The Charisma Audio MC-2 Moving Coil Cartridge

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It’s nice to see a Canadian cartridge of excellent quality getting some play on mainstream turntables and receiving good notices in the press.  

The MC-2 Moving Coil Cartridge is the brainchild of Bernard Li, proprietor of Toronto’s Charisma Audio, one of Canada’s finest high-end audio distributors.  

I first met Li when he opened his business and hosted a mixer – classy digs, great line of equipment and a lovely man. Charisma represents lines such as Scheu Analog, Calyx, Well Tempered Turntables, Madison Audio Lab, GigaWatt, Capriccio Continuo Loudspeakers, Shanling, Audio Exklusiv and others. A varied list of catholic taste. 

Li has taken his meticulous business practices and transferred them into the production of a meticulous cartridge. 

I call the moving coil MC-2 a delightful blue aluminum nugget. Rarely have I seen a cartridge that wowed me in the looks department, before one groove was needled.  

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The fit and finish of Li’s cartridge is exquisite, easily matching the levels attained by the best of Clearaudio, Rega, Ortofon and others. 

The cartridge was easy to setup (tools provided), was auditioned on my reference Rega RP10 Turntable, and the subject of an upcoming review, The Well Tempered Lab Simplex Turntable (WT). Break in is suggested at 50 hours. I must have put 200 hours plus on it – the cart never tracked less than a champ, rode warps well, and clicks and pops were negligible. Footfalls effected the WT Simplex slightly more than the RP10, due, most probably,  to turntable position – WT on a Target rack and the Rega safely tucked up on its Rega wall bracket. But unless there was a stomp, the MC-2 did its best roadrunner imitation and kept going and going. 

Setup on both the Well Tempered arm and the magnificent Rega RB2000 tonearm was quick – tweezers, Allen key, Shure SFG-2 Stylus Tracking Force Gauge, the alignment gauges provided by the turntable manufacturers, then, after a quick read and refresher from our most read article, A Beginner’s Guide to Cartridge Setup, we were up and running. 

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Specifications

  • Cartridge Weight: 12 g
  • Cantilever: sapphire
  • Stylus: super fine line contact nude diamond
  • Vertical Tracking Angle: 20 degrees
  • Coil: pure iron crossed-coil with single crystal high purity copper
  • Output Voltage: 0.42 mV at 3.54 cm/sec.
  • Internal Impedance: 14 ohms
  • Frequency Response: 20 – 25,000 Hz ± 1 dB
  • Channel Balance: better than 0.5 dB
  • Channel Separation: better than 30 dB
  • Dynamic Compliance: 10 um/mN
  • Recommended Loading: 100 – 1,000 ohms
  • Recommended Tracking Force: 2.0 g ± 0.1 g
  • Tracking Ability at 315 Hz / 2 g: 80 uM
  • Recommended Tonearm Mass: medium

Discussion

I asked Li to offer our readers a few thoughts about the MC-2 and his sound/design philosophy:

My enthusiasm in analog gave me a hope that I could have my own brand of cartridges/tonearms/turntables in the future.  My dream finally came true about four years ago when I met a cartridge designer and builder who could co-design and make a line of cartridges for me according to my requirements. My goal is to supply a line of cartridges at affordable prices but with high quality. 

1)      I would like my line of cartridges to be as neutral as possible.  The higher the models, the better the resolution, soundstage, frequency extension, layering, channel separation and control, etc.  I found the older Lyra cartridges a bit on the lean side and the Koetsus are just the opposite.  Therefore, my cartridges are not biased to one side or another.

2)       I would like my cartridges to be friendly to most phono stages on the market.  The main issue of matching is gain.  My line of cartridges have no less than 0.35mV of output and the majority of MC phono stages can easily accommodate them.

3)      I would like my cartridges to have an open and airy sound.  I have found some naked cartridges sounding a bit bright and thin and some enclosed designs sounding a bit dark and dull.  That’s why my cartridges are all semi-enclosed.

4)      All my cartridges have a pretty rigid body.  The basic MC-1 (Now MC-1 Alpha) and MC-2 employ a thick aluminum body with a weight of 12g.  The Reference Series employ wood bodies which have high density, hardness and weight.  The Reference One has an amboyna burl wood body and bocote for the Reference Two.

