by Kevin Venable
A few weeks ago I was sent a pre-release copy of a pop album for review. The production was top-notch as was the mastering. The singing excellent as were the melodies. Lyrically however, I found I had a problem. It seemed to me that the artist had just strung together a seemingly endless number of clichés into a song. I felt short-changed, waiting for a more complex lyrical hook that never came. The artist has a large fan base for a previously unsigned artist and the new album will be released on a major label. I felt I was missing something, yet, how could this be? It slowly dawned on me over the next few days; clichés are comfortable. The listener or reader has little problem deciphering the meaning as they have likely encountered the imagery before. This simplicity is most likely a good thing in a pop song. Looking over my notes on the Soundsmith Aida and MMP3 combo reminds me of listening to that album -- clichés also abound. So while I realized that I am definitely not the target audience of that pop album, perhaps I am the right audience for this deceptively simple vinyl playback system.
So, let's bring on the clichés!
Soundsmith is not a new company having been founded by Peter Ledermann over 35 years ago. According to the company website, he now spends his time at The Soundsmith teaching, inventing and developing new products under the Soundsmith name (and by commission). Previously, he had run this company in conjunction with working elsewhere, including a position as Director of Engineering of The Bozak Corp. and as a Senior Research Engineer at the T.J. Watson IBM Research Center. Peter Ledermann has invented, reengineered, or designed from the ground up a seemingly endless list of audio products of all types. Soundsmith was best known to me for their high-output moving-iron style phono cartridges, which seem unexpectedly restricted to top American cartridge builders Soundsmith and Grado. In addition to that, Soundsmith released a line of Strain Gauge cartridges 10 years ago (which I hope to be able to investigate one day), as well as a series of modified Denon DL-103 which are on my acquisitions short-list. Want more? They got it: there’s an award-winning line of speakers, phono preamps, and power amps. Soundsmith is also regarded as one of the best places to have almost any phono cartridge retipped. I was initially drawn to moving-iron type cartridges as they are usually high enough in output to be used with moving magnet phono preamps, which can make for easy integration into most turntable systems. It should be noted however that Soundsmith’s 3 highest level moving iron cartridges are low-output, designed for use with a moving coil phono stage.
And easy integration seems to be a hallmark of the Aida. Attaching the cartridge was a simple and straightforward process. Setting azimuth and overhang were a breeze, and dialing in the 1.3 grams of vertical tracking force didn’t take much longer. As I own the Soundsmith Carmen cartridge, I expected to have to push the Aida almost all the way to the rear of the mounting slots on my VPI Traveler tonearm and this indeed proved to be true. I tend to be less than perfectionist at vertical tracking angle (sorry, Michael Fremer), as I have yet to buy a USB microscope, but I made sure the cartridge was level to the horizontal plane of the record and hoped for the best. The Traveler has no anti-skate so setup was now complete. I plugged the Traveler into the Soundsmith MMP3 moving magnet phono preamp via a WyWires Silver phono cable. The MMP3 provides the Soundsmith recommended 43 db of gain for all their high-output moving-iron cartridges. The phono preamp was connected to my Woo Audio WA7 headphone amp with a WyWires Blue interconnect and the Sennheiser HD700 was my headphone for much of my listening during the review period.
My usual practice after setup is to play a mono recording to check if the image is centered. It was late, so I grabbed a reissue of Miles Davis’s Round Midnight, pressed at RTI. I had planned to just quickly check if my setup was good … but as the music began to play, I sat entranced till the side was over. Not only was the setup spot-on but the depth of field was exceptional, each instrument nicely in it’s own space. I put the record away with a smile realizing that I was in for quite a treat.
Listening sessions with the Aida and MMP3 turned out to be epic journeys. After making some appropriately exquisite Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee one Sunday morning, I set the headphones on my head and listened to record after record … for the next 5 hours. Starting with Guns and Roses Appetite for Destruction, followed by Tool’s Undertow, Fiona Apple The Idler Wheel is Wiser…, Storm Corrosion, Tech N9ne’s Something Else, and ending with Julia Kent’s Character LP. It was one of those mornings I just didn’t want to end. The music flowed effortlessly, with bombast and beauty eloquently transferred from the record groove to my ear. Differences in timbre astounding, allowing me to easily differentiate between Slash and Izzy’s guitar lines on Appetite. The textures on the Fiona Apple record whirled around my head, pulling me down into her despair. Storm Corrosion, a collaboration between two of prog rock’s most gifted modern artists, was sublime in both it’s delicacy and it’s power. It was a journey across the map of emotions, and the Soundsmith Adia and MMP3 played the consummate chauffeurs. I was both exhausted and rejuvenated, a dichotomy I find in many of my favorite experiences.
To me, the low-end, or sub- and mid-bass, are the foundations on which any song is built; harmonic structure as well as rhythmic propulsion are defined here. Which brings me to the new self-titled Crystal Method LP, an energetic electronic trip into the land where bass reigns supreme: dance music. This record, played through the Aida and MMP3, does what it should; it hits exceptionally hard yet retains the sense of groove that the pumping compression inherent to the genre provides. While the bass was certainly massive, I heard no bumps in the frequency presentation; it was in control and stayed that way, not cluttering up the rest of the range.
