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Benz-Micro Ebony TR S Class Moving Coil Phono Cartridge Review

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Benz-Micro Ebony TR S Class Low Output Moving Coil Phono Cartridge

Description

The Benz Ebony TR cartridge is one of the world’s very best phono cartridges. It also one of the world’s lowest output moving coils; some have even dubbed it a ‘tiny-output’ moving coil. It is housed in a vented case made from aged Ebony, just like the body of the famous Benz LP.

The research team at Benz set out to increased performance and uniformity of their cross-coil designs by developing the Benz Ebony cartridges. With the TR, they begin the experiment with a length of their solid Boron cantilever that allowed just the right elasticity of this very stiff material. This added to the cartridges compliance and “trackability”. They developed a grooved rear pole piece that could countersink into the o-ring damper. This was first introduced on the Benz Ruby square plate cartridges, and then they adapted it to the cross coil designs.

With the TR, Benz has dramatically lowered the mass of the coils, but in a way that is almost counter-intuitive.

The TR uses what Benz refers to as a “single layer” coil that uses a 50 micron thick copper wire wound around their “iron cross” design. This is a relatively thick wire for Benz; but they use the “least” amount of it that is possible. This enabled the TR to have only a 1 ohm resistance. Thus, they were able to develop with the Ebony TR a cartridge that could take advantage of world-class step-up transformers, like the ones in the top-end Shindo preamps, or the Shindo separate transformer, or the Auditorium 23 Hommage T1. I promise you, a combination such as this can create an unbelievably music like performance in your home.

In contrast, the Ebony L used a 28 micron thick wire, but more of it in a different winding configuration to achieve a .26 mV at 3.54cm/sec and 3.5 ohm internal impedance. Other Benz Ebony models use considerably more turns of wire at different gauges to achieve the various output levels. Another example would be the Benz LP which uses two layers of 19 micron copper wire wound around a ruby square plate, which is 2mm square and .6mm thick. Because this coil has larger surface area, more wire is required to wind the coil, resulting in a higher internal impedance of 38 ohms and an output of .35mv @ 3.54 cm/sec. This makes the LP “less friendly” to step-up transformers where as the Ebony TR is just about perfect with many of the best transformers.

Benz Micro is unique to my knowledge in the industry in that they design and wind all these different coils in house. This allows them to make a range of cartridges that are optimized to work with an assortment of phono stage designs. To quote Garth at Musical Surroundings, “we all know in high-end audio that one size does not fit all.”

Introduction

I have already done an intensive review of the very fine Ebony L, but I have found the new Ebony TR to be such an emotional involving cartridge that I feel compelled to do a whole new review of the Ebony TR. Benz-Micro now makes a total of four cartridges using an Ebony body: the LP S Class and 3 versions of the Ebony series, namely the H (high output), the L (low output), and now the TR (really low output, with an impedance that makes it work well with transformers). It is the TR, though, that broke new ground in that it was designed from the start to work with really world-class transformers.

There is a renewed interest in using step-up transformers in high-end vinyl playback systems. I don’t know when this renewed interest begin, but I’m sure just like SET amplifiers, it begin in Japan. Companies like Kondo, Shindo, Wavac, and even Denon have never given up on the old time transformer. Many of these designers would go so far as to say you can’t really know what moving-coils can really do without using a step up transformer designed for the perimeters of your moving-coil. The problem is, of course, that any good transformer is expensive to make nowadays. For most of the last 30 years, they have been ignored by most of the audio press until a review appeared recently in Stereophile.

I thought it would be a good thing to review a cartridge made especially for use with a step-up transformer and made by one of the world’s leading builders of moving-coil phono cartridges. For me personally, one of the nicest things about the Benz TR is how well its impedance and output mate with the built-in transformer in my Shindo Masseto preamp. The other wonderful thing about the TR with its tiny windings is how incredible it sounds.

In my review of the Ebony L, I started by saying:

“I need to say that I was only able to hear the Benz Ebony L in my system. My current reference system with the WG Ikonoklast Model 3s is very revealing with very tight and quick bass and mid-bass. The WAVAC EC 300B has the quickest and best bass I have ever heard. The Ikonoklast speakers bring no bass energy of their own into the sound. The two result in the most accurate bass I have heard. In fact the quality and power of the bass is the first thing everybody comments on about the system. I say all this because the Benz cartridges have a reputation for being warm sounding. Personally in my system, I found the tonal balance of the Benz Ebony L very accurate, never overly warm or the least bit fat. I cannot say how it would sound if your system tends to be overly warm already.”

Listening to music is a pure joy with this cartridge. It is quick, nimble, incredibly detailed, and wonderfully relaxed sounding all at the same time. As I have done before in cartridge reviews, the first song I listened to was “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” on Joan Baez’s live album. Immediately, I knew this Benz was more transparent and faster than the L. In fact, if my memory serves me right, it’s as transparent and as fast as the Decca London Reference. I was so pleased that the TR could be so transparent and detailed, yet it retains the beautiful organic sound of the Ebony L.

