I recently reviewed Clearaudio’s Goldfinger Statement flagship cartridge, a device constructed from just the kind of exotic materials you’d expect and with a price tag to match. Flashy, bordering on the gaudy, it is Clearaudio’s finest cartridge to date and by some distance, making it a serious contender, albeit in a competition that doesn’t actually signify. Analogue transducers are amongst the most distinctive and personal of equipment choices, be they cartridges or loudspeakers, making the notion of the “world’s best” somewhat ridiculous; one man’s meat and all that… But therein lies the rub. The Goldfinger Statement might not be the “world’s best” – just as no other cartridge is – but it might easily be your own, personal world’s best – and that’s when the price-tag hits home. Few of us can afford to flirt with five-figures when it comes to choosing a needle.
So it’s a good thing that Clearaudio manufacture a complete range of cartridges, with 11 models spread in price below the Goldfinger Statement. The question is, how far up that range do you need to go to get enough of the flagship’s performance to satisfy the craving, while not having to part with flagship scale funds? Enter the Da Vinci V2, a relative steal at less than half the price of the Goldfinger. Housed in a bright red, aluminium body with the same sea anemone shaped, 12-fingered top-plate as its big brother, it sits two models below the flagship, but shares many of the same features. That means it employs the same boron cantilever and Micro HD stylus profile, the same balanced generator topology with its ring of magnets and gold coil wire, the same healthy output and moderate compliance. What it gives away to the flagship is the solid gold body, the use of eight magnets instead of 12, together with slightly heavier coil wire. It also gives away 10g of deadweight, making it a whole lot more manageable at 7.0g – which combined with its 15cu compliance make it broadly compatible with most modern tonearms.
But the proof of the pudding is in the listening. I mounted the Da Vinci V2 in an identical JMW 12.7 arm-top to my Goldfinger Statement, allowing simple swaps between the two. Clearly it needed a far lighter counterweight, but it benefitted from exactly the same extreme precision in alignment that the flagship demands. Overhang was unusually critical, the long, protruding cantilever, placing the stylus so far forward of the cartridge body that I ended up having to lengthen the slots of the JMW headshell in order to get the Da Vinci V2 far enough back to achieve the correct setting. Having decided to take a file to the tonearm slots, I went the whole hog and set the cartridge up on the Smartractor UniDIN curve, as used for the Goldfinger. This requires placing the cartridge slightly further back still, but even using the Baerwald curve would have been problematic, so it’s worth just checking tonearm compatibility here. Why was this a problem with the Da Vinci V2 and not the Goldfinger, when in most dimensional respects the two cartridges are identical? My Goldfinger has a noticeably shorter cantilever than the Da Vinci V2, perhaps reflecting differences in mechanical design (the mass?) perhaps sample to sample variation, probably a little of both. It’s easy to forget that cartridges are genuinely hand-built and hand-tuned…
Once I had achieved correct overhang, tracking force and azimuth were also found to be super-critical. Employing the SoundSmith Counter Intuitive device on the JMW counterweight allowed very small, precise and repeatable adjustments to be made, a real boon when it came to getting every last bit of performance out of the cartridge – and knowing that I’d done so. The difference in musical terms between close and just so was huge – the chasm between interesting and truly arresting – so it’s worth taking the trouble to get this right, at least if you actually want to hear the chunk of money that owning a Da Vinci V2 will cost you.
How does the bright red cartridge stack up against its bigger, heavier and bling-er brother? Side by side the two cartridges are definitely cut from the same cloth. They both have the same sense of bounce, life and energy, they both have the same vibrant colours and they both propel the musical performance with the same sense of forward momentum. If you want studied, almost ethereal delicacy, the Clearaudios can do it – but only if that’s the nature of the music and the recording. There’s no thinness or etched separation, no heightened detail or transparency – just good, old-fashioned, solid musical energy. In fact, the Da Vinci V2 stands up to the Goldfinger surprisingly well – well enough to reassure potential owners. At the same time, the flagship cartridge does deliver more: more dynamic range, more energy, more impact and a more focused, concentrated sound. It has (even) more sense of purpose and a greater sense of musical flow. But that’s why it’s twice the price. Does the Da Vinci V2 deliver enough of the Goldfinger experience to satisfy? Absolutely. Is the Goldfinger clearly better? Yes. But what is important is that the Goldfinger gives you more of the same. In many respects, the similarities are more important than the differences, marking the Da Vinci V2 out as a beautifully balanced and carefully judged rung on the Clearaudio ladder.
