Cambridge Audio Alva Moving Coil Cartridge Review
Alva MC Cartridge
AUD $899 RRP
Many vinylistas start at the bottom of the record playing ladder and gradually climb up rung-by-rung, beginning with a decent budget turntable and slowly upgrading. That first cheap starter cartridge lasts for a year or two, and then they want something better. It's at this point that they face the classic, time-honoured dilemma – should they go for a better moving magnet design, or leap across the great phonographic divide and invest in a moving coil?
It's a tricky one because MMs keep things simple but almost always sound worse than MCs – for reasons I shall explain later. On the other hand, MCs introduce a new world of pain because they need special high gain phono stages. These days, most integrated amps come fitted with MM inputs, but don't do MC – so you have to buy a separate, offboard device at extra cost. But what if you could get the performance of an MC from something that still works with a standard MM phono input? Enter the Cambridge Audio Alva, a high output moving coil that sets out to offer the best of both worlds.
Moving magnet cartridges create sound from tiny but strong magnets fixed to the cantilever, at the opposite end to the stylus. So when the needle moves in the groove, so does the magnet – within a fixed coil made of fine wire which duly produces an electrical signal. This signal is very low voltage, typically around 4 to 5mV. The downside of this arrangement is that the magnet is heavier than is ideal. Suspension systems – be they on cars, motorcycles or cartridges – perform best with a low unsprung mass working with a (relatively) high sprung mass. In other words, the stylus/cantilever assembly needs to be as light as possible relative to the cartridge body. That's why MMs can't track the minute undulations of the groove as well as MCs, which instead use coils fixed to the cantilever, working around a fixed magnet.
Because a coil is lighter than a magnet, it traces the record groove better, giving a superior sound. Coils used in MC cartridges have fewer turns than those used in MMs to keep weight down and display lower inductance and impedance, which gives a wider bandwidth and better low-level detail. All well and good, but there's a big downside – at around 0.5mV, the output is typically one-tenth that of an MM. That's why you need an additional step-up gain stage, otherwise known as a moving coil phono input. A high output MC such as the Alva works like any traditional moving coil design but has heavier, higher output coils – it's effectively an engineering compromise that attempts to give the best of both worlds.
The reason that there aren't many high output MCs around is that as they're so hard to make. Dynavector's DV10X6 is the probably the most famous cartridge of this type, being the latest in a long line of high output MCs that have sold well since the nineteen seventies. This new Cambridge Audio is cheaper and a brand new design that brings a good deal of modern thinking. Effectively a special product released to celebrate the company's fiftieth anniversary, it's an interesting proposition…
Not only is the Alva a novel product, but it's also done in a particularly interesting way. It was designed and engineered in the UK, with some of the development work done by my former – and sadly now deceased – colleague at Hi-Fi World, Dominic Baker, who had a senior design role at Cambridge Audio until recently. The manufacturing is entrusted to a Japanese specialist moving coil cartridge maker that shall remain nameless.
Like many self-respecting modern moving coils, it's a skeletal design with its cantilever exposed. This has two benefits; first, it cuts down the cartridge's overall weight, and second, it takes away the resonance trap that is the cartridge body. The downside is that it makes it easy to damage whilst setting up. However, this is ameliorated by the excellent stylus/body guard that comes supplied, so you don't have to destroy the naked cantilever assembly if you don't want to! The upper body is a rigid light aluminium affair, allowing it to be clamped into a tonearm headshell very tightly. It comes supplied with high-quality mounting hardware, making set-up easy.
That body is a complex and expensive thing to manufacture then, compared to the cheap plastic affairs than many moving magnet price rivals come with. So it's no surprise that at this price you get the basic complement of an aluminium cantilever and elliptical stylus; no fancy boron cantilevers or fine line stylus profiles here. Let's not forget that many rivals have a similar budget cantilever and stylus package, and yet are simpler moving magnet types with poor quality plastic or similar bodies…
The result is a relatively low mass (7g) cartridge with a quoted trackability figure of 70um at its recommended 2g tracking force. Output is claimed to be 2mV@1kHz, which is very high for a moving coil but rather low for a moving magnet; it will still, however, work with move MM phono stages and/or inputs. The recommended load is a standard 47k ohms. Cambridge Audio claims a stellar frequency response figure of 30Hz to 20kHz (+/- 1dB); that's a linearity that you'll not see from any moving magnet I've come across. Stereo separation is put at a respectable 25dB @ 1kHz. I installed my review sample into a Michell GyroDec/TecnoArm turntable/tonearm combination.
The Alva is a very fine sounding affordable modern moving coil cartridge. That's not wholly surprising considering its provenance, but you don't really expect this sort of performance at this price – close your eyes and you'll hear something that gets closer to moving coils at twice the cost, in some respects. It's grippy, punchy, fast and engaging – making it loads of fun to listen to.
It's still no miracle worker though – the Alva's aluminium cantilever gives it a distinctive patina; it's slightly well lit in the upper mid and a bit dry tonally. That elliptical stylus is a stable tracker but doesn't excavate as deep into the groove as some rivals with more exotic profiles. This isn't all bad because it means this cartridge is a little more robust than some others around; you can play a wider range of records, some of which are in 'sub-optimal' condition. In other words, it ably fulfils the role that many typical moving magnet cartridges find themselves playing.
The most obvious facet of the Alva's sound is its directness and immediacy. It is most definitely not of the old classic Supex-style moving coil mould that was soft, woolly and warm. Quite the opposite; I cued up Beatmasters' Rok Da House and was instantly taken with its power and grip. This is a punchy, thumping classic house track and the Alva made the most of it; it went for the bass sequencer like a Rottweiler goes for a rag doll, wrestling it all around. The transient attack of those bass notes was mighty, and not only that but it followed the way that the bassline modulated up and down with relish. It's sinewy and grippy down below, that's for sure.
This tight, taut, controlled sound extended up to the midband too. The Alva timed really nicely and threw out plenty of detail, but the most enjoyable aspect to it was – again – the pace and energy of the music. I loved the way it carried the vocalist's phrasing, which really pushed the song along, and the interplay between the hi-hat cymbal sounds and the rim shots. Although this cartridge has an etched and precise sound, it is never analytical. This was no less apparent with disco music from a decade or so earlier – Change's A Lover's Holiday was lovely to hear, sounding wonderfully alive. By comparison, most similarly priced moving magnet cartridges make a meal of this track, losing its basic rhythmic thrust and airbrushing out a lot of detail.
Feed this cartridge some classical music, and you're instantly impressed by its sound staging ability. My favourite Deutsche Grammophon pressing of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony was a joy to behold, with an expansive and atmospheric recorded acoustic into which the listener could easily peer. Instruments were well separated within it and surprisingly accurately placed for a cartridge of this price. The result was an orderly, direct and tactile sound that again majored on the rhythmic flow of the music. It did dynamics well too, its handling of the musicians' subtle accenting making for a performance that was vibrant and alive. On crescendos, the Alva tracked securely and didn't harden up – it never failed to sound controlled and committed. Seriously impressive for a product of this price.
Cambridge Audio's new Alva isn't the world's best moving coil cartridge but is splendid value for money all the same. It sits a price point that's largely populated by moving magnet designs, yet shows them a clean pair of heels in so many ways. It is more engaging and less opaque sounding than all of its opposition, I think. In other words, you get a taste of analogue esoterica for a relatively affordable price. If you're looking for moving coil thrills in a user-friendly moving magnet package, then hear this if you can.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.