Soundsmith Aida Ebony Phono Cartridge: Looking For Your Last Best Cartridge? This Could Be It, At A Decent Price!

      Date posted: December 13, 2013

Soundsmith Aida Ebony Mounted Moving Iron Phono Cartridge

Sugg. Retail: $1799 CAD
Distributor: Audioscape Canada: (905) 833-1010 Toll Free: (888) 919-0707

Once upon a time I was quite enamored of the top-of-the-line Shure cartridges for their musical accuracy (was that their slogan then?), superb tracking, and other audible virtues. Then, I ventured into the world of moving coils from such companies as Ortofon, Dynavector, Fidelity Research, and so on. There I found greater dynamic performance, a seemingly closer-to-the-vinyl sense of rightness, and, of course, much higher prices.

The V-15 Series culminated in the V (5), with its hyper-elliptical stylus contour, removable, replaceable stylus assembly, of course, and a neat little brush that cleaned the grooves before and as the cartridge read them. What could be better, and, more convenient? But, as Bob Dylan put it, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…”

The rougher and tougher Shure cartridges became the broadcast standard, the M-44 Series in particular, in the days when vinyl ruled the airwaves. So, what could be better? Well, my CKFM SuperSound Show on 99.9 in Toronto postulated the question that LPs could sound even better through MCs even over the air, and listeners embraced the concept in the years between 1978 or so, and the introduction of CD in 1983, which, as we all realized, provided us with “Perfect Sound Forever”.

The ultimate irony of it all was that this proved not to be true in any audio system with even the slightest pretensions to high end performance, and the age of the moving coil truly began. Nobody’s been, over that period to now, promulgating the virtues of designs that don’t need step-up devices, and provide lower moving mass, and higher compliance than any MC can offer with their back-weighted cantilever, coils attached, and tiny wires extending to the pins at rear. Sure (pun intended), they didn’t track quite as well, and sometimes the hum was hard to buck, but they did have low output impedance along with the voltage, and hence higher current. And this could be passively converted to a decent output by even more expensive, heavily shielded transformers, as well as active devices like my beloved McIntosh MC pre-preamp. These devices became another audiophile industry by themselves!

It took a suggestion by my old friend Allan Feldstein, founder of Audioscape Canada, to point me back in the direction of simplicity, with his newly acquired line of hand-made moving iron cartridges, which, while not inexpensive by any means, were quite a bit more affordable in their mid and lower models than most MCs and their accompanying active or passive electronics. Here’s what the AudioScape web site has to say about Soundsmith:

“Hand-made in Peekskill, New York, the wide-ranging and innovative Soundsmith phono cartridges represent the finest in musical enjoyment, performance and value. Utilizing the moving iron principle of design, the Soundsmith’s cartridges feature ultra-low moving mass, high output, high suspension compliance, low VTF [vertical tracking force], and [are] housed in hand-made ebony wooden bodies.”

This seemed to me what Shure, with all their in-house engineering skill and experience could never quite achieve. That elusive combination of low mass, high compliance, and supertracking (a phrase they coined, I think), was accompanied by the seeming necessity of removable stylus assemblies, and cleaning brushes, which, I discovered, not only compromised the intimate groove interface, but also were quite audibly microphonic in truly revealing phono systems, adding a chatter of their own to the record-reproducing conversation.

I quickly, and quite easily, installed the mid-price Aida model in my spare SAEC headshell (as an aside, did you know that opera composer Giuseppe Verdi’s name translates neatly and colloquially into English as “Joe Green”? Think about it the next time you’re transfixed by the Egyptian temptress…). Anyway, after contemplating the vulgarities of everyday life next to those of grand opera, I lined up this cartridge for all relevant physical parameters on my newly acquired and isolated Technics professional SP-15 direct-drive turntable (and therein lies a story I shall soon tell!), and got ready to flip a few sides, so to speak. SP-15-AIDA

The Aida is nearer the top of a line that extends well into exotic MC pricing, but, understandably, the most popular models are even lower in price, such as the Boheme, at $1199, or the shop-girl of the series, the Carmen at $699. And you can get right into old Shure top price territory at $379 for the Otello. Pretty operatic, eh?

