Transfiguration Proteus MC phono cartridge
The Transfiguration cartridges I've reviewed, too, have always conveyed a midrange musical truth that hasn't been flashy or pretty. But it's always been honest and convincing, particularly of the reality of voices. If you said that the Transfigurations lacked character, you wouldn't be wrongunless you intended it as a criticism.
Transfiguration cartridges have always been more about getting out of the way than about making a "beautiful sound" of one flavor or another. Despite the many Transfigurations I've auditioned, if you were to ask me for a description of any characteristic "house sound" they might share, I couldn't name one.
Of the Transfiguration cartridges I've reviewed, the more expensive the model, the further out of the way it got, but always beginning from a core of honest reproduction of the midrange. In February 2014, I reviewed the Transfiguration Phoenix ($4250) on Analogplanet.com. Among other compliments, I wrote that it was a very neutral cartridge, but that you'd know it wasn't a "top-shelf" model because of its less than fully expressed sustain and decayqualities whose importance was first impressed on me by TARA Labs' Matthew Bond. Better could be had, I wrote, but only for a lot more money.
So here's Transfiguration's new top model, the Proteus ($6000), costing almost half again as much as the Phoenix. These days, $6000 for a cartridge is expensive, but not stupidly so. For me, stupid-expensive cartridges start at $10,000, though I know for a fact (I get the e-mails) that most buyers in that price range still end up thinking it was money smartly spent. Which is not to suggest that a cartridge priced $4000 below stupid level can't possibly compete with $10,000-and-up modelsbecause the Proteus does. That was obvious on first listen.
First, Some History
The original Transfiguration AF-1, produced in the early 1990s, had a ring magnet instead of the then-usual rectangular magnet above the coil structure, associated with a U-shaped yoke. Ring-magnet cartridges are now more commonplace, but back then, this was a breakthrough.
The AF-1 had a single, hollowed-out, disc-shaped magnet, in the center of which the coil assembly was painstakingly positioned. Ultraprecise assembly, always important in the making of ultra-high-performance cartridges, was even more important in building the AF-1, and its low output of 0.1mV limited its compatibility with phono preamplifiers. However, the proximity of coil to magnet and the coil's location at the center of the magnet produced unprecedented uniformity of magnetic flux field. This resulted in audible benefits, particularly a more linear frequency response and better spatial coherence.
Transfiguration followed up with its line of Temper models, which also had a single (but more powerful) ring magnet, and coils with more turns of wire, and was built to even tighter tolerances. The Temper was the first Transfiguration I reviewed, in the July 1996 issue; when properly loaded, among its immediately audible sonic qualities was its subjectively flat, smooth frequency response.
All Transfiguration cartridges made at that time had a single ring magnet, but assembling them proved so difficult that only one technician had what Bob Clarkeof Profundo, Immutable Music's US distributorcalls "the artistry." At his productive peak, this unnamed craftsman, working on two cartridges at once, could produce only a pair of them every other day. Which is why producing less-expensive models proved impossible.
In February 2000 I'd reviewed the Transfiguration Temper Supreme ($3800), another single-magnet design, but with silver coil windings and other mechanical refinements. I wrote: "The Temper Supreme is still the most neutral-sounding, 'characterless' MC cartridge I've yet encountered," but compared to the original Temper, it produced greater dynamic authority, blacker backgrounds, and better image dimensionality.
Seiji Yoshioka then developed a design in which the coil assembly was sandwiched between two ring magnets. This retained the earlier design's uniformity of flux field while being far easier to build and tune. This resulted in the Transfiguration Spirit ($1500), which I reviewed in my May 2000 column. I described its top-end performance as "spirited" (ugh). It wasn't bright or etched, it just shone a spotlight on high frequencies, and loading it down didn't seem to help.
Two years later, the Spirit's Mk.3 iteration proved far more refined in my direct comparisons with the original. In my July 2002 review I wrote: "The Spirit Mk.3 retained the original's clarity, focus, dynamic authority, and superb tracking capabilities (at 2gm) while adding a higher level of frequency neutrality. . . . With its yokeless dual-ring magnet construction, boron cantilever, PA solid-diamond stylus, and body of milled aluminum with integral threaded mounting holes, the Spirit Mk.3 is a mighty attractive package for $1500, and its ability to organize and present focused images in space is one of its strongest suits. If you prefer clarity, focus, and spatial 'neatness,' the Spirit Mk.3 should appeal to you."
Later came the Orpheus, yet another single-magnet Transfiguration flagship cartridgeand then the Orpheus L, a lower-output version that further increased the resolution of fine detail. The Orpheus ($6000) was then the pinnacle of Transfiguration designs. It combined the Temper Supreme's refined sound with new levels of "get out of the way" transparency, spaciousness, and dynamic slam.
Then, toward the end of 2010, while demand for it remained strong, the Orpheus was suddenly, almost mysteriously, discontinued. According to Bob Clarke this was because the lone technician capable of building Immutable's single-magnet cartridges "suffered a disabling medical event."
Two years of R&D followed, during which time Yoshioka revisited double-ring-magnet construction, this time using some "very special" materials he'd procured for use in the Orpheus L. The first model to result from this research appeared in 2012, and was the aforementioned Phoenix. This was not Transfiguration's original Phoenix I'd reviewed in Stereophile in June 2009. Adding to the confusion was the fact that, physically, it looked similar if not identical to the original Phoenix.
It certainly didn't sound like it. As I wrote last February on AnalogPlanet.com: "In 2012 the Phoenix was updated to include larger-gauge, pure-silver coil wire wound on the square Permalloy core used on the now discontinued top of the line Transfiguration Orpheus. The revised Phoenix also shares the Orpheus's damping system . . . and features a powerful neodymium ring in the rear and a samarium cobalt one in front while the older Temper and Orpheus models used but a single ring magnet.
"Were I Mr. Transfiguration (Seiji Yoshioka) I probably would call this new edition the Phoenix Mk.II or the Phoenix Signature or something to distinguish it from the original because while that one was very good, this one is much better and at $4250, it costs considerably more than the original's $2750."
The new and improved Phoenix, though much better than the older Phoenix, did not prepare me for where Seiji Yoshioka has achieved with his new flagship design, the Proteus. Taking it out of the box, I smelled retreat: It was the old shape outside, closely resembling the older Tempers than the squared-off Orpheus, and inside was the "dual-ring-magnet construction again. How good could it be?
Then I looked at the specs. The Proteus has a claimed internal impedance of 1 ohm! Not as low as the 0.4 ohm of Dr. Kubo's Haniwa HCTR01-6T, which is close to a short circuit, but otherwise as low as I've seen. Ultra-low impedance and inductance produce less phase shift, which improves transient performance, while the coil's lower mass should improve overall speed and mechanical responsiveness.
Low impedance is achieved by reducing the number of coil windings, and of course this decreases output. The Proteus is claimed to produce 0.2mV (3.54cm/s, 1kHz)not much, but still twice that of the original AF-1. The front and rear ring magnets are of neodymium, while the square core is "Ultra grade 3S-µ metal," with coils wound using "5N" (99.999% pure) silver wire.
The Proteus has a new, more rigid, nonresonant motor/body interface, and a new damper material said to produce greater clarity and less mechanical "smearing"but the biggest improvements claimed are the 3S mu-metal core and the slightly thicker gauge of silver wire.