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)

Please click here for the AMG Factory site

Please click here for Sierra Sound, the US Distributor of AMG


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

Vinyl is better, well…kinda

With all the horror surrounding last months article in The Wall Street Journal, on “the vinyl boom being over,” it appears that records are still being made and records are still being sold.

Certainly, tons of turntables, cartridges and phono preamplifiers are being produced as well. So is the sky falling or is it not?

But what a lot of enthusiasts, hipsters, and industry pundits (especially the ones that are old enough to have been around for the first go of the vinyl trip) seem to always forget is that just because something is imprinted on a slab of vinyl doesn’t mean it’s automatically awesome, it’s automatically better than a digital recording and that “digital sucks,” because it doesn’t.

This isn’t the start of a digital vs. analog debate. That’s a tired conversation as far as I’m concerned. VERY tired. But back in the 60s and 70s, until vinyl’s near demise in the mid 80s, a lot of what gets pressed sucks, sonically. As inconvenient as records and tapes were, the CD was really produced as a stopgap to all the piracy that was going on.  With digital recording and data storage such new mediums, I’m going to guess that the suits in charge probably never foresaw the 52x CD writers and 100 pc cake pans of blank CDs at Costco in the mid 90s. Oops.

After a major resurgence, vinyl is probably going to wind down a bit. It’s a matter of logistics, spare parts, and availability of raw materials. Most of all, it’s got a lot to do with what’s being pressed. While most of the audiophile remasters are still being done with great care, a lot of what the remaining major labels are kicking out is definitely sub par. And even the reissues are less than adventuresome in the choices being made. If not for Mobile Fidelity going off the beaten path now and then with a little Judas Priest here and a little KC & The Sunshine Band there, the reissue market would be incredibly boring.

It doesn’t help that used prices keep going up, up, up, either. The good news is now you can find whatever obscure record you couldn’t find in your local used vinyl shop. The bad news is that you are going to pay dearly for it. All of this supply and demand stuff is what it is. I love music and will always listen to it, no matter what the medium and I’ll probably always have at least a few turntables and some records. Will vinyl keep rolling merrily along? I hope so, but I hope that we can see a little bit more attention paid to quality, instead of just banging it out. This isn’t what killed vinyl the first time, it’s what killed the music industry.

Here’s to hoping for the future…

The Pass XS Phono

Of the thousands of tracks auditioned during the Pass XS Preamplifier’s stay here, Lou Reed’s “Vanishing Act” sums it up perfectly. As he sings/speaks, “It must be nice to disappear…” the words to describe the XS Pre appear. It just disappears, calling no attention to itself, perhaps the toughest thing for an audio component to do.

Just like buying a car, test driving a premium audio component is usually a shorter first date than you’d like. In the end, it requires a certain leap of faith, and if you blow it, it’s going to cost you dearly. Much as I love Pass products, if you decide that the $38,000 XS Pre isn’t for you, there will be a stiff penalty, should you turn it over for something else. Like any other five figure hi-fi component, putting this two-chassis beauty back on the secondary market after a few months of use will be an expensive proposition unless you have an incredibly forgiving dealer, used to you doing this kind of thing on a regular.

The good news is that the above mentioned scenario probably won’t happen. I’d even go out on a limb to bet about 100 to 1 odds that it won’t. I’ve been using the XS Pre for over a year now, and I’ll do my best at describing it so that you won’t make a misstep.

First, and most importantly, where the Pass XS and XA series amplifiers have an ever so slight tip towards the warm side (which I happen to prefer) of what I’d call neutral tonality, the XS Pre is as close to having a straight up, 12 o’clock, right in the center neutral tonal rendition as I’ve ever experienced. The only other preamplifier I’d put in this category is the Boulder 3010, and to a slightly lesser extent my other reference, the Robert Koda K-10. Either of these preamplifiers cost as much as a gently owned BMW M3, and each is phenomenal performers.

Special and then some

Today there are a lot of incredibly competent preamplifiers, many costing less than the XS Pre and a few costing even more. Now and again, a component is so overwhelmingly good, that it’s an express elevator ride to audio heaven. My Conrad Johnson GAT2 is one of those preamplifiers too, but it’s got vacuum tubes, and only sports single ended RCA inputs and outputs so that it won’t be everyone’s idea of heaven.

The world’s finest preamplifiers that I enjoy impart little to no signature of their own to the music, yet they offer a bigger, broader, weightier presentation than a system is capable of without a preamplifier involved. This is a unique bit of magic that don’t completely understand because, in a perfect world, you would think that just going straight from your DAC or phonostage (provided it had a level control) would bring you closer to the music than running everything through another box and set of cables.

Good as the dCS Rossini DAC and Clock combination is on its own, running a pair of Cardas Clear interconnects directly from the dCS pair to the XS300 amplifiers sounds smaller, less focused and pale in comparison to putting the XS Pre in my reference system. How can this be? Especially considering Mr. Pass (the creator of the First Watt amplifiers – champions of the “less is more” approach to circuit design. Inserting the XS Pre in the signal path is not subtle. Again, this preamplifier does not change the tonal character or balance a molecule, yet everything enlarges. Dynamic range increases to the point where transients explode from the speakers where they merely had punch before, and the soundfield created by the system becomes much larger in all three dimensions. The sonic presentation goes from big and satisfying without the XS Pre to being engulfed in a tornado of sound. This effect was observed with every power amplifier connected, from a modest Conrad Johnson MV60SE up to the mighty XS300 monoblocks, so this can’t be a mere “impedance matching” kind of thing.

We’ve had the opportunity to use the XS Preamplifier together with the matching XS300 monoblock amplifiers to excellent result, paired with the XS Phono, making for an unbeatable combination of dynamics, tonality, and ease of use. There truly is nothing I can find fault with this trio. Ok, it’s all pretty heavy. That’s it. Fortunately, the XS Pre only weighs 80 pounds, and it is distributed between two chassis, the power supply, and the actual preamplifier circuitry. The two are connected by the same massive umbilical cords used in the XS Phono and the XS 150/300 power amplifiers. Terminated with Neutrik connectors, these are beefy cables indeed. 100,000µƒ of power supply capacitance per channel only hints at the power reserves available.

Nelson Pass and his crew have repeatedly said that they build components that they like, above all else. While many know the man with the name that adorns the faceplates as “the man” at Pass Labs, he is the power amp man. Wayne Colburn has designed all the Pass Labs preamplifiers and was given a clean slate (and pretty much a blank check) to design a companion preamplifier for the XS monoblock amplifiers. Rather than bore you with a long list of common audiophile clichés, he has succeeded on every level.

Incredibly versatile

Lovely as the XS Pre is with a full compliment of Pass components, it is equally engaging with every other power amplifier we’ve had here at TONE in the last year or so – single ended or balanced. The XS Pre circuitry is fully balanced, but it features balanced XLR and single ended RCA inputs and outputs.

As a review tool, the XS Pre is without peer. It is effortless in its delivery and consistent in sound quality, providing a similar sonic picture with balanced or single ended connections. Even if you don’t review hifi gear, this kind of flexibility offers a much wider range of options as your system and tastes change. With the XS Pre offering such a neutral rendition, it is a perfect system anchor, letting you mix, match and experiment elsewhere.

Because the XS Pre doesn’t manipulate or alter the tonal character of the music it delivers, the usual list of tracks to describe bass, treble, and imaging are almost irrelevant. Laurie Anderson once said, “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much, much better.” That’s the XS Pre. It’s much, much better. Add the concept of never having to retube, along with the headache that a new set of tubes can cause, makes it a component you can just leave powered up and forget about it. Matter of fact, there is no power switch.

Setup is straightforward, provided you have two extra rack spaces and can separate the two boxes a bit, to keep every possible bit of noise at bay. Once powered up, the XS Pre took about four days to come all the way out of the fog from being fresh out of the box. As with any component, there is a slight bit of stiffness at initial turn on, but it dissipates quickly.

The front panel has a large volume control and a display friendly to read from across the room. Pass provides a simple, efficient aluminum remote that matches the casework of their other products, and this too is easy to use. The volume control has a wide range of operation, so even the most sensitive power amplifiers will have ample volume control range.

A keeper

Ultra high performance has a price, and there are a lot of great preamplifiers in the $10,000 – $20,000 range; even Pass makes one. (The XP-30) After living with a number of them, the XS Pre delivers an experience that you can’t get for $20k. That’s its justification. If you are looking for the last step up and a final justification, it’s worth every penny asked. This may be tough to swallow for some of you in the audience, but you can’t have a Ferrari 458 for $50k either. Like the Ferrari, the XS Pre will take your breath away if you have the room, system, and software to support it. And I’m guessing if you have 38 large, you do.

The Pass XS Pre does its job so effortlessly and so well if it doesn’t hit you on the head with the first track you play, just take it out of your system for about 90 sec. It’s like someone put the valet key in your Dodge Challenger Hellcat and the horsepower is gone. This is one of the purest hifi experiences I’ve had in over 15 years of reviewing components. Long term, I have even more enthusiasm for the XS Pre – every day it convinces me how special it is.

The Pass XS Pre Preamplifier
For more sexy photos, click here….



Analog Source            AVID Acutus Ref SP/SME V/Lyra Atlas, Grand Prix Audio Monaco 2.0/Tri-planar/Lyra Etna, Brinkmann Bardo/10.1arm/Koetsu Jade Platinum

Digital Source             dCS Rossini DAC and Clock, Gryphon Kalliope

Phonostage                  Pass XS Phono

Power Amplifier         Pass XS 300 monos, Pass XA200.8

Speakers                      GamuT RS5i, Focal Sopra no.3 w/2-REL 212, MartinLogan Neolith

Cable                           Tellurium Q Silver Diamond, Cardas Clear

Origin Live Calypso Turntable and Encounter Tonearm

There seems to be a lot of options at the cheap and cheerful as well as the crazy money ends of the analog spectrum.

However, the analog lover that wants to make a solid step up from their budget deck often has to search a bit harder to find a solid performer without mortgaging their future too substantially. The Origin Live Calypso at $2,400, along with their Encounter Tonearm for $1,500 is one we can highly recommend. We are almost finished with a full review that will be in issue 85.

You can read a bit more about it here.

Those of you in the United States can purchase one from Audio Revelation. Please click here to contact them.

The Okki Nokki Record Cleaner

Vinyl lovers spend a lot of money on tonearms, cartridges, and phono stages in the effort to pull the most sound from the record grooves. However, none of these audio components can deliver their maximum performance if the record itself is a limiting factor.

Minute particles in the grooves of dirty records can diminish sonic quality, adding unwanted pops, snaps, and surface noise to the music. Even new, seemingly clean records are hampered by debris left over from the pressing process. Yes, simple record cleaning brushes can help this problem, but if the brush itself is not completely clean, it can introduce new debris – or worse – grind it back into the delicate record grooves. But nothing beats a good wet cleaning for the best possible result.

Based in The Netherlands, and imported by VANA Ltd in the USA, the team at Okki Nokki addresses this ongoing problem with their newly updated RCM-II record cleaning machine. Designed to loosen and suck out any grime present on the record surface, rather than simply re-distributing it, the Okki Nokki simplifies the cleaning process as much as possible.

The Okki Nokki package contains everything needed to start cleaning records within minutes. The main cleaning unit, which holds the platter and vacuum motor, a bottle of cleaning fluid concentrate, vacuum wand, and a cleaning brush. The team at Okki Nokki also includes an instruction booklet and links to an online video to demonstrate proper usage. The recommended clear acrylic dustcover is available separately for $50.00

The 50ml of cleaning concentrate is formulated for dilution into a liter (roughly a quart) of water. I find a pair of narrow-tipped, refillable mustard or ketchup squeeze bottles – like those you might see in a diner — serve very well for fluid dispensing and storage. If you chose to go this route; make sure to label the bottles. I don’t think this solution would be appetizing on French fries.

With fresh cleaning solution at the ready, place a record onto the Okki Nokki platter, clamping it down with the included aluminum record clamp. After flicking on the switch for clockwise rotation, about a tablespoon of cleaning solution should be dribbled onto the record. Applying the record brush against the vinyl surface evenly distributes the cleaning solution, starting the process simultaneously. After about five rotations, switch into counterclockwise motion for a few rotations, offering extra thoroughness in loosening any stray particles.

With the scrubbing process done, it’s time to remove the debris-filled solution from the vinyl surface. Merely switch the record cleaner back into clockwise motion, and turn on the vacuum motor switch. Pushing down lightly onto the vacuum wand, it rotates itself into position against the record surface for maximum effectiveness. Once the wand sucks itself into place, there’s quite a good seal against the record surface and no physical intervention is required – just let the record spin a few times. The combination of the vacuum, and the soft cleaning band on the underside of the wand, remove any loosened particles and leave the record surface completely dry. When turned off, the vacuum motor whir subsides, and the spring-loaded vacuum arm pops up off the record, swinging out of the way on its own.

For those vinyl fans who enjoy buying pre-owned records, or who have a lot of old records in their collection, it’s a good idea to purchase a second Okki Nokki vacuum arm. The wands are easy to swap, plus there’s no sense in rubbing old dirt into new vinyl. Save the “clean” arm for your new records, and keep the “dirtier” arm handy for the big jobs.

If a lot of records are shined up in one sitting, the dirty fluid reservoir inside the Okki Nokki may get full. There’s a tube on the rear of the cleaner that facilitates draining should it become necessary. With occasional record cleaner usage, most of the residual fluid will evaporate on its own.

Listening to records before and after cleaning, I find there’s a reduction in unwanted hiss, snaps, and pops, plus some improvement to the overall musical presentation. The Okki Nokki certainly lives up to its design goals.

At a price of $499, the Okki Nokki isn’t cheap, but considering its robust build quality, and features, it represents a very worthy investment for the vinyl enthusiast. The Okki Nokki can help preserve your record collection, get the best sound from it, and also save some wear and tear on your precious cartridge. After such a great experience with the Okki Nokki, I purchased the sample unit. I have a lot of records to clean!

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 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)


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

Issue 78


Old School:

Recapping the HH Scott 357

By Erik Owen


A Mini Miracle From Totem Audio

By Mark Marcantonio

Journeyman Audiophile:

Wharfedale Diamond 250  Loudspeakers

By Jeff Dorgay

Personal Fidelity:

Quad PA-One Headphone Amplifier and Audioengine HD6 Speakers

By Rob Johnson

TONE Style

Anker SoundCore Bluetooth Speaker

Bald Eagle Skull Shaver

Eunique Jean’ster and Ride’ster Jeans

DJ Pillows

Hot Wheels Yellow Submarine

Muss Cobblestone

StarTrek Communicator Net Phone


Spin the Black Circle: Reviews of New Pop/Rock and Country Albums
By Bob Gendron, Todd Martens, Chrissie Dickinson, Andrea Domanick and Aaron Cohen

Jazz & Blues: Florian Weber Trio, Julian Lage, Avishal Cohen and More!
By Aaron Cohen and Jim Macnie

Gear Previews

Audio Research PH-9 Phono, DAC 9 and LS 28


Audio Classics 9b Amplifier
By Richard H. Mak

System Audio Pandion 30 Speakers
By Jeff Dorgay

Conrad Johnson CA 150SE
By Jeff Zaret

Torus AVR 15 Plus Isolation Transformer
By Rob Johnson

Pass Labs XA30.8 Power Amplifier
By Rob Johnson

AVID Acutus Reference SP – UPDATE

I’ve been using the AVID Acutus Reference SP for about four years now and that’s a mighty long time in the world of hifi reviewing, where things can be a revolving door. Yet with all of the interesting turntables I’ve had the pleasure of using, the Acutus Reference SP remains my personal favorite.

