Talisman S MC phono cartridge

The Talisman S represented, ca 1983, the top of Sumiko's moving-coil cartridge line and shared its design philosophy and external appearance with the Talisman A and B, the remaining two cartridges in the Talisman family before the introduction of the Virtuoso line. The three differed only in cantilever material and stylus shape. The A, the least expensive, had an aluminum alloy cantilever and an elliptical diamond stylus. The B, which retailed for $50 less than the S, had a boron tube cantilever at the tip of which was attached a grain-oriented line-contact diamond stylus. (The current versions of all three cartridges are similar but feature van den Hul styli.) The S incorporates a sapphire-tube cantilever. I'm no metallurgist, but I've been told the sapphire crystal is nonresonant (footnote 1), and second in hardness only to diamond. These two characteristics of sapphire no doubt contribute to the lack of flexion of the cantilever, resulting in a solid, stable support for the laser-mounted stylus—a grain-oriented, line-contact diamond.

The Talisman cartridges incorporate what Sumiko calls the Direct Field Focus design. This design, trademarked by Sumiko, appears to simplify the mechanism by which the coil is put into motion within the magnetic field. Sumiko argues that multiple yokes and pole pieces, common to other MC designs, act as detriments to the ultimate realization of all the signal content inherent in the record grooves. In short, what Sumiko seems to be implying is that unnecessarily complex signal-generating mechanisms result in less musical information at the output pins of the cartridge. Sumiko's "less is more" philosophy eliminates the yokes entirely, and uses only one pole piece behind which sits an extremely powerful samarium-cobalt magnet. By incorporating this design, states Sumiko, the exact point of focus of the magnetic field is at the coil, thereby ensuring a signal full of content, both focused and coherent.

The cartridge body is an especially attractive chunk of solid metal, machined to perfection in finish if not in aesthetics. Not everyone will be enamored with the rather severe taper of the cartridge's drooping "snout." I found the appearance pleasing, however, and especially enjoyed the clear view I had of the stylus assembly. This characteristic of the Talisman made the job of cueing up a record on an inner groove less one of chance than of choice.

The Talisman comes packaged in a thick plastic box, attached to its mounting posts with brass Allen-head machine screws. Included in the package, along with the brass nuts, is a warranty registration card with the model and serial number of the cartridge and a Bruel & Kjaer strip-chart readout of the frequency response and channel separation. I was impressed by the no-nonsense way with which this product is packaged. One is, after all, buying a phono cartridge with one's hard-earned money; not some ad-man's idea of "cutesy" package design.

Set-up & Sound
Installation of the Talisman presented no problems, although I was concerned that the mass of the cartridge might prove to be too much for the Black Widow. The Denon cartridge which preceded it weighed almost 2gm less! Not to fear, however. I just backed off the counterweight on the Black Widow and balance was achieved. Another fear I had was that the extremely low mass of the Infinity arm would prove incompatible with the compliance of the cartridge. This fear also proved to be unfounded, as at no time in my listening experiences did the arm fail to allow the cartridge to proceed with its arduous task.

A Dennesen Soundtracktor jig was used to set lateral alignment. VTA was set with the headshell of the cartridge parallel to the record surface. Tracking force was set at 2gm, with anti-skating adjusted accordingly. Satisfied that I had set up the cartridge properly, I went to my record shelves to select a few of my favorite albums to audition with this new component installed in the system.

The first album to be clamped to the platter was Joan Armatrading's 1976 Joan Armatrading, A&M SP-3228. This album is an excellent example of technology in the service of music. Intelligent engineering coupled with noise-free record surfaces and music worth listening to make this album one I return to again and again.

The first song on side one, "Down to Zero," demonstrated dramatically the difference in sound between what I had heard in the past and what I was now hearing. The stylus had barely settled in the groove when I became aware of a sense of increased musical dynamics. I listened for and heard the song performed as if I had been transported into the recording studio. Centered between the loudspeakers was Ms. Armatrading, with an acoustic guitar to her left and another acoustic guitar on her right. A piano was situated further back on the right, with the electric bass firmly placed slightly to the left of center. The drums sounded from a point behind the piano to the rear of the soundstage, and the electric guitar, when playing, entered from behind the singer. Artificial reverb had been added to the voice on this cut, which gave me the impression I was in a large acoustic space. The palpability of the acoustic "image" of the musicians and the sense of space they occupied was truly impressive.

