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Reviewer: Edward Barker
Analog: Scheu Premier II with Schroeder DPS arm and Allaerts MC1B MK II cartridge, Garrard 301 (custom plinth) with Hadcock 242 SE and Music Makers models 2 & 3; Systemdek Transcription with Mission 774 and Empire MC1000; Thorens 160/Thorens/Shure ED75; Thorens TD 320; Audiomeca Model 3 arm; Sansui 719 Tuner
Phono stages: Tom Evans Groove Plus; Loricraft Missing Link MkII [on extended loan]; Graham Slee Era Gold Mk 5 [on extended loan]
Digital: Copland 288Cd; Pioneer PdS 802
Preamplifier: Canary 803 four-box preamplifier with NOS valves
Amplifier: Rogue 150 Monoblocks with Siemens EL34s; BBC AM84A Monoblocks restored & recapped
Speakers: Mårten Design Coltrane Altos; Living Voice OBXR2 [on extended loan]
Ancillaries: Clearlight Audio NFT cabling; Silver Arrow cabling and mains leads; Audiomagic Mini Stealth conditioner for digital
Review component retails: $100 - $500
A vinyl shocker
Since the advent of the Internet, there have been a lot of complaints about the quality of service provided by traditional dealers. As you can see from this piece by Don Paterson, one of Scotland's great contemporary poets, the problem is by no means a new one.
An Elliptical Stylus
My uncle was beaming: ‘Aye, yer elliptical stylus -
fairly brings out a’ the wee details.’
Balanced at a fraction of an ounce
the fat cartridge sank down like a feather;
music billowed out into three dimensions
as if we could have walked between the players.
My Dad, who could appreciate the difference,
went to Largs to buy an elliptical stylus
for our ancient, beat-up Phillips turntable.
We had the guy in stitches: ‘You can’t…
er… you’ll have to upgrade you equipment.’
Still smirking, he sent us from the shop
with a box of needles, thick as carpet tacks,
the only sort made to fit our model.
(Supposing I’d been his son: lets eavesdrop
on ‘Fidelities’, the poem I’m writing now:
The day my father died, he showed me how
he’d prime the deck for optimum performance:
it’s a lesson that I recall how he’d refine
the arm’s weight, to leave the stylus balanced
somewhere between ellipsis and precision,
as I gently lower the sharp nib to the line
and wait for it to pick up the vibration
till it moves across the page, like a cardiograph…)
We drove back slowly, as if we had a puncture;
My Dad trying not to blink, and the man’s laugh
stuck in my head, which is where the story sticks,
and any attempt to cauterize this fable
with something axiomatic on the nature
of articulacy and inheritance
since he can well afford to make his own
excuses, you, your own interpretation.
But if you still insist on resonance
I’d swing for him, and every other cunt
happy to let my father know his station,
which probably includes yourself. To be blunt.
(From Nil Nil, published by Faber & Faber, reprinted with permission by the author.)
Today, if anything, things are even worse. A dealer will be happy to sell you a turntable, and some of them might even know something about setting them up. But they are not going to come 'round and bring their equipment the moment something needs changing. So if you're thinking of getting into analog, the best thing (and the most fun) is to learn the art of setting up a turntable yourself and start from first principles.
As Leonard Gregory, the Cartridge Man, is forever trying to point out, the key to good analog reproduction is to provide the optimum conditions under which a hard piece of rock (the stylus) can travel down the undulating grooves of the record. The easier we make its job, the closer we'll get to the music. And since the turntable is a piece of engineering, it exists within the thrall of basic Newtonian Physics and so responds to some pretty basic procedures. The more work we do at this stage, the greater the rewards. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume we've already got a carbon fibre record brush, a Zerostat and a good quality needle brush.
