In the world of well renowned cartridges and old brands what difference a small enthusiast cartridge manufacturer can make? As you’ll learn along the review, if of proper dedication and attitude - a lot!
For any analog enthusiast and connoisseur cartridge represent the hearth of the system. It is almost never the other way around with analog front end setup; you pick up the cartridge, that addresses your attributes and expectation, then you start building the system around it. So, when it comes to such a prolific and intimate decision one really needs to hit “the nail on the head.” Creating a balanced and refined analog playback system is never small endeavour and it comes with a COST!
THE CARTRIDGE MAN
Bernard Li I has been an analog freak for more than 40 years and have owned, reviewed and listened to quite a number of cartridges, tonearms and turntables. Bernard used to be a contributing editor of the number one audio magazine in Hong Kong named Audiotechnique for about 14 years.
His enthusiasm in analog gave him a hope that he could have his own brand of cartridges/tonearms/turntables in the future. Dream finally came true three years ago when Mr. Li met a cartridge designer and builder who could make a line of cartridges according to his requirement.
We can all agree that analog is back in a big way. There are more and more new audiophiles who want a turntable, digitally oriented audiophiles adding a turntable to their existing systems and older audiophiles returning to analog.
Due to the rise in demand, the analog associated gear like all new tonearms and turntable are appearing frequently as well as new manufactures entering the high-end audio market, yet there are really not that many cartridge manufacturers. As a fact most of the cartridge makers are not young at all. Majority of them are easily over 60, 70 or even 80 years of age. Other “sad” reality comes is, that many of the existing manufacturers like Benz Micro, Lyra, Clearaudio and Dynavector simply cannot supply enough cartridges to follow market growth.
Bernard goal from the start was to supply a line of cartridges at affordable prices but with high quality. Nothing is perfect when it comes to the cartridges. Each design has its own strengths and weaknesses and the same applies to other high-end audio products. We cannot say that cone speaker is better than ribbon or ribbon is better than electrostatic or electrostatic is better than horn or horn is better the planar-magnetic. Its simply a matter of choice, system setup and finding the right combination.
Here are few break down points of the Charisma Audio focus points…
Bernard strive to make the line of cartridges to be as neutral as possible. The higher the models, the better the resolution, soundstage, frequency extension, layering, channel separation and control..etc. He found the older Lyra cartridges a bit on the lean side and the Koetsus just the opposite. Therefore his cartridges are not biased to one side or the other side. Charisma cartridges were “voiced” to take the mid path where one can join the best qualities of both sides.
Next important feature goal was the synergy with the phono stages on the market. Proper gain matching is always troublesome. Charisma Audio line of cartridges have about 0.4mV output so that the majority of MC phono stages can easily accommodate them.
Next focus point was open and airy sound. Bernard longstanding experience with multiple cartridge led his to conclusion how some of the “naked” cartridges can easily sound a bit bright and thin and some enclosed designs being oriented in a more dark and dull realms. This is also the reason why Charisma Audio cartridges are semi-enclosed.
All of Bernard’s cartridges comes with a pretty rigid body. The basic MC-1 and MC-2 employ a thick aluminum body with a weight of 12g and the Reference Series sports wood bodies with high density, hardness and weight. The Reference One uses an amboyna burl wood body which has a density of 47 lb/cu ft and a rupture of 17980 psi while the Reference Two uses bocote wood which has a density of 58 lb/cu ft and a rupture of 15580 psi.
Cantilever is very critical to cartridge performance, it is better to be hard (for rigidity) and light (for fast response). For rigidity, the MC-1 employs a titanium alloy cantilever, sapphire for the MC-2 and ruby for the Reference One and Two. For lightness, cantilever diameter of the MC-1 is 0.29mm, 0.32mm for the MC-2 and 0.29mm for the Reference One and Two. Due to the hardness of jewel material, it is very difficult to get the diameter down to these thicknesses.
Bernard put a lot of the attention to the wiring for the generator. 6N OCC copper is used with the MC-1, single crystal high purity copper for the MC-2 and ultra high purity single crystal copper for the Reference One and extremely high purity -ultra fine single crystal copper for the Reference Two.
Bernard strongly believe how suspension material of a cartridge is very important therefore all of Charisma Audio cartridges uses a special formulated rubber for suspension, made with special technology and using multiple aging process for maximum performance and reliability. Bernard ensued me how this rubber will not dry up or crack for an extended period of time to degrade the sound.
Charisma Audio cartridge project is a multi-country project. In other words, it is a combination of parts and work from a few countries. Most of the parts are custom made. Bernard has an active role with co-designing along with the cartridge maker who has more than 25 years of experience with cartridge design and repair. He is also a watch maker and repair technician.
All prototypes are tested locally and with the worldwide testing being carried by experienced analog connoisseurs.
Since most of the design, arrangement and work are done in Canada and some of the parts are custom made in Canada as well, therefore, Charisma Audio declares the Canada as country of the origin.
There is never enough careful dedication when setting up the new cartridge. Even after the years of practice and long mileage, there will always be some nervous feeling in the air with every new installation. Cartridge is one of the most fragile products in high-end audio product line and you can never be to slow and dedicated with the mounting. Once the well versed and slow paced installation process was over it was time for a first break in spins.
As with all the cartridges there is initial break in time, where the sound always changes after the certain point. Sadly after that interval we are on the path of deterioration. This reminded me about my father recent comment. He said, that after hitting the fifties, you counting the hours :). Same material logic applies to the cartridges and tubes…
I’ve looked in my listening notes and the comments pointed in few directions regarding the changes. A bit stressful first impressions were positively uncharged after some 25+ records. Slowly Reference two started to unveil its real character.
