Kuzma CAR-50 Phono Cartridge
by Roy Gregory | July 25, 2016
The world of phono cartridges seems to have reached a kind of status quo. Brands such as Lyra, Clearaudio and Ortofon dominate the market, at least once you get past the $1000 level. Meanwhile, the likes of Koetsu, Allaerts, Transfiguration and van den Hul continue on their merry way, low in profile but each with its own band of loyal adherents. The only major ripple to come along has been the emergence of Soundsmith, and especially their low-output moving-magnet cartridges, as real a high-end contender, carving themselves a place in both the publics perception and the market. Other brands flicker on the fringes, falling into and out of fashion as distribution and reviews come and go, but few have established a lasting presence.
Just as things appeared to have stabilized, along came a couple of upstarts, apparently intent on rocking the boat. The reemergent Kiseki are aiming to add themselves to the list of "establishment" brands, alongside old protagonists Koetsu, while turntable and tonearm manufacturer Kuzma has launched a range of four attractively priced models. Residual interest in the Kiseki models is understandable, if only from a nostalgic point of view, but why should we take the Kuzma designs any more seriously than the various other cartridges offered by the likes of Brinkmann or Linn?
The idea of adding a cartridge (or line of cartridges) to a range of turntables is hardly new. Indeed, this isnt the first time that Kuzma has offered matching pickups. The attraction is obvious, from the sales pitch that suggests performance benefits to be had from products designed to work together, to the business advantages of an established dealer/distribution network and route to market, to the practicalities of offering pre-installed, plug-and-play record players, especially in a world where analog-setup expertise is all but defunct.
Yet few if any such ventures have really sparked the public imagination. Clearaudio might be cited as the exception to that rule, but they started life making cartridges and only later turned to turntables, having adopted the existing Souther tonearm design along the way. Their hammerhead cartridge construction, huge stylus profile and heavy tracking force made them a match for the Southers unusual passive linear-tracking operation -- and created a combination that was distinctly different, both in appearance and use. Its interesting to consider what part that mechanical compatibility and those oddball looks played in the companys ultimate success, but both the cartridges and the tonearms present a very different face to the world these days.
Lets assume, just for a moment, that the Clearaudio experience holds valuable lessons. What we can conclude is that besides the obvious business structures, their success was promulgated on two things: that there really was a compatibility benefit to be had by using their cartridges and tonearms together, and that those benefits applied across the entire range, offering customers solutions at various price points. Just how well does the Kuzma offering fit that model? Better than you might think.
For starters, there are four cartridges in the range. They may well look all but identical, using the same bulky aluminum body, but the hierarchy is clear and clearly understood. The base model, the CAR-20 ($1930), uses an aluminum cantilever, elliptical stylus profile and copper coils. The CAR-30 ($2550) adds a boron cantilever, microridge stylus profile and oxygen-free copper coils to the mix. Then comes the CAR-40 ($2900), using the same cantilever and stylus but silver coils, with the flagship CAR-50 ($6550) topping that by employing a sapphire cantilever (and a blue anodized body). Those are logical and understandable steps with clearly definable associated cost and performance benefits. So far so good -- although only Kuzma knows why the colored body reserved for the CAR-50 wasnt extended to the other models, giving each its own distinct plumage and further delineating the range.
Look at the four cartridges on paper and their specifications are all but identical: 0.3mV output (at 3.54cm/s), 2.0 grams recommended VTF, and 8 to 10cu compliance. Trackability and loading are identical across the range, with channel balance, top-end bandwidth and separation improving as you work your way up the models. Again, all very sensible, especially if the company is going to be claiming mechanical matching benefits when it comes to its own tonearms. Kuzma dont actually make huge claims in this regard, but it doesnt take a genius to realize that those benefits are actually very real indeed. Anybody familiar with the Kuzma products will recognize the fact that the 'arms tend to the heavier end of the effective-mass spectrum, ranging between 11 and 14 grams for the pivoted models. That compares to between 10 and 11 grams for the various SME V and Tri-Planar models. They also involve massive-diameter tube sections and plenty of material, making for extremely rigid structures with excellent energy transfer.