The wall shelf
The first and most important issue to address is unwanted vibration. As we know, the stylus is a vibration-recording machine of incredible delicacy, able to read minute shifts on the order of just a few microns (i.e. you'd need an electron microscope to see the scale it's tracking). Obviously any additional vibrations are going to to be a key source of degradation. One of the most significant sources of spurious vibrations is the room itself and the floor on which the turntable stand actually sits. If your turntable stand doesn't pass the "glass of water" test (that is, put a full glass of water on the shelf beside the turntable and jump up and down heavily beside it - if you get a ripple in the glass then the support fails) you need to look carefully at other options.
There is something endearingly mad about the average audiophile particularly of an analogue bent. We find ourselves slobbering all over some unbelievably expensive and complicated solution to an engineering problem when a superior, simple and completely affordable alternative exists right down in the hardware store. So it is with the humble wall shelf. I'm not sure which of the mega-priced turntable companies started the 50 grand's worth of turntable support but frankly, I'm amazed that anyone would contemplate buying these behemoth stands. I don't understand the engineering justification for these supports. Even the electron microscope stand, which is designed to float on air, is problematic. After all, it was conceived for laboratory conditions. The sonic waves are going to move the table, defeating the exercise. The worst platform of all of course is any form of air bladder, which will wobble like an undamped waterbed. Nothing, in fact, beats a wall shelf. And, it's buildable for less than 100 quid. All it means is getting off our comfortable derriere and dusting off the electric drill.
I know I found many excuses -- no walls? -- to put off the dreaded day but when it came, I was amazed by how easy it actually was, not to mention all the problems it solved. The recipe is simple. Go down to your local kitchen supply store and purchase two strong steel wall supports. They're made to hold up kitchen counters (mine come up at 160 kilo). You'll also need Rawlplugs of the right size for the supports. And you'll have to buy the right size masonry bit. Use a level to get the two supports equal and make sure you drill into a supporting wall or brick. Plasterboard is the only surface to stay clear from. I was surprised by how smoothly things went bolting in the Rawlplugs. Each shelf took only about half an hour of cack-handed DIY to put up. I made shelves out of 4 layers of 25 mm Birch Ply but two is ample and MDF is okay, too. The key is to get the turntable off the floor.
Once the shelf is up, a whole new analog world opens up. First off, there is no need for all the compromised engineering and extravagant costs associated with the fatally flawed suspended turntable. Any turntable that contains decoupling (and yes, that means you, SME 30, and you VPI HRX) is subject to oscillations from airborne and floor-borne vibrations. Just because suspension is built in does not mean the vibrations are removed. They are just delayed and partially damped. At a microscopic level, the turntable will still be dancing like a banshee. No, the solution is a non-suspended turntable and a wall shelf. So get your drill out in 2006. The sonic gains are simply out of all proportion to the cost and effort involved. I promise you'll never look back. Is the wall shelf a solution worth considering with a basic turntable such as a Rega? No question, absolutely. All in all, I'd consider the sonic value of a wall shelf to be up there with any of the main components.
The Cartridge Man's digital stylus gauge
Once you have your turntable on a good platform, the next key to good sound is accurate setup. Which is a rare beast indeed. It's amazing how many badly set up turntables there are. And this is largely due to inferior or inappropriate setup tools. In the last few years, the sound coming from my turntable has partly improved because of better arms and cartridges, but a very significant part of this improvement is also due to improved setup tools. For instance, I used the Shure stylus gauge for years but its accuracy leaves a lot to be desired. So of course I fell into the trap of buying one of those 1/100gm digital jeweller's gauges from Ebay. $60 for a high-quality one. Needless to say, it was a nightmare. Never managed to get a repeatable measurement out of it. The pressure pads are not designed for a stylus and in any case, it was too thick. I tried building an extension ramp to lower the level but it still didn't give repeatable measurements. In the end, I went back to the Shure.
