Gramophone Dreams #4 Page 2

The Carmen is an ebony-bodied replacement for Soundsmith's esteemed SMMC3 MI model (now discontinued, footnote 3). It is of medium mass (6.8gm), medium compliance (22µm/mN), and high output (2.2mV RMS), and features a nude elliptical stylus (6 by 17µm) and an aluminum-alloy cantilever. It should work well with most MM phono stages and tonearms of low to medium mass. I used the Carmen with a vertical tracking force (VTF) of 1.5gm into a 47k ohms/100pF load (though I recommend experimenting with capacitive loads of up to 450pF). I played it every day for almost six months, with four tonearms and no fewer than five phono stages, including Soundsmith's own matching MMP3 ($649.95).

Soundsmith MMP3 moving-magnet phono stage
Because I received the MMP3 phono stage first, I used it with an Ortofon 2M Black and my Grado M+ Mono and 78rpm cartridges. I'm very familiar with these cartridges so I had a chance to examine the effect this tiny, dead-quiet, solid-state black box had on their sounds. With the Ortofon and Grados, the MMP3 leaned a little toward soft and dark, and a lot toward invisible. The MMP3 barely ever revealed itself in the music or on my equipment rack. It didn't add or subtract noticeably from the character of the transducers it amplified. Using a carefully aligned Ortofon 2M Black ($799) with its vertical tracking angle (VTA) and stylus rake angle (SRA) optimized, I compared the MMP3 directly with Schiit Audio's Mani MM phono stage ($129), the Blue Horizon ProFono ($1299), and the LFD Phonostage ($1299). The Schiit played beautifully, but the MMP3 was a tad more quiet and refined. The Soundsmith was less detailed, forceful, and exciting than the Blue Horizon. The MMP3 and the LFD had surprisingly similar sounds, but the LFD added some instrumental weight that I felt the Soundsmith missed.


Listening to the Carmen
The Carmen was conspicuously chameleon-like. Its sound was always enjoyable, but changed character radically with each tonearm, turntable, and phono stage I connected it to. This is why I do not trust equipment reviews—including mine—to provide more than a sketch of any component's potential. All I could do was install the Soundsmith Carmen in a variety of record-playing systems and report what I heard.

VPI Traveler turntable and tonearm: I began with the Carmen on the VPI Traveler, where it showed itself to be sonically nobler than its ride. The Traveler is an admirable entry-level turntable that distinguishes itself mostly by the sins it fails to commit. Its greatest strengths are its (relative) quietness and the way its combination of rubber mat and aluminum platter seems to drag out the best from budget cartridges like the Ortofon 2M Red. With the Carmen on the Traveler, I fiddled endlessly with VTA and SRA, to no avail—I couldn't get enough detail, soundstage, or boogie factor. On the Traveler's medium-mass tonearm, the Carmen sounded dark and hollow.

Thorens TD-124 turntable and SME 3009II tonearm: When I moved the Carmen from the VPI to the vintage Thorens-SME combination, it was like the sun reappearing from behind a cloud.

Like Peter Ledermann, Beethoven's mysterious Triple Concerto occupies a place apart. I recently discovered a hypnotizing 1970 recording with violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and pianist Sviatoslav Richter, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (LP, Angel S-36727). The first thing I noticed was how, even at the quietest volume levels, sparkle and dynamics were preserved. The recording was made in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin's Dahlem district, and the Carmen let me feel some of the fierce concentration recorded within those walls. Layered, glowing images of the soloists and orchestra appeared naturally between my speakers. What the Carmen did with Beethoven's quiet passages made me smile and let out my breath. Instrumental scale and tonal contrasts were just right. When the orchestra swelled, my chest followed with anticipation. My dreams of Sussurro-like magic were beginning to unfold.

Pioneer PLX-1000 turntable and tonearm: I'll never forget the first time I heard The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann, a Decca/London Phase 4 recording engineered by Arthur Lilley (LP, London SP 44207). It was a high-fidelity, paradigm-shifting moment. Decca created the Phase 4 sublabel in the 1960s, to appeal to the burgeoning audiophile market. The Phase 4 sound was admirably clear and wide range, with deep bass and extreme textures enhanced by close miking techniques using 10 or even 20 tracks. On this famous example, Bernard Herrmann conducts the National Philharmonic Orchestra in his own scores for The Day the Earth Stood Still, Fahrenheit 451, and my favorite, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. On any but the most amiable systems, this record will bite and slash your ears. This large-scale hi-fi spectacular has no sort of softness or natural acoustic. The first time I heard Phase 4, I compared it to Flying Monkeys with Claws.

