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X-Quisite ST Phono Cartridge

A few years ago, HiFiction AG (footnote 2), the company that produces Thales pivoted, tangential-tracking tonearms and compact, precision turntables, bought EMT's cartridge-manufacturing business and moved the assets to its Turbenthal, Switzerland, factory (footnote 3). In addition to manufacturing and servicing EMT cartridges, HiFiction recently introduced a new line of cartridges featuring a unique, patented, "monobloc" ceramic transducer element consisting of a one-piece, high-strength ceramic cantilever and a square coil body, eliminating the joint almost always found in cartridges using aluminum, boron, sapphire, or diamond cantilevers. The stylus is an "X-diamond" MicroRidge type that fits precisely into a hole in the cantilever, where it's affixed with "tiny quantities of a technical adhesive."

You can read more about this unique design on the Analog Planet website. You'll see animation demonstrating HiFiction's (convincing) claims for the "direct shot" technology as well as a microscope photo of the coil windings adapted for the ceramic core.

Sufficient output from a nonferrous core requires a strong magnet circuit. HiFiction uses a Neodymium-Armco magnet in a design that's said to reduce eddy current loss to a minimum. The magnet is built into an aluminum holder designed to ensure direct mechanical energy flow.

The ST's layered body is made from titanium, aluminum, and wood—the wood is the arm/cartridge interface—while its armature is wound with silver wire. The ST weighs 16.6gm, which, while heavy, is in the same ballpark as the weight of other exotic MC cartridges. Output is claimed to be 0.29mV, generous for a nonferrous armature. Achieving higher output requires more coil turns, so the internal impedance is relatively high for a low-output MC, at 20 ohms. HiFiction recommends loading the cartridge at 400–800 ohms and setting the tracking force between 1.9gm and 2.1gm. Channel separation is rated at 35dB (L–R, R–L) or more, with 0.1dB channel balance. Claimed tracking ability is 80µm; the frequency at which this measurement was made isn't specified.

While the wooden-box presentation is striking, removing the X-quisite from said box is tricky: The cartridge is screwed onto the inside of the box; to remove it, you must unscrew it from the back of the box while holding open the heavy lid, which will close on your hand as you grasp the cartridge's stylus guard so that the precious cargo doesn't fall out when the screws come loose. It's an acquired skill, made all the more anxiety-inducing by a less-than-secure stylus-guard fit.

Another reason for anxiety is that the middle-line ST version costs $13,160. The more costly "Extreme Exotics" edition, featuring among other things coils of 24k gold, was originally intended only for a Hong Kong distributor, but recently I was told it might be available elsewhere for you even bigger spenders. The gold version costs $14,510.

Forget about using the X-quisite in an SAT arm. It won't work (footnote 4). The cartridge is too long and squat for the SAT's headshell (even though, at 22.5mm long, it's within the IEC-DIN standard's 25mm maximum length). With a suitable spacer, it probably could be made to fit, but I decided to mount it on the Kuzma 4Point, where clearance wouldn't be a problem.

When I went to set SRA with my digital microscope, I discovered the stylus was MIA. I don't recall having bumped or bruised it, but it's possible it happened as I executed the tricky initial removal from the box.

How, after an evening of stupefying listening, I destroyed a second sample of this $13,000 cartridge is too painful to report. As every other cartridge supplier will attest, in 30 years of reviewing analog audio, these two X-quisites are the only review samples I've ever broken. X-quisite designer Micha Huber, thank you for your understanding.

As they say (whoever "they" are), the third time's the charm. Instead of installing it on the Kuzma, I put the third X-quisite on the tonearm of a turntable-tonearm combo I have in for review. Said turntable and tonearm are familiar to me thanks to months of experience using familiar cartridges, the Lyra Atlas Lambda SL and Ortofon Anna D, so it's a suitable platform for evaluating the X-quisite.

As with the previous sample, I found that because of the MicroRidge stylus's angular insertion into the cantilever, achieving the specified 92 degree SRA required raising the tonearm's tail to well beyond parallel to the record surface. Otherwise, the sample mostly met the published specs that I could measure. Oscilloscope-measured channel balance was within a dB, while L–R/R–L separation was an excellent 30dB. (The oscilloscope method usually produces numbers somewhat lower than actual, a point proven to me by Soundsmith's Peter Ledermann, but for setup purposes, the oscilloscope method suffices.) Tracking at the minimum recommended VTF—1.9gm—the 80µm band of Ortofon's test record (which tests tracking at 315Hz) produced a very slight buzz. It sailed through the same track at 2.1gm; the cartridge meets its trackability standard.

Using the Hi-Fi News test record, horizontal and vertical resonant frequencies produced ideal results (11Hz lateral, 9Hz vertical) but also some unusual—perhaps superior—cartridge behavior. Most cartridges begin to wiggle as they approach the resonant frequency, then move a lot more at the resonant frequency. Not the X-quisite: At 12Hz, it was calm—no movement at all. At 11Hz, the resonance so excited the cartridge that it almost jumped the groove. At 10Hz, it was quiet again. It was the same for the vertical resonance. These resonances appear to have a higher than usual "Q." Perhaps in his manufacturer's comment, Mr. Huber will explain why.

Ypsilon's Demetric Baklavas advised against using a cartridge with an internal impedance higher than 10–12 ohms with that company's MC16L step-up transformer, yet the 20 ohm X-quisite loved this transformer, producing some of the finest sound I've heard from the MC16L/VPS100 MM combo. This, despite HiFiction's recommended load of 400–800 ohms and the MC16L's 200 ohm load (when terminated at 47k ohms into the VPS100's input). "Loaded down" the sound was not.

Conversely, you might expect the X-quisite, with its relatively high 20 ohm internal impedance, to work poorly with a current-sensing phono preamplifier like the CH Precision P1, which, like other current-sensing phono preamps, prefers low internal impedance cartridges, in the single ohms or lower. But that combo was just as satisfying, though different. Sometimes you just have to listen. (Hear me, Audiophiles - North America?)

HiFiction's claims for its monobloc-ceramic technology—"absolutely pure transmission of the musical signal from the diamond tip to the coil body (and thus) supreme detail resolution...and extremely natural sound"—proved to be more than advertising or promotional hyperbole; it is easily audible fact. The X-quisite was the fastest, most direct and flat-out exciting-sounding cartridge I've heard, with among the most natural, open, silky-smooth upper octaves. Its sound was free of artificial ingredients—no hyperdefined edges or peaky, tipped-up top end to produce fake excitement; no resonant tricks to create "sensuous warmth" not found in actual music. Indeed, I concluded after months of listening that the X-quisite's excitement was not caused by any transient artifact or timbral coloration, since those eventually become annoying. Nothing about the X-quisite's sonic performance produced annoyance, ever. Everything about it produced sonic pleasure and musical excitement and discovery—even on very familiar albums.

This cartridge didn't just let me know where the microphones were placed; often, in some recordings, it announced their location, so well-organized was the stage, so well-focused and stable were the images. I've experienced that in few other cartridges.

Reproduced from Analog Corner #307: HiFiction X-Quisite ST, AC Power, PS Audio.