Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, Clearaudio Talisman V2 Gold, Benz Zebra Wood Low
Several decades ago before the high end acquired both its name and its status, moving-magnet pickups reigned supreme among audiophiles. They were relatively easy to build, neutral in tonal balance, flat in frequency response, low in distortion, excellent trackers (and at low forces), attractively priced, and very reliable. Moving coils were relatively rare, far from flat (which is to say, neutral), relatively poor trackers (requiring at the same time considerably higher forces), temperamental (a euphemism for unreliable), and costly—not to mention the extra expense of outboard step-up devices necessitated by an mc’s low output. Yet mc’s eventually conquered the high end so thoroughly that in today’s market they now far outnumber mm’s both as products and in audiophile homes. How did this happen?
Well, never underestimate the power of a small but dug-in and persistent minority who, despite the drawbacks of mc’s, continued to insist upon their virtues, which include greater dynamic range, finer detail and resolution, a more realistic impression of life and vitality, and, perhaps most important of all, superior transparency, a sense of veils lifted from the presentation.
But I don’t think these in and of themselves would have been sufficient to establish the current hegemony of mc’s. Rather, throughout the decades they continued to be improved in several areas where mm’s were traditionally stronger, notably flatness of frequency response and tracking ability. To take my own experience as an example, while I could always hear the qualities that made some of my audiophile brethren love mc’s so, I did not make the switch until the early eighties when products like the Dynavector Ruby and the late, much lamented Talisman Boron demonstrated that they could have as flat a frequency response (assuming proper loading) and track as well as mm’s. And while mc’s never became as cheap as mm’s, there were and are a number of models that represent good value by any standard, including the two classics just named.
Under review here are three moderately priced mc’s from well-known manufacturers. One of them, the Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, comes from the company that pioneered the moving coil; the other two, the Clearaudio and Benz-Micro, are from relatively newer companies that have proved themselves in the marketplace. As in previous surveys, I offer my conclusions as conditional, not definitive. To invoke the metaphor I’ve used in the past, it’s best to think of a survey like this as a series of snapshots taken of a particular system at a specific point in time under a strictly defined set of conditions. It’s possible—indeed, likely—that somewhat different results will be obtained in other systems. I say, “somewhat,” because, assuming there is not an arm mismatch that excites resonances in the warp region, I’ve rarely found the sound of pickups, their sonic personality in general, their tonal character in particular, to change drastically from one record-playing setup to another. I am confident that the sonic personalities I’ve described here will be apparent in any system with an appropriate tonearm and a tonal balance that does not deviate outrageously from neutral.
And “personality” is very much the operative word, for, as the survey will reveal, each of these pickups has a rather strong and distinctive character, two of them by design and one because its designer seems to have a “house” sound.
Ground Rules and Sources
Pickups were auditioned using a Graham Phantom II Supreme arm on a Hanss T60 turntable (Issue 226) and a Basis Vector IV arm mounted on a Basis 2200 (Issue 180) going into a Zesto Andros PS1 phono preamplifier (Issue 222) and a Zesto Leto linestage (see review in the previous issue), a Quad 909 amplifier, and Quad 2805 electrostatic speakers. (I also briefly used the superlative new Harbeth Monitor 30.1 speakers, reviewed in this issue.) All pickups were loaded at or near the theoretically ideal value of ten times their internal impedance (the Andros provides an adequate range of matching for all of these pickups). Tracking forces were according to manufacturers’ recommendations, typically on the higher side when a range is specified. The precision and speed with which the Graham arm allows for pickup changes and adjustments, including exactly repeatable vertical tracking angle, made short work of comparisons. As wide a variety of source material as I could reasonably manage over the review period was used, though my concentration was on classical, traditional jazz, and vocal music because these furnish the surest means of evaluating tonal accuracy, neutrality, frequency response, timbre, and a reliable equivalent to true dynamic range. All three pickups tracked excellently or better, ditto their suppression of surface noise and other detritus.
Ortofon Cadenza Bronze
Orfoton’s Cadenza Series, which has been around for a couple of years now, replaces its previous moderately priced line, the Kontrapunkt, the B and C models of which I reviewed with highest enthusiasm, finding each of them easy references at their price points and considerably above (Issues 137 and 172). Those pickups and others I’ve reviewed from this company have always placed a high value upon neutrality. With the Cadenza Series, which numbers four pickups named after colors (Blue, Red, Bronze, and Black), Ortofon’s designers have gone a different route, tailoring each model to cater to specific tastes in sound. According to the company, the $1999 Bronze, one down from the Black (the top of the series), is said to have a slightly warmer, more romantic sound claimed to be well suited to classical music, acoustic jazz, voices, and so forth. So it proved in the listening, but before going into specifics, I should point out that this tailoring is pretty subtle, which is to say that the Bronze is still very much an Ortofon as regards overall neutrality and other things, including transparency, tracking ability, dynamic range, resolution, and the like.