In terms of cartridge matching, that obviously dictates a low-compliance design. But in order to really make the most of the 'arms rigidity and energy-transfer capabilities, you also want a really solid body with good physical mating to the headshell surface. There are a number of ways in which you can achieve that, but in Kuzmas case the ability to use a substantial block of the same aluminum alloy that the 'arm is built from is too good an opportunity to miss. Indeed, rather than working on linking the generator to a top plate that acts as an interface, why not encase the entire mechanism in a composite brass-and-aluminum body, maximizing the contact area and torsional stiffness? Of course, that makes for a heavy cartridge -- 17 grams in the case of the CAR series, as opposed to somewhere between 9 and 11 grams for a Lyra -- but then handling heavy cartridges has always been an area in which the Kuzma 'arms excel.
Two other factors suggest that these Kuzma cartridges might well stay the course. Prices that stretch from $1930 to $6550 are high enough to command respect, but not so high as to be be completely unapproachable (at least not in terms of exotic cartridges anyway -- although these prices might well change in the wake of the post-Brexit currency chaos). The CAR-40, at $2900, looks like especially good value -- if its safe to associate that term with one of the few audio consumables that actually wears out.
The other aspect of these Kuzma cartridges that bodes well for their commercial longevity is that they possess their own distinctive style or character, not just visually but sonically. At a time when a lot of new cartridges seem to be treading the ultra-transparency, definition and detail über alles path, the Kuzmas head resolutely, almost stubbornly, in the opposite direction. Its not that they dont offer detail and resolution, but that their priorities lean in a more holistic and musically organic direction. If you crave the sort of warmth, weight and rhythmic drive that typified older Koetsus, Supex or Linn cartridges but allied to more modern levels of resolution, neutrality and transparency, then the Kuzma cartridges could be just your cup of tea.
The CAR-50's substantial, blocky, but heavily machined body definitely sets it apart. Despite the broad shoulders, the cutaway undersides actually give a clear view of the cantilever/stylus assembly, making for easy alignment, while the machined aluminum cover with its indented reference lines is a genuine aid to preliminary installation -- although its not a stylus guard in the conventional sense. Given the number of cartridges Ive seen decapitated by the bits of plastic that are supposed to protect them, the absence of a stylus guard is reason for celebration.
The three threaded mounting holes on either side mean that you should have no problem installing the cartridge and achieving correct overhang in all but the smallest headshells -- as earlier experience with a CAR-20 and the notoriously cramped confines of a Linn Ekos demonstrated. That experiment was driven by the sound of the cartridge, so reminiscent of the Asak T that I just had to find out whether it would work in a Linn 'arm. The answer is yes -- although in order to balance it out you need to use either the heavy counterweight provided by Linn or the Tiger Paw Skale, a composite, underslung design available separately. Is it worth the bother? I should say so -- but then thats another tale, even if the counterweight requirement is highly relevant.
Back to the CAR-50. I used it with three different tonearms: an Audio Origami PU7, the VPI JMW 12.7 and Kuzmas own 4Point. It worked with all three but excelled when mated to the heavier effective mass of the VPI and Kuzma 'arms. Once again I had to use the heaviest available counterweight on the 12" JMW arm-top, but (not surprisingly) the variable-mass design of the 4Point weight coped without any problems, both balancing the cartridge and keeping the weight right up against the bearing housing. Setup was a breeze, the good visibility being allied to clearly audible response to input, whether adjusting VTF, azimuth, loading or bias. Likewise, with both the JMW and the 4Point, record-to-record adjustments of VTA were both audible and musically significant.
Its not only the mechanical characteristics and materials used in the CAR-series cartridges that have been selected to match the Kuzma arms. The sound is a perfect fit too. The very first Kuzma 'arm, the Stogi, owed more than a little to the GB Tools-built Zeta, the first 'arm (along with the Syrinx PU3) to really challenge the dominance of the Linn Ittok. Bigger and considerably heavier, the Zeta, with its 16-gram effective mass, large headshell and composite counterweight, made it a much better match for the likes of the Koetsu cartridges than the lighter and more compact Linn 'arm. Those were lessons that the Kuzmas took to heart and have remembered ever since, with the various Stogis and the later 4Point all offering a depth, weight, power and linearity in the bass that escapes the competition.