It’s easy to exhaust one’s adjective gland, getting all excited about this shiny thing or that, in the course of a short review. But when you live with a turntable for a number of years and are still raving, that’s a big deal. When you spend enough money on a turntable to buy a nice used Porsche, said turntable should be just like that Porsche: something you look forward to using every day. The Acutus certainly passes this test with ease.

The performance is world class, and much like the Porsche 911, you can buy fancier models from Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin (with MUCH higher price tags) but at the end of the day, none of them will really get around the race track any faster than a 911, and the 911 will reward you further by not being the least bit fussy doing it. This is a big part of the magic that the Acutus, and all AVID turntables offer.

Like the 911 or Knoll’s Barcelona chair, the Acutus also strikes a perfect balance of being well appointed and finished without being blingy or trendy. Personally, I enjoy the look of the table as much as I did the day I took it out of the box and never get tired of it. It is a classic bit of mechanical engineering that would be equally at home in the Louvre as it is on my equipment rack.

I must also confess that as much as I love analog, I hate fiddling with turntables. I am only an average setup guy on my best day and lean heavily on a few of my expert friends in the industry to double check my work, optimizing my setups when I am doing a critical product review. The Acutus is easy to set up and stays set up. This is as much a blessing to a reviewer that needs a consistent reference as it is to the consumer that wants to listen to music, not be a setup guru. However, if that kind of thing floats your boat, I do have a couple of LP-12s sitting around collecting dust I might interest you in…

All of this would be pointless if the sound wasn’t so damn good. Back when I wrote the original Acutus review, I was using a Koetsu Urushi Blue as my main cartridge. Since then, the Lyra Atlas, the Clearaudio Goldfinger and now the Koetsu Onyx Platinum all have graced the Acutus, and all have excelled there. This table is up to whatever cartridge and phono stage you can pair it with. Again, in the Acutus’ tenure, it has been paired with a number of lofty phono stages, costing nearly three times as much as the table. The price has gone up a bit in four years from $20k to $26k these days, but compared to a lot of tables costing a lot more, I still feel the Acutus is a steal for the price asked.

Everyone has a personal preference when it comes to sound, so it’s tough to call something “the best.” However if you want a table that has a big, weighty, dynamic, yet open sound, the AVID Acutus Reference SP might be the best turntable to suit your needs. It remains mine. I highly suggest you audition one at your earliest convenience.

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

Grateful Dead – American Beauty

Because the Grateful Dead was always a band that paid close attention to the sound quality of its live performances and recordings, even a random copy of any Dead album usually sounds pretty good—provided it hasn’t been played to extinction.  Mobile Fidelity did a stellar job on the original single-album reissue of American Beauty in the 80s, but they are rare, with sealed versions fetching about $150 and opened albeit gently played copies ranging from $45-$75. By comparison, original, opened, green-label WB versions in excellent condition can usually be found for about $30-$40.

With many records, choosing between versions can often be a dilemma. But most Dead fans usually want everything, so consider this more a pairing than a choice. The early Mobile Fidelity version presents a wider soundstage than the new 45RPM reissue, with all vocals more out in front of the speakers. The current release lines everything up on nearly the same plane.

Tonally, the early Mobile Fidelity is slightly crisper, and more etched on the very top end.  Your personal taste and overall system tonal balance will determine what you prefer.  On our reference system, the Lyra Atlas cartridge tends to favor the new version, while the Clearaudio Goldfinger delivers a more homogenous playback with the older disc. The green label is smack dab in the middle of the two.

While all three versions sound close tonally and spatially, the current 45RPM edition is the champ in terms of noise floor. It’s an amazing testament to the staying power of analog in that a high-quality tape, when well-preserved and expertly handled, can deliver such a quiet background.

Keep in mind the difference between these three pressings is decidedly small, and all three are excellent.  Mobile Fidelity has done a phenomenal job.

Mobile Fidelity, 180g 45RPM 2LP set

Mastodon – Blood Mountain

Released nearly a decade ago, Mastodon’s landmark concept album about scaling a bewildering peak—and encountering bloodthirsty wolves, unified tree-people colonies, and ice gods—has been recently reissued and remastered on colored vinyl befitting the record’s chromatic characteristics. While the Tolkien-esque premise would flounder in the hands of a lesser band, the Atlanta metal quartet responds to the thematic and musical challenges with aplomb.

Weaving together a web of thrash, prog, psychedelic, and blues disciplines, Mastodon approaches pace, contrast, and angularity with idiosyncratic discipline. Brann Dailor’s ultra-dynamic drumming and jazzy faculty for off-kilter spacing and color functions as the anchor. Manhandling complex rhythms, his arm-twisting rolls launch soirees and double-bass thunder ignites percussive landslides. Dailor’s mates are equally proficient, their instruments doubling as lances that carve fills that, akin to the songs’ breadth, stem from a classical school of thought.

Blood Mountain remains as fresh today as it originally sounded in 2006. Shredding passages mutate into a shoots-and-ladders series of harmonized solos on “Crystal Skull.” Acoustic passages and fluid notes lighten the load of the alternately crushing, alternately consoling “Sleeping Giant.” Bench-pressing riffs and vocoder effects recreate the alien life forms of “Circle of the Cysquatch.” On “Siberian Divide,” grinding turns respond to tales of hypothermia and cannibalism. Mastodon embraces a cosmic sensibility throughout, turning to Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme to supply hallucinatory background vocals for “The Colony of the Birchmen” and delving into fractal folk on the reverb-misted “Pendulous Skin.”

Producer Matt Bayles preserves Mastodon’s thickness while allowing songs to breathe. Dailor’s floor-shaking beats and firm drive illuminate the spacious midrange, and the background vocals fight for transparency, it doesn’t subtract from the forceful footprint and solid tonal balance that account for the involving reproduction of the arrangements’ seemingly indefatigable structures.

Reprise’s new $20 pressing is relatively quiet and, with custom-swirled yellow and green wax,  affirmatively psychedelic. It marks the first time Blood Mountain has been available on LP since a 2010 black-vinyl version, and there’s a reason why the band’s studio catalog keeps going out of print. Namely, Mastodon sounds aptly muscular and burly on vinyl. While this edition doesn’t register the dynamic impact and three-dimensional forcefulness of 2010’s collectable Record Store Day 180g 45RPM pressing—limited to 2500 copies and now fetching upwards of $150—it’s well worth the time of any analog lover that values elite musicianship and hair-raising intensity. Bob Gendron

Purchase this on vinyl from Music Direct HERE

And stream it from our friends at TIDAL HERE

Waxahatchee – Ivy Trip

Katie Crutchfield, who performs under the guise of Waxahatchee, is what it might sound like if a bundle of nerves could talk.

On her group’s third and most structured album, Ivy Tripp, the Alabama native takes stock of circumstances, possibilities, and worries from close-up perspectives informed by first-hand experience and imagined scenarios. Dealing with relationships and expectations, Crutchfield addresses themes to which most 20- and 30-somethings can easily relate in a clever fashion largely free of irony yet loaded with sharp-tongued directness. She navigates the balance between keeping her distance and getting intimate, and when accusations fly, doesn’t spare herself from blame.

While Crutchfield observes love from a cautionary stance, she refrains from viewing it with a jaundiced eye. Since the band’s 2013 breakout and largely solo-based Cerulean Salt, she’s also gained more confidence, which is on display throughout the more put-together record. Waxahatchee’s lo-fi roots remain visible, yet many songs call for a full band, and some even rock out with the four-on-the-floor beats and dynamic thrusts. Each claims ownership of a subtle hook or wordless melody. Crutchfield’s modest country-tinged voice emerges as a fuller instrument, too, with her phrasing weaving between dips and divots created by spare bass lines, humming organs, and stair-climbing percussion.

Against raw and exposed arrangements, the vocalist often seems as if she’s singing thoughts to a best friend or delivering a break-up notice to an ex amidst the commotion at a bar. And where Crutchfield could appear overly fragile and insecure on past efforts, the 26-year-old comes across with deeper maturity and self-assuredness here. She’s still confessional, openly vulnerable, and occasionally sad, yet she also expresses unmistakable determination and punk-derived toughness.

“You’re less than me/I am nothing,” she repeats on the fuzz-coated scrawl of “<,” demonstrating both the will to knock herself down a notch and float above the ruinous fray of a wrecked romance. On the chiming bash-and-pop of “Under a Rock,” Crutchfield confronts insatiability and expendability as she evaluates her role and future. Similarly unflinching, the beautifully minimalist piano ballad “Half Moon” reflects the vocalist’s penchant to evaluate states of affairs with painful honesty. “Our love tastes like sugar/But it pours all the life out of me,” she sighs in a tattered tone, resigned to accepting loss and moving on.

Indeed, Ivy Tripp might be pockmarked with moments of despondency and uncertainty, yet the record never wallows in despair. Crutchfield often gives reason for optimism in spite of outlying challenges. She takes space to locate her bearings on the rubbery “Poison,” admits a need for companionship the deceivingly innocent “La Loose,” and relishes peacefulness on the acoustic “Summer of Love,” a devotional tune accented with the natural sounds of the outdoors and a barking dog.

“I’m not trying to have it all,” Crutchfield sing-states with authoritativeness on the back-and-forth emotional teeter-totter that is “Breathless,” before closing the serious dirge with a frolicking la-la-la coda that could’ve been pulled straight out of the hills scene in The Sound of Music. It’s the mounting echo of an intelligent artist that may not know exactly what she wants, but who realizes sorting through anxieties ultimately lead to finding one’s identity. —Bob Gendron

Purchase this on vinyl from Music Direct HERE…

And STREAM it from our friends at TIDAL HERE…

Lightning Bolt

For more than two decades, Lightning Bolt has embraced barely controlled chaos as a secret ingredient and ear-shredding volume as an invisible third member of the band.

Legendary in noise-rock circles, the Rhode Island duo made its name by embracing underground principles and pushing them to extremes on both album and, particularly, in performance. Drummer Brian Chippendale and vocalist/bassist Brian Gibson frequently eschew stages in favor of setting up in the midst of the crowd on venues’ floor. They’ve also played kitchens and sidewalks, donned crazy wrestling and serial-killer masks during shows, and generally avoided anything related to convention.

While the group’s non-traditional thinking serves it well during anything-goes concerts—in which the element of surprise, frenetic tempos, and blaring decibels are the only givens—it obscures the band’s talents on album. Ever since its self-titled 1999 debut, Lightning Bolt has refused to record in a studio with proper high-fidelity gear, instead releasing lo-fi material that sounds as if it was captured in a cardboard box. Avant-garde aesthetics aside, the approach seemed to resemble unnecessary self-sabotage.

Peeling back the curtain on the collective’s tumultuous assault and manic array of fuzzed-out distortion, rampaging grooves, and free-jazz-inspired percussion, Fantasy Empire functions as a long-needed lightbulb moment. Recorded at Machines With Magnets studio, Lightning Bolt’s sixth proper album doubles as a deserved breakthrough for two musicians whose terrifying precision, intensity, and rumble can finally be heard full bore. Music that previously came across as a jet-speed muddle of thwacks, thuds, and turbulence now possesses honest-to-goodness detail and dynamics.

Volatile tunes such as the wood-mulching masher “Over the River and Through the Woods” and yowling stomper “King of My World” retain all the madness of previous work, yet also emerge as genuine songs with identifiable structures and (gasp!) textures—not simply abstract excursions into fury and pandemonium. Whether on the electric-can-opener riff that underlines the onslaught dubbed “The Metal East” or the berserk rhythms getting sawed off in all directions during the epic “Snow White & 7 Dwarves Fans,” Chippendale and Gibson maintain a focus and discipline that set them apart.

They’re also wise enough to realize the importance of breathing room, and balance the attack with decelerated intervals. Subtle additions, like loops and reverb, further contribute to the sense that Lightning Bolt has officially transcended art-project status and elevated itself to a band that’s now as good on record as it is on the stage—whatever the latter might represent on any given night. —Bob Gendron

Lightning Bolt
Fantasy Empire
Thrill Jockey, 2LP or CD

Order the Vinyl From Music Direct here:

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney Barnett makes it virtually impossible to listen to her outstanding full-length debut while doing something else.

Forget about experiencing it as background noise, or even texting as it plays. You could call it one musician’s foolproof way to defeat attention-deficit disorder and today’s easily distracted, multi-tasking audiences. Yet Barnett isn’t out to change the way people listen by pulling a stunt. Instead, the magnetic pull of her Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit owes to a savvy combination of witty songwriting, evocative melodies, concise arrangements, and sly deliveries that comes around too infrequently in an ego-centric age absent creative gatekeepers.

Akin to the most memorable “Seinfeld” episodes, the Australian native showcases a knack for transforming common occurrences and everyday thoughts into meaningful observations and deep think pieces. She conveys insightful outlooks and brainy details in rambling albeit simple, conversational turns of phrases that wouldn’t be out of place at an unassuming neighborhood pub. Free of excessive jargon and forced irony, Barnett refreshingly avoids satirical postmodernism. She’s also not solely preoccupied by love or 21st century dating—or, at least, not yet so permanently scarred that she fully gives into the topics—expanding her outlook toward larger issues encompassing human interaction, integrity, responsibility, and self-worth.

Via rhymed couplets and snappy descriptors, Barnett possesses the relatable consciousness of a smart novelist. And through her tangle of stripped-back pop hooks, deadpan singing, and bounding garage-rock grooves, she exhibits the gruff appeal and winking humor of a rough-around-the-edges bartender—a profession she knows well, having worked full-time in a Melbourne tavern until February 2014. In her off hours, the art-school dropout utilized honed her artistry, headed an indie record label, and cobbled together enough songs for a succession of self-released EPs reissued last year as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Critically acclaimed appearances at major music festivals followed. Yet none compare to her achievements on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

Placing a fresh spin on the adage “leave them wanting more,” Barnett reshapes the apparently ordinary into incidents infused with aha moments, unexpected revelations, and candid admissions. Seemingly plain on the surface, her vignettes skirt obvious conclusions. She challenges anyone within earshot for their undivided attention on the album-opening “Elevator Operator,” which skips along to a contagious beat and Barnett’s matter-of-fact sing-speak vocals that begin the second the song starts. In less than three-and-a-half minutes, she sketches vivid profiles of two characters to the extent their habits, moods, and identities are fully formed. An aptly surprising ending clinches the tale, which ostensibly involves routine and shallowness but goes further to address expectation, awareness, and perspective—themes that course throughout the record.

In Barnett’s universe, features often seen as trivial signify larger concepts. Cracks in the wall and patterns on the ceiling beget revelations about a relationship in “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York).” Communicated with equal parts spunk and bite, Barnett’s backing band curls snake-like rhythms around her half-lazy, half-droopy singing. On the country-folk strummer “Deprestron,” she both flips the script on the charms traditionally associated with suburbia and confronts swept-under-the-rug circumstances connected to property sales. In the process, Barnett assails not only real-estate customs that encourage buyers to bury history, but myriad practices and procedures that cause people to lose sight of feelings and responsibility.