Here’s a little more description of the Aida from the site: “The “Aida” cartridge is a hand-selected version of Soundsmith’s famous SMMC1 cartridge. It is selected as a special cartridge exceeding specifications from the normal hand-made production run and finished in an ebony wooden body. A Nude Optimized Contour Contact Line diamond stylus is connected to its unique Ruby crystal (light weight yet very stiff) cantilever for the most accurate transfer of groove information. It’s [sic] high output design requires the use of only a moving magnet phono preamp section, no multi-stage ultra-high gain (MC) preamps needed. With low effective tip mass the stylus stays in better contact with the groove walls producing more accurate reproduction. Available in high or medium compliance and in stereo or true dual mono.”

Our review sample was the medium compliance model, best-suited to our medium-mass SAEC 407/23 tonearm, and feeding directly into the reference Bryston professional phono preamplifier I’ve used since my broadcast days. Though many others have passed through my own studio, but none have surpassed it to my ears. And they have not altered the design, either, lo these many years on. Too bad you can’t say the same about the price.

But now to something we don’t usually talk about: specifications for phono cartridges. Here they are for the Aida, again as listed on their site:
“Stylus: Contact Line Nude, 0.100mm SQ (selected for low noise); Radius of curvature: Optimized Contour Contact Line; Cantilever: Ruby; Recommended Tracking force: 10mN / 1.0 gm (high) 13mN / 1.3 gm (medium); Effective tip mass: 0.30 mg; Compliance: 28 µm/mN (high) 22 µm/mN (medium)”

“Frequency response: 20-20,000 Hz ± 1.0 dB; Channel Separation: 1000 Hz >30 dB; Stereo only Separation: 50-15,000 >25 dB; Channel difference: <0.5 dB (Stereo) <1.0 dB (Mono); Output voltage: >0.6 mV/cm/sec. 5 cm/sec. Lat. RMS >2.12 mV; Cartridge weight: 6.8 grams; Load: Resistance >/= 47 kohms; Capacitance: 100 – 200 pF (400-600 pf available by special order)”

That should give you a pretty good idea of the performance potential of this LP reproducer. Well, to attempt to verify such specs, I went into my newly transplanted record shelves (which house about 4000 LPs – imagine moving all this, as I have during the last year!), and found my standard batch of cartridge test vinyl. Here’s how it, quite literally, played out.Aida-2 [NOTE: the Aida photo shown at left comes from the Soundsmith web site, but mine looks like that at top, and below on my turntable]

Testing By Numbers

On the SHURE ERA IV Audio Obstacle Course, the test tracks start with 5-section bits of music recorded at increasingly higher groove modulation velocities. The first set has groupings titled, Bells, Flute, Harp, Harp/Flute, Flute/Bells, each with increasingly greater and more complex modulation, and concomitant cartridge tracking demands. The numerical ratings are based on the cartridge’s ability to cleanly track each modulation level in each group. The second group of tracking tests comes from the TELARC OMNIDISC, and are also titled by me, for convenience, Orchestral, Carmina, 1812, Piano, and Sacre, the titles to become self evident in the explanations which follow with the ratings for the Aida.

In the initial tests this upper-range Soundsmith cartridge did very well, scoring a perfect 5 in the Shure Harp and Bells, but the high-frequency demands of the Flute resulted in a rank of 3, while I had to go between 2 and 3 for 2 ½ on the very demanding orchestral Bell test. The complex versions were also quite a challenge here, the first tracked at level 3, the Flute being villain again in the Harp/Flute cut at 2 ½. Here it is worth noting that the music of the flute sorely tests high frequency tracking, while the lower notes of the harp in all their richness, are a fearsome challenge in low frequency tracking. Here our aggregate is 18 1/2 out of a possible 25, representing a more than respectable score, negotiating some grooves you would almost never find on any commercial LP pressing. This may not initially seem all that great, but in our experience few other cartridges have surpassed these numbers.

