There are maybe a couple of handfuls of reviewers qualified to write an expert review of phono cartridges. I'm not one of them. The problem is there are more cartridges coming out today than truly expert reviewers have time to review. That's good news for vinylists, but a difficult situation for cartridge manufacturers seeking exposure for their newly designed wares. That said, I first heard the Charisma 103 at the TAVES show in Toronto last fall on a Pre-Audio BT-1301G table that is sold direct from Charisma Audio with a linear tracking tonearm ($2800CAD for the table and tonearm). In fact, I heard it side-by-side with the Charisma Reference Two moving coil cartridge ($3500) on a Well-Tempered Royale 400 turntable. The new Charisma 103 is $750. In my show report I wrote:
The Pre-Audio / Audio Exklusiv / Charisma 103MC combination was detailed, transparent and punchier, perhaps appealing more to rock n roll fans. But these are broad generalizations based on listening to a single cut. Considering the wide disparity in cost, these rigs both appear to be winners.
Sensing my enthusiasm for the 103, Bernard Li sent me a review sample. At the very least, I could compare it with his Reference One cartridge which I reviewed and subsequently purchased as my reference. If you have problem with my limited experience with phono cartridges, move on, or take what I have to say with a grain of iodized sea salt. If you have little experience with analog gear, some of the things I learned along the way will most likely be of interest and one discovery should be of interest to all. I have no qualms about pulling up beside a Harley Davidson on my 1981 vintage Suzuki. And though I may not be totally fearless, I trust my ears.
The story begins when I sold off my vintage CAT SL preamp after purchasing the magnificent Coincident Statement Line Stage. I was in need of a phono stage and at that point in time there was not a lot of phono stages on the market that I felt could do justice to the line stage. So I dug deep and bought the Coincident Statement Phono Stage to go with it. I've never looked back; it's world class. The problem was it only takes moving coil cartridges, so once again I was forced to dive into the deep end. (Isn't that the way the high end works?) In asking around for advice on what mc to purchase, the humble Denon 103 with its spherical stylus came up on several occasions. It has a long history and an enviable reputation given its entry level price. There was also the Zu Audio DL 103 (about $400, then) about which Enjoy thee Music.com's Nels Ferre says, "One more thing I need to mention, the Zu DL-103 is by far the absolute best cartridge that I have used... The Zu DL-103 cartridges are produced in batches, supplies are very limited at the present time. Zu's website lists all of the different grades as "sold out" but Sean tells me there are a "few" tucked away. When the remaining few are sold, expect a long wait."
As it was only sporadically available back then, it was very rare. Denon has since come out with their DL-103R to supposedly surpass the original, and Zu has echoed with their own upgrades to that version, once again in short supply. Moreover, a search for wood body Denon DL 103R will turn up a variety of DIY craftsmen who can provide one in a variety of exotic woods. I'm more of a Save the Rainforest kind of guy, in spite of the fact that the amount of wood required for a cartridge is less than half a thumb. The Charisma 103 uses birdseye maple which is exotic in one sense, appearing in only 1% of maple trees, but it is more of a random genetic aberration, not a species that can be cultivated or reproduced. It is not difficult to imagine the random grain pattern of this wood dissipating internal vibration. It is also a hard wood.
Not long after, my friend Tom loaned me some newly acquired Synergistic Research cables – a pair of their latest interconnect, Level 2, and a power cord from the generation prior to the current one, but two generations newer than my own SR power cords. I installed the interconnect between the Sparta and the phono stage, and ran the power cord to the Coincident Turbo. The interconnects made the most significant difference, dramatically improving focus and transparency, even though these were not the model specifically designed for use as phono ICs. The power cord was a worthwhile step up, but lust for their new Atmosphere AC cord with graphene set in. Maybe it was time to sell my 1889 high-wheel bicycle? (This can be a vicious hobby.) You can extrapolate that my opinion of both the Sparta and the 103 took a dramatic leap upward. Unfortunately, Tom ultimately wanted his cables returned. I mean, it's not like he loaned me a hammer, so this was understandable.
