For me, the analog versus digital debate is similar to one in the wine world, where “Old” versus “New” World advocates often engage in passionate arguments in defense of not only their preferred regions, but styles, winemaking techniques, and flavor profiles. And though I enjoy many New World wines, I’m a strong advocate of the Old World. Because to me, if you really want to understand what pinot noir or chardonnay are all about, then you need to know Burgundy; or for the cabernet lover, Bordeaux; or for sangiovese, Tuscany. After all, these regions have been making wine and cultivating these same varietals in the same vineyards since the Middle Ages, and are where these grapes have consistently achieved the greatest possible expression.
When it comes to music reproduction, as advanced technologically and sonically as digital currently is—and one assumes that progress will only continue—there remains, to these ears, a degree of expressiveness, call it heart or soul, to analog that continues to elude even the best digital. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy listening to digital recordings, but that over time, I, like other audiophiles I know, have drifted back to playing mostly vinyl LPs.
That said, there’s plenty of room in life for us to enjoy a New World pinot as well as an Old World one, or a compact disc or digital file alongside a vinyl LP. But since this issue is all about analog, we thought a look at three reasonably affordable turntables would be of interest to not only potential first-time buyers, but also to those who already love analog but might be curious about what you get at three different price levels.
Clearaudio Concept with MC Concept Cartridge
Let’s get this out of the way right now—Clearaudio’s new Concept turntable and cartridge combo offers a hugely rewarding analog experience at a very attractive price. The ’table alone sells for a reasonable $1400, and the cartridge goes for $800. Bundle them together, as many other manufacturers are also doing, and you save a few hundred bucks: Importer Musical Surroundings sells the pre-set-up package for an even $2000.
Made in Germany, the Concept is a sleekly handsome, low-profile design that, as with designs from companies like Rega, relies on a low-mass, non-resonant plinth and carefully designed working parts to make its musical magic. Moreover, for those who want an audiophile-grade playback system without having to futz with the sometimes nerve-wracking job of setting the thing up, the Concept is about as “plug-and-play” as you can get. The cartridge is pre-mounted at the factory, and critical issues such as overhang and offset angle, tracking force, VTA, and azimuth are all pre-adjusted. All you need to do is level the unit via the three tiny spiked feet, mount the belt and platter, and you’re ready to go. Note, however, that the factory settings are worth double-checking. For instance, although the basics were just fine, in transit the tracking force had shifted upward from 2.0 to 2.5 grams, and the azimuth was off a few degrees. For something meant to track groove walls measuring mere hundredths of an inch, these are not insignificant differences, as I would hear (and easily correct).
The 30mm (approximately 1.18") thick Delrin platter rests on a lightweight sub-platter that is belt-driven by a decoupled DC motor. A handy control knob allows you dial-in speeds of 33.3, 45, or 78rpm. The latter may not be something many of us will use, but for vinyl lovers whose record collections span the decades it is an unusually welcome touch.
The new Verify tonearm features a “friction-free” magnetic bearing. It too, is a handsome thing that exudes the same quality of construction found throughout this design. The arm, like unipivots, takes a little getting used to because, unlike fixed-bearing arms, it feels as if it might float away once it’s left the armrest.
Excited to hear what the Concept sounded like, I did what most consumers are likely to: After getting the ’table leveled and the motor spinning, I started to play a favorite record. But the arm felt a bit off. That was verified—oops, no pun intended—by the first few seconds of Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue,” from 1974’s Blood On The Tracks [Columbia], which sounded tonally unbalanced and lacking in rhythmic drive. This was when I discovered the shifts in the arm setup noted above. So while the Concept is close to ready to go out of the box, be sure to check any factory settings to ensure that they haven’t been affected by transport.
Once tweaked, “Tangled Up In Blue” came back to life. The midrange—Dylan’s voice, the acoustic rhythm guitars—was naturally balanced and musically involving. The brushed cymbal and snare and the kick-drum added dynamic momentum and punctuation, aided by good clarity, transparency, and a solid overall balance. With Jascha Heifetz’s recording of Bach’s Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas [RCA], the Concept brought a convincing sense of the instrument’s presence, and the great fiddler’s legendarily masterful technique—a tribute to the design’s dynamic nuance and rhythmic precision. And as I heard with the Third Tableau from Petrushka [Athena/Decca], the same Ansermet-led performance I used in my cartridge survey elsewhere in this issue, the Clearaudio setup did an impressive job reproducing the air and space from which the orchestra emerges. While other, more costly designs, may better it by comparison, this $2000 rig will not leave you wanting for much. The same goes for the loudest dynamic peaks, which come close, if not all the way, to being as explosive as those I hear from my reference TW Acustic turntable, Tri-Planar arm, and Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge. Pizzicato strings, cymbal crashes, thumped bass drums, and fluttering winds were effortless sounding and engaging, with a very fine sense of depth and detail, as, say, when the solo trumpet reverberates off the rear wall of the hall during the “Ballerina’s Dance.”
