Charisma Audio MC-1 moving coil cartridge, by Mark Morris
Review sample courtesy of Charisma Audio
Components used in this review:
Turntable/arm: Garrard 301 in double granite base + Moerch UP-4 arm; JVC QLY-55F
Phono pre-amp: Cascade 2.2 moving coil pre-amp into modified Jolida 9 (MM inputs)
Pre-amp: Sonic Frontiers Line 2
Amplification: Radford STA15 MkIII, Sonic Frontiers 1
Speakers: KEF 107
A new cartridge is perhaps the most frustrating audio item to buy. By its very nature, it’s subject to so many variables: the turntable, the platter, the platter mat, and its fusion with the arm in which it is installed, not to mention the leads you use. Change any one of those, and you change the sound, for better or for worse.
To make things even more awkward, dealers will happily lend you a CD player or a DAC to see how it sounds in your system. But try asking if you can take that (fragile) cartridge home, and the body language of most dealers turns icy and they suddenly remember something else they have to do. So in your hunt for a new cartridge you are left with hearing potential candidates in the dealers’ or friends’ systems (which might markedly differ from the effectiveness of the cartridge in yours), or going by reviews or personal recommendations – where the same caveats apply.
Then there is the vexed question of economics. The rule-of-thumb is that a diamond stylus lasts 1,000 hours, which means changing the cartridge or having it re-tipped regularly. As a music critic, I can justify quite a large expenditure on an amplifier that will last years. I would love to have a $4,000 cartridge (not being too greedy!), but first I couldn’t afford it, second I couldn’t justify the renewal costs every 1,000 hours, and third I would be absolutely terrified that every time I used it my hand would slip and up goes $4,000 in a bent cantilever. And I know the aptly-named Squirt, our mischievous Russian Blue cat, would sit there eyeing it with glee.
I do, though, listen to a heck of a lot of LPs. So I have to remain somewhat grounded in the real world, and my mainstay cartridge for a number of years has been the Audio Technica OC9ML/II. It does a lot of things I really like. It has a very big soundstage, which I find very important for classical music, good bass, a lot more clarity than, say, a Denon 103, and a convincing mid-range. It’s an excellent tracker. It has also been cheaper to replace than retip (you can pick up a new one for $US 354, and the MkIII, which I haven’t heard, is $US 500), and remains one of audio’s great bargains.
However, it is a little bright (and Audio Technica don’t hide this, with a lift in the supplied frequency trace of the upper end of the cartridge), and I also know that I can probably get more clarity by spending more. So I have been in the hunt for a new cartridge, with the real-world proviso that I wouldn’t spend much more than $1000, and it would have to be a significant improvement on the OC9 MkII.
There is quite a lot in this range, and it is an important sector in the analogue market. To name just a few, there are obvious moving coil examples from Benz Micro, Dynavector, Clearaudio, Ortofon, and Shelter, not to mention mavericks like the moving magnet Cartridge Man Music Maker and the moving iron London Decca.
I have managed to hear a few – but only in dealers’ set-ups – and actually ended up with a high output Dynavector 20X2. I liked it, except that as it moved across the platter of my Garrard 301, its open-body sent out invisible feelers to the mass of different metals in the Garrard, and the hum grew stronger the closer the end of the LP got. Nothing I did could cure it, and the Canadian distributor told me nothing I could do would cure it. Time for a re-think.
I then heard about a new moving-coil cartridge, the MC-1, the subject of this review, from Charisma Audio in Richmond Hill in Ontario, and read a couple of very enthusiastic reviews in the German hi-fi press. It is a low-output (0.4 mV) moving coil, with an annealed INOX steel cantilever, more rigid (and heavier) than the more common aluminum and presumably easier to source than boron (which also has health questions in manufacturing). It is semi-enclosed in a rigid body, with the base open (reducing resonances). The stylus is a line contact nude diamond. Bernard Li of Charisma Audio is keeping the manufacturing source of this new cartridge a closely-guarded secret: there has been speculation it might be Benz Micro, one Saskatchewan seller claims it is Japanese, and conspiracy theorists might note that Charisma Audio also sells a cartridge made in Germany with parts from Benz Micro.
Be that as it may, Charisma Audio kindly supplied Wall Of Sound with a review sample that had already had about 150 hours on it (so it was well-broken in – Charisma Audio recommend 50 hours). First impressions are good: a nice little wooden box, containing the cartridge and its rather beautiful rounded brushed aluminum body of a kind of metallic red-bronze (‘pastel red’) colour, and a little velvet bag containing a variety of mounting bolts.
