Soundsmith Mezzo And Nautilus Phono Cartridges
" ... it's not even close, as I've never heard any other phono cartridge deliver this type of monstrous sound and flat frequency response without having at least some distracting artifacts. Perhaps the music was simply too engrossing to be able to pin down anything other than the music being reproduced with such a connection to the source. The delivery system seemed to disappear, leaving only music."
- Tom Lyle, Enjoy The Music .com
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
World Premiere Review!
Soundsmith Mezzo And Nautilus Phono Cartridges
Reproducing music on vinyl LPs... and worth every penny of their asking price.
Review By Tom Lyle
Soundsmith Mezzo Phono Cartridges
There aren't many people involved in audio these days that are as obsessed with their craft as much as the President and Chief Engineer of Soundsmith, Peter Ledermann. His unwavering devotion to his craft of designing and manufacturing phono cartridges (and his other products) is not only well known, but his phono cartridges are claimed by many to be better than anything being offered by other audiophile equipment manufacturers at any price. Speaking to Mr. Ledermann before I started this review was a thrill – he seemed to speak without taking a breath between sentences, although this hardly mattered because I was not only enthralled with the subject matter but also because he seemed so darn well-informed about the subjects in his chosen field. The amount of knowledge he has accumulated in regards to phono cartridges is quite impressive, but even more impressive is his dedication to the audiophile subject at hand, regardless of subject. It is quite obvious to me that Soundsmith's Peter Ledermann is, for lack of any other term, a genius.
I was sent for auditioning Soundsmith's Mezzo and Nautilus cartridges, both of which are new to the Soundsmith line. They are two of five new medium output cartridges based on existing Soundsmith models, which Soundsmith designed to fill a void in the marketplace for medium output cartridges. Medium output cartridges are best suited for use with fixed gain phono preamps specifically designed for medium output cartridges, such as those made by Audio Research and Conrad Johnson. But these five new Soundsmith models can also be used with high gain MM preamps as well. The new Soundsmith designs, as in his entire magnetic cartridge lineup are neither moving magnet (MM) nor moving coil (MC) cartridges but moving iron cartridges. Most audiophiles are familiar with the former two types of cartridges, but I will briefly discuss the differences between them – not only for those who might be new to this field, but to illustrate how moving iron cartridges are different from the others. However, what follows is not only a very condensed explanation, but highly edited one, too, since again, most audiophiles are already familiar with the subject. So, a moving magnet is a type of cartridge that has a stylus cantilever that has a tiny magnet positioned in between a pairs of fixed coils that produces the magnetic field that is necessary to turn the vibrations of the magnets into the voltage or current that is converted into the musical signal we hear. With the moving coil cartridge, the coils are fixed to the stylus/cantilever assembly, and their movement creates an electrical signal due to the applied fixed magnetic field.
The small coils that must (or are usually) used in these cartridges produce a much lower output voltage, and so an MC cartridge (in most cases) has a much lower output than a MM cartridge. The moving iron cartridges that are the subject of this review substitute moving iron for the moving magnet or coils. This lighter assembly can reduce the tracking force, but at the same time boosts the accuracy of the cartridge's tracking, in part due to a cantilever/stylus/generator assembly that has a much lower mass. Although it is very difficult to manufacture a moving iron cartridge correctly, there is enough technical motivation to do so according to Peter, which makes these cartridges high end performers.
Soundsmith's Peter Ledermann explains why he chose to design moving iron cartridges in favor of the more popular moving coil models in a white paper titled Moving Iron vs. Moving Coil – why make the jump to a different technology?? To begin with, Peter claims there is at least five times less "moving mass" in Soundsmith's moving iron cartridge, so it is much more accurate. With less moving mass it can at least 10 times more accurate because of its lower stored energy in "angular momentum" – which is the direction of the angular internal movement of the generating system in the cartridge. This stored energy is an important factor in the moving system simply because this mass is moving. Once it is moving, it stores energy as inertia. The lower mass of the moving iron cartridge means less stored energy, and so stopping and starting this movement is much easier. Also, a good portion of any stored energy is attempted to be released back into the vinyl's grooves in the higher mass designs, which isn't as much of a factor when the mass is lower to the extent of a his moving iron designs. And this lower mass also means that instead of trying to get rid of the reflected energy into the record, the stylus spends more time in contact with the groove rather than jittering in the attempt to input this energy back into the record, something that no cartridge does well. With the moving iron cartridge's lower generator mass, less effort is required to move the generator in the first place, and less energy is stored as inertia. Mr. Ledermann goes on with his explanation to further describe that if a cartridge doesn't have good contact with the record it can ruin the sound of the cartridge and thus the music. A lower mass moving iron solves much of these problems, and through good engineering practices he has built these new moving iron cartridges to take advantage of this. An added benefit of the Soundsmith moving iron cartridges that are featured in this review (and all his MI designs) is that they are "rebuild-able", which can be done for about 20% of their sale price! Soundsmith also claims that these cartridges are internally much more durable than others, so they will last through multiple rebuilds.
