I am hoping to finish up writing my Positive Feedback review of the new Soundsmith Carmen Mk II phonograph cartridge next week, with the reviews of the Soundsmith Zephyr Mk III phonograph cartridge and MMP3 Mk II phono preamp to follow in separate articles in due time.
I thought you would enjoy reading a little “sneak peek” from the review before it goes live at Positive Feedback (probably next weekend), so here you go – enjoy!
Peter Ledermann is the Artisan Smithy of Sound: The New Soundsmith Carmen Mk II Phonograph Cartridge!
By Jeff Day
I get emails from audio enthusiasts and music lovers around the world asking for recommendations of a relatively affordable phonograph cartridge that is warm, dimensional, musical, and has relatively high output so you don’t have to use an expensive step-up transformer with it to play music.
I have found that particular combination of traits in a phonograph cartridge to be a rather tall order, and as a result I really haven’t had as good an answer for those sort of inquiries as I would like.
So I thought I’d do some research on the topic in hopes of being able to find a phonograph cartridge with those qualities that merits a recommendation, and my research led me to Peter Ledermann of Soundsmith fame, whose original Carmen phonograph cartridge has been described as just such a music machine by Herb Reichert at Stereophile back in May of 2015 (you can read it HERE).
After explaining my phonograph cartridge quest to Positive Feedback Editor Dr. David Robinson, David put me in contact with Peter, whom I told basically what I’ve written above.
I asked Peter if he would be so kind as to make a recommendation of a Soundsmith cartridge with the desired traits that would work well with my 12-inch Thomas Schick and 12.5-inch Pete Riggle Audio Engineering Woody SPU tonearms, which are the primary tonearms I use on my Classic Turntable Company’s Classic 301 and Artisan Fidelity Thorens TD-124 Statement player systems, respectively.
Peter makes low, medium, and high compliance cartridge designs to complement various listeners’ tonearm needs, but for my Schick & Woody SPU tonearms Peter recommended both his new Soundsmith Carmen Mk II and Zephyr Mk III phonograph cartridges as being good choices, being medium and low-compliance designs.
Peter said the Carmen Mk II (above) closely matches my criteria of a lush, dimensional, and musical presentation, with a high output of 2.12mV, so a step-up transformer is not necessary.
Peter describes the Zephyr Mk III (above) as having a more detailed presentation, with “… truly remarkable separation and sound stage imaging at a level not previously achievable in a modestly priced design …”, also with a high output of 2.4mV.
Peter has sent me both his new Carmen Mk II and new Zephyr Mk III, as well as his MMP3 Mk II phono preamplifier to listen to and write about.
I’ll start with the Carmen Mk II phonograph cartridge in this article, and then I’ll describe the Zephyr Mk III phonograph cartridge and the MMP3 Mk II phono preamplifier (below) in subsequent articles.
Peter Ledermann is the Soundsmith
Before I delve into the new Soundsmith Carmen Mk II phonograph cartridge, I’d like to tell you more about the fascinating smithy of sound, Peter Ledermann.
Peter opened Soundsmith as a repair center in 1969, at Audio Experts in White Plains, NY, and Peter has now been smithing sound for 47 years!
Since 1969, Peter has taught audio engineering and audio electronics service to students, has worked at RAM Audio in Danbury, CT (1973), was Director of Engineering for the Bozak Corporation in Norwalk, CT (1976), has worked at the IBM T.J. Watson research center think-tank (1980), and then in 1991 Peter left IBM to pursue Soundsmith full time.
After Peter established Soundsmith in 1969, Soundsmith evolved into a specialty repair and restoration center with a stellar reputation, servicing audio equipment from all over the world.
In fact, I plan to get my beloved vintage McIntosh MX110Z tuner-preamplifier to Peter at some point in the future for a check-up & tune-up (and a needed volume pot rebuild), to ensure that I can continue to enjoy its musical charms for the rest of my days.
You can read more detailed bio information about Peter at the Soundsmith web site HERE and HERE, and I recommend reading both links for the additional background they provide.
More specific to this review, Peter has also been designing and building his own cartridges, and rebuilding all brands of cartridges, for more than 45 years now.
After I introduced Jeff’s Place readers to Peter’s new Soundsmith Carmen Mk II and Zephyr Mk III phonograph cartridges, I got questions about Peter’s relationship to Bang & Olufsen (B&O) phonograph cartridges.
