There aren't many people involved in audio these days that are as obsessed with their craft as much as the President and Chief Engineer of Soundsmith, Peter Ledermann. His unwavering devotion to his craft of designing and manufacturing phono cartridges (and his other products) is not only well known, but his phono cartridges are claimed by many to be better than anything being offered by other audiophile equipment manufacturers at any price. Speaking to Mr. Ledermann before I started this review was a thrill – he seemed to speak without taking a breath between sentences, although this hardly mattered because I was not only enthralled with the subject matter but also because he seemed so darn well-informed about the subjects in his chosen field. The amount of knowledge he has accumulated in regards to phono cartridges is quite impressive, but even more impressive is his dedication to the audiophile subject at hand, regardless of subject. It is quite obvious to me that Soundsmith's Peter Ledermann is, for lack of any other term, a genius.
The small coils that must (or are usually) used in these cartridges produce a much lower output voltage, and so an MC cartridge (in most cases) has a much lower output than a MM cartridge. The moving iron cartridges that are the subject of this review substitute moving iron for the moving magnet or coils. This lighter assembly can reduce the tracking force, but at the same time boosts the accuracy of the cartridge's tracking, in part due to a cantilever/stylus/generator assembly that has a much lower mass. Although it is very difficult to manufacture a moving iron cartridge correctly, there is enough technical motivation to do so according to Peter, which makes these cartridges high end performers.
Although it is stated on the specifications of the Mezzo and Nautilus that the recommended loading of the phono preamplifier should be 1500 Ohm, after trying out various loading options, using the 47K Ohm setting on my phono preamp sounded best – and it's a good thing it did, because the majority of onboard MM phono preamplifiers that are built into integrated amps, receivers, and the like have a fix load set at 47K Ohm. As far as phono preamp gain settings go – even though the recommended phono preamp gain setting for both the Mezzo and Nautilus is between 48dB to 54dB, the MM preset of my phono preamp sets it to a gain of 46dB, which did not present any problems whatsoever. Perhaps this was because both the linestages that I used for the review, the tubed Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) VK-33 (reviewed here) and the solid-state LKV Research Line One (reviewed here), have an extremely low level of background noise. And again, as far as using the 47 Ohm setting rather than the 1500 Ohm recommended by Soundsmith, even though I claimed it advantageous to those listeners with a standard, non-adjustable MM phono preamp, I was well aware that I was risking the wrath of Peter Ledermann. Since both cartridges sounded to me as if they were performing at their best, I was willing to take that risk. Mr. Ledermann is welcome to add a manufacture's comment at the end of this review in order to chastise me (or praise me), but since the Mezzo and Nautilus sounded so marvelous during the review period that I bet he'll just let it be.
My reference turntable has been for quite some time a Basis Debut V, and the tonearm that is mounted to its solid-acrylic armboard is a Tri-Planar 6.The tonearm's hardwired cable connects to a Pass Laboratory XP-15 phono preamp. This isn't the most cutting-edge high-end front end in the world, yet I doubt anyone would (or should) consider it entry-level. Both of the Soundsmith phono cartridges sounded excellent, but different enough and with enough nuance and singularity that I was satisfied that my front-end was worthy enough to act as a host for these two transducers.
The tracking abilities that are potentially inherent to the Moving Iron cartridge have obviously been exploited by Peter Ledermann, and due to his exacting design and manufacturing processes he has made these cartridges sound like no others I have ever heard in my analog front-end. These exquisite tracking abilities enable the Mezzo, and to almost as much as an extent in the Nautilus, to lower the amount of distortion that is present in so many otherwise fine sounding similarly priced cartridges. No, I still cannot replicate the sound of Carnegie Hall (my true reference) in my listening room. But I sure know what real instruments and voices sound like, and the Soundsmith Mezzo has captured the gestalt of these sounds and makes it possible to at least get a taste of this reality via my turntable rig. Thankfully, its lack of distortion due to its expert tracking abilities is not the only sonic attribute of the Soundsmith Mezzo. I do not have the expertise to explain how Peter Ledermann has managed to make the Mezzo sound like music when playing records on my system; I am not a phono cartridge designer or electrical engineer. But from what I've learned from speaking to quite a few cartridge designers throughout the years is that producing a high-end phono cartridge is as much an art as a science. And what Peter Ledermann hath wrought is a phono cartridge that combines this art and science to produce a phono cartridge that turns the signal it derives from the squiggles and grooves in the vinyl into something that replicates the sound of music to a point where playing records produced a torrent of suspension of disbelief moments that I have only rarely heard from a phono cartridge, and never from one in my own system from a cartridge anywhere near this price.
