CHARISMA AUDIO SIGNATURE ONE CARTRIDGE REVIEW

Richard H. Mak writes: "If there is one game in High-End audio that’s gaining popularity right now, it is the ever-Inflationary-MSRP game, and I mean it is really getting out of hand in 2020.  Amplifiers costing more than condos, and speakers the price of a small yacht. Cartridge’s are no different, my favorite cartridge on earth, the ZYX Optimum 1 Ohm Special Edition, cost a whopping $17,000. How about the $16,000 Clearaudio Goldfinger, or the $15,000 Koetsu Coralstone?"

You don’t need me to be the ambassador of dissension, just go onto any audiophile forums, and before you long you’ll see the dissenters out in full force, ridiculing the price of equipment relative to their performance.    They do make a valid point, these exorbitant MSRPs (which, btw stands for Manufactured Suggested Retail Price) leaves very little fanfare for the common man except the top 1% of income earners.    

In the United States, you need to be making $ 421,926 to qualify as the top 1% of earners. Assuming if you meet the mark and make exactly $425,000, you’ll be paying $150,000 in taxes. But for the rest of the “Rich Grunts”, after mortgage payments, car expenses, and a couple of kids in colleges, you aren’t exactly left with that much money to spend on 17 Grand cartridges, let alone $500,000 speakers or $300,000 amplifiers. Let’s be honest here if Tesla with all its innovation costs $50,000, that speaker is not worth half a million dollars. The game is almost silly, but some billionaire from somewhere will pay for it so there you go, the game keeps on being played. 

One person is bucking that trend, however, and that person is Bernard Li of Charisma Audio. 

Recently, I accidentally got my hands on his newest, greatest, and the most expensive “Top-of-the-line”, the Signature One cartridge which carries an eye-popping super-duper uber-expensive price tag of just, …………….. $3,800.

“Come again, Bernard?”

“Yes, it is $3,800. I am not an aggressive person, I hope more people can afford my cartridges.”.

Not a wise decision I said.  It needs to be at $13,800, and after listening to it, I think it ought to be $ 15,000 at a minimum. Charisma’s marketing materials and his website are also not posh enough. I know Bernard is not an aggressive person, but it is not about him but the image which the brand projects. 

Everyone is playing that game. You throw the lure as far out into the deep end as you can, it doesn’t matter if it cost 1/50th the MSRP to make, you inflate the number as big as possible as to establish yourself as the King of the Hill, and if just one 2nd generation kid of a billionaire with too much cash to throw bites onto the lure, you’re set for months. It will also pay for many issues of magazine covers. The speaker, amps, and just about every high-end manufacturers from cars, to yachts, to watches, to pens to handbags, literally everyone is playing that game, so “why aren’t you playing that game?”.

“I just want to be honest about my products”.   

How noble.  But as his friend, I was pulling my hairs out.  

At $ 3,800, people would think this is not up there with the big boys, so my job today, if I’m successful, is to tell you that it can and it will roll with the big boys.  

The Signature One is an absolutely fantastic cartridge for the money. I did review the Reference One and Reference Two on Issue No. 75 of TONEAudio Magazine several years ago. At the time I thought the Reference One and Two are great natural and organic sounding cartridges that may not have the highest resolution, but they exhibit a warm and natural-sounding tonal balance, which makes them both attractive at their corresponding price points. And now the Signature One, delivering much more than the Reference One and Two, and it is literally another league up, if not more. 

The Signature One has some major technical differences versus its predecessors. The body material is now made of Ebony. The Cantilever remains the same and is made of Ruby. The Coil is now a square one made of iron with custom made alloy wiring.  The cartridge outputs 0.4mV with an internal impedance of 12 ohms. I’d prefer a much smaller internal impedance which would translate into a much smaller coil winding. A small coil winding allows the cantilever to have more agility, which translates into better details and better dynamics.  But that would drastically reduce the output, which would not be in line with Li’s motto of a “cartridge for the masses”. He wants the output to be higher so it can be easily matched with any phono stages on the market, hence the bigger coil winding.

“Come on Bernard, divulge some secrets. What did you do to make it sound so good?”.  Li wouldn’t say much, except he said the square coil winding made dramatic improvements. He also spent hundreds of hours experimenting between the wires used in the coil. In the end, he didn’t choose copper or silver, both of which have their own shortcomings according to Li. The wire used in the cartridge is proprietary alloy materials but Li wouldn’t say more than that. He also said the damper material wasn’t chosen arbitrarily, it was custom made to his specification after many trial and errors. It is almost like the pot of curry made by my friend’s mom. She can’t tell you the recipe, but if you want it she can make it for you, but just two extra cumin seeds and the taste will be thrown off balance. It is the same with cartridge designs.

