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Reviewer: Steve Marsh
Financial Interests:
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Downstairs System (my upstairs Bastanis system was not used for this review):
Digital Source:  Vecteur D-2 CD Transport, Audio Note DAC Kit 1.2 with upgrades (ps choke, tantalum resistors, Black Gate caps, copper grounding bars on digital chips wired to central ground, VTV silver foil/oil output coupling caps)
Analog Source:  Nottingham Analogue Mentor turntable with 10” Anna tonearm, Goldbug Ms. Brier MC cartridge (rebuilt by Soundsmith)
Preamp:  Doshi Alaap Purist Mk. II full-function tube preamp
Power Amp:  Tron 211 SET amp with upgraded exotic-core interstage transformers (General Electric 211 power tubes, Western Electric 417A/5842 input tubes, RCA black plate 5U4GB rectifiers)
Speakers: WLM LaScala floorstanders
Interconnect cables:  Music Metre Fidelis digital, Harmony Audio, Acoustic Systems Liveline, Bastanis Epilog I
Power Cords:  Bastanis Epilog II on Tron amp, industrial-sourced power cord on Doshi preamp, stock power cords on remaining components
Speaker Cables: Bastanis Epilog Mk. II, Acoustic Systems Liveline
Equipment Rack: Adona 6-shelf, low profile isolation rack
Power Line Conditioning:  PS Audio P300
Sundry accessories: Audio Prism Ground Control, Stein Harmonizers, Stein Magic Stones, Isoclean Fuses, VPI 16.5 record cleaning machine
Room Size:  29’ long X 16’ wide X 10’ high (sunken living room with open floor plan, listening across width of room)
Review Component Retail Price:  $5000, factory retip $800

Over the past year LP playback in my system had me rather in a pickle.  That's because back in April 2010 I'd sent off my Cello—OEM Miyabe—MC cartridge for a rebuild by Miyabe proprietor Takeda-san in Tokyo  (I'd acquired this cartridge on a Simon Yorke S4 turntable with Pluto tonearm).  The Miyabe importer initially alerted me that it would be a couple of months before I'd have it back.  With this in mind I sold my excellent sounding Soundsmith rebuilt Cardas Heart to a friend who was very anxious to get it.  Nine months later I still didn't have my the Cello cartridge back. Cough.

Mind you, the long wait for the Cello/Miyabe rebuild is no reflection on the Sakura Systems importer whom I know to have done proper due diligence.  However those with a Miyabe cartridge or anyone considering one should feel forewarned. Takeda-san apparently is a one-man operation.  Combine that with a probable reduction in productivity from advanced age and there can be quite a wait for service and/or product.  Still many feel the wait to be well worth his glorious cartridges.

Becoming desperate I began some intensive research on the internet and via networking on a possible new cartridge purchase.  I developed a short list of contenders:  Miyajima Shilabe, ZYX Omega, Air Tight PC-1, Transfiguration Orpheus, Dynavector XV-1t, My Sonic Lab Eminent Ex. and Koetsu Sky Blue.  After sorting through a lot of opinions I called my friend Roger Swiatek at Music Direct.  He spoke highly of the new Benz LP-S.  It had also recently received a very positive albeit brief review in the series of seven cartridges auditioned by Harry Pearson in the October 2010 issue of The Absolute Sound.

I exchanged a couple of emails with Garth Leerer and after vetting my system he felt it was up to the standards warranted by this cartridge.  Readers should note that I recently sold my Hovland HP-100 MC preamp and replaced it with a Doshi Alaap Purist Mk. II full-function tube preamp.  While I loved the Hovland for many years, a head-to-head comparison with the Doshi showed the latter to be superior.  The Alaap also allows me to change load impedance rather than rely on the fixed impedance of Hovland’s MC step-up transformer.
  Background on company and ruby generator: In the 1980s Ernst Benz developed his line of moving coil cartridges in conjunction with Sony in Japan and AJ van den Hul of the Netherlands. These pickups were immediately recognized for their high quality and brought to market under the Benz Micro name as well as the Madrigal Carnegie 1. The Madrigal Carnegie 2 was the first cartridge made by Benz to use a ruby core generator. In the early 90s Benz came out with their own ruby generator cartridge aptly named the Ruby. The advantage of a non-ferrous versus iron core to wind the coil around was a purer signal in the magnetic flux field due to elimination of unwanted eddy currents. The original Benz Ruby had an output of only .18mV as a direct result of the ruby core not adding or interfering with this pure magnetic circuit. Ernst Benz turned to friend Albert Lukaschek—an electrical and mechanical engineer and avid record collector—to design a special high-gain low-noise phono stage for the MC Ruby. Albert’s design became known as the Benz Lukaschek PP-1. In 1994 Ernst Benz decided to retire and sold off his various companies including diamond tool and high-temperature vacuum oven manufacturing. He sold the Benz Micro cartridge division to Albert Lukaschek.

For the next six years Albert devoted himself to improving the cartridges and their manufacturing by building a new factory. In 1997 this culminated in the Ruby 2 and Ruby H models and then the entire Series 2 line in 2000. This was followed by the Series 3 in 2004 and the current S class in 2008. Today Benz Micro is one of the world’s leading cartridge manufacturers. In addition to their world-wide distributor network—many of whom have been with the product line for up to 2 decades (Musical Surroundings is at 19 years)—they manufacture cartridges and sub-assemblies for over 10 turntable and audio companies around the world.