The Mezzo, at $4800 (pictured at the top of this review), is the more expensive of the two medium output Soundsmith cartridges I was sent for review. It is based on his low output Sussurro cartridge that has been in Soundsmith's line for some time. The Sussurro has been quite successful, winning many audio publication's awards but more importantly customer loyalty. Also popular is Soundsmith's low output Paua phono cartridge, which is the model that inspired the new medium output version, named the Nautilus at $3800 (pictured below). The Sussurro and Paua are still within Soundsmith's line, yet are more suitable for those who have a phono preamplifier that can accept low output designs. Both the Mezzo and Nautilus cartridges have an output of 1.1mV, which is less than the average MM cartridge, but still enables them to be used with a "standard" phono preamplifier. Thus upgrading one's phono preamplifier to accommodate these new cartridges might not be mandatory. However (spoiler alert!), after one hears either of these two cartridges one will wonder if the phono preamplifier being used is good enough to take advantage of all that both of these Soundsmith cartridges have to offer.
Soundsmith Nautilus Phono Cartridges
The installation onto my tonearm of both of the cartridges was not a big deal, but it might have been if I followed every step of Peter Ledermann's capacious installation, care and feeding instructions that takes up more than a few pages of text. The installation of a phono cartridge is a procedure I've done hundreds of times, if not more, and I'm confident that both the Mezzo and the Nautilus were set up with measurable levels of accuracy. The only set-up procedure that took a little more time than usual was setting the overhang point because the rather long body of both of the cartridges required them to be set quite a bit toward the rear of the tonearm's headshell.
Although it is stated on the specifications of the Mezzo and Nautilus that the recommended loading of the phono preamplifier should be 1500 Ohm, after trying out various loading options, using the 47K Ohm setting on my phono preamp sounded best – and it's a good thing it did, because the majority of onboard MM phono preamplifiers that are built into integrated amps, receivers, and the like have a fix load set at 47K Ohm. As far as phono preamp gain settings go – even though the recommended phono preamp gain setting for both the Mezzo and Nautilus is between 48dB to 54dB, the MM preset of my phono preamp sets it to a gain of 46dB, which did not present any problems whatsoever. Perhaps this was because both the linestages that I used for the review, the tubed Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) VK-33 (reviewed here) and the solid-state LKV Research Line One (reviewed here), have an extremely low level of background noise. And again, as far as using the 47 Ohm setting rather than the 1500 Ohm recommended by Soundsmith, even though I claimed it advantageous to those listeners with a standard, non-adjustable MM phono preamp, I was well aware that I was risking the wrath of Peter Ledermann. Since both cartridges sounded to me as if they were performing at their best, I was willing to take that risk. Mr. Ledermann is welcome to add a manufacture's comment at the end of this review in order to chastise me (or praise me), but since the Mezzo and Nautilus sounded so marvelous during the review period that I bet he'll just let it be.
My reference turntable has been for quite some time a Basis Debut V, and the tonearm that is mounted to its solid-acrylic armboard is a Tri-Planar 6.The tonearm's hardwired cable connects to a Pass Laboratory XP-15 phono preamp. This isn't the most cutting-edge high-end front end in the world, yet I doubt anyone would (or should) consider it entry-level. Both of the Soundsmith phono cartridges sounded excellent, but different enough and with enough nuance and singularity that I was satisfied that my front-end was worthy enough to act as a host for these two transducers.
Even right out of the box the Mezzo's sound was quite impressive. After about forty or so hours of use it became even more impressive, and I became aware of the many things it got right and the very few (if any) things that it got wrong. It allowed me hear exactly what was pressed into the grooves of the record that was on my turntable. It was also quite striking how quiet the cartridge was when traveling through the grooves of each record -- the vanishingly small level of surface noise that the Mezzo reproduces is quite an accomplishment. But what was much more noticeable even early in the review process after only a playing a few records was that the Mezzo sounded like real music.
