Review: Van Den Hul The Crimson XGW – Analogue aristocrat

Hand-built by a true master of the art, the Van Den Hul Crimson moving coil cartridge manages the seemingly impossible: it combines fleet-footedness and insight with a fullness of tone and thrilling dynamics. The result? Addictive!

By Deon Schoeman

AJ Van den Hul is a rare phenomenon: a real, living, breathing legend in the world of analogue – and specifically the even more rarefied world of phono cartridges.

The notion of creating these tiny, high-precision devices purely by hand is daunting – and even more so if, like Mr Van den Hul, you’re an octogenarian. And yet, Mr Van den Hul continues unabated.

Van den Hul cartridges are sought after by music lovers around the world, and rightly so: their reputation for unwavering musicality is well-deserved. The Crimson is at the upper end of the Van den Hul cartridge offering – not at the very top, but not far off it.

If you like your phono cartridges sleek and streamlined (think Ortofon Cadenza), you may be put off by the Crimson’s near-naked, somewhat rustic appearance. The basic shell is acacia koa, on which much of the cartridge’s working parts are clear to see.

Variations on the Crimson theme include a special Stradivarius model, which uses a wood lacquer said to be the same formulation as that used by the famed violin maker, and promising a unique tone as a result. There’s also a polycarbonate-bodied version.

UNDER THE COVERS

The key ingredients of the Crimson’s motor system comprise 24-carat cross coils, a samarium cobalt magnet, and a boron cantilever, to which AJ attaches a proprietary Type 1s diamond stylus.

While the official specifications specify an output of 0.65 mV, the review sample boasted a somewhat higher 0,75 mV output. Recommended load impedance is 25 – 200 ohms, while load capacitance is deemed non-critical.

Other key stats include an effective tone arm mass of between 10 and 16 grams, and a recommended tracking force of between 1,35 and 1,5 grams.

SETTING UP

The review example provided by Harold Day of local importer/distributor HBD Audio Revelation was already nicely run in. Van den Hul cartridges typically need at least 200 hours, perhaps even more, to show their true talents, but I was able start listening as soon as the Crimson had been installed.

Talking of which, installation is a tricky affair, mainly because of the exposed cantilever, and the absence of a stylus guard. Considering its R70k-plus value, handling the Crimson is not for the faint-hearted!

I would usually have used both my Linn LP12 and my Avid Diva II SP turntables for this review, but as it turns out, the standard SME headshell will not accept the Crimson’s shape, given the position of the mounting holes, so the review was conducted in conjunction with the LP12 only.

I used two phono stages: Schalk Havenga’s magnificent Valve Audio Whisper, and an Ayre P-5xe. Both were operated at a loading of 100 ohms. The rest of the system comprised an Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp, with PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks driving Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers.

SOUNDS LIKE …

In use, the Van den Hul Crimson displayed a natural warmth and richness that enabled the cartridge to capture the timbre and texture of musical instruments with an almost startling immediacy and realism.

Those instruments literally jumped at me with a visceral intensity that was almost disconcerting. However, it in no way overshadowed the Crimson’s ability to capture and project the finer details, nuances and microdynamics of a recording.

It was as adept at grasping the broad strokes of the music as it was at embroidering those strokes with a bountiful harvest of fine detail, all underpinned by tremendous dynamic scope. The Crimson was not in the least intimidated by big dynamic swings, and was more than up to the task of interpreting the pace and impetus of even the most challenging material.

Staging was almost too generous, effortlessly creating the kind of walk-in, wide-open dimensionality that allows effortless recognition of where each individual element – voices, instruments – were located on the sound picture.

That said, there was a consistent cohesion to the delivery that ensured enjoyment of the entire performance, rather than forcing an analysis of individual aspects.

Yes, it was easy enough identify the percussive timbre of a piano, the breathy swagger and sheen of an alto saxophone, the delicate pluck of an acoustic guitar’s strings. But this ability to isolate individual elements never came at the expense of the performance’s overall cohesion.

In staging terms, the Crimson’s combination of enveloping dimensionality and high resolution not only allowed even the most elusive microdetails to be captured, but to be contribute to an immersive, thrilling and utterly convincing listening experience.

