LP12MF Listening Test: Linn Troika MC Cartridge

In the latest edition of the LP12 Modification Frenzy, I listen to the effects of swapping my Dynavector XX-2 MC cartridge for a retipped Linn Troika. You can check out my listening methodology here. Full listening impressions are below. Digestible, numerical summaries of all my listening tests are here.

tl;dr

Isn’t it nice when something that looks cool also sounds really good?

Honestly, I’d probably want one of these even if it sounded horrible. The three bolts, the flying leads, the red color, the gorgeous profile and stunning head-on looks. And the name, too. How can a fan of 19th century Russian literature like me resist a “troika”? While writing this post, it occurred to me that Linn called the Troika the troika because it has three bolts and a troika is pulled by three horses. Linn names: gotta love ’em.

Anyway, I love the Troika for many superficial reasons. But in this case, I’ve been right to follow my shallowness. It looks exactly how I like, and it sounds exactly how I like, too. It has absolutely all the bass of the XX-2, but also lots of added snap and top-end detail. So it’s an extremely fun, rock-n-roll cartridge, with tons of slam, but also has amazing detail, sound staging, and sharpness when called for. In my listening notes last time, I noted that “Stockholm Syndrome” could maybe use just a bit more sparkle, and wondered if the Troika would deliver what the laid-back, super-smooth XX-2 could not. Well, lucky me, it did.

The Mober word was “sizzle.” The Troika word is “snap.”

According to my scoring system, the Troika made a 4.2% improvement: not the biggest single improvement, but still a great one — especially at this stage, and especially given that the (retipped, then unused) Troika cost me about 70% of what the (slightly used) XX-2 did.

At times, I did wonder if maybe there was just a touch too much bass in the presentation, and wondered if that was coming from the Ekos. (God knows it wasn’t the VTA setup; I worked on that literally for days.) So my wish for the Javelin is that it delivers all the above with maybe just a little more control on the bass and maybe just a little bit more sparkle.

Background

I got this cartridge from the same person from whom I bought my Tiger Paw Khan, Ekos 2, and XX-2. It was newly retipped by Expert Stylus Company — a very well-regarded English firm — with a paratrace tip, which I believe is some variety of the contact line stylus that the XX-2 also uses. It had zero hours on it when I got it. Besides the Adikt, which I very hesitantly bought new, this was the first diamond tip I’d ever had the honour of introducing to a groove for the first time. But it didn’t need to be broken in, since the cartridge had already been broken in way back in the 90s, and retipping doesn’t reset that.

Speaking of the 90s: I did not buy this out of nostalgia. I had never even heard of this cartridge until I was killing time waiting for my partner to decide on a particular shade of oil paint at a local art store one day, browsing pinkfishmedia on my phone, where I came across a full-throated recommendation from YNWaN, whose AudioFlat forum is my absolute favourite hifi discussion board on the planet. I looked up a photo. This led to some research, where I learned that the guts were made in Japan by Supex/Koetsu, and the gorgeous body machined in-house by Linn. Since that day, I’d been on the hunt…

It’s a perfect cartridge for someone like me who wanted to try out an Ekos and an Aro, too: both cartridges have the three-bolt mounting system and both were indeed specifically designed with the Troika in mind. While the Tiger Paw Javelin was designed around the Troika, it’s based on the Aro, which was — and it has the three-point mounting system.

Notes on casual listening

I listened to a lot of records during the two-week period I had the Troika in place. But I spent the first week actively fiddling with VTA, since I found the Troika was very sensitive to VTA, and wanted to ride with the arm tube well off parallel. (I finally settled on the pivot end 3.8mm higher than the cartridge end). One I stopped fiddling, I just settled in and enjoyed.

I hadn’t been listening to much classical, so I decided to be a good Canadian and throw on a classic Glenn Gould performance: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein conducting, which I read about in Haruki Murakami’s book on classical music. I wrote: “Wowee, nicely recorded orchestral music sounds totally stunning. Not a fair comparison, since I haven’t listened to this disc since before the LP12MF began. But amazing, especially on bowed cellos and basses. Texture and space. My whole head is vibrating in sympathy. Cool feeling. (I know the HE-1000v2s were designed for orchestral music…)”

I tried to listen to my Japanese pressing of Kind of Blue while doing some work, and found it was impossible to have it as background: it wanted my full attention. I wondered if it was a little shrill… But listening to Can’s Future Days, I found myself in a world of overwhelming bass, so I figured everything was okay, and the shrillness was just in the recording.