Its a quality that dovetails perfectly with -- and makes the most of -- the stable and solid bottom end that underpins and defines the musical performance of the CAR cartridges, the CAR-50 in particular. But dont go thinking that this suggests theres anything stolid, slow or slovenly about the sound. The bass isnt just solid and weighty, its purposeful too, with an almost urgent quality that keeps the lower registers not just up with the tempo but driving it along. Theres no hint or rounding warmth or wooliness here and no temporal vagueness either. Instead, this is bass with the sort of texture, shape, accents and attack that ensure that it so much more than a musical afterthought. This is bass that sets the pattern and establishes the structure for the rest of the musical range. These are qualities that reinforce vinyls reputation for engaging musical flow and communication, reminding you why playing records is so much fun.
Theyre also qualities that instill the CAR-50 with a real sense of temporal integrity and physical backbone. Listen to Martha Argerich play the Chopin Preludes [Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft 2530 721] and youll hear exactly what I mean. From the overlapping surges of the opening to the more melancholic, almost fractured phrasing of the early pieces, theres a sense of purpose and grounded presence to the playing. Many cartridges lose track of these more impressionistic pieces, lacking shape or direction. The CAR-50 never does. You are never in any doubt as to where the pieces are going or the part that Argerich is playing in their progress. Rather than hesitant or disjointed, they sound measured, with carefully judged and weighted pauses governing their flow and expressive range. The Kuzma cartridge possesses an almost uncanny ability to separate individual key strikes, a function both of pitch security and harmonics -- the way the cartridge centers the note and maps its decay. The attack and weight in the playing are also a revelation, from the rapid, almost tinkling arpeggios to the single, sonorous notes that build or punctuate the pieces.
Rather than sounding strident or cluttered, this is one cartridge that goes beyond informing you that this is a percussion instrument and lets you hear the part played by the performer. Its a level of insight that reveals both Argerichs ability and her heartfelt musicality. Rooted in its unhurried sense of substance, the CAR-50 reveals a performance of masterly control and authority, both bent to the expressive vision of the pianist. But just as it reveals that authority in the playing, so too it reveals its own inner confidence. Presented with a piano and a performer who revels in its range, scale and dynamic possibilities, the CAR-50 embraces the challenge and responds with alacrity, safe in the knowledge that it can handle the demands without ever losing shape or control.
This degree of temporal and structural integrity is rare indeed. The peculiar demands of the piano as an instrument, with its complex harmonic nature and combination of sharp attack, slow decay and everything in between, makes the CAR-50s confident stability immediately apparent, but it is just as important to all instruments and musical genres. Downsize to the smaller end of girl and guitar and its just as apparent and just as impressive. "Small Blue Thing" from Suzanne Vega's Close-Up Series, Volume 1 [Cooking Vinyl/Music On Vinyl MOVLP178] takes on added poise and fragility, now that its anchored by a central image of impressive presence and dimensionality. The subtle instrumental backing is exactly that, the vocal overdubs both clear and distinct from the lead voice. The result is even greater intimacy and vulnerability in this most intimate of songs.
Yet turn to the opposite extreme -- and you dont get much more extreme than Maazels muscular reading of Mahler's 3rd, with its huge opening tuttis (Maazel and the VPO [CBS 12M 42178]) -- and the most excessive of orchestral displays is handled with aplomb. Interestingly, this might be a great performance, but its not well served by a mid-'80s digital recording, yet the Kuzma still manages to instill a serious sense of power and substance, orchestral color and dynamics that will make you jump -- or if they dont, you need to take a long, hard look at the rest of your system (as well as your vital signs). Maazel delivers some shatteringly intense crescendos -- and the Kuzma does nothing to minimize their scale or impact, really underlining just how loud a big orchestra can be. The juddering bass motifs so much a part of Mahlers music are solid and full of texture, pitch perfect and purposeful, while the brass has the punch and substance to really pin your ears back. Theres nothing fragile or translucent, etched or ethereal about the sound of the CAR-50. This is a cartridge with a real physical presence. Its all about musical energy, and when called upon to do so, it can deliver that energy with convincing weight and solidity.
