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July 2015
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Charisma Audio Reference One Moving Coil Phono Cartridge
A delicious desert for a working man's life.
Review By Rick Becker

 

Charisma Audio Reference One Moving Coil Phono Cartridge

 Charisma Audio is a Canadian importer and distributor that has been on the scene there since 2000. They have consistently showed at Montreal, or more recently at the TAVES show in Toronto near their home base. Bernard Li, the founder, has been a familiar face to me for all those years. I have always thought highly of his presentations which consistently display a wide variety of high quality and interesting components. Prior to starting Charisma, Bernard was a reviewer for the leading audio magazine in Hong Kong, Audiotechnique. His interest in audio began with turntables in the mid-1970s and continues to this day with his Charisma line of phono cartridges.

Riding the resurgent wave of interest in analog Bernard jumped into the phono cartridge arena in July, 2013, with his Charisma MC-1, a cartridge that subsequently landed on the front cover of the February 2014 issue of the LP Magazin (Germany) on a turntable and tonearm from Thomas Schick. The MC-1 was followed in August, 2014 by the MC-2. At the time, I turned down the opportunity to review the MC-1 cartridge for two reasons. First, at $1000, it was about the cost of my Dynavector Karat 17D3 cartridge and I didn't want to make a lateral move, price-wise, if the Charisma turned out to be better. And secondly, having only limited upward mobility from a Shure M91ED back in the 1970s to the Dynavector today with only Ortofon OM30 and Clearaudio Virtuoso moving magnet models in between. It is small consolation that few others, if any, have Michael's vast experience coupled with his high degree of expertise. Yet as tireless as he is, in this analog renaissance there is far more product being introduced than he can possibly handle. So when Bernard offered a review sample of his new Reference One moving coil (MC) cartridge ($1975) I decided to ignore my fear and give it a try. What I lacked in hands-on experience would perhaps be balanced in part by my listening experience at shows over the years.

 

Overcoming Fear
I was well aware of my fear of cartridges. They can be very expensive and vulnerable to misuse. And they ultimately wear out. Most of my LP collection is carefully selected garage sale gems and even though I have a VPI-16 record cleaner, they are still used records, not mint condition audiophile grade re-issues. Why would anyone want to spend so much money on something so vulnerable and disposable? The answer, of course, is that the phono cartridge is like tires on a race car. This is quite unlike digital audio where DACs and digital cables become obsolete long before they wear out. When was the last time you heard of a DAC breaking? I learned the importance of improving the digital front end when I reviewed the Calyx 24/192 DAC (also from Charisma Audio). The DAC performed even better when I inserted a piece of ERS paper inside, directly above the circuit board. Wasn't it time to upgrade my analog front end? It's been a couple of years since I completed Stage 1 of my Linn LP12 makeover. It was time to step up to a more expensive cartridge and see what I might be missing.

 

Reference One Phono Cartridge – Getting Started
Presentation isn't more than just that, in my view, but I have to note the very nicely crafted box which was neatly routed out to hold a jeweler's screw driver, a level, two different lengths of screws as well as the cartridge. A pair of screws coming through the bottom held the cartridge firmly in place and recessed magnets held the lid closed. The wood case was enclosed in a finely printed protective cardboard box. With the cartridge facing upward, the ruby cantilever was so fine that at first I thought it was missing. A couple of dark marks on the wood looked like imperfections until I learned that the wood body was made of rare Amboyna burl from padauk trees native to southeast Asia. Before you rage about exotic species, the padauk tree is common and it is only the burls, which are like a cancerous growth on the tree, that are rare. The burl is commonly used in luxury vehicles, turned bowls, veneers and craftsman level furniture. So the small amount that goes into elite phono cartridges is miniscule. The Reference One totals out at 7.1 grams (far lighter than the 12 grams for the MC-1 and MC-2), making it suitable for medium mass tonearms. The arm on my hot-rodded Linn is a Sumiko MMT – respectable, but nothing exotic or unusual, except for a little vibration absorbing substance applied to it, and a small square of ERS paper inserted above the cartridge clips to ward off EMI/RFI and increase transparency. With only my free Enjoy the Music.com protractor and a borrowed digital stylus force gauge (and maybe a magnifying glass) I had the Reference One aligned and sounding good right out of the box at the specified 2.0 gram tracking force. It helps, of course, to do this in a centered, Zen-like state of mind with no distractions.

