Listening #157 Page 2

The first of the new DST 62-inspired cartridges was a one-off, made for Schröder's personal use. But as he explained to me, "It became clear that [the cartridge] was way too good to just leave it at that." So Schröder suggested to the builder some changes, and eventually partnered with Robin Wyatt, who came up with the name Tzar DST.

According to Schröder, the Tzar DST's compliance is "very low," and the cartridge performs best in a tonearm with an effective mass of 25gm or more. (He's also designing a new tonearm of his own that will suit the Tzar and various vintage cartridges from Fairchild, G.E., Ortofon, and, of course, Neumann.) Schröder recommends a VTF of 3.2 to 4gm for the Tzar DST—the original DST was designed to track at 6gm—and suggests that, with its air-core coils, the Tzar's very low (0.25mV) output works best with a step-up transformer of moderately high inductance; if it's used with an active step-up device, Schröder recommends an input impedance of 600 to 2k ohms.

As for cosmetics, this isn't one of those phono cartridges whose body is made of ivory, semiprecious stone, or Neolithic pottery: It's made of aluminum. (The original DST 62 was phenolic.) Viewed head on, the underside of the Tzar DST resembles a robotic bulldog; mounted in a typical headshell, it looks like a robotic bulldog with a deformed ear.

Function follows form: Because the body of the Tzar DST is all right angles; because the cartridge's design is such that a bent or misaligned cantilever is extremely unlikely; and because it has a spherical rather than a multiradial stylus, I found aligning it rather easy. The paucity of daylight between the record's surface and the Tzar's belly made the stylus tip a bit difficult to see, but even that wasn't too big a challenge. During its time in my home, I used the Tzar DST with four different combinations of tonearm and turntable: the Abis SA-1.2 tonearm on my Thorens TD 124 turntable; the Thomas Schick arm on my TD 124; the Schick on the PTP Audio Solid 12 'table; and the EMT 997 arm on my Garrard 301 'table. With both the Schick and EMT arms, I made use of the Schick's graphite headshell.

I also tried sending the Tzar's output to three different step-up transformers: the Hommage T2; the Shindo-designed, Lundahl-made transformers in my Shindo Masseto preamp; and a purpose-built transformer assembled in Germany by a small company called Ampliserv Ltd., and loaned to me by distributor Robin Wyatt. The latter unit incorporates a vintage double transformer—actually, two matched transformers in one can—called the Neumann Bv33, made for Neumann by Haufe GmbH (which endures). Wyatt reports that this step-up device is commonly available on eBay for around $1750, although I was disappointed to see that none were available when I checked. I hope more samples of the Ampliserv will become available: It provided the best performance with the Tzar. That said, at the 2015 Capital Audio Fest, in Maryland, I listened at length to a sample of the Tzar DST driving the Bob's Devices Sky 30 CineMag transformer ($1250) and was very impressed. (I would say "blown away," but then I wouldn't be here to write this column, would I?)

Oh, what do you want now?
Just about any phono cartridge can communicate the force with which a pianist hits the keys in a passage played forte (ƒ ). Before using the Tzar DST in my system, I honestly hadn't realized what a poor job most stereo cartridges (footnote 3) do of communicating a pianist's sense of touch when he or she plays a piano piano (p). I heard that with slap-in-the-face clarity the first time I used the Tzar to play "Warm Canto," from Mal Waldron's The Quest (New Jazz/Original Jazz Classics NJLP 8269/OJC-082). Under that carbon-fiber rod, pianist Waldron's gentle chording in the early portions of this recording were astonishingly lifelike. And that's nothing compared to what the Tzar DST revealed in Ron Carter's pizzicato playing in his cello solo: I had never before heard it reproduced with so realistic a sense of touch.

And rigorously played piano, even in relatively compressed pop recordings—one example being "Whizz Kid," from Mott the Hoople's Mott (CBS 69038)—fairly galloped under the spherical stylus of the Tzar DST. On the notepad I used during listening, my erudite observation "WOW!" was scrawled with such force that its impression could be seen two or three sheets beneath. (Might this become a new audio-review parameter? It makes at least as much sense as others I've seen . . . )

With orchestral recordings, the Tzar DST allowed strings to sound sweet and utterly huge, with extraordinarily good, snappy, vibrant note attacks—as in the vivid recording by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for String Orchestra and Quartet (Argo ZRG 573). The same ensemble's recording of the Mendelssohn Octet, this time with Marriner on violin (Argo ZRG 569), also sounded magnificent, with an unmistakably human sense of momentum in every musical line.

Notably, with every LP I tried, the Tzar DST's bass performance was similar to if more generous than that of the London (née Decca) Maroon I wrote about last month: taut, a little bit dry, far more capable than average of relaying tension, never rubbery, never excessive.

Some notes on gear matching: Used in the Schick tonearm on the PTP Solid 12 turntable, the DST was extraordinary. That combination, lopsided though it was in terms of price—a $10,000 cartridge with a €2750 turntable—made for some of the best listening I've enjoyed in my home, bar none.

Used in the Abis arm on the Thorens TD 124, the DST sounded less athletically forceful and dynamic, and slightly more rounded off: darker, but not dark per se. The rounding-off was especially audible in voices, such as Andy Partridge's in "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul," from XTC's Skylarking (45rpm, Ape APELP004D)—yet on that number, the DST did a brilliant job of defining the touch and presence of the bongos, finger snaps, and flute in the introductory bars. Similarly, in the Borodin Quartet's recording of Borodin's String Quartet 2 (Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 6036), the Tzar-Abis combination specialized in a delicate sort of force—a sweet sense of touch with, again, very slightly rounded trebles compared to when I used the cartridge in the Schick. But the sound was nonetheless enchanting, and made for very engaging, very palpable late-night listening.

