BUYER'S GUIDE: Four LP Playback Systems from $450 to $2K

Equipment report
BUYER'S GUIDE: Four LP Playback Systems from $450 to $2K

It is the boon of vinyl that some of its most attractive qualities—musical warmth, naturalness, space and atmosphere—are often evident in even its most modest applications, the bane that its defects—pitch instability, phase anomalies, tracing and other distortions, all the surface detritus of LPs—evident in even the most expensive and sophisticated. I’ve been lucky at TAS to review and thus enjoy at length several very expensive turntable/arm combinations, including a few that are undeniably at the state of the art. My longstanding reference is a vacuum?hold?down Sota Cosmos with Graham or SME arms, my new recent reference the magnificent Basis 2200/Vector 4 combination. So when Robert Harley asked if I’d tackle a survey of four lower?priced record?playing packages, I was quick to accept. From a certain point of view, price?no?object design is easy. But when every dime counts, where do you compromise?

Introduction and Ground Rules

The four products here range from a pair of economy setups ($450–$699) through a budget model ($1390) to a moderately?priced design on the cusp of what I think most people outside the audio community would call expensive ($1999). They are all belt?driven, two?speed (33/45) integrated turntables, meaning they include arms, three of them with phono pickups already fitted. All the buyer has to do is unpack them, follow the simple instructions, and start playing records. In the fourth, I mounted an appropriate pickup.

Ground rule number one is that each package is evaluated entirely as supplied by the manufacturer. Obviously somewhat different results would be obtained with other pickups, but time limitations prevented such investigations. Rule two is that each turntable was located on a low cabinet that houses the rest of my source and electronic components, including my reference turntables. This solid, built?in cabinet isolates almost as well as a wall?mounted shelf. This last detail is not insignificant, as all four turntables are fixed?plinth designs, that is, lacking any sort of tuned sprung? or hung?suspensions by which low frequencies capable of causing acoustic feedback are filtered or otherwise reduced. The common wisdom is that the relatively low price of these setups suggests comparable systems lacking deep bass and dynamic range. But subwoofers are pretty cheap these days; and even my supposedly bass? and dynamically?challenged Quad 2805 ESLs can generate levels loud enough to stress each of these turntables from time to time. The third rule is that while comparisons are inevitable, in no sense should this be considered a “shoot out.” Think of it, rather, as a kind of snap?shot of representative alternatives in the current under?$2000 market.

Point-and-Shoot Analog

Music Hall’s MMF?2.2 turntable is a badge?engineered version of Sumiko’s Pro?Ject Xpression III, both originating from Pro?Ject’s plant in the Czech Republic. Despite differences in materials, cosmetics, and pickups, the basic turntables are identical, their dust covers, felt mats, wall?wart power supplies, motors, motor suspensions, and belts interchangeable (the MMF’s belt even has “Pro?Ject” imprinted on it). The MMF’s platter is metal alloy, the Xpression’s acrylic; the gimbal arms are identical except that the MMF’s is metal alloy while the Xpression’s has a carbon?fiber tube. The MMF’s feet are a rubber?like compound, the Xpression’s machined cones. The Xpression’s plinth is finished in a high?gloss smoky grey, the MMF’s in a hot Ferrari Red (of which Music Hall’s Roy Hall is inordinately proud in his amusing YouTube video). Music Hall supplies its own Tracker pickup, Sumiko’s one of its Oyster models. Music Hall’s package costs $450, Sumiko’s $699.

The tonal balance of the MMF, which comes via the UK, is weighted squarely in the midrange, albeit with a little more upper?midrange, lower?highs energy than I like, but which seems to appeal to contemporary British tastes for a little extra brilliance. The low end plumbs no depths—probably a good thing, given the lack of suspension—but is well balanced with nice enough definition. I went immediately to the demanding Bernstein Carmen on DG, the beginning of Act IV, the festivities outside the bullring. My notes run to “very pleasing,” bass “a little whompy,” “excellent lateral soundstage, foreshortened depth.” Despite a tendency to homogenize textures and colors in this most colorful of recordings, I found myself caught up in the sweep of the performance.

Switching to the Xpression III brought an all around improvement, not dramatic but noticeable: more precision in the imaging, wider, deeper soundstage, better clarity and rendition of tone color. Tonal balance is also more natural. Neither setup can boast an especially wide dynamic envelope, but the Xpression’s opens out a bit more.