My 1972 Impulse Japan pressing of Blues and the Abstract Truth absolutely blew my mind with its pin-point clarity. It was a little bright and maybe just a touch trying on the old ear drums at high volume, but I was sure that was just the recording. I wrote, “Incredible detail. Definitely won’t just meld into the background, that’s for sure.”

Test tracks

1. The Beach Boys, “I Know There’s an Answer,” Pet Sounds (1966)

Full digital. After a day of listening to two incredible-sounding LPs (Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1 and Stop Making Sense) this sounds decidedly sub-par. Especially those dreadfully sloppy shakers. Sure, the bass harmonica part sounds pretty good, but I am just waiting to hear how much better it will be on vinyl. Listening to this, it finally strikes me that this song is perhaps about the LP12MF. “I know there’s an answer, but I have to find it by myself.” It’s a long, lonely road, this LP12MF of mine…

Full vinyl. Way more body on the bass and the shakers here. And the vocals, wow, soaring. The force of the bass is the main thing I’m feeling and enjoying here — a bit surprisingly, since I though bass was where the XX-2 excelled. Indeed, that forceful bass is matched by really nice extended treble (on vocals and shakers), so it does feel like a very full package. Oooh, the timpani are terrific. Beautifully wide and detailed soundstage, too. I could reach out and touch that banjo during the bass harmonica solo. Amazing. I am just loving this, including the reed instruments near the end, which are gorgeous, with amazing soundstaging effects in this part.

Slight delay. Oh man. Yeah, this contrast is just unbelievable. Last time it was 40%, now it’s at least that. It’s really hard to listen to digital. I think we’re beyond the point where this is a useful comparison. Vinyl is in a completely different league here. I do have the sense that it’s better than last time, but how much? Focus, width, soundstage, force of bass, detail on treble: unbelievably better on vinyl. Shall we say 45%? Bored by the prospect of a S-2-s and having to listen to digital any more, I continue on to the next track on vinyl, which is ASTOUNDING. Pretty sure my system has never been this good. Very sure.

S-2-s. Unlistenable on digital in comparison to this. Narrow, hissy, nasty, distant. Petty sure this is better than last time.

Verdict: vinyl is 45% better (5% improvement)

2. Charles Mingus, “Track B — Duet Solo Dancers,” The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)

Full digital. God, this sounds as bad as The Beach Boys. Gross, nasty, thin, with no coherence in the soundstage. Clearly I’ve become much more demanding as a listener, and this isn’t cutting it. Also, Tidal is loading badly in Roon, with occasional cutouts, reminding me of the many other disadvantages of digital…

Full vinyl. Oh yeah. Smooth, wide, inviting. Beautifully soft in the soft moments, and then slamming like crazy when things get frantic. The textures are stunning. In a completely different league. Audio memory, who knows, but I think the textures are better with the Troika and that there’s a little bit more high-end definition (without being harsh). Again, this is totally drawing me in.

Slight delay. Not quite as big a difference as with The Beach Boys, but very close. This is more than a 30% difference now. Force, space, delicacy, texture, detail, all the important parts, massively to vinyl. Vinyl eats the digital’s cordy sax up, twists it around in its mouth, and spits it out. Painful to subject myself to the digital. Hey, there’s my 40% threshold: actually painful to force myself to switch back to digital. 

S-2-s. Digital lacks the space between instruments. The instruments are all there, and they’re not horrible-sounding, but there’s no resonance, no echo, nothing holding them together. Also, the timbre and tone is wrong, whereas it’s all totally correct and engaging and thrilling on vinyl. 

Verdict: vinyl is 40% better (10% improvement)

3. The Pentangle, “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme,” The Pentangle (1968)

Full digital. I’m going to go against my last notes and say that this doesn’t sound terrible. It’s a little better than the other two digital tracks I’ve just listened to. But the hollowness, the harshness — they’re there.

