Avid Acutus Reference Turntable

Equipment report
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Turntables
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Avid Acutus Reference
Avid Acutus Reference Turntable

A bit of youthful dabbling with grass aside, I’ve never much been into drugs and have no idea what narcotic withdrawal feels like. But I experienced what I imagine it might be like last year, when for a period of several months I went through what I came to call “analog withdrawal.”

I was scheduled to receive Redpoint’s latest top-of-the-line Model D shortly after the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, along with Graham’s red-hot, topof- the-line Phantom arm. For a variety of reasons—machining challenges at Redpoint, sky-high demand for the Phantom—that project was delayed five months. Not then knowing when these items would materialize, I was pleased when Music Direct offered me for review a top-of-the-line turntable it imports, the British-made Avid Acutus Reference.

But wouldn’t you know it. No sooner had Music Direct shipped me the Avid, along with an SME V arm and Mobile Fidelity’s new Carbon 3.5 mc cartridge, than Redpoint’s Peter Clark called to say he was ready to visit with the Model D and was also bringing along Graham’s elusive Phantom. Talk about raining and pouring!

Although having two superb playback rigs on hand (along with my reference Tri-Planar VII arm and Transfiguration Temper V and Air Tight PC-1 cartridges) is not exactly what I would call a hardship, dabbling with the minutiae of fine analog adjustments can be just as mind-altering and motor-skill challenging as smoking a bowl of the green stuff. Er, at least as far as I can recall.

My review of the Redpoint Model D and Phantom will appear in a special analog feature we’ve slated for Issue 172. Today, it’s all about the Avid.

Though it is now a ten-year-old company, you could say that Avid really began 29 years ago when its founder Conrad Mas began to seriously consider what makes a good—and not so good— turntable. As Mas pithily explained it in a lengthy transcontinental telephone conversation: “When I was 16, a friend of mine proudly showed me a turntable he’d just bought. I thought it was rubbish.” Over the next several years Mas did what comes naturally to any well-adjusted youth—he started buying and tinkering with a variety of turntables. But after about five years of this, Mas decided it was the wrong approach, because it was all in the context of his system, and therefore subject to the variables and imperfections of the other components he was using. “A lot of people don’t know what they’re doing,” he told me, “so they simply follow what others have done, thus repeating the same mistakes. I sold everything, my entire system, and started from scratch.” Getting down to basics, Mas took out a sheet of paper and started thinking about how a turntable should work. In the meantime, he held various day jobs to support himself and his family, including a lucrative gig in the insurance industry.

As Mas sees it, the challenge of designing a turntable is “like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece must be perfect— and work perfectly together.” The basic Acutus ($13,000), with its regular power supply, was the first Avid product Mas designed, and remains the template for all other models: From the Diva ($2500), to the Volvere ($5000), to the Sequel ($8000), to the Acutus Reference ($19,000), they share the same design philosophy, bearing, and suspension (see avidhifi.co.uk, for detailed descriptions of each design).

“You see,” he continued, “most audio companies start with an engineering background. But I started in audio, and the engineering came later.” (Like another English firm, SME, Avid now also does engineering work for other audio firms, as well as the medical field. It exports to 36 countries.)

Mas’ research led him to identify what he sees as two schools of turntable design. One he calls, “The ‘Felt Mat Brigade’— the Linns, Regas, etc., with their muddled bottom end response caused by the whole assembly vibrating during playback.” Akin, says Mas, “to attempting to walk on a narrow carpet while people are pulling at it from either side.” The next is the “‘Plastic Platter Brigade’—Clearaudio, etc., which seems to think that vibrations sink into the platter as if into a black hole, which is absolute rubbish, because at some point the platter becomes like a sponge—it gets saturated, and then reflects resonance back up to stimulate the record, stylus, and arm. Which is why, you’ll notice, acrylic platters keep getting thicker.”

