Hardware Reviews

Vertere Dark Sabre puts MMs on the high end cartridge map

Vertere Dark Sabre cartridge review https://the-ear.net

Vertere Dark Sabre cartridge

Back in October, just as Storm Babet was about to make landfall, a small group of audio writers gathered at Vertere’s North London headquarters to spend a day with the company’s founder and engineering leader Touraj Moghaddam. Regular readers will know that I have had the pleasure of reviewing several Vertere products over the last few years and have more than once included a Vertere product among my picks of the year, but this was the first time I had been to the company’s lair, and I cannot deny that I arrived with a frisson of anticipation. What followed was both educational and fascinating, as Touraj took us through his design philosophy and explained, in terms which even my non-engineering mind could grasp, exactly how a phono cartridge works and the challenges that face a designer.

On this day, Touraj unveiled two new cartridges. The first was the new high-end offering, the moving coil Xtrax and then the moving magnet Dark Sabre. The latter becomes the third such device in the growing Vertere catalogue and the most expensive of its type, joining the Magneto and Sabre to give a purchaser plenty of choice when matching a cartridge to a tonearm and turntable. Over the years the received audiophile wisdom has been that moving magnets are all well and good but that for serious vinylistas the only true path is moving coil. With the Dark Sabre, Vertere is very definitely challenging that orthodoxy, building a cartridge which retails at just under £1500, a price point at which it is competing with some very well regarded moving coil designs. Touraj is no stranger to iconoclasm; he has been challenging himself to build better products than his competitors for several decades.

So what is Dark Sabre? I have previously reviewed the Sabre, installed on my Linn Sondek LP12 with its Ittok arm, and found it be far better than any other moving magnet cartridge I had heard to that point. The Dark Sabre has an aluminium alloy body which is precision milled from a solid billet of the metal then hard anodised black. A low mass generator, using an Alnico magnet and a low mass cross coil of virgin copper wires, is mounted into the body with four stainless spike screws. The purpose of this to give the delicate mechanism optimum support and to dissipate vibration.

Vertere Dark Sabre cartridge review https://the-ear.net

The telescopic cantilever is made with two aluminium tubes for maximum stiffness. Of course all of the above is there to allow the stylus to do its job in the record’s grooves. For this key task Touraj has chosen a nude micro elliptical single crystal diamond stylus tip, because he has found that this offers maximum tracking ability without compromising high frequency response or increasing surface noise. The diamond has a square shank assembly to ensure optimum alignment precision, consistency and rigidity. Like every Vertere cartridge, the Dark Sabre has an alignment ridge on the top at the front to assist in correct mounting on any Vertere tonearm.

The measured results of all this meticulous engineering is a very wide frequency bandwidth from below 14Hz to above 28kHz. The output is 4.3mV, which is enough to provide a lifelike dynamic range, coupled with great depth and precision.

During our day at Vertere HQ, Touraj played us a wide range of music on vinyl, and walked us through a series of demonstrations on four different turntables. It was fascinating to hear clearly the difference that cartridge and turntable improvements made to the same tracks played on each of them. It is not part of this review but I am happy to report that hearing the Xtrax moving coil mounted in Vertere’s Reference tonearm and RG1Reference Groove turntable was the best vinyl reproduction that I have heard thus far. Should I bag a significant lottery prize I would be queuing up to add that rig to my system. Meanwhile, back in the real world, I was itching to try the Dark Sabre in my own system, and was delighted that at the end of the day Vertere entrusted a brand new one to my care for me to listen to and report on.

Vertere Dark Sabre cartridge review https://the-ear.net

The light and shade of Dark Sabre

Once home I carefully installed the Dark Sabre on my Ittok arm. One of the joys of Vertere cartridges is that they are supplied with thumbscrews, meaning there is no fiddling with tiny Allen keys or screwdrivers. Alignment was carried out with as much precision as I could muster and the tracking weight set to exactly 2.0g, as recommended. After double-checking everything (I am not a turntable wizard by any means) I thought I was ready to start the process of running in the cartridge, which Vertere had advised should be done over at least 10 hours, and preferably longer than that.

I plugged the Linn tonearm leads into the Gold Note PH5/PSU phono stage and made sure that it was set for moving magnet. The amplifier in use at the time was the Kleio K135 integrated, and it was driving Dynaudio Contour 20i stand mount speakers.  The first record I cued up was my original copy of JJ Cale’s debut Naturally which has graced all the turntables I have owned since its release in late 1971. I was alerted to it by ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris on his late night Radio Show and my love for this and all the Tulsa native’s subsequent work has never dimmed. Hardly in the first flush of youth the A&M Shelter Records pressing still sounds pretty good, with only the odd crackle and pop to show for over half a century of use. As Call Me The Breeze started I sat back and sank into the laid back groove and even though it was stone cold and brand new, I could already hear much of the goodness that Touraj had built into this new design.

There was plenty of bass, a very solid feel to the midrange and very crisp higher frequencies. However, I was not in critical listening mode at that point, as I knew we were nowhere near peak performance yet.

