Over the past few years, Bob Clarke of Profundo has hosted me for some impressive and pleasurable demos, both at audio shows and at his new home in Round Rock, Texas, near Austin. The systems he sets up usually include analog chains and these always feature cartridges made by Transfiguration, a small Japanese firm specializing in low- to medium-output moving-coil transducers. Last spring, during a listening session in Round Rock, as we enjoyed an Ella Fitzgerald LP of tunes made famous by bebop genius Charlie Parker, I mentioned, as casually as I could, that I was curious about Transfiguration.
Clarke said he’d just received the first production units of the Phoenix S cartridge ($4250 USD), a new redesign of the Phoenix that he thought was a significant improvement over the Phoenix Mk.II ($2750, discontinued). He believed the Phoenix S had more musically relevant resolution, was more open and extended on top, and sounded smoother and more free of grain.
Clarke knows that I listen mainly to classical music, and have found that a lot of audio gear can’t get the sound of violins quite right. “Considering your way of listening,” said Bob, “I would say the naturalness and correctness of the Transfigurations would be the obvious fit. After years of listening to these cartridges and growing accustomed to their coherence and phase linearity, most all other cartridges, even very good ones that are otherwise very musical, sound somehow broken to me, with the upper frequencies poking out and arriving before the rest of the music. This has the effect of pulling apart instruments like violins.”
He offered to send me a Transfiguration Phoenix S. It was a while before he could spare a sample, but I’ve now spent the winter and early spring exploring what it sounded like in my own system.
Company, design, description
In business since the mid-1980s, Transfiguration is owned by designer Seiji Yoshioka, who had licensed a Sony patent for a symmetrical ring-magnet design for analog pickups. From this arrangement Yoshioka produced the Transfiguration AF-1, a moving-coil cartridge whose coil fit inside a circular magnet. The AF-1 had a super-low output of 0.1mV, but a sound that was completely natural and created a delicate top end that audiophiles the world over fell in love with. For 15 years, the AF-1 remained the basis of Transfiguration’s flagship designs, and Yoshioka kept optimizing it until 2008. Both the Temper and Orpheus series of cartridges came out of this steady progression of ring-magnet design.
Around 1997, Yoshioka also began designing the first double-ring-magnet cartridges, which he called the Spirit (low output) and Esprit (high output). Each of these had two ring magnets, made of different materials: samarium-cobalt in front of the coil on the cantilever and neodymium behind the coil. The two-ring design obviated the necessity of executing the superfine tolerances required to fit a coil inside a single ring magnet and was much less costly to manufacture. The double-ring design eventually resulted in the first Transfiguration Phoenix in 2007.
Then, about four years ago, Yoshioka began redesigning the double-ring-magnet cartridges and came up with the new Phoenix S, incorporating materials from the discontinued models of his former flagship series, the Orpheus ($5000) and Orpheus L ($7000). Premiered at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, the Phoenix S keeps the discontinued cartridges’ basic double-ring-magnet structure but considerably improves on their materials. It borrows the damper and core of the Orpheus L and employs new, thicker silver wire for its coils. Thicker wire means fewer windings, lower resistance, more speed, and, theoretically, greater resolution. A better damper should mean less resonance. And the special core? It should cut distortion, providing more extension and even better tonal balance. All in all, the new Transfiguration Phoenix S promised to compete very well in its price category.
In making the Phoenix S, the entire cantilever-and-magnets assembly is tensioned by pulling on a minute wire attached to the back end of the cantilever, opposite the stylus. Both magnets are now made of neodymium, and permalloy is used for the core around which the coil is wound. Furthermore, the dual-ring-magnet design eliminates the yokes used in more conventional cartridges.
As explained on the Profundo website, “Traditional MC cartridges have a large, box-shaped magnet that is positioned above the coil, with a U-shaped yoke at the front in order to help draw the focus of the magnetic field downward toward the coil. Even with the help of the yoke, the magnetic field in which the coil moves to generate the minute electrical signals is not balanced between the top and bottom of the coil. This results in minute variances in output and phase in the coils of the cartridge, which can affect not only the ever-so-delicate temporal integrity of low-level hall and reverb details, but also the timbral balance of the primary signal.”
Along with its yokeless, double-ring-magnet internal construction, the Phoenix S has a line-contact Ogura stylus of solid diamond that measures 3 x 30µm -- it’s very narrow, which allows the Phoenix S to dig deep into a record’s groove, resulting in much less noise. Its solid body is made of low-resonance aluminum. The Phoenix S weighs 7.8gm, making it an easy balance for most tonearms with standard counterweights. Dynamic compliance is also within the acceptable range for most contemporary tonearms. The cantilever is solid boron and most of its length is tucked under the body, protecting it very well from accidental breakage. However, this makes the cantilever a bit difficult to sight on for fine adjustments of alignment. The recommended vertical tracking force (VTF) is 2gm. As promised, the cartridge’s internal impedance is low -- 2 ohms -- and its output of 0.4mV falls in about the middle of the range for MC cartridges.