To put this in perspective, the cartridge in my reference vinyl playback system sells for $500 more than this entire package—and my entire setup costs six times as much. Although I’m not going to tell you that the Clearaudio Concept equals that performance, what I will tell you is that it is good enough in all the ways that count—resolution, dynamics, low-noise, and that hard-to-pin-down thing I’ll call musical involvement—that I enjoyed the hell out of my time with it. Couple that with its terrific German build and finish, and the Concept strikes me as a hands-down bargain.
Pro-Ject RM-9.2 with Sumiko Pearwood Celebration II Cartridge
For $2499 you can get Pro-Ject’s new RM-9.2 as a stand-alone turntable. You may also consider one of the attractive bundles that U.S. importer Sumiko offers, which will pair it with either a Blue Point Special EVOIII cartridge ($2749) or a Sumiko Blackbird cartridge ($2999). And though I’m usually hesitant to spend other people’s money, I’m going to suggest leapfrogging over those perfectly fine cartridges to go with Sumiko’s third option, which is the RM-9.2 with Sumiko’s Pearwood Celebration II cartridge ($3999). By doing so you will not only save $500 over their separate purchase prices, you will also get what I consider to be one of the great values in analog playback today.
An update of the RM-9.1, which Jim Hannon reviewed in these pages and which also received a Product of the Year Award in 2006, the 9.2 builds on that excellence with a few key upgrades. The three feet that fit into the underside of the plinth now feature “magnetic repulsion” (also rumored to be the title of Roman Polanski’s next movie), which is said to “allow for isolation and mass to work in tandem to help filter resonances out of the ’table.” The feet are also height-adjustable for precise leveling. In addition, the latest 9cc EVO carbon-fiber arm has a denser carbon-fiber weave to reduce resonances, while a new and more massive C-Collar adds rigidity to the bearing housing, which Sumiko says enables the arm and cartridge to be more nimble in a record’s grooves. The arm’s counterweight is now damped with Sorbathane, and it’s also taller and less deep, which puts it closer to the bearing’s pivot-point for greater freedom of movement. The final touch is more in keeping with a clean aesthetic design—the anti-skating weight now loops onto the C-Collar without having an additional, klugey-looking “clothes-line” holder sticking out from the arm’s pillar.
Upgrades to the original Pearwood Celebration include a new handcrafted Pearwood body, a more refined long-grain boron cantilever, and a new “ultra-low-mass Ogura Jewel Co. P9 (Vital Design) stylus.”
I do have one minor complaint that I hope Pro-Ject will take as constructive criticism: The cartridge connecting pins on the arm leads are of the old-fashioned split-triangle variety, which for some perverse reason are usually either too loose or too tight for most cartridges. They were too loose for the Celebration, which required me to ever so gently apply pressure with needle-nose pliers to get a snug contact. I hate having to modify factory parts, especially ones as delicate as these, which are easily damaged. Moreover, these leads are unworthy of a place on what is otherwise such an outstanding product.
Sonically, the combination is remarkable in ways that hold strong appeal for both the music lover and the audiophile in me. The Sumiko is notably easy and relaxed, yet also rhythmically incisive and dynamically explosive. It is warm and rich, yet also detailed and transparent.
These traits are simply there, no matter what music you spin over this outstanding combination. Jascha Heifetz’s Bach washes through the room, conveying the great violinist’s astonishingly articulate technique, dynamic expression, and powerfully resonant tone. His Strad’s rosiny strings and richly resonant body are fully present—naturally warm, with a sweet, liquid tone.
And though Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” was smooth and freewheeling, the RM-9.2/Celebration II never sounded polite. Instead, the churning rhythms of the acoustic guitars and persistent snap of the brushed high-hat and snare and kick drum were delivered with a terrific sense of drive and musical momentum. One of Dylan’s finest vocal performances came across with just the right balance, with his one-of-a-kind phrasing and quirky inflections naturally rendered: “I must aD-mit I felt a little uneasy when she bent down to tie the l-Aa-ces of my shooooooes/Tangled up in bluuuuuue.”
Or again check out that Third Tableau from Petrushka. Team Pro-Ject/Sumiko conveyed a large and open soundstage of gorgeously toned, warm, and broodingly textured strings. Winds and brass, too, were outstanding—blazing horns, nasal oboes and bassoons—while the percussion battery was just as startlingly explosive as it should be. Again I was impressed by this pair’s easy sense of resolution across the frequency range. It really allows you to hear into the performance, and yet in no way is the sound analytical. And the sense of the third dimension is both natural and thrilling. Wait until you hear the sound of the solo trumpet reverberating off the rear walls of Geneva’s Victoria Hall, as it did when this performance was recorded back in 1957.
