Basis Audio A.J. Conti Transcendence Turntable and SuperArm 12.5 Tonearm

Magnum Opus

Equipment report
Categories:
Turntables,
Tonearms
Basis Audio A.J. Conti Transcendence Turntable and SuperArm 12.5 Tonearm

Listening
I auditioned the Transcendence with a range of top-tier cartridges including the My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme, and Air Tight Opus, eventually settling on the Air Tight Opus as the best match for my system and tastes. I was also more familiar with the Air Tight cartridges. Nonetheless, the My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum had some remarkable qualities; it was extremely vivid, dynamic, and incisive, and probably more resolving overall than the Air Tight Opus. The Opus was gentler in the top end, warmer, and richer in timbre. The phonostage was my reference for the past few years, the Simaudio Moon 810LP. The Transcendence sat atop a Critical Mass Systems Olympus equipment rack, with the Basis Synchro-Wave power supply and vacuum controller on the shelf beneath the turntable. The turntable was installed and set up by Jim Fuller, who worked for Basis at the time but now operates his own system set-up business. Jim worked at Goodwin’s High-End (a longtime Basis dealer) near Boston for decades, and knows turntables inside and out. 

If I had to sum up the sound of the Transcendence in a single word, that word would be “solidity.” Solidity of imaging, solidity of pitch and timbre, solidity of bass. Starting with imaging, the Transcendence’s portrayal of instrumental images, the space in which those instruments are playing, and the relationship between the sound source and the surrounding acoustic is absolutely stunning. It’s very different from any other turntable I’ve heard. Images have a tangibility, spatially and texturally, that is startling in its realism. Moreover, the Transcendence reveals, with exquisite precision and beauty, the sense of air around the image outlines and the way that the instrument’s dynamic envelope expands into space in three dimensions, lighting up the surrounding acoustic. Amplifying this impression, the Transcendence resolves the decays of notes, along with reverberation, with tremendous precision and finely detailed texture. Cymbals, for example, seem to hang in space for a very long time, and the decays are infused with rich detail. These sonic qualities go a long way toward creating the illusion of hearing real instruments in a real space, and consequently, allowing the system to disappear. 

All these virtues were evident on a wide range of LPs I’ve been listening to for years. One LP that I’ve enjoyed since I was in my early 20’s, and a record that helped shift my tastes toward straight-ahead jazz at a young age, is Herbie Hancock’s first outing as a leader, Takin’ Off from 1963. Hearing this record on the Transcendence (I replaced my original Blue Note pressing with a Cisco remastering about ten years ago) highlighted just how spectacularly great the Transcendence is, not just in checking off all the audiophile criteria (which it does), but also in the way it brings music to life with a fresh vitality and verve. Even on the first few bars of piano that open the classic “Watermelon Man,” the Transcendence demonstrated its remarkable ability to convey musical expression. Hancock has said that the famous piano vamp that underlies the tune was inspired by the sound of a horse-drawn watermelon wagon ambling down a bumpy cobblestone street (the six-note melody, played over the piano by the trumpet and sax, by a woman shouting from a window “Hey, wat-er-mel-on man”). The Transcendence vividly conveyed Hancock’s rhythmic patterns that evoke the languid, halting gait he was trying to capture. The Transcendence’s ability to precisely articulate musical rhythms, and to communicate the rhythmic interplay between musicians, was a hallmark of its performance over a wide range of LPs. On this track I also found myself appreciating anew how drummer Billy Higgins slightly odd timing played off the piano part and contributed to the unique rhythmic flow.

 

A polar opposite example of the Transcendence’s extraordinary timing resolution is the incessant martial rhythm, driven by the snare drum, of “Mars” from The Planets (Mehta, LA Philharmonic, Decca). I’ve never heard it reproduced with such taut crispness and precision, or felt as deeply the sense of a relentless, ominous march forward. 

Going back to Takin’ Off, Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet had a purity of tone that I’d never heard before, with extremely precise articulation of the starts and stops of every note. The bloom of air expanding around each attack, which Jonathan Valin calls “action,” was palpable. The Transcendence revealed so much more about the sound of the instrument and Hubbard’s masterful playing. The first time I heard this record on the Transcendence I was momentarily startled at Hubbard’s entrance on his first solo. Although I’ve heard this record countless times, it sounded fresh and different when played on the Transcendence, not just sonically but musically. When you discover so much more to appreciate about a beloved album that you’ve been listening to for decades, you know that the component is in a class by itself.

