Transfiguration Phoenix MC Cartridge: Same Name, Different Game

I reviewed the Transfiguration Phoenix for Stereophile five years ago. This is not really the same cartridge though it retains the same name. In 2012 the low output moving coil cartridge was updated to include larger gauge pure silver coil wire wound on the square permalloy core used on the now discontinued top of the line Transfiguration Orpheus. The revised Phoenix also shares the Orpheus's damping system and uses a variant of the Orpheus's yokeless, ring magnet technology. The Phoenix features a powerful neodymium ring in the rear and a samarium cobalt one in front while the older Temper and Orpheus models used but a single ring magnet.

Were I Mr. Transfiguration (Seiji Yoshioka) I probably would call this new edition the Phoenix MkII or the Phoenix Signature or something to distinguish it from the original because while that one was very good, this one is much better and at $4249, it costs considerably more than the original's $2750.

The load impedance has dropped from 7 ohms to 2 ohms, meaning fewer coil turns, yet the output remains at .4mV. The fewer coils, the lighter the mass, the lighter the mass the faster the response, the faster the response, well you get the picture. In fact, if you've downloaded the recent phono preamp comparison files you heard the Transfiguration Phoenix. It's a medium compliance design weighing 7.8 grams and tracks at 2 grams utilizing a relatively short boron cantilever and Ogura PA (3 x 30um) stylus similar to what the Orpheus used.

Because of its low internal impedance it generally liked to see a 100 ohm or less load or it can sound slightly forward. This is not, as the recorded files communicate, a "polite" sounding cartridge but it is one that reveals a great deal of information thanks to the stylus configuration that can really dig out the details and the coil system's light weight and efficiency.

The top end is slightly forward but not overly bright and/or hard. Back in 2009 I wrote "Live cymbals sound like well-recorded ones played through the Phoenix. There’s plenty of ring and chime and when they’re hit hard, they can sizzle and hurt. ORG’s excellent double 180g issue of Diane Krall’s “The Look of Love” sounds just about right through the Phoenix. Krall’s voice projects forward of a line drawn between the speakers in finely focused three dimensional space. Sibilants are sharp, but cleanly rendered and her breathy intonation projects just the right balance of chest and throat."

That's true of the new Phoenix and it's a quality I appreciate. I hate soft cymbals You don't hear them that way live. I also hate hard, bright and spitty ones. You don't hear them that way live either. I also wrote back then "Hit the Phoenix with a lush sounding recording and it will give you lush. Just don’t expect a long-term romantic relationship with it. It won’t give you lush if the recording doesn’t, which is as it should be."

I ran the Phoenix on VPI's 12" 3D arm, the Kuzma 4 Point, the Pro-Ject Xtension10 turntable's 10cc arm and on the most unusual Viv Labs rigid float that has no offset angle and thus no anti-skate mechanism because theoretically it doesn't skate (review coming up). The Phoenix worked well in all of these tonearms.

It's overall tonal balance is among the more neutral you might encounter in a cartridge. It isn't warm sounding, that is for sure, but neither is it tipped up on top, nor does it exhibit grain. It would pair well with a tubed phono preamp but it also worked really well with the Lehmann Black Cube SE II, which is solid state.

The parameters that lets you know it is a premium cartridge are its macro dynamic range, its sense of "direct coupling" to the grooves and its low bass authority and "punch" as well as its staging solidity. The parameters that let you know it's not a "top shelf" cartridge are its less than fully expressed sustain and decay. It is very good in these but not as good as can be had (for a great deal more money).

So, its textural abilities, particularly in the midrange, though very good are not as good as it gets but then your system would have to be at a certain performance level to reveal these qualities. Still as I wrote, if you combine the Phoenix with a phono preamp that itself produces textural delicacy the combination should be extraordinary. If you combine it with a lean, mean and ultra-"fast" phono preamp, it might be too much of a good thing.

The Phoenix's best quality was its timbral neutrality. It is like the blank slate that you can paint on with your associated equipment and that is rare for a transducer. They tend to be the least linear components in the chain. The Phoenix's worst quality was that the cantilever and stylus are hidden under the body so it's out of sight out of mind. You don't want to forget to look and clean often. Actually that's one of it's best qualities too. You're not likely to accidentally break off the cantilever since it's so well protected by the body.

If you're looking for a tonally honest, well balanced, high performing low output moving coil cartridge that will get out of the way and not assert a strong personality, the Transfiguration Phoenix would be a good choice.

If you haven't already done so, go back to the phono preamp story, download a few files and listen to how chameleon-like the Phoenix can be depending upon the choice of phono preamps. That's an indication of how good it is.

Ortofan's picture

Would you please explain how this cartridge has "fewer coils?"

Don't most cartridges have two coils - one for each channel?

Could it be you meant to say that the lower coil impedance/resistance is a function of having fewer turns (of wire) per coil - not fewer coils?

Michael Fremer's picture

But I don't have one. Of course I meant "fewer turns". I will fix.

Devil Doc's picture

But I was a Boy Scout and a Sailor.wink

Paul Boudreau's picture

I realize this is a horribly general question and so probably best answered on a case-by-case basis, plus it's kind of off topic, but I'll ask it anyway:  What do you think is a good budgetary ratio for buying a turntable/arm + cartridge, assuming that the 'table and arm come as a package?  I've previously assumed that it would be something like 80/20 but given your comment that much of the improvement these days is occurring with cartridges (I hope I'm not misrepresenting your views), might it be something closer to 50/50, for example a VPI Traveler and a Grado Reference 1 (both $1500-ish)?  Perhaps that wouldn't work at the highest price range since I imagine that the most-expensive 'table is far more costly than the most-expensive cartridge.

Thanks much. 


Michael Fremer's picture

Since the transducer is likely to contribute most to the final sound, assuming the tonearm in question can properly handle it, I'd put as much as possible into the cartridge just as I would into the speakers assuming the amplifier can do the job.

The Traveler's arm, like those from Rega and some from Pro-Ject, are very capable arms. In fact, you can get a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon and be confident that a cartridge costing  4X as much will be compatible and produce very good results, though I'm not suggesting doing that because you won't get your full money's worth.

I'd say in the low to medium price range, cartridge should cost should be at least equal to the turntable's (assuming properly priced, not overpriced cartridges). I'd put without hesitation an Ortofon Black into a Traveler or lower priced Rega or Pro-Ject—as long as you're willing to properly set SRA. That's more difficult with the Rega of course....

Paul Boudreau's picture

Great info, thanks again.  "Low to medium range" for turntable + arm would be something like $500-$3000, maybe, or perhaps more?