With the vinyl world exploding, there are more options for phono cartridges than ever before. Recently, I had the opportunity to test out some cartridges from Soundsmith, an American company that has been manufacturing high-performance cartridges for over 30 years.
The founder of Soundsmith, Peter Ledermann, actually started out rebuilding Bang and Olufsen cartridge for people after B&O stopped supporting them. Naturally, this evolved into hand-crafting his own line of cartridges. Three decades later, they’re still handmade in Peekskill, New York.
The type of phono cartridge that Soundsmith specializing in is fairly unique in the cartridge world. While most phono cartridges are moving magnet or moving coil, Soundsmith produces fixed coil (also known as moving iron) cartridges. If you’re familiar with some of the very best phono cartridges from Grado Labs, you may be familiar with this type of cartridge.
What is a Fixed Coil Cartridge?
The internal generator in a fixed coil cartridge has far lower moving mass than other types of cartridge designs. Interestingly, you can also design a fixed coil in a variety of output levels.
Another important detail to keep in mind with a fixed coil cartridge is the loading. Most moving magnet phono stages are preset at 47k ohms while moving coil phono stages are typically preset to 100 ohms. For a Soundsmith Low Output fixed coil to properly perform, you’ll need to be able to set the loading between 475 and 1,000 ohms. Most higher end MC phono stages will allow this.
As far as the design goes, it’s really pretty interesting. We all love our moving coil designs because they allow the cantilever (that’s the tiny piece coming out of the cartridge body with the stylus on the end) to move very freely in the grooves of the records with very little opposite force in the cartridge body holding it back. Well, guess what? Fixed coils are even better at this!
The fixed coil design reflects less energy back down the cantilever and has much less resonance. The design also allows it to have a more robust suspension holding the cantilever in place. This means it’s not as fragile to those accidents we have all experienced that leave us with a broken cantilever, but better yet, keep reading to learn just what happens should you have an accident or need a retip…
Soundsmith Cartridges Are a Great Investment
The stylus on a cartridge wears as it plays your records. The worst thing you can do for your valuable record collection is to use a worn out stylus. This is why they should be replaced or re-tipped every 1,000-1,500 hours of playing time. For most cartridges, the stylus replacement fee is about half the price of the cartridge. Well with Soundsmith models, it’s only 20%!
Testing the Soundsmith Zephyr MIMC
The first cartridge that I tested was the Zephyr MIMC. I currently have it working with my VPI Prime turntable at home. At $1500 it’s not outrageous for a high-performance cartridge.
The Zephyr was pretty easy to set up. It’s square body and easily visible cantilever made it simple even with my old eyes. The VPI has a uni-pivot arm so I used a Fozgometer to get the azimuth dialed in. I had recently been testing a cartridge that was much more expensive than the Zephyr MIMC. Maybe it was just the way the Zephyr mated up with my system, but I have to say, I just love its sound!
It tracks as well as anything I have had. The bass reaches way down deep, yet is extremely detailed. Imaging is spectacular as on some cuts the sound extended as far outside my speakers as I had ever heard. I love it when a playback system gets the rhythm and pacing of music correct. The Zephyr MIMC just nails this! You know you have a real winner when you just sit in your listening chair grinning ear to ear and pulling out record after record to hear your favorites in a new light. That is exactly what the Zephyr MIMC had me doing. Before long, the whole floor was littered with record sleeves!
If you do a little research on the Zephyr MIMC, you’ll see that Michael Fremer of Analog Planet feels the same way about it. It’s far and away the best value in a sub $2,500 phono cartridge. I can’t wait to hear the $3,800 model my buddy sent me! More on that in a later blog.
To sum up, we welcome our newest friend to Audio Advice, the Soundsmith cartridges. You will not be disappointed in these guys. They start at only $480 and go up to $7,500. If you’re interested in checking them out, contact us or visit our Raleigh or Charlotte showroom!
After publishing this article, we received an email from Soundsmith letting us know about an updated Zephyr MIMC, called the Zephyr MIMC Star. As if the MIMC was not good enough they have updated the cantilever to a laser drilled sapphire and are using some of the energy management found in their $4800 Sussurro cartridge. The price has only gone up $250 to $1749, but there is now an interesting twist. When you buy a Zephyr MIMC Star, you will get an envelope with a prize value inside from Soundsmith. You could win anywhere from their very top of the line Strain Gauge cartridge to many of the others, to some cool phono accessories. Pretty darn cool! I cannot wait to get my hands on one of the Stars.
They sent Michael Fremer an early prototype to test out, check out his review!