Indeed, the singer employs understatement and nuance to imply there are serious costs and consequences connected to habits that remain out of sight and behaviors taken for granted. “Dead Fox” grapples with environmentalism, waste, and consumption as Barnett contemplates fruit sold in the market, trucks that pass by her, and animals slaughtered for her food. “Kim’s Caravan” is similarly subversive, its slowed pace and echoing distortion indicative of the song’s weighty meditations on culpability and exploitation. As she does many times on the album, the 26-year-old utilizes simple notions—and identifiable situations—to express broader points in astute manners.

Barnett also understands how to have fun. She takes shots at indecisiveness and facades on the catchy “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” ringed with driving guitar riffs, nasal accents, and spunky vibes. During the spring-loaded “Aqua Profunda!,” the singer dizzily recounts an encounter with an attractive stranger at a swimming pool and wraps anxiety, desire, embarrassment, and disappointment up into one hilariously sincere two-minute story. And on the tongue-in-cheek “Pedestrian at Best,” Barnett lashes out at pretense, sanctimonious, and presumption with savage impact.

At its core, the stomping song recalls the rawness, insistence, and volume of mid-period Nirvana, the group whose chords Barnett learned when she first picked up a guitar. If Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is any indication of the Australian singer’s trajectory, countless young upstart musicians will be sitting at home and using Barnett’s work in the same way during the years to come. -Bob Gendron

You can purchase this here from Music Direct:

And you can stream it at TIDAL here:

Another Day Another Time

Initially trumpeted by critics as an Oscar contender and a thematic relative of the Oscar-winning directors/screenwriters’ smash O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis failed to win over public interest.

The soundtrack, designed to channel the vibe of the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 and anchored by contemporaries such as the Punch Brothers and Justin Timberlake (who starred in the movie), disappeared nearly as quickly from view.

It seemed, however, the project’s overseers knew such an undertaking would remain under the radar. Having admitted as much, and to create additional buzz, the Coen brothers and producer T Bone Burnett staged a benefit concert at New York’s Town Hall in September 2013. The affair featured actors and musicians from the film as well as a cadre of artists that trade in the sort of roots fare—old and new, traditional and original—connected to or informed by the scene that attracted Bob Dylan to the East Coast and, ultimately, changed the course of culture.

While such one-time events often poorly translate to records and video, Another Day Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis” retains a curious allure thanks to the consistency of style and performances. A host of marquee names—ranging from Joan Baez and the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy to Elvis Costello and Jack White—supply star power and bow with expectedly solid turns. Highlights include Baez delivering a stark “House of the Rising Sun” and White, refreshingly free of shtick, transforming his own charmingly innocent “We’re Going to Be Friends.”

Yet this acoustic-based set succeeds most between the lines, via several up-and-comers that take full advantage of the platform. Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens transcends what she’s shown thus far with her main group on the antebellum-informed “Waterboy” and Celtic standard “S’iomadh rud tha dhith orm/Ciamar a ni mi ‘n dannsa direach.” The arresting readings reveal a voice pregnant with gospel, texture, grace, and power. Similarly, the manners in which the Secret Sisters dial up tender harmonies on the mournful “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder” and Lake Street Drive skit through “You Go Down Smooth” give more reason to be optimistic about the health of traditional-minded folk in the 21st century.

And while he’s already familiar to Americana aficionados Punch Brothers member Chris Thile again proves he’s ready for an even bigger stage throughout. Along with Gillian Welch, who is superb both in small (“The Way It Goes”) and ensemble pairings (“Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby”), Thile functions as the evening’s jack-of-all-trades. He grooves with his main group on “Rye Whiskey” and shines in a variety of settings in which he carries the instrumental weight.

At more than two hours, the 34-track collection occasionally suffers from momentum losses. The Avett Brothers stick out as revivalist pretenders and actors Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan add little to the proceedings. Still, the spirit of the past, promise of the present, and hope of the future in the form of Welch, Thile, Giddens, and Co. make it easy to overlook such temporary flaws.  —Bob Gendron

Various Artists

Another Day Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Nonesuch, 3LP or 2CD

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Stream in 16/44.1 at Tidal here:

Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night

Bob Dylan’s 2009 album of holiday standards could be seen as an example of the Bard having a little fun with the public, but make no mistake: Shadows In the Night, the 73-year-old’s stripped-down set of songs largely popularized by Frank Sinatra, is no laughing matter.

Nobody is going to argue that Dylan’s weather-beaten, gravel-textured voice belongs on the same level as Ol’ Blue Eyes’ baritone, Tony Bennett’s crooning, or even many of the contemporaries that tackled Sinatra projects. Yet the Minnesota native’s measured, cautious pace—and equally importantly, elastic phrasing, gentle timbre, and seeming self-awareness of his own abilities as a balladeer—begets an emotional honesty lacking on many of the forgettable Great American Songbook efforts released during the past several decades. Via restrained arrangements and resigned moods, the music often falls in line with several of Dylan’s better late-career records—including parts of Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft.

Focusing on Sinatra’s alone-at-the-bar saloon fare and wisely steering away from upbeat swing, Dylan succeeds in peeling away the big-band layers to leave minimalist arrangements that frame his vulnerability, regret, and loneliness. He expresses the latter feelings by taking his time with the lyrics, be it stretching syllables like taffy or drawing out spaces between words.

Having eliminated the traditional string elements—and save for three tunes, the horns—Dylan needn’t compete with a band. Rather, one complements him, with his longtime touring mates supplying discreet backgrounds salted with country and blues flavors. Donny Herron’s aching, gliding pedal-steel guitar lines mirror the singer’s loneliness on material such as “Full Moon and Empty Arms” and “What I’ll Do.” Dylan even manages to bring fresh perspective to “Autumn Leaves” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” investing each standard with a sense of tragic certainty Shakespeare—surely, a peer in spirit—would’ve appreciated.

Captured at Capitol’s Studio B, a location Sinatra frequented, Shadows In the Night claims no overdubs or separate tracking. Dylan and Co. recorded live, with no headphones or vocal booths. What’s in the grooves is basically what went down, and most songs were completed in one or two takes. The resulting intimacy and spontaneity lend further credibility to an album that, by looking to the past, speaks volumes about the need for more musical truthfulness in the present. —Bob Gendron

You can purchase the vinyl HERE at Music Direct…

And, you can stream it on TIDAL Here…

Justin Townes Earle

Loneliness—and the fears that accompany the threadbare emotion—has long served as the inspiration for innumerable pop songs. The subject also provided the jumping-off point for many classics in the traditional country canon, with singers such as Hank Williams, George Jones, and Waylon Jennings making careers out of the sound of being despondent and continuing their erring ways en route to less-than-ideal circumstances.

Yet as many artists discover the hard way, it’s one thing to sing about forsakenness and another to truly understand what it means to be on a first-name basis with the feeling. The profound sadness tied to solitary existence and lingering heartsickness cannot easily be faked. The late contemporary singer-songwriter Jason Molina, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 39 from alcohol-induced organ failure, knew such deep-seated ache, sorrow, and isolation all too well. You can hear it on many of the remarkable records he made under the banners of Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. Molina’s is a haunting beauty, a torment that reaches deep into listeners’ souls and doesn’t let go.

Justin Townes Earle can relate to such sentiments. Abandoned by his musician/actor father, Steve, when he was just two, he became addicted to hard drugs at a time when most of his peers were still busy worrying about their Little League stats. Multiple rehabilitation stints, at least one high-publicity arrest, and several near-death experiences later, the 33-year-old appears to finally be finding inner peace, having kicked chemical substances and gotten married within the past 18 months.

The release of Absent Fathers—the bookend to the equally strong Single Mothers, issued in October—goes further to suggest the foggy gloom long surrounding the younger Earle’s world is lifting. Spare, relaxed, and moody, the ten-track set primarily clings to downbeat hues and understated rhythms. Songs such as the crawling, stare-at-the-clock lament “When the One You Love Loses Faith” and stripped-to-the-bones “Day and Night” rightly focus on Earle’s low-key voice, a pliable instrument teeming with weariness and anguish yet too stubborn and invested to give up.

Rather than wallow in the melancholy of troubled thoughts, busted relationships, and abused freedoms, Earle’s weary deliveries convey a relatable compassion and unmistakable authenticity made even clearer by unfussy production. On the strolling “Least I Got the Blues” and languid “Slow Monday”—where the sluggish passing of time only serves to cause Earle to damn himself for acting a fool—country-laced pedal-steel guitar lines stretch across big-sky horizons and accentuate the singer’s unsettled state of mind. Picking up the pace on “Someone Will Pay” and R&B-etched “Call Ya Momma,” he ditches whiskey-nursing deliberation in favor of something approximating moving on.

“Why do you always think the worst of me, babe?” Earle asks during “Why” as a full band supplies a steady beat and honky-tonk accents. Like most of the record, the concise tune finds Earle mired in despair of one sort or another. But it also witnesses the singer considering other perspectives and contemplating better possibilities, the heartache a necessary stopover on the way to the hopeful catharsis intimated throughout the outlines of the subtly powerful Absent Fathers. —Bob Gendron

To purchase this album on vinyl from music direct, click here

If you’d like to stream it on Tidal first, click here

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) (US distributor) (factory)


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

Primary Control Tonearm

If you are lucky enough to have tried bespoke tailoring in Savile Row, you will know that nothing off the rack really comes close to it. The term “bespoke” originates in Savile Row, a street in Mayfair, Central London, famous for prestigious tailoring for the individual customer.  It is understood to mean that a suit is custom measured, cut and made by hand to provide a perfect fit where it literally hugs one’s body. In the world of high-end analog audio, if there is such a thing as a “bespoke tonearm,” the Primary Control tonearm from the Netherlands fits this description.

Primary Control is an Amsterdam-based company that specializes in exquisite custom-made tonearms.  Its owner, Bernd Hemmen, is an electrical engineer whose lifetime passions are music and audio. His fascination with the mechanics of turntable and tonearm design led him to create a tonearm that gives users precise management of every conceivable setup parameter, or, as he calls it, “Primary Control” over adjustability in order to allow a cartridge to retrieve signals accurately. After eight years of research and development, the Primary Control tonearm is born.

The ”bespoke” process begins with a consultation with the designer (or the dealer) about your specific turntable needs, as there really isn’t a standard model of the tonearm.  The options are plentiful:  9”, 10.5” or 12” lengths; the metal parts come in matte, shiny, or black; and the armwand in carbon graphite or an exotic wood of your choice. My first review sample took a little over four months to arrive, a 12” model with a Macassar ebony armwand. A few months later, a second 10.5” model made of carbon graphite and titanium followed. The armwand is made of a titanium tube and a carbon graphite outer layer, separated by carefully inserted damping material to optimize resonant characteristics. These two arms are the first to land on North American soil.

Immediately Engaging

The Primary Control’s exquisite elegance can be felt right away as you unwrap the shipping box. Unlike most tonearms packed in molded Styrofoam boxes, the Primary Control is housed in a wooden box with precut foam inlays. It looks and feels expensive, reminding me of the now discontinued DaVinci Grandezza. From afar, the arm itself looks almost like a Schröder Reference tonearm with a nicer finish. The head shell mounting plate and the armwand look remarkably similar, and are both situated to the left of the mounting column.

The Primary Control employs a unique proprietary two-point pivot, similar to Basis Audio’s Vector arm of the ’90s. The entire bearing structure is hidden within a round housing made of Delrin, making the bearing mechanism invisible to the naked eye. It wasn’t until I disassembled the entire bearing housing (a task not recommended by the manufacturer) that I began to understand the working mechanisms of the arm. The arm has a bearing cup mounted on the underside of armwand, which sits on a vertical sapphire bearing that points upward, based on the concept of most unipivot tonearms on which the entire armwand is balanced on a single point of contact.

Distinctly Different, Yet

Proponents of unipivot tonearms often argue that these tonearms provide a better top-end extension and a more vibrant presentation. But the free multi-directional movement of a unipivot arm is as much a nuisance as it is an advantage. Without horizontal stabilization (as in the case of the Moerch UP-4), the armwand wobbles from side to side during play resulting in measurable distortions and increased crosstalk between channels; therefore, the newer unipivot designs will have some sort of horizontal stabilization mechanism to remedy the problem. The Graham Phantom and the Durand Talea use magnetic force to stabilize the arm, whereas the Reed 3P adds on additional side bearings to restrict horizontal movements. The Primary Control incorporates a lower horizontal ball bearing into the pivot housing which makes the armwand “lean” continuously onto a right pivot, virtually eliminating side-to-side wobbling. The horizontal bearing also creates a center of gravity offset from the main pivot, which will improve stability and balance. By turning the counterweight assembly, you can adjust the “leaning force” which essentially changes the horizontal damping of the tonearm. Too much damping causes the sound to become muddy and lifeless, while too little makes the sound thin and nervous.

The instruction manual is short, concise, and filled with detailed diagrams. If one follows the 16-page manual closely to perform cartridge alignment, VTA, Azimuth, VTF, anti-skating and horizontal damping, even a novice will achieve a relatively good setup. Fortunately, some parts of the manual will tell you what sonic changes to expect with certain adjustments –– something very few owner’s manuals will do.

There are two important points which should be mentioned with regard to the mounting position of the armpost and the relative idle position of the armwand to the platter. The Primary Control is designed with the armwand situated to the left of the main column, meaning the mounting position of the main column has to be further away than normal. Both my JC Verdier La Platine and TW Raven tables require an 8” armboard to be made long rather than the normal 6” to 7”; otherwise the optimal position prescribed by the mounting template cannot be achieved on the 12” arm.   The anti-skating mechanism has been carefully designed to incorporate the use of several opposing magnets to provide for a non-linear force across the record surface. If the idle position of the arm deviates too far from the template’s optional  position, the antiskating force may be applied too early or too late, depending on whether the head shell position is too close or too far out relative to the platter. This is why the tonearm is “bespoke tailored” specifically for your specific turntable.

The Proof Is in the Listening

How does the arm sound? To put it simply, the ebony version is musical, elegant and soothing, whereas the graphite/titanium version is accurate, straightforward and lively.

Unlike other reviews I have written in the past in which a general sonic description can be pinned down, in this case it would be unfair to assign a blanket sonic description because every bespoke Primary Control tonearm will have sonic variations. Both arms display exceptional finesse, detail, and frequency extension which tonearms with less adjustability can only aspire to achieve. Depending on the type of music I’m playing, the seductiveness of one may draw me away from the other.

The ever-so-romantic display of poignant emotions was gracefully displayed with the 12” Macassar ebony Primary Control when the violin in the Andante in Act 3 of Delibes’s Sylvia was played (Decca SXL 6635/6, Bonynge – New Philharmonic Orchestra). Paired with the Dynavector XV-1T bamboo body cartridge, the ebony version gives a vivid display of organic qualities which are distinctively more prominent than with the graphite armwand. Though the sonic image appears more smudged and with less clearly defined edges, it makes up for the deficiency by presenting a picture which offers more human-like qualities, drawing you closer to the music.

Yet, when the grand finale in Act 3 of the same ballet is played, the graphite arm is decidedly more neutral, accurate and dynamic, but not so much as to veer towards the direction where it becomes analytical and hard sounding. It delivers a soundstage which is more upfront, yet extends further into the room. The sonic image has more three dimensional qualities. The bass goes deeper and carries more definition, texture and less boominess to the sound.

With vocal-dominant recordings ranging from 1950s Victoria de los Ángeles recordings to 2011 Adele albums, I find myself caught in the same dilemma. The ebony arm exceeds the graphite version on organic qualities, but loses out on dynamism and speediness of response. The same can be said with Fleet Foxes’ White River Hymnal, with which the graphite version offers a more upfront presentation than does the ebony version, which puts you in a few rows back. Halfway through the review, I like the arm so much I will add one of these to my reference system, but I am having difficulty in deciding which one.

