The Technics SL-1200G Turntable

The older we get, the more difficult it is to remember some of life’s firsts.

Once, while chatting with Jerry Seinfeld about his Porsche collection, a big smile came across his face recalling his first 911; a red, early 80s Carrera, and how hard he had to work to get that car. “You never forget stretching for the first one.”

So it goes for me with turntables. A full summer of chores put enough money in my wallet to walk into Pacific Stereo and plunk a shiny new Technics SL-1200 (with Stanton 681EEE cartridge) into the hatch of my Gremlin back in 1976. Ok, I’m not as famous as Mr. S, but I kinda know how he felt. Rushing home at a hurried pace, a quick set up with the enclosed alignment tool, and Frampton Comes Alive was blasting out of my JBL L-100s. I had never even heard the term VTA and my wallet was empty, but I was really, really, happy.

A little more than 40 years later, weaving through Portland’s rush hour traffic, trying to get to FedEx before they close, I feel the same sense of excitement on the way to pick up today’s SL-1200G. Last year, Technics released a limited quantity of the classic table, model SL-1200GAE. They sold out almost instantly, with a retail price of about $4,000. Yeah, that’s a lot more than I paid for mine, but all things considered, $400 back in 1976 is about $2,300 in todays money. So, is the new 1200, $1,700 better than the old one?  We’re about to find out.

Fortunately, between staff member Jerold O’Brien and I, we pretty much keep everything, or we know how to get our hands on it. Mr. O’Brien just happened to have a 1200 lying about from 1980, so that’s close enough. To make this even more interesting, I still have a 1200 mk.II that’s had some modifications courtesy of Sean Casey at Zu Audio, as well as a TimeStep power supply from Sound HiFI in the UK. (you can read that article here), so there will be none of that “well, I can’t really remember what a 1200 sounded like, but blah, blah, blah.” that you hear from the other so called experts. It’s 1200 fest at TONEAudio. We do our homework.

Attention to detail

Seinfeld is fond of mentioning what he calls “density of thought.” Comparing the 1200 mk.II to the current 1200G is much like comparing an 80s Carerra to a current 911. Most of the visual cues you know are still there, right down to that same cartridge alignment tool, but everything is finished to a much higher standard.

Those that like to geek out the older 1200s usually concentrate on a couple of areas first; dampening the platter and the chassis; the former being tougher than the latter, because of balance issues. Along with a greatly improved direct drive mechanism, Technics addresses both of these issues with the 1200G. The new platter is fully balanced, filled with a layer of deadening rubber and has a brass top layer to the platter. Popping the platter from the original 1200 mk.II on the current table quickly reveals the progress made. Images fully rendered on the 1200G shrink dramatically and a level of low level image focus and quality disappears. The delta is like going from a pair of Nordost Odin cables to a pair of Radio Shack interconnects.

The original 1200 benefited tremendously from having the tonearm rewired with premium wire, but thanks to a pair of RCA jacks underneath the table, a-la VPI, swapping the fifty cent interconnect for a pair of Cardas Clear interconnects brought the sound of the 1200G to the head of the class. Last but not least, for the perfectionists in the crowd (and I know you’re out there) replace the standard issue head shell and associated wire. In this case, a wooden Ortofon LH-8000 fills the bill nicely.

While the new G model’s tonearm looks remarkably similar to the one fitted to the original 1200, the bearings and counterweight are machined to a much tighter tolerance, and where the original arm was made from aluminum, the magnesium arm from the limited edition SL-1200 GAE is retained here. Even the dampening feet are greatly improved over the original model.

Just like any other high performance machine, the SL-1200G benefits from numerous small improvements that you can’t see. Better bearings along with refined motor and drive control circuitry all add up to more music revealed.

Anticipation

Considering all the fun I had taking the photos of this table, I kept wondering how it would sound on initial power up. In a word, dark. However, this is not the table’s fault. After the folks at Technics delivered a huge bag of cash to my doorstep via Fed Ex it sounded much better. Just kidding.

However, in all seriousness, setting up the SL-1200G with the tools in the box and a modest cartridge will not get you to audio heaven, but this would be like assembling a 911 engine with a pliers, and an adjustable wrench. That project would go equally poorly. Though the new 1200G looks a lot like it’s distant relative, all the verbiage in the manual is true; this table is a much more precise instrument.

Get your hands on some decent setup tools – now. A precise protractor like the Feickert or the Acoustical Systems SMARTractor, a good test record and a digital stylus force gauge. If you are a master of the Feickert setup software, that won’t hurt either. 30-60 minutes spent fine tuning the new 1200 will pay a world of dividends. Lastly, throw out the stock power cord and fit something a little better while you’re at it just for good measure.

I can’t fault Technics for any of this; they did their homework and built a solid deck. In their defense, the last $5,500 tonearm I purchased from SME resulted in throwing the packaged tonearm cable in the circular file, to be replaced with a $1,200 cable from Furutech. The good news is that you can at least get the 1200G up and running with the tools and cables included; but properly set up, it’s a sweetheart of a table.

Nothing but fun

The SL-1200G is so easy to use, it’s made vinyl playback a blast. Thanks to the three inputs on the Pass Labs XS Phono, and a set of three Rega Elys 2 cartridges, comparing the three variations on the SL-1200 theme is not only a breeze, but enlightening. Queuing up three copies of MoFi’s self-titled Santana (only a few pressing numbers apart, to keep it all as close to identical as possible) quickly shows the progress the Technics engineers have made.

Immediately the new table’s massive stereo image makes itself known. The mk.2 creates a somewhat small sonic landscape that is limited to the space between the speakers; it feels more like VHS. Where the gentle piano at the beginning of “Treat” feels small and uninvolving on the mk.2, moving up to the 1200G brings it alive, the piano now sounding much bigger and livelier. As the guitar is folded in, a similar effect is displayed and even the non-audiophiles in my impromptu listening sessions stood up and took notice.

All three tables exhibit great speed accuracy, but again the new model (and the TimeStep modded version) offer a much lower noise floor, resulting in a greater dynamic range. When tracking through a new, 45 r.p.m. copy of Kruder and Dorfmeister’s The K&D Sessions, the new table shines, with incredible bass weight that the other two can’t match.

Finally where I would never have mounted a premium cartridge to the original 1200, because of its general lack of resolution, this is now a welcome addition to the current model. Upgrading the standard issue Technics head shell with something from Ortofon or another specialty manufacturer, and some better head shell wires (in this case, a set of silver ones from Furutech) takes it all to the next level.

Switching from the $300 Rega MM cartridge to the $6,000 Transfiguration Proteus cartridge brought about quite the “ah-ha” moment, and convinces me that this is a world class table in the $4,000 price category. The Technics SL-1200G has the ability to resolve the difference between cartridges with ease, and thanks to the easily removable head shells, this was not a terribly difficult task. Even if you don’t invest in a $6,000 cartridge for your new 1200G, know it is up to the task.

Should you be of the “get a great table first, add the mega cartridge later” mindset, one budget cartridge that delivers astounding sonics with the 1200G is the $379 Denon DL-103r. It won’t offer the last bit of fine detail that the four figure cartridges will, but it’s level of sheer musicality and bass weight should keep your ears perked up.

I’ve never been a DJ, but…

I do have more than one turntable, and I can’t resist a good 45 r.p.m. maxi single. The well recorded ones offer up a level of dynamics that is usually a cut above a standard album. Radiohead’s “High and Dry” proved a perfect place to start. A mere push of the button is all it takes to get to 45 right now, and it goes without saying, the speed accuracy of the new 1200G is perfect – the red strobe now replaced by a rich blue.

As you might suspect, the rock-solid speed accuracy provided by direct drive makes not only for explosive transients, but sturdy bass response. Zipping through a handful of Prince 45s delivers a special quality, weight and texture to the lower register that I haven’t experienced with tables at this price before.

Yet the 1200Gs sole attribute is not solid bass response as the early mk.2 was. Where the original still provides a rock solid musical foundation, it’s not an audiophile turntable in stock form. The current G model adds the nuance that you’d expect from a great belt drive table. While the 1200G doesn’t have the level of finesse that my reference Brinkmann Bardo possesses, it grooves in that direction.

Switching the program material to solo piano underlines the 1200Gs solidity. It’s like taking the speed stability of a great digital recording and adding the tonal saturation of analog. It’s a compelling combination.

Lastly, I just couldn’t resist the urge to do a little bit of scratching, so the Ortofon CC Scratch came off the shelf and after resetting tracking and anti-skate (Ortofon suggests a 2-gram anti skate setting and 4-gram tracking force “because of the abnormal behavior of the tonearm when backcuing.” Try that on a $100,000 turntable.

Across the board great

As with a great sports car, much is to be said for balance. Those rare cars with an equal amount of stop, go, handling and feel are often much more fun on a curvy road than a high horsepower car that is a monster beyond your capabilities. The Technics SL-1200G is like the new generation Miata. It offers up such a balanced amount of analog performance, that you’ll never notice you aren’t listening to a $30,000 turntable.

If you haven’t considered a direct drive turntable for audiophile duty, I can’t suggest the Technics SL-1200G highly enough. I’m happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2017 and not only have I purchased the review sample, I’m thinking of a second one, just because. -Jeff Dorgay

The Technics SL-1200G

MSRP: $4,000

www.technics.com

Peripherals

Phonostage                Pass XS Phono, Audio Research REF Phono 3

Cartridges                  Rega Elys2, Ortofon Scratch, Denon DL-103r, Sumiko Blackbird, Grado Reference 1, Transfiguration Proteus

Preamplifier              Pass XS Pre

Power Amplifier        Pass XS 300 monoblocks

Cable                          Tellurium Q Silver Diamond and Cardas Clear

The Brinkmann Audio Bardo Turntable

Closing the door on a Porsche 911, clicking the shutter on a titanium bodied Leica camera, that’s German engineering excellence, baby!

If you love that level of precision to go along with whatever high-performance product that suits your fancy, you’ll freak out just watching the 10.0 tonearm on the new Bardo lower ever so gently onto a waiting LP. This is such a precise, delicate action, the stylus cantilever on the Koetsu Onyx Platinum barely deflects at all. Those of you wanting to install a mega cartridge on your Bardo can rest assured it is up to the task.

As Adrian Belew’s trippy, reverse tracked, overdubbed vocals in “Big Electric Cat” go all the way from the edges of my speakers, out about seven more feet to the walls of my listening room, with detail galore, it’s easy to fall in love with this table. The Koetsu Onyx Platinum cartridge that costs as much as the Bardo puts forth a more engaging performance than it has here in any of my other reference turntables. Here, here for synergy. During the review period, everything from a Shure M97 to the Koetsu has been taken for a test drive, but the Japanese masterpiece wins the day. Everything on hand works exceptionally well with the Bardo. However, this table is fully up to the task of a $10k premium cartridge. It’s that good.

Living with Brinkmann’s direct drive Bardo for the last few months has been nothing but joy. This table is incredibly easy to set up, stays set up and is equally easy to use. With direct drive coming back in vogue these days, there are a few other DD tables on the market, but they are both considerably more expensive than the Bardo. Thanks to a change in their distribution scheme, and a Brinkmann USA office in place, the German manufacturer is now able to be much more price competitive, and that’s a great thing for analog lovers. The Bardo table/10.0 arm was still a fantastic deal at $13,500, but at $9,900, this is a straight out bargain for those wanting a world class, destination analog deck.

Should you want the benefits of Brinkmann’s direct drive expertise, but already have your favorite tonearm on hand, Brinkmann can supply whatever arm board you need. Ordering a Bardo sans tonearm will only set you back $7,000. Considering what a great job they do with their tonearm, which Helmut Brinkmann refers to as a hybrid unipivot design (and you can read more here http://www.brinkmann-audio.com/main.php?prod=tonarm100&lang=en) both mechanically and visually, it seems pointless to use another arm. But you can if you want to. To clarify the “hybrid” moniker, Helmut Brinkmann tells us that “his proprietary design uses Swiss-made gimbal bearings in the vertical plane and a bespoke unipivot in the horizontal.”

Multiple connectivity options make this beautiful table even easier to integrate into your system. Our review sample arrives with standard RCA connections going from table to phono preamplifier, but you can also opt for balanced XLR connections (this will take a little longer for delivery, as the RCA’s are standard issue), or a 5-pin DIN socket. Modifying an existing Brinkmann arm to a Din connector will set you back an additional $180. Handy if you already have a premium tonearm cable in your arsenal.

A further performance upgrade is available with the optional RoNt vacuum tube power supply ($4,190) for those wanting still more performance. A few Brinkmann owners have commented that this is not a subtle improvement, so look forward to a follow-up review sometime next year.

More music

The easier a turntable is to use, the more likely it is to get used. The Bardo takes up a small footprint and being a non-suspended table, you may want to install one of the better isolation bases, like the ones from SRA; it all depends on your room and taste. My floor is relatively inert and thanks to an SRA Scuttle rack, I felt no need to improve on the Bardo’s placement in my room.

Going way back to the obscure bin, an old favorite, Tim Curry’s Fearless is an album full of slick late 70s production, with some of rock’s favorite sidemen backing up Dr. Frank-n-Furter in his alternate career as a serious musician. The bass line in this record has always sounded somewhat vague, yet when portrayed by the Bardo, it’s rock solid. Actually, everything played on the Bardo has an uncanny sense of pace to it. The nearly $40k AVID Acutus REF SP and SME V has a little more weight in the lows and delicacy in the highs, but the Bardo is unbeatable at its price point.

Direct drive is not a dirty phrase

It goes without saying that a lot of the resolution the Bardo offers comes from meticulous build quality and attention to detail. Much of the major pace and timing accuracy this table delivers comes from the direct drive system. Utilizing Feickert’s iPhone app to check speed accuracy reveals most belt drive turntables to be relatively close to spinning at 33.33 r.p.m., but there is a fair amount of variation on the theme.

Watching the real-time speed graph for the Bardo, it’s near flat across the board. The phrase “rock solid” definitely applies here. Because Brinkmann implements direct drive the opposite way that the legendary Technics tables did, the result is much more to the liking of a modern audiophile.

Technics DD tables, initially designed for the broadcast world, used a high torque motor, hammered into speed accuracy by a quartz lock control mechanism, resulting a lot of motor “cogging.” This is what happens in the small spaces in the 360-degree rotation of the motor that don’t always have power applied. Unfortunately, this aggressive speed control did exactly the opposite of what was intended. Pulling out my SL-1200, with the excellent TimeStep power supply and a stock SL-1200, tracks played on the Brinkmann get progressively flatter in terms of three dimensionality, going back to the TimeStep equipped 1200 and then a stock one. It’s easy to see how the early direct drive tables got pooh-poohed, and I can see how easy it was to be seduced by the Oracle back in the early 80s.

Mr. Brinkman’s low torque approach, coupled to a heavy platter and world class bearing makes for smooth sailing. It takes about 8-10 rotations to get up to full speed, which is about the amount of time that it takes for the tonearm to set, and once you shut the power off, it rotates for a long time before coming to full stop. Brinkmann’s research led him to the current lead crystal platter insert in the aluminum platter, making for a major increase in resolution over one strictly machined from aluminum. Brinkmann spends a tremendous amount of time on materials research alone, and on his website, he claims this goes all the way down to the fasteners used to hold things together! The proof is in the listening; this is a very refined design.

Controlled ease

The presentation of the Bardo is indeed unique. Record after record has an ease and freedom from fatigue, again because of the excellent speed accuracy this table offers. Friends with canine hearing claiming perfect pitch that can hear a plethora of speed issues on every table I’ve ever reviewed were not only dead silent listening to the Bardo but they were also outright complimentary. Violins take on a magical realism with this table because of that speed accuracy.

You’ll probably key in immediately to how great your rock records sound, should you be a fan of this genre. The Bardo does a great job in the bass performance, but if you live on a strict diet of Zeppelin, you might not notice the subtleties of this table quite as much as the classical listener preferring soloists and small ensemble music. Sampling this fair gives the Bardo a near reel to reel tape like transparency.

Our choice for Analog POY

Here’s why the Brinkmann Bardo is our choice for 2016 Analog Product of the Year; it offers tremendous value, build quality, sound quality and ease of use. I’ve listened to my fair share of $100,000 plus turntables and have always walked away unimpressed. You can buy a pretty major hi-fi system for $100k, and I suggest if you take that path, you put the Bardo on top of your rack. Seriously, other than a few audio reviewers and a couple of hedge fund managers that got a screaming deal, who owns a $100,000 turntable anyway?

Wacky as it might sound, the $10,000 – $20,000 category is the hottest category for “destination” turntables. There are a handful of great tables costing 2-3 times this much (like the SME 30, the AVID Acutus REF SP and a few others), and they do reveal more music for sure. But again, the Brinkmann Bardo presents so much music, especially with your choice of awesome $5,000 – $10,000 cartridge, I’ll stick my neck out and say that most of us could live happily ever after right here.

If you’re currently using a table in the $3,000 – $5,000 category, you will be floored at just how much more musical information and nuance that the Bardo can shed light on, that if you have the purchasing power, this won’t be a difficult decision.

I’ve purchased the review sample and plan on spinning a lot more records on the Bardo. It’s simple, elegant, yet high-performance design has captured my enthusiasm. Should you be planning on buying a table in this price range, I not only recommend the Bardo, I sincerely hope you will audition one, and see if you enjoy it as much as I do.

The Brinkmann Bardo Turntable

MSRP:  $9,900 with Brinkmann 10.1 tonearm ($260 savings, purchasing the bundle)

http://brinkmann-audio.com

Peripherals

Phono Cartridge                    Koetsu Onyx Platinum, Ortofon Cadenza Black

Phonostage                            Pass XS Phono

Preamp                                  Pass XS Pre

Power Amps                          Pass XS 300 monoblocks

Speakers                                GamuT RS5i, MartinLogan Neolith, Quad 2812

Cable                                      Tellurium Q Black Diamond speaker and interconnect,

Power cords                           Cardas Clear

The Pear Audio Kid Howard Turntable

The home page of the Pear Audio Analogue website says that they are “turntables with pedigree.” If you’re relatively new to the vinyl game, it’s possible that you haven’t heard about the Nottingham or Well Tempered turntables, but the man behind Pear, Peter Mezek had a profound involvement with both of these legendary tables. So the tagline is very accurate.

These tables are hand built by Mezek in his factory in Slovenia, so these are as close to bespoke as it gets. The Kid Howard is as manual as it gets too; there is no power switch and because of the very low torque motor involved, KH needs a little push to get moving in the morning. But then again, so do I, so I won’t be too hard on this little turntable that can. This no-frills approach sets you back $4,995 with the Cornet 2 tonearm, which is a derivative of the Nottingham Ace arm, no slouch to be sure.

In the days of manufacturers applying Formula 1 machining techniques to their aesthetic design, as well as the goings-on under the hood, the Kid Howard looks somewhat primitive, mechanically at first glance. The olive green wooden plinth almost looks like it is hand carved and stained. I’ll warn you now the proof is in the listening with this table.

There are a great many ways to design a turntable, but the ultimate goal is to spin the platter at as perfectly close to 33.33 r.p.m., and isolate the record on that platter from any vibration either from the drive system and the surrounding environment. In essence, the stylus is merely tracking that delicate groove perfectly, unaffected by anything else.

Of course, everyone claims their way is the best, with some even insisting that the others have it all wrong. Mezek prefers to use a drive belt to isolate a motor with extremely low torque minimizing the vibration transmitted to that delicate stylus assembly. Pear’s approach results in a lower noise floor and a larger sound field.

Do turntables have a sound?

Just like so many love to argue about the “sound” of an amplifier, DAC or any other component. The choices that every designer makes positively effect the overall sound of a turntable, or perhaps more accurately, the way the turntable’s platter and motor (or suspension if applicable) interact with everything else in the record playing system to have a sonic signature. The KH definitely has a somewhat warm, relaxed feel. On many levels it reminds me of a mid to late 80s Linn LP-12, and that’s not a bad thing by any means.

This table does not require the constant fiddling that my Linn always seemed to need. The KH has more sheer bass drive than that LP-12 did. A quick phone call to staffer Jerold O’Brien brings that LP-12 back, amidst curses that “it will take a week to get this damn thing sounding the way it did.”  The KH’s unipivot tonearm is enclosed, so it won’t pop off in your hands the way a VPI arm wand does, but if you are used to more traditional tonearms, you will need to get used to the slightly floppy nature of this arm. Some may snark about the lack of a finger lift, but none of my SME arms use one either, so this was not a point of contention. SME’s founder, the late ARA, claimed that the purist approach to the tonearm did not require one, so that’s good enough for me.

The bass line throughout the tunes on the ORG pressing of Joni Mitchell’s Wild Things Run Fast have more presence, more palpability and detail than on the LP-12, and certainly more than a few other things I have lying around. I found joy with every cartridge mated to the KH. At the suggestion of Michael Vamos, the Pear importer (and the incredible GamuT speakers) I began the review with the Ortofon Cadenza black MC cartridge, one posessing a sound that we are both familiar with. Comparing this to the sound of my Feickert Blackbird, where this cartridge usually resides and could immediately hear a bit less of the more neutral, almost clinical sound that this cartridge, for better or worse can exhibit.

Swapping to one of the more reasonably priced ZYX cartridges, the Fuji-R100 was the winning combination for me. Again, remember, I like things just a few molecules on the warm side and will always happily throw the last few bits of detail and resolution for pace, ease and musicality.

Regardless of program material, everyone that listened to the KH only took about five minutes to arrive at the same comment. This table has a powerful lower register, almost like my Thorens TD-124 possesses and that’s wildly ironic when you consider that the drive motor has virtually no torque. See why it’s not a good idea to jump to conclusions? The KH’s speed stability is directly related to the 17-pound aluminum platter. Remember physics 101: bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, and that’s certainly the case here. Oddly, as you install said platter, there is a big brown thing that resembles a grounding strap, providing a slight drag on it. Pear claims that this further stabilizes rotational accuracy, offering the slightest bit of tension on the platter-to-motor interface.

Reveling in minutiae

For all of its other virtues, the KH excels at retrieving fine details and spatial cues. Rather than bore you with countless examples, suffice to say this one will surprise you as you wade through your favorite tracks. I always try to suggest evaluating any new piece of gear with three distinct categories of recordings: records you are intimately familiar with, fantastic recordings and dreadful recordings.

The KH is outstanding in all three categories. Time worn musical favorites reveal fine inner detail that I’d never expect a table at this price to expose. The sound field rendered is big, big, big; extending well beyond the speaker boundaries, all the way out to the side walls in the room. Audiophile darlings with tons of detail do not disappoint either. That big platter is a big help when listening to solo piano or violin; both of these highly sophisticated instruments are reproduced without waver, retaining the necessary amount of weight to sound highly convincing. Lastly, the crappiest recordings in my collection come across with a vigor that I wasn’t expecting. Often this can be the most telltale sign of a table’s performance.

While this turntable can be dissected in many ways, it offers a sheer level of enjoyment that is tough to adequately describe. After about 10 minutes of listening, you’ll get it. The Kid Howard grows on you quickly. Yes, there are turntables that resolve more detail, etc. etc., but this table is a sheer musical pleasure. As I mentioned in issue 78, regarding Enjoyment Per Hour, this is one of my favorite turntables at any price.

The Pear Kid Howard ticks all the boxes, and at a much lower price than I’d expect. $5,000 is still a lot of money to spend for most people, but if you are thinking of spending this much on a table, the KH would be at the top of my list, and I doubt that you’d get more performance for the money.

Generally, this paragraph would make the KH a shoe in for an Exceptional Value Award, but it’s that time of the year again. I reserve the small handful of Publishers Choice Awards for the components that are my absolute favorites of the year, and the Kid Howard is not only on my list for the year, but it’s also on my favorite tables of all time list. However, we don’t give awards for that. Maybe we should. This is a music lovers turntable.

Pear Audio Kid Howard Turntable

MSRP: $4,995 with Cornet 2 tonearm

www.audioskies.com (NA Distributor)

Peripherals

Preamplifier            Conrad Johnson GAT series 2

Phonostage            Conrad Johnson TEA-1 series 2

Amplifier            Conrad Johnson LP125sa+, Pass Labs Xs300 monos

Speakers            GamuT RS5i

Cable                Cardas Clear

VPI Classic Two Turntable

Back in Issue 46, I was enamored enough with VPI’s Classic One turntable to give it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2012.  Even more, I purchased the review sample to make it a permanent reference, and after two years, the Classic One is my go to table, when I just want to hang out and listen to records without fuss. I enjoy it so much; it’s the only table in my home system.

Due to increases in raw materials cost, VPI has had to raise the price of the Classic One from $2,695 to $2,995, yet it remains a stunning value – offering build quality and sheer musicality that has few, if any peers at it’s price.  After two years of daily listening, the Classic One, and now the Classic Two feel more like a “greatest hits of analog” product, combining the virtues of a couple of my favorite turntables into one easy to use and easy to set up package. The sheer weight of its presentation reminds me of an idler wheel Garrard or a Thorens TD-124, without the rumble and noise issues. The Classic 2s overall warmth is highly reminiscent of a mid 80s LP-12, without a heavy dose of OCD to keep it running.