I listened to the Signature One cartridge over nine months while I was reviewing several turntables and tonearms, and I was able to have a pretty good handle on its sonic characteristics. 

I always find it difficult to describe sounds without a point of reference, but manufacturers do not like direct A/B comparisons, God forbid if I should say A is better than B, then oftentimes they will either demand you to pull the review or some will threaten with a lawsuit, so writers often thread carefully and I won’t be the exception. Li and I are good friends, and I believe he will not sue me, so let’s find out how much of his feathers I can ruffle.  

Right off the bat, I can tell you that the Signature One doesn’t have the highest resolution. No, that crown still goes to the $17,000 ZYX Optimum 1 Ohm cartridge, but that’s only if you match it with phono stages with current input circuitries, in my case that would be the CH Precision P1 and X1.  Without getting too deep into the topic of current input phono stages and their effects on low impedance cartridges, let’s just say this combination delivered the highest resolution I have ever heard. However, the 4 Box CH plus the ZYX Optimum 1 Ohm cost over $100,000, and the Signature One wasn’t too far behind when I paired it with the Tenor P1 ($ 55,000), or the Luxman EQ500 ($ 6,500) phono stage, so for a much smaller price tag, you are getting a whole lot of details for a lot less money. This is not difficult to demonstrate, throw on the RCA Royal Ballet album, and just pay attention to the harp and the strings on the Swan Lake side of the LPs.  Pay attention to the air and ambiance around the harp and the violin, and Voila! You can easily discern the difference.  The ZYX Optimum is exceptional, but very few cartridges can reach this level of performance, and the majority of which, including my beloved Lyra Olympos, the My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum, or Ultra Eminent BC, or the Goldfinger Statement, but within that mix I’ll also throw in the Signature One, all of which can get real close, almost reaching the stratospheric level of details of the ZYX. Almost, but not quite. That is to say, the Signature One is not the best, but it is up there amongst the group of the very best, falling within the say, 80th percentile. As for ranking them in the order of the most detailed, that may be considered as ruffling too many feathers of too many manufacturers, so I’ll leave it at that.  

The Signature One also doesn’t have the most oomph or dynamism. No, that crown goes to the Clearaudio Goldfinger V2 (not the Goldfinger Statement), or the newer cartridge, the My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum which by the way, has a more natural sound to it versus the V2 or the Goldfinger Statement. All of these cartridges deliver more slam and oomph if that is what you are looking for. And for that matter, the relatively cheaper Titanium V2 also delivers remarkable slam and oomph, but still, we are talking $ 10,000 so there you have it.  $3,800 gets you a whole lot of rock-solid dynamics with the Signature One. Do you want proof? Throw on Pink Floyd’s Pulse album, and if that’s not enough, try Mad Maxx Fury Road’s soundtrack and you’d pray your amp does not drive your speakers to kingdom come. The Signature One playing the Mad Max Fury Road is fully capable of checking your amp or speaker out early so be careful with that volume control.  Without a direct A/B comparison, it will be hard to notice any difference.  I was very pretty happy with the Signature One’s bass dynamics which was not just adequate, but it also has definition and clarity, easily demonstrated by the famous Britten Conducts English Music for Strings album. Play the “Playful Pizzicato” track, and you’ll see what I mean by bass texture and definition.  A lesser cartridge will deliver one gobbled lump of blurriness with no snap and no clarity, the Signature One, however, can do just the opposite, ie, good bass definition and good clarity, again reaching the territory of the handful of top cartridges I have in my arsenal. 

The Signature One also doesn’t have the most organic human-like naturalness, that crown goes to the $10,000 Kondo IO-M. Some may disagree and say it should go to their $ 15,000 Koetsu Coral Stone, or the lesser Rosewood Platinum, or the Miyajima whatever, or Air Tight PC-1, or the Dynavector XV-1S…………...that debate hasn’t been settled so let’s not settle it here. No, you don’t get the exaggerated expression of how the cartridge made me cry or how it made my hairs stood up.  None of that happened, not even with the Kondo IO-M. But the Signature One definitely falls under the “Organic” sounding camp of cartridges, and not the “Analytical” sounding camp of cartridges. 

Manufacturers do not like the word “Analytical” so let’s not name any names lest they sue me tomorrow, but most people will know what I meant. Analytical isn’t necessarily a bad trait as it comes in handy with certain types of music, such as electronica or heavy metal. The Signature One, however, is definitely “Organic” enough for me to comfortably play any sort of human voice, or violin strings and not have to worry that it will not do enough to impress my friends. I will also say that the Signature One does not veer too far to the end of the Koetsu and Kondo IO-M, as I find both sacrifices a bit of definition as a trade-off for their ability to convey emotions - that they do exceedingly well, and manufacturers like that word, “Emotions”.  Somehow it creates the image of some artisan living a life of celibacy, diligently winding some cartridges after hours of zen meditation. The Signature One comes in somewhere in the middle, with just the right amount of “emotions” without sacrificing any details and without exaggerated colorations.