Thinking about my cables and realizing it has been ages since I've cleaned the contacts, I took this opportunity to tear my system apart and reach for the can of CRC QD Contact Cleaner. I had recently bought this on the advice of another friend, Mark Kaidy, who runs Hi-Fi Lounge, a compact new & used record store. (The store is compact, the records are full size.) Mark also features rehabbed and new turntables and a select assortment of high-value electronics and speakers. You know, the affordable stuff young people can dig; a portal to the High End. The CRC is affordable too, at $7.98 for an 11oz spray can at Home Depot, or a little less at Harbor Freight. The cleaning may not last as long as the audiophile approved Caig Gold DeoxIT, (I don't know this for a fact) but it sure is a step in the right direction. There was enough left in the can to clean the entire rig another seven or eight times. Less than a dollar worth of the CRC (used on all of the electrical contact points of my cables and components, but not the live AC outlets!) made as significant an improvement as a couple thousand dollars' worth of upgraded cables. From that testimony you can deduce two things: CRC really works, and second, my cables and connections were really dirty. The Viking in me now steps forward and asks not what's in your wallet, but how long has it been since you cleaned your cables?
Adjusting overhang was easy with the ruby cantilever very visible. It appears to be a lot thicker than the barely visible ruby cantilever on the Reference One, but Bernard assured me that it is the same cantilever and stylus on both cartridges. He says it is just the color of the wood that makes the difference. To prove him wrong I looked at the two cartridges, side by side... well, I'll be damned! I'd hate to use the term "robust" when talking about any cantilever, but I felt a lot more at ease cuing up records with the 103 than the Reference One because it sticks right out in plain sight. Using the Air Tight, by comparison, had been more of a Zen experience.
There is a vertical groove routed in the front of the cartridge that is probably intended for adjusting the azimuth or cuing up a record, but it is so wide and visually un-differentiated from the body that it was not very useful. Perhaps a vertical incision with a scalpel, painted black with a 3-camel hair brush would do the trick? Mostly, with the light from the listening chair aimed at the turntable I could cue up the record by looking directly at the stylus. One of these days I'll get a dedicated LED light for the turntable from Adesso to facilitate that trick.
I took special care mounting and aligning the 103 but without Tom's digital scale I resorted to my plastic teeter-totter to set the VTF (vertical tracking force). A few days later I was able to borrow Tom's scale and my setting measured 2.0 grams, which I then tweaked to 2.09, just shy of the specified 2.1 (+/-0.1). Impedance on the Coincident Statement Phono preamplifier was set to the 101-300 Ohm position. The phono stage was hooked up to my Coincident Turbo 845SE integrated amplifier which drove my Kharma speakers. With a mass of 8.8 grams, the 103 is happy with a medium mass tonearm and it seemed right at home with the arms on both the Linn and the Kronos, never jumping a groove, even when I stepped down hard onto the sunken floor of the listening room.
The Denon DL-103 is noted for its forward presentation. Likewise, the Zu version is said to have that same feature, though more refined. I don't have experience with either of those cartridges or any of the boutique wood-bodied versions, so I can't compare it from the entry level upward. But I can compare it to the Charisma Reference One and the Air Tight PC-1, models that are respectively twice and roughly seven to nine times its price, depending on where you shop.
Yes, the Charisma 103 is a forward sounding cartridge, putting you up near the stage with rock music, but still keeping the stage a little behind the line drawn between your speakers. My mid-field listening position has my ears about 8' from the speakers, making an equilateral triangle with the speakers well out from the front wall. With classical music the proximity of the orchestra is much more dependent on the recording than the cartridge. With my old mono LPs the orchestra was set well behind the speakers and appeared to fill about three-quarters of the width between the speakers. With modern stereo orchestral recordings the soundscape extended well beyond the width of my speakers as most good recordings do in my very wide room with the speakers aligned in front of the long wall. It didn't put me quite as close to the stage as with rock music, but the Charisma 103 displayed an acceptable sense of depth and layering. It was not in the same league in this regard as the Charisma Reference One or the Air Tight PC-1, as you should expect, given its price.