The More Care, the More Sound

If there is ever a time in which the veteran can excel over the layman, the Primary Control would be the apt instrument for such a demonstration. With the meticulous attention to details and clarity in setup instructions, the layman can certainly achieve a pretty high level of sonic achievements by following setup procedures. But the Primary Control is also a tonearm which will allow a person with a bit more experience to take the sonic performance to a much higher level. Given the numerous bespoke customizable configurations available, combined with the precise adjustability of the Primary Control, it is a tonearm which offers limitless potential –– and you can be sure it will never be the bottleneck of any analog setup.

There is always a downside to anything elegant and exclusive. Just like the bespoke suits of Savile Row, the Primary Control comes with an elegant price tag. The price ranges from around $5,500 to approximately $8,000, depending on the configuration. Ten years ago, if I were to mention an $8,000 tonearm, it would likely have raised some eyebrows. But in 2014, where a slurry of new tonearm models have gone past the $10,000 mark, such as the Graham Elite, Triplanar Mk VII, or the Vertere Reference –– just to name a few –– they do make this bespoke work of art appear less exorbitant.    -Richard. H. Mak

Primary Control Tonearm

MSRP: Starting at $5,500

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


Van Alstine Vision Phono Preamplifier

Though famous for his tube designs, Frank Van Alstine is no slouch with solid state either.  With passive EQ and no coupling capacitors, this American made phonostage offers no frills high performance.  And MC owners take note, AVA can customize the Vision to the loading requirements for your cartridge.  We are currently using this with the legendary Denon 103 and it offers mega performance.

-Jeff Dorgay

Van Alstine Vision Phono Preamplifier


Simaudio MOON Evolution 610LP phonostage

Bouncing between St. Vincent’s current and last album, I can’t help but be in awe of the staying power of the vinyl record.  Thanks to the many manufacturers, like Simaudio, who have not only kept the faith, but continue to innovate and refine their designs, spinning records is better than ever in the year 2014 than it ever was.  Who knew?  Even better much of the technology in flagship designs is making its way down the food chain to more affordable designs like the MOON 610LP here.

We’ve been using the Simaudio MOON 810LP phonostage as a reference component for some time now, but at $13,000 is out of reach for a certain group of analog enthusiasts.  The $7,500 MOON 610LP, though not inexpensive, opens another door.   Comparing the 810LP and 610LP side by side reveals subtle yet profound differences and while the 810LP ultimately reveals more music than the 610LP; some may actually prefer the presentation of the 610LP.

A unified voice

First and foremost the 610LP has a similar, yet slightly softer voicing than the 810LP.   The more expensive MOON offers up more resolution on leading and trailing transients in a take no prisoners system, but some of your preference may come down to overall system tuning and associated components.  Going back and forth with the Lyra Titan i, I actually preferred the 610LP in my reference system, which is a few clicks to the warm side of neutral.  Those wanting every last molecule of resolution will prefer the 810LP, but the 610LP is no slouch.  Dare I say it, but the 610LP almost sounds a touch more “tube-like” in the same vein of my favorite solid-state preamps from Pass, Burmester, Robert Koda and Luxman.  Never slow or veiled, just a bit lusher than the 810LP, which struck us as one of the most neutral phonstages we’ve had the pleasure to audition.

Tracking through the recent Blue Note remasters and the recent Miles Davis discs from Mobile Fidelity are a perfect example of the 610LP at its finest. This phonostage creates a soundfield that is both extremely deep and wide, going well beyond the boundaries of my Dynaudio Eminence Platinum speakers, but the magic doesn’t stop here.  Where the 610LP mirrors the performance of it’s more expensive sibling is in it’s ability to render acoustic instruments naturally.

Switching from the Titan i to the more tonally neutral Atlas, it’s tough to tell these two phonostages apart through the critical midrange, especially with modest dynamic swings.  The cymbals at the beginning of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Blue Collar” float in the air in front of my listening chair, feeling right spatially as well as feeling as if the drum kit is of a realistic size.  The 610LP does not exaggerate perspective, which can be fun for a short period of time wears on you after long listening sessions.

Quiet, quiet, quiet

Though the 610LP has a claimed signal to noise ratio of 93db, while the spec on the 810LP  is 95db, you’d be tough to tell them apart.  This phonostage is dead quiet.  Even the most delicate pieces of classical music, the noise floor is always in the recording, with tape hiss from the master coming through, not the electronics.  Personally, this is one of the true benefits of a great solid-state phonostage – the absence of noise.  While a number of tubed units can add a touch of palpability (wanted or unwanted) that the solid state units can’t match, they always seem to impart a bit of sporadic tube noise.

Depending on your system, this can go from barely audible to somewhat annoying.  Even more annoying is trying to rustle up a matching set of tubes for your phonostage that you love, only to find the tonality changed when it’s time to re-tube.  Another awesome reason to go solid-state; turn the 610LP on, leave it on and forget about it forever, unless you change cartridges and need to adjust gain and loading.  Personally, as much fun as tube rolling is, I enjoy the consistency of transistors – your mileage may vary.

If you haven’t sampled a top solid-state amplification component in a while, you will be surprised at how lifelike and natural the 610LP renders music without needing vacuum tubes.  The gap has been closing for years and Simaudio is one of the rare few that produces solid-state electronics that have no “sound” of their own.  If you desire the tonal flavor that comes with a vintage vacuum tube sound, that’s another story.

Mega adjustable

With 64 steps for resistive loading from 12.1 ohms to 47k, 16 steps for capacitive loading from 0pf to 470pf and 16 steps of gain adjustment from 40db to 70db, I can’t imagine a cartridge that the 610LP can’t handle.  I certainly had no issues with the cartridges at my disposal and appreciated the wide range of adjustability down at the lower end of the scale – critical with some of the Koetsus and especially the Rega Apheta, which mates incredibly well with the 610LP.  Ultra OCD analog lovers will appreciate the fine adjustments available, and again, the more resolving your system, the easier it will be to hear those fine adjustments.

As with the 810LP, all of the adjustments are via DIP switches on the underside of the unit, so this is not a phonostage for casual adjustment.  After living with both of these units for some time, I suggest putting your 610LP on a shelf with plenty of height, so you can prop it up and not have to disconnect it or remove it from the rack when making loading settings.

It’s worth mentioning that the 610LP makes an incredible moving magnet phonostage.  Though I’m guessing that most analog enthusiasts at this level will have probably graduated beyond the top MM carts (all in the $800 – $1,200 range), if you start your assault on top notch analog, you can start with the 610LP as an anchor and go up the scale on cartridges as your budget allows.  The 47k setting is a wonderful match for the Grado moving iron cartridges, which have a low output of .6mv, yet still require 47k loading.   For those in the audience with the Grado Statement and Statement 1, the 610LP is a perfect match for these cartridges.

The 610LP also offers balanced inputs as well as outputs. If you have a balanced tonearm cable for your turntable, take advantage of the fully balanced, differential circuit design of the 610LP.  Using identical Cardas clear tonearm cables, my impromptu listening panel always picked the balanced option as more open and dynamic.  We’re not talking a major delta here, but noticeable enough that even untrained listeners could pick it out, and again, the more resolving your system, the bigger difference it will make, especially if you have a fully balanced system.

Rounding out the package

For those not familiar with Simaudio, all engineering, design and assembly is done at their factory in Montreal, and like Boulder, they do all their chassis metalwork in house as well. The MOON 610LP is a member of their Evolution series, robustly built-both mechanically and electronically, as you would expect from a flagship component.

Lifting the lid reveals a massive power supply that Simaudio claims has more reserve power, is faster and quieter than an equivalent battery supply.  Going topless also reveals first-rate components throughout, and having been to the Sim factory (see issue 32) the care taken in machining chassis parts and physical assembly is some of the best our industry has to offer.  This is why Simaudio offers a ten year warranty on their products – very few of them ever go back home to the mother ship.

More power

You’ll notice a socket on the rear panel of the 610LP marked “power supply,” allowing you the option to take advantage of Simaudio’s 820S external power supply.  We have a review of the 820S in the works and while this massive power supply does extend the range of the 610LP in a mega system, most of you either don’t need it or would be better off stepping up to the 810.

However, because the ($8,000) 820S has outputs marked “analog power” and “digital power,” Those having either the 740P preamplifier, the 650D or 750D DAC/Transport would be well served to split the duty of the 820S between phonostage and one of these other components.

Simaudio’s MOON Evolution 610LP phonostage is a fantastic addition to an analog system, offering an incredibly high price to performance ratio for the analog enthusiast that wants a cost no object phonostage in a single turntable system without refinancing their home.

For all but the most obsessed, this will be the last phonostage you need to buy.  Very enthusiastically recommended.  -Jeff Dorgay

Simaudio MOON Evolution 610LP phonostage

MSRP: $7,500


Preamplifier Robert Koda K-10    ARC REF5SE    Burmester 011
Turntable AVID Acutus Reference SP/Tri-Planar/Lyra Atlas    Rega RP10/Apheta
Cartridges Lyra Titan i    Lyra Kleos    Ortofon Cadenza Bronze    Ortofon SPU    Ortofon 2M Black    Grado Statement 1    Dynavector XV-1S
Power Amplifier Pass Xs300 monoblocks
Cable Cardas Clear
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Ortofon’s 2M Black

I’m sorry to say we are late to the party on this one…  Ortofon’s 2M Black has received numerous accolades from nearly every hifi magazine on the planet and with good reason – it’s a fantastic sounding cartridge.

Trying to break the price/performance barrier, there are a couple of great moving coil cartridges that immediately come to mind, and Ortofon’s own SPU at $999 is at the top of my list, but all of these cartridges need a step up device of some kind, which adds to the bottom line.  Much as I’d rather have 16/44.1 digital well implemented than budget high res, I feel the same way about cartridges.  I’d much rather listen to a great MM with a well designed phono stage, than a budget MC cartridge with a less than stellar phono stage.

Enter the 2M Black.  Reasonably priced at about $700, depending on where you purchase one, this cartridge features a shibata stylus and is very easy to set up.  With an output of 5mv and a recommended tracking force of 1.5 grams, it works equally well with your favorite vintage receiver to a modern MM phono stage.  Mounted in my Thorens TD-124/SME 3009 combination, equally good results were achieved with both a vintage Sansui 771 receiver and the Decware MM phono stage in my reference system.

Previously accustomed to the current OM40 and the vintage VMS20 cartridges, there is a definite family resemblance, yet the 2M Black displays more refinement throughout the range.  Almost exactly like the Cadenza Bronze cartridge I use in my Avid Volvere SP turntable, the 2M Black features an incredibly clean midband.  This cartridge does not enhance, embellish or color the midrange in a way some other designs can.  It proves an incredibly good mate for the Decware phonostage, which is a few drops on the warm side of neutral, making up for the slight bit of soul that the 2M Black does not posess.  Again, you might view that “soul” as coloration, so if that is your preference, ignore my choice in phono stage here.

Ortofon 6NX-TSW1010 Tonearm Cable

Many associate the Ortofon name with its legacy of phono cartridges, but the company’s product line includes a multiple of analog accessories, including headshells, tonearms, and high-end cables. The 6NX-TSW1010 tonearm cable, like Ortofon’s cartridges, is extremely well built.

The cable’s transparent blue casing showcases the shielding beneath, which surrounds seven conductor cores made of very pure copper. The main cable body is 5/8 inches thick and it is surprisingly flexible; the segments leading to RCA plugs are about 1/4 inch thick, and the grounding wire is much thinner. The whole cable is 1.2 meters long.

I’m surprised to see the forked grounding termination simply crimped onto its wire, given the rest of the cable’s build quality, but the connection is solid. Also, despite the gold-plated RCA covers, the plugs connecting to phonostage binding posts are not gold plated. Regardless, these design choices result in a nice-sounding cable.

While I listen to several albums on vinyl—with an SME 10 turntable and Dynavector 17D3 cartridge—a few consistent characteristics emerge. This cable offers a big sound, meaning that it supports a huge soundstage, with both width and height. Vocals sound very upfront, both as part of the perceived stage and in terms of their relation to the drivers.

Bass is deep but a touch reticent in the mix. This cable delivers a lot of detail without the sound becoming strident or sibilant. It brings the listener to the front of the auditorium. Those desiring a more laid-back and organic presentation might find this cable a bit much, but for those seeking a more upfront sonic delivery, the Ortofon could be just the ticket.  – Rob Johnson

Ortofon 6NX-TSW1010 Tonearm Cable

MSRP: €235 (about $325)

Leonard Cohen – The Future

Leonard Cohen’s The Future first hit my audio radar as a result of the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. “Waiting for the Miracle” first captured my attention, but it didn’t take long for the rest of the songs to develop a tight grip on my senses. Cohen’s deep and commanding vocals, accentuating his contemplative and sometimes haunting lyrics, draw forth an unexpected range of emotion.

Previously, my sole exposure to this album came via 16-bit /44.1k CD-quality sound. Stumbling across Music On Vinyl’s analog reissue was a happy accident. The LP meets my high expectations in two important ways. It has more presence, and sounds as if I stepped a few rows forward in the auditorium. The second notable improvement pertains to the vocals. The digital glare on the CD pleasantly disappears. The range and texture of Cohen’s voice is beautifully rendered, and front and center in the mix. It’s also appropriately “sized” in the stereo image.

Disappointments exist, however. Like those on the CD, instruments still can sound repressed. While drums, piano, and guitar offer a reasonable level of realism on “Always,” the same instruments lack detail and presence on other fare. On the title track, for instance, cymbal strikes offer little impact, ring, and decay. The tambourine’s sparkle outshines them. Strings are also hit-and-miss. On the instrumental “Tacoma Trailer,” both piano and strings illustrate a step-up in sonics when compared the CD. However, it’s still not transparent enough to be mistaken for live sound.

Perhaps the source material has inherent limitations, and there’s little else to dig out of it. Or perhaps vocal quality remained the absolute top priority for the reissue, even if it meant some tradeoffs were necessary. Truth be told, the captivating vocals initially sold me on the album, so the latter scenario is an acceptable compromise. While the overall experience leaves me wanting more, having The Future available on a good vinyl pressing makes up for the deficiencies. –Rob Johnson

Columbia/Music On Vinyl, 180g LP

Kiss – Alive!

One of the things I’ve always admired about Gene Simmons is that he’s straightforward about being in the game for the money. Our pal Chad Kassem at Quality Record Pressings/Acoustic Sounds isn’t always quite so forthright, and I’ll cut him some slack because he wouldn’t know a great rock record if it bit him in the ass. But this is pure blasphemy. Sorry folks, I’ve been there from the beginning, and I have every pressing of Alive! around, and this one is a turd.  A $50 turd. no less, pressed at Kassem’s QRP plant.

Granted, Alive! has never been a sonic masterpiece, but the Japanese CD collection from a few years back does this classic major justice, revealing what little dynamics do exist. There’s also some halfway decent separation between lead guitarist Ace Frehley and rhythm guitar Paul Stanley’s playing, with a bit of soundstaging, to boot.

Pulling out the original Casablanca pressing to do a direct comparison, even the original, which you can usually find (albeit often well-worn) for a few bucks at used record stores, blows this remaster away in every sense of the word.

