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22.07.16
Soundsmith Zephyr MIMC cartridge

Vinyl still rocks

This is the title – that makes you shake – of a Music Notes Blog by RIIA. Yes, right that, the Recording Industry Association of America that fights the illegal download with threatening messages – that make you shudder. The report shows that the vinyl revenues, even if vinyl remains a niche, are always higher. Who sells more vinyls are the independent stores and not the big distribution chains or the online sales. Then we have to add the blooming second-hand market, like one of the biggest world’s fair, the Mega Record & CD Fair in Utrecht.

All that means that the purchasers want the records for conviction and passion, not for a trend or a marketing plan maneuvered by the big labels. People that think that the black record is “cooler” and plays better than the digital “solid” or “streaming” support.

 

The vinyl, apparently killed in 1982 by the discographic industry with the introduction of the CD, is not dead and has been living a nice old age.

 

As an enthusiast, I am pleased, but as an audiophile, I have some regrets. I think that turntables, tonearms and cartridges are the most amusing, beautiful and intriguing hi-fi devices. Because they are “complicated”. They require a multi sectorial expertise: electronic, mechanical and artistic. They put to the test your skills in designing and making them, but also in choosing them and using at best. They are also the weakest link of the audio chain and, potentially, their elimination would have meant a big step forward in the playback music. This thing is happened in the low and mid-fi, but not completely in the exigent Hi-End.

 

I try to explain. 

 

In the process of recording and playback of music there are two very delicate phases intended to make “lose” something of the signal. In these moments, there is a transformation of the energy. The mechanical energy – the acoustical vibration transmitted by the molecules of the air – is transformed in electric power: through a microphone and, vice versa, through a driver. Such transformations affect irreversibly the entire process. So much, than only good microphones and good loudspeakers, make the process successful.

The record introduces two more transformations. Electricity-mechanical vibration with the purpose of archiving the music on a stable and movable support: the microgroove of the vinyl. The success of this process is history. However, I find paradoxical that the invention of the record is in 1888, the vinyl version is in 1948 and the stereophonic microgroove ten years later. The modern records are the same of the 70’s. All this is paradoxical because in those years the PCs were big like buildings, the cars polluted like smokestacks and the mobile phones did not exist.

Today, not only the theoretical principle of the record is the same, but also the physical objects are the same. The coming of the digital could have eliminated this middle passage, the microgroove, and improved the quality of the playback. Unfortunately, with the CD it did not happen and today, when an artist does something good, we can buy the download of MP3s or AIFFs, buying a CD with a non-convincing sound and, if the major wants, trying to find the vinyl in the stores. We have multiple choices but qualitatively similar to those of some decades ago. Without forgetting that two-three good supports for the audiophile, the SACD, the DVD-AUDIO and the high-res uncompressed audio files (from 192/24 up) have been abandoned.

 

Therefore, we are happy with the presence of the vinyl, but we are also sorry because, in almost forty years, no one has found the economic and technical conditions to create and make survive a better market system.


The men behind the things

With the decrease of the commerce of the vinyls, also the hardware to reproduce them rarefies. Mostly in the entry-level sector, while for the solutions at high or very high price there are too many brands and models. Some designs are so extreme that their cost is excessive, others, whose cost is average or high, are excellent and Soundsmith is among them for sure. The founder and current president, Peter Ledermann – American from the East Coast – has a solid story in the high fidelity and that explains partially his outcomes. You can read here his biography. A charismatic person in the golden age of the hi-fi who dedicated himself to it making us dreaming, arguing, hating and loving a beautiful passion. Ledermann is also an altruist person, so if you do not like his products you can like the man.

 

A summary of his bio says that he used to work as a designer at Bozak’s and as a researcher at IBM’s. Before and after these experiences he has always followed a creature of his, the Soundsmith. Term that means artisan of the sound. During the years, he has been repairing and modifying all Hi-Fi devices, in particular for the European B&O and Tandberg. Several years ago, Soundsmith has begun to make its own products like the Zephyr MIMC, object of our test. Soundsmith takes the cue from the B&O cartridges. Currently, Ledermann is still Official Assistance for these very good Danish cartridges, not very common among the audiophiles for their cost and the difficulty of mounting them in tonearms that are not B&O’s. When B&O has stopped making them, Ledermann has created by himself the tools to remake the components, maybe better than the original ones. Then he has made his own line of cartridges. Obviously, Soundsmith’s products are very similar to the B&O’s, aesthetically and technically.

