Spin Doctor #14: Lyra Atlas λ Lambda phono cartridge and fixing footfall problems

It has been more than a decade since 2012, when Lyra launched the original Atlas moving coil cartridge as the company’s flagship, but in the intervening years, there have been a few updates. First, in 2016, Lyra introduced what they call the SL versions of the Atlas and also the Etna. These cartridges were designed to take advantage of a new crop of transimpedance phono preamps like the CH Precision P1 and the Sutherland Phono Loco, which boast exceptionally low noise levels but work best with cartridges that have very low impedance. Cutting the number of turns on each of the cartridge’s two coils in half reduces the moving mass and inertia, allowing the stylus/cantilever assembly to respond more accurately to the tiny groove modulations. This results in improved tracking at the cost of a lower output level, which, thankfully, transimpedance phono preamps are well-equipped to handle.

Then in 2020, both Atlas and Etna versions were updated to new λ Lambda versions, with a redesigned suspension and damper system that Lyra says delivers enhancements in clarity and resolution. Visually, you can easily distinguish between the older and λ Lambda versions by color: Some parts of the structure went from bright emerald green to lurid purple.

When Shane Buettner of MIBS Distribution, Lyra’s new US importer, noticed I was using an original Atlas cartridge as one of my references, he offered to upgrade it to the latest version so that I could hear the differences. To avoid introducing too many variables, we agreed to stick with the standard, higher output version (not the SL), which has the added advantage of being a better match for a wider range of phono preamps. While the standard Atlas λ Lambda ($13,195) does have more than twice the signal level of the Atlas SL, it is, at 0.56mV, very much a low-output cartridge, requiring a phono preamp with plenty of gain.

When I substituted the Atlas λ Lambda for the older version in my Brinkmann La Grange turntable with Brinkmann 12.1 tonearm, the improvement in resolution and lucidity was instantly obvious. Some of this could be due to wear on the older cartridge, but I’m sure I never had this level of clarity even when it was fresher. The original Atlas was famous for its world-beating dynamics and bass slam, but it could get a bit relentless at times with its “just the facts” presentation. The λ Lambda mixes in a little more beauty, not by softening the sound or adding an artificial sense of glow but by adding resolution, extracting and delivering more of the intrinsic beauty in the recording.

Comparing the sound of the Atlas λ Lambda into the voltage-drive input and current-drive input of the CH Precision P1 proved interesting. Both options sounded superb. The current-drive side gave the Atlas a more buttoned-down and tidy presentation, while the voltage-drive input was the freer and wilder sister, with a more open and expansive sound. On the voltage side, Lyra’s loading recommendations often make me giggle; the Atlas’s guideline—somewhere between 104 and 887 ohms—is a perfect example. Those figures were calculated based on the total load inductance and capacitance—but wouldn’t it have been simpler to just say 100–1k ohms? I guess it’s just Lyra designer Jonathan Carr’s way of giving us a little smile. After some listening, I settled on 475 ohms, same as the older Atlas.

On the Geri Allen, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian trio album Segments (DIW 7034), drummer Motian’s deft touch with his brushes on the standard “You’ll Never Know” displays the Atlas’s improvements as clearly as anything I found. The contrast in tonal signature between each drum and cymbal was vividly on display, with a little less smearing at the top end. The high-frequency detail took on a security that reminded me of a master tape, making the listening experience a little more relaxed.

To check that the Atlas’s famous slam and bass power remained intact, I played “Airhead” from Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick (EMI Manhattan Records E1-48075) and was relieved to find that the pants leg–flapping bass was as powerful as ever, with some newfound additional clarity. The Atlas λ Lambda changes are all on the upside.

Few cartridges are as expensive as the Lyra Atlas λ, but fewer still can match its performance. It still has the same tell-it-like-it-is sound as the original Atlas, but now with even further enhancements in resolution and clarity. When current Atlas owners send their cartridges to Lyra for a rebuild, the λ Lambda enhancements will be added for no additional charge.

Footnote 1: Lyra Co., Ltd., Tokyo, Japan. Web: lyraaudio.com. US importer: MIBS Distro LLC, Gig Harbor, WA. Tel: (253) 209-6792. Web: mibsdistro.com

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