So to the very small subset of audiophiles that happen to love Kiss: If you want the best, you won’t get it here.  –Jeff Dorgay

Universal, 180g 2LP

Aztec Camera – High Land, Hard Rain

Among guilty pleasure albums from the 1980s, Aztec Camera’s debut High Land, Hard Rain maintains a surprisingly regular appearance on my turntable. Over the years, my copy of the 1983 LP from Sire Records sustained a fair amount of needle time and admittedly, isn’t the pristine pressing it used to be. When listening, I took the lyrical advice of Aztec Camera’s song “We Could Send Letters” by closing my eyes and waiting until things got better. Finally, patience persevered! Domino Recordings obtained the original analog masters to create a 30th anniversary reissue on 180-gram vinyl.

Compared with the original LP, the album art appears identical, except for the not-so-surprising omission of the tagline “also available on cassette.” The new pressing replicates the track listing of the original LP. For those seeking bonus songs, be sure to check out the digital download enabled via the vinyl purchase or pick up the CD.

Most importantly, the sonics get a significant upgrade. Domino made a concerted effort to give the album the respect and long-overdue update it deserves. Roddy Frame’s vocals boast inherent passion, and the reverb is more apparent. The perceived room around the vocalist also seems larger. Acoustic guitars, the driving force of the album, retain their energetic and upfront placement, and are flanked by deep, tight, and supportive bass. No, cymbals and tambourines don’t have all the subtle ring and decay I hoped to hear, but are on par with earlier releases. Perhaps the original recordings didn’t allow much more detail to be retrieved without the introduction of unwanted artifacts.

For High Land, Hard Rain fans, this reissue is a must. If you are not yet a fan of Aztec Camera, the pressing provides a great opportunity to start.   –Rob Johnson

Domino, 180g LP

Hall and Oates – Voices

Hall and Oates’ ninth album is brought to life like never before on this Mobile Fidelity pressing.  The group’s first self-produced work, Voices presents the duo embracing a more commercial sound defined by the addition of slightly more pop and funk interacting with the harmonies that made the pair famous.

Moving straight to side two and cueing up “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” reveals how desolate the original RCA pressing sounds. Bereft of dynamics, the old LP sounds like an mp3 file.  This new version is awash with depth and nuance, and the comparison makes it easy to hear the truly great musicianship Hall and Oates brought to the songs.

The piano on “Kiss On My List,” nearly gone on the original, now occupies plenty of space just to the left of center, right behind Hall’s lead vocal. Throughout, you can noticeably hear the vocal banter between Hall and Oates, with the latter having more presence than before.  Here’s an enjoyable trip down memory lane, especially with the sonics returned to what they should have been all along.  — Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g LP

Carole King – Tapestry

Here’s an interesting pressing of a major classic.  Of course, books have been written about Carole King, her genius, why this record is a landmark, so there’s no need to blather on about those topics here.

Bottom line: Mobile Fidelity hits upon an excellent compromise with this version by putting it all on one slab of vinyl. Remarkable dynamics remain, even though they aren’t quite as abundant as on the out-of-print Classic Records reissue.  However: This LP provides an open, natural top end that no other Tapestry offers to such an extent, save the recent ORG pressing, which was limited to 2000 copies and is getting tougher to find.  All the other copies of this record I’ve heard possess a slightly to moderately rolled-off treble.  For this reviewer, bringing this quality back makes the album, and makes this Mobile Fidelity reissue the version to own if you don’t want to go the 45 route.  — Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g LP

Billy Joel – The Stranger

I’d give Mobile Fidelity a swab of my DNA if the label would work its magic on Billy Joel’s Streetlife Serenade, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. So we’ll need to settle for the Grammy-winning The Stranger. Part of the imprint’s ongoing Joel reissue campaign, this 45RPM edition of The Stranger sounds incredible.  If this record—ranked by Rolling Stone among the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time—is your jam, call Music Direct right now.  Dragging out the Columbia original from my archives instantly reminds me how dreadful the original sounds: two-dimensional, lifeless,  flat.

A two record set, this version of Joel’s biggest-selling record (it was available on 8-track, back in 1977!) lords over the original. The 45RPM platters really make transients jump.  Where the original is congested, Mobile Fidelity’s edition does justice to Joel’s piano playing by giving it more of its own space and texture. In addition, his band is much better represented. Now, it’s easier to give Joel and producer Phil Ramone credit for the arrangements.

By record’s end, it becomes clear MoFi ticked all the boxes. Big, big sound. Super-quiet surfaces. Excellent artwork.  Another boomer favorite reborn.  –– Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g 45RPM 2LP

Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones

Three times a charm for Rickie Lee Jones. Back in the 1980s, Mobile Fidelity released the eponymous album as one of its earliest productions. While the original Warner Bros. pressing is pretty damn good, the reissue quickly became the record that many audiophiles dragged into their favorite high-end audio shop. Between radio stations playing the hell out of “Chuck E’s In Love” and customers at the local hi-fi store that signed my paycheck, I came to dread anyone I saw walking in the door with the record under their arm.

But like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, time heals all wounds.  A 25-year hiatus has made this debut record listenable for me again, and last year, Mobile Fidelity produced a single-LP remaster.  Remarkably similar to the original Mobile Fidelity version, albeit slightly noisier, the recent LP offers a bit more dynamic range. However, because the grooves now go almost all the way to the label, increased inner-groove distortion arises on the last track of each side.

This new 45RPM version takes care of the problem and boasts a more solid foundation, with a solid bass groove that doesn’t exist on the other MoFi pressings or WB original.  No substitute for sheer groove volume, this copy really swings, with significantly more drive and a more expansive soundstage, to boot.

While a tad noisier than the original, the delicacy by which the acoustic bass gets reproduced on “Easy Money” should surprise those who have heard this record countless times. The percussion floats in with a gentleness that comes damn close to the experience provided by tape.  All the acoustic instruments tout more space and shape. Yes, this is analog done to perfection.

For those wondering, “Chuck E’s In Love” still gives me an anxiety attack, but it sounds better than ever.  If you love this record, you will not be disappointed.  – Jeff Dorgay

Mobile Fidelity, 180g 45RPM 2LP box set

Rogers PA-1A Phono Preamplifier

Last year, we had a ton of fun listening to the Rogers EHF-200 MK2 integrated amplifier, which combines high-tech design, tubey goodness, and old-school American build quality. And it comes at a price commensurate with its components and performance.

Roger Gibboni’s newest creation is a phonostage that takes his design ethos a step further. While it’s no small feat to produce a great amplifier, the minute signal that a phonostage has to work with is a challenge for any designer. And the Rogers PA-1A exceeds all of my expectations in terms of sound quality and the absence of noise.

Immediately Great

The PA-1A has me pinned to the listening chair from the first track of MoFi’s recent remaster of Los Lobos’ Kiko. Insert your favorite adjective here, and maybe add very in front of it. In short, if you don’t need more than one MC phono input, your search ends here. It’s that good—and it’s only $7,400.

Having lived with the $65,000 Indigo Qualia and the $55,000 Vitus phonostages, I admit that you don’t need to spend anywhere near that much money to achieve analog nirvana.  We’ve been through a pile of excellent phonostages from Audio Research, Pass, Simaudio, Naim and Burmester, to name a few. As great as these all have been (and the Burmester, Pass and ARC all offer two inputs, a definite advantage for those with multiple tables or tonearms), the Rogers raises the game for what is possible without taking a second mortgage on your house.

To look at it another way, for the $60K that one of those top-of-the-mountain phonostages will set you back, you can pick your favorite $30K turntable/tonearm combination, a great $10K cartridge and the Rogers for $7,400.  That still leaves a lot of cash left over to add some great records to your collection.

Of course, $7,400 is not pocket change, but for someone taking a run at a state-of-the-art analog front end, this is incredibly reasonable. It’s like getting a tricked-out Porsche GT3 for the price of a Boxster. I knew I was in for something good when discussing the Rogers with Harry Weisfeld of VPI; we share a similar aural aesthetic and Harry knows great analog when he hears it. Plus, we both have a similar amount of respect for the Lyra Atlas cartridge, which we both use as a reference transducer. Bottom line, when Harry is excited about something, my ears perk up.

I was not disappointed in the least when firing up the PA-1A for the first time. The review sample had been burned in for a while at the factory, so I did not notice much of a change in its sonic character during the review period.

Wow, Wow and More Wow

What puts the PA-1A in the world-class neighborhood is the ease with which it paints the sonic landscape. Spinning the new MoFi 45 RPM two-record set of the self-titled Rickie Lee Jones album is spectacular. While a certain amount of kudos go to MoFi for producing the quintessential copy of this classic, playback comes alive through the Rogers and in the space between the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum speakers—themselves masters of pinpoint-imaging performance. This is the quality I noticed most with the Vitus and Qualia stages: the way they allow the music to swell and diminish with such seamless tonal gradation, and the Rogers does the same. It’s analog at its finest.

Moving up tempo to Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, I find the level of micro detail revealed to be amazing. The little percussion and synthesizer bits that are slightly obscured via my Audio Research REF Phono 2 SE now float around the speakers, whereas they all lined up on one flat plane before. Anderson’s voice has more body and her quirky vocal inflections are now more pronounced than before, while at the same time the main synthesizer line is firmly locked in place. Fans of pace, rhythm and timing will freak out at the massive picture painted.

Again, the word ease just keeps popping into my consciousness. If you’ve ever had the chance to drive the Z06 and standard versions of Chevrolet’s Corvette, you know what I’m talking about. Both cars effortlessly cruise along at 100 mph and lunge with nearly equal enthusiasm when you put the pedal down, but that extra horsepower offered by the Z06 makes the experience of speed surreal, where the standard car is still working a bit to go from 100 to 150 mph.

No matter how much great tribute bands try to cover Led Zeppelin, they just can’t recreate the nuance, sonic complexity, or the sheer texture with which Jimmy Page plays, even though the correct notes are often hit. This is the final piece of the analog puzzle that the Rogers unequivocally nails. The reverse tracks on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour are sublime, almost dilating in the way they separate from the rest of the mix. The bell in “Penny Lane” is not only correct in terms of timbre, but the width and height information is so stunningly reproduced that it feels like there’s an actual fire truck in the room ringing its bell.

Three Flavors

The PA-A1 uses three tubes per channel, a 6GH8, a 12AX7 and the final gain stage uses either a 12AX7 or 12AU7. Rogers supplies both so you can adjust the gain to your taste. With the 12AU7, the PA-A1 has 58 dB of gain, which will be more than enough for MC cartridges having an output of around 0.5 mV. The 12AX7 provides about 10 dB more gain, but it’s slightly noisier, so it is a tradeoff.

Don’t hang too much on the ultimate gain figures, though; take total system gain into consideration before dismissing 58 dB as “not enough gain.” When using the Robert Koda K-10 preamplifier and the ARC REF 5 SE—which both feature 6 dB gain via the single-ended inputs (the PA-1A is a single-ended design)—I find myself cranking the volume a bit higher than I would normally with the ARC REF Phono 2 SE, but both of these linestages have a very low noise floor. The Burmester and CJ linestages at my disposal have 18 and 21 dB of gain, respectively, so the PA-1A’s 58 dB is enough even with low-output MC cartridges.

However, there is a Goldilocks solution. That second tube can be substituted for the NOS 12AV7, which offers a bit more gain than the 12AU7 and a lower noise floor. “The 12AV7 is a great tube,” says Gibboni, “but I didn’t want to build a product around tubes that are not readily available. I can sell you a pair of 12AV7s for about $90 while my supply lasts.”

All three variations sound good, so those leaning more towards the OCD side of the fence will probably be driven to madness trying to decide on the ultimate choice for that third tube. The 12AU7 proves excellent as a daily driver, and the 12AV7 is very intriguing in my system, offering a touch more top-end extension. The Clearaudio Goldfinger is a perfect partner for the 12AV7, while I prefer the stock 12AU7 with the Lyra Atlas. The slightly forward Lyra Titan i pairs well with the 12AX7’s warmer sound, especially when swapped for a pair of NOS Telefunkens. Crazy good fun I say, but it is nice that analog aficionados can really fine-tune the sound exactly to their liking. Gibboni says you can probably expect that the tubes will last 5,000 to 10,000 hours with this phonostage, so try and settle on something you like, and buy a second set!

Good with MM too

While the PA-1A technically has one input, if you were using a second table with a moving-magnet cartridge, you could plug two tables into the PA-1A—which is exactly what I do. Going vintage with the Thorens TD-124 turntable, SME 3009 tonearm and Ortofon 2M Black provides an excellent alternative to my reference table.

Thanks to front-panel loading and capacitance adjustments, it’s a snap to dial your favorite MM cartridge to your liking. The heavier presentation of the vintage Thorens is a natural for the tubey goodness of the PA-1A. Tracking through a number of the current Blue Note remasters from Music Matters Jazz is wonderful.

Though the Atlas provides a clearer picture, the Thorens/Ortofon combination is warmer, with perhaps even a bit more jump on these jazz classics. Horns have a little more attack and cymbals linger a bit more and have more smokiness—not necessarily correct, but a ton of fun. It’s a great option to have, whether you decide to use that second table as a tone control, or just an option to save wear and tear on your megabucks cartridge.

Very Enthusiastically Suggested

We’re keeping the PA-1A here as a permanent reference component to run through its paces even further. We’ll report back in a year, with a long-term follow-up once we’ve had time to do a little more tube rolling and try some additional cartridges. It should be a great journey.

As high-end audio continues to get higher priced, it is refreshing to find a company that is offering world-class sonics and state-of-the-art build quality at a reasonable price. Every Rogers component is built by hand, lovingly packaged, and even includes a nice card from the person who built it. The Rogers PA-1A is a great reminder that quality manufacturing is not dead in America.  –Jeff Dorgay

Rogers PA-1A Phonostage

MSRP: $7,400


Turntables AVID Acutus REF SP    TriPlanar arm    Thorens TD-124    SME 3009 arm   SME 10   SME V arm
Cartridges Clearaudio Goldfinger    Lyra Atlas    Lyra Titan i    Lyra Kleos    Ortofon SPU   Ortofon 2M Black    Dynavector 17D3    Grado Statement 1
Preamplifiers Burmester 011    ARC REF 5 SE    Robert Koda K-10
Power Amplifier Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks
Speakers Dynaudio Evidence Platinum
Power IsoTek Super Titan

Ortofon Cadenza Bronze

Spinning Anya Garbarek’s Smiling and Waving on staffer Earle Blanton’s system, I’m blown away by how neutral, clean and airy Garbarek’s voice flows through his towering Magnepan 20.1s.  Why a remote review, you ask?   After purchasing[1] the cartridge for reference duty at TONE, Blanton took a real liking to the cart, and it never returned to the mothership.   But it’s a system I’m well familiar with:  Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2, McCormack DNA-750s, an AVID Volvere SP and the luscious Mangnepans, beefed up on the bottom end with a pair of JL Audio 112 subwoofers.  It’s a killer system in a big room, making for a soundstage that’s slightly exaggerated, but oh so inviting.

Overall tonal balance on the system is smooth, fast and extended, so the Bronze is a perfect fit, mirroring the same characteristics.  The electronic effects on the Garbarek record float distinctly a few feet in front of the speakers, feeling much like something from a David Lynch movie, almost eerie in their effect, with Garbarek gently cooing in the background.

Next up, the MoFi copy of Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space. Again, this favorite puts Mann slightly left of center, but much larger than life, the massive 20.1s disappearing completely, and again, the fun ethereal background sounds now zooming past my head, feeling like I’m listening to a surround mix – but I’m not.  The distorted guitar at the beginning of “Guys Like Me” has just the right amount of texture and bite as multiple layers of Mann’s voice enter the mix.

