Swordsmiths, samurai, and a little magic
You may be surprised to hear that moving-coil cartridges can trace their origins all the way back to 1946, when Ortofon developed a prototype. Since its commercial launch in 1948, the moving coil (MC) has become firmly established as the ne plus ultra for vinyl replay. The MC market is well served, with major manufacturers like Ortofon and Audio-Technica offering a wide variety of designs ranging in price from $200 to over $1000 (all prices in USD). Despite the scale of such firms and their impressive performance engineering capabilities, there’s another sector of the market that remains primarily the domain of smaller, niche operators.
For those who wouldn’t dream of purchasing an off-the-peg suit, whose daily runabout bears the hallmark of W.O. Bentley, and whose idea of a decent boat is one that comes equipped with sonar and a chef specializing in tournedos Rossini, there’s an even more rarefied stratum of MCs to satisfy their needs. The purveyors of such esoterica can be found in a small coterie of elite, mostly Japanese firms led by Koetsu, Kiseki, Sumiko, and Lyra. Their cartridges are manufactured by a handful of uniquely skilled craftspeople—ancient, no doubt—who have spent decades honing their craft, sitting at workbenches winding coils and mounting cantilevers in the land of the samurai. It is interesting to speculate why the Japanese remain preeminent in the field. Perhaps their dominance of high-end MC cartridge fabrication owes much to the long history of precision metallurgy and sword-making in that region. Masamune, for example, was making swords for samurai warriors and kings at around 1300 CE, long before Edison invented his phonograph. But the astonishing precision and delicacy required to hand-wind a moving-coil cartridge and craft its body from exotic gemstones, aerospace alloys, and hardwoods owes much to those ancient ways.
Lyra has established itself as one of the few truly elite cartridge manufacturers. Unsurprisingly, in light of the hand-built construction, price is a significant barrier to entry: the company’s cheapest model, the Delos, starts at $2000. The range eventually reaches the stratospheric heights of the Lyra Atlas Lambda SL at a not inconsiderable $13,000. Happily, the Lyra Kleos SL sits in the lower-middle of the range at $4000—a sizable chunk of change, unless you happen to own a social media platform or a couple of natural gas pipelines, but still a long way from the most expensive MC designs.
Lyra can trace its history back to 1983. The company was founded as Scan-Tech before adding the Lyra brand in 1991, and ultimately being renamed as Lyra in 2002. A number of models were introduced—including the Clavis, Parnassus, Lydian, and Argo—and it’s fair to say that all of them were well received by reviewers around the world. The firm is headed by Stig Bjorge, a Norwegian who for over 30 years has been the face of Lyra. The chief designer is American engineer Jonathan Carr, but all the cartridges are hand-built in Japan by the master craftsman Yoshinori Mishima and his assistant, Akiko Ishiyama, who has spent years refining her craft. The Kleos is the lowest-cost Lyra cartridge to feature the fully fledged Ogura-manufactured boron cantilever and coil system and Lyra’s original line-contact (3 × 70μm) stylus. This is similar to that employed on the top-of-the-line Lyra models and makes it something of a sweet spot in the range. The Kleos comes in two variants—the standard Kleos at $3695, and the ultralow-output Kleos SL under consideration here at $3995.
The Kleos SL is housed in a one-piece body machined from a solid billet of aircraft-grade 7075 aluminum, with pressure-inserted bronze rods to tension the body and make it less prone to resonances. The non-parallel profile of the cartridge body is likewise intended to reduce resonances, while the reduced-area contact patch on the tonearm’s headshell concentrates the clamping pressure of the mounting screws and creates a tighter bond between cartridge and headshell. The body is threaded to accept the supplied JIS standard M2.6 mounting screws directly, and on the rear are platinum-plated output pins. The generator is a square, chemically purified, high-purity iron former wound with single-layer, 6N high-purity copper coils, giving a self-impedance of 2.7 ohms. This differs from the standard Kleos, which has a similar, square iron former with dual-layer 6N high-purity copper coils, giving a 5.4-ohm self-impedance. The single-layer coil per channel in the SL means that the cartridge outputs around 0.25mV@5cm/sec, and thus demands an ultralow-noise phono preamplifier with high gain. The standard dual-coil Kleos outputs 0.5mV@5cm/sec, which should suit most high-quality MC phono stages. Fortunately, I had on hand two superb phono stages: the Trichord Dino Mk3 with Never Connected power supply, designed to provide battery-power levels of quietness with flexible gain and loading, and the PS Audio Stellar—a high-end design capable of accommodating just about any cartridge in the universe.