The OMNIDISC presents even more complex groove excursions in excerpts from the TELARC LP catalog, including the infamous recording of the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture with the biggest and baddest cannons ever recorded at modulations here that are seldom managed by many cartridges of any design or description. Here there are 5 different excerpts, in 4 stages of increasing modulation, resulting in an ideal score of 20. AIDA-close-2

In the Orchestral section, a bit of the Beethoven 5th, the Aida had no problems, scoring a perfect 4, which was repeated in the Carmina Burana bit, but the excerpt from the 1812 was rattley on level 3, and the stylus was, while not thrown out of the groove on part 4, audibly shaken but not stirred. Many very highly regarded MC cartridges have crapped out completely on level 3 of this test sequence. Next came some powerful Chopin piano, another test for low-end thundering and metallic clanging that can make a Bosendorfer sound more like a Yamaha with mis-tracking or distortion. And here the Soundsmith lived up to its name with a 4. In the tiny rite from the Sacre de Printemps of Stravinsky, the Aida also celebrated to a 4 rating, for a grand total of 15 ½ out of the possible 16, truly exceptional, right up there with the comparably mediocre sounding Shures of another era.

All this difficult listening yields a cumulative score of 34 out of 41 possible scoring points, firmly putting the Soundsmith Aida right up there with the best tracking phono cartridges of all time, achieved at a modest tracking pressure of 1.6 grams, in the upper area of its recommended operational range

Sound Quality

I listened to this cartridge for about two months, for full break-in, even though it had about 30 hours on it as stated in a note with the delivery package. Several hundred hours later, I realized I was enjoying it more and more, and only then decided to run it through the test process. I guess it’s best now to describe its sonic felicities as heard from some of these LPs.

Most of these are definitely not “audiophile” recordings, and I never could understand how anybody could judge musical reproduction by listening to such crap as Jazz at the Pawnshop, anyway. What we will comment on here is music I love on discs I know and respect for their sonic qualities, which include revelation of particular musical subtleties, as well as absolute reproduction fidelity.
Some of my real-world cartridge and phono-in-general benchmarks include Joni Mitchell’s For The Roses (Asylum SD 5057; in my view, a much better and more satisfying musical tapestry than Blue); Paul Simon’s Hearts And Bones (Warner Brothers 92 39421); Alison Krauss + Union Station, New Favorite (Diverse Records DIV001 LP); and Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue (Columbia CS 8163/WPC 8163).

Others were Soular Energy, The Ray Brown Trio, featuring Gene Ammons (Pure Audiophile PA-002 {2}); Dave Grusin, Discovered Again (Sheffield Lab 5), while classical discs included Moeran: Symphony in G Minor, English Sinfonia, Neville Dilks (EMI/MFSL 1-524); Mahler: Symphony #1 in D, “Titan”, Saint Louis Symphony, Leonard Slatkin (TELARC DG-10066), and the Chicago Pro Musica’s wonderful recording of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera Suite and other lively showpieces (Reference RR-29). There were many more LPs spun with the Aida, but these, in particular, offered greater room for critical comment.

The tunes on For The Roses that I find good for judging vocal quality are, You Turn Me On I’m a Radio (a song close to my station-breakie heart), followed by Blonde in the Bleachers, and Woman of Heart and Mind. All are beautifully produced, with her own girlie chorus in the background, and if her voice sounds too sharp or thin, then the cartridge simply doesn’t do midrange right. Some MCs can get the opposite way, a little chesty, which, as we all know, Joni can do on her own, especially in her later literally smoky-voiced albums, but here there’s a fine vocal balance, which shines through without being any shriller than necessary, either, and the electric bass that appears in Bleachers has suitable weight without being mid-bass boomy. This also applies to that on Woman, which perfectly supports her vocal line. So, it’s a good start to critical listening to the Aida.

In the Paul Simon disc, another very fine sounding standard issue pressing, the Allergies tooth drill effect is nicely subtle in its presence, while the lead guitar has a very effective propulsion through the tune, while the title song next mellows into melancholy, with a lovely acoustic guitar throughout that hits close to my old folkie heart, building to some quite oddly exciting climactic strums at the end. This is Simon songwriting at its finest, and his two microphone pops are nicely balanced, and not emphasized as some cartridges make them, nor are the fret noises on the guitar. Very satisfying!
Aida-Closeup Alison Krauss’s voice is another one that needs just the right reproduction touch to catch the balance between shrillness and natural timbre to work with the smooth virtuosity of the Jerry Douglas dobro. Here, once again, all is in balance, especially on country instrumental jams like Choctaw Hayride, and such wonderful Alisonian laments as Crazy Faith. The recording is very immediate, and with immaculate studio production, the best that the Nashville studios can provide in a very fine sounding Analogue Productions audiophile pressing.

