In 1995 the world of analog playback was a dark place, and hobbyists had very few places to find the parts and supplies needed to keep their turntables functioning properly. During this time Rome Castellanes made the decision to open LP Gear, and provide turntable owners with a high quality selection of belts in order to keep their turntables spinning. Despite what many audio insiders felt about the future of analog, there was a demand for Rome's services. Over the years LP Gear expanded their offerings, and the company continued to thrive. Four years later LP Gear began carrying Audio Technica cartridges, and has grown to be one of the larger outlets for the line. In 2000 the LP Gear brand of replacement styli became available, and in 2003 the ViVid Line and Shibata based styli were introduced. Since that fateful day in 1995, LP Gear has become a full service provider for all manner of analog based components, accessories, and parts. Yet Rome Castellanes had an unrealized dream for LP Gear. The next step involved offering their own cartridge line. A selection that reflected Rome's commitment to sonic excellence, at a price point that the average hobbyist could actually afford. Every $2000 moving coil should sound stunning, but Rome wanted to bring out a series of cartridges that had musical integrity and cost between $99 and $799. Well the founder of LP Gear has realized his goal, and today we can talk about one of their newest products; the Vessel A3SM cartridge.
The Vessel series of cartridges are sourced from Japan, and built by an established OEM cartridge manufacturer. This line is a proprietary design developed for LP Gear, and is not a rebadged offering found in another manufacturer's catalog. The design process began with Rome laying out his expectations for cartridge performance characteristics, and the engineering team working through the process of developing a prototype. Several versions of cartridge architecture were evaluated and ultimately rejected. Rome listened to all of these versions, and collaborated with the engineers to refine the design to the point where it met his standards for sound quality. This is the process that brought us the Vessel A3SM cartridge, which is the subject of my review.
The A3SM is the top of the line offering in the moving magnet series of Vessel cartridges. This cartridge sells for $499, and is a medium compliance design, measured at 10x10-6 cm/dyne at 100Hz. The cantilever is an aluminum alloy pipe with variable wall density, which is a very sophisticated and costly part than one would imagine to be the case. The stylus is a nude mount Super Micro Line, which basically translates into a high quality line contact faceted diamond. Stylus radius is 2 uM x 80 uM, which provides a compact footprint, increasing the ability of the cartridge to retrieve low level detail. The resistance of the cartridge body is the standard 47kOhms, and weight is 6.0 grams. Output voltage is a standard 2.5mV, and rated frequency range is 20-35,000Hz. Every important aspect of the A3SM cartridge looks to be well thought out, solidly built, and devoid of any unnecessary audio jewelry.
For this review I installed the A3SM cartridge on my restored Thorens TD124 with Eminent Technology II air bearing tonearm. I settled on 1.8 grams for tracking weight, although I experimented with settings up to 2.2 grams. The jumpers in the Liberty Audio B2B-1 phono stage are moved to the 47K setting, and the phono stage has 44dB of gain. I gave the cartridge 50 hours of break in time, but in my listening sessions I saw little meaningful improvements after 20 hours of play time. An Electra Print PVA preamplifier and 300B Custom amplifier drove a pair of Hawthorne Audio Trio speakers. Power conditioning duties were handled by an Audio Magic Mini-Reference, and all cabling came from the Zu Audio Mission series of wire.
The Vessel A3SM has a vibrant and robust character that peels back the veneer of politeness that many cartridges attempt to cloak our music in. This is a cartridge that highlights the drive and energy embedded in records, and brings out the fun to our vinyl rigs. On "Demolition Man" by The Police [Ghost In The Machine; A&M Records SP 37-30], the bass guitar and kick drum are on a relentless sprint through this song, and this cartridge does a fantastic job of keeping the bass and percussion instruments taught, defined, and powerful. There is snap and punch to the lower registers that is the signature of this song. The horns passages and Sting's vocals are smooth as silk, with a burnished warmth that just floats on top of the driving bass line. The A3SM retains that sophisticated sound that is the signature of The Police, yet it pulls the curtains back and provides the listener an insight to the raw energy this band can bring to a song. The ability to showcase the dynamic contrasts of music has always been the strength of a well sorted moving magnet cartridge, and this is a trait that the A3SM definitely has.
