Yoshiaki Sugano’s unique combination of skills defined his Koetsu range of cartridges. He was said to be a musician, artist, calligrapher and even quite handy with swords. The story goes that his life was a study of his hero, the 17th-century Japanese Honami Koetsu. Back in the 1970s, Sugano san brought all his talents to the table with his range of Supex cartridges, which pretty much put moving coils back on the audiophile map at a time when the world was obsessed with high compliance moving magnets such as the Shure V15 IV. It was all the more remarkable that at the time there were few tonearms able to extract the best from them, but arguably because of the likes of the SD900 Super, the replacement to SME’s ultra low mass Series III was a far heavier and more robust affair designed predominantly to track MCs.
Going into business for himself, he brought the world the Koetsu brand, named after his historical hero. It went on to be tremendously successful, with the Red Signature one of the most distinctive of the line. His cartridges sounded quite simply like no other. Classic Koetsus became cherished and coveted – few ever appear on the secondhand market. Then in 2002, the worst happened and Sugano passed away. Through the efforts of his sons however, the products continued in limited quantities, offering a range of models.
The Red Signature (£2,395 in the UK when launched in 2007) comes like its cheaper Red brother, in a little wooden box without so much as a set of screws bundled. The red inkan (Japanese kanji signature) imprinted upon the top surface looks lovely, and it all adds to that mystical ownership experience. Installation isn’t difficult – the wooden body is easy to grip and the sensibly designed to make attaching to a headshell a straightforward affair. The lack of documentation makes setting tracking force a rather enigmatic act, but trial and error got me to the point when it sounded happiest at 2.0g, with just a smidgeon less bias.
The standard Koetsu Red is a cracking cartridge; although less romantic sounding than Koetsus of yore, it is still dramatically more seductive than practically anything modern that I have heard. The Red Signature, unsurprisingly perhaps, removes at a stroke what I regarded as the ‘technical’ failings of the Red. It is obviously better in many respects, but loses none of the original Red’s character. Here we have what is still a pretty unique sounding moving coil. Having spent the last year with a van den Hul Frog (again a bit cheaper than the KRS), I have enjoyed its light, airy, bouncy and musical sound – but the Red Signature builds on this and adds a lot more too.
The Signature dives right in at the musical deep end, throwing up a wide soundstage with large amounts of detail within. Indeed, whereas the Red paints in big and admittedly very deft brushstrokes, the Signature substitutes a far finer paint brush and a more varied palette of tonal colours. The basic warm ‘orangey-red’ tonality is still there but it doesn’t infuse everything with warmth – it does so much more than this. So yes, compared to the Frog it is more sumptuous sounding, but the Koetsu’s character can’t simply be reduced down to a euphonic balance. Rather, it seems to make all the information inside the groove seem like a special musical event, rather than just another day. It is obviously more refined than the Red, but loses no passion. It is more dynamic, but doesn’t sound showy. It has higher resolution, but isn’t simply just a more technical performer.
Piano sound is sublime. Big, full and woody, it’s more like a concert grand than a Casio keyboard. Notes lilt in space, beautifully syncopated. Image depth is far more impressive than how I remember the basic Red. The sound seems less centred around the plane of the speakers, and more able to breathe forward and backward. The Red Signature is still not the world’s most expansive sounding moving coil to my ears, but is perfectly capable in this respect. Inside any recorded acoustic, it gives a divine sense of musicians playing together as one, rather than as a series of soloists stuck inside a single recording booth. The way the Koetsu lets the music flow with such ease is a joy to hear.
Cellos have wonderful body (seemingly with more weight than the basic Red), strings are smooth (and obviously smoother than with the Red) but accurately wiry too; orchestral music seems to swell like waves out at sea, ebbing and flowing in dynamic intensity to great effect. The Koetsu turns a procession of notes on a musical score into an arresting emotional experience, the Red Signature bristling with detail and displaying transparency to match anything I’ve heard at or near the price. In short, it’s a masterpiece of a moving coil cartridge. It retains the original Red’s speed and attack, maintaining its wonderfully rich and fruity tonal balance, augmenting its already redoubtable musicality and adding several increments of detail, dynamics and finesse. This explains why the Koetsu legend lives on, long after its creator has gone.