Kind Of Blue is my touchstone Jazz recording. It got me through my teenage angst along with Elvis, and I have it in many formats, perhaps better listed by exclusion – open reel, cassette or 8 track. The best of the LPs is a later pressing I bought at Rose Records in Chicago during a CES many moons ago, my original 1959 ruined (though still playable) by a few crystal and ceramic cartridges of the 60s, my formative-Fi years. Here, the different timbres and locations of tenor and soprano sax are very clear through the Soundsmith, groove noise is refreshingly low, and the microdynamics of Jimmy Cobb’s drums nicely complement, in particular, Bill Evans’s subtly expressive piano, while the more-than-timekeeping bass of Paul Chambers is heard less well than in later versions that better mixed the original 3-channel masters where the centre track contained largely bass and trumpet.

This is the version I know best, but I am also lucky to have a very little known true 3-channel SACD version that really presents this music properly, most certainly better than recent highly touted high-resolution download versions, which are, quite stupidly (to my multichannel mind) presented only in stereo. Not only can I do my own mix on my OPPO BDP-105 (review forthcoming), but I can hear the true separation and air between (among?) the front 3 channels, truly the only way to get into the heart of this seminal (both in my life, and Jazz history) recording. But, all that said, here I heard the best reproduction of Kind of Blue I’ve ever experienced from an LP playback system, firmly cementing my opinion of the Soundsmith Aida as the finest, most natural sounding phono cartridge I’ve ever owned, and possibly the last I will ever buy.

I guess everything I say after that is ant-climactic, but turning to a more recent audiophile recording where the bass is front-and-centre to a fault, I heard some more modern LP reproduction that was quite staggering in the Audiophile Master Records version of Soular Energy. Why shouldn’t the bass predominate, says Ray Brown, one of the greats of all time, and having myself recorded another great bassist (who played with Miles Davis), Chuck Israels, I had to make some comparisons, even though it’s apples and oranges, that is, LP and CD. But first, some thoughts about this 2-LP set. Aside from the overpowering bass, with probably more pickup than mike (think F-hole throat), this is a very clean and musical-sounding recording, with fine piano playing by Gene Harris, and many of the cuts, like Take The A Train, are very well-realized duets, with mostly brushwork percussion from Gerryck King, a new jazz drummer to me.

But you may want to reach for the bass control (if you have one), if you play this disc at any close-to-live level. In a small system, woofers could be blown by the sheer deep bass reach of the very dominant lead instrument. It does take getting used to, the intimacy and power perhaps compensated for by the clearly heard virtuosity of Ray’s playing with both hands, if you catch my drift. The sides and grooves are generously spaced, with only about 15 minutes per side adding up to just over an hour of music. The production is flawless, however, and the discs very quiet, pressed on red vinyl, which, aside from the absence of carbon black, probably doesn’t make much difference to the sound, with the discs possibly being less static electricity prone.

Following it up with my own Bellingham Sessions , Volume 1 (AI-CD -011), I found the bass not quite so up-front, with much stronger dynamics, and quite the aggressive rhythmic section. In recording, I used only 4 microphone channels into a Bryston mike preamp pair, with a mid-side stereo one (interestingly enough, a Shure VP-88) on drums and bass, with custom tube condenser spot microphones on piano and guitar, so the stereo spread was wide and a big sense of space preserved, very different from the more clinical studio presence of the excellent Ray Brown recording. An interesting contrast, to be sure, mine perhaps more purist, but both equally valid and high in fidelity, if I do say so about my own recording. In sum, the Ray Brown is a great LP disc, especially if you’re a bassist or bass aficionado.

Without reviews in other audio magazines, we sold out one Bellingham pressing run of each CD, and almost another before the day the CD format died (maybe we need another song from Don MacLean about that!). But I must confess, too, as a proper disclosure, that I don’t review Stereophile recordings, either.

