There are many of us out there, that are sort of obsessed with the tiny micro mechanical machines, called high-end audio cartridges. The usual audiophile and music lovers these days will hardly hold on to possession of only one cartridge. Still... As with everything connected to the upper echelon of the high-end audio system and product the premium sounding machines do come with a certain, quite hefty price tag.
So what to do exactly? Get a few, more entry level cartridges and accept the compromise in performance, or seek out more clever solutions?
The Soundsmith offers an interesting antidote with the Paua mk II cartridge, that might change the very orientation and open a alternate way in pursuing the the satisfying level of analog heaven.
So what's special (among other things) about the Soundsmith Paua mk II. Well, it can be rebuild for about $550. Yes, that's less than 20% of MSRP. Quite a future proof concept and a one big worry taken off the table...
MEET THE PAUA
Each Paua MK II is hand crafted by Peter Ledermann in the USA. Peter has an impressive track record, when it comes to the cartridge making and I’m more than sure that most of you know him and his Soundsmith venture. Anyhow, I'm inviting you to take a look at this video seminar with a slight provoking name, to understand the depth of Peter's mind set and how he sees analog universe...
Soundsmith Paua mk II implements a unique “Energy Distribution System”, that ensures the transmission of the energy into the cartridge body with highest potency. This is one of the Paua mk II’s mighty features, that contributes to the Paua's stand out sonic performance. But, more about this later on.
“Magnetic cartridges have three elements necessary to generate a voltage; a magnet, coil assemblies, and an “iron” or ferrous component of some shape.
The performance of any magnetic cartridge is largely dependent on how little “moving mass” it has; this is both the mass of the stylus at the end of the cantilever, as well as the total mass of the voltage generating parts that the stylus must move. While there are some advantages to specific designs, both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges are at a distinct disadvantage in regard to moving mass as they are required to move either a relatively large magnet, or a “coil assembly”.
The coil assembly is in reality is a series of wire windings often on a metal core, more properly labeled as an “armature”.
"In a moving iron design, one has the potential to reduce the moving mass to a very small value by virtue of the having the required two relatively massive elements (coils and magnet) held in fixed position.
It is important to understand that while it is true that all designs have trade-offs, a designer must arrange the order of trade-offs carefully. Reducing moving mass is at the top of the list for Soundsmith; less inertia in the generating elements means faster starts and faster stops. It also means a much easier job of damping the unwanted “ringing” of the moving system, a system that must make sudden, accurate and controlled directional changes to follow the grooves of a record.”
“In order to obtain accurate vinyl reproduction, the stylus must remain in near constant contact with the groove walls. The larger the moving mass, the greater the jittering of the stylus, meaning that it is in reality taking “samples” of the groove walls from moment to moment, and averaging or guessing at what is taking place in between those samples. A “digital” sort of rendering, if you will. Lower mass? Less jitter. Less jitter means more time in contact with the groove, which means detail and micro detail. If a cartridge can’t stay in contact with the groove walls, you can’t hear everything that is on the record. In a very real sense, it’s that simple.
The obvious question, “Why doesn’t everyone make cartridges this way, if reducing the moving mass is an absolute requirement for accuracy?” the answer to that is simple as well. Most all other cartridge manufacturers have long ago “tooled up” for making moving coil cartridges. It would look rather foolish of them to suddenly decide that there is a better technology, and say “we were wrong all those years” and start from scratch to build a new technology.
The other reason is this: It’s very hard to build superior moving iron designs. A properly designed Moving Iron cartridge requires an ultra-high level of precision in manufacturing, and potentially low product yield. It is not the best path for profitability, only sonic ability. Another advantage of this design is the inherent high level of channel separation.
Unlike MC cartridges, a small rotation of the generating element in The Paua (moving iron) due to manufacturing tolerances does not affect the separation at all. Furthermore, unlike moving coil cartridges, our Moving Iron designs CANNOT rotate out of position, maintaining the critical azimuth position for the life of the cartridge.”
Soundsmith Paua mk II is recommended to be used with the dedicated moving coil phono preamplifier, with 58 - 65dB of gain. I've also tried it with al least three different MM preamplifiers, but came back to the MC preamp.
The Dynamic Sound Association DSA II phono preamplifier offers great adjustability and in combination with Audio Union Mark Döhmann Helix 1 turntable, as wells as Thales Simplicity II and Audio Union Schröder CB Tonearm the sonic outcome was more than just great.
The optimal loading force for my analog setup was just slightly under the 2 grams. This have produced most balanced sound, being neither too pronounced in the higher spectrum or overblown with the lower frequency range.
I've played around with Clearaudio and two more setup test records at the initial setup. Interestingly the small azimuth changes reveals not so subtle differences with Paua mk II. This is due to Paua specific design. The generator is firmly mounted to the suspension and this design will not rotate the azimuth over the time, allowing the steady performance once the azimuth is set correctly. Such approach is also effect by the non optimal skating force.
Saint-Saëns* / Liszt* - Michele Campanella, Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra*, Aldo Ceccato – Piano Concerto No. 4 / Totentanz | Hungarian Fantasy - Philips – 6500 095
There are many cartridges out there, that can handle pop, rock and jazz music genres very nicely, even impressively. But, when it comes to THE very reproduction of the classical music, many of them too quickly choke under the music's complexity and dynamic diversity.
