The analogue market might be small, but it’s certainly lively. Along with a rush of new adopters, discovering the joys of vinyl replay (and doubtless the frustrations too), the pool of existing users seems to be thinning out yet also becoming more and more dedicated: just witness the rash of seriously expensive turntables, tonearms, and cartridges hitting the market. But amidst all the fuss and fanfare surrounding new names and ‘new’ ideas, there are still a few established brands, sticking to their principles and offering an oasis of stability amidst the millrace of ingénue offerings – and let’s face it, you don’t get much more stable than Kuzma. When it comes to the implementation of existing ideas (or the development of entirely new ones, like the pivot arrangement on the 4POINT tonearm) the company has an enviable reputation for sound thinking and solid engineering. Their products might not be the first to market, but they’re often nudging shoulders with the best available – and doing it at a fraction of the price.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the new Kuzma CAR cartridge range offers a blend of proven thinking with a few off-beat twists and at a time when five-figure price tags for pick-ups seem almost normal, does so at prices that are distinctly real-world. There are four models in the line, stretching from £1,295 to £5,000, differing in choice of cantilever, coil materials and stylus profile. No, Kuzma hasn’t shifted from its ‘heavy engineering’ technological base into the world of artisan micro-construction; the complete generator assemblies having been developed with and supplied by a third party specialist manufacturer. But there’s no mistaking the source of that machined block body. The spirit of Kuzma is alive and well and wrapped right around the new cartridges.
Back in the day, I remember one august reviewer describing the vdH MC10 as “reminiscent of a WW2 German armoured car.” He clearly hadn’t met the Kuzma cartridges, whose ‘milled from billet’ housings look more like precision built blockhouses than anything actually intended to move. But this is no simple exercise in brute force. The electrical assembly nestles in the milled aluminium cradle that then clamps the generator’s spine hard against the headshell. To ensure the integrity of that connection, the cartridge body offers deep threads so that there is no danger of stripping them, no matter how hard you tighten them. The block footprint allows the provision of three pairs of mounting holes, ensuring that the cartridge will be compatible with almost all tonearms, irrespective of geometrical variation, the length of the slots or the size of the headshell. They also help to reduce the mass a little, although at 17g the Kuzma cartridges are still well into the heavyweight bracket, reflected in their sensibly low, 8-10cu compliance range.
Open the solid slab of wood that encloses your new Kuzma cartridge and you’ll discover the stylus shrouded in machined aluminium, bolted to the underside of the body. Although it ensures that your precious new purchase arrives intact, this is no conventional stylus guard. Instead, the machined grooves in its surface that correspond with the position of the stylus tip allow risk free installation and initial positioning of the cartridge. Once it is in place, the allen bolts securing the cover can be removed, along with the cover itself, allowing you to refine alignment, set arm-height and tracking force. Once removed, the cover doesn’t clip back in place; this is solely a protection for transport and aid to initial installation – and it works a treat, a model of sensible engineering practice. Indeed, when it comes to the physical aspects of the Kuzma cartridge, they are so downright sensible that I have only two comments to make: the connecting pins are slightly undersized, meaning that you might need to nip up any cartridge tags that aren’t spring-loaded, and the bodies are all externally identical, irrespective of model. I know it doesn’t effect performance, but that doesn’t strike me as the smartest marketing decision…
The cartridge under review is the CAR-20, the most affordable model. It offers the tried and trusted combination of an aluminium pipe cantilever, copper coils and a refined elliptical stylus profile. (The 30, 40 and 50 variously offer boron or sapphire cantilevers, copper or silver coils and Microridge styli – at a price.) Output is 0.3mV – reasonable enough to avoid noise issues but low-ish by prevailing standards – while recommended loading is a catch-all >100 Ohms. Given the substantial mass of the cartridge and its low compliance, medium to heavy tonearms will be the order of the day, the CAR models being particularly suited to the 10.5” and 12” designs offered by – you guessed it – Kuzma. Installation is a breeze, not just because of the sensible cover, but also because the pared away underside of the body and short nose mean that you can get a really good view of the cantilever. I installed the CAR-20 in the JMW 12.7 tonearm on my VPI Classic 4, using the IsoDIN curve and the Counter Intuitive counterweight accessory to set tracking force and azimuth – a blessing as the Kuzma really responds to tiny adjustments in VTF.
