Anaylsis Audio

The Isolator from The Cartridge Man

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Playing the Hadcock with the Musicmaker III but without The Isolator revealed Classic unipivot sonics: a tight and punchy bass, with sweet but somewhat homogenous mids and highs. Adding The Isolator transformed the Hadcock into a ‘contendah.’ I quickly ran through 8 different Mozart pieces, satisfied and moved to my very soul. There was a ‘rightness’ to the sound that allowed complete immersion into the music. It’s somewhat unfair to use Mozart to audition audio gear (kind of like being able to pick Michael Jordan for a pick-up basketball game) but I had hit on the Hadcock/Isolator/MM III’s unique strength: its utter ease with making classical music sound believable and credible.

Listening with The Isolator eliminated the ‘mechanical‘ aspects of LP playback, those slight and almost subliminal distortions that ride along the signal. The sound was more akin to Open-Reel tape playback. Obliterating these subtle mechanical distortions revealed a new level of “footroom”: Denis Morecroft’s term for dynamic range and resolution extending down to the threshold of silence. Improving low-level resolution and dynamic tracking releases a wealth of subtlety, grace, natural-ness and musical meaning, an overall rightness that can be THE essence of high performance audio. After all, any component can grasp the broad and obvious gestures of music, and the common notion of audiophile sound – too loud, too bright, and with too much bass - does not guarantee musical communication. It is the fastidiousness, finesse and filigree of low-level detail – footroom – that is most important in helping the brain form the gestalts that convince it that one is listening to music.

The Hadcock/Isolator/MusicMaker trio produces a very striking and convincing purity of tone, a purity and cleanliness that smacks of the natural world rather than the world of artifice. The purity impresses as natural rather than clinical. The way that each tone emerges from silence mimics live production of notes. Listen to a live cello or violin. The utter ease with which the instrument produces transients and moves the air from silence into tone makes recorded audio playback seem stuck in black tar. Perhaps this is the source of that pervasive audiophile cliché of “sound emerging from black velvet backgrounds” which, if you think about it, is actually a description of a distortion. Sounds should emerge within the context of the acoustic of the recording site. The trio doesn’t exactly match the live phenomenon of course, but it does take a giant step forward in replicating this extremely difficult aspect of reproduction.

The portrayal of orchestral depth also mimics live performance accurately. Rather than cardboard cut-out, sharply differentiated individual planes, the sense of depth of the individual tiers and choirs of instruments is continuous, just as it is live.

Leonard Gregory offered some measured results of The Isolator that correlate closely with perception of its sonic effects. A lowering of the noise floor, that is to say, an improvement in signal-to-noise ratio, occurs with The Isolator. The lower noise floor correlates with the increase in ‘footroom’ perceived when using The Isolator. With less noise comes increased clarity: reproduction of the signal stands out in higher relief and obscured signal emerges into perception. High frequencies in particular were clearer, better separated, and less muddied up: fast percussive transients did not smear and did not turn harsh.

There is, of course, more going on with The Isolator than the gains made from a simple lowering of the noise floor, impressive though these are. Eliminating any spurious vibration from the signal tracing process can only serve resolution, coherence, accuracy, and naturalness of LP playback.

The Hadcock/Isolator/MM III trio definitely works supremely well as a unit: I’d call it a match made in heaven except for the fact that it is the result of conscientious planning, design, and integration here on earth. Only the arm’s slight sweetening and reticence in fully expressing the ultimate extremes of emotion keep it from being completely satisfying. John Coltrane and Joe Cocker can, after all, be painful to listen to: the Hadcock arm slightly bowdlerizes the expression of pain and rage.

Comparing the Hadcock/Isolator/MusicMaker to the Origin Live Conqueror with the MusicMaker only (one of my original review matches of the cartridge) didn’t knock The Conqueror off the top of the mountain, but the trio made wonderfully seductive music, particularly so on classical repertoire. In fact, reproduction of classical music was so good and so convincing that classical listeners simply must hear the MusicMaker III/Isolator/Hadcock combination: it is a true reference to how convincing and aesthetically moving recorded classical music can sound. Amazing what three components working together can achieve. My hat is off to Mr. Gregory for significantly enlarging and easing access to the great cultural heritage of Western Art Music.

