Acoustic Signature Invictus Jr. Turntable and TA-9000 Tonearm

Oy, Gestalt!

Equipment report
Acoustic Signature Invictus Jr. Turntable and TA-9000 Tonearm

Frankly, I did not know quite what to expect from Jr. sonically. After all, tremendous constrained-layer-damped mass (distributed over an unparalleled area) was key to Sr.’s unusually natural, tape-like presentation. There was this, though. Considerable mass has, in the past, somewhat “deadened” the sound of certain other ’tables (including Acoustic Signature’s own first-gen Ascona and the original TW Acustic Raven, though not subsequent versions of either). With these other ’tables the cost paid in dynamic “liveliness” and the consequent recovery of low-level transient-related detail was counterbalanced by the utter smoothness of the sonics and the sheer density of tone color, but there was a cost. 

I did not sense this trade-off with the original Invictus, which, in direct comparisons, made LPs sound more like 15ips dubs of mastertapes of the same source material than any other ’table I’d heard—reproducing dynamics as a ramp-like continuum (à la reel-to-reel machines) rather than as steps in a staircase (like virtually all other record players—or at least record players with pivoted ’arms), and seemingly not sacrificing inner detail for an increase in lifelike smoothness and, to quote the late great HP, continuousness. Without all of Sr.’s tremendous mass at its command, I wondered if Jr. would live up to Dad’s legacy.

Well, I am happy to report, Jr. does. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Jr. exceeds Sr. (and other turntables I’ve heard) in certain key areas, including, most especially, noise floor, dynamics, and resolution. Does this then mean that Sr. was, in fact, overly damping the sound?

I don’t think so. What I do think is that Jr., which (of course) is still a pretty damn large and heavy record player, has not benefitted from the reduction of mass but from the advances in CLD technology that have been made since Sr. was introduced. Invictus Jr.’s more effective CLD construction (which involves two extra layers of damping) have increased resonance control, resulting in the deeper silences, better dynamics, and greater detail that I just noted. With select sources, it has also resulted in an uncanny sense of realism—of being in the presence of an actual singer or instrumentalist.

Though I’ve struggled for decades with explaining which sonic qualities make for a “real” or lifelike presentation (beyond, of course, superior LP engineering and mastering), I keep coming back to the fact that I know “real” when I hear it. Indeed, I know it instantly without rational analysis or reflection (which is part of what makes subsequent rational analysis so difficult). Though I distrust the concept (because it is hard to explain), it has come to me that perceiving a recorded copy as the real thing isn’t merely a matter of superior parts but of what psychologists call the gestalt grouping of those parts, wherein the many variables that we reviewers (and you readers) ascribe to real and recorded sound (i.e., true-to-life timbre, pitch, dynamics, duration, soundstaging, imaging, bloom, dimensionality, etc.) are no longer perceived as separable (or even as outstandingly well-reproduced) ingredients but as a collectively realistic representation of a whole. 

What triggers this switch between observing and evaluating exemplary parts and perceiving lifelike wholes remains a bit mysterious to me. As in one of those famous gestalt puzzles where a drawing of two vases is suddenly perceived as two human faces, it just happens, because the mind is somehow permitted to “re-group” what it observes.

This said, with recorded music I have noted that such a gestalt regrouping is invariably accompanied by the reproduction of markedly higher (across the board) amounts of information—not only about the tone color of a voice or an instrument (although this is essential), but also about the dynamically expressive way it is being used or played and, for lack of a better word, the mechanics of the way it makes sound in the space it was recorded. Just as essentially, this higher amount of information must be delivered in a neutral way, without undue emphasis on any frequency band or any segment of the dynamic/harmonic envelope, and with a blurless clarity and completeness that themselves make for greater presence and immediacy. The moment a transducer starts to overemphasize any one quality, we start to hear that added emphasis as a departure from realism, a coloration or distortion that makes the gestalt regrouping of parts into a lifelike whole more difficult or impossible for the ear/mind to accomplish. At its best, this overemphasis on certain parts can make recorded music sound quite beautiful; at its worst it can make recorded music difficult to enjoy. 

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