Classic’s Kind of Blue reissue brings a study in contrasts. The Xpression is at all times smooth and mellow, even when the saxophones and Davis’s trumpet should have more of the edge they display on more accurate setups, a quality certainly in evidence on the MMF. But the MMF also sounds less at ease and more confined.

One of the best tests I know for resolution remains the unaccompanied “Moon River” on Jacintha’s Autumn Leaves [GrooveNote], where the feed chords from the piano bleed ever so slightly through her headphones. No surprises: both setups caught some, missed others (most), the Xpression a bit more able to separate them out.

Big stuff again: on Argo’s Procession of Carols for Advent Sunday, from King’s College, Cambridge, choir, large congregation joining in the hymns, and powerful pipe organ, both did surprisingly well for such modest setups. The Xpression revealed greater clarity and detail, finer resolution of movement, and a fuller, more integrated soundstage. To take just one small example: when minister reads the lessons, the Xpression lets you hear his voice echo all the way across the soundstage, whereas the MMF more or less confines it to right side where he is situated. The trebles hitting their highest notes constitute as torturous a tracking test as I know: both pickups stopped just short of positively shattering, while their suppression of surface noise, pops, ticks, and the like is average.

The strength of the both the MMF and the Xpression is that they embody the analog warmth that many like, their limitations for the most part subtractive rather than additive, always the preferable compromise.

The Next Level

The British firm Rega’s P3?24 comes with Rega’s RB301 arm and Exact 2 pickup, the package selling for $1390, a $100 savings below the same items purchased separately (the arm and pickup are available separately, the turntable only with the arm). The P3?24 derives from the P3—as do both the Pro?Ject and Music Hall turntables—which beginning in the early eighties was for the better part of almost two decades the budget alternative in the UK if you couldn’t afford a Linn Sondek. Familiar from the P3 are the felt mat and glass platter, svelte low?profile plinth (wood composite but here lighter and more rigid), rubber feet, and dust cover (very effectively decoupled). But the skin?deep similarity belies a new motor, derived from the more expensive P9’s, boasting lower vibration, obviously desirable when mounted directly to a plinth this lightweight and rigid. The RB301 arm is also an improved version of the RB300 (maybe the highest selling arm in the world and subcontracted by many other turntable manufacturers for their own integrated packages). As with the Music Hall and Pro?Ject, set up is baby simple and foolproof.

The P3?24 improves upon the MMF and Xpression in all areas. The Bernstein Carmen immediately shows off the P3?24’s attractive personality: big and bold, with a lot of warmth and color. Those on a tight budget looking for some suggestion of the size and scale that super ’tables provide may find their dreams addressed, if not answered. The festivities outside the bullring explode with much of the vigor and vitality of more expensive rigs, and even a good bit of the control. Ultimate depth is lacking but the soundstage is wide, and all the complex comings and goings of the various groups within it are handled with considerable aplomb. Bass is ample with more definition and less “whomp” than the previous two entries.

Overall tonal balance favors the midrange, lower midrange, and mid? and upper?bass, with a lot of warmth and body that make this among other things a vocal lover’s dream, or any other kind of acoustic music as well. It catches the distinctive timbres of Doris Day and Jacintha superbly, the same for Sinatra and the older Fitzgerald (both notoriously difficult to get right if there is any deficiency in the lower midrange).

Transparency, clarity of line and texture, and vividness of tonal color and timbre are also areas where the P3?24 setup represents an easily audible step above the economy alternatives. A couple of magnificently raucous recordings of period festivals staged for the microphone easily demonstrate its superiority, the Rega reproducing the soundstages to realistic effect. On The Christmas Revels and the glorious Fete de l’Ane (a magnificent Harmonia Mundi recording from the eighties reissued by Speakers Corner), the P3?24 is lively, dynamic, and highly involving, the varied colors of the motley collection of “olde” instruments a cornucopia of aural scents and flavors. Period bells and other high?lying percussion have the kind of zing that the suggests the Exact 2 is a little toppy—reminding us that this, like the MMF, is also a contemporary British design—but I do mean a little, the rise smooth and easily corrected with a good tone control. 

Kings’ College Advent Sunday Procession of Carols torture test was likewise reproduced with greater control, finesse, and imaging specificity (crucial in this recording, where the choir comes in the from the back, crosses, seats itself on the right, then retraces its steps at the end of the service). Excellent tracking and handling of surface noise and other vinyl non?desiderata.