The cartridge is a medium-weight design, tipping the scales at 8.8gm, and has a narrow band of recommended tracking force of 1.7–1.8gm. It is thus suitable for most high-quality, medium-mass arms with adjustable antiskating and vertical tracking. Lyra claims excellent channel separation, in excess of 35dB at 1kHz. The Lyra-designed, long-footprint line-contact diamond stylus is slot mounted to the solid boron cantilever. A key feature of the Kleos SL is a new high-performance asymmetrical damping system, which is designed to make the signal coils precisely parallel to the front and rear magnets during play. This angle can of course be affected by tracking force, which is why Lyra is so emphatic about customers staying within the narrow tracking-force guide range. Most cartridges have their coils and magnets aligned with no tracking force applied, so by the time they are lowered onto the record at 1.8gm, their coils are no longer parallel to their magnets. Lyra calls its approach New Angle technology, and it is designed to provide greater sonic linearity. So much for the technical details—now for the aesthetics! I would argue that high-end cartridge manufacturers generally (with the exception of Sumiko) could learn a lot from companies like SME about the importance of quality packaging and brand image for luxury goods. Lyra shipped this cartridge in a small cardboard box containing a single black-and-white printed sheet of instructions and some mounting bolts. It was no more impressive than you’d get with any bog-standard $200 cartridge. I would suggest that Lyra has missed an opportunity to tell its story, explain its design decisions and features, and provide the more elegant and comprehensive installation instructions befitting a luxury product. SME is the benchmark here, with lavishly illustrated manuals for its tonearms and SME-branded installation tools. Apple has mastered the art of packaging as a user experience, and I would like to see cartridge manufacturers generally up their game here.
System and setup
The Kleos SL conforms to the usual Lyra house style in that it is a seminude design, with no cover on the bottom half of the body. Lyra claims that this reduces unwanted resonance, but the protruding cantilever does feel more exposed. I have never had a cartridge on my turntable that made me more acutely aware of the potential for disaster while I was installing it—or even just during normal replay. I was tempted to run some yellow crime-scene tape around the perimeter of my system to deter certain teenagers in the house from even approaching it, but in the end resorted to stern warnings and harsh language. In truth, being aware of the cantilever on a $4000 cartridge is probably a very good idea, and, on the upside, it makes queuing tracks accurately an absolute breeze.
Lyra claims that the sonic presentation of the Kleos SL offers better information retrieval and greater immediacy than the standard Kleos but at the expense of signal-to-noise ratio, power, and output. I commenced my listening with my usual reference system; fronted by the Michell GyroDec turntable, SME IV tonearm, and Trichord Dino phono preamplifier, amplification was provided by my usual Naim NAC 82/NAP 250/HICAP setup driving the ATC SCM40 loudspeakers I wrote about on this site earlier this year. The turntable is situated on the opposite side of the room to the loudspeakers on a dedicated Ash Designs Cosmic audio table, which has glass shelves mounted on rubber isolation rings.
I was warned from the outset that the particular unit I had been sent was brand-new out of the shipping container and would require around 100 hours to run in. They weren’t wrong! In 25 years of reviewing, I don’t think I have ever known a component change so dramatically in the first 100 hours. If you’re going to audition the Kleos SL at a dealership, it’s absolutely vital to ensure that the cartridge you listen to has been comprehensively broken in. Out of the box, the Lyra has an unpleasant metallic quality and a strident top end. Stick with it, though, and somewhere between 50 and 100 hours you start to realize you are in the presence of greatness. Bass notes suddenly blossom and extend, the metallic quality of vocals and guitars subsides and the top end grows sweeter with every slice of vinyl.
