Clearaudio Innovation Wood Turntable (TAS 204)

Equipment report
Clearaudio Innovation Wood
Clearaudio Innovation Wood Turntable (TAS 204)

Clearaudio’s Innovation Wood turntable combines some stunning new innovations along with others that have been applied to much of the Clearaudio line during the past four to five years, like ceramic magnetic bearing (CMB) technology and lightweight yet extremely dense materials to damp resonances and improve isolation. Some of these improvements have not only trickled down from Clearaudio’s breathtaking Statement turntable, but seemingly have trickled up from less ambitious models. I have always admired the engineering, machining, and German-precision of earlier generation Clearaudio ’tables, known for their clarity, accuracy, and resolution. My admiration increased dramatically after I reviewed the Clearaudio Ambient, with its lightweight but incredibly dense Panzerholz plinth. It was as if the bullet-proof wood had helped the sound become more harmonically fleshed out. For me, this was a welcome improvement to Clearaudio’s sonic signature, helping to make instruments and voices sound more natural and lifelike without a loss of clarity.

Next, I reviewed the modestly priced Clearaudio Performance with its ceramic magnetic bearing (CMB), which floated the platter using magnetic repulsion, resulting in increased transparency. The magnetic bearing seemingly lifted veils between the music and listener so that one could almost reach out and touch the orchestra on a fine recording like Prokofiev’s Symphonic Suite of Waltzes [Cisco Music]. Fortunately, CMB magnetic-repulsion technology was subsequently added to the Ambient and most other Clearaudio ’tables. Moving up in class, I used the Clearaudio Anniversary, developed in honor of Clearaudio’s 25th Jubilee anniversary, as my reference for quite some time. This ’table combined a CMB bearing, a synchronous motor housed in a massive stainless-steel case, and a large 70mm (2.8**) platter floating atop a Panzerholz plinth (sandwiched between two aluminum plates) in a star configuration optimized to reduce resonances and accommodate up to three tonearms. When the Anniversary was coupled with the Helius Omega Silver-Ruby tonearm and a Micro Benz Ebony H phono cartridge, the sound of the front end was very good with explosive dynamics without breakup, bass solidity and weight, see-through transparency, fast transients, an incredibly broad and deep soundstage, and stable imaging. I had not heard anything better for less, and it put several more expensive systems to shame.

The Innovation Wood, ostensibly a replacement for the Anniversary, raises the bar still higher on what a $10,000 ’table can do, outdistancing the fine Anniversary in several areas, most notably in pitch stability. Its speed accuracy reminds me of my dearly departed classic Technics SP-10 MkII direct-drive ’table, but without the motor noise. Using the same Helius/Benz combination, I immediately noted the absolute pitch stability on recordings of solo instruments, like Johanna Martzy’s violin on J.S. Bach’s BWV 1001, BWV 1006 [Coup d’Archet] or Arthur Rubinstein’s piano on Chopin’s Nocturnes [RCA] and on vocals ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to James Taylor. For me, even a slight pitch waver on a sustained note caused by minute speed variations destroys the illusion of a live performance. If you are as sensitive to this as I am, the Innovation Wood will be a revelation, and it does not require an additional external speed controller. Save for the direct drive SP-10 MkII, the speed stability of the Innovation Wood surpasses all the ’tables I’ve had in house, even those that I’ve married with the fine VPI SDS, as well as the Sota Star with its speed controller, and the excellent SME 20/12.

A new motor, massive sub-platter, CMB, and optional peripheral ring all contribute to the Innovation Wood’s remarkable speed accuracy. The new high-torque, decoupled DC motor with “real time” optical speed control uses an infrared sensor, a high-precision reflection scale, and a speed circuit that result in less cogging, less variation due to AC fluctuations, less vibration, and more speed stability than the Anniversary’s precision AC synchronous motor. This is one turntable that gets up to speed in a hurry and offers convenient electronic speed change (331/3, 45, 78rpm) at the push of a button. The Innovation Wood also uses a massive, dynamically balanced, stainless sub-platter, derived from the Statement, which when combined with the optional Outer Limit peripheral ring, produces a very nice flywheel effect.