So how does it sound? In a word, like a Kuzma. It’s big, bold, solid and surprisingly quick on its feet. Given the elliptical stylus profile, aluminium cantilever and modest output, you’d maybe expect a cartridge that lacked a little air and immediacy, with a subtle softness and a loss of definition. Well, you’d be partly right. The CAR-20 isn’t the most transparent, incisive or detailed cartridge you’ll hear (or that you can buy at this price). It definitely lacks a bit of air. But that’s where the predictability ends. There’s nothing soft or vague about this Kuzma cartridge and that 0.3mV output is actively misleading – at least in sonic and musical terms. Having got used to cartridges with around twice that output level I was anticipating noise issues with the Kuzma, but nothing could have been further from the reality. Whether it’s the integrity of the body and mounting arrangements or whether the figures are simply conservative, the CAR-20 sounds like a cartridge with a far healthier output than claimed. As already stated, it is big, bold and solid sounding, but those qualities are underpinned by emphatic dynamics that deliver a real sense of presence. It’s also warm, without being cloying, sets up a compact but incredibly stable stage and is blessedly forgiving of surface noise.
Roll those qualities together and you’ve got a cartridge that’s appealingly musical on a wide range of material. You’ve also got a cartridge that just loves good female vocals, bringing warmth and presence to voices that some systems leave sounding pared away and insubstantial. The result is singing that hits home, whether it’s Shawn Colvin or Rickie Lee Jones. Indeed, ‘Last Chance Texaco’ serves to reveal the CAR-20’s other great strength; it’s control of bottom-end weight, shape, pace and timing. It gets the rhythmic accents that drive this track just right, delivering them precisely and with a real sense of solid power. Suzanne Vega’s Close Up, Vol 2 [Amanuensis] is another case in point. The largely acoustic instruments are given shape, substance, and impressive dynamic range. Vega’s voice sounds smooth and full of body, natural expression, and inflection, making these songs even more intimate and personal.
This combination of natural warmth and rhythmic articulation, dynamic impetus, and physical presence is strangely familiar. It’s almost like listening to a Linn Asak (or perhaps the more refined and slightly less boisterous Asak T), with its uncanny ability to sort out bass lines and notes, bringing clarity of purpose and clarity of pitch to the music’s nether regions. The result is a bottom end that really backs up the performance, but does it without pushing too hard. Play familiar tracks and you suddenly start to appreciate the shape and coiled power behind the bass parts, the sheer impetus, or calming restraint they can impart. Whether we’re talking about a Fender Precision or an octet of uprights, the number and identity of bass instruments is more obvious, the individual contributions much easier to hear. The CAR-20 never makes the music hurry. Instead it allows it all the time in the world (and all the power it might want). You need pace and drive? You’ve got it – just not all the time and not where it has no business being.
This Kuzma cartridge, like so many of the company’s products, bucks the trend and does so to serious advantage. With so many modern transducers leaning towards ever-greater detail and transparency at the expense of musical substance, the CAR-20’s back to basics approach is both refreshing and musically satisfying. It fastens on what’s important – pitch and pace – and builds from there, presenting the musical performance with the firmest of possible foundations. There’s an almost sinuous fluidity and grace to the Kuzma’s presentation, which combines beautifully with its quiet background and lack of grain, its warmth and sweet upper-midrange to make your records inviting and positively engaging. Voices undoubtedly sing, but what makes them so impressively natural also works its magic on other types of music, bringing scale and substance to larger classical works, intimacy to small group jazz, and attitude to guitar-based rock. Its ability to dig beneath the surface detail and preserve the music’s inner structure make this a cartridge that will deliver long-term satisfaction to long-term listeners. That inner confidence and musical authority makes the Kuzma CAR-20 both one of a kind and an important addition to the market. It’s unique balance of virtues means that for many listeners (and in many systems) once heard, nothing else at the price is going to come close.
- Type: Low-output moving-coil cartridge
- Stylus Profile: Synthetic elliptical
- Cantilever: Aluminium pipe
- Output: 0.3mV (3.54cm/second)
- Compliance: 8cu
- Cartridge Mass: 17g
- Recommended VTF: 2.0g
- Price: £1,295
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