But there is a solution: The Cartridge Man's stylus gauge. This thing is heaven. It's genuinely accurate, designed specifically for styluses, with a dimple in the miniscule measuring tray that sits 3mm above the platter (i.e. a 200gm record). It's incredibly easy to use and speeds up the process of cartridge setup to no end. Does it make a difference? It does - and a crucial one. The tension of the cantilever and the correct operation of the magnets depend on accurate vertical tracking force. For an Allaerts, the maximum tolerance is .05 gm. The Music Maker is another cartridge that only releases its true potential when accurately set up.
|I used to spend several hours in a frustrating circle because I couldn't get the basic parameters right so I'd have to repeat the whole process several times. Sometimes I'd give up or run out of time and live with a compromised sound and the risk of damaging records. From a sonic point of view, there is simply a huge chasm between a properly set-up turntable and a compromised setup. The vivid colors, huge dynamics, accuracy of pitch, width and depth of soundstage, crisp three-dimensional highs and sinuous bass notes... the list is endless. Every aspect of reproduction is affected by setup and I'd rather have a run of the mill turntable that's been well set up than a real high flier that's been set up indifferently. I've also been rather shocked by the cavalier method that some retailers use to set up. It's not as though they could make up these measurements by eye or "experience" - though they do pretend. You either have the right tools or you don't. The digital gauge is the right tool and I can't recommend it highly enough.
[Leonard Gregory checking on a stylus - left].
The Cartridge Man's digital level
Again, the difference between a builder's -- or even turntable -- spirit level and this one is hard to credit. There is simply no comparison. The platter bearing is without question the most important component of a turntable. Along with good quality clean oil, the bearing will respond hugely to a solid, level surface. In some cases, you might hear the benefits of a properly levelled platter immediately (particularly if you have a three- point suspended turntable like a Linn LP12 or a Systemdek). Like the wall shelf, this is fundamental. If you get the platter rotating smoothly with as little friction and eccentric wobble as possible, so many other good things flow that it's simply crazy not to get this as accurate as possible. In fact, the cheaper the bearing, the more important this becomes.
The digital level is incredibly accurate and simple to use. The only thing worth watching is that the surface you are levelling is the actual level. If you're levelling the platter, place the level on three parts of the platter (in case there is some inaccuracy in the platter itself), then directly over the spindle. On some cheaper platters, you might well find they don't agree at which point it's worth figuring out where the problem is.
The sonic gains of a well set-up platter are crucial to a good analog sound. The soundstage will open up but more crucially, the image will stabilize and loose any residual fuzziness and furriness that are the bane of bad analog sound. Along with a wall shelf, a well set-up platter will bring direct benefits in extending the highs and releasing a deeper, more realistic bass. Rhythms will tighten and scale will increase. Personally, I would much rather have a digital scale than be able to change the VTA on a Rega 250 for instance. The benefits go to the heart of the way analog is reproduced. Do make sure you check the calibration as it is directional.
Yes, this level is expensive so if you're stretched, I'd suggest getting together with a few other vinyl aficionados to split the cost of the gauge and other setup tools.
Dr. Feickert setup disc
We are very lucky that the present revival in vinyl is producing such high-quality ancillaries. Talking about revival, the breakdown on the latest Paul Weller album sales is something like 7% download, 39% vinyl and the remainder CD. Anyway, without wishing to crow, (okay, let's crow), the younger generation is getting excited by an experience that involves more than ease of use.
Anyway, back to the setup disk. Dr. Chris Feickert is one of the foremost experts in the vinyl field. He was responsible for some of the engineering in the legendary Scheu Premier and is in the process of bringing out some remarkable turntables under the Feickert label that are set to challenge the boundaries of what analog is currently capable of achieving.
If the quality of his forthcoming turntables is comparable to the quality of this setup protractor, then we are in for a serious treat. The Feickert setup disk is a multiple setup protractor tool with comprehensive instructions and two sets of Løfgren null points. Unless you are using an SME 4 or 5 (which come with their own excellent setup gauges), it is extraordinary how often arms arrive set up at the wrong pivot-to-spindle distance or with no ability to move the arm to the required overhang. In any case, it is vital to check that the correct distance has been achieved; otherwise the levels of distortion produced by tangential arms will cause serious deterioration of performance.
