Like many audiophiles, my earliest musical memories involve turntables, from a kiddie player (possibly Fischer-Price), to the AudioTechnica my father (who was a Linn Sondek LP12 guy at the time) gave me for my tenth birthday, to coveting the classic Technics SL-1200 (preferably a pair with which to play DJ) in my teens.
Eventually, my role at TAS granted me the wonderful opportunity of hearing countless ’tables at shows and in colleagues’ homes, in addition to auditioning some chez moi. The latest and greatest I’ve spent time with thus far is the one under review, the Acoustic Signature Challenger Mk3.
If the Acoustic Signature name doesn’t ring a bell, it should. You might recall the German manufacturer’s ne plus ultra flagship Invictus turntable taking TAS’ 2016 Overall Product of the Year honors, not to mention JV’s glowing review of it in Issue 264 (and of the newly updated and improved version in this issue). Guided by the engineering prowess, watchful eye, and passionate presence of founder/CEO Gunther Frohnhöfer, the company has grown steadily in both sales and international reputation over the last decade. Indeed, Acoustic Signature has outgrown its office and factory space and will be moving soon into larger facilities not far from its former digs. (See sidebar for more about the Acoustic Signature factory.)
Though the cylindrical Challenger Mk3 may not have all the low-end weight and power of Frohnhöfer’s top-tier designs, it nevertheless delivers remarkable purity, focus, elegance of presentation, and musicality. Its deceptively simple look belies its ingenious Teutonic engineering. Indeed, Frohnhöfer is continually seeking ways to improve sound through clever design ideas. For instance, I recently had the good fortune to be on-hand when Gunther himself, along with his trusty colleague Maurice, a young engineer, performed upgrades to JV’s mighty Invictus reference turntable and TA-9000 tonearm. The sonic improvement was easy to hear. (It’s worth noting that this level of service wasn’t only for JV—Gunther and Maurice are personally upgrading each and every Invictus for owners.)
Stellar service aside, we’re here to talk about a truly “real world” turntable with a powerful presence of its own. Although the Challenger Mk3 resides in the middle of the Acoustic Signature ’table lineup, in its quality of materials and manufacture, feature set, and price—not to mention playback sonics—it’s far from middling. The Challenger model was first introduced in 2004 and is still one of the company’s bestsellers. It was originally conceived as Acoustic Signature’s smallest turntable of significant mass—that is, the statement-level entry point where Acoustic Signature’s thicker, denser platter was first offered. The Mk2 version featured an updated tonearm base and upgraded motor-controller electronics. Among other improvements detailed below, the current Mk3 boasts a European-made synchronous motor with a new Beta DIG digital motor controller for greater speed stability, and therefore better sound quality. This third iteration also offers more flexibility: It can accommodate up to three motors and three tonearms simultaneously. Considering the Challenger’s small size this is remarkable versatility.
As with all Acoustic Signature turntables (and tonearms), the manufacturing is meticulous: The Challenger Mk3 is built by hand from parts that are machined in-house; I was able to witness this machining firsthand during a visit to the factory some months ago. Both its high-mass platter and chassis are precision CNC-milled from single, solid pieces of soft aluminum in thicknesses of 50mm and 40mm, respectively. The 10kg platter’s inherently low resonance is further bolstered by a coating of damping material applied to its underside. A black leather platter cover is also included. At the base of the chassis are three, constrained-layer-damped, adjustable feet (simply use a coin to level them).
According to the company’s website, the Challenger Mk3’s bearing design focuses on exact fit, extremely low friction, and long-term stability (the bearing is covered by a remarkable 10-year warranty). The base of the bearing is made of a proprietary material called Tidorfolon that’s roller-brushed and paired with a special hardened steel axle. The bearing housing has ultra-tight tolerances and uses carefully matched sinter bronze inserts that are self-lubricating. The results? Very low noise and silky-smooth, seamless performance during playback.