The tracking abilities that are potentially inherent to the Moving Iron cartridge have obviously been exploited by Peter Ledermann, and due to his exacting design and manufacturing processes he has made these cartridges sound like no others I have ever heard in my analog front-end. These exquisite tracking abilities enable the Mezzo, and to almost as much as an extent in the Nautilus, to lower the amount of distortion that is present in so many otherwise fine sounding similarly priced cartridges. No, I still cannot replicate the sound of Carnegie Hall (my true reference) in my listening room. But I sure know what real instruments and voices sound like, and the Soundsmith Mezzo has captured the gestalt of these sounds and makes it possible to at least get a taste of this reality via my turntable rig. Thankfully, its lack of distortion due to its expert tracking abilities is not the only sonic attribute of the Soundsmith Mezzo. I do not have the expertise to explain how Peter Ledermann has managed to make the Mezzo sound like music when playing records on my system; I am not a phono cartridge designer or electrical engineer. But from what I've learned from speaking to quite a few cartridge designers throughout the years is that producing a high-end phono cartridge is as much an art as a science. And what Peter Ledermann hath wrought is a phono cartridge that combines this art and science to produce a phono cartridge that turns the signal it derives from the squiggles and grooves in the vinyl into something that replicates the sound of music to a point where playing records produced a torrent of suspension of disbelief moments that I have only rarely heard from a phono cartridge, and never from one in my own system from a cartridge anywhere near this price.
One of my favorite records (today) released by EMI is Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 played by Paul Tortelier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund. While those of us in the US were wallowing in crappy pressings by record companies driven by profits in lieu of quality products, the British were releasing fine sounding records on EMI, Decca, et al. This 1973 recording [EMI ASD 2924] was not made by the "famous" production and engineering team of Bishop and Parker, but by the much less familiar yet just as competent Eltham and Mordler. Using this record as evidence I don't think there would be complaints that they led this recording project. More importantly, and definitely worthy of the excellent sound quality of this pressing, it is an outstanding version of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto.
Despite the sound of Tortelier's cello sounding as it is placed way out in front of the orchestra, the Mezzo is able to take advantage of the close mic'ing of his lead instrument. The Mezzo enabled me to hear details that other cartridges would gloss over. Microdynamics are one thing, but to hear the variation in pressure of the bow against the strings, being able to picture in my mind whether he was using an up or down stroke, and I heard not only the air around the instrument but the tiny variations in distance between his instrument and the microphone, which added to the feeling of being immersed in the music. Somehow the Mezzo managed this feat without sounding inordinately detailed or over-analytical. In fact, it was Goldilocks – "just right" in the amount of low-level detail and focus. In other words, it sounded real – as if I was somehow permitted to observe Tortelier's playing while hovering above Maestro Berglund and his soloist.
The orchestra backing the solo cello was not only accompaniment, but an active participant in Shostakovich's score and emerged as a huge sound coming forth from my speaker system. No, spinning this record didn't produce a sonic hologram of the Bournemouth SO in my listening room, but there were many traits of the Mezzo that enabled me to hear not only what were captured by the microphones, but that human beings were responsible for the sounds coming from their instruments. I am very lucky because for some time now the ability to separate the instruments of an orchestra and sections of the orchestra in an accurately scaled soundstage has become an everyday occurrence in my system. The Mezzo takes this quality (and other positive sonic characteristics) one giant step further. The surface noise of the record is reproduced at such a low level that during quiet moments the space between instruments was filled only with the very low level of tape hiss, the sound of the surrounding air, the ambience of the hall, the ambience of surrounding instruments, pages of the score turning, musicians shifting in their seats, and even the occasional breath of the musicians.
Audiophile-type qualifiers that we love to speak about were also plentiful, such as the extension and quality of the frequency extremes (which include a deep, pitch stable, thunderous bass), a huge super-accurately scaled soundstage, and images that placed the instruments and groups of instruments in appropriate locations within this huge soundstage. Shostakovich's score is filled with angular themes and melodies that are most likely understood only by those who lived in the USSR in the 1950s, along with melodies that parody the government that often suppressed the composer. These sonic twists and turns were read by the Mezzo with nonchalant exactness, and the micro and macro-dynamics of the music would cause me to either lean into it during quiet passages, or jump from my seat during a climax as if I was hearing this favorite for the first time.