The Innovation Wood also offers other notable advancements over the Anniversary. It sports two stacked yet decoupled Panzerholz plinths, rather than the Anniversary’s one, with more damping in the sandwich construction, superb leveling locking feet, and a new platter machined from POM instead of acrylic. It accommodates two, rather than the Anniversary’s three, tonearms and provides an excellent platform for both linear tracking and pivoted tonearms.

As with the Anniversary, to affix the record firmly to the platter I highly recommend the combination of the Clearaudio “Outer Limit” peripheral ring along with a high-quality record clamp. I had very good results with the modest HRS clamp and even better ones with Clearaudio’s own massive Statement record clamp. This wonderful record-clamping system is on a par with some of the best vacuum-hold-down systems, but without the slightest risk of small dust particles being trapped in the grooves on the underside of the record, producing annoying “pops and ticks” when that side is played. Of course, if you meticulously clean both sides of the record at once and keep the platter free from dust vacuum hold-down is great, but I preferred the ease of use of Clearaudio’s disc clamping approach and quickly became adept at using the stainless-steel peripheral ring and a record clamp.

When coupled with the Helius (see sidebar) and Benz, these advancements in the Innovation Wood lead to a more relaxed, natural, spacious, and detailed sound, with marvelous bass solidity, articulation, and extension. You’ll hear deeper into the performance as more subtle details emerge, like the tasteful caress of Roy Haynes’ brushes across the cymbals or the air fighting to escape Clifford Brown’s muted trumpet on Sarah Vaughan [EmArcy Records/Speakers Corner]. On recordings that call for it, like Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances [Turnabout/Analogue Productions], the sound is big, dynamic, and bold, as you hear it in a concert hall, with precise imaging and a reference-quality soundstage that is completely illuminated with excellent width and depth. The leading edges of transients are preserved so percussion instruments have amazing snap, and tympani strikes are so explosive they’ll send shivers down your spine. PRAT fans will love that it’s hard to keep your toes from tapping on a wide range of recordings. Moreover, the Innovation Wood’s superb pitch stability enables voices and instruments to seem like they’re more clearly focused and transparent recordings like Sam “Mr. Soul” Cook’s Night Beat [RCA/Analogue Productions] sound more like live performances.

Okay, some exotic ’tables get even closer to the sound of a live performance or the mastertape in a couple of specific areas, but at a significant price premium. Music does not emerge from quite the same inky dark black background with the Innovation Wood as it does from the SME 20/12, nor does it achieve the spooky silence of the reference Clearaudio Statement with its magnetic drive. But make no mistake: The Innovation Wood isn’t far behind in each of these areas. For those of you who like tests, the Innovation Wood/Helius/Benz combo sailed through the Telarc Omnidisc torture tests with excellent-to-outstanding results, only tripping up on the highest level of reproducing canon shots (as have all the other turntable systems I’ve tried).

The Clearaudio Innovation Wood is a brilliant achievement and sets new price/performance standards in several areas. Its pitch stability is stunning, and when mated to a first-rate arm like the Helius Omega Silver-Ruby and the surprisingly good Benz Ebony H cartridge, its soundstaging approaches reference quality. I applaud Clearaudio for migrating so much innovative technology from its Statement turntable down to more affordable products like the Innovation Wood. Now how about magnetic drive?


SIDEBAR: The Helius Omega Silver-Ruby Tonearm

With the revival of analog a few years ago, Geoffrey Owen of Helius Designs decided to introduce a series of new tonearm designs after more than a decade of relative stasis. The Helius Omega Silver-Ruby tonearm occupies the top rung in the Helius line, and it is a gem in more than words alone. Owen has significantly advanced his innovative tetrahedral bearing design, using twelve large rubies in the Silver-Ruby version of the Omega instead of the tungsten bearings in the standard Omega to produce a captured bearing with extremely low absolute friction and single-point contact on all surfaces.