Well, it turns out that Soundsmith is the world center of expertise related to B&O phonograph cartridges and is licensed by B&O to manufacture their cartridge designs. If you are a B&O aficionado, or just want to learn more about Soundsmith’s B&O phonograph cartridges and services, you can read more about it HERE.
In addition to B&O and Soundsmith phonograph cartridges, Peter also offers phono preamplifiers (like the MMP3 Mk II I’ll be telling you about in a future article), various useful accessories, loudspeakers, Strain Gauge cartridge/preamplifier systems, and audio amplifiers, all which you can read more about at the links HERE.
Soundsmith Phonograph Cartridges
Peter currently offers eighteen different Soundsmith phonograph cartridge models that are specifically designed to complement various audio enthusiasts’ tastes and system needs. If you have a specific or unique application in mind, I recommend you contact Peter and ask for advice, just as I did.
Peter prefers fixed-coil phonograph cartridge designs to the more ubiquitous moving-coil designs, and he says fixed-coil designs have vast advantages over moving-coil designs in terms of lower internal moving mass, more robust suspension, and flexibility of output levels.
Peter’s Soundsmith phonograph cartridges are also unique in that they are hand-made in the USA, and your initial investment is protected because they are rebuildable multiple times, for 20% or less of the purchase price, depending on the model.
Peter says that the fixed-coil generator has at least a 5 times lower internal mass than a moving-coil generator, which results in much lower stored & reflected energy, and a higher natural resonant frequency / lower amplitude resonance.
In practical performance terms, what this means is that as a cartridge tracks the information in the record grooves, the generator moves up to an incredible 20,000 times a second, so the 5 times lower internal moving mass of the fixed-coil generator becomes significant, making it able to much more accurately track the encoded information, and giving up to 10 times better performance than a moving-coil cartridge is capable of in the same circumstances.
Peter says fixed-coil designs allow for a much more robust suspension than moving-coil designs, which means that the cartridge will have a greater chance of surviving “accidents” as well as being much more likely to stay in perfect internal alignment during long term use.
Specifically, Peter says, “This is because – unlike MC designs where the entire armature and coil assembly is tethered by a single wire, connected to a single point – moving iron designs allow a continuous (and difficult to distort or break) combinational suspension and damping system that is fully-bonded to the moving element. This dual-purpose suspension and damping system is bonded to 90% of the moving element at any tracking force and is not variable as is found in single wire pivot MC designs. This fully-bonded arrangement is not only hard to damage, it all but eliminates azimuth-rotation as a result of long term use – or even accidental abuse.”
Peter cites the third major advantage of his fixed-coil designs is that the output levels can be designed to suit any preamp without changing the voicing of the cartridge, which means that you can boost output level and eliminate the need for an expensive step-up transformer.
Two of my three phono preamplifiers require step-up transformers for low output moving-coil cartridges, so not having to worry about the expense of extra step-up’s is a big plus for me.
Peter says, “An important consideration of fixed coil designs is that the coil designs themselves can be changed (even to mono designs) without changing the moving mass of the system. This means that for a given model design the output levels can be specified to suit any preamp requirement, without changing any other specification of a developed cartridge model. In contrast with an MC design, the addition of many additional layers of wire windings can add substantially to the problems of high moving-mass.”
Peter has a more detailed description of the benefits of the fixed-coil designs’ lower moving mass, more robust suspension, and flexibility of output levels, that you can read at his website HERE.
The New Soundsmith Carmen Mk II Phonograph Cartridge
Peter says that he developed the new Carmen Mk II as an affordable ($1000 USD), high-performance design, with purity of tone, a slightly lush and ultra-smooth presentation, and a well-developed midrange, being its primary voicing considerations.
The Carmen Mk II is a fixed-coil design, with a stylus that is a true hyper-elliptical shape, the cantilever is aluminum alloy, output is a high 2.12mV, the tracking force is from 1.3 to 1.6 grams (standard medium-compliance, with high-compliance as a special-order option), and the cartridge is housed in a handmade ebony wood body.
The Carmen Mk II is also available as a dual-coil mono cartridge should you want to get your mono groove on. There is a 2-year warranty to the original owner, and the Carmen Mk II can be rebuilt for $199 USD when the time comes for refreshment.
More details on the new Soundsmith Carmen Mk II are available HERE.
