Soundsmith SMMC1 moving-iron phono cartridge Page 3

You won't mistake the SMMC1's retrieval of detail, or its less-than-first-class reproduction of microdynamic gradations, for those of a premium-priced modern MC—nor did it reveal the most delicate inner musical textures, as those top-shelf transducers do. But it more than compensated with a refreshingly robust and musically convincing sound free of obvious colorations or artifacts. Its rejection of surface noise and other playback detritus was among the best I've heard at any price—and without lopping off the top-end extension.

The SMMC1's frequency balance was subjectively ultrasmooth, flat, and free of low-end bumps or high-frequency peaks. In that regard it bettered most of the competitively priced high-output MCs I've heard. Like the better moving-iron Grados, the SMMC1's most alluring qualities were its silky, coherent midband presentation and its freedom from transients that sounded edgy, sharp, or in any way unnatural.

However, unlike the Grados, which to my ears and in my system produce transients that are too soft and polite, the SMMC1 struck an almost ideal balance of transient speed and natural instrumental suppleness. Well-recorded female voices sounded particularly natural and vibrant, never hard, shrill, or etched. Transients were bold without becoming overbearing, and yet were also texturally nuanced and agile without inducing boredom or a desire for greater sharpness and definition.

Comparing three different pressings of Nick Drake's Pink Moon demonstrated the SMMC1's ability to point out the subtle but important tonal and spatial differences among them. This is such a good recording that ruining it would be difficult, but the Simply Vinyl LP, with its flattened, forward perspective that emphasizes string detail to the detriment of the guitar's woody overtones, and which misses all of the spatial and tonal subtleties, must have been sourced from a digital tape. (But who knows? Simply Vinyl simply refuses to reveal sources.) The UMG Japan reissue, with its superior image and spatial definition and subtle decay characteristics, sounds as if mastered from an analog source. The UK Island second pressing (orange and blue label) offers a somewhat more distant, less intimate, yet more detailed and eerily believable sound.

Thanks in part to the SMMC1's strikingly effortless midband, all three were free of mechanical artifacts, and infused with an evocative clarity and transparency by the cartridge's believable transient performance and black backdrops. Have you ever picked up an acoustic guitar? When you listen to the SMMC1's presentation of a good recording of the instrument, you'll recognize it.

The SMMC1's low-frequency presentation was equally well balanced, satisfying, and free of rubbery overhang and/or midbass bloat posing as low-bass extension. Bass transients were reproduced with great authority, though the SMMC1 couldn't produce the supple textural and tonal subtleties that produce the sensation of reality.

I pulled out some long-forgotten treasures for this review, such as Lew Tabackin's Trackin' (RCA Japan RDC-3), a direct-to-disc 45rpm set recorded in 1977 by Lee Hershberg at Warner Bros. studios. Through the SMMC1, Shelly Manne's drums, upfront and center, had great snap, crackle, and shimmer, while Tabackin's tenor sax, in the right channel, sounded all the right reedy elements. Toshiko Akiyoshi's piano was also upfront, rich with woody transient impact, yet not harmonically truncated. The entire presentation sounded vibrant and "live."

Switching to the Ortofon Winfeld, a cartridge costing almost five times as much—part of a system costing far more than anyone contemplating buying a $750 cartridge is likely to own—revealed what the SMMC1 couldn't do. The far more costly cartridge revealed the recording context of Trackin', with subtle spatial cues that described the isolated space in which the drum kit had been placed. Heretofore masked microdynamic shifts in Manne's drumming produced the sensation of a living, breathing musician sitting there making instantaneous decisions about how hard to hit his cymbals and skins. The skins were better textured, and the cymbals produced greater depth behind the initial transient, with more ring and better decay. Tabackin's tenor was more fleshed out and rounded than it had been before.

But, to the SMMC1's credit, and without comparing it to a far more expensive cartridge, it produced a satisfying performance, with an overall sound that was smooth yet bold, rhythmically nimble, and free of edge and etch without being limp or soft. Listening to it for hours at a time, I never missed what I knew wasn't there, even though I could get it at the flick of a few buttons and by cuing up the Continuum Audio Labs Cobra arm on the other side of the CAL Caliburn turntable—what was there was so damn satisfying. Even if it missed some of the more subtle aspects of sound, the SMMC1 produced music.

Just because you're spending $750 instead of $3000 or more on a cartridge doesn't mean it deserves less attention in setup. In fact, the Soundsmith SMMC1 demanded lots of attention before it sounded its best. This was especially true of its capacitive loading—if you don't pay attention to that, you may find the SMMC1's leading-edge transient performance not etchy and/or bright, but simply too pronounced, creating a skeletal performance that leaves the musical sustain and decay too far in the backdrop. But get those picofarads correct and the tonal picture will lock into place.

Also, be sure that the SMMC1's high compliance is compatible with your tonearm. Peter Ledermann told me that he's making the more expensive The Voice with two different compliances, to better match it to a wider variety of tonearms. [The SMMC1 will also be offered in two versions, with high or medium compliance.–Ed.]

Otherwise, track the SMMC1 at 1gm or a bit more, pay attention to antiskating, and, if your tonearm is up to it, you'll have smooth sailing no matter what's in the groove or how heavily it's been modulated. You'll also experience a big, vibrant, dramatic, well-focused, well-organized sound that will never let you down, regardless of your musical tastes.

Right now I'm playing Classic Records' reissue of Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! (Verve V6-4053), which some, at the time of its release, complained sounded hard, strident, even brittle. I hadn't played it in years. Today, after being demagnetized, it sounds big, spacious, detailed, and—especially on Lou Levy's piano—harmonically full and well organized. Herb Ellis's distinctive hollow-bodied electric guitar, which can be swallowed up in the piano's richer passages, is being separated out with unforced clarity, even when Levy and Ellis comp on the same notes. Most important, Miss Ella's sparkling presence is right here, sweet and free of grain, her sibilants cleanly rendered and utterly nonmechanical.

Although I'm sure some of its components come from overseas, the Soundsmith SMMC1 is made right here in the USA—when you buy one, you're not paying for its importation and a devalued dollar. The cartridge is a bargain at $750. It would be a good value at $1000. It's that good.

The Soundsmith
8 John Walsh Blvd., Suite 417
Peekskill, NY 10566
(800) 942-8009