Let’s talk about the Passion Of St. Bernard. No, not the dog. No, not Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the Benedictine monk–although he was no doubt passionate about his stuff. I’m talking about the founder, and head of Charisma Audio (website), Mr. Bernard Li.
THIS Bernard is deeply passionate about high fidelity home playback with a special focus on cartridges and all things analog. You’d also need to have the patience of a saint to go to the lengths that Mr. Li has in producing the supremely musical sounding Charisma Audio Signature One moving coil phono cartridge.
At this point, it’s no surprise to me when I hear about the back stories of these passionately driven hi-fi industry folks. It usually starts with a deep connection to music and a fortuitous way into the industry. Bernard is no exception. From his 40 plus years as an audiophile, reviewer, dealer and distributor, Mr. Li’s knowledge and experience in this industry is deep. Actually, that would be an understatement.
About eight years ago, Mr. Li began working with an experienced phono cartridge artisan whose identity must remain secret. The partnership produced a line of cartridges, adding to an already impressive lineup of brands that was represented and sold by Charisma Audio. There are a total of eight models: a modified Denon 103 ($750), MC-1 Alpha ($1,250), MC-2 ($1,650), MC-M ($1,750), Reference One ($2,200), Reference Two ($2,800), with the $3,800 Signature One sitting at the top of the line.
The Signature One
The Charisma Audio Signature One features an ebony body, ruby cantilever, and superfine-line contact nude diamond stylus. The motor assembly is constructed using a square coil geometry. This design, while offering sonic advantages, is usually found in far more expensive cartridges owing to the more time-consuming and challenging labor involved.
Another feature of the Signature One design is the use of a proprietary custom alloy wire for the coil windings. Why do this? Mr. Li told me that silver and copper each have sonic advantages, so why not have the best of both worlds? A cartridge may measure the same when using a different composition wire, however it does make an audible difference so the type of wire used to wind the coils is one of the cartridge designers’ many sources of sonic seasoning. In addition to the physical design and broad style of motor types, different magnet material, type of wire used in coil winding, body composition, and cantilever material are all used for this “seasoning to taste,” according to Mr. Li. This is where the rubber meets the road in the art of phono cartridge design.
Bernard also told me that in his experience it’s not particularly difficult to make a cartridge with a linear response. The hard part is to imbue a design with something more–an intangible sense of musicality. Something about the sound that, when heard, produces the strongest emotional connection with the music. In that department, I’d have to say the Signature One is an unqualified success. Every time I dropped the tonearm on a record something much more than simply faithfulness to the recording emerged from my speakers. And that something was very satisfying, indeed.
It’s A Groove Thang
If you think about it, the fact that a stylus tracing a microscopic series of mountains and valleys carved into a flat piece of polyvinyl chloride can produce MUSIC–well, it’s magical. The fact that the technology to do this, after being around for almost 100 years, continues to be popular for enjoying recorded music while still being improved–that’s miraculous.
Phono cartridges are a member of the Holy Quartet (it was a trio before The Lord asked Jimi to join the band). These electromagnetic transducers–microphones, vinyl lathe cutter heads, phono carts and loudspeakers–transform physical movement into electrical voltage or vice-versa.
In the case of phono carts, that little bitty needle has to ride in a groove while it traces a microscopic pattern of undulating surfaces in two dimensions. The movement of a stylus, cantilever, and connected coil moving in proximity to magnets creates an infinitesimal voltage that must then be amplified to move the drivers in a speaker. Stopping and starting instantaneously with no distortion and a mirror image translation from movement to voltage is a lot to ask. According to GZ Media (the world’s largest producer of vinyl records), the maximum velocity needed by the stylus in reading groove information equates to a movement that creates a force of 90G and would cause an object moving at that rate to reach Mach 2.6 in one second. Yikes! The laws of physics are not on our side, boys and girls. Whose twisted minds even thought this up?
In the case of a stereo record, side to side movements of the stylus as it traces the groove corresponds to the musical information common to both channels (the mono component) and the varying up and down depth is the stereo information. The smallest musical information contained in that groove is on the order of a millionth of an inch. Damn, my head is about to explode just thinking about it.
So let’s just say the whole proposition is insanity and leave it at that. Yet when it’s all done right, music cut and pressed on vinyl sounds soooooo good. Occasionally, this alchemy creates a credible approximation of humans playing music in your listening room. Astonishing.