In general, the Tzar DST proved itself the force-and-touch king of stereo cartridges but, at best, a prince in terms of stereo center fill. This shortcoming manifested itself throughout my time with the Tzar, a good example being the recording of Elgar's Sea Pictures by mezzo Janet Baker, with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the London Symphony (EMI ASD 655). In Sea Slumber Song, Baker's voice wasn't nearly as whole, and not nearly as proud of the orchestra, as it should have been. And on that record's flip side—Elgar's Cello Concerto, in the singularly great performance by Jacqueline Du Pré and Barbirolli/LSO—the solo cello lacked center-fill definition. In fact, I had the unshakable impression that the aural image of the cello persisted in wanting to seep into the left speaker or the right, as a car in need of a front-end alignment has trouble keeping to the center line.

Then again, that flaw was overcome—wildly, strongly overcome—by the tremendous level of sheer drive the Tzar DST brought to this record. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, this greatest of all recordings of Jacqueline Du Pré would sound forceful on a Mattel Close 'N' Play—yet the DST found more drive where, reasonably enough, I'd assumed there was no more to find.

Rite of springiness
How well did the Tzar DST track the groove? I admit to having been slightly concerned about this, as one often is when using phono gear that's so decidedly different. I needn't have worried. At a VTF of about 4gm, the DST remained composed—my listening notes, if not the pages beneath them, are littered with that word—while tracking even the most challenging vocal recordings, a category that included soprano Lisa Bonenfant singing a program of songs by Jacques Leguerney, with piano accompaniment by Mary Dibbern (Harmonia Mundi HMC 1171). It isn't enough to say there was no distortion, no harshness, no audible sign of stylus and groove parting as enemies: My listening experience was one of complete ease, as I experience when listening to actual musicians singing and playing in the same room.

But: At the recommended VTF, the interface of the DST's stylus with the groove was extremely susceptible to footfalls and other such disturbances. Having lowered stylus to groove at the start of a record, I had to tread very carefully back to my seat—a bit of a drag, but not too difficult to overlook.

And not nearly as difficult as finding in one's household budget $10,000 for a phono cartridge. Sadly, if understandably, this is one of those products that will be enjoyed only by folks for whom such an expenditure is no big deal. (I amused myself by trying to imagine a bank loan for such a thing—and in so doing happened to divide $10,000 by 60, the number of months over which I paid for our family's last two automobiles. The answer came out to $166.6666666, a sum that so unnerved me that I abandoned that line of thinking altogether.) Yes, I'm certain that manufacturing and tuning a Tzar DST is a very time-consuming and thus expensive thing to do. And, yes, $10,000 for a cartridge is more than I would care to spend even if I had it to spend. And remember: Glimpses of what make the Tzar DST special can be had from certain less expensive products, including that London Maroon and virtually any EMT OFD cartridge, the latter sadly no longer in production.

Still, given the Tzar DST's uniquely—in my experience—high price, one might reasonably ask: Is it the best I've heard?

Considered in the context of those playback parameters that mean the most to me, the only answer to that question is Yes. Despite its few flaws, all of a sort one finds in any product designed and tuned with only performance in mind, the Tzar DST is the most incredibly tactile, forceful, and altogether open-throttled pickup I've ever tried. I can't help feeling a little disappointment at its sudden absence from my home.

Footnote 3: None of my EMT OFD–series mono pickup heads have any trouble getting this across.

es347's picture the sudden absence of $10K from my bank account

Glotz's picture

Or is anything for that price just wrong to you (ironic from a shameless cheerleader of things BMW, and more strange, someone who buys these vehicles and doesn't appreciate the precision craftsmanship here)?

If so, why read this review other than to be negative and disappoint music lovers with simplistic derision?

Another great review from one of the best writers extant.

david k.'s picture

Hi Art,
I was wondering if you have ever heard any of the original Neumann DSt cartridges? Reason I ask is that while the Lumiere was touted as a DSt copy, sonically it had nothing in common with Neumann. Do you know how the Tzar compares to the original sonically?

John Werner's picture

I'll have to say only Art Dudley can make reading about a product I have absolutely no interest in an enjoyable experience.

Art Dudley's picture

Hi David. In answer to your question, only once, and not in my own system. Then—as now, with the Tzar—the lasting impression was of uniquely realistic touch: an aspect of playback quality that matters to me now even more than it did a year ago (danged if I know why). I don't have any recollection whatsoever of the original's tonal balance—but, given the unfamiliarity of the system in which I heard it, I doubt if any recollections along those lines would be relevant, anyway.

david k.'s picture

[the lasting impression was of uniquely realistic touch: an aspect of playback quality that matters to me now even more than it did a year ago (danged if I know why).]

I have 3 DSTs that I bought NOS, 2 are early versions and 3rd is a DST 62, the tonal depth, timbre and balance are completely natural and part of the realism that you mention. In addition to that there's a heft and solidity to the sound which is closer to real instruments than anything else I've ever heard. A properly working Lumiere had a beautiful and delicate sound but nothing of the realism and timbre of a DST. A distant 2nd and also favorite cartridges with similar sense of realism are the EMT OFD as you mentioned, early Ortofon SPU with associated SUT and the wonderful SL-15T. There are many great modern cartridges that do so many things well but I haven't any with the same sense of realism of the ones mentioned above. Thanks for the review, I'll try to find a Tzar to audition and see how it compares, hopefully quality with be up to par too.

Art Dudley's picture

. . . thank you, Glotz and John W, for your very kind comments.

David Harper's picture

is that a BMW has an intrinsic value as a consequence of it's performance and function that makes it worth the price.

A 10,000 dollar phono cartridge does not because 99% of it's performance quality can be had for 1/10th the price.