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Charisma 103 Moving Coil Cartridge

A few years back, I visited a used record store on a work trip to Chicago. While browsing, my ears picked up on an old Howard Robert’s LP the guy at the front desk was spinning. I knew the album well but found myself thinking how solid, meaty and toe-tappingly good it sounded on the old system the store used. I was used to hearing it on my rather more refined, MC-loaded phono rig. As I approached the checkout with a few finds, I remarked to the young man how good that old LP sounded on their rig. While the guy sort of stared blankly at me with the usual, cooler-than-thou dismissive air we have come to love in all speciality record shops, I craned my neck to see what gear was being used. From memory it was a Technics ‘table into a basic receiver. I found myself thinking how amazing it was that old cheap analog rigs could still sound so good.

I am reminded of this experience every time I cue up an LP with the Charisma 103 moving coil cartridge. Some cartridges are hyper-detailed and can focus your attention on small nuances in the music that you did not hear before, perhaps reassuring you that the money you invested was well spent. Others eschew resolution for body, warmth, and the rich sonic pleasure of analog reproduction. While most reviewers seem to place a premium on detail, you likely have your own preferences. Short of hearing a lot of cartridges yourself in your own rig, it can sometimes prove difficult to know where value really lies. Well, I go for timbral truth and solid musical images over resolution every time – understanding where I place a premium on sound quality might help you understand why I am enamoured of this Charisma cartridge.

The Denon 103 is close to legendary, with a long-lived reputation for good sound at an affordable price. It is good, though the Denon 103R to my ears is even better. But hold that thought for a minute. Many variants of the 103 have emerged over the years as tweakers experimented with repotting the cartridge’s innards in various alternative materials or completely removing the body to run the cartridge ‘naked’. Even now, Zu Audio does a brisk business with their re-housed versions of this venerable cartridge, which owners swear can compete with products far pricier. The Charisma 103 is in a sense just one more variant on the modification process… but to consider it just one other variation on a theme undersells what is on offer here. Charisma chief Bernard Li does more than re-house the Denon 103s in a maple body, he also retunes the suspension and adds a line contact stylus on a new ruby cantilever. In short, this is not just a tweaked version, it is a significantly remade, customized 103 cartridge at the affordable end of the moving coil cartridge price scale.

Getting it together

Installation and set-up of the Charisma 103 is about as straightforward as it gets. The cantilever is somewhat exposed, but not like the Clearaudio models, which have caused me palpitations over the years. I ran it on two arms over several months: the new Bryston BLP-1 arm on the company’s debut table and the Ikeda 407 on my Garrard 401. In both cases I had the cartridge mounted and aligned for initial play in under 15 minutes. Charisma’s maple body is not the most perfectly finished – after all you are dealing with a customized product – but this is beside the point really since your goal is to align the cantilever, not the body. This is where the Charisma’s slightly exposed nature aids visual inspection.

Fine-tuning after initial installation is normal with any cartridge and I found the recommended tracking force and a very slightly raised tonearm rear to give long-term satisfaction without much need to tweak. Despite the line contact stylus profile, this cartridge is not super fussy about minor adjustments. Bernard recommends a horizontal setting for the arm as optimal and I’d say start there as you’ll not be far off, then tweak as you see fit. The Fozgometer readings showed well-matched channels and, after several installations, I feel confident recommending this cartridge to folks who dread the process of analog set-up or who always worry that they’ve not quite aligned every parameter perfectly.

Let it roll

So what does your $750 buy you with this cartridge? The short answer is music – solid-bodied musical reproduction that trades delicacy for robustness. Instruments sound like they are real, amplified where appropriate, and oh so present. Vocals are clear and, well, solid. I know, I keep using that term but it’s the one word that springs to mind whenever I play records with this cartridge. It does not feel as if the frequency range is truncated in any significant way but you don’t get quite the upper-air sonics of the finer and far more expensive MCs nor the delineated bass lines the best cartridges can unravel. What you do get however is a musical presentation that emphasizes the important mid and upper-bass areas that dominate most of the recordings you likely own.

In my review of the Bryston table I mentioned that the Charisma 103 needs about 10 hours to lose its initial tizziness in the upper end, after which it settles into routine delivery of a meaty sonic presentation. A cartridge like this calls for equally meaty music so I was drawn to the rock side of my library, pulling out early Del Amitri, Waterboys, and Mahavishnu Orchestra albums for fun. The Charisma 103 never failed to bring a grin to my face, with the sound reminding me of my original exposure to these albums, when the music rather than the gear was all that mattered. Few of these recordings are audiophile gems but they are time capsules of musicianship and memories, the pleasures of which came pouring from the speakers. With both tonearms, I felt I was getting most of what was on the record, with the balance definitely aimed at a lively, punchy sound that serves rock and electric jazz very well. Bass and guitar locks into riffs, drums are punchy and present, and the singer sounds like a human being fronting a real band. What’s not to like?