On Classics’ Kind of Blue reissue, the Rega projects the instruments more into the room, as it were, and there’s some welcome bite and edge to the saxes and trumpet when called for. Bass is also deeper and more extended, cleaner and more articulate too. However, certain notes in the bass jumped out in such a way as to suggest that the lack of any sort of isolation apart from the rubber feet is allowing a small cluster of resonances to be excited. Turning down the volume eliminated or otherwise reduced this effect, which further suggests it’s feedback related. (A reason why I think this effect more noticeable on the Rega than on the MMF or Xpression is, ironically, the Rega’s fuller, deeper bass response.)

The importer also sent along Rega’s TT PSU ($375), an outboard power?supply with a built?in amplifier that generates a 24?volt AC balanced?signal of less than 0.05% distortion, claimed to be unaffected by fluctuations in line voltage. The not subtle improvement brings a significant increase in overall control, composure, dynamic range, and pitch stability. One example: the opening of Classic Records’ 33?reissue of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall reveals more stable imaging, a wider, deeper soundstage, better ambience retrieval, greater clarity and definition (especially in the bass), a presentation at once more relaxed yet involving.

Substantially more expensive than the Xpression and MMF, the Rega P3?24’s level of performance is easily commensurate with its cost. Moreover, the RB301 arm is good enough to handle considerably better pickups.

The “Audiophile” Alternative

 If those quotation marks look ominous, they’re meant to. At $1999 sans pickup, Nottingham Analogue’s Interspace Jr. with Ace Interspace Arm is by far the most expensive in this group and by an equal measure the most frustrating, an “audiophile” product in the best and worst senses of the word. Also the quirkiest, to wit, according to Nottingham’s chief designer/guru Tom Fletcher, any motor strong enough to bring a platter up to speed generates enough vibration once the platter is rotating to degrade the sound. (I have no opinion on this, but I wonder how the folks at Basis, SME, Sota, Linn, etc. would reply.) Fletcher’s novel solution is to eliminate the on/off switch and keep the low?torque motor running all the time; to play a record you give the platter a spin by hand to bring it up to speed; when finished, you stop it by hand. (Cross my heart I am not making this up.) I confess I rather enjoyed this idiosyncrasy, not least because stopping play and stopping the platter now become one operation—which may suggest I’m easily amused, but as you may be less so, forewarned is forearmed.

As to the worst, let me add them up. This is the one package here that requires the end user to mount the tonearm and supply his own pickup—the superbly neutral Ortofon 2M Black, reviewed by Neil Gader in TAS 182, struck me as an appropriate match in performance, price ($599), and type (it’s a moving?magnet). Yet Nottingham’s “instructions”—this is one of those products that requires a fairly prodigious sense of irony—consist of four scrappily printed, barely stapled?together sheets of paper with photographs necessary to do the job so lacking in resolution as to be useless. I imagine most people who’ve set up a turntable will be able to figure it out, but how encouraging is that? The unipivoted Ace Interspace arm—who invents with these monikers?—has two omissions. The lack of a finger lift is merely annoying (I really hate headshells that lack fingerlifts, but at least the Ace’s cueing is accurate). Inexcusably stupid, however, is the absence of any means of securing the arm when not in use. Admittedly, Nottingham flanks the cueing platform with posts that prevent the arm from swinging too far in either direction (though they’re hardly foolproof); but if the platform isn’t in the up position, the stylus could still be damaged. And relocating this setup requires lifting and walking very carefully, otherwise the arm bounces around like a pingpong ball.

It gets worse: there is an antiskating mechanism but not a single word anywhere in the “instructions” about how to set correct values. A bit of Internet research informed me Fletcher suggests setting it by ear—exactly the kind of careless snottiness that makes people impatient with high?end audio. Yes, of course, I too use my ears to set anti?skating, but only to trim it in, not to find the correct ballpark?setting in the first place, which is the job of the engineers to establish consistent with arm geometry, bearings, tracking force, etc..

One thing more, the worst: the interconnects, quite long as tonearm cables go, are without question more susceptible to picking up stray 60Hz hum than any I have used in over four decades of playing vinyl. Even crossing them over an AC cord at a right angle doesn’t much help, and don’t even think of running them parallel to one. At one point I wound up balancing them over a double?fold album propped on end in order to get the hum unintrusive at listening levels above moderately loud. As the cables are hardwired, changing them is not an option. Do not even consider purchasing this product without being absolutely certain that any hum is inaudible at your typical listening levels in your system in your home.