Using The Isolator with the MusicMaker III in three other arms (Origin Live-modified Rega RB 250 and RB300 and Origin Line Silver 250) revealed the same general improvements obtained with the Hadcock/MusicMaker combination, though in some cases the result was not as completely successful and as fully integrated. Leonard Gregory feels that the bearing tolerances of the RB 250/300 are inadequate for the MM III. There was a slight trace of mechanical ‘dirtiness’ still audible on these two arms that was not there with the Hadcock. The more refined Silver 250, with higher bearing tolerances and a de-coupled headshell, was however, simply wonderful.

Using other cartridges with the Isolator in a variety of arms was deeply satisfying and a very informative experience. One of the more intriguing was the Rega Exact cartridge in the Origin Live modified Rega RB 250 arm. Since the cartridge was designed with maximum connection rigidity in mind (3 cartridge bolts, tightened with a torque wrench to connect it to the Rega cartridge platform,) loss of the 3rd mounting hole and the slightly compliant Isolator material lessened the cartridge’s dynamic fire and thrust. High frequency clarity and footroom expansion did improve as expected. I’m still unsure as to which I prefer. Other cartridges showed such marked improvement that quibbles about their shortcomings without The Isolator were eliminated. The Denon DL 160’s zippy and smeared treble was tamed and refined. The Grado Signature TLZ-V’s loose bass transient response was tightened up and controlled.

Results with certain bass-shy cartridges in Rega arms (less so with the Hadcock and Origin Live arms) could be somewhat ambiguous. Since one of the effects of isolation devices in general is to tighten bass and to eliminate false response peaks, isolation of lean-bass cartridges like the Blue Point Special, Audio Technica AT OC9ML, Talisman Boron, and Dynavector Karat could verge on the threshold of bass-shyness. The increased quality of the bass response and the larger overall improvement in resolution, footroom and overall naturalness is more than likely to swamp this concern. As with isolation devices in general, simply moving the loudspeaker can regain the subjective bass balance.

Predicting the precise effect of The Isolator on a given arm/cartridge/turntable precisely is fraught with ambiguity. The number of variables quickly gets out of hand. Certain improvements – the increase in footroom, the extraction of low-level detail and dynamics, more natural articulation of transients and better control of bass signals – are, however, universal. Whether a given combination’s problems are completely solved and the sonic results completely integrated can only be empirically tested and judged. Reports of significant improvements in combinations like the Allaerts/Schroeder, Encounter/Blackbird, and other high-quality combos have been reported. The only arm in which I did not hear a musical improvement with The Isolator was my reference Origin Live Conqueror. This is not to be unexpected given the thinking behind the arm’s design and execution.

Generous, standing and prolonged applause - indeed ovation - to Leonard Gregory for giving us The Isolator. It is, simply, a must-listen for every LP lover. It is essential for users of the Hadcock arm: it complements and completes it so well that it becomes impossible to listen to the arm neat after hearing it with The Isolator. Using The Isolator with the already wonderful MusicMaker III cartridge makes a great cartridge even greater. The improvement gained by using The Isolator with any arm/cartridge combination trumps by far upgrades of components in the system: purchase of ‘better’ arms, cartridges, phono stages, cables, and tonearm wiring should be delayed until auditioning The Isolator with one’s existing components. Given the sonic and musical improvements use of The Isolator produces, its reasonable $150 price makes it a give-away. Heartfelt thanks also to Mr. Gregory for the honor of allowing this first report of The Isolator in the US press.

Paul Szabady


Phono cartridge Isolator: Placed between cartridge and tonearm headshell.
Weight: 2.6 grams
Size: 3/4 inch W x 1 inch L x 1/8 inch H (20 mm x 25 mm x 5.4 mm)
Price: $150 (15% discount when purchased with MusicMaker III cartridge

The Cartridge Man
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CRO 1AF, England. UK.
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