There are some affinities with the B&O models MMC - Moving Micro Cross, if not in the detail in the principle. In fact the acronym MIMC that follows the model we are testing, means Moving Iron for MC preamplifier. Practically, it is half way between the moving coil and the moving magnet: in the moving iron, both the magnets and the coils are fixed. An iron that vibrates in the magnetic field modulates the force and therefore the current induced by the coils. The more the iron is miniaturized the less current is produced. At Soundsmith’s they have thought to do it the smallest possible, by taking as a limit an output sufficient for the MC inputs. The purpose of such choice is making constant the contact between the stylus and the sides of the microgrooves so to reduce at the minimum the mass of the moving equipment.

 

Listening session

I insert the Zephyr MIMC in my reference system with a tracking weight of 1,6 grams as indicated in the sheet. I test it with the Linn Sondek LP12 and the Ekos tonearm, and with a less expensive turntable, the Pioneer PLX-1000. The Zephyr has shown three main features: rise time, dynamics and balance.

 

As soon as the stylus touches the groove and the first notes – quite rude, it is hard rock – start to come out from the speakers you realize that we are dealing with something unexpected. The percussions are clear, quick and hard. The fast attacks and the dynamics are superior to any other MM cartridge I have ever tested. Tore apart all the MMs, the comparison is more verisimilar, also for the cost, to the moving coils that can be equal as for rise time and brilliancy but struggle to produce the same bass range and reach the enviable balance in the mid range. With more serene listening tests - Ry Cooder, Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt, Nina Simone –the impression remains of a well-educated dynamics that is also the main feature of the Zephyr MIMC. The voice flows fluid, amalgamated with the instruments in the same range. The bass range is powerful and the trebles are bright. You do not need more or less of them, although after some time of run-in, the playback improves becoming sweeter and extended without losing the peculiarities.

 

A trick is to adjust the load of the Zephyr. If you have to connect the Zephyr to an MC input, you can intervene on the resistive load. Ad example, in the Phono Drive that we often use, you can select the value of the DC resistance. Besides, you can insert any resistor to personalize it. Also in the preamps without any possibility of adjustment, things are easy. Soundsmith recommends a load higher than 470 ohm, unfortunately not so easy to find. However, a part from choosing one of the preamps suggested by the manufacturer – and this can be the best choice – at the listening there are no evident timbric differences between 470, 1.000, 10K, 22K and 47K, the resistances I have tested. If I have to choose, I prefer values above 1.000 ohm that make the Zephyr play louder. This because the natural raising of the peak at high frequency is so far that is non influential.

 

Conclusions

The frequency response is extended and linear, the dynamics a strength point. The tonal colour keeps an open and natural character. The perception of the ground noise is higher in other cartridges since here the cut of the stylus is very accurate and thanks to the design philosophy, the Zephyr MIMC is analytic, precise and revelator, notwithstanding the not very high compliance. The price is not low but the sound is so good that we feel the desire of testing the superior models at a triple price. Maybe the Zephyr MIMC is a real deal, who knows!

 

Considering that at Soundsmith’s they can remake it in case of damage or wear, I warmly recommend it. Thank you Mr. Ledermann.

 

 

Official technical specifications

Stylus: Selected Contact Line low mass Nude Stylus

Radius of curvature: 6 x 17 μm

Cantilever: Laser Drilled Sapphire

Recommended tracking force: 1.8 to 2.2 grams

Effective tip mass: 0.32 mg

Compliance: 10 μm/mN (low compliance)

Frequency response: 15-45,000 Hz ± 2.0 dB

Channel separation (stereo only): 1000 Hz >28 dB, 50-15,000 >25 dB

Channel difference: <1.0 dB (Stereo), <0.5 dB (Dual Mono operation- w/optimal VTF setting)

Output Voltage: ≥0.4 mV

DC Resistance (DCR): 10-11 ohms each channel

Coil: 2.75 mH each channel

Suggested Preamp Gain: 58-64 dB

Soundsmith Recommends: MCP2 Variable Loading Preamp

Cartridge weight: 10.25 grams

Loading: ≥ 470 ohms


Official Italian dealer: to Audio Reference website

Official current price in Italy: 1.800,00 EUR

Associated equipment: to Maurizio Fava’s system

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