All of this talk of core virtues, coherence and integrity, might lead you to the conclusion that the Kuzma lacks top-end extension or resolution. Its upper registers are certainly better integrated, more substantial and less exposed than a lot of the alternatives clamoring for your attention. Are they rolled off? A Meridian recording of the Choir of St. John's College Cambridge singing the Allegri Miserere [Meridian E4577058] suggests that if they are its very subtle indeed. The air around and above the voices, the acoustic space and the vaulted ceiling are all beautifully portrayed, while the distinctive tone of the boy sopranos, so different to female voice, is unmistakable -- and breathtakingly beautiful. John Shuttleworths recording of this superb choir takes the lions share of the credit, but lets not forget whats actually front and center in letting you appreciate this magical musical event.
The sort of well-recorded drum sound that marks late-'70s and early-'80s UK rock recordings is meat and drink to the Kuzma. Cascading drum patterns explode into the soundstage like an avalanche, snares have a real snap, while bass drums, so often rendered as dull thuds, have shape and pitch enough to tell whether they contain a sandbag or not. The Cures seminal Seventeen Seconds [Fiction FIXX 004] is an object lesson in stacking layer on layer to create texture and urgency, its propulsive bass-drum and bass-guitar figures forming the essential underpinnings to anchor the spiraling guitar riffs and keyboard fills. I remember carrying it into every room at a hi-fi show back in the early '80s and using "A Forest" to separate the rhythmic men from the boys -- an exercise that convinced me to put down the cash on the just-launched Syrinx PU3. Where so many cartridges and systems wallop and drag their heels with the overlapping bass energy, the CAR-50 separates and drives those low frequencies, to dramatic, toe-tapping effect. Just as it gives weight and authority to the pauses that Argerich imposes on the Chopin, so it perfectly preserves Robert Smiths studiously off-kilter guitar, with its choppy rhythms and repetitive yet slowly evolving lines. It never lets proceeding meander or lose their forward momentum. Even a track like "At Night" retains that forward-leaning attitude and the sense that its always leading somewhere, while the slow, measured beat of the title track, the repeated downward steps of the bass-guitar intro and its assumption of the melody underpinning Smiths jangly rhythm figures, might be the prototype for the next three albums. Despite the steady tempo, theres an inevitable momentum to the tracks structure and eventual decay, the perfect irresolute conclusion to this most dystopian of albums.
With the luxury of more than one cartridge to listen to at any given time, the Kuzmas special quality becomes readily apparent. Where so many cartridges concern themselves with what is being played, the CAR-50 exhibits an unmistakable concern with the why: why write this music, play it or record it? Whats the message and whats the purpose? Thats a word that sums up this cartridge perfectly -- purpose. It has a solid, centered sense of integration and forward musical motion. It harnesses the whole musical range to its purpose, a single whole from top to bottom. Its not just the notes that it reproduces; it makes sure you know why theyre there, everything tied firmly to the musical core, all pulling in the same direction. There are many cartridges that offer greater transparency, some that offer greater detail and a few that offer more subtle musical textures. There are very few that can get even close to the Kuzmas substance, presence, coherence and, yes, that word again, sense of musical purpose.
The CAR-50 goes straight past the facts of the performance, taking them so easily in its stride that it seemingly takes them for granted, cutting straight to the sense behind them. That focus on the meaning in the music also extends to its character. Elvis Costello is unmistakable in his Englishness, just as the Rave Ups are equally obviously American, the quintessentially French source material for Sine Qua Non [Coup Perdu CPLP001] survives its rearrangement for jazz quartet and strings, the imposition of bandoneon and guitar. Somehow it is still clearly, unmistakably French in nature -- at least it is when you play it with the Kuzma. Ultimately, this musical honesty, its faithful reproduction of not just the musical notes but their tone and accent too, is the CAR-50s greatest attribute. Its not the first thing that strikes you, but its amazing how you get used to it the longer you listen -- and miss it when its gone.
Lets not forget that a cartridge is, just like a loudspeaker, a transducer. It takes energy in one form and converts it to another. Along the way, we hope that it doesnt bend it too far out of shape, because once the damage is done, its unrecoverable.
