Soundsmith Zephyr MK III ES Phono Cartridge Review
Back when I was starting to get serious about audio equipment, a long-time audiophile friend of mine offered me his collection of back issues of The Absolute Sound. I was a fan of TAS and eagerly accepted. For the next few months, night after night, I read, from cover to cover, all of those issues in chronological order. It was a fascinating dig into the early history of high-end audio and the culture that developed around it. One of the important discoveries made by Harry Pearson and his minions, was the sonic superiority of the old RCA "Shaded Dog" and Mercury records.
The acquisition of pristine copies of these discs became an obsession for many audiophiles because, with the exception of a few reissues by MoFi, the audiophile vinyl business wasn't in full swing yet. The interest in these platters was so keen that TAS had a regular feature where they reviewed those old records.
Of course, many of those albums made it to their SuperDisc list, which turned them into pure Unobtanium for those of us that were not well-heeled. Luckily for me, my Dad had a great record collection with some of those precious discs interspersed. My Dad, no longer interested in messing with vinyl, was glad to give them to me so I could add them to my collection. I have listened to them over the years, but while I have enjoyed them, I never understood the cult status of these discs until the Soundsmith Zephyr MK III ES landed in my system.
I'm just about as dumbfounded as anyone by the resurgence of vinyl. When I used to go to Waterloo Records, it was just a few of us hard-core record lovers. Now, the place is crowded, with many of the customers too young to remember the introduction of the iPod. This growth of a new audience has bolstered the turntable and cartridge industry. Many of these are mom-and-pop companies, which warms my heart. Soundsmith is one of those.
Even though I wasn't aware of Soundsmith until a few years ago, they have been in business since 1972. As I perused their website looking for possible equipment to review, I was excited to discover that they are located in Peekskill, NY, which is only a few miles from where I grew up, Wappingers Falls. Now I just had to review one of their cartridges. I called Peter Ledermann, and, after some discussion, we decided the Zephyr MK III ES with DEMS would be the best choice for me to review. The Zephyr MK III ES is a high-output, fixed-coil design.
Why Fixed Coil Instead Of Moving Coil?
An additional feature of the Zephyr MK III ES is that it implements their aluminum alloy cantilever with a super low mass "High Profile" Contact Line diamond. This stylus traces more of the groove walls than a standard contact line, but avoids some of the alignment pitfalls that can occur with a high-profile contact line design. The new version of the Zephyr MK III ES also incorporates a Dynamic Energy Management System (DEMS) developed by Soundsmith that moves the damped energy and propagates it properly within the cartridge body.
This system is a technology trickle-down, originally employed in the more expensive Sussurro Cartridge. The compliance of the Zephyr MK III ES is a lowish 10 µm/mN. This normally wouldn't work with lower-mass tonearms, but the Zephyr MK III ES has a mass of 12.2 g, which adds enough total mass to the system to make it compatible. I have a lot to say about all of these features as they pertain to the sound of the Zephyr MK III ES. So just hold on.
Before I discuss my listening impressions of the Zephyr MK III ES, I need to discuss the improvements I've made to my base system recently. After much deliberation, I decided to upgrade to a Rega Planar 3 turntable. Simple and elegant, I've found the Planar 3 a joy to use. The RB330 tonearm itself is a work of industrial art. I just love this thing. The only upgrade I've made is the addition of Herbie's Way Excellent II Turntable Mat. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who is looking to buy a high-end turntable, without spending too much money.
The other upgrade I needed to make my analog front end was a new phono stage. Since money is tight and I'm fairly handy with a soldering iron, I decided to build my own. Now I'm not sharp enough to come up with my design, so with the help of my DIY audio sensei David, I looked for plans that fit my budget and skill level. I ended up settling on a phono circuit designed by Pete Millett. Pete is a long-time DIY audio guru who is probably best known for his Wheatfield Audio headphone amps. His webpage is filled with all sorts of great designs. The phono stage David recommended was Pete's solid-state LR phono preamp.
This design is cool, because it omits any capacitors in the RIAA equalization circuit, using inductors, in combination with resistors. Hence the designation, LR. Pete sells the circuit boards and provides a spreadsheet with the complete parts list. It took a while to get everything I needed, but after several fits and starts, I was able to successfully complete the project. Pete says it is the best-sounding phono preamp he has ever designed. I have no means of comparison on that point, but the smoothness and refinement of the LR phono preamp have blown me away. I would highly recommend it to anyone not afraid of solder fumes.
