I’ve spent the last decade or so watching some audiophiles of my acquaintance twist themselves inside out trying to rationalize spending a fortune they don’t really have on things they don’t really need. I used to be like that, but thank all that’s holy, I grew out of it.
Part of it is my reviewer’s mindset: After years of receiving a steady stream of review samples -- a regular audiophile’s wet dream -- a feeling of routine set in. Not boredom -- a freshly delivered box is still a Christmas-morning moment -- but receiving and hooking up all this cool shit just isn’t as exciting as it used to be. The boxes come and go, and it’s still fun -- but it’s rarely surprising or exciting.
Then comes a component that blows out all the dust, strips away the cobwebs, and makes me feel like a little boy again. It’s just happened, and it wasn’t a pair of monster speakers or a substation-sized amp, but something the size of a quail’s egg: a phono cartridge.
There’s no smaller, more delicate audio component than a cartridge, and they can vary wildly in price: from a starting point of just under 30 bucks for a low-end Audio-Technica right up to the price of a base Honda Civic for one of several top-rent units. There’s no more conflicted activity in the world of audiophilia than choosing and justifying a new cartridge.
It’s hard to justify spending four figures on a phono cartridge, let alone five. These are wear items, kind of like a car’s brake pads or tires. Cartridges wear out, and when they do they’re generally worth next to nothing, though some manufacturers will give you 10% or maybe 20% of the original value on a trade-in. Still, it’s hard to avoid the crushing realization that perhaps the most critical part of your analog audio system -- the one you really should not cheap out on -- will be ruined by a few years’ hard use.
So there sat rational Jason, cross-legged on the floor, unboxing Top Wing’s Seiryu (Blue Dragon) phono cartridge, which costs $12,500 USD. I turned the thing over in my hand -- little more than one cubic centimeter of metal, with a tiny little proboscis jutting out the bottom. At this price, you’d expect it to still work when the universe experiences heat death. To put it in perspective, this cartridge costs more than its equivalent volume in gold. Nor is the Blue Dragon the more expensive of Top Wing’s two cartridge models -- the Suzaku (Red Sparrow) retails for $16,500.
The obviously handmade Lexan case in which the Blue Dragon was entombed was itself contained by a beautiful box labeled “Seiryu: Top Wing Corporation,” Seiryu being Japanese for Blue Dragon. Top Wing, founded in 2017, is nonetheless built atop a substantial history in analog audio. The Blue Dragon is the baby of Hiromu Meguro, who was responsible for the Grace F-8 and F-9 cartridges, and who eventually became one of the principals of Top Wing, which is part of the Cybersound Group.
The central cartridge technology employed by Meguro is his Coreless Straight Flux system, which adapts some of the elements of moving-magnet design, most notably a removable stylus assembly that permits replacement and refurbishing of the stylus for a fraction of the cost of a new cartridge. Top Wing charges $2375, or 19% of the full retail price, for a new stylus, though it’s not replaceable in the field -- you have to send the Blue Dragon back to the factory.
Internally, the Blue Dragon’s coils are arrayed in a V directly above the magnet, which Top Wing claims results in more accurate transmission of the musical signal picked up by the line-contact stylus.
Included is a beautifully machined headshell anodized the same royal blue as the cartridge. Because the tonearms of the turntables I used for this review have integrated headshells, I didn’t get a chance to play with this pretty trinket.
I had some difficulties installing the Blue Dragon. First, the mounting holes in its body aren’t threaded -- an obvious piss-off, given the additional futzing required to thread the mounting screws into their nuts. But this annoyance proved more manageable than the fact the Blue Dragon’s mounting screws are of necessity quite long, and I had to use the very longest ones with the 12cc tonearm on my Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon turntable. The headshell of the VPI JMW 12 tonearm is nearly twice as thick as the Pro-Ject’s, and with this tonearm I was barely able to get the nuts to catch a thread. Nor could I mount the finger lift, as its small but additional thickness meant that the screws wouldn’t catch at all. Top Wing should a) thread the holes in a cartridge costing $12,500, or b) provide longer screws.