The Phoenix S arrived in a handsome hinged box of walnut inside a box of blue cardboard. The cartridge was secured with two tidy plastic screws that came through from the bottom. To detach it, I simply unscrewed it from these mountings and lifted it carefully away. Also in the box were two sets of hex-head aluminum mounting screws and a hex-nut tool.
Setup was a bit fussier than the norm. Throughout its first 100 hours of break-in, the Phoenix S sounded best mounted in my 12” tonearm, an Ortofon RS309-D, and through a step-up going into the moving-magnet inputs of my Herron VTPH-2 phono stage. For some reason, it just didn’t get along with my TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm and the Herron’s MC inputs until well after 125 hours of use.
I began by mounting the Phoenix S in an Ortofon LH-9000 carbon-fiber headshell with leads of high-purity copper -- over the years, it’s served me very well with a variety of cartridges. The Phoenix S is easy to handle, presenting no odd angles on its body and no major cantilever vulnerabilities to watch out for. I simply left attached its small stylus guard of pressure-mounted plastic as I loosely mounted it in the LH-9000 and connected the leads. Next, I installed the headshell and cartridge in the RS309-D tonearm. This all took just a few minutes.
Fine adjustments took only a bit longer. To set the Phoenix S’s overhang and offset angle, I used a Geo-Disc Phono Cartridge Alignment Tool from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. Made of heavy plastic, with ridges and printed grids, the Geo-Disc is fast and easy, and limits a lot of errors I might make using other devices. I balanced the arm and set the 2gm of VTF recommended by Transfiguration. Then, it was mainly a matter of adjusting overhang, and scootching the loosely mounted cartridge farther forward and back until the stylus tip fit into the small white circle embossed on the Geo-Disc. I adjusted the alignment using sightlines printed on the Geo-Disc. Finally, I tightened everything down.
I tried two different step-ups with the Phoenix S: a Tron with an impedance of 10 ohms, then an EAR MC 4 with variable impedance (3, 6, 12, 40 ohms). With an internal impedance of 1-2 ohms, the Phoenix S by far performed best with the EAR MC 4 set to 3 ohms. I also tried two sets of interconnects (Shindo and Auditorium 23) and two sets of phono cables (Nordost Tyr and Siltech Classic Anniversary). I thought the Phoenix S sounded best with Auditorium 23 and Siltech cables.
Eventually, the Phoenix did sound wonderful through my Herron phono’s MC inputs and mounted on my TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm. Mounting and adjustments were a snap. I used TW-Acustic’s alignment tool and my Winds tracking-force gauge, then dialed in the vertical tracking angle (VTA) on the fly with the Raven arm’s adjustment ring. Through most of the long break-in, I experimented with different MC loading plugs -- 220, 100, and 47k ohms -- and though each helped tame an initially hot top end, this gradually lessened before disappearing completely. To my surprise, I ended up running the Phoenix S completely wide open with no loading at all.
The user’s pamphlet specifies a minimum of 40 hours, but more than 150 hours passed before I thought the Phoenix S had settled down to a listenable and consistent sound. Before that, it could sound wiry and tipped up. But this stubborn edginess evaporated over time to leave me with a very lovely sound indeed, whether I ran the Transfiguration through the EAR MC 4 step-up or into the MC inputs of my Herron phono stage.
Once the Transfiguration Phoenix S had fully broken in, I found it to sound excellent with acoustic music, particularly solo piano and combo jazz. Details were finely drawn, but with overall weight and solidity. Oscar Peterson’s The Duke Ellington Songbook (LP, Verve Select 2331 090) sounded absolutely gorgeous. Peterson’s piano in “Sophisticated Lady” demonstrated great presence, tremendous low-level detail, and an achingly beautiful sustain that I hadn’t expected. Ray Brown’s double bass sounded superbly thick, deep, and articulate, making for gentle yet thrilling interplay with Peterson’s piano. Drummer Ed Thigpen joined in with judicious, sticking strokes on cymbal. With several Verve albums by Stan Getz, I heard a clean, sweet, even sumptuous midrange. In particular, Getz’s tenor sax sounded especially fluent, rich, and swinging in his characteristically agile improvisations on Voices (LP, Verve V6-8707).