Sound and Sobranie Cocktails
The Lyra Kleos SL is quite simply one of the most beguiling cartridges money can buy, not because of what it does, but because of what it doesn’t do. It is perhaps the most neutral and balanced cartridge I have ever put into my system. The Lyra presented music with supreme neutrality, completely devoid of artifice, and there was a sublime evenhandedness in its sonic presentation—from the deepest bass notes to the shimmering chimes of a cymbal. Take the Blue Nile’s seminal album Hats (Linn Records LKH2-210241-630) and the track “Saturday Night.” It’s hard to imagine a more perfect six minutes or so of 1980s electronica and every time I hear it, I am 18 again; when “an ordinary girl could make the world seem right”—usually in a moonlit bus shelter with the exotic aroma of Sobranie Cocktail cigarettes hanging heavy in the air. Paul Buchanan’s jabs of electric guitar that punctuate the song were rendered in all their staccato beauty. The lightweight, wiry tone of the Fender Telecaster cut through the mix beautifully while Robert Bell’s glorious fretless-bass work underlined the proceedings with power and warmth. Nothing was exaggerated; there was a sense of sonic balance, and for six-and-a-half minutes all seemed right with the world.
One of my favorite albums is Fellow Hoodlums (Columbia Records CB468550 1), the third album from legendary Scottish band Deacon Blue. The entire album is a shining example of how traditional songwriting craft, superb musicianship, and clean production can combine to create a masterpiece even greater than the sum of its parts. It’s actually difficult to single out any particular track for inclusion here—the whole album is seminal and best appreciated as a single body of work. My copy is an original issue purchased in my final student year, but happily it has been re-released on vinyl quite recently, so just buy it and be amazed how an album from 30 years ago can sound so utterly contemporary and wonderful!
“The Wildness,” the epic closer to side 1, is a magnificent anthemic paean to the power of infatuation and passionate love. The entire band are on fire here, but Dougie Vipond’s gloriously judged drumming deserves special mention—and the Lyra delivered the full impact of his rim-shots and volleys across the entire kit with vitality, speed, and the surging intensity of a force-ten hurricane. The piano interjections by Ricky Ross remained superbly delineated and utterly tangible in my room, while his whisky-soaked vocals were reproduced in all their Islay-peated, late-night glory. Jim Prime’s organ howled, Lorraine McIntosh cooed and soared as only she can, and the Lyra tracked every nuance of this complex, multitracked production with a sense of commanding security. On digital, this recording somehow never quite has the drama or intensity that it manages to harness from vinyl. The Lyra captured all of this emotional intensity and made me feel as if I was sharing studio space with the band—a magical sensation. I actually switched back to my Naim NDX streamer to replay both my ripped copy of the album and the Tidal version, and confirmed that digital couldn’t touch vinyl at this level for raw power, emotion, and visceral impact.
In search of a change of mood, I pulled out my copy of Bobby Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joe (Capitol Records ST-2830) and cued up the title track. The Kleos SL revealed that Gentry’s voice has a slight catch in her throat on this recording, and it’s small details like that which are a delight to hear. In terms of imaging, Gentry was placed life-sized and tangible in the room with her simple Martin 5-18 acoustic guitar. This particular recording is a lesson in less-is-more and the Lyra gave a very natural rendition of the record. You could tell instantly that the guitar was a parlor type, thanks to the sheer transparency of the Lyra, which added not a trace of bass warmth. The Lyra lent no additional bass bloom to anything I played and never sounded euphonic; it cut straight to the point like an arrow streaking to a target.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was inspired by George Meredith’s poem to write his sublime “The Lark Ascending,” and the London Chamber Orchestra’s recording of this piece (Virgin Classics VCY790819-1) manages to capture all the soaring optimism of the work. With the Lyra installed, Christopher Warren-Green’s violin seemed to float in the acoustic of All Saint’s Church, Petersham, like a bird. There was a real sense of the physical mechanics of his bowing technique and a gloriously wiry sound of bow on gut string as the rest of the orchestra swelled powerfully beneath him. This piece is very challenging to play, with some extremely slow bowing that must be performed with great fluidity, and the Lyra captured the smooth and delicate tone of Warren-Green’s playing perfectly. At all times the sound remained wonderfully balanced and musical, with no undue emphasis or spotlighting on particular elements of the orchestra. As before, detail remained excellent. Subtleties like the size of the acoustic space, the timbre of the violin, and the way that Warren-Green emphasized certain notes more than others were laid bare. I didn’t have the standard Kleos to make the comparison, but it’s certainly the case that the single MC design of the SL excelled at revealing the filigree details within any genre of music. I switched to the PS Audio Stellar phono stage at this point, loaded at the same 100 ohms as the Trichord, and all the detail remained, but there was just a touch more warmth and slam—which I found marginally preferable to the sound of the Trichord stage.
