Issue 43

TONEAudio’s Music Annual
By The TONE Staff

New for 2012!

A complete list of our record reviews for the past year along with a comprehensive
overview of our concert coverage and artist interviews, with an issue by issue listing
at the end. A perfect recap for your record purchases this year! Keep this one on
your tablet or smartphone to jog your memory.

Funk Firm Has A Winner…

Refinement constitutes the difference between P1 and P6 on the Formula One grid. The same can be said for analog reproduction. While there’s precious little genuinely new under the sun, careful refinement of existing technology continues to extract more information from the grooves of our vinyl collections. And it’s a huge bonus when performance increases do not cost a king’s ransom. Such is the case with the Funk Firm FX•R tonearm.

At $1,995 (with cable attached), the FX•R is competitively priced with its peers, the SME 309 ($2,295) and Rega RB1000 ($1,995). As detailed below, extended listening proves the FX•R as quite the bargain. Reviewed here is the $2,200 model with 5 – pin DIN plug to allow the tonearm cable of your choice.

Some might brush off the FX•R off as another modded Rega arm. But this model goes beyond the traditional rewire and damping treatment supplied by most purveyors. Three versions are available: the standard FX•R, with a mount similar to the original RB300; the FX•RII, with a winged mount like the RB 600-1000 arms possess; and a third model that acts as a “drop in” replacement for the Linn LP-12 arms.

The FX•R provides VTA adjustment and a 5-pin tonearm cable plug. The “simple cartridge mount” is the only feature that throws me for a loop, as it’s still as much work as any other ‘table lacking removable headshells. However, the clips that connect to the cartridge pins are much more robust than the standard Rega items—an excellent upgrade. For a complete technical explanation of the FX•R’s construction click here.

Courtesy of its small diameter and cross-bracing scheme, the arm tube represents the FX•R’s biggest variation on theme. By eliminating several common resonance and vibration issues, the FX•R claims to provide more solid bass response, a more open midrange, and greater low-level detail retrieval than other arms. ABEC–7 grade bearings (the same level of quality used in the SME V tonearm) are substituted for standard Rega bearings. A complete rewiring is also executed.

While I’m not in the habit of performing product shootouts, doing so seemed too intriguing to skip, and with an RB1000 and SME 309 on hand, along with a pair of AVID Volvere SP turntables, I threw down the gauntlet. A pair of Sumiko Pearwood cartridges were used for the comparison, and both ‘tables were optimized with the Feickert Adjust + system. Plugging both ‘tables into the magnificent Vitus Audio MP-P201 phonostage allowed effortless A/B comparisons in real time. Moreover, thanks to its pivoted headshell, the FX•R is quickly brought into alignment, with bias and tracking force set as you would any other Rega arm. The adjustable VTA is most welcome.

Wow Factor

Via the FX•R, Thomas Dolby’s “I Scare Myself” from The Flat Earth and the Art of Noise’s “Camilla: The Old, Old Story” from In Visible Silence each reveal a significantly larger soundstage than to which I’m accustomed. Since they’re heavily processed, the songs certainly don’t tell much about tonal accuracy. Yet their overblown soundstage and attention-to-minute detail handily disclose a component’s ability to reproduce spatial cues.

Acoustic and vocal tracks, especially those with layered harmonies, disclose the efforts made to control resonance on the FX•R. An ideal example comes from Amy Winehouse and Tony Bennett’s “Body and Soul,” a duet on the former’s posthumous Lioness: Hidden Treasures. The singers personify smooth, and the result feels like one is listening to open-reel tape. Both voices hang in the air, filling the room, each taking a very distinct space in front of the listening chair.

Arguably, a violin is the toughest thing for analog to convincingly reproduce. Again, the FX•R impresses. Listening to a young Anne Sophie Mutter play Mozart violin concertos on a 1982 DG release equates to bliss, the music emanating without a hint of screechiness even though DG recordings can tilt toward the bright side.
Most convincingly, the FX•R delivers prodigious bass information—the entire trifecta of weight, detail, and control. This is what separates good tonearms from great ones. On classic Boogie Down Productions hip-hop, omnipresent grunt balances the driving reggae beat in “Bo! Bo! Bo!” (from the group’s Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop) while keeping the percussion tidy. At the opposite end of the aural spectrum, Jaco Pastorius’ self-titled album dishes up an abundance of bass texture and speed, through which the FX•R sails.

Head to Head

Initial excitement gleaned from new components makes it easy to get caught up in the moment and issue grandiose proclamations. Two identical ‘tables, with the only variable being the tonearm and a cache of duplicate titles from Mobile Fidelity, allow for context and streamline the comparison process.