What the CAR-50 does is retain the structural integrity of that precious musical information better than any cartridge at or near the price. It preserves the timing cues, relative energy and spatial relationships that govern the original performance, giving the rest of the system a fighting chance of reproducing them -- and us a way better chance of appreciating them. It doesnt exaggerate or enhance, shape or elevate; its not bright or shrill, and it doesnt exhibit the characteristic rising top end that afflicts so many of the more "impressive" moving-coil cartridges.
But lets also not forget that price has never been a guarantee of quality, in audio or anything else -- and less so with cartridges than almost any other product category. In flagship terms, the CAR-50s asking price is surprisingly modest, yet like that other recent musical gem, the Lyra Etna, it has a balance of virtues that sits it comfortably alongside the most expensive cartridges out there -- and, in musical terms, ahead of most of them. If you value substance, musical and physical, over the more esoteric or academic aspects of musical performance, the Kuzma CAR-50 will be, quite literally, music to your ears -- and a bargain too.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
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How heavy is heavy, and does it matter?
Weighing in at 17 grams makes the Kuzma cartridges amongst the heaviest around, outweighing even previous champions, the 16-gram Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement and Ortofon MC Anna. Given that the Clearaudios body and top plate are solid gold gives you some idea just how much aluminum there is in the Kuzmas bodywork. But how do they compare to other cartridges when it comes to sheer mass -- and is it important?
Take a quick survey of todays popular cartridges and you discover that most of them weigh in around the 10-gram mark. Even the stone-bodied Koetsus tip the scales at a relatively modest 12.5 grams while the (older and larger) Kiseki Agate Ruby is actually lighter still, at 11.2 grams. Which just goes to show that appearances can be deceptive, the skeletal Lyra Titan weighing in at just over 11 grams, despite its pared-away structure. Likewise, cast an eye over the various Clearaudios and the Goldfinger aside, the majority are the right side of 10 grams. Ortofons tend to be slightly more portly, but a cartridge over 13 grams is either unusual or an historical throwback like the various SPU models. That 10-gram median is no accident and it reflects the general convergence toward low/medium-compliance cartridges and medium-mass tonearms, a status quo that has made 'arm/cartridge matching an almost redundant skill -- at least until recently. Now seems like a good time to discuss what those terms mean in reality and what makes for a good 'arm/cartridge match.
Any tonearm-cartridge combination will have a fundamental resonant frequency, dependent on the supported mass and the stiffness of the spring (cartridge suspension) holding it up. In order to avoid unwanted excitation of the 'arm, that frequency needs to be below the audible range but above the frequency of any ripple warps or vertical irregularities in the record surface. Conventional wisdom suggests a value of 10Hz with a range of 7-12Hz considered acceptable (which also explains why some tonearms offer damping of their vertical and lateral motion, allowing users to push the boundaries of acceptable mechanical matching). When it comes to calculating the resonant frequency of any given combination, there are any number of tools available, from graphs and scales to online calculators, but all are based on the following equation.
f = 1000 (2 x Pi x Sq Root M x C)
M = total mass of cartridge, mounting hardware and tonearm effective mass, and C = cartridge compliance.
Or, in simpler form,
f = 1591543 (square Root M x C)
Dont worry. As I wrote, there are plenty of online calculators where you just fill in the blanks and they throw out an answer. The one I use can be found here.
Now, just to muddy the waters a bit, theres little international consistency when it comes to calculating compliance. The equation above assumes that it is measured at 10Hz, the European standard, but many older Japanese cartridges calculated it at 100Hz, meaning that you need to multiply the stated value by 1.5 to 2 (a good example being early Koetsus that had a published compliance of 5cu but a corrected value of between 8.5cu and 10cu). American cartridges often quoted static values and those should be halved. A little common sense goes a long way here, while early editions of Hi-Fi Choice, with their extensive measurements, are an invaluable resource.