Mounting the cartridge is just the beginning of the process. The requested break-in time is 50 hours, which I figured translates into about 70 LPs. This is work, since it is not like you can plug in a cable or a component and hit "repeat" on your CD player and walk away for a few days. Each record side has to be cleaned before it is played and the stylus lowered into the AmCan silicone stylus goop, (similar to the Onzow ZeroDust stylus cleaner, but in a less expensive container.) The thoroughbred race horse nature of my modded Linn also requires placement of a TTWeights periphery ring and a Stillpoints LP clamp – every time. When I listened early on, I tried to avoid drawing conclusions. Still, from the very beginning it was obvious that this was a very high quality cartridge and it only improved with time. Fortunately, I was able to work through the break-in process while also breaking in and tweaking the PureAudioConcept Trio 15TB open baffle speakers that appeared in the April issue. Also in the rig was the tube powered Coincident Statement Phono Preamplifier, an unsung world class bargain with a huge separate power supply. Power amp was the Coincident Turbo 845SE (28 wpc with 845 tubes) and the speakers were the PureAudioConcept Trio 15TB and later, my long term reference Kharma speakers.

 

Aesthetic & Design
As an importer and distributor, Bernard Li has pulled together multiple connections and resources from several countries to build his Charisma Audio cartridge line. He is very secretive about his sources, but it doesn't escape me that the Reference One has the same basic shape as many Ikeda cartridges. The random swirls of the burl grain disburse micro-vibrations I suspect and the full sides of the cartridge body protect the motor within. The burl is very difficult to machine and my photographs revealed tiny imperfections that were not noticeable to the casual eye. A vertical line on the face of the body that was only visible in the photos would have been more useful if it had been colored white or gold. This would have been helpful in cuing up the record, especially songs in the middle of the LP, when listening in low light. It exudes simplicity of design, yet a high level of quality – particularly if you appreciate the richness of the burl. While the motor is very well protected, the vulnerable ruby cantilever, by necessity, has to protrude beyond the protective wood body. The high resolution in today's upper level cartridges often comes from using a tighter suspension. This makes jewel cantilevers (ruby, sapphire and diamond) which are all synthetically grown, more vulnerable to snapping than if they were attached to a more compliant suspension. Bernard shared the following about his cantilevers:

Cantilever is very critical to cartridge performance, it is better to be hard (for rigidity) and light (for fast response). For lightness, cantilever diameter of the Reference One is only 0.29mm. Most jewel cantilevers on the market are 0.38mm. Due to the hardness of jewel material, it is very difficult to get the diameter down to this thickness. All our cantilevers are custom made and they can't be ordered in small quantity. Therefore, you can imagine how much money is tied up in this project.

With analog, the risk with cartridges is eventual wear and premature breakage. You have to be committed to a high level of care and sobriety when you shop in the league of the Reference One if you want to maximize the value of your cartridge. Mounting expensive cartridges and playing LP records on expensive turntables is definitely not the same skill set as racing bicycles or riding motorcycles. At last, my experience assembling plastic model airplanes and battleships from WW II as a boy has paid off. And fortunately, my brain has survived the glue.

 

The Sound, Or Rather, The Music
As I said, right out of the box it was clear that this was a premium cartridge. It was noticeably more detailed than the Dynavector Karat that preceded it, but the defining characteristic that was evident from the start and only improved with time was the inherent smoothness of the Reference One. It was like switching from a real SUV with separate frame and chassis to a German touring car. Mind you, I like both vehicles, but they are best at different tasks. The Karat is a great cartridge with dynamic and transparent sound, but it has a punchiness that, in comparison with the Reference One, keeps reminding me of the presence of the musical supply chain. The Reference One is so smooth, fast and free of grain that you forget about the rest of the system and revel in the beauty and detail of the music. Micro detail is so fine that notes appear in familiar recording where you didn't think any existed. One musician does not obscure another. Softer notes are not lost in the bloom and decay of louder notes. The attack of notes clearly identifies the instrument but doesn't come at you with a knife. It's definitely Smoothville, which translates into hour after hour of tireless listening pleasure.