Having spent hundreds if not thousands of hours with the SME 309 and Rega RB1000, these arms with which I’m not only very familiar but very fond. The SME’s removable headshell and easy adjustability are big pluses for anyone with multiple cartridges. Yet the rigidity lost at the headshell-to-arm junction costs a bit of upper bass weight. The RB1000 renders great top-to-bottom response and is incredibly easy to set up and use, especially with a Rega cartridge. However, the lack of adjustability is the price one pays in a non-Rega setup.

Funk Firm’s “Think of [the FX•R] as a Ford Cosworth or an AMG Mercedes” pitch repeatedly comes to mind during listening sessions. With direct comparisons via MoFi’s recent remasters of James Taylor’s JT and Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley, the FX•R always digs deeper into the music, not only painting a bigger sound space but rewarding with more decay and bits of information obscured by the other setup. Isn’t this what it’s all about for maniacal audiophiles?

There’s no question the FX•R extracts more music from grooves than the SME 309 or Rega RB1000. Warhorse tracks I’ve heard many times before always bring forth previously unnoticed details. Slayer had more bite, Sonic Youth more grit, and even Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is again a pleasure.

Makes the Grade

This is all about subtlety, for which one usually needs to shell out big bucks in analog. It’s refreshing to see a component this good that isn’t out of reach of most audiophiles. Even with a modest cartridge, the Funk Firm FX•R sets a new benchmark for what’s possible at $2,000 and still, remains up to task by going beyond the Sumiko Pearwood and moving up to the Sumiko Palo Santos, Koetsu Urushi Blue, and SoundSmith Susurro Paua by taking advantage of these premium cartridges’ additional resolution.

I’m happy to award the FX•R an Exceptional Value Award for 2012. This fine tonearm is now an integral part of my analog arsenal, and I look forward to investigating more of the company’s offerings. Very highly recommended.

The Funk Firm FX•R Tonearm

MSRP: $1,995 (with captive cable)
$2,200 (five pin -DIN)
$2,500 (12″ cable)
$2,600 (12″ sans cable)

Manufacturer’s Information

Editor Bob Gendron’s new blog…

It’s All One Song
By Bob Gendron

January is traditionally a slow time for live shows. Yet soon enough, announcements for spring dates, the excitement associated with South By Southwest, and the unveiling of lineups for destination festivals will put everyone back into a virtual club—or, in the case of Lollapalooza, a virtual lakefront park). Such anticipation prompts reflection on the year that just was.

In addition to reporting for the Chicago Tribune on the three-day fests otherwise known as Lollapalooza, Pitchfork Music Festival, and the Dave Matthews Caravan, and taking in the Montreal International Jazz Festival for TONE Audio, I had the privilege of witnessing more than 60 standalone concerts in 2011. Of the more than 250 artists I saw onstage, here are my ten favorite performances.

1. Deadmau5 at Lollapalooza (August 7, Chicago)
Starting his headlining performance almost exactly at the moment a pounding rainstorm commenced, the Toronto electronic maestro turned Grant Park into the world’s biggest and liveliest mud pit with a scorching light show and nonstop dance beats.

2. Drive-By Truckers at Vic Theatre (February 25, Chicago)
Playing with tremendous purpose and intensity, the always-reliable Truckers delivered a career-spanning set that made a case for the Alabama ensemble being the best live rock band on any given night.

3. Janelle Monae at Aragon Ballroom (May 27, Chicago)
Drawing on everything from golden-era silent films to science-fiction themes, the R&B phenomenon sang, danced, and painted her way through a breathtaking affair teeming with fervent energy and bold vision.

4. Guns N’ Roses at Allstate Arena (November 15, Chicago)
Fans that waited nearly two decades for Axl Rose to channel his old self were rewarded with a marathon extravaganza that, while falling short of the excellence displayed in 1991-92, eclipsed the original band’s 1993 trek. Don’t believe it? Cue up “Estranged” here:

5. (TIE) Prince at Metropolis; Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman at Theatre Maisonneuve (June 25, Montreal)
On one night, pianist Mehldau and longtime collaborator Redman gave a clinic in pointillistic jazz while, hours later, the Purple One took over a small club with unrivaled showmanship, astounding instrumental acumen, and an enviable way with song.

6. Twilight Singers at Metro (May 17, Chicago)
On his best showing since the Afghan Whigs disbanded, Greg Dulli led his enthusiastic band through an unforgettably soulful show that renews one’s faith in music and prompts them to binge on the performer’s catalog for weeks.

7. Titus Andronicus at Lollapalooza (August 8, Chicago)
Setting a new standard that all Lollapalooza openers should follow, Titus Andronicus blazed through underdog-themed anthems tailor-made for a society mired in economic disparity and social unease.

8. Rihanna at United Center (June 15, Chicago)
No mainstream pop star better understands the secrets to an engaging arena spectacle than Rihanna, who buffeted a balanced blend of costume changes, visual props, and dance routines with a constant stream of contagious hits.