In view of what I’ve just described, you’d be right in thinking I’d have liked nothing better than to pronounce this a stinker and call it a day. But, as I say, this is also an audiophile product in the best sense. Once I cued up the first LP—the Bernstein Carmen again—it became obvious within, oh, five seconds that this also is one very good?sounding setup. I don’t need a lot of words here. Suffice it to say that in every aspect and area of reproduction and with every LP I’ve discussed so far, the Nottingham easily eclipses the economy?priced setups in all aspects of performance and matches or noses out the Rega in most. With a tonal balance slightly to the warm, dark side of neutral, the Nottingham/Ortofon setup displays a solidity in the imaging and soundstaging and a musical life and vitality against an impressively quiet background (once you deal with the hum issue) that begin to suggest more expensive setups (suggest, not approach or duplicate).

One large reason for this, I believe, is the Nottingham’s substantial, heavy, and dense plinth, which makes the Jr. one of the very few non?suspended turntables I’ve used that does a pretty decent job of isolating the stylus/record interface. A light tap on the plinths of any of the other three sends a “bonk” loud and clear through the speakers. But you can tap the Jr.’s quite vigorously without hearing much of anything. (That the Jr.’s platter is also heavy and better damped is also to the point.) And make no mistake, this translates into a real?world performance advantage: long before structural?borne acoustic feedback actually breaks through, it makes itself felt as a subtle—or not so subtle, as the case may be—smearing of articulation and muddying of detail in the bass, a vague clouding over in the lower midrange, a general loss of dynamics. The Nottingham betrayed little hint of these unless played very loud (see sidebar).

The last thing I played before wrapping things up is Henryk Szeryng’s elegant, silver?toned performance of Bach’s first Partita for unaccompanied violin from an old Odyssey release, the instrument so magically suspended in air as to banish all thoughts of a diamond tracing vinyl grooves. The Nottingham’s lovely musicality, its lifelike way with voices and instruments, its freedom from undue stress and strain at all but loud listening levels—these attracted me in a way that nothing else in the survey quite did.

Recommendations and Conclusions

 While it’s obvious in this survey that performance rises with price, all four products offer good or better value. The Nottingham gets a little closer than the rest to the super ’tables in several areas; but I am far from certain that over the long run I could live with its idiosyncrasies or its touchy susceptibility to hum, much as I like the sounds it makes. Also, keep in mind that Rega’s outboard power supply still brings the total of the Rega setup in at $234 under the Nottingham’s sans pickup. The price of pickup that most users will buy increases this difference by another $400?800, more than enough to outfit the Rega with a good after?market isolation platform, which in turn elevates its performance considerably. I’d buy the Rega for the best compromise among price, performance, reliability, and ease of setup and use.

In fact, I did buy the review sample of the Rega because I have use for a turntable in my editing rooms, where every now and then we need to import an LP into the AVID for temp music in a feature I’m editing. The P?24 is nice sounding, attractively priced, and so easy to carry I can tuck it under one arm. But when it comes to my home system, my serious system, I just need something better than any of these setups. If that sounds cavalier in an economy that’s declining as vertiginously as ours at the time of this writing, it’s all a matter of perspective and priorities: my wife and I drive cars we purchased second?hand and keep a long time, and I am perfectly content with timepieces by Timex and Fossil.  

Which is to say that if the $2700 for the Nottingham/Ortofon were coming out of my checking account, then inasmuch as I consider suspensions an absolute necessity for serious vinyl playback, I’d buy instead a Sota Sapphire ($1995), a Rega RB301 arm ($495), and any good $200 pickup by Ortofon, Sumiko, Clearaudio, the usual suspects. Owing in large part to the peerless isolation of the Sota’s renowned suspension, this would get me not only better performance right away (especially at louder levels), but also the ability later to add Sota’s vacuum hold?down/electronic flywheel (equivalent to Rega’s TTS PSU) and better pickups. Yeah, yeah, I know, that’s already a long way from the modest point?and?shoots where this survey began. But, hey, vinyl’s an insidious enchantress that way—like the sirens of yore, she’s always beckoning you further and further out . . .