Charisma Audio Reference One Moving Coil Phono Cartridge

Sure, macro dynamics happen, but there is no cutting edge, no blood on your chair. The dynamics come from the music itself, not from the super fine line contact nude diamond stylus scraping against the groove. The palette of tonal color has very fine gradations that make the music even more convincing. Tonal balance seems perfectly flat, compromised only by the quality of my subwoofers and the limitations of the Kharma being driven by only 28 watts each, albeit these are pretty glorious tube watts. The treble, being handled by my Kharma's original cloth dome tweeter, seemed open and airy, though my aging ears are not the best instruments for measuring the upper reaches of this cartridge, which is said to range from 20 Hz to 25 kHz (+/- 1dB). My wife, who is working in Cleveland this year, hasn't been around enough to voice her valued opinion on the treble. Sounding as good as it does from say 25 Hz through the mid-treble, and not feeling anything on my skin or eyeballs to suggest otherwise, I suspect the Reference One is easily good up to the 20 kHz level where the 845 tubes start to roll off, and probably as high as is claimed. With the open baffle PureAudioProject Trio TB15 speaker the Tang Band W8-1808 full range driver (45Hz to 20 kHz) sounded even airier, most likely due to the open baffle design. A speaker with a folded ribbon tweeter and higher extension might have been interesting to try. Of course your room and its furnishings will significantly affect your results as well.

 

Louie, Louie
"Louie, Louie" by the Kingsmen is the benchmark of obscurity for my generation. On a recent road trip I heard a mini-documentary on NPR on the death of the original lead singer Jack Ely at age 71.For the recording of the original single the microphone was placed high above the group who were positioned in the round, making it difficult to sing into it, and resulting in the poor audio quality. (The recording session cost a mere $36 back in the day and has sold more than 12 million copies.) The band split shortly after the recording and Ely reportedly never received a cent from the proceeds of this iconic song. Research this history; it's interesting. Wondering if I could achieve more definitive results than the FBI about the nature of the lyrics, I pulled out my Wand 657 copy of The Kingsmen in Person Featuring Louie, Louie. The album features Lynn Easton on vocals, and does not credit Jack Eli for his vocal on Louie, Louie but it sounds exactly like the original single that went all the way to #2 in the pop chart. I've probably heard this song a hundred times over the past 52 years. Surely the Charisma Reference One could pull out the lyrics on my high end rig. Well, I'm here to tell you the Feds got it right. Not only could I not decipher the lyrics, but I could ascertain the fact that there are no discernable words in the English language where the purported "dirty lyrics" were thought to lie. More importantly, listening to Louie, Louie made me feel like I was seventeen all over again. Priceless!

 

Louis And The Good Book
Switching to the other Louie, I pulled a Louis Armstrong off the shelf. Not the remastered 45 rpm one we've all heard time and again at audio shows, but one that mixes jazz, blues and gospel – an antidote to "Louie, Louie". While it did not have quite the transparency of a 45rpm re-mastered disc, it came very close in focus and dynamics, and certainly equaled it in pace, rhythm and timing. When Louis takes a solo on his horn there is no question who is playing. Not bad for a garage sale find that was hand dated in blue ink "Sept. 10, 1958, $3.50". In spite of it not being a familiar LP, I was riveted to the experience and my toe unconsciously tapped along, which I attribute to both the greatness of the man and the cartridge. It pulls the music out of the grooves without calling attention to itself or the rest of the electro-mechanical process. Smooth.