The instructions, on a single folded sheet, are rather skimpy, and there was one thing missing that I consider crucial. There was no stylus guard. Why some manufacturers don’t supply some sort of guard (it must cost only a few cents to make) is beyond me, especially when the instructions, as here, warn you how delicate the cantilever is. I find a guard essential when fitting a cartridge, if nothing else for piece of mind. It’s also essential when I am not using the turntable, and some friend calls round with their hyper little kid who gets into everything and will lift the turntable cover as soon as your back is turned. Not to mention my Russian Blue on the prowl. And plenty of turntables don’t have covers.
So I looked at the MC-1 body, still well secured in its box, and I looked at my OC-9, and realized that the OC-9 plastic guard was the same shape as the MC-1 body. And apparently the same size. I had a spare one, and indeed, it fitted well enough, so I used that throughout this review when needed.
The next problem is that the cartridge is at 13.6g a very heavy one – and prospective buyers should consider this. My Moerch arm needed the largest of three weight sizes to balance it, and I didn’t have it. So a three-week wait until the item arrived from the Moerch distributor in the US, while I eyed longingly that attractive little box sitting on my sideboard.
Fitting a cartridge to a Moerch is a fiddly process (there is no headshell as such), and I was really thankful for that make-shift stylus guard. It was made a lot easier, though, by the threaded bolt mounts in the cartridge (so much easier than nuts and bolts). The front of the body obscures the stylus a little, but there is sensibly a little centre cut-out in the body to show the stylus horizontal plane, and set-up and adjustments only took a few minutes. So I glowered at Squirt to make sure she didn’t get any ideas, and pulled out my favourite listening test LPs, and got to work.
It was immediately apparent that the MC-1 is not just a good cartridge, but at its price-point, a very good cartridge indeed. What differentiates a really good cartridge from an also-ran is often its ability to extract the edges of sound, which are usually intrinsically soft – overtones on a wind instrument, or a slightly different timbre on the edge of a drum, for example. It’s these little things that bring us a little closer to what we hear in the concert hall, and the MC-1 has a clarity I particularly appreciated. The snarl and rasp of Corky Segal’s harmonica at the opening of William Russo’s Street Music (DGG 2530 788) was palpable, and a little later the momentary extra sounds of the bows as they hit the string of the double basses viscerally realized. The tambourine – a difficult instrument to reproduce accurately – had the overtones it should.
This is also a beautifully balanced cartridge throughout the frequency range. The top is clear and full of detail – yes, you could get better, but only at considerable extra cost – and minimized the sibilance that is inherent in Belafonte’s mike on Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (LSO 6006). To some it may sound a little lean, but I don’t think it is. It reproduces such things as bass drums with real clarity and attack, as opposed to the more bloated bass so often heard in domestic equipment (and preferred by some). Instruments and voices were pin-point in the horizontal stage, not seeping out sideways. The mid-range, perhaps, was marginally a little thin, but more on this later. Surface noise was never emphasized, tracking was excellent, and the only criticism was that it audibly complained about off-centre LPs, especially if slightly warped – but that may have been the result of using a very heavy cartridge in a unipivot arm like the Moerch.
Two recordings in particular showed the real qualities of the cartridge. Rozhdestvensky’s version of Janáček Sinfonietta is very obscure, but is the most exciting performance I have ever heard. The Soviets could also make really superb recordings, and this is one of them. They couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make good pressings, so this is the Angel pressing of the Melodiya recording (SR-40075), and the MC-1 made the most of it – the tonguing on the snarling brass, the instruments beautifully placed, the wide range of tonal colours, as faithful as I could ask for.
The second was the Electra/Nonsuch digital recording of John Adams’ opera Nixon in China (9 79177-1), an opera I have increasingly come to admire. The recording is spectacular, with a huge dynamic range, and various planes on which voices and instruments are placed. I had planned to simply sample side one. I ended up listening to the whole opera, enthralled, completely forgetting I was reviewing a cartridge. Halfway through my wife appeared, saying “That’s sounds amazing”. And indeed it did. The MC-1 only faltered once, in a huge bass drum thump in Act II. But the slight mistracking may have been the result of the equipment of an earlier owner of the LP not being up to it (and thus causing damage). It never mistracked in the rest of my listening, and happily tracked every band on my test LP. An even more challenging passage a little later in the opera was tracked without hesitation, with deepest percussion thundering out, and that clarity, as you could hear the components of the drum sounds, showing why an apparently ‘lean’ bass is often simply a more accurate one. Stunning stuff.
If the horizontal plane of the sound, and the placement of instruments, was exemplary, the sound stage was rather more flat than I am used to (less back-to-front depth). To check this, I compared the LP of Solti’s version of Wagner’s Rheingold (London OSA 1039) with the original CD release (London 414 101-2). There is a passage where Alberich sings centre right with a brass phrase. With the MC-1 Alberich and brass were side-by-side. On the CD he was slightly forward of the brass. Similarly, where the Rheinmaidens disappear into the distance, on the CD they faded to behind the back wall; on the LP they didn’t get so far. The downside of this experiment was that the LP with the MC-1 was so much clearer, so much more tonally accurate and smoother than the CD, that I never want to hear what was one of my favourite CDs again, unless it’s in the car.