Vertere Dark Sabre cartridge review https://the-ear.net
Photograph by Chris Kelly

After a few days I had a call from Mike Burn, Vertere’s UK sales manager, just to see how I was getting along. I have known Mike for some fifteen years, since I switched from punter to peddler as far as audio kit goes, and he is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to system set up and turntable fettling and I trust his advice. He suggested a tiny adjustment to the Ittok’s vertical tracking angle, which I then implemented, and played Naturally again. By now the cartridge had about 30 hours of play but I was genuinely taken aback at the very audible improvement in all aspects of the sound, having put records on for hours of play in those first few days without doing any critical listening. The musicians took on almost palpable form in the room, with JJ’s voice, although well down in the mix, cutting through clearly and the intimate interplay between all the players allowing me to concentrate on any one of them or to simply sit back and let them perform.

One of my most treasured albums is the original box set of Pink Floyd’s live album Pulse, which I bought on release in June 1995, when vinyl sales in general were at a pretty low ebb. It is a landmark recording for me and one day in early December I played the whole album in a single day.

The last side is still perhaps my favourite, containing blistering performances of Wish You Were Here, Comfortably Numb and Run Like Hell. Recorded in the now defunct Earls Court in late 1994, this captures the post Waters Floyd at their very best. I think David Gilmour’s guitar-playing was matchless – just listen to his soloing on the middle of those three tracks. The Dark Sabre seemed to lift more information from those precious grooves than any of its predecessor cartridges, and suddenly I realised that I was not listening to a very expensive moving magnet but to a genuine audio bargain.

Vertere Dark Sabre cartridge review https://the-ear.net

Before Christmas the Dynaudios and the Kleio were returned whence they came and were replaced by my own Harbeth Compact 7ES XDs and my Lyngdorf TDAI3400 integrated box of digital amazingness, which boasts among it very comprehensive features a moving magnet phono stage. I plugged the Linn tonearm cables into that pair of RCA inputs and went back to listening to my record collection.

It may seem slightly perverse to play vinyl through a device that digitises the signal as soon as it receives it, but I can assure you that it works brilliantly. The sound that emanates from the Harbeths  is delightful, with that analogue magic from the source coming through loud and clear. How do I know? Because I played several albums which I own on both vinyl and SACD. For example, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, which has been given an excellent DSD reworking by Analogue Productions. I played both versions and while the SACD was wonderful it lacked, somehow, the immediacy of its analogue counterpart when played through the Lyngdorf phono stage.

I have played records from all areas of my collection, from the Allman Brothers to ZZ Top, branching out to jazz, classical, blues and soundtracks along the way. Nothing baffles the Dark Sabre, even some of my more careworn slabs of vinyl were tracked well and emerged from the speakers with their integrity intact. That nude elliptical stylus pulls an amazing amount of detailed yet coherent information from those ancient grooves. The charge laid at the door of moving magnet designs until now has been that they lack the ultimate musical refinement of a moving coil, especially in the upper frequencies. The Dark Sabre is the first moving magnet that I have heard that goes against that perception. Right across the frequency range it simply shines. If it has vices I could not discover them.

Vertere Dark Sabre cartridge review https://the-ear.net

Summing up the Dark Sabre

Not for the first time in his illustrious career, Touraj Moghaddam has developed a product that will encourage all open-minded audio folk to recalibrate their expectation of what a moving-magnet cartridge can do. It is going to win a lot of hearts and minds, and deservedly so.

It is incredibly musical and a master of the pace, rhythm and timing so beloved of many of us. This should come as no surprise, given that Touraj’s office contains a full-size drum kit which I am led to believe he plays with great proficiency. Vertere is a business, of course, but is also an outlet for one man’s passionate and never-ending pursuit of audio and musical nirvana.

On a more practical level, the Dark Sabre puts high-end audio replay within the reach of those who love vinyl but are averse for whatever reason to a plethora of boxes cluttering up the room. A majority of integrated amplifiers offer a moving magnet phono-stage, meaning the Dark Sabre will do its thing through any such device. Given that a moving coil phono stage will set you back several hundred pounds as a minimum, and often more, diverting that sum to a moving magnet cartridge could be a sensible idea.

The reviewer’s curse is that we often get to spend time with wonderful audio components that are beyond our means. For the most part, I am immune to their charms and very happy with what I have. However, I have so fallen for the Dark Sabre that I am not sending it back; it is simply too good to be returned whence it came. I am lucky that I was entrusted with it rather the Xtrax, wonderful though that is, because that really would have been beyond my means. The ‘high end’ has a new interloper, which combines huge musical ability with terrific ease of use credentials. Go and listen to it at your nearest Vertere reseller, but be prepared to be smitten.


Type: moving magnet cartridge
Body: aluminium
Cantilever: telescopic aluminium
Stylus: micro elliptical nude diamond
Tracking Pressure: 2g
Input load impedance: 47kOhms
Nominal output voltage: 4.3mV (@1kHz, 5cm/sec)
Channel Balance : not specified
Separation : > 25dB
Mass: 11.5gm
Warranty: 5 years

Price when tested:
Manufacturer Details:

Vertere Ltd
T+44 (0)203 176 4888


moving magnet cartridge


Chris Kelly

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