The Cadenza Bronze excels at throwing a very deep, three-dimensional soundstage, with a generous helping of decay to further create the illusion that Ms. Mann is right here in the room with us.  Female vocals, check.

Moving on to some classic rock, the self-titled Santana gives the Cadenza Bronze a bit more of an obstacle course, mixing in Santana’s complex guitar work with a wide range of acoustic instruments and percussion.  Thanks to the extreme speed of this cartridge and its ability to start and stop cleanly and precisely, bongos sound like bongos, and the drums are locked solidly down.   As the drums pan back and forth during the intro to “Evil Ways,” all of the overdubbed vocals are easy to pick out of the mix, while the Hammond organ is well out on the periphery.  Often a great track to play while listening to headphones (especially if one is slightly herbally challenged) a similar, spacey, otherworldly experience is within your grasp with the Cadenza Bronze.

However, the parlor tricks are meaningless without accurate rendering of tone and timbre – another area in which the Cadenza Bronze excels.  The cymbals in the same Santana recording come across as neutral and correct, yet fade into nothing with an extremely fine tonal gradation.  This is the analog magic at its best, my friends.  This recording also demonstrates the Cadenza Bronze’s ability to unravel a dense studio recording, revealing all of the buried treasure within, something that does not come easy to all MC cartridges.  The Cadenza Bronze can deliver the goods on heavy rock recordings.  A similar experience is achieved with this cartridge mounted on the SME 10/SME V tonearm combination; the Bronze is able to extract minute details at both loud and soft levels without the soundstage collapsing.  Impressive.

While many rely on female vocals to judge a component’s mettle, I submit that the male voice is often tougher to reproduce accurately because of the additional weight and increased range at times.  Sinatra’s reissues on MoFi provide an excellent obstacle course here, especially apparent when one observes the difference in recording quality between the title track on his Nice and Easy album and the second track, “That Old Feeling” – with the second track having more depth and body, Sinatra’s voice smoother than ever.

The piano and strings on this album are reproduced exquisitely. Swapping through a range of phonostages from the Monk Audio, all the way up to the $65k Qualia Indigo, (which the Ortofon mates with quite spectacularly, though perhaps a bit overkill) the sonic signature of the Cadenza Bronze remains constant.

Perhaps the only aspect of this cartridge that may be off-putting to some audiophiles is its lack of embellishment, one direction or the other.  It does not offer a lush midrange like the Grado Statement 1 (or Ortofon’s own SPU cartridge), nor does it render an overly detailed presentation like my Lyra Titan i.  The Cadenza Bronze is really a “just the facts, ma’am” transducer.  It neither romanticizes the presentation nor adds an artificially goosed high end, suggesting a false sense of resolution.  As one who sees the cartridge in an analog system as the ultimate tone control, the Cadenza Bronze will probably be more at home in a system somewhere between a neutral tonal balance and one that leans slightly to the warm, romantic side.

With a .4mv output, the Cadenza Bronze works well with any phonostage you might have on hand with about 60 – 65db of gain.  Of course it is a perfect match with my ARC REF Phono 2SE and the Simaudio MOON 810LP, yet we achieve equally good results with the Monk phonostage and even the Lehmann Black Cube currently under review.

The range of tracking force is 2.2 – 2.7 grams, with Ortofon suggesting 2.5 as optimal.  This proves perfect in the SME tonearms at my disposal, however 2.6 gram is the ticket in the Rega RP8.  As always, we suggest making small adjustments up and down from 2.5 grams to achieve the best balance of high frequency response and trackability.

Which leads to the final aspect of the Cadenza Bronze: in the true tradition of Ortofon MM cartridges, the MC Cadenza Bronze is a fantastic tracker, showing no signs of inner groove distortion, or an inability to handle highly complex musical passages.  This should be a delight to classical and heavy rock music users alike.

For $2,199, the Ortofon Cadenza Bronze is tough to beat.  Most other cartridges offering this level of performance, revealing this much music in such an unobtrusive way, tend to cost at least a thousand dollars more – hence our willingness to bestow one of our Exceptional Value Awards.   While not offering as much resolution as a few of our favorite cartridges with a five-figure price tag, the Cadenza Bronze gives you more than a peek into what the mega cartridges offer without an insane price tag.  I suggest an audition.  –-Jeff Dorgay

Ortofon Cadenza Bronze


Yes, the Meatmen!

“We’re the fucking men of meat!” proclaims the opening chorus during the leadoff track on the new album from Detroit’s offensive punk icons, the Meatmen.

Frontman Tesco Vee, who came back into the fold in 2008, has never sounded better. His primeval snarl utters “I’m gonna fuck you uuuuuuuuuup” on the same track.  Perusing the record’s track list reveals Vee hasn’t lost his nerve or politically incorrect sense of humor, with selections including such jewels as “Pissed Hot For Weed,” “Rock and Roll Enema,” and “The Ballad of Stinky Penis.” Think “I Sin for a Living” revisited and you’re halfway there.

The tunes remain short, sweet, and to the point, punctuated by buzzing guitars and thunderous drums arriving at a blinding pace. Age has not calmed this band one bit. However, the addition of guitarist Hindu Kush (Kevin Roberts) replaces the Ramones-like thrash of earlier Meatmen albums with a more straightforward metal approach that expands the musicality. Talk about a righteous upgrade.

While available on vinyl, in typical Meatmen fashion, Savage Sagas… still sounds like ass, so don’t expect higher fidelity in analog. But hey, it is the Meatmen.  Selfishly, I wish they would have released this one on cassette, so I could put it right next to my cassette of We’re the Meatmen…and You Suck. That would be oh, so much more punk.

Rega Aria Phonostage

Literally translated, the word aria means air in Italian, but it is often referenced as a lyrical, playful section of music as well.  All of these terms apply rather nicely to Regas latest phono stage of the same name.

$1,495 is a tough price point; there’s not only a fair amount of competition, but we’re well beyond “budget analog.”  Spending this kind of money means you’re indeed getting serious about how your record collection sounds.

Jean-Michel Jarre’s mid-80s techno classic Zoolook begins the first serious listening session, with the second track, “Diva” and I’m immediately drawn in to the analog magic going on here, with water droplets sounding as if they are running down the back of the listening room wall, while Laurie Anderson’s trippy, back tracked vocals, bounce between the speakers with a sinister breathing layered over some equally dark synthesizer riffs.

The first couple thousand dollars spent in each aspect of the analog reproduction change (cartridge, turntable and phonostage) occupies the straight up portion of the performance curve, with every few hundred additional dollars budgeted bringing major increases in musical revelation.

Like all Rega electronics, the Aria does not need extended break in.  It sounds great right out of the box, and stabilizes fully after a few days of constant play.  Being that it uses precious little power, leaving it powered up 24/7 allows it to fully stabilize electrically and thermally, offering the best sound.

The Rega way

Building on the past success of Rega’s IOS phonostage, (reviewed in issue 36) the Aria uses a discrete, FET design – no op amps here.  There’s a definite clarity that this phono stage brings that is immediately noticeable, and I must admit user bias; there are precious few op amp based phonostages that don’t have a fair amount of glare and haze in the presentation.  Fortunately, the Aria sidesteps this problem with its discrete design.

As with so many other Rega products, the Aria takes a unique approach, offering completely separate moving magnet and moving coil sections, rather than relying on adding a transformer or additional gain stage to the MM stage for MC duty.  This adds some flexibility to its use, allowing it to be used with two turntables, a wonderful option for the serious analog enthusiast.  While much of my listening was done with the Rega RP6 and RP8 turntables, featuring Rega Exact and Apheta cartridges, the AVID Ingenium, with two tonearms was called into play to explore a number of additional cartridge options, thanks in part to the easily swappable headshells on the Ortofon TA-110 tonearm.  However if you were going for an all Rega system, An RP8/Apheta and an RP3/Exact would be a great pair of tables to match up with the Aria.

The compact physical size of the Aria is unobtrusive, keeping the same form factor as Rega’s current Brio-R integrated amplifier, Apollo-R CD Player and DAC.  The rear panel has two pairs of RCA input jacks, one for MM and one for MC phono, with a pair of RCA output jacks to connect to the rest of your system.

A great all rounder

After trying almost a dozen different phono cartridges, from the $295 Rega Elys 2, all the way up to the $15,000 Clearaudio Goldfinger Statment, the only cartridge in my collection that was not an excellent match was the Grado Signature 1.  This is a moving iron cartridge, requiring a 47k load impedance, but only having an output of .5mv, needed more gain to really rock the house.  At $3,000, this cartridge will probably not be the first choice for an Aria user, but there are a wide range of lower priced Grados with .5mv output.  And should you possess one of these, the Aria will not be a stellar performer.  Anything else with a .3 – .6mv output, requiring loading of 70 -400 ohms should work just fine.

The 70 ohm setting is perfect for use with Regas top of the line ($1,795) Apheta, which in our experience has always offered the best balance of high frequency extension without sounding strident at a lower impedance loading.  The Aria reveals enough music to be a great place to begin your journey with the Apheta (especially considering that Rega’s US distributor, the Sound Organisation makes a very sweet deal when combining the Apheta with their upper end tables, the RP8 and RP10).

Highly musical combinations were also found with the Denon 103, Lyra Delos, and Ortofon 2M Black cartridges, providing high performance without emptying your wallet, and I would consider one of these or Rega’s Exact 2 ($595) to be the sweet spot for this phonostage.  Gain, loading and MC capacitance can be easily set via multiple DIP switches on the back panel, so you can change cartridge setup easily.

Quiet and dynamic

Just like the IOS, the Aria is incredibly quiet, a boon of all solid-state designs.  Listening to “Solea” from Miles Davis Sketches of Spain, on the recent MoFi remaster is a joy.  Davis’ horn begins the track slowly, and languishes throughout, with gentle drumming and cymbal work that floats throughout the soundstage.  All of the budget phono stages we’ve auditioned (except for the Lounge LCR) seems to flatten this piece into a two dimensional soundstage with precious little depth, yet the Aria brings life to the mix.  The Aria also excels in terms of dynamics – Davis’ explosive playing always a great trial for any analog components ability to follow musical transients quickly and cleanly.

An equally pleasant effect is produced with Jim James banjo playing at the beginning of “Love You To,” from his Tribute To EP. This somewhat processed recording has a ton of echo and space that really opens up and breathes via the Aria.  Extended listening with a variety of cartridges further underlines the resolution available, and the Aria’s ability to discern the difference between the warmth of the Denon cartridge, versus the more tonally neutral Ortofon cartridges.

Yet when asked to rock, the Aria delivers.  Keith Richards Talk is Cheap album is not a terribly well recorded rock record, coming across as somewhat flat and compressed, yet the Aria renders good separation between Richards grungy guitar and gravely voice, giving each plenty of space for the listener to enjoy.

The rumbling bass line in Lyle Lovett’s “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind” has the necessary weight to carry the track. Alternatively, the synth bass in RUN DMC’s “It’s Not Funny” manages substantial growl, while the opening bass riff in Rickie Lee Jones’ “Easy Money” (from the new MoFi 45 rpm remaster) proves that the Aria captures weight and finesse in the lower register.

Many will argue the case for a vacuum tube phono stage, because of their more organic presentation, but precious few at this price are well designed enough to offer quiet and control, offering warmth as an alternative.  The Aria will never be mistaken for a tubed phono pre, but it always tonally neutral without sounding clinical, and for my money, I’d rather add a touch of warmth in the phono cartridge and retain the level of resolution and quiet that this phonostage offers.

In the end…

As the performance curve continues straight up to the 10k range, comparing the Aria to phonostages costing twice as much is a pointless comparison, but compared to the others we’ve heard in the $1,200 – $1,500 range, it is solidly at the top of the heap, offering a stunningly quiet and highly musical presentation, without any fuss or muss.  Plug it in, turn it on and play records.  It’s that easy.  And the fact that you can plug a second table in is a big bonus.  Highly recommended.

The Rega Aria Phonostage

$1,495 (factory) (US Importer)


Amplification             Devialet 110

Turntables                 Rega RP3, RP6 and RP8, Avid Ingenium, Thorens TD-124

Cartridges                  Rega Exact, Rega Apheta, Ortofon 2M Black, Ortofon SPU, Lyra Delos

Speakers                    Stirling Broadcast SB-88

Cable                          Cardas Clear

Elvis Costello – King of America

Mobile Fidelity continues their excellent job of remastering the Elvis Costello catalog with his tenth album.  Never charting higher than #39 in the US, this record received more than its share of critical acclaim. Though it was not terribly successful for EC in terms of sales, it joined a string of quirky releases going forward, with only the 1989 Spike showing much chart activity (Spike would be Costello’s last gold record of his career).This record is also pivotal in the sense that it features a bit more of a country groove, something else that he would dabble in going forward, including an interesting and somewhat eclectic rendition of the classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”

MoFi is to be commended for taking this imprint much further than my original 1B Columbia pressing.  It features more air and a wider soundstage throughout, with the mix more opened up, though it is still somewhat lacking in front-to-back depth.  The only complaint with this one, especially in light of the fact that it is an “Original Master Recording,” (which means MoFi used the original master tape in its production) is this: while dynamics are improved over the original, as well as overall tonality – especially the acoustic guitars – is that they didn’t split this up into two slabs of vinyl as they did on Get Happy.  – Jeff Dorgay

MoFi, 180g. LP

Neil Young – Live at the Cellar Door

Recorded at the Cellar Door in Washington DC over a three-day period from November 30 to December 2, 1970, the latest in Neil Young’s “archives” series hits the record store shelves in vinyl format, lagging the CD by a few weeks. If you were patient enough to wait, you will be highly rewarded.

Music editor Bob Gendron gave the digital version of this performance a highly insightful review in Issue 59, but we did not have a vinyl copy at that time to comment on. I concur 100% with Gendron’s assessment of the performance, and the sound quality of this vinyl version is outstanding.  Mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman’s studio, it is easily the equal in fidelity of the Live at Massey Hall and Live at The Fillmore albums.

The epitome of sparse production, the tracks all feature Young on guitar or piano, and while a hint of tape hiss creeps in from time to time, his voice is vibrant, dripping with decay and overtones, in the way that only a magnificent analog recording can – warts and all.  Fortunately, the warts are very few, and on one level, kudos to Young for leaving them in.  If this were a Katy Perry album, it would all be pristinely pitch corrected.

Here’s to a great glimpse into the past of such a great artist, and here’s to hoping Mr. Young will pull a few more recent performances out of his vaults in the months to come.  – Jeff Dorgay

Warner Bros, 180g LP

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

Tosca – j.a.c.

Richard Dorfmeister of Kruder & Dorfmeister is half of Tosca, and his influence on this record is clearly obvious, given its ethereal rhythms, heavy yet lazy bass lines, and a soundstage full of ambient effects that stretch way beyond speaker boundaries.

j.a.c. was mastered at Caylx Studios in Berlin. Combining ultra-quiet surfaces and spreading the tracks out over three slabs of vinyl, this album breathes in a way the CD does not, and gives the music a much more open, organic feel. There is much dynamic range here; it begs to be played at club levels. The original CD is even slightly quieter, but feels more compressed through the midband and high frequencies, sounding crunchier and more digital on top.

