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Charisma Audio Charm Phono Cartridge

05-01-2023 | By John Hoffman | Issue 127

Consider the enigma that is the conical stylus, which is essentially the starting point for the earliest cartridges. While this stylus shape is widely used on modern entry level cartridges, curiously, it can also be found on a few select moving coil designs. Not all conical styli are created the same, as many are bonded designs with a semi-precious gemstone shank or metal bushing used as the base for the diamond chip. Yet there are high quality conical diamonds that have a remarkably small profile and are not inexpensive to produce. Now these diamonds will not have the associated costs of a microridge or Shibata cut, but do not mistake uncomplicated for cheap. As a starting point, Audio Technica offers a conical fitted cartridge for under $40, and this cartridge is regarded as one of the better sounding entry level cartridges on the market in spite of its basic diamond. Stepping up a few levels, the Denon DL-103 moving coil debuted in 1962 for use in the commercial broadcast industry, and is perhaps the most widely recognized conical diamond cartridge in our hobby. This cartridge has a small yet faithful following and is an excellent example of how quality vinyl playback can be achieved with uncomplicated and timeless equipment.

These seemingly archaic cartridges are prized by the idler drive turntable circles, and this group tirelessly spreads the word about the strengths of the conical diamond. What is interesting is the turntables these individuals run are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, and the owners work tirelessly to perfect a technology from a bygone era, and achieve remarkable sound from their systems. Tally up the cost of a restored Garrard 301 or Thorens TD 124 in a custom plinth and fitted with an exotic arm such as a Thomas Shick or Groovemaster, and you will see that expense is not the driving reason for their embracing of cartridges using conical diamonds. The story I have to share with you is about a new generation conical offering that has been treated to many of the benefits of modern cartridge technology, yet still is able to access the strengths of its forefathers. Bernard Li and Charisma Audio have released the Charm, which is a modern reimagination of a classic style of cartridge that incorporates advanced construction techniques. The Charm has an MSRP of $496 USD which could be considered a bit pricey for a conical based cartridge. That thought quickly dissipates once you examine the Charm, as it is clearly evident this cartridge has been carefully designed and crafted by technicians that take great pride in their work.

The Charm is delivered in an unassuming brown box that contains a sturdy acrylic case that secures the cartridge. Charisma Audio takes great care to make sure the cartridge arrives safely, and at the same time the owner is not required to pay for an overbuilt presentation case. Value for the dollar spent is clearly reflected in every aspect of a Charisma Audio cartridge. The body of the Charm is cut from a block of beechwood, and the finish is sanded natural wood. Once again, the decision is made to forgo the cost of a glamorous finish to maintain the desired cost structure. Threaded inserts are fitted in the body for bolts, which allow for easy installation. The cartridge weight is 6.8 grams and compliance is10 um//mN, which allows for installation on a typical modern tonearm.

The conical profile of the Charm stylus is 5x20 uM with a nude mount, and this cut is not inexpensive to produce. The reality is this is a high-quality diamond installed on a thin and responsive aluminum cantilever. This pairing is a classic combination, and even some of the finest offerings from Japanese boutique manufacturers use aluminum and elliptical diamonds on their cartridges that can sell for thousands of dollars. For those interested, the above measurement translates into a tip radius of .25 mm. Recommended tracking force is 1.8 grams, with a 20-degree tracking angle. The internal impedance of the cartridge is 4 ohms and output voltage of .4 mV. A cross-coil winding is used for this cartridge, and great care is taken to select a high-quality copper wiring that meets both the electrical parameters required by the designer, and still fits within the overall budget for materials. If you are not an aficionado of cartridges using conical styli, I would urge you to set any preconceptions aside as the Charm is not a cut-rate cartridge, but rather a concerted effort to bring modern design and assembly techniques to a classic implementation. One indicator of the care taken in the manufacturing process is the channel balance reported on the specifications sheet. The Charm has a .5 dB channel balance, and this is impressive as other manufacturers cartridges that sell within this price range typically have a channel balance specification of 1.0 to 1.5 dB of variation.

Mounting the Charm went smoothly, as the Charisma Audio cartridge bodies are easy to handle, and the threaded bolt inserts assure a straightforward installation. I selected an LP Gear Zupreme headshell because I wanted more mass than what a typical headshell provides, and installation was completed in just a few minutes. The turntable used for this evaluation is a Scheu Audio Das Laufwerk No 2 with a Dynavector DV 505 tone arm, which is partnered with an Esoteric E-03 phono stage. I dialed in tracking force to 1.9 grams, and adjusted VTA so the cartridge body is parallel to the record. Finally, I set overhang, offset, and then finished up with the antiskating weight. Within 30 minutes the initial installation of the Charm was finished, and I began spinning vinyl to work through the factory recommended 30-hour break in period.

There are two stories to tell regarding the Charisma Audio Charm. The first rendition I am going to keep short, because the exciting parts will be revealed in just a few moments. The .4 mV output voltage normally points to this cartridge being compatible with a wide array of phono stages. This part is certainly true, as I initially paired it with an Esoteric Audio piece, which is a reference level component that is capable of handling low output moving coils that have remarkably difficult output voltages. On the album Gun Metal Sky from Laurie Lieberman (Drive On Records 115115-09) I was treated to a direct and unvarnished rendition of vocals, a light and delicate acoustic guitar presentation, and a drum kit where the skins of snare and kick drums were neatly defined. Cartridges with a conical stylus are distinctive in their presentation, and in many ways mirror the same strengths that idler drive turntables I mentioned earlier are appreciated for. The presentation is honest and real even though the subtlest of details and shadings of harmonic overtones are diminished to a degree. This humble and unassuming cartridge can present musical truth in a way that few others can accomplish. In this hobby where the price of quality sound continues to spiral upwards, it is refreshing to experience a product that offers uncommon performance at a reasonable price. In the last 5 to 7 years cartridge prices have escalated at an increasing rate, and here we have a piece that stands fast against this trend. 