What if I said that a Swiss watch craftsman by careful design and using certain materials could produce a watch that will give the owner a different relationship with time? You’d tell me I read too much science fiction. But that is exactly what phono cartridge makers do with analog music reproduction to create the thrill we vinyl lovers crave.
The Charisma Audio Signature One comes in a beautiful handmade-looking hardwood box containing the cart, a bubble level, and a hex tool with associated hex screws for mounting. The ebony body is attractive but understated, just a simple vertical line on the front to aid in visually setting azimuth. I took my Rega P10 ‘table over to Ember Audio + Design to use my buddy Chris’ fancy protractor and have him check my work. I always stress a little when changing carts. Using the same illuminated magnifier headset that I use when changing a cutter head stylus certainly helps.
The Signature One likes a tracking force of 1.9 grams, plus or minus .1 gram. Dynamic compliance of 10 um/mN is listed in the specs so any medium mass tonearm should work well. The output is listed as 0.4 mV with an internal impedance of 12 ohms. Recommended loading for an associated phono preamp is a range of 100 ohms to 1000 ohms. I ended up with the 100 ohm setting for the moving coil input of the phono stage in a VAC Master Preamplifier I’m currently using, which leads me to a list of associated components that I used during my evaluation of the Charisma Audio Signature One. The system used was as follows:
Rega P10 turntable with the stock RB 3000 tonearm and fitted with Herbie’s Audio Way Excellent II mat, Charisma Audio Signature One cartridge, VAC Master Preamplifier, either McIntosh MC 1502, Pass Labs XA-60.8 monoblocks, or Audio Hungary Qualiton APX-200 II amplifiers. Speakers used included the excellent Chario Constellation Cygnus and Audiovector R 6 Arrete, but mostly a pair of Acora Acoustics SRC-2s. Cardas Audio Clear Light speaker wire and interconnects with some Furutech power cords and filtered outlets plus power strip. I sometimes made comparisons with digital sources using an Innous Zen Mini playing CD rips or streaming Qobuz via Roon to a Denafrips Pontus DAC.
The Sig One sounded great with everything but after the dust settled 90% of my listening was with the VAC pre, and Audio Hungary amp powering the SRC-2s.
Charisma Audio recommends 50 hours of break in to reach full flavor. This was made significantly easier by using a Cardas Audio record created for this exact purpose. Cut with various bands of pink noise (or was it white noise? I forget.) and with the special feature of having locked grooves for each band. This made it set and forget – without worrying about polishing one side of the stylus when it hits the paper label for hours if I get distracted by a phone call from my Probation Officer.
How Did It Sound?
Remember all the blood, sweat, and tears that St. Bernard expended while creating his masterpiece? While I’ll never know the full extent of Mr. Li’s journey to get here, as far as I’m concerned It Was All Worth It.
In my listening room, I found the sound of the Charisma Audio Signature One to be sublime. This cart excels in so many ways, I’m getting worked up just thinking about it. The cart I have been living with as my reference, the ZYX Ultimate 100 is by no means a slouch. I stand by my original assessments as to its musicality and seductively romantic nature. I can NOT listen to moving coil carts (or any carts) that are the slightest bit exaggerated in the top end. The ZYX is smooth as a baby’s behind but not lacking in detail. It also has an impressively huge low end. But along with all that is a slight sense that there is too much missing in upper mid-range energy. As my system has changed in the last year, I don’t need its big upper bass to fill things out. I am still quite attracted to the ZYX color but the Signature One is flatter in frequency response without losing anything in the way of that romance.
I don’t know how much timing and decay influence my perceptions of what the Charisma Audio Signature One does to music coming off a vinyl groove but it sounds like that plays a big part. This cartridge has a way of sounding very alive without ever seeming too edgy or forward. Low-frequency content (especially percussive stuff) was off the charts but with a sense of great control. Tight but not lean. The slam and control of digital yet with that slight extra resonance that makes vinyl at it’s best, so satisfying. The overall damping seems well chosen. At no point did I ever hear any mistracking induced distortion.
As usual, I played all my reference favs but dipped into plenty of deep cuts. The Rega/VAC/Acora combo was especially great at displaying all that exciting transient info coming off the Signature One. The Audio Hungary amp was the perfect shade of lipstick to put on the system for a night of platter partying.
