Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, Clearaudio Talisman V2 Gold, Benz Zebra Wood Low

Three Moderately Priced Moving-Coil Cartridges

Equipment report
Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, Clearaudio Talisman V2 Gold, Benz Zebra Wood Low

Benz-Micro Zebra Wood Low

According Garth Lereer, whose company Musical Surroundings imports Benz pickups (also Clearaudio’s), the Zebra Wood Low is the fourth generation in a series that is derived from Benz’s MC Reference and Ruby bruyere wood pickups introduced in the early nineties. I don’t know for a fact that Benz pickups have a house sound, but every Benz pickup I’ve used has a mild but broad presence trough. This trough makes for exceedingly pleasant listening because it takes the curse off most recordings that are too closely miked, and lord knows there are a lot of them. Thus, as you might expect, Classic Records’ Ben & Sweets, while very beautifully reproduced, was also perhaps a bit too smooth and relaxed, with a big, albeit slightly bloated bass, a hint of sluggishness in the rhythm, and slightly reduced dynamics. A switch to the ORG brought tighter, better-defined bass, extraordinary vividness and vitality, more scintillating rhythms, and better dynamics. The same with voices. Here’s a note on The Concert Sinatra: “Sinatra smooth as velvet. What a gorgeous sound!” Or Doris Day: “Day’s voice is altered ever so slightly in the direction of a bit greater weight—not quite the right word, but it loses a little of its brilliance and lightness. But it’s extremely beautiful.” Day’s voice is actually reproduced by the Benz with less weight than the Talisman, but that presence trough makes it appear to have greater weight. This is typical of what happens with broadband tonal anomalies: It all depends on where your ear decides the “norm” or reference part of the band is.

This much is sure: A very mild presence dip is far preferable, in my opinion, to a hump in the same region or a top end that rises too much. Either of the latter can be nasal or aggressive, the former at worst merely pleasant or somewhat polite. One function of this politeness is that a bit less detail is excavated by comparison to what the other two pickups are capable of. There was nothing, mind you, that I failed to hear, but if resolution is your thing, you’d better look elsewhere. For myself, I very much liked the Benz’s mild suppression of detail, as I personally believe there is too much micro-detail both in most recordings and in most systems for an effect of realism to be achieved. You just don’t hear that much detail in actual live music-making.

Yet the $2000 Benz Zebra is not all rectitude and decorum, and it can certainly do the power stuff. Classic Records’ reissue of Stokowski’s Rhapsodies was dispatched sensationally: powerful, rhythmic, dynamic, both the Liszt and Enescu pieces almost lifting me out of my seat. On the Bernstein Carmen, you hear the presence dip right away, but the presentation is otherwise so engaging you’re drawn in. Predictably, depth is somewhat exaggerated, yet the trough is mild enough that things do not sound unnaturally distant. Speaking of Bernstein, that Appalachian Spring was a joy with this pickup, suppressing some of the excessive brightness; the same was true for some of my Mercurys, which often strike me as being rather brightly lit and too “presencey.”

One record I always use is Sing We Noel, Joel Cohen’s Nonesuch program of early American and British Christmas music. Various combinations of instrumental and vocal ensembles perform here in a church with gloriously rich acoustics. The Benz made a satisfying meal of this album. This is, however, a very colorful recording that uses all sorts of different voices and period instruments: One small liability of the Benz’s presence trough is a slight loss of immediacy and an even slighter reduction of the color and individuality of the singers and players. This isn’t so much noticeable in and of itself, but it is unmistakable in critical direct comparisons to the Clearaudio and especially the Ortofon.

Further examples would only make the same point over again: The Benz Zebra is an attractive and musical sounding pickup that will actually make many recordings that are too closely miked sound more pleasing than a pickup with a more neutral tonal balance, all other things being equal. It doesn’t quite possess the magic of some of the more expensive Benz’s I’ve heard—especially the irresistibly seductive Ebony L (Issue 172)—but it is an entirely worthy lower-priced way of getting a good bit of what they offer.