21 November, 2011

Letter from NYC 2011 (20): Empire 2000E/III 2000Z

pics of E/III: R, original stylus; L: replacement

Letter from NYC 2011 (20): State of the Empire
Vinyl Talk: Empire 2000E/II and 2000Z

Introduction 物極必反

The Chinese saying loosely means "Order shall unravel itself when it has reached Extreme". And so it proves in most arena of human activity. Audio is no exception.

Audio has undergone dramatic changes in recent years. While some (like CAS) are nominally progressive (as digital vs analog is regressive), perhaps even more look back for their inspirations. Witness the flowering of flea-powered SET amps and hi-efficiency loudspeakers. So, is it time for the MM again?

MM or MI in the World of MC
For three decades or more, the MC cartridge has dominated the high-end. It is not hard to see why. For a long time, the trend in audio, under the banner of resolution and neutrality, has mostly been towards an ever more explicit treble mostly without comparable improvement in the midrange. The MC, with its innate penchant for lighting the treble, fits the bill perfectly.

This is not to denigrate the MC. With more powerful magnets, fewer coils, lower impedance and all, for the modern audiophile the MC has arguably reached its Golden Age, when incremental improvements become more difficult to come by. There is only one catch; they are mostly so expensive that they are out of reach to most people.
No wonder there is an MM renaissance of sort. There are two parts to the equation:

More new high quality Moving Magnets and Moving Irons are now being made In the September issue of TAS, when asked what is the biggest innovation in LP playback in the last ten years, Harry Weisfeld of VPI says: "...The rebirth of moving-iron and moving-magnet cartridges. When done right (Soundsmith, Grado, Ortofon), they can be wonderful, and young people can afford them and enjoy music. If its just us old farts buying $4000 moving coils, this business is doomed..." Although I believe he has a point, and I can attest to the quality of some of the current MMs (from the humble Ortofon Red to the more upmarket Clearaudio Virtuoso), it is the second part of the equation that is more intriguing.

Revival of old vintage MM cartridges One of the more interesting thing about the information explosion is the re-appraisal of vintage audio equipment. I of course have long belonged to the crowd who respect and use vintage equipment. It helps that mass magazine writers like Art Dudley writes a lot about vintage equipment (in his case mostly in analog). When it comes to vintage cartridges, the advocates have always been there, though less vociferous than those interested in other sectors. This is understandable, as the cartridge is fragile and stylus of finite life. It shall always be a minority sport, and better that way.

Empire Cartridges
As much as Shure or Stanton, one of the important players in the MM era has been Empire. Their turntables were used in transcription and the Troubadour series have always been coveted by collectors (here is some good info). No less than Harry Weisfeld of VPI cites Empire as influence, and indeed his current best-selling Classic turntable is said to have derived inspiration from Empire.

When it comes to cartridges, Empire had a long history and made many. Surviving documentation is scanty and there is much confusion on the internet, especially when it comes to replacement styli.

Old timers have likely had some experience with Empire, and I am no exception. In the late seventies and early eighties, before I got serious in hifi, I had been an Empire user, first the 2000E/II, then III, then the 2000Z before switching to Shure V-15 (my stint started with the Type II and ended with the IV). As I wasn't wearing my audiophile hat then, I don't quite remember why I switched my allegiance.

Empire 2000E/III
One of the most well known Empire cartridge series was the 2000 (Info on 2000 and 4000 series from Mantra Audio; vinylengine database), and I was a partaker of that experience. I think everyone agrees they are very musical cartridges. The trouble, again, is the confusion regarding replacement styli (read the vinylengine thread).

Recently, my friend icefox, one of the 食客 of my Shidi, told me that in one of their debauchery sessions an NOS Empire 2000E/III shone when matched with a Fidelity Research step-up. This piqued my curiosity. As recent as a couple of years ago, I had last listened to it as part of the bedroom system on my Pioneer PL-10. Sweet, but I had never thought of re-installing it in my main systems.

Back into the Arms of...吃過番尋味 This is like taking it up with an old girlfriend whom one has almost forgotten about! My particular 2000E/III surprisingly still has an intact suspension and works fine, even if I had stored it without any protection to the stylus! Must have been a sturdy built. Installing it in my systems was an eye-opener.

Round 1; vs Benz Micro Silver I installed the Empire 2000E/III in my early morning listening Casual Listening Station , which has undergone minor changes:

Analog: Audio Technica AT-PL120 with Empire 2000E/III
Digital:
Meridian 506-24
Tuner:
McIntosh MR-71
Preamp:
ARC SP-9
Amp:
Sunfire 300; Elekit TU-8300
Loudspeakers:
Martin Logan Source

This is the system I use at a low level every morning in the wee hours, before I can blast my big horns. If you have read my previous report, you shall see that the Empire 2000E/III replaced the previous Benz Micro Silver, a high-output MC. Well, the findings are favorable. An even-handed performance that lacks nothing in either resolution or tonality. Good soundstage, solid images. There is little question the massed strings have more body. The Benz in comparison is more hifi-ish, whiter perhaps (as I am using electrostatics) though it plays out with a more exciting PRaT.