Because Garth Leerer was busy preparing for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, we agreed to investigate a review opportunity in Denver.  After returning from the event, Garth shipped me their show demo LP-S for a rushed review since he needed it back for CES.  I agreed to expedite the review.

The cartridge came well packaged with all the necessary information for mounting, loading etc. (see later sidebar for specifications).  I mounted it painstakingly with my Dennesen Soundtraktor (metal version) and Shure tracking force gauge. I set tracking force at 1.9g and VTA a hair below horizontal at the back of the Nottingham Anna tone arm.  Be forewarned that at 16.5g this is a very heavy cartridge that some tone arms may be unable to balance out with their stock counterweights.  A friend with a Well Tempered Record Player was unable to balance it with the WT tone arm.  Into my Doshi Alaap the Benz LP-S sounded best loaded at 1.2KΩ (options are 90Ω, 250 Ω, 1.2 KΩ).

Whenever I do anything to improve the LP playback chain in my system, I have a moment of hesitation choosing the first LP to cue up.  The suspense here was doubled because my recently purchased Doshi Alaap preamp had not had a truly high-end phono cartridge played through it yet.  I'd purchased it back in August and broken it in assiduously ever since.

Looking at my stack of LPs in frequent rotation, I decided on the Prestige reissue two-record set of Miles Davis Workin’ and Steamin’ [Prestige P-24034].  While some turn up their noses at reissues, I find many of the Prestige reissues to be quite good.  From the moment this cartridge hit the groove of the first cut "It Never Entered My Mind", I knew I was in for a very special treat.

The gently caressing piano intro just melted me. When Miles’ muted trumpet came in shortly after, I could hear all of the breathiness behind it and a warm golden glow in each note.  As he ascended the scale I was astonished by the composure in the upper midrange.  There was absolutely no glare in this critical region.  I was immediately taken back to my early days of trumpet playing when my mother used to yell up the stairs while I was practicing in my room, admonishing me to get the tone right.  If only my mother was still alive to experience this. This was sheer tonal splendor!  Playing this album with the Benz LP-S began a sonic torrent of records that put me into a state of bliss from which I may never recover.  At least I hope I won't.

This cartridge also excels on classical repertoire. Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole [RCA LSC-1984] showed off all the strengths of the Benz.  The tonal colors Ravel portrays were fully rendered while the crescendo at the end was handled confidently without compression or blurring.
  Benz Micro LP S Class moving coil cartridge: The Benz Micro LP-S class cartridge is the flagship of the line representing over 20 years of R&D and production expertise. The original Benz LP was introduced in 2002 and the first Benz to use an ebony wood body combined with a ruby generator (see below). There was much debate regarding the name LP including long playing or limited production. Actually it was a nod to Luis Perez, the Portuguese Benz distributor who had sourced the ebony wood from Mozambique for the first production samples. Over the past 15+ years the advances and refinements to the Benz LP-S class include increases in the output voltage of the ruby generator to .38mV at 3.54cm/sec.

This was achieved by a redesign of the ruby square plate with radius edge and reducing mass by machining material out of the 2mm square plate. Coil-winding techniques were improved and magnet strength increased. Both front and rear pole pieces were refined with the rear pole piece featuring a countersunk soft butyl rubber damper for improved mechanical linearity. The entire suspension mechanism was improved. This allows skilled technicians to adjust both azimuth and suspension perfectly via the tension wire while Albert Lukaschek auditions each sample for maximum performance and uniformity. Having focused on almost every aspect of the cartridge, for the LP-S Albert decided to address the actual frame oft he cartridge where the generator assembly is mounted. All other Benz use a machined aluminum frame. From his studies and in-house repair service Albert was aware of other cartridge designs whose manufacturers had moved toward synthetic frames to fix eddy current concerns which his ruby generator addressed.

With this issue removed, Albert next looked at materials with higher mass and density to address vibrational energy yet still possessing a “musical” characteristic to not overdamp the liveliness of the music. He chose brass which is an alloy of copper and zinc. Brass has a wide range of applications such as screw machine parts, circuit board relays, electronic components and switches. It is used extensively in the musical instrument and electrical equipment fields. Brass is known for its strength and resistance to corrosion. Its properties closely resemble that of steel and today make it one of the most popular copper alloys. Brass can be easily precision machined and is available in rounds, flats, squares, hexagons, tube, plate and sheet.

For his specific brass formulation Lukaschek chose MR58 which contains 58% copper to machine the frame from solid bar stock. This brass frame is then gold-plated for environmental stability with a thin nickel sub-plate and as with all Benz cartridges tapped at 2.5mm for the mounting hardware. The brass increased overall weight of the LP from 10.8g to 16.4g for the LP-S class to still be suitable for the majority of today’s best tone arms. Both the electrical-magnetic and resonant properties of the brass frame enhance dynamic range, linearity and definition.

The first version of the LP-S introduced at the beginning of 2008 used a Gyger S stylus. This was the same stylus Albert Lukaschek had used since 1998 for his best cartridges such as the Ruby 3 and original LP and all Benz S class cartridges starting with the ACE. Perhaps due to the high demand Lukaschek placed on Gyger to produce large quantities of this stylus, Gyger's quality control failed Lukaschek’s demanding specifications. Lukaschek thus began to investigate alternate styli and became very impressed by a Japanese Micro Ridge design. In the summer of 2009 production of this version of the LP-S began. It was the US press' The Absolute Sound which dubbed this newer version the “LP S class MR”. Subsequently Benz used the same micro ridge stylus on all S class models from the ACE to the LP.