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.
Reference One Phono Cartridge Getting Started
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
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
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.
Louis And The Good Book
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?
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?
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.