In the hearth of the matter! Embodiment of the pure musical DNA… This is what it matters and what accounts for my attention when it comes to the vinyl cartridges. At this price range there are certain expectations to be met without any excuses. Music must come forward and phono cartridge should convey the level of potency, that not only captivate ones focus, but also resolve in musical flow, that offers a grander view into the black grooves.
Michael Franks half inch master pressing of his legendary album Tiger In The Rain falls under the personal fav. This is among his early mastery craft. Michael works were usually closely connected with two legendary producers Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmitt. On this album he joined forces with John Simon know for his work with iconic artists like Leonard Cohen, The Band and Janis Joplin.
This album carries unique aura and musical flow that so many Michael Franks fans enjoys for decades, me myself included :). Lyrical interplay and expert playing of Ron Carter, Bucky Pizzareli, Kenny Baron and Flora Purim to name a few really reveals this album ability to push cartridge into the heavy tasking. I also own the normal pressing copy and the differences are not subtle by any means, yet in order to distinct them, cartridge under the stress really needs to bring certain level of performance.
Charisma Audio Reference Two Moving Coil Cartridge cartridge managed to lucidly portray the normal and half inch speed mastered vinyl in similar way to the bigger brothers with embodiment of whats its most important. Not a small thing and worthy of pointing at.
With half inch speed master in play the level of intimacy and musical flow captivated my critical mind and musical inner clock. Yes, the subtle level of intimacy was there, the sense of interplay and music flow was of not so small scale and the potency was further on revealed with an intriguing Nancy Brick vinyl record album. This is one of the better representatives of contemporary melahonic albums. This nordic duo exemplary captured the safe side of the dark with a poetic and lyric fusion that embarks a lasting emotional impact not easily being brought to the upper level of performance.
With O.K. cartridges you’ll get an invitation to their lush/grey universe, yet only when you move up the ladder where the sense of emotional flow starts to materialize with broader set of constitutional attributes. Here again Reference Two vividly encapsulated their strongest agenda cutting into the core of the musical message pushing itself into the higher league.
What good is any cartridge if it fails to decipher music at the level where emotional bond between the performer and listener be can established. In the world of high-end audio there are many trends. One of the strongest ones pursue the transparent, so called revealing nature of the high-end audio performance. All good if that is they personal key for unlocking a certain agenda. On the other shore there is the archaic, stand still standard that aims for music at it is. In the absence of sensual sparkling such push forward and “edgy” cartridge represent much less value for me. Music in its nature comes as a multi potent energy, that can affect our inner world and departs from clinical dissection of the sound. Music’s DNA embodies much different core values and constitutional parts and particles. With certain products such connection is quickly established, in avoidance of thickest curtains and foggy layers. These blocks of different kind of values escapes from the real virtues. At the certain point the high-end audio reproduction must transcend the technicalities and simply convey the closest possible illusion of the real music. This is where Reference Two strikes with double dosage.
Bernard Li put a lot of passion, research and know how into creating Reference Two MC cartridge. This cartridge fast forward s one on the plane where musical essence reciprocate with genuinely established grounds.
Reference Two performance doesn’t reach the level of upper and more expensive cartridges from Lyra, My Sonic Lab or Miyajima Laboratories, but Reference Two manages to encapsulate heck a lot of the attributes of the bigger players with sense of real musical flow, correct tone and timbre. It clearly points into the direction where the interactiveness can be instantly established with properly matching phono stage. My Thrax Audio Orpheus phono stage comes with almost perfect loading and Reference Two could found spot on synergy with it resulting in quite unexpected matched embraced with more then just positive attributes. It locked and load.
Charisma Audio Reference Two Moving Coil Cartridge cartridge doesn’t compete to be a champions among the transparent cartridges. It rather focus on the proper balance of warmth and resolution. From what I could understand this was also Bernard goal and direction with voicing of the Reference Two.
For what it represent and how far Bernard Li managed to push his current flagship cartridge, final sonic results exemplary shows how dedication and proper design choices can result with the ability to stand out of the crowd. With some of the astronomical cartridge pricings in the high-end audio market and a lot of eschewed solutions, Charisma Audio Reference Two Moving Coil Cartridge deserves its own spot in the the analog world. I’m happy to award Bernard Li efforts and utmost passion that materialized in Reference Two with the Mono & Stereo Highly Recommended award.
From what I’ve learned this is not Bernard’s LI final word and we can expect some more interesting cartridges coming from the Charisma Audio in the near future.
TEXT: Matej Isak
Retail price: $2,695
Output Voltage: 0.38 mV at 3.54 cm/sec
Coil: Special iron crossed-coil with extremely high purity and ultra fine single crystal copper
Stylus: Super fine line contact nude diamond
Vertical Tracking Angle: 20 degrees
Internal Impedance: 12 ohms
Recommended Loading: 100 – 1,000 ohms
Dynamic Compliance: 15 um/mN
Frequency Response: 20 – 25,000 Hz ± 1 dB
Channel Balance: better than 0.5 dB
Channel Separation: better than 30 dB
Cartridge Body: Bocote Wood
Cartridge Weight: 7.1 g
Recommended Tracking Force: 2.0 g ± 0.1 g
Tracking Ability at 315 Hz / 2 g: 80 uM
Recommended Tonearm Mass: medium
Break-in Period: 50 hours
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