As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, The Vessel cartridge has a burnished warmth and refinement in the midrange that conveys the ebb and flow of music when it is called for. This is the other side of the coin with this cartridge, the yin to the yang so to speak. When I first played "Carry On" By Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, [Déjà vu; Atlantic SD7200] I certainly did not expect this markedly different facet of this cartridges personality, and this engaging portrayal of vocals caught me by surprise. With the Police album I experienced that dynamic and raw side of the A3SM, although I did catch a glimmer of its capabilities with vocals. On my favorite CSNY song, I marveled at these beautiful harmonies and blended vocals spoke directly to the essence of this classic song. Voices were distinct, yet they melded together in such captivating way, and their harmonies just crested in a magical crescendo at the transition bridge halfway through the song. It is a real treat to hear the A3SM paired on the Thornes TD124, as this combination brings a smooth and natural flow to vocals that are a pleasure to listen to.
The Vessel A3SM cartridge has excellent tracking abilities, and is also fairly resistant to surface noise issues with less than pristine records. In my vinyl collection I have several copies of December by George Winston. [December; Windham Hill Records C-1025] For some reason it is difficult to get a clean copy on the used market, and I have a couple of examples with a significant amount of wear due to previous owners less than optimal turntable set ups. I keep these copies in order to see how a particular cartridge deals with worn vinyl, and these listening sessions shed light on what a prospective owner of a cartridge can expect. "On Carol of the Bells" I determined that this cartridge did an above average job of suppressing surface noise, and there are many $500 cartridges I have encountered that did not perform as well in this regards. For many hobbyists, the ability of a cartridge to minimize surface noise is an important consideration, and the A3SM did perform admirably in this regards. Also the subtle nuances of the piano work on this album often gives mediocre tracking cartridges difficulty, as the sustained cords in conjunction with the decay patterns of the melody in the up-tempo passages require a lithe and agile cartridge. On "Variations of the Kanon" by Johann Pachelbel the A3SM cartridge turns in a solid performance. The cartridge gets the powerful sustained cords to sound realistic, and yet gracefully traces the delicate finger work that Winston finishes the piece up with. All in all, the A3SM offers a nice package of tracking capabilities, and the ability to minimize surface noise on less than pristine vinyl.
The A3SM is a moving magnet design, and its characteristics are a bit different than many cartridges that reside in the $500 price range. The high output moving coils from various companies might have a higher degree of micro detail, and thereby sound a bit more delicate. There are other moving magnet cartridges that have more sparkle in the treble, and perhaps sound "airy" in comparison. Or possibly etched and bright, if the system it is installed in has issues in the upper registers. I found the high frequency performance of the A3SM to be smooth and laid back, and that it favored long term listening comfort over drawing out the final bit of treble energy in a record. Couple this characteristic with the refined and natural portrayal of vocals, and you have an unassuming cartridge that just sneaks up on you with how good it sounds. The opening passage of "Money For Nothing by Dire Straits [Brother In Arms; Warner Bros. Records 25264-1] is presented with finesse and refinement, with synthesizer notes floating like a Will-O-Wisp behind Sting's vocals. There is an absence of edginess that this recording can have, especially if played with a cartridge that has an over emphasis of high frequency information. Knopfler's guitar work is edgy and dynamic, yet there is a smoothness to the riffs that is easy on the ears. There is no doubt that the A3SM cartridge places a high priority on listening pleasure, and its introspective and refined nature beckons a person to spend an evening with it in contemplative evaluation of music.
Rome Castellanes has a vision for what the Vessel series are to be, and at the forefront is the ability to express the emotional nature of music. Rome took his vision to the respected cartridge manufacturers from Japan, and entered into a partnership to realize the creation of a line of high performance cartridges that were within the financial reach of the average hobbyist. He personally vetted several iterations of this cartridge, and while all the versions had excellent technical specifications, Rome was not satisfied with the product until it met his goal of being capable of communicating the creative essence of a performance to the listener. The A3SM is the top of the line moving magnet cartridge in the Vessel line up. This is a solidly built cartridge that is devoid of the trappings that rarely add any meaningful enhancements to the performance side of a product. Make no mistake though, as the A3SM contains all the good stuff under the hood, such as a nude mount Super Micro Line stylus, variable density alloy cantilever, and non-resonant body. This cartridge excels at presenting the dynamic scale of music, with the ability to swing the energy of a performance in a realistic manner. Vocalists have a natural and unassuming presentation that just sounds right with many styles of music. Upper registers are unforced and easy to listen to, and the overall voicing of the cartridge could be construed as slightly romantic in nature. Another combination of benefits of the A3SM is how well it tracks, and its ability to suppress surface noise from vinyl that has a fair degree of wear. Of course it won't make those dollar bin gems sound like new audiophile pressings, but it may very well give a reprieve to a few records in your collection that you thought were too far gone. For hobbyists looking for warmth, texture, dynamic slam, and long term listening satisfaction, the Vessel A3SM is worth looking into.