The first time I heard Bernard Li’s new Reference One ($1975 USD), it was at the 2014 TAVES show, where Charisma Audio shared a room with one of its’ dealers, Update TV & Stereo. While many (MANY) rooms had static analog displays, Bernard had not one, but two Well-Tempered turntables spinning out the glorious sound of music. The demos were superb, as I noted at the time – these were some of the best sounds to be heard at the show. For the Reference One, his new flagship cartridge, Bernard decided to demo it with the cheapest phono stage he had available, the C$1325 Audio Exklusiv P 0.2, and the lesser of the two WTL’s. He did this to demonstrate the performance of the cartridge itself – and the results were stunning.
Fast forward a couple of months, and I (very happily) ended up with almost this same entire front end to review for Wall of Sound — the Reference One MC, Well-Tempered Amadeus GTA Mk2, and the AE P 0.2. More on that later; this review is concerned with the Ref One cartridge.
Bernard delivered the setup already set up, so once I had put some very enjoyable play time on it, my task was to start decoupling this “package” of goodies, so I could evaluate the components separately, on their own merits. I started with the Ref One, pulling it off the WT and mounting it on my reference Teres. This is a physically beautiful cartridge, easy to handle and mount, a nice body shape with good feel, and with its’ cantilever protruding only slightly from below the wood body. It doesn’t want to jump out of your hand like a frog – thank God. Still, ruby cantilevers make me nervous, and cost-wise, well, as we say in Canada, that’s a lot of browns (hundred-dollar bills). A stylus guard would have been very welcome. The R1 comes in an attractive, sturdy (heavy!) wood box, as befits a high-end moving-coil. It’s tapped for threaded bolts, and comes with the needed hardware – high-quality Allen bolts in several lengths, a very nice driver, and a large bubble level. Again, a stylus guard (and brush) would be nice, though I realize that those peripherals are often themselves the cause of accidents.
The R1 therefore replaced the Denon DL103 in my analog system, for this review. While I love the 103, I’ve owned better cartridges, and I know it isn’t infallible. The Charisma R1 made its’ arrival known immediately – delivering a very balanced and confident performance. It coupled well with my Jelco SA750E tonearm, and from the getgo, I knew something special was happening here. Average recordings like Bruce Cockburn’s Salt Sun & Time became clearer and, to put it simply, more enjoyable. Audiophile-grade jazz records like Ben Webster At The Renaissance sounded sublime, with more detail and a richness of tone than I’d ever heard from my turntable. Blockbusters from the RCA, Decca and EMI catalogues were rendered in spectacular fashion – dynamic, fast, clean and beautifully textured.
Redux? Composed, neutral, detailed, not quite dark, but having just enough warmth so it never sounded sterile or strident. But there was more.
There’s a smoothness to the Reference One’s character, that I want to elaborate on. Whether it’s the stylus shape, the ruby cantilever, or the suspension and body doing its’ work to dampen unwanted resonances – or a combination of the above – I don’t know. But the result is a cartridge that tracks the groove so impeccably well, that I could find no passage of music capable of disturbing its’ delivery. Staccato, fortissimo, the steepest crescendos, or sheer bombast – bring it on. No feathers are ruffled here. Now I know, some audiophiles cringe at words like “smooth”, so let me put your anxious mind at ease. The smoothness of the R1 has nothing to do with euphonic sound, romance, or any obscuring of detail. Actually, it’s the exact opposite. What happens here is startling. By quelling the kind of distortions we associate with tracking error, the Ref One becomes an absolute scalpel of the black disc. Soft passages are as delicate and clean as one could hope for, with plenty of ambience, and backgrounds that are acceptably quiet. Swells and crescendos are handled with equal excellence – never toned down or “polite”, just rich, detailed and easy to enjoy. I’d probably do it more justice with a word like “composure” than smoothness. In short, the meaning here is freedom from distortion, and not at all a helping of euphonic cream. This was most apparent in the midrange, when hearing how it handled massed strings and woodwinds – with palpable grace and beauty, provided the recording was well done.
Does this composure ever work against the R1? Not that I heard. I suppose it’s possible that with some types of music, a hotter pickup might be more suitable. Clearly, the Charisma R1 is designed for flat response. It doesn’t bloat the midbass or “presence” regions with extra energy. It shines with acoustic music recorded live in ‘real’ environments. You’re only going to hear what’s on the disc – but you will hear ALL of it, and you’ll hear it rendered in superb fidelity.
The Ref One brought the best out of the preamps here – my Musical Paradise MP-P1 never sounded so good, and the Audio Exklusiv P 0.2 was a superb match. It also mated beautifully with the Altec 4722 step-up transformer. When NVO’s new SPA One SE arrived, the R1 was ready – now this was no longer hot dating; it was love, rings and engagement. Now, coupled to a truly high-end phono stage, the R1 soared to new heights, and made every listening session a memorable experience. This combination brought my entire system to another level, and provided some of the best analog I’ve ever heard in my home, or anywhere else. Absolutely breathtaking.
The Reference One sounded quite fine right out of the box, but did seem to improve gradually over the first 50 hours or so. This is not a finicky cartridge. It wasn’t affected audibly by changes in temperature, or even small adjustments in geometry or tracking force. I never felt compelled to fuss too much with SRA or azimuth. The specs suggest that the R1 will work well with a wide range of tonearms. At the end of the day, it’s a high-end product that works reliably, and works as it should.
Charisma Audio’s line of cartridges are winners. Not a lot is known about their origin, and Mr.Li is content to let it remain that way. In Europe, he also supplies his line of MC’s through Germany’s Audio Exklusiv, under their name. Whatever the case, it’s very obvious that these cartridges are hand-crafted by masters of the art. Bernard has been working overtime just to satisfy the demand, and that seems likely to continue.
I want to thank Bernard Li for allowing me the opportunity to review the Reference One. I don’t know exactly how the Charisma would fare in head to head battle against other offerings in this price range. But I don’t believe for a second that it would be embarrassed by any. Two thousand dollars is a lot to spend on a phono cartridge, for most people (myself among them). The Charisma Reference One earns its’ pay grade, in my opinion. Highly recommended.
Charisma Audio Reference One, MSRP $1975 (USD)
Web site: www.charismaaudio.com
Product page: www.charismaaudio.com/?page_id=3693