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In audio there are plenty of chancers who can bang together an amp, speaker or bunch of cables that nominally work. But one has to be very motivated indeed to learn how to make cartridges. They are very small complex creatures and it takes a person free of cynicism and with great motivation to learn how to create one. With cartridges we often go wild about some if not most areas of presentation but after a while discover some initially unimportant carbuncle or sonic pimple that starts to prey on our minds. Before you know it we’ve stopped suspending disbelief and are off to chase something else. One thing I’ve found with VdHs is that no one area of presentation limits one’s involvement. In any piece of music the main leading thread is at the centre of attention and the rest is subject to it. The VdHs are great at making the musical structure a transparently legible thing. All the sounds, each part and relationship arrives and decays at the right time.

On Van den Huls.
Van Den Hul cartridges arrive in a wooden box with handwritten technical information including tracking force range, effective range of tone arm mass, output loading, optimal impedance and output level. They also include a special cipher code which contains all the details of the cartridge’s construction from cantilever length and material to windings. Even though VDH is a big company these days, the cartridges are all still hand-made by the master himself and as an extra treat he signs the box.

Across the range the Van den Hul cartridge house sound is very good but to get the best from any of them mandates care and respect as far as setup and arm compatibility are concerned. They are not temperamental but do need proper consideration. For example they are build to come on song after 100 hours of use. They are not designed to sound right straight away. Once the Frog Gold has settled down after its first 100 hours, the down force can be reduced to as low as 1.3 grams to very great effect. A very low bias force of between a third and half of a gram is all that’s required. All Van Den Hul cartridges use the famous proprietary VdH stylus profile and as a result of that shape sound their best at very low tracking force with consequently less wear on your records.

Another important consideration for those who listen to their records a lot is that even though the initial acquisition costs are broadly similar to much of the competition, VdHs are actually great value. This is because a cartridge has both a buying and retipping/refurbishment cost. If like me you listen to records for more than 1000 hours a year, you are looking at a retip every year and a rebuild every two. And it’s not just wear and tear. If you, your cleaner, your dear children or excited family pet completely ruin any of the VdH cartridges, in the UK you can have it rebuilt as new for £650. A retip can run as little as £250. With so many cartridge choices on the market having an 85% of retail rebuild/exchange fee, this makes a very compelling case for the VdH range.

All VdH models share some basic characteristics. When they are run in they like to have very little bias which is a good thing in itself. Bias is a function of the amount of drag between stylus and groove. The high compliance of these cartridges means they require less down force and consequently even less bias. It’s worth remembering that bias occurs because of the force produced by the friction of the cartridge against the groove walls. This pulls the cantilever and cartridge body down the axis of the tone arm head shell, not the axis of the arm tube. That’s why this force tries to pull the arm into the centre of the turntable, not to the outer rim as one would intuitively expect. With a linear arm the LP's groove pulls the stylus along the arm's axis so there is no need for an antiskating compensation force or bias. (With a pivoted arm the cartridge is misaligned relative to the groove walls at all but the two null points—this further complicates the requirements for the bias force as does dynamic variations in programme content—but lets not worry too much about that for now). Obviously pretty much all available arms outside linear trackers, the Talea and the intriguing new Schröder fudge things from a bias point of view using either a constant force or one that increases. Suffice to say the very low surface contact presented by the VdH fine line stylus profile minimises this problem.

Running in. Some reviewers have suggested that Van Den Huls sound different from example to example. Kevin Scott of Definitive Audio [left]—VdH's UK importer—doesn’t agree and observes the fact that all VdH designs are built to reach their optimum performance after 100 hours. If examples are listened to after this period the performance is remarkably consistent. Within the first 50 hours bandwidth is restricted and dynamic range constrained. My experience with a brand-new Frog Gold exactly mirrors this experience. When new it was conservative, too warm in the upper bass, lacking in fine detail and generally a bit ho-hum without emotional connection. After fifty hours it came into its own except perhaps for the upper bass which was still thickened and dull. At 100 hours this completely disappeared. The upper bass has now become one of its star qualities and there is a continuous stereophonic holographic panorama.

As time advanced I have lowered the down-force from 1.45 to a sniff over 1.3 grams and get a liquid nimble and agile upper bass and beautiful freedom to dynamic level changes. What was previously a reservation has become a strength. I am not surprised that Kevin Scott, if asked to set up a VdH for a customer, runs the cartridge in for 50 hours on music before making any subjective listening-based adjustments to down-force, VTA or bias.

The Van den Hul MC One S.
I was interested in getting an overview of where the Frog Gold sits in the Van den Hul catalogue so Kevin Scott kindly arranged to have a number of cartridges available in a single system similar to the one I have at home. This was made up of a Kuzma XL turntable, Kondo-wired SME V arm, Kondo SFZ step up, Kondo M77 preamp and Kondo Gakuoh push/pull power amps into Living Voice OBX-RW speakers. The wiring was all Kondo SPz silver. We started off with a 200-hour old Van den Hul MC Own Special. It was set absolutely parallel with a tracking force of 1.325 and a bias of 0.6 on the SME V's calibrated dial. The SFZs was put at its 40Ω setting showing the cartridge around 400Ω, which is close to ideal. Whilst this model is near the bottom of the range Kevin suggested it would give a good insight on the VdH house values.

First up was Duke Ellington/Louis Armstrong SR 52074. The moment the music started I burst our laughing. Sachmo was right there, his voice so rich and room-filling that it was present in both heart and mind. This is a great sounding album bursting with life and vitality but I had never heard it in quite this way before. The clarinet and trumpet riff of each other like long-lost friends who have just met up and embraced. The sheer aliveness of this 50-year old recording had me shaking my head. What is so amazing about this period? Who were these geniuses - and I mean those in the engineering booth? There’s something about the late fifties early sixties sound quality that’s hard to surpass. It may be that there is cleaner and more transparent sound out there but none that is more direct, engaging or emotionally connected.

Definitive Audio's smaller audition room where my demo took place

Any serious music lover would be totally content with this cartridge. All cartridges are different of course but what matters is overall balance. This one has a stand-out sense of freedom as though it hadn’t got the slightest reluctance. The bass appears with an absolute lack of overhang. Dynamics change with ease, to great extent and with proportion and time. Everything unfolds at the right rate from top to bottom. The body on piano notes offers a perfect relationship between the instrument’s percussive and stringed aspects. There’s an instantaneousness such that the sound never appears artificial or modulated. You get great depth of field which provides context and insight and helps music feel alive and almost visual.

Definitive Audio foyer | upstairs battery bank to take entire systems off the grid

This cartridge just doesn’t know the meaning of lazy or overblown. But it’s not lean or loose either. It’s lucid and supple like a great dancer who can seem loose if she wants to but has in her a core strength that allows her movements to articulate with great but invisible control and strength. It’s a sexy and smile-provoking experience.