Save for the ruby bearings, internal wire, and color, the two Omega arms are mechanically similar. The Omega Silver-Ruby is silver with black counterweights, whereas the arguably more beautiful standard Omega version is anodized black with silver counterweights. Both are 10" arms—a size that Mr. Owen suggests approaches the reduced tracking-error distortion of a 12" arm without the latter’s inertia or mounting problem. The Silver-Ruby uses cryogenically treated single-strand Litz silver wire, instead of the standard Omega’s copper. Each signal leg consists of 2 twisted pairs, one channel counter-twisted to the other, thus using nearly 8 meters of silver wire per arm. You can also order the Silver-Ruby with other options like a detachable headshell, 12" or 9" effective lengths, or additional counterweights to extend cartridge compatibility to a range of 5 to 23 grams.

To minimize or control tonearm resonances so they do not impinge on the purity of the musical signal generated by the cartridge cantilever in the groove, this technically sophisticated arm is dynamically balanced, damped by differential masses to control the pivoted motion of the arm, and has non-coincident bearings. There are numerous small touches everywhere that contribute to this arm’s remarkable performance, like bracing ridges machined into the fixed headshell, microadjustment of tracking downforce, and a collet clamping baseplate. The internal cue construction comes at the expense of set-up convenience, and it lacks adjustable VTA during play, but one can’t argue with the sonic result.

The Omega Silver-Ruby lacks the ease of setup and cartridge-swapping of a Graham, or the easy micro-adjustments of the Triplanar, but the Helius’ sound, or lack thereof, is first-rate, and in some respects, revelatory. If the rest of your system is up to it, the Omega Silver-Ruby’s ability to reproduce a rock-solid, precise, and complete soundstage, without truncating the rear of the stage, is reference quality. It has exceptional tonal neutrality and clarity across the sonic spectrum, with deep, dynamic, and articulate bass without bloat or overhang, and naturally extended highs without any stridency. You will not hear any blurring of the leading edges of transients with this low-coloration arm, which approaches the openness one experiences with some of the better linear-trackers. I was so taken with the Helius Omega Silver-Ruby that I nominated it for a Golden Ear Award and suggested that designer Owen had effectively eliminated the “tone” from the “arm.”

Specs & Pricing

Clearaudio Innovation Wood Turntable
Bearing: Clearaudio CMB bearing
Drive: Belt
Motor: High-torque DC-motor with electronic optical speed control (“OSC”)
Speeds: 33-1/3, 45, and 78 rpm
Speed accuracy (measured): ±0.2%
Signal-to-noise ratio: 84dB
Dimensions: 18.86** x 19.09** x 8.86**
Weight: 51 lbs.
Price: $10,000 (Options as tested: Clearaudio Outer Limit peripheral ring, $1250; Clearaudio Statement clamp, $900)

Helius Omega Silver Ruby Tonearm
Type: Fixed-pivot captured bearing
Effective length: 10** (9** and 12** versions are also available)
Price: $4750

Benz Micro Ebony H Cartridge
Type: Moving Coil
Output: 2.5mV
Weight: 10.7 grams
Recommended Tracking Force: 1.8 to 2.2 grams
Price: $3500

5662 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, California 94609
(510) 547-5006

VPI Aries (TNT V platter & bearing), Graham 1.5 (w/2.2 bearing), Koetsu Black cartridge; Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 21 DAC; Electrocompaniet EC 4.8 and MFA Venusian preamps (Frankland modified) ; Electrocompanient AW250-R and PrimaLuna DiaLogue 7 amplifiers; Vienna Acoustics “The Music,” Hyperion HPS-968, Quad ESL-57 (PK modified) loudspeakers; Purist Audio Provectus speaker cables and interconnects