Dynamics are certainly the strong suit of the Charisma 103. Again, this may appear as an historical proclamation given the roots of this cartridge but there was no denying it puts forth the raw energy of rock music. It doesn't blast you out of the chair at reasonable levels, but rather gives you the "you are there" experience when listening at a much healthier 88-90 dB level, measured at the listening position. This is truer with rock music than it is with classical since distortion is part of the fabric of rock and dynamics (as opposed to dynamic range) is more important than resolution in this genre. With classical, (where dynamic range is more important than with rock) I found myself still wanting for more resolution – probably because I have been spoiled by the Charisma Reference One and the several months I had with the Air Tight. If I had been listening to lesser cartridges beforehand, I'd probably think the 103 was pretty good in this respect, too.
In fact, I thought the resolution of the 103 was pretty good. With rock music I was frequently picking out lyrics and tonal nuances that had previously escaped me, even with the Reference One at times. I was also very satisfied with the resolution when listening to jazz, sometimes thinking I should call the waitress to bring me another glass of juice. But with classical music, I think we hold it to a higher standard than rock or jazz, simply because there are more instruments with a wider range of timbre to experience and the soundstage is more complex. It took a little more imagination to get to the "you are there" place we cherish when listening to classical music.
Tonal balance needs to be addressed because of the history of the 103 design. Bass was wonderfully strong and taut, very much a positive thing for all kinds of music. Timbre in the bass was more than acceptable, though not as refined as with the more expensive cartridges. The midrange must have been very good by deduction since I have no complaints with it and I was easily able to get into the music. It was also easy to identify the differences in recording quality and technique among different records. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the soundtrack album from the movie "Dirty Dancing" which included songs taken from original recordings by The Ronettes, Mickey & Sylvia and The Five Satins. The high quality of original mono recordings were interspersed with stereo cuts from the time period of the film (1987) which made for some very interesting listening. Soundtrack LPs seldom get played after just a few listens and are often found in pristine condition at garage sales. Another favorite is from the obscure film "Where the Buffalo Roam" (1980) that includes tunes from Bob Dylan, The Temptations, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Jimi Hendrix as well as some original music written for the film by Neil Young. It contains the cleanest cut of a Jimi Hendrix song in my entire collection.
The treble region of the Charisma 103 was a bit more prominent than the midrange and bass, but because of the good resolution it seldom was irritating. The frequency response is claimed to be 20Hz to 45kHz (+/-1dB) whereas the Reference One is "only" 20Hz to 25kHz. Both cartridges extend far above the human hearing range, but many audiophiles, including me, note that they can perceive a greater openness to the sound when such high frequencies are played through super-tweeters. My Kharma speakers claim treble extension to 25kHz and my in-room measurements at the listening chair indicated that it was down about –6dB at that frequency in a prior incarnation of my reference rig. The treble of the Reference one is certainly smoother and more focused, but also less prominent, contributing to a deeper soundstage. Notes with the Charisma 103 have a well-defined attack and edge, but only on a long, sustained high note from an organ did it become irritating. And how often does that happen? Violins on poor recordings suffered from lack of resolution, but this resulted in frustration more than irritation. For those of us who have been around long enough to remember the aforementioned mono recordings and have lost much of the high frequency hearing ability we had back in those days, the strength of the treble put life and zest back into the listening experience, as well as more illumination of the soundstage. Only music that completely lacked instruments playing in the treble seemed dark and that, too, was rare.
Ticks And Pops
With the 103 the music consistently grabbed my attention and forced me to listen exclusively to the music, even if I were reading a journal or liner notes. With rock music in particular and jazz to a large extent, it led me to a "you are there" experience with only a small leap of imagination. Classical music, as I said above, took a little more imagination. With the 103 I was engaged in the listening process and largely enjoyed the experience. For reference I chose ZZ Top's Fandango! side one recorded live at The Warehouse in New Orleans. The opening introduction with all the clapping, cheering and loud whistling put me right in the joint with smell of beer and hot bodies standing right behind the speakers. The music was full-bodied and sounded just like you would have expected to hear it through the band's road gear. This is a cartridge that will turn all your friends into party animals with the right music. Just don't let them mess with your turntable. Make sure you have an experienced designated DJ to cue up the requests.