One of my longstanding favorite albums, Ben & Sweets (Sony, né Columbia), has been reissued in 45rpm versions by Classic Records (NLA) and just recently by Original Recordings Group (ORG). Guess what? They sound different from each other and from a vintage LP from the sixties, when the album was first released.
This is the sort of thing about vinyl that either amuses you or drives you crazy. The Classics reissue is warm, mellow, and ample in the bass (which is plummy or slightly soft, depending on how you hear it); ORG’s is airier and more dynamic, less warm but really vivid and projected, with an impression of less full but better-defined bass. In fact, the ORG has slightly better definition all up and down the scale. Which is truer to the mastertape? Who can say? But the differences, while not extreme, are pronounced enough to be revealing tools for evaluating these pickups. With the Bronze, the Classic release is tonally full and rich, with very ripe bass that verges on the loose and lots of lower midrange energy. Even with Sweets’ trumpet muted, there’s very little edginess, though the edginess that’s built in is evident enough. Switching over to the ORG brings a sound that is less warm, brighter, more present, more dynamic, more sculpted, and more detailed (e.g., you hear more of Webster’s breath on “How Long Has This Been Going On?”). “Kitty” is snappier and more incisive rhythmically, and the bass is altogether tighter with better definition. If the Bronze is slightly too much of a good thing with the Classic—and I’m not necessarily saying it is, because they both sound good—then the ORG is just right. Sonny Rollins’ sax on Way Out West (Acoustic Sounds’ reissue) is spot on: enough bite yet still big, powerful, and rounded with lots of body. Bass is very easy to follow and well defined, though marginally fuller than you hear with the dead-neutral Windfeld.
Moving to orchestral music, the classic Pineapple Poll (in Speakers Corner’s reissue) features solid, powerful bass, with highs that pierce a bit (this is a property of the recording). But it’s as dynamic as all get out, with a very deep soundstage. My longstanding reference Carmen (DG, Bernstein) came out bold and powerful with an excellent mediation of resolution and blend. Depth is fractionally emphasized over width (and I do mean fractionally), which makes sense given a romantically voiced pickup. Tonal balance is all but perfect, though the brassiness on this slightly brassy recording is definitely reduced, which doesn’t hurt it at all—all told, about as strong a showing on this remarkable recording as I’ve ever heard, accents potent and rhythms right on point.
Voices are superb. On The Concert Sinatra (Mobile Fidelity reissue) The Voice emerges in all its baritone splendor, with great body and wood as it were, and no hint of nasality, as can happen if there is an emphasis in the presence region. This recording, by the way, has an extraordinarily good rendition of a full orchestra, better in some respects than many classical releases in its integrity and timbral naturalness, not to mention air, atmosphere, and dynamic range. Listen, for example, to the way the strings glisten in “Old Man River” or the scintillating trumpet fanfare near the beginning of “My Boy Bill.” Sinatra always insisted on being recorded with the orchestra, not sequestered in a booth, and that’s how it sounds here, even though his mike was raised with respect to those on the orchestra. Doris Day on Hooray for Hollywood is likewise reproduced with a perfect combination of lightness and clarity, and no hint of excessive brightness, which this recording will catch out if it’s there.
If you almost love the peerless neutrality of the best Ortofons but want something just a tad richer, the Bronze might be just the ticket. My summation may sound contradictory, but this pickup boasts the highest neutrality of any transducer I’ve heard that has a designed-in flavor. I never tired of listening to it and have even returned to it once the reviewing was finished just for the pleasure of its company.
Clearaudio Talisman V2 K Gold
This second version of Clearaudio’s Talisman claims a heritage as far back as 1979 and the Insider pickup (the first recipient of a four-star rating from Harry Pearson), but is otherwise a fully up- to-date design implemented to bring some of the technology and performance of the company’s higher-priced models to a more affordable entry point. I read that, when asked how it sounds, Clearaudio’s Robert Suchy replied laconically, saying only, “It’s different. You’ve got to give it a listen” (see www.audioreference. co.nz/brand/clear-audio). From the context it appears that Suchy was here referring to his original Talisman, which I’ve not heard (and which is not to be confused with the identically named David Fletcher pickups of a quarter century ago sold by Sumiko). I can’t claim great familiarity with the Clearaudio line, but the last time I did a pickup survey (in 2007, Issue 172), I found the company’s Stradivari arguably the best of the survey and still regard it as one of the finest pickups I’ve ever heard. Its only tonal anomaly was a bit of extraversion, let us call it, at the extreme top, hardly such as to compromise neutrality, and its virtues of staggering dynamic range, life and vitality, transparency, and ability to involve were second to none. I would happily use it as a reference. What I can say, however, is that V2 iteration ($1750) certainly sounds different from the Stradivari. Let me begin by saying that from the top of the midrange on down this is one beautiful-sounding pickup: it’s got a gorgeous midrange and bottom end, really solid in all senses of the word, superb definition and clarity, and lots of heft and weight. The presentation here is really grounded in the best sense of the word, yet it’s dynamic as all get out, which is no surprise, dynamic range being a house specialty chez Clearaudio. It’s also got terrific rhythmic spring, bounce, and timing despite the lower midrange to bottom weight.