9. Elvis Costello at Chicago Theatre (May 15, Chicago)
The return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook concept found Costello recharged, tearing through five opening songs in less than 16 minutes and accenting older material with avant-garde solos plucked from Thurston Moore’s playbook.

10. Brandi Carlile at Park West (December 1, Chicago)
Blowing away anything she’s put on record, the Seattle-based singer-songwriter went it alone and charmed with a disarming voice and independent streak that suggested Adele-like fame could be in her future if she makes a solo record absent a backing band.

Audion Premier Phonostage

It’s easy to get jaded and confused about today’s analog options. Still, if you have big bucks, the choice is practically made for you given that nearly all of the extremely costly phono cartridges are either low- or medium-output moving coil designs. This also means having to purchase a high-quality phonostage (read: expensive) to extract top performance.

Those with $1,000 budgets face a tougher quandary. Excellent models exist in both the moving coil and moving magnet camps, but the MC requires more to work its magic. Many $1,000-$2,000 preamplifiers feature both MM and MC operation, yet all make sacrifices to accommodate the high gain and variable loading of MC cartridges. Ultimately, something suffers.

The $1,999 Audion Premier phonostage is strictly for MM cartridges. It’s built on a small chassis (think early PrimaLuna ProLogue amps, but smaller) with one set of inputs and outputs optimized for one task—one at which it excels. Lower gain and no switching or jumpers means a simpler circuit, which translates into better sound. If you are a music lover that yearns to reach beyond a basic $500-$1,000 analog front end, but not sell the farm, the Premier warrants consideration.

A peek underneath the chassis reveals a tidy printed circuit board, premium parts, and a well-shielded power transformer. Nothing is overdone on this old-school design. An extremely handy back-panel switch lets you float the ground. Hum is the enemy of low-level phono signals, and it’s not uncommon to still have 60hz enter the picture no matter how careful you are with everything else. This little switch brings you back to absolute silence. I wish more manufacturers would include one.

Let’s Roll—Or Not

The Premier utilizes a pair of ECC88 (6922/6DJ8) tubes. Russian NOS 6H23 tubes are supplied and exhibit excellent all-around performance. On-hand NOS variations on the 6DJ8 prove different but not better in any sense, so I suggest using the Premier with the stock tubes unless you feel inclined to step up to a pair of EAT ECC88s. At $225 apiece, the latter diminishes the Premier’s budget ethos but yields greater transparency and finer detail without sounding harsh or etched.

Optimized for a standard 47k ohm load, with no capacitance spec listed, the Premier works well with all of my MM cartridges, including the Clearadio Maestro Wood, Ortofon 2M Black, and Shure V15mvxr. Because of its easy headshell removal, I extensively utilized the AVID Diva II SP/SME 3009; further listening continued with the AVID Volvere SP/Funk Firm FX•RII combination and my faithful Linn LP-12/Ittok. All provided splendid albeit varied results. I used the Furutech AG-12 tonearm cable on all but the SME 3009.

A Little Warmth Goes a Long Way

Like all tube gear, the Premier sounds best after being powered up for nearly an hour. Yet, even after the first few minutes, it’s three-dimensional quality peeks through. When the clock gets close to the hour mark, a light haze lifts, allowing you to hear further into your records.

This phonostage renders sound in a way that mixes so-called “vintage tube” and “modern tube” sound, all the while adding a bit of tonal warmth you won’t mistake for solid-state. Still, ample low- and high-frequency extension prevents the unit from sounding completely vintage. Overall, it’s an excellent balance. And the modest warmth goes a long way, especially with less-than-heavenly LP pressings.

Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” from Sonny and Cher’s Greatest Hits tremendously benefits from the extra body on tap. The Linn/Shure/Audion combination proves brilliant with countless 60s and 70s favorites. Then, spinning Classic Records’ remaster of Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats shows off the phonostage’s capabilities with excellent recordings, and may just convert uninitiated listeners to the tube side of the fence.

Having had the opportunity to audition a plethora of $1,000-$2,000 phono preamplifiers, I can unabashedly state that the Premier is one of the most highly competitive models in its class. A few hundred dollars often separates winners from losers, and while all units in the lesser-expensive price bracket lack the resolution, weight, and dynamics delivered by five-figure premium phonostages, the best convey enough enchantment to reward one’s vinyl fanaticism. Along with the $2,300 Parasound JC-3, the Audion belongs at the top of its category. The solid-state Parasound is quieter, with a bit more dynamic range. But the Premier has a more beguiling tonality and midrange bloom that rewards marathon listening sessions.

Regardless of the cartridge with which it’s paired, the Premier adds extra body and sparkle. If you are hell-bent on accuracy, the Premier may not be your idea of perfection. Nonetheless, for the little bit of brilliance sacrificed on my best recordings, the Premier adds palpability to less-than-sonically-spectacular LPs with a remarkable consistency. It’s a trade-off I welcome any day. If I can’t have it all, I prefer things a touch on the warm/romantic/vivid side.