The Talisman scored high points on its ability to pinpoint the various musicians in an ensemble and retain the sense of space around and between them. The S provided an open, spacious soundstage with more than satisfactory width, height, and depth.

The Talisman also scored high in its ability to render differences in dynamics—an important ingredient in a convincing portrayal of a live musical event. Soft passages were reproduced truly soft, and loud passages, in contrast, loud. The effortless way in which the S rendered the dynamic range of a performance amazed me. I had never heard, on my system, such dynamics arising out of a musical event. Thus, my first impression of this cartridge was that it was one I could live with—happily.

The second cut on the side, "Help Yourself," stunned me. Here it was obvious that a change in microphone placement had taken place in the studio. Gone was most of the reverb which had surrounded the singer. Instead, the impression I got was that Ms. Armatrading had walked several feet toward me and was standing where the coffee table is located, directly in front of my listening seat. The sense of her presence in the room with me was uncanny. I felt I could reach out and touch her. The Talisman was certainly doing its job of retrieving the signal inscribed in the record grooves. And it was doing so without losing the immediacy so important in conveying music's emotional impact. In fact, some listeners may feel intimidated by a cartridge so unforgiving in its presentation of the musical experience. Random studio noise, the intake of breath of a singer or wind instrument player, finger noises of guitarists—in short, all the sounds of music being performed are exposed for all to hear with this cartridge.

Records I considered myself quite familiar with took on new meanings as I heard more fine details of the performances. I was made aware of engineering and performance flaws which before had gone unnoticed. Abrupt tape edits and microphone "pops" became all too obvious on certain recordings. It was as if some sort of haze had been removed from the recording—a haze which tended to homogenize all that lay behind it. The Talisman revealed to the ears all that took place at the moment of recording: the warts, as well as the smooth skin they grew on, were there. This analytical characteristic of the Talisman S may not be to everyone's liking, but it pleased me; I continued listening.

The S also provided bass response in abundance. Compared with my previous cartridges, the bass through the S sounded more solid, deeper, and focused, taking on a character of its own. The bass now possessed dynamic range, proper volume (in relation to the rest of the ensemble), and identifiable timbre. I was impressed! I had never before heard such tight, extended bass from my Acoustats.

The treble range was equally well served by the Talisman. Struck cymbals shimmered as they do when heard live, and the natural decay of the sound was preserved. Brass instruments retained their characteristic metallic timbre, yet had all the body and richness of tone one associates with them. Transients were handled with aplomb. At no time during my listening sessions did the Talisman seem under stress. The proper reproduction of the upper and lower ends of the musical spectrum are not the only ingredients in a musical experience. Eighty percent of most music is centered between these two extremes, within the vital midrange. It was in the reproduction of this important range that the Talisman really shone.

Vocals took on that "palpable presence." Song lyrics were easier to understand. Each voice in a vocal duet, trio, or ensemble became a distinct entity with an acoustic space all its own. Gone was the "smearing" effect I had been accustomed to. I became aware of background vocals in songs in which I'd assumed there were none! This last revelation is, to me, one of the most exciting aspects of one's journey into the land of high-end audio—a component's ability to increase your enjoyment of a musical experience by communicating more elements and details of that experience than were offered before.

To illustrate what I mean here, let me turn to another album that I often use for system evaluation. The record is a selection of Baroque harpsichord music written by Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (Harmonia Mundi HM-1026). The music is performed flawlessly by William Christie on a glorious-sounding Dowd instrument. The recording site appears to be an Abbey or church, since the sonic clues given off by the recording suggest a vast, open space with a high ceiling. In fact, the ceiling must have some sort of rafters, for, just after the beginning of Fischer's "Praeludium VI," several birds sitting high and to the left rear of the soundstage reward the performer with a volley of chirps. And they continue to chirp throughout the performance, pausing only to catch their breath. I had heard the initial "chirps" before, since they were not masked by the sound of the harpsichord, but I was unaware of the continued avian chatter until I changed cartridges. The Talisman was able to separate the harpsichord sound from the quite similar sounds emanating from the throats of the appreciative birds. This is what is meant by "resolution." The retrieval of such fine detail is what convinced me that the Talisman S is a serious addition to the roster of high-end cartridges.

Throughout my listening, I was continually impressed with the way the cartridge rendered the sounds of stringed instruments, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Without citing numerous examples, let me say the overall sonic signature of the Talisman was one of "faithfulness." The cartridge let one listen into the music with a sense of "rightness," approaching the real thing (or at least my recollection of the real thing). It is neutral and unforgiving, not adding or subtracting any coloration to the signal, not smoothing over rough edges in the engineering or performance.