The Classic Two’s overall aesthetic is no nonsense. With a simple, basic black plinth surrounded by either a black oak or walnut frame, and perched upon miniature versions of their HRX turntable’s feet, it is devoid of accouterments. The Classic Two eliminates all pretense and gets down to business playing records, with every penny invested in design and build quality. This is a table you will be able to leave your kids without worry.

Inside the box is everything you need to get your Classic Two up and playing records right now. A classic Shure balance beam tracking force gauge and cartridge alignment protractor saves time and money, not to mention gets you about 95% of the way to perfect performance. For most, the enclosed tools will make you more than happy. Maniacal audiophiles willing to invest in a more precise tracking force scale and alignment protractor will be able to take the Classic Two to an even higher level of analog clarity.

An adjustable VTA collar on the tonearm is what makes the Classic Two a Two. The Classic One has a fixed adjustment for setting VTA, while the Two lets you adjust VTA on the fly, like the rest of the tables higher up the VPI range. Though some swear by this, I’m still not one to set VTA on the fly. But what is exceptionally handy is the ability to use the fine vernier adjustment to not only set, but also easily re-set VTA adjustments. Those with multiple tonearm wands can now switch between cartridges with total ease and consistency. That’s the magic of the Classic Two and the reason you want to pony up the extra thousand dollars.

I suggest music lovers that stick with one cartridge until it is spent and don’t fiddle with their turntables settings will be just as well served by the Classic One, and maybe spending that extra on a better cartridge, VPI’s SDS motor controller, or one of their outstanding record cleaning machines, if you don’t already have one. While some claim the Classic One sounds better because of its fixed VTA adjustment (possibly a touch more rigidity in the tonearm tower/bearing assembly) a side-by-side comparison of a Classic One and Classic Two with identical cartridges did not reveal an audible difference.

For a full description of the Classic One’s sound, click here. But to summarize, both the Classic One and Two produce a big, weighty, full-bodied sound. Utilizing VPIs JMW-10.5i tonearm wand with copper internal wiring. Those seeking even more performance should ask their VPI dealer about upgrading the table to the 10.5i armwand with Nordost Valhalla internal wiring.

Small details aside, the VPI Classic Two is one of the finest turntables available for $3,995. As with the Classic One, we are proud to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2015.

- Jeff Dorgay

www.vpiindustries.com

Rega RP10 Turntable

Our publisher has been a Rega fan since the fateful day in the mid-’80s when we happened by our local dealer (Audio Emporium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) to find them opening a shipment of Planar 3 turntables.  As they lifted a bright, fluorescent green table out, the sales guy quipped, “What idiot would buy a turntable in this color?”  Little did he know that’s been publisher Dorgay’s favorite color since age 6.  He solemnly replied, “I’m that idiot!” and we took that little British table back to his listening room and were subsequently blown away, being Technics SL-1200 guys at that moment in time, thinking there couldn’t possibly be anything better than direct drive.

Words like pace and timing weren’t even part of our vocabulary back then, but there was a ton of inner detail coming through those Magnepan MGII speakers that wasn’t there the day before, and to this day, both of us have always owned at least one Rega turntable.  For the record, my current reference is a P9 with Apheta cartridge, and it has served me well for some time now.

Evolution no. 10

Someone once said that an elephant is only a mouse built to military specifications, and on one level the same could be said for the P9 – you could think of it as a fully geeked-out P3.  The platter, drive mechanism, tonearm and power supply are all highly evolved versions of the basic Rega turntable.  For those of you that aren’t familiar, the tonearm on the earlier P3 and P9 shared the same basic casting, and now the new RP10 uses a highly refined version of the new casting for the RP3 (and is secured with the same red tape Rega has used for decades), yet the new RB2000 is completely handmade and finished to the highest of tolerances, as was the RB1000.

According to Rega, the RB2000 arm “is designed to have a minimum of mechanical joints while using the stiffest materials possible in all areas.”  Like its predecessor, the bearings are hand fitted and of highest quality, all handpicked for tolerance before insertion into the arm.

A new twist on the Rega platform, beginning with the RP3, is the mechanical brace: magnesium in the RP10, going between the tonearm mount and the turntable bearing, assuring maximum rigidity between these critical areas, while taking advantage of the new, skeletal plinth (further refined from the RP8 design) having seven times less mass than the original Planar 3.

An ex-automotive engineer, Rega principal Roy Gandy has always taken the advantage that less mass means more energy transferred from the record groove to the stylus tip, an opposite philosophy of the “more mass is better” approach embraced by some other manufacturers.  Gandy’s approach has always worked well, but in the past, the P3 and variations have always been accused of being somewhat lightweight in the lower register.  The former flagship P9 has always featured the liveliness that their tables have always been known for, with additional heft in the low frequencies.  Combined with a set-and-forget ethos, there’s no wonder the P9 has won the hearts (and ears) of so many music lovers that just want a fabulous turntable without the setup anxiety.

The race is on

So as much as we wanted this to be a standalone review, the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue – and on our Facebook inbox – has been, “How does the RP10 stack up to the P9?”  As the title of this review suggests, it is an evolutionary move.  Listening to the P9 and RP10 side by side easily shows the additional resolution present in the new table.

A speed check was the first test on our list, and utilizing the Feickert iPad app showed the RP10 to be dead-on for both 33 and 45 rpm speeds.  It’s still somewhat of an urban legend that Rega tables run “a bit fast” to provide a zippier sound.  In our experience, this just hasn’t been the case in the last 15 years or so, and the RP10 keeps them batting a thousand.  So, if you’ve had any internet-related anxiety about the speed of the RP10, forget about it.

Ease as always

Should you opt for the Apheta MC cartridge, which comes pre-installed (at least for US customers), it’s a winner on two counts.  The Sound Organisation, Rega’s US importer, sells the two as a package for $6,495, saving you almost a thousand bucks in the process – and they install the cartridge for you.  Even though this is super easy, because the Apheta features Rega’s three-bolt fastening, and as all Rega tables come from the factory optimized for correct VTA, the RP10 is possibly the only no-fuss, no-muss premium turntable.  All you need to do is set the tracking force to 1.75 grams and fiddle a little bit with the anti-skate if you feel so inclined.  If it takes you more than five minutes to play records on an RP10, you are overthinking it.

If the Apheta is not your bag, rest assured that there are a number of other great cartridges available that will provide excellent synergy with this table.  Here at TONE, we’ve used everything from the ZU Denon 103 cartridge all the way up to the $10,000 Lyra Atlas cartridge on both the P9 and RP10 with fantastic results.  You can read the Apheta review here[1] to get more of a feel for this cartridge, but for those not wanting to dig back, here’s a short synopsis:  The Apheta is a very fast, neutral cartridge with a lot of HF energy.  If you don’t have an MC phonostage capable of going down to somewhere between 25 and 50 ohms, the Apheta will make a poor showing and sound somewhat shrill.  Load it correctly and you will be rewarded with clean, detailed sound.

The P9 and the new RP10 are awesome for music lovers who want great sound without a fuss.  While I’ve listened to a lot of megabuck tables at the TONE studio, $5,000 is my sweet spot – and let’s be clear: I do not consider this the point of analog diminishing returns; however it is all the more I’m comfortable spending on a turntable.  So for me, personally, the RP10 gives me enough of a glimpse into the price-no-object tables for comfort.  Considering Rega has only raised the price $500 over the cost of the P9 speaks volumes for their manufacturing efficiencies.

More listening

As hinted at the beginning of this review, the RP10 does reveal more music throughout the range.  Transients are cleaner, the bass carries a bit more weight, and the high end is even crisper than before.  Regardless of program material chosen, the improvements made feel like going from ISO 200 to ISO 100 on your favorite digital camera (or film for those of you still embracing the medium).

Should you trade up from your trusty P9?  That’s a question only you can answer, and it will probably depend on what your dealer will give you for a trade-in and how wacky you’re feeling with the checkbook.  -Jerold O’Brien

Additional Listening

I’m probably more anxious than most people to finally get my hands on the RP10, as I saw the prototype of this turntable at Roy Gandy’s home about six years ago and it was fantastic back then.  You’ll either love or hate the skeletal design; I love it because it looks so un-Rega, but those of you wanting a more traditional-looking turntable can leave it in its full base.  Me, I’d rather see it in its naked glory and cast a few spotlights on it, letting the shadows fall where they may.

As Mr. O’Brien mentioned, this table, though more radical in design, is definitely evolutionary.  You won’t mistake the sound of the RP10 for an SME or Clearaudio table and that’s a good thing.  Most of the improvements to the tonearm and power supply are not easily seen from the outside, as is the second generation ceramic platter, but Rega tables are always more than the sum of their parts.

In my reference system through the Audio Research REF Phono 2SE, I noticed the same sonic improvements in the RP10/P9 comparison, but what I did notice on a more resolving reference system than Mr. O’Brien’s was that the RP10’s new arm and table design will accommodate an even better cartridge than the P9 could.  Where the Lyra Kleos was about the limit of what I’d mate with the P9, the RP10 could handle the Atlas.  I’m sure most RP10 customers aren’t going to drop $10k on a phono cartridge, but you could, and it can resolve more music than a Kleos will let through.  And that’s part of the magic with the RP10.  It’s a sleeper.

I’ve always enjoyed the Apheta with the P9 and now the RP10, but I found absolute bliss with my Dynavector XV-1s cartridge, offering a slightly warmer overall presentation than the Apheta.  Again, this will be decided by your ultimate sonic preferences and the RP10/Apheta combination is really tough to beat for the money.  Rega has hit a pretty interesting run with the RP10, as there are a lot of great turntables in the $10k–$15k range, as well as in the $2k–$3k range, but this price point is pretty wide open.

We could talk tech for hours, but do we want to?  Put a record on and relax.  Much like my P9, the RP10 has that extra amount of LF weight and drive (torque maybe?) that really makes this table a blast to listen to rock records with.  Going back to Deep Purple’s classic “Smoke on the Water” from their Made in Japan album was incredibly convincing when those famous chords were played.

Extended listening with a wide range of program material reveals a table that gets it right on so many levels.  Mounted on an SRA rack, there were no feedback issues, no matter how loud I played music, so the table’s design is working as it should.

Reflecting on my time with the RP10, I just wonder when Mr. Gandy and his crew will run out of ideas?  They remain fresh as ever, and I can’t believe that after more than 30 years, I’m just as smitten with Rega as I was the day I brought my first one home from the hifi store.  Now, can they just make it in lime green?  I’m happy to give the Rega RP10 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014.  -Jeff Dorgay

Rega RP10

MSRP:  $5,495 (without cartridge)  $6,495 with Apheta pre-installed (US Only)

www.soundorg.com (US distributor)

www.rega.co.uk (factory)

PERIPHERALS  (O’Brien)

Phonostage Simaudio MOON 610LP
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G-1A
Power Amplifier Conrad Johnson Premier 350
Speakers Vandersteen 5A
Cable Cardas Clear Light

VPI Classic Two Turntable

VPI’s Classic One set the standard for analog performance at its price a few years ago when introduced and one is still in service at TONEAudio as a reference component, recently revised by Harry Weisfeld to accommodate an Eminent Technologies tonearm.

The Classic Two builds on the success of the Classic One, with the primary difference being the ability to adjust the VTA on the fly while the record is playing, giving the analog enthusiast more control and adjustability than the One does.  Sound quality is very similar, so if you are a more monogamous audiophile who tends to stick with a single setup, the One may be all you need.  But, if you love to change and tweak your system on a constant basis, the Classic Two is the way to spin.  It will make your adjustments much easier to execute.  -Jeff Dorgay

VPI Classic Two Turntable

$4,000

www.vpiindustries.com

VPI Classic Direct Drive Turntable

In audio, like in so many other things, the seed of a great idea often sprouts before the technology of the time is able to fully express the concept. The direct-drive turntable is a perfect example. Many know of the legendary Technics SP-10 broadcast turntable, though few have heard one. Those who have will remember the remarkable pitch stability and the rock-solid bass. Today, they are coveted and being rebuilt around modern tonearms and cartridges possessing much more resolution than what was available back in the 1970s and ’80s, and to good result. However, the cost is high and there are a finite number of spare parts—not to mention precious little support. Great as the SP-10 is, owning one today is much like owning a vintage sports car: It’s a ton of fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but God forbid you need it repaired in a hurry.

Enter Harry Weisfeld

A visit to the VPI factory in New Jersey with company founder Harry Weisfeld reveals a massive collection of turntables. Weisfeld is particularly well versed in direct-drive models, especially the classics. His collection includes, among others, the Denon DP-80 and JVC TT-101, as well as other Technics tables. “I believe direct drive is the way to go when it’s done correctly,” he says. “I’ve always been a huge fan of the concept, but you can’t get a belt or a pulley perfect, no matter how hard you try. A belt-drive turntable consists of multiple mistakes and you’re always dealing with multiple tolerance errors. Direct drive eliminates these issues.”

Discussing the cost of the new Classic Direct, which is priced at $30,000, Weisfeld reflects on the SP-10. Because of the manufacturing complexity required to produce the SP-10, he says that, if new examples were being built today, they would be fairly comparable in price, even from a company like Technics.

Weisfeld says that the Kenwood L-O7D and Micro Seiki DDX-1000 were the impetuses for making his own direct-drive table, a process that began in earnest in early 2011. One of the engineers at a firm that produces finely machined parts for VPI, as well as military hardware, and who is a known audiophile, started a major discussion with Weisfeld about the “toughest part of a turntable to manufacture.”

The engineer quickly responded that the motor was the toughest challenge, which led to another series of discussions resulting in the design we see here in the Classic Direct, where the platter is actually the main component in the motor. In this case, the motor in the Classic Direct is an AC motor, which Weisfeld prefers over DC motors. He smiles and says, “An AC motor knows where it is, and a DC motor only knows where it was.”

The secret here is that a three-phase motor is used, eliminating the cogging effect that always plagues direct-drive designs. This uneven power delivery results in a slight unsteadiness to the music at worst and a shrinking soundstage at best. These issues are a thing of the past with the Classic Direct, as my listening quickly reveals.

Fortunately for Weisfeld, building the first Classic Direct was a labor of love for the engineers involved—it was strictly a fun project. Reflecting on the nature of the company building the motor, Weisfeld laughs and says, “The reason I won’t tell you who makes the motor for us is not a security reason; they just don’t want to become a supplier for other manufacturers.” He then proceeds to show me all of the measurement data that went into the design, from prototype to final product. “These guys measure everything, and they are thorough.” Case in point: Noise level on the Classic Direct is lower than minus 100 dB—impressive.

Blacker than Black

Initial playback of the Classic Direct at the New York Audio Show this past May was exciting, but the prototype, made using a Classic 3 chassis, didn’t really work aesthetically with the 12-inch tonearm, which Weisfeld felt was essential to the ultimate sound of the table. “So we had to do one more round of plinth design,” he says. “But the drive system was final at this time.”

The proof is in the listening. Forget all the audiophile clichés about inky-black backgrounds. The Classic Direct has a complete absence of background; it’s eerily quiet, like listening to a high-resolution digital file with the life of analog. We start our listening sessions with some vintage classical test pressings from the Classic label, and I’m immediately transfixed. There’s something dramatically different here.

Music simply emerges from the dimly lit room through Weisfeld’s reference speakers, the JBL DD6600 Everests. With dynamic range like few others, the Everests highlight the Classic Direct’s ability to remove itself from the equation and pass the music from the record groove through the speakers without interruption. The Everests sound surprisingly coherent, more like a pair of electrostatic speakers (of which Weisfeld and I are both big fans). I am spellbound by how natural pianos and violins sound in this system.

I’m so taken aback by the cleanliness of the tone that I don’t notice the cartridge mounted to the 12-inch 3D-printed tonearm, which is standard issue with the Classic Direct. It’s a Shure M97, the same one you can buy from Music Direct for $100. Weisfeld smiles again. “It’s my daily driver,” he says. “When I mounted a JICO stylus on the M97, it changed the sound completely, and it tracks like crazy. It saves wear and tear on my Lyra Atlas.”

Fortunately, the unipivot design of the VPI tonearms, with removable arm wands, makes it easy to swap cartridges—for vinyl aficionados with multiple cartridges in their collection. An additional 12-inch 3D-arm wand can be purchased for $3,000, while a standard one machined from aluminum is only $1,500—a perfect match for cartridges on the less-spendy side of the equation.

Getting in the Driver’s Seat

Once I’m acquainted with the Classic Direct, Weisfeld swaps the Shure for his favorite (and mine), the Lyra Atlas. But first we listen to Dave Brubeck’s classic track “Take Five” on tape. Quickly switching back to the Analogue Productions 45-rpm version reveals precious little loss, only in the ultimate dynamics of the vinyl not being able to stretch on the quickest transients as fast as the tape, but the soul of the music on the Classic Direct is incredibly well represented. Timbre and tonality are perfectly captured, along with the airiness of the cymbals and the rock-solid character of the piano. Weisfeld has clearly met his design goals in this respect.

Then, once we move back to the beginning of the journey with the M97, the core values of the music are still intact. Timbre and drive are especially compelling, but now after hearing the tape and the Atlas, there is cloudiness to the overall presentation. Regardless, the Shure sounds far more exciting than I’ve ever heard it before and light years beyond what it sounds like on my Technics SL-1200.

Auditioning a string of familiar rock recordings reveals the same things: a larger soundstage, wider dynamic range and a new sense of being able to peer deeply into the music—all of which are now available with the Classic Direct. The triangle in Joni Mitchell’s “Down to You” not only has an incredibly well defined space, but the decay is breathtaking, and it just seems to hang in the air forever. The rest of Court and Spark, though I’ve heard it countless times, infatuates me as if hearing it for the first time again. That’s what makes a high-dollar component special—and the Classic Direct delivers the goods in every aspect.

Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” blazes through loud and clear. While the Classic Direct’s speed stability doesn’t reveal itself as much when rendering Jimmy Page’s guitars, it speaks volumes with the sheer attack of John Bonham’s drums. They goes from fantastic to truly explosive, and the rest of this recording goes well beyond speaker boundaries, forming a coherent and convincing musical image.

A quick spin of a 45-rpm maxi single of Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” reveals the inner detail in this multitracked tune, which I’ve never heard as clearly. And while the Classic Direct’s major strength is tonal purity, its incredibly low noise floor uncloaks treasure in even the most highly processed records. In this case, backing vocals, synthesizer and percussion tracks are all more evident, with their own distinct placement in the soundstage, where they have always seemed somewhat vague. You don’t have to limit your musical taste to acoustic music to really hear what the Classic Direct can bring to your system.

Two Years in the Making

After a year and a half, the design of the Classic Direct was final and all that remained was sorting out the ultimate form factor. While so many of today’s mega tables feature an excess of bling, the Classic Direct keeps it simple and straightforward. Much like the aesthetic of the Eames Lounge Chair, this table is a classic in the ultimate sense of the word, rendered in a form factor you will not tire of.

The platter of the Classic Direct is the rotor, eliminating any errors resulting from motor-shaft coupling and taking advantage of VPI’s inverted bearing as the common support for the rotor and platter. Simplicity combined with 21st-century technology wins the day—and the tolerance between the platter and the rest of the motor is only .001 inches.

This assembly is a sealed unit that weighs approximately 40 pounds and is in separate packaging from the base, requiring that the user merely connect power and gently slide it in with the supplied handle. As the saying goes, there are no user-serviceable parts inside. Weisfeld tells me that this motor is built to outlast the owner, because “we don’t want to have to fix them.” (The motor, that is.)

Historians of the direct-drive system may be quick to comment that this approach has been tried unsuccessfully before, but this time it succeeds brilliantly, hence the engineering time and resulting cost of this table. VPI’s proprietary coil technology forgoes the standard wire-wound stator found in most motors, using slotted copper laminations instead. This allows for higher coil density, in turn giving the Classic Direct tremendous torque, even for a direct-drive design. Yet, it was designed to start rotating very slowly, another aspect of successful motor control.

VPI’s familiar outer-ring clamp is the final piece to the puzzle, and if you think you can get by without it, guess again. The clamp firmly anchors the outer edge of the record to the supplied mat, making sure it contacts the platter fully, eliminating the need for one of those fancy record flatteners. It also minimizes vertical stylus excursion, thus maximizing the soundstage. The rest of the table is straightforward, with 33- and 45-rpm speeds controlled by blue illuminated buttons on the left side of the plinth.

Worthy of the Name and the Price Tag

Record after record reveals the same thing: The VPI Classic Direct is one of the world’s finest turntables. If there is a flaw in its presentation, I am not able to expose it, no matter what kind of music is played.

Crazy as it might sound to the uninitiated, $20,000 to $30,000 is really the sweet spot for what I consider a “destination turntable.” I’ve spent more than my fair share of time with six-figure tables, and much like a Ferrari, they offer a level of performance unattainable by any other means, but they are just so far out of reach to all but the most affluent audio enthusiasts that it’s not even a consideration. The ratio of $150k turntable owners to $150k system owners is tipped well in favor of the latter, so for a certain breed of audiophile, a $30k table is not out of the question, especially if you are trading up from something else.

And I must confess that my experience with this range is healthy, having lived with tables from AVID, Clearaudio, Kronos, SME and VPI, just to name a few. As much fun as it always is to proclaim something a game-changer, running down the path of adjective excess, I’ll keep my description of the VPI Classic Direct, well, direct.

It’s solid and quiet in a way I’ve never experienced, even compared to the mighty Continuum, the silly Onedof and the massive Clearaudio. If pitch stability is something you crave, there’s just something about a direct-drive turntable, even a Technics SL-1200, that grabs you instantly. The Classic Direct just has much more of it, and it’s mated to a world-class tonearm to complete the package.

The presentation of the Classic Direct is remarkably close to that of a master tape on a great open-reel deck, which Weisfeld just happens to have next to his equipment rack for his own comparisons. He smiles. “This truly was my inspiration for the Classic Direct,” he says. “Now a piano sounds like a piano.”

I have purchased products from all over the world—and have been doing so for most my life—but I have to confess some American pride here. We in the United States now have a manufacturer building a turntable that not only competes with the best tables that the world has to offer but that also excels beyond many of them.

This is why we bestow our overall Product of the Year award to the VPI Classic Direct turntable.

- Jeff Dorgay


VPI Classic Direct Drive Turntable

www.vpiindustries.com

U-Turn Audio Orbit Turntable

First and foremost, the people at U-Turn Audio are to be commended for bringing a domestically manufactured turntable to market at an unbelievably low price. The Orbit, which is manufactured in the USA, is completely manual and comes with an Ortofon Omega cartridge ready to play records. At $179, this represents a miracle of sorts.

I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical of this product being any good. After all, how good can a brand new sub-$200, plug-and-play turntable be? The Orbit quickly dispels visions of cheap analog-to-USB-to-MP3 toys, thanks to the virtue of its decent build quality and good performance. Moreover, it offers those unfamiliar with analog playback an inexpensive and uncomplicated way to find out what the fuss is all about.

The fit and finish on the Orbit is unexpectedly good at its price point. The plinth is made of a “high performance” plastic that is non-resonant and painted with semi-gloss black paint. The platter is CNC-machined MDF finished with black textured paint and covered with a felt mat. Surprisingly, the tonearm is a unipivot affair and features silver-plated internal wiring. (The other domestically manufactured unipivot tonearm that comes to mind is VPI’s JMW, whose starting price is around $1,000.)

The Orbit’s motor is a low-voltage AC synchronous device with a machined pulley allowing for 33- or 45-rpm playback. Supporting the Orbit are three rubber feet/isolators to keep structure-born vibration from interfering with playback. The whole package is topped off with a clear molded dust cover attached at the rear with a pair of hinges. U-Turn also supplies a pair of RCA cables for the left/right outputs. There is no ground wire, as the Orbit is internally grounded.

Setup couldn’t be easier: simply install the platter, mat and string the belt, and you’re off.  One feature that is missing from the Orbit is a cuing lever. This cautions the owner to use a steady hand when lowering and lifting the tonearm. The Orbit reminds me of the very first Rega turntables—no frills (just turn the record at the right speed), no strobe, no automatic functions, no anything but playing the record.

Listening to the Orbit begins on headphones through a newly restored Apt Holman preamp, renowned for its good phonostage and quiet operation. Nothing untoward is revealed during this first stage—no groans, no creaks and no emphasis of surface noise, with excellent isolation. Giving the plinth a vigorous knock with my knuckle yields no transference of the shock to the tonearm—pretty impressive, though there is the slightest bit of inner groove mis-tracking on difficult selections. However, re-balancing the tonearm and setting the tracking force to 1.8 grams, as recommended by Ortofon, cures this anomaly.

Putting the Orbit into my main system is a bit of a shock, because the turntable it replaces is a superb performer. But, as listening progresses, certain characteristics are revealed; the Orbit is a little light in overall dynamic heft, but it’s certainly quick on its feet. The presentation is that of swiftness and agility, yet there is some congestion in the mid-bass region, especially when the bass guitar and drums are at an energetic pace. A change of interconnects easily solves this problem, and changing out the supplied RCA cables for a pair of $59.95 KAB/Cardas interconnects brings detail to the congested areas and also renders a larger and more stable soundstage. Now I feel that I’m hearing more of Orbit’s capabilities. Another characteristic that becomes plainly audible is the overall absence of rumble. The arm/cartridge interface is a good one, with precious little woofer pumping, regardless of program material..