Now comes the tricky part, and the part that separates the boys from the men, or to draw the line which separates the ultra-high-end cartridges versus the just-high-end, and sadly it doesn’t necessarily correlate with price.  Ultra-high-end cartridges have the ability to deliver a tonal balance which resembles closely to real-life instruments, one that which does not veer too far to either end of the spectrum, this is done without sacrificing details and transient attack, add onto that solid dynamic contrasts which give instruments weight and clarity in the holographic reproduction of the sonic image, achieve all of this while maintaining composure and instrument separation when the passages get complex and intense.  Wow, what a long mumbo jumbo, but I challenge you to judge a cartridge with the long mumbo jumbo and you’ll quickly discover a lot of very high-priced cartridges cannot deliver all the qualities above at once.  This level of complex evaluation is best performed with complex grand orchestral symphonies which demands a cartridge to decipher not only tonality and details but also how they project themselves relative to the acoustic space, which brings spatial dimension (height, width, and depth) into the equation. The number of recordings which can accomplish this is plentiful, and my list consist of over a hundred records, but a few quick titles which come to mind include Dvorak's New World Symphony with Istvan Kertesz directing the VPO (DECCA SXL 2289 ED1), Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Curzon on Piano, and Szell directing the LSO (DECCA SXL 6023), or RCA’s famous Royal Ballet Album.   Needless to say, the Charisma Signature One is able to achieve what the Reference One and Two cannot, that is to meet the long and tough mumbo jumbo requirements I laid out above and to do so by striking a good balance amongst all the qualities.  The “Ultra-High-End” cartridges I have usually have one or two qualities that they do particularly well, but the Signature One doesn’t have a trait that seems to stand out. It sits somewhere in the middle, now that is very difficult to achieve especially at $ 3,800 hundred bucks, and I believe having a good balance is actually an exceptional trait in itself.

YMMV, Your Mileage May Vary. You can say I’m covering my rear end but I believe this is a reasonable disclaimer to have on the cartridge. Any person with a bit of experience with analog knows that equipment matching plays a big role, and whoever is doing the cartridge setup also plays a big role, so much that it may make or break the sound.  My system is not absolutely neutral sounding, it leans towards the warmer side of the equation so a neutral sounding cartridge will tend to sound warmer in my setup.  

I evaluated the Charisma Signature One on 3 turntables (Well Tempered Lab Amadeus 254, Micro Seiki RS5000, and TW Raven AC) and 3 tonearms (Glanz MH-124S Premium, Well-Tempered Labs LTD, and Rossner & Sohn Si 1.2), and it performed remarkably well in all 3 setups. I would think the odds are good enough to place your bets on it, but if for whatever reason it doesn’t perform as good as you expected versus what I wrote above, remember that you only paid $ 3,800 bucks and at this price level I seriously doubt if too any cartridge can do as well as the Signature One. Or, you can come to my house and see for yourself how it fares against the big boy's side by side with each other.

Is there anything that I do not like about the cartridge?   Nothing.    I can’t say that with all the cartridges I have tried, and even some of the very best cartridges I can think of or currently own, I have something to complain about. 

There is nothing that I do not like about the Charisma Signature One.    Even that wooden box which it comes in, is nicer than any other cartridges I have owned.   So I stand by my conviction, that this cartridge is severely underpriced, which makes it one of the best bang for the buck in the entire cartridge universe.   Hence we are giving it the Mono & Stereo 2020 Best Buy Product Award.

Bernard Li, well done.

Richard H. Mak - Analog Editor

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT

  • Turntables: Well Tempered Labs Amadeus 254, Micro Seiki RS5000, TW Raven AC
  • Tonearms: Well Tempered Labs LTD, Glanz MH-124S Premium, Glanz MH-124S, 
  • Rossner & Sohn Si 1.2
  • Cartridges: Kondo IO-M, My Sonic Lab Signature Platimum, My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent BC, Lyra 
  • Olympos, ZYX Optimum 1 Ohm Special Edition
  • Phono Stages: CH Precision P1 x 4, X1 x 2, Tenor P1, Luxman EQ-500
  • Preamp: McIntosh C1000 Tube
  • Power Amp: McIntohs MC3500 x 5
  • Speakers: Peak Consult Dragon Legend