Charisma Audio Reference One Moving Coil Phono Cartridge

Both Louis and Louie LPs were mono, pressed within six years of each other. The Kingsmen album was a little lighter, but the Armstrong LP from Decca felt like 180gm. In listening to them it wasn't until well into the second side of the Louis that it dawned on me that I was listening to a monaural record. Sure, it was a super fine line contact stylus designed for stereo LPs, but it created a sensation of real musicians in real space. Not side wall to side wall space, but front to back depth with enough body in the middle to easily fill the soundscape between the speakers and allow me to imagine I was listening to real musicians. Distance from the performers was easily controlled with the volume. With mono I didn't have pinpoint imaging (which is pretty unrealistic compared to a live performance anyhow), but I did have a very convincing presentation. I don't know how many LPs in my collection are mono, possibly enough to justify another turntable set-up with a dedicated mono cartridge, but at any one time there really is only one LP that matters – the one I'm listening to. And the Reference One seems to work perfectly fine for both stereo and mono. Maybe I'm a victim of my own ignorance in the sense of "what you don't know won't hurt you," but the monaural presentation of the Reference One makes me wonder why we ever bothered to switch to stereo. (Stereo was invented for film so that actors on the left of the screen actually sounded like they were on the left.) I suppose stereo matters more in the age of YouTube than in earlier days when music was mostly played without concurrent visual images.

 

Garbage In, Gourmet Out?
I think not. Every component category has the potential to enhance a system with an upgrade. Speakers get a lot of attention from audiophiles, spouses and guests because they are visually prominent and have the greatest margin for success or failure when interfacing with the room. When was the last time someone walked into your room and cried "Oh, man! Look at that phono cartridge!!!"? But speakers can only work with the tonal quality and resolution they are handed by the system ahead of it. Most successful systems I've heard achieve this with a balance of quality from the supply of electricity right through to the speakers themselves with special attention to speaker positioning and the room itself being important factors in the final equation. Tweaking is also critical to achieving maximum performance from products. I've often postulated that the closer to the signal path a tweak can be implemented the more effective (and cost effective) it is likely to be. With a phono cartridge we have the first electro-mechanical interface in the reproductive chain. Aside from re-designing a cartridge, there is not a lot you can do to tweak it.

You might get Peter Ledermann at The Soundsmith to rebuild a lesser cartridge with a ruby cantilever and new diamond stylus. Synergistic Research has their PHT tuning device that comes in two flavors. Vibration absorbing mounting screws and washers are available to quell vibrations and mass-load a headshel... and I've even toyed with the idea of painting a cartridge with AVM to tighten up the sound, but have never mustered enough courage to try it. Selection of a tonearm that works synergistically with a cartridge (or vice versa) is another important consideration, as is a favorable matching of turntable and tonearm. Unfortunately I don't have other tonearms or turntables to use with the Reference One, but I suspect it would perform even better with a better tonearm than my humble EMT. Taking the opposite tact, it would be interesting to hear what the Reference One might sound like on a souped-up direct drive turntable from the 1970s. Hmmmm.

And speaking of garbage, I've had very good experience keeping the Reference One stylus clean by dipping it into AmCan's silicone stylus cleaner which is specially formulated for this purpose. The Reference One makes noticeably less noise when being lifted from the silicone than my Dynavector Karat 17D3. Perhaps the stylus collects less dirt while playing, or maybe its profile allows it to exit the silicone with more grace.

 

Which Porsche Do You Prefer?
"The magazine further cites an internal remark from Porsche that suggests designing a car to be "as fast as possible" and "as enjoyable to drive as possible" are now two significantly distant objectives that can't be adequately united under one car." – Bold Ride, June 5, 2015