Plenty of Punch

Often, tubes, especially at the lower end of the price scale, conjure thoughts associated with a lack of pace—and warm, gooey sound that has a romantic feel absent any rhythmic drive or snap. The Premier never suffers this problem. A quick spin of Sheep on Drugs’ “Acid Test” from their Greatest Hits possesses the requisite dimensions of altered-reality club music played at discotheque volume levels. Beats hit hard while staying clean and segregated from the piercing synthesizer tracks. Records like this—i.e., those are not audiophile treasures—easily illustrate just how much resolution is available in the grooves. Lesser preamplifiers just let the presentation coagulate, and make the music sound like a big ball of midrange.

A similar small sonic miracle happens with the Shure V15vmxr. While the classic Shure pickup has achieved cult-like status, it’s always left me somewhat cold. I feel that it exhibits too much “just the facts, ma’am” character. Tonally accurate, sure, but rarely involving. Via the Premier, it paints a more three-dimensional picture that has never transpired on anything but state-of-the-art phonostages, all of which are unlikely to be paired with a $300 cartridge.

On the Premier, jazz and vocal tracks are fantastic. In particular, acoustic instruments hang in the air longer than I expect from an MM setup, and the synergy with the LP-12 is nothing less than mind-bogglingly great. More expensive MM cartridges (the Clearaudio and Ortofon) deliver a more transparent, almost modern sound, yet the most enchanting results arrive via the Shure V15 and vintage NOS Ortofon VMS20 Mk.II cartridge. This $100 eBay-procured cartridge, mounted on the AVID Diva II SP/SME 3009 combination, fooled more than one audiophile into thinking they were listening to a much more expensive setup.

While many vinyl enthusiasts equate moving magnet cartridges with entry-level steps, the Audion Premier is a product with which you can happily live and exists as proof that you don’t have to spend five figures to attain lovely analog sound. Mate it with the right cartridge, and you may never get the urge to buy a MC cartridge—it’s that good. But should you be taken with such a desire, Audion makes an MC step-up that needs only to be plugged into the Premier, making the latter fully capable of MC use.

-Jeff Dorgay

Audion Premier MM Phonostage

MSRP: $1,999

Manufacturer Info:
US Distribution:


Analog source AVID Diva II SP/SME 309/Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood, Linn LP-12/Ittok LV II/Shure V-15mvxr

Preamplifier Burmester 011

Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk. 2

Speakers MartinLogan Montis

Cable Cardas Clear speaker and interconnect

Accessories Furutech DeMag, PS Audio P10 power conditioner

First Listen! The Rega Apollo – R

For the fourth consecutive year, something fun showed up on my doorstep as I prepared to head out for CES. And that something is again a CD player. This year’s surprise is Rega’s new Apollo–R. Following a trend set with its award-winning Brio–R integrated amplifier, the company’s Apollo is “half-chassis” size and about 8 inches wide. But unlike its approach with the Brio–R, Rega put a standard-sized IEC AC socket on this unit’s rear panel so that those with a propensity to swap mains cables can have their way.

The rest is straightforward. Apollo–R shares the same Starship Enterprise-shaped CD lid as Rega’s Isis; the dark-red readouts mirror those of the past Apollo. Upon power-up, the Apollo–R is ready to play in about 30 seconds.

We will have a full review in a few weeks, after the Apollo–R has more hours on the clock. My initial impression? Highly favorable. The new model exceeds the old in every way. Yep, if you’re on the fence about trading in your old Apollo for this one, get off and do it. Rega CD players have always had an analog-like smoothness—occasionally even too much so for this writer—but never sound harsh.

Following tradition, Rega drives the cricket ball straight home here, as this model retains its predecessor’s lush midrange yet features more extension at both ends of the frequency scale. A quick listen to Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Free Wheelin” from Audio Fidelity’s recent Not Fragile remaster conveys real grunt, where, when spun on the previous model, the music comes across as too polite.

On Donald Byrd’s “Say You’re Mine” from The Cat Walk XRCD, drums explode from a soundstage painted between my MartinLogan Montis loudspeakers. The percussion claims speed, texture, and quality I never dreamed possible from a $1,000 CD player. When going back to the original Apollo, everything just sounds smaller.

The original Apollo has always been a favorite to suggest to friends that want a great CD player for about $1,000. The Apollo–R takes such recommendations up several notches. I’m very impressed that Rega made so many improvements while holding the price steady at $1,095. And, while excellent on its own, using the Apollo-R as a transport with the new Rega DAC super-sizes the package and still holds the line on price (to $2,000) for the combination. Stay tuned for a full review.

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.


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)

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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