But that’s all over now, as they say, so back to our LP groove excursions, here the almost legendary Dave Grusin direct-to-disc LP for Sheffield, which could be categorized as Jazz, but seems more like audiophile pop to me. There’s no question that they pushed the vinyl dynamic envelope in Discovered Again, especially when dealing without a preview tape head to show potential over-modulation, though I’m sure they had an oscilloscope at hand to measure potential vertical stylus travel ahead of the cutter head. You can’t cut lacquers that throw the stylus out of the groove, or have deeper grooves than can be properly tracked or mastered in mass production.

I played all of side 1, again, about 15 minutes, and noted a new clarity all around, quite literally with all my 7 channels running, as they were part of the time, though in a less intrusive matrix setting. The strong mid-bass in particular, was very tight, and treble transients exceptionally clean, while the resonant close-miked vibes were especially dynamic. If you don’t know this LP, this may mean relatively little to you, but “us oldies” know what that means – essentially that we are hearing this extraordinary record and performance in a very true fashion. Maybe that says it all, and you can stop reading. For me, Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow never sounded so dynamic and clean before.

I started the classical session with Keith Johnson’s Chicago Pro Musica disc, which combines some excellent music making with extraordinary clarity and dynamic energy. The Weill Threepenny Opera Suite has never sounded better on record and probably never will. It’s an outstanding pressing that highlights the extraordinary signal-to-noise ratio of which LP is capable, while minimizing its shortcomings with rare superb mastering and pressing from superior analog tape. Coming close is the TELARC Mahler Symphony No.1 in D Minor, in an almost perfect performance by the Saint Louis Symphony under the always under-rated Leonard Slatkin (I guess it’s because his dad was largely a Pops conductor and wasn’t Arthur Fiedler), who finds the nuances, and the lieder, in this amazing first effort by my favourite composer (at one time I had 14 recorded Mahler 2nds, and I’ve heard at least half-a-dozen live). Made from SoundStream digital masters, this LP represents a pinnacle of vinyl production, and the digital recording system, though now surpassed even by my own 96/24 gear, is still very good in its ultimate analog iteration, something seldom achieved (if ever) in the realm of CD. The CD versions of this recording don’t even approach what I heard from my turntable.

Finally, in our serious music listening session with the now beloved Aida, I chose a record of which I have two versions, the Moeran Symphony in G Minor, with the English Symphonia conducted by Neville Dilks. This is a spacious and rich sounding EMI recording from 1972, also available from Mobile Fidelity as an ”Original Master Recording”, which if it was so bloody authentic, why did they leave out the two extra works, Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, found on my HMV Greensleeves reissue. And, in fact, the British reissue actually sounds better than the MFSL, and is also cut at a higher level. I also think the latter is slightly EQ’d, perhaps for American ears, so don’t always trust your alleged “audiophile” pressings.

This kind of supposedly benevolent meddling is, of course, the bane of the audiophile LP industry, the excuse always being that “the original engineers kind of fucked it up!” Balderdash and Poppycock, say I (or words to that effect – an in-joke for those who have known me well off the air). The original EMI/HMV nicely captures the sharpness and resonance of the original unidentified location, which sounds to me like their Studio Two, which I visited in 1975, on an audio trip to Europe for my CBC FM series, From The Masters, for which I also interviewed such people as Neville Marriner (never met Dilks, though), Aaron Copland, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Glenn Gould, among others, including also engineers and producers at Decca and EMI.

Presenting the natural acoustic of all recordings is the goal of any reproduction device, an especially tricky exercise when dealing with the vagaries of LP production and reproduction, and so I am drawn to my inevitable conclusion, after much enjoyable listening to a cartridge that is astonishingly quiet in the groove, extraordinarily natural in timbre, as accurate and sure (pun again ) a tracker as I have ever encountered, and a delight to listen to, hopefully forever (or as eternal as it gets for me), as I try to listen again to my 4000 odd and not-so-odd LPs during my allotted remaining time on this fragile firmament. The Soundsmith Aida is, if not the best cartridge in my experience, certainly the one I wish to keep for the long haul home.

Andrew Marshall

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