For this review of the Soundsmith Carmen Mk II phonograph cartridge I used two different systems, in order to offer a broader perspective of its musical & sonic performance.
The first system (above photos) used for this review consists of restored vintage Altec A5 Voice of the Theatre loudspeakers, Duelund DCA16GA speaker cables, a Leben CS-600 integrated amplifier, with Belden 8402 microphone cable interconnects connecting it to a Leben RS-30EQ phono preamplifier, which in turn connects to a Thomas Schick 12-inch tonearm mounted on an Artisan Fidelity Thorens TD124 Statement Long-Base turntable.
The second system (above photos) consists of Tannoy Westminster Royal SE loudspeakers with external Duelund CAST crossovers, Duelund DCA12GA tinned-copper speaker cables, vintage (and hot-rodded) McIntosh MC30 monaural amplifiers, Duelund DCA20GA tinned-copper interconnects, vintage McIntosh MX110Z tuner-preamplifier, shielded Duelund DCA20GA tinned-copper interconnects from the MX110Z to bespoke Intact Audio nickel-core monaural step-up transformers, which connect to a Pete Riggle Audio Engineering 12.5-inch Woody SPU tonearm. The Woody SPU tonearm and a 12-inch Thomas Schick tonearm reside upon an Artisan Fidelity “Statement” dual tonearm plinth, which houses my Classic Turntable Company “Classic 301” (a very hot-rodded Garrard 301).
Before I delve into my listening impressions with the Soundsmith Carmen Mk II on the above two systems, allow me to provide you an overview of what I listen for when I evaluate component performance during reviews, to help give you some additional context.
I find it useful to partition my perceptions into two broad (and somewhat overlapping) categories while listening: musicality and sonics.
The musicality aspect of a component’s performance is related to its performance on the basic elements of music. I listen for how close a component comes to presenting recorded music realistically compared to live music, in terms of timbral realism (the unique ‘voices’ of instruments), the resolution of tone color (the ability to distinctly hear the chordal variations resulting from adding additional pitches to three tone triads), melody (the tune you ‘whistle while you work’), harmony (treble & bass accompaniments to the melody), rhythm (the steady beat that determines the tempo), tempo (speed), dynamics (variations in loudness), and loudness (the ability to play naturally at live-like levels appropriate to a piece of music).
The second category of performance I listen for is sonics, which describes the performance of a component in reproducing the non-musical artifacts of the recording process, like transparency (the ability to ‘see’ into the recording), resolution (the amount of detail in the audio signal that is audibly presented), soundstage (the ability to discern the three dimensions of the recorded space in width, height and depth), the soundspace (the ability to convey the acoustic sense of ‘space’ of the recording venue), and imaging (the ability to localize instruments & musicians on the soundstage).
Finally, I listen for the ability of a component to integrate musicality & sonics in a way that maximizes an emotional response during the listening experience.
Regarding emotional response, researchers who study the neurobiology of music have found that certain elements of musicality and sonics reproduction stimulates emotional responses in the brain.
Their research suggests that a home music system that can play at realistic loudness levels, is dynamically realistic, and can realistically portray timbral textures, tempo, and beat, will be more emotionally engaging and musically satisfying than a home music system that can’t do those things as well.
Also, researchers have found that the brain connection in the intraparietal sulcus does processing for both visuospatial processing and transposing melodies, which may help explain why some audiophiles get additional pleasure when that brain region is stimulated by processing recording artifacts containing visuospatial information, like imaging, soundstaging, and the sense of recorded space, which may co-opt the intraparietal sulcus in a way that increases the level of emotion experienced from recorded music.
If you are interested in learning more about how the neurobiology of musicality & sonics influences the music listening experience, search on “neurobiology” on my blog and read the various associated posts.
In simple experiential terms, I have found that if a given component overtly emphasizes sonic performance more than musical performance, it grows tiring for me to listen to before long, as it distracts me from the enjoyment of the music itself.
I have also found that if a given component overtly emphasizes musical performance more than sonic performance, I’ll probably love the way it plays music, but over time I may miss hearing some of the finer recording cues that can add to the overall enjoyment of the recorded music listening experience.
I suppose that every hifi system and listener will be a little different in what they need and prefer to achieve for their perfect balance of musicality & sonics.
Ok, that’s it for now! I’ll post a link to the Positive Feedback review when it goes live on the site.
As always, thanks for stopping by, and may the tone be with you!