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Reviewer: Jules Coleman
Sources: Shindo-Garrard 301/Mersault Arm/Shindo modified Ortofon SPU Classic, Audio Note CD3 (used as transport), Reimyo DAP 777 [in for review]
Preamplifier: Shindo Catherine all tube, full function, dual mono, dual chassis; Shindo Arome step-up transformer for SPU cartridge
Amplifier: Shindo WE300B Ltd mono block
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Silverback Reference; Vivaldi Academy [in for review; Tannoy 15" Gold in custom cabinet; Tannoy 10" Reds in custom cabinet
Equipment rack: 2 x Harmonic Resolution Systems M1-R
Interconnects: Stealth Indra, Varidig and Harmonix digital interconnects
Speaker cable: Auditorium 23, Stealth Hybrid MLT
Power cord: Stealth Cloud Nine on Audio Note
Power conditioner: Shindo Mr.T
Review component pricing: stand $7,500; table $10,000; arm $7,000; cartridge $3,000; Outer Limit clamp $900

Though these may not be the golden years for new analog pressings or LP sales, they may nevertheless be the golden years for analog playback. There are more high quality, well-engineered, easy-to-use and good-sounding turntables available today than at any time I can recall. Moreover, the entry cost of analog playback is, at least in relative terms, lower than it has ever been. For anyone who believes that the point of audio playback is to make music (which hopefully is everybody), there is simply no living without a turntable and, given the relatively low cost of entry, no reason to do so.

Nor are the advancements in turntables restricted to the entry or mid-price markets. If anything, what marks this as a golden age of vinyl playback is the extraordinary number of truly high-end tables, arms and cartridges that are self-conscious attacks on the state of the art. Thirty years ago -- well before the advent of the silver disk -- there were a handful of high-end tables: Linn, SME and Thorens (to name a few) were some of the more familiar brands. The cognoscenti especially in Europe and Japan had their hearts set a'pounding by the likes of the EMT 927 and Garrard 301 and 401, though the Garrards did not achieve status as true high-end tables during that period largely because their performance was compromised by inappropriate plinths and console housing; and the EMTs were too large for most home applications.

In contrast, today's high-end turntable landscape is densely populated in no small measure by brands that are anything but household names: Avid, Brinkmann, Continuum, DaVinci, Kuzma, Pluto, Rockport, Verdier, Walker and Yorke among others. Some of the standards remain in play, notably SME, which continues manufacturing a state-of-the-art turntable. The same cannot be said of Thorens, however. And while the Linn Sondek remains a favorite among many audiophiles, most of its improvements have been incremental.

And though it is fashionable (especially on the forums) to downplay the achievements of 'name brands' especially when their offerings are costly, the fact remains that the standard of reliability and excellence in both design and performance continues to be set by the likes of SME and Clearaudio. Given their locations in Britain and Germany, it is not misleading to think of the top-of- the-line SME and Clearaudio as the Bentley and Mercedes of turntables, respectively.

If this is a golden age for vinyl playback, it is as much a result of the quality of tonearms and cartridges currently available as it is a result of the turntables themselves. The likes of Schroeder, Da Vinci, Breur, Tri-planar and Graham grace many a modern high-end table at the same time that Rega, in particular, continues to offer first-rate arms at modest prices. Until recently, SME offered a version of their venerable 3012 and they continue to manufacture a range of highly respected arms. Shindo Laboratory offers the Mersault arm -- a substantial reworking of the legendary Ortofon arm -- while Clearaudio's top of the line TQ1 arm is based on the famous Souther linear-tracking arm.

While several manufacturers from Basis to Rega and from Brinkmann to Walker offer both turntables and arms, fewer manufacturers offer their own cartridges. Some who do clearly outsource cartridge manufacturing to the likes of van den Hul and Benz while others modify -- modestly or substantially -- cartridges produced elsewhere.

Rega and Clearaudio are among the very few companies that manufacturer their own tables, arms and cartridges. And unlike Rega who restricts its offerings from entry level to mid price -- which represents their comparative advantage -- Clearaudio is perhaps unique among manufacturers in offering a full range of turntables. From the entry level X to the world-renowned Master Reference, which has served as the reference vinyl playback machine for Harry Pearson of TAS and Roy Gregory of HiFi+ among other well-known audio reviewers, there's also a full range of arms from the Satisfy to the TQ1 and an even broader range of cartridges, including both moving magnets and moving coils at all manner of price points. Clearaudio has something for everybody interested in vinyl playback. They are also among the most respected, reliable and easy-to-deal-with companies in the business.