On the subject of resonance, Mas accepts it as a fact of LP playback: “So, the question becomes, how do you get rid of it as quickly as possible—like a drain? It’s like a circle: arm/cartridge/platter/ bearing/subchassis/arm again.” In order to “drain” resonance from his playback system, Mas intentionally allowed for weak areas in the subchassis. The Acutus’ W-shaped subchassis has three folds, which, as with paper, makes it much stronger than a flat sheet. The subchassis’ most rigid point is between the arm mount and the bearing; the single fold at the three suspension points is somewhat less rigid, while the front and motor areas are relatively weak, creating exit points for vibration. The front area and motor points are relatively weak, creating exit points for vibration. And because bearing and arm resonances are quickly absorbed into the subchassis, Mas recommends using arms with rigid bearings on his ’tables. Fans of unipivot arms such as the Phantom should probably look elsewhere.

The Acutus’ single-piece castaluminum subchassis is free of add-on damping materials, because Mas found that they tame high frequencies in a nonlinear fashion. Instead, Mas uses the high granular content of the metal to damp low frequencies, while the finishing paint bonds with the skin of the aluminum, dissipating high-frequency resonance. Mas also recommended that I use no damping fluid in the SME V’s arm trough, because it “kills the highs.” This notion was easy enough to test, because the SME V’s threaded damping paddle can be quickly adjusted in and out of the fluid-filled trough. I tried it both ways, using a record I know well, Nathan Milstein playing the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin on Deutsche Grammophon. Without damping, Milstein’s Stradivarius seemed much more present and “alive”; his bowing and fingerwork were significantly more precise and dynamically defined. With damping, things were smeared and dull-sounding.

As you have no doubt gathered, Conrad Mas has many strong opinions on turntable design (and, I would venture, pretty much everything else, though I’ve yet to break bread with the man). On the subject of unsuspended turntables, Mas feels that ’tables lacking suspension allow environmental events—footfall, sounds from a speaker, a truck on the street—to be transmitted as smear or some other form of sonic clutter (this is why people use Vibraplanes and the like). Avids are designed to be isolated in their own environments, and are therefore less sensitive to the platforms they are placed on.

I had a chance to test this theory, too, because there is only one surface in my room that can support the Redpoint Model D’s 150 pounds. Naturally, it happened to be the same surface the Avid was set up on when the Redpoint arrived—a hunk of slate that sits atop a Finite Elemente “Spider” rack. With no alternative at hand, I pressed into service a small metal side table that perfectly fit the Acutus’ footprint. I moved and readjusted the ’table, and sure enough, there was no readily discernible difference in the unit’s performance from one platform to the other. This no doubt has something to do with the Acutus’ 2Hz isolation frequency. To drive the point home, Mas has been known to demo the turntable at hi-fi shows while playing it atop a live subwoofer.

Each of the Acutus’ three springs is the same but adjustable so that the frequency of movement is the same independent of load. When everything on the ’table is level—spring adjustments are accessed through holes in the towers—the entire assembly moves up and down in true pistonic fashion. Rubber O-rings fixed to the three towers work as lateral damping, and quickly return the platter to the vertical plane. Avid owners can amaze friends with this analog parlor trick: Begin playing a record, then press your index finger down on the top of the record clamp; as the assembly gently and evenly bounces up and down, the cartridge stays locked in the grooves, playing on without a care.

The stainless-steel inverted-bearing shaft is tipped with a single-point selflubricating tungsten-carbide ball that sits in a sapphire cup. Once the 25-pound, chrome-plated platter is in place, a clamp effectively couples an LP to the bondedpolymer mat, which was designed to decelerate vertical energy, while reflecting horizontal energy back into the LP.