Piano music sounded fabulous. The first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.4 in E-flat, Op.7, performed by Alfred Brendel (LP, Philips 9500 506), had crisp transients, fine sustain, and a rich midrange. I heard authoritative crescendo chords, deft arpeggios, and explosive dynamics when called for. Géza Anda’s piano, in the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in C Major, K.467 (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 138783), had great weight in the lower keys and sounded fully expressive across the keyboard in crystalline highs, successive waves of arpeggios, and Anda’s own dashing cadenzas. “’Round Midnight,” as performed on solo piano by Thelonious Monk on his Greatest Hits (LP, Columbia CS 9775), featured strong, clear mids in the famous, angular melody, with emphatic left-hand notes, characteristically syncopated trilling, and lovingly smooth arpeggios. Trebles were wonderfully clear and ringing. The Phoenix’s spec sheet claims a frequency-response of 20Hz-40kHz, +2dB; judging by its performance with piano music, that certainly seemed accurate.
Acoustic music of other kinds also fared well. I liked most anything from Eric Clapton’s Unplugged (LP, Reprise 468412-1), and “Lonely Stranger” was a great example. The impacts of Clapton’s plucks and strums were clear and gorgeous, either in sync with or in funky syncopation to the main rhythm. As always, the piano was superb -- rich in harmonics, ringing and detailed in the trebles. There was a fabulous sonic tapestry throughout, Clapton’s husky voice sounding characteristically dry at times, but with a fluid falsetto, and the female backing singers vocalizing precisely, voices full of air and delicacy. Signifying the tune's end, Clapton’s percussive, bent-note picking and plucking trailed deliciously away.
Jerry Garcia’s picking on acoustic guitar in “Ripple,” from the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty (LP, Warner Bros. WS 1893), likewise sounded lovely and organic, accompanied by a deftly strummed second guitar and mandolin. Pace, rhythm, and timing were excellent, Bill Kreutzmann on drums and Mickey Hart on percussion providing a gentle chatter and patter in the background as I heard the loving interplay among the stringed instruments. Phil Lesh’s harmonies were airy and tight, and though Garcia’s lead vocal was occasionally sibilant, it had light and pleasing plosive impacts. This was string-band sweetness at its best.
The Phoenix S did very well with amplified music, too. I loved the swinging, gently rocking “Rivers of Babylon” as sung by the Melodians, on the soundtrack album of The Harder They Come (LP, Mango MLPS-9202), the film that introduced Jamaican reggae to the world. An electric rhythm guitar, damped by the heel of the player’s hand, provides the stuttering beat behind the inspired chorus’s rich, lively voices behind Brent Dowe’s beautiful tenor lead, the performance evolving into a thrilling call and response, church style, as is appropriate for this Rastafarian setting of verses from the Psalms. In “White Room,” from Cream’s Wheels of Fire (LP, Polydor 0042282757814), Jack Bruce’s bass was tight and authoritative, and his dark, wailing vibrato sailed out over Clapton’s talky, squawky wah-wah guitar. And when Clapton takes over the lead vocal, his falsetto was drenched in pre-Goth rock drama. Ginger Baker’s drums came through punchy and rhythmic, his rolls on floor toms in the bridge sounding satisfyingly ominous. But I felt there was just a touch of extra sibilance on his cymbals.
The many voices of the Choir of King’s College, directed by David Willcocks, sounded airy and appropriately blended in “Lord, our Redeemer,” from Part 1 of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion (LP, Argo GOS 628-30), from a live performance in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The Philomusica of London produced fine orchestral shadings that I heard as if from mid-hall, and I thought the tonal balance, too, was very good. This is one of the bloomier, least-resolving recordings in my collection, yet I found its sound nonetheless satisfying and completely coherent as reproduced via the Phoenix S. In one passage, I could clearly hear two basses singing sotto voce as Alexander Young’s tenor sailed sublimely above them.
For all its successes with acoustic music, the Phoenix S at first had me worried when it came to the sound of violins, whether solo or orchestral. But violins sounded more and more open as the cartridge continued to break in, until, at about 140 hours, orchestras began to sound right to me, the violins lush in their midrange and, when appropriate, biting in attack. In fact, the unusually long break-in, ultimate transparency, and dynamic performance of the new Phoenix S reminded me of the character of the amorphous-core output transformers of some of the best single-ended-triode tube amps. In a collection of works by Mozart performed by Henryk Szeryng (LP, Philips Festivo 6570 024), the violinist’s solos were sweet, clear, full of dimension, and even a touch warm as he sailed through passages of fine vibrancy. Resolution was excellent, the Phoenix S demonstrating fine top-end extension as well as startling detail. The violin sections, too, had superb string tone, urgent and forceful, but without glass or etch in the first movement of the Violin Concerto No.3 in G, K.216. The Phoenix S scaled very well, producing exciting macrodynamics when called for in tutti passages, yet also able to focus on the finer subtleties of pizzicato accompaniment from the violins and in Szeryng’s wondrously nuanced solo playing.