The preliminaries are completed, the stage is set, and it is now time to tell the story that conveys the hidden strengths of this cartridge. In the realm of magic there are objects that enhance the strengths of the sorceress or mage who wields them. Talisman, rings, and amulets are power or energy amplifiers, and it seems fitting that the Charisma Audio Charm has a facet of hidden magical ability. When this cartridge is paired with a step-up transformer an unveiling occurs, and the true abilities of the cartridge can be experienced. I selected the moving magnet position of the Esoteric phono stage and then installed an Ortofon T5000 step up transformer into the chain. At this point a revelation occurred, and what was previously a reasonably good cartridge unveiled its true nature. Replaying the Laurie Lieberman album revealed an entirely different level of ability, as vocals gained improved clarity and texture. Dynamic contrasts are magnified and harmonic structures within the music gained density and texture. If you want to hear all that the Charm has to offer, I will implore you to find a step-up transformer to join it with.

One consistent attribute that conical based cartridges have is a bold and dynamic presentation. Now, some cartridges in this family are coarse and rough around the edges, this is a reality that cannot be denied. An entire cottage industry has risen from upgrading some of these cartridges. The most notable example is the Denon DL-103 which has resonance issues due to its low compliance suspension. Hobbyists will often fit a 103 with wood or metal bodies to minimize this shortcoming. With the Charisma you have all those upgrades provided in the initial design, and you receive a greater percentage of value because the resources are being invested at the ground floor of production rather than a hobbyist paying for more parts and the labor to install them. "Rag Bag" is from the album Mountain Dance by Dave Gruisen. (Mountain Dance, JVC VIJ-6326) This piece is released on the JVC label and was an early project by Soundstream Digital Recorders. This track is lively with an infectious energy that demands your attention. Feet tap, heads bob, and listeners are always engaged when listening to this album. With the Charisma tracing the grooves the bass guitar is powerful with a dynamic pop. The electric keyboard passages are intricate and weave though the accompanying drum segments. The Charm has drive, honesty, and a presentation that is devoid of any pretentiousness. This is a solid cartridge that finds the heart and soul of an album and lays it out for you to experience. 

The Charisma Audio Charm has a spacious soundstage, which is quite remarkable for such an affordable cartridge. The higher priced moving coil cartridges forte is usually reported to be subtle detailing of instruments and the creation of performers occupying a well-defined acoustic space. Even with its humble origins this cartridge performs admirably and presents a soundstage of excellent dimensions. "Telegraph Road" by Dire Straits (Love Over Gold, Warner Bros R1-23728) is a studio creation, yet the space contained in this song is what makes the opening moments of this song captivating. The song begins with a sustained synthesizer passage hanging against what sounds like a distant rain, and is followed by a distant rumble of a storm. Then an acoustic guitar and piano take position in the mid-stage, and a rich and dark bass guitar joins up. Finally, the drummer sets the time with sticks on a snare drum rim. The song itself is a tribute to talented recording engineers and producers, yet the illusion of space is utterly convincing when played on a capable audio system. The Charm performs admirably in terms of the depth and width of the soundstage it portrays. Now high-performance moving coils will outpace it in this department, but the cost to achieve that is going to be steep. For hobbyists who appreciate value in their audio system, this is a cartridge that should not be overlooked.

I have spent a good bit of time weaving a tale of what areas this cartridge excels in, yet there are going to be limitations to a cartridge that sells for less than $500. From my listening sessions I would say the Charisma lacks the ability to resolve detail at the level which the upper tier moving coils are capable of. The Transfiguration Proteus or Ortofon Verismo are my reference cartridges, and provide a greater range of harmonic overtones, improved texture and inflection of voices, and the edges of the soundstage have a greater degree of clarity and definition. This should come as no surprise, and this in no way diminishes the abilities of this wonderful cartridge. What the Charm represents is value, and it's a pathway for the cost-conscious hobbyist to obtain excellent analog playback at an attractive price point. There are always tradeoffs in audio, yet the goal is to leverage the materials and design to obtain performance that exceeds expectations. Charisma Audio has certainly achieved this goal with the Charm.

In 2005 the Ford Motor Company rolled out the first generation of retro Mustang. This car kicked off the trend of reviving the styling highlights of classic muscle cars of the Detroit era, and fitting them with modern motors and suspensions to create a new generation of pony cars. In a way Bernard Li and Charisma Audio have taken a page from that playbook and introduced a classic cartridge design that utilizes modern moving coil architecture, a strikingly attractive body machined from beechwood, and neatly blends in the unique characteristics of a conical stylus and aluminum cantilever. The Charm moving coil cartridge has a distinctive presentation of music that neatly balances the characteristics of harmonic texture and dynamic swing, excellent spatial properties, and still remains faithful to the emotional core of the music. In the conversations I have had with Bernard he stresses that Charisma cartridges must be musically enjoyable, and be absent from listener fatigue, and he has certainly achieved his goals. The secret of obtaining all the Charm has to offer is to pair it with an appropriate step-up transformer. On paper the .4 mV of output voltage would indicate compatibility with a wide range of phono stages, yet the real magic occurs when a step-up transformer is used. I would strongly recommend taking the SUT route, if possible, as you will get stellar results! If you take the opportunity to listen to the Charm, I believe you will be as enamored with it as I am.

Charm Cartridge

Retail: $496 

Charisma Audio