The Feickert protractor has precise markings for all tonearms from 9-inch Rega equivalents right up to 16-inch monsters. The markings are every millimetre. Using the aluminium calliper, it is a simple matter to check the correct pivot-to-spindle distance with great precision. All one does is slot the calliper into the hole corresponding to the tonearm length of a given arm, then move the calliper so the needle point touches the center of the tonearm bearing. At this point, the stylus should be set so that it touches the correct marking on the protractor. This only takes a moment and makes the whole setup operation much simpler and more accurate than any other tool I've come across (including a few I've made for myself). Hats off to Dr. Feickert.
His cartridge alignment template is also the finest I've seen. Often the lines are too thick or too far apart and short for accuracy. These are very fine and set about 1 mm apart. They are also long enough to give a more precise sight line. If you are lucky enough to have a cartridge with a straight front edge, accurate adjustment can be easily achieved. First measure to check that the cantilever is at 90 degrees to the front face. If so, you can then tape a small replacement pencil lead (say a .5mm) to the front of the cartridge. It now becomes simple to check the lead against the long line with considerably greater accuracy than it is simply by lining up the front face of the cartridge itself (obviously remove the lead to set VTF). The two sets of Løfgren null points selected have been chosen after Dr. Feickert measured the inner and outer radii of 100 current LPs and found that the IEC recommendations of 60,325 and 146,05 mm were suited well by the large majority of records determined. After Løfgren's equations, this results in 70,2 and 116,6 mm for the null points and a linear offset of 93,445 mm. Older records dating back to the late 50s and early 60s sometimes have recorded grooves down to 56 mm because they cram so many songs onto one side. Taking this into account, he calculated a second set of parameters and printed a second template on the B-side.
As a final bonus, the protractor also has the best strobe disk I've come across (and I've also got the Clearaudio strobe which is no slouch). The record itself is 3mm of acrylic (to mimic a 180 gm. record) and unlike the Clearaudio, it will not warp. If the strobe disk warps, it's going to be much harder to separate the drift of the warp from any drift in the turntable. Beyond that, the divisions are crisp. For the moment, however, it's only available in the 50Hz version so it won't be of use to US customers.
Hopefully, Dr. Feickert will produce a 60Hz disk. Finally, his disk also has a flat non-grooved surface suitable for setting up a basic antiscating force. This is done simply by regulating the antiscate so that the arm moves neither in nor out from where it is positioned. Make sure not to do this anywhere near the points where the guide holes are set or you might need a new cartridge afterwards. Given that it is 3mm thick, the record can also be used to set VTA/SRA but remember, it will produce an angle, which will be about 1mm nose down on most ordinary records. I find the Music Maker 3 produces its best results completely parallel so I use a normal record to set SRA.. The Allaerts seems happily set up to go 1mm nose down, which is about where Jan Allaerts recommends setting it (1 or 2mm nose down). All in all, this is an invaluable tool. At 150 euros, it ain't a cheap piece of equipment but it's worth every penny. Highly recommended.
The Cartridge Man isolator - Edward's Product of the Year
If the setup tools are designed to get the best theoretical performance from you turntable, the Cartridge Man's isolator -- and indeed the Living Voice Mystic Mat -- have been designed to actually improve this potential performance. To my considerable surprise, they both really work. There are so many dubious tweaks and snake-oil products on the present market that it's almost embarrassing. Frankly, we all have better things to do than try out the latest follies. So I was pretty reluctant when asked to evaluate the isolator even though Leonard Gregory has put a lot of time and effort into this patented design.
The concept is simplicity itself. Every arm will collect some unwanted vibrations from the cartridge and the isolator, true to its name, is effectively damping some of those vibrations before they can do harm. The design is screamingly basic. Two thin sheets of stainless steel sandwich a high-tech acoustic compound. The isolator has two screws to attach it to the head shell while the cartridge itself is attached to the isolator with a film of sticky material and two guiding lugs. It's important to check the distance between the mounting holes of your cartridge before ordering as there are two standard widths available.