One of my favorite acoustic bass players is Ray Brown. On the Pablo Records release, Kansas City Count Basie 3 For the Second Time, his playing is simply divine. The trio sitting along with Basie’s trademark minimal style allows for Ray to really shine, with all the harmonic complexity and inventiveness he is known for. The Soundsmith products presented the pacing and rhythm of his playing, but I felt that it seemed a little light in the texture department. Replacing the MMP3 with a Parks Audio 6922-driven tube phono stage brought some of the texture back but it was still a bit lacking compared to my usual front-end, a DL-103 into a Cinemag Step up Transformer (SUT). Likewise, the dynamics seemed a bit better in the low-end with the Denon, though the Adia thoroughly trounced it in the transient response and pace, rhythm and timing categories.
To get a better feel for the mid range characteristics of the Soundsmith duo, I spun the new album Too True by the Dum Dum Girls. From the moment the needle dropped, Dee Dee’s vocals and guitars were smooth and engaging. Instrument separation was good and the speed that helped define the low-end was again a big asset. But it was the midrange was probably my favorite aspect of the Aida; smooth and delicate, very silky, yet as unyielding as granite when called for.
Joe Pass’ exquisite tribute to the legendary Charlie Parker, I Remember Charlie Parker, played back beautifully. Chock full of wonderful overtones with superbly executed, quickly cascading notes. The guitar tone was gorgeous if not quite as full as on my SUT/tube gear. One thing that is definitely worth noting is that my copy of this album is not the best. It has extensive micro scratching from what appears to have been years of being stored directly in the cardboard sleeve. Happily, the Adia showed a wonderful capability at rejecting most surface noise on this record.
The superb midrange on the Aida led to a remarkable experience with one of my all time favorite before-bed albums: Fitzgerald & Pass … Again. This album is strictly guitar and voice, and man, does it swing. It is an intense listen, but leaves me feeling … content. While I know there is a 45 RPM reissue I probably should pick up, I am pretty attached to my original Pablo Records version which I scored, unopened, at a record store in LA. The sound from the Aida with the MMP3 was crisp and clean and totally engaging. With the tube phono stage, it was thicker but no less engaging. This was just a blissful 45 minutes that begged a repeat listen … so I indulged.
When trying to gauge treble performance two things come to mind: intricate cymbal work and breathy flowing lines from a flute. Luckily I know one track that has both in spades. “Luminol”, the 12 minute epic prog rock opening track from Steven Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing and other Stories, features some breathtaking cymbal work from percussion virtuoso Marco Minneman. The different timbre of the cymbals and stick placement were so clear via the Adia/MMP3 combo that was a joy to listen to. The rhythmic complexity was never lost to the ringing, a problem with some equipment. Theo Travis’ flute work on this track spikes, twists, and flows among the synths, guitars, and cymbal work, never getting lost as the harmonic overtones lift toward the virtual ceiling. The treble frequencies were quite extended though never harsh at any time.
Solo piano recordings are a favorite of mine. They tend to be beautiful yet extremely difficult to reproduce correctly as they encompass almost the whole audio frequency range. On both Ola Gjeilo’s Piano Improvisations and Thelonious Monk’s The London Collection Volume 1, the pair from Soundsmith provided a marvelous listening experience, with the timbre and tone of the piano simply outstanding; the smooth bottom to top response curve resulted in a performance unequalled in my home system.
Taken separately, the Soundsmith MMP3 phono preamp and Aida moving-iron cartridge are extremely competent performers. The Aida is actually stellar in any equipment combination. While I didn’t hear a problem, I did visually notice some skating that isn’t there with my Denon DL-103 with it’s lower compliance. An anti-skating adjustment would alleviate this problem but I don’t have one on the VPI Traveler.
There is a strong family sonic resemblance between the Carmen and the Aida. Both have a smooth frequency response and a velvety midrange. The Carmen is a highly competent performer; however, the speed and articulation of the Aida puts it at an entirely different level. At more than double the price, this is to be expected. While the Carmen’s smooth response can at times feel a little dull, the Aida doesn’t have this tendency — at all. In short, I feel that the Carmen is one of the best in its price class of $800. That said, I find the Aida to be, well, more musically fulfilling, but I suppose that isn’t a surprise.
Turning to the phono pre, I think the MMP3 is a very clean and precise little box. It performed well with the Denon DL-103 and Parks Audio Cinemag SUT, as well as the Audio Technica AT95E Special Edition cartridge on my vintage Philips 312 turntable. However, I do find it to be a bit lacking in texture, drive and ultimate musicality. On the other hand, it has extremely low noise, and as it is handmade in the US, its asking price of $650 is a bargain. That said, the design synergy between the MMP3 and Soundsmith cartridges is something else entirely. Both the Aida and my Carmen brought something special out of the MMP3, and the pairing became a great musical performer — still lean and focused, yet now in all the right ways.
Though my tastes have grown toward a warmer, fatter and more textured sound, I have enjoyed my time with both the Adia and the MMP3 immensely and the pair brought many hours of musical exploration and diversion. If the $1,799 dollar price tag isn’t a deterrent, I unequivocally recommend auditioning the Soundsmith Aida. If you already own, or plan to own, a Soundsmith high output moving iron cartridge, then the $649 MMP3 phono preamp is a great compliment to that purchase.
About the Author
Kevin got his first drum kit at 6, a trombone at 10, and a guitar at 13. He taught myself piano and music recording in the mid 90’s and attended The Musician’s Institute’s guitar program at 30 years old. He’s been a professional guitarist and DJ, but these days he’s rediscovering the simple joy of just listening.