Design, Ergonomics, and Playback
The Challenger Mk3’s clean, minimalist design is elegant, solid, and no-nonsense, so assembly of the turntable is fairly straightforward—and quite clearly explained in the illustrated two-page instruction manual. Basically, all you have to do is make sure the cylindrical base is level then carefully place the platter atop it, with the bearing axle on the bottom of the platter fitted precisely into the bearing well built into the chassis. Mounting the tonearm on its mount (attached to the bottom of the chassis) is a snap—just follow the instructions that come with the ’arm. The cylindrical outboard motor can be situated wherever you wish within a few inches of the turntable. Place the slender belt around the platter and around the pulley atop the motor, connect the motor via supplied umbilicals to the small half-moon-shaped controller that tucks in neatly under the turntable chassis, and you’re ready to spin vinyl!
Early in the review period, I received a tonearm upgrade: the TA-2000 (which replaced the TA-1000). The tonearm kit included the basic tools required to mount it and the cartridge, but our analog guru Andre Jennings deserves credit for his painstaking cartridge setup and fine-tuning (I use the wonderful Air Tight PC-7 moving-coil cart). In brief, this tonearm upgrade delivered a greater sense of seamlessness and precision, as resonances were further minimized.
The Challenger’s name rightfully suggests a certain boldness, a contender for big stakes, yet the ’table’s footprint is on the smaller side. It’s exactly as large as it needs to be; the only parts that extend beyond the cylindrical chassis are the motor, the curved controller that rests beneath it and plugs into to a separate 120V power supply (included), and the attached tonearm mount. Though it plays like a far bigger model, this ’table doesn’t take up valuable rack space and is well suited to less-than-palatial listening spaces.
Ergonomically the Challenger Mk3 is simply a pleasure to use. In addition to a pair of tiny lights, the controller includes just two pushbuttons, one to power on and off, and the other to select speeds of 33 1/3 or 45rpm by pushing once for the former and a second time for the latter. A little green light blinks while the turntable gets up to the chosen speed; the light stays solid once speed has stabilized. The turntable runs consistently at its chosen speed, lending an even-handed quality to playback—as if the Challenger were the Steadicam of turntables. Tracking and general operation were also consistently flawless. I don’t want to say I ever took this turntable for granted, but I knew I could count on it the way I did the classic vintage Volvo I used to drive. It would always fire right up and perform solidly and beautifully.
Turntables make for tricky review subjects, as they tend not to have apparent inherent sonic traits in the way that, say, loudspeakers or amplifiers do. Yet, interestingly, I found that this ’table’s sonic characteristics were reflected in its design. Short of saying the Challenger Mk3 sounds a bit like it looks, some of the same descriptors apply. Both visually and sonically it presents a sleek smoothness combined with solidity and seamlessness. Timbre tended towards whatever is on the source.
To illustrate this fidelity to sources, consider Diana Krall Live in Paris (45rpm LPs on ORG). The piano on “S’Wonderful” resonated gloriously and sounded lifelike in its dynamic contrasts, dimensionality, and tone color—just as it should have on this live album. Transient attacks were quick and captivating, and timbre was quite neutral, making for a thrillingly natural presentation from an astonishingly black background—due in part to the Challenger Mk3’s low-resonance soft-aluminum platter and very quiet operation. Krall’s smoky contralto was also expressive and bloomy.
For some jump swing style, I spun another fabulous ORG reissue, Jon Hendricks’ Fast Livin’ Blues, where the racing, raucous energy of his version of “Saturday Night Fish Fry” was reproduced with a smooth, deep sense of the groove. Like a good rhythm section, the Challenger kept the proceedings in hand, yet without anything becoming overly tamed or overdamped. Yet even with its even-keeled control, it didn’t lose one lick of this cut’s infectious sense of freewheeling carousing. As the lyric says, “It was rockin’!”