In addition to the highly resolved expression of music’s dynamics and rhythmic flow, another hallmark of the Transcendence was the spectacular soundstaging. The spatial perspective wasn’t just wide, deep, and transparent; it also had an almost physical tangibility conferred by the vividness of the illusion of three-dimensional objects (instruments) in three-dimensional space. Jonathan Valin once brilliantly described listening to a component (the MBL 101 X-Treme loudspeaker) as like watching a play instead of a movie. That’s what listening to records played on the Transcendence was like. 

I attribute this quality to three primary factors (there are probably many more secondary factors). First, the Transcendence’s speed stability doesn’t introduce small phase shifts that would tend to blur the sense of precision with which instruments and the space around them are portrayed. Second is the turntable’s ability to extract extremely low-level information from the groove. It reaches way down to unearth the finest detail—detail that infuses instruments and the space around them with lifelike realism. Third is the turntable’s extremely low noise floor, which allows the other two qualities just described to be fully realized. The vault-like silence works synergistically with the Transcendence’s stunning resolution to foster the impression of simply hearing a more lifelike and realistic rendering of the original musical event. 

The solidity of pitch and timbre was expressed as a vividness of instrumental textures and a distinct sense that something had been removed between me and the music. Timbres were richly rendered with a density of color, liquidity, and freedom from any sense of artificiality.

The stated goal for the Transcendence was to reduce the turntable’s sonic signature to such low levels that LPs were indistinguishable from mastertapes. I don’t currently have mastertapes and LP’s cut from them on hand to make that direct comparison, but can comment based on my previous experience comparing LPs to the analog masters. 

One of the defining deficiencies of LP playback compared with tape is the LP’s reduction in power and solidity in the bass and power range. Tape just sounds more forceful in dynamics, weight, and textural density, making LPs by contrast sound a little anemic and threadbare. This statement may sound odd—we’ve all heard LPs with tremendous bass weight and power. But it’s fundamentally different from the way tape conveys a physical power and forcefulness to the music, particularly in the power range, that seems to bypass the higher thought processes and aims squarely at the visceral whole-body experience. The Transcendence has this tape-like weight, body, impact, solidity, and textural density that is thrilling on a primal level.

I’ll share with you a little anecdote that is congruent with this observation. At the Newport show several years ago, a reserved German speaker designer, who holds a doctorate in physics, was in his exhibit room that he shared with, among others, United Home Audio, a company that modifies open-reel tape machines. United Home Audio’s Greg Beron put on a tape of The Doors’ L.A. Woman and this staid engineer instantly became like an animal unleashed. His spontaneous physical reaction to hearing this familiar album on tape, without the limitations of the LP format, was priceless. He was dancing and air-drumming at the back of the room. I’ve never seen such uninhibited and unabashed exaltation from anyone at a hi-fi show.

This is the quality I’m describing that the Transcendence delivers, uniquely among turntables in my experience. Yes, the Transcendence satisfies on an intellectual level, but its ability to grab you by the gut and make you feel the music is nothing short of thrilling. I heard this in a wide range of music—the powerful brass section from the previously mentioned The Planets (particularly the tenor tuba in “Mars” that has such a prominent part); Ray Brown’s swinging acoustic bass on the Bill Evans’ LP Quintessence; the kick drum and bass guitar foundation that underlie Stevie Ray Vaughan’s stunning guitar virtuosity on “Voodoo Chile” from Couldn’t Stand the Weather; the depth and impact of the low-tuned toms in Steve Gadd’s kit (and his amazing playing) on Chick Corea’s acoustic quartet album Friends. The list could go on and on.

I was careful to use familiar LPs that I’d been listening to a long time to evaluate the Transcendence’s performance, but I also acquired some new and newly reissued discs that push the envelope in LP playback. Deutsche Grammophon recently released a double LP of Hilary Hahn, one disc of which is violin and piano recorded direct-to-disc. The second disc is Hahn with various orchestras recorded at various times over many years, with the performances chosen by Hahn. The repertoire ranges from Mozart to the contemporary composer Lera Auerbach. Another fabulous-sounding record is Vivaldi in Venice, a new dual-disc, 45rpm issue of a recent live recording of the Interpreti Veneziani performing in their home venue, the San Vidal Church in Venice with its beautiful acoustics. Recorded by Mike Valentine on the Chasing The Dragon label, Vivaldi in Venice has gorgeously beautiful timbre and an absolutely stunning sense of tangible instruments in a surrounding acoustic (see Wayne Garcia’s review in Issue 290). The Hilary Hahn direct-to-disc is similarly enchanting, the piano beautifully rendered behind Hahn’s ravishing violin. Played on the Transcendence, these records revealed the full glory of what’s possible from the LP.

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