Brinkmann Audio Spyder Turntable, 10.5 Tonearm, and Pi Moving-Coil Pickup

All-Around Excellence

Equipment report
Categories:
Turntables,
Tonearms
|
Products:
Brinkmann Audio 10.5,
Brinkmann Audio Spyder
Brinkmann Audio Spyder Turntable, 10.5 Tonearm, and Pi Moving-Coil Pickup

Although Germany’s Brinkmann Audio has been in business since 1985, it’s still relatively new to the American market. Well known abroad for his consumer electronics, Helmut Brinkmann, the company’s founder and principal designer, has so far confined his American exports to his turntables, tonearms, and pickups. In the Spyder ($12,000), his newest turntable, circles determine the style. Eschewing an enclosed plinth in favor of an open chassis, Brinkmann mounts the platter assembly’s base on a cylindrical pillar, from which the armboard juts out like a peninsula that supports another cylinder onto which the tonearm is mounted. The Spyder can accommodate as many as four ’arms, hence its name—or so I assume—the boards jutting out from the platter like legs from a spider. (But I wonder, does anyone, including our own Andre Jennings or Michael Fremer, ever have need for running that many, presumably different, ’arm/pickup combinations at the same time?) Brinkmann’s Sinus motor, a four-phase, twelve-pole design, with 33 and 45 speeds (adjustable), used in his more expensive models, is also housed in an outboard cylinder, the drive belt its only point of contact to the main chassis. The power supply (not a cylinder) is likewise housed separately. The platter, made from “alloy/crystal,” weighs 22 pounds and comes with a clamp.

Brinkmann’s 10.5 tonearm ($5450) and Pi low-output moving-coil pickup ($2450) completed the setup for a full vinyl playback system. Swimming against the unipivot tide, the 10.5 has a fixed bearing, double-gimbal configuration and bears a distinct resemblance to the much-admired Breuer tonearm of yore. This is not accidental, since before he designed his own arms, Brinkmann himself favored Breuers. The Pi pickup, developed in concert with his tonearms but built by Benz-Micro to Brinkmann’s specifications, features a micro-ridge stylus and a boron cantilever (all other things being equal, I typically find that boron cantilevers sound more neutral). As a system, the three components retail for ten dollars shy of twenty grand, which in the current inflated audiophile marketplace I suppose would be called “moderate” (does this mean that under, say, ten grand is “modest”?).

Brinkmann’s website (brinkmann-audio.com) has several papers that detail his thinking behind these three products. His main attention is devoted to draining or otherwise controlling spurious resonances at the stylus/record interface. To this end he employs a combination of materials, with liberal amounts of aluminum dominating, that in combination either absorb resonances (i.e., dissipating them as heat) or else transmit them to the subchassis (here the cylindrical ’arm pillar and turntable base), where they are likewise dissipated as heat. Combining materials when it comes to creating one-directional pathways for resonances to travel away from a given point is a very tricky business because jointures of different materials act as filters, allowing some resonances to keep going in the same direction while others bounce back in the direction they came from, ultimately to re-infect the signal. This is one reason why materials for platters and platter mats are such a vexing problem: In an ideal world a record would be thick enough to dissipate all spurious resonances as heat, but one-inch or thicker records are for obvious reasons impractical.

The foregoing is a very simplified explanation of a complex nexus of problems, and the way Brinkmann has addressed them is a sophisticated series of interlocking solutions. One of the things that fascinates me about vinyl is the extraordinary number of solutions that designers come up with to address the myriad problems of playing records, solutions that are often as not antithetical to each other: tuned suspensions versus fixed chassis; rim, direct, or belt drives (single or multiple belts, flat or round?); motors AC or DC, chassis mount or outboard; unipivots versus gimbal bearings versus radial-tracking tonearms; how much should tonearms be damped, and how and where (at the head, at the rear, in the bearing?); what is the best thing to move in a pickup (magnets, coils, or iron?)—all this without even mentioning the nearly bewildering variety, shape, geometry, and materials of styli, cantilevers, and bodies nor the countless accessories (e.g., weights, clamps, rings).

RöNt Tube Power Supply
Although the Spyder is supplied with a solid-state power supply, Brinkmann offers an optional power supply that uses vacuum tubes: “We found that the vacuum in the rectifier tubes not only isolates their plates from the cathodes, but also the power line from the drive circuitry. Because of this the RöNt works like a high-class power-line filter for our turntables. The purification of the mains noticeably improves the sound in terms of clarity, openness, and spaciousness.” The price is a steep $4190, and there is no break if upon initial purchase you opt for it in place of the standard power supply (Brinkmann wants the standard to be included with all Spyders). Is it worth it? I can’t make that call for you. Not long ago I was taken to task in these pages for my refusal to aggrandize sonic differences that I consider minute, so take what follows in that context. The differences between the standard power supply and the RöNt are not unlike what you hear in typical comparisons of tubes and solid-state in electronics: the former a bit warmer and more rounded, the latter more incisive and punchier. One LP that revealed these differences is Stravinsky’s stereo recording of the suite from L’Histoire du Soldat [Sony], where the percussion struck me as being slightly more forcible with the standard supply. But in something that’s more thickly scored, like the aforementioned Graceland, the tube unit suggested a tad more...ventilation, let’s call it, with a more relaxed quality as well.