For jazz I picked Mario Rom's INTERZONE Everything Is Permitted, an LP I picked up at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival after hearing the group live at the Little Cinema. These young musicians out of Vienna, Austria, are destined to become members of the Big League in Jazz and the quality of the LP is excellent, including the gatefold jacket whose almost bizarre photographs practically transported me to Europe. Once again the Charisma 103 put me right back in the theater with the band, sitting five rows back. I could hear it all.
And for classical, I picked out a Sheffield Lab direct-to-disc recording with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing Wagner's Gotterdammerung: Siegfried's Funeral Music and Siegfried: Forest Music. (I love being in the woods.) The opening of the funeral music was so subtle and strange that I thought the belt on the Linn was slipping, but the pace soon picked up and the instruments came into focus. I could recognize the instruments and appreciate the music, but I couldn't quite get the feeling of being there. Maybe because it was recorded at the M.G.M. Studios and not a concert hall? Still, I was able to bathe in detail with this excellent recording.
Switching over to the Reference One resulted in a significant gestalt. My toe started tapping as I listened to ZZ Top. Instead of standing there watching the performance with the audience, I was emotionally engaged and moved by the music at a subconscious level. The resolution, timbre and inner detail were in a whole different league than the 103. The dynamics were there, too, but not as blatantly obvious as with the 103 because the quality of other musical parameters had risen. Except the micro-dynamics. There's not a lot of micro-dynamics with ZZ Top. They are definitely into tone, but not at the micro level.
INTERZONE is not the kind of group that gets your toe tapping but the Reference One sure allowed the music to reach into my soul and drag me around to places I've never been before. (Am I starting to sound like Mr. Dudley?) The feeling of being there took very little imagination on my part. I could relax and enjoy the experience without thinking about how accurate the sound was or the elusive "intent of the artist." With jazz the music becomes the soundtrack of my imagination and with the Reference One my imagination ran freely.
With the Wagner pieces the finer resolution of the Reference One allowed greater separation of the sections of the orchestra and greater layering of the soundscape. Micro-dynamics played a much greater role in this music and this more expensive cartridge was easily up to the task. And yes, I even picked up on the ambience (or room tone, if you will) of the M.G.M. Studio. My toe began to sway like a conductor's arm; my imagination roamed and the musical peaks commanded my emotional attention, which is to say the music moved me – not a small feat with someone so steeped in rock ‘n roll.
The most obvious result for me was the increase in my emotional reaction to the music, no matter what genre. I've been highly trained to be aware of my emotional responses, and music brings out a lot of them in me. Other people, maybe not so much. Switching to a more analytic mode, I noticed first that the treble had become more focused, more transparent and the top end had become more airy. It felt like the ceiling had been removed and the music was allowed to finally breathe without restraint. (In reality, my ceiling is lowest at the wall behind my speakers and slants upward to the wall behind the listening chair. Our Christmas tree beside the listening chair usually tops out at about 13') More attentive listening revealed that the improved focus and transparency extended from top to bottom and resulted in improved micro and macro-dynamics. This was most obvious in Wagner's Gotterdammerung with its quiet passages and wider dynamic range making it easier for me to recommend the 103 for classical music. The live rock and the jazz recording improved, too, but they were already pretty much a home run.
The bonus value here was adding a square of ERS paper. Not only did it take the 103 up a level by removing some haze I hadn't recognized and improving focus, but at a cost of about 20-40 cents a square inch, it would make an exceptional value-added proposition if it were included by Charisma. If not, buy an entire sheet and use the rest of it in your DAC and tuner (where I've had success with it) or add it to your solid state phono stage. Just keep it away from anything hot like a tube or transformer.
I'm purchasing the review sample to use as my daily driver – for listening to the bookcases full of used records I've picked up over the years and have yet to explore. Its performance is close enough to the Reference One that I will enjoy the music and it is affordable enough that I won't cry when I wear it out. I'm also picking up a Jelco headshell for my Sumiko tonearm to allow me to easily switch back to the Reference One for critical reviewing or for those cold winter nights when I want to savor my very favorite music. With fine cartridges like these from Charisma, I'm not sure when I'll get back to digital.