Translated into specific examples, voices, male voices in particular, are fabulous, with an impression of body, dimensionality, warmth, and richness, whether it’s Sinatra, Belafonte, Fischer-Dieskau, or Bennett. The same with instruments like saxophones, all manner of winds, and all the lower strings and brass of the orchestra. The Bernstein Carmen was spectacularly rendered as regards imaging, soundstaging, dynamics, bass weight and power, definition, and clarity. On the same conductor’s recording of the Opus 131 Quartet played with the full complement of the Vienna Philharmonic strings, cellos, basses, and even violas are at once powerful yet almost lush in their warmth and radiance.
Of course, you know I’m withholding a reservation: There’s a moderate brightness about this pickup that you can hear on almost everything. Take the Doris Day recording: she’s clear as a bell yet she doesn’t quite sound like herself, rather someone with a lighter, more brilliant voice—at least by comparison to what I am used to hearing on systems that I know to be tonally neutral. The effect is not unpleasant on this recording, but it can be a little worrying on some others. The Concert Sinatra is sonically beautiful, but to my ears it is perched just on the edge of brightness such that anything in the recording chain that is bright will push it over. Thus, the violins, so glistening with the Ortofon, are slightly steely under the Talisman. The two different versions of Ben & Sweets presented a real conundrum: because of the rising top end, the ORG became even brighter and more etched but was terrific throughout the midrange, lower midrange, and bass. However, the less aggressive Classic version, with its greater warmth, was perhaps too much of a good thing, though its less pronounced top end found a sympathetic complement in the Talisman’s rise. But either way, it’s sweet apples and tart lemons—paradoxically both at the same time.
I tried loading the Talisman down to about 100 ohms (200 below its theoretical ideal of 300), but that seemed only to cut transparency and reduce level without materially bringing down the rise. I wasn’t surprised, because proper loading ensures only that any given mc’s high-frequency resonance is optimally damped. Once this is done, what you’re left with is simply the intrinsic response curve of the pickup; any further reduction in loading will affect frequency response only insofar as it is a function of that resonant frequency. I also tried lowering the back of the arm, which helped some.
It was only after I had done a good bit of the listening that I happened to chance upon a frequency-response graph tucked in the paperwork, which told the story: around 5kHz, the response starts to rise until it reaches +2.5 at 15kHz, whereupon it drops back down. The rise is smooth, not peaky, but it is still there and its effect is audible. There is also a slight rise starting around 1kHz and going to 20Hz; it too is smooth, but it never exceeds a decibel and its effect is entirely benign, even in some respects, as noted, appealing. My summation must thus be conditional. For great stretches of the listening evaluations I quite enjoyed this pickup for its vitality, liveliness, midrange, lower-midrange, and bottom-end weight and solidity. But a lot of the time I was aware of the brightness: Sometimes it bothered me, sometimes it didn’t, depending on the source. For example, my favorite recording of the Appalachian Spring suite is the old Bernstein/New York Philharmonic one on Columbia, a very bright recording that is tolerable on a neutral system, better on a system with a slightly falling top end, but really fierce if the top end rises even a little. My Quads are quite flat on axis, yet they are also quite directional, so not a lot of sound bounces off the walls, which means that I could enjoy the Talisman V2 for its special virtues without its rise further aggravated by the speakers or the room. But I must add that this pickup is voiced the way a lot of current loudspeakers are, with a somewhat crisp top end, so this must be a sound that many find attractive. If you are among them, you should audition the Talisman V2. But if any part of your system has a tendency toward brightness, I’d advise a very patient audition.
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.
The Clearaudio and Benz models offer a fascinating study in contrasts, recommendable to those with very specific musical tastes that happen to dovetail with their relative, though opposing strengths. At the end of the day, however, the dollop or three of romance with which Ortofon seasons the Cadenza Bronze’s neutrality makes it a mighty attractive proposition for red-blooded music lovers. It is now my top recommendation for mc’s costing under two grand, though it can easily compete with many more expensive models as well.
SPECS & PRICING
Ortofon Cadenza Bronze
Output voltage: 400μV @5cm/sec (280μV @3.54cm/sec)
Recommended loading: 50–200 ohms
Benz-Micro Zebra Wood Low
Output voltage: 400μV @3.54cm/sec
Recommended loading: >120 ohms
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