Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: Nagaoka MP-110 phono cartridge

Since my Audio Technica AT95E phono cartridge mysteriously suffered a cantilever bend, and, even after adjusting for this minor metal tweak, began to suffer from bothersome inner-groove distortion, I thought it was time for something new.  With the B&W speakers and the very nice (for the price) performance of the Nakamichi SR-3A receiver, I wanted a decent jump up in sound quality.  In the sub-$100 category, there are several popular choices - the Ortofon OM10 and 2M Red, the Audio Technica AT-100E and AT-110E, the Shure 97xE, the Sumiko Oyster, and two Grado cartridges.

One brand, however, begin to stick out, Nagaoka.  They offer several models ranging from the $80 MP-100 to the $655 MP-500.  Since this is a budget rig, I decided on the MP-110 with its strong 5mV output, a reputation for tracking and low noise, and the replaceable stylus.  The cartridge came in a funky little UFO-shaped container along with screws and even a little screwdriver.

A quick visual inspection showed a cantilever that was mounted straight without any slop to the left or right.  Construction quality was high - it felt more substantial than the budget Audio Technica AT95E - though some threaded holes would be nice instead of juggling with tiny nuts and screws (please no sexual jokes).  Installation on my Dual CS5000 removable headshell wasn't too bad, provided my big Norgie cat stopped getting in the way.  Apparently she likes shiny things.  After that a protractor was used for alignment and digital gauge to determine the stylus force, which was set at 1.8g.

With no break-in, the sound was a little strange - diffuse and with some minor midrange suckout.  Tracking, however, was very, very good.  With some cartridges, the MFSL re-issue of Frank Sinatra - Nice 'n' Easy, the last track could start to show some serious inner-groove distortion.  Listening intently with the Nagaoka I had a hard time hearing any mistracking or added grittiness to the vocals.  Very impressive considering the low price point of this cartridge.

A few hours and many records later it was time to do some serious listening.

Listening to the re-issue of Dead Can Dance - The Serpent's Egg revealed a cartridge that sounded surprisingly refined for this price level.  The midrange was on the warm sound of neutrality and the treble was slightly forward with a bit of a metallic sheen, but the music was reproduced without any of the roughness or congestion that I normally associate with cheap cartridges.  Bass definition - at least through the small woofers of the B&W Matrix 805s - was very good.  It was also easy to pick out the different instruments in the mix. 

One of my rarer records is the album Turquoise Fields from the French Coldwave act Little Nemo.  My copy isn't exactly mint and normally has some offending ticks and pops that distract from the music.  The Nagaoka MP-110, however really reduces this noise quite a bit.  I also found this to be true with my beat up Japanese copy of This Mortal Coil - It'll End In Tears.   In short, the cartridge is a godsend for vinyl collectors of obscure music who can't always find the cleanest copy.

My second system is mainly used for background - not for serious listening.  The speakers are too far apart and too close to the wall for good imaging.  The soundstaging, therefore, is not a strong point.  I can't comment too much on the Nagaoka MP-110 here, but the imaging is a bit diffuse and a little less solid than my CD player.  I am, however, too lazy to install this cartridge in my main system, replacing the Dynavector 10X5.  Maybe someday once the Dynavector needs to be re-tipped.

Nonetheless, I can highly recommend the Nagaoka MP-110 within the confines of a budget system.  That refinement I mentioned earlier gives a real "taste of the high-end".  In comparison, my memory of the Ortofon 2M Red (on a different table, mind you) was of a rougher sound.  This finesses of the MP-110, and the ability to reduce vinyl noise while tracking the inner groove makes it a budget winner.

Second System:
Dual CS5000 turntable
Pioneer DVD-V7400
Nakamichi SR-3A receiver
B&W Matrix 805s on stands
Wire: Various brands


Freelance said...

Thanks again for such an interesting audiophile blog I like to check in on from time to time and actually read some intellectual well thought out critiques on new products that are far superior opinions based upon fact and scientific observation than those monthly rags calling themelvs audio magazines at the newstand these days.In other words, thanks for your service. Sadly, I ecperienced a major tramatic brain injury in a car accident being hit by a semi 2 years ago and am just begginning to learn to work on amps, spell words correctly, and be able to compare and contrast new equipment myself. So please excuse anything I may mis-spell or accidentally write something construed as offensive. I lost the majority of the memory of the past 20 years of my life from the semi that hit me, but i'm still here and just wanted to give you kudos to your blog as it gives me from time to time something insightful to read that resonates with bits and pieces of the old me's interests. By the way, I don't have any, but one thing I remember is those Xf2 EL34's were magic sounding. And I like your use of Dead Can Dance as a reference. They use so many obscure middle eastern instruments they are great for comparison of a variety of musical tones and sounds of all sorts. I barely remember when in Europe a long time ago seeing them in a small club of 300 people and watching them run (literally) from instrument to wooden instrument while this lead singer with long red hair down to her waist kept singing songs like black sun and other classics. Thanks for sharing your hobby and knowledge with us newbies and us relearning to "understand" it all from scratch. My counselor for my T.B.I. injury who works with lots of military IED victums told me this kind of therapy with music is great for exercising both the brain in artistic or aesthetic manners but also in scientific understanding of how to create DIY amps or present a challege to us trying to get back to our old "lost" selves. Sorry to ramble, just wanted to thank you for such pleasent non judgemnetal reading. I used to teach college and have a hard time reading, but now and then drop by to read your blog and it gives me all sorts of ideas. If I ever promise to send you a schematic or something, and forget just pm me or respond in your blog as a reminder. I offend go to the store these days and buy 30 items but forget the ONE thing I was sent to get. It's sad but i'm not giving up. Your critiques and DIY suggestions and reviews of tubes give us T.B.I. post victums in recover some positive hope. Thank you for your brilliant critiques.T hey give me hope that one day I will be perhaps back to where I used to be intellectually. Cheers, Freelancer

brightpavilions said...

Love my MP-110. Wondering where you got yours from. I need a replacement stylus and a number of places have been mysteriously "out of stock." Thanks!

Shahrul Asri Mohamed Nazri said...

Google up Audiokazu. Buy from him with confidence coz I got mine from him.

Tim Hopwood said...

After using many budget cartridges over the years, like low-end audio-technicas and Pioneers, as well as a few decent ones like Sures, I have lashed out and spent what for me is a fair amount of money on an MP110. I must say I have never heard anything quite like it. I am hearing my LPs as I have never heard them before. It seems to be a really good match with my Rega. I live in South Africa so much of my collection comprises camparatively poor local pressings, and it's handling these like no other cartridge I've owned.