But don’t think that this is just a cartridge for those who like hard rock. One quieter recordings, the meatiness serves piano and acoustic instruments well. Joan Armatrading’s Show Some Emotion is one of my favorite recordings for checking setup and the Charisma 103 gets the balance between the jazz funky bass and the percussion on the title track right, being suitably propulsive and yet resolving. This is true whether the cartridge was mounted on the $4k Bryston table or the $7k Ikeda tonearm, it’s sonic signature remaining consistent on both. I’ve long believed that a cheaper cartridge on an expensive arm is a better allocation of funds than putting an expensive transducer on a cheaper arm. You can allocate as you think best but I would say that the Charisma 103 is good enough to grace the best arms.

Bill Evans has been getting a lot of play in my home recently, with the Complete Village Vanguard box set in heavy rotation, along with Alone Again, a 1977 album that’s worked its way into my head. Piano recordings can provide a good window on a phono cartridge and the Charisma provided satisfying reproduction that made the instrument sound alive and full in my room. And while Evans’ recordings can often sound full, the Charisma 103 can provide delicacy too. Idil Biret’s direct-to-disk recording of Chopin, Prokofiev and Scriabin solo pieces is as unadorned a piano recording as I own, and the Charisma 103 delivers the sonics with sufficient dynamic range, resolution and note decay to allow for full enjoyment of this LP.

Strings are another test that the Charisma 103 passes well. André Cluytens conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on Beethoven’s Fifth on HMV/EMI is an old treasure I pulled out recently and thoroughly enjoyed hearing again. Sure, it has a few clicks and pops from decades of other owners’ use before I picked up this 1958 recording but there are glories in those old grooves, which the Charisma is certainly capable of delivering. The cascading strings at the end of the Leonore Overture No 3 are full of life and drive, setting you up nicely, predictably, for the opening movement of the Fifth, which has you wanting to crank the volume and act out your inner conductor.

Hearing the strings and brass of the Berlin Philharmonic pushed me to hear saxophones and jazzy guitar to round out my review. The Charisma showed itself well capable of delivering the goods on several Blue Note Music Matters re-issues that I’ve acquired. Ike Quebec’s Blue and Sentimental is a perfect blend of mellow instrumental lines with Grant Green adding guitar to Ike’s sax. The Charisma not only gets the rasp of firmly blown brass but delineates the attack on guitar strings without fuss. There’s a bit of grit to the sound of this van Gelder recording, by which I mean the instruments are raw, present, and definitely not smoothed out, and the Charisma reveals that texture fully. The music spills forth, and the Charisma gives both bass and cymbals enough clarity to allow full appreciation of the sounds on offer here.

Since there is no perfect cartridge, I am left to consider shortcomings that might matter for someone shopping in this price range. Yes, my Ikeda 9TT has more resolution and more open frequency extremes allowing you to hear deeper into the recording, but that’s what thousands more dollars buys you. But with the Charisma playing music, I never felt as if it was a weak link or that it was out of its league on the Ikeda arm. Instead, I just played music and relished what I was hearing. There’s a truth to its level of reproduction that means much to me: here is a cartridge that makes LPs sound like music. I pulled out my original UK stereo copy of Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love and found that, while some refined MCs can struggle to overcome the surface marks this well-worn slab of vinyl carries from 50 years of mixed use, it sounds really fresh and alive with the Charisma 103.

Competition for this $750 cartridge comes from others in the $500-$1000 range, of which the Dynavector 10×5 might be a serious option. I loved my time with the 10×5 on several rigs and it’s universally recommended for vinyl lovers taking a step up to MC cartridges. But to my ears the Charisma 103 goes a bit further: it offers more of the musical goodness that the Dynavector provides, a little more detail, a tad more body and snap, even while it maintains a similar midrange-prominent emphasis. If you can stretch the extra couple of hundred dollars, this is where you can gain improvements you won’t strain to hear. There might be others nearer the upper end of this price bracket that are worthy but I can’t speak to them, I just know that at $750, if I were spending that sum today on a new MC for my rig, the Charisma would be the benchmark that anything else had to beat.

Conclusion

If it sounds as if I like the Charisma 103, that would be a fair summary. With both tonearms, the sonic picture was one that never had me feeling as if I were missing anything important. Rather, it delivered rich, full-bodied sonics that make me spin record after record in simple enjoyment. It proved good enough to be mounted on the ten-times more expensive Ikeda arm, and came alive without fussy adjustment or tweaking, a boon to vinyl lovers no matter their rigs. Whichever way you slice it, the Charisma 103 is great value. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Specifications

  • Cartridge Weight: 8.8 g
  • Cartridge Body: birdseye maple wood
  • Cantilever: ruby
  • Stylus: super fine line contact nude diamond
  • Vertical Tracking Angle: 20 degrees
  • Coil: pure iron crossed-coil with OFC copper
  • Output Voltage: 0.32 mV at 3.54 cm/sec.
  • Internal Impedance: 40 ohms
  • Frequency Response: 20 – 45,000 Hz ± 1 dB
  • Channel Balance: better than 1 dB
  • Channel Separation: better than 30 dB
  • Dynamic Compliance: 7 um/mN
  • Recommended Loading: 100 – 1,000 ohms
  • Recommended Tracking Force: 2.1 g ± 0.1 g
  • Tracking Ability at 315 Hz / 2 g: 80 uM
  • Recommended Tonearm Mass: medium
  • Break-in Period: 30 hours

Manufacturer/product information


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