But there’s another way to look at this. Rather looking up, why not look down? What does the Da Vinci V2 deliver over and above lesser cartridges? That’s where things get really interesting. Let’s take Lyra’s one-time entry-level Dorian as a benchmark. Playing the Leonard Cohen album, Live In Fredericton (Columbia 88691 – 96115 7) the Dorian delivers exactly what I’ve come to expect over the years: good separation (spatially and tonally), quick, unconstrained dynamics and a natural sense of communication – it’s all there, you can dig into it as far as you like. But swapping to the Clearaudio moves you to a whole different place; now, rather than all the elements arranged to create a whole, there is only the whole. Suddenly the stage, the acoustic, the event is a single coherent entity. Wrapping the performance into a single space doesn’t just increase the sense of presence, enhance the live-ness of the show, it binds all the musical strands together too. The bass, indistinct and fading out of the lower edge of the Dorian’s delivery is now clean, tactile, subtle and tuneful, with clearly defined pitch and spacing. The cymbals, separate and borderline irritating before are now back where they should be, integrated with both the drum-kit and the music. But the biggest single difference is the newfound natural expression in Cohen’s vocals. On the Dorian the gravelly voice is distinctive and perfectly recognizable – but on the Da Vinci V2 it just comes alive, with layers of subtlety and vocal nuance, tiny inflections and details that make it almost real. The Dorian let’s you hear that this is a good record; the Da Vinci V2 makes it an experience. That’s when you realize that this is much more than just a chip off the old block – it’s a really rather special cartridge in its own right.
Step up to larger-scale works and the differences become even more apparent. The Clearaudio simply resolves more information and presents it more meaningfully. It sounds more like the original event, making it far easier for you to enjoy. Because it’s so adept at delivering musical energy, it thrives on dynamic demands, whether they come in the insistent shape of the rock solid drumming behind early Elvis Costello, or the more measured edifice of a Shostakovich symphonic crescendo. More scale, more life, more nearly there; that’s just what a big cartridge should deliver and the Clearaudio Da Vinci V2 definitely qualifies.
Which brings me right back to where I started. There are few audio decisions that are more personal than cartridge choice. There are those that seek even-handedness or resolution above all else. There are those who just want speed. There are those for whom warmth and colour are everything. The Da Vinci V2 is sufficiently near the top of the cartridge tree to give you a well-balanced slice of all those attributes. But it also has its own character. It’s big and bold and wants to get on with things. It delivers real energy but succeeds in harnessing it to the shape and structure of the music, staying just the right side of excitable. But what makes it really special is the way it lets music and musicians breathe, placing you closer to the performance. Just like the Goldfinger, it emphasizes what’s on the record rather than the record itself – or the system playing it. As I said, the similarities between these two cartridges are more important than the differences, but the Da Vinci V2 is way, way more than just a Goldfinger-lite. It might be pricey, but its musical performance more than justifies that price, underlining just why people continue to buy expensive cartridges. A really good record player still defines the audio state-of-the-art; if that’s your aim then the Clearaudio Da Vinci V2 won’t disappoint.
Type: Low-output moving-coil cartridge
Stylus Profile: Micro HD
Cantilever: Boron rod
Cartridge Mass: 7.0g
Compliance: 15cu (horizontal and vertical)
Output: 0.6mv at 5cm/s
Recommended Tracking Force: 2.8g
Recommended Loading: 300 Ohms
Manufacturer: Clearaudio Electronic GmbH
UK Distributor: Sound Fowndations
UK Distributor: +44(0)1276 501392