vTrace Bakeoff – Part II

The rubber meets the road

Cartridges, like cars, have suspensions that dramatically affect performance.  Like car tires, cartridge styli need to maintain tight surface contact to deliver the best performance – even when the surface is uneven.

In the case of cars, the surface (road) varies with potholes, speed bumps and road dips. It’s the same with cylinders: there are media eccentricities, surface bumps, axial distortion, and more.  Car suspensions are tuned to absorb road surface variations.  But, conventional LP cartridges are not engineered for cylinder issues.

vTrace series cartridges have suspensions tuned for their specific cylinder format.  The following sound clips demonstrate.

We used a typical out-of-round celluloid record (Edison 28151), transferred dry (no filters or EQ).  The only adjustment is overall gain to facilitate comparison.

  • First we played the cylinder with a Shure M44 cartridge at 4.00 grams – the minimum force required to track it. The thumps you hear are the cartridge hopping over the out-of-round surface.  Its suspension can’t absorb the eccentricity so it gets transduced into a low-frequency sound.  In fact, the stylus actually leaves the groove for a fractional second every time it hits this spot.


  • Now listen to the same segment with vTrace, tracking at 2.15 grams. The audio is a bit “watery” as the eccentricity affects pitch.  But the improved tracking of our custom suspension is obvious.


  • Now compare the sonic quality of this clip with the Shure. Notice how the contralto’s voice and the instruments sound natural with vTrace and the Shure cartridge clip sounds grainy.

Bottom line: putting a different stylus on an LP cartridge to play cylinders is like putting high performance tires on a truck.  There are many differences between the two formats and vTrace is designed to address them.

vTrace Bakeoff – Part I

Hearing IS Believing

vTrace is the only cartridge specifically engineered for cylinder playback.  All cartridges used by others to play cylinders were designed to play LPs.

The question is: does it matter?  Does vTrace sound better?

This video/spectrograph answers these questions.  It’s a short clip from a 1910 4M wax cylinder (Ed 17077) played first with a conventional LP cartridge (Shure M44).  Then the same clip is played by vTrace.  Both are dry, unfiltered, unequalized transfers.  The only adjustment is overall gain to facilitate comparison.  The spectrograph uses orange to show sonic energy across the frequency spectrum.  The louder the sound, the brighter the orange at its frequency(ies).


To evaluate this clip, you need to use good speakers or headphones.  Careful listening will reveal important differences:

  • Compare the horn passages at :07 and :41. The Shure cartridge adds audible distortion: they sound grainy and the trumpet peaks are clipped. The vTrace clip has better instrument definition.  The horns sound like horns; the reeds sound like reeds.   You can see on the spectrograph that the audio is less distorted.
  • Compare the portion of the spectrograph to the left of both these passages. Notice that the image at :07 is more orange than the one at :41.  This is noise added by the imperfect extraction (L-R) of the cartridge.  vTrace doesn’t extract; it plays the groove directly.  (For techies, the overall noise improvement is about 3db.)
  • Look at the bottom of the spectrograph (under 150 Hz) of each clip. The two orange bars are the low frequency hum of the recording machine motor.  The space between the bars looks like groove noise and, clearly, vTrace is less noisy.  The difference is not groove noise.  It’s the noise generated by the cartridge –  again, the product of imperfect extraction and mismatches between cartridge and record.

No one is saying that cylinders are a full fidelity medium but sonically accurate transfer is always the goal regardless of the source.


Over the decades, I’ve been fascinated by the various facets of early sound recording that intrigue and attract us today.  Some collect phonographs while others create record archives.  Some collect needle tins while others – like me – focus on playback technology.  But Christer Hamp is in a category all by himself.

His interest in cylinder playback began decades ago while working in the huge record archive at the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation.  At the time, he was exposed to the many formats of discs and cylinders that have been developed for recording.  For cylinder transfers, the archive was using the player produced by sound engineer, Art Shifrin, in the 1980’s.  The experience inspired him to try his hand at building a player himself.

In 1998, Christer decided to write up his building experience and publish it on the Internet.  Then, he started researching other people’s efforts to build players and published them as well.  20 years later, his website is unique.  The Phonograph Makers’ Pages is the only resource with comprehensive information on the dozens of efforts to play cylinders using modern equipment.  Yet, despite Christer’s important contribution to advancing cylinder playback technology, he doesn’t own any cylinders or phonographs himself.  In fact, Christer is best described as a collector of inventors – specifically, those who have focused on unlocking the sonic secrets of this esoteric recording format.

Christer and I started corresponding when CPS1 went into production 2 years ago.  Here are his notes on my technology, including the new vTrace series:




Brenda Nelson-Strauss at Indiana University just gave Charles A. Asbury – 4 Banjo Songs an excellent review that acknowledges CPS1’s contribution to its sonic quality.  The review appears in “Black Grooves,” a music review site on the Archives of African American Music & Culture (AAAMC) website.  AAAMC is the number one hit on Google searches for “African American music” and a major destination for scholars and students of black music.