I've yet heard. The attack, the warm body resonance decaying after it, and the overall taut musical impact are all there. It's the kind of presentation that makes you wanna stand up and play an imaginary "air upright bass" right along with the recording. Going back to the aforementioned Fanfare for the Common Man, the tympani has amazing impact and body, but it also has the changing sound of the drum skin from impact to decay.

Once again I'm hung up with that word "neutral"; for neutral and uncolored the Grasshoppers certainly are. But because of their mind-grabbing dynamics, sprinter's speed, low-level resolution and top-to-bottom coherency, this neutrality, once again, translates into involvement and communication of musical intention. Let's take the "Guantanamera" cut off the exquisite, and I do mean exquisite, Acoustic Sounds re-issue of The Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall. Along with the heart-string tugging poetry, the song is meant to have a Spanish-South American flavor. It's the way the maracas are used to punctuate the rhythm that conveys this more than anything else. With most every other cartridge here, the maracas sound, rhythmically though not tonally, as if they could have been played on a Casio synthesizer with the "Latin" button depressed.

This is to say that they lack the little human touch which, ever-so-subtly, modulates the volume of every few shakes, to break up the rhythm into a bouncy donkey-ride. With the Grasshoppers III and Gold, you'll hear the "SSSHICK-chick-chick SHICK-chick CHICK-chick-chick" kind of rhythm, that adds just enough flavor to take you right down to the sugar cane fields in Cuba at harvest time.

For those of you who still care about analogue, who still care about music, I can recommend either of these cartridges to you wholeheartedly. If your system can give every snitch and snatch of musical resolution that these cartridges can, then spend the extra money and "Go for the Gold!" If not, you'll probably be more than happy with the Grasshopper III. As for me, I'm delighted to be able to take those needle nose pliers out of my back pocket, and return them, for now, into the box where they belong. The Grasshoppers give me more than enough of everything to let me listen, once again, a very happy man.


Manufacturer: van den Hul, The Netherlands
Distributor: Rockport Technologies, RFD 1 Box 113A, West Rockport, Maine 04865. (207) 596-7151
Source: Manufacturer Loan
Price: Silver $2300; Gold $3250
Warranty: One year limited, parts and labor

Associated Equipment
Front End: Rockport Sirius record player; Lyra Parnassus, Koetsu Pro IV, Ikeda Kiwame cartridges, XLO Dedicated Analogue Cable
Electronics: Convergent Audio Technology Signature, Jadis MC-80 preamplifiers; modified Jadis JA-500s with Jadis-Richardson KT-88s, Cello Encore amplifiers

Interconnects and Accessories: XLO interconnects and Type 5 speaker cable, 3 Power Wedges, Re Fine (Combak Corp.) Resonance Control devices, Brassfield and Arcici Sound Hog isolation plates, Audio Prism Iso-Bearing and Quiet Lines. VPI record cleaner. Enough RoomTunes to make my room look like a mini-Roman Coliseum.
Speakers: XLO/Garbie modified Avalon Ascent IIs.



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