Wouldn’t you know it? No sooner had I enthusiastically recommended Transfiguration’s new Phoenix moving-coil cartridge in Issue 175’s Editors’ Choice list—calling it “the Shelter 90X of its day, i.e., the ‘hot’ bargain in moving-coil cartridges”—than I received an e-mail from distributor Bob Clark of Profundo informing me that he had a new, even better Phoenix for me to try. “I liked the original Phoenix a lot,” Clark told me, “and agree that it was a tremendous value. But it had a rising top end that made it a little too ‘audiophile’ for my taste.”
Indeed, for those who’ve grown weary of “audiophile”-sounding cartridges, meaning those that sound more impressively “hi-fi” than musically natural, the Transfiguration Series has gained a strong following.
I don’t disagree with Clark’s assessment of the original Phoenix. But the thing was so darn good in every other area, and at $2500 the best thing I’d heard under the $5500 Air Tight PC-1, that I could forgive what to these ears was a slightly tilted upper-frequency response. “Trust me,” said Clark. “I also have a new model, the $1650 Axia that’s also better than the original Phoenix, and a new Orpheus [Transfig’s $5000 top-of-the-line model] for you to hear.”
With a deadline approaching, I stuck to this issue’s original plan for a Phoenix review. I’ll get to the Axia and Orpheus in a future edition.
For his top models, Transfiguration designer Seiji Yoshioka developed a single ring-magnet construction technique wherein the coils at the base of a cartridge’s cantilever are located in the center of a ring magnet. This differs from standard moving-coil construction, where the coils are located within a small housing in which a rectangular magnet is placed above them, with front and rear yokes stationed to balance the magnetic field the coils move in. Yoshioka feels that, even with the help of these yokes, the magnetic field remains unbalanced between the top and bottom of the coil, resulting in “minute variances in output and phase,” which affect timing and focus, tonal balance, and ambient cues. Transfiguration believes that its “yokeless” technique results in a more balanced and “intimate positioning of coil and magnet,” creating a more natural, balanced, and coherent sound.
The Phoenix and Axia use a slightly different technique, in which ring magnets are placed in front of and behind the coils to balance the magnetic field. It’s not quite as difficult to build as a single ring magnet, but still requires tremendous skill to assemble. Clark tells me that the main difference between the original Phoenix and the new version is that the earlier design used a samarium-cobalt magnet in front and neodymium in back, while the new model uses all neodymium magnets (and is now priced at $2750).
After playing the Phoenix more or less non-stop for many days so it could settle in, I absolutely concur with Clark’s opinion. This new Phoenix is not just a little better than the original—it’s a lot better. Here is a very natural cartridge that makes the original seem almost crude by comparison (though it isn’t obviously so, not by a long shot). For example, whereas Nathan Milstein’s Stradivarius had a slight “zing” to its high notes with the original Phoenix (Bach: Sonatas and Partitas [DG]), one which caused that range to stick out slightly from the whole, this new model makes his instrument sound more fully integrated, smoother, and simply more violin-like. The new edition is also more detailed and dynamically expressive, though not in ways that stand out; it simply shows more and more of how a player is making music, or the way players are making music together.
Yoshioka is a big opera fan, and so it’s no surprise that the Phoenix is lovely with all kinds of vocals, be they the Grateful Dead’s sweet harmonies on “Box of Rain,” from American Beauty [Warner Bros.], which also showed the Phoenix’s taut and timely bottom end with the band’s duo drum kits, or Billie Holiday’s sexy and especially wise-sounding narrator in “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road),” from Holiday’s only stereo LP, Songs For Distingué Lovers [Classic/Verve].
And finally, Act One of Karl Böhm’s Die Walküre from the 1967 Bayreuth Festival [Philips] allowed all aspects of the Phoenix to shine. The first thing you’ll notice is the famed warmth and intimacy of the Bayreuth acoustic. The Phoenix seems so “right” that your butt almost hurts as you imagine yourself sitting for hours at a stretch on those equally famous hard wooden benches. Flights of fancy aside, the balance between orchestral instruments—the surging strings and brass of the prelude, a solo cello or plaintive clarinet rising from the hooded pit—and between orchestra and singers was notably natural. Vocally, from James King’s intelligently heroic Siegmund, to Leonie Rysanek’s sensual, sympathetic Sieglinde, to Gerd Nienstedt’s proud, unbrutish Hunding, the Phoenix conveyed a beautiful range of tonal, dynamic, and emotional expressiveness.
The Transfiguration Phoenix doesn’t stand out for its detail, speed, rhythmic precision, dynamic range, top- or bottomend extension, or because its tonal balance is either warm or cool. Instead it stands out because it seems to blend all these things into a highly coherent, beautifully balanced package that, once you lower the stylus into the groove, pretty much dares you to lift it out until the side is over.
Hannl Mera Record Cleaning Machine
For me, cleaning LPs is a pain. I want to listen to my records, not fuss with fluids and big, noisy machines, and perform yet another ritual of the recordplaying process. That said, the damn things work, and there is no doubt that— be it an oldy-moldy or a freshly minted platter—the fuss is worth the effort.
If you simply want to get the job done, the $500 VPI 16.5, which has been in production for a quarter-century, is pretty tough to argue with. On the other hand, if you want something less noisy than a jet awaiting takeoff, that looks pretty, and has a few trick (if not essential) features, there are options. But they’ll cost you.
One worthy contender is the Germanmade Hannl Mera. It’s expensive ($2499), but as record cleaners go it is unusually quiet, has a relatively compact 15" x 15" footprint, is pretty cool looking, and has a few unusual gimmicks. For starters, the platter has an infinitely variable speed, which allows you to choose, say, a faster speed for fluid application and scrubbing, and a very slow speed for the vacuum process. In addition, the platter rotates both clockwise and counterclockwise, which I found useful during the scrubbing stage, especially with funky used LPs, where I was able to really dive into the grooves. The vacuum itself is likewise infinitely variable, but I found this less useful and tended to leave it at the maximum setting. There’s also a handy built-in container for spent fluid. One slight bummer, though, the Mera does not come with a dustcover. You can purchase an aftermarket acrylic unit made by Gingko, but that will set you back an additional $325.
Hannl makes its own record-cleaning solution, but Scot Markwell of U.S. distributor Elite AV (and once a colleague on this magazine), recommended that I use the L’Art du Son solution (which you simply dilute in distilled water), instead. Having better things to do with my time than obsess over record-cleaning fluids, I used the L’Art du Son for all my evaluations.
And what is there to say at this point about the sonic results of a well-cleaned LP that hasn’t already been said? The evidence is pretty dramatic. In addition to quieter surfaces, the sound is far more transparent, dynamic, and simply less “hifi- ish.” This is true of new records, and especially critical if you tend to purchase used LPs from a variety of sources. To paraphrase: You don’t know where that record’s been.