Of the many discs I played during the Crimson’s sojourn in my listening room, one of the go-to albums was the Tacet label’s tube-recorded performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by the Polish Chamber Orchestra, with Philip Gaede on solo violin duty.

The Crimson accurately presented the brilliance and the breathtaking dynamics of the orchestra, allowing the verve and the exuberance of the performance to come to the fore. The strings were reproduced with an engaging presence that was both realistic and believable.

The Crimson was able to do to full justice to both the effervescence of the fast passages, and the sombre pathos and emotion of the adagios. It managed to project the power and the intensity of the orchestra in full cry, yet was equally adept at digging deep into the heart of the music’s subtleties.

The Crimson is a cartridge that tracks the groove with an unerring trueness, and part of its magic is the almost utter lack of groove and background noise, which greatly enhances the sense of air and space against which the music is transposed.

Gaede’s solo violin was so vividly, so truthfully portrayed that it took on the stature and presence of an actual instrument, rather than a mere recording.

Pop-flamenco duo Rodrigo y Gabriela’ eponymous album is a challenging recording in terms of both density and dynamics. However, the Crimson easily captured the dazzling, electrifying dialogue between the two guitarists.

Not only did the cartridge effortlessly keep up with the sheer pace and intensity of the guitar work, but it also brought the emotive content of the performance into play, greatly enhancing realism and engagement.

The staging here was both generous and intimate, affording the music huge volumes of air and space, yet convincingly expressing the close rapport between the two guitarists. The result was so wholesome, so palpable that it was easy to forget that I was listening to a two-speaker audio system.

Can the Crimson rock ’n roll? I turned to one of my all-time favourites, Queen’s classic A Night At The Opera, to find out – and the answer was an unequivocal yes.

The Van den Hul delivered Queen’s layered harmonies, rich guitar riffs, articulate percussion – and, of course, Freddie Mercury’s soaring vocals – with an agility and momentum that made the music come alive.

There was nothing warm, fuzzy or earthy about the sound – just pure, primeval, kick-you-in-the-butt rock ’n roll.

On ‘The Prophet’s Song’, the Crimson perfectly tracked Mercury’s multiple overdubbed vocals, truthfully creating a multi-dimensional, immersive sound picture. Roger Taylor’s energetic drums sounded powerfully real, as did the vividly timbred guitar of Brian May, and the driving bass of John Deacon.

Then sound was full and muscular, but always agile and electric, delivering just the right balance of near-tactile presence and thrilling pace.

THE BOTTOM LINE

In purely monetary terms, spending more than R70 000 on a phono cartridge seems like an indulgence that’s hard to justify.

But once you realise that this is a handmade piece of audio art, and one that links considerable technical capability to an emotive, enthralling performance, that asking price is more than vindicated.

The Van den Hul Crimson is not only thrillingly musical and revealing, but it has an uncanny ability to make the most of what’s captured in the record’s groove. It extracts an extraordinary richness of detail and presents it with a mix of racy realism and pure musicality that is, in one word, spellbinding.

VITAL STATS

Type: Low-output moving coil
Stylus: VDH 1S
Output: 0,75 mV
Frequency range: 5 Hz – 55 kHz
Channel separation: >36/>30 dB
Recommended load: 20 – 200 ohms
Recommended tracking force: 1,35 – 1,5 g
Weight: 8,75g
PRICE
R72 900
SUPPLIED BY
HBD Audio Revelation

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
DewAudio StarMap-modified Linn LP12/Ittok LV II/Lingo record deck
Valve Audio Whisper phono stage
Ayre Acoustics P-5xe phono stage
Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp
PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers
TelluriumQ Black speaker cable and interlinks
Van Den Hul The First balanced interlinks

SOFTWARE
Vivaldi – The Four Seasons – Polish Chamber Orchestra (Tacet 180g LP)
Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo y Gabriela (Rubyworks/Music On Vinyl 180g LP)
Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto (Verve/MFSL 180g LP)
Jeff Buckley – Grace (Columbia/Sony Music 180g Reissue LP)
Queen – A Night At The Opera (Universal Remastered 180g LP)