I played this album a few times on my system before adding the Zephyr MK III ES. I found it far superior to the CDs I'd listened to, with excellent tone on Miles' trumpet and a deep and wide soundstage. But when I listened to it the first time with the Zephyr MK III ES, it was another level of cool. Right off the bat, the surface noise was down, significantly. Secondly, the soundstage was deeper and wider than I have ever heard on my system before. James Cobb's snare had more snap and his high hat took on more air. Song after song, I was completely engaged in the music.
Still, in a jazzy mood, I put on the Pat Metheny Group debut album [ECM-1-1114]. I've had this platter since the early eighties and I know it quite well. As soon as I dropped the needle, I realized I was in for a treat. On the first track, "San Lorenzo '', Mehtheny's opening guitar rang out like a bell with a sustain that I had never noticed before. The interplay between Pat and Lyle was there, at a whole new level. On top of this, somehow, the Zephyr MK III ES dug more music out of the old record, but it was quieter than ever. On the second side, is the track "April Joy''. On it, Pat Metheny's guitar solos took on a new meaning for me, with his use of dynamics and borrowed time on the notes. Mark Egan's bass was fat and full, and Dan Gottlieb's drums were clean and spacious. I thought this old album's best days were in the past, but the Zephyr MK III ES had erased that assumption.
Now I was intrigued. If the Zephyr MK III ES could do such a good job at reviving one of my old records, what could it do with one of dad's old, shaded dogs? Soon I had "Petrouchka" by Pierrie Monteux and the BSO [LSC 2376] on my Rega. I have always enjoyed this record, but during sections with orchestral climaxes and lots of high frequencies, some distortion creeps in. This diss has always had this limitation and attributed it to the lack of good record cleaning in the 1960s. This piece, famously, opens set to the chaotic Shrovtide Fair, with the different sections of the orchestra going in multiple directions and in a few bars building to a triple forte. This is one of the spots where I had always heard the high-frequency distortion, but with the Zephyr MK III ES riding the grooves it sounded clean and clear. It was the same in the other trouble spots. The Zephyr MK III ES handled them with aplomb.
Once again, while the problematic moments went away, it was, able to retrieve more information from this 62-year-old pressing. The bass drum and bassoon were deeper. The brass had more of a burnished glow. The strings were sweeter. The higher-register woodwinds sounded softer. And the soundstage was spread out before me like a Cinerama. For the first time, I understood what all of the shaded-dog fuss was about. This is a recording masterpiece, done by the virtuoso recording engineer, John Crawford, and cut by another skilled master by RCA.
Encouraged to pull out some more old vinyl, I retrieved, from my stack, the Mercury Records pressing of Schumann's Symphony No. 3 [SR90133]. I inherited this record from my great-uncle and it was in pretty poor shape when I first got it. After several cleanings using the Disc Doctor system and treating it with LAST record preservative, I was able to get it in playable condition. Even then, it had been a noisy record with the same sort of problematic spots as the Petrouchka disc. But as soon as I started listening to it with the Zephyr MK III ES, I was floored by the transformation. Almost all of the surface noise was gone. The strings lost their screech. The overall sonics weren't as good as the Petrouchka disc, but that may be attributable to the number of plays and lack of care by my great uncle Van. Overall, the sonic transformation was amazing.
Over The Next Few Days....
If you've ever had the opportunity to listen to a concert grand, it's a unique experience. Designed to go toe-to-toe with a full symphony orchestra, it is an instrument of immense power and resonance. I can count on one hand the recordings that start to give the essence of the concert grand, and this is one. Listening to this record with the Zephyr MK III ES, added a new sense of realness to Howard Shelly's piano work.
For one of the few times in listening to audio systems, I could actually feel the weight and power of the Steinway on stage. Shelly's playing took on a gravitas as the bass notes growled with intensity. At the same time, the upper notes had the right amount of bite and never sounded tinny, like a toy piano. The entire instrument breathed and resonated as it was being played. I wish I had better words to describe it, but it was an amazing experience.
Bringing Out The Best
After spending many enjoyable hours listening to vinyl with the Zephyr MK III ES, I now consider Peter Ledermann as some sort of thaumaturge, and this cartridge is one of his talismans. Just by dropping its stylus in an old piece of vinyl, it's able to, magically, retrieve musical details that had been hidden, in some cases, for over 60 years. I know it is kind of silly to describe an electromechanical device in such terms, but it reflects my respect for Peter's expertise. I would strongly encourage anyone to make an effort to listen to this amazing cartridge.
Frequence Response: 15 Hz to 45 kHz(+/-2dB)