Full vinyl. I think the Troika is picking up a bit more surface noise than the XX-2. Acoustic guitar and bowed bass sound amazing. The vocals are a little flat compared to the Transatlantic pressing. Very full in the bass, tons of fine detail, really good sense of space. Acoustic guitar is magically springy in the breakdown — as it ought to be (and as it previously only was on Transatlantic pressings, for some reason).

Slight delay. Man, there’s a real shock about sound staging that comes when switching to digital, now. Something whole and continuous breaks into little pockets of sound. Weird, and bad. The digital transfer isn’t horrible, but it’s shrill and the soundstage is off. Decent detail and texture, but the tone of the instruments is not as convincing. 

S-2-s. For tones and detail, 25%. Not as big a difference as on other tracks, but vinyl still crushes digital on both.

Verdict: vinyl is 25% better (no improvement)

4. Mariah, “Shinzo No Tobira,” Utakata No Hibi (1983)

Full digital. Sounds good! I like the rattles, things generally sounds pretty nicely detailed and wide. Does it only sound good because I’ve listened to no vinyl today? Very possible. Always fun to do the “hey, digital sounds nice // OMG vinyl sounds AMAZING!” transition. Maybe that will happen now…

Full vinyl. Yeah, this is a lot better 🙂 The kick drum comes to life in the intro, the rattles come into sharper focus, everything slams much harder when the harder drums come in. Is there maybe a bit too much bass here? Vocals beautifully situated, floating lightly in a dangerous, spiky, lava-strewn soundscape. Ooh, yes, vocals sound beautiful in this presentation. It’s not the bass that stands out this time; it’s the “purity” of the vocals. Synths are nice and crunchy, and there are some sharp little percussive details on the leadout of that section that I’ve never noticed before. Is there maybe something just a bit tizzy about the electronic snare sound?

Slight delay. On the rattles, vinyl has depth and detail. Digital sounds fuzzy, overly bright, the opposite of rich. It’s true that the vinyl system is maybe a little too bass-heavy, still. (Probably less than with the XX-2.) Vocals are missing texture, missing the sense of precise location in space. And the usual complaint post-Mober: vocals just don’t sound as much like real human voices on digital. Just reread my notes, and clearly the difference is significantly greater this time. It’s 35% or so. The digital presentation is shameful in comparison — no one would miss this; it’s glaringly obvious, and the vinyl is just a huge pleasure to listen in comparison to the digital. Okay, the start of the next track sounds so good that I actually can’t resist listening…

S-2-s. Really huge edge on texture, clarity, slam. 35%.

Verdict: vinyl is 35% better (10% improvement)

5. Joy Division, “Atmosphere,” 12″ single (1980)

Full vinyl. Starting with vinyl this time! Incredible, head-shaking impact on the toms. But I’m used to those. What’s nice and new here is the clarity of the soundstage, especially the little pocket behind Ian’s voice where the bass is playing and the synth wash is hanging out. The synth icicle shower is amazing on this setup — so sharp and precise. I do think I could get a little more focus on Ian’s voice and on the toms — the slam is there, but the focus feels just a shade off.

Full digital. Pretty sad. It’s like it’s trying really hard, but the impact is just not there, nor are the tones. Not a good performance. 

Slight delay. Yes, the digital misses a lot of the impact of the tom, but the more important thing it misses is the tone of the hand drums and the space around them. Just doesn’t get the edges right on the synth shower. Looking back at my notes, I don’t think is noticeably better than last time, though. Solidly 35%?

S-2-s. The texture differences — mostly on the hand drum — come out really clearly on second-to-second back-and-forth flipping. Definitely 35%. No more though. I think the XX-2 is a very good tom cart. But the Troika is no worse!

Verdict: vinyl is 35% better (no improvement)

6. Low, “Just Make It Stop,” The Invisible Way (2013)

Full digital. Doesn’t sound bad at all. Good guitar tones, good space, nice vocals. A good recording and a nice transfer. It’s so weird reading back my last round’s notes and disagreeing with them — but the cymbals don’t sound horrible to me tonight at all. I mean, I’ll be happy to get more delicacy from them on vinyl — but very good here. 