Mounting is a relatively simple affair but it's important to achieve good contact between the cartridge and isolator, which means pressing down firmly. It's not a good idea to press on the isolating foam itself so press firmly using only the bottom steel plate. I found this part relatively easy and tested one for several months. I was a bit concerned that the cartridge might fall off but in fact, when the time came to take the cartridge off for real, it was well and truly bonded and I needed to pry it away carefully with the flat tip of a jeweller's screwdriver, then remove remaining bits of adhesive with isopropyl alcohol. In other words, once bonded, it really really sticks.
So does it work? Enough to make it the biggest discovery and product of the year for me. You don't need to see the graphs that Leonard Gregory provided me to show the drop in noise floor all along the spectrum to be convinced. The isolator is not one of those "do I hear it, do I not" tweaks. The effect is immediately audible: blacker backgrounds, denser and richer tonality, greater instrumental definition with an interesting trick of also delivering a richer and more nuanced harmonic envelope.
Because of the lower noise floor, records appear to play louder than they did before at same volume. You'll hear greater definition and detail, a better sense of palpability as the textures of sounds emerge enriched. This is the opposite of a washed-out presentation.
Removing the isolator brings a loss of definition. It's audible as a sheet of haze, knocking off a notch of clarity, vibrancy and tone color. It's so obvious that this is the effect of removing a layer of vibrations, an interaction between waves of vibrations coming from the tone arm tube that cross and mingle with those travelling in the opposite direction from the cartridge body, plus excess energy from the cantilever passing through the cartridge body and towards the arm. If what is happening here is that these two sets of waves are being effectively isolated from each other and to some extent being damped or lost in the foam material, then we are in the process of learning something important about how these two sets of vibrations need to be kept separate from each other.
Put the isolator back on and cymbals on The Sweetest Sounds -- a Rune Gustafsson/Zoot Sims album -- and the increased separation, loss of grain and greater fluidity of rhythmic poise are all instantly obvious. Bass is deeper and clearer. Murk has been lost. The inner detail of the sax, the way a deep note is a set of separate vibrations, become audible. The impact and the way in which transients turn instantly into harmonics are all there. I suspect this is the kind of effect one would be pleased with if spending a great deal more on a major component.
There's a density of sound that is in line with everything that analog has to offer - incision, timbral depth, fabulous speed. It's like the whole cartridge has finally gotten its act together. The sax on Opus 3's Estrand Sessions is as rich as it is in real life and the bass reverberates in a rich, room-filling way. The piano is spot on. In fact and with a decent system, I'm confident that the combination of MM3 with the isolator (given a good phono stage etc.) is reproducing something quite close to whatever limit the finest anolog is capable of.
On the Ortofon test record (another Opus 3 recording), the depth of saturation of color hues and timbre is something else altogether. The vibration of the bass string as it's struck with force is considerably crisper, increasing that sense of presence and vitality. With the violin, there's a drenching saturation of color tones and a richness I'm not sure I've come across before. And with the Tatum Group Masterpieces, you can hear not just De Franco's clarinet but also the specific timbre that comes from the air inside the tube, the way it's hitting the tube itself before emerging as an envelope of sound. I had a lot of respect for Leonard Gregory before. Now I'm frankly just gob smacked by what he has produced here.
Remember however that to adjust VTA -- and for those of us with cartridges without needle guards installing and removing the isolator is a little bit more nerve wracking. I would also avoid removing it too many times since the adhesive will inevitably loose its grip. All in all and given the price of £85, the isolator is a must for any serious vinyl aficionado. This product has so impressed me that I would nominate it for an audiophile Oscar.
The Living Voice Mystic Mat
Everyone has got his or her own favorite mat - Verdier's rubber & lead, for example, or Acoustic Solid's leather. I've tried many, including an amazing one from Audio Consulting in Switzerland that was made of 9 layers of ply drenched in C37. In the end and for the Scheu, I always return to the naked platter itself. The best mat I found so far was a chamois but I don't believe any of them actually improved the sound. Until the Mystic Mat. Word had been going around about the benefits of this mat for some of those high-mass tables that end up sounding a bit soft and rounded. So when I went up to Definitive Audio on a visit, I thought I'd ask Kevin Scott for one to try out.
