In September of 2016, Basis Audio founder and turntable designer extraordinaire, A.J. Conti, called to tell me, with genuine enthusiasm, about a new turntable he had just finished designing and was about to put into production. This new turntable wasn’t simply a better version of the designs he’d been building for the past 30 years, but rather a sui generis creation that represented the culmination of his life’s work.
This new turntable started life as a one-off platform for A.J.’s development work. It could accommodate up to four tonearms of any length and weight, and the major components could be easily swapped out so that each component’s performance could be evaluated independently. As with other designers, A.J.’s goal had always been to reduce a turntable’s distortions so that it imposed as little of itself as possible on the music. But in precisely what ways his turntables departed sonically from absolute neutrality was an unanswered question. He realized that he needed an absolute reference against which to compare the sound of his turntables and tonearms, particularly for this new design platform.
Three years before his phone call to me A.J. hit upon an idea that set him on the quest of a lifetime: to create a turntable that was so sonically transparent that it sounded virtually indistinguishable from mastertapes—a tall order, to say the least. The only way to pursue this audacious undertaking was to rethink from first principles every aspect of turntable design, and to continuously compare the sound of the turntable under development to the sound of mastertapes. Time and cost would not be limiting factors.
A.J. thus bought two top-tier open-reel tape machines (Ampex ATR-102’s), and had one of them modified identically to the ATR-102 at Bernie Grundman’s mastering studio. He also acquired 1:1 transfers of first-generation mastertapes from audiophile labels, along with lacquers cut from those tapes and LPs derived from those lacquers. Now fully equipped to pursue his quest of making a turntable that made LPs sound like mastertapes, he embarked on the engineering challenge. He said of this approach: “What better way to hear where you need to go, or if you achieved equivalency, than if you have the lacquer, a copy of the mastertape that cut the lacquer, and the most neutral and sonically truthful means to play those tapes, a studio mastering tape deck?”
It was after three years of this development work that he called to tell me, for the first time, about his project and the new turntable. It was rare for A.J. to phone me, even though I’d been using his superb turntables for more than a decade (a 2800 Signature and later the Inspiration). A.J. told me, with great emotion in his voice, that he came far closer to his mastertape goal than he ever thought possible.
A manufacturer proclaiming that his latest product is revolutionary is nothing new. Believe me, after 30 years of full-time audio reviewing I’ve heard my share of spin. Some manufacturers will say anything to get past the review gate. In fact, the hyperbole is often so over the top that it ventures into the humorous (I could tell some stories). But A.J. wasn’t like other manufacturers. He was such a perfectionist engineer that marketing hype simply wasn’t in his DNA. (The “white paper” that Basis published on the Transcendence wasn’t written by A.J. himself.)
I can count on one hand (literally) the number of designers who are universally and unflinchingly honest about the virtues and shortcomings of a technical design—theirs and others. (During a press conference many years ago, Jim Thiel had to be gently interrupted by the company’s marketing representative when he went off-script and began describing the technical limitations of his new concentric loudspeaker driver.) A.J.’s phone call wasn’t a sales pitch from a manufacturer to a magazine editor, but rather the enthusiastic sharing of a landmark achievement with someone who would appreciate that achievement.
Three weeks after that phone call I received the devastating news that A.J. had died from a sudden heart attack at age 59. He had been the model of health and vitality. I was shocked and saddened—personally, for his family, and for the great loss to our industry. His contribution to high-end audio was inestimable. A.J. epitomized everything that’s great about high-end audio—serious technical chops, a perfectionist zeal, uncompromising standards, and dissatisfaction with the status quo, all fueled by a profound love of music and an obsession with the quality of its reproduction.
A.J.’s passing left the question of what would happen to Basis Audio and this new, yet unnamed turntable. (A.J.’s working name for the turntable had been “The Truth” or “The Comparator.”) A few weeks later A.J.’s widow, Jolanta, and A.J.’s brother called to tell me that Basis Audio would continue on under the technical team who had worked closely with A.J. for many years. Basis had already ordered all the parts to build the new turntable. They also told me that A.J. had expressed his plan to offer the turntable to me for review. The turntable’s name was suggested by Joe Harley (no relation) of AudioQuest and co-founder of Music Matters, the company producing terrific Blue Note LP reissues. Joe was one of the first owners of the new turntable (before it had officially been launched) and proposed naming it the A.J. Conti Transcendence.