Full vinyl. Ooh, lovely cymbal sounds on the track leading in… Very nice sense of space when “Just Make it Stops” begins — cavernous! Real spring and energy in the guitars — the tickle in the belly. Vocals are gorgeously focused and clear. 

Slight delay. A lot like Mariah in the sense that the vocals have better tone and are more in focus on vinyl. That’s the main difference. The next biggest on is that sense of “cavernous space,” created but the reverb, the palm mutes, and the cymbals — all of which are much more delicate and detailed on vinyl, creating a much bigger effect. Then there is the “spring” in the guitar and the piano that isn’t there on digital. I’d say 35% this round. 

S-2-s. Everything is clearer in direct second-to-second comparison: tone, space, detail, delicacy. 35%.

Verdict: vinyl is 35% better (5% improvement) 

7. Yo La Tengo, “Stockholm Syndrome,” I Can Feel the Heart Beating as One (1997)

Full digital. The bass guitar is kind of fun on this recording. Everything else is terrible: pixellated, distant, boring, uninvolving. Let’s go…

Full vinyl. The bass is actually a small part of the picture on vinyl. More exciting and inviting are the acoustic guitar and the kick drum. Lots better here. 

Slight delay. Yeah, this comparison is shocking. The biggest difference is the rendering of James’s voice here, which sounds a billion miles away on digital. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the background vocals in the chorus: definitely Georgia. On that alone, I’ll say this is the best I’ve heard this track. 45%? Not an exaggeration. 

S-2-s. Rereading my notes from last time, I think this is the even-better, slightly snappier version I was asking for. The Troika has made that difference. You feel the snap on the acoustic guitars, on the cymbals and snare, on the guitar in the solo, even on the attack on the bass guitar. Lucky me. (By the way, even listening hard for the background vocal, it isn’t easy to hear on digital.)

Verdict: vinyl is 45% better (5% improvement)

8. The Beatles, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” The White Album (1968)

Full digital. Unpleasant and harsh. Sure, the kick drum has force. But this is not fun to listen to. It hurts.

Full vinyl. The acoustic guitar is the main difference. All the force and slam, way more detail, much better presented, much more listenable. The clippety-clop is hyperreal and all the bass guitar and kick drums sounds are astounding. This is an unbelievable pressing and the Troika is killing with it!

Slight delay. I just don’t want to be listening to the digital here. Tones are off, detail is off, soundstage is off — it’s all just wrong. How is this a 24/96 version of a record that can sound amazing when pressed to vinyl? Pretty baffling. Meanwhile, over on vinyl, so much impact, such lifelike drums. Are things still maybe weighted just a wee bit too much to bass? Will that be different with the Javelin when I install it on Saturday? Will I want more bass back, miss the slam and dynamics?

S-2-s. See last round’s notes on Tin Man. He has not departed the building. I think we’re still at 40% — everything I wrote last round applies again now.

Verdict: vinyl is 40% better (no improvement)

9. Dungen, “Panda,” Ta Det Lugnt (2004)

Full digital. I don’t hear anything to get excited about here. Drums feel distant and flat, the cymbals sound hissy. More vinyl, please!

Full vinyl. Aaaaaah, by contrast, now everything is exciting. From the first moments, my brain just perks right up: Music is happening in the near vicinity! Pay attention! Highlights are the massive drums at the start, of course, the rock-solid presentation of a thick Strat through a Tube Screamer on the left, and the super-deep bass. The Troika is just as good at slam and bass as the XX-2, I think, but also much better at snap and high-end detail. 

Slight delay. Just no finesse, no edge detail, on digital. I’m sure this is the best I’ve heard this song sound on vinyl: the perfect mix of detail and slam. It’s totally exciting and very engaging but everything is very clearly painted. It’s the Dionysian/Apollinian synthesis that Nietzsche dreamed of!

S-2-s. The drums have many more “phases” on vinyl. The is not just a thud. There is a stick flying through air, a bang, a follow-through, a round, decaying tone. It’s like that with everything. The sound, everything around it, everything before and after it. A notch above the previous best, for sure. 40%. (Also notable, the following track, normally a huge step down in SQ, sounds better than usual here: vocals still flat and distant, but lots of drive on the bass and a nicely located, sharp guitar.)