Now We Be Grillin’ Cheese And Flippin’ Flapjack
I’ve been using the half-speed cut of The Police’s Ghost In The Machine a lot lately for component evaluation. The combo of deep bass on a lot of tunes, plus Stuart Copeland’s drum kit assault is fantastic under any circumstances. In my system, the Charisma Audio Signature One not only delivered the big moments but all the luscious micro stuff as well. Sting’s bass was large and in charge. Imaging was wide and deep with layers of sound that never seemed un-glued.
On the opening of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” I could clearly hear a subtle low-frequency air pressure off the high hat figures simultaneously with the clean crisp cymbals themselves, not to mention the addition of panned echoes to make it dance more. That my friends is whatcha call high resolution. You can hear the same thing on Stuart’s opening hi-hats in “Red Rain” off Peter Gabriel’s So, although the low freq pressure is more easily heard in “Red Rain.” The low tuned drum that appears sporadically in “Invisible Sun” had lots of controlled slam and stood out clearer than I can remember hearing it. Sting, as always, sounded sufficiently like Rock Royalty.
Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused To Sing and other stories warms my prog-rock loving heart. Some readers may know of Mr. Wilson as an original member of the UK band Porcupine Tree. He’s also made a name for his excellent engineering work on quite a few classic rock album reissues include a few in surround. The guy knows his stuff. His impeccable sonic taste continues to inform his solo releases. On the first cut “Luminol”, the Charisma Signature One gave me all the textures and punchy dynamics from the rhythm section without any strain or harshness. The tonality of what sounds like the wiry clang of a Rickenbacher bass with fresh round wound strings never sounded so immediate and driving. Think of Chris Squire’s tone with more balls.
I wanted to see how the Charisma Audio Signature One would handle an old used vintage record, so I put on Chicago’s Chicago Transit Authority. My copy is a relatively clean used copy; I don’t know the exact provenance but it’s definitely not a later remaster. I don’t play this very often, but when I do I’m instantly transported back to elementary school and my friend Cory who had a portable 8 track player he carried around everywhere. I only remember him having three tapes: CTA, Santana’s Abraxas (that cover art was pretty exciting for a 7th grader), and Floyd’s DSOTM. Cory was most definitely the cool kid.
The Charisma had no trouble giving me ALL the feels on this one. Double tracked and hard-panned horns along with Danny Seraphin’s dry and focused, minimally mic’d drum kit never sounded better. I could almost see thin sticks hit thin Remo heads, as was the style in those days. Pete Cetera’s picked electric bass (probably through an Ampeg B-15 amp) is busy as all get out, but somehow perfectly appropriate for when the band was still swinging on a rock groove. By modern standards, a fairly dark sounding mix, but the Signature One lavished my system with as much detail as I could ever want. Vocals were sonically meh, but that wasn’t the fault of the cartridge.
Erykah Badu’s ground-breaking debut album Baduizm was a real treat to listen to. After D’Angelo broke ground on the whole idea of neo-soul, hip hop fusion, Erykah put her own spin on things. The Charisma Audio Signature One LOVED tracing the massive low end while simultaneously reproducing the more delicate details of vocals and instruments riding on top of these huge, soulful musical grooves. All the power of Erykah’s smooth, and at times, jazz-inflected vocals was a joy to hear. Even though most of these tunes have a lot of space in the arrangements, delineating the bass synth or bass guitar from the bass drum is a feat in itself, and just how that picture was portrayed by my system has never been more clear and phatt.
Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third solo album (also known as Melt) sounded amazing. Possibly his best record, overall. All those trippy sounds in the intro of “Intruder” were creepier than ever as they danced around the stereo field. It sounded like something scraping the strings on a bass guitar or the bass strings of a piano, I’m not really sure. What I am sure of is I almost jumped outta my seat when those sounds appeared. Sufficiently freaky to impart the ambiance of a home invader during his nighttime prowl. In your house. Yikes!
The Wrap Party
I loved talking to Bernard Li about his passion for producing cartridges. I swooned over his achievement with the Charisma Audio Signature One.
The balance of all its many attributes makes listening to music with this cartridge a many splendored thing. At $3,800 it’s not exactly cheap, but it’s a steal when compared to the megabuck performers. Summit-level Hi-Fi is a game of inches usually requiring large amounts of cash, and that’s just the way it is. Getting the most inches for the least amount of scratch is part of the audiophile game. The Charisma Audio Signature One gets you YARDS for those dollars. It gives you summit-level performance with an emotional connection to the music that far exceeds the price. I couldn’t let it go back to its motherland, so I threw down my hard-earned green for the review sample.