One of the albums I always love to pull out for this particular challenge is Saint-Saëns/ Liszt - Michele Campanella with Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra. Not only the cartridge, the whole system is put on test, when it comes to the full scale reproduction of the orchestra with this recored. But, thats not all. Combining the vivid rendering of the piano, objectively portrayed with enough gestalt to keep the sense of the three dimensional acoustical shape of the instrument and pianists human aura is no easy task.
Too many times the piano, or any solo instruments gets lost within the vastness of the orchestra, when the sole performance ends and its time to blend back with the multi instrumental score. Soundsmith Paua mk II managed to keep the viable projection of the Michele Campanella's playing with both tasks.
Surprisingly, the mangnitude of deciphered informations coming from the black disc had allowed the inspiring level of the audio data, that led to an inspiring amount of micro and macro details. The piano's decays and delays, that are usually well hidden or lost in translation, suddenly appeared with a new set sonic qualities. Digging through my listening notes had revealed this feature highlighted quite a few times.
Such strident detailed reproduction is usually in a domain of cartridges with the double decker pricing attached to them. Wait, there's more... The density of acoustical anchor points appeared to be in the league of its own, standing out with the vast number of cue points. This not only allowed an impressive projection of the massive orchestra scale and dramatic formation of sole instruments. Paua's had structured a harmonic wholeness and removed few thick sonic layers, that usually masks a real sense of the theatrical atmosphere. An achievement of no small scale!
Michael Franks – Tiger In The Rain, Direct-Disk Labs – SD 16611
Few artist had such a liberty and great fortune, to create for prolonged time at its own pace/liking and to accompany their composition in the recording process with such variety of top class musicians as Michael Franks did. He might be not so well known to the wider public as much as some celebrities, but Michael is among few of my favourite artists with high worldwide following for many of the reasons.
For me, the Tiger In The Rain album is (musically) as iconic as Henri Rousseau painting, that was used for the album's cover. The kaleidoscope of vibrant rhythms, philosophical-lyrical escapades makes this album a special standout and a personal gem.
There is something very ethereal about this music, that connects intimately with the Soundsmith Paua mk II cartridge's inner core. Perhaps they share a unique vibrancy... Paua can be playful and radiant, but it can also instantly dig profoundly deeper into the black grooves as described with the Saint-Saëns/Michele Campanella reference above.
Paua mk II had expertly captured the Tiger In The Rain vibrant's nature as well as the very spirited mood of the album. Constant interplay of strings, hammond organ, guitars, percussion, drums, vocals etc. calls for a chameleon like nature of the cartridge, and Paua mk II had nailed this diversity challenge with top marks. It had also captured best attributes of the tonal density. These are crucial when it comes to rendering the believable nature of any instrument. And we don't talk to often about the believable factor in the reviews for the very same reason. Note this down. Paua mk II makes all the difference also in this regard.
I've had a few previous encounters with Soundsmith cartridges, but so far never explored them in my personal system. I've did my usual homework and as you could also discover throughout the review so far, there is A LOT to be told about the man behind the cartridge, the brand's philosophy and the cartridge itself. Yes, this is no ordinary micro-music-machine. There is something very unique and special about the Paua mk II, that had literally glued me to the prolonged music listenings. After years of intimate following of the analog and having a luxury of testing, trying and hearing quite a selection of cartridges, the excitement happens more rarely. I've been exploring this wonderful and vast analog universe for more then three decades and I'm more than happy to be positively surprised with the products such as Soundsmith's Paua.
So where's the catch? Many cartridges on the market too quickly falls into one of the sonic camps. Refreshingly, the Paua mk II is not kitten with either instantly recognising German type of sound, neither with traditional Japanese sort of overwhelmed flavouring.
In the abundance of different schools of sound, where cartridges sadly crosses over to the not so subtle world of equalising, the Paua mk II dwells in its own, very verdured realms. Paua mk II delivers the feather like lightness, yet alongside can render a powerful energy transfer, allowing it to deliver unprecedented sense of the very inner mechanic of the music. As mentioned before, a being there factor is one of the attributes, that gets little or no attention in high-end audio reviews, as its never easy to accomplish. Even the slightest portion of the real music aura transcoding and objective forming is quite an achievement. Paua mk II goes further then offering a mere traits. It delivers an exuberant sonic foliage, that intimately embraces the very inner mechanics of the real music. O yeah, now we're talking...
Despite the Paua mk II's 0.4 mV output voltage, the sonic perfomrance was much closer to the very nature of the MC cartridges with lower output. I'm talking about the positive attributes, that brings the specific, but highly involving micro and micro dynamics in combination with very needed denseness. Again, note that down with a big marker! Considering what kind of performance Soundsmith Paua mk II is offering at its given price and the stand out "non tinted" voicing Peter has managed to accomplish, I'm more then happy to award this uncommon cartridge with the Mono and Stereo Upper Echelon Product Award. The surprising freshens of music delivery, embodies all the great qualities of the upper level high-end audio analog playback with a price tag, that would be at least twice or in some cases triple if embraced under some other brand umbrella. Yes, its that good...