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony (Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra on CBS Masterworks) is the first selection and the hall ambiance seems a bit truncated compared to the big boys, but the overall character of the strings and woodwinds is believable. Moving on to Al Di Meola’s Land of the Midnight Sun (Columbia Records), the Orbit unravels the frenetic pace on “Suite-Golden Dawn” handily, with Alphonse Mouzon’s drum attack and Jaco Pastorius’ bass lines intertwined with Di Meola’s staccato guitar riffs.

Next up, Vintage Trouble’s LP, The Bomb Shelter Sessions. On the cut “Still and Always Will,” Ty Taylors voice is clearly presented above the pounding drums of Richard Danielson and Rick Barrio Dill’s muscular bass. Crosby, Still and Nash’s first album (Rhino Records, 180g edition)proves a bit more difficult. The guitar sounds and vocal harmonies are well done, if a bit compressed on the Orbit. Finally, I try an old stalwart of mine, Tommy Newsom, Live From Beautiful Downtown Burbank. This is a direct-to-disc (Direct-Disk Labs) recording cut at a very high level. Even on an inner track like “Lay Down Sally,” the blatting horn section presents no problems in the tracking department and the Orbit continues to impress.

Tweaking a bit further, replacing the felt mat with a GEM Dandy mat from George Merrill, who is no stranger to turntable building, brings back a lot of missing musical foundation, and the soundstage becomes more focused. But isn’t my tweaking sort of subverting the basic premise of the Orbit? Well, yes and no. The entry price is $179. Adding the RCA cables and the mat bring it to $299, still a bargain for a brand-new table if you eliminate the DJ tables that are out there. When looking at the belt-drive competition, there’s the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon at $400 and the Rega RP-1 at $445—still more than the tweaked Orbit. A neophyte audiophile would add the tweaks over time as he or she became more familiar with analog playback. The upgrades reveal that the basic platform of the Orbit is a good one.

The inevitable question as to choice is, “What about vintage?” Being no stranger to vintage turntables, I can say that going that way is a crapshoot. Yes, if you get lucky, you can score a great turntable at a great price. But face facts, these things are 30 and 40 years old. The moment they break, the bargain goes out the window—nice to have a warranty, no? Even buying a new dust cover for a vintage table can cost $150. Comparing a Dual 510 on hand, a semi-automatic belt drive model made in the late 1970s, fitted with a NOS Stanton 600e cartridge seemed a perfect foil for the new contender.  The printed specs on each table were identical and about $175 was invested in the vintage piece, though the Dual had the edge in lower wow and flutter, on sustained piano notes.  For now, slight edge to the vintage table.

Using the same GEM Dandy mat on both turntables, the Dual/Stanton combination has more precision in its playback, especially in the low-bass and mid-treble regions. However, the Orbit’s has character in its favor. Indeed, each table provides different presentations and there is no clear winner for 175 bucks. Some people would prefer the Dual/Stanton, while others would prefer the Orbit/Ortofon. Further investigation demands the same cartridge on both tables, but that’s another story for the Analogaholic section of our website.  Stay tuned.

Back to tweaking – adding the RCA cables and mat to the Orbit brings us to $299. What would adding a better cartridge bring to the Orbit? The Ortofon 2M Red is available for $99 and was named an Absolute Sound Product of The Year in 2010. Okay, we’re now at $399 for a really tweaked-out Orbit. Can it go toe-to-toe with the Pro-Ject or the Rega? I can’t answer that yet, but I have a feeling that it would acquit itself very well.

Reviewing the Orbit is a pleasant surprise. It demonstrates that, with thoughtful engineering and good materials, a thoroughly competent entry-level turntable with only the essential ingredients for LP playback can be offered at an excellent price point. Combined with the possibilities of tweaking and upgrading over time, budding audiophiles can now experience the joys of record playing without risking a major out-of-pocket expense. Kudos to U-turn Audio for being brave enough to offer the Orbit to a crowded market. I have a feeling that we’ll be hearing more from this company in the years to come.  -Jerold O’Brien

Orbit turntable

MSRP: $179

uturnaudio.com

VPI Traveler Turntable

My analog journey has encountered numerous VPI turntables through the years, and they have always provided satisfying sounds and steadfast mechanical reliability, beginning with the HW-19, now out of production.  The company’s current Classic-series turntables are enjoying rave reviews around the world—our publisher is certainly enjoying his.  After I spent some time with the Traveler at this year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF), it became clear that VPI has not merely created an entry-level table with a VPI badge; the Cliffwood, N.J.–based manufacturer has built a reasonably priced table with the same solid engineering and build quality that goes into the rest of its lineup.

With the resurgence of vinyl underway, there are more and more turntables being offered in the entry-level arena.  But to be honest, I have not been that impressed with many of the sub-$1,500 offerings.  Maybe it’s just the audio dinosaur in me, but many of them seem a bit spindly.  Sure, I’ve gotten them to make nice music, but I always seem to find myself left with an incomplete feeling telling me all is not right in Recordsville.

The VPI Traveler hits a different chord at this price point.  Unpacking its heavy shipping container tells you there’s more than a toy packed within.  And packed well it is.  I can’t foresee even the most ham-fisted shipper damaging the Traveler during shipping.

Parts unpackaged, the assembly process goes off without a hitch.  Those experienced with turntable setup will find Traveler’s setup a breeze.  In less than forty-five minutes, this turntable was making great sound in my listening room, with no need to tweak things further.  Beginners will find the instruction manual clear and detailed.  A little focus and Jedi patience will have you spinning your favorite LPs in no time.

High Points

This table’s level of fit and finish is of a very high order.  Machined-metal parts are smooth and polished, the paint on the plinth’s top plate is high grade and the platter feels like it’s machined from billet.  In fact, it’s made from aluminum damped by stainless steel, a great way to break up any resonances that may occur.  Spinning the platter reveals a high-quality spindle-to-bearing interface, indicating top-notch machine work.  It seems to continue spinning forever when you shut the power off.  The non-removable platter mat is made of neoprene rubber and provides additional damping.

This philosophy continues with the plinth, which is an aluminum top plate bonded to a thick acrylic base—impressive compared to the usual machined MDF or plastic that is typically used for plinths in this price category.  A set of rubber tipped cones allow for leveling the Traveler.  Combined with the solid plinth is a 10-inch tonearm instead of the ubiquitous 9-incher on most other tables, which gives the Traveler a leg up by minimizing tracking angle distortion.

The next thing one notices is the Traveler’s gimbaled design, a departure from the VPI norm, as the company usually makes unipivot tonearms.  However, VPI claims that the Traveler’s friction levels are nearly as low as the brand’s more expensive unipivot designs.  The Traveler’s arm moves smoothly and freely in both the lateral and vertical directions.  The counterweight and tracking-force adjustment is another finely machined affair and easy to operate during setup.  The tonearm is equipped with a VTA on-the-fly adjustment that works beautifully and without fuss.  Finally, the signal goes from the arm through a proprietary connector feeding a pair of RCA jacks fitted to the rear of the plinth.

VPI does not supply a dedicated tonearm cable with the Traveler, so users are free to experiment with cabling options between the turntable and phonostage.  I advise caution here, because the wrong type of cable can seriously compromise the sonic results.  If possible, try one of the current tonearm cables on the market available with RCA jacks on both ends; these cables usually make an extra effort to minimize cable capacitance, resulting in better transference of the delicate phono signal.

Taking Care of Business

Sticking with the winning formula in TONEAudio’s RMAF room, listening began with the $599 Ortofon Rondo Red low-output MC cartridge, which brings the combination of turntable and cartridge to $1,900—not exactly spare beer money, but a fine investment nevertheless.  I tried two different interconnect cables with excellent results: the AudioQuest King Cobra ($249/pair) and, for the more budget-minded, the KAB Jazz ($33/pair).  In the end, I preferred the AQ cable on most material, but the KAB is a well-made product, providing great shielding from RF and decent audio performance.

First up was Stravinsky’s The Firebird (Mercury Living Presence, London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati conducting).  The Traveler/Rondo Red combination provides a convincing sense of hall ambiance, while simultaneously placing the sections of the orchestra firmly in place.  Once the music reaches full gallop, the Traveler delivers the music’s swell and crescendo with the requisite delicacy and impact, with the woodwinds sounding exceptionally natural.

Next up, in a more delicate vein, is Trio Galanterie’s Eighteenth-Century Music For Lute and Strings on AudioQuest records.  The Traveler captures the interplay of the cello, lute and violin on this recording with complete intimacy, like a concert for one.  The Traveler presents the fundamentals and overtones in a harmonically rich fashion, with strummed, plucked and bowed instruments—not an easy task, but one that is performed exceptionally well here.

Changing genres, the latest Charlie Hunter recording, Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead, is a self-released limited-edition album featuring Hunter on seven-string guitar and Scott Amendola on drums.  This live-in-the-studio outing will challenge any arm-cartridge combination with its dynamic close-miked drum sound, biting guitar and punchy, resonant bass.  Again, the Traveler/Rondo combination turns in an ace performance.

Ralph Towner’s “Piscean Dance,” from his Solstice album, is another studio jam/duel possessing great dynamic swings.  The crystalline but completely natural sound of cymbals and snare drum, while Towner’s signature twelve-string guitar weaves in and out of Christensen’s rhythmic patterns, underlines how well this modestly priced table handles complex music without losing its soul.

Both Eric Bibb’s Friends and John Mayall’s The Turning Point underscore the Traveler’s ability to combine bass weight with fundamental midrange body and tonality.  The Traveler’s rock-solid pace gives a sense of presence rarely accomplished by an analog front end at this price.

Past Meets Present

Fully impressed with the Traveler so far, I decide it’s time to try something off the beaten path.  A NOS Acutex 412 STR cartridge would put any tonearm to task, as this high-compliance cartridge usually works best with ultra-low-mass tonearms.

Set to 1.5 grams, the combination sailed through the most-difficult passages at my disposal, proving what great all-around performance the Traveler offers:  It should be just right for most MM or MC cartridges.

So Take a Trip to Your VPI Dealer!

Combining robust construction, a high level of fit and finish and an excellent sonic presentation, the VPI Traveler establishes a new benchmark for its price.  VPI left no stone unturned, from getting the basic record-playing ability right to employing clever engineering.  And you can order it in a variety of colors (for an extra hundred bucks).  Whether you are just getting into the world of vinyl, adding a second turntable to the stable or are replacing a turntable that has left you wondering if there’s more to be had for your money, I highly recommend the Traveler.  Have a few less lattes per month, or perhaps even skimp on record purchases for a few months, to make the very reasonable leap for this remarkable table.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

I was equally curious to see how much of the essence of VPI’s more-expensive Classic One could be incorporated into the Traveler.  The Classic One is a linear step up in the VPI range and its roots are readily apparent.  The Traveler resembles the Classic much more so than it does the Scout/Scoutmaster series.  Using both tables side by side through the Audio Research REF Phono 2 SE, with matching Dynavector DV-20X2L cartridges ($850), the main differences between the two are in bass weight and low-level detail retrieval.

Listening to the biting guitars on the anniversary remaster of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness reveals more punch from the Classic, but the Traveler is no slouch for the price.  Comparing the Traveler to my late-1980s LP12 is like getting out of a Triumph TR6 and getting into a Porsche Boxster:  Everything feels much crisper and more defined overall.

The overall tonality of the Traveler is remarkably similar to the Classic, and when not playing records with ultra-wide dynamic swings, one might be easily fooled.  The DV-20X2L is an excellent match for this table, for those looking to take their analog experience a step further.  I had equally good results with the Sumiko Blackbird high-output MC, another favorite of mine in the $800-to-$1,200 range, proving that this table is not embarrassed in the least by a cartridge costing almost as much as the table.  This level of performance makes the Traveler an excellent long-term turntable choice.

We not only recommend the Traveler highly, we have purchased the review sample.  It will become a reference component in gear editor Bailey Barnard’s new system, so we can indoctrinate him in the ways of the LP.  -Jerold O’Brien

The VPI Traveler Turntable

MSRP: $1,299

www.vpiindustries.com

Peripherals

Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Aleph 3
Speakers Harbeth Monitor 40.1
Cable  Audience Au24
Power Audience

Funk Firm Little Super Deck

Things that reference hallucinogenic drugs tend to pique my interest.  And the Little Super Deck (or LSD) from the Funk Firm will indeed take you on a trip to vinyl bliss, doing so for a lot less money than you’d expect—$1,995 to be exact.  Our review unit arrived in a very THX 1138–esque shade of white, but the table is also available in black or red, or with a black top and wooden base.  You can also dress it up with a different colored Achromat for an extra $99.  Brian Tucker of Pro Audio Ltd., Funk Firm’s U.S. distributor, suggests using only the 3-mm Achromat, as the 5-mm version raises the arm too far for the correct vertical tracking angle to be established and bumps the arm up against the dust cover.  A standard felt mat, similar to the one on a Rega or Linn table, is included at no charge.

Dropping the stylus on the record is a revelation, pure and simple.  After a few long evenings of playing records until the wee hours, I still find myself shaking my head, wondering how this much performance can be had for two grand.  As I listen to the records from the large pile of my Music Matters Blue Note collection, it becomes clear that this table gets to the heart of the music—it’s a master of tone.  Whether I’m listening to Herbie Hancock or Lee Morgan, the LSD delivers acoustic instruments with a level of tonal body and contrast that I’m not used to from a $2,000 turntable.

Though the sky is the limit for turntables these days, the $2,000-to-$3,000 range has so many excellent choices, with the playing field being upset on a regular basis.  Rega, Clearaudio, AVID, VPI and Pro-Ject (just to name a few) all have strong offerings that provide a major improvement in performance over tables costing about half as much.  With so much competition at this level, it’s a pretty exciting time for analog lovers who have a bit of spending money but who don’t want a table costing as much as a new car.

Some Assembly Required

A cursory look at the LSD doesn’t arouse suspicion, meaning that it looks fairly generic from a distance.  Closer inspection reveals just how much engineering has gone into this little marvel.  The LSD does not provide the same plug-and-play install that a Rega deck does, and there isn’t much similarity between the LSD and a Rega beyond the glass platters.  And, unless you’ve got good mechanical aptitude and are fairly intuitive, have your dealer set this baby up.

Unfortunately, the instructions for the LSD, which requires a fair amount of unintuitive assembly, are somewhat dreadful.  I understand that the cost of printing a manual like the one that accompanies a pair of Sonus faber speakers is prohibitive for a $2,000 turntable, but a high-resolution PDF file showing some actual pictures of the damn thing during each stage of the setup process should be considered essential.  I’m not singling out Funk Firm here, though:  I’ve yet to read a great turntable setup manual.

The photo included in the manual does illustrate the three-pulley “vector” system, which uses two additional free-spinning pulleys, so that the drive belt goes around the platter in a triangular formation, minimizing the need for multiple motors.  This is an ingenious solution for a table at this price, and a further example of how over engineered this product is—not to mention he fact that this system provides tremendous benefits when reproducing stringed instruments, particularly the violin.  Keep in mind that this is the same system used in Funk Firm’s flagship table, as well as the company’s $4,500 upgrade to the Linn LP12.

Just to see if this was all marketing hype or not, I used a shorter belt, driving the platter only with the motor pulley (returning to the Jung Trio for the same violin passages).  While you might not notice the difference the pulleys make when listening to your favorite rock records, those loving acoustic music will really appreciate the additional pitch stability this setup provides.

The LSD features a DC motor, similar to what designer Arthur Khoubesserian introduced decades earlier with his highly successful Pink Triangle table, powered by a small wall wart.  You can change speeds between 33 and 45 rpm using the switch on the plinth, which is handy for those having large record collections.

Moving Right Along

Those who are Jedi master enough to assemble the LSD will be highly impressed with how it implements some of its features.  Funk Firm takes a unique approach (patent applied for) to setting the anti-skate, using a weight attached by fishing line to a sliding rod. This allows for ultra-fine tuning of the anti-skate force, which couldn’t be achieved by simply putting the loop in a rung marked in ¼-gram increments.

Funk Firm also has a unique way to set the tracking force:  Using a combination of an under-hung counterweight and a vertical-track-force slider, located right on the arm tube, allows for a better optimization of mass on the table than merely adjusting the weight on the back end of the tonearm.  You can slide the collar up towards the headshell to increase effective mass for your favorite MC cartridge, and slide it back for the opposite effect when using MM carts.

The single screw holding the headshell in place allows adjustment of overhang and azimuth, and it is also a little tricky.  Keep the screw snug but not tight while making minor adjustments, or this will drive you bonkers.

This worked perfectly with my favorite MM, a NOS Ortofon VMS 20 Mk II, and the Lyra Kleos MC.  Dialing in the mass optimizes each cartridge better and ultimately eliminates that “thin” feeling that seems to accompany most budget turntables.  On the other side of the spectrum, my standard-issue late-’80s LP12 sounds slow and out of time by comparison—it lacks the sheer jump and acceleration on musical transients that this table possesses.  Some of this can be attributed to the F5 arm using the same Swiss Abec 7 bearings that my $5,500 SME V arm does.

Because of the F5’s ability to extract information from the black grooves, mating it with a cartridge that costs 50 percent more than the table still makes sense—though a cartridge at this level is probably at the limit of what most LSD owners will consider purchasing.  Lyra’s more reasonably priced Delos ($1,695) is a super partner for the F5 and LSD, as is the $850 Dynavector DV-20X2 and the $1,195 Sumiko Blackbird.  I also had excellent results with the $379 Denon DL-103R cartridge; the variable mass aspect of the F5 tonearm really comes in handy with this classic cartridge.

A Great Pickup Arm, All by Itself

As the F5 pickup arm is available separately for $1,295, the LSD seems like the ideal upgrade for a Rega table.  And, as we just happen to have a pair of P3s on hand, it makes perfect sense to take one for a spin, mounting an Exact 2 on each table. Those of you possessing a P25, P3, or P5 and wanting a serious upgrade should seriously consider an F5—everything improves dramatically.  The arm (sold separately) features the newer, three-point Rega mount.  The one supplied with the LSD is compatible with older Rega tables, and the mounting plate is similar to those of AVID tables.

My P3, already equipped with a Groovetracer subplatter, is now somewhat of a “Frankentable” with the F5 installed, but it’s a blast.  Bass weight increases dramatically:  Going back to The Art of Noise’s Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise? reveals bass that goes deeper and hits harder.  However, the biggest improvement is that of inner detail.

When listening to George Harrison’s guitar on “Taxman,” there is definitely more bite and decay compared to the standard Rega arm, and overall pace is improved, as well—no more cowbell required.  A similar effect is realized with “Eleanor Rigby,” in that the violins now have more separation and body, and less grain.

Finally, we gave the F5 a spin on the new AVID Ingenium, with similar results.  As good as the LSD is, the F5 is the star of the show.

It’s Like Buying a Pickup Arm and Getting a Free Turntable.

Putting the Funk Firm LSD through its paces with a handful of cartridges proves that this table is a steal for $2,000.  When compared to equally priced competitors from SME and Rega, the F5 pickup arm makes the LSD an even better bargain, with some innovative features that the competition doesn’t have.  But remember, this table will need a good dealer or good skills to set up properly.

But once it was setup, I could not find fault with the LSD, no matter what kind of music I listened to.  Going back to a few of the higher-dollar tables in my collection, I could see what I wasn’t getting in terms of dynamics and resolution, but the LSD combines it all so well, it won’t leave you wanting much more, no matter how good your system is.

The LSD strikes such a good equilibrium of basic, balanced aesthetics and the ability to reveal a lot of music that it may actually be a destination turntable for many analog aficionados.  Those stepping up from anything in the $500-to-$1,000 range will be shocked at how much music is lurking in their record collection.

And because of this, we are happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.  -Jeff Dorgay

The Funk Firm’s Little Super Deck

MSRP:  $1,995

www.thefunkfirm.co.uk

Wilson Benesch Full Circle Turntable

You could save up what it would cost to buy yourself a Porsche Cayman S or a two-week holiday in the Bahamas, and still not be able to afford a set of Wilson Benesch’s top-of-the-range Cardinal speakers.  So when the British manufacturer offered its Full Circle turntable up for review, I was initially wondering just how many circles would be on the price tag—surprisingly, not many.  In fact, the Full Circle (complete with the company’s A.C.T. 0.5 tonearm and Ply MC cartridge) turned out to be a relatively low-cost, high-value bundle.  It’s priced at about $4,400 (£2,795).

And, while some decks look like they are all elbows and sharp angles, the Full Circle is all curves—so much so that I half expected it to launch into a chorus of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” once I got it out of the packaging and put it together.  The assembly took about 30 minutes.

The Full Circle follows a lineage chock-full of careful research.  The deck is a direct descendent of the company’s first turntable effort, which it released in 1990 as the first deck to feature carbon-composite structures and which Wilson Benesch soon followed with the world’s first hyperbolic curved tonearm.  To create the current iteration of the table, the company upgraded the motor and dropped the sprung suspension, which it replaced with a combination of compliant rubber and carbon-fiber cantilevers.

In terms of the chassis design, the Full Circle “is constructed of two component parts,” says Craig Milnes, Wilson Benesch’s Design Director.  “The lower part has the motor attached to it.  The upper part is where the vinyl is transcribed and so it has to be isolated from the vibrations of the motor.  The task was to link the two systems but isolate them at the same time.  Between the top sandwich and the bottom sandwich, you have rubber compliant feet that deal with the load frequency coming from the motor.”

A secondary system, says Milnes, tackles the high frequencies, utilizing thin carbon-fiber rods that sit between three aluminum pillars, which are on top of the second sandwich.  A stainless-steel sub-platter features a phosphor-bronze bearing and also serves as the host for the belt.  A piece of felt lies on top of the acrylic platter.

The 0.5 tonearm sits on a carbon-infused steel rod and utilizes an intriguing kinematic bearing system, which is formed by three captive ball bearings, with a fourth bearing dropped into the center to locate the arm.  This system, says Milnes, is superior to a normal ball-race system, because it removes the stiction problems that require a force to change the bearing’s state from stop to go, and also eliminates the unipivot design, which can suffer from excess wear around the bearing tip.  “Even if the kinematic balls wear,” says Milnes, “the rate of change will be the same on every one of the balls and will have no effect on the center of the point of movement.”

But perhaps the most integral feature of the tonearm is its carbon-fiber tube.  While carbon fiber is a popular design material, it is often poorly implemented, according to Milnes.  “Off-the-shelf carbon rods might be stiff, but they’re not damped,” he says.  “To do it correctly, it has to be optimized.”  For the 0.5, doing it correctly entailed creating a one-off tool that enabled the company to produce an arm with a homogeneous, integrated headshell and enhanced dampening by allowing the carbon fiber to flow in a twin-walled, overlapping, double-helix pattern.  “Everything about the tonearm is unique,” says Milnes.  “We went out on a limb to prove that the result was possible.  The headshell has to have different characteristics than the arm.  It requires super stiffness and super damping, but you also want it to flow naturally into the tube so that the energy that flows from the headshell goes into the rest of the tonearm, where it can be absorbed and damped.  This is the stiffest tonearm in the world and it’s the most highly damped tonearm in the world.”

The final part of the Full Circle package is the Ply cartridge, which utilizes a generator from Benz Glider.  Wilson Benesch then adds its own carbon-fiber body.

Sounding Off

There are two reasons to buy a Full Circle: to invest in a new midrange system, or to take the first step in a hi-fi upgrade.  For the latter, I wanted to find out exactly what a Full Circle offers, so I hooked up a Rega RP3 turntable, Rega Brio-R integrated amp and Spendor S3/5R2 speakers with Tellurium Q Blue speaker cables.

Mounting the Full Circle on its pedestal stand (about $770), I played “Tribal Statistics,” from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band 1983 album Somewhere in Afrika.  Attempting to replicate a bare-bones upgrade, I temporarily shunned a phono amp and plugged the Full Circle directly into the Brio-R’s phono section.  I immediately detect a dramatic reduction in distortion, an increase in clarity and an ordered, structured soundstage, while each instrumentalist now has space to maneuver.  The music flows, rather than sounding squeezed out of the speakers.  The bass is not necessarily weightier, but it is full of character and integrated within the mix, while synths have a textural, informative presentation.  The vocals prove to be nuanced and delicate.

I then add the roughly $630 Trichord Dino phono amp to better support the Ply moving-coil cartridge, and the music jumps from very good to spectacular.  The entire soundstage opens up, with the bass roaring from the Full Circle with both mass and authority, while the percussion provides a forceful rhythm that grounds the entire track.  The vocal performance is full and rich, and the midrange is dynamic, offering greater breath and reach.

Turning to Ella Fitzgerald’s “Bewitched,” via Speakers Corner’s reissue of the Rodgers & Hart Songbook, I find the smooth tones of the vocals both clear and free from stress, while the lazy percussion, which normally sits hidden behind the piano, is now visible, adding depth to the mix.  The piano now dances around the soundstage with a syncopated swing, as the bass provides a steady underpinning in contrast to the flighty keys.

So how far can the Full Circle go?  I integrate it with my reference system, replacing the Circle stand with a Decent Audio wall stand (approx. $440).  Starting this time with Fitzgerald, I notice a new layering within her intonation changing the focus of the delivery.  The track’s guitar, which was almost unnoticeable previously, now emerges like a butterfly from a cocoon, providing added depth and complexity to the overall performance.  The piano also has a new grandeur that takes nothing away from its jazz tones but that does give the song added gravitas and weight.  Meanwhile, the bass offers a low-frequency tone and shade that extends the melodic range of the song, with the overall soundstage now showing a new depth and height.