Vide, “Zuri,” with its opening percussion and cymbal play. Where the CD sounds lifeless and flat, the LP possesses a much more realistic timbre. When the acoustic guitar eases into the mix, it has a very distinct space on the LP. On the CD, it is decidedly vague, sounding almost out of phase.  This is typical of the entire album, going back and forth between LP and CD, with the analog always getting the nod for palpability.

If you’re a fan of The K&D Sessions, you’ll want to add j.a.c. to your vinyl collection. -Jeff Dorgay

K7, 3LP

Snoop Lion – Reincarcerated

You can take the boy out of hip-hop, but you can’t take the hip-hop out of the boy.  Snoop’s current record has more of a reggae flavor, but there are plenty of hard-hitting grooves here to keep loyal fans satiated. If anything, this album sounds like it was influenced more by Katy Perry than Bob Marley.

And much like his legendary Doggystyle (perhaps the most well-recorded hip-hop record in history), Reincarcerated is brilliantly recorded, and mastered by Sterling Sound.  Some care is put into this one.

Combining very quiet surfaces with an extremely solid bottom end, the LP outperforms the CD across the spectrum, with that same expansive soundstage that Snoop has always provided.  You may not dig Snoop Lion’s current direction; if you don’t, you probably don’t care about what formats are available. However, if you find Reincarcerated to be your cup of tea, the LP is clearly superior to the CD.  -Jeff Dorgay


NWA – Straight Outta Compton, 20th Anniversary Edition

Ground zero for gangster rap, Straight Outta Compton set the tone and style for everything else that followed, with explosive dynamics and lyrics that stand the test of time 20 years later.

The original LP is one of the better early hip-hop records in terms of production, showcasing Dr. Dre’s skills even then.  Those wanting more high-frequency extension and a bigger soundstage will enjoy the original LP. By contrast, the CD is the only choice if you crave the maximum, hardest-driving beats; it has crushing LF energy.

The current remaster squashes most of the dynamic swing out of the record, and while the high frequencies aren’t terribly rolled off and the surfaces quiet, there is no punch, ultimately robbing the album of the energy it requires to get the messages across. The only saving grace is the fourth side, with bonus tracks from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Snoop Dogg, as well as a live version of “Compton’s in the House.” But you can get these tracks on the remastered CD, too.  -Jeff Dorgay

Profile, 2LP

De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising

Sounding like they were taped via a cassette recorder placed in front of an AM radio, the original digital and LP copies of this hip-hop classic sound positively dreadful, with not much useful information above about 5khz. The new “remastered” version has to be better, right?

Wrong.  It sounds even more lifeless and rolled off, as if someone recorded the original on a cheap tape deck, re-broadcast it on AM radio, and then taped those results on a cheap cassette recorder.

In short, this is the worst vinyl pressing we’ve heard in years, and a huge waste of thirty bucks.  Pass.  -Jeff Dorgay

Tommy Boy, 2LP

Phasemation PP-1000 MC Phono Cartridge

My quest for the Phasemation PP-1000 cartridge started four months ago, when I was perusing photos from a good friend’s recent excursion to Asia and the exotic analog setups he saw on his journey. Most were the usual suspects in mega analog systems: the Koetsu Onyx Platinum, Lyra Atlas and Clearaudio Goldfinger. However, one cartridge stood out—the Phasemation PP-1000, which I initially mistook for a Denon DL-103R. My friend informed me that the Phasemation is extremely popular in Asia at the moment.

I had the good fortune to talk to Nobuyuki Suzuki, the president of Phasemation, who offered insight into his company’s products. He revealed that the designer behind the PP-1000 is Satoshi Kanno, who has 30 years of cartridge design under his belt. One of his premier creations in the 1980s was the JVC Victor MC-L1000, a benchmark in its day. Phasemation’s parent company, Kyodo Denshi Engineering Co. Ltd., has been making precision measuring equipment and OEM step-up transformers for over a decade now.

Suzuki-san makes it clear to me that accurate portrayal of acoustic space is Phasemation’s primary goal, with a strong emphasis on the relative positioning of voices and instruments within that space. Like many listeners, he wants to know where the musical instruments are located and he wants to feel their presence during playback. The key to good cartridge design is “to increase the electric-generation efficiency of the cartridge mechanism,” he says. In layman’s terms, that means Phasemation is trying to achieve the highest output with the smallest coil possible. The specs indicate that the company has succeeded: the PP-1000 produces an output of 0.29 mV, with an internal impedance of only 4 ohms. (Lower impedance reflects fewer coil windings.)

“The specs do not necessarily reflect the actual efficiency of the cartridge,” says Suzuki-san, “because it is not representative of the entire audible frequency spectrum. The PP-1000 is a well-designed cartridge because it is able to deliver an efficient output at all the frequency ranges that express music.”

In this regard, the PP-1000 does seem to produce a much higher output level compared to the two similar cartridges I compared it with. When paired with the Burmester 100 phono preamp, the PP-1000 requires only 60 dB of gain to achieve the same volume level as My Sonic Lab’s Ultra Eminent BC, which has an output of 0.29 mV, or the ZYX Universe II, at 0.24 mV. Interestingly, the 0.29-mV PP-1000 produces a volume level comparable to my 0.56-mV Lyra Atlas, which goes to show you can’t judge a cartridge by its specs alone.

Setup and Break-in

Removing the PP-1000 from its exquisite Rosewood box, I take note of its rather large size. It has one of the largest cartridge bodies I have ever seen: 22 mm by 17 mm by 14.3 mm, with a close resemblance to Denon DL-103R, as I mentioned. This large body makes it more difficult to achieve optimum alignment. While the cantilever itself is not small, it is hidden somewhat within the body, making visual alignment rather difficult, reminding me of the Kondo IO-M cartridge and the Dynavector 17D3, which are equally difficult to align. The PP-1000 is one of only a handful of cartridges I have mounted that requires the mirror reflection of a mounting template like the Uni-Protractor. Those using a non-reflective template or protractor will find this process much more difficult, though not impossible.

The instruction sheet does not specify a torque tolerance for the mounting screws, something I wish all cartridge manufacturers would note. My experimentation yields optimal results at 0.6 to 0.65 pounds per inch, which I gauge using a precision micro-torque meter. This measurement is consistent with the readings that Nakasukan-san of ZYX provided me a while ago for the Universe II cartridge. If the torque is too high, the music becomes tense and agitated, with a reduction in ambience; if it’s too low, the cartridge comes loose.

Phasemation recommends setting the tracking force between 1.7 and 2.0 grams; my review sample sounds optimal at approximately 1.86 grams. This cartridge is considered low compliance (8.0 x 10 (e-6) cm/dyne), but Suzuki-san says the PP-1000 is relatively unaffected by the mass of the tonearm and that it can be used with any tonearm on the market.

During this review, I use the DaVinci Master Reference Virtu and the Schroder TA-1L tonearms mounted on a TW Raven AC turntable. The PP-1000 only requires about 10 hours of break-in to sound great—much less than the 20 to 50 hours that most cartridges require for the cantilever suspension to settle. This greatly affects frequency extension and makes the overall presentation feel more relaxed. The PP-1000 remains stable at an input loading of 100 ohms, which should make it easy to integrate with any MC phonostage or step-up device.

The Magic

As the needle lands on the record surface, the PP-1000 immediately displays a lively and transparent sound quality. Tonally, it does not sit at the romantic end of the spectrum, a space typically occupied by Kondo and Koetsu cartridges, yet the PP-1000 does not veer towards the analytical side, like my reference Lyra Titan i. The Phasemation renders music without any artificial warmth or coloration. I sample everything from the operatic Victoria de los Angeles’ “Ich liebe dich” (EMI ASD 651), to the folky Brothers Four’s “Try to Remember” (Columbia CS 9179) to the modern indie rock of the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey.” The PP-1000 always renders vocals with natural sibilance together with human imperfections, but not the point of sounding lean or hard.

On Erick Friedman’s Virtuoso Favorites (RCA LSC 2671), and Maurice Gendron’s Schumann Concerto (Philips 835 130 AY), the PP-1000 delivers a rich and full-bodied sound with plenty of harmonic decay, although the cartridge may not have the last word when it comes to rendering the details embedded in these two recordings. The My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent BC has a faster transient response in terms of the subtle intricacies of string instruments, and the Goldfinger Statement and the Kondo IO-M make the strings sound smoother. The PP-1000 has more rawness and less tonal contrast, but without ever being coarse or flat. You will hear the good and the bad with this cartridge.

True to its design goals, the PP-1000 renders holographic images with solid rigidity, where instruments occupy their rightful place firmly rather than with a faint haze, and without any overlap or smudging of the edges. Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Capital SP8373 Cisco Reissue) does a fantastic job revealing tonal contrasts. It’s as if the instruments are appearing right in front of your eyes with a realism you can almost feel. The already wide soundstage of the recording is stretched ever so slightly with the PP-1000, and it extends further beyond the space confined by the walls of my listening room, with layering and rightful proportions.

The second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 (EMI SLS 5177) portrays the grim events of the bloody Sunday massacre and subsequent uprising that took place in St. Petersburg in 1905. The performance is not for the faint of heart and it grips the listener with power and intensity. The PP-1000 renders the mass strings with texture in a perfect rhythmic pace that reflects the intensity of Paavo Berglund’s conducting endeavor, without ever being laid back or rolled off. Percussive instruments are solid, with good definition and bass texture. While the PP-1000 does not have the explosive dynamism of the Goldfinger Statement and the V2, nor the frequency extension of the Universe II, it does shift your focus to the music itself by delivering a fundamentally realistic performance that closely resembles the characteristic of the Lyra Olympos cartridge.

Delivering on its Promise

Realism is not a word I use lightly. It represents more than lifelike instruments and vocals. It is the cohesive musical force of instruments coming together in such a way that you forget about the individual parts of the performance. The unique combination of liveliness and vivid presence of the PP-1000 makes it difficult for me to identify the component parts of the music portrayed.

Those using a rim clamp or large center clamp on their turntable should be aware that the large footprint of this cartridge will have you jumping up quickly at the end of the record and being extra careful at the beginning, as you would with an Ortofon SPU or Ikeda cartridge.

While the PP-1000 may not be the most dynamic, the most detailed or the most romantic cartridge I have heard, it holds its own among cartridges many times its cost, delivering an immediate and realistic performance that only a few cartridges can best. With an MSRP of $3,800, the PP-1000 is significantly more attainable than the other premium cartridges I have on hand. If anything, the PP-1000 is underpriced. It has many qualities that rival the big boys and it delivers a level of satisfaction I’ve never experienced in this price category. I will be keeping the PP-1000 as a permanent reference.  -Richard Mak

PP-1000 MC Phono Cartridge

MSRP: $3,800


Analog sources JC Verdier La Platine Vintage    TW Raven AC
Tonearms Schroder TA-1L    DaVinci Master Reference Virtu
Phonostages ARC Reference 2    M Acoustics FM-122 Mk II    Burmester PH100
Power amplifier McIntosh MC2KW
Preamplifier McIntosh C1000
Speakers Dynaudio Temptation
Cables Purist Audio Design Aqueous Auries and Venustas
Accessories McIntosh MPC1500

Gary Numan – 78/79 Box Set

A relative newcomer to the reissue scene, British-based Vinyl 180 is concentrating on a small stable of artists from the 80s and 90s that are thankfully anything but traditional audiophile fare. We’re talking albums by Gary Numan, The Cult, and Dead Can Dance, to name a few.

Limited to 500 copies, this four-LP Numan box set includes his first three albums, Tubeway Army, Replicas, and The Pleasure Principle, along with The Plan, the latter a 1984 release that features demo material from Tubeway Army, recorded in 1978. While the box set is tough to find in the U.S., Vinyl 180 is planning to release these albums individually in the near future.

In comparing these pressings to the U.S. originals, the new releases are clear winners. While a decibel or two louder than that on the earlier versions, the dynamic range does not seem to be compromised, though there is a slight “smile” to the EQ curve that emphasizes the deep bass and the very highest treble. Loaded with synthesizers and drum machines, the U.S. originals are fairly murky, with Numan’s vocals buried behind a wall of keyboards and cool, obscure electronic sounds.

With the additional information on tap, Numan’s genius is more evident. All but those with the most forward/revealing systems should welcome the additional resolution.  -Jeff Dorgay

Vinyl 180, 180g LP Box Set

Faust – Faust So Far, Faust IV

No discussion of Krautrock would be complete without Faust, the legendary band started in 1970 and produced by Uwe Nettelbeck. The devotion of collectors and fans becomes clear the moment you log in to eBay and try to purchase original copies of the group’s early works. Most times, the bidding starts at around $100 per LP.

Alas, the lowdown on these reissues is mediocre. Though both are done on different labels, it’s unfortunate that a few of the dollars spent on the excellent cover-art reproductions weren’t diverted to recording and pressing quality. Neither of these LPs sound like they were pressed from anything close to the analog master tapes, and while the bearded guys did a little bit better job of taming the glare, the imprint’s pressing is so noisy, it doesn’t really matter.

For now, if you’re just discovering the joys of Faust, head to your local record store or take your chances on eBay. Thumbs down on this pair.  -Jeff Dorgay

4 Men with Beards (Faust), Capitol (Faust IV), 180g LP

NEU! – NEU!, NEU 2, NEU 75, NEU 86

Fresh from seeing NEU! founder Michael Rother at this year’s ATP festival, revisiting the studio remasters from this pivotal German duo that first worked together in Kraftwerk (his creative partner, Klaus Dinger, passed away in 2008) was a true pleasure, particularly considering how many bands NEU! inspired.

Those just after the essence of the NEU! sound will probably be happy with the four individual albums at $36.99 each, but the hardcore fan should invest the extra $50 and purchase the limited-edition box set, which also includes a t-shirt, a stencil, and extra goodies. (Bob Gendron will have a full review of said import box in Issue 33.)

The sound quality of all four records is incredible, echoing founder Rother’s comment about achieving “the best musical result.” The discs are pin-drop quiet, (essential to the NEU! experience), with long, airy pauses and gentle synthesizer riffs over NEU!’s signature 4/4 beat. Rother explains on his website ( HYPERLINK “” that the copy of the previously unreleased NEU! ’86 was produced from the original masters and multitrack tapes. The care and precision he took producing these records is evident the second you lower the stylus.  -Jeff Dorgay

Groenland Records, 180g LP

Foreigner – Foreigner

The good news is that this is by far the best that Foreigner’s self-titled album will ever sound. Digital lovers interested in the SACD and analog enthusiasts after the vinyl are in for a sonic treat. The bad news is, it’s Foreigner. But far be it from me, a guy who still loves KISS ALIVE!, to criticize anyone’s music taste. (Now there’s a record MoFi should remaster, but I digress.)

Rob LoVerde has done his usual meticulous job of getting the maximum amount of detail from the master tape without compromise. If you grew up listening to this band on the radio in the 70s, you will be amazed at the amount of musicianship presented here.  This pressing reveals layer upon layer of vocals, guitars, and, of course, the Roland Space Echo intro on “Starrider” didn’t even sound this good when you were really baked.

Normally, I’d say friends don’t let friends listen to Foreigner. But if you must, this is the version you want.  -Jeff Dorgay

MoFi, 180g LP and SACD

Kate Bush – Hounds of Love

Audio Fidelity’s recent release of Kate Bush’s biggest record is a definite audiophile triumph. These days, while everyone is listening to Eva Cassidy, Patricia Barber, and the like, it’s easy to forget about one of contemporary pop’s most innovative female vocalists. Originally released in 1985, Hounds of Love has sold three million copies worldwide, and its big hit, “Running Up That Hill,” was in constant MTV rotation.