I commented on how records seemed quieter and the music was more relaxed with the Ebony L than with most cartridges, and this is even more so with the Ebony TR.

The treble extension of the TR is simply beautiful. It is sweet and fast at the same time. Violins sound so much like real violins. Music seems to have just enough shimmer and air to sound natural and not unrealistically detailed. With top-end extension of this quality, it gives you many musical cues that are simply missing by most systems. These same cues allow your system to have a more natural sounding soundstage.

The Ebony TR’s high frequency reproduction sounds very natural. It never sounds bright or overly detailed. The top-end is as close to neutral as I have ever heard from any piece of audio equipment

In the midrange, I’ve always thought of low output moving-coils as the cartridge equivalent to electrostatic speakers, and moving-magnets more like conventional driver speaker systems. If we use this analogy for the midrange, than the Benz Ebony TR is the Quad 57 of cartridges. It’s not just that someone has just cleaned the window; no, it’s more like they removed the window between you and the music altogether. Thus, there no longer seems to be anything but you and the performance. There is such transparency with this setup that almost everyone comments on it. Even though it looks just like the Ebony L, most people still ask when listening; what cartridge is that?

We all know that the midrange is where a system succeeds or fails at having heart. A cartridge that can’t get it right will rob your system from any chance of sounding like music; no matter how fast, detailed, or other audiophile tricks it can play. The cartridge must let the music flow into your system with life for there to be any chance of musical magic. Not only does the TR get the flow of music correctly, it is uncanny how it lets you hear the interplay of the various instruments.

Let me tell you, this is where the TR excels.

Like a really fine SET tube amp, the Benz Ebony TR can breathe life into your system. It makes it easy to follow the music itself. Yes, like the Ebony L and many other cartridges the transients are fast, there is plenty of detail, and so forth and so on, but even more than the Ebony L, the TR is more about the timber and tone of the music. Again like a great SET amp, it also lets you hear deep into the layers of music and the sound becomes very emotionally engaging. The ability or disability to untangle the music on a recording is one of the main things, I believe, that distinguishes a system that can truly sound like live music on rare occasions.

I love how voices sound with this cartridge. It simply is just an incredible cartridge for those who love natural sounding vocals and acoustical instruments. The TR allows recorded music to have a very natural timing and cadence that makes your system a sound that is so very alive sounding. The sound is pure, simple, and lifelike. Thank goodness, just like the Ebony L, the TR is so organic that voices never sound detached from the body, instead you feel like there is a whole person up there singing just for you.

The Ebony L could at time sound a little too polite, but the increased speed, delicacy, and quicker micro-dynamics allows the TR to overcome this slight weakness of the Ebony L. It has great focus, yet like a great SET amp it has focus and is almost totally transparent all at the same time. And, lastly like those great SET amps, it has bloom without compromising speed.

The Bass reproduction of the Ebony TR is really quite exceptional. It may not be the most slam I have ever heard, but I believe it is both neutrally balanced and tonally accurate in the bass. It was very easy to hear the differences between drums. The bass lines really flowed and the bass could get up and boogie as well.

I had been very pleased with the bass of the Ebony L. I had found it to be deep, quick, with plenty of air and decay; but with the TR, I could distinguish more of the tonal differences from one note to the other. I could also hear more air around and within the bass instruments. The bass of the TR goes very deep and produces world class sound.

The soundstage of the Benz Ebony L was first rate, but the TR is quite a bit better. I believe that to be the result of the TR’s incredible top-end that in turn allows us to hear more and better spatial clues. The soundstage is holistic and organic; none of this instruments-and-voices-floating-around-in-space thing. At the same time it allows us (if the rest of the system is up to it) to hear well beyond the boundaries of the speakers with remarkable layering of the instruments and voices on the soundstage. The TR is also exceptional at letting you hear the recorded space of the soundstage. All in all, it has reproduced the most believable soundstage I have heard in my room.

Conclusion

After the Ebony L, I was expecting even better things from the Ebony TR, and it came through way beyond my expectations. The Ebony TR let’s me enjoy the natural sound and tonality of vocals and acoustical instruments in a way I have rarely experienced, except for live music.

My decision to get back into vinyl was based on the fact that there was so much music I wanted that I couldn’t get on CDs, and I couldn’t get respectable sounding versions of some LPs on CDs. It was not a decision based on how many audiophile LPs I could accumulate. So there are some things I’m looking for in a vinyl playback system that are important to me.

First, I want a cartridge that will track right through things, not one that can’t handle a little wear and tear. Second, I want a vinyl playback system that doesn’t emphasize surface noise. Third, I want the vinyl system to sound like vinyl and not like digital, by that I mean alive, full of ambiance, organic, and authentic.

Yes, they are expensive, but the Benz Ebony cartridges do this in a very special way and the TR raises the mark in my book. Like the Ebony L, the TR is pretty much able to track everything I’ve thrown at it. Nothing tracks everything, but I have very seldom heard it mis-track. Let me tell you, the Ebony L was a clear winner for its price point and to my ears the Ebony TR moves the bar in how lifelike a phono cartridge can reproduce recorded music.

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