How often have you thought that an audio component was “drop -dead gorgeous ” only to be told by your spouse or significant other that you needed your eyes (or head) examined? Whereas I might consider a hulking, piano-black turntable the size of a small desk beautiful, most non-audiophiles do not. However, when people with a well-developed sense of style, like the females in my household, unanimously agree that an audio component is gorgeous, I’m very suspicious of its sonic performance. My own empirical research suggests that if it looks so fine that it qualifies as a “lifestyle” product, its sonic performance is generally lacking.
Well, the Clearaudio Ambient turntable system, with its matching Satisfy Satiné arm and Concerto cartridge, is one gorgeous-looking product that breaks the mold. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place in MOMA’s industrial design collection, yet its performance rivals that of other serious high-end turntables in this class, and a few beyond. Higher-end acrylic Clearaudio tables have gained a well-deserved reputation for clarity, but they’ve always struck me as being a little too sterile. Great for hearing all the detail you could ask for, but perhaps a bit too much of a good thing. The Ambient sounds different from its earlier brethren in one major way—its sound is more warm than cool. Fortunately, this sonic transformation doesn’t come at the cost of a loss of fine inner detail, clarity, or accuracy. Mind you, the Ambient’s sound is not at all dark or ponderous; it’s just somewhat more rich and forgiving. For me, this is a welcomed shift in Clearaudio’s traditional sonic signature and helps make instruments and voices sound more natural and lifelike.
Insert the Ambient into your system, and it will generate both excitement and beauty. Combined with the shockingly dynamic, quick, and revealing Eben X-3s, for example, the Ambient more than held its own. The sound was explosive on hard transients, the bass was lightning fast, and the highs went out to the moon. In a system with a somewhat different sonic character, the Ambient did nothing to obscure the midrange magic of the Quads, both old and new, nor blunt the leading edges of transients. Voices and instruments had a transparency that was lifelike and palpable.
How has Clearaudio dialed up its warmth and richness without diminishing clarity and transient speed? Like a great musical instrument (or concert hall) the answer is that it’s using wood with desirable acoustic properties throughout the system. For instance, the Satiné wood used in the armwand and in the body of the Concerto cartridge offers high rigidity and low resonance without sucking the life out of the music. Additionally, a multi-layer, highly compressed wood called “Panzerholz” is used as the core of the table’s plinth, sandwiched between two machined aluminum plates. It is relatively lightweight, non-resonant, and rigid, yet so incredibly dense that it is able to stop a bullet. (Panzerholz is also used in several other new models in the Clearaudio line, including the $80,000 Statement, as well as in the floors of limos and armored vehicles in Europe for presumably more than a quieter ride.)
The Ambient’s sophisticated outboard combo motor and speed controller is physically isolated from the plinth and connected via three very thin belts which drive the 40mm acrylic platter. These seamless, silicon-based belts are said to transfer less noise than the typical rubber belts found on most belt-drive tables. The motor/speed controller is a joy to use, has the feel of a precision instrument, and ensures accurate pitch control. The speedcontrol function alone rivals the performance of my VPI SDS box, the best external speed controller I’ve used this side of the Walker. The Ambient is certainly one of the best ’tables in its class at reproducing the sound of a piano, as sustained notes are incredibly solid and do not waver in pitch. While it’s not free of some occasional resonance (heard as a little muddiness in the bass) and slight surface noise, I found myself preferring piano recordings on the Ambient to that of my digital front-end—something I can’t say about most ’tables, regardless of price. There was just more naturalness, air, and realism without a loss of pitch stability. Music emerged from a black background with excellent dynamics, clarity, and transient speed. When called upon, this system is also sonorous and can accurately portray the singing tone of the piano.
You’ll hear lots of inner detail with the Ambient, too, like Joe Pass’ fingers sliding along the neck of his guitar on Take Love Easy [Pablo], and the leading edge of transients as he strums or plucks the strings. On the same LP, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is free of excess sibilance and is natural and beautiful, perhaps a tad less seductive than with my Koetsu Black cartridge, but far, far closer than Clearaudio tables and cartridges used to be. Not surprisingly, the Clearaudio Concerto cartridge on the Ambient outpoints my Koetsu in terms of inner detail, top-end extension, focus, and tracking ability, all notable strengths of many of Clearaudio’s more exotic cartridges. Indeed, the Concerto is described as the entry-level cartridge in the “super-class” of Clearaudio’s new line of moving-coil cartridges. When coupled with the Ambient, the Concerto’s extended dynamic range and transient quickness makes music listening very exciting.
Precision is one of the words that comes to mind when describing the Ambient. The inverted bearing is very quiet and the overall design and execution results in a low noise floor. Admittedly, when using the Satisfy Satiné arm, the Ambient combo has a slightly higher level of groove noise than my reference and falls a bit short of the eerie silence and jet-black background of some of the far more expensive table/arm/cartridge combos. However, the Ambient is much closer to the “super analog rigs” than its price warrants, and it is better isolated from extraneous vibrations than most other mass-loaded tables in its class. Consequently, the Ambient doesn’t benefit nearly as much from placement on an airsuspension platform as many others do.
The Ambient system appears to be designed for someone who just wants to sit back and enjoy the music, but if you must tweak, there are a few substitutions that improve its performance. The supplied “Clever Clamp” provides good, but not great, coupling of the record to the platter. You might experiment with other clamps, or if you want to seriously flatten records, you could go for Clearaudio’s “Outer Limit” peripheral stainless steel ring clamp. You might also consider a higher performance tonearm. Make no mistake, the Satisfy Satiné, with its tighter-spec’d bearings, higher-mass counterweight, and wonderful wood armwand is a major step up from the stock Satisfy. But substituting my Graham tonearm reduced groove noise, tightened up the bass, and rendered even more detail and nuance. Admittedly, it didn’t look as good, and it costs a lot more. Fortunately, you can purchase the Ambient table alone or with a higher-performance Clearaudio arm. Finally, consider adding the Clearaudio “VTA-Lifter.” This is more of a convenience than anything, as VTA can be adjusted with the stock system, but is a tedious process. The “VTALifter” has to be the most precise and refined “aftermarket” VTA adjuster there is. It lets you easily dial in the optimal VTA setting for different record thicknesses and quickly return to the sweet spot for each.
The Ambient turntable system proves that great looks do not always limit performance. Its richness and warmth will come as a shock to most of you familiar with the previous Clearaudio “house sound,” but it still maintains the fine detail, clarity, and transient quickness you’d expect. The fine performance of the table and the Concerto cartridge, in particular, made me think it’s about time to upgrade my analog front end, and the Ambient, as well as other “Panzerholz” Clearaudio tables, will definitely be on my short list. TAS