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.