Turntables

Fantastic Value From Clearaudio:

full tabelIf you pose the question, “What turntable should I buy for $1,500?” on an internet forum, have your hazmat suit on and be prepared to be bombarded with insults and advice.

You’ll get suggestions from all over the audio spectrum; new, used, and modded this or that. Of course, everyone knows what’s best for you and God forbid that you question any of the self-proclaimed experts should you choose not to take their advice.

All spirited debate aside, two of the top choices seem to be the Rega P5 and the VPI Scout. While I must admit my bias goes more towards the Rega than the Scout , I’ve even tried the highly modded Technics SL-1200 with good results and currently have a vintage Denon direct-drive table sitting on top of one of my equipment racks that’s spinning records rather nicely, so I’d like to think I’m not too closed minded.

However, the $1,500 price point is probably the hottest part of the turntable spectrum, because it represents a healthy jump up from a strictly budget turntable; by the time you add a decent phono cartridge in the $500 – $1,500 range and a similarly priced phono preamplifier, you’ve invested a substantial amount of change to support your vinyl habit. But you will get a huge jump in performance from the budget LP spinners as well. For many, this is the sweet spot where many will stay and for good reason.

I submit a new guest to the party – the Clearaudio Concept. Priced at $1,400 without cartridge, the Concept brings a lot of Clearaudio’s engineering excellence to the table at a price that most audiophiles can afford. To sweeten the pot, Clearaudio dealers are offering a package price when you purchase the table with the Concept MM cartridge for an additional $100, or step up to the Concept MC for $2,000. These are the only two cartridges that ship from the factory preinstalled, however your friendly neighborhood Clearaudio dealer is offering a 20% discount on any Clearaudio cartridge purchased with the table.

As the Clearaudio Maestro Wood MM cartridge was already in my reference fleet of cartridges, it made perfect sense to investigate here rather than with the bottom of Clearaudio’s cartridge range. For those unfamiliar, the Maestro Wood is Clearaudio’s top moving magnet cartridge that has an MSRP of $1,000. Definitely at the top of the price range for an MM cartridge, but remember, you won’t need to have a Moving Coil preamplifier or other step-up device, so the Maestro is indeed a bargain.

Speed is easily switched between 33, 45 and 78 r.p.m. with the selector switch on the left side of the table. While you will probably want a different cartridge to accommodate your 78 collection, the Concept could easily be pressed into service as a “78 only” table at minimal cost, if you have a large collection. Definitely another plus.

Top shelf construction

The Concept is a belt drive table, featuring a DC motor that is powered by a wall wart power supply. The platter is made of the same “POM” material that is used on their Innovation tables, albeit not as thick as the Innovation platter. The tonearm looks stunningly familiar to the Schroeder arms that also use a magnetic bearing in the place of a traditional bearing. This is the debut for a new series of magnetic bearing tonearms that will begin to be featured on some of their other turntables in 2011. If this is the entry level model, I can’t wait to listen to the models further up the range.

cartIf you buy the Concept with one of the cartridge options, it will arrive with the cartridge installed and optimized at the factory, so all you will need to do is install the counterweight and set the tracking force. Be sure to hold the tonearm with one hand while installing the threaded counterweight, as it fits very snugly and could damage the arm otherwise.

The factory VTA and anti-skate settings worked perfectly for the Maestro, and setting tracking force was a snap with the Clearaudio Weight Watcher scale. A quick check of the speed with Clearaudio’s Speed Light confirmed that everything was perfect. This is another table, like the Rega’s that will have you spinning records in about 10 minutes.

The sound

The Concept has a very neutral overall sound, with a weight and openness that I’ve yet to experience at this price point. I’ve used the Maestro Wood on a number of different tables at various price points and it is one of my favorite MM carts, offering a high level of detail and punch, without being harsh.

Listening to Madeleine Peyroux’ latest release, Bare Bones on MoFi, you’ll notice that this record, like her others have somewhat of a loose, natural, whumpy, almost underdamped sound in the lower registers. Where the Scout tends to overdamp the bass and the P3 doesn’t have quite as much bass there, the Concept comes through with enough weight to reproduce this accurately. I was as impressed with the quantity as well as the quality and definition of bass that this table was able to extract from the grooves.

It’s rare that a table at this price point has enough low-level detail to really define the hall characteristics of the recording, but again the Concept passed with flying colors. Extended listening to Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall on Classic Records, or Cream’s 2005 Royal Albert Hall performance opened up a level of three-dimensional sound that I didn’t expect.

Close up 2During a moment of temporary madness, the Maestro was swapped out for Clearaudio’s $5,500 DaVinci MC cartridge, a master of detail retrieval. Granted, the small but mighty Concept did not offer as big a presentation as it did when mounted to the Clearaudio Innovation we reviewed a while back, but it wasn’t bad. If you are a real vinyl fanatic, I don’t think this table would be out of it’s league with your favorite cartridge in the $1,000 – $2,000 range if you care to take it that far, so this is definitely a component you won’t easily outgrow.

Extra credit

For those of you in the audience that can’t resist the urge to tweak your gear, here’s an easy upgrade for the Concept, take it off the grid! After the first peek at that inexpensive wall wart, I suspected that there was room for improvement with this table. A quick trip to Radio Shack confirmed my findings; making a custom cable for my Red Wine Audio Black Lightning power supply and running the Concept on pure DC made a marked upgrade to the sound.

Not quite convinced to drop another $700? Grab a pair of MN-918 6V lantern batteries from Batteries Plus (http://tinyurl.com/2a6tncx) and wire them in series for 12VDC. The middle post of the plug going to the table should be positive, which you can easily verify with a voltmeter. If you don’t have a voltmeter, you’ll know it’s wrong if the table spins backwards, so don’t put a stylus down on the record until you confirm the direction.

The first track played for comparison was “Day Dream” from Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi. Immediately after switching from AC to battery, the music comes alive with more texture and low-level resolution. Toussaint’s’ piano went from being constrained inside the space of the speakers to being about two feet beyond the speaker boundaries, with the other instruments having a better delineated space. I had similar luck with solo vocals and any other recordings having a lot of low level, airy passages. If you find yourself wanting to take the Concept to 11, this is an easy, no fuss upgrade. While you’re at it, pick up Clearaudio’s Concept clamp; this too wrings a bit more performance out of the table, especially with slightly warped records and is only an additional $100.

Conclusion

Whether you power the Clearaudio Concept with the standard issue power supply or take it a step forward with pure DC power, I feel this table is the new benchmark in its price class. It combines simple setup with stunning good looks and performance to match. We are happy to award the Clearaudio Concept one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2010.

ExValue Award09
Manufacturer’s Information

www.clearaudio.de
www.musicalsurroundings.com (US distribution)

Peripherals

Preamplifier: McIntosh C500
Power Amplifier: McIntosh MC1.2kw monoblocks
Speakers: B&W 805D with JLAudio Gotham subwoofer
Cable: Cardas Clear

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