However, the relative lack of depth showed up more on rock music, especially live concerts. The first side of Jean-Michele Jarre’s Concert in China (Polydor PODV 3) is a marvel of depth, as different sounds, electronic and otherwise, can literally extend in a plane from near your ears to well behind the speakers. With the MC-1, I reveled in the tiniest details the cartridge extracted, but it was all pretty much between the speakers. Combined with the (apparently) leanish sound, it was, well, rather unexciting, and I had a similar experience with some other rock LPs.
There is, though, one rather unusual item in the specifications. The recommended loading is 100 – 1,000 ohms – such a big range is uncommon. I was listening at 162 ohms. What would happen if I increased it? Tweak time.
I don’t normally like doing too much tweaking – I want to listen to music, not to equipment – but here it seemed necessary. Increasing the load (I tried 321 and 640) fattened up the mid-range, and that Concert in China took on a whole new dimension, with a real and exciting 3D-effect front to back. To make sure I wasn’t imagining it, I tried the Rheingold again. Sure enough, Alberich and the brass were now on slightly different planes.
There was a cost to this. The higher the load, the less detailed the sound became. To check this, I played ‘England’ from P.J. Harvey’s Mercury-award winning Let England Shake, one of my favourite recent albums. This voice on track is recorded with a lot of echo, and at 640 ohms that was really apparent, too much so, as if it were a bathtub placed at the back of the studio. At 162 the echo was still there, but much reduced, and the clarity and detail of the voice snapped more into place.
My speculation on this – and it is only speculation – is that at a lower loading the cartridge is actually reproducing the space of the recording (studio or otherwise) more accurately. At a higher loading it is actually introducing a tiny amount of distortion, especially in the mid-range, rather like a tube amp, and that is responsible for the ‘fatter’ sound, and the increased back-to-front stage. If I primarily listened to rock music, I would load the cartridge at a higher rating, to get that increased – if perhaps spurious – sense of excitement.
But for classical and jazz music the wonderful clarity and accuracy of this cartridge more than makes up for an apparent reduced depth, and I kept the resistance at 162 for the rest of my listening. Adding a bit of capacitance (something the pundits say doesn’t a difference to a moving coil cartridge, but subtly does) filled that mid-range just a little, and just enough.
I tried one more experiment. There are very many who, not being able to afford a $3,000 new turntable, have instead bought a used vintage turntable. And it doesn’t have to be a famous one (they are now too expensive, anyway) – there were some really excellent but not so obviously ‘desirable’ turntables, especially right at the end of the LP era. There is absolutely no reason why one shouldn’t use a $1000 cartridge with such a turntable, assuming it is of quality and the arm and cartridge are compatible – indeed, it might be a really worth upgrade.
One of my turntables is a JVC QL-Y55F direct drive turntable with a servo-controlled arm. I really like it – it looks beautiful, it’s fully automatic, and the servo-controlled arm is a marvel of its kind (to design and make one now is simply beyond the budgets of modern, small-scale turntable manufacturers). Current prices range from $350 to well over $1,000 for a really good one. I fitted the cartridge to the JVC’s straight arm wand – no problem accommodating the cartridge weight with the JVC’s extra counterweight – and sat back to listen.
No, the bass didn’t have quite the slam you get on a Garrard, and the breaths of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s ‘Homeless’ (Graceland, Warner Brothers 92 54471) weren’t quite as detailed. But the wonderful airiness of this cartridge was there, and I found myself once again forgetting I was supposed to be reviewing a cartridge, and simply listened. When I came back down to earth, I asked myself if I could live with this combination if I didn’t have the Garrard. The answer was a resounding yes, and allowing say, $450 for a good used example, one would have a $1500 turntable/cartridge combination that would surprise a lot of audio lovers.
In conclusion, I loved this cartridge. I loved its clarity, its accuracy, its wonderfully clean bass – its musicality. I loved that I completely forgot about it, and just listened to music, and watched the pile of LPs to listen to get larger and larger. I do think, though, that the presentation could have been better – first, a stylus guard, and second some fuller instructions that discuss the resistance loading. For this cartridge really did sound quite markedly different at different loadings, and those potential differences could be outlined for the buyer.
That said, I wouldn’t at all be surprised that this cartridge, if Charisma Audio can supply enough, and maintain the price, will come to be seen as something of an audio bargain, especially for lovers of classical music. And I’ve got a strong feeling my search for my new standard cartridge is over.