Of slightly more concern was another compatibility issue. With both the Pro-Ject and VPI arms, to get even close to a correct alignment, I was forced to mount the cartridge at the extreme rear of the headshell -- as far toward the pivot as it would go. Even so, the stylus was still about half a millimeter too far forward in either arm, as I confirmed using Pro-Ject’s Align-it gauge as well as the gauge included with the VPI Prime Signature turntable. The discrepancy was minor, and I didn’t feel that it overtly affected the sound quality in any way; I’m more concerned about the Top Wing’s compatibility with other tonearms, given how few standards there are in the wacky world of analog.
Another slight challenge was the substantial weight of the Blue Dragon’s Ultra Duralumin body: 12.3gm. Even with the heaviest of the Pro-Ject arm’s three supplied counterweights, I couldn’t get it to balance out within the recommended range of vertical tracking force (VTF) of 1.75-2.0gm. But this was easily solved -- I wrapped a 3” length of audiophile-grade plumber’s solder around the heaviest counterweight. That done, I had no problem balancing the Pro-Ject arm.
At a mere 0.2mV output, the Blue Dragon won’t be compatible with every phono stage, but I had good luck with all three stages I had on hand: the AQVOX Phono 2Ci, the EAT E-Glo S, and the JE Audio HP10. However, with the EAT and JEA I had the gain jacked up to the highest level, and still had to add a quarter turn to my preamp’s volume control to attain a normal listening level.
A cartridge with a really low output will need tons of clean gain. If there’s any ground-loop noise in your system, or cables not shielded from foreign radio signals, you’re gonna hear it. With no music playing, I could hear a 60Hz hum when I stood next to a speaker. When I touched the tonearm, I could hear a radio station from China (I think). None of these sounds were audible at my listening position, but it’s something to be aware of if absolute system silence is important to you.
The Blue Dragon’s body is a low-rider, so I set the vertical tracking angle (VTA) so that the body was mostly level with the record surface. I played around with azimuth a bit on the VPI, which you need to do anyway with a unipivot. The Blue Dragon didn’t seem terribly bothered by a few degrees either way in this regard, but I centered it nonetheless.
The VTF was another story, and it confused me a bit. On the Pro-Ject I did a general setup and ran the Blue Dragon at 1.8gm. It sounded so spectacular that I just left it there, and listened and listened . . . Please don’t ever stop sounding this good, I implored this setup.
When I installed the Top Wing in the VPI, I found the Blue Dragon a bit more persnickety. A VTF of 1.8gm resulted in sound a bit thinner than I wanted, but 2gm sounded muddy. I eventually settled on 1.9gm, and raised the VTA a tiny hair. The sound was then as good as on the Pro-Ject.
In short, the Blue Dragon was a bit pissy about its care and feeding -- and needless to say, after all that, I didn’t much monkey around with it. That said, I wouldn’t expect you’d order this thing from Amazon. Rather, a purchase of this magnitude, for a product of this delicacy, should involve a committed, knowledgeable, supportive, loving dealer -- one who can install and set up the cartridge for you. Don’t be like Jason with his plumbing solder.
Both the EAT and JE Audio phono stages seemed to like the Blue Dragon best when loading it with 100 ohms, so that’s where I left them. The AQVOX is a different beast -- connected via the XLR inputs, it functions as a current amplifier, and is thus supposed to be oblivious to the cartridge’s impedance.
I’ve hinted that the Blue Dragon blew my skirt up. From the first record I played, whatever it was (lost in the mists of time . . . ), I was agog at how the Top Wing cartridge transformed the music I know and love. I don’t exactly know or love Philip Glass’s “chamber opera” The Photographer, with Michael Riesman conducting the Philip Glass Ensemble (LP, Columbia/Music On Vinyl MOVCL005), but I do kind of like it, and I throw it on when I don’t want to have to focus on the music itself -- its repetitiveness lets me attend to other tasks. But when I heard it through the Top Wing, I sat there transfixed. There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on here. Every aspect of the Blue Dragon’s reproduction of The Photographer was a standout, knock-down revelation. One example: the crystalline, bell-like highs of the piano notes sprinkled throughout. “Act 1: A Gentleman’s Honor” rang out -- the Blue Dragon shot it through the room like a physical force.