I'm lucky that I had the forethought to purchase Led Zeppelin's catalog on Classic Records in the late 1990 to early 2000. Zep fanatics will likely never cease arguing, excuse me, discussing, which LP pressing of each album is the best, but in my opinion these reissues are indispensable, and most likely as close as I'll get to hearing the master tapes. By the time Led Zeppelin recorded their fifth album Houses Of The Holy, it was no longer said that guitarist Jimmy Page was "coming into his own" as a producer, but was more than adept at getting the sounds he wanted onto record. Whether the second song on the album The Rain Song was recorded with the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, at Olympic or Electric Ladyland Studios, or some combination of all of them, perhaps only some Led Zeppelin fanatics might know. But what is for sure is that it is not only one of my favorite songs on the album but one of my favorite "rock ballads" (oh, how I loathe that term) ever. It's a great song that highlights each member of the band, plus bassist and keyboard player John Paul Jones uses a Mellotron to add what some call an "orchestral effect", but I consider its sound incomparable. I'm a sucker for the sound of a Mellotron, and more than likely has only deepened my love for this song.
The Soundsmith Mezzo was able to simultaneously dissect the song and transfer to the music centers in my brain the intensions of both the band and the recording process. John Bonham sounds exquisite. Rarely does he play his drums with brushes, and he puts on quite a show, demonstrating why he was one of the best rock drummers that walked the Earth. His control on the bass drum pedals matches the dexterity and finesse of his playing the snare, toms and cymbals with the brushes. The Mezzo reproduces the low-bass rumble of the kick drums, but as Bonham demonstrates his control of the level of his bass drums, so is the Mezzo, never overloading these lower-frequencies and at the same time demonstrating its bass extension and control. The detail that this cartridge extracts from the grooves is astounding, as the percussive thunder and complex syncopation of the drums and cymbals surround the speakers and created a torrent of sound that filled the large soundstage, I could also hear the slight squeak of a bass drum pedal that could have used a squirt or two of WD40. The same low bass extension and control from the drums is also true with the bass pedals of John Paul Jones' keyboard, as he foregoes his Fender bass guitar for these pedals, their low-frequency tones shaking the window frames of my listening room as well as my body, which responded to this very pitch stable low bass by sending shivers up my spine.
One rarely speaks of the quality of the recording process in regards to Robert Plant's voice. With all the layering of effects and overdubs the Mezzo still able to produce a striking facsimile of a real human voice singing into a microphone and recorded onto tape. In fact, the Mezzo's lifelike rendering of the midrange frequencies enabled all human voices, not just the male alto on this record, but male and female's voices of all stripes with sound so natural, I played record after record, visualizing these singers in my mind's ear. And while all the instruments and voices that occupied the soundfield created a diorama of sounds on just about every record I played, this sonic panorama flowed to my ears as an organic whole, begging to be played again at a later date to again hear how this phono cartridge trounced others in its price class that occupied my sonic memory. In fact, it's not even close, as I've never heard any other phono cartridge deliver this type of monstrous sound and flat frequency response without having at least some distracting artifacts. Perhaps the music was simply too engrossing to be able to pin down anything other than the music being reproduced with such a connection to the source. The delivery system seemed to disappear, leaving only music.
Please excuse me if I seem to be getting carried away. Of course the Mezzo isn't the best cartridge in the world. If one has the money, there are plenty of other makes and models that are available to audiophiles that can outperform the Mezzo, and even one higher up in this line of moving iron cartridges offered by Soundsmith, the Helios at $7500. But I've heard more than my share of cartridges in my own system, in the system of audio salons and the system of other audiophiles, and with that in mind, if one decides spend this amount of money on a phono cartridge and one chooses the Soundsmith Mezzo, buyer's remorse is highly unlikely.
How much does the one thousand dollar less Soundsmith Nautilus sonically differ than the Mezzo? Not by very much, really. In fact, some with more detailed systems might prefer the Nautilus instead of the Mezzo. My system is very revealing, yet I never thought the Mezzo to be too much of a good thing. Still, the Nautilus softens the overall sound a bit to create a slightly more mellow presentation. I liked it. This was true when listening to more aggressive fare, such as Prokofiev's Scythian Suite, my best sounding copy a Classic Records reissue, the Mercury Living Presence issue where it is paired with The Love For Three Oranges conducted by Antal Dorati. The Nautilus obviously shares the same DNA as the Mezzo, although its sound seemed to caress my ears more than the Mezzo, its sound not veiled but a bit less detailed. It's tracking ability was the Mezzo's equal, and it midrange also seemed just as transparent, as it was able to create a soundstage with just as much scale and the same prowess to fill it with palpable instruments and voices. The Nautilus was able to transparently read the grooves of the record but didn't necessarily bring the musical even to the listening room with the same expertise as the Mezzo. It was still able somehow able to transport me back in time to observe the record session with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1957, the realness of the instruments quite unsettling at times.