Back in the mists of time, when the SME III was the ne plus ultra of high-end aspiration (at least in the UK), audiophile obsession rested firmly on the issue of tracking performance. The 5-gram effective mass of the SME allowed its use with the high-compliance (meaning, highly flexible) Shure cartridges, designs whose soft suspension regularly posted compliance values of over 30cu. Yet, at the same time, you could buy a Koetsu with a compliance of less than 10cu and mount it in the Fidelity Research FR64S with its 35-gram effective mass. Given that both of these combinations are mechanically viable, then clearly the potential for serious mismatches existed -- which is where the calculation of tonearm/cartridge resonance came in.
Play around and you quickly discover that any combination of compliance between 8 and 15cu and total mass of 'arm and cartridge around 25 grams will deliver an acceptable result, which explains the almost universal move toward cartridges that weigh around 10 grams and offer a compliance of 10-15cu, paired with tonearms that have an effective mass in the 11-to-20-gram range. It means that pretty much everything works with everything else. Ortofon suggest that tonearms ranging from 11 to 20 grams can be considered medium or moderate mass, with corresponding cartridge values in the 10cu to 20cu range.
Now lets consider the implications of the Kuzmas 17-gram mass and 10cu compliance. Plug in the values and you arrive at an ideal tonearm/cartridge mass of 25.3 grams, meaning that you are looking for a tonearm with an 8.5-gram effective mass, including fixing bolts, which weigh between 0.25 and 0.55 gram each. On the face of it thats not too promising, given that the vast majority of modern tonearms have an effective mass of over 11 grams. Hmmm. Okay, so lets look at this from the other end of the problem: Kuzmas tonearms offer effective masses that range from 11 to 14 grams. Work with those figures and you get a resonance range of 9.3 to 9.5Hz, which is well within the acceptable range, so despite their higher-than-normal mass, the Kuzma cartridges will be quite at home in the vast majority of modern tonearms -- at least from a resonance perspective.
Does that mean you dont need to worry about the Kuzmas mass? Tonearm resonance isnt the only issue. Of greater potential concern is the question of balancing the beast. It is generally desirable to get the tonearms counterweight as close to the pivot point as possible, thus reducing inertia and aiding tracking performance. The Kuzmas low compliance actually helps in this regard, but you still dont want a counterweight thats hanging off the back of your 'arm. To achieve best performance youll almost certainly need a heavy or an auxiliary counterweight -- unless your 'arm has its own adjustable-mass counterweight, like the 4Point. Perhaps theres something in this systems-engineering notion after all.
Analog: VPI Classic 4 with SDS and VPI JMW 12.7 and Tri-Planar Mk VII tonearms; Kuzma Stabi M turntable with 4Point tonearm; Audio Origami PU7 tonearm; Allnic Puritas and Puritas Mono, Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Fuuga, Lyra Etna, Dorian, and Dorian Mono cartridges; Stillpoints Ultra LP Isolator record weight; Connoisseur 4.2 PLE and Tom Evans Audio Designs Master Groove phono stages.
Digital: dCS Paganini transport, DAC and uClock. CEC TL-3N CD transport, Naim UnitiServe and NAC-N272m Wadia S7i and 861 GNSC CD players.
Preamps: Audio Research Reference 5 SE and Reference 10, Connoisseur 4.2 LE, Tom Evans Audio Designs The Vibe, VTL TL7.5 Series III Reference.
Power amps: Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks, pairs of ARC Reference 150SE and VTL S-400 II stereo amplifiers.
Speakers: Coincident Speaker Technology Pure Reference Extreme, Wilson Audio Sasha W/P Series 2 with two WATCH Dog subwoofers, Wilson Benesch Square Five.
Cables: Complete looms of Nordost Odin or Valhalla 2, Crystal Cable Dreamline Plus or Fono Acustica Virtuoso from AC socket to speaker terminals. Power distribution was via Quantum QB8s or Crystal Cable Power Strip Diamonds, with a mix of Quantum Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.
Supports: Harmonic Resolution Systems RXR, Hutter Racktime or Quadraspire SVT Bamboo racks. These are used with Nordost SortKone or HRS Nimbus equipment couplers and damping plates throughout. Cables are elevated on HECC Panda Feet.
Acoustic treatment: As well as the broadband absorption placed behind the listening seat, I employ a combination of RPG Skyline and microperforated Velocity Chokes.
Accessories: Essential accessories include the SmarTractor protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr. Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.