5)      Cantilever is very critical to cartridge performance, it is better to be hard (for rigidity) and light (for faster response).  For rigidity, the MC-1 Alpha employs a titanium alloy cantilever, sapphire for the MC-2 and ruby for the Reference One and Two.  For lightness, cantilever diameter of the MC-1 Alpha is 0.29mm and 0.32mm for the MC-2 and 0.29mm for the Reference One and Two.  Due to the hardness of jewel material, it is very difficult to get the diameter down to these thicknesses.

6)      Wiring for the generator is important as well, we use single crystal high purity copper for the MC-1 Alpha and MC-2 and ultra high purity single crystal copper for the Reference One.  The Reference Two employs extremely high purity and ultra fine single crystal copper.  Initially we planned to use high purity silver wiring for the Reference Two.  But we found that the sound was a bit polite and lacked a bit of dynamics.

7)      Suspension material of a cartridge is also very important.  All my cartridges use a special formulated Butyl rubber compound for suspension.  Besides, it is made with special skill plus multiple aging processes for maximum performance and reliability.  It will not dry up or crack for an extended period of time to degrade the sound.

Sound 

Without getting into the weeds about differences in the turntables, I’ll comment on the sound I heard from the cartridge, with emphasis on its character across two vastly different platforms.  

Out of the box, it sounded quite good – the character will energize your LPs immediately, with grace and refinement in timbre and instrumental separation the benefits of a few hours hard graft.  

After the required break in, the dynamics became more vivid in all levels and real subtleties began to emerge from even the most difficult (read torturous) of records.  

Inner grooves? No problemo!  

Inner grooves? No problemo!  

The Optimal reissue of Karajan’s seminal DGG Ravel/Debussy LP was instructive. L'Apres-midi d'un faune was as languorous as the conductor envisaged helped by the spectacular playing of his Berliner Philharmoniker. What a glorious sounding LP. Yet, it has its vagaries. A certain compression during very loud passages, specifically Daphnis. The Ravel ballet remained problematic but the incredible dynamic range rendered so easily by the Charisma made for exciting listening. In the Debussy, the delicacy of the harp, and the diaphanous sound of the muted violins was tremendously tactile. Only the best cartridges can decipher the instrumental separation and reflect the composer’s wishes, especially from the murk of Berlin’s Jesus Christian Kirche. The MC-2 was exceptional, here. 

Interestingly, these qualities, for the most part were achieved on both turntables, with the transparency and separation nod going to the twice as expensive Rega. Yet, the MC-2 had enough character to shine through both turntables.

At the very reasonable price of USD$1650, it’s not going to compete with one of my favourite cartridges, the Lyra Etna at over five times the price, especially in the transparency department, but the MC-2 was no slouch. Li’s semi-enclosed design kept each tessitura behaving with each other. Excellent control in all registers. Nude, or semi nude cartridges, like my Rega Apheta 2 MC Cartridge, tend to fizz a little in the treble when things get exciting. 

The cartridge was easy to drive. I left the factory settings of the phono stage my Jeff Rowland Continuum S2 as they were. Changing the settings of the phono stage requires soldering. Not ideal for cartridge reviews, but none have complained so far. Easy loads from Rega, Clearaudio, Ortofon and now Charisma. The cartridge enjoyed the pairing.  

Bass is well controlled. Karajan’s Vienna/Blueback of Holst’s The Planets  tested this aspect well. Both Mars, Saturn and Uranus have fantastic bass lines, loud and deep. The sound was accurate and tracking was spot on. Even the fff blast in Uranus (after the timpani fusillade) was under complete control. 

One of my favourite vinyl recordings is Doug McLeod's Come to Find. His wiry, emotive voice sounded natural and in place among the purist guitar, bass and drums. Splendid. As did Janet Baker’s glorious mezzo on an old Philps/Haitink Mahler Das Lied. No matter the thorny orchestration, and her fulsome chest tones, the MC-2 controlled everything. Lots of cheaper carts can’t handle French horns or female chest tones - they literally lose it. Unfocused and wobbly. Happily, nothing to see, here. 

In analog these days, and even more than digital, you gotta pay to play. The aforementioned Lyra Etna is USD$8,999. For that, you get superlative instrumental and vocal timbre, instant macro dynamics that will make your hair curl and oodles of our beloved transparency. 

So, it’s nice to write about Charisma’s top cart that gives audiophiles and music lovers a goodly slice of the analog heavens for USD$1650. In Audiophile reference terms, an unassailable bargain. Highly recommended. 

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Further information: Charisma Audio