With so many tables, arms and cartridges to choose among, the key to excellent vinyl playback is system matching. Some arms are known to work synergistically with certain tables while other arms do not fare nearly as well. For most individuals, the cartridge/arm relationship is even more difficult to sort out. Some arms simply cannot accommodate certain cartridges while some who can do not perform well with various cartridges with which they are in principle appropriately matched.

In the course of a conversation, one of the modern gurus of tonearm design allowed that every tonearm would actually have to be designed slightly differently to optimally accommodate every different cartridge: that at most, a tonearm could be expected to work optimally with a very small number of cartridges only. As a result, before building a tonearm for any of his customers, he asks them which cartridge/cartridges they intend to use with it – and designs accordingly. He also has a list of cartridges that he is especially fond of which form synergistic partnerships with his arms.

Finally, to get optimal playback from vinyl, the table -- whether a suspension design or not -- needs to be properly isolated from vibrations. Vibration and resonance control seem to be the last frontier in audio playback and to my ears, so many systems are let down by too little attention paid to the impact of resonance and vibration on the quality of music reproduction. The same person who spends between 10 and 50K on a system will satisfy himself placing it all on a stand that rings like a bell or another that vibrates like an electric razor. I've been in more than one reviewer's listening room where the equipment is sitting on a suspended wooden floor or a shaky stand.

The choice of platter and plinth/base materials is crucial - as is the isolation platform or stand on which a turntable sits. Clearaudio is fully attentive to these concerns and designs their tables accordingly. They also recommend the use of particular isolation platforms and offer their own turntable stand called the Everest.

With accurate and satisfying vinyl playback dependent on the proper balancing of so many variables, I prefer to review turntables that are sold as a system. This was true to some degree of the Well Tempered Reference and the Redpoint Testa Rossa which I've had in house in the past couple of years and is completely true of the Brinkmann Balance and my reference Shindo Laboratory 301. Give me a table/arm/ cartridge combination that the designer believes speaks clearly and consistently with one voice and I have some chance of figuring out what the designer is trying to express; what he takes to be most important in music reproduction; what he is listening to and what he is listening for.

So I was particularly pleased when at CES, Robert Suchy of Clearaudio and Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings offered me their Maximum Solution table/TQ1 tonearm/Stradivari cartridge and Everest stand for a full analog system review. The table wasn't available until late Spring. Mike Callan of Musical Surroundings came to my Connecticut home in mid May to set up the entire works. We spent an evening dialing in the table/arm/cartridge, sat back
and listened to some music. Mike left and I have been listening to the setup ever since - and enjoying just about every minute of doing so.

The System
The Clearaudio analog front end was connected via a captured phono cable and run directly into the low output moving coil section of the dual-mono Shindo Catherine preamp. The other sources were the Shindo front end and Audio Note transport feeding the new Reimyo DAC through the Harmonix digital interconnect or Stealth's Varidig. Amplification was provided by the Shindo WE 300B Ltd. monoblocks. All components were housed in two HRS MI-R equipment racks, with power conditioning by Shindo's Mr. T. All non-captured interconnects were Stealth Indra, speaker cables the Auditorium 23. I listened to this system through four very different pairs of speakers: my reference DeVore Silverback; a pair of Tannoy 10" reds in a rather undistinguished cabinet with no bracing and little internal absorption material; a pair of Tannoy 15" Golds in a custom quasi-transmission-line/back-loaded horn cabinet designed by Shindo and executed by Anthony Abbate; and a pair of Vivaldi hornspeakers employing two Lowther EX3 drivers housed in a cabinet derived from the original Lowther Academy.

The Technicalia
At the foundation of the Clearaudio analog front end under review is the Everest stand, which weighs in at roughly 200lbs and $7,500. It is constructed of solid stainless steel pillars and multiple triangular acrylic "3 point stars" with aluminum-magnesium "skins". Built at a factory in Erlangen/Germany out of house, the Everest provides high-mass mechanical grounding to any 3-point-star-design Clearaudio turntable including the Master Reference, Maximum Solution, Anniversary or Master Solution. It cannot be used with other Clearaudio designs or with those from other manufacturers.