When I move back to Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, the Full Circle almost pins me to the rear wall.  The bass is shatteringly powerful, pushing me to the rear of my chair with its drive, while extending the range of the lower frequencies.  The vocals finally reveal the multi-tracked nature of the recording in clear tones, providing new focus to the delivery.  The upper midrange, supported here by the synth backing and guitar, is now calm and smooth, without a hint of brightness.  Superb instrumental separation also allows the ear to hear each instrument from different angles as each settles into the soundstage.

Tweakable

The Full Circle proves that it is highly tweakable.  For example, I replace the supplied felt mat with an Oyaide BR-12 mat (approx. $140), which opens up the soundstage further, tightens up the bass, reduces the distortion and improves clarity, while adding focus to the overall presentation.

Topping the Full Circle off with an Oyaide STB-MS vinyl stabilizer (approx. $250) gives the music a sharp emphasis and adds to the weight of the lower frequencies, providing much greater stability to the overall presentation.  The whole delivery of the soundstage exudes control and solidity.

Elegantly designed, well made and easy to install, the Wilson Benesch Full Circle gives a typical hi-fi system a confident and commanding suite of lower frequencies, with an airy midrange that oozes detail.  Showing that it also responds well to tweaks and other improvements, the Full Circle will prove an ideal purchase for beginners, audiophiles and hi-fi enthusiasts.  -Paul Rigby

Wilson Benesch Full Circle Turntable

MSRP: Approx. $4,400 (£2,795)

wilson-benesch.com

Peripherals

Analog Source Avid Acutus turntable    SME IV tonearm    Benz Glider cartridge
Preamplifier Aesthetix Calypso
Speakers Quad ESL-57 electrostatics with One Thing Audio upgrade
Power IsoTek Super Titan    IsoTek power cords
Cable Tellurium Q Blue and Black

AMG V12 Turntable

Being an enthusiast of great industrial and mechanical design, I hold objects that perform as well as they look in the highest esteem.  I confess to becoming an admirer of the AMG V12 the second I saw pictures of it.  When I saw the V12 in person, had I been sitting on an analysts couch, performing a word-association drill, Leica would have been the first word that came to mind.  Imagine, those of you who own or have owned a Leica (or an older 500-series mechanical Hasselblad), that the camera maker decided to enter the turntable business and bring its level of machining expertise to turntable design.

But craftsmanship from a brand like Leica goes so far beyond simple aesthetics.  How would a turntable manufacturer translate the damped feel of a Leica focusing mechanism, or the positive engagement of a Ferrari gearshift, or the vault-like sound that a Rolls Royce door makes to the language of turntable design?  Germany’s AMG (for Analog Manufaktur Germany; no relation to the Mercedes-Benz design branch by the same initials) puts the same level of artistry into its V12 turntable.  Its design allows users to operate the capacitance-controlled power and speed switches and feel the effortlessness of the tonearm, while the uniformity of its machined and anodized surfaces provide a visual package as stunning as the turntable’s performance,

At $16,500, a cost which includes the wooden base and 12-inch AMG tonearm, the V12 achieves price parity with its peers from AVID, Clearaudio, SME and others.  During a conversation with AMG designer and principal Werner Röschlau at the Munich High-End back in May, I learned of the high level of refinement that the V12 offers and that this is not really his first attempt at building a turntable.  Röschlau, who is an engineer by trade, did high-precision machine work for a few top turntable manufacturers for over a decade.  Along with his own design expertise, Röschlau applied what he learned working for those manufacturers to the V12.

This turntable is the epitome of simplicity in look and operation.  Röschlau tells me that every aspect of the tables’ design revolves around simplicity, functionality and longevity.  “I truly hope that these turntables outlive me,” he says with a smile.

Sharpen Your Skills

The V12 offers an amazing combination of weight, stability and delicacy.  The SME arms that I use on a number of tables feel thick and clunky compared to the V12 arm (though the former are easier to adjust at first).  Again, the comparison to a Leica comes to mind with the V12, as I reflect on the turntable’s small, lightweight, minimalist controls that make perfect sense once you get used to them.

It’s often said that people who are masters of their craft make things look deceptively easy.  Sitting at home watching Sebastian Vettel win the F1 championship, you think, “How hard can it be? I can drive a car.”  I was thinking the same thing, as Garth Leerer, the US importer for Musical Surroundings, fine-tuned this table.

But this tonearm does not invite constant fiddling like a Tri-Planar does; the V12 arm is perfect for someone who sees turntable setup as something you do once, rather than for someone who sees it as an ongoing sport.  AMG includes a full set of allen-head screwdrivers for every one of the V12’s adjustments, though the instruction manual falls woefully short in terms of helping the uninitiated—there are no pictures.  If you haven’t set up your fair share of tonearms, this may not be the best place to begin your analog-setup journey.

The manual does warn you to use a light touch when making all adjustments.  The screws are all tiny: .65-, 1.5- and 2-mm allen-head screws that disappear into the casework, further contributing to the ultra-clean design.  But excess torque will destroy the subtle handiwork, so proceed with extreme care.

Another tip for those of you adding the V12 to your system:  Level the plinth before you attach the platter, as one of the three-adjustment screws is under the platter and cannot be accessed once you’ve fully assembled the table.  You should also be sure that the V12 is on a very solid surface, as the weight of this table will sink into any wooden rack shelves you might have.

Adding the optional HRS platform made specifically for the V12 boosts performance even further, with better low-level detail and transient slam, but the upgraded platform is not necessary—the V12 is enjoyable delivered from the factory as is.  But Leerer mentions that he feels the sound of any turntable can be improved by better isolation, such as that offered by the HRS platform, which offers a similar performance increase when I pair it with my fully suspended AVID Volvere SP turntable.  The HRS platform is a $2,500 upgrade that is well worth the investment.

Though the V12 requires a steady and patient hand to optimize it, the end result is more than worth the effort.  And if you subscribe to the philosophy of form following function, there may be no better example of record-spinning art than the V12.  Even the belt-drive mechanism is handily hidden beneath the platter—the mechanism slips on easily if you use the enclosed spiked wooden tool according to the manual.  (The turntable manual is much better than the tonearm manual, and it’s well illustrated.).  Röschlau makes it a point to mention that even this step, while appearing a style move, “Keeps the belt out of the environment and free of dust and UV rays.”

Recalibrate Your Senses

The V12 sounds as good as it looks, perhaps even better.  Immediately upon power up, the V12 feels solid and elegant—this is a serious record-playing machine.  The glowing red speed buttons turn to green with a mere touch.  And the V12 can accommodate 78RPM playback, for those with legacy collections.

We can argue about the merits and shortcomings of a 12-inch tonearm versus a shorter tonearm, but the main argument for a longer arm is minimized tracing distortion.  Here, the V12 succeeds brilliantly by utilizing an incredibly stiff yet lightweight tonearm wand that has an effective mass of only 12.9 grams.

A non-suspended design, the V12 table utilizes a massive CNC-machined plinth and an adjustable, high-mass aluminum “pod” pre-drilled for the tonearm mounting.  This removable pod uses a bayonet mount and is geared towards the analog enthusiast wishing to explore multiple tonearm and cartridge options. The finely gradated scale, where the base of the pod meets the plinth, makes it easy to perform the necessary adjustments for other tonearms with slightly different spindle-to-pivot distances.

Listening begins with a well-broken-in Lyra Kleos that has spent enough time on the AVID Volvere SP/SME V and the VPI Classic tables to be a familiar starting point for my review of the V12.  The AMG is considerably more expensive than the VPI and still almost a third more than the AVID/SME combination, and the presentation is markedly different.  Immediately, there is an increase in resolution from top to bottom, as well as a decrease in distortion.  A handful of albums from the “chronic-inner-groove-distortion” bin track through much easier than before. 

Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie just happens to be at the top of this list.  A record that has always felt fairly grainy and etched on top plays now tracks clean.  The inner cut on side one, “Light From a Cake,” used to have a more gravely feel to the vocals, usually causing me to prematurely end the side, but now it sounds smooth, with the drums greatly improved and the violin fluid, where this experience used to be torturous.

Investigating other problematic tracks reveals the same thing: an overall continuity and sonic integrity, with no sign of drawbacks.  Thanks to the Furutech’s incredibly handy disc flattener, there are no more warped records in my collection, so I can’t comment on the longer tonearm’s ability to track highly warped records.

Time Flies

Now that I’m comfortable with the sound of the V12, exploring different cartridges is in order.  Next stop is the Sumiko Palo Santos, which has been favorably reviewed here, and offers a similar tonal balance to the Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum.  Slightly rich tonally, this combination provides excellent extension and a somewhat warm rendition of the lower frequencies.

The AMG tonearm transforms the Palo Santos cartridge.  Sounding almost too warm and a little tubby with the SME 312 tonearm (also 12 inches), the Palo Santos snaps to life on the AMG, now with more definition in the lower registers.  Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic Street Survivors, via the recent MoFi Silver Label release, proves enlightening, with the multiple layers of guitars now having more bite than before; yet, the overall presentation retains the smoothness that is the signature of the V12.

The more time I spend with the V12, the more the palette it paints feels like open reel tape.  Herbie Hancock’s masterpiece, Empyrean Isles, unfolds just as it did when I heard the master tape during the Music Matters remastering session, with the presence of each of the four virtuosos retaining distinctly separate spaces and with the musicians’ complex improvisations intact.  The V12 delivers percussion and cymbals that are rich with attack and decay, but that strike a perfect balance of timbre and tone.

Diva Approved

Of course, the female voice is the litmus test for so many audiophiles, so a thorough exploration again reveals the extremely low distortion this configuration is capable of.  Now, having moved to the Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge, the bar is raised considerably.  Anyone doubting that this table can carry what is arguably one of the world’s finest (and, at $15,000, most expensive) cartridges is selling the AMG table short.

Marianne Faithfull’s take on the Rolling Stones’ classic “As Tears Go By,” from her 1987 record Strange Weather, is sublime, with the V12 extracting every bit of her addiction-scarred voice, and with Bill Frisell’s guitar hiding in the background, wandering in and out of the mix.  Faithfull’s voice is tough to capture, but the V12 gets every bit of grit out of the vinyl, highlighting the differences between the original pressing and the ORG 45RPM remaster.

Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez’s rendition of Aria from ‘La Wally’ illustrates how well the AMG/Goldfinger combination paints the striking sustain of the solo voice in an operatic setting.  Much like being called on to reproduce the violin, the combination demands tonal purity and a wide dynamic range, or else the illusion is lost.  Fernandez’s voice feels as if it is floating in front of me, even on the most dramatic passages.  For those unfamiliar with this piece, it is featured on the soundtrack of the ’80s cult-classic film, Diva.

Let’s Review

After living with the AMG V12 since mid June, I’m as smitten with it as the day I first unboxed it—not always an easy feat in the wacky and rapidly evolving world of high-end audio.  It’s often too easy for the charm that captures you in a dealer or hi-fi show demo to fade all too quickly after the excitement of the purchase wears off.  A cursory look at the online buying-and-selling community Audiogon will reveal this to be the case with so much gear.

I’m happy to say that this has not happened with the V12—hence I’ve purchased the review sample to make it a permanent part of our reference system.   There is still more information to be culled from your LP collection, but it’s going to take a lot more money to get there, especially if you’ve paired your V12 with a flagship cartridge like the Clearaudio Goldfinger, Lyra Atlas or something comparable.

The AMG V12 is such an excellent value, in terms of performance for the price, meticulous build quality and timeless style, that we award it our Analog Product of the Year award.  -Jeff Dorgay

The AMG V12 Turntable

MSRP: $16,500 (includes wooden base and 12-inch AMG tonearm)

www.amg-turntables.com

www.musicalsurroundings.com

Peripherals

Phono Cartridge Lyra Kleos    Sumiko Palo Santos    Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement
Phonostage Audio Research REF Phono 2SE    Simaudio Moon 810LP
Preamplifier Audio Research REF 5SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs XA200.5 monoblocks
Speakers GamuT S9    Sonus faber Aida
Cable Cardas Clear

Pro-Ject Essential Turntable

Pick up a TV guide these days in the UK, look in the back, and you’ll almost assuredly be hit by advertisements for USB-outfitted “miracle turntables” that promise to transfer your vinyl to data for iPod, car, or computer use. Plus, you get an independent platform to play treasured wax. Oy vey. These toys give vinyl a bad name by arousing the suspicion that vinyl really is a dinosaur and all these weird types that bang on about sacred grooves must be in the pay of the hi-fi industry. And yet, the jump from poorly constructed rubbish to audiophile fare isn’t far. Witness the $250 Pro-Ject Essential, the cheapest audiophile deck on the market.

Structurally, the plinth is constructed of MDF with semi-isolating rubber feet. The platter is also created from MDF and sits on a reasonably performing, toughly built bearing. And the single tube-pressed unipivot tonearm is superior to the glued-on headshell type. For such a low-cost turntable, manufacturing has been closely monitored.

Be careful during setup, however. Approach the ‘table gently to avoid pulling on the delicate signal leads connected to the unipivot housing. In order to provide a low center of gravity (which should help with LPs suffering from a touch of warping), the counterweight is low slung. An Ortofon OM 3E cartridge completes the main portion of the deck; not surprisingly, an Ortofon 2M Red reportedly transforms the Essential’s performance. It is also possible to swap another OM stylus to upgrade the cartridge at minimal cost; the bodies are identical.

Laurence Armstrong, managing director of Henley Designs, which acts as the UK distributor for Pro-Ject and design partner for the Essential, confirms that “Everything bar the belt, which is bought in, has been machined in the Pro-Ject factory, even the screws that hold it together. The deck has a far eastern economy of scale with European build quality.”  John Paul Lizars, from Sumiko Audio in the US has also jumped on the bandwagon with the Essential, so by the time you read this it will also be available there.

A Curate’s Egg

After unpacking, all you have to do is attach the belt, add the anti-skate weight and the arm weight, place the mat on the deck, plug in everything, and you’re away. You’ll be finished in 15 minutes. The Essential also comes with a dustcover, which I left off to improve overall sound quality during tests.

Because of the low cost, the Essential is a curate’s egg: Design shortcuts yielded a few foibles. First, the belt sits on the outside of the platter and is a bugger to fit. You need full 3D handling to stretch the belt over each pulley and the outer platter. Also, accidental knocks can twang the belt off the platter. Not vastly important, but potentially irritating. Second, the unipivot arm—by its very nature and because of its inherent design—requires gentle handling. If you’re too rough, it will leap out of its housing. Not a big deal during use and again, at most, irritating.

My third criticism is more a window of opportunity than a drawback. The platter mat should, at your earliest convenience, be consigned to the dustbin and replaced. Better feet isolation should also be considered, as should disposing of the lid and associated hinges to reduce distortion. Suffice it to say that the Essential is a tweaker’s dream and will reward low-cost albeit ingenious sonic improvements. Armstrong agrees.

“We’ve found that swapping the platter mat for a leather mat increases the platter mass, improving speed stability,” he says. “Squash balls under the feet on a solid shelf works well as does a trampoline effect under the deck to create a suspended sub-chassis—unipivots really like that.”

An Easy Listen

What you certainly don’t get with the Essential is any great bass—although this may have more to do with the low-cost cartridge. When playing the Human League’s early electronica masterpiece “Being Boiled” from Travelogue, bass control was minimal and bass weight non-existent. But, you do get detail. Pro-Ject certainly made the best trade-off here. Indeed, details, partly the result of using a unipivot arm, are available in spades; vocals oozed personality.

Midrange and treble fared best via organic instruments. Tripping through Neil Young’s On The Beach, cymbals had a surprising amount of lightness and fragility while an acoustic guitar brimmed with texture and a vivid energy that kept the ear involved. What little bass existed tended to live in the crossover between lower midrange and upper bass frequencies. On more rocking tracks, bass guitar possessed a tremendous grip (considering the unit’s price), while lead electric guitar also tracked well. All the instruments were easily delineated, and instrumental separation proved remarkable given the ‘table’s price point.

Spinning “Lush Life” from John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman’s self-titled album, the basic Ortofon cartridge impressively tackled the rigors of the saxophone and notably maintained control of potentially chaotic frequencies all the while portraying the instrument’s requisite energy. Imaging was only decent, yet the soundstage possessed greater body and depth than that of some $500 CD players.

When playing Stevie Wonder’s ‘”I’d Cry” from the original Tamla LP I Was Made To Love Her, I couldn’t believe how much music came forward. Any ingrained pops and clicks were placed in the background, speaking volumes about the deck’s information retrieval—more expensive budget turntables could learn from it.

A Real Steal

Whether you’re looking to get back into vinyl or are approaching the medium for the first time and have a restricted budget, the Pro-ject Essential is highly recommended. For the price, the turntable screams value: It boasts all of the required basic features and, more importantly, provides an arresting and involving playback—a solid foundation for a top-quality budget hi-fi system.  -Paul Rigby

Pro-Ject Essential

€172 (Black)

€195 (Various colours)  $299 US, both finishes

www.henleydesigns.co.uk

www.sumikoaudio.net

Peripherals

Preamplifier Aesthetix Calypso
Phono Icon PS3
Power Icon MB845 Monoblocks
Speakers Quad ESL-57 (Slightly Modified)
Cables Avid SCT    Avid ASC

Hanging at VPI

Always a fun day to visit the VPI factory, in Cliffwood, New Jersey.

This is American made at its finest.  VPI combines new and old school manufacturing with careful hand assembly to create turntables known all over the world for their sonic attributes.

The most fun however, is back in the sound room, where now retired principal, Harry Weisfeld has just unpacked a pair of JBL Everest speakers.  As we listen to Way Out West, via VPI’s new 3D printed arm and a Lyra Atlas cartridge, the lifelike sound is unmistakable.  Harry smiles and says, “they need a few months to really break in, then we’ll have some magic.”  An audiophile to the end.

And lurking off in the distance is a vintage Denon direct drive table, that Weisfeld is holding “for a friend…” Pretty cool.

Funk Firm Little Super Deck

Things that reference hallucinogenic drugs tend to pique my interest.  And the Little Super Deck (or LSD) from the Funk Firm will indeed take you on a trip to vinyl bliss, doing so for a lot less money than you’d expect—$1,995 to be exact.

Our review unit arrived in a very THX 1138–esque shade of white, but the table is also available in black or red, or with a black top and wooden base.  You can also dress it up with a different colored Achromat for an extra $99.  Brian Tucker of Pro Audio Ltd., Funk Firm’s U.S. distributor, suggests using only the 3-mm Achromat, as the 5-mm version raises the arm too far for the correct vertical tracking angle to be established and bumps the arm up against the dust cover.  A standard felt mat, similar to the one on a Rega or Linn table, is included at no charge.

Dropping the stylus on the record is a revelation, pure and simple.  After a few long evenings of playing records until the wee hours, I still find myself shaking my head, wondering how this much performance can be had for two grand.  As I listen to the records from the large pile of my Music Matters Blue Note collection, it becomes clear that this table gets to the heart of the music—it’s a master of tone.  Whether I’m listening to Herbie Hancock or Lee Morgan, the LSD delivers acoustic instruments with a level of tonal body and contrast that I’m not used to from a $2,000 turntable.

Though the sky is the limit for turntables these days, the $2,000-to-$3,000 range has so many excellent choices, with the playing field being upset on a regular basis.  Rega, Clearaudio, AVID, VPI and Pro-Ject (just to name a few) all have strong offerings that provide a major improvement in performance over tables costing about half as much.  With so much competition at this level, it’s a pretty exciting time for analog lovers who have a bit of spending money but who don’t want a table costing as much as a new car.

Some Assembly Required

A cursory look at the LSD doesn’t arouse suspicion, meaning that it looks fairly generic from a distance.  Closer inspection reveals just how much engineering has gone into this little marvel.  The LSD does not provide the same plug-and-play install that a Rega deck does, and there isn’t much similarity between the LSD and a Rega beyond the glass platters.  And, unless you’ve got good mechanical aptitude and are fairly intuitive, have your dealer set this baby up.

Unfortunately, the instructions for the LSD, which requires a fair amount of unintuitive assembly, are somewhat dreadful.  I understand that the cost of printing a manual like the one that accompanies a pair of Sonus faber speakers is prohibitive for a $2,000 turntable, but a high-resolution PDF file showing some actual pictures of the damn thing during each stage of the setup process should be considered essential.  I’m not singling out Funk Firm here, though:  I’ve yet to read a great turntable setup manual.

The photo included in the manual does illustrate the three-pulley “vector” system, which uses two additional free-spinning pulleys, so that the drive belt goes around the platter in a triangular formation, minimizing the need for multiple motors.  This is an ingenious solution for a table at this price, and a further example of how over engineered this product is—not to mention he fact that this system provides tremendous benefits when reproducing stringed instruments, particularly the violin.  Keep in mind that this is the same system used in Funk Firm’s flagship table, as well as the company’s $4,500 upgrade to the Linn LP12.

Just to see if this was all marketing hype or not, I used a shorter belt, driving the platter only with the motor pulley (returning to the Jung Trio for the same violin passages).  While you might not notice the difference the pulleys make when listening to your favorite rock records, those loving acoustic music will really appreciate the additional pitch stability this setup provides.

The LSD features a DC motor, similar to what designer Arthur Khoubesserian introduced decades earlier with his highly successful Pink Triangle table, powered by a small wall wart.  You can change speeds between 33 and 45 rpm using the switch on the plinth, which is handy for those having large record collections.

Moving Right Along

Those who are Jedi master enough to assemble the LSD will be highly impressed with how it implements some of its features.  Funk Firm takes a unique approach (patent applied for) to setting the anti-skate, using a weight attached by fishing line to a sliding rod. This allows for ultra-fine tuning of the anti-skate force, which couldn’t be achieved by simply putting the loop in a rung marked in ¼-gram increments.

Funk Firm also has a unique way to set the tracking force:  Using a combination of an under-hung counterweight and a vertical-track-force slider, located right on the arm tube, allows for a better optimization of mass on the table than merely adjusting the weight on the back end of the tonearm.  You can slide the collar up towards the headshell to increase effective mass for your favorite MC cartridge, and slide it back for the opposite effect when using MM carts.

The single screw holding the headshell in place allows adjustment of overhang and azimuth, and it is also a little tricky.  Keep the screw snug but not tight while making minor adjustments, or this will drive you bonkers.

This worked perfectly with my favorite MM, a NOS Ortofon VMS 20 Mk II, and the Lyra Kleos MC.  Dialing in the mass optimizes each cartridge better and ultimately eliminates that “thin” feeling that seems to accompany most budget turntables.  On the other side of the spectrum, my standard-issue late-’80s LP12 sounds slow and out of time by comparison—it lacks the sheer jump and acceleration on musical transients that this table possesses.  Some of this can be attributed to the F5 arm using the same Swiss Abec 7 bearings that my $5,500 SME V arm does.

Because of the F5’s ability to extract information from the black grooves, mating it with a cartridge that costs 50 percent more than the table still makes sense—though a cartridge at this level is probably at the limit of what most LSD owners will consider purchasing.  Lyra’s more reasonably priced Delos ($1,695) is a super partner for the F5 and LSD, as is the $850 Dynavector DV-20X2 and the $1,195 Sumiko Blackbird.  I also had excellent results with the $379 Denon DL-103R cartridge; the variable mass aspect of the F5 tonearm really comes in handy with this classic cartridge.

A Great Pickup Arm, All by Itself

As the F5 pickup arm is available separately for $1,295, the LSD seems like the ideal upgrade for a Rega table.  And, as we just happen to have a pair of P3s on hand, it makes perfect sense to take one for a spin, mounting an Exact 2 on each table. Those of you possessing a P25, P3, or P5 and wanting a serious upgrade should seriously consider an F5—everything improves dramatically.  The arm (sold separately) features the newer, three-point Rega mount.  The one supplied with the LSD is compatible with older Rega tables, and the mounting plate is similar to those of AVID tables.

My P3, already equipped with a Groovetracer subplatter, is now somewhat of a “Frankentable” with the F5 installed, but it’s a blast.  Bass weight increases dramatically:  Going back to The Art of Noise’s Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise? reveals bass that goes deeper and hits harder.  However, the biggest improvement is that of inner detail.

When listening to George Harrison’s guitar on “Taxman,” there is definitely more bite and decay compared to the standard Rega arm, and overall pace is improved, as well—no more cowbell required.  A similar effect is realized with “Eleanor Rigby,” in that the violins now have more separation and body, and less grain.

Finally, we gave the F5 a spin on the new AVID Ingenium, with similar results.  As good as the LSD is, the F5 is the star of the show.

It’s Like Buying a Pickup Arm and Getting a Free Turntable.

Putting the Funk Firm LSD through its paces with a handful of cartridges proves that this table is a steal for $2,000.  When compared to equally priced competitors from SME and Rega, the F5 pickup arm makes the LSD an even better bargain, with some innovative features that the competition doesn’t have.  But remember, this table will need a good dealer or good skills to set up properly.

