Getting into the Groove
Ease of setup and operation is part and parcel of the Concept Black experience. This is due to its basically intuitive design, but also to the welcome wagon of set-up accessories—a bubble level, small screwdriver and wrench, a cartridge weight gauge, plus a tonearm protractor and record clamp. I began by leveling the table—its threaded, three-point footers are tiny but easy to adjust. I also recommend that the level be periodically rechecked. After placing the drive belt around the subplatter and motor pulley, all that was required was to carefully lower the platter onto the bearing shaft. Plug in the wall-mounted power supply, and you’re off to the races. Swapping cartridges was similarly straightforward. The minimalist headshell, though fixed, is easy to handle. Setting tracking force, cartridge overhang, and VTA was no problem whatsoever. Cueing was very precise into the groove.
The DC motor drove the platter up to speed quickly and was noise free. It produced good torque, although applying pressure with a record-cleaning brush did measurably slow the platter down. In spite of some mechanical feedback I could generate by knuckle-rapping against the Concept’s base, I didn’t experience issues during routine playback. To be fair, even expensive high-mass decks are not entirely immune to feedback. The groove interface doesn’t like extraneous mechanical or airborne vibrations. Still the best bet, although impractical for most of us (me anyway), has always been to isolate the turntable in an adjacent room or closet.
Any sonic impressions of a turntable must also take the cartridge into account. I put in a good amount of time with both options, but ended up spending most of the time with the Charisma V2 moving-magnet one. It quickly became the obvious choice with the Concept Black. The Essence moving coil was highly listenable, quick and fiercely detailed, but also a little lighter and leaner, a bit more reticent across the midrange, and less lively overall. However, once I cinched down the Charisma V2, I never looked back. It added more midrange heft, dynamic fireworks, top-end sweetness and air, and improved bass response (during Norah Jones’ “Lonestar” the timbral clarity of the acoustic bass was better defined, as were extension and grip). This cartridge also reproduced images like they came installed with LoJack. With the Charisma mounted on the Satisfy tonearm I realized even finer gradations of light and air in the upper octaves. I felt it transformed this LP package and moved it closer to exacting its full potential.
If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times, a turntable is fundamentally a launching pad for the tonearm/cartridge. They, in turn, are tasked with delivering the payload in the form of steady, clean, accurate tracking along the groove. There are a lot of moving parts, all of which can add or remove layers of colorations. But the Concept Black functioned like a fine Swiss mechanical watch. It held forth with an overall musicality, image focus, transient authenticity, and dynamic conviction that were highly authoritative.
In gathering my first impressions of an LP setup I tend to fall back on piano recordings. A concert grand has dynamic, transient, and tonal expression across the frequency spectrum that are second to no other single instrument. Its lengthy decay and resonant behavior make it a challenge for LP playback. Reference Recordings’ Nojima Plays Liszt is one of my favorites, artistically and sonically. From the first groove onward Concept captured frenzied arpeggiated passages, high-speed excursions, and hammered fortissimo chords, while maintaining the hyper-focus of a sled-dog sniffing the finish line in Nome.
It tracked so cleanly that audible mistracking was rendered essentially theoretical. I threw a variety of 45s and 33s at it, and considered its speed stability to be rock-solid. Further, image stability was locked down with little to no smearing, even when the cartridge was challenged by a tightly packed chorus or complex symphonic instrumentation. During Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take Five” [Columbia], the macro-dynamic envelope was broad and lively, the sax filled with throaty grit and resonant bloom. Generally, the Concept Black conveyed low percussion and drums with great clarity and detail, but Morello’s familiar drum solo verged on the revelatory. It possessed openness and speed, and while it stayed in a pocket to the left of the soundstage, its energy didn’t lay back or sound muted, as it sometimes can. Laid bare with every tap of the drum stick were the tonal and textural colors of the snare, the floor tom, and the bass drum. Cymbals possessed the ring, spacious rattle, and deep-space decay that have always signaled “transparency” to these ears.
For dynamics, I hauled out a pair of landmark LPs for brass and wind ensembles, Centerstage and The Winds of War and Peace [Wilson Audio]. Not everyone will be familiar with these records, but they are like a vinyl playback boot camp for turntables. Clearaudio’s game little LP rig marched through these grooves as if they were strolling in the park. These high-energy showpieces are jam-packed with frightening bass-drum impacts and uncompressed dynamic swings that were reproduced with speed and energy, yet didn’t lack for fine-grained micro-elements like bloom and air.
Vocal reproduction, whe-ther sourced from the barrel-aged baritone of Tom Waits or the velvet-voiced “People’s Diva” Renée Fleming, had additional body and chest resonance in the mids and a richer treble and a natural sibilance range. In the upper ocatves the Clearaudio conveyed an uncolored, conversational tonal character immediately recognizable as authentic, rather than calibrated for emphasis. It conveyed a slightly weightier touch, and a fair balance of detail versus resonance. For example, a darker vocal performance such as Norah Jones’ “The Nearness of You” sounded substantial but slightly more forward in placement.
But finally, there was the distinctive, near-magical phenomenon that occurs with good analog playback—most especially in the reproduction of acoustic instruments and voices. The presentation is tactile and recognizable in the same way we instinctively identify the sonic immediacy of live, unamplified music. It’s a direct, even primal connection to reality, technically unmeasurable for now, but immediately audible nonetheless. High-resolution digital touches these areas but not with the consistency of high-quality analog. A large part of this magic is analog’s ability to replicate dimensional space, and the steady stream of micro-dynamics and harmonics ringing within that space. Although these qualities remain highly dependent on the recording, there are minimalist/purist efforts like the live-to-analog two-track LP of Studio Konzert: Vadim Neselovskyi’s Bes Granitz Trio [NeuKlang] that bring these elements to life in ways similar to the superb direct-to-disc efforts of Sheffield Lab and M&K Realtime from decades ago. Like the Sheffields and M&Ks, Studio Konzert also includes a dimensional perspective, a near holographic effect, that transfers elements of the physical into one’s listening room. You can’t hear this level of realism on every recording, of course, but it was there whenever I cued up Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album [Mobile Fidelity]. Like a virtual time machine with hit tracks like “Landslide” and “Rhiannon,” this LP transported me into the recording studio to bear witness to the creative process and the electronic chain, revealing layer upon layer of resolution like the leaves of a freshly baked French pastry.
When I look at some of the mega-buck tonearm and turntable combinations out there, I can get just as starry-eyed as the next audiophile. These vinyl rigs are marvels of moon-shot engineering. But when it’s time to come back to earth and consider a real-world source, the rest of us need look no further than the values embodied in the Clearaudio Concept Black. I found the Black/Satisfy combo to be a superb musical performer that should raise the eyebrows of even the most elite turntable enthusiast. In its deceptive simplicity it performs with an honesty and musical truth that embody the very nature of this hobby at its best.
Specs & Pricing
Motor: Decoupled DC with low-noise bearings
Bearing: Polished and tempered steel shaft in a sintered bronze bushing, runs on a mirror of Teflon
Speeds: 33, 45, 78rpm
Dimensions: 16.5" x 13.8" x 5.5"
Weight: 16.5 lbs.
Price: Concept w/Concept tonearm, $1600; w/Concept mm cartridge, $1800; w/Concept mc cartridge, $2400; Concept w/Satisfy Black tonearm, $2000 (as tested w/Charisma V2 mm cartridge, $3800). Available in all-black or black/silver.
5662 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, CA 94609