A Zyx Airy 3 has been my reference cartridge for about three years and, at $3450, costs $800 less than the Transfiguration Phoenix S. With an output of 0.24mV, an internal impedance of 4 ohms, and a weight of 7gm (with silver base), the Airy 3’s basic specs are fairly close to the Phoenix S’s -- yet Zyx boasts for the Airy 3 an even wider frequency response: 10Hz-100kHz. When I compared the two Japanese cartridges directly, both passively (using the EAR MC 4 step-up into the Herron phono’s MM inputs) or actively (via the Herron’s MC inputs), I found some interesting differences.
Despite its much broader claimed FR, I found that the Airy 3 sounded more laid-back, consistently producing a relaxed sound that was a touch sweeter with orchestral violins, and usually more mellow with voices. Overall, it was smoother than the Phoenix S. With solo piano and violin as well as orchestral violins, for example, the Airy 3 was rounder, with smoother mids and somewhat less detail. Alfred Brendel’s trills in the Beethoven sonata didn’t have quite the crystalline top that they did through the Phoenix S. Orchestral violins could sound light and sweet in Szeryng’s recording of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3, then forceful and full-bodied in tutti passages, his playing as agile and sensitive as with the Transfiguration, but with less inner detail and more body. With strings and piano, the Phoenix S was the higher-resolving cartridge.
The Phoenix S was also more immediate and explosive with Clapton’s Unplugged, his plucking and strumming of acoustic guitar more emphatic and visceral than with the Airy 3. In Cream’s “White Room,” Jack Bruce’s bass sounded more recessed through the Zyx, but his voice was just as lively, his broad vibrato just as apparent. Ginger Baker’s drums were more forward in the mix, Clapton’s electric guitar less so. And in the Dead’s “Ripple,” the plucking and strumming of acoustic mandolin and guitars were not as startlingly clear via the Airy 3. Again, I found the Phoenix S more resolving and dynamic.
The sounds of most jazz recordings were as clean, sweet, and sumptuous with the Airy 3 as with the Phoenix S, but in general were also a touch more polite, and less dramatic in terms of dynamic shadings. The midrange was superb, as evinced by Stan Getz’s tenor sax in Voices, but the Phoenix S was more agile and had more presence, and I could better hear the sensitive rubato of Oscar Peterson’s slow-paced arpeggios in “Sophisticated Lady” from The Duke Ellington Songbook.
Finally, via the Airy 3, the Philomusica of London sounded terrific in “Lord, our Redeemer” from the St. John Passion -- not wiry or faint, but bloomy and very close, overall, to how this ensemble sounded through the Transfiguration. But the choir was more forceful through the Zyx, I thought, its highs lovelier, more extended, more refined. The pulsing effect of the organ’s bass notes was more emphatic, and the entire performance seemed more listenable than with the Transfiguration -- more organic and integrated as a whole.
The Transfiguration Phoenix S is an excellent cartridge with a neutral tonal balance. It is highly resolving, and capable of fine extension, startlingly dramatic and sensitive dynamic shadings, and superior detail. After being at first dubious of its rendering of orchestral violins, I ended up thinking it sounded terrific with strings, and even preferred it to my reference Zyx Airy 3 with all but choral music.
If you’re ready for a new cartridge, I highly recommend that you consider the Transfiguration Phoenix S. Not only does it deliver the goods; at $4250, it’s a relative bargain, a real contender at its price point, and a successful redesign of an established product from a well-known company and a respected designer. Yoshioka-san has a real winner on his hands.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Analog sources -- TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable, TW Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm, Ortofon RS309-D tonearm and LH-9000 headshell, Zyx Airy 3 cartridge (0.24mV)
- Preamplifiers -- deHavilland Mercury 3; Herron VTPH-2 phono stage; EAR MC 4, Tron step-ups
- Power amplifiers -- deHavilland KE50A monoblocks
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR-44 Aktive with RST-5 ribbon supertweeters and Masterbuilt jumpers
- Speaker cables -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L
- Interconnects -- Auditorium 23, Shindo, Siltech Classic Anniversary 330i
- Phono cables -- Nordost Tyr, Siltech Classic Anniversary
- Power cords -- Cardas Audio Golden Reference, Harmonix XDC Studio Master, Siltech Ruby Hill II and SPX-800
- Power conditioner -- Audience aR6-TSS2 with Audience Au24 PowerChord
- Accessories -- Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack, edenSound FatBoy dampers, HRS damping plates, Nordost Sort Kones, Winds ALM-01 arm load meter, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Geo-Disc cartridge-alignment tool, Loricraft PRC4 record cleaner, Audio Intelligent Premium One-Step Formula No.6, Mobile Fidelity record-cleaning brush
Transfiguration Phoenix S Phono Cartridge
Price: $4250 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
2051 Gattis School Rd., Suite 540/123
Round Rock, TX 78664
Phone: (510) 375-8651
Fax: (510) 525-8942