Both the Soundsmith Mezzo and Nautilus both won me over. They are better than any other phono cartridges I've ever heard anywhere near each of their prices. Most importantly they reproduced the music cut into each record I played as if it was the real thing, whether one considers the real thing as recorded on the concert hall stage, in the studio, or from the software on a laptop computer generating electronic sounds. If one spends more for the pricier Mezzo it is money well spent for a cartridge that is one step higher in Peter Ledermann's Soundsmith line of moving iron cartridges. But where the Mezzo was able to fight well above its weight class, it is the Nautilus that should be considered a bargain since it can just about compete with its more superior stablemate and at the same time offers traits of its own that might make it preferable for some listeners. Although, in my system the Mezzo demonstrated that this more expensive phono cartridge is worth the extra money, and worth every penny of its asking price. I highly recommend both.
Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)
Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)
Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)
High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)
Soundscape Width Front
Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers
Soundscape Extension Into Room
Fit And Finish
Value For The Money
I wish to express my thanks to Enjoy the Music.com and of course Tom for the review of our new Mezzo and Nautilus medium output cartridges. We are excited about these designs, created in the effort to address the needs of many phono preamp owners who have been searching not only for alternate sources of medium output designs, but products designed and manufactured in the USA that also feature unprecedented product support.
Our five new medium outputs cartridges express our continuing research and production efforts to further the enjoyment of vinyl replay. I appreciate very much the high praise we received from Tom, and wish to point out that we are the only manufacturer that supports our cartridges in a vastly different manner than other manufacturers. Imagine buying a car from a dealer who refuses to service it! Every model we make can always be fully restored – repeatedly – for 20%. This makes the cost of ownership of any Soundsmith design – and the cost per play – a very different experience as well.
Fixed gain phono preamps play an important part of the preamp scene – developed for high gain and low noise without the requirement of what can be a critically matched step up transformer being (in part) the aim of these preamp designs. From that standpoint, they make lots of sense. We feel that our new medium output designs represented partially by the Mezzo and Nautilus supplant the previously limited availability and supply of high performance cartridges in this critical niche arena. We also appreciate your bringing Soundsmith and these designs to the attention of the global market through Enjoy The Music.com – a place where Soundsmith can enjoy a bit of exposure to those who may not aware of our artisan products and company.
Again, my deepest thanks,
Peter Ledermann, President and Chief Engineer
Type: Phono cartridge for vinyl LP turntable
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz (+/-1 dB)
Stylus: Contact Line Nude, 0.100mm SQ
Tip Design: Soundsmith OCL (Optimized Contour Contact Line)
Recommended Tracking Force: 1.8 to 2.2 Grams
Effective tip mass: 0.30 mg
Compliance: 10µm/mN (low compliance)
Channel Separation (stereo only): 1000 Hz >34 dB
Channel Difference: <0.5 dB (Stereo)
Channel Difference: <0.5 dB (Dual Coil Mono Version of Mezzo)
Output @5 cm/sec.: ~ 1.1 mV
Retipping Cost: $650
Cartridge Weight: 10.25 Grams
Load: 1500 Ohm minimum – 47K Ohm max
Stylus: Contact Line Nude, 0.100mm SQ
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz(+/- 1 dB)
Highly polished Nude Contact Line SELECTED
Cantilever: Telescoping Aluminum Alloy
Recommended Tracking Force: 1.7 to 1.9 Grams
Effective Tip Mass: 0.30 mg
Compliance: 10µm/mN (low compliance)
Channel Separation (stereo only): 1000 Hz >34 dB
Channel Difference: <0.5 dB (Stereo)
Channel Difference: <0.5 dB (Dual Coil Mono Version of Nautilus)
Output @5 cm/sec: 1.1 mV
Retipping Cost: $550
Cartridge Weight: 10.25 Grams
Load: 1500 Ohm minimum – 47K Ohm max