But once it was setup, I could not find fault with the LSD, no matter what kind of music I listened to.  Going back to a few of the higher-dollar tables in my collection, I could see what I wasn’t getting in terms of dynamics and resolution, but the LSD combines it all so well, it won’t leave you wanting much more, no matter how good your system is.

The LSD strikes such a good equilibrium of basic, balanced aesthetics and the ability to reveal a lot of music that it may actually be a destination turntable for many analog aficionados.  Those stepping up from anything in the $500-to-$1,000 range will be shocked at how much music is lurking in their record collection.

And because of this, we are happy to award it one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

The Funk Firm’s Little Super Deck

MSRP:  $1,995

www.thefunkfirm.co.uk

Rega RP8 Turntable

Five years ago, when visiting the Rega factory in the UK, I joined a group of Rega dealers to witness something very special at Rega founder Roy Gandy’s house.

A new skeletal plinth design that was supposed to be a step above the flagship P9, featuring a one off, ceramic platter and what appeared to be an RB1000 tonearm.  Needless to say the sound was fantastic and the following day, back at the factory, we saw more.  Gandy and staff were coy, referring to it as a “prototype,” and a “work in progress,” tempering our enthusiasm, telling us that “it could be out in a few months, a few years, or not at all.”  So, I returned to the States empty-handed, but I did learn how to play cricket.

But time flies when your having fun, and we now have the RP8, looking surprisingly like that prototype I saw years ago, but for a few minor changes.  And, on one level the RP8 is a pretty big jump forward for Rega.  They have always championed a low mass plinth design as the path to analog greatness and the website hints that “this is the first of the skeletal plinth designs.”

Featuring a new RB808 tonearm, which looks like a further refinement of the direction taken with the RB303 on the RP6 turntable, introduced last year, and also features new, lower capacitance tonearm cables, that look very audiophile-like in nature. The RP8 has an MSRP of $2,995, however US customers can purchase one with Rega’s $1,800 Apheta MC cartridge attached and set up for $3,995.  A major bargain, if you have the right phono stage.

The hub/subplatter features a machined aluminum cap, extending all the way down so the belts can contact the full surface. Rega claims that this, combined with the new tonearm provides for increased resolution, and the first record auditioned, Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles brings a new perspective on this Blue Note classic, and illustrates a turntable, tonearm and cartridge all working together as a system.

One of the toughest things facing an analog enthusiast is getting this combination correct, so that the optimum trackability, resolution and stereo separation can be achieved.  Freddie Hubbard’s Coronet bleats out of the left channel, completely occupying the left half of the listening room, with the proper height and spatial relationships – is both beguiling and convincing. The drum kit is miked equally hard right, with Hancock on piano, gently floating in the middle, with Ron Carter’s bass keeping the bass on track, yet dissolved into the stereo image.

Quick Comparisons – up and down the range

Utilizing the Audio Research REF Phono 2SE, with two identical inputs and the ability to load both phono cartridges at the 50 ohms required for utmost HF smoothness (and honestly, my ARC SP11 mk.2, with it’s 30 ohm setting is pure bliss with the Apheta moving coil cartridge, but alas only one input) makes it a snap to compare the RP8 to both the RP6 and P9 to see just how much higher the bar has been raised.

The MoFi version of Aimee Mann’s Lost In Space underscores the improvements on two levels.  This densely layered record needs a first rate analog rig to lay bare all the intriguing textures and spatial cues, which the RP8 aces.  Perhaps even more intriguing is the LF performance of the RP8 – it’s very close to that of the P9.  If you haven’t experienced the P9, it’s not like the rest of the Rega range.   It possesses incredible weight and body.  The RP8 has a similar weighty feel, you almost don’t expect this kind of locked in bass response to come from a table that is the opposite of some of todays massive record players.

That machined aluminum subplatter pays another big dividend; much better pitch stability, and consequently revealing more low level detail.  Where Mann’s delicate voice wavers ever so slightly during “Guys Like Me” on the RP6, it is rock solid when switching to the RP8.  This doesn’t mean the RP6 is rubbish, you don’t notice the difference as easily until you play it right next to the RP8, and let’s face it, the RP8 costs twice as much.

The biggest surprise comes in a side-by-side comparison with the P9.  While the $5,000 P9 still has more LF weight and an even dreamier, more defined high end, the RP8 closes the gap tremendously, leaving this reviewer to wonder what Rega has on the horizon with the RP10.  An urge to spin the recent remaster of Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Illustrates the huge soundstage the Apheta is capable, with synthesizers and special effects everywhere.  Moving up to the P9 offers an even bigger soundfield, yet pace and timing are equally enticing with both decks, yet the P9 takes the lead, with the opening, distorted bass line of “Mongoloid,” offering more grunt and more texture.

Ticking the necessary boxes

It wouldn’t be an audiophile review without some female vocals, eh?  The Low + Dirty Three In the Fishtank 7 LP seemed the perfect place to start, with it’s dreamy, ethereal vocals, fading way off into the distance of the soundstage on the opening track, “I Hear…Goodnight,” with Mimi Parkers gentle brushwork on the drums so faint, it would be lost on a budget rig.  This record also clearly illustrates the ease by which the Rega combo handles the violin – exquisite.

Going up in tempo to Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s Plantation Lullabies proves that the RP8 and Apheta can rock in a major way; Ndegeocello’s thunderous bass riffs command authority with this table and cartridge anchoring her sensuous vocals all the while.

We covered the Apheta in detail in issue 10 at it’s introduction.  In five years, it’s only gone up in price $300 and my opinion hasn’t changed.  This is a fantastic cartridge with a lightnening fast response, but it must be loaded properly or it will sound harsh and thin.  With comparisons to the RP6 and P9 out of the way, I could go back to in-depth listening through the ARC SP-11 mk.2, which has an incredible on board phono stage that just happens to have a loading setting of 30 ohms – perfection for the Apheta.

This allows the cartridge to have maximum dynamics, smoothing out the HF response at the same time.  Keith Richards “You Don’t Move Me,” From his Talk is Cheap album features great acoustic playing by the riff meister that hangs between the speakers.   Richard’s voice has never been his strong suit, yet it is rendered with plenty of body here.

Regardless of the program material chosen, the RP8/Apheta combination delivers the goods. Though you’ll save a few bucks should you choose an Exact 2 cartridge, if you have a phonostage up to the task, the extra $500 for the Apheta upgrade is the smartest $500 you’ll ever spend in the world of analog.

The nitty gritty

For those not familiar with Rega turntables and phono cartridges, they are the ultimate in simplicity, when it comes to setup.  The Apheta cartridge uses three screws instead of the usual two and this provides perfect alignment.  Your RP8 can arrive with the Apheta already installed, so all you need to do is five minutes of basic assembly (fit the belt, the platter and set tracking force/anti skate) Analog bliss is about 15 minutes away, if you’re really poking.

Personally, I love the skeletal plinth and as I have no children or furry creatures to threaten my analog world, I can bask in the RP8s high tech glory.  Those less fortunate, fear not.  The RP8 comes with a traditional plinth and dust cover that will protect it from the environment.  I could not discern any audible advantage or disadvantage to the extra hardware, but congratulate Rega for providing it.  My audiophile buddies were polarized, they either thought the RP8 was really cool, or tried to explain to me how it couldn’t work.

We could discuss techie bits in further detail, but you can read about that here, on Rega’s website.  Suffice to say they all work together brilliantly and the RP8/Apheta combination reveals more music than most in its class, if not all.  Mounting the Apheta on the VPI Classic 1 gives a warmer, slightly more bass heavy presentation, but it does not offer up the resolution that the RP8 does.  It’s like the difference between a Mini Cooper S and my Fiat Abarth.  You either prefer the more nimble ride of the Abarth or the somewhat more posh ride of the Cooper.  There’s no wrong choice.

However, if you want a high performance record player with next to zero fuss required, I can think of no better choice.

My Rega journey began with the Planar 3 in 1982, and somehow over thirty years later, I have the feeling it’s not over.  Roy Gandy and his crew are a clever group, and as long as they keep refining their turntables, there will be new vinyl adventures from this fine British company.  I’m very happy to award the RP8/Apheta combination one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

-Jeff Dorgay

The Rega RP8 Turntable

MSRP:  $2,995   ($3,995 bundled with Rega Apheta MC cartridge)

www.rega.co.uk (factory)

www.soundorg.com (US importer)

Peripherals

Cartridge Rega Apheta MC
Phonostage Audio Research REF Phono 2SE
Preamplifier Audio Research REF 5SE, Audio Research SP-11mk. 2
Power Amplifier Octave Jubilee Monoblocks
Speakers Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution
Cables Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

Rega RP9 and Apheta Cartridge

This is a review from way back, issue 10 to be exact.  But, as we are just getting our hands on the current RP8, it might be interesting for some of you to revisit our thoughts on the P9 and the excellent Apheta phono cartridge.

We usually review cartridges as separate items, but because this is Rega’s first moving coil cartridge (and it has been in development for a few years)designed to mate perfectly with a Rega arm, especially their flagship RB1000 arm featured here on the P9, a joint review it is.

In case you are not familiar with this turntable and cartridge, the P9 has a suggested retail of $4495 and the Apheta Moving Coil cartridge is $1695.  The accessory Tungsten counterweight is an additional $100.  This is definitely a serious turntable, folks.  Rega has been steadily moving upmarket with their P5 and P7 models, which are great turntables in their own right, but the P9 is the flagship and having spent time with both of them I feel that the P9 is really in a class all its own. (Ed. Note: These are now $4,995 and $1,995 respectively and the P9 has just been discontinued)

I enjoy Regas understated elegance.  If you want a big, bulky turntable, that screams “dig me”, the P9 is not going to be your cup of tea.  At first glance the P9 looks like a P25 with a larger wood base, but that would be missing the boat. Don’t let the subtle styling fool you; a peek under the traditional felt mat reveals a high tech ceramic platter, with a machined sub platter beneath.  The plastic part in the P3 and P25 is gone.

Cast your glance aside to the RB1000 tonearm.  According to Rega, it takes one technician as much time to hand assemble and adjust an RB1000 arm as it does to make 30 RB300’s and it shows the first time you pick that tonearm and set it down on a record.  Definitely a work of art.

And the idea that Rega has a moving coil cartridge, is also pretty exciting.  Designed from the ground up, they have eliminated the tie wire and foam damper found in conventional moving coil designs.  The result is indeed, very clean sounding with a tremendous amount of detail on tap.  As much as I like the sound, I love the clear body, allowing you a peek inside, a nice touch!­  A more in-depth technical analysis of the new arm and power supply, can be found on the Rega website.
Thanks to a power supply that is the same size as a Rega integrated amplifier, you no longer have to pop that platter and move the belt on the pulley to get 45rpm playback.  Just plug in the umbilical cord, turn it on and choose the speed you want.

I can’t imagine that there is anyone out there who hasn’t heard of Rega, or even owned one at one point in time.  My guess is if you did, it was probably a P2 or P3.  Aside from the Linn LP-12, the Rega P3 is probably one of the best selling turntables in history; certainly if we are talking about belt drive tables.  (NO Surly emails from Technics SL-1200 owners!!)

Like anything that has been around for a long time, there are a number of misconceptions, urban myths and other bits of misinformation floating around.  So let’s get the BS out of the way and clear the air.  Here are the Rega myths exposed and explained once and for all:

Rega turntables don’t have good speed accuracy, they tend to play a little fast.

Way back in the beginning of the companies tenure, some of their tables did play a smidge fast but that has not been an issue for many years now.  The engineering staff at Rega has painstakingly worked to rid themselves of this problem and they are so particular, they actually measure speed with a record playing to take the drag from tracking a groove into account.

Even with the P1, this issue is LONG a thing of the past and our review sample has perfect speed accuracy.  A new belt solved the slight speed issue with my own P25, so check this first if you are having an issue on an older table.  Most turntable manufacturers suggest changing the belt yearly or at least every other year.

Rega turntables don’t have deep bass, they sound a little thin.

This one is a matter of personal taste.  I have always found the P2, P3 and P25 to have more of a “fast” sound compared to other tables in its price range, with fantastic detail retrieval and smooth midrange.  One mans fast is another mans thin.  In all fairness, my bias is towards minimonitors and panel speakers so I’m not a big bass freak to begin with.  However even on a full range system, Rega tables have always come across as well balanced and bass has never been an issue.  Perhaps those complaining of thin bass response did not have the VTA set correct – this can be an issue with other manufacturers cartridges, but easy to remedy.

You can’t adjust VTA on a Rega and hence can’t use other manufacturers cartridges very easy.

Again, not true.  Granted, it’s not as easy to adjust the VTA on a Rega table as it is on an SME, but should you decide that you would like a cartridge other than Rega (which have a 14mm stylus to top of the cartridge body distance) there are a few options.  You can use one of the aftermarket VTA adjustment devices or if you measure this distance on your cartridge, chances one of Rega’s tonearm shims will do the trick.  They now have these available for the RB250/300/600 arms as well as the RB700/900/1000 arms and you can just order whatever combination you require from your dealer in 2, 4 or 10mm thicknesses.

That felt mat drives me nuts, I’ve had way better luck with (insert mat of the week here)…

Just shut up and use the felt mat.  It works just fine, especially when you are spinning a lot of records in a listening session.  You can just leave the platter spin and change records, fantastic! Let’s get back to the job at hand and talk about the P9. Right.

Initial setup

The P9 arrived with the new Apheta moving coil cartridge installed, but it can be set up in a jiffy yourself, should the need arise, thanks to Regas three point mounting system.  Attach the wires, insert the screws and you are good to go!  No adjustments to make, just tracking force (1.75g) and Anti-skate; not quite as easy as putting a CD in the drawer, but the easiest turntable setup you’ll ever experience.  Five minutes and you will be playing records!  I dare you to accomplish that with any other $6000 record player.

Loading is the secret to making the Apeheta sing.  At least 100 ohms, 50-75 if you can and a touch lower if you’ve got it.  If you only have a 1000 ohm setting on your phono stage, there is a high probability that you will find the Apheta bright.  Anything higher than that and you will definitely find it bright and possibly way too bright.

Setting the Modwright 9.0 SWLP to 50 ohms and the BAT VK-10SE  at 33 ohms was perfect.  Down here, the cartridge can still breathe and the top end is smoothed out very nicely.  All of my serious listening was spent with the ModWright, because I felt that this was a good match financially as well – a $3k phono stage is probably a more realistic combination for a $6k turntable than a 7k phono stage.  However, the P9/Apheta combination has enough resolution to justify it, should you decide to go there.

A great first impression

Often times, first impressions really do stick with you and getting the P9 out of the box was quite a surprise.  I was very impressed with the table right away, with the P9 offering a much bigger and more powerful presentations than past Regas I’ve listened to.  If you were on the bubble and in the “Rega tables sound a bit thin” camp, you can flush that misconception down the toilet.  The P9 has a very authoritative presentation, especially in the lower registers.

The first record I put on that familiar felt mat was Patti Smiths Trampin’.  The first song on side two, Cartwheels has some very deep bass riffs that were reproduced with the usual Rega texture but a lot more weight than I’m used to.  The next cut, Ghandi has a lot of air and some very tasty drum fills over the top of some very strong bass parts too.  What the P9/Apheta combination excelled at was keeping everything placed about the soundstage, without losing focus or grip.  Some cartridges I have heard in this price range get mushy when the music gets texturally complex, but not the Apheta.

This is when you know that you are listening to first class analog, the sense of air and texture is there along with plenty of detail, yet lacking in grain.  The more I listened, the more I was impressed with the Apheta cartridge and marveled at how it had a speed, extension and clarity that I would normally associate with CD, yet with the smoothness I would expect from analog.  Quite anomalous behavior from a company that didn’t even start making digital products until recently.

And their top of the line digital player has an amazing amount of the positive attributes of good analog.  Very interesting indeed, but you will have to wait until our next issue to read about the Saturn!

It’s getting better all the time

The P9 ticks all the boxes at its price point; smooth, even frequency response, plenty of LF weight and definition, and enough PRAT to satisfy that crowd as well. Getting comfy with the Apheta only requires a short break in period – a few days will do the trick. Moving it out to the main reference system with the ASR Basis phono stage (again, loaded at 50 ohms) it was easy to compare to the SME 10.  The Apheta is a fantastic match for the ultra low noise floor of the ASR, providing CD quiet backgrounds on pristine vinyl surfaces.

Moving through the gamut, listening began in earnest with the recent Willie Nelson album, Songbird, which was produced by Ryan Adams. This is a great album, with a lot of depth and spatial cues. Definitely one of those “delicate space between the notes” kind of records that really conveys Nelson’s vocals in a more soft-spoken manner.  Same with the Johnny Cash American Recording album; the presentation of Delia was RIGHT THERE.

The P9/Apheta has such a good combination of resolution and ease, it makes for fatigue-free extended listening sessions. Load this baby wrong and you will curse it forever.  Get it right and it is a very nice dose of analog bliss.

The Apheta works well with dense musical passages, regardless of whether it was ten layers of overdubbed guitars or the violin section in an orchestra, meaning the heavy metal fan and the orchestra lovers will be able to find peace here.

Exploring other options

Just to be thorough, I did spend some time mounting other cartridges to the P9 to see how well it would perform.  Again, it passed with flying colors.  My Sumiko Celebration has a 14mm stylus to top measurement, so it did not require any spacer, just a quick HTA adjustment and a rebalance of the tonearm.  A bit more on the lush side than the Apheta, this might be a good combination for those needing a bit less detail than the Apheta offers.  A pair of  2mm spacers made it easy to mount the Shelter 90x – another excellent choice for those wanting a more romantic presentation.

Tough to beat

Once you get to this price range in turntables, there is quite a bit to choose from and every table has its own characteristic sound.  Right now I have an Oracle and an AVID Volvere here in the studio which are similarly priced and while I don’t believe in shootouts, I will say the P9 holds its own with the others in it’s class that I have at my disposal.

If I could change one thing on the P9, I would love to see it offered with a set of balanced connectors so those of us running a fully balanced phono stage could take advantage of the additional noise reduction this configuration offers. That’s my only gripe and it probably only applies to 2% of the people who might buy this table.

The Rega P9 excels by offering a mega analog experience with none of the hassle that you might expect from a high performance turntable.  This is as close as you can get to close and play ease of use with this level of musicality and detail.  Yes there are tables (at this price point) that might reveal a little more of this or that, but if there is another table for this kind of money that offers up this much music, yet requires NO setup expertise, Ill eat that felt mat.

An old friend of mine used to say, “Dude, why do you want a Rega, you can’t tweak it!”  To which I would reply “Dude, that’s why I want a Rega, I don’t want to tweak it, I want to listen to records!”

And I still feel that way 28 years later.  This one’s a keeper.  Highly recommended.

The Rega P9 Turntable and Apheta moving coil cartridge

MSRP:  Table:  $4,995, Cartridge:  $1,995   (tungsten counterweight, $100)

Manufacturer:

www.rega.co.uk (Factory)

www.soundorg.com (US Distributor)

Peripherals

Cartridge Shelter 90x, Sumiko Celebration, Dynavector 17D3
Phonostages Aesthetix Rhea, BAT VK-10 SE,  ModWright 9.0SWLP, ASR Basis Exclusive
Preamplifier Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2
Power Amplifier Conrad Johnson Premier 350, Nagra PSA, McIntosh MC275
Speakers Martin Logan Vantage, Tetra 506 Custom, Penaudio Serenade
Cables Tara Labs The One, Cardas Golden Reference
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

AVID Ingenium Turntable

In the world of racing, lighter is better and anything not contributing to getting across the finish line first is deemed useless, but in the world of turntables mass is usually considered an asset.

We’ve seen a proliferation of tables that merely just chunk on the weight – adding massive platters and enormous plinths, (often eschewing real engineering in the process) chroming everything along the way to justify a high price. This has never been the mantra at AVID.

AVID designer Conrad Mas continues to refine his design in the hope of making a table in the highly competitive price range occupied by the Rega RP6, VPI Traveler (and a few others) without compromising the engineering and performance principals that make an AVID an AVID.

AVID has always taken a more intelligent approach, using mass where needed to get the job done along with a highly tuned suspension to extract the maximum amount of information from those delicate grooves.  Their highly successful Diva and Diva IISP turntables use the same W-shaped plinth, derived from the original Acutus design, forming the critical bridge between the tonearm and the turntable bearing, with a simplified elastomer based suspension.  The Ingenium’s MDF platter, bearing, spindle and clamp are directly off the Diva II assembly line; but its plinth uses a simpler, rectangle-shaped part, keeping CNC time to a minimum.  It also allows the user to see the spindle rotate during playback – kind of cool for technology lovers. The elastomers are a different shape than those of the Diva series tables, but made of the same material and to the same tolerance.

This configuration brings AVID performance to a wider range of customers. If AVID’s Volvere turntable is a Lotus Elise, think of the Ingenium as a Caterham 7; distilling the AVID concept as far as it can go, but no further.

Would you like some fries with that?

Setting the tonearm down on War’s “Lowrider” reveals the signature AVID sound – big dynamics and rock solid bass. You can’t have a Diva IISP for $1,350 but you do get a lot more than you bargain for at this price, and the Ingenium succeeds brilliantly. The big question is how to configure your Ingenium.  The table is available without tonearm, drilled for a Pro-Ject Carbon arm for $1,300, 9-inch SME arm for $1,350 and a 12-inch SME for $1,550.  It can also be purchased in a dual arm configuration for $1,950 – the model we have here.  The entry level Ingenium is available with the Pro-Ject arm already installed (and it is a great arm, also featured as standard equipment on the Oracle Paris) and can be ordered with or without the AVID clamp, again an effort at keeping cost to a minimum with performance at maximum.

Mr. Mas and I have gone back and forth about the validity of a dual tonearm setup (he’s against it, I’m for it), so his catering to the true analogaholic and offering this option is highly commendable. I am convinced that this functionality, usually limited to some of the world’s most expensive turntables, is an essential feature to fully enjoy analog, whether you use that second tonearm for a mono cartridge, a budget cartridge for playing rough records, or an alternate tonal balance at the ready.

Spending a ton of cash in the context of a dual arm Ingenium isn’t necessary to reap the benefits.  With so many used SME, Rega and other arms on the market, that second arm is well in reach.  For this review, the SME 309 arm ($2,250 new, usually around $800 on the used market) and the new Ortofon TA-110 ($1,495 new) offer the best of both worlds – both having removable headshells, with the Ortofon using a more universal headshell, compatible with the vintage SME 3009 and the Technics SL-1200 tonearms.  The Ortofon arm is easy to install, streamlining the process for those loving to mix it up with their cartridge collection.  The majority of my listening was done with the Shure V15mxVr, the Ortofon MC Vivo Blue and the Zu Denon 103 – all cartridges in a range of about $400 – $600.

I modified an Ortofon arm adaptor from the Volvere SP, but AVID should have these available shortly as a regular item for the Ingenium.  Should you be as impatient as I am, the threads can be gently drilled clean with the aid of a drill press to keep the holes perpendicular to the board, allowing the threaded screws supplied with the Ingenium to clamp the board down.  This is the opposite of the other AVID turntables.

A joy to listen to

Tracking through the Art of Noise’s Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise? reveals a wide and deep soundstage, with all the minute synth bits and vocal echoes floating all over the room, well beyond the speaker boundaries – the mark of a great turntable. (or hallucinogen) The bass line in “Moments in Love” stays solid, never lacking weight or focus at the expense of blurring the musical information in the rest of the track.

The combination of layered vocals and multi-instrumental talent on Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconcelos’ Duas Voices, again highlights how well the AVID/SME combination retrieves inner detail and preserves transient attack.  This album is full of lightning fast acoustic guitar runs and explosive percussion – Vasconcelos’ specialty. The degree of texture present with the bongos here is enlightening, and the rich decay of each guitarist’s hands as they slap against their guitar bodies adds to the dimension of realism that this table offers.

More great guitar licks abound on Ry Cooder’s Into the Purple Valley, with a plethora of layered vocals here too.  This densely packed record is a torture test for low-level detail and tracking ability – if everything isn’t sorted, it just sounds like an AM radio. Another test easily passed by the Ingenium.

Basic functionality

The rock solid bass and image detail can be chalked up, in part to the excellent speed stability of the Ingenium.  The Feickert analog tools reveal the Ingenium spot on in terms of speed and when monitored over time, unwavering.  AVID deviates from the standard practice of most other belt drive turntable manufacturers using a low torque motor to drive the platter, choosing a high torque, high power motor instead – feeling this offers better control over the platter and minimal effect from stylus drag.

The Ingenium starts up with the sheer spin of a direct drive table, at full speed almost immediately. The only odd bit about the Ingenium is the power button; instead of being built into the plinth or in an outboard enclosure, it’s merely a rocker switch incorporated into the AC cord.  Be sure to route the cable accordingly so that it can be easily accessed.  A small sacrifice indeed, for this level of performance.

The basic elastomer suspension works well to isolate the table from the room. Acoustic feedback was nonexistent at high volume, and arbitrary raps near the Ingenium on the equipment rack barely came through the speakers. Not as effective as the suspended AVID tables, but way better than the non suspended tables in my collection.

