Lyra Etna SL cartridge review part 1


Vinyl reproduction, often seen as an archaic medium, still holds a place in this world and represents a fascinating way of transcribing music. Digital audio reproduction has progressed amazingly in the past few years yet so have turntables and at the moment there seems to be no stop to advancements on either side. On a grand scale, a state of the art analog-reproducing chain can create a type of aural experience that’s very difficult to rival digitally.

I’m more than happy—actually thrilled—for finally having a chance to personally dive into the legendary Lyra universe. I could already grasp the magnitude of what makes these cartridges so special.

I’ve encountered Lyra cartridges at shows and in few friends’ setups, but you really can’t be fully objective until you explore such a precise device in your own intimate conditions and set up. Phono cartridges, more than any other device in high-end audio, closely relate to the precision and art of luxury mechanical watch manufacturing—everything counts and makes a difference. Call me a watch aficionado and that analogy comes more than handy when it comes to cartridges. I guess I also have an appreciation for such gems which closely correlated with my interest and fascination with fine mechanical machines. 

Having been always mesmerized by Japanese products, the team at Lyra expertly encapsulated a very unique spirit that both follows past tradition and steps forward into the 21st century. When it comes to high-end audio cartridges, Lyra needs no introduction. Lyra Connoisseur is among the most respected cartridge manufacturers with a rich history and impressive heritage. On top of it all, they’ve won many prestigious awards over the years and their flagship products are crowned as a top choice in many renowned reviewers reference setups.


I had the luxury of meeting Stig Bjorge at an event in Granada. It’s rare to find an individual with such a positive attitude and genuine passion for music. I’ve learned a lot about the brand and all the challenges it went through over the years. What I’ve learned only deepened my respect and appreciation of the brand and the people closely related with the company. 


Lyra never lost focus and always pin pointed their goal of perfecting the vinyl reproduction through their precious micro musical machines. 

MEET THE ETNA SL


Lyra’s Etna SL is a special, built-to-order version of the Etna cartridge. It is designed for high-end audio analog connoisseurs that already own high-gain and extra low noise phono stages or a capable step-up transformer designed from the ground up for phono cartridges of 2-3 ohms or less. 


For such application, the SL version of Etna brings much more energy, a better signal-to-noise ratio and purity of sound.


As a specific-oriented product, the Etna SL comes with an additional 10% higher price sticker compared to the regular version. 

DESIGN


Lyra’s Etna SL is a multi-material based design consisting of titanium, duralumin, bronze, and stainless steel. Unique self-clamping construction features a reduced-surface, higher-pressure headshell contact area design with predominately non-parallel shaping, phase-interference resonance-controlling mechanisms and dedicated body threading for mounting screws.


Even from the packaging and all the accessories that come along, there is no doubt—as with all Lyra products— the Etna SL comes as a matured product from strong heritage. Every little detail is figured out and refined. It’s not very often these days that you get the feeling of how you’re actually buying into the brand.

HANDS ON


Following the basic rules of cartridge installation was a no brainer. All the needed Allen (Hex) keys are included; I actually prefer them over the typical Phillips screws as the mounting is way easier. 


All the cartridges these days come with the proper coloring on the connectors on the back and Etna SL is no different. You can call it a no-brainer installation with the finer settings that usually demand a bit more time, mileage, and dedication to get the best out of the vinyl front end. 


Lyra’s Etna SL cartridge found great synergy with my Audio Union Döhmann Helix 1 turntable and Audio Union Schröder CB tonearm. I’ve gave Etna the advised hours of brake and rechecked the proper tracking a few times. Recommended tracking force is between 1.65 ~ 1.78g with the official recommendation fixed at 1.72g. It’s both interesting and intriguing how such a small difference makes for the final, balanced sound.


 I’ve often over repeated myself stating how everything related with the ultra, high-end audio turntable setup is subordinate to the technical propensities. Everting is as scientific as it gets and exact measuring make all the sense with objective results. Of course VTA will always be more in the domain of the right brain hemisphere where subjectivity takes the lead, but most of the other settings make most sense with following the physical and mathematical rules established long ago.


It took some time to get my analog front end system up to the level where I felt happy about it and become ready to evaluate upper echelon cartridges. Too easily, much is taken for granted within the realms of vinyl reproduction and in order to derive all the micro cosmic details and nuances the proper balance and platform that can host an uber range of pickups is mandatory. 


I’m more than happy with the current set of affairs where the differences between cartridges can be spotted. Being objective is on top of my list and with Lyra’s SL in play, the combo was not only highly musically involving, but also acted as a micro and macro detailed refined lab instrument when going through my arsenal of fine reference records. 

THE MUSIC


Impressively, even though the first few songs I noticed two instant fortes. First, the most positive attribute came as the ability to render music with fuller bloom at much lower volume! Not pushing forward the movement artificially like many cartridges do, the Etna SL managed to convey much more information and complex layers of space with distinctive natural ease. 

A second thing calls for the holy trinity of timbre, tone, and color. Even from the first notes of piano, saxophone, vocals, guitar and more complex orchestral material it felt not just right, but spot on with the musical DNA.