On the subject of motors, Mas firmly believes that a tiny motor with a big platter equals bad sound. “The motor should control the platter, not the other way ’round,” he said. To give this some perspective, Mas told me the Linn LP12 Motor is 12mN.m (millineuton meters), the SME 30 motor is 14mN.m, while the Acutus’ hand built 24V AC synchronous motor is 140mN.m, or 10x more powerful than the norm. The motor is housed in its own pod and nestles just behind the front-left spring tower. A seamless round belt was chosen to avoid cogging effects from the powerful motor as well as for speed accuracy—flat belts can ride up and down, causing speed problems—and affixes to a subplatter that’s machined in the platter’s underbelly.

By the way, the difference between the regular Acutus and the Reference is all about the power supply. The Reference uses a massive split-phase quartz-locked unit that is said to greatly improve performance at the frequency extremes, while lowering noise and increasing dynamic range. This is also where one powers up the unit and selects speed.

When we’d finally exhausted all parameters of the exquisitely made Acutus, Mas finally said, “That’s all well and good, but the bottom line is what happens when you listen to it.”

True enough. And over the five months I’ve lived with the Acutus Reference it has proved to be one of the most pleasurableto- operate and finest-sounding turntables I’ve ever encountered. Its character is notably invisible. What it seems to do is allow whatever phono cartridge you mount on it to speak its voice. (I’ll explore this further in the next issue, when I review the Mobile Fidelity Carbon 3.5 supplied for this review, as well as Air Tight’s astonishing PC-1.) Naturally, this level of transparency applies to LPs as well, and do keep in mind that although I listened to two different cartridges on the Avid, the only arm I auditioned was the excellent SME V, whose own character leans just a tad to the dark side of the spectrum. Hearing Johnny Cash sing “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” from American IV: When the Man Comes Around [American/Lost Highway], revealed a few more things about the Avid. For one, groove noise on this turntable is extremely low, particularly when paired with the Air Tight PC-1, which in my experience is simply unequaled in this area. Next was the Acutus Reference’s way of digging down to reveal production details. Producer Rick Rubin deliberately swathed Cash’s voice in a gigantic halo of reverb, and over the Avid it came across as never before—as if an electronic nimbus were surrounding his head, which seemed to hover like that of the Wizard of Oz, several feet behind, just above, and smack in between my Kharma Mini Exquisite speakers. Most importantly, though, the Avid delivers the emotional goods—Cash’s raw, broken voice, drenched in a church-like reverb, the dirge-like insistence of two strummed acoustic guitars, and the swell of the funeral parlor organ burrowed into your soul like grief itself.

Lowering the stylus into the 45rpm pressing of Monk’s Brilliant Corners [Analogue Productions/Riverside], the slightly hesitant opening theme of “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are” gives way to a series of solos by each band member. As each player improvises the theme, the Avid brought forth a powerful sense of their instruments’ presence and musical force. From the reedy swoop of Ernie Henry’s alto sax, to Monk’s at first plinkity-plonk then fluid piano playing, from Sonny Rollins’ tenor run that pokes around a bit before launching into brilliant improv, to Oscar Pettiford’s bass solo, which seems not just grounded to the floor but rooted to the very earth, to Max Roach’s drums—delivered with a transient snap and dynamic force we hope for but so rarely get from our systems.

Finally, Hans Werner Henze’s 1973 composition Tristan [Deutsche Grammophon] runs from calm passages for solo piano and the breath of a few woodwinds, to nearchaotic stretches for full-throttle orchestra that include the clamor of high-pitched percussion and woodwinds, strings that are bowed and plucked as well as tapped and scraped with bows, and all manner of violent-sounding taped sounds, with quotes from Wagner’s opera and the Brahm’s First thrown in for good measure. The Acutus Reference & Co. tracked these unusually challenging grooves as if they were lullabies. It also displayed a special ability to pull the minutest details of technique and timbre from the grooves, to never lose a single thread of this highly complex music, to display a dazzlingly beautiful array of tone colors, to carve out a most impressive soundstage of tremendous depth, width, and height, to project dynamics with a convincingly lifelike range of no apparent limits, and to recreate a piano’s sound with exceptional presence, lengthy decay, and bold lower-octave chords with a persuasive sense of weight and power behind them.