Verdict: vinyl is 40% better (5% improvement) 

10. Julee Cruise, “Rocking Back Inside My Heart,” Floating Into the Night (1989)

Full digital. Once again, at the beginning of a listening session, on a day when I’ve not listened to any music (another long day of painting my fence in the sun), this sounds good, with a wide soundstage, nice deep bass guitar, and even nice palm mutes. It will be fun to hear how much better it sounds on vinyl, though. (I love this song!!)

Full vinyl. Just allowed myself to listen to that without making notes. Sounded great, though 🙂

Slight delay. Better in all the ways it’s been better in the post-Mober era. Clearer, better defined, with much better bass, and a much wider soundstage. The sax breakdown is tinny, dead, dull on digital. Seriously, no one should be hearing this song presented like this. 

S-2-s. As above. Clarity, attack, crispness, focus. In another league. I had this at 30% last time, and I think this has to be 35% this time.

Verdict: vinyl is 35% better (5% improvement)

11. Can, “Halleluwah,” Tago Mago (1971)

Full digital. Not good. Really harsh and tinny. Far too much treble, kick drums don’t have the natural slam I’ve gotten used to on vinyl. Bring it on…

Full vinyl. Yeah, comes in a little flat at the start (but already way better than digital, with nice roundness on the bass — definitely makes you want to turn it UP). I think the bass is coming through more clearly, more naturally than ever before. And when it starts to slam, it REALLY slams. This sounds terrific. 

Slight delay. Yeah, hmm, a lot more clarity on the bass and the hand drums on vinyl, right from the start. This has gotten better. The slam of the previous rounds, the excitement, with even better separation in the soundstage. Last time I said that the vinyl was not putting the digital to shame. It most certainly is this time. Any time a drum gets involved, especially a hand drum, the differences are staggering. 35% this time, I’d say.

S-2-s. Wow, so good on vinyl. Everything is so convincing, so real — such amazing textures. I was thinking we’d maybe hit a plateau with this piece of vinyl, but there was more in here. 

Verdict: vinyl is 35% better (5% improvement)

12. Bill Callahan, “Javelin Unlanding,” Dream River (2013)

Full vinyl. Vinyl first this time, to see if it actually sound good, not just good in comparison to the crappy digital transfer. Well, yes, it does. Ooh, really quite good. The hand drums are absolutely crystal clear in space. You can really hear that weird effect on Bill Callahan’s voice and on the plinky banjo thing in the background (phasing, maybe?) The electric guitar in the chorus is really nice and clear. I’m hearing new levels of detail on the electric guitar on the right, and hearing a new acoustic guitar (or something) on the left I’ve never heard before. Don’t want to stop listening — which is a new experience on this track, which normally sounds pretty nasty. 

Full digital. Totally different situation on digital. Flat, distant, and nasty. (What is Hobbes’s triple, “nasty, brutish, and short” — well this could be shorter and I wouldn’t complain.) Let’s go to the slight delay.

Slight delay. Man I love the belly-tickle sensation provoked by the chorus electric guitar on vinyl. Digital is shamefully flat. I think we are at the 40% plateau, the AM/FM difference. 

S-2-s. Okay, maybe not quite. But definitely at 35%, where we were last time. Ah, geez, it really is close to 40% — the fuzzy, flat presentation of the digital… But I’ll stick with 35% because I’m not totally sure.

Verdict: vinyl is 35% better (no improvement)

Next steps

As is often the case, I’ve already taken the next step before writing this post: I’ve installed the Tiger Paw Javelin tonearm. I’ll try it first with the Troika, then with the XX-2. Then I swap both for a look at an Aro with a Greenstreet chassis. Then it will be time to play around with bearings. Then that’ll be it…

2 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Shane Pleasancereply
May 26, 2020 at 12:54 am

Sondek, Ekos, Troika – no setup issues!

hifiafreply
May 26, 2020 at 3:16 pm
– In reply to: Shane Pleasance

Couldn’t work much better together, it’s true! Fiddling with my Tiger Paw Javelin in the last few days, I’ve definitely missed the total simplicity and user-friendliness of the Ekos/Troika combination…

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