Breaking Silence - Janis Ian, received Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album and this vinyl version was released as a limited edition vinyl on Analog Productions. 

It’s also one of my latest discoveries and surprises! While browsing through my vinyl stack, I pulled out this unplayed hidden gem. It was a full analog recording and offers a great view into the dynamic capability of any cartridge as well as layering. Three dimensionality comes as a turntable-based setup leitmotif.


Yet, adding an extra dimensionality calls for more relief structure of the recording. This is usually where a lot of the cartridges fail big time. It’s also an ornament on the Etna SL’s sets of standout attributes. Ability to project the proper relief sound structure is absent not only with mediocre cartridges but also with some top tier cartridges as well.

Considering that this is studio album mixed over an analog board, it greatly captures a grand dynamic range spectrum, despite all the Eq-ing, compression, limiting etc. It’s a prime example, that, when mixed and mastered, a well-made studio album can sound great.


Objectively, as with many great cartridges, you get what you pay for. The performance follows the money ladder. With entry and mid-priced cartridges, you’ll get a sensible scope of what Breaking Silence can offer. With a refined and upper echelon cartridge like Etna SL, the door to the analog universe fully opens up. Not only is the scale of sound in a different league, the smallest nuances became vivid, focused anchor points densely increasing as the musical plot thickened.

I could hardly find a better evaluation partner for the Etna SL than Leonid Kogan plays the Brahms Violin Concerto22 vinyl reissue by Electric Recording Co.


This profound execution of Brahm’s Violin Concerto, rendered by arguably one of the greatest soviet violinist of the 20th century, is a match made in heaven for Leonid Kogan’s particular violin playing style. 

Effortless yet with pin-point precision, Kogan’s technique never fails to embrace the emotional content of the composed music. Somehow Etna’s combined quality of technical micro precision and emotionally engaging ability perfectly mirrors Kogan’s manifesto. I still find deciphering the information from the black disc a small miracle.


An Even bigger wonder is the manifestation of grand illusion that greatly reflects the real event. This never comes as mandatory regardless of any cartridge price range. When paired with components of similar potency, the Etna SL is an engaging and inspiring sonic vista full of zest that actually explores the music for what it is. And that is a rare wining factor, despite the abundance of so called high-end pickups that promise a lot yet fail to deliver when the hour of truth comes in.  

SUMMIG IT UP


In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be challenged by the relativeness of the system. In the real and dual relative one we live in, we are bound by each and every obeying rules. Among other things, Lyra’s Etna SL really excels with its open, natural way of transcribing the music. 


Too often the natural transparency and brightness are mixed and understood in a completely wrong way. Brightness can be twisted and turned around in many permutations. Yet, at the end of the day, it still falls under the realms of distorted reality. With live acoustical instruments, so called fake brightness becomes a biting brittle effect that never occurs in the real world. This is quickly evident with metallic instruments like the cymbal or hit where loudness translates to the actual amplitude and not an EQ-like coloration. So far none of the cartridges managed to nail this correctly in such way as the Etna SL. This alone is worthy not only of recognition but true embracing. 


Lyra’s Etna SL is not following the fake reinvention of the wheel. It rather focuses on factual progression where the right and properly implemented solutions resolve in bringing the sound to a different plane. 

Partnered with the Audio Union Döhmann Helix 1 turntable, this combo really showed what a 21st century high-end turntable reproduction can bring: a highly detailed, never brittle presentation with full-scale, three dimensional sound and captivating sonics that instantly evoke emotional sparks. Lyra’s Etna SL opens up the telescopic and microscopic horizon of different scale that leaves you impacted with a grand, sobering slap. 

Etna SL takes a step further in making all the difference between the daydreaming world of impressionist audio reproduction and a sensible, realistic portrayal of actual events.

For what it represent, and at what level of realism it can derive music from the black grooves I'm already, and at this first part of the review happily handing out the Mono & Stereo Upper Echelon Class Award.

More to come in part two!

Matej Isak

PRICE


US retail: $9,995.00 

SPECIFICATIONS FOR ETNA SL


• Designer: Jonathan Carr
• Builder: Yoshinori Mishima (final build, testing), Akiko Ishiyama (preliminary build)
• Type: Medium weight, medium compliance, low-impedance, low-output moving coil cartridge
• Stylus: Lyra-designed long-footprint variable-radius line-contact nude diamond (3um x 70um profile, block dimensions 0.08 x 0.12 x 0.5mm), slot-mounted
• Cantilever system: Diamond-coated solid boron rod with short one-point wire suspension, directly mounted into cartridge body via high-pressure knife-edge system
• Coils: 2-layer deep, 6 N high-purity copper, chemically-purified high purity iron X-shaped former, 1.52 ohm self-impedance, 1.9μH inductance
• Output voltage: 0.25 mV@5 cm/sec., zero to peak, 45 degrees (CBS test record, other test records may alter results)
• Frequency range: 10 Hz-50 kHz
• Channel separation: 35 dB or better at 1 kHz
• Compliance: Approx. 12 X10 cm/dyne at 100 Hz
• Vertical tracking angle: 20 degrees

CONTACT


Lyra Co. Ltd.
Suginami-ku
Tokyo
Japan

Email: lyra@gol.com