Round 2: vs Koetsu Black and Denon DL-102 Next I tried out the Empire on the Day-to-Day gig, which I had just written about in the previous post. This time the equipment used was as follows:

Analog 1: Clearaudio Concept/Koetsu Black
Analog 2: Technics SL-1200/Empire 2000EIII
Preamp: Shindo Monbrison with MM and MC phono inputs
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Speakers: YL Acoustics 4-way horns

This was made easy due to the similar construction of the Audio Technica and Technics; the arm geometries are close enough to allow for a simple swap. After quickly re-balancing and setting the counterweight I was in business. Comparison of the 2 gigs through the same phono section was enlightening. The Clearaudio/Koetsu has somewhat higher resolution and, again, more pacey, but the difference was not as big as you think. On the other hand, the warmth of the Empire was quite alluring; it makes images just seem more anchored on the ground, and certainly the feeling of massed strings is enhanced. Considering the difference in price the Empire did an outstanding job, and depending on preference it is not hard to imagine some might prefer the Empire outright. Comparison with the Denon DL-102 shall be made in the next installment.

Round 3: Aftermarket replacement stylus Given the great performance I decided to order a generic aftermarket stylus for myself as well as Shidi. There are a few variants for the styli I believe. Mine was I think a Pfanstiel "Polished Elliptical Diamond .0003 x .0007", made in Switzerland, labelled 4237DEC. I listened to this only on the Casual Listening Station. The sound is definitely not as rich and nuanced, though not nearly as bad as some description on the net, but it ceratinly does not quite measure up to the original. The most unusual thing is that the output is quite a bit lower and I have to crank up the volume. Can anybody tell me why?

2000Z
The 2000Z was an upgrade to the E/III at the time, and I had used it for a long time. Read the 2000Z 1976 review in Gramophone. My specimen unfortunately suffered from deterioration in the suspension. I also ordered a generic replacement stylus and soon put it into action in the Casual Listening Station. As it uses the same frame as the E/III, it was just a matter of swapping the bodies.

The replacement stylus I think is another Pfanstiel ".2 x .7 Elliptical Diamond", labelled 4239DET, but made in Japan. This one seemed a better replacement than the E/III, and I was rewarded by a sound that was quite similar to the E/III with the original tip. It is staying on my AT turntable.

The other day I took the AT turntable with the 2000Z to a friend's house. He uses Audio Note M5, Audio Valve EL84 monoblocks (8 per channel) and Sonus faber Electa Amator I. Even with the AT's built-in phonoamp, he was surprised to find the sound at least on par with, if not surpassed that of his digital source, the capable Meridian 508-24. Such is the magic of Analog!

Conclusion
I am most impressed by my re-acquaintance with the Empire 2000E/III and 2000Z. It leads me to think, as our equipment improve, we should sometimes re-hear some of our forgotten toys that are lying around. The Empires have fine musicality and excellent resolution. In a modern system, they don't sound dated, indeed can compete with many a more expensive cartridge, especially if you are tired of the treble zip of some MCs.

If you already have one lying around, and the stylus is good, you should give it a second chance, but the situation becomes more complicated should you need a new stylus. If you don't have one, I don't think you should go out and buy just a body.

Last thought, I think the 2000 series is good enough to warrant a re-tip with a better stylus. maybe one day...

7 comments:

  1. AnonymousJune 16, 2013

    Thanks for that thoughtful review. I just got back into vinyl. I bought a Tech. SLQ3 table with an Empire RM20 cart., with a good stylus. Probably the two were togehter since both were new. It sounds great and is very musical. I love it.

    I agree that Empire made wonderful cartridge products that can still work and perform with the best of the over-priced carts out there! Most of the new carts should be marked down about 75% and then you would be getting a value, instead of lining the pockets of execs. No doubt there are plenty of reviewers who are no more than corporate whores, whose praise and opinion can be bought with chump change! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. AnonymousJune 22, 2013

    I use an Empire 66QE.X (I found NOS for a good price) with a REGA RP3. Plays thru Proton 1100 pre-amp/Dynaco ST 70/ re-built Cerwin Vega HED 15 (with horns and 15" woofers). I am blown away at how beautiful that combo is. I love Empire, I had a Shelter on it first and I think it is way better than the Shelter.-Filthy Phil

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi
    one question does the empire 2000z needle fits into the 2000E/I to III systembody?

    Thanks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, no, they do not. The 2000T and 2000Z have smaller shanks. Search the Audiokarma forums for Empire 2000E and you will find more information than you will ever need.

      I've recently acquired two old quad Empire bodies along with some NOS stylii, and am very excited to try them out!

      Delete
    2. Thx for the correction. I deleted my comment.

      Delete
  4. Hi have a question my needle got damaged on my Empire 2000z so I purchased an aftermarket stylus made me EVG $35.00 but thought I was missing the good old highs. I did a search a found a place that had one original stylus left, but the price was $194.00, so I decided to go for it. It looked old although
    I'm told it was never used, but after a side by side test I cant tell the difference I'm I missing something??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am not sure. Try running in the new styli - the sound may open up.

      In the case of the NOS stylus, well, it should be better. But maybe it was not true it had never been used? Also, even unused the suspension could have deteriorated, making performance suboptimal. Try running it in too.

      Delete