One of my favorite records (today) released by EMI is Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 played by Paul Tortelier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund. While those of us in the US were wallowing in crappy pressings by record companies driven by profits in lieu of quality products, the British were releasing fine sounding records on EMI, Decca, et al. This 1973 recording [EMI ASD 2924] was not made by the "famous" production and engineering team of Bishop and Parker, but by the much less familiar yet just as competent Eltham and Mordler. Using this record as evidence I don't think there would be complaints that they led this recording project. More importantly, and definitely worthy of the excellent sound quality of this pressing, it is an outstanding version of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto.
Despite the sound of Tortelier's cello sounding as it is placed way out in front of the orchestra, the Mezzo is able to take advantage of the close mic'ing of his lead instrument. The Mezzo enabled me to hear details that other cartridges would gloss over. Microdynamics are one thing, but to hear the variation in pressure of the bow against the strings, being able to picture in my mind whether he was using an up or down stroke, and I heard not only the air around the instrument but the tiny variations in distance between his instrument and the microphone, which added to the feeling of being immersed in the music. Somehow the Mezzo managed this feat without sounding inordinately detailed or over-analytical. In fact, it was Goldilocks – "just right" in the amount of low-level detail and focus. In other words, it sounded real – as if I was somehow permitted to observe Tortelier's playing while hovering above Maestro Berglund and his soloist.
The orchestra backing the solo cello was not only accompaniment, but an active participant in Shostakovich's score and emerged as a huge sound coming forth from my speaker system. No, spinning this record didn't produce a sonic hologram of the Bournemouth SO in my listening room, but there were many traits of the Mezzo that enabled me to hear not only what were captured by the microphones, but that human beings were responsible for the sounds coming from their instruments. I am very lucky because for some time now the ability to separate the instruments of an orchestra and sections of the orchestra in an accurately scaled soundstage has become an everyday occurrence in my system. The Mezzo takes this quality (and other positive sonic characteristics) one giant step further. The surface noise of the record is reproduced at such a low level that during quiet moments the space between instruments was filled only with the very low level of tape hiss, the sound of the surrounding air, the ambience of the hall, the ambience of surrounding instruments, pages of the score turning, musicians shifting in their seats, and even the occasional breath of the musicians.
Audiophile-type qualifiers that we love to speak about were also plentiful, such as the extension and quality of the frequency extremes (which include a deep, pitch stable, thunderous bass), a huge super-accurately scaled soundstage, and images that placed the instruments and groups of instruments in appropriate locations within this huge soundstage. Shostakovich's score is filled with angular themes and melodies that are most likely understood only by those who lived in the USSR in the 1950s, along with melodies that parody the government that often suppressed the composer. These sonic twists and turns were read by the Mezzo with nonchalant exactness, and the micro and macro-dynamics of the music would cause me to either lean into it during quiet passages, or jump from my seat during a climax as if I was hearing this favorite for the first time.
I'm lucky that I had the forethought to purchase Led Zeppelin's catalog on Classic Records in the late 1990 to early 2000. Zep fanatics will likely never cease arguing, excuse me, discussing, which LP pressing of each album is the best, but in my opinion these reissues are indispensable, and most likely as close as I'll get to hearing the master tapes. By the time Led Zeppelin recorded their fifth album Houses Of The Holy, it was no longer said that guitarist Jimmy Page was "coming into his own" as a producer, but was more than adept at getting the sounds he wanted onto record. Whether the second song on the album The Rain Song was recorded with the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, at Olympic or Electric Ladyland Studios, or some combination of all of them, perhaps only some Led Zeppelin fanatics might know. But what is for sure is that it is not only one of my favorite songs on the album but one of my favorite "rock ballads" (oh, how I loathe that term) ever. It's a great song that highlights each member of the band, plus bassist and keyboard player John Paul Jones uses a Mellotron to add what some call an "orchestral effect", but I consider its sound incomparable. I'm a sucker for the sound of a Mellotron, and more than likely has only deepened my love for this song.