The cartridge tracks as if it has treads—the most demanding orchestral passages failed to throw it into a frenzy. For the first time I was able to sit through the entire Peterloo Overture of Malcolm Arnold (EMI ESD-1077801) without grimacing at the onslaught of sound during the last few measures of the piece. I was also able to enjoy Kathleen Battle's superb soprano in duet with guitarist Christopher Parkening (Pleasures of Their Company, Angel R-163665) without fear of her voice breaking up.

In the price range targeted by Sumiko for this product ($395), it appears to me they have a clear winner. Listening to this cartridge has been a joy—I have been brought closer to the music inscribed in the grooves. Granted, not all of what is so inscribed is worth hearing. However, if you value soundstaging, image specificity, neutrality, tonal accuracy, trackability, and a faithful recreation of the recording venue, I urge you to audition this product before making a buying decision.

Where does the Talisman S stand in relation to similarly priced competition from manufacturers such as Grace, Supex, Signet, and Highphonic? Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to audition products from these companies, so judgment must be reserved until such opportunity presents itself. I feel confident, however, in recommending the Talisman S.

In these days of decreasing record sales and increasingly limited availability of LPs themselves, can there be a market for a cartridge which costs as much as a mid-market CD player? I think so—much of the music available on LP in the past will probably never be reinstated in the CD format. For all of us music lovers who have extensive record collections, the opportunity to sample those collections with a cartridge such as the Talisman S can only bring new rewards and joys to the listener as he/she is made aware of how much more music is locked into those record grooves. For the serious collector, the LP will remain a treasure box from which endless pleasure can be derived. The Talisman S cartridge provides us with the key to that box.

Footnote 1: Strictly speaking, "nonresonant" is a misnomer in that the sapphire tube will still have a bending mode but it will be extremely high in frequency, perhaps well above the audio band, due to the material's intrinsic stiffness.—John Atkinson
Sumiko, a division of the Fine Sounds Group
6655 Wedgwood Road N Suite 115
Maple Grove, MN 55311-2814
(510) 843-4500

tonykaz's picture

I was a stocking Dealer for Sumiko in the 1980s . My Esoteric Audio was a Turntable Specialist Shop.

I ( we ) had all three of these Cartridges in Stock and on Demo. They were excellent Sellers, out performing everything we Stocked except the Koetsu range.

Monster responded with their Alpha Cartridge which I also stocked and had on Demo. The Absolute Sound gave the Monster a unearned superb review, causing a sudden burst in Monster Sales at the $300 price point.

Customers demonstrating all the above cartridges showed the Monster to be inferior yet folks believed TAS more than thier own listening experience.

This is a cautionary tale, reviews will not typically reflect a ownership experience.

Tony in Venice

ps. the Koetsu consistently outperformed everything out there, for a hefty price. ( $600- $1,300 in 1985 Dollars ). I learned of Koetsu from John Atkinson ( thank you Mr.JA1 ) I still think that you are the highest integrity person in Audio Print.

Ortofan's picture

... quality of sound reproduction - according to J. Gordon Holt -
"sounded astoundingly like the original program sources from which discs had been cut—master tapes or direct-wire feeds from the microphones", then you would have chosen an Ortofon MC3000.


A bit earlier in the decade, you could have had an Ortofon MC2000, which J. Gordon Holt said was "the best-sounding moving-coil cartridge I have ever heard!" and "this cartridge does everything right that all the other MCs have done wrong or almost-right-but-not-quite."


tonykaz's picture

I carried the first of the super pricy, ultra low output Ortofon MC Phono Cartridges. I cant recall the model no. or name. ( I think it was 1000 ) Ortofon offered their own matching Step-up Device which was also super pricy. It was 1985ish.

These devices got rave reviews. I couldn't get them to perform well. My Ortofon Rep. Tex Morton convinced me to carry the entire Ortofon line which turned out to be a Profit Center.

I'd enjoy carrying the entire Ortofon Line today, to sell on eBay. It's a high point line that earned a good reputation with everyday people.

As Ortofon began launching Phono Carts for the high end, I was closing down all of our Audio businesses. PCM was coming on strong and folk were abandoning their record players. Since I was a Turntable dominated Shop, my monthly sales plummeted.

I was happy to return to the Transportation Industry.

Tex Morton was one of the great guys in Audio ( kinda like our JA ) , I miss him

Tony in Venice