Breaking in the Zephyr

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50 Hours In with Soundsmith

written by Ron Erickson a very very happy customer

Breaking in a new cartridge is like raising a child: you have hopes and dreams of what they can achieve, of what their personalities will be like. You start off with simple tasks and watch as they learn and as they adapt to progressively challenging situations.  If they become overwhelmed you back off a bit and as you begin to understand their personalities you can present challenges that will most positively enhance their individuality.

So it has been with the Zephyr. From the first needle drop I knew this was going to be a great ride.

soundsmithweb1The initial setup was an immense pleasure.With threaded screw holes, I love the way the body of SoundSmith cartridges are notched to allow easy cantilever adjustment. I used a Feickert protractor, Baerwald Geometry, and at the 50 hour mark I ran the adjust+ Pro on it.

How does it sound? Well, at the 25 hour mark, it sounded as I expected, and more. I love the bass bounce. I love the no-glassy piano keys. I love the seamless movement of the music. The Zephyr finds those musical nuances, those tiny micro bits of information that lesser cartridges miss. It gives sound more focus, a better representation of the whole performance instead of just plain old stereo.

As far as a personality, I would have to say the Zephyr is bold, ready to rock, but with the ability of restraint when needed. This thing loves big expansive recordings, the more complex the better. But when it needs to carry a whisper to infinity it respects that and handles those moments with care and delicacy.

I suppose I should explain what my system consists of. 

Admittedly, one or two pieces are questionable, but bear in mind, the ultimate goal is to equip it with the legendary soundsmith strain gauge, and for that I can make a couple temporary compromises. To start off, turntable duties are handled by the TTW GemV2 with copper platter. My motor control is the TTW 24k from their Momentus turntable, and I’m also using the Copperhead center clamp and adjustable VTA glider pod. The tone arm, honored with mounting the Soundsmith Zephyr cartridge, is a Linn Sondek Ittok LV2. Amplification is handled by a Milbert Bam 230 amplifier and TC-2r preamplifier (Yes, 12 volt tube amplification!).

The phono preamp is the Ifi Iphono. Everything is hooked to a custom 12 volt uninterruptible power supply and to top things off: speakers are Martin Logan ElectroMotion ESLs, with no-name interconnects, and custom 10 gauge solid copper speaker cables. That’s about it, no digital players involved.

What sort of Music is the Zephyr playing? Well, everything is pretty much great! Though at the moment I am really partial to church organs. I just cannot believe how well the Zephyr growls through those lower registers. As a matter of fact, all sounds are done with a realistic presentation. The only drawback is I still can’t differentiate every individual voice in a 1000 voice choir piece, but I am sure eventually I’ll have it tweaked to about 950….

Ok, ok, now I am just being silly……but what if one could….

Once I reached 50 hours on the cartridge, some serious tuning took place. Cruising around the interweb, I got the sense some people find the vertical tracking angle on this cartridge to be a tough one, with many people ending up with a tail down position of the tone arm. I also was headed in that direction.

Learning to understand what the cartridge is saying is of utmost importance.

soundsmithweb2I was getting that tail high sizzle which one automatically assumes is VTA error, but after various adjustments to no avail I decided to listen  to what was really going on. The sizzle actually diminished as the cartridge proceeded across the record. So I thought it might be groove distortion. This meant a small tweak to offset was needed. Checking with the Feikert, the cartridge was set up to the original Baerwald geometry (and this is where the black arts kick in). Using the gut feeling approach, I gave it a small tweak and the drop… it’s was like the cartridge fell into a hole! So I started raising the tone arm and then the magical moment happened: FOCUS. The difference between a regular tube TV and the latest hi-def picture. With a few more tweaks the sound became more holographic than ever before. Depending on the recording, it’s  like listening to a good set of headphones: the music is right in your head. A very weird sensation.

The resolution from the Soundsmith Zephyr Cartridge is stunning. 

With patience to the setup,the diamond profile will find new vinyl in your old pressings, giving more information with less noise. I have vinyl that is 50 plus years old, but the stylus shape makes them sound much newer. These old original pressings of church organs are simply mind blowing. The bass is real. I listen at a comfortable level and still things vibrate at their natural resonances . I can’t believe how well it works. The support equipment helps; but the Zephyr is adding something awesome. This cartridge is tricky though. To get that distinct amazing sound you have to play with it! I get the feeling, many people who have shared their experiences online are not spending the time this cartridge demands to get it right. Myself, I’m a tinkerer. I can spend hours  to  get the absolute final perfect tweak out of it. For my ears. But if you  don’t spend the time, i am afraid you  may not be getting all that can be. So far, my time with the Zephyr  has been a wonderful, revealing journey. A joy and a pleasure all the way.

So who is this cartridge for? At the Zephyr’s price point, it is very good value for those who want to hear what is possible without spending a relatively large amount. It is for those who want to use the best of moving iron design. And it is for those who have old vinyl and would rather have a new record collection, without replacing all the vinyl with poor reissues or kilobuck originals.

In short, if you love your vinyl, you will love the Zephyr!