“Oh sure,” I hear you say. “They all do that. Sounds like you’ve got a good cartridge there, Thorpe. What’s the big deal?”
I could taste those high piano notes. They rang in my teeth, left a metallic taste on my tongue. But along with that intensity came a natural, relaxed sound, a sense of openness, of breath, of reality. I heard no piercing, abrasive, or gritty additives -- just the hard ring that accompanies a forcefully struck note on a big-ass piano heard at close range.
I blather on a fair bit about Eleni Mandell’s Country for True Lovers (LP, Zedtone/Heart of a Champion HoC-011) -- a delightful, pleasing album that’s well recorded and has honest musical integrity. Throughout, there’s significant sibilance in Mandell’s voice, and that’s fine -- you chew around that little bit of gristle to get to the juicy meat at the center of the music. Up to now I’ve listened around the sibilance, but through the Blue Dragon I quickly became aware of a whole bunch of information contained within the sibilance. Instead of an additive distortion I had to listen past, I could now almost see the interaction of Mandell’s breath with the microphone capsule. So you gotcher clarity in the highs and you gotcher extension going up forever -- now factor in a trailer-load of sophistication and insane amounts of information retrieval, all without sounding even slightly bright or aggressive.
Mandell’s performance of the traditional “Kingsport Town” is redolent with sadness and longing, anchored by simple guitar chords. Through the Top Wing, that guitar’s fretboard sounded about a foot wide. I felt I could hear between each pair of strings, hear the fundamental note and, clearly, the overtones of pick on steel. The Blue Dragon’s midrange was fat, juicy, meaty, but not thick -- more like lithe and sinuous (similar, but subtly different), with no hint of thinness, and pouring out tons of detail.
Recently, in “For the Record,” I wrote about a recent reissue of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica (Straight/Third Man TMR 546). I’m extremely conflicted about this record. On the one hand, to me it sounds like the most tuneless, atonal, obnoxious music imaginable. On the other hand, it’s like a scab -- I pick it till it bleeds, let it scab over, then pick it some more. I find myself cueing it up on the ’table despite myself. “Moonlight On Vermont” almost gets me humming along with it, as Don Van Vliet (Capt. Beefheart) hollers out “Gimme dat ole time religion.” While the sentiment is blues and gospel, his voice sounds to me utterly out of sync with the music, which doesn’t make much sense to me anyway -- it’s a busy, jangly, nasty business. I’ll set the scene for you here, so you can grok what a challenge this track is for the Blue Dragon: The guitars set up a deep wash overlaid with shrieking lead, the drums and bass laying down a surprisingly cohesive foundation over which Van Vliet’s vocal steamrollers any possible sense. The Blue Dragon kept each disparate element separate from the others, letting me pick out each instrument while still enabling the bass fundamentals to clearly anchor the entire track.
There’s dynamic snap here -- a quickness, an ability to crack out transients, to start and stop on an infinitely small dime. That’s much of what the Blue Dragon contributed to this track -- it captured the urgency and dynamism of the Magic Band as they thrash about in the throes of a psychotic episode.
Trout Mask Replica also has deep bass -- more than you might expect from a 1969 rock record. Come to think of it, bass was where the Blue Dragon did some of its most majestic work. Listening to how Rockette Morton’s (Mark Boston) bass bobs and weaves with Drumbo’s (John French) kickdrum, I was surprised at how well the Blue Dragon decoded the two instruments. A deep whomp of the kickdrum, then some quick fingerwork -- it was all here.