Fantastic results

At the end of the test, mounting an identical SME 309 tonearm on the AVID Acutus Reference SP table confirms how well the entry level table stacks up against AVID’s finest, with the Zu Denon cartridge affixed to each arm, using the Aesthetix Rhea phonostage as a conduit to my reference system.  The Ingenium provides stellar performance in the context of a Journeyman level system (Electrocompaniet integrated, a pair of KEF LS-50s and the AVID Pellar phonostage), and it is no slouch in my reference system.  Compared to AVID’s top table, the lineage is clearly confirmed.  The Ingenium shares all of the same virtues of the Acutus Reference SP, just in a smaller dose.

True to the AVID design brief, each table up the range consistently reveals more music than the one before it. Having owned or reviewed every AVID table in the range except the Sequel, I can say this with 100% confidence.

Because our test Ingenium is fitted with a tonearm costing nearly twice as much as the table itself, even cursory comparison with the Rega RP6 and VPI Traveler isn’t fair. However, it is to AVID’s credit that this table performs so well with the 309, offering the prudent enthusiast a major glimpse at what high end analog is really all about without spending five figures.  We will get a standard edition Ingenium without clamp and featuring the Pro-Ject arm to investigate further very soon.

Utilizing the second tonearm configuration proves a ton of fun. The Ortofon arm makes it a cinch to go through my collection of cartridges mounted on the standard Ortofon headshells, swapping one for the other at will.  Though slightly retro, the Ortofon SPU is another heavenly match for the Ingenium.  Substituting the Lyra Kleos Mono, normally used on the Thorens TD-124 extracts a great performance from my mono Beatles and Stones records.  Grado, Ortofon and Denon (to name a few great examples) all offer fantastic mono cartridges in the $200 – $300 range, so you can take full advantage of this functionality without going broke, I just happened to have the Kleos on hand.

Even those with a modest collection of mono LP’s, will be surprised at how much more lifelike they sound played back with a proper mono cartridge.  The Shure M97xe also proves a great match for the AVID table/Ortofon tonearm combination and provides a budget alternative as a starter cartridge, it’s excellent for tracking through questionable yard sale finds, or favorites that are warped.  In some instances, the thrift store specials sound better with a low budget cartridge.

This level of performance, convenience and style makes for an award winning product.  We awarded the Ingenium one of our ten Publishers Choice awards for 2012, and feel that this table is at the top of the $2,000 turntable category in every way. But just as in racing, the competition is always in your rear view mirror.  The good news for analog lovers is that we all benefit from this competition.

The AVID Ingenium Turntable

MSRP:  $1,350 – $2,560 (depending on configuration)

www.avidhifi.co.uk

Tonearm Ortofon TA-110, SME 309, SME 3009
Cartridge Ortofon Vivo MC Blue, Zu Denon 103, Shure V15mxvr, Ortofon SPU, Grado Master 1
Phonostage AVID Pellar, Decware Zen, Aesthetix Rhea
Amplifier Electrocompaniet ECI 3
Speakers KEF LS50, Dynaudio Confidence C1 II
Cables Cardas Clear
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

The Kronos Turntable

It’s not every day you get to see something new for the first time, and as a reviewer, so much better when said new component is in a system that you are actually familiar with.

The debut of the Kronos turntable in Montreal just happened to be in a room possessing the same dimensions and orientation of my own, built around a system featuring a pair of Sonus faber Stradivari speakers, all powered by Audio Research Reference components.  So much for making the excuse of “needing to hear it in my system!”  Kronos designer Louis Desjardins was even using a Lyra Skala cartridge, one of my current references at the time.  Many others voted the Kronos room best sound of the Montreal show – and it’s reassuring to see multiple critics agree on what constitutes great sound.

I’ve been living with the Kronos turntable for eight months now, so consider this a “long term” review.  It’s easy for reviewers and audiophiles alike to get caught up in the excitement of a product, either at a dealer or in the fever of a show environment.  Clearly everyone was buzzing about the Kronos in Montreal last year, and the other shows the table has been presented.  Desjardins has been strategic, not letting just anyone use his table at shows, keeping the exposure limited to fantastic systems.

Yet after living with the Kronos for the better part of 2012 and having the chance to use it with multiple tonearms and cartridges, my impression is even better than it was when the audition began. Minimizing my results, the SME arms both lend more weight to the LF spectrum, while the Graham is slightly more nimble, ever so slightly more resolving.  However, both are close enough, especially when using the SME V-12, that your choice of cartridge will be the ultimate deciding factor.  And neither proved to be a “wrong” choice.

Double your pleasure

The key aspect of the Kronos table is it’s two platters.  Other manufacturers have produced tables with more than one platter, but Kronos’ variation on the theme is to rotate their second, identical, 30-pound platter in the  opposite direction of the main platter spinning the record.  In essence, it completely cancels any vibration induced by the first.  Mitsubishi licensed a similar technology to Porsche back in the 1980s for the engine in the 944.  This 2.5-liter, straight four-cylinder engine was as smooth as a BMW inline six utilizing a counter rotating shaft opposite the crankshaft to achieve this effect.

Due to the plinth size of the Kronos, this table is better suited to 12-inch tonearms.  Our review began with the SME 312, with guest appearances by the SME V12 and Graham.  The short story here is to buy the best arm you can afford with the Kronos; its astonishingly low noise floor reveals every last molecule of detail the arm is capable of extracting from your cartridge.

Grain gone

Feickert’s PlatterSpeed app reveals 33.33 rpm exactly.  The Kronos also has a pair of LED readouts, monitoring the speed of both platters and it tracked perfectly with the Feickert measurements.  The aluminum top platter has a carbon fiber inlay and no mat is needed.

Initial listening begins with the Sumiko Palo Santos cartridge, the cartridge that has replaced my Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum with no regrets and is a favorite because of its general easygoing character, and synergistic match with SME tonearms.  (Full review here)

The rock solid speed accuracy of the Kronos is immediately noticeable, playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64. This instrument is tough to get right and on lesser tables devolves into a screechy mess.  The first 30 seconds of this piece right before the orchestra joins in, is so delicate, yet a joy to hear rendered by the Kronos, all of its subtle overtones gracefully intact.  The long synthesizer sustain at the beginning of Triumvirat’s “The Capital of Power” reveals the same thing.  On a budget table, the synth warbles like a cassette that’s been left in the sun too long, yet here an unmistakable richness comes through.

This combination of speed accuracy and the 12-inch tonearm, makes it easy to fool yourself that perhaps you are listening to a reel to reel tape, or a linear tracking arm. The usual crew of analog fans that stop by to check out the latest gear all made similar comments, and even those outside the fringe, commented about “how real” the music sounds played on the Kronos.

The Kronos integrates inner detail with wide dynamic swings.  The only other table in the studio with a 12-inch tonearm is the AMG V-12; so comparing the two is not a direct “apples to apples” comparison.  24/192 digital samples (via the Nagra LB recorder) confirm the benefit of the longer tonearm, yet the Kronos has an unmistakable sonic signature, even when captured to high-resolution digital files.

Tons of texture

On a certain level, the Kronos is not unlike the $150,000 Continuum turntable in its rock solid bass stability and texture resolution.  Auditioning highly familiar LPs with bass heavy grooves instantly unearths just how special this turntable is.  Even the heartbeat at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon, is more visceral, has more dimension and subtlety than before. The opening bass riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” utterly fantastic, you can almost feel the grille cloth rattling on John Paul Jones’ bass cabinets.

This is not limited just to the bass.  Acoustic instruments take on more charm via the Kronos too.  Those loving female vocals will be in heaven.  The transition as Betty Davis’ goes from bedroom whisper to bar room growl in “Bar Hoppin” is seamless.   I suppose you could listen to Eva Cassidy, nah. Male vocals are equally exciting.

However, the fine detail that this table exposes is its greatest strength.  Tracking through Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets unearths an abundance of buried treasure, especially on the track “Dead Finks Don’t Talk.”  Re-assessing a cache of densely packed records opens up recordings that felt overly compressed, again proving how much information is really packed in those fine grooves.

I’ve always felt that a great hifi system should expand your music collection, not limit it to a handful of audiophile darlings that always seem to be stuck to the platter.  Much like the AVID Acutus REF SP, the Kronos’ ability to disperse the music buried in the grooves more evenly, makes records that might have been passed off as not worthy of your system much more palatable.  Resolution without fatigue is the essence of the Kronos turntable. Even my awful copy of Boston’s Don’t Look Back sounds pretty darn good.  Imagine what the best pressings in your collection will sound like.  It’s better than that.

All this quiet makes the Kronos a perfect place to test-drive premium phono cartridges.  With the Lyra Titan-I, Atlas and Clearaudio Goldfinger at hand, (and the Nagra LB close by) it was time to up the ante.  All three of these mega dollar cartridges perform flawlessly in concert with the Kronos, though I would suggest the SME V-12, Graham or something equally magnificent.  The 312 is a great way to enjoy the Kronos, and works well with a wide range of cartridges, but if you are going for a cost no object cart, I feel you might be leaving a bit of resolution at the door with the 312.

Get a solid shelf

The Kronos weighs 90 pounds when you remove the parts from the neatly packed, aluminum flight case.  The box was so compact, that when it arrived, we initially thought they forgot to ship something.  High marks to Kronos for shipping their table in such a compact, yet robust case – it’s a definite value add.

With three separate sub plinths, two motors, a motor controller and of course those two 30 pound platters, I expected setup to take all day, yet designer Desjardins had the Kronos ready to roll in under 45 minutes, with the Sumiko cartridge nearly optimized to perfection.  A few test tracks later, it was fully dialed in and we went to lunch.

The Burmester equipment racks in the TONEAudio studio are not the last word in vibration control, but they are overbuilt, supporting heavy gear with ease.  Because of this, they are particularly handy at seeing how well a turntable’s suspension does at filtering out ambient vibration.  Even when pounding on the top shelf, the Kronos stops the vibration from getting through to the speakers – highly impressive.

Utilizing a pair of ultra high quality Swiss DC motors, the Kronos table makes use of a small external power supply connected via two cables. A three-pin cable transmits the DC power, and the other; a four-pin cable transmits data, making it impossible to connect things improperly. One of the many small details that makes the Kronos so special.

Capacitance sensors power the table on and off, and change the speed, so they will never have to be replaced, and the digital readout is amply sized, making it easy to see what you are spinning!  Desjardins claims a one-year interval on lubricating the pulleys and five years on the main bearings, keeping maintenance to a minimum.

Every aspect of the Kronos turntable feels over built, with fit and finish equally excellent for what was turntable number two in the eventual production run of 250 units.  As Desjardins wrapped his visit this spring, he had already sold 50 tables worldwide since its official introduction in January of 2012 at the Consumer Electronics Show. It will be exciting to see just what he’s got in store for 2013.

In the light of other tables from AVID, Clearaudio and SME to name a few, the Kronos is polished and up to task.  I award the Kronos one of our nine Publishers Choice awards for 2012 – it remains as enjoyable to listen to as the day it arrived. Here’s to Louis Desjardins’ continued growth and success.

The Kronos Turntable (limited to 250 units)

www.kronosaudio.com

MSRP: $28,000

Peripherals

Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2, Vitus Audio MPP-201
Power Amplifier ARC REF 150
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Speakers GamuT S9, Sonus faber Aida
Cables Cardas Clear
Accessories Furutech DeMag, DeStat, GIK acoustic treatments

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

The VPI Classic 1 Turntable (originally featured in issue 46)

It’s easy to compare turntables to vehicles, and for good reason: They share a related sense of implementation and involvement. Much like vehicles of the two- and four-wheeled persuasion, a turntable requires more knowledge and guardianship than just turning a key to achieve a rich experience.

Rather than like eye-catching European automobiles to which high-end turntables are often contrasted, the VPI Classic 1 is more akin to an unmarked mid-90s Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, recently decommissioned and returned to service as a street car. Casual observation yields few clues to what lurks under the hood, but careful scrutiny reveals a very purposeful vehicle. Everything, including the engine and suspension, is calibrated for high-speed performance.

The VPI Classic 1 boasts analogous aspects. In today’s world of superfly, bling-laden turntables, it’s easy to pass by the Classic 1 from an aesthetics standpoint—just like every teenager that has sped right past an unmarked squad car. Don’t be fooled by the basic wood trim and lack of plating. The Classic 1 is purpose-built. There’s no fancy casework, external power supply, or exotic wiring. It doesn’t have a dust cover or tonearm cable.

An output pod with RCA jacks and a grounding terminal lurk at the rear corner of the plinth. There’s a quick-release connector, meaning tonearm wands are easily interchanged and cartridges effortlessly swapped. And since Lyra’s Kleos and Kleos mono cartridges possess identical bodies and parameters, the switch between stereo to mono is a snap.

While it flies in the face of convention, the Classic 1 differs from VPI’s other ‘tables given that its AC synchronous motor is mounted to the plinth (rather than the motor housed in a separate enclosure). Thanks to careful mounting and fine-tuning, no vibration creeps into the presentation. Yes, the Classic 1 boasts a big sound. Al DiMeola, Paco deLucia, and John McLaughlin’s acoustic guitars seemingly appear out of nowhere as the stylus travels the grooves of ORG Music’s recently remastered A Night In San Francisco. Wonderful guitar tones linger, applause swells from the soundstage, and the percussive thud of feet stamping on the stage leaps from the speakers.

The Soul of a Much Bigger Turntable

The Classic 1’s distinctiveness relates to its build and ability to extract musical soul from an LP in a way few under-$10k record players can muster. I’ve unboxed too many $3,000 turntables that my dog could chew to bits in a matter of seconds. VPI’s robust construction puts any such fears to rest. The unit weighs 60 pounds, nearly a third of which is concentrated in the solid aluminum platter.

Playing through the new Audio Research REF Phono 2 SE, the Classic 1 ably cruises through recent Music Matters Blue Note remasters. Comparing the playback on “Scrapple From the Apple” (From Dexter Gordon’s Our Man In Paris) between the Classic 1 fitted with the Kleos cartridge to Lyra’s flagship mounted to my reference AVID Acutus Reference SP with TriPlanar arm reveals the Classic 1’s ability to cover the basics—rhythmically and dynamically. Of course, the AVID/TP combination offers a larger dynamic swing, but the Classic 1 always captures the essence of the performance, with Dexter Gordon’s tenor sax escaping out into the room in a manner it doesn’t via lesser turntables.

In the context of a system comprised of the factory-rebuilt CJ MV-50 amplifier, Coffman Labs preamplifier, and Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s, the Classic 1 paints a larger musical picture than one might think could sprout from such diminutive speakers. The Classic 1’s tonal body will thrill you when listening to vocal-dominant material. Whether you prefer Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, or Diamanda Galas, the ‘table’s weightlessness will leave you swearing you’re listening to something with a much higher price tag.

Such advantages should keep classical and hard rock aficionados equally happy. A quick spin of the recent Black Keys LP demonstrates the Classic 1’s capabilities. The grungy guitars, only part of a large noise ball on an entry-level ‘table, now have well-defined space and texture. It feels as a wall of amplifiers is in the room. A recording that always feels too densely packed, Fear’s self-titled album now offers more bloom. Singer Lee Ving’s vocals are no longer drowned out by raging guitars on “Let’s Have a War,” and the saxophone lead on “New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones” is truly discernible.

Increasing the volume to near concert-hall levels reveals a total absence of acoustic feedback—especially impressive for a non-suspended turntable. With the volume control on the ARC REF 5SE at 70, the woofers of my GamuT S9s remain controlled, no matter the program material. Plus, the Classic 1 generates a prodigious soundfield in both dimensions. All of the twinkly bits on Jean Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe float around like funnel clouds.

What You Don’t Get

The world’s finest turntable/tonearm combinations require no sacrifices on the part of the listener. They feature enormous dynamics, a wide tonal palette, incredibly low noise floors, and virtually perfect speed accuracy. All are prerequisites if and when one is asked to spend crazy money on a record player. The Classic 1’s strength stems from its balance. No single parameter is given priority, and because no area is deficient, the resulting blend allows you to concentrate on the music. It’s a tough balance to achieve at any price.

No, you don’t get any excess aesthetic touches. This is a record-playing machine, not a piece of fine jewelry. However, the product’s honesty is refreshing.  Founder Harry Weisfeld’s son, Mat, emphasizes that VPI’s business philosophy and attention to the bottom line are responsible for the Classic 1’s amazing price. Not only is the Classic 1 made in America, all VPI turntable components are produced locally. “This keeps costs way down and minimizes the shipping expenses necessary to get parts to the factory,” says Weisfeld. “My Dad always kept an eye on the bottom line, allowing us the ability to offer a great product at a fair price, so everyone can earn a living.” The Classic 1 shares the same 600 RPM drive motor with the Classic 2 as well as other key components that are purchased in bulk.

Which Model?

VPI’s new Classic 4, with two tonearms, is catnip to this analogaholic. While it is the ultimate expression of the Classic concept, the $10k ‘table isn’t as stealthily priced as the entry-level Classic. Other models in the Classic lineup offer more performance and versatility, albeit at higher cost. The Classic 2 ($3,495) provides the ability to set VTA (vertical tracking angle) on the fly, which needn’t be a concern to those relatively monogamous with cartridges.

Thanks to a more massive plinth and the addition of VPI’s Ring Clamp, HR-X weight and 300 RPM motor, the almost twice-as-expensive Classic 3 ($5,995) presents serious sonic upgrades over the 1 and 2. For better rigidity, the 3 also upgrades from aluminum to stainless the armtube on the JMW 10.5i tonearm. Additionally, the copper tonearm wire is upgraded to Nordost’s legendary Valhalla.

Overwhelmed? Begin with the Classic 1 and just start playing records, dammit. The Classic range is fully upgradeable, so you can take a Classic 1 all the way to the Classic 4 level, should analog madness get the best of you.

Keeping Perspective

Remember, analog is about flavor. The Classic 1 might not be for you, but it turns me on. And while I won’t be putting my reference AVID decks on the auction block, listening to the Classic 1 is so enjoyable, it’s easy to forget about high-zoot hardware. Some days you want to drive the Porsche, some days you want to drive the police car.

Listeners that don’t want a harem of analog playthings, take note: Match the Classic 1 with a great phonostage, a solid cartridge (I suggest the Lyra Kleos), and relax. Price be damned, the Classic 1 is one of the most engaging turntables I’ve had the pleasure to use. For $2,750, it’s a steal.  Sure, more performance can be had, but it will cost you at least $5k-$10k, whether or not you move to a different platform or upgrade within VPI’s ranks.

The Classic 1 is highly deserving of our Exceptional Value Award. It exemplifies the concept.

VPI Classic 1 Turntable

MSRP:  $2,750

Manufacturer:  www.vpiindustries.com

Peripherals

Cartridges                  Lyra Kleos, Kleos Mono and Titan i, Sumiko Pearwood and Palo Santos, Grado Statement 1, Dynavector DV-20xl, Rega Apheta

Phonostages             ARC REF Phono 2 SE, ARC PH8, Manley Chinook

Preamplifier                ARC REF 5 SE, Burmester 011

Power Amplifier        ARC REF 150, Burmester 911 mk. 3, Coffman Labs PR-01

Speakers                   GamuT S9, Sonus Faber Ellipsa SE, Harbeth Compact 7 – 3

Cable                         Cardas Clear

Power                         Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim

Accessories               Furutech DeMag and DeStat, Audience Au24e phono cable, AudioQuest LeoPard phono cable, Audio Systeme Deck record cleaner.

AVID Acutus Reference SP Turntable

Unless you earn $2 million an episode, a la Charlie Sheen, $30k is a lot of change to spend on a turntable and tonearm, especially when adding a worthy cartridge and phonostage could easily double the sum. Taking economics into consideration, TONE receives plenty of email from readers with turntables in this range or considering a similar level of purchase. We get substantially fewer communiqués from listeners contemplating a six-figure turntable—now, that’s crazy talk.

To be certain, audiophiles opting to make purchases in these price ranges are well-heeled, yet most seem to be longtime analog lovers that are seeking out that “destination table.” They’ve owned a number of turntables and amassed a fairly substantial vinyl collection. Typically, $30k doesn’t constitute an entry-level price point for many vinyl aficionados; something is often sold or traded (maybe a jet ski or motorcycle) for the down payment, so the sting isn’t quite as severe.

While it’s easy to get carried away with any number of six-figure turntables, $25-$30k represents the sweet spot, and right where the AVID Acutus Reference SP lies. The ‘table itself lists for $24,995 and the SME V tonearm (which arrived pre-mounted on our review sample) bumps the price up another $5,495. The subchassis on comes pre-drilled for an SME tonearm, but adaptors for Rega, Triplanar, and a few others can be purchased from $100 – $225, depending on the version you require. Current Acutus owners can easily upgrade to the Reference SP—which incorporates AVID’s latest-generation digital-speed control, larger power supply, and two-drive belt system—for $6,400.

Save for a sold-out 10th Anniversary Model ($40,000) limited to just ten units, the Ref SP stands for all practical purposes as AVID’s top-of-the-line turntable. In case you’re wondering, AVID stands for “A very interesting design.” And since the Acutus served as AVID’s original turntable design, the SP Reference takes advantage of everything the manufacturer has learned during the past decade.  AVID designer and director Conrad Mas explains that, a few years ago, he wanted to take the company and his products to an even higher level.

“Rather than say that’s my product, take it or leave it, we listened very carefully to what our customers had to say and, bit by bit, addressed any issues they didn’t feel were best-in-class. We’ve taken this approach all the way to the packaging, with excellent results.”

Everything is Jelly

While the Ref SP is AVID’s premier turntable, the entire line benefits from Mas’ design philosophies. He feels that it is essential for a turntable to get rid of the vibrational energy in the environment as well as that in the vinyl record itself. As he likes to say, “Everything is jelly at a certain frequency; you just can’t see it. The goal is to move the all of the vibration away from the cartridge.”

The subchassis is cast from a variable density, highly granular aluminum, which damps the mid and low frequencies most effectively while even the coating on the subchassis is specifically designed to reduce the skin tension of the aluminum casting, effectively dissipating the HF resonance. Rather than cast from a solid shape the area between the bearing and the tonearm mount looks as if it is folded, giving the shape more rigidity than a solid piece, yet having lighter weight. Mas comments, “This is the most important part of the subchassis, where rigidity is most critical.”

The platter takes the same approach. Mas adds: “The chrome plating on the SP Ref isn’t for the bling factor, it’s functional. It does an excellent job at killing HF resonance. We’ve tried a number of different coatings, but when we did the measurements, nothing worked as well as the chrome plating. When we listened to the different finish options, the chrome sounded best by far.”

Interestingly, Mas feels that the recent trend of 180- and 200-gram LPs is counterproductive. “What we want to do is evacuate the vibration of the record as far away from the stylus as fast as possible. A 200-gram platter stores more energy that the stylus will read and adds a veil to the sound.”

Most turntables concentrate the majority of the mass in the chassis/subchassis assembly. AVID takes a different approach with its units by making the platter the most massive component.  Since there’s no heavy subchassis deflecting the bearing during vibration, bearing noise is kept to a minimum. This is the main reason that the Reference SP has such a low noise floor. In addition, a polymer disc is bonded to the 10kg aluminum platter has a specially designed polymer mat bonded to it which reflects vibration created by the stylus during playback, this being channeled through the bearing that the record is mechanically grounded to. This differs from plastic platters that store vibration or felt mats that allow the records to vibrate causing mistracking.

Mas feels that a suspended ‘table represents the optimum in vinyl playback design because the springs can be tuned to a specific frequency, again effectively isolating the important stylus from outside vibration.  In the vertical axis, AVID’s suspension is tuned to 2.5Hz, a factor of two lower than the average cartridge/arm compliance frequency. By comparison, a seismograph, tuned to measure the vibration of the Earth, is at .5Hz.

The Opposite Approach

The main advantage of direct-drive turntables relates to the amount of on-hand torque; by comparison, to minimize the motor’s control on the platter, belt-drive ‘tables rely on wimpy motors coupled to a tiny belt. Flying in the face of convention, AVID utilizes a powerful motor to drive the platter, thus offering more control. Belt-drive owners also likely notice the fairly pokey start-up. Not so the Ref SP. It starts quickly, just like a direct-drive broadcast table!

AVID hand-builds the motors in its factory, where they are then hand-tuned to the individual power supply that will be shipped along with the turntable. In the case of the Ref SP, the power supply alone weighs 42 pounds (19kg.) and features a 1KV power transformer. As I unpacked the box, I honestly thought the company made a mistake and shipped me one of its new power amplifiers instead.

Tradition aside, the approach works flawlessly. A cursory check of the speed with the Acoustic Sounds test record and digital multimeter revealed perfect accuracy: 1000Hz on the nose.

Setup

The Ref SP requires some assembly, but thanks to the concise manual, you should be up and running within about 30 minutes, even when working at a leisurely pace. As much as you will want to spin records as quickly as possible, a more metered set-up pace will give you an even greater appreciation for the care that went into the component parts.

Once the bearing ball is inserted and the main bearing gently slid into place, you can mount the 35-pound platter on the subchassis, making mounting and aligning your cartridge a much easier task than doing so with the whole ‘table assembled—a nice touch. This streamlines the set-up process, because you aren’t fighting the turntable suspension when trying to set VTA and such. It allows closer access to the area where the stylus meets the alignment gauge and, again, a higher degree of accuracy. AVID supplies an alignment protractor to help with the overhang alignment. Mas mentions that this step is “absolutely critical.” Which is exactly why the company spent the time and trouble to create its own alignment jig for the SME tonearms.  (AVID also produces these for Rega and Linn arms as well as a universal version.)