That said, however, I have to point out to begin with that an extreme degree of concentration was required even in A/B comparisons to hear the differences. Then, even when we did hear them—I involved others in the listening—they were so small that it was easy to become confused which was playing even in rapid A/B switching. Under no circumstances was it possible consistently to identify which one was playing after a brief interval (say, a trip to the loo). Third, as I’ve already implied, the differences were also highly source dependent. On many sources there was no discernible difference in a direct A/B. Finally, as a point of reference, the differences between the these two power supplies literally paled into insignificance by comparison to the differences that properly loading the Pi made, which differences are, by the way, instantly and obviously audible. If you buy this Brinkmann ensemble and are lucky enough to have another four grand lying around with nothing to spend it on—this is a circumstance I’ve never been privileged to enjoy in my life—perhaps your experience of the RöNt will be different from mine, but I’d surely ask for an at-home audition before I handed over the plastic.

Like many designers, Brinkmann prides himself on using subjective evaluations. “Everything has an influence on sound,” he writes. “And we have to accept that these influences are real—even if (for the moment at least) we have no scientific explanation. Each single part of the device, no matter how trivial, has an influence on sound. Yes, even the smallest screw.” Through careful listening tests he discovered that replacing one of the stainless screws that affix the cantilever in the Pi pickup with a titanium screw brought “sound that resembled the original most closely.” It is easy to believe Brinkmann heard differences, not least because there are perfectly obvious scientific reasons why they exist: Up until the point at which the pickup converts the signal into electricity, vinyl is a mechanical medium, therefore materials do influence reproduction. But the real issue is how much influence and how to assess its significance. Impressive as listening to the effects of different materials for screws is as proof of the extent of Brinkmann’s commitment, I do wish he had let us know how he is able to determine what the original sound is. Does he have access to mastertapes? Does he use a direct mike feed? I’m not singling out Brinkmann here—these are the same questions I have for all turntable designers. In my personal opinion, there is in much design (and reviewing) of record-playing components a great deal of arguing from effect back to cause, as opposed to trying to find a way to determine whether what is being reproduced replicates that source. For example, has anyone really demonstrated by comparison to a known source that applying the Herculean amounts of sheer mass to turntable structures actually makes any difference beyond a certain point? (SMEs, while heavy, are not herniating, their footprint is pretty compact, and they remain competitive with the oil derricks in your living room.)

The relatively rare times when someone in a position to know compares vinyl playback to mastertapes—say, the late, very much lamented Doug Sax—does so, the equipment in use differs markedly from those of audiophiles and audio reviewers. That legendary mastering engineer preferred a high-quality moving magnet from Stanton mounted, I seem to recall, in a decent but hardly world-beating Technics turntable, a combination he said came closer to the sound of the mastertapes than anything else he tried, and it was very close indeed (this was reported in TAS a couple of decades ago but seems largely to have been roundly ignored except by Robert E. Greene, who’s never been partial to moving coils). [Doug Sax once said to me “I like moving-coil cartridges—in other people’s systems.” —RH]

I raise these issues in order to suggest how fraught with uncertainty reviewing record-playing components is, an uncertainty that doesn’t seem to have translated into a corresponding humility on the part of the reviewers when it comes to making large claims about their latest favorites, a charge, let me hasten to add, from which I most emphatically do not exonerate myself on the basis of past reviews. Just substituting a new setup for an existing one and basing evaluations on how it plays favorite recordings can be a lot of fun, but how reliable is it for assessing accuracy, if that is your goal? A setup that doesn’t let anything sound good is easily dismissible. But, paradoxically, it’s the setups that sound good—and it’s an indication of the basic validity of the medium that most setups from reputable designers and manufacturers are capable of reproduction that at the very least pleases many people—that raise more questions than they answer. This is true of all audio, of course, and one solution, adopted by the audiophile community and many reviewers, is to disregard any considerations of accuracy and simply celebrate subjectivity in all its wonderful variety. Another is to insist upon accuracy and accept no substitutes, whether you personally like the results or not: “Garbage in, garbage out,” Peter Walker famously declared. And a third alternative is to try to navigate some in-between course, mediating accuracy and listenability, which, parenthetically, is why I would not personally own a preamplifier that excludes tone controls.

But we work with the tools we have, to which I’d be tempted to add that the proof is in the listening, except that begs what is more or less the same question: “Proof of what?” So let me just say that this Brinkmann setup made for many hours of pleasurable listening when sources came within hailing distance of being pleasurable. My evaluations are derived from listening to the entire Brinkmann setup as a system: turntable, tonearm, and pickup, feeding the internal phonostage of a McIntosh C22 preamplifier and Musical Surroundings Nova II phono preamp into a Pass Labs XP-10. My Quad 2805 electrostatic and Harbeth’s new Monitor 40.2 were the principal loudspeakers.

Before getting into specifics, let me say the reproduction is excellent in the sense that it is transparent, dynamic, low in perceived distortion, with a fairly high degree of perceived neutrality. What do I mean when I say these things? Well, to begin with, using a wide variety of recordings I know pretty well, for which I’ve kept notes over the years, what I heard during the evaluations tallies with what I’ve heard when I played them on setups of known accuracy. There was clarity without that etched quality that is sometimes mistaken for clarity or transparency or resolution; there was warmth yet with none of that vague thickness when there is too much warmth—I rarely hear contemporary systems of great renown, loudspeakers in particular, that are too warm, and I hear far too many that aren’t warm enough, lacking the natural warmth of actual instruments and live music making. There was little evidence of some distinctive coloration or tonal anomaly laid over one recording to another very different sounding one—little evidence, but not no evidence (more on this anon). And, not to be minimized, whatever sort of alchemy or construction wizardry Brinkmann has done with his mixtures of materials, despite the lack of conventional plinth, suspension, sheer bulk, special feet and platforms, the Spyder really does do an impressive job of protecting the stylus/record interface from external disturbance, even when the music gets big, deep, and loud.

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