The Maximum Solution falls just below the Master Reference in the Clearaudio line-up and while it incorporates many of the features found in the Master Reference, it is designed as an end point within the Solution Series. That is, the Maximum Solution can be built via an upgrade path from the $2,000 Solution to the $5,000 Master Solution to the $10,000 Maximum.

There are several important engineering features the Maximum Solution shares with the flagship Master Reference. One of these is the three point star system on which the plinth sits. This was designed to increase stability and reduce overall stored energy in the plinth. Both tables use a tri-motor belt-drive system. This allows Clearaudio to employ particularly low torque motors. The platter material is high mass and a single low torque motor might have difficulty in getting the platter moving and more importantly, keeping it moving at a constant velocity especially during dynamic musical passages (which require deeper and wider grooves in the vinyl).

An alternative approach is to employ a high torque motor as found for example in the Garrard and EMTs. These approaches can sometimes generate more noise and vibration and so the main challenge with high torque approaches is to house them in an appropriate plinth. Two approaches are common. One is to kill resonances as much as possible by placing the table in an MDF plinth. The other is to design a plinth that resonates sympathetically. These are roughly the same approaches that one finds in alternative speaker cabinet designs. The one thing that makes no sense is to place the platter and motor in a plinth that is likely to transmit (or worse, amplify) the unwanted energy into the arm and cartridge.

Both the Max and the Master come with an Accurate Power Generator (APG) that conditions & regenerates AC plus runs the motors at 120º phase to each other to cancel additive vibrational energy. Both employ an inverted bearing that is graphite-coated stainless steel for lowest friction with ceramic ball bearing. Machining is to very exacting tolerances.

The last important similarity between the Max Solution and the Master Reference is the use of reasonably high-mass acrylic platters. The argument for acrylic (as opposed to metal or wood) is first that it does not ring and second, that acrylic (of the alternative materials available) is most like vinyl itself, thus insuring the best possible coupling between platter and LP. Aluminum/ magnesium skins reinforce and strengthen structure. This is the same idea that is at work in the Everest stand.

The main differences between the Master and the Max are platter thickness (80mm vs. 70mm, respectively) and one less plinth on the Maximum. Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings -- Clearaudio's US importer and distributor -- claims that when placed on the Everest stand, the Maximum Solution will outperform the Master when the latter is placed on any other stand or base. I was unable to test this claim at home (since, among other things, I had no Master Reference to compare with the Maximum Solution.)

The Master TQI is a linear tracking, non air-bearing tonearm derived from the famous Souther TriQuartz. The Souther was notoriously difficult to set up well or reliably. The TQ1 is significantly more rigid and adjustable. There is a conflict of views as to just how easy it is to set up and keep it working properly. During the several months I had the Clearaudio in house, I was forced to make very few adjustments, though original setup was time-consuming and demanding. The Quartz arm wand rides on quartz tracks with tiny wheels via ruby bearings. It is both groove driven and gravity fed. This means that there are no mechanical linkages as in some other linear trackers.

The arm will not work well with low-compliance cartridges. On the other hand the arm, which has been around for a while now, works well with most mid to high compliance cartridges including the usual suspects from Clearaudio, Benz and van denHul.

The table itself can support up to three arms. The review sample was set up with two: the TQ1 and the new Graham Phantom. Soon after initial setup, I realized that the Graham arm was not optimally set up due to not having an arm pod of sufficient height to allow for a full range of VTA adjustments. This is a very common problem of not matching the height of the arm in relationship to the platter and is especially common with plinths designed for the Garrard 301 platter.

In any case, I got in touch with the good folks at Musical Surroundings. They agreed and we jointly decided to review the table with only the TQ1. Too bad, because what I heard initially from the Phantom/Benz LP combination was very promising. There was no chance that I could optimize its performance under the conditions, however. Still, it is plain that the Graham arm (with proper pods) is a potentially desirable mate for the Clearaudio, and Garth indicated that owners have had great success with all manner of arms including SME, Triplanar, Dynavector and Schroeder, among others.

The cartridge on hand was one of Clearaudio's new generation of cartridges - the Stradivari. If the Stradivari is indicative of this new breed of Clearaudio cartridges, then the company
has taken a giant step in the right direction (from my point of view, of course). For earlier Clearaudio cartridges, including the oft-praised Insider, were far too much 'from the bone' for my taste, with far too much emphasis on the leading edge at the expense of the body of the music. The Stradivari to my ears is significantly meatier than previous generations of Clearaudio cartridges have been. A much welcomed change.