The last bit of setup involves fine-tuning the suspension and placing the chassis onto a level surface. Once the subchassis is leveled with the supplied tool, the suspension is perfectly tuned to the proper frequency. The final act involves fitting the three O-rings to the suspension towers and attaching the two drive belts, the only tough part of the entire process. First, pause in order to focus your concentration. Fortunately, my chi was in perfect order. I slipped the belts on just right on my first attempt.

An $80 syringe of silicone damping fluid that usually comes with the SME V is one lone thing missing from the Ref SP box. It’s not advised. The subchassis’ unique design moves the vibration straight away from the base of the tonearm mount, effectively into the subchassis.

External damping is usually required when using a cartridge with too much compliance in an arm with too much mass, but the AVID’s low suspension frequency and clamping system eliminates the need for its use.  “That’s why the SME arms get a bad reputation for wooly bass. Reflected vibration boosts bass and colors the midrange. It’s not the arm at all. And the non-linear damping in the vibration path, making up for the compliance mismatch, kills the high frequencies.  Not so with our table.”

Having spent quite a bit of time with SME tables and tonearms in particular (I own four of them, from the vintage 3009 up to the V), I can assuredly state that the Ref SP is a completely different animal.  If you didn’t think an SME arm could sound light and lively, guess again. Though I’ve always found SME arms slightly heavy-sounding,

their consistency and ease of setup has always made them a favorite. But with AVID’s ‘tables, there is no sonic compromise. Mas is definitely on to something.

Listening and Comparisons

While it is always difficult to actually describe the sound of any component without putting it into context, the Ref SP reminds me of a combination of my two favorite turntables: the Rega P9 and the SME 30. If you can imagine a ‘table with the weight of an SME 30 that also has the pace, timing, and speed of the P9, that’s the closest anyone can get to telling you exactly what the SP Ref sounds like.

Almost immediately, the Ref SP became the go-to mechanism in my stable of reference turntables. After a few days of comparisons, it was obvious that I could not live without it. It also meant that a couple of other turntables had to go. Its performance with grade A+ pressings was nothing short of amazing. But even with average pressings, like Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Trilogy—a record I’ve heard hundreds of times since the 70s—revealed new tidbits. Listening to “Abaddon’s Bolero” revealed another layer of very quiet synthesizer playing at the beginning of the track. And as Greg Lake’s bass line entered, there was more texture—and the bass actually had a firm placement in the left channel. Playing the same track with the same tonearm and cartridge combination on my Oracle Delphi V spread the bass out almost evenly between the channels, with a significant loss of pace.

Staying in the classic rock vein and moving to the Classic Records pressing of Alan Parson’s I Robot also yielded a completely new experience. The background chanting in the title track possessed a chilling realism I’d never heard before, as it simply rose up and crept in and out of the forefront.

Experiencing acoustic material proved equally great. Listening to Analogue Productions’ recently remastered Bill Evans The Riverside Recordings box set approximated sonic nirvana. “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” from Moonbeams, starts gently. The ultra-low noise floor of the Ref SP brought the music up out of what seemed like nowhere; the tonality of the piano epitomized perfection. At the beginning of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1, the horns jumped right out of the soundstage in a way that they never have done in my system. Thanks to the additional dynamic range, the overall presentation felt louder since quiet passages were now significantly quieter.

Having performed a number of listening experiments with many turntable/cartridge combinations, I’ve arrived at the firm conclusion that a top-notch turntable with a modest cartridge will deliver more sound than a big-bucks cartridge on an inexpensive turntable. Even when using the Ref SP with the inexpensive Denon DL103R, I was consistently impressed at how much further I could hear into the cartridge’s capabilities. Hence, a device I considered somewhat lackluster in budget turntables turned in a stellar performance with the Ref SP. Moreover, all of the $5,000 cartridges I had at my disposal came across as relatively ho-hum (even when aligned to perfection) when mounted to a budget turntable—again confirming Mas’ analysis of how important every aspect of a turntable design is to playback. The Ref SP does a better job of extracting the music out of vinyl grooves than anything I’ve encountered—a job that is deceptively simple yet incredibly tough.

When listening to familiar records with the same cartridge (in this case, a Lyra Skala) mounted to both the Ref SP and my current reference, the Spiral Groove SG-2, the Ref SP’s additional dynamic punch became instantly apparent on heavy rock music, large-scale symphonic music, and everything in between. The ‘table’s ability to unravel the intricacies of complex recordings is simply phenomenal. What’s more, the rock-solid pitch stability and ultra-low noise floor offer up more than pinpoint imaging, painting tonal images in true three-dimensional space. Who needs multichannel when two-channel is rendered so clearly?

The Rabbit is in Hand

I’ve been chasing the analog rabbit for more than 30 years. I’d come awfully close to catching it in the past, but with the AVID, I finally got the rabbit by the ears. The Acutus Reference SP combines bespoke build quality, ease of setup, and stellar performance in a gorgeous package. What else could you possibly want?

Yes, this is the point in the review where the reviewer often says that they would “buy this ‘table if they could afford it and will really miss it when they send it back.” Not here baby. I love this ‘table; it offers by far the most enjoyable analog experience that I’ve ever had. Not only did I purchase the SP Ref, I bought two of them.

The Acutus Reference SP is indeed A Very Interesting Design.

AVID Acutus Reference SP Turntable (tonearm not included)

MSRP:  $24,995 (US); £16,500 (International)

Manufacturer Contact:

www.avidhifi.co.uk

www.musicdirect.com (US importer – Click link to purchase from MD)

Peripherals

Preamplifier                            Burmester 011

Power amplifier                      Burmester 911 mk. 3

Phono Preamplifier                 Audio Research REF 2 Phono, AVID Pulsare

Phono Cartridges                    Koetsu Urushi Blue, SoundSmith Sussurro Paua, ClearAudio DaVinci, Grado Statement 1

Tonearm                                  SME V

Tonearm Cable                        Furutech Silver Arrow

Speakers                                  GamuT S9

Power                                      Running Springs Audio Maxim, Dmitri

Cable                                       Shunyata Aurora

Spiral Groove SG-2 Turntable (originally featured in issue 19)

I loved the ending of the first Iron Man movie, when Tony Stark declares in the press conference, “Yeah, I’m Iron Man,” and the crowd goes wild.  While it might not drive a press conference into frenzy, I’m going to tip my hat right now and tell you that the SG-2 is a fantastic turntable.  There’s still a few high rollers on the list that I haven’t experienced yet, such as the SME30 (which I have heard a number of times but not in my system), and a few others in the $100K and higher category. But let’s face it, most of us aren’t buying 100 thousand dollar turntables. Even a five-figure table such as the SG-2 is a luxury, but one that some of us can afford.  For the price of a tricked-out WaveRunner, you can have analog bliss.  I know which I’d rather have.

When I first heard the flagship SG-1 at the Immedia offices, I was immediately impressed.  Fortunately, designer Allen Perkins had a complement of gear in his listening room with which I am familiar, so it wasn’t just a bunch of audio parlor tricks; this is a very musical sounding table. The main differences between the $25k SG-1 and the $15k SG-2 are that the SG-1 uses a few more exotic materials in the plinth; stainless steel in the SG-1 is replaced with aluminum in the SG-2. The SG-1 weighs 70 pounds, while the SG-2 is only 50.  Both tables feature the same motor, speed control/power supply and bearing, along with a finely machined record clamp.  The material making up the platter is the same in both tables, but the outer ring in the SG-1 is  stainless, where the SG-2’s is aluminum.

The SG-1 features a removable armboard that bayonets out like an SLR camera lens.  Perkins told me that this was inspired by his Leica cameras and made in house by SG. This feature allows multiple tonearm configurations as the mood strikes, while the SG-2 has a standard, albeit removable armboard. Sharing Allen Perkins’ passion for photography, I thought this was an exquisite touch. Retail price for the Spiral Groove SG-2 without arm is $15,000, while the current Tri-Planar mk. VII is $5,500. Come on, this is way more interesting than a WaveRunner and you don’t need a wetsuit to use it.

Every surface on the SG-2 is beautifully finished, and as far as tables go, I put it up on par with the SME’s in terms of build quality and understated excellence.  The Continuum is a Dodge Challenger with a blower sticking out of the hood, jacked up with tires about three sizes too big sticking out of the wheel wells, while the SG-2 is an Audi S8 –  elegant, understated and much more capable the minute you get into the first turn.  Should you be someone who wants a turntable based on the high zoot factor, the SG-2 may not be for you.  But if your primary measuring stick is musical performance, and timeless style like an Eames Chair, read on.

Getting out of my comfort zone

Most of my recent analog experience has been with SME and Rega tonearms, but Perkins suggested that my current reference, the iV.Vi would not be a mechanical fit for the SG-2 or the SG-1.  “There’s nothing wrong with the SME arm, it’s just the oval-shaped base that the SME mount uses is too big to work with the oversized platter on the Spiral Groove tables; the pivot to spindle distance would be too great.  The 12-inch SME arms, would probably work just fine, though.” I’m guessing this also will eliminate the Graham arms as possible contenders.  Perkins should have his arm complete soon, which he was quite excited about offering as the perfect match with the SG tables.  As fate would have it, the arm would take longer to reach the market, but the analog cohorts I know that have used the arm assure me it is fantastic.

So for now, we went with the Tri-Planar mk. VIII. I’ve always been intrigued with the Tri-Planar, and this provided an excellent opportunity to break some new ground.  One of the virtues of the Tri-Planar is its almost infinite adjustability, which can be a blessing for some and maddening for others, who may feel they have never gotten it just right.

If you have some records of varying thickness, the Tri-Planar is quite handy, with its large dial indicator on the back of the arm.  You can find settings for 140, 180 and 200-gram records, with a little practice, and then return to those settings when you play those records again.  Or, if you are like me, you can just set the arm up for whatever you have the most of and go from there.  I’m of the mind that constant fiddling is bad for the cartridge suspension, and as I seem to get long life out of my cartridges, I might be on to something.  The good news is that with the Tri-Planar, you can have it your way.

Incredibly easy setup

I’m a huge fan of Rega and SME because they are easy to set up and once set up, tend to stay that way. The SG-2 is a marvel of simplicity and after carefully unpacking the table along with its external power supply, I merely had to remove a few spacers holding the platter up off the base and I was ready to mount the arm.  Underneath the plinth is a set of three cone-shaped feet that in addition to damping vibration make it easy to level the SG-2.  Add the SG-2 to the “easy to set up” category.

A newcomer to the Tri-Planar back then, it took about an hour and a half to complete initial setup with the help of my Acoustic Sounds test record, Acoustic Sounds protractor and trusty Fluke Multimeter. Fortunately for me, the SG-2’s speed was spot on right out of the box, saving another step.  Fine tuning the Lyra Skala took about another hour of careful listening, and I ended up settling on a final tracking weight of 1.62 grams, a bit on the light side as the data sheet suggests 1.65-1.75 grams.

I zeroed in on the Skala for the review period because it has a sound I am very familiar with and I happen to have a pair of them.  This always makes it easy to perform a direct comparison between my reference Raven Two turntable with an SME iV.Vi and whatever else I’m evaluating.  I was able to keep everything else the same except for tonearm cables.  The Tri-Planar comes with its own cable, so there may have been a slight difference between it and the Furutech cables I normally use on my other tonearms.  Regardless, it was easy to get a good feel for the inherent differences between the Raven/SME combination and the SG-2/Tri-Planar combination.

To investigate a few other possibly good combinations, I also had excellent luck with my other reference cartridges, the Dynavector XV-1s and the Grado Statement.  I would also like to mention that the combination of the SG-2 and the Tri-Planar has offered the best performance the Grado has ever exhibited in my system.

My initial comparisons were with the Nagra VPS phono stage, and once I had a good feel for the combination, I also used the SG-2/Tri-Planar/Skala combination to evaluate the stellar Naim Stageline phono preamplifier with the HighCap2 and SuperCap power supplies, but that’s for another review.

This is what analog is all about folks

I might be a little crazy, but I believe great analog should sound really analogy.  Smooth and natural (not rounded off) with an organic sound that is convincingly realistic enough that on the right recording, it takes you to that place where you get fooled into thinking the musicians are actually playing in your listening room.  I understand that you can’t put a full symphony orchestra or Snow Patrol with a wall of Marshall amps in your living room.  But you can get damn close with a solo vocalist, a small string quartet or a few musicians playing acoustic instruments if your room and system are up to the task.

If you are a newcomer to the world of analog, you might not realize just how difficult this balance is to achieve.   I’ve been chasing it for decades.  While thousands of pages have been written trying to describe this, if you have listened to your fair share of music, you know instantly when it’s right, yet it can drive you to madness when it’s not.  Even at the beginning of the setup phase, the minute I lowered the tonearm onto the record I knew the SG-2 was an analog gem. It just got better as the final adjustments were made.

This may not be scientific, but the SG-2 was one of those rare components that would not allow me to do any multitasking whatsoever.  Whenever I put a record on this table and tried to work at the same time, I just couldn’t do it.  I’d shut my laptop and hours would go by, playing one record after another and pretty soon, the better part of the day had evaporated before my eyes.

So much of achieving this rightness has to do with timbral accuracy, while part of it is the ability of a turntable, arm and cartridge to achieve high resolution without harshness.  The mechanical aspects of a turntable at this level also are a major contributor to the dynamic range of the analog system, going hand in hand with the resolution aspect.  The more unobtrusive the table becomes, the more it can get out of the way and reveal the music present on the discs being played.

Keeping it real

Rather than go on and on about different records that I played, let’s suffice to say I played a lot of them.  Here’s what I feel are the most important points about this fine record playing system:

First, nuance.  It is always a great experience to listen to your favorite records and hear small details that weren’t present before, or as clear.  The SG-2 was a master of this, whether offering up a little more texture as a bow was drawn across the violin strings, or revealing more echo at the end of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”  No matter what kind of music you enjoy, this will grab you immediately with an SG-2.  Perkins feels that the detail his tables offer has much to do with the platter design and the materials used, forming an excellent record-to-platter interface.

Next, quiet.  Thanks to a well-designed drive system, the SG-2 could form the textbook definition of the classic audiophile cliché, “velvety black backgrounds.”  Not a molecule of rumble or other mechanical noise, which gives you CD quiet out of your highest quality pressings.  The bearing in the SG-2 is not directly attached to the spindle, an approach taken by only a few other tables.

Big sound.  Did I say big? I meant HUGE.  As I’ve mentioned in past articles, I tend to listen to music spatially and interpret the sound field that my system produces as a cube.  My Raven Two produces a very large sound field, but moving to the SG-2, the sound field expanded in all three dimensions.  If you’ve ever had the opportunity to listen to a properly setup pair of MBL speakers in a good room, it feels as if someone poured out a room full of sound and you can just concentrate on the music.

According to most engineers I’ve spoken with, a big part of that big sound comes from drive accuracy and stability. The oversized platters on the SG-1 and SG-2 help reduce mechanical error, and the extra mass helps maintain inertia, smoothing things out further.

It’s like comparing Kodachrome with Ektachrome.  The Continuum has more contrast, like Ektachrome, which grabs you at first and feels like a lot of fun.  Some might even prefer its presentation.  But like Kodachrome, my favorite film, the SG-2 has a tonality that just goes on forever.  Acoustic instruments have the perfect amount of texture; drumheads sound correct, piano decay sounds correct, with the proper attack, decay and most of all, texture, with nothing muffled or truncated.

The bonus here is the SG-2’s amazing resolution, another Kodachrome hallmark. Some gear that I’ve heard that is wonderfully tuneful does it at the expense of resolution; not so with this table.  For those who have amazing record collections, consisting of early edition pressings and high-quality audiophile remasters, you will really be in for a treat.  Again, the Skala cartridge seemed to be a phenomenal match for this arm-and-table combination, with the Dynavector right behind.

I won’t use the B-word, but…

Back in issue 19 when I originally reviewed The Spiral Groove SG-2, I found this table one of the most musically involving tables I’d heard at the time and not only purchased the review sample, but lived with it happily for three years. It’s audio performance is top notch, build quality exquisite, and it is aesthetically elegant.  The kicker is that this is truly an affordable reference.  Not in a Rega P3 kind of way, mind you, but if you are a music lover/collector/audiophile that has been at this for a while and are looking for a statement table that doesn’t cost as much as a Porsche, the SG-2 should be at the top of your audition list.

Now that the Spiral Groove tonearm is available, we look forward to revisiting this great table again very soon.


The Spiral Groove SG-2 Turntable

MSRP:  $15,000 (without arm), Tri-Planar Mk. VII, $4,700

Manufacturers Information:

Spiral Groove, distributed by Immedia

www.spiral-groove.com

Peripherals

Preamplifier                            Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2

Power Amplifier                     Conrad Johnson Premier 350

Phono Preamplifiers               Nagra VPS, Naim Superline with SuperCap power supply

Cartridges                                Dynavector XV-1s, Lyra Skala, Lyra Olympos, Grado Statement

Speakers                                  MartinLogan CLX with (2)Descent i subwoofers

Pro-Ject’s Latest Table

Many audiophiles have started their vinyl journey with the Pro-Ject Debut turntable in one version or another, and for good reason: The models offer great performance, stunningly good looks, and excellent value. They are also very easy to set up and operate, essential to keeping the analog flame burning for any newbie. The new Debut Carbon pictured here again raises the bar for what one can expect from a $400 turntable. In addition, it’s about as fool-proof as an analog device can get.

To wit: My daughter and her tech savvy friends were pretty excited by the cool, green record spinner while I unboxed it, so I turned it over to them for setup. They had the Carbon rolling in about ten minutes. A quick tracking-force check with a digital stylus-force gauge revealed that they were only a tenth of a gram away from the  suggested 1.8-gram setting. I suspect their attempt was as good as anyone else could muster without proper tools.

Played through an older Pro-Ject Tube Box phonostage with NOS Telefunkens (an audiophile dad can’t let his daughter have a stock phonostage, can he?), and plugged into a B&W Zeppelin Air, the Carbon began its existence with fantastic results. Listening to Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp LP sounds light-years better than the same track heard via a nearby iPhone and downloaded from iTunes. There’s more depth and body to Van Etten’s waif-like voice, and her acoustic guitar possesses extra decay and air. I replicated the experience in my photo-studio system, comprised of a Marantz 2220B receiver and JBL L-100 speakers. The Carbon represents a massive step-up from my regular go-to Dual 1219/Ortofon OM5E.

Back in the Batcave

For those concerned about tech bits, the Carbon uses a Sorbothane-damped AC motor powered by a wall-wart supply, and requires manual changing of the belt on the pulley to achieve 33 and 45RPM speeds. Or you can purchase a $159 Speed Box II, which volunteers speed changes at the push of a button—as well as improved speed stability.  Pro-Ject also offers an acrylic platter (the Acryl-it) for $125. Welcome to the wacky world of audiophilia.

While the steel platter with felt mat is straightforward, the new carbon-fiber tonearm and upgraded Ortofon cartridge constitute the biggest improvements over what’s available in the preceding Debut III. Where Ortofon’s OM5e has always struck me as slightly thin, the company’s 2M Red possesses more tonal clarity and saturation, bringing you closer to the music than you might expect for the price.

Mated to the ICON Audio PS2 phonostage, the Carbon proves even more formidable. The twangy guitars in Best Coast’s “Up All Night” from the group’s new The Only Place are positively dreamy. Tracking Frank Zappa’s “Let Me Take You To The Beach” from Studio Tan does not throw any sand in the gears; the multiple levels of synthesizers and percussion are tidily kept in check. In the jazz department, the title track from Gato Barbieri’s Ruby, Ruby paints the headliner’s trademark saxophone lines across the entire soundstage, yielding plenty of tone while keeping the rest of the band anchored with oodles of width and depth. Plus, female vocal tracks, whether belonging to Diana Krall or Anne Bisson, sound great.

The 2M Red cartridge is a great tracker, easily handling not only dense but loud passages. Exploring some recent Blue Note releases from Music Matters shows the Ortofon fully capable of expertly managing Wayne Shorter’s horn playing and Art Blakey’s drumming without mistracking—a testament to the tonearm’s performance.

No Excuse Not To Spin

While the Carbon does not offer the level of refinement generated by top-notch vinyl rigs, it’s a fantastic place to start an analog crush, as it does a superb job with fundamentals. Moreover, when used in concert with modest gear, it provides musicality that MP3 players and inexpensive CD players cannot match. Yes, this ‘table is all you need to get hooked on analog. Hence, we are thrilled to give the Carbon an Exceptional Value Award for 2012. A snap to set up, it offers fantastic performance and an easy upgrade path.

For those looking to maximize the value, the Carbon tonearm can extract even greater details if you acquire a cartridge that’s a level beyond that of the 2M Red. The $139 Denon DL-110 (reviewed in Issue 45) is a smart move, as swapping it in bears further resolution and a larger soundstage. Thanks to the Denon’s 1.6mv output and 47k loading, you won’t require an upgraded phonostage to take advantage of its benefits.

Finally, since the ‘table comes with a detachable phono cable that uses standard RCA jacks, listeners have yet another chance for another modest upgrade for minimal cost. Now, the only choice you face is what color to get – they are also available in black, white, gray, yellow, red and blue!

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Turntable

MSRP: $399

www.sumikoaudio.net

Rega RP6

One of my close friends used to say, “Dude, why do you have a Rega? You can’t tweak the hell out of it.” To which my response was always, “Dude, I don’t want to tweak it. I want to listen to music.”

Years later, I maintain the same party line. If you want to enjoy your records and don’t want to get involved with the dark side of analog, acquire the Rega RP6/Exact combination. And throw your own party.

Indeed, the RP6 ups the ante on what’s possible from a $1,500 turntable. Lacking the large, wood surround from the prior P5 model, the RP6 resembles the RP3. Surveying the RP6 reveals a high-gloss MDF plinth, the same dustcover from past Rega ‘tables, and a glass platter. Careful inspection leads to quite a bit more.

Adding a pre-installed Rega Exact (MM) cartridge increases the price to $1,990, a $100 savings over buying such items separately. It also drops set-up time to under five minutes. If you are an analog apprentice, you may not fully appreciate just how painless this solution is, but if you are stepping up from another ‘table, it doesn’t get any easier. My advice: Resist the urge to diddle with the settings and rock out. While my analog madness is beyond cure, I can appreciate the superb performance and simplicity offered by the Rega range. The P3 has been part of my system since 1983, and the P9 since 2006. If you want analog excellence without the fuss—this is the way to roll (or spin).

What’s New?

Rega is all about refinement. Don’t expect to be hit over the head by the RP6. Rather than manufacture a wide range of different turntables with myriad approaches to design, Rega fine-tunes its basic model when going up the range—or, depending on your view, provides a more cost-effective version of its top-of-the-line deck. The result is a bigger, weightier sound, with the ability to extract finer detail from recordings with each step up the ladder.

The RP6 shares the same RB303 tonearm with the RP3 and, while the plinth on both ‘tables looks identical, the one on the RP6 is distinctive, claiming additional CNC machining to further lower its mass. The new model also takes advantage of the more sophisticated feet from Rega’s premier P9 turntable in order to reduce the amount of vibration reaching the platter.

An external TT-PSU, an optional accessory on the RP3 that adds $395 to its price, is standard on the RP6. It provides better speed stability and the ability to change between 33.3 and 45RPM speeds with the push of a button instead of having to remove the platter and belt. In addition to an upgraded circuit design, the new power supply also features enhanced aesthetics that adhere to the look of the current Brio-R, Apollo-R, and DAC. It works in concert with the new 24-volt motor, hand-tuned on each ‘table before final assembly. On the test bench, said refinement dramatically lowers the amount of vibration that the motor passes onto the plinth, reducing the noise floor while increasing the amount of low-level information you hear on the couch.

While the RP6 uses the same double-brace technology, making for a more rigid mechanical connection between the tonearm base and main-bearing housing, the subplatter cap is now machined—as opposed to the all-plastic part on the RP3. This process gives Rega’s new platter a perfectly flat surface on which to rest, again making for a better physical connection between record surface and platter. The platter features two pieces of glass that are bonded together with a UV cured glue instead of the single piece that Rega has used for years and is very labor intensive to produce.  The second piece is a ring, adding more mass at the outside of the spinning platter where it will do the most good.  Very clever.

More Rega-like

A side-by-side comparison to our RP3/TT-PSU with the Exact cartridge immediately exposes the RP6’s intensified performance. “Dog to Bone,” from Spoek Mathambo’s Father Creeper, yields a deeper and more cohesive groove. The RP3 gets the fundamentals, but the RP6 lays into the bass texture. The major grooves in SBTRKT’s self-titled album divulge the same; the cavernous beats possess a wetter, more sinewy quality through the RP6.

Both the new Audio Research REF Phono 2SE and Monk Audio phonostages illustrate the RP6’s greater microdyamic ability and tonal contrast, confirming that the model’s more sophisticated approach delivers more music. Remember, Rega is about evolution, not revolution. The RP3 isn’t crapola now that the RP6 is out, and the latter doesn’t annihilate the RP3. Instead, the RP6 builds on the strengths of the RP3. If you have a small room and small speakers that lack serious low-frequency extension, the RP3 may well be a great place to hang your hat. However, if your system has good low-frequency capability, you’ll notice the extra authority the RP6 musters.