And when it came to sheer bass power, the Blue Dragon delivered. For this, you really need to take The Photographer for a test drive, as it’s built on thick, monstrous synthesizer waves. My Focus Audio FP60 BE speakers aren’t the last word in bass power -- they’re two-way monitors, each with a single 6” bass-midrange driver -- but the Blue Dragon made them sound like floorstanders as they pumped into my listening room spectacular pulses of deep, rich, tight bass.
Part of me worries that I’m raving about the Blue Dragon a bit too much. Did it perhaps sound a smidge too cartoony? Did it exaggerate or editorialize the signal? Was the bass too rich, the midrange too fat, the treble too sparkly? There must be some coloration I can lay at this thing’s feet, right?
Wrong. Although I feel I’ll have to turn in my Reviewer’s Guild card, I can’t point to any frequency extreme or characteristic that the Top Wing highlighted or shortchanged. I couldn’t find any real fault in the Blue Dragon, though I tried. Here’s pretty much my only caveat: Don’t buy this thing if you’re looking for a polite, dainty, restrained sound. The Blue Dragon is all about big sound, huge imaging, massive dynamics. But if you want excitement . . . well, this little feller is fer you.
So much for my technical analysis. Listening to “The 3 Deaths of Lucky,” from Howe Gelb’s The Coincidentalist (LP, New West NW5079), I trip my mental breaker, exit Reviewer mode, and toggle over to Plain Ol’ Music Lover mode. Gelb’s voice fills the entire front of my room -- a massive, breathy presence accompanied by what sounds like a slightly out-of-tune upright piano. It’s a thoroughly enveloping acoustic that, despite the high levels of synergy with the rest of my system, I feel comfortable crediting to the Blue Dragon. And listen! KT Tunstall’s rich contralto joins Gelb’s juicy tenor, the two singers right there in front of me, playing for my benefit! The contrast of Gelb’s blatantly rich, close-miked voice to Tunstall’s wispy delicacy makes for an absolutely delicious track, and I listened to it repeatedly during my time with the Blue Dragon.
The Blue Dragon is a fussy son-of-a-bitch to set up, and its compatibility isn’t guaranteed. Don’t think you can nip over to Needle Doctor, grab a Rega Research Planar 3 turntable, then jump into Top Wing sound. But the Blue Dragon is by far the best cartridge I’ve had in my system. And that’s good, I guess, because it’s by far the most expensive.
The buy-in cost isn’t the whole story. I’m on my third Roksan Shiraz cartridge since 2001, and taking into account inflation, the retail cost of the three Shirazes totals something north of $15,000. All else being equal, had I bought a Blue Dragon and gotten two retippings, I’d be out $17,250 -- close to the break-even point. And the Blue Dragon sounds far and away better than the Shiraz, which up to now I’ve always called My Precious. So, much as the notion clashes with my middle-class sensibilities, the Blue Dragon’s outrageous price indicates actual value.
When Believe High Fidelity, Top Wing’s North American distributor, contacted me asking if I wanted to review the Blue Dragon, I was at first reluctant to take it on. How could any cartridge possibly justify a price of $12,500? I was more than a bit skeptical, but it didn’t take me long to come to a conclusion. The very first notes of the very first cut I played trapped my opinion in amber, something that hasn’t happened in years.
What a firecracker of an audio component.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog sources -- Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon, VPI Prime Signature turntables; Ortofon Quintet Blue, Roksan Shiraz, Sumiko Starling cartridges
- Digital source -- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Phono stages -- AQVOX Phono 2 CI, EAT E-Glo S, JE Audio HP10
- Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifier -- Bryston 4B3
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L, Focus Audio FP60 BE
- Speaker cables -- Nordost Tyr 2
- Interconnects -- Nordost Tyr 2
- Power cords -- Nordost Vishnu
- Power conditioner -- Quantum QBase QB8 Mk.II
- Accessory -- VPI Cyclone record-cleaning machine
Top Wing Blue Dragon Phono Cartridge
Price: $12,500 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
Top Wing Corporation
1-10-2-1102 Sakae-cho Higashimurayama