Years later, I listened to this LP with a Koetsu Rosewood Signature on a Linn LP12 turntable and immediately became addicted to its textured bass, thundering organ, plucked harp, and resounding timpani. With the Soundsmith Carmen on the Pioneer PLX-1000, which I reviewed in the March 2015 issue, Phase 4's massed strings and loud horns didn't make me reach for the volume control. The sound was smooth and unfatiguing, yet more vivid than I'd ever heard it. Cowbells never sounded better. Tubas were perfect. Tempos were glorious and driving. The deep organ notes in Journey to the Centre of the Earth had authentic tone and glass-rattling authority. Most of all, the Carmen let my mind reach beyond the Phase 4 fireworks to access some of the mystery in Herrmann's classic film scores.

Blue Horizon ProFono phono stage: I played the Carmen mostly with the Soundsmith MMP3 phono stage because that combination did the best vanishing act and sounded the most organic. With the Herrmann Phase 4 disc, the Carmen-MMP3 combo did the best job ever of removing high-frequency bite without reducing the textures of the violins or smoothing their leading edges. Replacing the MMP3 with the ProFono enhanced the Carmen's verity and temporality (which I liked) and added some focus to the soundstage and images (also good), while simultaneously increasing the opacity of those images (which I didn't like).

Acoustic Signature Wow XL turntable and TA-100 tonearm: Mounting the Carmen on the German-made Acoustic Signature Wow XL ($2300) and TA-1000 ($1500)—review in progress—took everything to a much higher level of wonderfulness. The bass became John Henry–like. Images grew hypercrystalline. Midrange textures were enhanced. Forward momentum was unstoppable. I doubt either Arty or Mikey will use this setup as his new reference—but I will.


Welcome to the next level
At this point, I've played hundreds of records with this ebony-bodied wonder, and I think I'm finally starting to grasp some of the inner beauty of Peter Ledermann's inventions. The Soundsmith Carmen's ultra-low-mass MI assembly plays with more agility, is more naturally detailed, and sounds less stressed than any MC I'm aware of. Its treble is not dull or rolled off—it's just the most authentic treble I've experienced from a phonographic transducer. As the Carmen appears to demonstrate, high frequencies reproduced with this level of fidelity improve the character of every octave below them—especially the texture of the midrange and the tunefulness of the bass.

Beyond the Carmen's lower moving mass, I can only speculate about the real causes of all this excellence: In MCs, the coil wires that attach to the back of the cantilever may act as torsion bars, which, I imagine, will affect the movement of the cantilever, or generate voltages in a nonlinear or "reactionary" way. The effects of this mass, energy, and torsion may include some nonlinear inconsistencies in the reproduction of the highest and lowest frequencies of the audioband. The Carmen exhibited none of this.

I'm always on the hunt for cartridges that sound colorful, sensual, visceral, and detailed—and are easy on my mind and wallet. The humble Soundsmith Carmen did and was all of that, which means that it plays with the best cartridges of my experience. Peter Ledermann's designs don't sound like any MC, MM, or MI cartridge I've heard. They stand apart. The only cartridge I could realistically compare to the Sussurro or Carmen would be the blatantly psychedelic Koetsu. More important, Soundsmith's $799.95 Carmen offers a huge chunk of the $4800 Sussurro's magic, for only a small chunk of cash (footnote 4).

Footnote 3: The earlier Soundsmith SMMC1 was reviewed by Michael Fremer in the April 2008 issue, Vol.31 No.4.

Footnote 4: The Soundsmith, 8 John Walsh Boulevard, Suite 417, Peekskill, NY 10566. Tel: (914) 739-2885, (800) 942-8009. Fax: (914) 739-5204. Web:


anthony.aaron47's picture

Am I right to think that moving iron and moving magnet are just different names for the same type of cartridge (as opposed to moving coil)? If not, what practical differences are there between mm and mi cartridges - especially in the phono stage and settings thereof?

Many thanks.

jmsent's picture

between MI and MM. Moving iron, also known as "induced magnet" has both the magnet and coils stationary. The movement of the cantilever via the grooves modulates the flux which induces the generation of voltage in the coils. Moving magnet has the coils fixed and a tiny magnet mounted to the cantilever, again varying the flux to the coils in accordance with the groove modulation. The output characteristics of the two types are basically the same and they are both compatible with the MM input on phono preamps.

Mrubey's picture

Hi Mr. Reichert,
I have tried to find a way to contact you in private but have been unsuccessful.
I wanted to ask you about the Gaincard and do you consider it a still valid solution. I'm thinking about matching it with Rethm Trishnas in a 12x16 space.
The dealer thinks that would be a huge mistake (he also carries Audion) but all of the copy from 13 years ago leads me to believe this may be a magical formula. I don't think he (the dealer) has ever set a Gaincard up with one 25w Power Humpty and left it plugged in for a few days. I am most appreciative of any wisdom you care to impart.
Thank you sir.