Audio Fidelity principal Marshall Blonstein indicated that the label will release The Sensual World and received the green light to produce more of Bush’s catalog. “We’re in on Kate Bush,” Blonstein recently told me, also underscoring that this LP was produced from the original master tape provided courtesy of Abbey Road.

The pressing has plenty of the analog magic. While I only had a garden-variety U.S. pressing available for comparison, the AF release offered a tremendous step up in every aspect. Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman did a fantastic job at keeping the air on this recording intact. Bush’s breathy vocals are no longer buried in the mix as they are on domestic LP pressing and CD, and the overall sound field is quite larger. Best of all, this disc is exceptionally quiet, which ideally suits the music.

For those unfamiliar with the recording, the first side is labeled “Hounds of Love,” almost entirely comprised of hit singles, and distinctly flavored with pop arrangements. The flip side is labeled “The Ninth Wave” and is much more ethereal and experimental. These tracks feature more vocal processing and electronic effects, not unlike what you might expect from Peter Gabriel or Thomas Dolby.

To celebrate the trippiness of the record, AF pressed it on light violet vinyl and gave it a tie-dye coloring. So, whether you’re a long time fan or need to break out of the same-old female vocal doldrums, Audio Fidelity’s pressing of Hounds of Love is a great place to start.  -Jeff Dorgay

Audio Fidelity, 180g. LP

Grateful Dead – The Warner Brothers Studio Albums

If you are even a casual Grateful Dead fan, you should click on the album cover shown here and immediately buy this box set. Mastered at Bernie Grundman Mastering by Chris Bellman, the fellow responsible for the outstanding Neil Young box set released earlier this year (and too many other great audiophile pressings to count), this collection of the Dead’s first five studio albums is a must.

The Dead may well have been the first audiophile rock stars, always picky about every facet of the sound quality of their music, even down to using McIntosh amplifiers for their PA system. Reflecting such meticulous detail, this set is housed in a pop-art orange box containing updated liner notes that include some great era photos of the band members as well as some of the charts used to record the various tracks, both features offering further insight into the group’s creative genius/madness.

If you are searching for originals, our resident collector says the group’s self-titled debut was available on the Warner GOLD label in both stereo and mono versions; average prices for near-mint versions are $75 and $150, respectively. First pressings of Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa on the Green Warner 7 Arts label are the only ones to use the same original mix as the pressings in the box set. A quick listen to any of the CD versions reveal almost two different albums. Workingman’s Dead is a very rare find on said label and can command $100. American Beauty is also on this imprint, yet more common to find, with a mint version only fetching $30.

These records were played and enjoyed, so $27 each for this level of quality is truly a bargain, especially with pristine artwork. Music Editor Bob Gendron will have an in-depth review in Issue 33, but if you just need a snapshot of the sonics, the answer is a big YES. These five records finally do justice to the underrated studio recordings of the Grateful Dead.  -Jeff Dorgay

WB/Rhino 5LP box set

Audio Research REF Phono 2

In the past two years since the Sooloos music server has entered my life, I must admit that the music-lover side of my personality has been dominating my audiophile side.  I’ve always loved vinyl, but having 7000 CD’s that you can mix and match to your hearts content has gotten, well, addictive.  Add two world-class digital front ends to the mix (the Naim CD555 and now the dCS Paganini) and it gets tougher to stay on the analog bus every day.  Who really wants to screw around with VTA anyhow?  Let’s play some more Slayer.

Analysis paralysis is equally virulent to the avid audiophile as well as the reviewer; it’s easy to sample too many wares and get lost somewhere along the journey.  And this has happened to me more than once.  A number of combinations have brought me close to analog bliss, which I thought would last forever. But in the end, the convenience of the Sooloos/dCS had me saying, “I’ll clean that pile of records tomorrow…”  Then another change, and that fleeting happiness was lost again.

I was lost but now I’m found

Joe Harley from Music Matters was the man that saved me.  At last year’s CES, he and his partner Ron Rambach said, almost in unison, “Get the new ARC REF and stop screwing around.”  Shortly thereafter, I had a chance to hear the REF in Harley’s system and I was pretty overwhelmed (in a great way) while listening to quite a few of his test pressings from the current Blue Note catalog as well as some of his past efforts on AudioQuest records.  This was truly the analog magic I’d been seeking.

Everything I heard that evening left me feeling like I was listening to a great surround-sound mix, except it was coming from two speakers, not six or eight.  Best of all, the second I closed my eyes, those speakers were gone and I was swimming in a gigantic fish bowl of sound.

About two years ago when we reviewed the PH7 phono preamplifier, I asked ARC’s Dave Gordon if they would ever produce another REF phono stage. “Not at present,” he replied, “but we haven’t ruled out the idea of another REF if there is enough demand.” And here we are, two years later with the REF 2.  I must extent my heartfelt thanks to all of you who kept the pressure on ARC to produce the REF 2.

Past vs. Present

The original REF Phono had a massive compliment of tubes, using 11 6922’s in various locations, a 5AR4 rectifier tube and a 6550 along with another 6922 to perform voltage-regulator duties, as they have done in some of their other designs.   The new REF Phono 2 utilizes four 6H30 tubes along with a FET input stage, as they have in the PH5, 6 and 7.  Gordon said, “Using tubes at the input is just too noisy; the input FET’s are the only way to get that low-level signal to emerge from a black background.”  The REF 2 Phono also uses solid-state rectifiers but retains the 6550 as a voltage regulator, this time in conjunction with another 6H30 tube.

The original REF Phono had a pricetag of $6,995 and the current REF Phono 2 costs $11,995. This is a substantial increase in price, but the new version offers quite a bit more under the hood as well as on the front panel, which is available in silver or black finish.

ARC has made an interesting style change with the REF Phono 2, the top panel is now a grey smoked acrylic, allowing full view of the tube complement.  Those wanting the traditional metal top panel can order their preamp this way at no additional charge.

While the original REF Phono for all practical purposes had one input, you could switch between a low-gain and a high-gain input via a rear panel switch, so using two turntables was not terribly convenient.  The new version has been designed from the ground up to be a two-input phono preamplifier, using microprocessor controls to switch between inputs.  ARC has incorporated the large vacuum-fluorescent display from their other components to excellent use here.  You can view input, gain, loading and equalization at a glance from across the room.  The remote control will also allow you to see how many hours have elapsed on the tubes, and those who are driven crazy by lights in their “deep listening” sessions can dim or completely darken the display.

Another big change in circuitry is the REF Phono 2’s fully balanced design.  Though its two phono inputs are single-ended, the preamplifier is balanced throughout and offers single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs.  For those doing any recording of their vinyl via tape or digital means, it’s worth noting that I was able to drive a recorder from the single-ended outputs and send the balanced outputs to my Burmester preamplifier with no degradation in performance.  The resulting captured files were fantastic, being fed straight from the REF into my Nagra LB digital recorder or Technics RS-1500 open reel deck.

Interestingly, even though the REF Phono 2 only draws a maximum of 140 watts from the AC line, it has a square 20A IEC power socket.  I’m assuming that this helps to make a more solid connection to the power cord, also showing that no detail was left unexamined in the creation of ARC’s flagship phono stage.

Needs a little time to cook

Like every other component I’ve auditioned with a large compliment of Teflon capacitors, the REF is going to take 500 hours to sound its best, and ARC even suggests 600 hours in the owner’s manual.  For the naysayers in the audience who feel break-in is pure poppycock, I had a unique situation with the REF that verifies this concept beyond doubt.  My initial review sample had made a few stops before it got here, so I was able to sidestep the break-in process and begin evaluating it immediately. The REF sounds OK  directly out of the box but there is substantial improvement after 100-200 hours.  It really comes out of the fog right around 350 hours, getting even better until the 500-hour mark.  Fortunately, ARC includes a timer linked to the display on the front panel to help you keep track.  It’s critical to note that you have to pass a signal through the unit during these hours; just keeping the unit on is not enough.

As the REF I was using was the one from ARC’s demo room, when I decided to purchase the review sample, Gordon insisted that they send me a brand new unit from production and that I return the review sample. This, of course, caused some anxiety as I did not want to go through the break-in process with a component that I use daily.  Fortunately, I was able to keep the review unit for a couple of weeks while my new REF racked up hours.  It did provide a unique opportunity to compare a fresh unit to one with almost 1,000 hours on the clock, and the difference was staggering.  The fresh, out-of-the-carton sample sounded flat and lifeless when compared with the fully broken-in unit, with everything else being the same.

If you aren’t enthused about running up 500 hours on your exotic (and expensive) phono cartridge just for break in purposes, I suggest the Hagerman IRIAA.  Unlike so-called “cookers,” this is a passive device that attenuates the signal from a high-level input and applies an inverse-RIAA curve so that your CD player now presents a signal that mimics what comes from your phono cartridge.  Unless you are completely OC, I’d suggest getting one of these handy little devices and let the REF rack up at least a couple hundred hours before listening, if you can bear it. You can buy one as a kit for $29 or a fully assembled one for $49 here: I can’t suggest this device highly enough.  Remember: 300 hours equals about 450 albums.  Do you have that kind of patience to hear what your REF is really capable of?  I know I don’t.

Adjustable and compatible

While I’ve heard many great phono preamplifiers over the years, ease of adjustability makes or breaks the sale for me because I’m always auditioning phono cartridges. If you are a set it and forget it person, this may not be as big of a deal.  I’m guessing that most analog devotees willing to spend a dozen big ones on a phono stage have more than one turntable and a few different cartridges around to listen to mono recordings, perhaps some 78’s, early Deccas, or they would just like to have an a cartridge with a completely different tonality at their disposal.   With two inputs, each can be configured as high (68db) or low (54db, check both of these) gain, adjustable loading (50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 47k and custom) and switchable EQ (RIAA, Columbia and Decca) all from the remote. That’s as good as it gets.  If you have a plethora of cartridges in your collection, the REF Phono 2 is a dream come true. Now you can geek out with ease.

All this talk of multiple turntables brings me to my two minor complaints about the REF Phono 2: the single ground post is a pain and I wish it had three inputs.  Honestly, I wish it had four inputs, but I don’t expect anyone else to share my madness.  Every cartridge I used with the REF sounded so good that I just didn’t want to go back to any of the other phono preamps on my rack.  Even my modest Rega P25 with Shelter 501 II revealed so much more music through the REF than it ever had before, I just didn’t want to take a step backward.

Dynamics, Tone, Texture

The debate on live versus real sound seems to be a hot topic these days, with one faction claiming their HiFi system is more real than real, while the others shake their heads in denial saying that any attempt at reproducing sound in inherently flawed.  I submit that with the right music (especially music that is more sparse than complex) and the right system, it can get scarily close to sounding like the real thing.

Dynamics are a big part of the equation. You need a system that can go from 0-200 in a heartbeat without distortion or overhang.  Those who feel that you have an inadequate “audio vocabulary” need not worry; when it’s wrong you know it.  When a system or component lacks the necessary horsepower to deliver full-spectrum dynamic contrast, your ears and brain object instantly.  The REF passes this test with ease, offering up a large dose of weight and grip that is apparent the minute you play your favorite record.  I went through some of my favorite classic rock warhorses (Led Zeppelin, The Who, Genesis, etc.) and was instantly taken aback by how much more raw power these discs now possessed.

Classical-music lovers will also appreciate the combination of dynamics and low-end grunt, coming a step or two closer to convincing you that you are there after all…  Regardless of what might be on your top 10 list, the REF Phono 2’s ability to completely get out of the way of the music and present acoustic instruments in such an incredibly accurate way will astonish you record after record.

In comparing a few other top phono stages from Aesthetix, Boulder and Burmester, they all offer up their own take on musical reproduction, from warm and romantic to analytical.  The perfect one for you will be that which bests suits your musical taste and achieves the best synergy with your system.  I must say the REF Phono 2 was a perfect match for my reference system, offering up just that drop of tube warmth that I really enjoy without sacrificing any resolution that a few of the other contenders also possess.  If you want a phono stage more on the warm, gooey and romantic side of the tonal scale, consider the IO or the Zanden.  Conversely, if you’d like a somewhat more analytical presentation, the two solid-state options from Boulder might be your cup of tea.  Having listened to them all extensively in the past year, the REF 2 Phono was the one that gave me the biggest dose of everything. And it has a relatively small tube complement that is easy to source.  As the 6H30 really doesn’t offer a lot of options for tube rolling, I suggest just calling ARC when you are ready for new tubes, which they claim last about  5,000 hours.

Much like a power amplifier with a massive power supply, the REF Phono 2 has an uncanny ability to keep low-level details intact.  I’m sure this was due in part to its incredibly silent background as well as its hybrid design.  This is where the all-tube phono stages really fall down; they just can’t achieve this kind of silence.  Again, classical- and acoustic-music lovers will pick up on this instantly.  If your source material is of high enough quality, it adds to the sense of realism, with instruments coming right out at you in space as they would in real life.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the REF 2 Phono, though, is its uncanny ability to delineate texture, again giving the nod to acoustic-music lovers.  Granted, it’s always nice to hear more electric-guitar growl on your favorite rock record, but the REF 2 Phono always allowed me to hear further into my favorite recordings, electric or acoustic.

Finally, that gigantic soundstage I heard at Joe Harley’s house was always present in my system as well.  When playing Cream’s live recordings from their 2005 Royal Albert Hall performances, my speakers disappeared completely. and thanks to the additional dynamic range of adding a second Burmester 911 mk. 3 power amplifier to my system, I felt that this was as close as I would ever get to having Eric Clapton in my listening room.  A good friend who has a multichannel version of this recording said that he doesn’t get this much depth on his 5.1 setup!  I rest my case.

I’m back and I’m diggin it

The ARC REF Phono 2 has renewed my love for analog, plain and simple.  It has all of the qualities that I value in a phono preamp: a stunningly low noise floor, massive dynamics and tonal realism in spades.  And it is extremely easy to change gain and loading, making it an excellent tool for evaluating cartridges, as well as being a complete blast to listen to.  A great side benefit of having the REF in my system is that the 24/192 digital captures I’ve been producing have been better than ever, so this phono preamplifier has had a positive impact on the digital side of my system as well.

If you are shopping for a statement phono preamplifier, I can’t think of a better choice than the ARC REF Phono. Considering some of the other choices in the $15,000 – $25,00 range, it’s actually quite a value, which is why we’ve given it our Product of the Year award in the analog category.  I’m truly happy to be this excited about analog again.  -Jeff Dorgay

Audio Research REF Phono 2 Phono preamplifier

MSRP:  $11,995  (available in silver or black)


Turntables Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar VII    Rega P9     TW Acustic Raven Two w/SME 309
Phono Cartridges Lyra Skala    Clearaudio DaVinci    Grado Statement 1    Dynavector XV-1s     Shelter Harmony and 501II
Preamplifier Burmester 011    McIntosh C500
Power Amplifiers Burmester 911 mk. 3    McIntosh MC1.2kw’s
Speakers GamuT S-9    YG Acoustics Anat II Studio    MartinLogan CLX w/Gotham subwoofer
Cable Shunyata Aurora Interconnects    Shunyata Stratos SP Speaker Cable    Cardas Clear Interconnects and Speaker Cable
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners      Running Springs Mongoose and Shunyata Python CX power cords
Accessories Shunyata Dark Field Cable Elevators    Furutech DeMag    Loricraft PRC-3 record cleaning machine    MoFi Record Cleaning Products