Or to put it another way, do you prefer the fast, technically superb guitar playing of Joe Bonamassa, the emotionally evocative playing of BB King, or the slow smooth hand of Eric Clapton? When you reach this level of guitar playing or cartridge performance the element of personal preference comes into play. And your sense of value also shifts upward. Until I experienced the Reference One I thought the $800 to $1200 price range was the sweet spot or the bend in the elbow of the price/performance chart. When I first got into high-end audio back in 1991 some of the best cartridges were primarily in the $1100 to $2200 range. In today's dollars that range would be $1930 to $3860. Current high-end audio cartridges, aside from an unusual EMT, range from $2700 to $15,000. In that context, the Charisma Reference One sounds like a bargain. Is it as good as an $8500 cartridge – to pick a mid-point in that range? At the Montreal show earlier this year Louis Desjardins presented both his recently upgraded Kronos Pro turntable equipped with a ZYX UNIverse II ($8500) along with his relatively more affordable Sparta turntable featuring an Ikeda Kai ($10,000). I've paid close attention to both these turntables since they were introduced so I feel comfortable in saying these very expensive cartridges were noticeably superior to the Reference One. It wasn't just the superior Kronos turntables. Whether these more expensive cartridges represent a good value will depend on your turntable and the depth of your pockets.

That room in Montreal was arguably the best sounding room at the show. For the High End show in Munich Louis upped the ante and presented his Kronos Pro with a $15,000 ZYX UNIverse Premium to better appeal to those who can afford his turntables. For him, it is a marketing expense and the ZYX will be reserved for special presentations, not his daily driver. All of this is to say that yes those ultra-expensive cartridges really are special, but as the quote about Porsche suggests, you can't have it all in one model. If you really want to enjoy your music, having ultimate speed and detail at an uncomfortable price may not be the answer you're looking for. Nor is the Reference One going to be the ultimate Charisma cartridge as another more expensive model is already in the works. It may well come down to what The Rolling Stones sang years ago: You can't always get what you want..." and the smooth talking Reference One may be what you need.

 

Summary
In reading quotes from other reviewers on the websites of different cartridge manufacturers, I was struck by the near uniformly high praise of every model from bottom to top of the line. Every model was "the Greatest"! Well, the Reference One may be the greatest Charisma cartridge so far, but honestly, there are some really special cartridges available today. The problem is they cost like crazy and the fear of breaking one, or even wearing one out, could be a major deterrent to even playing your records. Which would you rather have – a daily driver or a trailer queen you only use to impress your friends? The Reference One bumped my cartridge comfort zone from $1200 up to $2000. It's probably even better than that, but I lack the experience to make the claim. Just when I thought it was all said and done, I fired up the rig and cued up the Blues Brothers for the third or fourth time with this cartridge. The feet started twitching, goosebumps started running up and down my arm and I almost jumped for the fridge to get Elwood another "Rubber Biscuit". This has been a common response to virtually everything I listen to from Carlos Santana to Steely Dan. (The feet don't bop to classical music, but the goosebumps appear.) The Reference One is a delicious desert for a working man's life that serves up speed, transparency and tonal color in smooth proportion that keeps you wanting to hear more and more music – pick your favorite genre. I'm buying the review sample, so if you don't hear from me for a while – send help. I'll be lost in the grooves.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Moving coil stereo phono cartridge
Cartridge Weight: 7.1 grams
Cartridge Body: Amboyna burl wood
Cantilever: Ruby
Stylus: Super fine line contact nude diamond
Vertical Tracking Angle: 20 degrees
Coil: Pure iron crossed-coil with ultra-high purity single crystal copper
Output Voltage: 0.42 mV at 3.54 cm/sec.
Internal Impedance: 14 Ohms
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 25 kHz (+/- 1 dB)
Channel Balance: Better than 0.5 dB
Channel Separation: Better than 30 dB
Dynamic Compliance: 10 um/mN
Recommended Loading: 100 to 1000 Ohms
Recommended Tracking Force: 2.0 grams (+/- 0.1 grams)
Tracking Ability @ 315 Hz / 2 Grams: 80 uM
Recommended Tonearm Mass: Medium
Break-In Period: 50 hours
Price: $1975

 

Company Information
Charisma Audio
Suite 86, Unit A14
4261, Highway 7
Markham, Ontario
Canada L3R 9W6

Voice: (905) 470-0825
Fax: (905) 470-7966
E-mail: charisma@rogers.com
Website: www.CharismaAudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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