The best audio systems are the ones that convey the mood, intent, and emotion of music; this is best achieved when the equipment offers an open window on to the scene depicted in a song. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ album Rattlesnakes (Polydor Records LCLP 1) conveyed this quality powerfully on the track “Perfect Skin.” This is by no means an audiophile recording but the atmosphere of fevered sexual desire was conveyed perfectly, thanks to the Lyra’s ability to cleanly track the busy groove and portray the frenetic energy of the frantically strummed guitars. It nailed Cole’s wonderfully laconic vocal delivery with superb transparency as he uttered the immortal line “She's got cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin”—quite!
Del Amitri was the soundtrack to my youth and few bands better evoke memories of lost loves, untraveled roads, and passionate partings on moonlit railway platforms. After a 20-year hiatus, the band re-emerged with the masterful 2021 album Fatal Mistakes (Cooking Vinyl COOKLP780). The track “All Hail Blind Love” sees the band’s classic lineup back in fine fettle. Ash Soan, one of the world’s great drummers, locks into a superb groove and it was beautifully conveyed by the Lyra. His heavily accented playing in the middle eight, and doubling of notes elsewhere, was clearly revealed by the Lyra’s precise preservation of timing information. Meanwhile, Iain Harvie on Les Paul traded call and refrain licks with Kris Dollimore, and the rich edge of breakup tone of each guitar was beautifully rendered. Center stage, principal wordsmith Justin Currie was a superbly palpable presence, enunciating as only he can. So lifelike was the portrayal, so crystal clear the delivery that it made me quite emotional to hear them playing together again. Aside from their gift for melody, superb songs, and some of the most intelligent and thought-provoking lyrics ever written, one of the things that makes this band great is the way they play off each other. This album was recorded at Vada Studios, deep in the heart of the English countryside in the idyllic Cotswolds, with the band playing ensemble in a single take as much as possible. The live feel of the performance really showed when played through a system of this caliber.
My time with the Kleos SL was by necessity lengthy due to the need for extensive run-in; as noted before, I was surprised by the degree of change during the first 100 hours. Sublimely honest, neutral to a fault, and balanced in its treatment of frequency extremes, the Kleos SL possesses an absolutely top-flight ability to pull every inflection and nuance from the record groove with forensic precision—make no mistake, this is a first-rate cartridge even by the elevated standards of its price point. The Kleos SL will enhance a wide range of systems across an almost unparalleled breadth of musical tastes. Jazz, new wave, classical music, hard rock, and indie: the Lyra embraced them all with an evenhandedness that impressed me greatly. As a result, I found myself pulling out known torture tracks like the gothic rock of The Sisters of Mercy and their 12″ mix of This Corrosion (Merciful Release MR39T 248216-0) in an attempt to wrongfoot the Lyra, but to no avail—tracking was simply superb. Having lived with it now for over three months and played more vinyl daily than at any time since I was a student, the burning question is not whether I should buy it, but how am I going to manage without it?
This is going to be another passionate parting I could do without and there’s not even a moonlit railway platform or a girl smoking Sobranie Cocktails in sight. Cue the GyroDec, dim the lights, and on with Del Amitri until morning . . .
. . . Jonathan Gorse
- Analog sources: Michell Engineering GyroDec Mk IV turntable, SME Series IV tonearm, Audio-Technica AT-OC9ML/II cartridge, Trichord Research Dino Mk 3 phono stage with Never Connected Dino+ power supply; PS Audio Stellar phono preamplifier.
- Digital sources: Naim CDI CD player, Naim NDX streamer.
- Streaming sources: Tidal HiFi, library of ripped and downloaded FLAC files (up to 24-bit/192KHz) on dedicated Netgear ReadyNAS 2×2TB server with X-RAID.
- Preamplifier: Naim NAC 82.
- Power amplifier: Naim NAP 250.
- Power supply: Naim HiCap.
- Cabling: Naim interconnects on all Naim digital sources, Chord Company interconnects for phono preamplifier and other primary sources, QED interconnects for secondary sources, Naim NAC A5 speaker cable, Grahams Hydra Power Cable for Naim Systems.
Lyra Kleos SL Moving-Coil Cartridge
Warranty: Five years, parts and labor.
Lyra Co Ltd
2621 White Road
Irvine, CA 92614
Phone: (800) 747-2770
Phone: +0044 1727 865488