Did I mention going to visit Definitive Audio? For those of you interested in audio tourism, I'd put a trip to Nottingham/UK way at the top of your list. Definitive/Living Voice is set in one of the city's "dark satanic mills" that's been beautifully restored and now houses light industrial warehouses and workshops. But forget the outside. It's what's inside that counts. Definitive is now the Kondo UK distributor and Kevin has a Kondo system set up and playing through the latest iteration of his Living Voice OBXR speakers. The sound is something else and something else again. Unbelievable. Tonally, I found a richness there (and this was on CD) that seemed like the difference between a real wood fire as opposed to everything else I've heard coming across like a gas or electric. I went with a very experienced audiophile who thought he had reached what he has always been looking for with a Lindemann/Boulder/Mårten Design Coltrane system and when he came away, realized he was going to start from square one all over again. We've both been haunted ever since. Kondo is a mythical name but having heard that sound, I'm more than a convert. The prices are ridiculous, yes, but so is a Stradivarius. Both are justified by the glory of their timbre.
Anyway, returning with the Mystic Mat, I put it on the Scheu and to my complete amazement, it was like putting on another isolator - or arguably more so. The combination of the two working together is like a doubling of those benefits the isolator provides. I'm sure my excitement has something to do with the effect being unexpected but after having spent several years not having found after-market products and tweaks that work, to find two within the space of weeks -- and two that have what appears to be a symbiotic relationship -- is very satisfying indeed.
I was so thrilled with the Mystic Mat that I immediately tried it on the Garrard 301 for again the same effect - a blacker background, better instrumental definition and a richer harmonic envelope. The special energy that is the secret of the Garrard emerged even more clearly. I was very impressed. True, at £225, it will cost the same as the turntable itself but frankly, the combination is very special indeed. Several people have been finding they like carbon fiber-based platters. I can now say that I've joined this club. Mind you, the Mystic Mat is a design based on several strata of different materials - only the top layer is actually carbon fiber.
You know how you don't want to ruin a film for people by over-praising it, afraid they will be disappointed? Let's just say I want to be lukewarm about this sufficiently so that you go for it if but reluctantly. What I'm hearing is more crispness, more separation, a lower apparent noise floor, faster and purer dynamics and a greater body to the sound. The Mystic Mat works across the audiophile spectrum. PRaT is improved. Transients are faster. It's like the cartridge has suddenly got substantially faster at accelerating and stopping. Flute highs become purer as does any sax. Purer and with more body. Bass has more apparent presence and weight while at the same time sounding more delicate. It now also has speed. This speed comes across in the crucial midbass area so a sax will gain punch and vibrato, heft and meaning. Every instrument comes across as crisper, more incisive, with significantly more density and color richness. This works on a rhythmic level as well as though a dancer had lost a weight off her back. So we gain an increase in the 3-dimensionality of the soundstage.
Take "Treecircle" from the Opus 3 Showcase LP. There's a point where the drummer hits the metal edge of one of his drums. With the Mystic Mat, the MM3/isolator combination now exploded with the kind of clatter you'd hear if the drum had fallen over with a crash nearby. It's a startling effect and the sort of quality you only get with really seriously expensive cartridges.
Leonard Cohen's In my secret life opens with a little guitar riff that has an extremely fast harmonic reverb echo effect in it that must be a couple of octaves above the fundamental. Most cartridges smear it pretty effectively so you'd hardly know it was there. With the Mystic Mat in place, the effect blooms spot on. I'm very impressed indeed. The Mystic Mat is going to be a permanent fixture on my turntables. My understanding is that all Living Voice products are refundable for 30 days so get on the phone and order a Mystic Mat. You might find it means you don't need to buy a super deck after all.