The Soundsmith Mezzo was able to simultaneously dissect the song and transfer to the music centers in my brain the intensions of both the band and the recording process. John Bonham sounds exquisite. Rarely does he play his drums with brushes, and he puts on quite a show, demonstrating why he was one of the best rock drummers that walked the Earth. His control on the bass drum pedals matches the dexterity and finesse of his playing the snare, toms and cymbals with the brushes. The Mezzo reproduces the low-bass rumble of the kick drums, but as Bonham demonstrates his control of the level of his bass drums, so is the Mezzo, never overloading these lower-frequencies and at the same time demonstrating its bass extension and control. The detail that this cartridge extracts from the grooves is astounding, as the percussive thunder and complex syncopation of the drums and cymbals surround the speakers and created a torrent of sound that filled the large soundstage, I could also hear the slight squeak of a bass drum pedal that could have used a squirt or two of WD40. The same low bass extension and control from the drums is also true with the bass pedals of John Paul Jones' keyboard, as he foregoes his Fender bass guitar for these pedals, their low-frequency tones shaking the window frames of my listening room as well as my body, which responded to this very pitch stable low bass by sending shivers up my spine.
One rarely speaks of the quality of the recording process in regards to Robert Plant's voice. With all the layering of effects and overdubs the Mezzo still able to produce a striking facsimile of a real human voice singing into a microphone and recorded onto tape. In fact, the Mezzo's lifelike rendering of the midrange frequencies enabled all human voices, not just the male alto on this record, but male and female's voices of all stripes with sound so natural, I played record after record, visualizing these singers in my mind's ear. And while all the instruments and voices that occupied the soundfield created a diorama of sounds on just about every record I played, this sonic panorama flowed to my ears as an organic whole, begging to be played again at a later date to again hear how this phono cartridge trounced others in its price class that occupied my sonic memory. In fact, it's not even close, as I've never heard any other phono cartridge deliver this type of monstrous sound and flat frequency response without having at least some distracting artifacts. Perhaps the music was simply too engrossing to be able to pin down anything other than the music being reproduced with such a connection to the source. The delivery system seemed to disappear, leaving only music.
Please excuse me if I seem to be getting carried away. Of course the Mezzo isn't the best cartridge in the world. If one has the money, there are plenty of other makes and models that are available to audiophiles that can outperform the Mezzo, and even one higher up in this line of moving iron cartridges offered by Soundsmith, the Helios at $7500. But I've heard more than my share of cartridges in my own system, in the system of audio salons and the system of other audiophiles, and with that in mind, if one decides spend this amount of money on a phono cartridge and one chooses the Soundsmith Mezzo, buyer's remorse is highly unlikely.
Our five new medium outputs cartridges express our continuing research and production efforts to further the enjoyment of vinyl replay. I appreciate very much the high praise we received from Tom, and wish to point out that we are the only manufacturer that supports our cartridges in a vastly different manner than other manufacturers. Imagine buying a car from a dealer who refuses to service it! Every model we make can always be fully restored – repeatedly – for 20%. This makes the cost of ownership of any Soundsmith design – and the cost per play – a very different experience as well.
Fixed gain phono preamps play an important part of the preamp scene – developed for high gain and low noise without the requirement of what can be a critically matched step up transformer being (in part) the aim of these preamp designs. From that standpoint, they make lots of sense. We feel that our new medium output designs represented partially by the Mezzo and Nautilus supplant the previously limited availability and supply of high performance cartridges in this critical niche arena. We also appreciate your bringing Soundsmith and these designs to the attention of the global market through Enjoy The Music.com – a place where Soundsmith can enjoy a bit of exposure to those who may not aware of our artisan products and company.
Again, my deepest thanks,
Peter Ledermann, President and Chief Engineer