Though I prefer not to gush about these things, ORG’s just-released—and knockout sounding—45rpm set of Ella Fitzgerald’s Rodgers and Hart Songbook, Volume 1 just about made me melt. On “You Took Advantage Of Me,” Ella’s unparalleledly creamy voice—surely one of the loveliest instruments in all of jazz—was presented with a breathtaking sense of air and physical presence. She’s right there—front and center—with an equally present and natural-sounding ensemble to the sides and in back of her. Rhythm, pace, and musical drive were once again top-notch.
The Pro-Ject RM-9.2 and Sumiko Celebration II are easily one of the most musically engaging and satisfying setups I’ve had the pleasure to evaluate. They’re a great value, too. Mark it, Dude!
Thorens TD 160 with SME Model M2 Arm
The audio bug bit me before I was old enough to drive. And before too long, license in my wallet, I began exploring the Bay Area’s (then stellar) array of specialty audio shops. The classic Thorens TD 160 MKIII, with its beautiful teak plinth, signature teardrop shaped knobs, and Isotrack arm is a unit I remember seeing—and lusting after—on many occasions.
Today, Thorens offers a modern take on the TD 160, which is available for $2899 with Rega’s 250 arm, or $4899 with an SME Model M2, which, unusual among today’s arms (though it, too, is something of a “classic), features a detachable headshell for those who want to more readily swap out different cartridges.
Although it is based on the old 160, including the overall dimensions and supplied dustcover, the new model differs in several areas. In place of the old steel-spring suspension, the new 160 uses a “flexible plastic” conical suspension that, while not free-floating like the old suspension was, dampens the platter, motor, and arm-mount section from within the plinth. The single-piece acrylic platter contains a molded sort of sub-platter underneath, which is where you first place the belt, which in turn needs to be stretched out and over the synchronous motor’s pulley with the supplied tool. It’s a slightly awkward maneuver, but not that difficult to achieve on the first try. Two platter mats are supplied, which appear to be made of a cork composite. The instructions inform us that they are to be used either singly or in tandem depending on the thickness of the record—an effective, if unusual way to deal with basic VTA. Finally, the 160’s base plate, arm platform, and small, conical, adjustable feet are made from what Thorens calls RDC (Resonance Dampening Compound).
I find the choice of the SME M2 arm an interesting one, in that, while it is as well engineered and built as one would expect from this venerable British manufacturer, it is not exactly a modern arm. Setup is a bit clunky; the cartridge pins are of the same frustrating type I described above (which again required the needle-nose treatment); the tonearm leads are short—they barely reached my phonostage, even after I placed the 160 as far back on my turntable shelf as I could—and while convenient for those who own more than one cartridge, that detachable headshell does not provide either the rigidity or coupling of a single-piece wand. As to a cartridge, for evaluation purposes I mounted the Transfiguration Phoenix ($2500), which is my current reference for its combination of musicality, resolution, and lack of hi-fi artifacts.
Beginning with the Heifetz Bach LP, I found the TD 160/SME to be quite lively, with the Transfiguration’s natural voicing well intact. I did note, however, more groove noise than I’m used to, which seemed to also slightly diminish the music’s dynamic ebb and flow.
On Petrushka, this quality manifested itself as a less transparent backdrop for the orchestra, in which the air around instruments and the illusion of three-dimensionality were good but somewhat audibly diminished by the not fully silent groove walls. Again, the tonal balance was very good across the range of orchestral instruments, but dynamic peaks were not as ultimately explosive as I would have liked.
My experiences with the Ella Fitzgerald and Dylan records were similar: The TD 160/SME combo was never less than warm and musically enjoyable, but it lacked the definition and transparency I’ve come to expect from today’s best designs.
SPECS & PRICING
Belt-drive, unsuspended turntable
Speeds: 33.3 and 45 rpm
Dimensions: 16.5" x 5" x 13.8"
Weight: 28 lbs.
5662 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, California 94609
Pro-Ject RM-9.2 with Sumiko Pearwood Celebration II
Belt-drive, unsuspended turntable
Speeds: 33.3 and 45 rpm
Dimensions: 17.4" x 7" x 12.8"
Weight: 27.6 lbs.
Price: $2499, turntable only ($3999 with cartridge)
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, California 94710
Thorens TD 160 HD with SME M2-9 arm
Belt-drive, unsuspended turntable
Speeds: 33.3 and 45 rpm
Dimensions: 17.7" x 7" x 13.5"
Weight: 17.6 lbs.
1500 South 9th Street, Suite B
Salina, Kansas 67401
TW-Acustic Raven One turntable; Tri-Planar Ultimate VII arm; Transfiguration Phoenix moving-coil cartridge; Artemis Labs PL-1 phonostage; Cary Audio SLP-05 preamp & 211-FE monoblock amplifiers; Magnepan MG 1.7 loudspeakers; Tara Labs Zero interconnects, Omega speaker cables, The One power cords, and BP-10B Power Screen; Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks; Feickert universal protractor; AcousTech electronic stylus force gauge; Musical Surroundings/Fosgate Fozgometer azimuth adjust meter; Analogue Productions Test LP