As for the midrange? Ditto. On Crowded House’s “You Better Be Home Soon,” the organ comes further out of the densely packed mix and vocal harmonies showcase extra contrast. George Martin/Geoff Emerick’s production of Cheap Trick’s All Shook Up epitomizes this jump factor and dynamic extension. The opening track’s percussion leaps out of the speakers, and plenty of punch accompanies Bun E. Carlos’ thunderous drumming. The recording’s Beatlesque layers are expanded with a precision that neither the RP3 nor my mid vintage LP-12 summon.

Plug and Play, or Move On

Rega’s US importer, Steve Daniels of The Sound Organisation, likes to say that the Exact “sounds as much like an MC can while still being a MM.” The more time I spend with the Exact, the more I agree. The cartridge reproduces delicate, low-level signals with ease, yet manages wide dynamic swings. Via Classic Records’ Led Zeppelin reissues, the RP6/Exact combination renders a wide tonal landscape, with the necessary weight that do the albums justice.

While the Exact is an excellent plug-and-play solution for the RP6, the RB303 tonearm is capable of even more, should you decide to go further upmarket with a cartridge. While some might argue that such a move is pointless since the RP6 shares the same tonearm as the lower-priced RP3, the RP6’s advanced design allows a higher signal-to-noise ratio, permitting the RB303 to take better advantage of a premium cartridge.

A few usual suspects that make perfect sense for an upgrade from the Exact all turn in great performances. The Dynavector 17D3 ($1,000), Sumiko Blackbird ($1,100), and Rega’s own Apheta ($1,795) extract more music without penalty. The Lyra Kleos ($2,995) also works well, but it’s overkill; the model does not give its top performance in this setting. If you keep any cartridge upgrade to about $1,000, you will be rewarded with an appropriate measure of performance. Use spendier cartridges with the P7 and P9.

Both the RP3 and RP6 are moving closer to the sound of the flagship P9, incorporating the speed and imaging prowess that have made Rega decks famous, and boasting a more robust bottom end. It all has me wondering what an RP9 will sound like should Rega make similar updates to it.

Rega RP6 Turntable

MSRP: $1,495 (turntable only); $1,990 (with Rega Exact cartridge)

Manufacturer:  www.rega.co.uk

US Importer:  www.soundorg.com

Peripherals

Preamplifier                ARC REF 5SE

Phonostage                  ARC REF Phono 2SE, Monk Audio Phonostage

Power Amplifier         ARC REF 150

Speakers                      Dynaudio Confidence C1

Rebuilding the LP-12

Thanks to a pal, I inherited this old LP-12…

Looks like a great project for a full set of Funk Firm upgrades!

Watch this space for details.

AVID Acutus Reference SP Turntable

Unless you earn $2 million an episode, a la Charlie Sheen, $25k is a lot of change to spend on a turntable and tonearm, especially when adding a worthy cartridge and phonostage could easily double the sum. Taking economics into consideration, TONE receives plenty of email from readers with turntables in this range or considering a similar level of purchase. We get substantially fewer communiqués from listeners contemplating a six-figure turntable—now, that’s crazy talk.

To be certain, audiophiles opting to make purchases in these price ranges are well-heeled, yet most seem to be longtime analog lovers that are seeking out that “destination table.” They’ve owned a number of turntables and amassed a fairly substantial vinyl collection. Typically, $25k doesn’t constitute an entry-level price point for many vinyl aficionados; something is often sold or traded (maybe a jet ski or motorcycle) for the down payment, so the sting isn’t quite as severe.

While it’s easy to get carried away with any number of six-figure turntables, $25-$30k represents the sweet spot, and right where the AVID Acutus Reference SP lies. The ‘table itself lists for $19,995 and the SME V tonearm (which arrived pre-mounted on our review sample) bumps the price up another $5,495. The subchassis on comes pre-drilled for an SME tonearm, but adaptors for Rega, Triplanar, and a few others can be purchased from $100 – $225, depending on the version you require. Current Acutus owners can easily upgrade to the Reference SP—which incorporates AVID’s latest-generation digital-speed control, larger power supply, and two-drive belt system—for $6,400.

Save for a sold-out 10th Anniversary Model ($40,000) limited to just ten units, the Ref SP stands for all practical purposes as AVID’s top-of-the-line turntable. In case you’re wondering, AVID stands for “A very interesting design.” And since the Acutus served as AVID’s original turntable design, the SP Reference takes advantage of everything the manufacturer has learned during the past decade. AVID designer and director Conrad Mas explains that, a few years ago, he wanted to take the company and his products to an even higher level. “Rather than say that’s my product, take it or leave it, we listened very carefully to what our customers had to say and, bit by bit, addressed any issues they didn’t feel were best-in-class. We’ve taken this approach all the way to the packaging, with excellent results.”

Everything is Jelly

While the Ref SP is AVID’s premier turntable, the entire line benefits from Mas’ design philosophies. He feels that it is essential for a turntable to get rid of the vibrational energy in the environment as well as that in the vinyl record itself. As he likes to say, “Everything is jelly at a certain frequency; you just can’t see it. The goal is to move the all of the vibration away from the cartridge.”

The subchassis is cast from a variable density, highly granular aluminum, which damps the mid and low frequencies most effectively while even the coating on the subchassis is specifically designed to reduce the skin tension of the aluminum casting, effectively dissipating the HF resonance. Rather than cast from a solid shape the area between the bearing and the tonearm mount looks as if it is folded, giving the shape more rigidity than a solid piece, yet having lighter weight. Mas comments, “This is the most important part of the subchassis, where rigidity is most critical.” The platter takes the same approach. Mas adds: “The chrome plating on the SP Ref isn’t for the bling factor, it’s functional. It does an excellent job at killing HF resonance. We’ve tried a number of different coatings, but when we did the measurements, nothing worked as well as the chrome plating. When we listened to the different finish options, the chrome sounded best by far.” Interestingly, Mas feels that the recent trend of 180- and 200-gram LPs is counterproductive. “What we want to do is evacuate the vibration of the record as far away from the stylus as fast as possible. A 200-gram platter stores more energy that the stylus will read and adds a veil to the sound.”

Most turntables concentrate the majority of the mass in the chassis/subchassis assembly. AVID takes a different approach with its units by making the platter the most massive component. Since there’s no heavy subchassis deflecting the bearing during vibration, bearing noise is kept to a minimum. This is the main reason that the Reference SP has such a low noise floor. In addition, a polymer disc is bonded to the 10kg aluminum platter has a specially designed polymer mat bonded to it which reflects vibration created by the stylus during playback, this being channeled through the bearing that the record is mechanically grounded to.

This differs from plastic platters that store vibration or felt mats that allow the records to vibrate causing mistracking. Mas feels that a suspended ‘table represents the optimum in vinyl playback design because the springs can be tuned to a specific frequency, again effectively isolating the important stylus from outside vibration. In the vertical axis, AVID’s suspension is tuned to 2.5Hz, a factor of two lower than the average cartridge/arm compliance frequency. By comparison, a seismograph, tuned to measure the vibration of the Earth, is at .5Hz.

The Opposite Approach

The main advantage of direct-drive turntables relates to the amount of on-hand torque; by comparison, to minimize the motor’s control on the platter, belt-drive ‘tables rely on wimpy motors coupled to a tiny belt. Flying in the face of convention, AVID utilizes a powerful motor to drive the platter, thus offering more control. Belt-drive owners also likely notice the fairly pokey start-up. Not so the Ref SP. It starts quickly, just like a direct-drive broadcast table!

AVID hand-builds the motors in its factory, where they are then hand-tuned to the individual power supply that will be shipped along with the turntable. In the case of the Ref SP, the power supply alone weighs 42 pounds (19kg.) and features a 1KV power transformer. As I unpacked the box, I honestly thought the company made a mistake and shipped me one of its new power amplifiers instead. Tradition aside, the approach works flawlessly. A cursory check of the speed with the Acoustic Sounds test record and digital multimeter revealed perfect accuracy: 1000Hz on the nose.

Setup

The Ref SP requires some assembly, but thanks to the concise manual, you should be up and running within about 30 minutes, even when working at a leisurely pace. As much as you will want to spin records as quickly as possible, a more metered set-up pace will give you an even greater appreciation for the care that went into the component parts.

Once the bearing ball is inserted and the main bearing gently slid into place, you can mount the 35-pound platter on the subchassis, making mounting and aligning your cartridge a much easier task than doing so with the whole ‘table assembled—a nice touch. This streamlines the set-up process, because you aren’t fighting the turntable suspension when trying to set VTA and such. It allows closer access to the area where the stylus meets the alignment gauge and, again, a higher degree of accuracy. AVID supplies an alignment protractor to help with the overhang alignment. Mas mentions that this step is “absolutely critical.” Which is exactly why the company spent the time and trouble to create its own alignment jig for the SME tonearms. (AVID also produces these for Rega and Linn arms as well as a universal version.)

The last bit of setup involves fine-tuning the suspension and placing the chassis onto a level surface. Once the subchassis is leveled with the supplied tool, the suspension is perfectly tuned to the proper frequency. The final act involves fitting the three O-rings to the suspension towers and attaching the two drive belts, the only tough part of the entire process. First, pause in order to focus your concentration. Fortunately, my chi was in perfect order. I slipped the belts on just right on my first attempt. An $80 syringe of silicone damping fluid that usually comes with the SME V is one lone thing missing from the Ref SP box. It’s not advised. The subchassis’ unique design moves the vibration straight away from the base of the tonearm mount, effectively into the subchassis.

External damping is usually required when using a cartridge with too much compliance in an arm with too much mass, but the AVID’s low suspension frequency and clamping system eliminates the need for its use. “That’s why the SME arms get a bad reputation for wooly bass. Reflected vibration boosts bass and colors the midrange. It’s not the arm at all. And the non-linear damping in the vibration path, making up for the compliance mismatch, kills the high frequencies. Not so with our table.”

Having spent quite a bit of time with SME tables and tonearms in particular (I own four of them, from the vintage 3009 up to the V), I can assuredly state that the Ref SP is a completely different animal. If you didn’t think an SME arm could sound light and lively, guess again. Though I’ve always found SME arms slightly heavy-sounding,
their consistency and ease of setup has always made them a favorite. But with AVID’s ‘tables, there is no sonic compromise. Mas is definitely on to something.

Listening and Comparisons

While it is always difficult to actually describe the sound of any component without putting it into context, the Ref SP reminds me of a combination of my two favorite turntables: the Rega P9 and the SME 30. If you can imagine a ‘table with the weight of an SME 30 that also has the pace, timing, and speed of the P9, that’s the closest anyone can get to telling you exactly what the SP Ref sounds like.

Almost immediately, the Ref SP became the go-to mechanism in my stable of reference turntables. After a few days of comparisons, it was obvious that I could not live without it. It also meant that a couple of other turntables had to go. Its performance with grade A+ pressings was nothing short of amazing. But even with average pressings, like Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Trilogy—a record I’ve heard hundreds of times since the 70s—revealed new tidbits. Listening to “Abaddon’s Bolero” revealed another layer of very quiet synthesizer playing at the beginning of the track. And as Greg Lake’s bass line entered, there was more texture—and the bass actually had a firm placement in the left channel. Playing the same track with the same tonearm and cartridge combination on my Oracle Delphi V spread the bass out almost evenly between the channels, with a significant loss of pace.

Staying in the classic rock vein and moving to the Classic Records pressing of Alan Parson’s I Robot also yielded a completely new experience. The background chanting in the title track possessed a chilling realism I’d never heard before, as it simply rose up and crept in and out of the forefront. Experiencing acoustic material proved equally great. Listening to Analogue Productions’ recently remastered Bill Evans The Riverside Recordings box set approximated sonic nirvana. “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” from Moonbeams, starts gently. The ultra-low noise floor of the Ref SP brought the music up out of what seemed like nowhere; the tonality of the piano epitomized perfection. At the beginning of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1, the horns jumped right out of the soundstage in a way that they never have done in my system. Thanks to the additional dynamic range, the overall presentation felt louder since quiet passages were now significantly quieter.

Having performed a number of listening experiments with many turntable/cartridge combinations, I’ve arrived at the firm conclusion that a top-notch turntable with a modest cartridge will deliver more sound than a big-bucks cartridge on an inexpensive turntable. Even when using the Ref SP with the inexpensive Denon DL103R, I was consistently impressed at how much further I could hear into the cartridge’s capabilities. Hence, a device I considered somewhat lackluster in budget turntables turned in a stellar performance with the Ref SP. Moreover, all of the $5,000 cartridges I had at my disposal came across as relatively ho-hum (even when aligned to perfection) when mounted to a budget turntable—again confirming Mas’ analysis of how important every aspect of a turntable design is to playback. The Ref SP does a better job of extracting the music out of vinyl grooves than anything I’ve encountered—a job that is deceptively simple yet incredibly tough.

When listening to familiar records with the same cartridge (in this case, a Lyra Skala) mounted to both the Ref SP and my current reference, the Spiral Groove SG-2, the Ref SP’s additional dynamic punch became instantly apparent on heavy rock music, large-scale symphonic music, and everything in between. The ‘table’s ability to unravel the intricacies of complex recordings is simply phenomenal. What’s more, the rock-solid pitch stability and ultra-low noise floor offer up more than pinpoint imaging, painting tonal images in true three-dimensional space. Who needs multichannel when two-channel is rendered so clearly?

The Rabbit is in Hand

I’ve been chasing the analog rabbit for more than 30 years. I’d come awfully close to catching it in the past, but with the AVID, I finally got the rabbit by the ears. The Acutus Reference SP combines bespoke build quality, ease of setup, and stellar performance in a gorgeous package. What else could you possibly want?

Yes, this is the point in the review where the reviewer often says that they would “buy this ‘table if they could afford it and will really miss it when they send it back.” Not here baby. I love this ‘table; it offers by far the most enjoyable analog experience that I’ve ever had. Not only did I purchase the SP Ref, I bought two AVID tables, having also upgraded my Volvere to a Volvere SP.

The Acutus Reference SP is indeed A Very Interesting Design.

AVID Acutus Reference SP Turntable (tonearm not included)

MSRP: $19,995 (US); £13,500 (International)

Manufacturer Contact:

www.avidhifi.co.uk

Peripherals

Preamplifier Burmester 011

Power amplifier Burmester 911 mk. 3

Phono Preamplifier Audio Research REF 2 Phono, AVID Pulsare

Phono Cartridges Koetsu Urushi Blue, SoundSmith Sussurro Paua, ClearAudio DaVinci, Grado Statement 1

Tonearm SME V

Tonearm Cable Furutech Silver Arrow

Speakers GamuT S9

Power Running Springs Audio Maxim, Dmitri

Cable Shunyata Aurora

The Unison Research Giro: Simple, Pretty, Different

It goes without saying that stepping up to the $4,000-$5,000 range in turntables provides a significant boost in performance over $1,000-$2,000 turntables. An increase in resolution, accompanied by a bigger, more dynamic presentation—and the ability to extract more musical information from higher-performance cartridges—are the most obvious benefits. The aesthetically pleasing Unison Audio Giro offers all this and more.

Close inspection reveals similar styling cues to current Clearaudio designs—and for good reason. The Giro is built at the Clearaudio factory. However, it is not merely a rebadge of an existing model. Giovanni Sacchetti, founder and designer at Unison Research, had for years been working on a turntable design. Yet tool-up costs to make a single ‘table remained prohibitive. Approaching Clearaudio proved fruitful. The latter produced the Giro for Unison and maintained the integrity of Sacchetti’s design.

The biggest difference between Clearaudio and the Unison model resides with the latter’s main bearing, which utilizes an inverted steel shaft (coupled with a ceramic sphere) rather than Clearaudio’s anti-magnetic type. The isolation feet are also more complex than the standard Clearaudio designs, and there’s also the presence of wooden sections, oriented via grain pattern to control resonance on the acrylic plinth.

The $3,995 Giro can be ordered with its UN1 MM cartridge for an additional $550. While this is a great way to start, the Giro provides a platform capable of working with more resolving cartridges. Hence, it’s a ‘table you can enjoy for years. You will be able to make significant cartridge upgrades before the Giro becomes the limiting factor in your analog front-end. For many listeners, it will be the last turntable they need.

Assembly by the Numbers

An enclosed instruction manual proves a tremendous help with turntable setup, yet it omits one critical step—adjustment of anti-skate. The Clearaudio Universal tonearm shares the same anti-skate mechanism, modulated by an adjuster that decreases the amount of anti-skate force applied by moving it in towards the turntable pivot. You can download the Universal instruction manual here: http://www.clearaudio.de/download/tonarme/universal_de_en.pdf

The motor electrically plugs into the plinth via a connector that looks like an RJ-45 Ethernet plug. And it’s encased in a separate pod, eliminating vibration caused from being directly attached to the plinth. Everything is hidden by an attractive magnetic cover that enhances the unit’s sleek design.

Aesthetically and sonically, the wood-bodied Sumiko Pearwood II ($2,499) MC cartridge proves an excellent match for the Giro. A second Pearwood II made it easy for me to compare the Giro to two slightly pricier competitors: the AVID Diva II SP with SME 309 arm (about $6,000) and the Rega P9 with RB 1000 arm ($4,995). The fixed tonearm cable on the P9 and Giro was the only minor difference preventing a 100% direct comparison between the three models.

Meanwhile, the Feickert Analog suite of alignment tools kept this trio of turntables perfectly matched to each other. (It’s also worth noting that speed accuracy of the Giro was spot on out of the box, and that changing speed between 33 1/3 and 45RPM was easily changed from a control on the plinth.)

Nimble

The Giro’s very lively presentation jumps right out between the speakers and will never be mistaken for anything but pure analog -it is devilishly quiet, with a silkiness that makes the music feel as if it simply rises up between the speakers. The Giro zips through musical details with a level of finesse that far outstrips anthing in the $900-$1,500 range. There’s more of everything: more weight on the bottom, and a combination of smoothness and resolution on top. This solid performer is worth the asking price. Listeners graduating from lesser ‘tables will experience a fair share of “it feels like I have a new record collection” moments.

“Master Sigh,” from Andrew Bird’s Useless Creatures, immediately showcases the Giro’s prowess for revealing inner detail. Bird’s harp floats in the air with great attack as he plucks his violin, fading out with the right amount of gentleness in the decay. Similarly, Lol Creme and Kevin Godley’s Consequences avant-garde exercise features layers of buried details that are disappointingly rendered on a lesser deck. But here, the multiple vocal overdubs on “Lulu From Honolulu” scattered between the speakers, with even the most infinitesimal sound effects preserved. The duo’s “The Flood” depicts someone running water and brushing their teeth. While an odd choice for a hi-fi demo, the track’s timbre and spatial information are perfectly captured. It seems as if a person is directly located behind the speakers, brushing their teeth and sloshing mouthwash!

A Music Lovers Turntable

Sound effects are great fun, but rest assured, the Giro does a fantastic job with every kind of music thanks to its natural tonality. Herbie Hancock’s piano on the Blow-Up soundtrack is exquisitely depicted, never lost behind Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet or in the way of Ron Carter’s anchoring bass. The title track on Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’ reveals the difference between the Giro and the other two on-hand ‘tables. The Giro lends a bit of extra tonal warmth, where the P9 is slightly more neutral, though lacking the AVID’s additional weight and drama. These are not huge differences by any stretch. Think of the Giro as having more of a classic vacuum-tube-like sound; make your system choices accordingly.

Swapping the Sumiko cartridge (also on the slightly warm side of the tonal spectrum) for the SoundSmith Sussurro Paua (which has a faster, somewhat forward tonal balance) instilled a completely different feel to the overall sound—proof of the tonearm’s ability to resolve fine detail. A series of heavy tracks from Megadeth, Slayer, and Audioslave confirms the Giro can play loud rock music with composure and sans acoustic feedback—important when you crave high decibels. My favorite hip-hop 45s can’t even rattle its composure. Rest assured this Italian stunner is not finicky.

Sitting on the rack between the Rega P9 and the Linn LP-12, the Giro possesses warmth of character. Combining German precision with Italian style is brilliant, and while it doesn’t necessarily make the Giro a better record player, the ‘table’s cool factor will tug the heartstrings of those that demand mechanical performance and style points.

The Unison Research Giro

MSRP: $3,995 (without cartridge) UN1 MM cartridge, $550

http://en.unisonresearch.com (factory)
www.colleencardasimports.com (US Importer)

Peripherals

Preamplifier: ARC REF 5

Phono Preamp: Vitus Audio MP-P201

Cartridges: Sumiko Pearwood II Celebration, SoundSmith Sussurro Paua

Power Amp: ARC REF 150

Speakers: GamuT S9

Cable: Cardas Clear

Accessories: RSA Dmitri and Maxim power line conditioners, Furutech DeMag

The Linn LP-12 arrives

A quick journey to Echo Audio in Portland, Oregon today yielded a big surprise – a mint condition, mid vintage Linn Sondek LP-12. The one you see here has an Ittok arm and Valhalla power supply, so it’s not the latest, hi-zoot Keel/Trampolin/blah blah model. Best of all, this little jewel set me back a thousand bucks. I just happened to have an unused Shure V15vxmr on the shelf that managed to mate up to the Ekos perfectly.

Nope, I’m not a good Linn setup guy, and I’ve never pretended to be, but Kurt Doslu, the owner of Echo is a master. By the time I had a few beers with a good friend down the street, the table was ready to rock. Doslu called just as we were paying the check, “you’re LP-12 is dialed in!” Now this is the analog magic as far as I’m concerned…

Back at the TONEAudio studio, the new table was instantly dropped into the system, playing through the Icon Audio phono preamplifier that Paul Rigby reviewed last issue. The match is fantastic and this table really does offer up a friendly presentation. No, you won’t mistake it for a VPI Scoutmaster or a Rega P9 for that matter, but what it does, it does so well that I can see why so many audiophiles are willing to go to fisticuffs defending the honor of this classic.

When auditioning a few new pressings from Mobile Fidelity, it was clear that my AVID Acutus Reference SP offered up a bigger sonic picture, when switching to a few things found in the budget bin during today’s record shopping expedition, that Linn allowed the cheapo records to sound much better than they should, yet still offering up a highly palatable presentation.

Ralph Lauren once said that every man should own at least one 12 cylinder car in his life. To that list I add a Linn LP-12. While I could go crazy upgrading this one to the current specs, or investigating some alternative parts, (Art Dudley of Stereophile recently wrote an excellent article about this) I’m going to leave this one as it is – and enjoy the hell out of it.

The Rega P9: Long Term

We reviewed the Rega P9 back in issue 11 and it was a fantastic turntable. Fantastic enough that I purchased the review sample for our reference system. Fantastic enough that two of my staffers that have borrowed my P9 for an extended listen wouldn’t give it back, forcing me to buy another and another. So while it might seem we are a little biased towards the brand here, it’s really the outstanding value to performance ratio that keeps us intrigued.

We’ll be posting the full review here from issue 11 issue shortly, but suffice to say that the P9 is probably one of the best values in a high end turntable today. While it’s modest looks don’t distinguish it all that much from it’s lower priced cousins (looking a lot like a somewhat upscale P25 on a lot of levels), that understatement is precisely what keeps the P9 from costing twice as much. Park a P9 next to the latest LP-12 with a $20k pricetag and $4,995 is downright inexpensive – you could buy a very nice system with the $15k left. Or maybe a nice used MV Agusta F4, but I digress.

Getting back to business, the P9 goes about its business quietly and efficiently. I can’t think of a table that’s easier to set up and if you use one of Regas cartridges, with their three point mounting system, you’ll be spinning records in ten minutes flat. Part of being an analogaholic is to be all about the tweaks, but honestly what makes the P9 one of my favorite tables is that there really is nothing to tweek. With it’s ceramic composite platter and machined subplatter, there’s nothing to upgrade there. Perhaps a pair of the somewhat controversial “white belts” (but they work brilliantly) and that’s it. Ok, I admit it, I have picked up the excellent Auditorium 23 mat from Whetstone Audio on their suggestion to good effect and I do use a Furutech Monza clamp, but that’s it.

The P9 is all about playing records, not fussing with records. While the full review will go into depth on the intricacies of the table, it has been compared to some of the world’s finest in its tenure here and it still comes up sounding great. Over the last four years I’ve had the opportunity to listen to all of the other tables in the Rega lineup, and what distinguishes the P9 from the rest of the flock is its uncanny bass weight along with the ability to unravel complex musical passages with ease. There’s a lot of low level detail on tap here which confirms the design decisions made. The large, external power supply contributes significantly to the low noise floor of the P9, as well as the speed stability. The days of moving the belt from the top of the drive pulley to the bottom are long gone.

Complaints and caveats? You’d think after such a long relationship there would be some unrest, but the only issue with using the P9 as a mainstay in my reference system is the connectors used at the end of the tonearm to connect the cartridge: they could stand an upgrade to something more robust. If you’re the kind of customer that only changes phono cartridges when they wear out (keeping with the no fuss ethos of the P9), you’ll never have a problem, but if you swap cartridges often, you will break the clamps. Be careful, as the tonearm leads go all the way through the arm, so you don’t want to botch this more than once.

Other than that, the Rega P9 is a great turntable to consider for a long term relationship.

-Jeff Dorgay